12.5% Skullwhisperer / Chapter 3: Not So Simple...

Chapter 3: Not So Simple...

The village square actually was a square-shaped field situated between the village's tavern and several houses belonging to more prominent members of the village. The square was used as a mustering field in the few times that it had been the target of bandits or monsters. Not that the villagers could mount much of a defense, but they were usually able to hold off the enemy until the nearby Druid Circle or Ranger's Guildhall could be alerted to the danger.

More importantly, the square was used as a meeting place, a marketplace, and a landmark in daily life for the villagers. Festivals and feasts were organized there, and travelers were even encouraged to camp there should they be unwilling or unable to seek accommodations at the inn. At present, there were a few visitors with their carriages, likely personages moving on to one of the closer towns who needed to restock their food and other supplies for the next leg of their journey.

Ghede found Justine at the town square as he anticipated. Her gear was well stored on a pack mule he'd never seen before. Something else he'd never seen before was a short sword hanging at her waist. Compared to him, with only a bag on his back and some belt-pouches, she looked much better prepared for an adventure.

"Took you long enough. I almost left without you" She had a smirk on her face as she chastised him. He held his hands out the side helplessly and shrugged.

"I'm sorry I like to enjoy my time. I just don't feel as rushed as you do." He said in a matter-of-fact tone.

"Well, I'm glad you feel that way, but we'll probably have to camp for the night now. We'd better move while there's still sunlight."

How far do we have to go? His thoughts were soon dispelled by Justine's enthusiastic pace. Before long, her silhouette was the only thing he could see. Although he was a healthy man, having spent most of his life farming in one capacity or another, her experience exploring the wilderness, even with a pack mule, allowed her a freedom of movement that he could only envy. After a few hours, as the sky faded into a pink and purple hue, hills emerged from the tree line ahead.

Their journey had been easy, encountering little wildlife other than songbirds and rodents, with the occasional snake. Justine laughed when Ghede jumped and shrieked, having nearly stepped on a mushroom snake, its body camouflaged with ridges that looked like the fungi that grew on rotting tree limbs. With a flick of her wrist, her short sword separated the snake's body from its head.

"It's a good thing you have me here to protect you, Ghede. That snake might have bitten you," she remarked in a casual manner, trying to conceal a broad grin. There was good news, however - they would have fresh meat for dinner.

"Thanks, I think." He rolled his eyes and sighed, his heart beat finally slowing. "How much farther to the cave? We must be close."

Justine giggled. "Yes, we're close. We should make camp at the entrance to the cave and we'll explore it at first light tomorrow. You did pack camping supplies, right?"

As she spoke, Ghede weakly nodded as he noticed that the birds and insects had become quiet. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end and he shivered.

Ghede shifted his pack back into a comfortable position. "Let's get there, then. I've got an uneasy feeling suddenly… I can't put my finger on it, but something doesn't feel right."

She rolled her eyes. "Are you sure you're not just scared of a snake biting you while you sleep?" She was teasing him, but she frowned when she saw him with a serious look on his face. "Alright. Let's get to the cave."

The pair arrived half an hour later, as the sun was casting its last rays of light over the hillside. The opening was not large, just enough for a bear to enter comfortably. Although the pack mule could probably enter through the entrance, it would be unlikely that the cave would allow it to enter any further. She tied up the beast and unloaded her supplies. Among these were a large canvas tent, a metal box containing flint and dry pine needles, a bed roll, and a warm blanket.

They were fortunate that the weather was comfortable and dry. Ghede thought it unlikely that Justine would have brought him had she expected storms. Nevertheless, Ghede gave a silent prayer of thanks to Solumna, Goddess of Rain and Wind for her mercy before setting camp.

He laid out his bed roll across the campsite from Justine. As he finished, she gave him a quizzical look. "What are you doing all the way over there? I brought this tent for the both of us. Come to think of it, what did you plan on doing if it rained?"

Ghede's face turned red as he stammered for a moment. "I, uh, I didn't think I should. You know, uh, sleep in the same tent as you." He averted his eyes as he spoke, suddenly doubting that she'd be reluctant to adventure in a downpour. She sighed, then giggled.

"Well, there are two reasons you should sleep in my tent. First, you have no idea what animals are out here, and second," She paused and bit her lip before smiling, "I promise I don't bite." He wasn't sure what her second point meant, but the thought of local wildlife invading the camp was enough to convince him. It was true that he had farmed and learned much from his parents, who were more experienced than he in the wider world, but he had not spent much time in the wilderness itself.

"Alright. I like not being food for something else…" He hesitated for a moment before picking up his bedroll and moving it to the tent. The tent was built in a simple A-frame style that stood tall enough for them to walk while hunched over, with flaps that could tie closed. The canvas was treated with wax, meaning it should be able to provide some protection against the rain.

"I still have the feeling that something isn't right, though. Like something or someone is around that's scaring off the birds."

When he said that, Justine suddenly turned serious. "I didn't want to scare you, but I noticed the same thing. I've been all over these forests, so I know the beasts we need to worry about. I don't know what it is, but I don't think we need to worry."

As she spoke, an arrow shot out of the forest and hit their pack mule in the side, sinking between its ribs. The animal slumped forward and fell away from where the arrow had come from without so much as a groan. Two more arrows shot out of the woods from different directions, however the pause was enough for Justine and Ghede to drop to the ground, narrowly avoiding the missiles.

A sudden rush of movement from several directions sounded in the woods around the clearing. Justine and Ghede looked at each other, then the cave, then each other again. Without speaking, the two stumbled up out of their tent and ran to the cave entrance as indistinct shouts arose behind them.

Fortunately, the cave entrance did not go straight into the cave, but rather curved sharply a few steps in. Arrows bounced off of the cave wall behind them, too quickly for them to appreciate their fortune. Justine drew her short sword and Ghede scrambled for a rock, intending to use it as best he could. Neither had anticipated an attack from other people. She figured they might encounter a bear or wolf pack at most… those she could handle. This was entirely beyond her expectations.

The pair braced themselves for combat as their breathing steadied and sweat poured down their faces, yet the anticipated combat did not arrive.

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