The sound of blankets rustling came from inside the wagon and a bleary eyed Rhian crept into the chill of the morning, her blanket wrapped around her shoulders.
"Good morning sweety." Said Minerva.
"Morning momma." Rhian yawned, and pecked Minerva's cheek. "Breakfast?"
"I was waiting for Frankie to come back. It's sweet that you had him on watch last night, but you shouldn't leave him running like that. You'll exhaust yourself."
"Gramma said it was good for my stamina."
"Oh, ho! Did she now? Well, me and Gramma are going to have to have words when we get back home."
Minerva sat down on the back step of the caravan with her steaming mug of coffee, plenty of sugar.
From beneath, came the sound of scrabbling claws and rattle of bones as Frankie emerged. He headbutted her leg gently and she absently smoothed out the spectral feathers on his head.
"You been up all night keeping watch?"
Frankie squawked quietly.
"Good boy." She sipped her coffee. "Go have a run. See if you can find a rabbit or something."
The raptor squawked again, happily, and bounced off into the tall grass at speed. Leaving puffs of dust in his wake.
Nothing came near the caravan during the night of note. The general air of menace, and danger, that emanated from Frankie's position underneath was more than enough to convince most denizens to stay away. The bigger hunters were smart enough to know that they shouldn't mess with humans anyway.
Minerva woke first and immediately started crushing beans in a pestle and mortar for a morning coffee. The Quartermaster had made sure that they were well stocked. Even the cold store had milk and fruit juice concentrate cubes for travelling.
She was, she admitted reluctantly, quite impressed with the Quartermaster's management.
The raptor clicked quietly across the wooden floor, waited for his mistress to open the door and slipped out into the night.
Mistress liked to let him go off on his own, even though the bigger people didn't. He couldn't go too far though. Maybe the length of two, maybe three, of the giant whip-tales from his multi-million year old memories.
But, that was OK. He snuffled around the caravan for a while, before settling down beneath it. Ruffling his proto-feathers and settling down. Curled up, but ready to strike if needed.
He watched, silently, the stars.
As her mother finally slipped into the deep sleep between dreams and nightmares, Rhian finally settled down in her own cot. Beside her, the bundle of rock bones that constituted the remains of her beloved pet, shivered slightly and the skull looked up.
"I need you to do guard duty Frankie." She whispered. She nodded at the doors. "Keep an eye out for us please."
He nodded. Understanding fully that he needed to protect his pack, just as he had done earlier.
"Good boy." She patted him on the head, and then did his favourite scratch underneath his main jaw.
The night terrors returned that night for Minerva.
Battle Witches, especially wielding foci like Minerva, got to experience the horror that high-level magics could wreak. They didn't just leave scars on skin...
Having held attack magic that day, dredged up memories that had been hard fought to put down. Buried. As deep as she could. Now, they bubbled and burbled through a nightmarish dreamscape of twisted flesh and melted bones.
In the real world she tossed and turned. And a drowsy daughter held out a hand to try and will away the nightmares that gripped her mother so tightly.
Frankie's cold skull made of stone nudged Rhian's side, looking for reassurance from his mistress. He squawked gently and made a rurrling noise with his ghostly tongue as she turned and hugged him.
"You were a good boy! Mummy says so!"
Minerva stroked the faint blue feathers adorning the top of the ancient raptor's head. "Yes. Keep protecting your mistress like that you silly old thing."
He gently squeaked, happy.
"Yes, not bad for bones of stone."
Rhian sat up. "I'm tired mummy, me and Frankie need to sleep now." Minerva picked up her little girl and made her comfortable.
Minerva ran to Rhian, who was hiding beneath the caravan. Frankie was circling it, watchful and still vaguely angry as he scratched and snarled at the bodies he'd carved.
"Mummy!" Minerva wrapped her arms around her little girl and hugged her tightly.
"Are you alright?! He didn't hurt you did he?"
Rhian sobbed into Minerva's chest until she eventually managed to stop. "No. I'm alright. Frankie hurt the man. Was he a good boy?"
"Oh! Oh, darling! Yes, Frankie... He was a very good boy. He protected you from the bad men. He did exactly what he should have done!"
Terror gripped the old brigands insides. His heart beat wildly as the Witch made him turn. Behind him, the burnt remains of his band lay on the ground. Burned and curled in obscenely unnatural ways.
The terror, clamping his insides, also held his mind in its fierce grip. Blinding him, hiding time; granting him brief glimpses of trees passing by as his body ran and his mouth screamed shivering madness.
Finally, body exhausted, Boris collapsed in the arms of an old oak tree where the madness left him. Leaving behind exhaustion that leaked the marrow from his bones, and mind.
Boris was frozen to the spot as the chain lightning leapt from the Witch's right hand. Time seemed slow as it crackled past him and lit up his men with actinic blue light.
They didn't scream.
They didn't have time.
She walked towards him, slowly. Light arced from the bottom of her dress, grounding and burning the grass around her as she approached him.
"I need a survivor. So, tell all those you meet, plains raider. The yellow caravan is off limits. And, if you EVER threaten a child again you will be found. I CURSE you with this knowledge."
As Boris shouted, Frankie leapt. Henry automatically threw up both his hands to defend himself, dropping the little girl in the process. His screams were shrill as he disappeared beneath blood, feathers, claws and teeth as Frankie tore him open like a thin paper bag.
The archer released his arrow as the monster flashed towards Henry; the sudden speed was shocking. The arrow whistled across the air, only to stop five feet from Minerva and drop to the ground.
Minerva was crackling with power now. She was angry, but she waited until Rhian was safely under the caravan.
"Call it off!" Boris shouted at the woman.
"I can't. It's not mine."
Henry started edging in Boris's direction. The things' ghostly eyes were locked onto him and it very slowly started closing the gap between them.
"Call it off! I mean it!"
Minerva stood there. "And what are you going to do?" By now, the ground beneath Minerva was turning to dust as her fist started to crackle with energy.
"Lads!" The rest of the robber band emerged from the woods. One had a bow; an arrow knocked and aimed at her.
"I mean it! Fucking call it off!"
Henry held even tighter onto the little girl as a terrifying creature came round the side of the caravan. Standing on two feet, it appeared to be the skeleton of something. Surrounding the bones, and filling in some of the missing, or broken, ones, was a ghostly blue musculature and the whole thing was covered in ghostly skin and feathers.
It wasn't a chicken.
The thing's lips curled back and it started hissing through rows of blade-sharp teeth as it lowered itself to the ground. Readying an attack, it's clawed arms thrown wide, vibrating the arm feathers noisily, viciously.
Frankie had done what came naturally when the big human had suddenly appeared and tried to grab him. One hundred million year old instincts took control and Frankie lashed out with the huge claws on his feet, opening the human up even easier than the thick skinned prey of old. He knew he didn't need to eat, but the rage was on him, and so he bit and tore.
Suddenly he felt his owners fear. That wasn't right. She petted him and let him run free when she could. He ran back, to find owner struggling against another big man.
"I got the girl boss!" Said Henry as he rounded the caravan. He held a struggling girl in his arms.
The woman in front of him paled. "Don't you dare hurt her."
If Boris had hair, it would have started standing on end as Minerva started drawing power. The grass at her feet turned grey and ashen.
"Now look, we ain't hurting no-one. Just co-operate and we'll leave you with..." He paused as the 'Chicken' rounded the caravan dripping in Gil's blood. Ghostly feathers shook and bristled as it started hissing like a big boiling kettle of water.
It was at that point everything turned into a bloody mess. Gil had sprinted into the tall grass of the plain, going after the chicken as he'd been told to.
"What the fuck!? That's not a chi..." The sentence was cut short as blood fountained into the sky, followed by a terrific screech.
The woman had turned to face Boris. Standing straight, she smoothed her long dress and then smiled at him. Boris had seen that kind of smile before; and it usually meant that they were out of their comfort zone of robbing from defenceless victims.
She wasn't defenceless...
"Right. You grab the little girl. Keep 'er quiet understand? I'll grab the woman, and Gil can grab the chicken."
"What do we do boss?"
"That it boss?" Said Talbot.
Boris rubbed the bridge of his nose as hard as it would allow. "Yes, just stand there alright? I'm assuming you can do that?"
He stood, and walked from the edge of the wood straight towards Minerva.
"Evening! Any chance of a flagon for a poor, thirsty, traveller?" He smiled as pleasantly as he could. As she turned away from the fire, a panicked squeak came from Rhian.
"Hey... Boris. There's a tinker caravan just stopped nearby. Looks like it's just a woman and her little girl."
Boris snuffled awake from his afternoon nap. I grabbed Henry by his collar. "I swear! I'm going to break your jaw one of these days for waking me up. Me afternoon nap is needed for our nights."
"Sorry, boss. This one looked like easy pickings. The little girl is playing out in the grass with her big chicken."
Boris looked at his compatriot. "It's been a while since we had chicken. Why didn't you say so sooner?"
"Er, I did boss."
Minerva looked over her shoulder, peering into the caravan. "Are you alright back there?"
"Can I let Frankie out?"
She sighed. "Alright. we could do with stopping for the evening anyway."
Rhian whooped with glee, quickly followed by a clattering noise. Minerva, on the other hand, shivered slightly as she felt her daughters strange energies wrap the whole caravan.
The back door opened as they stopped at the edge of the woods bordering the Chalast plain, followed by a loud squawk and the clatter of claws on wood. Frankie was abroad in the world once again.
"We need rabbits!"
The caravan was a bit more colourful that Minerva had been expecting. It had obviously previously belonged to a gypsy, or maybe a travelling tinker. It wasn't... Gaudy. But the main colour was a brilliant sunflower yellow, with plenty of green and red.
Needless to say, Rhian loved it and squeaked with delight when the Quartermaster brought them to it. He'd smiled.
The inside of the caravan was a lot more sensible, with space for both to sleep as well as the tiniest kitchen she'd ever come across. Whatever space was left had been packed with various foods and sundries.