"We're not lost!" Ray snapped, tightening his grip on the steering wheel.
It was autumn and the leaves on the trees were golden, creating a halo above them as they moved forward along the unused road. Leaves lay heavy on the ground and made a steady sound under the tires. It sounded almost like the whispering of a distant crowd.
The noise filled the silence between the two men. Florian's head was turned away in silent reproach. A few miles back there had been a fork and he'd wanted to take the other, obviously better traveled road. Ray had chosen this one.
He'd lured Florian into the trip with the promise of time spent away from work - both Ray's occupation as usurer, and his avocation as a jewel thief. The last few months had been difficult and the tension between them had frayed both their tempers.
At the inn last night, over too much food and even more ale, some of the locals had spun tales of bandits and mystical treasures. By the end of the evening, Ray had set his sights on The Lady's Regret, a legendary necklace with a pendant shaped like a unicorn's horn.
Florian had slept alone; Ray hadn't slept at all.
And now they were racing ahead recklessly with no idea of where they were going. If Florian were one for metaphors, he'd find this a fitting one for his life since meeting Ray.
And if Florian believed in the fates, he'd have laughed when the car suddenly sputtered and drifted to a stop.
Without a word he climbed out of the car and started walking, ignoring Ray's calls to stop. There was something in the distance and he set a resolute pace towards it.
Ray was calling him, but the lure of the something in front of him was stronger. He was completely surprised when a black and white cat with an eyepatch and peg-leg stepped into his path.
Florian leaned down to pet the animal, smiling when he responded by demanding more attention. Ray arrived, short of breath from chasing after, and from indignation. Florian ignored him.
"There you are."
A woman was suddenly there before them, although the leaves weren't disturbed and they hadn't heard her approach. She had wild brown hair and a round friendly face. Her clothing was simple and practical - a brown dress with a well-worn apron. She was carrying a wooden spoon, as if she'd been interrupted while cooking.
"Found the strays, did you, cat?" She stepped forward to inspect both men, looking them over fully before nodding once. "Well come on then. He's waiting for you."
The woman's name was Molly, but they learned nothing else from her as they walked the short distance to a wooden caravan. It was old and the paint was faded, but it somehow fit the woman. She gave the door three good thumps with her spoon as she passed, motioning for the men to wait there while she attended to her cooking.
The man who opened the door was delighted to see them, shaking their hands repeatedly and telling them how glad he was that they'd finally arrived. He offered them seats on camp stools and took one himself, settling in like an impatient schoolboy. He had large nose and bright eyes that seemed to see everything. And, although his manner and well-patched clothing was that of a young man, there was a sense of wisdom and gravity about him.
"Mr..." Ray started to speak but the man interrupted quickly.
"Call me wizard, if you please," he insisted, making a show of ignoring Molly's snort of amusement. "It's been a long time," he added, raising his voice for her to hear. "You've heard the story and come seeking The Lady's Regret." There was no censure in his voice, and only a small trace of amusement. "And between the two of you, you've managed to come this far." The wizard looked tired for a moment. "It has been a very long time since anyone's gotten this far."
"Why?" Florian was unable to stop himself from asking the question, although he thought it was impolite.
"Because too many people believe stories are only for children. They think money is the only true and valuable thing in this world." The wizard leaned back, casting his gaze up towards the golden leaves overhead. "Those people wouldn't care for tales of unicorns and princes."
"The Lady's Regret is real?" Ray asked. Florian turned towards him, ready to be angry at his singlemindness, but there was a thoughtful expression on Ray's face, and no sense of urgency to possess.
"Very real," Molly assured them. She approached balancing four mismatched bowls of fragrant soup and served them up before going off and returning with cups and a battered coffee pot. She claimed a camp stool for herself and started eating without ceremony.
While they ate, the wizard spun a tale of unicorns and princes, monsters and men, telling it so cleverly that at the end, when he held up his empty hand, Ray and Florian both saw The Lady's Regret. The heartbreaking beauty of it brought them both to tears.
"Enough then," Molly said, breaking the spell as she stood. There was an odd hunch to her shoulders for a moment and she surreptitiously wiped at her eyes before dishing out the apple pie she'd baked that afternoon.
Florian wanted to help her, but as he shifted, ready to stand, he caught a flash of white between two trees at the distant edge of the clearing. He started, not sure of what he was seeing, but he could almost sense the others looking at it also. The vision was too beautiful, too pure, and it made him _wish_...
Until the cat rolled over and let out a pitiful 'meow' and broke the spell.
Something was different after that - the subtle tension of waiting replaced by calm acceptance. It made no sense when he thought about it, but it was there nonetheless. And after a while he relaxed and accepted it. The pie was good, the company was excellent, and there was nowhere else they needed to be. It was better than what he'd hoped for.
Eventually it was time to leave. Although it wasn't any darker in the little clearing, they'd had to have been there for hours and Ray didn't want to have to walk back to town in the dark.
They thanked their hosts and said their goodbyes, but the wizard insisted on accompanying them to their car. It was as they'd left it, but when Ray turned the key in the ignition, it started easily, and there was more than enough fuel to get them to the next town.
The wizard stood and watched them drive back the way they'd came, but when Florian looked back, he couldn't see him.
Just a trick of the light, he told himself as they reached the fork in the road and turned onto the better traveled path. Ray reached over and rested a hand on Florian's leg for a moment before returning it to the steering wheel and starting to hum.
Florian smiled, tapped the rhythm out on his knee, and took up counterpoint.