Ballad of the Faerie's Champion: Esteem - Part Seven
It was four days before Gary had recovered enough to be allowed to walk around. His head injury probably would have taken much longer to heal then that, but fortunately it seemed that Abyssal Acres was allowed to have healing potions even if they weren't allowed soldiers.
Unfortunately, the cut on his face refused to heal properly; there was still a pinkish line across his muzzle where the enemy had struck him. He hoped with time the scar would fade, but the healers hadn't seemed optimistic.
When he was finally released from the room where he had been kept- a disused library apparently, to give him quiet to recover- he was unsurprised to find Rue waiting for him.
"You son of a crokabek, you scared me!" he snarled, hugged the Bori and slapping his back. Gary returned the gesture, but pulled away as quickly as possible. The smacks were making his head start to ache again.
"What happened?" Gary asked. "All I remember is somethin' green comin' at us, then nothing..."
"I don't rightly know," Rue admitted. "It was pretty dark and I weren't thinkin' straight. If you hadn't sung out when the bandits came at us, I'd prolly've panicked. All I could really tell was that there was somethin' big in the cave. Big, with green eyes."
"Green eyes? Huh, that's probably what I remember seeing then..."
"I tried t' tell Sir Graham and the others," Rue went on, "But they got bigger fish t' fry. Gotta petition to King Talren for relief, or the fief's budget won't hold out."
Gary winced. He still felt like the situation was at least partially his fault; going out alone had been his idea, after all. Intellectually he knew that he never could have predicted things would turn out the way they did, but it did nothing to settle the queasy feeling in his gut.
"What do you reckon attacked us?" the Bori asked, trying to steer the conversation back into less guilt-enducing waters.
"Well, Lady Ayame said that the cave we were in leads to a place called 'Shadowglen Woods' and there's a mort of monsters in there. Probably something like that. The never leave the forest though, so as long as we don't go back in the cave we should be alright."
That seemed to be all there was to say about the issue. The two squires wandered down to the room where the Unis were being housed to check on Grace and Ohu. Gary hadn't seen his crotchety partner since falling from his back near the bridge. Despite Lady Ayame indicating that he'd made it back to the castle safely, the squire wanted to confirm with his own eyes that the Uni was alright.
When they got there, however, they were surprised to find several of the other knight's mounts walking up to them.
"It's good to see you on your feet again, son," a shadow Uni remarked to Gary. "You were looking pretty green around the gills when we found you."
"Uh... I..." Gary stammered, caught off guard.
An older looking speckled Uni shook her mane roughly. "I don't know what we would have done for poor Ohu if you hadn't recovered, lad. I doubt if he'd have been able to go through that again."
"You talk too much, Lily," a familiar rasping voice remarked, and Ohu shoved his way through the crowd. His expression was full of annoyance, and his shaggy coat was sticking up in a manner that suggested no one had bothered to groom him when he got back. However he seemed unhurt, much to Gary's relief.
The purple Uni turned to Gary with a snort. "Let's talk somewhere else; these busybodies are getting on my nerves."
Gary exchanged a glance with Rue, who shrugged as if to say "whatever." The Uni lead the two squires to an adjacent room, Grace extricating herself from the herd to follow them.
"You have no idea how lucky you idiots were," Ohu growled. "That was cursed close, I don't know what would have happened if the knights hadn't found you both with Gary out cold."
"I didn't ask for none of that y'know," Gary replied somewhat reproachfully. He had been concerned about the Uni, but now he was beginning to regret coming. This attitude was getting extremely tiresome.
"I have to give you credit for your courage," Ohu went on. "And the fact that you managed to keep your head. But you're clearly not suited to this if you let yourself get knocked out. I don't know why you don't think you have any other options, but you should seriously reevaluate that notion because-"
"Oy!" Rue bleated, cutting Ohu off. "Don't talk like you was there! Gar' held up right well against the crooks, twas one of the monsters in those shadow woods what got him!"
The Uni froze. "What did you say?"
"The monster in the forest through the cave," Grace elaborated. "We holed up in the cave to get away from the edge of the river, but there was a monster inside. Lady Ayame told us that monsters live in that forest and attack passersby all the time."
"That's true," Ohu said slowly. "But what Lady Ayame doesn't seem to realize is that the monsters in Shadowglen Woods are plant creatures. Living flowers, massive mutated juppies, the like. I grew up pretty near those woods. They attack with poison and thorn whips, but never heavy blunt weapons. They couldn't have hit the brat hard enough to knock him out."
"I'm still standin' here, y'know," Gary said testily.
"Duly noted," Ohu said dryly. "My point is that if you were attacked by something in the cave, it wasn't one of the local plant monsters. It was something else that settled there more recently."
A memory hit Gary suddenly; one of the bandits saluting him as they fled to the cave. "They knew," he said softly. "The bandits knew that thing was in there. They stopped chasing us when we went into the cave."
Grace and Rue looked horrified, but Ohu only nodded. "Makes sense. The pressing questions, however, are what exactly that thing is, and if it's working with the bandits or they just happen to be aware that it's there."
"No one else would listen t'me when I tried to tell 'em," Rue said sullenly. "Don't think they wanted to take a squire serious. Especially one that was just scared silly."
"Seriously, you know I think you could both benefit from improving your grammar," Ohu said. "At any rate, I don't think the older knights are going to particularly care. They are here to deal with the bandits, not what seems to be local beasties. But I do know someone that we can talk to who is more likely to listen to what we have to say..."
* * * * *
Lady Ayame pursed her lips, scarlet eyes thoughtful. Gary's tail flicked uneasily. For all her good humor and cheer, the Kougra was still a noble. He wasn't sure if she had any airs that she just wasn't showing.
"I can see your point," she said finally. "If whatever attacked you two is allied with the bandits, it could pose a significant threat. However I have no authority over the king's forces to order an investigation of the matter, and the prince has made it clear he has his hands too full with the fallout of the recent raid to think of anything else presently."
The squires exchanged desperate looks. Granted, this could all be an overreaction, but the bandits had shown themselves to be a canny lot. The knights really couldn't afford to ignore this.
"Now, now, don't look so glum," the noblewoman said chidingly. "All I meant is that we can't bring a platoon with us. Probably for the best anyway, if there's to be a reconnaissance mission without alerting the bandits or whatever is in the cave. If you two and your partners are willing, I think that the five of us should be sufficient to investigate the matter."
Gary stared at the Kougra dumbfounded. "Y'mean you want to come along with us?" he asked. "Lady, it ain't safe!"
"I'm aware of that," she said, her good humor momentarily evaporating. In place of the cheerfully eccentric noble they were now facing a tired, desperate young woman at the end of her resources. The Bori realized for the first time that she couldn't have been much older than he was. "But life here has never really been 'safe.' Not for me, and not for the people I govern. I have a responsibility to protect them, but I don't have the soldiers necessary to do it. That means that sometimes I have to take risks."
Rue and Gary were silent for a moment. Then, the Aisha saluted. "Didn't ever think I'd hear a noble talk so much sense. You're near canny as a commoner. I still don't think this is a good idea, but if'n you're determined, I'll go wit' you."
The Bori looked away. All his life he'd gone through the motions of being a page, then a squire, because it was what was expected of him. He understood the principles of chivalry, but at bottom they hadn't been much more than words to live by.
Yet here was a young woman, not even a knight, who knew more about what it meant to be a responsible leader than the king of their entire country. It was a sobering realization. Almost as sobering was the knowledge that if she went out with only Rue, they'd almost certainly not make it back. One woman, and one squire out alone in hostile territory.
He turned back to her, matching Rue's salute with his own.
To be continued...