I already shared the first two chapters (which you can read here if you haven't) and here are the next two:
The sun boldly streaked across the land as Jack stumbled across the farm. Despite all common sense (of which Jack was born fully lacking) he’d ridden the entire night through the dark foreboding forest half singing quarter remembered songs and when the words weren’t coming always falling back on “tip me over and pour me out.”
Even the creatures of the forest felt sorry for the boy belting inn songs of which he didn’t understand even the first entendre loudly through the dark night and clomping over fallen bracken that would have snapped the ankles of any other man or horse. Jack’s entire life operated upon a string of good luck, incredible patience, and the ability to be incredibly pathetic without realizing it. So with a head heavy with sleep and a belly full of highly poisonous berries and amazingly their only known antidote a sprig of mistletoe that caught in Jack’s throat as he traipsed through the forest the mighty adventurer was in high spirits as he spotted a small farm beginning its morning dance.
Even as a spec in the distance loud crashes and incoherent screaming drifted on the wind to Jack’s ears. Well no one ever said a great Barbarian was much of a morning person. In fact it seems to go against their very idiom. If it weren’t for the increasing levels of swearing and groaning coming from the barn this land would be idyllic. Pastoral poets would break into tears tearing at their breasts and other various attempts at scenery chewing to capture its true beauty in verse. Jack, on the other hand, noticed that they had both brown and black cows.
He aimed Horse towards the farmhouse, eerily silent, hoping to find someone inside with a bit cooler head than the voice threatening to damn for all enternity some inanimate object. Didn’t they have squires or something to handle all the boring day to day needs? Knocking on the door produced nothing but silence, Jack tried once more thinking perhaps the squire was busy doing squirely things and perhaps a bit hard of hearing.
“Eh! What are you on about?”
Jack spun about to find a young woman cradling a load of firewood staring at him accusingly. Her dark features and raven hair put Jack in mind of the old bedtime horror tales of night spirits that would claim young boys who got lost in the woods at night.
“I . . . I’m sorry. I must be at the wrong house. I was just, I should be going,” Jack bumbled down the steps his boots sliding off the bottom step as he almost bit the ground.
Slogging the wood down, the girl wiped her hands off on her apron and stared Jack up and down taking in his homemade scabbard (a few bits of old leather from a broken rein) his armor (dinner plates that he’d tied together) and his trusty steed nosing through the wood pile looking for something good, “Why’re you wearing that scarf? It’s goin’ on hellfire by now?”
Jack tried to smoothly pull the scarf from his neck, but only managed to wind it tighter. He gasped for air but the girl ignored it as her face lit up and her guarded marble face softened as a few smile lines turned her human. Between haggard breaths Jack realized that this girl no longer about to drag him off to her lair and eat his fingers was gorgeous, and aside from the hair color, skin, height and age could be his beloved Anne’s twin.
She smiled wide, Jack was sure his knees were going to buckle, “You’re an adventurer aren’t you? Come to learn to slay the great beast and win your lady loves hearts.”
“Don’t you mean heart?”
“You’re only getting one lady out of it? Look at you,” Jack started to lower his eyelids to look at himself but caught the woman’s ample assets and froze unsure of how to pull his eyes away without looking like a total lecher. She, chose to ignore this faux pas, “You’re covered in the forest. Have you been riding all night? Oh I must get you all fed and washed up. I can help with both,” she lowered her eyelids, her coquettish act broken by the fire burning beneath. Jack was certain he was going to pass out this time.
“PENNY! WHERE DID YOU GET TO NOW?!” the bellowing from the barn broke the spell of young hormones, “THE CALF IS DOWN BUT I NEED A BUCKET OF WATER TO WASH THE CRAP OFF!” Sweat poured off of Jack as he realized the voice wasn’t getting louder but closer.
The cow crap covered barbarian turned the corner and Jack met for the first time what he envisioned would be his beloved mentor and best friend. He’d spent most of the trip working up an iconoclast to shake the very foundations of society now a wise old man, crippled from fights but still wiry who would reprimand Jack lovingly and over time they would become as father and son build him into a stronger man.
Instead a robust woman, her large farm friendly frame covered in a leather apron atop a pair of unwomanly trousers, approached holding her shit covered hands out in front of her. Her hair was cropped short, and she moved with a steadfastness the belied the anger building inside her as she approached her young farm hand flirting with a young moron.
“I’m sorry, Mistress. I came to fetch the water but I found this man instead,” Penny slightly curtsied eliciting an eye roll from the large woman.
“Well, unless you think I should wipe my hands off on him do you think you could go get one now?” a small squeal escaped Jack’s lips at the idea of being used as a towel, but he was subdued as the thought that this must be his future mentors wife entered his mind, “What’s he doing here anyway?”
“Oh it’s so romantic, he’s come to learn how to slay something from the world’s greatest hero and win his ladies heart.”
The woman snorted. Realizing that no water would be forthcoming til she got rid of this guy she rubbed what little shit off she could on the ground and stuck her hand out, “I am Cas the Barbarian, nice to meet you.”
The combination of lack of sleep, dark forest spirits, the stench of shit and a stomach rolling as two poisons tried to cancel each other out finally laid claim and Jack crumpled up his head smacking against the steps. His armor dislodged and a dinner plate spun out down the road.
* * *
“Hey, kid. You all right?” Something nudged him in the ribs.
“I got some water.”
“I really don’t think he needs it. There, his eyes fluttered. He should be a fine in a few minutes.”
The voiced drifted in and out of inky blackness. Through closed eyelids Jack could make out two tall black figures standing above him debating his fate. The urge to close his eyes tight and wish he were back home surprised him so much he regained conscious. Just then Penny, in trying to be helpful, threw half of the sudsy water also filled with whatever the Barbarian had washed off onto his head. Jack shot up, shaking and sputtering the water out of his nose, the closest he’d come to drowning in his life.
“I told you, now go and get a towel so he can dry off and then get to it.”
Penny scampered off, a bounce to her step that reminded Jack of the schoolchildren when they managed to steal some scrap iron from the back of the smith, a new toy clutched in their grubby mitts. Cas offered him a hand and gently he rose, steadying himself against the wall.
“Here, drink this. Don’t worry it’s fresh. You’ll probably hear a ringing for a bit but that should pass. Your head bounced against just about every step on the way down, but nothing got cracked. Er, your ‘metal plates’ got a bit damaged but a hammer should fix it right up.”
Cautiously sipping from the mug decorated with a pink cat owning five legs on it, Jack tried to check for brain damage. As there was very little for the ground to have damaged and he was a bit unsure how to tell (he’d never tried to count past 100 and his memory operated on more of an of the moment variety) he gave up and turned back to Cas, “I came here to find you.”
She took the mug, “So I gathered, most people don’t arrive on my doorstep as the cock crows to flirt with my farm hand, pass out and head home.”
“My village is in danger,” he’d been working on his script the whole morning but none of it had gone to plan. For starters he hadn’t expected dirty sudsy water to be working its way into his small clothes.
“And I am the only one that can stop the giant fire breathing dragon from destroying it and save your lady love who you’ve never actually met but know you’re soul mates and possibly something about dead relatives. Am I getting close?” Jack opened and closed his mouth, his brain searching through his script for a good response, “Look, kid, I’m retired. I gave it all up. No more stabbing giant anythings or rescuing damsels in distress, who probably got themselves into there danger in the first place, stupid dating guides about finding your white knight. I have a new calf that needs a rub down and a distressed mother that needs watching. So once you’re dry be gone.” She turned back towards her barn, hoisting a fresh straw bale on her massive shoulders.
“It’s an Ogre.” Cas turned back to look at Jack who stared hard at his hands, “It’s not a Dragon, it’s an Ogre.”
“Well, bully for it,” perhaps not the best cutting insult but Cas was exhausted after a night up with a breeched calf and a cow who she was fairly certain was a tax collector in another life.
“My name is Jack the Farrier’s son and my home needs someone to stop a giant Ogre. If you won’t do it, then I will.”
Cas paused again, slowly lowering the straw to the ground, “What did you say?”
I have no idea, Jack thought, that didn’t come from me. Did it? Everyone’s right, I do hear too many stories. But his mouth was on a roll his brain wasn’t aware of, “You heard me.”
Inwardly he shuddered as angry footsteps brought her face into his, he wasn’t sure if he could survive another shock to the system and braced but was surprised to find her refrain from punching him in the eye or other painful areas. Instead she looked him up and down.
“And what makes you think a scrawny little turd like you could last 5 minutes against a full grown Ogre?” there was a playfulness belying her words, almost as though she was enjoying this and hoped he’d continue.
“Well I could always use someone to teach me the basics,” Jack felt like he had the tiger’s tail in the conversation and feared letting go.
“I’m guessing which part is the pointy end of a sword will be the first lesson. Look, I’m sure you’re very nice and lots of girls will like you once they get to know you but,” Cas heard a small squeal and caught Penny leaning out the window waving a piece of paper. Oh gods, how could she forget. And the fuckers were coming around in a week too, “look, kid, you got any coin?”
Jack blinked twice, expecting a slap and getting a begging hand instead, “A bit yes? My mother is a well known Smith in these parts.”
“Room and Board is 20 silver a week, 10 if you help out around the farm. And with your physique you’re gonna need all the help you can give.”
“I, I don’t know what to say.”
“You say ‘Thank You,’ also you ask nicely where the back pump is. You just stepped in horse shit. PENNY! Make a room in the barn, Jackie Fair is staying.”
“This is where you’ll be staying, it can get a bit cold at night in winter but I doubt you’ll last that long,” the warrior slicked her bristly hair back as she pointed to the modest surroundings. The barn was really more of a stable with extra straw piled up in the corners of unused horse stalls only one of which was occupied by a magnificent beast who deigned Jack with only a side eye glance before returning to his riveting morning meal. Cas waited about as patiently as she could stomach (which is about two seconds longer than someone in line at the post office) before hauling up the kid’s pack and tossing it into the loft, “There’s a bed made up there, it’ll keep you off the cold floor and mostly above the shit smell. Breakfast is a few hours before dawn and we eat regardless if you’re there or not,” Penny clucked her tongue getting Cas’s attention. Jack was looking a bit greener than one normally did, “You can take a few minutes of settling in then meet me in the arena behind the house.”
“The big dirt pit,” Jack nodded, having no idea where the big dirt pit was but nodding agreement with something he didn’t understand had always served him well in the past. Penny, took Horse’s reigns and lead him to one of the few clean stalls and set him up with a new oat bag leaving Jack to take in his new home away from home and his bed away from bed, a 5x6 box filled with straw and from the sounds of it two rather perturbed poultry roommates.
As the kid clambered up the ladder slowly and began a few exploratory pokes into the hay Cas patted the great steed who was munching contentedly on a carrot and slipped him a sugar beet from one of her apron pockets. A large squawk rang out through the upper echelon’s on the barn and Jack discovered the pair of hen sisters who ruled the stable with an iron claw. Cas used the distraction to confide to Penny, “Leave this one be, he’s special.”
A dangerous energy all but sparked off the girl, “Special, like a chosen one from a prophecy?”
“Special as in touched in the head,” she wanted to say more but could tell from the eyes transfixed upon the young man who was trying to wrestle a chicken that she was fighting a lost battle. Instead, Cas turned and walked out of the barn shaking her head and cursing any all municipal workers for forcing another one on her.
Jack opened his pack and placed his meager belongings upon the straw watching as the loaf of bread and berries vanished deep into his new bed. A soft voice came from down below, “It’s not so bad, once you get used to it,” Penny from the bottom of the loft’s ladder smiled at Jack who was surprised his knees were holding up.
“Do you sleep in the barn too?” Wild and raw thoughts everyone was sure Jack couldn’t have had or even thought about having danced through his head like a rather raunchy sugarplum.
Penny laughed, not the high strange whine that sounded of a pair of cans tied to a donkey from local girls who were trying to out do each other for male attention, but; well something else. If Jack had any idea what a cello sounded like that would have helped him here. Instead all he thought was gosh that was pretty and not much else, “No, I sleep in the house. But I’ve done the sleeping in barns and straw thing in my younger days with my Mistress.”
Jack tried to slide down the ladder smoothly like all those heart palpitations the stories went on about but his foot caught on the third step nearly snapping his ankle and a splinter dug deep into his palm. He fought back a yelp and instead staggered down and a little louder than necessary countered back, “It’s hard to picture you on anything other than silk sheets.”
“So you like imagining me on silk sheets do you?” the fire that had been embering smoldered back into her eyes as she stepped closer to Jack.
Some small rarely used part of Jack’s brain was sending out a warning telling him to change the subject, “Is it okay if my horse stables here?”
“Oh yes, I’m sure ol’ Greystone here will like it. I imagine he gets kind of lonely out here by himself,” subtlety wasn’t just a foreign concept to Jack, he was fairly certain it was a dirty word. “He’s a beautiful animal, what’s his name?”
Penny paused waiting to see if anything more was forth coming, but Jack stood there awkwardly reclining on the vertical ladder his left arm hooked through the steps. “Ha ha, well that works if he gets lost. I’m Penny, by the way.”
“So I heard. Is she always yelling like that?” Jack didn’t like yelling, he always managed to vanish for a few weeks into the woods whenever the kings accountants showed up in Spring. His mother was marked as a super special case with a few asterisks and exclamation points on their clip boards.
Penny smiled again, “She was being projective, you’ll know when she’s yelling. For starters, there’s a lot more blood.”
Jack nodded again hoping she wouldn’t notice the panic rising at the back of his brain. What am I doing here? Paying what little inheritance I have to a bloodthirsty barbarian so she can tear me to shreds for sport before I learn how to hold a sword and have a beautiful girl watch and laugh the whole time. Penny looked over at him waiting calmly for his mind and mouth to meet up again, he was a bit watery than the last few but seemed nice enough. As Jack was coming around to how he could still escape with most of his purse intact and head East til the whole Ogre thing blew over a soft hand slipped into his.
His eyes turned upward in time to watch Penny’s daffodil lips (Jack wasn’t quite up on his poetic horticulture) press into his. Numbness claimed all of his limbs, amplifying the sparks crawling across his face. His stomach flipped up and down and a small fear crawled into his head. What should he do if he suddenly vomited all over her.
But she pulled back before it came to that and stared expectantly into Jack’s eyes. What does one say at a time like this when you shared a kiss with a girl in a barn of a Dragon slayer?
“Hi, I’m Jack.”
The soft string laugh of beautiful Penny bounced through the barn once more, “Yes, yes I know. You best get out there or she’ll start to get suspicious and then you’ll see some real yelling.”
“All right, let’s see what you got.”
Jack blinked a few times, then a crimson blush bloomed up his chest onto his cheeks. “Pardon?”
“Your skills. I won’t have any idea how best to train you if I don’t see what I have to work with,” Cas stood as nonchalantly as she could but to his eye she had the appearance of a professor on exam day. And poor Jack like the student who had no idea there was a test and was fairly certain his small clothes were still in his room somewhere jiggled back and forth from one leg to the next.
“I should tell you, I haven’t had much practice. Mother wasn’t a big fan of us playing with knives,” the words tumbling again as Jack tried to distract from the fact he had no idea where his dagger was.
There’s cattle to feed and milk, I don’t have time for this, “It’s in your right pocket,” Jack looked up at her a puppy confusion etched across his face, “your little knife.”
“Ah,” Jack dug carefully, not remembering why he thought it a good idea to store an open blade in his pants, “Well, um, stab, stab, stab. How was that?”
“Uh huh,” Slowly detangling herself from the fence Cas walked over trying to not get too close to Jack in case he was about to have another strange panic attack with an open blade, “Well for starters that isn’t a dagger in your hand, it’s a kitchen utensil normally used for peeling apples and the like. Second, a stabbing motion is more of a downward or upward thrust, less of a sideways arm fling. And lastly, when holding a blade it’s better to use the handle and not carefully cup around the blade. But aside from all that, perfect. You will be the champ of awkwardly waving a small kitchen handle in the Ogres general direction.”
Jack hung his head, slowly putting the paring knife back into his pocket, “Look kid, I’m sorry. . .”
His eyes still fixed on the ground he mumbled, “But that’s why I came to you, you can teach me how to use a real sword and do all that not handle stabbing, right?”
Penny appeared again, carrying a large wooden chest that rattled ominously as she dropped it onto the ground. She gave a cheerful wave, which Cas narrowed her eyes at and Jack returned happily.
By sweet Ordren’s beard, not again. “Look, kid, I’m willing to mold a warrior out of bits of sand and a few drops of water but we need to get a few rules straight. One, you sleep in the barn. I have enough trouble with neighbors thinking we worship the horned one and his army of demons, I don’t need more tongues clucking over a young man staying in my house. Two, from this point forward you do whatever I say however I say it. If I ask you to jump you say. . .”
“I know how to do that!”
“Er, yeah. And three and this is the really important one,” Cas grabbed Jack’s collar pulling him up to her face, for the first time he could really make out the wear and tear of the adventuring life upon her in the saddles under her eyes and the deep frown lines that seemed permanent from birth, “don’t you mess with Penny. No matter what she says or does you keep away from her. Got it?”
Jack’s head bobbled like a floating apple, every bit of his pervious dalliance etched across his face.
“Right then, let’s get started. Try not to die.”