The Nightmare Rider - chapter 06


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Chapter 6 of
  The Nightmare Rider




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Chapter 6

The door opened and a man greeted them, "Solo Fotens. Nice to meet you. Come right in."

Patrick stepped inside, followed by Jessica. The man regarded her.

"I'm sorry. I didn't know there were two Solos," The man remarked.

"There aren't. I'm the remaining member of the Eighty-Sixth. Jessica Mulhanten is my apprentice," Patrick stated.

The man nodded, "OH! Actually I'm rather pleased. My niece is coming on the trip. I feel even better knowing there is someone that would be able to look after her. At certain times."

It took Jessica a moment to understand the meaning, then she got it. There would be times when personal matters needed attending and she would not be comfortable with a male close by. With Jessica there, it would be fine. Jessica nodded to the man.

"Oh. My name is Gareth Orvin in case it wasn't in the request," Gareth introduced himself.

Patrick nodded, "It was. The terms are to escort your travel by wagon from here in Hamius, Bergitan to Weregaar, Sacania. One and a half to two days travel. The wages are for three days. If we're engaged then you'll be additionally charged a day's battle wage for that day. Any bonuses are at your determination. Single Solo wages."

Gareth was reviewing the contract on his tablet but shook his head, "those were the terms before I became aware of your apprentice. This is welcome by me and I want to adjust accordingly."

"Adjust," Patrick asked with his eyes narrowing.

Gareth nodded, "of course! I wouldn't dare propose anything less than above board. I'll increase the wages to accommodate your apprentice. All wages, plus half over. I'm a legitimate business, I'll have no dispute saying otherwise. Do you find the new terms acceptable?"

Gareth handed Patrick the tablet with the new contract. Patrick read it over then signed it.

"Accepted Mr. Orvin," Patrick stated and handed back the tablet and laid his ledger on the table.

The contract was sent to Patrick's ledger. Patrick checked it over and saw it was the same as he had seen.

"We have a contract Mr. Orvin," Patrick said. "Please be ready to begin at dawn."

Gareth shook hands with Patrick, "I'm already prepared. I have only to hitch my horse to the wagon and climb aboard."

Patrick stood up and took his ledger, "until morning then."

"Until morning," Gareth echoed with a smile and showed the two out.

After the door closed and they walked a fair distance away Jessica let out a sigh of relief.

"That went well," She said pleased that her disguise had not been closely inspected.

Patrick shrugged, "he's lying."

Jessica gawked, "What? How can he? He barely paid me any attention."

"Not about you. He believes you are who and what we say you are. He's lying about the purpose of the trip," Patrick stated.

Jessica looked back to where they had been then to Patrick, "how can you tell?"

"He paid more attention to you than he should. He made sure that your presence is noted. He did that for a reason. Someone else has a vested interest," Patrick said.

Jessica was still confused and stopped, "his place looked real enough."

Patrick waved her to keep walking, "it is. He is a legitimate business man. That's what makes the lie believable. In short he has been hired to hire us."

"So the goods on the wagon aren't for real," Jessica asked.

Patrick shrugged, "they probably are. Its the people that are the real job. The niece more than likely is someone important. This happens sometimes. A real person is contracted to hire Solos under a legitimate contract. Unless someone who knows everything betrays the contractors then no one will really know what is actually important. We're being hired to escort a merchant and his goods. In truth we're being hired to escort a person under the ruse of protecting a merchant with goods. At the end of the assignment we'll be given a bonus and they'll confess to the ruse."

"Should I worry about being recognized even more," Jessica asked.

Patrick thought about it, "maybe, maybe not. This girl is not a knight. Probably not a first-born. We could speculate all night and not come up with what's true. What matters is that we are aware of the subterfuge and can act accordingly. Unless you know this girl can recognize you on sight, stay close to her. We have to act as though we are unaware and when they reveal themselves we have to act accordingly. In short follow my lead."

Jessica nodded, "so I just keep doing what I have been. Eyes and ears open, mouth closed unless I don't understand what you do."

"Yes. But now when you have questions you have to be more discreet asking them. The girl may attach herself to you. She'll view you as her real protector so don't be surprised if you're asked to go everywhere with her," Patrick informed her as they arrived back at the tavern.

"Alright. Should I act nonchalant about it or should I act like I'm seeing it as my own assignment and its the first," Jessica asked.

Patrick stopped and regarded her then answered, "act like I told you to view it as your first assignment and you're trying to be nonchalant but every so often let it barely slip that you really are excited about it. This is the first time you're being taken seriously. Act like that."

"Oh. I can do that," Jessica said then followed him inside.

Inside the night was apparently in full-swing. There were men and women. There were also men that were presenting themselves as women and vice versa. The bartender noticed them and pointed to a table with a blue candle lit. Patrick and Jessica seated themselves and the bartender came over and took the candle away.

"What can I get for you," he asked.

"Two dinners," Patrick replied.

The bartender nodded and went to place their order. Jessica looked around at the patrons. The outfits or antics of some of them made her want to giggle. Prerecorded music started and three women stepped up onto a platform and began to pantomime singing lyrics with synchronized dance moves. It was pretty obvious as there were no microphones or other device to amplify their real voices. When the song ended the crowd applauded them as they stepped down to be replaced by a feminine looking man. A song was played and he did the same but to a male song. A waitress brought a tray over and set down their plates and drinks. Jessica noticed the waitress was a very feminine looking male.

"Thank you," Jessica smiled.

The waitress smiled back, "you're welcome! Please enjoy!"

Patrick nodded and began to eat without hesitation. Jessica tasted her own then began to eat as well.

Jessica used a napkin then commented, "it can never be said you don't take a girl to interesting places."

Patrick glanced up and saw she was trying not to laugh.

"The notice said they had rooms and a stable. Didn't mention a floor show. Seeing it all now, this is probably the best place in town for you to be," Patrick admitted.

Jessica had went back to eating and swallowed then asked in confusion, "it is? Why is that?"

Patrick nodded to the crowd, "see any soldiers or knights?"

"No," Jessica replied.

Patrick nodded, "If there are any they aren't thinking about fighting or anything other than having a good time. Any business discussion is of an intimate nature or in regards to appearance. In a place that caters to Solos, everyone is looking for something to get into. In a place like that, you're at a higher risk of discovery. In this place, featuring alternative entertainment, you have greater chance at anonymity. Nobody wants to fight here and all interactions are with known people. In short, neither one of us are anybody's type."

Jessica blinked then frowned, "wow THAT'S blunt."

"That's truth. Nobody will pay me to save my own ass. Bar fights and the like are a problem. Its for fools. They think it helps establish reputation. They're wrong, it hurts it. True Solos avoid that nonsense," Patrick stated.

Jessica studied him then sighed in comprehension, "because nothing is personal. Its all business, only the terms of the contract matter."

Patrick nodded, "correct. One day you may need a Solo for some reason. If you don't understand what they do, how they do it and especially why, you'll find yourself lost and spending more money than you intended or not getting what you need."

"What if I'm getting something I don't want but have no choice in the matter," Jessica muttered.

"Every contract has a forfeiture clause," Patrick replied.

The incognito princess was riveted now, "really?"

Patrick finished his meal, "of course. There are times when one party simply are not able to fulfill their end. That's when it gets nasty."

"So say I weren't there for our Liaison; the contract would go into that clause," Jessica asked slyly.

"The Liaison would become engagement," Patrick answered flatly.

Jessica's eyes widened in horror and she whispered, "NO!"

Patrick sipped his drink, "and your parents would pronounce me as successor. No more Weydens. Your mother was very careful to add that part and even smiled when I read it."

Jessica wanted to cry.

"Life lesson. If you make a deal that effects other people, make sure that if the terms can't be met then the penalty for that is worse than any outcome if they are met," Patrick informed her.

Jessica glared at him, "its NOT fair. I was wrong and I admit that. I did something very stupid. I admit that too. I'd be happy to atone for that. But the Liaison and the penalty clause is going too far!"

"Take that up with her, I have no problem meeting my terms," Patrick said as the waitress came back and started taking the empty plates away. He set some coins on the tray and was given a ticket. "could be worse."

Jessica groaned, "Yes? HOW?"

Patrick was filing the ticket away and shrugged, "I'm not Talfar."




Fiona Doucet sat with Lellaa Weyden in the overnight guest room.

"Queen Lellaa I'm a bit worried," Fiona remarked.

Lellaa sighed, "The Liaison contract?"

"The forfeiture clause. If you think the Princess was upset when you told her about the Liaison, the terms of the forfeiture clause could drive her over the edge. Solo Fotens won't lie about it either. If she asks; he'll tell her," Fiona stated.

Lellaa smiled, "of course. I'm practically COUNTING on him to!"

Fiona Doucet looked shocked, "Queen Weyden what exactly is your goal?"

"When they return Jessica's attitude must be changed. She must possess understanding and compassion. Also humility. If she has changed for the better when they return then I will buy out of the contract. If she has not then it still stands and she had better be victorious in Tournament. Or at least better than him, that's HER only way out," Lellaa said.

"I'm sorry to say, but that won't happen. Everyone has too much at stake. They ALL want to get to Tournament and win," Fiona shook her head.

Lellaa laughed, "including you Countess."

"Yes. Including me. Many have futures on the line. Once again; yes, including me. I will say this your Majesty. You are a very cruel teacher," Fiona said flatly.

Lellaa looked directly at Fiona and let go of her humor, "my daughter has an attitude problem. I believe it may be the fault of myself and her father. Harsh challenges must be met with harsh tactics. She is lucky. If she is repentant then she'll have her second chance. MY mother wouldn't have been so forgiving, which is why I was very careful NOT squander my first chance. I know for a fact YOUR parents would not be so forgiving either. They were quite illustrious here in their days. I remember them both, personally. In fact your mother unhorsed ME during my second year. I was very happy to see them both graduate. Even more glad that we've been on very friendly terms since. My husband graduated the following year and then I did."

"So you'll inflict cruelty to make up for your mistake," Fiona said acidly.

Lellaa looked back with a glint in her eyes, "Countess do not forget your own situation. It was you yourself that agreed to a conditional arrangement. If you do NOT win Tournament this year you'll be marrying the future Duke Talfar. I understand he has quite the reputation around here. Its not a complimentary one at that."

Fiona glared at the Queen, "you've no need to remind me of THAT. I honor my parents. I also will not be defeated. I'll win Tournament again. There's only ONE way Talfar can bring me down and its in violation of the agreement."

Lellaa arched an eyebrow at the statement.

Fiona smiled coldly, "he would have to go for a helmet strike. Unfortunately for him, that's not only disqualifies from Tournament, its a violation of the agreement. As would using non-regulation lances. He would forfeit the chance to marry me and his father would disown him. Oh yes Queen Weyden, I ensure proper coverage of my own backside."

"Well. It seems you have! Very clever. I'm impressed Countess. Too bad my daughter hasn't learned such common sense. She wouldn't have gained a visit from me if she had," Lellaa remarked.

Fiona let her expression soften, "perhaps your Majesty would like to indulge in a wager off the side?"

Lellaa chuckled, "Oh? Do tell Countess."

"Should the Princess return with a respect for Solos, you give her the choice of the buy-out or at least waiting until graduation for the Liaison. If I were not in this Tournament then I would protest the victory clause. None should have to dropout for such a reason," Fiona said.

Lellaa regarded her intently, "very well then. Should Jessica return with a new found respect for Solos then I will tell her she has a choice. Of course she'll have to buy-out the contract herself. She has enough to do so. Currently. However should she not have that new perspective then YOU will purchase her nightwear for her Liaison time."

Fiona nodded, "deal. I'll probably buy a few bottles of wine for those nights too. I imagine that may be the only way she'd become compliant."

"I know I had the better part of a bottle on my wedding night. I wasn't too far gone, but at least it didn't hurt so bad until the morning," Lellaa laughed. "I woke before he did and went to cry in the bath. I found out from the maid that it had been quite the night for the two of us. I guess he truly had been saving himself! I remember starting, finishing and some of the in-between."

Fiona shrugged, "but you loved him then and still do now. You would have been compliant without the wine."

Lellaa shook her head, "no Countess you misunderstand. I drank because I was compliant. Not to ensure it. The maid confessed that I never implied any discomfort during my deflowering. Only in the morning did I have discomfort. I never regretted either of those decisions. My husband did awaken while I was in the bath and came in. When he saw me he apologized so profusely I began to worry if we would ever share a bed again!"

Fiona looked shocked, "He felt that guilty?"

"He most certainly did! For the following week I had to initiate all our lovemaking," Lellaa confessed then leaned forward and smiled. "I was so glad when I finally did become pregnant. We had run out of new ways to try! The castle staff verified there wasn't a room we hadn't used at least once."

Fiona laughed at the comment and shook her head, "I'm sure they all wondered why either of you bothered to have any clothes."

"What makes you think they stopped," Lellaa laughed.




Jessica woke up from the knock at the door. She looked and saw Patrick stand up.

"We're awake. Be down in half an hour," Patrick told whomever had knocked.

Jessica stretched and got out of the bed. Patrick went into the bathroom and came back out a few moments later and began to change. She went in to get herself ready. The princess had been leery when they adjourned to the room after their meal. It took only a few minutes to study a map and plot their route. She then went into the bathroom and came out in her nightgown. He didn't even look at her. She slipped into the bed watching him. Her eyes went wide to see him take up his sword then jam it into the floor. Patrick sat down and leaned back against it and closed his eyes.

"You don't tie a string from yourself to the door or something," Jessica asked.

Patrick sighed, "the door opens in. Go to sleep."

With that she had laid down and managed to get to sleep somehow. That was then, this was now and now it was time to get busy.

"Leave the make-up off," Patrick said starting to put on his armor. "We'll be riding with our helmets on so the make-up will just melt off anyway. During the day we'll take about breaks and you can take the helmet off completely. Helmet on, visor up unless something happens. If something does happen; snap it down and either fight or run, which ever I tell you to do."

They finished preparing then went downstairs. The tired looking bartender was setting down two plates on the bar. Patrick and Jessica set their packs on a table and took seats at the bar.

Jessica looked over the plate. Even though it wasn't Academy or her family's castle, the food did look and smell good. Eggs and thick steak with a pile of shredded potato, fried to a gently crisp gold. There were also thick slices of toast and the choice of a creamy butter or fruit spread. Jessica went with the fruit spread and closed her eyes in pleasure.

"This is GOOD," she smiled.

The bartender smiled back as he set down a glass of juice for her, "Thank you Miss. I don't have many overnights like you. Mostly just the friends of my, uh, daughter. Some stay overnight, but its not the same."

"You got a nice place. We'll spread discreet word. I'm on good terms with the Seventy-Fifth FreeLancers and they'd appreciate a place they can relax. Some are more open-minded than others in the Regiment and would like to know," Patrick remarked.

"Can your daughter style hair good," Jessica asked.

The bartender shrugged, "I think so. I don't really know about those things."

Jessica chuckled, "well the main thing is getting clean hair after traveling. After we ride a long time with helmets on, one thing women want, besides a long bath, is to have our hair cleaned really good. If she can do that it'll give you a good reputation with the women Solos. Being fancy isn't so important a lot, but being clean feels great."

"That's something to keep in mind. Thank you Miss. This is for you," the bartender said and handed her a jar of the fruit spread. It was the same as she was having but an unopened jar. "I make it myself. In trade for your suggestions."

They finished eating and Patrick passed over some coins.

"Food's good as is. Don't change anything on that," Patrick said taking his ticket and adding it to his ledger.

The bartender nodded, "Thank you Sir. Have a good journey. You can go through that door to get to the stable."

"Goodbye," Jessica said as they picked up their things and went out.

In the stable they readied their horses then led them out and mounted. Patrick led them over to the Orvin's place and met them on the street. A young woman about Jessica's age was climbing up to the wagon's seat.

"Ready Mr. Orvin," Patrick asked.

Gareth nodded then introduced everyone, "Zelle this is Solo Patrick Fotens of the Eighty-Sixth FreeLancers and his apprentice Jessica Mulhanten. They are our escorts. Solo Fotens, Apprentice Mulhanten; this is my neice Zelle Turrien. She's never met Solos before so she's a bit shy."

Patrick nodded, "We're not much for conversation Miss Turrien but we'll get where we're going. If you're ready Mr. Orvin let's move out. I'd like to be clear of the town border by sun up."

"By your leave Solo Fotens," Gareth said.

Patrick and Jessica put on their helmets then spurred their horses. At the end of the street Patrick turned them for the south road. They had a few horse lengths lead.

Jessica said in a low voice, "you were right. It is the girl."

"I'm not surprised. Does she know you," Patrick asked.

Jessica resisted the urge to shake her head, "no. She's never seen me, but I've seen her. She's the fourth daughter of the Marquis Feldarin. That's all I know. The oldest daughter graduated from the Academy with a decent ranking five years ago. Her I do know. The brother wasn't suited for battle, he's really good with money. He went to the college of Finance and adviser to their King now. Daughter Two went to the School of Relations and is a diplomat. Daughter Three entered a sisterhood and belongs to a temple."

"That's a list. So the best guess is our charge is of Leisure and possibly being married off," Patrick mused.

Jessica thought about it, "that's the strong possibility. She's definitely pretty, even trying to hide it. She wouldn't recognize me. Whomever she is going to might though."

Patrick sighed, "alright. If we make it to the end without you being recognized then don't reveal. At the end if somebody important collects her that will, you can reveal yourself after they reveal her. If Orvin is the only one that reveals then don't."

"Won't me revealing who I am be bad for you," Jessica asked.

Patrick chuckled, "no. You're being educated. It will actually help me, plus put yourself in a better light. Think about it. A Solo in charge of the education of you makes me look good to be that reputable. That you didn't back out after learning her identity makes you look good in that you stayed with her. This actually helps you with your reputation. You need it."

Jessica thought about that, "ok. Honestly, I do need it. So I stay with the 'first assignment' attitude?"

Patrick looked back, "turn your horse and check behind us. That's good. No. Don't act like this is your first. Act like you do this all the time. The girl is the girl and you guard her. Little conversation but be obvious you are keeping her under your watch. Her station means nothing to you. You are a professional. Go with that. Aloof and detached, but mindful."

Patrick spoke louder then, "I'll take the first round."

Patrick turned and rode back to the wagon and walked around it then told Gareth, "we're going to speed up to make some time."

Gareth nodded, "that's just fine Solo Fotens. Thank you."

The robotic Draft-style horse sped up to a fast trot. The wagon had a cushioning system so the road conditions didn't unsettle them. Daemon galloped to rejoin Mars and they trotted alongside each other. Three hours and several rounds later Patrick nodded to Jessica to go check on their charge.

Jessica rounded them again but returned to the girl's side, "Miss we're making good time. Do you or your Uncle need to stop for anything?"

The girl looked at her in surprise. She had expected to be addressed directly at all.

Gareth chuckled, "Go on. Apprentice Mulhanten is thinking of your comfort."

Zelle smiled shyly, "Thank you for asking Apprentice Mulhanten. I think I'm alright for now."

Jessica made Mars prance sideways, "I'll check back in a while."

Jessica turned Mars and rode back up to join Patrick, "They want to continue for now."

"Right. We'll go another hour," Patrick said.

Another later they did stop. Jessica led Zelle out of line of sight for some privacy. She would have giggled at the girl's awkwardness of having to relieve herself in such manner but remembered the first time she had done so as well. When Zelle had finished Jessica quickly did the same then led her back after washing their hands in a small stream.

"I'm not used to that Apprentice Mulhanten. I apologize for not being comfortable out of doors," Zelle confided.

Jessica shook her head, "no need. It's not for everyone Miss. You're doing well so far."

Zelle gave her a shy smile, "I'm grateful you're here Apprentice Mulhanten. I'd be very uncomfortable otherwise."

"Try your best to relax and enjoy the scenery Miss. The countryside is pleasant as is the weather. You shouldn't let something so small as a few moments of guarded awkwardness affect a good travel," Jessica advised.

Zelle tried to rally herself, "thank you Apprentice Mulhanten. I'll take your advice to heart."

They rejoined the wagon and horses. Orvin had set down a blanket and basket. Zelle sat down on the blanket with Gareth and accepted a pie in a stay-fresh wrapper and a bottled drink. Patrick handed Jessica a ration bar. She drank from her saddle canteen.

"Walk around as much as you can and eat a piece of fruit. It'll keep you from cramping and let you dry some," Patrick instructed.

Jessica did as she was told. After a few minutes she noticed that she was standing alone on one side of the small picnic and he was on the other. He tapped his helmet then took it off. She did the same. She watched Patrick as she periodically looked around. For a moment she wondered why he thought they had all the time in the world then scolded herself. They weren't traveling on their time, they were traveling on the Merchant's time. Or rather, the girl's time. Now that she thought about it, this was probably the first time she had traveled further than a few hours. Patrick was taking them on a less populated route, claiming that any potential problems would lay going between towns which always had scouts for raiding groups. The way they were going was more like a livestock path than a road.

Jessica wanted to smack her own head. Patrick chose this route for security and the resources. Raiders patrolled more traveled and developed routes to strike. The only people they would encounter along this way were farmers and ranchers moving herds. Because real animals were moved along this way, meadows and water sources were more plentiful for when they needed to stop. Also it was quieter so they would hear the approach of anyone and straighter to increase visibility. The terrain was rougher and made them go slower but because of the girl they needed to do that anyway. Plus nobody they should encounter this way would recognize either herself or the girl.

They had rested for over half an hour when Gareth stood up then helped Zelle to her feet and gathered the blanket and basket.

"I believe we're ready to continue on," Gareth said happily.

Patrick put his helmet back on and went to re-mount. Jessica did the same. The wagon eased back onto the path and the draft horse sped up to follow the two riders ahead. Jessica informed Patrick of her thoughts.

"Correct. Now you're really learning. If anybody does discover us; first they'll think we're locals. If they do think otherwise, they'll think the goods are why. The path would be too rough for high-borne people to travel. That's what others will think and we want to encourage that. Most assume that even a princess in armor is still pampered and not really willing to go off into the wilds. You want to encourage that thinking. It will serve you WELL," Patrick informed her.

Jessica wanted to take immediate offense but realized that again, he was right. If any adversary thought she was indeed pampered, they would never suspect she would be going around them. Therefore avoiding needless engagement. Now she was starting to understand. Solos made choices. Choices after much thought. By avoiding having to defend themselves on a constant basis for personal reasons they avoided pursuit. They fought for profit and after the battle is over they collect their pay and leave. They don't take any spoils or prisoners, which would make things personal. They only take the money they are promised by the side contracting them. Bar fights and other altercations were purely personal unless in the employ of the business it happens at. She now also understood why Solos stayed on the move. It ensured there was no attachment to places and people.

"Nothing truly is personal," Jessica said to herself.

She had been talking to herself but Patrick had heard, "sounds like you just had an epiphany."

Jessica answered, "yes. Solos have no homes. No kingdoms. No friends. No allies. They never stop moving to make sure of that. Solos aren't defenders. They have nothing to defend. If they did, they wouldn't be able to be Solos. Since they have nowhere to call home they care nothing for how a place is run, no politics. I understand why you aren't in the Seventy-fifth. You would have that attachment. By remaining the Eighty-Sixth you are to yourself only. All that matters is the contract. That is what it means to be a Solo."

"Quite the epiphany. Think of that as your starting point. Go from there," Patrick told her.

In silence they rode on, periodically taking turns circling around the wagon. Jessica noticed that Zelle would smile to her when it was her turn to check on them, but in general her expression was remaining pleasant as she took in the sights around her. The day wore on and Patrick began checking the position of the sun. Not long after Jessica noticed he also began really looking at the surrounding area. When Patrick slowed his horse, Jessica did too. The wagon came up between them.

"I'm looking for a good place to stop for the night," Patrick told Orvin.

Gareth nodded, "If you see one that would be nice. The day is almost gone."

"I'll ride ahead just a way. She'll stay with you. I won't be long," Patrick said then nodded to Jessica.

Jessica nodded back and kept Mars alongside the wagon. Patrick rode ahead at a hard gallop. Once he knew he was out of earshot, called out.

"Daalumos," Patrick said.

The bound demon answered, "yes my Mistress?"

"I feel no mortals other than our own. What of you," he asked.

Daalumos replied, "none for miles and not for over an hour. I believe we are alone."

Patrick had gained another treeline separating meadows and saw a clearing of a good size within. He pulled Daemon to a stop and checked it.

"I feel there is water close," Patrick stated then asked, "do you feel any consecration?"

"No my Mistress. I believe this place with serve the mortals' needs," Daalumos answered.

Patrick nodded then wandered around. There was a creek with several large rocks along side and in it. Patrick returned to the path but turned to Daalumos.

"Keep a safe distance. I will need you to warn me of any mortals approaching during the night," Patrick informed him.

The Lust tossed his head, "as you wish my Mistress. Your pet princess has been ranging from anger to confusion all day. One moment she wants to bash in your head and the next she is wanting to ask you endless questions. She is quite amusing."

Patrick sighed, "at least you're entertained. I'll bring the mortals here and make camp for the night. On your way."

Daalumos chuckled then faded from view again. Patrick turned Daemon and rode back.

"I found a place just up ahead," Patrick informed them.

A few minutes later the wagon slowly eased into the clearing. Orvin turned the wagon according to Patrick's instructions. Patrick then stood Daemon off to one side. Jessica thought she should do the same on the opposite side and did so. They both removed their helmets and hung them on the side of their saddles.

"Wander around and pick up sticks from the ground. None too big," Patrick said quietly to Jessica.

Moving in opposite directions the scoured the ground for dead-fall and came back with an armload each. Another trip around the clearing added to their pile. Jessica helped him lay smaller pieces along with some forest litter. He retrieved a metallic looking bar and a small knife. It took four tries to make sparks hot enough to ignite the roughed leaves. It didn't take long for Patrick to coax the single small flame into a crackling fire. Though the day had been warm, Patrick knew the coming night would be quite cool.

Patrick spoke to Jessica in a low voice, "over that way about forty paces is a creek. You need to cool down and dry before nightfall. She would probably like to wash up some as well."

Jessica nodded then went to Mars and took her pack.

"Miss. Why don't we take a short walk," Jessica suggested then leaned in close, "bring along a change."

Zelle looked at her in puzzlement but did as was asked. She followed the imposing but kind young woman. A few moments later they rounded some brush and came up short. The two young women stared in surprise.

"This is PRETTY," Zelle gushed.

Jessica nodded, "very much so. Let's not waste a moment of it!"

Zelle giggled. Jessica pushed her sword into the ground close by then began unfastening her armor. She had watched Patrick covertly the night before and saw how he did it so she would know how. She arranged the pieces so they would have air circulate into them.

When Jessica was down to the soft undergarments she stepped onto a rock at the water's edge and sat down. It rose only a couple of inches out of the water with one taller behind it. She stripped off the bottoms and tank then eased into the water.

"OOH!" She exclaimed then giggled. "The water's cool but not cold. It feels great!"

Zelle finished undressing but shyly held her hands in front of her and joined Jessica in the water.

Jessica shook her head, "no need to feel embarrassed. Its just us. Here, sit up here."

Zelle shyly moved onto a rock and watched as Jessica took a washcloth and a small bottle of wash. She almost felt like a little girl again with the way Jessica lathered then rinsed her. Using handfuls of water Jessica wet down her hair then used her own shampoo and conditioner. Zelle eased back down into the water and watched as Jessica bathed herself.

When Jessica finished rinsing herself clean Zelle spoke up.

"I wish I could be as brave as you are," Zelle said quietly.

Jessica sighed, "there are all kinds of bravery Miss. Not all require one to don armor and mount a horse. Think of the Farmer. Every morning the Farmer awakens, before the sun has, and goes out to tend animals or prepare for the fields. The day may be hot, cold, raining or even snowing yet everyday the Farmer works his fields and herds. Too much rain drowns and washes the crops away, not enough rain and they wilt and burn. Its a harsh life and many times it will seem like he fights a battle that he can never win nor will it ever end. To face that every day is brave."

Zelle looked at her in awe.

Jessica continued, "Mothers are much the same. Every day they tend to their children. Keep them clean, keep them fed, keep them healthy. There is so much a mother must do, sometimes there are not enough hours in the day and night. I put on my armor and mount my horse. When the battle is done I collect my pay and leave. This is the way of the Solo. I have no home, no country, no ruler. I have only the terms of the contract. I hate no one, I love no one. Someone wiser than I once said, 'If you want truth seek a philosopher. If you want fact, seek a teacher. If you want warriors that will never betray you, pay the Solos.' We all have a place in this world. No one person can change that. They can change themselves and how they view the world. Use this an opportunity Miss. See the world, as it IS, not as someone would like you to believe. People can hide the world from you. Show you a false front. You must learn to see beyond that. Ask not the person at the front of the crowd in the Square, ask the bartender two streets away."

"I never thought about it like that," Zelle admitted.

Jessica sighed, "this isn't a new concept Miss. If you want a good horse don't ask the salesman. Ask a stable-mechanic. They'll tell you which ones need repairs the least and that's the one you want."

"Wow. That's really boiling it down! It sounds right though now that I think about it." Zelle admitted.

"Simple can work Miss. Its what Solos do," Jessica said. "Let's head back to camp."

They dried and dressed quickly. It took Jessica a few more minutes to get her armor on but it had cooled and was dry inside now. Patrick took his turn at the creek as did Gareth Orvin. Patrick and Jessica ate meals from pouches. He showed her the trick of boiling water in a cup then dropping the pouch in it for five minutes to heat it. Ovrin heated up some food similar to that using a saucepan. After eating and cleaning up Zelle went over to the shelter by the wagon and laid down. She noticed Patrick and Jessica talk then Jessica jammed her sword into the ground and lean back against it. Patrick walked to the edge of the firelight and wander around. She looked over and saw that Jessica had fallen asleep. To see her sleep like that seemed very strange to her. Zelle assumed it was something unique to Solos and closed her own eyes. Sleep set upon her almost instantly.
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