Flash Fiction: Bells (565 words)

Treik was complaining again. Sitting under the tree, perched between two rocks with his lunch in his lap, he critiqued the boulder under his right side, while the rest of the party settled in their own dusty roadside seats.

Deana and Ledy took a small patch of grass, and tossed small rocks to the side as they found them under their legs. Sammin took the dirt beside them. Dev took the crumbling end of a log, and brushed the six-legged inhabitants of the bottom of his breeches as they tried to climb him. Heverd leaned back against another boulder, trying to fit the angles of it between his shoulder blades. Their guide, Birt simply stood, glancing behind them at the road, then slowly ahead.

“Back home we don’t have stones like this,” Treik said. “Ours are lighter, and you clap them together and they break in your hands. We’d never have anything this size.” He tapped his heel against the rock, and hurried to catch his apple before it rolled off his lap. “And the stones we do have, they’re just softer. You can sleep on them.”

Deana and Ledy managed a quiet conversation of their own. Everyone else ignored Treik as best they could.

“It’s hot, isn’t it?” Treik asked Dev.

Dev nodded absently, chewing.

“The tree doesn’t do much.” Treik looked up at the leaves which shed patchy shadows across the road where they rested. “It might be better with some wind. But we haven’t had a good wind for the last two days.”

He rattled through his thoughts on the day through the entire meal. Then slowly, the others started to pick themselves up off the ground, dust off their clothing, pack their food away, settle heavy packs on their shoulders again. He continued his commentary, directed at whoever happened to be closest, and managed to shake a few words out of Ledy in response.

Birt ranged a little ahead, scouting out the twists in the road ahead, then returned to collect them.

“Treik,” he said.

Treik looked up, quiet for the first time in the last hour.

“Want to take lead for a bit?” he asked.

Treik straightened, surprised at the confidence in the question. Then he nodded.

“Brave man,” Heverd said, falling in beside Birt as they started the trek down the road. He kept his voice down, to make sure their new dauntless leader couldn’t hear. “I’d have confined him to the back. Maybe gagged him.”

Birt smiled, but didn’t allow himself to laugh. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” he said. “But it only took one trip to learn there were two ways to deal with people who grumble for entertainment.”

Heverd looked at him curiously.

“You can gag them. Or tie them up and leave them by the roadside. It feels good for about an hour, before your guilt creeps up on you and makes you turn back for them.” Birt looked considering at the back of Treik’s head. “Maybe two hours.”

Heverd bit down hard on a laugh.

“Or,” Birt said. “You can stay close behind them, and use them for the only thing they’re good for.”

“Ugh,” Treik said ahead of them. “Must have rained last night. There’s mud everywhere.”

Birt moved immediately to the side, avoiding the mud slide that lined one side of the road.

“Warning bell,” Birt said, and shrugged helplessly.

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