It’s the middle of the night by the time I wake, the garrison is mostly quiet. The men I knocked out must not have squealed on me, nor did their lookout man. Maybe they didn’t want to explain why they were carrying clubs and blankets. I notice Commander Temakos didn’t take my suggestion to bring the men in from the tents outside the gate. I grab my bow and sword and climb to a watchtower overlooking their camp.
There are three archers inside the lookout tower. I startle them with my sudden appearance. “Whoa…..hey Ranger. Is there something you need?” They all look nervous, eyes darting back and forth between each other. I wonder if they know something I don’t or just nervous around rangers in general. It could go either way.
“Nope, just woke up. Nothing to do. Thought I’d take a watch.” I answer offhandedly. If nothing else, it’s the truth. I scan the tree-line looking for movement. The men behind me are quiet but I hear their uniforms rustling as they are talking to one another with gestures instead of words. Maybe they’re trying to pick who gets to talk first.
“Sure….thanks, that would be…great.” So they’ve chosen their leader. I turn to him smiling. Hopefully not a creepy ‘you might be next’ kinda smile…..sometimes I accidentally do that, especially when I’m anxious like now. He visibly relaxes so I must’ve gotten it right.
“Have you seen anything unusual today? Any signs of movement in the forest?” I ask quietly.
All three shake their head, “Nothing at all. Do you think they’re coming? The ones who attacked you?” They almost stand fully at attention in their nervousness around me.
Shrugging and turning back to look out, “Not sure. Every time I thought we lost them one would pop up. I tried to cover my tracks getting here….but…..I’m just not sure.” My shoulders droop a little in defeat.
That gesture, as small as it was, resonates with them I guess. I feel a light patting on my shoulder; a show of support. “We heard you fought off a lot of them and saved the royal. Was that Lieutenant you arrived with the Prince? What is he like?”
I see all three of them avidly listening and awaiting my assessment of Lex. Shrugging, “He’s nice, a pretty good guy. Seemed OK….really good cook.” I leave out the part about the incessant talking, goofy jokes, easy smiles. That seems too personal. They ask about the creatures and I start giving all the details I reported in the office. I know this will get around the grapevine and the men will at least get accurate details on how to fight the Crickets through official channels or camp gossip. We’ve been chatting amicably for a long time and sharing stories when one of them says something completely unexpected.
“Did you hear about those four guys that were killed in the barracks?” I start to choke on the sip of water I was drinking.
“What! Four guys were killed? Four?” I ask once regaining my composure.
“Yeah, three of them had the backs of their heads bashed in and one sliced across his front.” The man next to him nodding emphatically.
I blink slowly, a shocked look on my face. I murdered four men. I defended myself against four men. Whomever set them to it; I can only imagine it was Jotai, didn’t report me. “Temakos is investigating it, but nothing has been said yet.”
“They were 4 of those Three River men.” One of the other privates interjects and the third rolls his eyes at that.
“Three River men?” I ask, confused.
“Yeah, them.” The guard nearest me points out the opening facing the camp outside. “They arrived from Three Rivers Garrison to help in the search. There are also some calvary coming from a southern garrison too, but they haven’t arrived yet. Hope they’re better than those guys are.” I notice exasperation in his tone.
“What’s the problem with them?” I ask curiously. Most military units I’ve seen pretty much have their shit in order. Hearing the disgust in this soldier’s tone is highly unusual.
“They’re a mess. Sloppy….not just their uniforms but their training too. Their officers seem disinterested with regulations and when our Lieutenants and Sergeants said something to them they were downright hostile over our “interference”. That got the Commander’s attention and she came down on them all as the superior officer in charge. They’ve kept their heads down and to themselves since then.” He looks out the opening overlooking their tents. “Whatever they were doing in our barracks it was probably no good.”
I almost admit to the feat that moment. Almost. In the end I think it’s better to keep my mouth shut. Momentarily, I wonder if they actually suspect the truth but they don’t show any signs of it. [successful Insight roll!] The description of the Three Rivers troops and their superior officers does explain how Jotai ended up being a Sergeant. Between extensive Ranger training and a bully attitude he would succeed in a slipshod organization like that.
As morning comes and the men are relieved by the next watch I go along and join them for breakfast. We enter the mess together and I can’t help but look around for Lex, to see if he is still around, but he’s not here. We all assume I will be joining them for the attack on the Cricket hive so I’m not surprised when I get a message that Commander Temakos wants to see me in her office. I quickly finish the last of my huge breakfast and report. Lex is in the office, clean shaven, in a new uniform….looking very princely. Even after a bath and new clothes I still feel like a homely street urchin and can’t help but unconsciously check my hands and nails for grime.
“I have orders for you.” Temakos starts without preamble. I’m prepared to hear what my part of the engagement will be, I’m excited to hand those Crickets their asses. “You are to continue on your run and check on the civilians on your route.”…..wait….what?
“What?” I manage to sputter out, confusion written all over my face.
“You are to continue on your run Ranger. This is a military matter now and we’re going to handle it.” She speaks slowly as if to a small child.
My temper ignites. “Wait a damn minute! You’re telling me you’re actually going to send the one person in this whole place who has engaged, survived multiple attacks, and killed these dangerous and COMPLETELY UNKNOWN creatures away from the fight. While you and a bunch of green soldiers go in and get killed!!” Yes, I’m yelling at the Commander. Sometimes my emotions override my better sense.
Temakos speaks lowly and slowly through clenched teeth. “My men are not green. They are a well trained, seasoned army. Assuming you told me everything of importance, we are not going in uniformed. Did you provide all pertinent information Sergeant? Or did you leave out something of importance?”
“Oh, I suppose the only thing I left out is that you’re all gonna fucking die. I suppose that’s kind of important.” I’m seething and my mouth is running on it’s own. My internal editor has left the building.
“Lily…..” Lex breaks in and speaks to me for the first time since we arrived here.
“What?!” I interject hotly, “you’re gonna tell me they’re taking you out there to lead them back. You! The one I found and saved from death. This is bullshit and you know it.” He flinches at my tone and remarks but I don’t give a damn. I’ve got nothing to lose here.
“Actually,” Temakos starts and turns her attention to Lex, “the Lieutenant is going to be returning to the Capital. By order of the Queen. And he’ll be carrying my message and your report regarding the Crickets.”
It’s Lex’s turn to be furious. “What! She can’t do that! I’m a member of the military. She has no authority to give me orders.”
Temakos is now looking at us like the cat that ate the canary. She’s been waiting to hit us both at once. “She is the Queen and she is your mother. She has the authority to order me to send you back to the Capitol. I serve the King and Queen of Ratik. As do both of you. You are to return immediately.” She then turns her attention to me. “And I believe the next stop on your run is the Dancing Bear Inn. You can accompany the Prince there, it’s 2 days away.”
My eyes narrow at her, “Won’t you send a contingent of guards with him? For his protection?”
“I think sending guards with him would draw more attention to the fact that he’s the Prince. It’s better if he remains the Lieutenant, don’t you agree?”
I want to knock that smug look right off her face. She got me. There’s no way I’m letting Lex travel alone along the River road when I believe the Crickets could be around any corner. It’s my turn to answer between gritted teeth.
“I suppose that’s correct. But considering the circumstances it seems rather reckless.”
“I’m not completely helpless you know.” Lex declares emphatically. He’s still mad about his orders. We both ignore him.
“Then the Ranger who has been ordered to continue her run should probably accompany him for his protection. Do you think you can do that?” Temakos’s grins widens. I hate her, I hate being outsmarted by her. In a tone that brokers no argument she continues, “I’ve arranged to give you two horses to speed your travel out of the area. Gather your gear and leave immediately. You’re both dismissed.”
Lex, still muttering, salutes crisply and spins on his heel, long strides taking him into the nearest room off the main office area. I just glare at her another second longer and turn to leave.
“Oh Sergeant, wait a minute. There’s one last thing I needed to ask you.” Her tone is simultaneously conversational and dangerous. I freeze with my back to her, afraid that my expression might betray me. I’m sure she’s going to drop the news regarding the 4 dead men. “You haven’t spoken to anyone about Lex’s true identity have you? You didn’t mention to anyone he’s the Prince?”
I think about my conversation with the guards, what they asked….how I answered. “Not at all.” I lie and leave before she can question me further.
I grab my gear from the civilian tent, tip the woman an extra copper for watching my stuff and go towards the stables. Lex is there fussing over two broken down looking mares. Well, not completely broken down, but pretty close. I watch as he checks and re-checks the saddles and tack on them. By his face and movements he is still angry, but his voice is soft and warm when he speaks softly to the horses. They love him.
I hate horses. I used to ride as a kid, but after a bad experience I have kept my distance for all these years….and have every intention of avoiding horses whenever I can. Except, apparently, today.
[Game mechanic notes: An element of 5e is to encourage RP. One way they do it is having a section on the character sheet that is: Personality traits, Ideals, Bonds, Flaws. I decided to make something really specific for a flaw. I wrote ‘Horse Averse’ and came up with a whole backstory as to why Lily doesn’t trust horses or like them.]
Lex finally notices I’m there and asks if I’m ready. I nod and we load up our stuff. I notice he now has a couple of saddle bags full of gear and supplies. I imagine we’re both packing extra food. I stare at the horse and take a deep breath. Approaching it, she skitters away from me a bit. I feel Lex’s eyes watching us as he sits easily in his saddle. Fucker. I don’t know if I’m mad about having to leave, riding a horse, or the fact that it’s so easy for him. All three, I decide and reach for her again. I try to grab the pommel and put my foot in the stirrup to swing up but she balks as I get close and I barely get my footing before falling in a heap.
[Botched Animal Handling roll. Saved from falling on my ass by great Athletics roll. Skill rolls are so much fun. Really, I mean it. They are fun.]
“You’re scaring her.” Mr. Perfect says from atop his horse. “Let me help.”
“I’m fine, it’s fine.” I bark back at him. He ignores me and slides off the saddle; goes to my crazy asshole horse and says softly, “It’s OK. You can do it. She’s just a little nervous. Just stay calm and everything will be ok.” I stop and watch, puzzling over whether he’s talking to her or me actually. The horse drops her head, almost resting it on his shoulder and makes a quiet noise. He takes that opportunity to look over at me with a ‘Well, are you gonna get on her or not’ expression of impatience. The horse, he was definitely talking to the horse. Once again I take the pommel and this time slip my foot in the stirrup and swing my leg over the saddle. The horse doesn’t move. Lex lets out a dazzling smile for her and pats her affectionately. “There you go, what a good girl you are. I knew you could do it.”
I really hate horses.
We leave the garrison in silence. As we pass in front of the Three Rivers tents I look for Jotai or anybody else giving me a sideways glance and see nothing out of the ordinary. One of Temakos’s Lieutenants is dressing down some soldiers on their shoddy uniforms and tent formations. The privates are trying to fix everything and do their best. Their officers and Sergeants nowhere to be seen. I shake my head and turn back towards the road.
Lex is literally muttering angrily to himself, the sky, the ground (not the horse), anything and everything but me I guess. He hasn’t really said much to me at all so far. As a result, I’m startled when he finally does say something.
“It’s not fair you know.” He’s looking at me when he says it this time. It’s probably the tenth time I’ve heard this remark from him all morning. But now he’s actually speaking to me.
“Nope, not fair.” I leave out the part where I contemplated handing him my horse and heading straight north to take on the Crickets by myself until the troops showed up. That I abandoned the idea because I couldn’t trust him not to follow, and I couldn’t fathom leaving him to travel unguarded. Essentially I leave out the part where he’s the reason I’m not fighting Crickets right this very minute.
“She thinks she can just boss me around and control my life.” He practically snarls out.
I’m confused, “Temakos?”
“No! The Queen. She’s calling me back, then she’ll see that I’m removed from the military so she can keep me in the palace and under her thumb. She’ll be throwing parties and setting me up to meet someone ‘worthy’ to marry. She has a whole plan for me. She won’t stop until she has me engaged to some diplomat’s daughter or a rich merchants daughter.”
He sounds like a spoiled brat. I’m about to tell him as much when I hear thundering hooves coming towards us. I turn my attention forward again and casually sling my bow off my shoulder, fingering an arrow in my quiver. My horse stops since I’ve dropped the reigns. Around a corner 8 heavily armored soldiers on large stallions approach. They must be the men from Oakdale Garrison that I heard about from the guys on the watch.
Our horses have instinctively moved to the side of the road to make room for the riders. I watch them study our poor old nags as they approach. The leaders salute Lex and one actually notes the almost nocked arrow and bow in my lap. He grins at me as he passes, perhaps realizing that had they not been “friendly” they most certainly would have been “feathered.”
The sight of calvary riders, has Lex fired up once more and his growling and muttering begin again. I can’t take it anymore. “I’m gonna hunt a bit. The campground waypoint is a few hours away. Can you take my horse for me and meet me there? If I catch something will you cook it?” I appeal to his love of cooking to brighten his mood and it does, at least momentarily. He takes my reins as I pull my pack and gear off the beastie.
“Be careful.” He says as I start away. I just give him a wave over my shoulder without looking back. It’s so good to be back in the forest again. I’ve been hearing it as we’re traveling the road. The birds and squirrels are music to me now. I run about 20 yards to the north of the road and parallel it. Truth be told I just wanted to get off that damn horse and away from the sulky prince. I’m keeping a watch on them from a distance [stealth rolls] and looking for game trails. I’ll be sure to catch us something for dinner before he gets to the camp.
I cruise around checking tracks, watching the road, and generally running around for half the day. I notice that since he’s alone with the horses Lex has picked up the pace but is still taking it easy on the old mares. He walks them more than they gallop. Finally I break away from the road far enough to flush out a bevy of quail and kill two for our dinner. I am sitting on a stump plucking them by a small fire when Lex approaches the camp area off the road halfway to the Inn.
“You beat me here.” Says captain obvious. The look I give him pretty much calls him that.
“Horses do OK?” I ask as I finish the first bird and start on the second one. He’s removing the saddles and blankets from both. I don’t say it, but I’m thankful to him for dealing with mine. I’m perfectly happy sitting far away plucking at our dinner. I think Lex has picked up on it and just handles them both without comment.
“Yes, they did fine.” He answers as he pats the one he’s brushing affectionately. “They’re tired and have worked hard today.” The one he finished brushing down first nudges him from behind for more attention. He laughs as he rubs her behind an ear and says quietly, “You like that don’t you. You’re like Steve.”
Now this has my attention and I stop what I’m doing to focus on him fully. He has that sad look he would get before we made it back to the garrison. “Who’s Steve?” I break the silence, my curiosity getting the best of me.
Lex finishes brushing his horse and hobbles them both so they can graze nearby without going too far. He sits down near me and starts going through his stuff; getting his cooking gear ready, before he answers. “Steve was my horse.” His tone grave and serious.
“Your horse’s name was Steve?” I know this is serious for him. I try to keep my tone respectful. But seriously…his horse’s name was Steve. “Isn’t that…kind of…not what you name a horse.”
“I suppose you would name your horse what? Blackie? Wildfire?” He replies sarcastically.
“Well, yeah…something along those lines. A horse name. Not a people name…you know…like Steve. Why would you name a horse Steve?”
“All my horses are named Steve.” He says matter-of-factly. Like I’m the idiot here that doesn’t know this normal, ordinary thing.
“Of course…all your horses are named Steve. All the palace horses are all named Steve. Makes it easy to remember their names I suppose. It’s perfectly sensible.” I’m looking at him like he’s crazy.
“No, not all the palace horses, just mine. My father gave me my first horse when I was 5.”
“Wait a minute” I interrupt. “You got your first horse when you were Five! Five. That’s dangerous.”
“It is not.” He becomes defensive. “I didn’t have anyone to play with and on my 5th birthday my dad gave me a horse and I said, ‘You are my horse, and you will be my friend and I will call you Steve.’ After that I’ve named all my horses Steve.” He looks away and starts breaking down the first quail into pieces. I focus back on my work and contemplate what he says as I finish plucking the bird. His story is both sweet and sad. And the fact that when he called in his sleep for Steve he was calling to his horse is sadder still.
The quail finally done, I cut it apart like he did the first one and hand him the pieces. “Steve is a good name for a horse.” Its all I can think to say to let him know how sorry I am that he lost his friend in battle.
He smiles as he takes the pieces from me and nods. “I think so too.” I get a flash of what he must’ve looked like, a small boy dressed smartly on his birthday. Looking into the eyes of a horse twice his size and declaring seriously, ‘You will be my friend and I will call you Steve.’ I cannot hide my smile at the thought.
Of course dinner is marvelous. I fill the conversation with questions about how he prepared the birds and what spices he used. I may never cook as well as the Prince of Ratik, but I can sure as hell do a lot better than I have been in the past. When discussing food and cooking Lex has a different attitude. Over the past week or so I’ve realized that there is the Prince and there is Lex. When you’re talking about food or cooking or…apparently horses…you’re talking to Lex. When you’re talking about military duty, service, or family you are talking to the prince. He’s much more guarded, even with me. I don’t blame him…it’s understandable.
“I’ll take first watch”, I declare as I take the dirty dishes. We still have the whoever doesn’t cook, cleans rule.
When I’ve returned and sit the dishes out to dry I see that he’s setting up his tent. “Where’s yours?” He asks.
“Don’t use one.” I shrug, “mainly just sleep in a tree.” I point to the nearest one that I had chosen for the night. He’s looking at it and frowning harshly. “Why don’t you sleep in my tent when I’m on watch. No need to stay in a tree tonight.” He looks rather pleased with himself when I nod in agreement.
The night is uneventful. I wake Lex and take his place in the tent. It’s warm and comfortable. I awaken to the smell of coffee, bacon and eggs. “Wow, you prepared for this trip a lot better than I did.” I declare as I watch him pull the bacon off the griddle. I start getting my teapot out of my gear, filling it and setting it beside the fire to warm.
“There’s coffee ready.” He says.
“I’m more of a tea girl. Coffee’s fine, I just prefer this when I have it.” I see him study me for a moment and nod as though he’s committing it to memory. I have no idea why he would bother, after the next couple of days we’ll never see each other again. Breakfast is delicious and I rave over it much to his embarrassment. “Hey, if you don’t want accolades, don’t cook so good.” I mumble with a mouth full of bacon.
It’s getting time to go and I’m faced with that horse again. I’m standing, staring, and contemplating my first move when Lex offers a deal. “Why don’t I get the horses ready and you can pack up the tent and camp.”
I look at him and know what he’s doing. He’s cutting me some slack. Anybody who reads horses and people as well as he does can sense my discomfort. But I hate taking the easy road, I hate him thinking I can’t handle something. In the end though, it’s just not worth the fight. I nod and start breaking down the camp. Once it’s done I turn to where he’s talking and calming the horses. Specifically my horse who is looking at me skeptically. Can horses look at you skeptically? Mine sure can. Again, he’s talking in low tones to her. “You can do this. It’s going to be fine, just relax and trust her.” I take the pommel and put one foot in the stirrup as he holds her and strokes her nose.
“Are you talking to her or me when you say that.” I ask quietly, because I’m terrified of startling this beast and having her drag me down the road by my heel in the stirrup. He just smiles as an answer. I heave myself up.
The ride to the Inn is rather quiet. Lex is not as furious as he was yesterday so the grimacing and angry muttering to no one in particular has practically disappeared. Because he isn’t in such a bad mood I ride with him most of the day. We stop mid-day for some hot broth lunch and give the horses a break. It is shortly after we’ve resumed our travels that I spot the tracks crossing the road from South to North.
“Not good.” I’m crouching on the ground studying the tracks up close. I’ve studied these in the Academy, this is my first chance to see any in real life. “Wargs and Orcs,” I point to the forest to the north of the road, “heading in that direction.” I pause, thinking. The tracks are over a week old. It could just be a raiding party or something. We are west of the Dancing Bear, they might be circling back around to hit the Inn from the forest. Lex has been quietly watching me, he’s been around me enough to recognize my ‘thinking face’.
“Should we track them through the forest? See where they went?” I hear the hopeful tone in his voice. Anything to avoid going straight back to the palace. I’m glad my back is to him so he can’t see my eyeroll and smirk. But he does settle it for me, there’s no way in hell I’m dragging him into danger. Not when I should be protecting him.
“No, the tracks are a week old. If they are going to attack the Inn they might have done that by now. We should probably hurry there. Do you mind taking my horse again? I’m faster on foot through the forest.” He looks disappointed but nods. The tracks continue north while I run east towards The Dancing Bear. I zig-zag through the forest but don’t see any more orc or warg tracks, although I do see a large stag. My parents taught me not to show up somewhere empty-handed so I take it down with a couple of shots and field dress it.
Technically I’m not sneaking around, but I still end up scaring the guys on guard around the Inn when I melt out of the forest with a dead stag draped across my shoulders. “Sorry about that.” I say to the one nearest to me who is grabbing his chest and breathing hard. He’s only about 14 so I’m pretty sure he isn’t having a heart attack. His brothers come running from the yelp he gave out only to start laughing and teasing him at the sight of me. They introduce themselves as Lem, John and Derek, sons of the owners, Darlene and Chris. I ask them about a Lieutenant arriving with a couple of horses and they tell me he arrived several minutes before me. He’s tending his horses in the stables. The oldest takes the stag and sends one of the others into the kitchen as I go to check in with Lex and let him know I arrived fine.
“I thought you’d be here first, like last time.” He narrows his eyes at me, “Did you run into trouble?”
Smiling, I shake my head no. “Not unless you call a large stag trouble. Thought I’d bag something for them to serve, to eat. They never accept my money, so I try to pay other ways that they can’t refuse.”I see my explanation seep in, “That’s not a bad idea. I never thought of that.”
We agree to meet up again for dinner and I go through the back door into the kitchen. I’m sweaty and covered in animal blood, something that might unnerve the crowd in the main room. The woman there introduces herself as Darlene. She is tall, slightly plump, and and has deep dimples in her cheeks when she looks up and smiles at me. “Welcome Ranger. Lem told me you brought us a stag. That’s very nice of you.” She hands me a mug of tea as I perch on a stool near the warm stove away from the table where she’s working.
“Not a problem, my folks taught me not to come to a place empty handed if you can help it.” I sip the tea slowly, it warms me from the inside out. We chat briefly before she calls in Chris to get a bath going in my room. I ask them if they’ve seen any wargs or orcs around. First they look at me like I’m crazy, then I explain the tracks. Neither of them have seen anything like that for many seasons. They’re surprised, even for an early winter this is much farther east than raiding parties travel. Both agree to keep a sharp eye out, and warn the boys. After Chris goes upstairs to ready my bath I ask Darlene if she has a dress I could borrow for tonight, that I haven’t dressed nice in a long time.
Her eyes narrow at me, “You want to wear a dress tonight? One of my old dresses?” I shrug and nod like it’s no big deal. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with a particular Lieutenant who came in earlier and asked if the ranger he was traveling with had arrived yet, would it?”
“Ummmm, no.” Does it? I hadn’t thought it did. Oh no, what am I thinking. “Yeah, never mind. I don’t know what I was thinking….I don’t want you..”
“Oh pooh, you can’t back out now.” She’s smiling broadly as she wipes her floured hands on her apron. “Follow me, we’ll find you something.” She leads the way towards their quarters in the back, off the main floor. She opens up an old trunk in the corner and starts sifting through what appears to be various fabrics. “These were mine when I was much younger,” she looks at herself and laughs heartily, “and smaller. Here, this one will bring out your eyes.” She holds up a dark green homespun dress that is very nice, plain… but nice.
“It’s perfect” I say as she holds it up to my shoulders. “Thank you so much.” I’m honestly touched by her kindness. She doesn’t know me from Adam yet here we are in her room going through her old clothes together like girlfriends. I reach out to take the dress and she grabs it back towards her chest.
“Not with those filthy hands you’re not. In fact, when you change into this leave your clothes outside the door so I can wash them before you leave tomorrow. I’ll have them ready before daybreak. Let’s go upstairs and check on your bath.” I follow her up the stairs to room 5. It is a good sized room, not the largest, but not too small. Chris comes in after us with the last buckets of warm water and stokes up the fire. After he leaves Darlene turns back to me, “Keep this dress. There will be other Inns and stops that you’ll want to look nice and you can have something with you. It won’t take up too much room.”
“You really have to let me give you something for it, this is…..” I am constantly amazed by the generosity of the people in my district, on my run.
“Nonsense. It is my pleasure. It’s been four years since we had a Ranger that was a girl through here and I’m more than happy to help you out.” She moves to the bed and lays the dress out. I don’t understand what she means to ‘help’ me with. I just wanted to wear something different for a change.
I soak in the hot bath much longer than I intended and take time to wash my hair not just once, but twice! I try to dry it out as much as possible but as long as it is I decide to pile it up in a loose bun so I can go eat. The dress fits pretty well, the sleeves are a little snug and there’s some extra room in the bust, but not too bad. Darlene is right, the color is nice on me.
I come down the stairs and some of the men who were sitting at a nearby table stop talking and stare. I am thinking this was a mistake. I am used to slipping in and out of areas undetected and here I’ve done something to be more noticeable. Darlene is behind the bar and grinning at me so hard it must hurt those dimpled cheeks of hers. I stop at the landing and look to see if Lex is in the main room yet and spy him at a small table for two in the corner. I turn back towards Darlene and her smile is even wider and I do believe she just waggled her eyebrows at me.
I look back to where Lex is sitting and he is now standing as I start to approach the table. That’s……gallant. He holds my chair and slides it in for me. OK, this is really weird…..I didn’t think this through at all. It’s like an accidental date or something. I don’t think either one of us was expecting this and we just don’t know how to act. Darlene comes over and tells us we have a choice between chicken or venison steak thanks to the Ranger. We both choose the steak. She brings over a nice bottle of wine. I check the label but don’t recognize the vineyard. After he’s relaxed a bit, Lex starts whining about having to return to the palace again. I’ve finally had enough.
“Oh, boo hoo. You have to go and report to your parents and stay home and sleep in a bed in a nice warm room while I’ll be out in the forest all alone, in the cold, probably fighting something that wants to kill me and wondering where my next meal is coming from. I feel so sorry for you, you life is so tough.” And then I slug back the rest of my wine in one gulp. That shut him up. He’s just staring at the table now, not saying anything.
“Look, what I meant…”
“I got what you meant.” He says sadly.
“You’ve just been whining about it for two days now. There’s nothing you can do about your orders like there’s nothing I can do about my orders. You just have to re-group and…..” I let the words die out. He’s shut down, I can tell. I don’t know what I was trying to say anyway. I watch the other travelers for a few moments before standing up. My movements startle him and he jumps up as well.
Shaking my head I motion for him to sit back down, “I’m tired. I’m going to go to sleep early. It will be a long day tomorrow.”
“Ok,” he looks suddenly shocked. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
“Sure, tomorrow.” I repeat as I turn away. I have no intention of ever seeing him again, and am shocked at how sad it makes me.