As Henry, Kira, and Nerise were sorting through what information they possessed, Jarl and Illuma continued walking through the forest, searching for any sign of a cottage. Mostly, it as just Jarl pushing ahead, while Illuma tried not to step in anything.
That was not going well for her.
Pausing, Jarl waited for her to catch up, the Elven Cleric having fallen behind as she struggled to pass through the forest. He smiled gently as she reached him, panting. After a moment, she nodded that she was ready to continue, so he pressed on.
“We can rest longer, if you need,” he offered.
Illuma shook her head. “No, I’m fine. I can do this.”
“I never said you couldn’t,” he chuckled. “However, keeping pace with me is no easy task. If you need to catch your breath, I am offering to let you.”
“Um,” Illuma dithered.
Jarl laughed at that, and waved at her to take a seat. “Please. I am fairly certain we are not going to be the ones to find the cottage. The forest seems to grow ever more dense in this direction. There will be nothing lost by taking a brief break.”
“It does seem that way,” she agreed. “More rocky as well.”
“We’re heading upwards,” Jarl nodded. “While it may make for an inhospitable location, not easily accessed by outsiders, from what Charlie and Kira have said, this witch is old. I doubt her home will be in such difficult terrain.”
“If she even exists,” Illuma sighed.
Jarl considered that for a moment. “I’ve no reason to doubt Kira.”
Illuma flushed and waved her hands. “I didn’t mean to question her, either! I just meant that, perhaps, what she thinks of as a witch, may be something else entirely.”
“Like what?” Jarl asked, not really following.
“Well, a few things come to mind,” Illuma offered nervously. “There’s always the possibility that this person is a charlatan, only posing as a witch. Or, more likely, a wizard of some sort. Actual witches are exceedingly rare.”
Jarl gave that a bit of thought, then shrugged. “Perhaps. We will know for certain when we find her, that much is sure. Either way, this person has information we need.”
Illuma started to say something, then seemed to think better of it. Jarl watched her for a moment, then waved a hand at her, with a kind smile. Remembering their previous conversation outside her temple, the Elf finally conceded.
“There is one possibility, that I can think of, where this person actually is a witch, and can tell us what we want. If that is the case, however, I strongly doubt that she will. She has too much of a vested interest in helping Reiger bring Grimgel back. Odds are, she will prove to be an enemy, and one we will have an extremely hard time defeating.”
“What sort of vested interest?” he asked.
“She may be the Archivist,” Illuma said. “Someone charged by destiny to record the workings of the Eternal Prophecy. If we were to prevent Grimgel’s return…”
“Then she would have nothing to record,” Jarl said, grasping her meaning. “That could be troublesome, or it could be the very thing we need.”
Illuma made a doubtful face. “What makes you think that?”
“Did you not wish to question you own destiny?” he pointed out. “If she is the same, then perhaps she may wish to aid us in order to avoid this grim fate.”
Illuma tried to think of an argument for that, but could not. “You are a very positive person, aren’t you?”
“I hold to the teachings of Arrisa,” he said with a smile as he offered her his hand. “How can there be room for anything but being positive?”
“I think,” she replied as he helped her to her feet. “You and I have followed the wrong paths. You clearly should be the cleric here.”
Jarl laughed at that. A heavy booming reached them, sending a flock of birds scattering across the sky.
“It would seem Petalwynd has found the cottage,” Jarl suggested.
“She did,” Melvin told him, then waved in the direction of the booming. “It’s about a mile that way.”
“Thank you, my friend,” Jarl nodded.
“That tree just talked,” Illuma gaped.
“Never mind that now,” the massive barbarian cried, scooping her up. “We must make haste. Be well, Melvin!”
“Later,” the Trent waved.
* * *
The entire party gathered soon after, converging on Petalwynd’s location. As they broke the treeline, and spotted the Halfling and Charlie, they all drew to a sudden stop, trying to make sense of what they were seeing.
None of them managed, but they tried, and that counts.
The two stood before a gate, that was part of a low wooden fence that ran around a large clearing. In the center of the clearing was a simple cottage, with a thatched roof. A small chimney poked out, smoke streaming from it in the lazy breeze.
All of that was fine. It was the duck standing in front of the gate that made them pause, and the fact Charlie was threatening it with daggers. That was somewhat odd. Well, probably not for Charlie. He did like to threaten things with daggers.
More than that was the fact Petalwynd did not seem to be trying to stop him. The monk stood a few feet to the side, watching with a sort of smile on her face, her usual relaxed self. This was decidedly odd. Petalwynd was not the sort of person to be okay with a duck being molested by a child, after all.
Henry decided it was a good idea to stop thinking about that, and waved everyone forward. Whatever was going on, Petalwynd must have a good reason for letting the little lunatic threaten a duck. He hoped. Knowing Petalwynd, anything was possible.
Joining her, Henry tapped her shoulder, pointed at the boy and the duck, and simply asked, “What the hell is this?”
“Oh, hello, Henry,” Petalwynd grinned. “Look, we found the witch’s cottage.”
“See that,” he agreed. “So, what was that noise, and why is Charlie threatening a duck?”
“It’s being resistant,” Petalwynd told him. “Charlie felt this was the best way to deal with it, so I am allowing him to learn the fault in is thinking.”
Henry glanced to the others, but that had obviously made no more sense to them than it did him. “The duck is being resistant?”
“Somewhat, yes,” the monk nodded. “I think the more important matter here, however, is for Charlie to learn that he cannot resolve everything with violence. This is a real chance for him to grow as a person.”
Henry took a deep breath, counted to ten, and rubbed his eyes. “Petalwynd, I’m really going to need you to explain a few things here.”
“Oh,” she snickered, smacking her own forehead. “Of course, My apologies, Henry.”
“It’s fine,” he nodded.
“You see, after being forced to act as Regier’s assassin, Charlie has kind of forgotten how to deal with social matters in a normal, friendly, way…” she started.
“Not about that!” Henry shouted. “I give less than a damn about the mini murderers homicidal tendencies! Tell me about the duck being resistant, and what that booming was, dammit!”
Petalwynd closed her eyes and held up a finger. “Shouting is how you make other peoples opinions seem less important, Henry.”
“Petalwynd,” he raged. “Now is not the time.”
“Consider the wind,” she continued, waving slowly around them. “It does not need to howl. When it rustles the leaves, it allows the trees to speak for themselves.”
“For the love of…” he sagged. “Yes, okay, fine. I’m sorry I shouted. That was wrong.”
“Thank you,” she nodded. “Now, as I was saying about Charlie….”
Kira shoved Henry back as he made to grab the monk, saying, “I think what Henry means is that there are somewhat more pressing issues to contend with.”
Petalwynd clucked her tongue at that. “Saving a person’s soul is always the most important matter.”
“This is getting us nowhere,” Henry grumbled, and brushed past them to go join Charlie, who was still waving daggers at a duck. “Kid, what the hell are you doing?”
Charlie jabbed a dagger in his direction. “I’ll handle this. You be quiet.”
“Yeah, okay,” Henry groaned. “But, it’s a duck, man.”
“I know that,” Charlie shouted. “It’s being resistant, though!”
“I’m gonna…” Henry muttered, then couldn’t find any actual words for what he wanted to do in that moment. “It’s just a damn duck! Shoo it, and let’s get going!”
Charlie shot him a glare. “If you think it’s so simple, then by all means, show me.”
Beyond aggravated at this point, Henry pushed him to the side, walked up to the duck, planted his foot on it, and pushed. It did not move. It did quack.
“What the hell?” he gaped.
“Told you,” Charlie snorted.
“Okay, so it’s not actually a duck, then,” Henry sighed. “One of you could have just said so.”
“It isn’t as if ducks are normally resistant, Henry,” Petalwynd chided. “That alone should have told you that it wasn’t an ordinary duck.”
“She’s got a point,” Kira offered.
Henry glared at her until she felt slightly embarrassed. “So, fine. We’ll just go around it then.”
Stepping past the duck, Henry grasped the gate. As he did, the duck let out a massive, booming quack that forced him to stagger back, covering his ears. It then took a dump.
“Okay, I specifically asked about the booming,” he shouted at Petalwynd.
“I was getting to it,” she replied, then held a finger up. “I’m certain I’ve explained how the grasshopper story is an exploration of impatience, Henry.”
“Stop with the grasshopper,” he snapped. “I asked you about all of this, and all you wanted to talk about was how Stabby Hands over here was having a social experience. With a duck.”
“I’m not a duck,” the duck said.
Henry threw his hands up. “Great. More things talking that shouldn’t talk. All we need is for Melvin to show back up.”
A tree behind Jarl silently faded back into the forest. Illuma started to say something, but Jarl quickly, and quietly, stopped her.
“I was getting to that, as well,” Petalwynd commented. “Perhaps you should spend some time thinking on the story of the pebble,”
Henry held a finger up, begging her to stop talking. For once, it worked, thought the monk did rock back on her heels, smiling in an overly smug way.
“I’ve got some experience with things that should not talk talking,” Henry said. “I can handle a chatty duck.”
“I’m not a duck,” the duck repeated.
“Good for you,” Henry snorted. “But, you look like a duck, and you quack like a duck, so I’m gonna call you a duck.”
“That’s just how I look to you, because of your small, tiny brain,” the duck retorted. “You can’t see how huge, and amazing, I actually am. You’re head would just explode if it tried. It’s too complex. You’d never understand it.”
“I don’t care,” Henry groaned. “Is this the witch’s cottage?”
“It might be, who knows,” the duck shrugged, sort of. “Even if it was, which it might not be, what difference would it make to you?”
“Cause we came to see the witch,” Henry told it. “So, ya know, if this is her place, we kinda want to go ahead and do that.”
“She’s not home,” the duck told him.
“So, this is her house,” Henry said.
“I didn’t say that,” the duck argued. “I said it might be. It might not be. I mean, if it wasn’t, then she wouldn’t be home, obviously, cause she doesn’t live here, right?”
Henry could make no sense of that. “Look, I just want to know who lives there. If it isn’t the witch, then we’ll leave, and go find her actual house, yeah?”
The duck looked around at them. “I don’t know who lives there. You don’t know who lives there. Nobody knows who lives there. Well, I might know. I’ve got a really huge, large brain, after all, and know lots of things, So may things. You wouldn’t understand any of them, of course, cause they’re so complex, but I know them. You just have to trust me on that.”
“Why wold I trust a duck, who’s obviously an egocentric idiot?” Henry asked.
The duck ruffled it’s feathers at that. “Ask anybody. Everybody knows. People tell me all the time how impressive and stable my genius is. They say to me, man, you’re just the smartest person I’ve ever me. It’s true. You know it’s true.”
“Right,” Henry sighed. “This isn’t the place, guys. Let’s go.”
“Uh, Henry,” Kira whispered, grabbing him as he walked away. “A talking duck is obviously a sign that this is the right place.”
“Trust me,” Henry told her softly.
Reluctantly, not sure what to make of what was going on, the rest fell in behind Henry, Charlie being the last to go, after jabbing a dagger towards the duck again.
“I mean,” Henry added loudly as they walked away. “If I was a witch, I wouldn’t leave a duck guarding my door.”
“I’m not a duck,” the duck shouted. “And she totally left me to guard the door, because of how smart I am at making people leave her alone!”
Henry stopped, looking back. “So, this is here house, then?”
The duck hesitated. “I didn’t say that.”
“You just said that.”
“If it was her house, then she’d want someone of incredible, vast, amazing intelligence to ward off people bothering her over every little thing,” the duck floundered. “That’s obviously what I meant.”
“So, if this wasn’t her house, why would you be here?” Henry retorted.
“You don’t know,” the duck squawked. “I mean, I know, obviously, because of how smart I am, but you don’t know.”
“Right, so, back to leaving, because this isn’t the witch’s house, and this duck is just trying to make itself sound important, while it guards a house nobody cares about,” Henry agreed.
“What?” the duck flapped. “Everybody cares about this house! Lots of people say so! All the time, there’s people coming here, trying to get in! They can’t, though, because of me! Because I’m the best! So, they give up, and leave! Like your doing!”
“Us?” Henry chuckled. “No, we’re not leaving because of you. We’re leaving because this isn’t the place we’re looking for. We need to talk to the witch, and since this isn’t her house, we have no reason to be here. You didn’t do anything.”
The duck grew very agitated. “I stopped you from seeing the witch, didn’t I? That sounds like a huge victory for me!”
“But this isn’t her house,” Henry pointed out.
“Is so!” the duck bellowed. “What, you think someone as gifted as me would just stand around outside any ordinary house? Get real! This is obviously the witch’s house!”
“Right,” Henry nodded. “So, having established that this is the witch’s house, we need to see her, so f you could just step aside, that’d be great.”
The duck groped for something to say. “Nobody said the witch lived here.”
“You did, just now,” Henry snorted.
“No, I didn’t,” the duck pouted.
“Dude,” Henry sighed. “I get it. You have a job to do. I’m not gonna fault you that. Thing is, we actually, really do need to see this witch. She knows we’re coming, and why, so how about we stop with this game now?”
The duck pouted hard. “If she knew you were coming, why didn’t she tell me?”
“Probably because she doesn’t want to see us,” Henry said. “She’s involved with returning Grimgel to this world, and we want to stop that. Clearly, she’s not going to want to see us, but we still need to see her, and the longer you try to act like this is about you, the more time you waste.”
“Everything is about me!” the duck sniffed. “I mean, I’m a genius!”
“Whatever,” Henry sighed. “You are very smart, and have huge wings. I’m in awe of you. Now, can we pass?”
“I don’t care,” the duck huffed. “Do whatever you want. I’ve got my opinions, and you’ve got yous. I don’t care.”
“Great,” Henry nodded, walked past the duck, opened the gate, and waved everyone through.
A moment later, they stood outside the witch’s cottage, where Illuma paused, staring back at the duck, saying, “Incredible.”
“What was?” Nerise asked.
“That was a Gate Guardian,” she told the Juten. “And Henry just out talked it.”
“Yeah, Henry has a knack of dealing with stuff like that,” she agreed. “You get use to it after a while.”
As she said that, Henry knocked on the door, an the entire party poofed out of existence.
Down by the gate, the duck looked smug. “Now who got the best deal? I did.”
To Be Continued, Next Month In
The Witch’s Cottage, Part 2
©-2018 Cain S. Latrani