Author’s Note: My sincerest apologies for the unforgivably delayed posting of the conclusion of the second episode of The Improbable Adventures of Sunthwart and Gruelbane. I plead real life exigencies and throw myself on your infinite mercy, dear readers.
Five minutes later, Sunny sucked in a much-needed breath and chanced a look at Gru’s face. His friend was staring at him gape-mouthed; apparently, Sunny was better at pulling things from his ass than Gru had thought.
Of course, Sunny had a lot of time alone, during which he often spun personal fantasies, in which he was the hero come to save the day, rescuing Henke, the town hunk, from an evil dragon or accepting Henke’s grateful hug for having saved Hilda, Henke’s sister.
Gru spent his alone-time thinking about food.
Verda didn’t seem to realize that every word out of Sunny’s mouth had been a fabrication. In fact, she was currently turning angry eyes on Sven’s house.
“So the greedy, no-good lecher is scheming to wreck someone else’s business, too?” Her beautiful blue eyes darkened with the flame of her indignation, and she swung her long, honey-blonde hair back off of her shoulders.
Gru tracked the motion with his own gaze, mouth still ajar.
Sunny elbowed him in the ribs, and Gru clapped his mouth shut, turning a distracted glare on his friend. “What?” he mouthed, but Sunny had seen an opening, and he was going to take it.
“Has Sven been trying to upset your sheep?” Sunny asked innocently.
Verda laughed bitterly. “He poisoned my best ewe just last week, and the week before that, he threw burdocks into the near pasture. It took me three days to get my flock’s wool clear of the nasty things!”
“I guess he wants to knock out the competition,” Sunny observed.
“My flock produces wool, not milk,” Verda reminded him.
“So what’s he up to?” Gru asked, at last having remembered what they were supposed to be doing.
“He wants my land so that he can expand his pasturage. I’m sure that’s why he’s messing about with the millworks, too. More water for his blasted goats!” Verda finished with a particularly scurrilous phrase about what Sven liked to do with his goats in private.
Gru brayed with sycophantic laughter, but Sunny just offered a sympathetic smile.
Verda nodded, eyeing the two up speculatively. “Say, why aren’t you two off raiding and pillaging, anyway?”
Sunny shrugged, flushing uncomfortably, but Gru swelled up his chest, which caused his newly-mended belt to groan audibly at the effort of keeping his belly in check.
“We’ve been asked to stay and protect the women and children.”
“Really?” purred Verda, moving closer to Gru, who swallowed audibly at her approach. “Does that include,” she asked, suddenly coy, looking up at Gru from beneath her long, pale lashes, “helping a poor, defenseless woman protect what’s hers from an awful, bad man?”
Sunny thought he might throw up a little, but Gru didn’t seem to see through the woman’s obvious ploy. Instead, he stuttered out, “S-sure! Anything you want. I’m—,” Sunny elbowed him again, harder this time, “—we’re at your disposal!”
And that’s how they came to be hiding behind a watering trough in the pitch darkness later that night, staring through the murk at the back of Sven’s goatshed and listening with their breath held in their throats to the baying of his notoriously vicious hounds.
“She could be lying,” Sunny whispered through his teeth, but he knew the argument was futile. For one thing, he’d already made it—twice—and for another, Gru wasn’t thinking with his brain or his stomach this time, and Sunny had the sinking feeling that it was useless.
“I hope she’s worth it,” he muttered gloomily, as the dogs’ hysteria seemed to kick up a notch in volume.
“She is,” Gru promised dreamily, leaning forward more eagerly toward the goatshed as if the hounds of hell weren’t scenting his hormone-addled blood from the air around them.
Just then, Ilsa appeared in the darkness hauling a bucket with some effort toward their hiding place.
They ducked lower, hoping she wouldn’t make them out in the dark. As she approached they realized they had little to fear; she was talking to herself through clenched teeth as she struggled to lift the heavy bucket up to the rim of the trough and pour it in.
“‘Give the goats this special brew,’ he says,” she growled, voice strained with her effort. “‘It’ll make them grow big and strong,’ he says,” she continued, grunting as the contents of the bucket started to pour noisily into the trough. “More like make them sick and sour,” she panted, pulling the now-empty bucket away with a thud and a final, wicked kick at the trough.
When the coast was clear, Sunny and Gru raised their heads cautiously above the lip of the trough. From some way off, they heard Ilsa’s high-pitched, annoyed voice cry, “Will you shut up, you stupid beasts?” and the hounds’ cries died out into whimpers.
Acting on a hunch, Sunny dipped his hand into the trough, brought a palm-full to his mouth, and sniffed. Gru did the same, but instead of letting it fall back into the trough with a look of deep disgust, he stuck his tongue into the water, only drawing it back when the bitterness made his eyes squinch shut and his nose wrinkle.
“Blech!” he cried, spitting onto the ground beside the trough. “That’s disgusting!”
Sunny nodded. “It’s toadfoil,” he said. “No wonder the goats are giving only sour milk. Even your gram wouldn’t put that stuff in her mouth.” (Everyone in Arkenwald knew better than to accept anything made in Gruelbane’s grandmother’s kitchen; she’d been a bad cook as a girl. Age, senility, and cataracts hadn’t improved her craft.)
Gru didn’t bother to defend his aged relative. Instead, he asked, “What should we do about it?’
“Do you still have that bottle of mead Verda gave you?”
Sunny didn’t have to see Gru’s blush to know it was there.
“I drank some of it,” he admitted, adding defensively, “I was thirsty!”
“Drink the rest,” Sunny ordered. “And hurry up about it.”
Gru did as he was told, even remembering to offer some to Sunny, who declined, and then handed the bottle to Sunny.
Sunny rinsed it out with one dip from the trough and then filled it with the foul water and capped it.
“Evidence,” he explained. “Let’s go.”
Gru stood up, forgetting that they were supposed to be hiding. From the near darkness came a growl and then a series of deep, angry barks, growing closer and closer still.
“Run!” Sunny shouted, racing for the far fence-line. Gru, who hadn’t been the best runner even before he’d drunk a half bottle of mead, stumbled desperately after his friend.
Sunny had just made it to the split-rail fence and vaulted over it when he heard his friend yelp in pain. Sunny held his breath, afraid that Sven’s pack had done Gru in for sure. Then, out of the gloom appeared a huge, panting shape that solidified into Gru, who needed help over the fence.
Behind him, the pack bayed and snarled, drawn up at the fence-line by some natural instinct for the boundaries of their own territory.
When Sunny turned his eyes from the dogs to his friend, he saw that Gru was clutching his backside with both hands.
“Are you alright?” he asked, staring through the dark to make out Gru’s sweat-stained cheeks and grimace of pain.
“I think I need new breeches,” he moaned, hobbling toward the ditch that separated Sven’s pasture from the road to town.
The next day Sunny and a limping Gru made their way to the village hall, where the elders were assembled to hear the petty grievances of the villagers.
Gru simpered at Verda, who gave the boys a big wink as they passed her.
Sven had blustered his way to the front of the line of complainants and was in the process of giving a long-winded, bombastic speech about the dangers of witchcraft and the importance of “knowing one’s neighbor.”
The elders, who seemed divided between incredulity and outrage at the accusations Sven had leveled at Verda, asked if there were any in the village who might shed some light on the case.
Nervously, Sunny and Gru stepped forward, proffering the mead bottle full of evidence.
The elders, many of whom appreciated the curvaceous and friendly Verda, took turns sniffing the contents of the bottle. Each of them when he’d finished turned an accusing eye on Sven, who was looking a little green around the gills, as if he’d drunk some of his own potion.
Verda, smiling prettily, accepted the apology Sven was forced to choke out, and after hearing the elders’ verdict—Sven would surrender three eskels of land to Verda for the injury done to her name—followed the boys outside.
“I’d like to repay you for your help,” she said, touching each of them in turn on the cheek. “You’ve been so kind. Let me make you dinner.”
“Sure!” Gru said at once, eager eyes lingering on the woman’s prominent…cheekbones.
“Thank you,” Sunny answered more reservedly. “But I’m afraid I can’t make it. You go,” he added, prodding his friend between the shoulder blades with an extra-pointy finger.
Gru had enough blood left in his brain to offer his best friend an ardent, “Thank you!” before tripping off after the hypnotically swaying backside of the village’s merry widow.
Sunny sighed to himself, resigned to another lonely afternoon, and let his brain wander off in the direction of Olearylund, where Henke and his crew were spending the raiding season.
Maybe he could borrow a boat from old Brend…
The End of Episode Two
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