Five weary travelers slipped onto the main trade road between caravans. They walked the well-trodden trade road toward the city of Blackmoor. By sunset, they had caught up with the procession they’d followed. They gnawed the few strips of the leftover darnni meat as they found a suitable spot near the wagons.
Sam and Chase went for water, leaving the rest of the party gathered by a small fire. Katra directed her brother and cousin to build a lean-to for the group so they would have at least that meager shelter for the night. She spoke in English, so anyone listening would believe their cover story. By the time the men arrived with the water, they had a compact camp that looked part of the procession.
“I think we should set a watch rotation tonight,” said Chase after they had finished their meager fare.
Sam nodded at the young man.
“I were thinking the same, meself,” he replied. “I ‘spect we be heading into Blackmoor tomorrow sometime, judging by the merchant traffic. I ain’t real sure where we are, exactly,” he finished, sheepishly.
“Once we’re there, then what?” asked Katra.
“Then we see where things stand,” said Sam. “We’ll find the temple to Minerva first.”
Fear lanced through Katra.
“I …” she started, “but I don’t know anything about how to worship a goddess!” voice edged in panic. A gentle tingle in her low back made her straighten.
Worry not, young novice, a gentle voice whispered in her mind, you will have the knowledge when the time comes.
Katra relaxed at the warmth flooding her body.
“Very well,” she said, trepidation in her tone.
“Heyla!” came a shout from the direction of the caravan. Two armed guards stepped into their clearing.
The group sprang to their feet, grabbing for their make-shift weapons.
The guards approached, hands crossed over their chests in a gesture of peace.
Chase stared, open-mouthed at the pair.
“I am Katra, priestess of the goddess, Minerva,” Katra returned their greeting in her heavily-accented Common speech. “How may we assist you?”
“You camp close to us, yet we have never seen you before,” said the elder of the two guards. “Master Henrick wishes to discover why.”
“My companions and I have traveled far these many months on pilgrimage to the temple in Aernon,” began Katra. “A few days ago we were attacked by brigands who killed our guards and stole everything from us, silver, food, horses, clothing,” she looked down at her abused feet then back at him, “boots.”
“Ah,” the guard answered.
“Aye,” said Katra. “We walked as far as we could these last nights, crawling out of cover when our weary feet allowed us to walk again the next day.”
“You’re lucky the bandits didn’t kill you,” he said.
“Indeed,” she replied, nodding her head toward Sam, “it was the sheerest luck that this young Dashae came to our rescue.”
At their skeptical glances, she continued.
“He made noise enough to sound like a troop of soldiers,” she grinned at the guard. “The bandits chose to flee with the goods they had.”
“Typical,” he said. “They’re cowards, the lot of them.”
“Indeed,” she said. “Now we are in need of food, shelter, clothing, and, as you see, boots.”
The guard nodded to his companion to go back to inform this Master Henrick. As they awaited his return, Taliesin asked in English, “make it sound like I’m questioning you about the exchange?”
She began talking and gesturing toward the caravan, for effect.
“They don’t seem hostile,” said Chase, quietly. “What I wouldn’t give to have an outfit like that,” he sighed, wistfully looking toward the guard with his well-used chain armor and broadsword.
“Careful what you wish for, brother,” said Dreyah with a wink. “The gods and goddesses here might grant that wish, and then you’d have to prove you could use that stuff.”
Chase made a face at his sister.
They chatted among themselves until the second guard returned, a short, squat, heavily-muscled figure marching behind, the head of a greataxe showing behind his shoulder. The guard straightened, almost at attention.
“Master Henrick, sir,” said the guard.
“At ease, Harrin,” replied a deep, gravelly voice. “I be here to see what ye found, is all.”
Chase’s eyes grew wide, his gaze darting at the others. The group looked at each other, Chase mouthing “dwarf?” to his cousins.
“Younglings by the look of ’em, sir,” replied the guard. “Say they been traveling west to Minerva’s temple in Aernon and got themselves waylaid by bandits a few days gone.”
Master Henrick considered the group and turned to Sam. “What say you, young Master Dashae?”
“Me?” squeaked Sam. “I just met them kids when I heard a ruckus off’n th’ road a few days back,” he said, glancing at Katra. “When I heard a scream, I reckoned someone was getting killed, so I looked ta see if’n I could help. I cut the tether, spooked all th’ horses an th’ bandits took off after ’em. An’ th’ saddlebags was on the horses, so …” the halfling trailed off with a shrug.
Katra took up the tale.
“We were making ready to continue our journey when they attacked,” she said, using her role-playing skill, hoping to make the story convincing. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath as if recalling a memory. “I fear they captured our cousins, Elayna and Eliam.” She looked at the caravan master, eyes shining with unshed tears.
He looked away, rubbing his chin. A moment later, he turned to her, “could be th’ pair we saw escorted toward Blackmoor a day or two gone.” He regarded her a moment longer.
“Please, sir,” pleaded Katra, “One has dark hair, the other has red hair. If you think you might have seen them, please tell me!” She turned back to her cousins, “Make it look like I’m giving you new information about Eli and Ela.”
The cousins talked among themselves, trying to decide whether the dwarf was truthful or telling them what they wanted to hear. As they discussed the matter, Katra felt a warmth spread through her body, giving comfort.
“I think we can trust him,” she said suddenly. She looked at her brother and cousins.
“Are you sure?” asked Dreyah, skepticism lacing her words.
“As sure as I can be,” Katra replied. “Besides, if this warm, fuzzy feeling is any indication, I think we can trust Minerva.” She shrugged.
“Are you sure it’s Minerva?” asked Taliesin.
“Oh yeah,” his sister replied. “Her messages are quite … distinct.”
Turning back to Master Henrick, she said, “we don’t wish to cause you alarm, sir. We simply wish to find our cousins and continue our pilgrimage to Aernon. If you know anything of them, please, I beg you.”
He regarded her, as though weighing her words for the lie.
“Very well,” he said. “They was dragging a young woman with flaming red hair. She was fightin’, but they didn’t seem much fight left in ‘er. As for th’ black-headed boy, he was tryin’ ta calm th’ girl down. Weren’t doing him much good, though, she were like a hellcat all spittin’ an’ yellin” an’ such.”
Katra turned to the rest of the group.
“Sounds like Ela and Eli,” she said. “We need to find out where they were taken and get them out.”
“Think we can get the dwarf and his crew to help?” asked Taliesin.
“I don’t know,” said Katra. “Getting into the city maybe, but I don’t know about more than that.”
“That might be enough,” said Tal.
They discussed their options for a moment longer, then Katra turned to Master Henrick.
“Please, sir, may we poor pilgrims join you?” asked Katra. “I realize that we have nothing of value to offer in return …” she stopped, thought a moment, and continued. “All I can offer is the blessing of Minerva on your wagons, drivers, guards, and yourself, if you wish it.” Katra put her palms together before her heart and bowed her head to the dwarf. “In return, we ask your protection to Minerva’s temple in Blackmoor.”
The dwarf regarded her again, finger pressed to his lips. He looked around at the rest of the group and settled his gaze on Sam.
“What do you know about Blackmoor, Master Dashae?” he asked the halfling.
“Not much,” Sam kicked at the ground before him. “I escaped th’ Shadow Orphans in Saram a few tendays past an’ been headin’ t’ Aernon t’ make a new life for meself. I were a soldier for ’em is all.”
Master Henrick nodded. “Begging? Pickpocketing?”
“Aye.” Sam nodded.
“And ye walked away? Why?”
“Got tired o’ the beatin’s,” the halfling shrugged. “Seen other Dashae with finery an’ respect an’ knowed there was more t’ life than pretendin’ t’ be deaf or blind and beggin’ the Boss for me next meal.”
“What of your companions?”
Again, the halfling shrugged. “Jes’ met ’em a few days gone, but they seem jes’ what they say they be. Ain’t got much road or woods craft, I been teachin’ ’em what little I knows.”
The dwarf nodded.
“Herrin, Gashon,” Henrick turned to his guards. “Move this camp closer t’ yer patrols. I’ll discuss our guests with Hilda and have a plan for ye in the morning.”
“I’ll inform Captain Tanthus.” With that, the dwarf turned back toward the wagons.
Herrin looked at the motley group.
“I reckon Master Henrick’d feel better if’n ye was closer t’ th’ wagons.” He turned to Gashon, “we got a space up near Durgon’s wagon, nae?”
“Aye, but that one ‘ates Dashae, nae?” came the response.
“Aye,” Herrin though further. “’ Ow about near th’ Master’s wagon? Near th’ ‘orses?”
“Think they’ll disturb th’ horses?”
“If they do, they’ll find themselves at th’ Master’s mercy,” he smirked.
Katra shot a look at her cousins, gauging their reaction. Their faces were blank, only Chase rolling his eyes when he saw her glance.