A House Divided
In which Dodger puts his foot down
The brigands weren’t just smart mouths, they were also clever strategists. The little ones tied each party member to a different corner of the covered wagon, most likely in an effort to keep them from setting each other free. Regardless of their isolated positions, the moment the thing began to rock with the rhythm of travel, the four set to plotting their escape.
“What on earth are those things?” Boon asked in a low voice.
“Do you not have dwarves where you come from?” Sir Rodger asked.
“No sir. We have little folks, but not like those.”
“Dwarves are thought to be Germanic in origin,” Dodger said. “They feature heavily in the Norse myths and … folklore …” Dodger fell quiet on the matter as Sir Rodger furrowed his brow. “At least, they are nothing but myths back where we come from.”
“Well here,” Sir Rodger said, “they are not just folklore, as you can see. The dwarven kingdom makes up a fifth of the realm. Dwarves are normally very private but congenial folks, save for the occasional rotten apple.”
“There’s one in every bunch,” Dodger said.
“Well put,” Sir Rodger said. “Now, what to do about our present situation?”
“I have an idea,” Boon said. “I think if I leave and come back, I won’t be tied up anymore.”
“Oh yes,” Sir Rodger said. “Your magic would be most useful in this situation.”
“Not just yet,” Dodger said. “With the way time slips, there ain’t no telling when you’ll be back, much less where. And I’d rather them not happen to stop and find you missing. You’ll know when it’s best to slip away.”
“I will,” Boon said, though admittedly it sounded more like a question than a reassurance.
“Have you another idea?” Sir Rodger asked.
“I sure do,” Dodger said. “We wait and see.”
“Wait and see what?”
“What they plan on doing with us.”
Sir Rodger wrinkled his nose. “Are you joking?”
“No sir. We sit. We wait.” Dodger stretched his bound legs as best he could, just to emphasize his point.
“My good man, if you just expect me to sit about and allow these dastardly dwarves to keep a Knight of the Royal Court captive, then you-”
A loud knocking came from the front end of the wagon, followed by a shout, “Keep it quiet in there!”
“How long is this road?” Dodger asked softly.
Sir Rodger jawed the air in silence for a moment. He looked very much like a fish trying to catch a breath on the beach. “Fifty or so miles.”
“And how far were we planning on traveling it?”
“Another ten. Then we head northeast, into the heart of the Blood Lands.”
Lelanea whined from behind her muzzle at the horrible title.
“Blood Lands?” Boon said. “Sounds pleasant.”
“So named,” Sir Rodger said, “for a bloody battle over the land, many years ago.”
Which just about summed up the history of the state of Kansas. A history Al no doubt taught Sarah while she lived with him. Dodger nodded to the knight. “Either way, ten miles is a mighty long walk when we can ride for free.” Dodger leaned back against the side of the wagon. “We sit tight as long as they stay on this road. We can worry about what to do if they change course.”
Sir Rodger nodded in return. “Ah, I understand. We shall use their transport and reserve our energies, waiting for the right time to act.”
“Why work harder when you can get someone to work smarter for you?”
“Good idea, Dodger,” Boon said, then winced as he realized his mistake.
“It wasn’t mine,” Sir Rodger said, not seeming to notice Boon wasn’t addressing him. “It was Mr. Carpenter’s idea. An idea that while I agree to go along with it, I would like to point out, this goes against the very fabric of my being. As a knight, I abhor the lazy means to any solution.”
“Yeah, well, I ain’t a knight,” Dodger said.
“No, sir,” Sir Rodger said with a grim air of assurance. “You are not.”
Dodger locked eyes with the man for a moment, before he laid his head back to tried and ignore the stony stare of the knight.
“What are you?” Sir Rodger asked. “You have the bearings of a gentleman, but you speak in such a rough tongue.”
“I’m nobody special,” Dodger said. “Just a hired gun.”
“I have never heard of you before.”
Dodger lifted his head again to peer at the man. “I’ve never heard of you, so I reckon we are even.”
Sir Rodger grinned. “You have a fire about you, sir. I like it.” He glanced over to Lelanea, eyeing her before he said, “And you, m’lady, you have a sense of royalty about you. Even in your bestial form I can sense an air of nobility.”
Unable to disagree or concur due to the muzzle, Lelanea lowered her head in thanks.
“And you,” Sir Rodger said with his smile widening upon Boon. “Mr. Boon, you are a grand hero if I have ever laid eyes upon one. I am certain that your name should be the stuff of songs and legends. You must truly be from another realm, for I have never heard a single tale of your conquests or heroic deeds.”
Boon went flush from forehead to neck. “Ah, well, that is to say, I don’t think I’ve done anything worth singing about. And please, I told you to call me Wash.”
“You’re a good man, Wash. The same goes for all of you. In fact, I am beginning to suspect that you were placed upon my path by divine intervention. Sent to guide and assist me on my most holy of quests.”
“Stranger things have happened,” Boon said. He matched Sir Rodger’s smile with one of his own, basking in the ideals of the knight.
The two grinned at each other like raving lunatics.
Dodger couldn’t stand the sight of so much cheer. Call him a traditionalist, but he liked his kidnappings gloomy and hopeless. “Let me get one thing straight. You can believe whatever helps you sleep at night, but I want to make it perfectly clear that we weren’t sent here to help you do diddlysquat. You and us? We’ve got a common goal. To find Sarah. That’s it. So you can knock these ideas of divine intervention and your so called holy quest right out of your head. Got it?”
Boon gasped. “Arnold. There’s no call to be rude.”
“I ain’t being rude. I’m being realistic. There ain’t no need to get worked into a lather over some half baked idea about divine interventions or what have you.”
“Still, there is no need to be so rude about-”
“It’s fine, Washington,” Sir Rodger said. He stared point blank at Dodger, all of his humor gone. “I understand both what Mr. Carpenter is saying, and where his words are coming from. Consider my enthusiasm contained. I shall speak no more on the subject.”
“See that you don’t,” Dodger said. Before he leaned back against the wood once more, he caught sight of Lelanea. The way she glared at him suggested he was in for a scolding once that muzzle came off. Which was as good of a reason as any to enjoy the silence while he still could.
Thankfully, the conversation ran thin after that. Dodger had nothing else to say to the knight, and Sir Rodger seemed content to leave Dodger alone. Boon leaned in as close as he could get to Lelanea, and set to nuzzling her furry ear. Dodger couldn’t blame the poor man. The couple had been separated for so long, they had earned the right to coo at one another for as long as they liked. Sir Rodger sang the occasional travel song, only to have his tune cut short by a sharp knock on the roof and the command to keep quiet.
The trip went on in that manner for a few scant hours until the lead dwarf called for the group to halt, citing the approaching night. A few of the little men pulled Dodger and the others from the wagon, while the rest of the dwarves shuffled about setting up camp by the side of the road. Again, the dwarves proved a clever bunch by segregating the captives onto pairs. Dodger ended up alongside of Lelanea, both bound to a stake driven in the ground a few hundred feet from the camp. They tied Lelanea to the thing with a thick rope by the throat, giving her just enough length to lie down, and tied Dodger tightly with his hands behind his back. He assumed Sir Rodger and Boon ended up somewhere further along, bound together as well.
A dwarf approached the bound couple and tossed something onto the ground between them. “Eat up.”
Dodger glanced down at what looked like a bowlful of gray snot. “What is that supposed to be?”
“Supper,” the dwarf said. “Since you’re such pals, you won’t mind eating out of the same bowl.” He drew a small blade and waved it at Lelanea. “I’m gonna take off that muzzle. You so much as growl and I will slit your throat, you hear?”
The dwarf snatched the muzzle from Lelanea’s snout and backed away. “There. Eat up. And make sure you enjoy it. ‘Cause it’s all you get.” He chuckled to himself as he turned and walked back toward the camp.
“I’d love to sink my teeth into his backside,” Lelanea said with a snarl as she pulled against the short lead.
Dodger almost laughed aloud. “Now, now, m’lady. No need to get your pretty mouth near such a filthy thing. But if you insist, I’d be glad to take that bite myself.”
“You would, would you?”
“Well, I wouldn’t enjoy it, but anything to keep a lady from degrading herself.”
Lelanea shook her shaggy head. “I think you lied back there.”
“Not being a knight. You are no less an honorable man than he is.”
Dodger exhaled in long, sorrowful breath. “I wished it were true, Miss Lelanea. I wished to heck it were true.”
“I am not having this discussion with you again. I told you already that the man you are today is not measured by the man you-”
“How much of your story was factual?” Dodger asked over her, trying his best to change the subject away from his honor, or rather lack thereof.
“That tale you told about why you are the way you are. How much of it is true? Or did you make all of it up?”
Lelanea eyed him in silence. The camp bustled behind them, with the dwarves pitching the last tent and settling down for the night. After an awkward and extended amount of silence from the wolf, Dodger began to wonder if he had overstepped his bounds.
“You’re right,” he said. “I didn’t mean to pry. I know it’s none of my business.”
The wolf didn’t answer. Instead, she lowered her head down to the bowl of gruel and sniffed it. She wrinkled her nose at the scent.
“Lemme guess,” Dodger said. “It’s poisoned.”
“That and it’s just disgusting,” she said. Lelanea looked back up to Dodger, her green eyes soft in the distant campfire light. “I was just a lass. That part was true. The rest of it was very different.”
“Lelanea, you don’t have to-”
“I was promised to a man ten years my senior,” Lelanea said over him. “My father had bartered my hand to the Earl in return for a sizable amount of land and livestock. But I was headstrong. I didn’t want to marry the Earl. I couldn’t marry him because I was already in love.”
Lelanea shifted, lowering onto her belly as she sighed.
Dodger waited, giving her the space she needed to get it all out.