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Dungeon & Dragon – Part 6

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I plummeted through the fog. I’m sure I was screaming, but oddly enough, my thoughts were not on my impending death, but on Lady Gieselle. Who would save her now? She was counting on me, but I was as good as dead. The thought of her waiting – in vain – for me to rescue her made me very sad.

Then I plunged into the coldest water I’d ever imagined. It seemed like every muscle in my body contracted, and I sank like a stone. I knew I should move, paddle, kick – anything to get back to the surface, but I couldn’t. I descended, more slowly now, then began very slowly bobbing back upwards. I kicked feebly, and that increased my rate of ascent. My head broke the surface, and I tore in a harsh gasping breath. Then another.

Something large splashed into the water next to me and I floundered wildly. I looked around, but could see nothing but fog and black water. There was a gurgling splash, and Rocko’s head bobbed up next to me. “Come on!” he said. “We must swim for the far bank!”

“You pushed me!” I said. “You pushed me off of the tower!”

“And here you are, still alive and able to grouse about it,” said Rocko. “I had to push you off. It was the only way for us to escape, and we didn’t have time to debate it. And we still don’t. We must reach the east bank of the river quickly! It won’t take long for the duke’s men to work out what happened to us!”

To emphasize this, there was shouting from the distance, and a number of objects splashed into the water off to our right. “We must get out of bowshot,” whispered Rocko. “Dive! Keep your head below the surface and don’t make any noise.”

“Which way is east?” I asked.

Rocko sighed a big I-guess-I-have-to-do-everything sigh. “I’ll lead,” he whispered. “Now take a deep breath.”

I took a deep breath, and Rocko disappeared beneath the surface. His hand snaked up and grabbed my sleeve. I dove below the surface and wallowed around, trying to get oriented. I kicked and flailed and was able to get myself moving in the same direction as Rocko. My breath was burning in my lungs as Rocko angled upward. Our heads broke the surface, and we both gasped. There were shouts in the distance, and arrows began raining down around us. We sucked in more air and dove down again. For the next twenty minutes we did the cycle of dive-surface-breathe. Every time we surfaced, the clamor on the western shore seemed further away. Eventually, my feet touched bottom, and Rocko and I heaved ourselves onto the riverbank. For a moment, we just rested there, panting.

“It is good to have the Sharny River between us and the duke’s castle,” said Rocko. “However, it will not be for long. The duke will soon have riders combing the west side of the river. We must leave quickly.” He waved behind us. The fog was starting to lift, and the bulk of Duke Noe’s castle could be seen through the clouds. A quarter-mile downstream, a stone bridge spanned the river. As we watched, a pair of horsemen thundered across from the castle side.

“We must go,” repeated Rocko. He stood up.

I was reluctant to leave. “But … but we can’t!” I stuttered. “The fair Lady Gieselle! We can’t just abandon her! I promised I’d come back to rescue her!”

“You fool!” spat Rocko. “You are besotted! Enchanted! What would you do – swim back across the river and storm the castle? Charge across the bridge and attack the gate? You would be dead ten times over before you got close. We must away!” He grabbed my arm and hauled me into the bushes. I reluctantly followed. The idea of the beautiful Gieselle still pining away in the tower held an almost gravitational attraction. I could practically feel the pull of her helpless beauty holding me in its grip. I grudgingly allowed Rocko to lead me further into the bushes.

“I am not sure where the best place for you to be is now,” said Rocko. “On one hand, Whipgate is relatively far from Fester. On the other, you’ve already been captured there. Certainly Duke Noe and Ellas would look for you there again.”

“I don’t know how far I want to be away from Fester,” I said. This was something I never thought I’d say. In my time and place – as here and now – Fester was a place best avoided.

Rocko stopped and shot me a concerned look. “If you are contemplating attempting to rescue Lady Gieselle, I would counsel against it,” he said. “It was only through pure luck – and my skill – that allowed you to escape from Duke Noe’s dungeon.” He shot a look behind us. “If we don’t get moving – and that right quickly – we may end up back there very soon. Or worse!” Without waiting for a reply, he sped off into the trees. I followed behind him as best I could.

We rushed through the woods for nearly an hour. Rocko was following no particular path that I could discern. We eventually came to a small clearing by a stream. “We can rest here and drink,” said Rocko. “This stream is unsullied.” He leaned over and began lapping up the water. I cupped my hands and lifted up water to sip. It was cool and delicious. In fact, it was the best water I could remember tasting. I drank greedily, until my stomach sloshed.

“Good, isn’t it?” said Rocko. “It’s said that water from the Tyler Creek has restorative properties – and contribute to health and growth.”

“Just like the Entwash,” I said jokingly. “Are there any ents around here?”

“Of course there are!” said Rocko. “What a silly question! I don’t know if they’re washed, but there are uncountable numbers of ants in the woods. There is a large anthill right over there.” He pointed to the base of a tree.

“No,” I laughed. “Not ants, ents. They were tree people from a, um, tale that was popular where I’m from. A fantasy. Kind of like here.”

“Fantasy? This is no fantasy, Scott Gray!” He pointed at my wrists, which were still closed in the manacles. “Does that seem fantastical to you?”

“Well, no, of course not,” I said, rubbing my wrist. “I was just making light. It was a joke.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m not in a joking mood. That was perilous, and we barely escaped with our lives. And you didn’t even want to leave.”

“Hey, that’s not true…” I began.

“Oh, balderdash!” spat Rocko. “I practically had to drag you away from Fester. You were babbling nonsense about rescuing Lady Gieselle. Ridiculous!”

I opened my mouth to protest, but then shut it with a snap. Rocko was right. When we were still on the riverbank, I was about ready to swim back across the river to rescue the fair Gieselle. Now, with the benefit of time and distance, it seemed like a ridiculous idea.

“You’re right,” I said. “I sure wasn’t thinking clearly. Probably lack of food.” In fact, I did feel a little lightheaded. The gruel and the small loaf of bread in the dungeon were the only things I’d eaten in, well, days? I wasn’t sure – time had gained a great deal of elasticity for me recently. My stomach rumbled as if to drive home the point.

“Oh dear,” said Rocko. “I have something here that might help – eventually.” He was still wearing the robe he’d gotten in the dungeon, and came up with two small silver coins. They were small, irregularly round and somewhat corroded. He held them out to me. “Two pennies,” he said. “Not much, but enough for a couple of meals at an inn. We’ll see about that shortly. Give me a few minutes and I’ll see what I can forage. Just wait here and rest.” He disappeared into the woods, and I sat down and leaned back against a tree. I stuck the pennies into my boot – I didn’t have any pockets in my clothing. I didn’t want to know where Rocko had been keeping them.

Again, I fell asleep in the woods, exhausted from my time in the dungeon and the perilous escape therefrom. I must not have slept for long, as Rocko was soon tugging on my sleeve. He was still wearing the robe from the dungeon, and had folded it over to make a basket of sorts. In in was a mound of dark berries that looked like small, lumpy blueberries.

“What are those?” I asked

“They’re called chickenberries. They’re very tasty.” He paused. “At least I think so. They probably will not kill you, anyway.”

This was cold comfort, but my stomach didn’t care. My mouth flooded with saliva. I snatched one berry and popped it into my mouth. It was very tart, but not unbearably so. I swallowed it and waited to see if I would keel over or get a stomach ache or go blind. When none of these things happened after thirty seconds or so, I started cramming fistfuls into my mouth. In what seemed like no time, they were gone.

“Uh, good, good,” I panted. “Is there more?”

“I picked those bushes clean,” said Rocko. “No matter. We’re very near a small town called Cassab. There’s a tavern there where you can get a good meal. Let’s go.” He took off into the woods, and I followed as closely as I could. My stomach was still grumbling, but not as loudly as before, and I was able to move more quickly.

I began to discern that Rocko was following a narrow game trail through the woods. After fifteen minutes or so, we came to a fork in the trail. “Take this path,” said Rocko. “It will lead you to Cassab. It’s small, but the people are friendly.” He paused. ”Well, they are no more unfriendly than any other place around here. Find the Golden Squirrel tavern. It won’t be hard – it’s pretty much the only thing in Cassab, other than the houses. They have a good mutton stew, I am told. If you bargain with the keeper, you should be able to get a hot dinner and a pile of straw for the night for one of those pennies. Do not let him take advantage of you because you are a stranger.”

“You mean you’re not coming with me?” I asked.

“I have something I need to attend to back in Whipgate. I will come back to Cassab tomorrow after mid-day. Stay close to the Golden Squirrel. If Duke Noe’s men show up, take to the woods – but do not go too far. I will find you.”

I wasn’t that crazy about going without Rocko, but the thought of hot stew set my stomach to rumbling. “Okay, Rocko, see you soon …” I started, but Rocko launched himself into the trees and quickly disappeared from sight.

I shrugged, and set off down the path that Rocko had indicated. I should have asked him how far it was to Cassab, as my stomach had quickly processed the berries and had commenced to grumbling again. I moved faster, almost jogging, thinking of a hot meal, and how I would deal with the proprietor of the Golden Squirrel if he tried to rip me off.

I trotted around a large tree and came to a dead stop. In the middle of the path, a little girl was kneeling. She looked like she was about eight years old, and she was sobbing. My first thought was that the little girl looked familiar. My second thought was that something was very wrong. I turned and started to run back up the path, but suddenly I was surrounded by five large men holding knives and clubs.