Kiera and Ratcher
The book burned a hole in Jarren’s mind. Though it was safely tucked into the saddlebags, it felt like it was right in front of him. His inherited steed, to which he had named Hero after its late owner, lazily walked through a leave littered path. Jarren’s hands tightened around the reigns, even with the sword of Ratcher on his hip, the wilds always made him feel -- sick.
All around him were trees that could have been hundreds of years old, maybe even older. Their broad leaves were on the cusp of turning yellow, just another gentle reminder that autumn was a month away. Between the mighty trunks, not much else grew -- not this far into the thickets. It was a small miracle, or perhaps some long forgotten magic that there was even a dirt road in this part of the forest. Truth be told, it bent and dipped at such angles, that the secret may just be that it was paved between the natural giants that dwelled here. Taking in the sharp scent of the forest, Jarren couldn’t help but notice the sour smell of vinegar on the wind. His nose curled and there was a hearty guzzling off to his side.
The owner of the stench was a young man that Jarren and Kiera had bumped into on their way out of Illistair. He was cheery enough, seemed honest, and best of all -- had a cart and a donkey. The duo decided to travel with him, as there was a certain safety in numbers, especially if the odd of the three’s mount was the slowest. Jarren shook the crude invasive thought out of his mind and turned to the new man -- Orin.
Orin walked next to his donkey with Kiera and her gear, plus a bandolier of scissors, and a jank blade in his dinky little cart behind him. In one hand, Orin held his beast’s reins, and in the other he held a large glass bottle with leaves and other natural debris floating about the bottom. His aquiline nose was twisted as if disgusted as he gulped down another vinegary sip of the drink, soft brown eyes (nearly the same shade as his groomed hair) tearing up from the taste.
Jarren made a face at the man, “Why do you bother drinking that rancid mess if you don’t even like it.”
“It’s not that I don’t like it,” Orin coughed, his well squared shoulders lurched forward and gave his large billowy shirt a sort of ghostly look as it draped over his lean frame. He dabbed his mouth with the back of his sleeve. “I like drinking it, I just don’t like how it tastes,” He forced the explanation through another sour cough.
“I’m not sure if that makes any sense,” Jarren knitted his brows.
“You never drank moonshine before Jarren?” Keira asked “coz I’m assuming its kinda like that.”
“I’ve dranken-- drunken,” Jarren sputtered, “But by the four, no alcohol I ever encountered smelt like that.”
“Because it isn’t,” Orin corrected, holding the bottle suddenly towards Keira, “It’s a vinegar and forest-bit swatch. Would you like to try some? It’s good for your teeth, keeps the worms out.”
“How?” Jarren pushed.
“Trust me, I’m a dentist.”
“I thought you said you were a barber?” Jarren nudged his chin at the bandolier of scissors next to Kiera.
“A man can be two things,” Orin frowned and shook the bottle at Kiera again, “It’s good.”
Jarren watched as his traveling companion’s eyes darted from the bottle to him, then Orin and finally back to bottle, clearly regretting her tacet defence of the man’s drinking habit. Then her face scrunched up in contemplation before she seemed to steel herself and took the bottle. “Anything once” she said before drinking from the bottle. The results were unsurprising. Looking as if she was going to be sick Keira forced herself to swallow regardless and began hacking and coughing a few moments later.
“Bleh” she finally said after coughing up most of her lungs, leaving her tongue hanging out of her mouth after as if it would allow her to escape the taste. Orin nodded with a certain satisfaction.
“Yeah, that sounds about right for a first sip,” The man grinned, “But hey, your teeth will thank you for it.”
“Gods no it feels like they are melting.” she retorted, tongue still stuck out while she spoke.
Jarren’s face scrunched with disgust, but Orin gave a light hearted laugh, “That’s probably just the worms dying out from the dosage.”
“The only worm like thing in my mouth is my tongue. If your trying to kill that then good job. Its working.” Keira complained before drawing one of the two flasks from her belt and drawing deeply from it to try and get rid of the taste.
Orin shook his head, “Well now, hear me out.” He held up a finger and pointed it at Keira’s mouth, “Have you ever had a toothache or maybe one of your molars changed colors?”
Jarren was already rolling his eyes as Orin continued, almost with a spark of passion, “That’s these tiny worms that the eye cannot see. They get into your teeth from your food, which is why you should always wipe your teeth after a big meal with a cloth, and drink swatches and the like to ensure that those who escaped your cloth are killed. It’s the only way to get a good breath and a healthy mouth, Ligdon’s honor.”
“You’re crazy,” Jarren muttered and Orin gave him a challenging smirk.
“When was the last time you wiped your teeth?”
“Last night,” Jarren answered roughly, “Everyone knows to do that, that’s not some grand mechanism for fighting worms.”
“Okay, okay,” Orin held up a hand, “I won’t push it any further.”
Keira, who had been futility rubbing her own teeth while they spoke asked “If it’s just for the teeth then why on earth did we swallow that?”
Jarren gave Orin a look that certainly backed up Kiera’s sentiment. The self proclaimed dentist frowned, “What else would you do with it?”
“Spit it out? Or just put some on the cloth or something? That can not be good for the throat is all I am saying.” Keira said as she waved an unsure hand at the man.
“Sounds like a waste of perfectly fine vinegar to me,” Orin scoffed and tilted his bottle bottom up. His face was awash with disgust as he forced a swallow and a small smile. Orin’s smile twisted into shock as a small screech echoed through the woods.
A man came trampling into view, nearly falling over himself. Seeing the group of three, the mud covered man fell to his knees and began to whimper loudly, “Quick! They are coming!”
Without missing a beat, Orin suddenly leapt onto his cart and snatched his jank blade, a long stretch of randomly scavenged metals pounded into one arm-long sword. Remaining on his perch, his knee nearly hitting Kiera on the side of the head, he pointed his sword past the man, “Who?”
Jarren held his reins tightly, “I suggest you keep running then.” He called out weakly. Orin shot Jarren a confused look and then looked back at the man, who had coughed up a sobbing burp.
“Slavers, they’ve been following me all day -- I have information, news! It’s important I get this to-”
“Ah!” Jarren plugged one of his ears, “No, this is none of our business!”
“To who?” Keira asked, ignoring Jarren’s refusal to get involved as she moved to get a better look down the road.
“Anyone with the Teid be damned courage to put a damn end to this madness,” The man all but spat in his anxiety. Orin gave him a soft look before following Keira’s eyes down the path -- and sure enough five rough looking, heavily armed figures were fast approaching.
Jarren reluctantly joined them in looking but then slowly turned away, it would be very easy to simply gallop away. He rose his heel, eyes quickly making out an escape path through the trees. Keira shifted again near him and the thoughts of her old man popped into his mind. He closed his eyes and groaned inwardly, his frustration ending in time for him to hear a rough female voice.
“We are just here for old slippy there,” The woman called out past a violent looking wooden rod hammered with bits and ends of sharp metal. One other woman with an axe flanked her right, and three aggressive looking men flanked her left.
The slavers all stared daggers at the cowering, mud covered man. Orin suddenly hopped off the cart landing between them as to break their line of sight, his cheery expression gone as he swung his blade through the air a few times.
“Listen,” Jarren found the courage to speak up, “This is none of our business, I’m sure you can just do your thing, while we do ours.”
“Strike that,” Orin countered with a nod at the slaver’s scalps, “With hair like theirs, I’m afraid as a barber this is my business.”
“Yeah sod off!” Keira yelled at them along with the barber/dentist as she grabbed a knife from her boots in one hand and her sling in the other “Do you even know who I am!”
Jarren rubbed his face, his skin turning a shade of red but before he could say anything the gruff woman called back.
“Dead, if you don’t buzz off. Last call.”
“The red knife of Kendles!” she yelled defiantly, leaping atop Orin ‘s cart and doing her best impression of a dangerously competent frothing mad woman, “Get lost before I get mad and gut the lot of you.” she flipped the knife up and managed, barely, to catch it again by the point.
The name drop caused a pause, a very silent pause. Orin flinched, but kept his eyes on the enemies while Jarren abruptly stared at Keira for a long second. Jarren finally cleared his throat, catching the attention of the slavers.
“Remember that business I was talking about letting us get to?” He tilted his head menacingly and the slavers looked over at each other.
“You can’t be,” One of the men finally barked, “There is no way.”
“I cant can I?” Keira let of a bark of a laugh “you willing to bet your life on that?” she grinned widely at him before adding “before you answer that let me also point out that this here” she jabbed a thumb at Jarren “Is Ratcher. Hero of Illistair. Guy salied out alone in the middle of a Filth siege that was so strong it broke the damned wall. Not only did he cut a bloody swath through the filth but he also killed a Giant”
“Well now that’s just too much,” The woman argued, “The knife AND Ratcher?”
Jarren closed his eyes and drew his blade from its scabbard with a rasp. The white steel of the Aethelian blade caught the sun over the clouds and shimmered as he swung it once. Even Orin turned to look as Jarren held it out for all to see.
“Okay-” The woman took a step back, “Fine, you’re the Knife, and you’re Ratcher -- we have names and lives too, you know, and in order to keep those, we are going to need our friend there.” She pointed at the runaway, “We will just take him, and you’ll never see us again.”
“Uh - uh,” Orin’s eyes narrowed and Jarren hid a groan.
“Well now that’s interesting. What’s so important about this guy that your lives depend on it huh?” she asked, needlessly drawing out the interesting as she did.
“We have a job to do,” The woman opened her hands, voice nearly pleading, “You know how it is.”
“Fuck this,” The other woman growled and swung forward with her axe. The edge beared down on Orin, but the man expertly leapt to the side, his arm curling and wrist spinning as he entered a riposte. The jank blade leapt forward at an odd angle, slipping under the woman’s fighting arm and jamming into her armpit, exploding out from behind her collarbone.
Everyone froze as the woman stared down at the scarlet point of the blade sticking out of her, eyes quickly fading and body slumping. Two of the slavers shared a look as the body crumpled to the ground, and without a word they suddenly pushed past the remaining slavers in a hasty retreat. The gruff female leader stared at the three travelers, her once steel gaze broken with uncertainty as she backed up slowly.
Keira stared disbelievingly at Orin for a few moments before remembering who she was pretending to be. With forced arrogance she yelled “yeah you better run” at the fleeing slavers while quickly spinning up the stone in her sling and pointing her knife at the final remaining one threateningly, inviting her to join them.
The woman swore under her breath before reluctantly running off, now outnumbered and disheartened. Jarren raised his eyebrows and shook his head, “Well, at least it’s over.”
Orin wiped the gore off his blade on a nearby bush as he craned his neck to look back at Kiera and Jarren, “Not quite.” He nodded towards the once cowering man who now stood by Kiera.
“Um,” The man started ,clearly intimidated, “Take the news as you will but... well.” He sucked in a breath, “I caught wind of a smuggling racket in Kendles, and was quickly... well... smuggled myself -- forcefully. During my time, I learned a few things if -- well if you are willing to hear about it, Miss Foy.”
Keira sighed with relief once the slavers where out of sight, before sitting down on the cart and putting her, thankfully, unused weapons away. “Please do,” She encouraged the ex slave, “we’re headed right for that mess of a town so any info would be great. I’d also like to know where on Pertovia you learned to do that Orin.” Keira drank another drought from a flask and tried to avoid looking at the dead body their traveling companion had made.
"The same place where I learned to cut hair," Orin inspected his blade, "Why did you want a cut? I'm sure your ends would thank you."
Keira politely declined the offer, turning her attention back to the ex-slave.
"A ring of smugglers have been snatching people right out of their homes," The man continued, "While in their convoy I heard that we were heading towards Jornorston..." The man shivered, "Parrel protect the others."
Keira sucked in breath through her teeth. She’d heard the rumors of course, that the strange religious town did unspeakable things to keep the eyes of the filth away from their community, but this was the first she’d hear of them importing slaves that could be used as victims for such atrocities. Now that she thought about it, she didn’t remember hearing about them importing anything before. The town wasn’t exactly a place you passed through either, being the eastern most major settlement on the island.
“That's both strange and disturbing news.” she concluded before asking “how’d you escape? And how big is this ring?”
“I got lucky, and I don’t know,” The man all but whimpered, “I was in a group of five -- one of the children keeled over and I took the chance to run.”
“This really is a lot of information,” Jarren finally cut in, “You should probably bring it to Illistair, maybe someone there would be willing to look into it, but as for us, we already have a task.”
“But...” The man pleaded, “You’re Ratcher!”
“I’m not...” Jarren exhaled through his nostrils and looked at Kiera, “Just get out of here before you drag more trouble our way.”
The man looked over helplessly to Orin who gave him a reassuring nod, then to Kiera, eyes wide and waiting.
Keira felt the weight of the man’s desperate gaze upon her and couldn’t help but compare to the weight of the hidden crown. She looked away, over to Jarren, “There’s a child,” she tired, attempting to coax out the compasion the man clearly had but hated to acknowledge.
Jarren wiggled his nose as he thought, clearly uncomfortable. Finally he sighed, “What do you want us to do about that? We have a delivery to make -- we are not ‘heroes’. We can scare off a tiny spattering, but a convoy?”
“It’s best if you nip it off at the source,” Orin piped in, his blade hanging off his thick belt.
Jarren eyed the barber suspiciously before leaning off his saddle towards Kiera, voice lowering, “You have an old man to get back to, and I have-- well it doesn’t matter, but you get the jist. Let’s just go to Kendles, give Lauriel her things, notify the next set of able bodied mercenaries about the problem and get on with it.”
She sighed. They both had a point “We’ll look into it when we have the time.” she told the man they had rescued.
The man nodded vigorously, happy it was even considered. Orin put a hand on his donkey’s side, “I don’t suppose you want a lift back to Kendles.”
“Parrel’s pants, no!” The man swore. Orin nodded.
“I thought not,” He looked at the other two, “Kendles is only about half a day away, if we keep going, I’d say we can get there before the day is through.”
“Then let’s move.” Jarren looked over at Kiera, as if asking for assurance.