“I still say it wasn’t worth it.”
Paul Derry sighed and tried not to roll his eyes. Three days, and his partner hadn’t shut up about it. He mentally ran down what platitudes he’d tried previously, and realized that he was running out of things to say that Carel Rosse hadn’t already heard before. It would have been fine if it had been poor old Greg that had been chattering at him. The big man, simple as he was, would have eventually become distracted by something else. But Carel was annoyingly difficult to sidetrack.
“We’ve been over this,” Paul said, putting as much patience as he could into his tone. “The road isn’t as safe as it used to be. Things are getting more…” He paused as he considered his words.
“Dangerous?” Carel suggested, scowling in the recesses of his gorsebush of a beard.
“Let’s go with ‘aggressive.’ Even Grand Casar’s Far Patrol is having trouble lately,” Paul shook his head. “You brought this on us, anyway. You’re the one who insisted we head out when we did. If we’d waited another couple of days, we could have set out with a larger convoy, and there’s safety in numbers.” He spread his hands. “Thus. We needed to have someone to scare off anything that might decide to attack us. That meant hiring a ranger or two.”
For a few minutes, Paul exulted in the silence, glimpsing his partner chewing on the ends of his mustache, as he always did when he was trying to think of a retort. Sure enough, he blurted out, “Well, you could have picked a couple that are more pleasant company!”
They both glanced back at their meager little caravan. Two wagons were being hauled along by a brace of chocobos each. Paul and Carel sat on the front wagon, while simple Greg Cliffman drove the rear wagon alone. The three also had hired two nomad workers that needed the work. One of them slouched along beside the slow-moving convoy, stretching his legs, while his fellow slumbered in the back of Greg’s wagon.
Carel, however, wasn’t talking about them. He was talking about the two rangers that were accompanying them. The younger of the two, who gave his name as Ed Dour, was barely out of his teens and didn’t even have any whiskers on his face, but he exuded a weariness that made him seem like he were decades older. Two blades were strapped at his sides, plus the scattergun on his back. If he heard the two merchants’ conversation (not unlikely, given how Carel’s voice carried), he gave no sign of it, nor did it change his gloomy expression.
Then there was the older ranger. It was difficult to place his age. There were traces of silver in his hair and close-trimmed beard, but his face was unlined. Granted, Paul reflected, it would be, given how the ranger never seemed to smile. Dour, at least, showed periodic glimpses of humor, dark as it was, and would join in on the laughter when they’d made camp in previous nights. The older ranger, Willard Grimaldi, treated these moments of levity from others as merely something to observe, rarely speaking, and always with the same empty frown on his face. Paul could see him now, trundling along on a chocobo of his own, bobbing back and forth in his saddle, head lowered, eyes closed. The stock of his rifle swung back and forth slightly as he rocked where he sat.
“We didn’t hire them to make us laugh, Carel,” Paul reminded him. “They’re here to make sure we get to Casar safely. We’ll be there by sundown. We’ll be fine.”
That was about the point when the pack jumped out of the brush and fell upon the caravan. Claws and teeth flashed, feral barks and howls filling the air along with the startled screams of the merchants and workers. Ed Dour was knocked from the back of his chocobo, landing in a tangle of fur and fang, bellows of shock and fury mixing into the cacophony around them. Greg was bleating in terror, reining in his panicking chocobos, then wailing as one of them had its legs torn out from underneath it by two of the attacking beasts. The worker who’d been walking alongside the wagons took off running, and was brought down by one of the pack, raking at his clothing as it tried to get at his spine.
The initial attack was swift. The rangers’ response was swifter.
Grimaldi spurred his chocobo around the side of Greg’s wagon and unslung his rifle, aiming and firing at the greatwolf that had the worker pinned. Meanwhile, Dour rolled to his feet, both his short and his long blades drawn and cutting down the beasts that surrounded him. Another wolf snapped at his ankle, then yelped shrilly as his boot caught it in the snout. Dour jabbed his blades down into the creature, then ducked a pounce from a second and unslung his scattergun, blasting it as it turned to try again. Grimaldi slung his rifle back over his shoulder and drew his own sword, cutting down one more greatwolf before the surviving pack members fled back into the forest, baying in rage.
Grimaldi cleaned his sword and looked to his partner. “Ed?”
The younger ranger reloaded his scattergun, then gave himself a once-over. “Fine.” He took his blades out of the carcass where he’d left them and cleaned them off as he headed for the terrified worker, who was shoving the corpse of the greatwolf off of him. “Stop squirming,” Dour said as he looked him over. “Tch. You were lucky. All these cuts are superficial.”
His elder partner, meanwhile, had climbed off his chocobo to check on Greg and the working bird that the wolves had taken down. The big man was blubbering as he tried to keep the maimed and terrified creature calm, looking up at the ranger knelt to look it over. “Nothing we can do for it, lad,” he said. His voice was no less grim, but its tones were softer. “Best give it peace. D’you need help?”
Sniffling, Greg swung his head back and forth in a ponderous ‘no,’ then hesitated. When fresh tears and sobs started to bubble up, Grimaldi sighed, patting the man on the shoulder. “Check on the other birds, lad. I’ll take care of this.” Nodding, the simple man stood and went to check on the other chocobos. Grimaldi watched him go, then drew his knife and slit the bird’s throat.
On the front wagon, Paul turned back to his partner. “And that, Carel, is why we hired them.” He stood and bowed slightly. “My thanks, Ranger. You were worth every coin.”
“It is what we do,” Grimaldi said as he rose and put his knife away. “Ed and I deal with the world as it is. We are not men overly driven by mirth or humor.”
“We are grim all day,” Ed Dour added as he helped the worker up onto the rear wagon. “But we keep you safe at night.” Then he looked to his elder. “Wolves don’t usually attack this many people.” Grimaldi just nodded. “Something must have them on edge.”
“Focus on the job at hand, Ed,” Grimaldi said. “We can puzzle it out once these gentlemen are in town.”
Further discussion was interrupted by a crack of thunder. A clap as if one of the gods themselves had struck his palms together. The forest rocked, dust and dirt being kicked up by a shockwave of force that boomed out of the heavens. The noise set the chocobos to panicking again, and the merchants and simple Greg reined them in and calmed them. The rangers looked to the sky, watching streamers of flame rocket by overhead as something, something immense, screamed overhead.
“Heads down!” Grimaldi shouted, and pulled Greg to the ground as he flung an arm up over his head. Dour did the same and had the two workers do the same. The merchants followed suit, and everyone stayed like that for several minutes as the mammoth object overhead went by. The ground shook as it collided, still miles away outside the forest, but the rangers made them keep their heads down as the skies turned dark with dirt and dust and smoke.
At last, they rose, and Grimaldi climbed onto the rise beside the track and looked toward the distant crash. Dour watched him quietly. Carel Rosse was the first to break the silence. “What in all the hells was that?”
“A ship,” the ranger replied. “Starship, like the ones the settlers first came in on.”
“Pull the other one,” Carel blustered. “They’re nowhere near that big!”
Grimaldi ignored him, but looked to his younger partner. The two shared a look, and then Dour nodded. Grimaldi dropped into the saddle of his chocobo, then reloaded his rifle. “Where are you going?” Carel demanded.
“There may be wounded on that ship,” Grimaldi replied. “Survivors. Far Patrol’s probably on its way, but they might need every hand they can get.” He slung his rifle back across his shoulder and looked at the merchant. “Ed will get you to Grand Casar safely. If I’m not back by tomorrow, give Ed my payment. He’ll know what to do with it.”
Without waiting further, the ranger swung his mount around and disappeared into the gloom surrounding them. Carel huffed angrily. “This is breach of contract,” he muttered as he dropped into his seat.
Dour didn’t respond as he took his own mount and harnessed it to the rear wagon, replacing the one the wolves had killed. He waited for Greg to climb back on the wagon, then looked up. “When he gets back, you can argue with him then,” Dour said. “But if I were you, I’d make for Grand Casar at all possible speed. That crash is going to have the beasties on edge.”
“But now we’re one ranger short!” Carel protested, even as Paul dragged him back into his seat and twitched the reins.
Ed Dour’s woeful countenance twitched into a thin smirk. “One ranger is all you’ll need, sir. Let’s go.”