The Task Ahead
In which Dodger agrees to press on
“Princess Sarah?” Lelanea asked.
The young lady pulled her cowl aside, allowing it to fall back against the nape of her neck. Sure enough, Sarah Baker stood before them, chewing her lower lip and staring at her feet.
“What are you doing out here?” Boon said. “I thought you were captured and locked away.”
“Her Uncle Al raised her better than that,” Dodger said. He slipped his gun back into its holster. “Ain’t no kin of Aloysius Jackson gonna sit around waiting to be rescued. Right, girly?”
“Yes, sir,” Sarah said as she lifted her face to him. “You know Uncle Al?”
Her question stung him to the core, but he hid his sorrow with a grin. “Yeah. You could say that.”
“Do you know where he is?”
Dodger glanced to Lelanea, unsure how to handle that one.
“We haven’t seen him for some time,” Lelanea said.
“Oh,” Sarah said. “I was hoping you knew where he disappeared to.”
“Disappeared?” Dodger asked. “Has he been gone long?”
“Yes, sir. He’s been missing for about two years.”
Before anyone else could comment, cuss or converse, the knight let out the mother of all groans. Sarah lowered the lantern to the ground and rushed to Sir Rodger’s side. The knight lolled about on the horse, nearly falling right off the nag as he tried to roll over. He slid down the side of the horse, landing with a grunt on his unsteady feet. The kid grabbed his hand, patting it as she cooed his name, gently bringing him awake.
“Wasgoinon?” Sir Rodger slurred.
“It’s all right,” Sarah said softly.
“Sarah?” the knight said. He stared at her for a moment, swaying in place while she held his hand. “Sarah, is it really you?”
“Yes, Sir Rodger. It’s me.”
The knight woke in a flash at that news. “Saint’s be praised!” He bent double to scoop her up into his arms, swinging her about, almost knocking his horse back in his excitement.
Sarah hissed him into silence. “Hush now. We’re still close enough to wake those horrible dwarves. And put me down. I’m fourteen, not five.”
Sir Rodger dropped her onto her own feet and stood back bearing a huge, silly grin. “I never thought I’d see you again, child. You had all of us worried.”
“I was a bit worried, too.”
“But you are here now, and all is well. We need to get you back to the castle-”
“Sir Rodger, all is not well.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Evil One still has my brother.”
“Evil One?” Dodger asked. He nudged Boon. “You didn’t say anything about an Evil One.”
“Didn’t I?” Boon said. “Sorry, must’ve slipped my mind.”
Dodger touched the butt of his guns. “I aught ‘a slip your mind right down your shirt.”
“For Shiva’s sake, Dodger,” Lelanea said. “Did you think she was being held captive by a pixie? Of course there is a villain in this play. Why are you so surprised?”
“I’m not surprised,” Dodger said. “I’m just irritated to be left out.”
“Dear lady,” Sir Rodger said, a touch of melodrama entering his voice, “do not mistake the Evil One for an ordinary villain. This is a creature so foul his existence breaks the very laws of nature.”
“And he still has my brother,” Sarah said. “He must be so scared. I didn’t want to leave him behind, but I had to. I promised we would be back for him. We will, wont’ we?”
Sir Rodger patted Sarah on the shoulder. “Fret not, princess. The rescue of the Prince is at hand.”
“Nothing will be at hand if we don’t get away from those dwarves,” Boon said.
“That is not a problem. You see, the little ones are very territorial. If we can cross into the Blood Lands, Gimlet won’t dare to follow us. After that, it is but a matter of days before we reach Poison Peak.”
“Would The Valley of Woes not be a more suitable route?” Sarah asked.
“Certainly, if we had such time at our disposal. The Blood Lands are more dangerous, true, but also more direct.”
While the pair fell into a heated discussion of which route was best, Dodger nodded to his crewmates and stepped away from the reunited couple.
“I suppose this is our chance,” Dodger said. “Lelanea, do you want to talk to her? I don’t know what to say.”
“I’ve been thinking,” Boon said. “Maybe we should move on ahead. Just a bit. At least until we get clear of that camp of tiny terrors.”
“Move on ahead?” Dodger said. He pointed to the young woman not ten feet behind them. “Sarah is standing right there. We should just do what we came here to do and go home.”
“True,” Boon said. “But is this really the place to explain things?”
“You know a better place?”
“No, not really, but certainly we can find somewhere to sit down and explain things properly. Rather than springing it on her in the dead of night in the middle of nowhere.”
“Why is twenty miles down the road any better than right here, right now?”
“Actually,” Lelanea said. “I think Boon might be onto something.”
“Not you, too,” Dodger said. “You really think we should wait a little longer?”
“I was thinking it would be best for Sarah’s psyche to let this fantasy play out all the way.”
“What?” Dodger shouted, then winced at the sound of his own voice echoing in the darkness around them. Glancing back over his shoulder, he saw Sir Rodger looking up at him for a brief moment, before returning to his argument with the princess. “We don’t have time for this.”
“But we do,” Lelanea said. “Time works differently here. We can travel for weeks and only a few hours will pass in our world.”
“That’s right,” Boon said. “I was only gone a few seconds during the fight with that dragon, and Sir Rodger said I was missing for over an hour.”
“Let me get this straight.” Dodger drew a deep breath and set to massaging his temples, trying his best to keep from gritting his teeth. “You both think it is best to let Sarah face an evil so foul it defies nature, rather than just quit this whole madness right now?”
“No,” Lelanea said. “But considering that Rex manipulated her dreams, if Sarah doesn’t defeat him now, there is a good chance she may never sleep peacefully again.”
“That and she sure deserves a happy ending,” Boon said, “before she wakes up to find her brother has really been kidnapped by that monster and her Uncle is gone forever.”
Dodger curled a lip in disgust. “There is no fantasy in the world going to prepare her for that one. Life ain’t fair, and it ain’t a fantasy. Better we kill her dreams ourselves than let her keep on believing in fairy tales.”
“But she’s just a kid,” Boon whispered.
“We were all kids when the worst happened and it didn’t make a difference. Did it? She has to learn some time.”
“Dodger, please,” Lelanea said. “Listen to yourself.”
“I am. I’m the only one making any sense.”
“That might be true, but what would you give to believe Al was still alive, if even for an hour?”
In many ways, the whole idea was a low, dirty, conniving move on Lelanea’s part. Zeroing in on Dodger’s weakness for his mentor like that, well, it was down right rude. On the other, the wolf had a point. Dodger reckoned he would give just about anything to have never learned of Al’s death. It was bad enough the man died in Dodger’s own arms.
“You think this will really help her?” Dodger asked.
“Yes,” Lelanea said. “I am by no means a motherly type, but if she were my daughter, I would want her to have this moment.”
“And you?” Dodger asked, looking to Boon.
“I think we should see how this unfolds. For the girl’s sake, of course.”
“For the girl’s sake,” Lelanea said.
“For the girl’s sake,” Dodger echoed, wondering why the repetition was so necessary.
Wondering, that was, until Boon’s gaze flicked down to Lelanea.
And the wolf glanced up to Boon.
Their silent exchange was brief but not fast enough to slip by Dodger. He knew the look of love when he saw it. No wonder the pair was so anxious to hang around for as long as they could. He supposed it wouldn’t hurt to give them a bit longer together. There was no telling if they would ever get the chance again.
“You know,” Dodger said, “you’re probably right. Sarah has enough to deal with when she wakes up, no need to rush it.”
“Right,” Boon said.
“Then it is agreed,” Lelanea said. “We shall see this to the end.”
“Agreed,” Dodger said. “Boon, you probably should head back for a minute and check how we are doing as far as time goes. Let the doc know what we are up to, and see if he thinks it’s a good idea.”
“Will do,” Boon said. “I’ll be right back.” With a wave and a soft crackle he faded from view.
“Lelanea, I think you and I should-” Dodger started.
“I want to run in the moonlight,” Lelanea said over him. She kept her face away from him, staring into the dark line of trees that rustled with the breeze.
Dodger fell quiet, not sure how to take that bit of information.
“I want to run in the moonlight,” she repeated. “Race through the wind and roll in the pine needles and dig in the earth. I want to chase rabbits and build a den and find a mate of my own. I want to raise pups, Dodger. I want to fight the harsh winters and relish the warm summers and just be who I am meant to be. I don’t want to fight it anymore. I want to give in. I want to be this.”
“This isn’t you,” Dodger said. “Not really. You are not a wolf. You’re a beautiful young woman. You know that.”
She got to all fours and turned to face him. “And this … whoever he is … this isn’t you, Dodger. Don’t give in. Remember who you really are. Because whoever this horrible person is, he isn’t the man I have come to know. The man I have come to respect. The man who I am proud to call friend.”
“I’m proud to call you friend, too.”
“Thank you for agreeing to stay a while longer,” Lelanea said. “She will never forget this.”
“I’m sure she won’t.” Though, in truth, he wasn’t sure which ‘she’ they were talking about; Sarah or Lelanea. Dodger cleared his throat and turned his attention to the arguing pair at the sign post. “Hey, you two. We should probably head on out before our foes wake up as well.”
“Good point,” Sir Rodger said.
“Where did the big guy go?” Sarah asked.
“Boon has gone to check on a few things,” Lelanea said.
“The man has magic,” Sir Rodger said.
“He sure does,” Lelanea said with a sigh.
Dodger resisted the urge to roll his eyes at the sentimental moment, for fear they might roll away.