10.) I should, of course, have seen the trouble coming. To expect Favory to be discreet or for Tomber to be tolerant was foolish of me.
Before setting out, I’d sent Tomber to scout ahead. I vaguely remembered overgrown paths branching off from the Prince’s Road leading toward the Shield Mountains. Small villages dotted the foothills, mostly ignored and isolated, places out of time whose inhabitants still believed they lived in Stronghold or whose traditions were even older.
These remnants of the past were the forgotten among the forgotten, living their small lives in an eternal day-to-day struggle but who also lived in a state of blissful ignorance and relative peace. Visitors to one of these small hamlets were treated one of two ways. Either they were feted as long lost royalty, come to claim their heritage, or as interlopers, unwelcomed and shunned.
At the same time, they were repositories of history, if you will forgive the paradox. Because they are so neglected—even by the Mirror God--they also retain some memory of their past. More than once I’d wandered into those hills in order to reconstruct lost history.
It was at least possible they remembered the passes over the Shield Mountains, which would save us a great deal of searching.
We neared the borders into the Seventh Principality, which under Prince Marcusal was a clean and orderly realm, safe for travelers. I started to relax, making the mistake of closing my eyes and leaning back. I might have even napped.
The applecart bucked beneath me and the air shook. A huge hemlock lay across the road directly in my path. The forest to the right of the road quaked, the branches screaming, leaves quivering as if trying to escape. The pilgrim’s cart shattered in front of me as a second tree slammed into it, cleaving it in two. The forest parted as if the giant trees were mere shrubs.
The creature was indistinct at first, a huge blob of glistening skin, undulating onto the road. Out of this gelatinous mass rose two long and curved horns, a mouth rimmed with teeth shaped like daggers. It seemed to move slowly, casually, but that was an illusion, for my mind saw it as a slug or a snail. In truth, its undulant pace bolted out of the forest and onto the road. It rose up, swaying, and from the front of the shattered cart I heard Viccare’s screams and Favory’s defiant shouts.
The creature came down, slapping onto the broken wreckage. What I’d thought was a long tall antenna was a tall man, hanging onto the horns. I bolted from the cart, and ran toward the monster, waving my hands.
The giant slug rose again. The two mules and the red stallion were running down the road away from us. The cart was completely flattened and Viccare and Favory were gone. Then, out of the roadway, rose two figures covered with slime, dazed and staggering. The creature’s serrated mouth started to come down again. I tackled Favory, reaching out for Viccare with outstretched arms. My hands slipped off of their slick bodies, but they lost their balance and we tumbled off the roadway.
The ground shook as the creature landed, and then there was the loud sound of razor sharp teeth grinding. I dared raise my head, saw that the slug was munching on the shattered wood.
Even above the loud chomping I heard Tomber’s laughter as he slid off the slug’s back.
“Don’t worry,” he said when he finally caught his breath. “Sooma doesn’t eat meat. I promised her some flavored wood—paint is like seasoning for her.”
Favory stood up, dripping in gunge, almost losing her footing. “You could’ve killed us!”
“Sooma is soft where she wants to be soft,” Tomber said. Under his amusement I could see his anger and jealousy. “She only wanted some of that precious blue wood.”
“You’ve destroyed Viccare’s wagon!”
Tomber shrugged. “The kid should be paying more attention to his quest.”
For once, Favory was speechless. Sounds came out of her mouth, but they didn’t make sense. It was the first time I’d ever seen the woman so disheveled. Amazingly, she still looked good and I could swear that the gunk was already disappearing, her hair already beginning to dry.
Viccare, on the other hand, was covered with the stuff, which he kept swiping away from his eyes. He stared, head down, ot the road, inches from the slug. Suddenly, he bent down, and as he straightened, the golden bell tinkled softly, muffled by the glop. Sooma paused in her eating for a moment, listening, then reached down and plucked a baseboard and began nibbling.
“You will be paying for this out of your own wages, Tomber,” I said. “We don’t want people to think we’re impeding a Blue Pilgrim’s progress.”
Tomber shrugged again. He glanced over at Favory, then went to Sooma, running his hands over the creature head and whispering soothingly.
Favory finally found her voice. “I hope you like her, you bastard, because she’s the only female you’re sleeping with!”
She took Viccare by the hand and marched away.