The Strongest Feller Around, Pt. 2

Yikes. Crazy late post. The past two weeks have been exceptionally busy, and I’ve fallen behind on a lot of my schedule. This upcoming Monday and Friday’s posts should be up on time, though.

I followed Enrico from a few strides behind, my eyes scanning the environment for an ambush. Something about Enrico told me that he was predictable but that he couldn’t be trusted, if that makes sense. You could trust him to be untrustworthy, and I didn’t know if that meant he’d try to swindle me out of a meal or if he had someone waiting to slip a knife in my back, but I wanted to put enough space between me and him that I could I watch him closely. Enrico led us away from the trees, back through a farmer’s field (helping himself to some tasty looking red berries growing in neat little rows planted along the ground, I noticed,) chattering away the entire time. “You’ll like our little group, I think. Francesco will be delighted to meet you. Sylvia’s an excellent cook, and if you say that no one can eat or drink like you, well, she’ll be happy to put that to the test. And Maman! Once she warms up to the idea of having you around, you will think, ‘Never have I met a sweeter, more gentle woman. And Sarai…” Enrico trailed off there, turned to look at me. Once again, he was appraising me with his eyes, and once again, I found myself annoyed to be regarded as a working animal. “Well, Sarai will understand that business is business. We are in the business of entertaining people, of bringing joy to the joyless and whimsy to the dour.” Enrico’s smile returned, and he resumed walking. “And with you in our employ, I think business will be very good indeed.”

“I don’t work for you,” I said. I tried to keep anger out of my voice. I didn’t feel angry. I was just stating a simple truth.

“No, of course not, Mr. Willvic. But perhaps you might like to travel with us for a little while, at least? Tell me, what are you doing now? Do you have a home?”

I thought about his question for a few seconds before responding. I don’t know if I’d ever had a home, then. Maybe with the wizard, but he was an evil old rotter that saw me as something between a tool and a pet. Maybe with Willem and Victoria, but nobody there really trusted me or liked me except for Victoria. And I certainly didn’t have anything I could call a home while I was out wandering about. “No,” I finally said.

“Then you are…”

“Traveling.”

“And do you never find yourself wanting for company while you travel?”

“Haven’t yet.”

“Perhaps it’s worth trying.”

I thought about Willem and Victoria, about the people in Quail’s Leap who were kind enough to teach me to fire a bow and arrow. I’d made some coin and earned some meals by helping humans who needed a strong hand chopping wood, harvesting crops, and so on. Most of them had given me my payment and wished me good luck on my journeys, but a few of them had been kind enough to invite me into their homes and actually share a meal with me. I frowned. “Perhaps.” I shook my head, as if that would make me stop thinking about memories that were both happy and sad. “And where is it that you and your group are traveling, Enrico Enrici?”

“Our acts tend to play better in big cities than in small towns. We’ve been following the King’s Road out of Fieri with the intention of reaching Glimmerton. There’s a saying in the circles we travel in: if you can make it for yourself in Glimmerton, then you can make it for yourself anywhere.”

I nodded without saying anything. I’d been traveling along the King’s Road myself for some time. It was the largest, most central road throughout the land, and pretty much any other little road or turnpike or whatnot crossed it or merged with it at some point. As for Glimmerton, I’d only ever heard the city mentioned in passing, and I’d never heard of Fieri at all before.

“There are other reason we must stay on the move as well. Small towns only have so much wealth to go around, and it doesn’t do any good to drain them of all their money. They will resent you for it, and it does us no good to be resented.” Enrico paused, not just his speech but also his movement, as if carefully considering his next words. “And then, when you are strangers in such a small community, it is easy to find yourselves the subject of vicious, unfounded rumors. Someone’s savings goes missing? Blame the strangers. A farmer’s daughter finds herself with child? It must have been one of the strangers! It troubles Maman so to her such lies spread about her family. We are nothing if not decent people, Mr. Willvic.”

I snorted. It had been my experience that decent people didn’t have to remind you that they were decent people. “Tell me, do your group and your family often find yourselves at the center of such rumors?”

Enrico turned to face me, studied the look of skepticism on my face carefully. His eyes narrowed and he smiled. “Not often, no. But it has happened once or twice. Nevermind. We’re almost to the camp.”

We crested a small hill, and at it’s base, I saw the camp. Four wagons and a few carts, a handful of horses and mules, about six large tents, and a large fire pit lined with stones at the center of it all. There were clothes drying on lines, children running around laughing and shout, babies crying out, women and men working, and the old folks relaxing in the shade. I had never seen anything like it before. It seemed to me that all of Quail’s Leap had been condensed into a space not much larger than Willem’s inn, but there were not nearly that many people there. I realized then that although these people were travelers, although neither of us had homes, they were not quite like me. Where I had never had a home and I had little to my name except for what I could carry, these people had much. And now they were forced to carry everything with them. Their belongings, their hopes, their fears. Their entire lives were in those carts.

“This is your family?” I asked. There was no way to hide the surprise and wonder from my voice, and Enrico chuckled softly at the sound.

“In a manner of speaking. My wife and my son and my mother and I live in that tent over there, but everyone here is like family to me. We live together, work together, play together.” Enrico turned to look at me, the expression on his face disarmingly sincere. “It has been a long journey since we left Fieri, and we have survived only by relying upon each other. It is not weakness to rely upon others for aid and comfort in trying times, Mr. Willvic.”

I said nothing but looked at the gathered crowd in silence. The conversation was making me uncomfortable. “Why did your group leave Fieri?” I finally asked to fill the silence.

“Because the Governess vowed that she would kill me if I did not.”

I had nothing to say to that. From speaking with other humans, I knew that a death threat from any of the Governors or Governesses was second only to a death threat from the King and Queen.

Enrico saw something in my eyes and shrugged. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We are safe here. She swore that she would not send her agents after us so long as we never returned to Fieri, and so, here we are.” He smiled again, but there was no humor in his eyes. Even thinking about it now, I don’t think there’s anyone who could force a smile onto his face quite like Enrico Enrici.

“Come, come!” he said. “You must meet everyone!” And so he led me into his camp, shouting as he walked for everyone to gather round.

* * *

Day turned into night as Enrico told his troupe that I was visitor from a distant land with an illness that left me disfigured but granted me impossible strength. I held the bravest of the children over my head with a single arm each, lifted a loaded cart off of the ground, and beat every man who dared to wrestle with me without any effort at all. They told stories of the lands they had traveled, the people they had met, narrow escapes and clever schemes. There was food and dance and drink, and once I had some roast duck and a tankard of wine in my belly, I realized how much I had missed my days at the inn with Willem and Victoria. Even though the people of Quail’s Leap always viewed me with a bit of suspicion, it was good having them around. It’d taken having people around for me to realize that I could get lonely, and I didn’t much like it.

The party went on well into the night, and I found myself sitting by the fire, watching the humans dancing and laughing. Enrico came and sat down by me, the smell of wine heavy on his breath and his eyes lidded as if he were on the verge of falling asleep. “How are you tonight, Mr. Willvic?” he said, his words slurring and catching in his mouth.

“Good, Enrico Enrici. I am good.” It was not until I heard my own voice that I realized my words were catching and slurring much the same way.

“I think that you will be welcome here, Mr. Willvic. We will teach you the ways of the showman and the crowds will come to see you, this I believe.” Enrico took a deep breath, let it out. I turned my head from the crowd to consider the fire that was still burning strong despite the late hour. “You will never want while you are with us, Mr. Willvic. Some days will have more food and some days less, but our children do not go hungry. We do what we must to survive. It is a struggle, you see? It is a struggle, and you must win. You must fight and you must win.” Enrico turned to face me and put his hand hand upon my shoulder. “Do you understand, Mr. Willvic?”

“I do,” I said without thought or hesitation. “I do. And Enrico, call me ‘Tusk.’”

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