Shielded by the Rakian Scientist: Chapter Four

It had been more than a few minutes, and they were nowhere ready to start.

Because the only starman available to help her was a jerk.

“I’ve told you, I’m not leaving Goliath behind.” Zuri said. Again. 

It might have been closer to yelling at this point, but the tall grey jerk wasn’t listening.

“As I have mentioned, taking the air sled will cut our travel time considerably. Your horse will be well cared for. A young person comes from the village daily to do whatever is needed in the stables.”

Maybe she should wait until one of the others came back.  There were others, right?

Hells, maybe she should try talking to the creepy not-a-cat. Maybe it would be more useful.

“Fine. We’ll compromise. You get to the village however you want to, and start whatever you’re going to do.” She pointed to the map, hovering in the air over the table, ignoring the impossibility of nearly everything that had happened in this place. “You didn’t know what information you’d need, right? Now you have a reason to get it. I’ll take Goliath and be there in two days.”

There. That was reasonable. If anything, it was better this way. He’d be able to start fixing the problem sooner, and she wouldn’t have to put up with his arrogance for a bit.

“No.”

She threw her hands into the air, stomping into a circle. “Why not?”

“There is no reason for you to risk yourself for two days traveling by yourself. It is unacceptable.”

She was going to push him into the lake to be devoured by the flyers. That was acceptable.

“How do you think I got here!”

“That is beside the point.”

“That is entirely the point,” she growled. “Here’s the deal.” Zuri forced her hands to lay flat on the table. “I’m going back on Goliath. You can get there however you want. How do you think you can stop me anyway?”

His face contorted through a myriad of expressions until finally his eyes half closed into what Zuri assumed was resignation. “Very well. If you insist on taking these animals, then we should at least wait until the morning, when you are better rested.”

“Nope.” She stood, headed toward the door. “Have you even looked outside? There’s a storm coming off the mountains. If we leave now, we can be under the cover of the forest before it hits.”

Before Zuri could say anything she was going to regret she retraced her path, out of the small room, down the short corridor and through that enormous reception hall.

Who even needed something like this anyway?

Half of her village would fit in the space.

He was going to help.

That was all that mattered, right?

She rubbed her temples, the headache that had plagued her ever since she’d set foot in this place sending sharp spikes into her brain.

He hadn’t been gone that long when he took Goliath outside, so the stable should be easy to find, she figured.

Back out in the bitter cold she pulled her cloak around her shoulders tightly and marched around the castle.

Of course. 

The one side she hadn’t seen before finding the open door.

And really, that was weird. Who left the door like that open into a castle?

But once she was inside the warm stable all thoughts of the starmen’s strange ways left her mind. 

Goliath was in a stall at the end of the row which held four other horses, just as large as he was.

She stopped to rub their ears as she worked her way down the row. They were content, happy to see her. None of them smelled of  fear or pain in the slightest.

That was good.

The rumors she’d heard in her mountain village of the star men had been fragmented, incomplete and not everyone had agreed with her quest to ask them for help.

Terath in particular had been certain it was a mistake.

What did he know?

Just because the tall gray one was a jerk didn’t mean he couldn’t help them.

Finally she’d reached her own mount, laughing as Goliath hooked his massive head over her shoulder, as if to draw her closer.

“I’m glad you like it here,” she murmured into his mane. “But we’ll be heading for home soon.”

The starman might’ve been grumpy, but he was as good as his word, following her into her stable only minutes later, full saddlebags slung over his shoulder.

“Did you even bring any gear with you?” he asked as he turned to saddle the roan in the third stall.

“Of course I did, I’m not an idiot,” Zuri snapped.

Well, she’d brought what she had at least.

Grain for Goliath, a few travel bars for her, a bedroll. Everything else would be at the waystations.

“I have estimated the pace these animals are capable of achieving. We should be at your village in slightly less than a day and a half,” he said as they lead the horses out into the morning air.

She snorted as she swung up onto Goliath’s back. “Weather doesn’t care much about your estimate,” she said. “And the horses will let us know when they’re tired and need a rest. Come on,” she said turning back the way she had arrived only an hour ago. “Let’s see how much ground we can cover before the storm hits.”

Zuri looked at the sky, shivering.

It had gotten colder sooner than she expected, the heavy clouds above promising the storm.

“Hurry,” she said. “If we get to the treeline, that will shelter us from the worst of it.”

The man behind her said nothing, but his silence was answer enough.

The trail headed west until they were under the trees, but despite having achieved her goal, the muttering behind her didn’t lift her mood.

“He doesn’t like you either,” she called over her shoulder.

“Excuse me, what?” came the brusque reply.

“You’ve spent the entire time since we’ve left mumbling about how uncomfortable this is, how much you dislike this traveling on horseback,” she said. “It just seemed fair to let you know that FarRunner doesn’t think much of you either.”

“You named my horse?” Kennet asked after a quiet moment.

“Not exactly, but is that really what you want to focus on?”

“It was the strangest part of what you said, so yes,” Kennet answered.

“Really, why don’t you go back, take your sled whatever and I’ll meet you at the village,” Zuri tried one last time.

“No,” Kennet refused again. A few moments passed in silence.

“Why doesn’t the horse like me?”

“Apparently you scare him slightly. You smell funny, like a predator.”

“I cannot help that,” Kennet said.

A few more moments of silence, as the trees thickened around them.

“Is your Gift talking to these animals?”

“Not exactly talking,” Zuri said, “more like sensing what they are feeling. They’re not big on words, as we’d use them.”

“If you can, please tell both of the mounts I will not eat them. Probably.”

Zuri scowled, then turned to look over her shoulder, eyes narrowed.

“Was that a joke?”

“Probably.”

Despite the shelter of the trees, the first few flakes had turned into a bitter storm, snow so thick she could barely find the path by the time they got to the cave.

“Here’s where we’ll stop for the night,” she managed through chattering teeth.

“Are you quite certain?” was his only reply.

“Of course I’m certain,” she said. “It’s where I stayed last night, where we always stay.”

Legs stiff from a long day of riding in the cold, she swung off Goliath’s back, reaching for the small lantern strapped to the saddle bag.

“Wait,” he growled.

“What now?” Zuri sighed.  

“Let me go first.” Smoothly he sprung down to land between her and the opening of the cave.

Zuri fought the urge to roll her eyes. “I told you, I was just here this morning.”

“And you don’t know what might have changed since then.” His bright blue eyes met hers, and a strange shiver ran through her. “Please stay here.”

She nodded silently, head spinning, as he stalked into the cave.

What was that? she wondered. 

Some sort of Gift that the starmen had? Nothing else she knew would make her breath catch like that, her stomach tighten, her pulse pound.

The shadows of the trees had barely had time to grow deeper when Kennet returned.

“It appears to be safe,” he admitted. “Let’s get you out of the cold.”

“I told him,” she muttered as she led Goliath in. He nickered in reply. “Yes, you remember, don’t you? A rub down and some mash, just as soon as I set up the fire.”

The short passage turned sharply to the right, opening into a large cavern. Her steps slowed as she reached the bend.

“You already started a fire?” 

The soft glow on the far wall was strange, steady. Not a bit like the flickering light she’d spent so many nights around.

“No.  I didn’t need the light for the search, but thought you might like such a thing.”

She stared transfixed by the glowing orb hovering near the roof of the cave until Kennet came and took Goliath’s rein from her hands, leading them both to the center of the room.

“Why don’t I start the fire, while you see to the horses?” Kennet said softly. “I have the feeling you’d only check them over again if the roles were reversed.”

Was that another joke? Zuri wondered, but the cold and wonder had stopped her brain from being able to tell. Her hands moved automatically through the motions of unsaddling both horses, rubbing them down, preparing their feed.

Long before she’d finished the fire had taken the sharp edges off of the chill. Kennet had spread two bedrolls on opposite sides of the cavern, and set two small folding stools by the flames.

“Where did all of this come from?” she asked, knowing that none of the gear was her own. “Surely that didn’t all fit into your saddle bags?”

“I’m a good packer,” he shrugged. “Lots of practice.”

“Hmm.” 

For all of his reluctance to travel by what he’d loudly decried as “the slowest way possible,” clearly he’d set up camp more than a few times. 

“While we have our meal, tell me more about your village.” He handed her a dry block wrapped in thin shiny paper. Unwrapped, it looked like one of the travel bars she’d prepared, a little. Cautiously she nibbled at a corner, then quickly went back to her own saddle bags.

“Here,” she thrust one of her few remaining bars at him. “Mine may not taste like much, but they at least taste like something.”

“Flavor is not as important as satisfyingly caloric needs, especially in adverse weather,” he complained. She thought it was complaining, but she stood in front of him, hands on hips until he relented, took a small bite of the bar. His eyes widened. “That’s good!” he took another bite. “Perhaps I was mistaken.”

“We’ll keep yours just in case, alright?” she said, rewrapping it and putting the dry, dusty thing to the side. It’d have to be a real emergency before she willingly ate that. “What else do you want to know?”

“How are you so certain that the creature is not native to the area, or has emerged from a dormant cycle?” Kennet asked. 

She glanced across the fire at him. Was he licking his fingers? Couldn’t be.

“Um, I do have another bar, if you’d like it,” she offered.

He quickly pulled his hand away from his mouth. “I thank you, but there is no need.” He slowly began to open the silver wrapped brick. “This is sufficient. Please continue.”

He chewed mechanically, and with a shudder Zuri wrenched her mind back to what his question had been.

“It’s possible, I suppose. But really, really unlikely.” 

He started to say something, but she raised her hand to forestall him.

“Seriously.  My great-great grandparents were a part of the original group to settle there when the first wave left the capital. Our family has been there for over 100 years, and we’ve kept records. We’ve had to, learning the weather and the flood patterns, when it would be safe to travel, when we were on our own, cut off from even Malterresy.” She shook her head, thinking of the pages of cramped writing, journal after journal, the script changing with each new generation. “There’s no record of anything like those creatures.”

“Over one hundred years of records, you say?” Kennet didn’t seem to be paying attention to what he was eating anymore. “And you have access to them?”

“Of course I do.” Fed and warm, she moved to the far side of the cave where a row of chests were arranged.

She grabbed a metal frame from one of the boxes and a small pot, dashing back outside to fill it from the rapidly falling snow before setting it up over the fire.

“How did you know those items would be here?” he asked, frowning.

This time she didn’t bother to hide her eyeroll. “I told you. I stayed here last night. We always stay here, when we take wool down to Kinallen. We get a better price than if we sold in Malteressy, but the trip is longer. I think it was my great-grandfather who started setting up the waystations.”

She pulled out a bundle of leather from another chest, dragged it over to where Goliath and FarRunner were contentedly eating their grain.

“Let me,” Kennet said, surprisingly close to her. He paused, then added. “Please.”

Well. 

That was different.

And to be honest, help wasn’t exactly unwelcome.

“Thank you.”

Before she could explain how to set up the collapsible water trough, he’d figured it out.  “I assume the weight of the water will keep it from falling in on itself?” With quick steps he turned back to the chest she’d pulled the trough out of. “Therefore there must be another container for carrying water, correct?”

In minutes he had the pair of leather buckets filled with snow, and by the fire.

Alright. 

A jerk, but a useful one.

And maybe, possibly, not a complete jerk.

Eyes drooping she headed back to the fire. “Which one is yours?”

“Neither,” he answered, pouring the melted water from one of the buckets into the trough. “They are for sleeping. I have no preference.”

Could it be that everything he said sounded slightly condescending? Was that the problem?

“Great,” she said, collapsing onto the nearest bedroll, pulling the thin cover over her. For a moment she thought about getting up, getting her own blankets. But the day had been long, and the thin cover was warmer than she’d expected.

Thank the Lady.

She’d gotten help. They were on the way back.

And it was all she could do.

Everything else could wait. Would have to wait.

She drifted off, hearing the soft nickering of the horses, Kennet’s low voice barely audible as he spoke to them.

“Truely, I am not planning to eat you.”

Strange man.

She woke grudgingly, the glow near the ceiling fainter now, but still enough to see clearly across the cavern.

Goliath and FarRunner were napping in their makeshift stall.

Kennet was quiet on his bedroll on the other side of the fire.

She closed her eyes, willing herself back to sleep, but to no avail.

She needed to go outside, unless she wanted to use the straw with the horses.

Dammit.

Grumpily she sat up, pulling the surprisingly toasty blanket around her shoulders, grateful she’d been too tired to take her boots off.

Back around the corner, down the short passageway…

Zuri stopped, blinking at the wall of white.

“Double dammit!”

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