Due North [Episode 4]: Into the Thick of It, Part II
Water horses, sentient houses, disappearing cats, grave whisperers, semi-dead grave robbers, minotaurs, bearotaurs, satyrs, dryads, sirens, and more!
The last few nights had been good to Tony, and he’d began to get accustomed to winning and to a winner’s money. He suspected word had got around about his fight with the minotaur and now his opponents lost before they entered the ring.
A little restaurant, perched atop a cliff overlooking the sprawling town below, had become his new favourite. La Francesca was named after the original name of the owner’s hometown, with some town rumours suggesting Giuseppe had been alive ever since it went by the name. They were famously secretive though, so no one knew how much truth there was to the claim. Giuseppe mingled freely and openly with their patrons, laughing and smiling their way through each diner, but always deflected any questions about themself. The only thing anyone knew about them was the history behind their restaurant’s name, something that they proudly exclaimed to the world, and had on display under a painting of the town’s shoreline.
‘You obviously love the place so much. It’s practically the only thing anyone knows about you. Why don’t you ever visit?’ Tony once asked them.
Giuseppe smiled. ‘You’re not from around here either, Tony. Why don’t you visit?’
Tony sighed a sad smile. ‘Ah, there’s nothing left for me back where I come from.’
‘What’s your story, Tony?’
‘Giuseppe, you have your secrets, I have mine,’ Tony replied smirking. Truth be told, it was less of a secret and more a painful memory, but he liked sounding mysterious, especially considering it wasn’t often he got to.
Giuseppe laughed. ‘I can appreciate that. Looks like we’ve both set up shop pretty well out here though. I’ve heard about your fights.’
Tony smiled modestly in reply and Giuseppe moved on to their next patron.
The shop Giuseppe had set up, as they rather modestly put it, had a line of tables along a glass-panelled wall affording a magnificent view of the town it oversaw, bathed in candlelight encased in intricately carved glass and marble holders in place of electric lighting. Tony generally sat at the bar, seeing as how it was the only place where a solitary diner could get a table. In addition to the countless bottles proudly on display behind the counter, a carousel to the left shielded in a glass casing boasted a most delicate selection of wines. Tony generally wouldn’t drink much but did order a lot of pie and usually ended up taking a little home (in all honesty though, “home” ended up meaning the walk there).
Today, something a little different was in store. Usually the walk home was quiet, the cool evening breeze mixing with the pie’s (somehow everlasting) aromas as he walked home, a whistle on his lips and not a care in the world. This time, a familiar face emerged from the shadows.
Tony whipped around abruptly, keeping one hand on his box of pie and the other up in a defensive stance. The minotaur from the other night stared down at him, his face entirely expressionless. His horns were no longer wrapped, their deep green mixing with the night.
‘There’s no need for that,’ he continued. ‘Please, relax.’
Tony eyed him suspiciously.
‘My name is Taur. Yes, Taur, the minotaur. Go ahead, I’ve heard all the jokes.’
Tony stifled a laugh and let down his guard. ‘Pie?’ he offered.
‘No, thanks. But please, follow me. We’ve got something to show you.’ Taur turned around and began walking down the other side of the hill, opposite to Tony’s house, without waiting to see if he latter would follow.
Tony considered his options. On the one hand, he could go home, maybe drop in on Mr Tunt’s poker game, and go to bed with beer and pie in his stomach. On the other, Taur’s appearance felt like something out of a movie with secret agents recruiting an unsuspecting citizen to save the world. He knew it was stupid, he knew it didn’t make sense. He also knew there was no way he would be sleeping tonight if he didn’t find out what Taur wanted to show him. He jogged to catch up.
‘Quit your complaining. You got to pick the bookshop, I pick the hike,’ Bella chided.
‘Yeah, well, at least you liked the bookshop too. I’ll never understand what you like about running through the woods and mosquitoes, all drenched in sweat.’
‘Oh, shut it. You’ll see. You’ll love it by the end,’ she said forging ahead, much more chipper than he was.
‘Starting to think staying in the city would have been better,’ Berto muttered.
‘What was that?’
‘Nothing!’ he said, running to keep up with her.
Berto eventually ended up sharing some of Bella’s enthusiasm after a while, but there was no way he could give her the satisfaction of knowing she was right, so made sure to grumble periodically. In the middle of one such complain, Bella shushed him abruptly.
‘Wait, shut up.’
‘Shh! Look there,’ she said, pointing an extended arm ahead of them. The trees grew shorter and shorter as they hiked further away from the town boundary and stood somewhere around the eight-feet mark where Bella was pointing.
There were two men ahead of them, one of whom had their head quite literally in the trees. She couldn’t quite make them out, but she thought she saw horns protruding out from the sides of the head too; they blended in with the evergreen trees overhead, making it seem like they were only sometimes there. The two didn’t seem like hikers: they had no backpack or gear of any sort – not even a water bottle – and one of them was carrying a box marked with the sign of La Francesca, a restaurant both Berto and Bella had been meaning to visit.
The taller one seemed to be in charge, as if he were leading the other somewhere, but it didn’t feel like a hostage situation. Bella could make out conversational noises coming from them, but couldn’t quite understand what was being said.
‘Want to follow them?’ she asked Berto.
‘Are you insane? Have you seen the size of that guy? If we follow him and it turns out we aren’t welcome, we’re done for.’
‘Oh, come on. If he didn’t want to be followed, he should have been quieter. He’s clearly leading the other guy somewhere. Aren’t you even a little curious where?’
Now that she pointed it out, Berto saw it too. The larger of the two walked with purpose and navigated the forest’s uneven terrain with ease. He knew these grounds.
‘Goddamn it,’ he finally caved.
Berto and Bella followed the other two until the trees narrowed to a passage and eventually gave way to a large clearing enclosed in a circle of trees of its own. The taller man strode confidently forward down the line of trees and the other followed, albeit a little more meekly. Berto and Bella followed until they reached the clearing, at which point they hung back, huddled in the shelter of the trees. They were too far away to make out much of what was being said and their view was shielded both by the absurdly large people there and the trees standing guard.
‘What do you think’s going on?’ Berto asked.
Bella shushed him. ‘Shut up! We don’t want them to hear us.’
They observed in silence, desperately trying to hear even a snippet. Berto inched a little closer, dangling from a tree with an outstretched arm.
And that was his mistake.
The towering man had only made it a little past the edge when Berto’s foot caught a protruding root and he tripped and crushed a set of twigs underfoot.
The man whipped around, confirming the fact that Bella was not, indeed, hallucinating the horns, and snarled at them, menacingly stepping closer.
‘Just what do you think you two are doing here?’ he questioned, drawing out each syllable threateningly.
Berto and Bella shuddered in fright by way of reply, something that only seemed to anger him more.
‘If you know what’s good for you, you two will leave. Now!’ he bellowed.
‘Hey!’ came a familiar voice from somewhere in the back. ‘Ease up on the threats. They’re cool.’
Berto and Bella relaxed a little. They had been going to her diner almost every day and had become good friends in that time. Seeing her there eased their worries a little.
‘Really though, you guys should get out of here,’ she continued, getting up and walking towards them. ‘This place is kind of invite-only and we’re pretty serious about that. Taur more than others.’ Taur gave a low growl to punctuate that last addition and huffed.
Berto and Bella gave Alecia a nod of thanks who promised them answers when they next met, and they hurried away, but not before Berto glimpsed Alia amongst the crowd giving him a little wave with an embarrassed smile.
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