Dinner with the DeLong sisters is lovely….and uncomfortable. It’s full of innuendo, implication and suggestion. I don’t really want to know how many times they had visitors and some of those stories about their husbands. (who they seem to really have loved and miss). It’s like listening to a couple of your great, great aunts talk dirty. Please, no!
Of course they want to know about me. “There is really nothing to know.”
“Oh, but surely a pretty girl like you,” Betty begins
“would have plenty of boys sniffing around.” Ida finishes
I find the idea of being sniffed….distasteful. “I’m kind of on my own here. Most Rangers aren’t like my-“ I catch myself just in time, “aren’t like the one you described earlier.” Now I can’t get the image of both these women with my uncle out of my head. It’s disconcerting.
“But you have been to Artus Compound.” One of them starts. I don’t know which, I was looking away.
“There are several nice looking men there who don’t have wives. There’s Lucas, and Phaelen…although he’s a little old for you…” Betty says.
“Not us though!” Ida and Betty cackle as one. Laughing until tears pool in their eyes. I laugh too, it’s infections. He’s probably 20 years younger than them.
“I don’t know…” I grin, “I wouldn’t call him old…as much as ‘experienced’.”
They chime in together. “That’s not a bad thing!” And we all break into peals of laughter once more.
“I did meet Algen. I saved his kid.” My voice is soft.
Betty and Ida share a look. “Oooh, Algen is a cute one. But he’s probably still pining over losing Beth, his wife.” Ida speaks while Betty nods along, then she adds, “He lost her not that long ago…..what do you mean ‘you saved his kid’? What happened to Whipper?”
I take a deep breath, refill my wineglass, (maybe this is why I’m so talkative) and begin telling the story of the raid and Whipper and the bear….everything. My storytelling is getting a bit better. They’re actually on the edge of their seats.
“Well, that is quite a tale.” Announces Ida as she rises from the table. “I should get things cleaned up and feed the scraps to….the animals.” Her pause catches my attention. I watch her scrape the leftovers, what few there were, into a bucket in the kitchen that already contains some food scraps. Betty is cleaning the dishes, as her sister steps out the front door with the bucket my curiosity is even more peaked and I pick up a dishtowel as I move towards her to dry our dishes.
“You don’t need to do that, “ she starts as I pick the first plate out of the dish drain.
“Happy to help, it’s the least I can do as thanks for a wonderful meal. You cook, I clean….that’s the deal.” I reply politely, a faraway look in my eye. She seems a little uncomfortable for some reason, so I press her with another question. “Do you have a hog? I didn’t notice one when I walked up. Didn’t hear one in the barn.”
“Nope, never had a hog. Just a cow, geese, chickens….Rodney of course…and the occasional duck.” Her movements become hurried, as mine remain calm.
At that point Betty returns, empty bucket in hand, smiling. “Well, that’s taken care of.”
“What exactly was taken care of?” I pin her with a look as I ask the question.
“Nothing! Just got rid of those scraps, you know. We can’t give them to the chickens, it’s too rich for them, and…well….it’s just better if I get rid of them into the woods so varmints don’t come around.”
[I roll Insight and can tell that she’s lying to me. Immediately my hackles are up. Apparently I trust no one]
“I should go outside and check around…make sure there aren’t any ‘varmints’ getting too close to the house.” My eyebrows arch as I watch her squirm a bit.
“No, no no, no!” They both say in unison and then glance at each other guiltily. “It’s starting to sleet. It just started when I was coming inside” Betty explains further. “You might catch cold.”
I open the door anyway and look outside. She’s telling the truth, it’s sleeting. Inspecting the yard, woodpile, outhouse, smokehouse, shed. [perception roll fail] I see nothing out of the ordinary. I close the door and take a step back inside. There is a long moment of staring them down and giving them an opportunity to come clean. It’s pretty clear I don’t trust them….well, I don’t trust that they’re telling me the truth right now.
“Well, I think it’s time we all got some rest.”
“Yes, yes, sister…I agree. It is awfully late”
Looks like they don’t want to come clean.
Slowly I nod, “Ok, ok. I could use some sleep. I’ll take the couch.”
They both visibly relax and bustle around the one room cabin pulling out quilts and pillows from nooks and crannies. They are really nice quilts. I notice they have a single large bed just stacked high with blankets that they must share.
“You sleep as much as you want, we’ll be finishing your clothes in the morning” one of them says as I feel slumber pull me into it’s embrace. This couch is sooooo comfortable.
I hear noises in the kitchen area. They are speaking lowly, not realizing I’m awake. I keep my breathing regular and my eyes closed.
“Is he doing OK?”
“Yes, but he’s still awake. I wish he would hibernate already”
Did she say hibernate!
“He ate all the food from last night, plus if we give him more tonight he might tuck in for a month or so. He doesn’t sleep through the winter normally anymore.”
Sitting up without making a noise, “So, you’ve got a bear.” My voice breaks the whispered silence. Both ladies jump and one drops a dish. Luckily it doesn’t break.
“You’re awake!” Says Betty, her eyes moving between me and her sister nervously. “Did you sleep well? We’re making some breakfast. Your clothes are almost ready.” She’s a bit anxious, it makes her chatty…..more chatty.
Ida is just staring. Gauging my reaction, my actions. She doesn’t say anything to fill the silence, her sister is doing that. I slowly put on my boots, stand, stretch my back. Ignore Betty’s constant questions, she just keeps going.
“Ok, show me the bear.” All conversation stops. The only noise in the cabin is the geese and chickens squawking at one another and the cow occasionally mooing them to all shut up.
Betty defers to Ida who hasn’t taken her eyes off me and presses her lips together, judging….deciding.
“Ok, this way.” She nods towards the door and slips her coat off a peg. I remove mine and strap my sword across my back. Betty sucks in a breath when I do that. Ida glances at my face, the large sewn slashes across the chest of my coat and back to my eyes. I raise my eyebrows and gesture ‘after you’ to her. We exit the front door, me following her.
We go directly towards the shed. As we get close I hear quiet grunting, and smell the odor of animal….kind of like wet dog, but thicker somehow.
“Bob…” Ida opens the door a bit. “come on out Bob, it’s mama. Where’s my boy?” She talks into the shed like she’s speaking to a child.
From the dimness of the shed I hear louder grunting and shuffling. A full grown, really large, black bear comes lumbering out of the small space. Once it sees me it moves more towards Ida and frowns (can bears frown..that really looks like a frown) at me. A low gravelly growl emits from his throat. It takes all my effort not to reach for my hilt.
“Now Bob, this is the Ranger. She isn’t going to hurt you.” She turns her back to the bear, facing me fully and sternly says, “You aren’t going to hurt him are you.” It is less of a question and more of a defiant dare, the way she says it. Betty comes out of the cabin to stand on the porch and watch.
“He is a dangerous creature. It is unsafe for him to be around people.” I say evenly.
“Dangerous! Dangerous!” Betty heard me; she steps off the porch and comes to stand between me and the bear. Side by side with her sister. “He is not dangerous at all. He is our bab-…he is our bear. We raised him from a cub and he has only known us. He couldn’t survive without us.”
The bear is getting anxious because of her tone and makes noises like he’s trying to talk, to back her up. He shuffles closer to them, for protection. The though makes me smile unconsciously. This giant bear is hunched behind these two old ladies, his protectors, to be safe from me. After a few more beats I clear my throat to speak.
“Perhaps introductions are in order. You say his name is…..Bob?”
Betty visibly relaxes, Ida a little less so. “Yes, yes….introductions. Bob, this is the Ranger….Lily. Ranger Lily…this is Bob.” Both women turn aside slightly to allow me to reach Bob.
He has moved from being on all fours to sitting on his haunches. “Mrrowwwoww.” Bob says and waves a paw in the air. I note the claws. He turns his head to the side “Rrroomwomwom”
This fucking bear is adorable.
I take a step closer and this huge, massive, bear looks scared out of the eyes. It lays a paw on Ida’s shoulder. Without taking her eyes away from me, she reaches her hand up and pats it, “It’s OK, mama’s here. You’re OK.” Her expression dares me to contradict her with my actions.
I make a point to relax my stance and smile without showing my teeth. I start speaking quietly and hopefully with a non-aggressive tone. “It’s OK Bob. I’m Lily. Pleased to meet you.” I stick out my hand as if to shake. I have no idea why I’m doing that, can this bear shake hands?
Suddenly, much more quickly than I thought he could move, he pushes his head under my hand for petting. I turn my hand so that I can pet him and rub behind his ear which causes him to flop on the ground, roll around so his stomach is up and kick his feet in the air.
“He wants a belly rub.” Ida tells me as Betty beams like a proud mama. It occurs to me at that moment that Ida had gone all ‘mama bear’ on me. I can’t help but snicker at the thought as I bend down to rub this giant fluff ball (he has his winter coat) bear’s belly. Along with Betty who coo’s at him continually as we do it. I’m glad for it, as it makes me less nervous about this whole thing.
I move away…much to Bob’s displeasure, and look inside the shed. There is straw, some old blankets and a bucket of water inside.
“Is that enough room for him?” I ask, concern written all over my face.
“He just stays out here for a couple of months in the winter, when he’s supposed to hibernate.” Betty turns her attention back to Bob and specifically, Bob’s belly. “Isn’t that right my little boy…you are supposed to be hibernating….it is your sleepy time isn’t it.”
“Rowowowwwrrrr.” Says Bob in a supremely pleased tone as he sidles a few inches closer to Betty. His stomach fur is extremely soft. I will never be able to look at a bearskin rug the same way again.
“OK you two, that’s enough for now, it’s time we have breakfast.” Ida says. Bob instantly spins so that he is back on his haunches and waves both paws a few times before he rests them, palms together as if in prayer.
“That’s impressive.” I blurt out.
“Yeah, he knows all kinds of words….mainly food related. And H-e-l-p. If we yell that, he comes running. He knows W-O-L-F too. You have to be careful not to say that, he goes on a tear looking for them.” Ida has a proud look on her face when she tells me these things.
“Yes, he is our good boy,” Betty says as she passes by him and pats his arm. “Not now.” She says to him, making a shooing motion with her hands, “Go play.” Bob looks briefly dejected before shaking it off and sauntering towards the trees.
Remembering what Betty just said, “Where does he stay when he’s not hibernating?” I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to distinguish Bob in the forest from ‘random black bear who wants to kill me’ in the forest.
“He stays in the cabin.” Ida answers, like it’s perfectly ordinary for a 500 pound bear to stay in the house.
There is a loud screech from the barn. Betty makes a mad dash for the dutch door and jerks it open as she yells, “Rodney, you leave that duck alone!” Shaking her head she turns to Ida, “We gotta stud that bird out again…he’s getting too frisky.”
My expression betrays my information overload when it comes to this place and Ida chuckles and tells me “We send Rodney out to the farms around here to assist the chicken population of the north. We need a hardy breed that can stand the cold and Rodney seems to have the right stuff.”
I’m shaking my head in disbelief. Pet bears, stud roosters….I wonder what other secrets these old birds have tucked away somewhere. No, wait, I really don’t want to know.
I find I’m in no hurry to get back underway after breakfast. I have handled the immediate threat of the Orcs and Goblins. Now I need to figure out about the map and coins. The ladies want to re-fit my new clothes they’ve made/altered before I depart again. They tell me this over a big breakfast: eggs, bacon, ham, potatoes and pancakes.
“You need to eat more.” They say in unison. “We’ve taken your measurements” Ida adds.
I smile and nod as I pile up my plate. This is starting to remind me of my time at Hausen Hold. “I will gladly oblige you,” is my response, “if you answer some questions for me. Help me get a handle on the district a bit better.”
They’re all ears and smiles with the idea of having a reason to talk about who they know.
“What can you tell me about Three Rivers Garrison?”
Their expression changes as though they’ve suddenly sucked on a lemon.
“It used to be good there, before the old Commander retired.” Betty begins
Ida nods along, “Commander Palmer.”
Palmer…..I know that name. I don’t say anything, just let them continue.
“The new guy…his name is Eric Swallow. Commander Swallow.” Betty speaks with more derision than I would have thought possible. “He said our work was ‘substandard’.”
My eyebrows raise. I actually find that someone would speak to these women like that not only unkind, but not very wise.
Ida gestures towards the barrels where she was digging through to find clothes for me. “We keep making for them though. We know they’re going to need it. It’s just a matter of when. Of course he still get’s extra uniforms for him and the officers, just not new ones for the regular soldiers.”
Betty, nodding along, “But they’ll be needing them soon enough, and we’ll be ready when they are.”
“Have you been suffering? Having to do without because you’re not getting the work?” I find I’m concerned for their well being, even after only knowing them for such a short amount of time.
“No, no, no. It’s not that bad at all. The winter could be a little tight, but we’ll be OK.” Betty pats my hand affectionately. “We still do the work for Griff Mountain, they will be getting an order to us soon I imagine.” Ida nods along with her sister.
I decide to set my assessment of the commander aside for the moment and move along with my questions. “What about the Brisbane Mine people? What are they like?”
“Oh, well! They’re a bunch of pigs is what they are!” Ida exclaims.
“Now sister, they aren’t that bad,” Betty counters. “It’s just that it’s a bunch of men.… Seven.”
“More like a bunch of filthy pigs if you ask me.” Ida is unmoved.
“They haven’t had anyone to look after them is all.”
To break up their back and forth I dig through my bag and find a couple of the coins I got off the orcs. “Have you seen anything like these before? Does anyone around here use them?”
Their bickering comes to a halt as they pick up and inspect the silver pieces. “No, we’ve never seen anything like this before…”
“There is no, mark…it’s not stamped of Ratik.”
“Where did you find this?”
I remove the coins from their grasp and put them back in my pack. “They are part of an investigation I’m currently working on. I had hoped the mine would have some answers, maybe they can tell me about the silver, where it’s from.”
“Well, they are silver miners, at least they were…” Betty starts to say and trails off.
“What do you mean, ‘They were….” I prompt her.
“Last we heard their mine ran out. There’s no more ore, silver or otherwise.” Ida joins in. “Their daddy started that mine, with his father. It’s possible there’s nothing left.”
“That’s the rumor we heard.” Betty whispers conspiratorially.
“Perhaps they can help me out then. Maybe they can point me in a direction.”
Betty brightens up with a thought, “When you talk to them, could you ask them if they’d like to trade with us? We could mend their clothes or trade socks for vegetables and fruits if they have any to spare. Could you ask them for us?”
“Of course, that’s a great idea. I’ll see what I can do. Speaking of socks, can you spare a couple of extra sets for me too? I go through them rather quickly.”
They brighten even more at the idea of getting my new clothes and socks in order. Knowing that they are the only source for clothes for leagues and leagues and they have a government contract I stock up on everything. I leave with not just one change of clothes but 2, and even more extra socks. They even give me a nice pair of wool fingerless gloves to replace my worn and torn ones.
“Don’t worry about a thing dear, we’ll just bill the Rangers, they know us.” They tell me as I pack up to leave. “We’ve had to replace many a pair of pants!” They glance at each other and smile. I just shake my head.
We step out on the porch in the early afternoon. It’s cold and cloudy, but the sun peeks out here and there. I turn to say my goodbyes and thank you’s only to find I’m in a firm hug between the two of them. “You be careful.” One of them says.
At that moment Bob comes bounding out of the trees towards us, tongue lolling out. He stops a few feet away and rolls onto his back.
“Ohhhh, okay.” I say as I bend down and take advantage of a warm fluffy belly rub opportunity. He’s like a big puppy or something. “Rowwrrrrowrrow.” He answers and kicks his back feet in the air happily.
“You take care of the ladies, OK, Bob?” I say softly to him as I ease up on the pets.
“Wrrrorwor.” He replies.
I wave at his beaming mothers as I move to the forest, my next stop Brisbane Mine.