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The Cook

by Lucas Rivera

The Ranger looked up from the stream he was watering his horse at. He saw broad rolling hills, so short they almost didn't deserve the name, covered in short, tough grass with not a tree or bush for miles around. There was scant shade and the wind swept the plains with no end in sight. The mounds of earth just kept going and going, never-ending like waves in the ocean. This was where civilization began to die out, wilderness slowly taking over, lapping at the edges of society like a wave beating against a stone. The ragged edge of the world, that's what some people called it. He couldn't run any farther now.

He nudged his horse away from the water and mounted in one fluid motion, he had places to be and they weren't getting any closer sitting around. The Ranger kept his eyes moving, always watching the next rise, always expecting trouble on the other side. It should come to no surprise then that not 15 minutes into his ride when he was up on a particularly high rise the Ranger saw a faint puff of smoke behind him signaling another rider. Unless he was wildly off his mark the rider, whoever he was, wasn't moving very fast at all. The Ranger considered his position carefully, he could keep going as before and do his best to watch behind him, but the dips and raises of the plains would make it difficult to keep track of his dust cloud companion, the rider could catch up to the Ranger while he was out of sight and be on top of him before the Ranger knew it. Sighing he slouched down in his saddle and waited for the rider to catch up. Even though the Ranger's appearance was one of relaxation, even laziness, he still kept a firm hand on one of his spell slingers concealed under his coat.

After about another 20 minutes of waiting the Ranger cocked his head to the side quizzically. He thought he could hear a faint stir in the wind, like a rhythm being played just out of his earshot. Indeed as the figure got closer and his features became more recognizable so too did his music. The more the Ranger saw of the man the more puzzled he became. Riding up to him was a monster of a man, at least 6 and a quarter feet in height and built like a bear. He sat on his horse like a sack of potatoes and he carried a lyre to play on his travels. As he rode he sang old war songs from close to half a century ago of battles long past in a deep, throaty voice. He was dressed in furs and had a long, lustrous beard done in braids and clearly well brushed, though getting to be white and gray around the edges. His hair was also long and braided, and almost as well brushed as his beard. Along huge arms like logs ran tattoos that depicted what looked to be Northern runes and imaging, and they appeared to have been cut into the skin with a knife and filled with ink. A huge scar stretched from the base of his jaw just under his ear right to the corner of his mouth, an unfriendly reminder of what happened when you forgot to duck in a fight. Overall the man appeared goofy and obnoxious on the surface, lurching around and shouting his songs as he was, but only a fool would disregard him as harmless with such a large physique.

"And of course, the huge war axe hanging from his saddle didn't exactly make the man seem docile", the Ranger thought dryly.

The singing man was about thirty paces away when he called out to the Ranger with volume that would put a roaring bear to shame, "Ho there! Who might you be?"

The Ranger answered after a short pause, "I could ask you the same question, seeing as you're the one following me."

The man tilted his head quizically and barked with laughter, "Well I 'spose that's true enough, the name's Einar Baldorson, though I've been called more often as Cook, seein' as that's what I've been most me life."

The Ranger made a show of looking the man up and down carefully and slowly said, "If you're a cook then that great big hunk of metal on your saddle is a ladle," while gesturing at Cook's axe.

Slowly Einar grinned and said to the Ranger, "Well you would hardly expect an old man such as myself to go around such unforgiving terrain unarmed would you?"

The Ranger allowed a small smile to touch his lips before responding, "Well I 'spose not old-timer, the name's Tom O'Conner. Pleasure to meet you."

Einar inclined his head and said "Same to you Tommy boy."

He paused for a moment as if he was weighing his words carefully, then said, "Say would you happen to be headin' to Arlot's Ridge?"

"Indeed I am sir, seems that's the only place around here to find lodging and food."

Now it was Tom's turn to pause a short time to consider the burly man before he said, "I hope you don't take offense but I'd rather not have you behind me where I can't see you sneakin' up on me, although I'm sure you're not that type o' man."

Einar didn't seem to take offense at all and said cheerily, "Oh but of course man! These is dangerous times, but of course, that means I can't be lettin' you get behind me either, 'specially not with those two mean lookin' slingers you got."

Tom was impressed, the man had sharp eyes, after all the slingers were still under his coat and out of view. He wondered how "Cook", as he called himself, knew that he had them. For a few moments, the men faced each other, both gleaning information out of the other's stance, expressions, movements, everything.

Eventually, Tom grinned and said, "Well partner it looks like we'll be travelin' together, I do hope you got some good singin' songs for the road."

In response, Cook smiled back and said, "But of course man, I'd be bored to tears without 'em ".

"Then let's get going! I'd like to be at Arlot's before sundown if I can help it!"

And with that, the two men rode off together, a strange and unlikely duo, unlike in every way except one. Both kept as close an eye on each other as they did on the surrounding landscape.

They rode for hours, up one dusty hill, down the other side, then up the next. For hours this pattern continued as the sun climbed higher and higher into the sky, and slowly began to descend behind them as they headed further East. Further into the frontier. The men sang until they exhausted Cook's repertoire of known songs, then they sang their favorites all over again. As the sun set at their backs the men turned to each other and came to a silent agreement, they weren't going to make it to the relative safety of Arlot's ridge today. To go any further in the dark would risk breaking their horse's leg on some unknown obstacle, and then they would be stranded with no way to safety.

They both dismounted, Tom with the grace of years of practice, Cook with a muffled curse and a thump as he tumbled off. Soon the men had their tents pitched and a small fire to cook their rations and provide warmth against the surprisingly cold nights of the frontier. As they ate they began to grow curious about the man beside them, after all, they hadn't spoken the whole ride here.

It was Tom who broke the silence first asking, "Are you a Northern man?"

"Yes, but I haven't seen the homeland in a long, long time." He responded somberly.

Tom waited a moment for Cook to elaborate, but when it was clear he wasn't going to the Ranger pressed on, "I don't suppose you fought in the War of Houses? I noticed you know a lot of the war songs from then."

Einar looked deep into the fire as if remembering memories long past and said slowly, "I did, a great war it was. Made many men heroes, and many more dead."

"Were you one of the heroes?"

"Light no, just another young fool lookin' to find some glory and fame.", Cook laughed mirthlessly, "turns out I was the best cook in my squad, got called that for almost twenty years. Now all I have to show for those decades is a limp and dead friends."

Tom considered what he said for a few moments before saying to the man, "So you came here to forget."

"Aye, that'd be correct slinger, to forget and escape. And you? Why are you here on the ragged edge of the world?"

Now it was Tom's turn to gaze into the fire and remember unpleasant events, "I'm runnin'."

Einar considered Tom levelly and slowly nodded his head, accepting he wasn't going to get a much better answer than that.

"Well!" Einar barked, suddenly jovial again, "I'm off to bed, wake me up in an hour or two and I'll take the second watch slinger."

It was a tactful way of suggesting that Cook trusted Tom to watch the camp and not rob him blind, a nice gesture that wasn't lost on Tom as he chuckled and said, "All right old-timer, don't snore too loudly now, I hear that attracts the prowlers."

Cook snorted as he walked away to his tent and settled down to sleep. Tom kicked out the fire and settled down in the cover of a rock outcropping to watch the camp while wrapped up in his cloak for warmth. He stayed there for just over an hour, eyes never staying still, ever moving and searching for a hint of danger or hostility. The rest of his body remained completely still, only his cloak stirred briefly in the wind. Had anybody looked at him all they would have seen was a scraggly bush growing against a cluster of rocks.

It was from this vantage point that the Ranger saw three dark figures slowly creep up to the camp, passing no more than 15 steps from him. Slowly Tom laid his hand on his slinger and carefully considered his options. He might be able to kill them all with one giant spell, but he didn't know how many other bandits and thugs were in the area, and he didn't want to alert them to his and Cook's presence if possible. That left silent takedowns, he just needed to get to them before they got to Einar, light knew he couldn't let the man die while he was on watch, it would look bad on his reputation. Oh and he supposed it would slightly weigh on his conscience, Cook seemed to be a good man.

Silently Tom drew his slinger and aimed at the closest figure, but before he could fire he heard an almost imperceptible footstep behind him and ducked right as the sword cleaved the air where his head had been milliseconds earlier. The bandits must have sent one of their group to patrol the perimeter and look for guards, quite unlucky that the robber had spotted Tom in the middle of drawing on his compatriots. Tom rolled away quickly before smoothly drawing his slinger and firing two shots, one a silent ice spell that missed by a handsbreadth and the second a fire spell that caught the figure in the left shoulder with a loud crack! The scuffle had caught the attention of the three dark figures who had been sneaking into the camp and, more importantly, Cook.

With a roar, the man erupted from his tent wearing nothing but his breeches and his hands gripping his battle-axe. The man might've had a limp, but he was still fast as a hound and quickly closed the distance between him and the would-be robbers. Tom noticed all of this in a split second before he turned his attention back to his opponent, and it was almost a split second too much. The man was already rushing him with a glittering sword, his wound on the left shoulder wouldn't impede his sword hand at all Tom noticed bitterly. With no time to fire again, Tom dodged desperately to the side, drawing his knife as he did so. Again the assailant was almost on top of the Ranger by the time he was back on his feet.

This time Tom parried the blade with his own and swiped at the man to gain some space. Tom's mind raced as he considered the situation. His left hand held his spellslinger and his right the knife. The man with the sword stood on his toes considering the knife Tom held with careful eyes, but he was on the brink of attacking again. The Ranger was at a definite disadvantage, he had already used two of his six spells and the only one left that wouldn't attract attention for miles around was a large frost spell, which wouldn't hurt the man at all if he fired it, and his knife didn't have the range or power of the other man's sword. His back was to the three men and Cook, but he could hear screams and clashing blades, so at least Einar wasn't dead yet.

The Ranger had had enough of reacting, time to roll the dice. He aimed his slinger down at the ground and fired the frost spell, covering the ground in slippery frost and ice. The swordsman was not expecting this at all and struggled to maintain his footing as he prepared to swing his sword at the rushing Ranger. As the man clumsily swung his sword Tom dropped into a slide on the ice and felt the sword whistle over his head for the second time that night. As he slid by the dark figure he stabbed the back of his knee and he heard a grunt and a thud as the man fell, defeated by the ice and his injury.

As Tom carefully got back to his feet on the ice he saw the man slipping and sliding on the ice, desperately trying to get away from his opponent. The sword had slipped from his grip and he was no threat for the moment, so the Ranger cast his gaze wider and saw that Cook and his assailants were still fighting. As Tom looked closer he realized it was more accurate to say that Cook and his assailant were still fighting. Two still figures lay in a pool of red completely still, attesting to Einar's ferocity in battle. Cook and his final enemy were thrashing around on the floor, with the bandit on top trying to force a knife down into the Cook's abdomen, while Einar grimly fought against him. If the Ranger fired a spell he would almost certainly alert everyone nearby, and besides that he would definitely catch Einar in its blast, so he rushed behind the two as they fought and stabbed the man in the back. Perhaps not the most noble death, but then again a bandit didn't deserve a noble death.

As the Cook pushed the man off of him he scowled at Tom, "Excellent, now I have blood all over my good coat."

"Oh my apologies, next time I'll let him gut you like a fish", laughed the Ranger.

"Nonsense! I had him right where I wanted him", Einar grinned back.

Tom raised his eyebrow quizzically, "Ah, yes", he said mockingly, "When I fight my enemies I always like to get them within an inch of sticking me with a great big blade before I kill them."

The Cook was about to respond in kind when his eyes suddenly flared and he threw his axe over Tom's shoulder, it was so close it knocked Tom's hat off his head. The Ranger whipped around to see what the Cook had thrown his axe at and saw the swordsman crumpling to his knees with the axe head buried in his chest to the handle. He had been a second away from sneak attacking Tom.

Tom eyed the body dispassionately and said, "'Spose he had a bit more fight in him than I thought".

Einar looked at him chuckling and said, "So what was all that about havin' em' right where you want 'em?"

Tom looked him up and down and wearily said, "Shut up old man."

The two of them walked back to their camp and settled down by the extinguished fire, but neither of them slept a wink.

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