“I still don’t see why you’re needed on this job,” Kia Pulzer says, the guard captain easily matching Ichabod’s long strides. Not wanting to be disturbed, the bald half-elf waves for her men to hang back with the slow-moving wagons. “This is nothing more than a simple escort mission. These kids are getting new families and your presence makes them nervous. All of them know you’re nothing more than a mercenary, which is why they think something is going to happen.”
“Yeah, it’s me being here. They couldn’t possibly be unnerved by the curse-filled rant you made when I showed up,” Ichabod Brooks replies with a sigh. He gives up trying to get ahead of the soldier, who moves as if she is not weighed down by platemail. “Look, Captain Pulzer, I’m doing this job to help a friend. Lord Dolvan wants his former charges to get to their new homes safely and he thinks something is going to happen. This isn’t the first time he’s listened more to oracles than common sense, but I’m not one to tell a good-hearted man that he’s wrong. So, let’s just try to work together without upsetting the kids or killing each other.”
“How much are you being paid for this?” Kia asks, refusing to let the conversation end. She shifts her pike to her other shoulder, the weapon’s tip glinting in the midday sun. “Every time I work with a mercenary, I find out that I’m being paid peanuts compared to them. All of you with your greedy contracts and seeing everything as a job. Those stories about you don’t hide what you really are, Ichabod. People like me can see through the illusions.”
The adventurer turns around and heads back to the covered wagons, his temples already beginning to ache. “You’re right that most of the stories are illusions. All I am is a man putting food on the table the only way he knows how. Now, when I say I’m doing this to help a friend, I mean that I’m probably being paid less than you. Just enough for food and travel. Maybe a toy for my son and something nice for my wife. Honestly, I didn’t negotiate much for this because I don’t see this as a job. It’s a good deed that I’m proud to do because these kids deserve a loving family. I wouldn’t be able to look at my own son if I said no to this.”
“Well, aren’t you the heroic type.”
“Only if that’s what people want to call me.”
“I still think we don’t need you.”
“With any luck, we’ll reach the end of our journey and you’ll be right.”
The pair stop to return the other soldiers’ salutes, the adventurer’s inclusion making Kia snarl like an animal. She storms off to yell at one of her men, who is not wearing his helmet and using his sword to poke at the ground. Heading for the middle wagon, Ichabod climbs into the driver’s seat and offers to take over for the elderly warrior. Accepting the reins, he slows down enough to let the man off and waits for him to climb into the lead vehicle for a nap. The procession returns to its previous pace as soon as Kia screams for them to keep moving and that they need to reach their first stop before nightfall. Ichabod cannot stop himself from chuckling at her pride-fueled tantrum, but he knows that she has her reasons for hating him. The dark-skinned adventurer has lost count of how many times he has cost Captain Pulzer a criminal or been hired to prove she has the wrong person. As he thinks about their history, he wonders if the gods have picked him to be the permanent thorn in the soldier’s side. He also begins to question how the woman has managed to keep her job after arresting so many on a hunch.
“Guess she’s right more than she’s wrong,” Ichabod mutters as he watches Kia take her position at the front. With a flick of his wrist, the adventurer smacks a tiny hand away from the red and white bag at his hip. “I’m happy to give you a treat, Jeff, but the rule is that you have to ask first. Also, see if anybody else wants one. These are for everyone and food is better when you eat with others.”
The inside of the covered wagon is silent, which brings a smirk to Ichabod’s face. He waits for one of the children to climb into the seat next to him, none of them wanting to be the one to leave what they have dubbed their fortress. After a few minutes, a young boy emerges holding a black piece of straw. His helmet is too big for his head, so he is constantly reaching up to make sure it does not fall off. The wooden sword at his belt gets stuck and he tugs on it until he topples into the seat. Ichabod is quick to catch the kid’s leg and make sure he does not fall into the reins or get kicked by one of the horses. Annoyed at getting help, the black-haired boy slaps at the adventurer’s hand and gets comfortable with the helmet nearly covering his eyes. The youth tries his best to remain calm and subtle, but his hand repeatedly inches toward the enchanted bag that is giving off the scent of a various candies.
“I really hope you asked to borrow that helmet, Jeff,” Ichabod states as he fishes out a caramel for the boy. He hands the treat over before reaching into the pouch for the favorites of each of the other children. “So, what do you have to report? Are the rest of the troops in good spirits and looking forward to their new assignments?”
“Everyone is behaving and happy,” Jeff declares with a wide grin. Turning around, he leans into the wagon to give the candy to his friends. “Private Raelle is acting funny, but she says she’s only hungry. Her rumbling stomach proves her story, so she might need extra rations at the next meal. Holly won’t stop talking, which is why I don’t think she should get any more candy. We agreed to be quieter since Lady Agnes is still asleep. I think she’s still tired from taking the night watch with Raelle. Not everyone believes me, but I’m in charge. Just like with Captain Pulzer, I’m always right.”
“I’m telling you that the ghosts took her spirit!” a white-haired elf girl shouts as she climbs into the driver’s seat. Wearing a red and black dress, Holly jabs Jeff in the shoulder until he gives her more space. “Agnes was fine until the morning. She wasn’t sick and she never sleeps so late that she misses breakfast. I’m telling you that ghosts got her. All of the books I read say that they can take the soul, but not the body. The only way to save Agnes is to summon the phantom and defeat it in a game to get her back.”
“That’s stupid,” the little boy retorts. He whines when his friend pinches his arm, but refuses to retaliate since she is a girl. “Stop doing that since you know I can’t fight back. A gentleman never strikes a lady. Right, Mr. Brooks?”
Popping a candy into his mouth, Ichabod gets the horses to pick up the pace and move around a patch of mud. “Well, you try not to. Some ladies don’t give you much choice, but you should really avoid violence as much as you can. Given my career, I shouldn’t be giving advice on how men and women treat each other. For example, Captain Pulzer and I have come to blows before. She has this knee strike that makes it feel like I’ve been stabbed in the stomach by a hot iron. I probably shouldn’t be telling you two this because I don’t want you fighting. Kids should have fun and play. Are you sure Agnes is okay?”
“Pretty sure,” both children answer, neither of them sounding confident.
A needle of worry makes its way into Ichabod’s brain, so he hands the kids some candy before stopping the wagon. He whistles for the front vehicle to wait and apologetically waves at the rear, the other drivers using the break to check the horses. Seeing Kia angrily heading towards him, the adventurer jogs to the back of his wagon and climbs inside. One little girl with pale skin and ebony hair sits next to her brown-haired friend, who is under a pile of blankets. Jeff and Holly are peeking in from the driver’s seat, the two whispering for Raelle to join them. She waits for Ichabod to nod before hurrying to her friends and taking the offered candy. The fear in her eyes is enough to make the adventurer’s heart stutter, his own anxiety getting stronger as he pulls back the covers.
“What do you think you’re doing, Brooks?” Kia asks as she joins him. Her anger subsides when she sees that Agnes is covered in black lines. “Are those her veins? I’m going to have the other kids moved to the front wagon. You stay here with Agnes and I’ll see if anyone has a healing potion.”
“We have to go ten miles to the east,” Ichabod states while he checks the barely breathing girl’s temperature. Her forehead is cold and there is a strange throbbing beneath her skin that he can only sense through touch. “Agnes needs a healer and there’s a small Neberith temple that will be able to help. I don’t know if this is a disease or Holly is right about the ghosts. Right now, I’m not willing to take any chances, so I’ll believe everything. Take my treat bag and keep the other kids calm. Last thing we want is to upset them.”
Fighting the urge to argue, Kia grabs the enchanted pouch and rushes out through the front of the wagon. The soldier yells her orders before sitting down and getting the horses moving, the job of watching the kids handed off to one of her subordinates. Ichabod puts the covers over Agnes again, her icy skin making him think that he should focus on keeping her warm. Moving the girl into the sun, the adventurer is surprised by how heavy she is. He nearly trips over a marble that was underneath her, but twists to make sure he is the only one to hit the hard floor with a loud thud. Watching the orb roll into a pile of bags, Ichabod smiles when Agnes lets out a laugh. His happiness is short-lived when she coughs up a spout of black ooze that hits him in the face.