Chapter 13: Monotony

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The next morning the group awoke to the sounds of other travelers shuffling around the room and conversing quietly. Dust swirled in the beams of morning sunlight, and as Grimbert scanned the large sleeping room he noticed that only a few beds remained occupied.

"I guess it's time to get up," Richart moaned. Grimbert sympathized, his head also ached from too much drink.

"I'm hungry," Hildegund declared as she rolled off the bed roll and stood up.

Grimbert could feel bile rise in the back of his throat at the mere mention of food. He could tell from Richart's express that he felt the same. "We better return to the road. Maybe Maggie can fix you a bowl of something as we pack up."

"That sounds like a plan," said Richart as he rubbed his temples with his index finders. "Although I'm not sure how I'll feel on the back of a horse."

"We'll be sure to grab a tall drink before we leave. It'll fix us both right up." Richart looked skeptical, but Grimbert patted his back reassuringly.

An hour later they were all mounted and ready to ride. The road was still muddy from the previous night's storm, so they were forced to proceed with care. Even though they were only one day's ride from Worms, the next large town on their journey, they couldn't risk having one of the horses stumble.

Grimbert couldn't get comfortable with the slow monotonous bobbing of the horse. His head throbbed and his stomach roiled. He tried to shut out the offending noises of the chattering squirrels and twittering birds and just focus on his breathing. Even the cricket chirps sounded cacophonous to his pounding skull. At least the road was covered by a thick layer of branches, which shielded his eyes from the harsh daylight. Although, every time there was a breeze thick drops fell from the still-wet leaves, which Grimbert found annoying.

The breakfast beer he had chugged had done little to ease his hangover. His head felt as though a horse had kicked it, his mind felt numb, and worst of all his stomach was tied in knots. He was so focused on keeping the contents of his gut where they belonged that he barely heard HIldegund when she spoke.

"Do you think those tales were real?" she asked.

"What tales?" Richart answered without taking his eyes from the ground in front of him. Grimbert imagined that the man was suffering from the same symptoms of too much ale.

"Of the bandits," she almost huffed. "I was thinking about them all night. I could barely sleep."

If he was being honest with himself, Grimbert didn't know what to think. He had travelled all through the Holy Roman Empire in order to find work, and there were always stories of danger on the road. It was hard to tell what was real and what was just hearsay. Not for the first time, he hoped that having the girl with them wouldn't be a liability.

In that moment he thought of his mother. It was an unwelcome intrusion and he tried to focus his mind back onto Hildegund's question, but he could still see his mother's wizened face peering sternly at him from the periphery of his consciousness. When he had left her he knew there was a good chance she might pass away before his return. What he hadn't considered much was the danger he was putting his own life in. Maybe he would be the one who would die first.

Given his current condition, maybe a quick death wouldn't be such a tragedy.

Then, like a dog shedding its fleas, Grimbert shook his head to rid himself of grim thoughts. "No, Joseph. Those tales as just that – stories told by peasants who have nothing better to do with their time."

"I'm not sure if I agree with you, old friend. Maybe there were some exaggerations, but I don't think it would be wise to dismiss those stories entirely. This is not a safe world that we live in."

"Don't frighten your daughter, I err, mean your son," Grimbert tried to correct himself quickly.

Richard clucked his tongue and frowned. "We need to be careful when we are out on the road. If we tell bandits that we have a girl with us, that defeats the whole purpose of her disguise."

"You don't need to tell me that. You're the one who stumbled over your words last night. In front of other travelers, too! I know the dangers of the road better than you do. How long were you a journeyman, a few years? I've made a career at it," Grimbert spat.

"Can you two stop it?" Hildegund complained. "If there are bandits listening you are both putting us in more danger."

He didn't want to admit it, but she was probably right. His head was foggy and it was affecting his judgement. There was a momentary pause before Grimbert responded, "All I meant was, you can't always trust the talk you hear at inns. Getting all worked up and jumpy won't make anything better. But, yes, there are probably some extra precautions we could take."

"Like what?" Hildegund asked.

"To begin, we should never be out of sight from one another. Ever," Richart said emphatically, before Grimbert could answer.

"What about when we have business to take care of?" she asked, a slight blush coming to her cheeks.

"Well, um, yes, that would be one exception ... However, even then, no one goes any further than beyond the far side of a clearly visible tree."

"If I can add my advice," Grimbert interjected, "We ought to adjust how we are packing our valuables. Right now we have almost everything consolidated on our packhorse. If that one animal is lost, why then, so are we. We should be more aware of how we divvy things up."

"That's an excellent idea," Richart nodded.

"And finally, we need to keep our conversations to a minimum when we are out on the road. The less information any hidden bandit knows of us, the better."

"And you two need to get better about my pronouns."

Both men shifted in their saddles somewhat uncomfortably. Richart spoke first, "I know sweetheart. I think we've already admitted that. You really are doing great. It's just taking some getting used to, that's all."

"Well, you better get used to it. It's our lives that could be at stake," Hildegund grumped.

"You're right," Grimbert conceded out loud, although the words were hard to say. He made a mental note to not drink so much next time. He didn't like being corrected by a little girl. Grimbert still felt odd calling a girl by a boy's name, but it was for the best. Calling her Hildegund was reflexive and it was important to retrain his tongue to call her Joseph. To call her him. "I guess we need to stop calling you Hildegund, even in private."

After a nod of agreement, the group continued in silence for some time. Sunlight filtered down through the thick foliage and warmed the air. As midday approached there were still some patches of mud and occasional puddles, but they slowly seemed to dry up as the sun rose in the sky. Grimbert's aches also seemed to ease.

Soon the branches overhead thinned and unobstructed daylight could be seen bathing the road up ahead. They exited the canopy of the forest and were surrounded by expansive farmlands. In the distance they saw the large town of Worms nestled against a bend in the Rhine River. Mountains could be seen hazy on the horizon.

"Let's stop for lunch," Richart announced.

The group stopped and led their horses off the main road. Grimbert relished being on solid ground again, and he made himself comfortable as he took in the beautiful view. For the first time all morning he felt at peace.

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