A single bird circled overhead while infinite amounts of dust stirred underfoot. A company of four will do that to a dust road. A solitary traveller would be far more discreet. I had intended to come alone. Unfortunately, I’ve a guardian of sorts. Dirk, the stubborn creature that he is, hasn’t let me travel without his insistent presence for a month now. ‘I’ve a debt to repay.’ he says. ‘I’ve a duty to protect you.’ he says. ‘No lady should travel without company, Miss Kirin.’ he says.
What debt could Dirk possibly owe me? I mean, I didn’t deliberately save him from certain death. ‘Call it volunteer work.’ I told him. He didn’t listen. He just kept shaking his head, looking absurd all the while because the motion made his numerous dark braids waggle. A strange thing it was, to hear him spouting so much about honour while he looked so undignified.
Dirk wasn’t the only one who insisted upon accompanying me.
Joan. She was a feisty little redhead, impetuous too. No matter how she’d begged me, I’d never let her travel with me before. That is until Dirk had completely overridden me. He’d told her she could come. Can you believe that? Did it never occur to him that Joan was a ‘lady’ too?
Two extra was bad enough. Then the presence of a wild looking guide was added. He introduced himself as Pal. He seemed an alright character, if not slightly mad. Travelling barefoot on trails such as these tends to give that impression. As guide, Pal took the front of our group. Somehow, both Joan and Dirk had worked their way ahead of me. I was not made for this kind of climate with its relentless sun and dry air. You’d think it would have some effect on them too, given their heavy armour. However, Joan and Dirk seemed unperturbed, propelled by enthusiasm and stubbornness respectively.
Other than our foreign presence, all was relatively quiet on the path we travelled. The others went untroubled by any apprehension but I was on edge. Rocky walls flanked us; there was one way forward and one way back. In other words, there was nowhere to run. That knowledge made me horribly jumpy, my stance shifting faster than lightning at the most miniscule sound, staff brought to the ready. Each time Pal would call backward: ‘It’s just a scorpion’ or whatever it happened to be. He wouldn’t even turn. He didn’t need to; those pointed ears of his weren’t just for show. Pal’s ears heard each set of sounds with unrivalled clarity, and he could easily identify them. I’d noticed some sounds that had shadowed the company for some time now. Both he and I knew what they were; soft footfalls, the subtle swish of a cloak, an occasional quiet grunt. We were being followed, though even Pal could not discern where our observer was watching from. The sounds bounced off the rock faces too much. It was simple enough to determine the creator of a sound. To discern the location of its source was another matter entirely. He tried to look around without alerting the rest of us to his growing concern, I noticed though. From the look on his face, it was apparent that he saw no one, just rocks and dust. In the end, he dismissed his unease; I could tell because his ears stopped twitching. I decided to trust him and follow in his decision to ignore our mysterious shadow. This follower had been present for hours now and had done nothing. If he intended to do the company harm he had been given infinite chances to act.
Out of nowhere, a strange screech was heard. Not the sound of an ordinary animal, certainly. This time it was Joan who flinched into a fighting stance. Judging by the way she spun, searching for something to attack, her fight or flight instincts were definitely calibrated towards fight.
‘What was that?’ Dirk asked. He received no answer as, seemingly from nowhere, it came barrelling towards us with speed unwarranted from such an ungainly looking creature. It possessed many tentacle-like appendages, though in place of suckers there were long spines. Dirk had managed to avoid its enormous claws and was busy climbing up a foreleg. Joan had recklessly leapt into the fray, one of her blades embedded deep in leathery hide. She clung on for dear life as it thrashed its head, shaking her like a rag doll. I tossed my ice spells at the thing as fast as I could recall them. An arrow went whizzing over my head to bury itself deep in monster flesh. The creature let out an ear-splitting howl. I turned just in time to see a hooded figure leap from one rocky outcrop to another. He let three arrows fly in quick succession. They sunk deeply into various points down the spine of the creature. It released another high-pitched cry.
‘Are we winning?’ Dirk questioned. He still clung to the creature, despite how much it had attempted to shake him and Joan from its body.
‘Not yet.’ The reply came from the hooded figure. He’d pulled another arrow from his quiver.
‘Who in blazes are you?’ Joan yelled. I was surprised her arm hadn’t been wrenched from its socket yet.
‘Does it really matter right now?’ he growled. I’d swear that voice was familiar.
Our battle with the creature continued. In the end, it was Pal who finally felled it. He’d taken it out with his spear. We had to carry on, so we left its twitching form behind us. The hooded archer that had joined our fight hadn’t left like I’d expected him to.
‘Why are you still here?’ I asked him, a day’s worth of impatience in my tone. He lowered his hood and then I knew why. ‘Brother?’
Does no one trust me to travel alone? Apparently not.