In which Dodger finds a little unexpected help
Dodger eyed the tree line and waited, counting the heartbeats rising in his throat. One. Two. Three. Thankfully, a hail of arrows failed to follow the single, well placed shot. Dodger looked back down to the arrow, and the sharp edge protruding from the post.
“Are we under attack or not?” Lelanea asked.
“Whoever he is,” Dodger said. “I think he deliberately missed.” Dodger twisted back, as far as he could, to get a good look at the camp behind them.
The dwarves had settled down completely. Too completely for a group of traveling thieves. Each dwarf lay in a collapsed heap, all across the camp, snoring their little heads off. None kept watch. No one maintained the fire. It was as if they fell asleep where they stood or sat.
“They are all asleep,” Dodger said.
“The porridge,” Lelanea said.
“I would guess. Someone else must’ve spiked the whole batch, not just our helping.” Dodger leaned away from the post and lifted his arms behind him, rubbing his bindings against the metal tip of the arrow. In a few motions, he could feel the rope slipping away. He pulled his hands out of the twists of hemp, and rubbed at his raw wrists.
“Quick, undo me,” Lelanea said.
“Yes, ma’am.” Dodger picked at the complex knots that held the wolf in place. The dwarves had taken extra care to bind Lelanea tight, lest she gnaw through it before they returned. It took longer than he would’ve liked, but soon enough he had her free as well.
The wolf stood to her full height and shook out her fur. “That is so much better. Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me,” Dodger said. “Thank our mysterious liberator.”
Lelanea looked to the trees from which the shot came. “Where do you suppose he is?”
“With luck, he’s helping Sir Rodger and Boon escape.”
“Shall we go and see?”
Dodger nodded and motioned for Lelanea to go on first. This wasn’t a cowardly move, sending the lady into danger ahead of him. It was common sense. She could see far better in the dark than Dodger, and he trusted her heightened sense of smell to lead the way. Lelanea took his hint, and headed out in an arc around the camp proper, a clever move to keep from tramping straight across the sleeping dwarves. Dodger fell in behind her, making an effort to keep his footsteps as silent as possible, though he still came off like a herd of elephants compared to Lelanea’s delicate steps. The pair of them picked their way around the slumbering crowd, the wolf sniffing the air and ground, until they spotted their goal. Sir Rodger and Boon were bound to another post on the opposite end of the camp.
Boon rocked back and forth in place, whispering, “He said I would know when. Is this the when? I just don’t know.”
Sir Rodger didn’t answer his post mate. Instead, his mouth hung open with his chin resting on his chest and drool running down the length of his flannel shirt as he snored loudly.
“Boon?” Lelanea whispered.
Boon snapped his face up to the wolf. “Lelanea? Are you all right? Did they harm you?”
“I’m fine. Now, hold still so Dodger can untie you.”
“I see our valiant knight ate the porridge,” Dodger said as he worked on Boon’s ropes.
“He did,” Boon said. “I warned him not to. But he wouldn’t listen.”
“You knew it was poisoned, though.”
“I wasn’t sure, but I was suspicious.”
“Good call. I was lucky enough to have Lelanea to warn me. She smelled it right away.”
“That’s not-” Lelanea started.
“But I knew you’d figure it out,” Dodger said over her.
Rubbing his wrists, Boon asked, “How did you two escape?”
Dodger let Lelanea tell the tale while he set to untying the sleeping knight.
“Do you think he is still here?” Boon said once Lelanea was finished.
“I hope so,” Dodger said. “I want to thank him for-”
“Speak of the devil,” Lelanea said.
“And his imp shall appear,” Boon said. He motioned to the tree line behind Dodger.
Dodger turned about to see the outline of a short figure accompanied by the large shadow of a horse, presumably Sir Rodger’s nag. The man raised a hand, waving the others toward him.
“What do you think?” Dodger said. “Can we trust him?”
“I reckon we owe him some thanks,” Boon said as he stood, stretching his long legs and cracking his back. “After all, he could’ve killed us when he had the chance.”
“What do we do with him?” Lelanea asked, nodding to Sir Rodger.
Boon answered by lifting the knight and heaving him over one shoulder.
“Come on,” Dodger said. “Let’s not keep our guest waiting.”
Lelanea headed up the group, slinking away from the camp in almost silent steps. Dodger followed, trailed by the larger and less quiet Boon. Though, to be truthful, they probably could’ve sung a couple of rounds of How Dry I Am and not have woken a single dwarf from the sound of the little ones’ loud snores.
Once they reached the stranger, Boon tossed the knight onto the horse’s back. Sir Rodger wallowed about a bit, groaning and mumbling something about the sorry state of beds in the castle, before he settled down and returned to his rhythmic snore. Boon made to say something, but the stranger hushed him into silence, then motioned to a canvas bag hanging from the back of the saddle. Boon opened the sack and peeked inside. With a grin he pulled out Dodger’s gun belt, followed by his own, as well as the few odds and ends the two of them were carrying. Once this was done the stranger turned the horse about and walked away without a word to the other three captives.
“Should we follow him?” Boon asked.
“Her,” Lelanea said.
Boon glanced to the retreating figure slipping into the shadows. “Are you certain?”
“I am and I think we should follow her. We are strangers to this land and she is the closest thing we have to a guide right now.”
“True. Either way, we need to get as far away from those dwarves as we can before they wake up and realize we are gone.”
“I can solve that,” Dodger said as he slipped a blade from his boot. “I’ll make a round of the camp, and slit their throats while they’re sleeping.” Dodger stared out across the immobile bodies and licked his lips, the promise of so much death whetting his hunger for destruction. Feeling the pressure of eyes on him, he looked back to the other two.
Lelanea and Boon stared at him, saying nothing. They didn’t have to speak. Their revulsion was palpable.
“What?” Dodger asked. “If we kill them now, they won’t be able to pursue us. Problem solved.”
“Geesh, Dodger,” Boon said. “Ain’t that a bit, I don’t know, harsh?”
“I … I just thought …” Dodger stopped and looked down at his blade. What was he thinking? He was thinking like an assassin, that’s what. Defending yourself during an open attack was one thing, but slitting the throats of a dozen unarmed sleeping men was another. It was the old Dodger speaking. No, it was more like Tyler Crank. Dodger pushed the blade back into the small scabbard inside his boot. “We best catch up with our friend before she leaves us behind.”
“Aye,” Lelanea said. “That we should.” She turned her nose to the task of finding the stranger’s path.
The three caught up with the mystery woman about a mile down the road. She stood at a crossroads with a lantern in one hand, raised up to the signs. Now that they were away from the shadows of the campfire, Dodger could see just how feminine she was; slight of build, slender at the waist and standing a little less than five feet. The woman dressed in a simple pair of cotton trousers and a matching tunic. She also sported a cowl complete with a deep hood that masked her face as she turned to greet the approaching three. As she turned Dodger noted just how slight of build she really was, for she barely bore any bosom to speak of.
“Hail there,” Boon said. “We didn’t get a chance to thank you for setting us free.”
The stranger nodded under her hood, but said nothing.
“That was a very brave thing for a young woman,” Lelanea said.
The hood drooped as the owner lowered her head.
“Who are you?” Dodger asked.
The stranger took a few steps back, as if ready to flee from the scene.
“What Arnold means,” Boon said, “is we haven’t had a chance to introduce ourselves.” Boon pointed to each person in turn as he announced them. “I’m Washington Boon, this is Lelanea Dittmeyer, that is Arnold Carpenter, and the fellow on the horse is Sir Rodger Dodger.”
“He’s a knight,” Dodger said.
“I know,” the woman said in a meek voice.
“He’s looking for the princess.”
“I know.” The second time she spoke she lowered her tone to a gravely pitch in an obvious attempt to disguise her voice.
“Maybe you can help him,” Boon said. “He got a hold of some of that porridge.”
“I assume you put the sleeping compound in it?” Lelanea asked.
“Potion,” the stranger said. “It’s magic.”
“Magic,” Lelanea said. “Of course. Can you break the spell on him?”
The stranger shook her head.
“He’ll have to sleep it off?” Boon asked.
The stranger nodded.
“I guess we should just keep going,” Boon said.
“Do you know where we the princess is supposed to be?” Dodger asked.
“Poison Peak,” the stranger said, pointing to the distance. “It’s at the top of Mount Doom.”
Dodger huffed. Why was everything in this place named so morbidly?
“Can you get us there?” Boon said. “I’m sure Sir Rodger would be grateful if we kept a move on while he sleeps it off.”
The stranger nodded. “I can take you there.”
The more she spoke, Dodger realized her voice wasn’t just meek, it was young. As in the voice of a child. No matter how low she spoke, she couldn’t disguise that childlike pitch at the edge of her words. That’s when it all began to make sense. Short in stature. Delicate voice. Lack of bosom. What kind of kid would be wandering around in the dark in the middle of a danger filled forest?
Better still, what kind of kid could handle a bow with such finesse?
“We aren’t going anywhere,” Dodger said. He pulled a gun and took aim for the kid without readying his weapon. He didn’t plan on actually shooting her, just scare her a bit. “Not until she tells us who she is.”
The stranger didn’t raise her hands, but she didn’t go for her own weapons, either. She just continued to stare at Dodger through the shadow of her hood.
“What has gotten into you?” Lelanea said.
“She was kind enough to free us,” Boon said. “Put that thing away before someone gets hurt.”
“While I appreciate the assistance in escape,” Dodger said. “I won’t risk the safety of my crew by following some child into the wilderness.”
“Child?” Boon asked.
“Dodger,” Lelanea said. “She may be young, but she’s still our best chance to figure out where Sarah is.”
“I reckon she can do more than that,” Dodger said. “I reckon she can end this little game right now. Can’t you, Princess?”
Sarah swallowed hard enough for Dodger to hear the gulp from where he stood.
THE TASK AHEAD
In which Dodger agrees to press on