It was at the end of the age of heroes on a brisk autumn morning that Edward descended upon the settlement of Ketchiwan. His invasion force consisted of an old man and a teenage girl. In his defence the girl was pretty handy with a broom.
Ketchiwan was a dirty little town. Herds of cattle thronged the streets, yelled at by poky men with heavy rods. The smell was overwhelming, what could you expect from nervous cows. It was enough to make Yllen’s eyes water. Today was market day and the topic of conversation was money. Everyone they passed argued over money. The herders complained about the price of a head. Fur clad hunters swore at steak-necked merchants. It seemed to her that the very town was at war, all for a couple of coppers. She travelled in Edward’s wake. The thin, pale warrior rarely had trouble with traffic and those dumb enough to stumble into his way were treated to a whack of his stick, be they man or beast. Gundrea was somewhere, sometimes to her left, sometimes behind. His cheerful chatter merged with the cacophony.
They reached one of Ketchiwan’s squares, more of a circle, occupied by a dead tree laden with trophies. Here the hunters boasted of their kills and displayed the tongues of basilisks or fangs of smilodons. Among these men were legends of their own and Yllen was drawn to listen. However her attention was commanded by Edward, his eyes black pools beneath his helmet.
“Do you feel it?” he growled.
Yllen tested the ground with her feet “No.”
“She calls from beneath the earth, an ancient turning in her sleep.”
Yllen listened. Perhaps there was.
Gundrea’s hand landed on her shoulder “Did you hear that? Oxtails three a piece! We could eat meat tonight for that money.”
Edward sighed and Yllen shared in his distaste. She turned to regard Gundrea, his expression fixed in a vague amiability.
“Can’t you hear it?”
Edward planted his stick into the dirt “We have arrived, old man.”
Gundrea nodded “I guess this is goodbye.”
“You’re a fool and I hope someone throws you off a cliff.”
Gundrea chuckled “I’ll miss you too, lad. It’s been quite a time.”
Edward faced them, coldly inspecting Gundrea. He spoke to Yllen.
“That you follow him speaks to your patience, to say nothing of your other qualities.”
Yllen felt her cheeks redden but there was something going on she wasn’t being told about. “Are you going?”
“This was our agreement, your master and I. As far as Ketchiwan.”
“We could go further.”
Awkwardly Edward patted her head “Stay safe.”
She glared at Gundrea “Why is he going? We could go on with him further.”
“Could, but I ain’t keen on being mildly eviscerated.”
Edward patted his stick “My travels from here will be far too dangerous for a child.”
“What about a warrior?” Yllen brandished her broom in what she hoped was a threatening manner.
“I will hear no more of it,” and that was that. It was hard to argue with Edward. His face screwed up until he looked about to cry.
Yllen looked sullen a moment but brightened as she thought of a last request “Before you go, could I at least have my own demon?”
Gundrea navigated away from the square, avoiding the animal masses. Yllen lagged behind, stroking the small furry body in her hands.
“Are you really going to keep that?”
“Edward said it could be my demon familiar. He knows the world’s secrets.”
Gundrea counted the ramshackle huts “It’s a rat.”
“It’s better than a broom.”
“Hmm, can it make us money?”
Yllen held up the rat, staring deep into its rodent eyes “Can you?”
Gundrea grabbed her arm, pulling her toward a building not so much built as grown from a collection of lean-tos. He pushed in the door and entered an inn, or to the locals a beerhole. The floor was a mixture of boards and vomit. Two workmen slaked their thirst with watery ale. The seats were tree stumps and the counter barrels with a board across them.
Gundrea made his way on over “Top of the morning to ye, lass!”
Only Gundrea could have gotten away with referring to the woman behind the counter as a lass. Anyone else would have been furniture by now. Indeed she reached for a chipped axe, left casually beside a barrel.
“I’m here to see your bossman, Vagolo the Knave of Knaveton.”
Her hand grasped the axe “Dad’s been a dead five years.”
Gundrea boggled “Whaat, Old Vaggy? Did he at least go out armwrestling a bear?”
“Diarrhoea,” she said, flatly.
Gundrea’s mouth twitched “What a sod. Did he happen to mention any buried treasure ‘afore he died?”
“Forget I mentioned it. But I remember you now, missie. Vagolo always went on about his daughter.”
The woman’s brow peaked and Gundrea hid a grin.
Yllen ended up fetching sawdust, helping to lay it on the floor and cleaning the back rooms, what few there were. By the time she and Gundrea were done it was late afternoon and the inn had gone from a hideous pit to at least a presentable one. Gundrea had regaled the tender with tales of her father in the idle moments and by the end she insisted on not only putting them up but even paying them ‘for her old dad’s sake, now about this buried treasure’. So it was in that late afternoon with the bar slowly filling up Yllen found herself with nothing to do. And Gundrea, apparently so good with people, made his first mistake of the day.