"Coming," a young man called back.
With a grunt, he was up from his chair as he hobbled over to the dinner table. His name was Roland, and he had a lame leg which forced him to get along by way of crutch. Not long ago, he was still living with his older brother, who was a mercenary. He worked to support them both while Roland had always felt useless, but it couldn't be helped. He was left small and frail from being unable to do any physical work, which was what was largely called for in a struggling country like Artolia. Thankfully, he had left that country behind months ago.
Then something happened. Somehow, his brother had gotten himself involved in the murder of the nation's princess, and was killed. Roland was arrested to set to be executed despite knowing nothing of the events that had transpired. Yes, the princess had come to their house disguised in order to hire Roland's brother, Arngrim, for a "job", but that was all Roland knew of the issue.
Then, Lawfer, a friend of his brother, came and rescued him. They were attacked by the guards, but the skilled fighter fended them off for the most part. One managed to get a good stab in, fatally wounding the halberd user. He died of his wounds along their trek to freedom. Before he did though, the two were met by more of Anrgrim's friends, Kashell and Celia, and they smuggled him out of the country while Lawfer gave the city guard's a wild goose to chase before succumbing.
After that, Kashell and Celia brought him to a four room cottage a short ways away from a small village many miles away from Artolia with money for him. They would drop by with money they earned from their work for him. That is, for a while… Eventually, Kashell also met his fate in a village where a medusa had turned the residents to stone.
After that, Celia returned cottage with a child, a little girl, in tow. Since then, it had been the three of them, with the exception of one occasion. A few weeks after arrival the little girl, Alice, settled into a job as a servant of the local lord.
Celia left again to find someone named Grey and was gone for about a month. During that time, a call was sent out for artists to make family portraits of that noble family, and Alice fetched Roland. His skill impressed them enough that he brought in gold pieces for his work as an artist, and even managed to sell himself as a scribe too. So now both had steady work.
At the end of that month, Celia returned tearfully muttering things such as "They're all gone" and had slipped into a depression for weeks afterwards. She didn't want to talk about it, but Roland and Alice caught the gist of what must have happened during this engagement with Grey. Thankfully, they were no longer partially dependent on her for monetary reasons.
Celia was inconsolable for about three weeks and didn't so much of anything in that time. At the beginning of the fourth, which was about a week ago, she had finally recovered and was considering occupational options. She knew not whether she should to continue on the path of mercenary work or find something else. Her primary line of work had killed Kashell, Arngrim and all the other friends they had made along the way.
Back in the present, as Roland sat himself down at the dinner table next to Alicia, he was unsure how to help her. Would a woman who was trained as a warrior for hire since her childhood be able to settle for any other jobs available to women in this harsh land set deeply in a dark age? Roland was naïve, but not foolish.
His thoughts were interrupted by Celia and Alicia entering the room with pans in tow.
"I think we made a little too much this time, Alicia," Celia laughed. "They're only three of us, you know?"
"At least we can dry out the meat for jerky if we don't eat it all," the girl replied.
"I guess that's true, but let's not overdo it next time."
The smells of beef, mashed potatoes, and gravy filled the room as two set the food down at the middle of the square table and filled the plates. The three ate in silence, at least until Roland broke it.
"So, Celia… Have you made any decisions?"
She shook her head.
"No. I don't know what I'm going to do now."
"Might I ask why not just remain a mercenary? Can't you just find a new partner or team?"
Roland regretted asking this, but this was an issue that needed to have a conclusion.
"New partners in crime," Celia laughed bitterly. "Dallas, Lemia, Grey, Arngrim, Aelia, Lawfer, and… …Kashell… They're all gone. I've always been a mercenary. First I was with my father when he was alive, then as a group with all my friends. Then just with Kashell. The list just got shorter. Now it's just me. I feel like I have to survive for everyone else's sake. What was everything we did for if we're all gone."
"Well… In that case, the field just out back behind this cottage had some nice soil… We could start a garden, or a small scale field. Um, I know they're hiring for waitresses in town…The military's recruiting…" Roland said.
"I think…. I like gardening,"
"Oh," Roland asked.
"Gardening I can do. Mother had a garden and I helped when not working with father. I could find some work as a mercenary for now, and come this next Spring we could work on our own garden," Celia explained.
"That sounds fine to me," Roland said. "If all else fails, I still have my job at the castle."
"I like that idea," Alicia piped.
"Alright…" Celia laughed. "I guess you've cast the vote. I'll be a gardener. With the money from I get from these last jobs as a mercenary I should be able to…"
She was interrupted by a knocking at the front door just behind Roland and Alice, who sat across from her.
"Now who could that be at this hour," Celia asked, grabbing her sword and ushering Roland and Alicia out of the room.
She went over to the door to the cottage after a second knocking on the door.
"Who is it?"
"Oh, come on, Celia, you gonna leave me out here all night," Called the very familiar voice of Kashell.
She nearly dropped the sword. It couldn't be. She buried Kashell, herself back at the cursed village.
He had died keeping the veil that cured Alice of her petrifaction. He was stabbed clean through the heart. Celia reached with a trembling hand for the door handle and opened the portal into the cottage a crack.
She looked out and gasped in surprise, terror, and sadness. There, on her front doorstep, stood Kashell. He was smiling ear to ear, scratching the back of his head.
A scream cut through the cottage like a knife through hot butter.
"Don't worry, Celia! We're coming," Roland and Alicia called out reaching the front room, crutch and a pan in hand.
But once they saw who stood at the front door, they stopped dead. Celia was on her knees, face buried in her hands. Kashell stood just before her before kneeling before apologizing profusely.
"Calm down! It's alright. Look, it's me, Celia. It's really me."
The woman snapped out of her shock and withdrew from his touch before he could reach her.
"No! You can't be! I buried Kashell! I BURIED him! It's you, isn't it? The devil! The one from that village. You've come back to haunt me more now that you've killed poor Kashell! Well, you won't have me as well!"
"No, wait, Celia. You don't understand. It's me! It's really me! Celia… Put the sword down."
With an intense cry of hate and a broken heart, Celia swung at Kashell, who retreated and avoided the blow easily, as she was not in her right state of mind at the moment. She continued to make mad horizontal swings at him until a particularly strong one knocked her slightly off balance and the recently resurrected man took the opportunity to tackle her. After some wrestling on the floor of the abode, he wrenched the sword from her grasp and pinned her to the floor.
Roland's eyes widened as he took notice of the positioning they were now in. He was on top of her and had her arms pinned to her side and had her legs parted. He was going to rape her! As quickly as he could, Roland and Alice were in action.
With a swing of his crutch more powerful than he thought he could muster, Roland sent the dinner table toppling over on Kashell knocking him off Celia as Alice rushed him the pan. He saw her coming and his arms took he brunt of a blow intended for his head.
"Hey, wait! Guys, it's me! It's Kashell! Ack! Stop that!"
He grabbed the pan from throw it aside. Alice cried out and retreated as the man attempted to get to his feet.
"Enough already," Kashell yelled, already up on his knees.
Then he found himself face to face with a blade.
"Yes, enough," Celia repeated darkly. "If you're Kashell, prove it."
Her old companion raised his hands in surrender and nodded, taking a cross-legged sitting position on the floor.
"Alright. My name is Kashell. My father's name was Matthew. My mother was Presea. We all lived
in Artolia. He was a knight in the royal army and trained me to fight from an early age. You and I met when we were both six. You were practicing with a wooden sword and…"
"…And," Celia prompted, started to lower the sword.
Kashell scratched the back of his head looking somewhat embarrassed.
"I…teased you for being too much like a guy and you beat me 'til I was the one crying like a little girl. Then we spent the rest of our childhoods hating each other. We were always trying to one up the other, much to Arngrim and everyone else's annoyance. Our rivalry finally ended when our fathers got us hired on the same job to go looking for a monster that has been killing farm animals."
"Well, Celia," Roland asked, seeking confirmation.
He had not been privy to this information. Celia first laughed, and then teared up. She knelt down next to the sitting man and touched his face. It felt warm and…human.
"Yeah, it's me."
"Well… It's a long story, but to give you the short version you probably remember seeing a bright light, then nothing, then suddenly existing again, right?"
She nodded her head.
"Well, that was Ragnarok. I was picked to be an einherjar and helped the Lady Lenneth Valkyrie put a stop to it. Oh, just as a head's up, Odin's deader than dead, and Lady Lenneth has taken up his vacant seat. So, yeah…Valhalla's under new, more kindly management and she gave me the option of coming back. So I took it."
"What?" Celia exclaimed.
"What," Kashell asked, confused.
"Why would you come back? You made it to Valhalla, Kashell, you dummy! And what's more you're one of the heroes that saved it. You could have had anything there in the realm of the gods. What could you possibly have here that warranted a return to this dying world filled with povert…" Celia rant was interrupted.
Celia was interrupted by Kashell grabbing the back of her head and pulling her close into a kiss on the lips. After a second of being stunned, it dawned on her that she had her answer and allowed herself to return to the lip lock.
Roland and Alice removed themselves from the room to give them a little privacy. After the kiss broke off, Celia lightly thumped the other mercenary on the side of the head with her palm.
"What was that for?"
"You never told me. Why?"
"Having you as my friend was too important to lose, so I just stayed quiet. Yeah, stupid, I know."
Then Celia grabbed both sides of his face and pulled him close to kiss him again.
"Thank you was for coming back."
After a long silence passed between all in the cottage, Kashell spoke up.
"…So, I heard something about gardening right before I knocked around."
Author's Note: Yes, I caught the unfortunate implications of two women serving one man after I wrote it, but Roland is a frikkin cripple. I don't see him being too able to cook for three people very easily while having to hobble around with a crutch when there were two other able bodied people in the same house.