Shielded by the Rakian Scientist: Chapter Six

Well. That wasn’t what she’d expected.

Maybe it should have been, but Zuri clutched the leads for the two horses even tighter as the eerie blue crackling cloud washed over Kennet’s tall form.

Because he changed.

Not just like he had in the tunnel. That was strange enough, but she could still see him, still believe that the man she’d spoken and traveled with, was the same as the being who had dug them out so quickly. 

Then, just his upper body had changed, grown fur and claws and fangs.

Now, instead of a grumpy pale-skinned man with strange markings on his skin, a gigantic white cat stood in front of her. Thick fur covered his entire body, a lush tail swished through the air. Only the bright blue eyes remained unchanged.

“Is that really you?” she whispered, dry mouth trapping her words for a moment.

But he didn’t answer, just looked away impatiently.

“Yup, that’s you.” 

Even as a cat, the starman radiated arrogance.

Zuri sighed as she quickly fashioned a longer lead for FarRunner, then tied it to Goliath’s saddle bags.

“They’re never going to be happy carrying you now, you know that, don’t you?”

Still no answer.

 ”Right then.” She swung up into the saddle and headed northeast through the forest. “Really, at this point I might as well be traveling by myself.”

But that wasn’t entirely true.  Densely tufted paws made no sound on the snow, pale fur blended into the surroundings with disturbing ease.

Still, she caught glimpses of Kennet, easily keeping pace with Goliath’s steady walk. Off to one side of her or another, then fading away again.

“At least you don’t argue with me,” she patted the strong neck. And FarRunner was settling down now. Goliath no longer seemed to care about the strange scent, so the younger horse accepted it as well.

Slowly the light changed as the pale, watery dawn came, and Zuri began to look for a place to stop. Despite taking bundles of wool down to Kinallen twice a year, she’d never left the cave so early. Her regular spot for a mid-day break was still hours of travel away. 

***

An hour after sunrise, they came to a small clearing. “I don’t know if you understand, but we’re stopping for a bit now,” she called out, unsure if Kennet still was within hearing distance.

Eh. He’d figure it out.

She needn’t have worried. Before she’d touched the ground, he was there, shifted back into the safe mostly human form he’d worn when she’d first met him.

Lady. Had that been less than a day ago? It felt like they’d been fighting for years.

“Why have you halted?” he asked immediately. “Are you ill?”

She focused on untying the saddlebag. “Nope. It’s time for breakfast and a break.”

“The weather is still uncertain, and we are still far from your village.”

Zuri pulled out the grain bag for Goliath, fixed up another for FarRunner.

“True, but we left early enough that we should reach the next waystation well before dark. It;s time for a rest.”

By Kennet’s scowl, it was easy to see he didn’t agree.

But she didn’t care. She was cold and stiff.

Zuri leaned against Goliath, curving her back slightly to stretch the sore muscles.

“Everybody needs a break sometimes, even you I’d think,” she said.

She took two steps away from Goliath, then cursed herself.  

Too cold, Too stiff. She should’ve waited.

Her legs started to buckle.

She stayed still, wobbling slightly, willing her legs to hold her.

But apparently that wouldn’t be necessary.

While she was still bracing herself for the seat of her pants to be cold and wet, Kennet crossed the small clearing, scooping her up in his arms.

Zuri’s heartbeat drowned in her ears, as he held her tightly against his chest.

“You said you were not injured,” Kennet said. “That does not seem to be accurate.”

Was that the faintest trace of concern under those arrogant words?

She thought back to how quickly he adjusted to her fears about the snow coming in to cover them in the cave, irrational as they were. 

How often he’d offered–or rather demanded–to help.

How he’d refused to take a faster, more comfortable way back to her village, even though he clearly disliked traveling horseback.

Maybe, just maybe he wasn’t a complete asshole.

Maybe he was just bad with people.

“There is no place here for you to sit.”

Kennet was still talking, she realized, the swirl of sensation tightening her chest and distracting her.

“I just need to walk around a little,” she said softly. “Get some feeling back in my legs.”

“Can you be trusted not to fall?” he said sharply. “No, you should sit, not walk.”

Or maybe he really was just a jerk.

“Trust me, I think I know what I need,” she said, pushing away from his chest.

With obvious reluctance he lowered her slowly until her feet brushed the ground, his right arm curved around her back, still supporting her.

“You can let go now.”

“Perhaps we could reach a compromise.”

Zuri sighed. “We shouldn’t need to reach a compromise about letting me walk around.”

“But it’s wet,” Kennet insisted. “And you might fall.”

He did have a point.

As a cold as the day promised to be, it would be a mistake to continue riding in wet clothes.

And while the clearing made for an acceptable spot for a short break, it would take hours to dry her pants out.

“Tell your horse to hold still and I will place you back on him. And I will clear a walking path for you.”

She looked up at him, lips pressed tightly to hold back her laugh. “What if I just walked, and you stayed nearby, in case I fell?”

She answered softly.

He took a moment, clearly considering the pros and cons of her counteroffer.
“I suppose that would be acceptable,” he admitted.

So slowly, ridiculously, the two of them began to make a circuit of the small clearing.

 Zuri knew this should be uncomfortable. Awkward.

But somehow, after the first few steps, it wasn’t. 

Halfway around the first circle, her legs began to torment her, sore muscles turning into pins and needles running all the way up and down her legs. Each step was agony, but she knew from experience the only way through it was to keep walking.

“Thanks for clearing the snow out from the cave opening so quickly,” she said after a few more minutes, when she could focus on her words rather than screaming. “I shouldn’t have been so upset by it. We were safe enough.”

He shrugged slightly, steering her around a muddy patch. “But it did bother you. How you could or should have reacted isn’t the issue.”

Zuri grimaced. “It’s not that I mind snow. Living where we do, I don’t really have a choice about it. Just…”

Her throat closed, the pain in her chest overwhelming the discomfort in her legs. Why was she even telling him this?

He’d find out, once they reached the village. Someone would say something.

It was better to get this out of the way now.

She’d have to put up with the pitying looks everyone wore for a while, but he’d get over it.

“Five years ago my mother went out, looking for a lost ewe. It was pregnant, one of her favorites.”

Another circle around the clearing. Her legs were fine, and although the cold hadn’t gone, the stiffness had faded. She could stop now. They could have something to eat, ride on.

But starting the story again would only make it worse.

“The snow came down heavier than expected. Right before dusk, we heard it. The rumbling from the mountain that only meant one thing.”

She could still see the horror-struck expression on her father’s face, feeling the bone deep chill as they all frantically searched through the wreckage left from the avalanche.

“We found her body, curled up with the ewe, a week later. My father turned his face to the wall, followed her into death within days.” 

She’d been so angry with him. But there hadn’t been time for anger.

“My little brother and I weren’t really prepared to run our holding on our own. But we did it. Our whole village came together to support us. That’s why it’s so important for me to help figure out what’s going on, what’s threatening everyone’s herds.”

And she waited for the pity.

She should’ve known better.

“I’m sorry that your parents died,” he said. “I understand this is difficult and distressing. We lost a brother, in a battle. It was not unexpected, but I do not look forward to it happening again.”

She looked up, his sharp blue eyes softened as they stared at something in the distance, something she couldn’t see.

A place, a time she couldn’t see.

“Thanks,” she said, squeezing his arm. “Do you want something to eat, or you want to move on?”

And just like that he was back in the here and now. “I am fine, but you should have something. Then, yes we should continue. I do not trust the weather.”

He was right.

Despite their early start it was a miserable day for travel.

They stopped far more often then she would’ve liked, but the cold and snow worked through her layers, her legs stiffened in the saddle.

The horses trudged along, mostly because Goliath knew there was shelter ahead, and FarRunner followed.

It was worse when they left the forest, the wind whipping through the plains, down the high slopes of the northern mountains, finding every gap in her clothing no matter how small, no matter how many layers she wore.

Ride as long she could stand it, stop to warm up again, eat a little, move on.

“Are you sure there is no other closer shelter?” Kennet asked the third time they stopped.

“Nothing closer than the next cave.” She forced her numb cheeks to smile. “Tell you what, we’ll compromise.”

His lips quirked up as he helped her stretch out her legs again. “On what this time?”

“You make one of those things big enough to hold Goliath, and next time we’ll take your air sled, whatever that is.”

“I will see what I can do.”

Rests were no more pleasant than moving, but she knew she’d pay for it later if they pressed through.

When it was time to ride, Kennet shifted again, closer now to her and the horses. The horses were too tired to care, but she was glad for his presence, however strange and silent.

And finally, as the sun sank below the high ridges they were there.

“Oh, Thank the Lady,” she breathed, clicking to Goliath to move faster. Out of the cold and wind she mentally promised, a place for a fire and hot mash and good rubdown.

The crack in the mountainside grew wider as she approached, eyes focused on it.

Tea.

All she wanted was tea.

Her cheeks burning with the cold she barely noticed, she kept her focus on the opening. Get inside, set a fire, care for the horses, fall down in a collapse to sleep forever.

That seemed like a perfectly reasonable todo list.

Finally they reached the cliff side.

She swung down out of the saddle, clutching at the stiff leather for balance.

“It’s pretty narrow at the beginning,” she called over her shoulder to Kennet, “but then it opens up. The cavern is just as large as the last way station, maybe a little larger.”

He said something, but the wind tore away the words, and she was too cold, too tired to care. 

Head down, she slipped inside the narrow opening, counted her steps.

Eight, nine, ten.

Her right hand shot out to find the flint and steel that were kept tethered to a hook on the wall, the bracket for the torch always kept there.

Her hands were too cold to successfully strike a spark the first or second time.

But the third worked well enough. 

Bright enough to see Kennet’s disapproving face where he had somehow slipped past the horses to stand next to her. “You don’t know what’s in here,” he growled.

“I know it’s warm in here,” she countered. She pressed on. “It’s only a bit further, and you can fuss at me then.

A dozen more steps, then a sharp turn to the left and the cavern opened up. 

“Eww,” she scowled. “Something smells terrible in here.”

Turning slowly she let the torch light flicker over the cavern floor, shadows lurching drunkenly across the rocky walls.

And then she saw it.

It shouldn’t have been her first thought.

Probably not even her second.

But in the moment before everything exploded, she couldn’t help it.

“He’s never going to let me live this down, is he?”

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