The first day of their travels had been anything but easy. At first, Grumblepig had strode proudly at the head of the pack, filled with the excitement of finally setting out on what was sure to be the grandest adventure of his life. But within an hour, Rick’s frequent interruptions to point out members of the Combined Bandit Allegiance, Nynalama and Roderick’s constant bickering, and the surprisingly hot sun considering the time of year had forced Grumblepig to the back of the group. He slunk along a few steps behind, glaring resentfully at the back of Rick’s head and wishing that there actually was a Bandit Alliance to make this trek more interesting.
At Rick’s insistence, they had taken what appeared to be the least direct route possible and veered into a forest. They were certainly not following any clearly defined path, but they also hadn’t run across the alleged giant spiders and trolls. Grumblepig stared up at the spindly pines and started to think this must be a bad dream. What were they doing? Traipsing off across the country to meet a stranger with a lunatic and a wanted woman?
“Fluvio?” Grumblepig glanced sidelong at Rick as he sidled up to his friend. “Fluvio, what are you thinking?”
“This forest is amazing! Can you feel the pure arcane power here? Breath it in, Grumblepig!” Fluvio practically did a little dance, his eyes darting from clump of dead brush to wizened tree trunk.
Grumblepig followed his gaze morosely. “Mm hm. But who are these people? What are we doing?”
Fluvio turned to eye him suspiciously. “Has the magic of the forest affected your mind, Grumblepig? These are our friends. We are going on a great adventure!”
“The magic of the forest has affected one of our minds,” Grumblepig grumbled.
“Halt!” Rick called from the front, raising an authoritative hand. “We finally lost them. This would be a good place to stop for the night, if anyone’s faint of heart.”
“Lost who?” Nynalama drawled, leaning against a tree with an irritatingly casual air.
“Goromash’s men, of course.” Rick narrowed his eyes pointedly in Grumblepig’s direction, forcing him to blush with anger.
“Oh, yeah. How could I forget?” Nynalama plunked down on the ground and kicked her boots off. “All right, let’s pack it in.”
With the mumbled assent of the others, the group set up a shabby camp on the uneven forest floor. Fluvio lit the area with pale green lights that bounced slightly in the breeze, and Roderick started a fire and attempted to draw the rest into conversation. While he and Nynalama were swapping thieving tales, Grumblepig slunk away from the group and sat in the relatively darkness.
Goromash. Why the hell did it have to be Goromash? Who knew what that bastard was up to lately, but it almost certainly wasn’t leading some bandit league. Goromash would never sink to those depths. He was probably the king of some far-off land or heir to an emperor’s fortune by now. That man’s luck would never run out, as far as Grumblepig could tell. He had hoped Goromash was dead by now, but he knew that was wishful thinking. And nothing could taint his mood and ruin his day like the mention of his old traveling companion.
Grumblepig became aware that Rick was watching him, or at least facing in his direction. Now the meaty bastard was suspicious of him. Why had he been so obvious about his disdain for Goromash? He just couldn’t think straight where that man was concerned. So far this journey had been one long reminder that he would never be the hero Goromash was, and it was eating him up more than he cared to admit.
Reaching clumsily into his pocket, Grumblepig pulled out a tattered handkerchief. He turned it over in his hands, inspecting the fine silk and delicate lace patterns turned ugly by age. Closing his fist on the handkerchief, he squeezed until tears burned his eyes. They weren’t tears of sadness. Not anymore. All that remained was shame and hatred for the man he had betrayed and run from in his moment of need.
How long had it been? Sixteen years? Twenty? Grumblepig tried not to count. He had enough to worry about without dwelling on the past. He was the founder of an adventuring group! They were going to achieve great deeds and gain world renown. Surely that was more important than the failures of his youth.
But when Grumblepig looked at that handkerchief, no, at Rowena’s handkerchief, it all came flooding back. He bold and arrogant claims; his promise to Goromash that he would save Rowena and bring her back unharmed; he rage he felt when his friend laughed at him, claiming he could save his wife himself. Most of all, Grumblepig remembered the look on Goromash’s face when he saw Rowena’s body. It was the one time he looked human, broken.
This was unfair! Grumblepig had traveled across the country to escape all this, to meet new people with whom he would have a fresh start. And he was better now. Humbler, and stronger. He was strong enough to be an adventurer worthy of . . . well, worthy of everyone’s respect. Why did Rick have to mention Goromash? Why couldn’t he escape that name, no matter where he traveled?
Grumblepig practically leapt to his feet, stuffing the handkerchief back into his dirty pocket. He looked up in panic and saw Roderick smiling down at him, holding out a small piece of inkroot.
“What?” Grumblepig stammered.
“Inkroot. You look like you could use a little something to help you relax.” Roderick plunked down beside Grumblepig and grinned.
“Uh, no. I don’t use it.” He could feel his cheeks burning and wished it were a little darker in the glen.
“Suit yourself. What a crew, eh?” Roderick laughed, biting off a bit of the inkroot himself.
Grumblepig nodded mutely.
“It’ll be a wonder if we make it through this forest, let alone through whatever’s waiting for us at the manor.”
Grumblepig watched the black of the inkroot filled Roderick’s mouth and smiled a little. “Not to worry, Roderick. We’re strong enough to manage anything they throw at us.”
“Oh, I know,” Roderick smiled with blackened teeth. “I’m not worried about us. We’re golden, you and I. It’s the rest of them that get me down. We’ll have to keep our eyes on our friend Rick Wayne, and our resident criminal. And Fluvio, at that. Have you seen the way he’s prancing about the forest, hunting for magical sticks and moss?”
Fluvio had indeed wandered away from the lighted circle and was currently poking what appeared to be a mutated mushroom. Grumblepig laughed much louder than he expected to and sat back against the tree, embarrassed.
“We’re going to be all right, Grumble,” Roderick said, laying a hand on Grumblepig’s shoulder. With that, he got back up and weaved his way back to the others. “Goodnight, all! We have a long journey ahead of us before the journey even begins!”
Grumblepig smiled at Roderick, gratified. Maybe he was right. Maybe they would be all right. Resting his head against the sticky bark, Grumblepig allowed himself to realize how exhausted he was. As he closed his eyes, he heard a rustling in the forest to the North, almost out of earshot. Maybe, just maybe, if he fell asleep quickly enough, it was only the wind.