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Twisted Tales

A Crossing of Paths, and a Parting of Ways

We walked another two hours with no sign of Jack or Erik, or our camp, or any sign that they had passed this way at all. It seemed as though the Twelve Huntsmen and I had really come onto the path ahead of where I had first gone into the woods to take an ill-advised pee, but like Samuel had said, it was too late now to backtrack another two hours, probably more, in search of our campsite. It had to be nearing midnight now, and after about twelve hours of hard walking, I just didn’t have the energy for that. So ahead we forged, and all I could do was hope that Jack and Erik would come to the inn sometime tomorrow in the hopes that I had found my own way there. I tried not to think too much about the possibility that they had gone into the woods after me, and were even now lost themselves, perhaps attacked themselves by spiders or wolves, or worse.

Finally, after what seemed like an age, we saw a pale yellow glow breaking through the trees ahead.

“The inn,” Samuel said, sounding audibly relieved, and all thirteen of us put on a burst of speed to hurry down the remainder of the path towards the warm light.

The yellow light was coming from a lamp that hung from an iron peg on the front of the building, which was a small, two story stone cottage. Samuel hurried on ahead of the rest of the group and pounded on the front door. A few long moments passed, until I started to get worried that no one might answer. But then the door swung open, and a bleary eyed man stood there, blinking groggily at all of us. He looked confused at first, then as his eyes scanned the veritable mob before him, increasingly alarmed. Then his expression settled into one of weary resignation.

“You all are seeking hospitality?” he said.

“We are,” answered Samuel. “Can you accommodate us all?”

“If some of you are willing to sleep in the barn I can,” replied the man. He sighed, and jerked his head towards the dark interior of the inn. “Come on in. The stables for your horses are around the back.”

About half of Samuel’s men led the horses towards the stables, while the rest of us crowded into the compact main room of the halfway house. The owner had to squeeze past us all to disappear into another room, from which he reappeared with bowls of food and mugs of ale. It took him a dozen trips to pass out food and drink to everyone, and when the other six huntsmen came back from stabling the horses, the little room became so crowded that we had to start passing bowls of lukewarm stew over our heads to the people in the back, because the owner could no longer squeeze his ample stomach between us all.

“I’m afraid it’s not warm,” he said, “I rarely get visitors this late, so the kitchen fire has been out for hours now. The ale’s good though, and the beds are comfortable enough. There are extra blankets I can get for those who will be sleeping in the barn, and the hay will make a decent enough bedding. I’ll haven’t really the supplies to feed this many mouths, but I’ll scrounge something up for you all to break your fast come morning. That’s the best I can provide though, I’m afraid.”

“That’s more than we expected to find on this night,” Samuel replied, and he passed the man a handful of silver and copper coins. “We’re grateful for your hospitality.”

Lots were drawn to decide who would get one of the beds upstairs, and who would spend the night in the barn. I declined to participate, insisting that I wanted to stay down here in this main room, where I would know the minute the Erik and Jack showed up—if they did.

“It’ll be less comfortable sleeping down here on the hard floor than it would be even on a pile of fresh hay in the barn,” the innkeeper warned me, but my mind was made up.

He provided me with a couple of thick, itchy wool blankets, and soon everyone was parting ways, half of the huntsmen heading off back outside towards the barn, the rest filing upstairs to fall into warm but lumpy beds. Samuel lingered, offering me a comforting smile and a pat on the back.

“I’m sure your friends will be fine. No doubt they’ll come here first thing in the morning and find you safe and well.”

“I’m more worried about finding them safe and well,” I admitted.

Once Samuel too had headed off for a much needed night’s rest, I wrapped myself in the blankets and lay down on the uncomfortable floor, where I could watch the door. I felt nauseous with doubt and worry, for both my new friends’ safety and what I would do if I never saw them again; and the hard floor was painful against my shoulders and hip. I just couldn’t get comfortable, and I couldn’t stop feeling sick with worry. I was positive I’d never get to sleep at this rate, but apparently I underestimated just how drained I was, because the next thing I knew, my thoughts were sliding off into strange, dream-like territory, involving things with too many legs and distant lights in the darkness that I couldn’t quite catch up too—and then sleep finally claimed me.
I was awoken an indeterminate amount of time later by pounding on the door.

I jackknifed into a sitting position so hard that I pulled a muscle in my neck, trying and failing to raise my arms defensively. They were pinned to my side, and for a moment I fell into a panic, struggling and thrashing against imagined spider web cocoons until I realized that I was tightly wrapped up in blankets, which were keeping me from freeing my arms. It was an effort to free myself, having gotten badly tangled up in the blankets after a long night of tossing and turning, and by the time I finally was able to extricate my legs, the innkeeper had appeared from the room off the side to answer the door.

I was just rising to my unsteady feet as he pulled it open, and I saw over his shoulder Erik and Jack standing there on the step, looking exhausted and miserable and filthy.

“Erik! Jack!” I cried.

At my cry, their gazes slid past the innkeeper and landed on me, and their mouths both dropped open.

“Rikki?” Jack asked.

“You know these two?” the innkeeper said, turning to look at me suspiciously, as if he was doubtful about the two scruffy young men standing in his doorway.

“She most certainly does,” Erik snarled, fixing me with a positively murderous glare.

The innkeeper sighed, then stood aside to let them enter. “Fifteen mouths to feed,” he muttered under his breath. “Getting ridiculous.” He shuffled off back where he had come from, into what I presumed was the inn’s kitchen.

I hurried up to Erik and Jack, relief flooding through me. “Thank god, I was afraid I might not see you guys again!”

“What the hell happened?” Erik demanded, taking a step forward and prodding an accusatory finger at me. “You just disappeared! We’ve been looking for you all night! We thought you were dead! We’ve been trekking through the forest for hours, we haven’t slept at all, and then here we find you just loitering around here like it’s no big deal, sleeping in a comfy feather bed and getting a hot breakfast, while we’ve been searching everywhere all night long in the hopes that maybe, maybe, we could at least find a body to give a proper burial to!”

I took a hasty step back, and raised my hands defensively. “Hey, I didn’t get lost on purpose!” I protested, my relief giving way to a sudden wave of irritation. “It was late, it was dark! I couldn’t find my way back!”

“I told you not to go that far into the woods! Didn’t I tell her?” Erik demanded, rounding on Jack.

“Uh…” Jack stammered, looking from me to Erik and clearly not willing to get into the middle of this. “Uh… well…”

“And how the hell did you end up here anyways?” Erik continued at me, losing interest in Jack when it became apparent he wasn’t going to start jumping down my throat too. “Been having a lovely time, have you?”

“For your information,” I retorted heatedly, “I’ve been sleeping right here on the floor all night, in the desperate hope that you two would show up. I was wandering around the forest for hours before I got here, lost and alone and scared out of my mind! Remember those giant spiders you were telling me about? Well guess what, I got to meet one up close and personal! Yeah! I was attacked by a six foot tall spider! It tried to kill me! And it would have too, if help hadn’t come at the last possible second. A group of hunters found me and got me out of the woods, and we decided that waiting here would be a better idea than just wandering around the woods for the rest of the night in the hopes that I might just happen to run into you!”

Erik was still seething, and his jaw was working as he ground his teeth together, but a tiny bit of the fight seemed to drain out of him. “That was stupid of you, going so deep into the woods like that. You could have been killed. You almost were killed. You should have listened to me and stayed close to the path.”

“Yeah, you’re right, I should have,” I snapped at him, and he was so taken aback by my agreement that he looked momentarily as though I’d slapped him. “I shouldn’t have let my embarrassment get the better of me, and it almost got me into serious trouble. I guess I learned a valuable lesson, and I won’t let it happen again. But I did not do it on purpose, and I definitely wasn’t having some comfy vacation while the two of you were out looking for me!”

Erik obviously didn’t know what to say. His shoulders were still squared and tense, as if he was expecting a fight.

Jack on the other hand gave me a weak smile. “I’m glad you’re okay,” he said. “We really were worried something terrible had happened to you. We were looking all night.”

“You haven’t eaten or slept at all?” I asked, feeling my own righteous indignation give way to guilt.

Jack shook his head. I could see that both he and Erik had dark bags under their eyes, and their hair was full of stray sticks and leaves. Erik carried my backpack as well as his own rucksack, his quiver of arrows, and his bow slung over his shoulder. Both boys stood slightly slumped, and were obviously exhausted.

“Well,” I said, glancing up towards the stairs that led to the rooms on the second floor, “all the rooms are full right now, but I think the huntsmen will probably all be on their way after breakfast. We could eat, and then you guys can sleep before we continue to Kingsbury?” I suggested.

“There isn’t time for that,” Erik protested, seemingly determined to find something to fight about. “If we leave now, we still won’t make it to Kingsbury until almost night fall. We have to rescue this princess of yours tomorrow, or she’ll be executed the day after if we don’t manage it.”

“We can’t make it all the way to Kingsbury without getting some rest,” Jack pointed out. “I’m absolutely knackered, and I know you’re dead on your feet too.”

“I’m fine,” Erik snarled, not fooling anyone.

“Too bad,” I told him. “It’s two against one, so we’re staying here until you two get at least a couple of hours of sleep.”

“You’re the one who has been on my case about getting to Kingsbury as fast as possible!” Erik argued in growing frustration.

“Yeah, but in this state, you’ll be too exhausted by the time we arrive to be of any help at all,” I pointed out. “We don’t have to spend all day here, just try to get a couple of hours of sleep, please.”

Erik threw his hands into the air in exasperation. “Fine! Whatever. Do what you want. This isn’t my quest anyways.” He stomped over to one of the tables and threw himself into a chair to sulk.

“Was he like this all night?” I asked Jack quietly, wondering how on earth he didn’t strangle Erik before now.

“No,” Jack admitted, rubbing the back of his head absently as he glanced over at Erik’s brooding form. “He tried not to let on how worried he was, but we were both fairly scared about what could have happened to you, to tell the truth. These woods are dangerous, and according to the tales I’ve heard from merchants and woodcutters, they only get worse the further northeast you travel.”

Yeah, I’d learned that the hard way. The boys had had every right to be worried about me; if it hadn’t been for a stroke of good fortune, I’d be spider food right about now.

“For what it’s worth, I didn’t mean to worry you guys,” I told him. “And I’m sorry you had to put yourself at risk while looking for me.”

“We were fine,” Jack brushed off my apology with a shrug. “Erik had his bow, and I’ve got a dagger with me. There were two of us, and if you’ll forgive me for saying, we’re both a bit more capable of handling ourselves if faced with trouble than you are.”

I wanted to protest, my pride wounded, but even as I opened my mouth I realized he was right. I had no weapon or means of defense on me. I’d taken karate between the ages of six to ten, which left me with… no actual skills in self defense. Erik had already proved himself to be experienced in getting himself out of dangerous situations, and while I doubted Jack had any experience beyond schoolboy tussles when it came to fighting, he still outweighed me by significant margin and was almost a full foot taller than me, therefore outclassing me when it came to facing trouble.

And I’d already proven with the spider incident that when faced with trouble, my reaction was to…

Scream, and cry, and curl up into a little ball. I winced at the memory, which felt shameful and embarrassing in the cold light of day. I might actually need the help of Erik and Jack much more than I had thought.

Fortunately, I was rescued at that moment by the sound of movement from overhead, and in a few minutes, Samuel and the other half dozen of his merry men came tramping down the stairs. They were soon joined by those who had spent the night in the stables, and mere moments later, the innkeeper reappeared with bowls of hot, flavorless oats, thick and sticky enough to be used as wallpaper paste.

For the next fifteen or twenty minutes, the small room of the inn was full of commotion. Voices fought to be heard over one another, wooden spoons scraped across bowls, plans were made and good mornings were given.

Samuel himself made his way over to me to ask how I’d gotten on during the night.

“Great,” I said, and I pointed at Jack beside me, “and look, my friends showed up!”

Jack gave Samuel a crooked smile and a wave, nearly elbowing another huntsman in the head as he did so. This room really was way too small to comfortable fit fifteen people.

“Thank you for helping her, we were worried something had happened to her,” Jack said.

“No need to thank me, it was the only honorable thing to do,” Samuel replied. “She was lucky indeed we were in the area—and we were lucky as well, since running into her meant that we spent the rest of our night in the comfort of this inn, rather than camping in the forest as were had been prepared to do.” He smiled at me, and I appreciated the fact that he didn’t mention any of the screaming or the crying I had been doing when he had stumbled across me. “But wasn’t there a second companion of yours?” he asked, looking around as if expecting to see another unfamiliar face hiding nearby.

I pointed over his shoulder, and he turned to catch a brief glimpse of Erik in a far corner of the room as the churning sea of bodies parted for a brief moment, picking moodily at his bowl of oatmeal.

“Erik, he’s over there. He’s not, um, in the best of moods right now. It’s been a long night.”

“That is has,” Samuel agreed, thankfully letting it rest at that. “And my men and I have a long day ahead of us as well. We’ll be heading out soon, so I’ll gladly leave you in the companionship of your friends.”

“Thank you so much for the help,” I told him, “if you hadn’t come when you did, I probably wouldn’t be here right now. I really do owe you my life. I wish I could repay your somehow, but I don’t have anything-”

Samuel waved my words away. “I don’t need payment. I know what it is like to be left all alone, a long ways away from those you care about.” A sad sort of smile passed over Samuel’s face, and again I got that sense that I was missing something about him, something that should have been obvious, like two puzzle pieces I knew should fit together, but just couldn’t figure out how. Then he seemed to shake the moment off, and pulled himself together. “So there is no need to fret. I was only too happy to be of some help. I wish you luck in your travels. May the rest of your journey be free of spiders or any size,” he added with a lilting laugh.

Then he and the other eleven huntsman, still all dressed exactly the same, still all so similar in feature that they could be siblings, gave their farewells and left the inn, mounting their horses and setting off at a leisurely pace in the direction of Kingsbury.

I waved them off, then returned to the now mercifully empty inn.

Jack and Erik finished their breakfast, and with only a little more grumbling from Erik, we managed to coax him upstairs and into a bed. I was sent back down with a handful of coins to pass over to the innkeeper, who didn’t look terribly happy that we three hadn’t left with the others. I got the sense that he didn’t much like running an inn, and relished the fact that this road was so little traveled—and therefore, that he rarely had guests.

Then I was left with just myself and my thoughts, to try to come up with a plan to rescue the miller’s daughter while Erik and Jack slept through the long morning.
♠ ♠ ♠
Hello again, dear readers!

All two of you.
There were three at one point, but I lost number 3 somewhere along the way. I don't think even the original version of this story fared so poorly, and it was terrible. But then, the nature of this site has changed quite a bit, and it really is geared more towards band fanfiction. Which is fair, Mibba just isn't quite the right demographic of readers for the genre of this story.

My other story might possibly fare a little better, if I ever get around to posting it... we'll see. My luck on Wattpad has been highly varied. I was doing good at first, getting lots of votes and reads, and I skyrocketed up to position number 28 in fairytales after about six or seven chapters. But then I screwed it up somehow and haven't been getting any votes or anything in the last several chapters, and I'm back down to spot 230. Ah well, that's life for you. I'll continue the rewrite and continue posting anyways, since I'm doing to rewrite with the ultimate intention of self publishing a single copy and giving it to a friend as a gift, since she's been supporting this silly story for years.

Anywhos, I'll sign off now, I have about a million other things I should be writing instead of this, haha.

Until next week, dear readers.