"So what are we doing again?" Lester asked, twitching the wrist of his right hand, uncomfortably grasping a short sword, to swish the blade about a bit in the air.
"We're a distraction," James said. His sword remained still, his eyes searching the forest path intently.
"Okay," Lester said. Lester hadn't felt proper misery now for quite some time. Panic, confusion, fear, awkwardness, guilt and even terror, all yes; misery, not so much. He didn't even really know how to express his misery because the reasons for it would either sound stupid or selfish or both.
Since James had found his own form in the Undone; since they had escaped, all three of them, into this charming little shadow kingdom; since they had set out into the woods in the hope of picking up a trade route back to Bridgetown, Lester's misery had grown.
Was Lester miserable about James now not being a mouse? It was true that the lanky, intense individual that had replaced the sarcastic, emotionally complex little rodent was a bit of a system shock. Someone's physical shape should not play such a huge part in how one related to them, Lester felt. Yet here was James, now not a cheeky mouse, instead a charismatic and intelligent man approaching a distinguished middle age.
The transformation appeared to demand that people took James more seriously, not to mention the man's kind and lovely wife. Rebecca had known the man James for longer than the mouse James. From the first moment they had been together Lester knew that Rebecca would never have viewed her husband's rodent form as anything more than a horrible affliction. Lester had never known James as a man and so had always thought of him as a mouse with amnesia.
The amnesia was another thing that had put Lester off kilter. A mouse could have amnesia and it was possible for an observer not to take the whole thing terribly seriously. After all what important memories could a mouse have? When the mouse was a man, the pain of forgetting written in the lines on his face, you were forced to confront your own flippancy.
None of this was a recipe for much more than confusion and a period of necessary adjustment, of course. The problem was the misery and sense of loss that accompanied the confusion. Lester realised that whilst he and James had both been bewildered, both seeking things that appeared impossible to find, that their bond had formed organically, without either one of them noticing. In a world where the finding of a clue to the location of a brother, or a memory that might help upon the road to a mislaid daughter, was a task of gargantuan proportions the funny young man in the pinstripe flannel suit and the amnesiac mouse had each other.
James had gone with Lester on an amazing journey, through some of the strangest places in Faerie, they had seen the ruins of a sorcerer's palace, the edge of the Undone and the colourful stalls of the market at the centre of everything. James's journey had restored to him many (although still not all) of his memories, his daughter, his wife and his physical form. Lester had managed to harvest an elliptical letter and a bottle of potion he had used up to escape the Undone.
Lester knew that his quest was ongoing, and probably a worthwhile endeavour, but when he compared his progress to James's the results were not encouraging. Still, Lester felt incredibly selfish for resenting his companion's progress and feeling the blank, empty helplessness of his current empty-handedness.
Even trying his hardest to put all this aside Lester still felt that he was losing the best friend he had ever had, before he'd even ever really had a chance to tell this friend how he felt. He couldn't help but gain the impression that James believed that they were companions because of circumstance and not because of friendship. As James now had a family to think about, and some handy opposable thumbs, it became more and more apparent that Lester was somewhat of a third wheel in any situation James might find himself in.
That was difficult and caused a sadness that Lester couldn't just squash down out of the way.
"You know," Lester said, filling the empty, silent air with a distracting burble of noise. "Things have happened pretty quickly today. I'm not even sure that I know what we're standing here for."
"I just said," James repeated, absently, "we're a distraction."
"Yes," Lester said. "I got that. I just don't know what we're a distraction from, or indeed what it is we're supposed to be distracting. It has something to do with a wizard. I remember the wizard, and you, you were talking to a mouse."
"Yes," James said. "Gargantuus Redstorm, who lives in the wall just yonder, told us that he was the member of a tribe that gathered intelligence for Silas Strumpkin, a wizard who lives in that house over there." James pointed at the house just visible along the path about fifty feet away. "Wizard Strumpkin is currently engaged in commune with the weave, trying to gain some information paid for by a noble in the next shadow. A rival noble has sent a lupine mercenary to kill Strumpkin whilst he is vulnerable. Gargantuus and his tribe are not able to warn Silas and so we are here to defeat the mercenary before it can get to the wizard."
"Right," Lester said. He took a look down at the lumpen, poorly forged metal rod in his hand. A poorly constructed melange of sword and mace. He had never held a weapon before now, he wasn't sure that this was the weapon to start with. Also, how was he supposed to be of any use fighting a wolf? There were more questions. 'Why?' seemed to be one of the most pertinent, so he asked it.
"Gargantuus knows that Silas has recorded a spell of transportation in his book of spells. If the wizard awakes from his trance alive and in good humour Gargantuus will persude him to send us back to Bridgetown."
"So all we have to do is kill a wolf to save a wizard and we go back to where we started from?" Lester said. "Done much wolf killing, have you?"
James shook his head.
"Almost none that I can remember," he replied. "We're not really supposed to kill it, we're just supposed to keep it busy until Rebecca can kill it with an arrow."
"Oh, okay," Lester nodded. "And what happens if the wolf comes from the other direction?"
"Then she'll be in the ideal position to kill it before it ever sees her or us," James said, his tone was beginning to gain an edge of annoyance. "You weren't listening at all back there, were you?"
"Not really," Lester admitted, allowing a little ire to leak out in his tone. "I'm tired, and afraid. I'm pretty hungry and... if I'm entirely honest... I was busy wondering why a mouse was called Gigantuus."
"It's a mouse thing," James said. "I discovered this when I was one. Mice think of themselves as the biggest creatures in the world. Anything bigger than them is, to them, just as big as them. So they like to call themselves big, tough names, to recognize their awesome stature and whatnot. They're mostly a species of proud warriors."
"I see, they always struck me as a little nervous," Lester said.
"They're very proud of their flight reflex. They have almost no voluntary control over it," James explained. "I had more because I wasn't born a mouse. Regular rats and mice will run automatically in the face of overwhelming odds without even really being aware that they're doing it. They call it 'saviour ghosting', well, they do when they get away intact."
"Wow," Lester said. "There's quite a lot going on with those mice then. I never knew."
Silence fell, which was not a good thing for Lester as his mind was instantly alerted at his failure to actually admit what was really troubling him when he had said 'if I'm entirely honest'. Worse Lester had realised that he had given James a hard time about not being entirely honest when he himself had been too confused to be honest on several recent occasions.
Lester had made a decision to improve his honesty and was now failing miserably to speak up and be direct about things. Lester didn't feel comfortable with the notion that emotions could be difficult, they were going to happen no matter how complex or inconvenient they were going to be, but that didn't make them any simpler. Lester was in danger of becoming wreathed in sadness again. He had to talk or his feelings would overwhelm him.
"So, you're glad... to be a person again?" Lester asked. If he brought up a topic of conversation that put James's transformation on the table maybe he would find a way to say the difficult things.
"It's definitely an advantage," James replied. "If I could just get my memory, my daughter and my home back then I would feel a lot better still."
"Yes," Lester said. "That would be nice. Having everything sorted out would be nice."
James looked over at Lester, the clear, grey-green human eyes in James's human face were far more expressive than the small dark eyes of the mouse he had been. Lester found human James too human to deal with. Adding guilt to the misery Lester realised that his sense of loss came with the realisation that he was no longer the most important person in the duo. He was a drifter looking for an elusive brother. James... well, James was some kind of important.
Someone had robbed James of his memories and put him into a faraway shadow not far from the edge of the Undone. Someone had turned James into a mouse and dispersed his wife. Someone had wanted James hidden away and imprisoned. Whatever James's full story was it was a story that mattered a great deal to several powerful people.
What about Lester and Chester Topping? Chester was so important that he had been forced to hide himself from everyone, including his twin brother. All Lester was trying to do was find him. Lester was not important. Lester was just Lester.
"If I can do anything to help you find Chester, when I have the power to do so, then I will, of course," James said quietly.
There was no time to respond to that. Lester saw a movement on the path, not far from where they stood. It looked as if the mercenary had arrived.
Lester looked pointedly at the approaching figure, James turned to look in the direction Lester was indicating.
"Just concentrate on staying safe," James said. "Try to knock him back, give Rebecca a clear shot."
Lester nodded. The sudden tension in his stomach made him completely unable to feel sadness, or inadequacy, or guilt. Lester shifted his grip on his wonky sword. He wondered if he could get used to this sort of thing, like a knight.
About sixty seconds later Lester had firmly decided that, no, he was never going to make a knight. The wolf was being kept back but this was mostly due to a lunatic ferocity he was managing to exhibit in his sword waving antics. The adrenaline flooding his system prevented him from looking over to see if James was doing any better but, regardless, a few seconds later the whole thing was over when an arrow in the chest put down the ravening lupine mercenary.
"Remind me to avoid being a decoy again," James said, leaning over and putting his hands on his knees, exhausted.
"Same here," Lester replied.
They got about a minute to gather themselves together before Rebecca joined them on the path and the three of them went back towards the wizard's house. Once James had talked once more with Gargantuus, and the three of them had shown that the mercenary had been thwarted, they went back to the house with their rodent companion.
After a few hours Silas Strumpkin came out of his trance and, upon being told by Gargantuus of the bravery of the three strangers was happy to make them a portal to transport them into the Patchwork Market. So James, Lester and Rebecca stepped through the portal back to their destination, but what happened to them when they got there is a story for another time.