As the two women slept, a dog came nuzzling through the bushes. It stopped when it reached the older woman’s foot and started sniffing. By now though, she was only pretending to be asleep. She had heard the rustling in the bushes almost immediately, and deciding that movement would certainly lead to detection, and who knew what else, she lay still, with her eyes wide open. She was not defenceless however, with only the slightest movement she had taken hold of the walking stick that was beside her, and prepared herself to use it if necessary.
The dog had started sniffing the rest of her, moving up her leg and to her torso. The dog looked up, she saw that it’s muzzle had been replaced with a metal, robotic mouth. It’s teeth sharpened into points. It’s eyes glowed infra-red. This was not a regular mutt, but one of the highly trained tracker hounds used by the palace guard. She had not seen one since she was much younger, but you only needed to see one of these things once to know they were deadly. Slowly, she lifted the walking stick, ready to strike the animal . The dog looked up, and they made eye contact. The dog knew she was awake. The dog barked.
Just as she brought the stick down where the dog’s head was, a man came thrashing through the bushes, making a huge racket and calling to the dog.
“What is it girl? Barking at shadows again. Christ!”
The dog, hearing the man’s voice turns and ran back to the bushes, avoiding the deathblow coming towards it by millimetres.
The man came crashing through and stopped looking down at the two women, who were both wide awake now. His dog sat next to him, looking up expectantly.
He turned to the dog, “Well fuck me! It seems you found something after all. What are you looking at me like that for? Oh,I know what you want…”, he bent down and scratched the dog behind her ears.The dog let out a satisfied moan. “Good girl.There’s a good girl”. The man stopped and turned back to the women, who were standing in front of him now, the older woman holding out a wooden stick like she was about to hit him with it.They were both screaming at him.
He took a few steps back, with his hands out in front, “Whoa ladies. Whoa!”
“Stay back you pig! You will die before I let you take me,or my daughter, back to the palace with you.”
“Jesus, easy lady… what…palace? God, calm down lady…I don’t know who or what you think I am..”
Mae’s mother swung the walking stick up and over towards the man. But, her grip was too far down the end and it lacked any kind of force, making it easy for the man to grab the other end, and pull it from her hands. Now, disarmed she backed away from him, pushing her daughter behind her, shielding her with her body.
She looked at the man defiantly, with fury still in her eyes. She continued to shriek,
“You shall not have her, I tell you!”
Now she lashed out with her hands attempting to scratch at the man’s face. He had a heavy hooded cloak, the edges of which covered his face. Plus, it was still night and the sky was overcast obscuring any light that might have come from the moon.
The man wasn’t tall, but he was big, with broad shoulders and long arms. His hands were enormous, with just one hand, he reached out and caught both of her wrists, cuffing them in his fist so she could no longer lash out. Defeated, her shoulders slumped forward. She looked at him square in the face, her long, dirty blonde hair plastered to her face by a sweat and the dirt and grime from the night’s trek through the woods.
In the short time that this encounter took place, the temperature had dropped, and the wind had picked up. At that moment a breeze blew through the small clearing, blowing away the man’s hood and the woman’s hair at the same time. Revealing the faces beneath.
The man immediately dropped her hands, while she visibly relaxed. Beatrice turned to her daughter, who by now was ineffectually slapping at the man’s side while shrieking incoherently, and said,
“Mae, my love…stop my love, it’s alright. We’re safe.”
Mae looked at her mother, with her hands hanging in the air, mid-slap. A puzzled look on her face.
“You know this man?”
“Yes love. This man was once a very good friend of your father’s. Isn’t that right?”
The man turned to toward Mae.
“Is this the child? Hello, young lady. Yes, your father was the very best of men. I was privileged to know him.”
“Hector…but how? I thought you died.”
“Mother, was this man with Papa during the accident?”
This time it was Hector that looked puzzled, he turned back to Beatrice, “Accident?”
“Yes,” she gave what she hoped was a meaningful look, “the accident at the factory that killed your father.”
As she spoke she tried to emphasise the words accident and killed. She hoped desperately that he would understand.
He didn’t, but he also recognised that more was going on than he understood. Also, he knew this wasn’t the time or the place for lengthy explanations, so he played along.
“Yes, miss. The accident. But,no, I’m very much alive as you see. Just me and Missy here.” He indicated his dog, who had resumed sniffing the ankles of the two women. “I’ll tell you more later. My guess is that you ladies could use a hand. I heard the commotion up at Murpodompous. I should have guessed you were in the middle of it.”
The women looked at him, questioningly.
“You were running from him I gather.” He directed this last to the mother, who simply nodded.
Mae spoke up then, “What are you saying? What commotion? We simply had a visitor that’s all. A strange man with a posh car. Unusual and strange for around here certainly, but I don’t understand why we had to leave.”
“Mae, sweetheart, I told you, I will explain everything, but not until I get you somewhere safe.”
Hector went to stand beside Beatrice, he inclined his head toward her, and spoke out of the side of his mouth.
“She doesn’t know?” Without looking away from her daughter, she pressed her lips together and shook her head.
He sighed. “Alright then. I can’t just leave you ladies out here. I guess you’ll need to come with me.”
“Thank you Hector, but we’ll be fine on our own. We just need to get to Belbarbiton.”
He looked at her with a raised eye-brow. “Is that right then. Just how did you plan on getting there? All the roads are being searched; and you’re not exactly great on the self-defence either. If Missy and I had been anyone else, you’d be dead, and she’d be half way to Karingahope by now.”
“I’ll manage. Now, if you don’t mind… Mae, if you could just find my purse, I’ll go and get my walking stick.” Beatrice smoothed out her skirt and started walking to where Hector had thrown the stick during their tussle.
“Good god woman! Malcolm said you were stubborn.”
Mae, uncertainly went back to where they had been sleeping, and found the purse holding all their possessions, all the while studying her mother and this strange man in front of her. She noticed that his hair, which had been covered by his hood, consisted of a few long black tendrils, barely enough to cover his whole scalp; which as it happened, looked like it had been entirely removed at one point and sewn back on top of his head, a long, angry scar encircled his skull just beneath the hairline. His face, now she was more calm, and could get a better look, was all red and puffy, not unlike the faces of the old drunks that frequented the old inn in town. But, down the left side of his face the skin was a more shiny red, stretched and smooth. Like a burn that had never properly healed.
He noticed her looking at her.
“Don’t feel sorry for me love. It looks far worse than it is.”
“Oh, um… I’m sorry I didn’t mean to stare. Did you get those in the accident? The one that killed Papa?”
“Erm… yes, something like that.” He looked directly at her, his pale, blue eyes softening, and smiled. Despite having just met this man, she had an overwhelming sense of being safe. She smiled back.
“Mama…” Her mother didn’t hear her at first.
Beatrice stopped and turned to her daughter,
“I think we should stay with him.”
“What my love?”
“I said, I think we should stay with him. At least for a while. I gather you have a safe place we can go?”
“Yes miss, has kept me safe all these years.” He looked at Beatrice, a bemused expression on his face.
“But Mae, sweetheart, you don’t know this man.”
“You said he was a good friend of Papa’s. You just told me he was safe.”
“Yes… I did… but..”
“So, if he was a friend of Papa’s, and YOU said he was safe, we should trust him, right?” The man started to chuckle as he saw her struggle to justify her determination to got it alone.
“Oh, alright… I guess it would be a good idea to go somewhere to plan our next move. But, we won’t be staying long.”
“No worries then. We’ll head this way then,” and he gestured toward the bushes that he and Milly had appeared from earlier.