Chapter 3:

Carry A Big Stick

Paladins of the Pickle Goddess

I emerged from my rooms after a few minutes of packing, still hungover and what felt like twice as wide from all of the layers of clothing. My apprentice froze when he saw me, eyes bulging. We were the only two in the back hallway, a faint murmur of sound coming from the main inn.

Duran was a twitchy little thing, always seeming to run somewhere even though I had yet to catch him doing any actual work.

“You missed morning service,” he said. “I had to- had to-”

“Get it out,” I said. “I don’t have all morning.”

“Had to try and wake Himself,” said Duran. “And then he didn’t, so I had to- well- everyone’s hungry. I said you were coming along soon.”

Of course. I inhaled, once. He was young. Surely he would learn soon?

Then it dawned upon me, realization twice as good the second time. I would not be the one to teach him. It was like the sunlight breaching. I was free. “Thank you, Andrena,” I said. I pressed a finger to my lips. “May every bubble pop for you.”

“What?” His eyes were flickering back towards where I could hear the rumbling of angry diners. “Please, Cook.”

“Do you even know my name? I’ve taught you for four months. Please tell me you know my name.”

He stammered. I held up a hand. “Don’t bother. I’m quitting. I’ve got business down south.”

“You can’t quit. We need to feed them! I told them oatcakes were coming!”

“It seems that you have to make oatcakes then,” I said. I smiled. I was floating upon a cloud of good-will. “Try to actually add oats this time. Best of luck.”

He jogged after me. “Please! You have to teach me your ways. How else will I make perfect oat-cakes?”

“Practice,” I said, and shut the hallway door in his face.

The joy took me all the way up to the top of the stairs, where Himself was still snoring upon his desk. I seemed to recall quitting last night, somewhere in between the fourth and fifth jar of mead, but I decided it was better safe than sorry.

I grabbed the nearest object I could find- a wooden toy duck- and threw it at the desk. It echoed. He came awake with a shout.

Always a twitchy one, Durandus the First. He looked much the same as his son, if you added twenty years of heavy drinking and a beard to cover up the lack of a chin. I spoke before he fell into his haze again. “Leaving. Now.” When he was this hungover- or maybe still drunk- it was best to keep things as short as possible.

He gibbered. The joy suffused me again. Never again would I have to come in here, dousing him in water just for him to wake up and admit he’d forgotten to go to the bank again.

Praise Andrena.

“Yes, that’s right,” I said. “Going. Now.”

“You can’t,” He said. “Who will make the food?”

“The boy.”

He stared at me. I shrugged loosely. It was his problem now. I was free. I was also without money, without a ride, and without a plan other than vague images of a burning temple and the threat of poisoned pickles in my gut, but I had been in worse places before.

If it came to that, I could probably come back and beg for a place here. I doubted he could find someone to replace me in time. I stared down at him. He was fighting to keep his eyes open.
I left the door open on my way out. The younger Duran could deal with him.

I took the back door out, better to avoid all of the hungry guests. By the time I was on the main road, I’d decided I might as well walk. Not many merchants came through here- if I waited for a ride going in the right direction, it might take several days. I thought uneasily of the ache in my gut and increased the pace of my walking.

The inn usually served the steady stream of pilgrims making their way up to the Temple of Dolus on foot. Apparently the stringent rules of self-regulation did not apply on the return journey, which I assumed they took getting fat on grapes while lolling about on the deck of some ship in the sun, sailing down the western coast and ignoring the wide expanse of the plains they’d trekked through.

By the time it hit mid-day, I was frustrated with Andrena for her demands of me. I was no pilgrim. I had no demands, other than survival. What did she expect of me?

I kicked at a tree root. I’d come here the normal way- in the back of a cart. To expect me to leave on foot, like some… some…

“You really left me!”

I stopped.

When I turned, it was slow and reluctant. There, panting, hands braced on his knees, was my twiggy, hapless, apprentice Duran. He was in the middle of the road. He still wore an apron. On one hip was a sword. Slung across his back was a large staff.

How had he managed to get a sword?

“…You were meant to make the oatcakes,” I said. Honestly, he’d probably saved half of the pilgrimage by leaving.

“You’re meant to teach me!”

“I’m not responsible for what lies your father told you.”

It was the way he stared. His eyes widened, a little. He didn’t look like a begging dog so much as a lost rat. It would be a mercy to send him back home. I looked away.

“This will be good for you,” I said. “You’ll be able to take over cooking.”

“I have to finish my apprenticeship,” he said. Bullish. “Please.”

The sound of crunching of leaves echoed. He was still walking towards me. I focused my eyes on the forest ahead and walked faster. Was this some other trick of Andrena’s? I’d gotten away too easily. Now she had to prove she could toy with me.

“I brought a sword,” he offered. “And food. Besides, I can fend for myself.”

Before I could tell him not to, I had to spring back. He’d actually pulled out the fool sword. It gleamed with what looked like real gems. It was beautiful, with a gem on the hilt and what looked like a blade sharp enough to cut the wind. It whistled as it sang through the air before it fell through and sank into a tree root.

I took several more steps back. Andrena probably couldn’t heal sword wounds. “…Please put that away.”

“I’ve been practicing!”

He had been, I realized with a dawning horror. For once in his life, Duran had worked on something.

“How did you even get that?”

“It was in the coat closet,” He said. “Next to some of the sacrificed cloaks.”

As a part of the pilgrimage, pilgrims had to give up all of their worldly goods. I gave the sword a good looking-over. It was technically a sin upon the gods to take anything sacrificed; the Pilgrims were supposed to be able to take their items back if necessary.

I was on a mission from a god. I figured it was probably morally acceptable.

I wasn’t going to touch it, though. Just in case.

“You really won’t walk back,” I said.

He shook his head. “Please! I promise. I’ll be a better apprentice. I’ll do everything you say. I’ll swear myself-” He’d thrown himself on the ground in some sort of pious plea. Teenagers.

I sighed. “Get up. Put the sword back in the sheath.”

He stood up. His face was already sunburned. We both needed hats, and a ride at that. I was going to get tired of walking very quickly. “You mean you’ll really take me?”

I had made an agreement. Regardless of how much I regretted it."

“You’ll be on your own if you start any fights,” I said. “And you need to cover the top of that sword. It’s going to attract the wrong kind of attention.”

He was nodding so rapidly I thought I could see his face blurring. “Anything! I’ll do anything!”

“Not anything,” I said. I rubbed a hand over my face. “Right. I’ll take the staff, too.”

I could use a weapon of my own.

“That’s nice of you,” said Duran. “It’s very heavy.”

It was actually a nice weight, well-carved. I recognized it immediately; it usually hung over the bar, a warning to patrons not to over-imbibe. I hefted it twice before turning back to the path alongside the main road.

“Come on,” I said. “We’re losing light.”

Duran fell in line easily enough. We made it halfway to the next town before he started practicing with the sword again.