The companions continued along the road in the direction of the distant barns. Dragon, in the form of an exotic and delicate maiden, led the group. The Bounty Hunter brought up the rear, keeping an eye on the figure that appeared to have followed them from the village.
Less than fifteen minutes later, the Gypsy lad yelped and grabbed Dragon by the sleeve. “Does it seem to you that the barns are farther than they were just moments ago?”
Dragon narrowed her eyes and stared toward the barns. “You may be correct. They do appear more distant.”
The Young Hero chimed in. “And the landscape is changing. The horses and fencing are gone, and the fields are less lush and full of weeds.”
“And the road is starting to twist.” The Arrogant One pointed to the road ahead, which was no longer straight. “The barns are no longer directly ahead, either.”
“Is that . . . a railroad track?” Sorceress gaped at the steel rails emerging from a copse of trees and merging with the road ahead.
“Not something one would expect to find in a medieval world.” Dragon gathered the companions closer and addressed the Bounty Hunter. “Are we still being shadowed?”
The man nodded.
“Perhaps we should find out who is following us and why, and what he knows about this changing landscape.” Dragon gestured for the Bounty Hunter and the Old Dwarf to go back and intercept their apparent pursuer.
“Wait!” The Arrogant One stopped them. “Dragon, you were concerned that if we separated, some of us might become lost, as the Foreman did. I suggest we either all wait here and see if our stalker catches up with us, or we all go back and confront him.”
Dragon furrowed her brow. “Excellent point. We do not wish to search for more than one lost soul.”
“Waiting seems the best option, as the person in question appears to be almost upon us.” Sorceress pointed to a rapidly approaching figure.
“Indeed! He seems to be getting closer at about the same rate the barns are becoming more distant.” The Young Hero furrowed his brow and kept glancing back and forth between the approaching man and the barns.
Moments later, the figure slowed his rapid advance and gave the companions a wary look. Nervously, he edged closer.
Dragon and the others checked him out as he drew nearer. He appeared a singularly nondescript man, of indeterminate age and average height and weight. He was clad in an unremarkable brown leather tunic, dingy gray leggings, and well-worn boots. He carried nothing – neither weapon nor staff nor pouch.
“Thet one do na be much o a threat.” The Old Dwarf shook his head and gestured dismissively.
The figure stopped and bowed when he reached the companions. “Hail, travelers! I am Sangree. I saw you in the town and thought mayhap you were in need of a guide.”
Dragon raised an eyebrow. “Travelers? Why do you believe us to be travelers?”
Sangree flashed a broad smile. “I know everyone from the town. I do not know you. So . . . travelers.” He puffed out his chest as if inordinately proud of having made that deduction.
Dragon nodded, apparently satisfied with that answer. “Sangree, have you seen any other travelers of late?”
Sangree furrowed his brow and put his hand to his chin. The tip of his tongue poked out of the corner of his mouth and his eyelids almost closed. He remained in that position for so long, Cleric whispered to Dragon, “Is he in a trance?”
Dragon shrugged and reached out to give him a shake. Her hand was only an inch from his shoulder when he opened his eyes, smiled broadly, and shook his head. “No, you are the only travelers I have seen.”
Dragon raised an eyebrow again.
The Bounty Hunter rounded on the man. “Perchance, do you know where this road goes?”
“Away from the town.” Again, Sangree flashed a broad smile.
“We do na be carin’ where tha road be leadin’ from. We be wantin’ ta be knowin’ where it be leadin’ to.” The Old Dwarf scowled.
“The road leads to away from the town.” Sangree’s exasperated tone of voice tacked a silent Duh to the end of his statement.
The Gypsy chuckled. “Sangree, if we continue following this road in this direction, where will we end up?”
“Away from the town.” Another broad smile shone from Sangree’s face.
“Wonderful guide!” Sorceress snorted.
“Mayhap you are in need of a guide?” Sangree gave her a hopeful look.
“To what place can you guide us?” The Young Hero gave Sangree an encouraging smile.
“Away from the town.”
“This is getting us nowhere!” The Arrogant One scoffed.
“Sangree?” Cleric approached the man. “Do you see that complex of barns in the distance?” She pointed to the barns, now barely visible on the horizon.
“Can you guide us there?”
Sangree nodded again and set off across the field. “It is fortunate you asked me to guide you. You would most likely have gotten lost in the Changes if you had stayed on the road.”
“The changes?” Cleric looked confused as she and the others scurried to keep up with Sangree.
“Yes, that is what this area is called. Very treacherous region.” Sangree offered the companions his widest smile yet as he led them on a zig-zag route through the ever-changing landscape.
* * *
Tor waited for the Boss to begin his story. The man hemmed and hawed but said nothing of import as he gestured to the barn and stable yard. “…stays the same. Always the same.”
Tor scowled at the man. “Yes, yes, you have said that several times now. I am more interested in knowing about you and how you came to be here, and what you really know about the phenomenon of the changing landscape.”
The stable hand nodded. “Me, too.”
The Boss backhanded the youth, knocking him on his rump before Tor could intervene. Reaching down to help the young man to his feet, Tor gave the Boss a steely look. “I strongly advise against such actions.”
The Boss frowned. “You gonna stop me?”
“I will.” Tor met the man’s gaze.
The Boss shrugged again, then started wandering toward the barn. Tor followed him. Once inside the barn, the Boss made a big show of checking each horse. When he reached the bobtail at the far end of the barn, he opened the stall door, clipped a lead on the horse’s halter, and led him out into the center aisle. “There! See, he ain’t limpin’ none.”
Tor raised an eyebrow. “You were going to tell me your story . . . and what you know of this place.”
Shrugging again, the Boss led the horse back into the stall. Closing the stall door, the man looked toward Tor again, then beyond. He frowned. “Go on. Go on!”
It took only seconds for Tor to realize the Boss was talking to someone else. Tor whirled around to see the stable hand standing there with a length of pipe in his hand. The youth looked from the pipe to the Boss and then to Tor. Finally, he dropped the pipe.
“Ya can’t do that! I’m the Boss.” The other man’s face was like thunder, but his voice sounded more like that of a petulant child.
“Are ya?” The stable hand furrowed his brow and tilted his head.
The man looked taken aback by the question. “Well, I always have been.”
“Not no more.” The youth shook his head. “Don’t know how ya ever gots ta be Boss in the first place.” He turned and walked out of the barn.
The Boss gaped at the departing figure. “Well, that ain’t supposed ta happen.”
“Huh?” The Boss looked back at Tor.
“What is supposed to happen?”
“Well, I’m supposeta be the Boss. He’s supposeta work for me, do whatever I tell ’em to.”
“How did you get to be the Boss? For that matter, how did you come to be in this place?”
When the Boss started to shrug again, Tor grabbed him and pushed him down onto a bale of hay. “You will sit there, and you will tell me what I wish to know.”
“Or what? Whattaya gonna do?” The Boss looked and sounded smug.
Tor narrowed his eyes. “Or I will leave you here with no one. It is hard to be the Boss when you have no one to follow your orders.”
“All right, all right. Don’t get yer knickers in a twist.” The Boss squirmed around until he found a more comfortable position. “So, waddaya wanna know?”
Tor sighed. I fear this may take a considerable amount of time.
Will Tor ever get to hear the Boss’ story? Will Sangree ever lead Dragon and the companions to this barn? And where has the stable hand gone? Be sure to come back next week as we continue this exciting tale. I’ll be sure to leave the porch light on for you.