“Where are we?”
“About twenty miles northwest of Tovi Town. Why?”
“Uh, well, yeah. I mean, pretty sure. Why are you asking?”
“Cause the sun’s coming up behind us.”
“We are heading west, Kris. It tends to do that.”
“I guess that’s okay then.”
There was a long silence, during which Kris fidgeted a lot, and Bill tried very hard to ignore it.
“What’s bugging you?”
“If we’re heading west, and we’re northwest of Tovi Town, shouldn’t we be on the Ghartit Road?”
“Wait… am I right?”
“I’m needing a moment with that, too, yeah.”
“I think we’re lost.”
Bill sighed heavily.
After spending several days catching Bollin and the rest up on what had transpired at Argorand’s, Bill had decided it was time to get moving. Rumors were being spread of Kris’ location, putting her all over the country, some having her alone, others in the company of various members of Bill’s family. None, however, mentioned Bill still being alive.
While it was tempting to lay low at Bollin’s cabin until Argorand’s people ferreted out the information they needed, Bill knew the likelihood of Theron figuring out where they were was too great. His brother had never been stupid, so it was only a matter of time until he sorted it all out.
Making things worse, Theron was obviously connected now, giving him resources to utilize in locating the old Dwarf’s retirement location. Bollin had a reputation of his own, and eventually, someone who knew something was going to talk, either due to intimidation, or because the price was right.
The best thing to do, in that case, was to keep moving. With the rumors and false information being disseminated, it would make pinning them down that much harder. While Bill wasn’t wild about it, there wasn’t any better plan at this point.
As comforting as it was to know he had people in his corner, Bill had never been good at letting other people do the work. He was too much of a hands on person for that. Running wasn’t his style, either, but circumstances were what they were, and he had to stick within the borders of Verithorn.
Tashiori’s life depended on it. As great as the debt he owed Kris, what he owed her was greater still. Too much rode on knowing who Theron was working for, and what their goals were, leaving Bill no choice but to wait, and hope that information was found, before he and Kris were.
If he was to be honest with himself, Bill would have preferred to just go back to work. That, as Bollin has pointed out, was simply out of the question. Bill Wick was not the sort of man people failed to notice, which left him in the miserable position of having to just wander about, aimlessly, doing nothing.
He kind of wanted to punish Theron for that, on top of everything else. While his big brother had always said he would put Bill out of work one day, Bill somewhat doubted he had meant in this particular fashion. The whole thing left him with a bit of a rueful grin on his face, when he thought about it that way.
And so, he and Kris had set out, promising to stay in touch, as they headed for no place in particular. It felt good to be moving, though, as if it were natural. The right state of being, one might say. Bill figured on heading past the small village of Tovi Town as quietly as possible, then cutting north, and getting lost in the urban bustle of the sprawling city of Glint for a while.
Who knows. Maybe he’d even pay a visit to Tam. It had been years since he’d been there, and it might be nice to climb the city of a thousand stairs once again. There was also Kelvin Brannon. The merchant lord would happily put them up for a while, no questions asked, and no whispers spread. Of course, the same went for the Vice Earl of Hillian. Slaying a dragon tended to make you popular with the lesser nobility.
As did recovering a lost pig. The Palmer’s, with what little they had, would happily welcome he and Kris, and Bill knew it. Any time they passed through the tiny hamlet the two called home, Martha was quick to offer him pie, and Kris never left without cookies. David would share a pint with Bill, and the two would simply relax in the sun for a time.
Bill had even flirted with the idea of going home, to the old keep he had grown up in, but knew, that was someplace Theron would be watching, and Bill had no desire to bring any ill fortune down on the Hascomb family. They were good people, and had always been kind to him in his youth.
If worse came to worse, he could always travel with Clyde for a time. Kris adored the now famous Troll poet, and Bill knew well, no one would dare question anyone he kept in his large troupe as he toured the nation. Still, that was only if he exhausted all other possibilities.
Including spending a few weeks at Phil’s. While the Lich would be beside himself in unholy glee, Bill shivered at the very notion. Still, better than listening to what passed for poetry from a very emo Troll. Only barely, but still.
The truth was, when Bill stopped to think about it, that he had any number of places he was welcome. Places that would happily tell anyone who asked that they had no idea where he was. Knowing it, and accepting it, were two different things, though there was something in it all that Bill found he couldn’t help but feel.
Blessed. Bill Wick felt blessed. With good friends, loving family, and more doors open to him than as a child, he ever would have dared to dream possible.
It was enough to make him think of his mother, and wonder, if she were well. He had not returned to Bas since the day he had left, no more than he had sought word of Rasha, and her fate. Still, as he turned over the number of homes he knew he was welcome in, part of him hoped she had heard of him, and somewhere in her selfish heart, felt at least a touch of pride for the man her boy had become.
It was a silly thing, and he knew it, but there it was. Of all the things Bill secretly hoped for, the pride of his mother remained the most coveted.
Some boys, he found himself thinking, never really grew up at all.
Then Kris had pointed out they were lost, and Bill had decided not to let her know he had been too busy ruminating to pay attention to where they were going. Fates knew, that would be one of the few things the mad druid remembered forever.
“Okay,” Bill said slowly, looking around at the sparse forest they stood in. “We came straight down the mountain, so we should have ended up due west of Tovi Town. Which means we should have hit the Ghartit Road a couple of hours ago.”
“I already covered that,” Kris pointed out.
Bill took a moment. “I know, honey. I’m talking to myself.”
“Why?” she asked, scrunching her face up. “I’m right here. You could talk to me.”
Bill took another moment. “I know, babe. It’s a figure of speech.”
“Speech has a figure?” Kris asked in awe. “Is it a nice figure? Is it hot? Bill! Do you find speech hot? Hotter than me?”
Bill took yet another moment. “No, sweetie. It’s a very masculine figure. I don’t find it attractive at all.”
“Would I?” she asked, cocking her head to the side. “Wait! Is speech coming on to me right now?”
Bill wanted to take one more moment, but moments seemed done with him, so he just heaved a weary sigh, nodded, and said, “Sure. Totally. I’m insanely jealous and may have to kill speech.”
Kris blushed and looked coy. “Oh, don’t do that, Billy. It’s not speeches fault I’m this easy on the eyes.”
“Hmmm…” Bill managed, wondering just how they had gotten to this point.
“Anyway, we should figure out where we are,” Kris nudged when Bill just stared off into space.
“Doing that,” he assured her.
“Figuring out where we are.”
Bill counted to ten. “Not really, just off track. We need to turn north. Either we’ll hit the Ghartit Road, and the Merchant’s Pass, since they run about eighty or so miles apart.”
“North it is!” Kris declared, and headed south.
“The other north, babe,” Bill told her.
“We can’t go the other north,” she told him, waving a hand in that direction absently.
“There are no dire bunnies, Kris. Now come on. If we go south, we might hit Tovi Town, and too many people there would sell us up the river.”
“Kris,” Bill pleaded.
“Fine,” she shouted, flouncing her way back to him. “But if we get eaten like carrots, I’m blaming you!”
Bill nodded, sighed again, and trudged after her as she stomped through the woods, heading north. Mostly.
Two hours later, and Bill was beginning to think they may have been better off going to Tovi Town after all. The risk of being spotted had to be less deadly than Kris constantly jumping at every rustle of leaves, while screaming about dire bunnies. At the very least, his sanity would have thanked him, before dragging it’s tattered corpse over a cliff.
As the forest grew thicker, slowing them greatly, he tried his best to assure Kris that there were no dire bunnies about, but she was having none of it. Truth be told, Bill had never heard of the existence of any kind of rabbits of unusual size, but knew better than to point that out.
He’d made that mistake with the Frog People, and look where that had gotten him.
Still, when they broke through into a vast clearing, Bill almost reached for his sword, half expecting to be assaulted by excessively large bunny rabbits. Instead, they were just in the company of excessively large trees, arranged in an oddly perfect circle within the clearing.
And pixies. Pink ones, flitting from tree to tree. Bill hated pixies. They were assholes.
“Oh, wow,” Kris breathed, moving ahead of him. “Bill, do you know what this is?”
“Nope,” he admitted, watching the pixies closely as they began to take note of the intruders into their domain.
“It’s a grove,” Kris said. “A Druid Grove.”
Bill went very still. Shana’Thar had been a druid grove. Until the night Theron had burned it, and Kris had lost her mind.
“And it’s full of pixies!” she squealed, running towards the trees in glee.
“We might shouldn’t bother them,” Bill called out.
“Nah,” Kris giggled, throwing herself against a tree and hugging it. “I’m a druid. They’ll be cool with it. Right, pixies?”
As much as Bill hated it, they did swarm around her warmly. With a sigh, he eased into the clearing, keeping as far back from the trees as he could. Pixies may like her, but he’d had too many bad encounters with the little pests to ever feel truly comfortable with them.
“Stop!” a voice cried, sending the pixies scattering. “How dare you intrude upon this sacred place!”
“With verve, and sass!” Kris cried back, striking a sultry pose.
There was a very long pause. Bill felt it only right.
“What?” the voice called, in confusion.
“What?” Kris called back, equally confused.
“Wait, what?” the voice replied.
“What what?” Kris called back, petting a tree.
“No, I mean, what?”
Bill pinched the bridge of his nose, counted to ten, and bellowed at the top of his lungs, “Knock that the hell off!”
Kris pouted. “You never wanna do our gag anymore.”
“Your… what?” the voice bewildered into the grove.
“What?” Kris bewildered back at it with befuddlement.
“Just, come out here, or she’ll keep doing that,” Bill shouted in consternation.
“Lotta big words today,” Kris muttered with discomposure.
“Please, stop,” Bill pleaded.
“Fine,” Kris grumbled, leaning against a tree and staring at the pixies as they flitted about in perturbation. “See what I mean?”
Bill wanted anything but to be dealing with whatever this was, but the Fates seemed to enjoy dicking with him, so he just sighed in his almost trademark fashion, and looked to where the owner of the voice was emerging.
Human, from the look of him, the man appeared be middle aged, with a slight touch of gray at the temples of his long, dark hair. A thin beard adorned his craggy face, accenting the sharp, hawkish nose that rested below piercing blue eyes. Or rather, what would normally be piercing blue eyes. At the moment, they were utterly confused.
Dressed in soft leathers, he carried a long staff, and was accompanied by a jaguar, making Bill reach for his sword. He almost had it, too, when Kris spotted them, and screamed, at the very top of her lungs, in the shrillest voice Bill had ever heard her use, “Kitty!”
“Ah, crap,” Bill groaned.
“What the hell?” the man balked.
“Shit,” the jaguar scowled.
Bill blinked a few times at that. To his surprise, Kris did, too, stopping dead in her tracks to stare at the large cat in wonder.
“Hey, Bill,” she finally said, pointing at the critter. “Did that cat just talk?”
“Yup,” he confirmed, closing his hand around his sword.
“Okay, so I’m not crazy,” she sighed in relief, wiping her brow, for some reason.
“Uh,” Bill managed to get out.
Kris bobbled her head. “Crazier.”
“There we go,” he agreed.
“That aside,” the man cut in, after clearing his throat. “This is no place for people such as you. I demand you leave, this instant, or I will be forced to use violence.”
“Might want to rethink that,” Bill advised.
“I… what? No! You rethink being here!’ the man argued, seeming confused by Bill’s lack of fear, and Kris’… everything. Probably because she’d started dancing with the pixies.
“What in the lost names of all the Fates,” the jaguar muttered, staring at her with a clear expression of confusion.
“Okay, so I’m guessing your a druid,” Bill sighed, letting go of his sword. “Sorry for the intrusion, but we got a bit turned around, and are just passing through. We mean you, and your grove here, no harm.”
“I am a druid, yes,” the man said, puffing himself up a bit. “So, you know, I command a vast array of powerful nature magics. I can make your life very difficult if are trying to deceive me.”
“He’s not,” Kris called.
“Easy to say,” the man replied, remaining defiant.
“What’s easy to say?” Kris asked, leaving off dancing with the pixies to consider the druid and his cat in confusion. “Oh, wait, I know! The! Right?”
The man stared at her, blinked a whole lot times, then said, “Huh?”
“That was just weird,” the jaguar commented, shaking his head and walking over to Bill.
“Well, the is easy to say,” Kris pouted. “I give up. What word were you thinking of. Be careful, though, Bill might kick its ass if it hits on me.”
“Uh… I… uh… no… I… what?” the druid fumbled.
“She always like this, man?” the jaguar asked Bill.
“Pretty much, yeah,” Bill said. “Sorry about that.”
“Nah, it’s all cool,” the cat shrugged. “Lloyd might have a bit of a time with it, though, He’s got no people skills. I’m Harvey, by the way.”
“Harvey,” Bill said slowly.
“Long story,” the jaguar assured him as he sat down, staring up at Bill in curiosity.
“No problem,” Bill sighed. “I’m Bill, and that’s Kris. Sorry for barging in. We really are just lost.”
“Ah, don’t sweat it,” Harvey told him. “It’s easy to do in these woods. The terrain around here curves in strange ways because of the grove there. If you let your mind wander at all, you’ll get pulled towards it.”
“One of those kinds of groves, huh?” Bill mused, staring at with new appreciation. “Didn’t even know there was one of them around here.”
“You in this area much?” Harvey asked.
“On the Ghartit Road, yeah,” Bill told him. “Don’t normally go into the woods, though. We came down the backside of the mountains over there, though, so couldn’t avoid it this time.”
Ah,” Harvey said, getting the picture. “I feel ya. Was probably headed for Tovi Town, then, huh?”
Bill gave a noncommittal shrug. “We were actually planning to avoid it, so nobody there could report having seen us to an old enemy of ours, and why the hell am I telling you that?”
Harvey laughed. “Was wondering when you’d notice. You seem a sharper than usual sort. The grove prevents people from lying.”
“That’s inconvenient,” Bill muttered.
“Only if you got something to hide,” the jaguar said with a toothy grin.
“I do, actually,” Bill admitted. “A lot, really. So, might be best if we didn’t stick around. Think you can show us how to get the hell away from this place?”
Harvey weighed him for a long moment. “You’d be Bill Wick, wouldn’t you?”
“Shit,” Bill groaned.
“Hey, Harvey, did you just call that guy Bill Wick?” Lloyd asked, leaving off the long running exchange of whats he’d been sharing with Kris.
“Yeah, I did,” the cat replied. “How do like that, buddy?”
“And I’m Krysthalanis Shirafilannia Ar’Verum,” Kris declared, making Bill faceplam.
Lloyd and Harvey both took several long moments to soak in what she had just said. Bill saw it on their faces, the dawning realization, and knew, as a druid, and a magical creature, along with the truth compelling nature of the grove, they understood not just what she had said, but all that it meant.
He was moving before Lloyd even began to bend his knee, to the Goddess he had sworn his life to the service of. As the words of praise began to form, his head bowing low, Bill reached him, and kicked the man square in the face, sending him flaying with loud cry of “Blearghitch!”
“Whoa,” Harvey gaped. “That was sorta extreme.”
“What the hell did you do that for?” Lloyd bellowed from the flat his back.
“Sorry!” Bill yelped. “Really, just, so sorry! Don’t do what you were about to do, or it could be really bad!”
“What?” the druid whimpered.
Kris ran over and kicked him in the face as well, screeching, “Kiiiyah!”
“What the hell?” Harvey wondered.
“Rin! Take him out!” Kris screamed. “Before he can make Bill attack him again!”
“Kris, Rin isn’t here,” Bill sighed.
Rin dropped from a tree, landing in a crouch, bringing the blade of her sword to Lloyd’s throat. “Move, and die, scum.”
“Where the hell did you come from? Bill and Harvey bellowed at once.
“Mommy,” Lloyd simpered.
“Rin! Stop that!” Bill snapped.
The mercenary woman looked up at him as bewilderment rejoined the chaos, running amok through the grove with the pixies, who flustered about in a dither. After several long moments, she relented, and lifted her sword, getting a whoosh of relief from Lloyd, who Bill was fairly certain had filled his pants by this point.
“Okay, let’s all take a minute, and catch our breath, before somebody, namely Lloyd, gets hurt,” Bill said, wanting to stop things before they got out of hand.
“He smells funny, though,” Kris argued. “Like pee.”
“Dude,” Rin intoned, sliding back a step from him.
“Gimme break,” Lloyd sobbed.
“Yeah, I gotta side with Bill on this,” Harvey admitted, stalking over to join them. “Let’s all keep our heads here, figuratively, and literally.”
Rin blinked a lot of times. “That cat is talking.”
“I know,” Kris shouted. “I thought I was crazy!”
“Yeah, got it,” she said, standing up and sheathing her sword. “Things, not what they seem.”
“To say the least,” Bill agreed. “Kris, baby, come here.”
“Okay,” she giggled, flouncing to his side.
“Need you to do me a favor, okay?”
“Anything for you, Silly Billy.”
“I need you to go with Rin, and stand on the other side of the grove, and play with the pixies, okay?”
“Cause her boobs look unmassaged.”
“Bill!” Rin yelped, turning red and trying to cover her considerable chest
“I’m on it,” Kris declared, giving him a sharp salute before flinging herself into the woman’s cleavage. “Take me away, boobs!”
“I am so going to make you pay for this, Wick,” Rin seethed, before walking away, dragging Kris, who clung to her, along.
“I have no idea what the hell just happened,” Harvey said, looking both awestruck, and slightly terrified.
“Give me a second, and you will,” Bill said, reaching at a hand to Lloyd, who reluctantly took it, and was pulled to his feet. “After I explain to you why you cannot, under any circumstances, do the one thing you most want to do in that Elf’s presence.”
“This outta be interesting,” the jaguar sighed, and waved a paw at Bill to go ahead.
Thirty minutes later, Bill had explained the whole mess to them, and gotten them both to agree to not do the one thing they both wanted to do. However hard it was, no matter what, they could not treat Kris as the Goddess they served. Not if they wanted the world to stay unexploded, which they both agreed, they kind of did.
That done, he took a moment to check on Kris, and saw Rin had her well in hand, the two playing games with the pixies, who probably knew Kris for both who, and what, she really was, but were wise enough not to react to it. For once, he was a bit grateful that the little fey creatures were so tight with secrets, and turned his attention back to the druid, and the chatty cat.
“Okay, so, I got a couple questions here, if I may,” he said, rubbing his eyes and then giving them a tired look. “All things being what they are, I got to be sure I can trust you two.”
“Obviously, you can,” Lloyd huffed.
“Oh, for crying out loud,” Harvey moaned. “Will you lay off. They guy is trying to keep our Goddess alive.”
“Yeah, well,” Lloyd shuffled. “Okay. Yeah. Go ahead.”
“Who the hell are you two?” Bill started.
The druid rolled his eyes, making Bill want to kick him in the face again. “I’m Lloyd, the guardian of this grove. Figure you’d have sorted that much out by now.”
“Your about two seconds from eating your teeth,” Bill let him now with a dark smile.
Lloyd recoiled a step, decided that wasn’t enough, and recoiled right around behind Harvey, who rolled his eyes, and gave Bill an apologetic look.
“Okay, so, it’s a long story, but the short version is, Lloyd there is a half ass druid, who sort of accidentally fell into being the guardian of this grove,” the cat began, waving a paw at the sulking druid behind him. “As for me, well, that’s a lot harder to explain. I was his animal companion, until he fucked around and awakened the spirit of the grove, who possessed me, and now, I’m a talking jaguar with a bit of a sarcastic streak.”
“That is a story I would love to hear in full some time,” Bill admitted. “For now, though, that’ll do.”
Harvey chuckled at that. “You sure took that on a lot of faith.”
“Not really,” Bill shrugged. “The general point there is that you two are attached to this place, so the odds of you working for, or running into, my brother, are pretty damn slim.”
The cat looked impressed at that. “Okay, I see what you did there. Smooth, my man. What else you wanna know?”
“Why did you two seem so excited by me being me?”
“No reason,” Lloyd bleated.
Again, Harvey rolled his eyes. “We’ve run into a bit of a problem, and could use a guy of your talents.”
“A few months back, we had some unwelcome neighbors move in,” the jaguar explained. “We’ve tried our usual tricks of getting them to move out, but they’ve proven stubborn, and we’re getting a bit concerned that they might do harm to the grove. Not only would that be bad for Lloyd, but it’d probably kill me, and I’m a tiny bit attached to living.”
“So, you were hoping I’d go run these unwanted neighbors out, huh?” Bill asked.
“Not that we couldn’t have done it ourselves,” Lloyd insisted, rather unconvincingly.
“Which we haven’t,” Harvey snapped. “Fates, Lloyd, can you stop being a damn dumbass for five minutes?”
“Your a dumbass,” the druid pouted.
“See what I’m stuck dealing with,” the cat sighed.
Bill dropped a hand to his head and rubbed his ears. “Trust me, pal, I know your pain. Really, really well.”
Harvey leaned to the side, looking at Kris as she flogged Rin with her stuffed rabbit past the trees of the grove. “Yeah. I get that.”
“Kris!” Bill roared. “Stop that!”
“Awww,” the Elf pouted, and began apologizing to the beleaguered mercenary woman, who just kind of looked both annoyed and sad at the same time.
“Anyway, what can you tell me about these intruders?” Bill asked.
“They are dangerous, monstrous creatures,” Lloyd intoned, waving a hand before him dramatically. “Fearsome in both appearance, and thought.”
“Yeah, they look kind like frogs,” Harvey cut in.
Bill hung his head. “Really? Frog people? Again?”
“This sounds like a not new thing to you,” Harvey said, cocking his head to one side in amusement.
“It’s not,” Bill sighed. “Still, shouldn’t be too much work. Last time I ran up against some Frog People, they folded pretty quick.”
“Sweet,” Harvey chuckled. “Me and pissy pants over there will lead you to them, let you do tour thing, then you can hang out here for the night, if you like, and we’ll get you on the road by tomorrow afternoon.”
Bill considered that for a moment. “Sounds like an almost fair trade, I guess.”
“How is that not a fair trade?” Lloyd grumbled.
“I’m Bill fucking Wick,” Bill fucking Wick pointed out. “I usually don’t work for room and board.”
“He’s got a fair point there, Lloyd,” Harvey laughed. “He is Bill fucking Wick, after all.”
Lloyd crossed his arms and sulked some more. “Whatever.”
“Tell you want, my man,” the cat said, ignoring the druid. “How about, we pay you fair and right, with something you aren’t gonna find anywhere else in the world, but right here?”
“Such as?” Bill asked, interested.
The cat grinned. “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna stiff ya.”
“Some reason you don’t want to tell me?”
The jaguar bobbed his head in Kris’ direction. “Cause she might know what it is, should she see it. By which I mean, she might know what she is, just by looking at it.”
“That’s a heavy sounding payment,” Bill replied, less than thrilled.
“Worth it, though, so long as you keep it under wraps,” the cat shrugged.
Bill considered it for a long moment, then sighed and nodded. “Okay. We can sort that out later. For now, let’s deal with the problem at hand.”
“Awesome sauce,” the jaguar nodded.
“Kris, get over here,” Bill called.
The Elf was by his side in a blink. “What’s up, baby cakes?”
Lloyd snorted. Nobody cared.
“We got us a job.”
“What kinda job?” Rin asked, joining them.
“Why are you even here?” Bill asked her after a moment of giving her disapproving look she pointedly ignored.
The woman shrugged. “Boss lady said to watch your back.”
Bill frowned at her.
Rin slumped. “Fine. I was worried, and wanted to make sure you two didn’t get, you know, jumped or something. Argorand did ask me to stick close, though, which I was planning to do anyway, so, yeah.”
“Fine,” Bill sighed. “Just, maybe, for once, Rin, talk to me before diving in head first.”
She gave him an embarrassed grin. “You know me, Bill. Leap first, look never.”
“This is why and April hate each other, you know. You’re just alike.”
Kris spluttered at that. “They so are not. April is way shorter than Rin.”
Bill nodded his head slowly. “That is not wrong.”
“So, who we beating up?” Kris asked, grinning at Bill’s praise of her ability to make obvious statements.
“Get this,” he chuckled. “Frog People.”
Kris went wide eyed. “Can we use the dire bunnies?”
“What? No. Kris, there are no dire bunnies.”
“There are so!”
“Wow,” Harvey intoned, shaking his head in amazement that this Elf, this mad, random Elf, was the being that housed the living essence of Ar’Verum, the Goddess of nature. “Just, wow.”
“Let’s go kick some slimy ass!” Kris bellowed, fist pumping the air.
“Jumbo frog legs for dinner,” Rin yelled, joining her.
“They will tremble before my might!” Lloyd threw in, even though nobody was listening.
“Hmmm…” Bill and Harvey sighed, hanging their heads.
©-2018 Cain S. Latrani
To be Continued, Next Month In:
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious.
Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
No dire bunnies were used in the writing of this short story.