Justin jumped from his chair and knelt at the table putting his face just inches from his furry friend. "Cheek where have you been and have I got a story to tell you!"|
Cheek approached Justin and smacked him on the nose with his tiny paw. "Justin, you will have to learn to let your elders speak first. I know the story you are bursting to tell because Edan has told me of your forthcoming ordeal. He has given me the task of getting you to the Northland without losing your way and my new friend here, Kigamsti, knows the fastest route and has agreed to get us there. So I hope you have prepared by packing some food and a change of clothes?"
Justin felt a little embarrassed that he had not. He ran to his room and packed a backsack with clothes and then to the pantry for food. Cheek sat conversing with the dark rodent as though they were plotting something.
"I am ready, Cheek. When do we start?"
Cheek and Kigamsti came to the edge of the table and Justin bent down to allow them to climb into his coat pocket.
"Well, Justin the first thing we must do is go out the door or the journey won't begin." Cheek commanded "And don't forget to lock up." They headed out the north road riding Justin's favorite horse, Canter. The stableboy had Canter saddled for him as though he knew the horse would be needed. Edan must be behind much the preparations, Justin thought.
"Justin, keep on this road till it breaks to the right and follow the left path." Cheek shouted from the pocket. Justin could hear the two mice chattering in his pocket and was sorry that the dark mouse could not speak human for he would have liked to know what they were saying.
They rode till dark on the twisting paths and roads as directed by Kigamsti through Cheek. Finally it was too dark to venture further and Cheek said to stop and bed down for the night.
As they sat by the fire, Justin looked over to where the two mice were sitting on the backsack, both just staring quietly into the fire. Their eyes glowed red from the bright flames of the fire making the two of them look menacing. Justin knew that his friend would never hurt him or anyone else, but at that moment he looked as though he could deal with any enemy to come along. The dark mouse looked like he came off one of the rough sailing vessels that brought goods from faraway lands. Justin felt that he could trust this strange creature, for Cheek would have never asked for his help otherwise.
Justin laid back and decided that sleep would be the best for him right now as they had a long journey ahead. While Justin drifted into sleep the two mice quietly started chattering and watched the fire. Cheek had cared so much for Justin that no amount of careful planning would be enough to take care of his safety.
The morning sun came brightly and they prepared to leave.
"How long will it take us to get to the Northlands, Cheek?" inquired Justin.
"About five days of uninterupted travel and I hope that we are not interupted." He said cautiously.
"What do you mean by that Cheek?" asked Justin, wondering about the comment.
"We will be traveling through some pretty rough towns and I would prefer that we could avoid them altogether."
"We'll deal with that when we get to it." comforted Justin. They were packed and ready to go, so Justin carefully loaded his tiny passengers into his pocket, mounted the horse and headed up the path to the road continuing northward.
Justin had never been this far north and the beauty of the countryside was overwhelming. As they journeyed further the land became more mountainous and the road was quickly becoming a trail. They had passed through a few small towns and at Cheek's insistance, they passed through them without stopping. Cheek said that there would be plenty of time later to sightsee. Cheek and Kigamsti were still squeeking to each other and Justin was getting to the point of reminding Cheek that it was not polite to converse when he couldn't unerstand them, but decided not to.
Finally the sun was very low on the horizon and the looming mountains made it seem darker. Justin called to Cheek in his pocket and the mouse peeked out and said that it would be a good time to rest for the night. Wearily, Justin made camp and the tired group stretched out before the fire.
Justin was quite worn out by the ride and bored by having no one to talk to. Cheek had been so busy conversing with Kigamsti that he neglected Justin, but since Cheek seemed happy to have someone of his own species to talk to, Justin didn't mind. Besides, it gave him time to think about what was happening and more so, about the girl in the mist. Was she a lonely princess in need of rescue or perhaps a vision of his future bride. Only Mandara knew and he wasn't saying anything until Justin proved himself by safely returning home.
Justin's thoughts were interupted by a crackling noise to his left. It sounded as though someone were approaching and Justin had no idea what kind of human or creature would be out wandering at this late hour. Cheek poked his head out of the backsack for he also had heard the noise.
"Justin," Cheek whispered, "Do you have your sword handy?"
"Yes, I have it." Quietly replied Justin. "What do you think it is?"
"We'll both know when it gets here. I hope you paid attention to all the sword training you had at school."
Justin was already up and crouching low with sword in hand, focusing his attention to the area of the sound. It grew louder and sounded as though a clumsy bear were lost in the dark. Justin moved around to put the fire between himself and the noise. Cheek and Kigamsti vacated the backsack and found a burrow to crawl into. The noise grew louder and Justin tensed as a shape came through the brush, stumbled and fell before the firepit. It was Pectin.
"Pectin! What are you doing here?" Demanded Justin.
"Don't hurt me, sir! I have been trying to find you since you left. My horse threw me and ran off on the trail and I have been on foot since yesterday." Pectin shivered and moved to the fire to warm. "When everyone left I was going crazy with worry and decided that I wanted to come help you save our world. If you permit me to?"
Justin didn't know what to say. The boy looked so sincere that he didn't want to turn him back, but was not sure if Pectin could accompany him to Kyr. Cheek and Kigamsti were chattering at the opening of the burrow so Justin moved over to them hoping Cheek may have had some instructions from Edan that may help decide the fate of the young apprentice.
"Cheek, I don't know what to say to him. Can we take him along or will it jeopardized our chances?" Justin asked hoping his wise friend would have an answer.
"Well, if the young clumsy fool doesn't care if he is killed and doesn't get in the way he may come." Cheek turned to Pectin and asked "Pectin, you must swear to us that you have no knowledge of what is ahead and have not overheard Mandara speaking of it."
"Master Cheek, I know no more than Justin does. I have been a failure as Mandara's apprentice and I hope to prove to him that I can be good for something." Pectin replied honestly.
Kigamsti said something to Cheek, who in turn asked Pectin "Does Mandara know that you are here?"
"I left him a note, so he probably knows by now. I hope I haven't angered him, but I had to do this."
"Well, Pectin, your help is welcome, but stay out of the way until you are needed or you will be sent back to face Mandara." Cheek ordered. "Justin, Kigamsti tells me there is a town down this road in the valley before the hills of the Northland. There we can replace the horse that Pectin lost. Now, I think that since it is almost day light, we may as well use this time to do so." Cheek and Kigamsti scurried to the backsack while Justin helped Pectin to his feet.
"Well my friend, may the fates be on our side, we will need it." Justin said with a smile and the two young men broke camp.
On the road, Pectin ran to keep up with the horse, too loaded down with Justin and the packs to allow Pectin to ride. The town was not far and there they would hopefully find a horse for him. Cheek did not want to stop at the town but this one time would be nessesary. They had just peaked the last hill before the town and looking down into the valley the small scattering of buildings didn't suggest much of a community, but Justin hoped they would be able to find a horse there. Beyond the town a road led to the begining of the crytal white hills of the Northland and Justin could feel the chill, both from the cold and from what lay ahead.
They headed down into the valley and approached the south gate of the town. There were a few people milling around in the streets but it seemed more deserted than most of the small villages thay had gone through.
"Cheek, I think that you and Kigamsti had better stay hidden. I don't know if these people would take to a talking mouse." Justin warned his friend.
"My feeling exactly, Justin. Be very careful here, these people know of the evil of Kyr and don't trust outsiders. They have had renegades come through in hopes of freeing Kyr, although none have ever returned from the frozen north."
Justin hoped that his mission would be better received by the townspeople but with the threat hanging over them, he wouldn't blame them if they didn't trust him. A freed Kyr would devestate their town first on his way out.
They passed through the south gate without any problems and recieve a few dark stares from the men gathered in front of the tiny tavern. The five men turned toward Justin and Pectin as they approached and didn't act too friendly as Justin asked if they had a stable.
"Who wants to know and what's your business here?" inquired the biggest, dirtiest of the men.
"I am Justin of Freland with my assistant, Pectin. We are on a mission for the great Mandara and we need a horse if there is one to spare." The men laughed and just stood looking Justin over.
"Maybe they're not smart enough to understand the question." mumbled Pectin.
The big man growled under his breath and said "So the little boy thinks he can speak for his master, who is just another little boy. We love to feed little boys to the Northland. Are you brave enough, little boy?"
"I'm brave enough to have volunteered to go there and stop Kyr!" boldly spoke Pectin, waiting to be smashed by the brute.
"That's enough, Pectin!" ordered Justin. "Our mission is none of their business."
The big man studied Pectin closely and said "The moon has shone red and two boy strangers appear at our gates. If Mandara has sent you, he is getting senile. Do you young fools think you can stop Kyr? Do you know what you're up against? The biggest and meanest of men and warriors have passed here to free Kyr for their own gain and never came back. but we have heard their screams from over the crystal hills, and we weren't fools enough to go help them. Yes, Mandara has sent brave men to stop Kyr during the red moon and they have returned, keeping our lands and souls safe. But they were brave men, not puny little boys." The man turned to his friends and continued, "Well, we may as well go dig our graves, for we are surely doomed."
"Dig if you will, but you'll be planting vegetables and not bodies." spoke out Justin. "But since you know that all is lost, then you won't miss one little horse or don't you have any."
The man looked up at Justin and fell silent. He turned to his companions and said something to the nearest man. The man ran of around the building and the big man turned toward Justin.
"We will give you our best animal and expect it to be returned on your way back, if you come back." he sneered sarcastically. The other man came around the building pulling at a very run down looking mule who seemed to want to go elsewhere.
"This is the best you have, an old mule?" demanded Justin.
"Yes!" hissed the man. "All our good horses were taken by the idiots who went to their deaths." He then looked like he was giving up. "I fear this is the last time we will have to worry about anyone coming through here again." He walked toward the tavern. "As for me, I'm going to drink until it's over. I don't want to face Kyr while I'm sober." He went in followed by the other men.
Justin knew nothing he could say would make any difference to the men, so he told Pectin to mount the mule and follow. As they headed out the road toward the crystal hills, the big man stood on the steps of the tavern with bottle in hand. He held it high in salute to them and softly said "May the Fates be with you, little boys."
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