Chapter Six: Myria

“You said merchants, farmers, and musicians,” the giant behind me growled.

With that voice, he’d make a fabulous singer.

Pity he didn’t seem to be much of a people person.

“I don’t see much up here in goods that you’re looking to trade,” he continued. “And you don’t look like a farmer.”

“Never can tell,” I interrupted him. “I was, once.”

“That means you’re not anymore.”

We moved through the scrubland as the suns rose higher. With luck, we’d be under the shade of the ferum trees soon and could take a break.

“Nope,” I sighed, and leaned back to think about the past.

Immediately, I shot forward again.

I’d forgotten he was quite so close behind me.

His broad chest was a comfortable, but somehow unsettling, backrest.

I chattered for a moment to get over the embarrassment. “When an older bard passed through our hamlet ten years ago, I took a chance and apprenticed to him.”

For a moment the landscape changed, became the deep greens of my childhood.

“Seems a chancy way out,” the stranger commented. “Did you even know the guy?”

“About as well as I know you,” I shot back.

And it hadn’t mattered. Not really.

Because other than signing up as a foot soldier in one of the warlords’ armies, there was no other way off the farm.

And I had to go.

But while I’d always been open, talking to crowds about anything and everything, apparently I felt a little differently talking about my own past.

“Might’ve been safer to stay home,” he muttered, and I could feel him pivot slightly as he scanned the landscape for enemies.

“You might think so, but you’d be wrong.”

I thought of my sister, the beauty of the family.

She hadn’t been safe at all.

“Tell me about this place we’re heading to,” he ordered.

“Are you sure? I thought you didn’t really need a guide,” I couldn’t help teasing.

He was just so stuffy.

“Yes, I’m sure. I’m taking your advice to not be stupid.”

“Bitters has a proper wall,” I started, wondering how much information he really needed. “Tewke does a good job of maintaining it, keeping the infrastructure functioning.”

“Another one of your warlords?”

I absently clucked to Dayla. We were getting into enough foliage that she was sure something here must be tasty.

Soon we’d need to stop and get out of the heat.

“Not exactly. He took the city from the previous holder about, oh, five years ago, maybe six. He’s held it pretty well ever since.”

“Sounds to me like what a warlord would do.”

“Trust me on this, he’s nothing like the old warlords.” I shuddered, remembering my grandmother’s stories about the war. “They weren’t exactly known for trying to build things up.”

I felt him shrug behind me and twisted to turn back towards him. “And while we’re on the matter of trust, I really do think you should do something about your clothing as quickly as possible.”

He glanced down, obviously reluctant. “I’m not sure what you think is going to make things less ‘off-worlder’ but still fit me.”

I snorted, turned away. “I’m not the only person who’s heard of a ship landing in Lukin, you know.”

He sat still as stone.

“Look,” I sighed. “Wouldn’t it be helpful if you told me what you were actually here for?”

He was rigid and silent.

Finally a murmur, almost a growl.

“Should’ve sent Geir or Lorcan, dammit. This is their sort of thing. But no, they had to spend time with their mates,” he muttered under his breath.

“Look, I’ll help you out with the trust thing,” I said. “I saw what you did back there, right?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

I snorted. “I don’t know your name, where you’re from, or what you’re doing here. I do know you could kill me, but still, you’re sitting behind me.”

I’d been aware of him the entire day, the massiveness of his body. Suddenly, every strong muscle that brushed against me seemed to stand in sharp relief.

“Why did you trust me, then?” he asked, and for the first time, his voice didn’t sound abrupt, but actually curious.

I leaned forward to stroke Dayla’s neck.

“Dayla seems to like you. And since I’ve gotten pretty far on her trusting me, I figured I would trust you, as well.”

“Aedan,” he grunted after a long moment of silence.

“What?”

“It’s my name.”

Well, that was a start.

“Alright, Aedan. As soon as we get to that stand of trees, we’re going to have to stop for a bit to let Dayla rest and get a snack.”

I pushed back the hair that had fallen out of my braid. “And I wouldn’t mind getting out of the sun for a while.”

I looked longingly at the shade in the distance. I could almost imagine the cool brook that ran through it.

We’d be there soon enough, but I wished I’d stayed in Trandor long enough to earn a few more coins, maybe replaced my old, battered scarves.

Aedan drummed his fingers on his thigh.

But “How long will she need to rest?” was all he asked.

“Not long, and we could use the break, too.” I glanced over my shoulder at him. The suns’ heat didn’t seem to be bothering him in the slightest.

“At least, I do. We’ll be in Bitters long before nightfall.”

“Once we’re there, I’ll look for a caravan, something that’s traveling to Lukin. There’s no need for you to be involved anymore.”

Oh.

“Glad I could get you out of the desert and on your way,” I said.

Not really in the mood to talk anymore, I reached for the bag at my side, carefully sliding the retrew out of its carrying case.

“What’s that?

I ran my hand down the long neck, checking the strings.

“It’s a retrew. It’s how I make my living.”

I didn’t feel like offering up any more information, not if he was being a jerk about things.

I strummed a few chords and adjusted the strings again.

The wild swings of temperature in the desert always wreaked havoc on my tunings.

“What are you doing?”

“Practicing,” I answered shortly and started softly singing.

At least he didn’t interrupt.

Maybe he was working on that ‘don’t be an idiot’ thing.

By the time we reached the shade, my fingers were limbered up, but I was ready to stop.

We moved into the treeline until Dayla stopped in a cool glade, surrounded by dark purple shrubs and shaded by the spreading branches far above. Somewhere close I could hear a small stream splashing over rocks.

Perfect.

“You’ll have to climb down first,” but before the words were fully out of my mouth, he sprung down, not even waiting for the ladder to unroll.

“Well then, that must be handy.”

After I climbed down, I unhooked my bow, set it and the retrew carefully to the side, and opened one of the saddlebags.

It was thinner than I would’ve liked, but I pulled out a loaf of bread. It wasn’t nearly as good as it had been fresh.

Hours of traveling under a hot sun had probably served as a second round of baking.

I ripped it in two and handed half to Aedan.

“Sorry, I didn’t really have much of a chance to stock up before I left. We can get more food in Bitters.”

I checked myself. Well, I would.

He could do whatever the hell he wanted.

He took the bread, tore off a piece, and handed the rest back to me. “I’ll be fine until we get to town.”

I shrugged, then took a bite of bread and focused on getting Dayla’s saddle off.

Every time she was free of the harness, she gave a little shimmy, as if happy to be out of its confines.

I tried to think.

Had she been doing that more often?

“Why did you leave without proper supplies? That doesn’t seem to fit in with your whole don’t-be-an-idiot plan.”

“There was a guy.”

I patted Dayla’s flank and she headed off deeper into the trees in search of her own meal.

I watched her, hoping she’d come back.

Wouldn’t be much to do about it if she didn’t.

“What guy?” Aedan persisted.

I took another bite of bread and studied him.

He really always did look angry, didn’t he?

“A guy in a tavern. Don’t worry about it, I handled things.” I stretched out under a tree, glad for its shade. “You’re not the only jerk out here, you know?”

Aedan glared, a muscle in his jaw jumping.

“I’m going to check the perimeter. You’re far too casual about security.”

I listened to the splash of the stream next to us and slipped into a light doze, more than eager to make up for the short night.

Suddenly, a terrified shriek ripped through the quiet glade.

I sprang to my feet, running towards the sound.

Aedan was at my side immediately. “What was that?” he snapped.

“Dayla!” I answered.

We burst from the trees, tearing up the bank of the creek to where Dayla had been grazing.

And a thing from nightmares had caught her.

Sickly gray tendrils flailed, rising from the water, pulling her from the bank into the fast current.

“What the hell is that?” Aedan barked.

“Mardor,” I gasped. “But I’ve never seen one this far south.”

“Well, it’s here now.”

Springing forward, he unsheathed the knife at his side while I raced to Dayla’s head.

The razor-sharp claws on her short forearms did her no good as she swiped and thrashed at the mass of tentacles.

“Easy, girl,” I crooned. “Steady.”

Aedan charged into the water, knife slashing at anything that got in his way.

“Hold her still!” he shouted.

“I’m trying,” I snapped, terror making my words harsh.

Dayla was a vegetarian, sure, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t bite my arm off in her panic.

“It’s going to be okay,” I promised her, hoping I wasn’t lying. “We’re working to get you out.”

Slowly, her thrashing stopped and she fixed me with a blank gaze.

“That’s my girl.” I couldn’t look away from her, afraid to break whatever daze she was in.

But she was pulled further into the water with a jolt and she began to thrash once more.

“How’s it going back there?” I called, deciding that I could learn to play a retrew one-armed if necessary as I reached for her head.

Her talons raked my shoulder, not deep but enough to draw blood.

I gritted my teeth against the pain, and held onto her muzzle, keeping her focus on me.

“Almost,” Aedan called out, and with a final splash and squeal from Dayla, the tentacles shuddered and fell limply into the water.

Free, Dayla charged forward, knocking me to the side onto the muddy bank.

I raised myself on one elbow, blinking, then laughed at the sight before me.

“Well, we don’t have to worry about your clothes being too noticeable anymore.”

Aedan looked at himself and shrugged.

“Not the first time. Not even the first time today.”

The fit was still perfect, but you couldn’t really tell under the mud and the rips.

His gaze narrowed.

“What happened,” he demanded, and before I caught his movement, he was kneeling by my side.

“Dayla just scratched me a bit. She was scared.” I brushed away his hands. “It wasn’t her fault.”

He scowled. “I don’t suppose you’ve got medical supplies in that saddlebag.”

“Actually, that is part of my don’t-be-an-idiot plan.”

I stood up and winced.

The river was brown, muddy from the fight.

“Once the water clears, I wouldn’t mind a rinse, as long as that thing is dead.”

“I’m good at making things dead,” Aedan said. He didn’t look like he was joking.

That was…somewhere between comforting and disturbing.

I’d figure it out later.

Except there wasn’t going to be a later.

I looked away quickly. “This will stop bleeding soon enough. I’ll rinse it, then take care of it. No point in putting a clean bandage over mud.”

“You know,” Aedan started as we trudged back to where I had left the saddle, to find Dayla happily grazing as if none of the previous minutes of terror had ever happened, “telling me it was a Mardor doesn’t help much.”

“Yeah, but there wasn’t a lot of time for detailed explanations.”

I started checking over Dayla, but other than the mud around her haunches, she seemed unharmed.

“One of the reasons the pact outlawed anything hi-tech,” I finally continued. “The warlords were making things like that, weapons that couldn’t be controlled.”

Aedan froze. “That’s… a good reason.” I guessed wherever he was from didn’t have terrors like that.

“When we get to Bitters, I’ll have to let them know that one of those monstrosities is so close to town. They’ll send a contingent of guards to patrol the riverway, see if anything else is in the area.”

After I cleaned off, I gingerly bandaged the cut down my upper arm.

 “I can’t believe she panicked like that and hurt you. I thought she liked you,” Aedan said as I pulled the sleeve of my overshirt back down to cover the  bandage.

“And that’s the other reason I knew you weren’t from around here,” I said as I gathered our things together, patted Dayla’s side, and moved towards the saddle.

“I’ll get that,” Aedan interrupted.

I watched as he hefted it over her back as easily as I carried my retrew.

Apparently he had been paying attention, closely too.

As he finished tightening the straps, I continued. “Every kid dreams of finding their own torwynn, riding off, having adventures. It’s part of all the songs.”

I squeezed another stream of water out of my braid. “You just don’t get the chance very often. And not for long. Sure, Dayla likes me well enough,” I said, stroking her muzzle, “but she’s not really tamed. She’s on her own adventure and when she’s done, she’ll go back to her herd.”

He carefully helped me into the saddle, arranged my bags, then swung up behind me.

“Sounds like it’ll be lonely.”

I clicked, and Dayla headed back to the edge of the trees, striding away towards town.

“Might be. But it’s worth it.”

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