The Ranger’s Tale emerges from last week’s flash fiction coupled with the original story Too Much of a Good Thing. Chuck Wendig gave us a prompt to choose one of two well-known sayings (well, one was well-known, the other its cause and effect opposite). I’m resisting telling you what it is, as I think it gives the plot away. Neither the ranger nor the bard have got names yet, although the horse was named Boris. I apologise for calling him ‘it’ in this story, just for pronoun clarity. I suspect there is plenty more where this is coming from. This is just under 1000 words.
The Ranger’s Tale
The tall ranger shrugged off his multi-coloured patched coat and laid it on the rock. He slumped onto it and pulled off his boots. A stone fell into his lap as he shook out the left one. Why didn’t I find that last time I looked?
He pulled his once-smart uniform shirt over his head, stretched his shoulders, spread his arms, yawned, and looked at the view. He ran his tongue around his teeth experimentally, and chewed his saliva. It didn’t help him feel any closer to having eaten a meal. He studied the shirt for a few moments, shook it out, and laid it on the ground beside him to dry in the sun.
A few days earlier, anger had kept him going. Then fear. Now morose disillusionment prevailed. He’d left headquarters in possession of a fine horse, enough money to keep him going for a year, and orders to patrol the hills around Erebor. One week’s journey had stretched to four with at least two days to go. He was a failure.
It wasn’t the run-in with the Beast of Tremouth, which had torn his cloak to such shreds he’d had to patch it back together with any cloth he could get at the next market. Rangers should be more alert to such dangers. It had delayed him no more than three days.
Travelling with the black-armoured merchant from Bernice had been entertaining, although the short cut he’d suggested had taken longer than expected. He’d agreed to buy two sacks of gold dust from the merchant for a reasonable sum, swayed by the argument he could use gold anywhere, and paper credits were valid only as far as Farworrying. It seemed a good deal. He’d tied the bags to his saddle, ignored his horse’s suspicious snorts, and ridden on alone to Farworrying with a light heart. The weather was good, the horse was friendly, and he’d made a good transaction, getting rid of a large proportion of small denomination notes.
At one night’s camp he’d ensured the bags were safe by using them as his pillow. In the morning he saw a trail of sand leading from one corner back to where he’d unsaddled his horse. The sack was a third lighter than it had been, and the contents were …
“Sand! It’s just sand!”
He made to throw it all out, then stopped. If he had fallen for the trick then someone else would, surely. He would be at Farworrying by nightfall, and then he could recover some cash on a new deal.
Farworrying was a crossroads in the trading routes, with a brightly lit inn, as dim as dusk inside. Raucous and crowded. He shared a table with a strange assortment of fellow travellers. Talking to the bard, he discovered he’d mistaken the denomination of the notes, and instead of red tens, he’d handed over brown hundreds. No wonder the merchant had left him so precipitously. While he was weeping gently, a fight started, and he leapt in to save the half-elf who had just bought him another drink. It was a noble thought, he handled himself well, and when it was all over, he and the elf were best buddies. The dwarf bought another round of drinks to celebrate, and confided secret ways through the mountains to Erebor. “Just don’t try going via Lockamora,” he said, muttering into his beard, and then falling asleep.
The ranger went out to check on his horse and bed it down for the night, discovering it’d wandered off. He searched everywhere, including all the stables, in case it’d taken itself into one. An ostler said a bard had left town on a horse matching his description.
“Which way was he going?”
He spent the night in the stable he’d hired, since he couldn’t afford to waste any more cash. He berated himself for getting in such a mess. Every time he tried to do something good it went wrong. Now he dithered over chasing the bard on foot, although the horse would move faster than he would, or just going to Erebor the way the dwarf had suggested. His duty was to get to Erebor as soon as possible.
He’d seen few people as he hiked through the hills.
He stopped to cut wood for one old woman in a hovel, who then shrieked at him for chopping up her second-best bed, and refused to give him supper.
He climbed up to a waterfall with the spare waterskins for two shepherds busy with a lambing, returning to see the sweet new baby staggering to its feet. The shepherds had welcomed the water. When he passed the waterfall on his way over the ridge, he found a dead goat lying in the stream just before it cascaded over the cliff. He thanked his stars he hadn’t filled his own waterskin, and hoped the shepherds would survive.
Now he sat on the rock, wondering what Erebor held for him. It was renowned as a challenging place to work, full of evil spirits and wicked temptations. His chief had said he’d be perfect for the role, and people would love him. He hoped she was right.
He crested the rise to see the Vale of Erebor laid out in front of him, and the beginnings of a track, just as the dwarf had predicted.
“It’s colour-coded,” the dwarf had said. “Just make sure you follow the green flashes. On no account go with the red.”
“You don’t want to end up in Hell.”
Now the ranger looked at the paint marks on the posts alongside the track, and wondered which way to go. They looked different shades of khaki to him. He picked a leaf from a tree and held it alongside each marker. The best match was sure to be green.
Erebor was far enough north for the trees to turn colour early in September.
© J M Pett 2017
Picture is of my cousin at Cauldron Snout, the top of the river Tees, probably in Cumbria (I’m not sure which side of the county border we were, and judging from the link to the Wikipedia page, they aren’t sure either!)