A Biker Fantasy Ch. 03byBandit1©
I had known for the last three days that someone had been following me.
I had briefly considered doubling back and trying to see who was dogging my back trail, but then decided that it would have been way out of character for the itinerant peddler that I was impersonating. So I settled for just acting nervous and quickening my pace.
Acting nervous was no problem. Hell, I was plenty nervous for real.
I managed to actually sell some of my items to folks at isolated farms. But the town remained unfriendly at best, and actively hostile in a couple of cases.
But the fresh air and exercise had left me in the best shape I had been in since my service days, and walking all day from dawn 'til dusk was now routine.
It had been almost 3 weeks since I had parted ways with Malla and I wondered how she was doing.
Jessie and the rest of my new family were also heavily on my mind. I knew that they would be worrying about me and could only hope that they didn't do something stupid such as trying to follow me.
The more I thought about it though, the more I was certain that sooner or later Jesse and the catkin girls would run out of patience and try tracking me down. I had to find this Merinel fast and deal with her before my wife got herself into trouble that I couldn't get her out of.
I was starting up into the Northern Mountains now, and I could tell that there were magicians here. Either that or someone had been using napalm to judge by the scorched valleys and ruined fortresses that I could see from the mountainside trails.
It occurred to me that I had not heard from the Goddess since I had left Malla. I shrugged it off. I had done very well without the Goddess for years before I came here to this world, and I could do just fine without her until she decided to make herself known again. If she ever did.
The winds were cold and blew sharp through the rough cloak that I wore over my tunic and trousers. I wished momentarily for my old Kevlar lined leather jacket, then grinned at my own foolishness.
What would Cutter or Iron Mike think about my cursing the cold? "Grow some balls dude." Would be the likely response.
As I crested the next pass, I found myself looking out over a long narrow valley. The valley was full of old growth forest. Mostly huge oaks and elms and here and there were scattered clumps of pines or firs. I could see a snowstorm coming down the valley and knew that I would have to find or make shelter before the storm hit.
I made my way down into the valley and into the forest.
After a while I left the road, such as it was, and scouted for a suitable location to hole up and wait out the snows.
There were plenty of places to pick from, but since I had the luxury of a little extra time I was going to be choosy about my campsite.
A few hundred feet from the road I found what I was looking for.
A huge tree had been blown over in some hellacious storm, and the roots had been torn from the earth forming a concave hollow surrounded on three sides by roots with the dirt still clinging to and between them.
It took me only a couple of hours to gather enough evergreen boughs to wall off the open side of the hollow, and to extend the overhead coverage to meet the outer wall.
It was musty in the hollow, smelling of damp earth and cut pine. I had been careful to take only one or two branches from each pine tree, and none nearer than a hundred yards from my shelter.
I used the small shovel from my pack to dig the hollow a little deeper, forming a shelf for sitting and sleeping and a small area to build a fire. The arrangement would let the heat of the fire reflect back against the shelf where I figured to spend most of my time.
At one end of the hollow I dug a deep hole for a toilet and then left the shelter to scavenge firewood.
I had nearly a cord of good sized pieces of wood by the time the snow got heavy enough to make going out of the shelter again too dangerous.
I spread my blankets on the shelf and then built a pocket-sized fire.
As I had intended, what little smoke the fire produced was diffused as it filtered up and out through the thick mat of evergreen boughs that I had woven as a roof for my little hidey-hole.
I had found several flattish stones as I had dug the trench and the shelf. Now I placed these near the fire to absorb heat. When the fire had burned down to coals, I used some hastily made tongs to move the heated rocks over to the back of the sleeping shelf. They would provide heat for a good while before they cooled. And so I wrapped myself in my blankets and dropped quickly into a deep and dreamless sleep.
I was awakened hours later by a whining and snuffling sound from just outside my shelter.
It sounded like a dog, but considering where I was I figured a wolf would be a more likely source for the noises.
I sat up as quietly as I could, hoping the wind that was now moaning above my shelter would mask any noises I might make as I drew my sword and then strung my longbow.
I should have known that an animals hearing would pick my sounds out over the natural sounds of the storm.
The whines outside changed to an even more pitiable pitch and urgency. Sighing and knowing I would likely regret the decision, I moved out of the trench and over to the outer wall.
It was stout enough to discourage most smaller animals and slow bigger ones enough to give me a halfway decent chance at defending myself. (or escaping if that seemed to be the prudent course.)
I peered out through a small opening left for that purpose and immediately spotted a grey shape through the blowing snow.
It was a wolf all right, a young one, and from the way it was moving, it was injured.
I eased a flap of the wall open and moved back to see what would happen, keeping my blade ready in my hand.
The wolf eased closer cautiously and poked its head inside the shelter to look around. It saw me and gazed at me for a long moment before looking around at the rest of the shelter.
I stood there patiently until the wolf made up its mind and wormed the rest of the way into the hollow.
I refastened the flap of wall and moved back to the shelf, keeping a prudent distance from my canine visitor.
Now I could see the long shallow gash that ran from shoulder to haunch on one side of the wolf and the stub of an arrow protruding from the back on the same side.
The wolf panted as it looked around, then fixed its gaze on me again. After a while it gave a sort of sigh and slipped down to lay in the bottom of the trench.
I dug into my pack and took out some sausage and hardtack. The wolf looked up at me when I laid them down next to it, then lowered its head and ate almost daintily.
I filled a wooden bowl with snow and melted it beside the coals of the fire.
When the bowl was half full of water, I put it down next to the wolf and let it drink deeply.
I peered closer at the arrow in the wolf's back. From this angle I could see that the arrowhead had actually passed clear through the skin on the top of the shoulder. It should be possible to just pull the rest of the arrow stub on through and out, but I had no idea of how to do it without the wolf chewing me to doll rags in the process. Finished with the water and the food, the wolf sat up gingerly and laid its head on my lap. I gently scratched behind its ears and stroked its head and neck, getting a few weary tails wags for my efforts.
Finally I decided I just had to try to get that damn arrow stub out of there. Talking soothingly to the animal, I eased my hand down to the arrowhead and gently grasped it. The wolf flinched a little and whined again, but offered no other protest. I slowly applied pressure and the arrow shaft began to slip free.
The wolf whimpered but stayed still as I finished withdrawing the stub of the arrow shaft from its shoulder.
I resumed scratching behind its ears and petting it until it relaxed again. Finally the wolf lay down on the floor of the trench and put it's head down on its forepaws.
I examined the arrowhead and the stump of the arrow shaft I had removed from the wolf. The arrowhead looked to be bronze and was razor sharp. It was bound to the shaft with thin metal wires. The shaft itself was ordinary wood that I couldn't identify and was devoid of markings of any kind.
I tossed the arrow stub onto the fire. Maybe later I could salvage the arrowhead.
The wolf eased onto its side and sighed again as I added a bit more fuel to the fire.
Now I could see that it was a young bitch wolf. If I could judge it's age by dogs I had raised and known, she was about a year old, maybe a little younger.
I wondered where the rest of her pack was. And who had attacked her and why.
Then I lay down on the shelf again with my hand wrapped firmly around the hilt of my sword. The questions could wait unto morning.
The next time I woke up it was because something had just ripped the roof of woven boughs completely off the shelter.
The wolf was on her feet, crouched beside me in the trench, her fur standing on end and a soundless snarl proclaimed her fury for all to see.
I snatched up my longbow and nocked an arrow as I stared around wildly looking for what the hell had just opened the little hollow like a man pulling the tab off a beer can
When the front wall tore away I could finally see what it was. Not that seeing it helped me to identify the damn thing. .
It looked like a centaur gone horribly wrong.
The lower, horizontal, body looked more like that of a rhino while the upright section looked more like a fucking gorilla. It grunted as it spotted me.
The wolf finally gave voice to a howl of rage and launched herself at the throat of whatever the hell that centaur thing was. This bought me the time I needed to take a quick aim at the monster's now wide-open mouth.
The first arrow just pierced the cheek of the beast and had the effect of pissing it off even more.
The wolf was just leaping for the thing again when the monster swung an arm that bent in too many places and in the wrong ways. But odd as the arm looked, it and the huge fist at the end were strong as hell.
The wolf was caught in the side in mid-leap and hurled to side. The wolf landed in a snowdrift a dozen yards away and yelped as she tried desperately to flounder her way to her feet.
As the monster turned its attention back to me again, my second arrow buried itself to the feathers in the creature's belly. It grabbed at the wound with both hands and bent the upright portion of its body forward until it was nearly parallel with the ground. I dropped the bow and snatched up my axe as I sprang forward. I figured the axe stood a better chance of dealing a fatal blow than my sword. I still wasn't much good with a sword, but swinging an axe just takes strength and a decent aim.
The axe bit deeply into the creature right at the juncture between the shoulders and the neck, chopping through the spine.
The centauroid convulsed once and then went limp.
I stood there gasping, splashed with the creature's blood, smelling the stench as its bowels loosed in death and leaned on my axe to steady myself.
The wolf managed to work her way out of the snowdrift and limped back to my side. She sniffed me, and then the dead monster.
Suddenly her head came up and she looked back past me with a growl. I spun around to see a dozen or more big cats emerging from the shadows of the tree line.
I took a grip on my axe and hefted it, but I didn't have a lot of hope for the coming fight. The smallest of the approaching cats was the size of an African lion, and the others were a lot bigger.
Much to my surprise the biggest of the cats, a huge male easily the size of a Kodiak bear from back home stood erect on it's hind legs and studied me.
I looked back, noting the flecks of gray among the roan coloration of his muzzle.
Standing, he had the appearance of a giant cat-headed human male, covered in short dense fur much like the catkin that I had become so familiar with.
Taking a gamble, I bowed my head without taking my eyes off him for an instant. "Greetings My Lord." I said.
The man-cat didn't respond for a long moment, then nodded back. "Human."
The other cats stopped their approach and either stood erect for a better look or lay down in indolent poses that didn't fool me for an instant.
These must me the others that Varra and Chenna had told me about, the other side of the catkin coin.
Just when I was about to say something, the big man-cat spoke again. "You are not like the other humans we sometimes find in our valley. You do not bluster about your power nor do you plead for mercy."
I gave him a tight smile. "There is a time for talk and a time for fighting."
This brought a chuckle from the big man-cat. "It wouldn't be much of a fight human."
I deliberately let my axe droop to the ground and leaned on it. "Oh I don't know about that," I replied. "I'd surely get at least one of you. And probably cripple a couple more." I paused. "But I would rather talk than fight, and I would really rather just collect my things and be on my way."
The big man-cat cocked his head to the side and seemed to grin at me. "And just where would you be going in our realm and what would you be doing when you get there?"
I shrugged, seeing no further risk in telling the truth of the purpose of my journey. "I am seeking a sorceress named Merinel. And when I find her, I intend to slay her."
Several of the assembled cat folk rumbled loudly at the mention of Merinel's name.
The Man-cat considered this for a moment, then nodded. "You may travel our realm in peace," he said at last. But we will be watching you. And if you prove to be false you will die."
"That is only fair my lord." I replied. Then I had another thought, "There is someone following me on my journey. I don't know who or why, but I would like you to allow them to pass as well."
The man-cat cocked his head again and looked at me quizzically. "So be it."
Then he turned and vanished into the trees again, followed by the rest of the cat folk.
I looked down at the wolf. "Well, are you coming too?"
She just gave me a dirty look and then went over to the carcass of the monster and began to feed.
When I got my belongings gathered and packed, the wolf trotted over to pace alongside me as I made my way back to the road and set off up the valley.
I stopped at a stream that crossed the road not long after to wash the blood from my hands and face, then took the opportunity to change clothes. I didn't want to alarm anyone I might happen to meet on the way. However I encountered no one until the road climbed up and out of the valley and over the crest of the next pass.
There, leaning against a pillar of rock were a very familiar group of people.
"You didn't really think you could get away with doing this all on your own did you?" Asked Marcus with a sardonic smile.
Jessie came over slowly and hugged me, then stepped back and belted me with a right cross that damn near broke my jaw.
I stood there and rubbed the spot where she had slugged me. "I guess she's a bit pissed huh?" I winked at Marcus.
Jesse growled and acted like she was going to clobber me again, but stopped when the wolf came up to stand next to my leg and growl back at her.
"I had my reasons," I told them. "Traveling alone was, and still is, safer."
"How so?" Chenna asked.
"Simple," I replied. "Anyone who knows us at all knows us as a tight knit group." "Therein lies out strength," stated Marcus.
"In this case it's also our weakness," I said. "We know that Merinel can kill at a considerable distance, but she has to know her target before she can hit it."
Jesse nodded slowly, her face still an impassive mask.
"She doubtless knows that we are after her hide by now, and she'll be watching for a group such as ours to be headed her way. But what she won't be looking for is a single pack peddler wandering through just selling odds and ends."
I looked over at my catkin mistresses. "By the way, I met some of your cousins down in the valley back there," I jerked a thumb over my shoulder. "They were impressive."
Varra chuckled. "You must have impressed them as well since you survived the encounter. They do not care much for humans."
"So how did you track me?" I asked. "I thought I had covered my tracks pretty well."
"So you did," Said Marcus. "We had no clues where you had gone until yesterday."
"Malla told us where you were." Jessie said. "The Goddess brought her to us a few nights after you two parted company." She gave me a narrow look, "And she had quite a tale to tell us."
I wasn't sure just how much trouble I was in with my wife, but I had the feeling that I would be making up for this little escapade for a long time.
"Where is she now?" I asked.
"She is at home, waiting for us to return. IF we return," said Jessie.
Well, that was one less worry.
"So how did you get here ahead of me?" I asked. "Was that you following me the last few days?"
They all looked startled. "Skyfire brought us and put us down here last night," said Varra. "Are you sure someone was following you?" Asked Jessie. "Very sure," I answered.
I sighed. "We are within a half days march of Merinel's stronghold now. So I suppose that we should stick together now that you're here."
Marcus shrugged a pack off his shoulder and opened it. Inside was my gun belt and weapons.
I strapped on my gun belt and immediately felt a lot better.
Jessie reached up and stroked my clean-shaven cheek. "I think I liked the beard better," she said musingly.
"Then I shall grow it back when all this is over," I told her. Then I took her in my arms and kissed her soundly.
Of course Varra and Chenna had to get their hugs and kisses in as well, although they were somewhat hampered by their wariness of the wolf. But that one just sat down and panted and ignored the goings on.
The valley that now lay before us was as densely wooded as the previous valley had been. But instead of oak, elm, and pine there were massive gnarled trees with bark that reminded me uncomfortably of reptilian scales and the leaves and odd shaped fruits had an oily sheen to them.
The air smelled like damp moldy earth and no breeze blew to freshen the atmosphere.
We were all on edge and terse with each other as we moved deeper into the valley.
No birds sang, no small creatures rustled leaves or bushes, and the only stream we had passed we didn't dare drink from.
Wolf trotted up ahead of the group, taking point and Marcus was bringing up the rear. Jessie was right behind me and a little to my left with the catkin sisters walking side by side a few yards in front of Marcus and a few yards behind Jessie.
There was a roar of noise behind me and I spun around to see Marcus, Chenna and Varra being swarmed by dozens of the centaur-apes like the one I had killed over in the other valley. It was over before I had a chance to react, the trio had been seized rendered unconscious and carried off into the forest.
To my surprise, none of the centauroids tried to come after Jessie and I. In fact, they didn't seem to even notice us, as if we were invisible.
Jessie wanted to give chase right away. For that matter so did I. But warning bells were going off in my mind when I looked at those trees.
"Not yet my love," I told Jessie as she wept in helpless frustration. "We will rescue them, or avenge them in due time. But we'll need help and lots of it. And to get that help, we'll have to get rid of Merinel so that she doesn't fry all of our
Jessie didn't like it much, but she could see the truth of my reasoning. Merinel was the bigger threat at the moment.
We started back on down the valley at a considerably faster pace.