Ch. 14 In Which Creatures Abound

They rode in silence for a while, cantering to allow Gildy to sleep, and tensely watching the path. The forest was not only magical, it was old. The trees towered over the pathway casting a cloak of darkness over the night life. Moonlight would suddenly spring across their path and bathe their mounts near the smaller trees, then drop back into shadows. Prince Jax watched the shadows uneasily.

"Everyone knows shadows have a way of seeming to move out of the corner of your eyes this late at night anywhere...but the feeling is infinitely stronger in this forest."

"People usually stay indoors at this time of the night. That would probably be because the shadows moving here is more reality than imagination. It wouldn't surprise me if the King were more lenient on creatures terrorizing people this late to keep questing youths from getting into danger when no-one to help is awake."

They fell back into silence and Sir Roland hid a grin when the Prince urged his mount to increase its' pace. The wizard snorted restlessly in his sleep, drooping in the ropes binding him to his mount, but didn't wake. The witch didn't move or show any reaction to the increase in pace. Creeper stared up at the knight with wide eyes eerily lit by the moonlight, then tucked his face back behind Gildy's arm. The dragon's wing beats had grown faint and the knight was looking up at the sky when the young Prince slowed his mount. The air twisted around them and the dragon's shadow covered them as it flew low to speak,

"There is not any wide enough place for me to land for quite a way along the path, I just checked. I have to confess flying at a slower speed and circling to stay close is rather tiring. I don't think I can be much use to you with this path. How about if I go up to the next area large enough for a clearing and find the nearest water source, my dinner, and wait for you there? It is a fair distance down the path and I would have time to catch something for your dinner also if you like so you can rest and eat there."

The dragon's protection being rendered difficult at best it was agreed it would move on. The sounds of night in the forest were becoming familiar and the riders began to slump in their saddles. The Prince's pixie yawned in the curls on his head, then stretched, tangling wooden limbs in the curls.

"Ouch!" The Prince swatted at her and she hopped down to sit on his shoulder facing behind them.

"I'll watch your back. Ew..." The little carving covered her wooden nose as a pair of skunks bustled across their path. One of them flipped it's tail up at her as it crossed but did nothing more. They let out a sigh of relief when the animals were out of sight.

"Do you hear that? Voices." She said with a frown.

They both looked around at the path but their was no-one in sight. Sir Roland drew his sword, and they moved their horses to face opposite sides of the path warily. The knight looked down at the witch in his arms with a frown. "This is a problem, I can't fight like this."

"Shh…" The saddle creaked as the Prince turned to look behind them at the path on both sides. The voices were getting closer, but still even with the vision spell they couldn't see anyone.

"…don't see why I had to be woken up in the middle of the night for this, why are people traveling in the middle of the night anyway? I thought the king doesn—"

"Woken up you say! Were you really asleep under that bush? Truly?"

"Look, its not my fault my wife kicked me out. She just chitters and nags at me, can't speak you know. If I don't bring enough nuts home from work she pelts me with pine cones until I go back out for more, or it's the bush for me!"

"Tsk, tsk…well you're welcome in my tree when you need a place to stay. Are you going to leave?"

"No…no…after all the hard work I've already done…she's right there's still not enough for the winter, but well…everything I worked for is in that tree stored up and I won't leave it. She's got me by the nuts and she knows it. By the by, it's real nice to have another creature to talk to! It's been a long time since Suz came around and all the quest beasts care about is their quests."

"Of course we don't live so close, but I'll come visit again. Maybe another message request will be sent along your way. Tough luck about the wife though…well you'd better find a higher place to sleep with these mad wolves around—oh good the travelers stopped moving, now we can catch up."

The Prince had relaxed visibly by this time, the mundane conversation no doubt having eased his tension. Sir Roland and Prince Jax exchanged a look. They still couldn't see anyone, but could at least tell which direction the voices were coming from. Finally two small figures came out of the forest. An opossum, and a squirrel. The Prince looked from the two creatures, as they called their greetings, to Roland.

"Can ALL the animals in the forest talk?"

"No, mostly just the magical quest beasts, and a very few other creatures like Suz have become able to speak to pass messages for the king or the people when needed."

They greeted the creatures, then the knight asked, "Were you looking for us?"

The opossum settled itself comfortably on a rock and grinned with its sharp teeth, while the squirrel rubbed it's face restlessly and watched nervously for wolves. Rustling from various nightlife and owls sly calls continued to echo through the shadows.

"We were yes, the villagers told Suz you left with only a couple weapons and the witch was helpless." The opossum rolled slightly to the side and rubbed its belly. "There was really good scraps from them tonight. They also think the wolves might have been sent after you because of your quest so they want to be sure you're ready." The squirrel tsk-tsked and scrambled partway up a tree at a rustling sound in the distance. "I was sent to pass on the message to my friend here, and he sent someone for more weapons for you. He wanted someone with sharp teeth to hang around since he was asked to lead to the road, and I can see better in the dark so here I am too. As for the weapons, that's probably her coming now."

Leaves whispered in the tree as the squirrel bobbed it's head emphatically. "Yes, yes. I'll go see."

"What kind of weapons? We have swords."

"So I see," said the opossum, "but you have extras to protect and since those wolves are quite mad…the hunters thought you'd be better off with windows." The opossum grinned proudly.

Sir Roland stared. "With windows?"

"Something magical? Perhaps a scrying device to watch or track the wolves?" The Prince sounded cheerful for the first time since the messenger had arrived. He looked at their visitor eagerly.

The opossum just blinked dark eyes at them for a moment. Branches shook above, heralding the smaller messenger's return. The noise somehow seemed louder than it should.

"I think he means wind boughs." Said the squirrel, covering his mouth with both paws and twitching his tail.

"No, no that's not it either" the opossum said sadly,"…maybe not wind, it was…air boughs?"

"Air bows…?" The two men exchanged a look.

"Yes…yes it is." The squirrel dashed off through tree tops, and a few minutes later another figure joined them.

The opossum grinned, displaying sharp teeth. "Hello, dear" he said.

The doe twitched an ear nervously and ducked her head in greeting. Two bows and full quivers had been bound to her slender back.

"Ah, airboughs, of course. These will indeed be very useful." Sir Roland sighed in relief and Prince Jax dismounted to remove the weapon's. The doe rolled her eyes, showing whites and the horses shuffled. Abruptly all sounds of movement and nightlife in the forest went silent.

"Uh oh." The opossum quickly climbed the tree, his companion streaking up the tree past him.

"Run, dear! Run!" The squirrel said quietly. The doe needed no further encouragement and bounded off.

The two men quickly strung the bows and settle the quivers as they heard the approach, aside from the noise of their passage the wolves were eerily silent. There was no snarling or howling or growling, just a mad rush with red eyes and foam flying from curled lips.

"I count three." Sir Roland said.

"Same."

"Don't worry about your horses," the opossum called down, "we'll keep track of them if they run and help bring them back, just get those wolves!"

"Fine, thank you," Sir Roland said as he loosed and arrow. Deflected by brush, it missed it's mark. The Prince had already dismounted, and Sir Roland handed him Gildy before dismounting himself. He loosed another arrow and it struck the shoulder of a wolf. But the charge was unchecked, the maddened creature didn't even yelp or respond to the wound. Quickly the Prince put Gildy down in the middle of the road and they stood on either side of her unconscious form, continuing to fire the arrows at the wolves.

"This is not good, the arrows don't faze them." The Prince said grimly, "We have to aim to kill to do any good."

The knight nodded grimly and his arrow struck the front wolf through one red eye, burying itself in a few inches. The creature didn't pause, it kept running full speed right into a tree. The impact drove the arrow deeper and birds and animals shrieked as their tree shook them awake. The wolf fell to the ground and the men tossed aside the bows and drew their swords again. The men had moved away from Gildy to distract the wolves from her and avoid tripping over her.

They each swung their blades at a charging wolf, both striking, but again the charging beasts didn't falter. Nor did they head for their attackers. Prince Jax cursed.

"They're after her!"

The two men quickly lunged at the wolves but the wolves were faster and were nearly at Gildy. Creeper suddenly dashed out of some bushes he'd been hiding in, his coat standing on end and hissed and spit with all he was wolf at the wolves. Desperately Sir Roland threw his sword at the further wolf and it flew, end over end striking the creature in the head, while Prince Jax dashed forward. The knight's sword struck the nearer wolf with it's hilt and caused it to lose balance, stumbling into the other wolf. For a moment the two wolves were a tangle of limbs, but a moment was just enough for Prince Jax to wrecklessly tackle the stunned wolf pile, holding them down as they madly attacked each other. The knight quickly ran up , retrieved his sword, and beheaded the wolves.

Panting, the two pulled the dead beasts out of the road and into the edges of the forest, then dropped down next to the unconscious witch.

The knight looked up at the opossum, "There was only three, right?" The whole encounter had been eerily silent.

"Yes, and we'll take care of these dead ones, you should get moving. Your horses are just up the road a bit. Thank you. We will spread the word the wolves have been slain."

Being the stronger of the two, the knight picked up Gildy and they walked down the path toward the horses with the prince's pixie watching their backs. Sir Roland looked up at her.

"Jax. Why is there some kind of little creature in your hair looking at me?" The pixie stuck it's tongue out at the knight.

"Oh, yes, that's my pixie. Didn't you see her earlier? She was watching our backs."

"Yes but...Your pixie?"

"Yes," the Jax glanced at him, "she's an enchanted wood carving Gildy gave me. She didn't give you one?"

Sir Roland was quiet for a moment, looking down at the unconscious Witch. Creeper climbed back up Gildy's skirt and curled up in the crook of the knight's arm, looking up at him and purring so hard his small body vibrated. The knight petted the kitten and they rode on in silence.

It was nearly dawn when an obstacle came into view. Sir Roland partially drew his sword warily and they slowed the horses. Gildy stirred groggily and yawned.

"What is that?" Sir Roland asked the Prince.

"I'm not certain but…oh luck!" Prince Jax urged his mount forward and called back in delight, "It's a chest! An old one with bits of gilt! Come look!"

Stopping at the chest Sir Roland dismounted and joined the Prince, leaving Gildy mounted. She resituated herself in the middle of the saddle with pleasure and watched them. The wizard watched in silent misery.

Prince Jax put his hands on his hips and grinned, "Its about time we had this kind of luck, I'm pretty much cleaned out since we bought the extra mounts you know. I know you and Gildy don't have any monies either. Problem solved!" The Prince started to reach for the chest.

"Wait!" Jax pulled back his hand in surprise and an annoyed expression crossed his features, but Sir Roland was looking around with narrowed eyes. "There's just something wrong about this, where is its owner?"

"Maybe the owner is a new quester who started out planning on carrying around this chest everywhere and decided it's too heavy." The Prince sighed, "Come to think of it the thing is probably empty."

"If it's not perhaps I could get my own mount," Gildy muttered. The chest was medium to small in size and if the Prince was right, someone would be hard put to conveniently carry all its contents off in another way in any kind of comfort.

"Well I suppose you might be right." Sir Roland drew his sword anyway while the Prince crouched and flipped the catch open on the chest's lid.

The lid flipped open and revealed neatly rolled spice packets tucked in one corner and several pouches. Prince Jax let out a whoop, waking his pixie and drawing the other carvings out to see what was going on. He reached into the chest for one of the pouches and suddenly the lid snapped shut. He barely pulled his hand out in time and jerked backward in surprise.

"Hey!" He waited for a moment and nothing else happened.

"Maybe it has a time spell on it to keep it from being opened too long and letting too many people see it's contents or avoid being left open." Gildy said in amusement.

Sir Roland however wasn't taking any chances, with his sword firmly in hand he circled around behind it to watch the Prince's back and peered into the woods around them. The Prince reached out, recoiled warily, and when nothing happened flipped the latch again. He opened the lid halfway and suddenly the chest flew at him, snapping it's lid. The Prince let out a shout and scrambled backward awkwardly just in time. It lunged snapping its lid again.

"What the devil IS this thing?" The Prince scrambled back again and it kept coming.

"I have no idea, I've never seen this. Maybe it's a trap spell…" He hacked at the back of the chest with his sword and a few wood chips flew but the chest kept lunging and snapping at the Prince.

"I hope not!" The Prince said, crab-leaping back and to the side again. "How would we kill a spell? Gildy what do you think? Can you stop the thing?"

"I've never seen one either Prince Jax. I'm not sure if it is a spell."

"Ew!" The Prince wiped what looked like drool off his tunic and pointed at drool dribbling down the front of the snapping chest.

"Great! Monster then! Keep it distracted!" Sir Roland lunged at the chest and swung again. Just as his blade neared it the chest lunged with a vicious snap at the Prince, causing him to scramble back again.

"This thing is getting faster! Hurry up and kill it Roland!"

Gildy covered her mouth watching the scrambling Prince, vicious drooling chest, and knight in a bizarre chase around the path, trying to stifle her laughter.

"How am I supposed to kill a box! Do you have any ideas?" Sir Roland snapped.

"Figure it out with all that experience of yours, blast it!" The Prince made an attempt to get back to his feet and the chest nipped glancingly at his knee, knocking him off balance again. "OW! Hurry up!" The Prince was red-faced with embarrassment and frustration.

"Maybe if I try to break it's hinges! I can see some from the back—"

"Whatever! Just do it fast!"

Lunge-snap. Crab scramble. Lunge and swing. The chain of actions kept repeating.

Sir Roland charged and swung his blade in a low arch to separate the hinges from the box's lid but his timing was off and his blade caught in the hardened wood of the lid, jerking the sword out of his hands as it lunged forward again. Cursing under his breath, the knight jumped forward groping for his blade, getting knocked painfully by it a few times before catching it. By this point Gildy could see the Prince was panting with the constant awkward evading, and Sir Roland kept stalking and swinging at it with his eyes narrowed intently. Gildy couldn't hold back any more as the unproductive efforts of all three continued to take them zigzagging down the path, she laughed out loud. Hard.

The sight was so ridiculous! The pixie even started trying to harass the chest but it seemed only interested in the Prince who had opened it. The little wise woman carving tsk-tsked at the young Witch from inside the pouch.

"For shame, Gildy! You should help your companions! After all this is costing you all time and you must get moving!" The little carving chided.

"Stop laughing at us and do something, Witch! It's not funny!" Sir Roland spared a moment to glare at her, sweat trickling down his face.

Gildy put her hands on her hips and glared back. "Oh sure, now I really want to help! I think maybe you need to figure it out alone and gain the experience of how to kill the thing!"

The little carving sighed. Sir Roland growled and tossed his sword aside, then charged and tackled the chest in the middle of its leap. Knight and chest crashed to the ground and the thing hopped and shook violently under his wait to try and free itself.

"Great! Finally!" The Prince regained his feet, and then when the chest was about to get away leaped forward to tackle both and help hold the box down. The two men grunted as the chest wildly struggled under them snapping. "Get a hold of it!"

"I'm trying, I can't! It starts to bite my arm. We have to hold its lid shut!"

"You're right that seems to be what gives it the momentum to move. Ow!"

Gildy laughed again as the two men wrestled the little chest, doubling over as her stomach began to ache. Something struck her temple where the staff and struck and she fell off her mount. She looked up, stunned, to see what had attacked. The little wooden pixie stuck her tongue out at Gildy from above and laughed at her.

"How do you like it?"

The young witch glared and rubbed her shoulder as she got up.

"Gildy please…even if we get it's…lid shut we've no idea…how to kill the thing, it's obviously a magical…creature!" Sir Roland and the prince looked at her panting with pleading eyes.

"Not to mention we're wasting time." The wisewoman added.

"All right, all right" Gildy pointedly dusted off her skirts first then circled the pile of men and box to get to the most exposed part of the bucking thing. "Better hope I don't miss…"

"You know…." Sir Roland panted, "at the moment I don't care so much if you do."

"Same, young witch, please just do what you can." Prince Jax said darkly.

Gildy broke a few long branches off a tree and dropped them at her feet. "When I say now, release the box and move away—quickly." They both nodded and shifted to be able to regain their feet. "Now!" Gildy enchanted the branches and sent them, snake like, to wrap around the box, trapping it's lid shut. As the knight had guessed, the moment the lid was shut it stopped moving, but they knew the thing wasn't dead, only subdued. Sir Roland and Prince Jax stood on either side of the box in satisfaction.

"Now then what shall we do to it? Smash it?" Jax glared at bound, drool covered box and used a handful of leaves to wipe drool off his clothes. His little pixie brought him more leaves, glaring at Gildy at ever opportunity.

"Or maybe burn it? The wood seems to be very tough and might ruin my blade." Sir Roland narrowed his eyes at the evil chest speculatively. "You ought to be firewood."

"You're cruel! It's a living creature and you want to burn it alive?" Both men turned and stared at the Young Witch. Her lips twitched, aside from a few bruises, being worn out, and wounded pride they were unharmed. Well…and drool. She decided she had a fondness for the thing. Creeper strutted up and purred, rubbing his head and side against a corner of the box with a sly look at the men.

"That settles it. I'm keeping it."

"You're what!" Sir Roland snapped.

"Young Witch, keeping this monster may not be the best—" The red-faced Prince started with careful calm, wiping sweat from his brow and avoiding her eyes, his other fist clenched.

"I'm sorry, but you must admit the thing makes an appropriate pet for a wicked witch. Don't worry, I'll keep it from bothering you." To demonstrate, she added more enchanted branch ropes to bind the chest then tied it securely on top of their packs. "Now we can get moving."

Since she was not eager to sit in a saddle with one of the men and their drool covered clothes, she opted to walk part of the way. At least until the drool dried. It wasn't until he spoke that she realized they had forgotten about the captive wizard.

"Well," the scrawny old man said,"this episode has answered one question."

Since she was in a good mood from the spectacle she decided to humor the old wizard. "What question would that be?"

"How many fools does it take to close a box?" The wizard smirked nastily.