Chapter 29: ~On the Road Again~ Just Can't Wait to Get on The Road Again~
It was daytime. The early morning sun shone with a golden warmth that reached through the trees overhead with a warmth that pierced through the frigid air. The trees were green and tall, and something about them was familiar, in a way.
James knew this part of the forest. It had been a while since he'd passed through it - roughly five years, actually - but he could remember that first year of being wanted so vividly. It was the ones that followed that blurred through, until the present. Those fragile first few weeks had felt like a fever dream. He'd been running in circles trying to get people off his tail, narrowly escaping capture after capture, and losing so, so many hours of sleep. And now that was his norm. Or... it had been, for a long time, until now.
Now he was setting on a mission to save a friend, whom he owed his life to, twice-over.
There were a lot of things left unsettled: gaps in Clandestine's history that no one had the answer to, questions about dragons, questions about magic, and wondering what it all meant.
And of course, there was the final question weighing on his mind; what would he do with all of that information?
It almost felt like he'd stepped into a story that he played a very small, unsuccessful part. But fate had placed this into his hands: people who actually wanted to bring about change, and seemed to have counted the cost and found it worth the risk.
Change, however, could mean many things.
For now, they were simply starting with one thing: saving Clandestine.
Bo came up from behind him, now wearing a brown, fur-lined coat over all of his dark clothing. Everyone had been provided clothes fit for the cold weather they were about to walk into because everyone knew that the Moonlight Kingdom only had two seasons: cold and colder.
James pulled the collar of his new jacket up around his face and pulled his hat down further over his ears. The weather was just one of the many things he did not miss about the kingdom.
Bo glanced back at the others. Their rescue team was small, and it only included people James had already met from the start: Mel, Raj, Robin, and Bo. He'd run into a few other people among the halls while they were getting things ready (and James was resting, not by choice), but no one else had spoken to him, which he was grateful for, honestly.
James looked over to Elliot, who was standing beside him. And Billy too. He was the only horse coming without a rider.
The other four horses with their saddles loaded up for their travels, save for Robin. James didn't ask why, even though the man was the smallest of all of them, and James couldn't imagine how he'd keep up with the horses.
Unless he was riding with someone else? Bo's horse was certainly large enough - and it had to be, for such a big man.
"You ready to go?" Bo asked.
James nodded, looking out into the forest.
He still felt weak. He hoped over the next few days of travel, he'd feel somewhat normal again.
"Alright, well, we're just finishing up. We'll be heading out in a minute," Bo said with a nod, before walking over to Mel, and helping her tie her pack down to her saddle.
James stood there for a moment, drawing close to Elliot, and petting his neck.
He wanted to believe they would get there in time, but so much time had already passed. He had to at least try to prepare himself for the worst: Clandestine was dead, and it was his fault.
James stared out into the trees. The cold bit at his nose, but the rest of him was warm. He'd been given mittens, boots, all given freely. He wondered if they'd be wanting them back, after all of this.
If they made it out of all of this.
Tremors rumbled the earth beneath him, and he found himself looking around, expectantly. It had only been a few hours, but he'd already come to associate the movement of the earth with Mickey - who seemed to burrow through it effortlessly and managed to stay clean in doing so.
He emerged a few feet away from him, and Dinny, the little goblin, hopped up behind him.
She'd been shadowing him. Every time he'd seen her, she was with Mickey.
Mickey looked around the group before his eyes zeroed in on James, and he walked over. James looked around, expecting Mickey to go talk to Bo or something.
"Dinny is going to join you," Mickey said. Smiling. Like that was a normal thing, for a goblin to join on a rescue mission into the Moonlight Kingdom, to save a mage.
James blinked. "She's... coming with us?"
He looked down at Dinny. She was dressed for the occasion, in a little jacket that looked like it might've originally been made for a child, but fit her perfectly. She also looked scared, and she still had the same fear in her eyes she'd been staring at him with earlier.
"I think she'll be a valuable addition to your party," Mickey said.
James didn't have words.
Did Mickey know? Did Dinny tell him?
Mickey put his hands up. "It's alright. She already told me." He turned and said something in goblin to her, and she nodded.
Oh. She already told him. Somehow that made it worse.
"She's great at scouting and tracking, and will be a great pair of eyes, especially at night. She said she wants to redeem herself."
James looked down at her. "Redeem... herself..." he repeated quietly. He trailed off into silence, staring down at Dinny. She stared back, but finally, offered a nervous smile. Then she reached into her coat.
James fought against the instinct to be on guard. Mickey was here. She wouldn't just attack him out here, like this.
Instead of a knife, or anything James might've expected, Dinny pulled out a small toad.
As she held it out with arms extended, the toad croaked.
"Sticky," she said in common, smiling a little wider. It was surreal, hearing her speak a word in his language. Had Mickey taught her how to say it?
James looked to Mickey, then to the toad.
"That's the frog's name," Mickey clarified.
"Ah." James nodded slowly. "That's a nice... frog."
"Toad," Dinny corrected, still smiling.
James parted his mouth, but what came to his face wasn't really a smile.
Mickey broke the awkward silence by patting Dinny on the back. The toad croaked again.
"Well, Dinny, why don't you go help Bo?" He switched to goblin for the rest of what he said, which led James to believe he'd only said the first part in common for James's benefit, so he knew what was going on.
Dinny nodded and hurried off to the others, who welcomed her with smiles and greetings he couldn't understand.
Of all the languages he knew, they were all used among humans. He'd never learned goblin. Seeing humans and goblins - even just one - interacting like this was unlike anything he'd ever witnessed before. No hostility. Only... friendliness.
James hadn't realized he'd been staring off again until Mickey spoke up again.
James turned to look at him.
The way Mickey had said his name made a strange feeling stir in the pit of James's stomach that he couldn't name.
"I'm really glad I got to see you again," Mickey said. "I wasn't sure if you'd made it to the kingdom safely. To meet up with your friend... Carter, was it?"
James stared. Mickey had already done the math. He was surprised the old man remembered.
"I can tell things didn't quite go as you'd been hoping," Mickey said, looking up into James's eyes. "But I'm glad to see you turned out alright." He paused and reached out his hand like he was offering for James to take it.
James looked at Mickey's hand and waited a moment before he took it. Mickey didn't pull him or do anything unexpected. It was just a handshake. A firm one.
James was relieved when Mickey let go and pulled away.
"When you get back," Mickey said. "I'd like to talk. I think it would be nice to catch up."
"After ten years?"
"There'll be a lot to catch up on!" Mickey smiled and shrugged.
James pursed his lips, and then looked back at the others. Bo was lifting Dinny on top of his horse and Dinny looked both terrified and in awe as she gripped the saddle for dear life. They were laughing, and Mel was cheering her on.
"... I'll think on it," he said.
Mickey followed James's gaze, and then looked back at him.
"I will eagerly await your reply."
James watched as the others started mounting their horses, and he took one last look at Mickey. There was a look in Mickey's eyes that James couldn't quite read, but it wasn't sinister.
"Thank you," he said, getting up on Elliot, secure in the saddle. "For everything."
Mickey bowed his head. "I hope you found what you were looking for," he said.
James's brows furrowed, and he looked down at Mickey, saying without words: what?
At that moment, the others started without him. He looked down at Mickey, and then at the others.
This could wait.
He rode off after them, and could hear Mickey call out: "Be safe!"
Safe. Funny saying that to a man who'd almost died.
He hadn't been safe for a very long time. He would be fine.