With regards to road signs, their purpose should always be simple. To direct weary travels to their destination. Beyond this, if we consider the very name, they serve little use, and become nothing more than idle bits of wood scattered about without consequence. It seems a basic enough equation.
What they should not do is point in random directions for no real reason. Not only does this not serve the purpose for which they were intended, it’s quite annoying to travels who wish only to reach a point of rest. While one could argue that it is easy enough to ignore the randomly pointed sign, those who make such a claim have obviously never traveled with an overly optimistic monk.
“Adventure,” Petalwynd mused, staring up at the sign in curiosity.
Before the band of travelers stood a road sign, most odd in design. While it was a simple wooden stack, some eight feet tall, with two signs that directed those on the road to both the town of Carhill, and the village of Portkin, there was a third placard, that pointed off of the road, and towards the near by forest.
Upon this third posting was a simple, hand painted word. Obviously not an actual destination, it had instantly captured Petalwynd’s attention, much to Henry’s chagrin.
“It’s obviously a trap,” he informed her. “Probably placed by bandits.”
“You are very negative today, Henry,” the monk countered, still staring up at the sign. “Perhaps, it is more than it seems.”
“Yeah, no,” he sighed.
“What do you mean by that?” Kira asked, brushing past Henry to crouch at the monk’s side.
“Seriously?” Henry asked with as much disbelief as he could muster.
Petalwynd rubbed her chin for a moment, then said, in all seriousness, “Perhaps, this is a sign.”
“Obviously,” Henry grumbled.
“What sort of a sign?” Nerise asked, also crouching by the monk.
“A fake one,” Henry muttered.
“The kind that points us to our destiny,” Petalwynd declared.
“Or getting mugged,” Henry groused.
“I dunno,” Kira hesitated. “Do you really think something like would be so obvious?”
“Nope,” Henry offered, even though nobody was listening to him.
“Is it really that obvious?” Petalwynd countered. “Consider, for a moment, a cloud.”
“Not the damn cloud again,” Henry whimpered.
“To look upon a stray bit of fluff in the sky, one would never suspect it capable of bringing a terrible thunderstorm,” the monk continued.
“Cause it doesn’t,” Henry pointed out to no avail.
“I guess I see your point,” Kira replied, rocking back on her heels in thought.
“Oh, come on,” Henry begged.
“So, what you are saying, is that it is overly obvious, to fool those it is not meant for?” Nerise asked, staring up at the sign in a mix of awe and confusion.
“Like smart people,” Henry fussed.
“That would seem the obvious thing, yes,” Petalwynd nodded, far to smug.
“Not really,” Henry scolded.
“So, should we follow it, then?” Kira asked, looking towards the forest.
“No, we shouldn’t,” Henry argued.
“Yes, we should,” Petalwynd decided.
“There’s a town, right over there,” Henry bleated.
“Then, let us see what sort of adventure awaits us,” Nerise nodded, standing and looking towards the forest as well.
“For real?” Henry squawked.
“Let us face it bravely,” Petalwynd cheered.
With that, the three headed towards the forest. Henry stood in the middle of the road, staring after them in disbelief. As they reached the edge, pausing to wave him to hurry up, he hung his head, muttered several obscenities, and trudged after them.
“Okay, seriously, what the hell are we doing?” Henry demanded of Kira an hour after they had entered the forest.
“What do you mean?” she returned, looking confused at his question.
Henry turned a miffed look on her. “That sign was obviously fake.”
“Well, yeah,” she snorted. “Anybody could see that.”
Henry gaped. “Then why are we wandering around the woods with night falling?”
Kira shrugged. “Petalwynd looked excited. I figured it couldn’t hurt anything to indulge her a little, you know?”
Henry drew to a stop, taking her by the arm. “Seriously? We’re walking into a bandit trap, most likely, because Petalwynd looked excited? That’s crazy!”
Kira gave him a soft smile that made him loose much of his fire, for reasons he tried very hard not to think about. Thinking about that filled his head with other questions. Ones he didn’t want to deal with.
“She hasn’t looked excited since Bishu and the others died, Henry. Let’s let her have a little fun. Please?”
He dropped his hand, feeling ashamed of himself for a moment. In the month it had taken them to reach the eastern edge of the Thertin Hills, and leave them behind, he had gotten use to Petalwynd more or less being herself again. Not exactly, but close. When he thought about it, the stupid sign had made her more like she had been before.
“Yeah, I get it,” he mumbled.
Kira stepped into him, wrapping her arms around his neck. “I know you want to leave all that behind. She does, too. We can’t just ignore that she’s still hurting, though. That part of her is still lost. Just bear with it for a bit. It’ll be okay.”
Without meaning to, Henry dropped his hands on her hips and nodded. “Okay. Sorry. I guess I just worry too much.”
“No kidding,” she giggled, then kissed the end of his nose. “It isn’t like we aren’t capable enough that bandits pose any real threat, though, right?”
“Easy for you to say,” he retorted. “I’m the only one without a weapon.”
“Says who?” she murmured as she ran her hands down to his arms. “These seem perfectly capable to me.”
Henry turned red as she smirked at stepped away, jogging to catch up with the Halfling and the Juten. He remained frozen for several moments, his mind whirling, trying to make sense of that.
“Damn woman just likes screwing with me,” he finally assured himself.
Still, he couldn’t help but wonder if she was sincere. While on the one hand, she often teased and flitted away, there were times her eyes told a different story. A seriousness that left him feeling breathless, and wondering what would happen if he pressed the matter even a tiny bit.
Shoving the thought away, Henry hurried to catch up, finding Nerise lingering a few steps behind and giving him a knowing smile.
“What?” he asked, tone defensive.
“Screwing with you is exactly what I suspect she has in mind,” the big cat said with a wink.
Henry fumed a moment. “Somehow, I find that hard to believe.”
“My people have an extraordinary sense of smell, you know,” she replied. “Along with excellent hearing.”
Henry tripped over a log.
He decided he didn’t like cats after all.
“Look, there,” Petalwynd shouted.
Henry flinched at how loud she was as he joined her, dropping into a crouch to observe the large encampment spread out in a shallow valley before them. Just as he had expected, it was clearly bandits. No doubt, the sign they had placed was intended to fool the random farm hands and other idiots who set out towards the Thertin Hills hoping to make a name for themselves as adventurers and heroes.
While normally, he wouldn’t believe anyone capable of being that stupid, Henry had seen enough would be glory seekers back in Rivershire. Children, really, on the cusp of adulthood, with dreams of getting rich on some fabled lost treasure they were sure only they could find. The lucky ones came back home empty handed. The rest, well, who knew what became of them?
“I wonder what adventure they have in store for us?” Petalwynd beamed.
“Yeah, you need to stop with that now,” Henry chided.
“Stop with what?” she asked, nonplussed.
He gave her an irritated look. “That is a bandit encampment,” he told her, pointing at the place.
She stared at it in doubt for a minute, then suddenly brightened. “So, the adventure is to defeat them, and end their thieving ways! How wonderful! Maybe we can make new friends of them.”
“You really need to stop bringing that up,” Henry moaned. “I was hungry, desperate, and dirty.”
“And yet,” she countered, again far too smug.
“You know, on second thought, lets go down there,” he shot back, voice thick with sarcasm. “Maybe I’ll get lucky, and they’ll kill me.”
Petalwynd chuckled at that, patting him on the shoulder. “I’d never let that happen, Henry. Remember, I can always heal you if you are near death.”
“Or make me explode,” he mocked.
“Wait, what?” Kira cut in. “Petalwynd can make you explode?”
“How flirtatious,” Nerise intoned.
Everyone turned to look at her. Petalwynd in confusion. Kira in surprise. Henry in terrible irritation.
“Never mind me,” she offered. “Just thinking out loud.”
“Bad kitty,” Henry growled.
Kira stifled a laugh as Nerise twitched her tail, smirking at him. Petalwynd glanced at each of them in turn, then shrugged, not really getting what they were talking about.
“On, to adventure!” she shouted, and headed down the hill.
Henry buried his face in his hand for a moment, then glared at Kira, who offered him a somewhat ashamed shrug as an apology. She undoubtedly hadn’t intended things to go this far, but with Petalwynd, anything could happen.
Henry tried to reassure himself with that thought as he hurried after the Halfling, but found it didn’t do a very good job.
The encampment had been there for some time. While it was still just a large grouping of tents scattered around the base of the valley, the high wooden fence that surrounded it made that much clear. Whoever these bandits were, they had dug in for a long stay, probably to raid the several nearby towns and merchant trade roads that spread out from the eastern edge of the Thertin Hills and into the sprawling series of forests collectively known as the Gracewood.
What concerned Henry more was that such a defensive structure implied that they were likely well armed, and more than capable of holding the ground they had taken. While he had no doubts about the capabilities of his companions, he was in no hurry to get into a fight until he had managed to arm himself properly once again.
Naturally, Petalwynd headed straight for the main entry point, a wide gap in the fence that supported a heavy gate on either side. At least two sentries stood guard, both wearing armor and carrying large swords. At first, Henry kind of hoped that they were soldiers from the King’s army, but as they got nearer, he could see the mismatched nature of what they wore, and had his worst fears realized.
They were walking right into a den of thieves and murderers. For some reason, he didn’t simply pick Petalwynd up and run as fast he could the other way. For some other reason, Kira and Nerise followed them, neither bothering to ready to their weapons.
There was letting Petalwynd have some fun, then there was suicide.
“Hold there,” one of the sentries called, pulling his blade. “Who goes?”
“Hi, I’m Petalwynd!” the monk replied, pausing to wave eagerly.
“Seriously?” Henry hissed under his breath.
“Lay down your arms, and surrender,” the sentry demanded.
Petalwynd hesitated. “But, they are attached to me. Laying them down would be very painful.”
Henry gaped. Behind him, Kira and Nerise blinked and looked at each other in confusion.
“What?” the sentry managed after a moment. “No, not those arms. You other arms.”
“I’ve only the two,” Petalwynd pointed out, waving at him with both hands.
“I mean your weapons, dammit!” the sentry shouted. “Stop being cute!”
“You think I’m cute?” Petalwynd replied, managing to look something like coy. “Aw, thank you. You aren’t too bad yourself.”
“Wow,” Henry breathed.
“Wow,” Kira and Nerise echoed.
“What? No!” the sentry stammered. “I meant don’t try anything funny!”
“Like what?” she asked, looking uncertain. “I’m not very good at telling jokes. Henry always says so. Don’t you, Henry?”
“Uhhh…” Henry managed.
“This is Henry, by the way. Say hi, Henry.”
Henry waved nervously.
“I don’t give a damn if he’s the King of Rannis,” the sentry bellowed. “Drop your weapons, and surrender, or else!”
“Or else what?’ Petalwynd asked.
Henry groaned and hung his head.
“Dude, she’s fucking with you,” the other sentry pointed out. “She’s a monk. They do that. Just go bring them in and we’ll let Brad decide what to do with them.”
“I know,” the first sentry shot back. “I’m not stupid.”
“Yeah, sure,” the other sighed, before waving to them. “Hey, look, nothing personal, but we need you guys to drop your weapons and put your hands on your head, okay? Otherwise, some of these guys with twitchy trigger fingers behind me might shoot you full of crossbow bolts.”
Henry looked up at the wall, counted ten armed figures, and with a dark glare in Kira’s direction, put his hands on the back of his head. Looking more than a little embarrassed, Kira followed suit, while Nerise just looked annoyed at the whole thing, but did the same.
“What if I don’t have any weapons to throw down?” Petalwynd asked.
“Then just put your hands up, and we’ll all be cool,” the second sentry replied.
“You are no fun,” she pouted as she lifted her hands.
“Sorry, darlin,” he chuckled. “You are not the first monk I’ve ever met.”
With that, Henry and his friends were captured by bandits.
Henry really wanted to scream I told you so, and was proud of himself for resisting the urge.
As the small band of travelers was escorted through the camp by the two sentries, Henry learned three things that made him wonder just what the hell was going on here. The first was the the sentry who had initially called out to them was named Joey. This he discovered from the second sentry, who he had at first taken to be a young man, but as they entered the area lit by the campfires of the bandits, saw was a gruff half Elven woman, who offered her name as Boomer.
The second thing he learned was that Boomer was very chatty for a bandit guard. As they were escorted, presumably to the bandit leader, the woman struck up a conversation with Petalwynd, explaining how she had run into a monk of the Folding Lotus path a few years back, and ended up up surrendering to the unarmed man after a long conversation, during which he had twisted everything around and confused her endlessly.
It made Henry think of his first meeting with Petalwynd, and he felt kind of a kinship with Boomer in that moment. Then he regained his senses and remembered he was a prisoner, and felt stupid.
The third thing Henry learned was that these were very cordial bandits. On their way to the large tent at the center of the camp, they passed by many others, outside of which various rough looking people of many races sat, cooking, playing cards, or fiddling with various musical instruments. As they passed each group, the bandits would nod and smile, or offer a greeting.
Naturally, Petalwynd returned them all with enthusiasm. Kira and Nerise would give a hesitant smile. Henry began looking forward to death.
“So, anyway,” Boomer was saying. “After that, I kind of felt like maybe I hadn’t been living up to my full potential, ya know?”
Petalwynd nodded eagerly. “Henry was the same way when I met him. But look at us now! Fast friends, traveling companions, and dare I say, family.”
“Don’t dare,” Henry grumbled.
Boomer laughed at that. “That Lotus monk asked me to travel with him, too, but I had to decline. I figured if a guy without a weapon on him could talk me in those kinds of circles, I needed to take the time to get my head straight and figure out what I was doing wrong in life. Still, I kinda wonder what he’s up to now and then.”
“Probably having amazing adventures, just like us,” Petalwynd gushed.
“Yeah, probably,” Boomer sighed. “Ah well. Life is what you make of it.”
“That’s very wise of you,” she agreed. “Henry, I think you could learn a lot from Boomer. You should chat with her some time.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that,” he shot back dryly.
“That’s the spirit!”
Henry turned his head to glare at Kira. “I really, really wish you’d just cut my throat and saved me dying of humiliation.”
“I’m so, so sorry,” she whimpered. “I didn’t think anything like this would happen!”
“I’m not so sure it has,” Nerise intoned, scanning about the encampment with a curious look. “This is nothing like what I would expect from bandits.”
“Yeah, I picked up on that, too,” Henry replied, keeping his voice low. “We may be able to let Petalwynd talk us out of this, after all.”
“That’s be good for her,” Kira nodded eagerly, giving Henry an apologetic smile.
“You need to hush,” he grumbled, looking anywhere but at her.
Nerise smirked at him, so he looked anywhere but at her, too.
A few moments later, and they were ushered before the leader of the bandit camp, a burly Dwarf named Brad. Henry considered asking how he had come to have such a human sounding name, but one look at the vicious scar that had claimed the man’s left eye made him bite his tongue.
“What’s this?” Brad asked, pushing himself up from the chair he’d been sitting in.
“Strangers, walking up to the gate,” Joey all but shouted, making everyone in the tent cringe a bit.
“Lords above, boy, I’m half blind, not half deaf,” Brad shouted.
“Sorry, sir,” Joey shouted back.
“So stop shouting,” Brad roared.
“I’m trying, sir,” Joey screeched.
Brad puffed himself up, started to bellow something back, then caught himself, closed his eyes, took several deep breaths, and apparently counted to ten, before replying in a calm, soft voice, “Well done boy. Return to your post, and keep that eagle eye of yours out.”
“Yes, sir,” Joey almost whispered, and rushed away.
“Oi,” Brad sighed. “I can’t imagine how he’d be in a whorehouse. Prolly cream his underpants before the lass got her top off.”
Boomer almost choked on laughter. Petalwynd looked befuddled. Kira stared at the roof of the tent, her face red as a beet as she tried not to join Boomer. Nerise studied Brad intently.
Henry stared at him in curiosity.
“You aren’t bandits,” he said as Boomer caught her breath.
Brad looked at him in surprise. “Whoever said we were? Was it Joey? Damn fool. I’ll kick his nutsack into his earlobe if he did.”
“No,” Henry cut in, lowering his hands. “It was that sign on the road, plus this look of this encampment that made us think it.”
Brad stroked his beard for a moment. “Oi, now that ya mention it, that does give a rather wrong kind of vibe, don’t it now?”
“A little, yeah,” Kira offered, lowering her own hands.
“Extremely,” Nerise added, following suit.
“Not at all!” Petalwynd exclaimed. “We’re here for the adventure!”
“Are ya now?” Brad exclaimed right back at her, stepping up to give her a look over. “A monk, at that! What do you know?”
“Lots of things,” Petalwynd answered with a smile.
“That was a rhetorical question,” Henry pointed out.
“Was not,” Brad huffed. “I want to know what she knows.”
“Oh,” Henry stammered, suddenly lost. “Well, okay then.”
“What’s this?” Brad cried, stepping over to give Nerise a look. “A Juten, is it? Stars above, but I ain’t seen one of you kind in ages!”
Nerise flattened her ears. “I doubt you’ve ever seen one of my kind.”
“Sure I have,” Brad laughed. “Was a good few years back now, mind you, but I ran upon one way to the north of here. Lost fellow, named Rymer. Said he was shipwrecked.”
Nerise went wide eyed. “Rymer? You are certain?”
“Oh, aye,” Brad nodded. “Ran with him a bit, but we got separated and I never did find him again. Nice chap. You know him?”
Nerise suddenly grabbed the Dwarf by his shoulders. “Rymer is my brother! He survived the wreck! He’s alive?”
“Last I seen him, he was,” Brad nodded, reaching up to scratch her ears. “Said he was heading for the capitol of Rannis, Coruscat. Said it sounded like a choir from back home, and that he hoped to secure passage there.”
Nerise let him go slowly, staggering back. “I… I can’t believe it.”
“Like I say, it was a good few years back now,” Brad continued. “Can’t say if he made it or not.”
“That he is even possibly alive,” she murmured as she moved to sit, rolling this new information through her head.
“How wonderful,” Petalwynd sighed. “We came looking for adventure, and found one. Isn’t it great, Henry.”
“Maybe,” he said slowly. “Or maybe these guys just happened across this information, and are using it to trick us.”
“To what end?” Brad bellowed, huffing himself up as he stalked towards Henry.
“You tell me,” he countered. “What would you have to gain from tricking Nerise into joining you in a search for her supposedly alive brother?”
“Now see here, lad,” Brad roared.
Joey stuck his head back in the tent. “Boss man’s back, sir.”
Brad deflated instantly. “We’ll pick this up another time, boy. Best to let the boss sort out who you people are, and what’s to be done with you.”
“I thought you were the boss,” Kira said, jabbing a finger at Brad.
“Oh, no,” the Dwarf chuckled. “I’m just the number two. Glad of it, as well. My other choice was getting the stuffing kicked out of me and hauled away in irons after the boss made me end my thieving ways.”
“So, you were bandits?” Kira asked.
Brad nodded. “All of us, once. Then the boss showed up, and set us all straight. Now we’re bandit hunters.”
“Fascinating,” Petalwynd gushed. “See, Henry! This is the kind of thing I’m always talking about. How a singe good deed, a moment of kindness, can change many lives down the way.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Henry muttered. “If this boss man doesn’t kill us, I’ll consider believing in this idea of yours, okay?”
Petalwynd started to reply, but was cut off as the tent swung open, admitting a hulking mountain of rippling muscle that stole her words, not just with the sheer size and girth of the behemoth, but the smile that spread across his familiar face.
“Henry!” the boss roared, snatching the man up in a bear hug.
“Jarl?” Henry gasped.
To Be Continued Next Month In
©-2017 Cain S. Latrani