| Jair knew, the moment that Ovard woke him early that morning, that it was time at last for them to run. The sun had hardly begun to lighten the sky by the time Jair had pulled on an extra layer of clothing. He finished tying the strips of leather around his cloth boots, and shrugged into his hooded wool cape.
"Are you warm enough?"
Ovard bent his knees so that his height matched that of Jair.
"Yes. I'm all right." Jair wouldn't look him in the eyes.
Ovard, apparently satisfied - or as satisfied as he could be given the situation - straightened and gave Tassie a questioning look. She nodded. She, too, wore several layers, and clutched her leather bag with its precious contents, which she had slung over her shoulder, the wide strap crossing over her chest.
The aged man turned back to the boy, putting a hand firmly on his shoulder.
"Remember, we must blend in with the traveling merchants who are getting an early start on the road. We can't draw any attention."
Jair nodded. "I remember."
Tassie took his hand and squeezed it reassuringly, though her eyes nervously searched the shadows as the three made their way through the sleeping villa toward the wide open gate.
The merchants, some pulling carts, others driving wagons pulled by mules, paid them little heed as they took the wide dusty road. Carts rattled over the bumpy path, and the sound was loud in the early morning quiet.
Jair kept his eyes on the ground just ahead of his feet as they walked. It was not until they reached the crest of the hill that he looked up. Pale golden sunlight streamed across the valley, pushing back the last bit of gray shadows into the hills.
The world was a very big place, Jair realized. He had seen so little of it in his almost thirteen years. He turned, for what he supposed would be his last look at the place he'd called home. The smooth, warm brown stone wall surrounding the villa, the sleepy little houses, the faded and tattered yellow flag, only slightly stirred by a morning breeze.
He felt Ovard's hand on his arm.
"Come, Jair. We knew this day would come to us. Going back is no longer an option. You know that as well as I."
Jair nodded. "I do. But.... I will miss it."
Ovard understood how the boy felt, for he felt the same, only much stronger, much deeper. He put an arm around Jair's shoulders.
"Keep the memory of it in your heart," he advised, "but leave plenty of room for the hope of something.... so much better."
Jair leaned against Ovard and matched his stride as they walked, with Tassie beside them, and left behind everything and everyone that they had ever known, ever loved.
The question, the fear, that hung over each of them was, had they been, or would they be, betrayed by the very ones in whom they had placed their trust?
Brace frantically unlatched the large wooden trunk and threw open the lid. Without a pause, he grabbed at the clothing inside and flung it to the floor, not caring where it landed. He pushed aside long, thick candles and wooden spoons and bowls until he saw the only thing he cared about at that moment - his leather pouch, full of gold and silver coins. He stared warily over his shoulder toward the door as he hastily tied the pouch to his belt, where it would not be easily seen under his long dark green cloak.
No one had found him - yet. He dared not waste another moment to think about what else he would want to keep. He ran to the window, peering out long enough to be sure that it was safe to leave the cabin, then burst out through the door and headed straight for the wilderness.
He knew that he would be hunted after, and the wild lands were just as likely a place to be searched as were the surrounding cities and villas, but if he could cross over into Danferron, the enforcers here would have no authority over him, and they would have no choice but to give up the chase.
Brace's heart thudded in his chest as he clambered up the hillside, his feet slipping in the loose, sandy soil. Grabbing at weeds, bushes, roots of trees, he managed to pull himself to the top, stopping a moment to lean his back against a tree and take a few breaths before hurrying on.
Brace was in more trouble now than he had ever known in his life. How could he have allowed himself to be seen? Had he truly become so careless as that? He had been a rogue and a thief nearly all of his years, a skill that he had honed into what he believed to be perfection. Surely, there had been times when he'd been caught in a lie, or found cheating at chips in a country ale house, but in Brace's eyes, those times had been minor inconveniences, forcing him to move from one province to another, to a place where no one knew his face. Very few ever learned his name.
But now - he had been seen robbing a cottage on the outskirts of Bale, where he'd been living these past two years, for the most part unknown to the inhabitants of the villa. They knew him only as "the man living out in the old Polattis Cabin". They had never thought to associate him with the little things that had gone missing here and there throughout the villa. As soon as Brace had overheard talk that morning that there was a price on his head, he had hurried back to the run-down little cabin, grabbed his treasures, and fled.
He was angry with himself now, for having been found out, and for letting fear take over and flying into a panic. Fear was one emotion that he had long been fighting to keep under control. It prevented him from being able to think clearly, to keep his head and worm his way out of unpleasant situations. But, when he'd heard tell of the large sum of money that was being offered to anyone who could hand him over to the law, he'd felt his heart miss a beat.
It was still pounding now, though he'd slowed his run to a steady, even pace through the trees, tall and sparse, looming over him as if they, too, were watching him. He wiped the sweat from his face as he looked around for a place to hide himself and take stock of the situation. Spotting a slope in the ground, he hurried to it and lay flat on the far side of it, his back pressed up against the dry soil. He was fully aware that he had been leaving tracks in the dirt that a well-trained eye would easily be able to follow. He allowed himself a moment to close his eyes and breathe.
The sun was high overhead, and it was warm on his face. The ground was warm as well, and the heat from it absorbed through his clothing, soothing his tense muscles. The sounds of bird calls echoed high in the trees, but there were no sounds indicating that anyone was close on his heels. Not yet.
Brace pushed himself up and looked back over the sloping ground in the direction he’d come, then glanced around, noticing the position of the sun. South-southwest, that was the direction he needed to go, to get to Danferron.
It would be a long walk, to say the least, across desert-like terrain. Brace knew how completely unprepared he was to make such a journey. He had no supplies—not even to carry water.
How ironic, Brace thought. He would have to steal what he needed to survive his way through the wilderness.
He stood, brushing the dirt from his palms. There was a small encampment, he knew, about two miles east. He was sure that he could manage to lift a canteen or a flask—maybe both.
With a quick glance over his shoulder, he hurried off, weaving his way through brush, rocks and trees. Despite the heat, he continued wearing his heavy cloak, as it provided him cover, keeping out of sight his heavy coin pouch and the dagger tucked away inside the boot on his right leg.
It was not long before Brace’s shoulder-length brown hair began to stick to the sweat beading on his forehead. His eyes stung, and he glared up at the blazing sun, mentally scolding it for throwing so much heat down upon the earth.
Brace’ mind was cluttered with unanswered questions, which he had begun to ask himself for the first time in his life. What would he do when he reached Danferron? During the eighteen years he’d been living as a thief, he had run from city to city, villa to villa, province to province. He had learned that the only person he could count on was himself. Stealing, conniving, hiding, running. These were the things he knew, the things he excelled at. Now he found himself filled with doubt. He had been all but caught in the act of theft, and his confidence was beginning to crumble.
How could he possibly give it all up? If he thought he would be able to make a new start in a new country, what honest work would he find? He was not skilled in any arts, he knew nothing of metal works or farming. He was twenty-six years old. Who in Danferron would believe that he had no training, had never apprenticed in anything?
He would likely end up shoveling out mule stables.
The ground was now quite overgrown with shoulder-high bramble bushes, and Brace pushed his way through them, straining to see the clearest possible path. He became very frustrated as every turn he made led him into another sharp branch, jabbing into his arms and legs, even scratching at his face. He began snapping the brittle branches with his bare hands, pushing his way through toward what he hoped would soon become a clearing.
He growled in pain and anger when another sharp twig dug into his cheek, and he snapped it off and threw it to ground in front of him as he at last broke free of the brambles and stumbled into the open—face to face with trouble.
The snarling creature was knee-high to Brace, its four legs tight, ready either to run or attack. Brace jumped backward in alarm when he heard the ferocious growling and saw the sharp teeth, but what shocked him most was the color of the animal’s fur—a vivid blue, like pure, deep lake water. The creature’s large ears were pressed against its head, and its black eyes flashed.
Brace collected his wits and bent just enough to pull out his concealed dagger. He gripped it firmly, holding it out in front of himself in a threatening manner.
“What are you going to do?” He spoke loudly. “I am armed as well as you are. Come at me, you, and I’ll have you for dinner!”
The animal hissed and snarled, the hair along its back standing on end. Brace took a step toward it.
“Don’t do that!” A female voice rang out through the trees, startling Brace so that he nearly dropped his blade. He looked around quickly from left to right and spotted a tall, blonde woman standing nearby, in an authoritative posture.
She wore traveling clothes—long, loose-fitting woven pants tucked into the tops of her boots, just below her knees. Her shirt sleeves fit loosely down to her wrists, where they were secured with leather ties. Over everything else, she wore a heavy, embroidered cloth tunic, a soft gray-green in color. It was fastened at her waist, and fell loosely over her hips and around her thighs. She was most assuredly not a common townsperson.
“Leave him alone, please!”
“Do you mean me?” Brace asked, “Or that…. Thing?”
The woman stepped closer, her blue eyes meeting Brace’s dark brown ones with a piercing gaze.
“You only frightened him,” she answered. “He isn’t out to kill you. Leave him alone and he will do the same, I promise you.”
The creature stared at Brace, less aggressively, but still bristling.
“Is it yours?” Brace asked, incredulous.
The fair-haired woman hesitated. She seemed unsure how to answer.
“He…. Stays with me,” she finally replied. “He is not a pet.”
Brace blinked, and slowly lowered his dagger.
The woman moved through the brush toward him, keeping a wary gaze fixed in his direction. She seemed to be reading him—his face, his clothing, his body language.
“Who are you?” She asked, her voice heavy with suspicion.
“I’m no one,” Brace replied. “Only a traveler.”
“The wild lands are no place for travelers.”
The blue-furred creature apparently no longer felt that Brace was a threat to him. It moved away, toward the woman, who stood boldly nearby.
“You’re here,” Brace pointed out.
The woman’s eyes registered a flicker of amusement, acknowledging Brace’s remark.
“True, that,” she replied. “Where are you headed?”
Brace chewed on the inside of his cheek as he debated whether to answer truthfully. “No place of consequence,” he finally spoke.
The woman crossed her arms over her chest and squinted at him harshly.
“I don’t know you, and you don’t know me,” he told her. “I have my business, and I’m sure that you have yours, so let us keep to ourselves. No harm was done here. Let me go on my way, and I promise you I’ll let you go on yours. I don’t want any trouble.”
The woman tipped her head, considering Brace’s words. She looked down at the blue animal sitting at her feet, and it looked up toward her. Finally, she turned her attention back to Brace.
“Well enough. But you’re bleeding.”
Brace frowned. Bleeding?
Ever stoic, the woman pointed to her cheek, then toward Brace. He reached up instinctively to touch the side of his face, and when he looked at his hand, there was a bright red smear across his fingers.
He looked up in surprise.
“Let me help you,” the fair-haired, blue-eyed stranger offered. “That wound needs tending to, from the look of it.”
“Why would you do that?” Brace asked her abruptly.
The creature at the woman’s feet growled deep in its throat, but she scolded it with a click of her tongue, turning away, gesturing for Brace to follow her.
Brace had mixed feelings. How could he be sure that this wasn’t some sort of clever trap set by the authorities, to ensnare him?
“You don’t need to do anything for me,” he called after her.
“Nonsense,” she replied, without turning around. “We’ll fix you up and send you on your way.”
Brace tucked his dagger away, slipping it into the hidden sleeve inside his boot.
The woman turned abruptly to face him.
“I am not alone out here.” Her tone was heavy with a warning. She looked him up and down once more, as though she still wasn’t sure what to make of him, as though she suspected the same of Brace that he did of her—that he was hiding something.
“But you are alone,” she continued. “I can’t in good judgment allow you to go on like that. The smell of your blood will draw curious beasts. Let us help you.”
Brace hesitated, but knew she spoke the truth. He nodded in consent, and the woman turned once again, heading off through the trees. The blue creature walked by her side, the fur puffed up along the spine of its long, twitching tail. It turned its head several times to glare at Brace distastefully.
“What’s the deal with your animal?” Brace finally asked.
“He doesn’t trust you,” the woman replied.
“Did he tell you that?” Brace asked in a snide tone.
The woman looked over at him as they walked. “You don’t know much about lorrens, do you?”
“I don’t know anything about them.”
“He can sense what others are feeling. You’re hiding something.”
Brace looked down at the long-eared animal. “It can’t speak. How can it tell you what it’s thinking?”
“He and I are bonded.”
“We share one another’s thoughts, feelings.”
“How can it do that?”
“Stop calling him ‘it’. His name is Zorix.”
“My apologies.” Brace’s tone of voice did not match his words, but the woman shrugged it off. She led the way on in silence.
Brace was watchful, and fighting his conflicting feelings. On one hand, he wanted to get away from this uncomfortable encounter with this unusual woman and her strange creature. On the other had, though, he suspected that she was right about him drawing unwanted attention due to the bleeding wound on his cheek.
After descending a long, gentle slope, Brace looked ahead as four people came into view, sitting or standing around a small camp.
The blonde woman called out a greeting, and Brace felt everyone’s eyes turn on him in surprise.
A tall, well-muscled man stepped forward.
“Leandra, what is this?” He asked.
The woman gestured toward Brace.
“He had a run-in with Zorix,” she explained. “The wound on his face is bleeding. I offered him our help.”
“Did Zorix scratch him?” The man asked, and the blue-furred animal wrinkled his muzzle.
Brace noted this man’s appearance. His hair was cut extremely short on the sides, and the top was kept long, halfway down his back, and tied securely as the base of his neck. He was an archer, Brace knew. Trained archers in these parts always kept their hair cut in such a manner. It was likely that this man could even work for the law keepers.
“No,” Leandra answered the man’s question. “Zorix never touched him.” She stood at the archer’s side, mere inches shorter in height than her companion.
Brace stood twitching inwardly under their scrutiny. Glancing past them, he realized that the others in the camp were watching him as well, from a safe distance.
“What was it, then?” The archer demanded.
Brace met his gaze. “Brambles,” he answered. “Sharp twigs on bramble bushes.”
“Who are you?”
Brace swallowed and gave him no answer.
“He tells me,” Leandra spoke, crossing her arms over her chest, “that he is a traveler, nothing more.” The expression she wore said that she was not certain whether she believed him. “I thought we could enlist Tassie’s medic skill to clean him up before he goes on his way. If she’s willing.”
The two exchanged glances briefly, then the man nodded and motioned for Brace to follow him into camp. Leandra followed them.
Brace glanced around for the creature Zorix, but saw no trace of it… of him. Concerned, unsure of whether the animal intended to ambush him, he only vaguely overheard the archer explaining the situation. Brace felt the uneasy stares of an older man and a young boy, who wore the hood of his cape pulled up over his face. The fifth member of the group was a young woman of slender build, with long brown hair cascading in waves down over her shoulders. When the archer gestured toward Brace, the woman turned her green eyes in his direction.
“Tassie?” The archer asked, and she nodded, stepping closer to Brace and examining the bleeding gash on his face. Without a word, she turned and rifled through a deep leather bag until she pulled out a clay jar and a small wooden bowl. She found a canteen as well, unstopped it, and poured a small amount of water into the bowl. Brace enjoyed watching her work—she was strikingly beautiful. Brace had always had a weakness for beautiful women.
She—Tassie—added a bit of fine powder to the bowl of water and tossed in a rag before returning to Brace’s side.
“Sit down,” she instructed, and Brace obeyed. “Sit still.”
Her voice sounded a bit strange to Brace’s ears. Was that some sort of foreign accent? He was intrigued.
It stung sharply when Tassie pressed the wet rag against his face.
Brace flinched, but he knew that whatever she had put into the water was thoroughly cleaning the wound, preventing infection. Tassie wet the rag once more and wiped every trace of blood from his cheek. She examined the puncture again, and, satisfied that it was no longer bleeding, she stepped back.
“You are fine,” she said, then turned away abruptly. Brace stared after her until the large frame of the archer’s body blocked his view.
“You heard her,” he said gruffly. “You’re fine. It’s time you went on your way.”
“Arden,” Leandra scolded. “That was terribly rude. Look at him. He has nothing.”
The tall archer looked Brace up and down. Leandra was right. “Traveling alone in the wilderness with no shelter, no food, no water? How is that? What are you not telling us?”
Brace felt backed into a corner, but he was by no means helpless.
“My business is my business,” he replied, rising to his feet. Arden towered over him. “I’m no threat to you. Believe me. You can keep your secrets, and let me keep my own.”
Brace held Arden’s stare, letting it hit home that he was aware that their little group was hiding something of their own.
“Fine then,” Arden finally spoke. “Be on your way.”
Leandra held up her hand, signaling for Brace to wait. “Let me at least find something for you to carry food and water in.”
“I don’t need anything else from you,” Brace snapped.
Brace turned with a jerk as the gray-haired man stepped toward him. Until now, he had not spoken a word, or moved from where he’d been standing behind the hooded boy.
“These are hard times. People guard their secrets well. Please don’t take personal offense.”
“Whatever you say.”
“Arden is only doing what he feels is best, in order to protect us.”
Brace glanced toward the archer, who stood close by, his arms crossed over his muscular chest.
“I see that,” Brace acknowledged the older man. “You have him to help you protect your secrets. I have only myself. I’ve only ever had myself. I’ve gotten by just fine.”
“Have you?” Leandra stood in front of Brace, holding out a small leather canteen and a belt pouch, most likely containing dried meat. Brace only glanced down at what she offered him.
“I have,” he replied.
“And yet you have no water to wet your lips,” she pointed out. “Please, accept what little I have to share.”
Reluctantly, Brace reached out and took the gifts from Leandra’s hands. He had to admit to himself that he needed them. He nodded his head in a slight gesture of thanks.
Leandra stepped back, once again at the archer’s side.
“Harbrost, Arden,” she told him quietly. “Isn’t that always what you’re saying?”
Arden regarded her wit a bit of resignation in his eyes.
Harbrost. That word was completely foreign to Brace, but it was at that moment that he took notice of the matching ornate lines of blue-black ink that wound their way across the backs of Arden and Leandra’s hands, encircling their wrists. They were married.
Brace cleared his throat.
“I apologize for the disturbance I’ve caused,” he addressed the group. “Thank you for your help. I’ll be on my way now, if it’s all the same to you.”
He turned to leave, but stopped short when he saw movement among the brush. A four-legged, large-eared, red-furred animal came into view, blocking Brace’s intended path.
“Zorix!” Leandra called out. “Leave him be.”
“Zorix?” Brace asked in surprise. “Wasn’t…. Wasn’t he blue?”
Leandra came forward, and Zorix pressed his side against her legs.
“He was blue,” she answered. “You interrupted his hunt. He was angry.”
“He is…. Nervous.”
Brace couldn’t take his eyes off the strange animal. He nearly jumped out of his skin when he felt a hand on his shoulder, and he whirled around. It was the old, gray-bearded man.
“Easy, son,” he said, holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Calm yourself. I only mean to ask—have you a safe place to stay the night? Darkness will be falling soon, fast and hard.”
“I …..” Brace stammered, caught off guard. “I planned to find rest at the herder’s camp.”
The old man shook his head. “That is much too far. You’ll never make it there on foot by nightfall.”
The man stared at Brace, his gray-green eyes searching.
“I am offering you some protection,” he told him firmly. “And some company, if that is something you have a heart for.”
Brace’s jaw tightened at the reprimand.
“I’ve never had much need for company,” he told him. “But… thank you. I don’t much favor the idea of being at the mercy of hungry beasts, I so I will accept your offer. If it still stands.”
The gray-haired man looked to the archer for approval, but did not receive much, but for a slight tilt of his head.
Leandra spoke up for her husband. “You’ll keep your own fire,” she told Brace matter-of-factly. “And know that you’ll be watched at all times, traveler. Trust must be earned.”
Brace nodded, heeding her warning.
The matter settled, Brace turned and walked several paces away from the odd group of strangers. Coming upon the crumbling remains of a fallen tree, Brace sat, still clutching the unexpected gift he had received.
Food? Water? Safety, even company? Brace had never been offered so much, certainly not all in the same day, by complete strangers, no less.
From this distance, Brace could observe the group as he pleased. The archer was ever watchful, as he stood facing the direction in which Brace had retreated. The tall man—Arden, was it? - allowed himself to be momentarily distracted when Leandra stood close to him, speaking quietly in his ear. He turned and faced her with a hint of a smile, and caressed her short, smooth hair. Leandra kissed her husband briefly before walking away. Brace turned his attention elsewhere. The hooded boy, ever still and silent, remained seated, but Brace could see that he had pulled back his hood just enough to get a better look at him—the intrusive loner. When the boy realized that Brace was watching him as well, he turned away.
Brace frowned in thought. He had his secrets, sure as day, but he still had the suspicion that these people were trying to hide something much bigger than being a wanted thief.
Darkness will be falling soon. Brace remembered the old man’s words, and knew that if he wanted to have a fire to keep warm by, he needed to gather some wood. He stood, pulled the strap of the canteen over his head and shoulder, and tied the small food pouch to his belt, beside his hidden treasures.
Casting another glance at the neighboring camp, he turned and started off through the trees until he found one short enough to reach its branches. He snapped off an armful of smaller twigs and a few thicker branches, then walked on, his eyes scanning the ground for dry brush that would easily burn. He stopped when he came upon the unexpected sight of the young woman who had consented to cleaning his wound. Her back was to him, and she was kneeling in the dirt, pulling tiny leaves from the bush in front of her and stuffing them into a cloth bag.
Brace cleared his throat. “I want to thank you for helping me,” he told her.
She gave him no response, but continued gathering leaves.
Brace frowned. She was completely ignoring him. “I know it was an inconvenience, but I am grateful.”
Still nothing. Did this woman despise him? He had never had this response from any woman. They usually fawned on him—his looks drew their attention, and Brace had learned well how to keep it. This complete disregard was foreign to him. He took a step closer to her, not knowing what to say or do next.
“She doesn’t hear you.”
The voice came from behind, and Brace turned in surprise to see the old man.
“What?” He asked.
“She doesn’t hear you,” he repeated. “She hears nothing.”
Brace stood in bewildered silence as the gray bearded man stepped around in a wide circle until he came into the young woman’s line of sight.
She looked up abruptly. “Ovard!” She exclaimed. “You startled me.”
“Forgive me,” he replied, raising an arm to point in Brace’s direction. “You have company.”
She turned in alarm, pushing aside her long brown curls.
Brace glanced from Tassie to Ovard.
“You can speak to her,” the old man informed him. “She can see what you’re saying by the shape of your lips.”
Brace shifted the bundle of twigs from one arm to the other.
“I…. I only wanted to thank you,” he spoke slowly.
The young woman stood and stuffed the small bag of leaves into her large leather one.
“No need,” she replied, not unkindly. She turned toward Ovard. “I’ve finished,” she told him. “I’m going back.”
Ovard nodded, and Tassie walked back toward camp, giving Brace a little bit of a smile as she passed him.
Sitting alone near his meager fire, Brace chewed on a piece of the dried meat that he’d found inside the pouch given to him by Leandra. He watched the others as they sat close together around a fire of their own, not much larger than his. They were all quite familiar with one another, Brace could see from the way they interacted. They did seem ill at ease, however, and Brace was not sure if that was due to his unwanted presence, or if they had something much heavier weighing on their minds.
Leandra sat close to her husband, who from time to time cast his eyes toward Brace. Ovard was seated between Tassie and the boy. Zorix, now a light purple in color, lay on the ground a short distance away from the group.
The boy had removed his hood some time ago, after dark had fallen, and Brace could see, even from where he sat, alone, some sort of unusual markings on the side of his face. A crescent moon shape curved around the outside of his right eye, and there were lines, or writings, Brace wasn’t certain which, on the inside of the shape, high on the boy’s cheek.
Brace had never before seen anything like this. Surely, people commonly had themselves marked, as Arden and Leandra had, but not at such a young age, and generally not on the face. Brace suspected that the image must represent something, as these markings usually did.
Who were these people? The question played over and over in Brace’s mind.
Tassie noticed when he was looking at her in particular, and she gave him that same little smile that she had earlier in the day. Brace smiled slightly in return. Zorix lifted his head and looked toward Brace then, making a sound like a huffing bark. This aroused Leandra’s attention, and soon Brace realized that everyone’s eyes were on his. What had Zorix told Leandra? That he was having inappropriate feelings about Tassie? Well, what if he was? He was not foolish enough to do anything about it, with a man like Arden keeping watch.
“Foul creature,” Brace muttered under his breath. He tuned his back on the neighboring camp, preferring to be surrounded by the darkness than to acknowledge their judgmental stares.
Brace left early that morning, before anyone in the neighboring camp had had a chance to stir. The wild lands were not by any means friendly to men traveling alone, even in daylight. Endless miles of enormous trees, all of which were beginning to look the same to Brace, went on all around him. Grains of soil and pebbles managed to work their way into Brace’s boots.
The first two times he began to feel the irritating lumps underneath his foot, he stopped, grumbling, to untie the leather straps and knock them out, back onto the ground where they belonged. As the morning stretched into midday, he did his best to try and ignore them. He would not cover as much distance if he kept stopping.
Now, his left heel in particular was giving him pains. Begrudgingly, he allowed himself a moment to sit and rest. He pulled off his heavy wool cloak and draped it across the dirt, then sat on it, feeling suddenly very exposed. Instinctively, he looked around, but he was very much alone.
That was the way he preferred to be. No one could cause him trouble or pain if they were not around. Alone, he was safer. If he extended trust to no one, it could not be broken, and neither could his heart.
It had been broken once, no, twice, so many years ago. Brace had done everything he could to prevent it from happening again.
As he sat, Brace breathed in deeply. The heat of the sun’s rays piercing through the trees caused the soil to emanate a sweet, spicy fragrance, stronger here where Brace’s footsteps had disturbed it.
It had scarcely been a day since he had fled from his cabin in Bale. How far had the word been spread about his thieving? How many people had begun to suspect that he was the one responsible for all of the things that had gone missing? How many upstanding citizens were on the hunt now, greedy for the reward they would receive for his capture?
Upstanding citizens, Brace thought with a sneer. How many nights would they gather around the fire at the local ale house and regale one another with their tales of how they’d turned in that rouge thief? The stories would grow with each telling. He had seen it happen, although not once had Brace ever been part of the cheering crowd, raising their frothy glasses high. He was always hiding in the shadows, or drinking in secret behind the ale house alone, from glasses or bottles that he’d swiped and hidden beneath his cloak.
The tipsy laughter would come to him, muffled through the thick stone walls. It always sounded the same to Brace, and there were times when he wished that he could walk in to join the group, greeting a close friend with a handshake or a slap on the back. He would have a pint handed to him, and he would tap his mug against the mugs of the other men, declaring a toast to life, to health and happiness.
He would know the songs and sing along with them. He would smile as he drank. He would laugh.
But it had never been, and now Brace supposed that it never would. He ran his dusty hands through his shoulder-length hair, pushing it away from his face. The air was still, and silent. Very silent.
Brace listened hard for sings of life stirring around him—birds, insects—but heard nothing. Not a leaf rustled. Despite the heat, Brace felt a chill run down his spine.
Looking toward the sky, at first it appeared quite normal. Then Brace noticed the thick, gray mass along the horizon. A storm. He knew that sight. And not a rainstorm—no, that would be dust, carried along by a wildly swirling wind.
Brace looked around for some better vantage point. The land here was very flat, but close by Brace spotted a younger, smaller tree with thick limbs that he could easily reach. He pulled himself up high enough to where he could get a better view of the horizon, and watched for several moments. The massive gray-brown cloud was most assuredly a dust storm, and it was coming this way.
Even as Brace climbed back down from the tree, he noticed that a breeze had already begun to pick up. He hurried to where he’d left his cloak on the ground and flung it over his shoulders, securing the clasp at the base of his throat.
He hadn’t too often experienced a dust storm, but from the few times he had, he knew that there would not be much time before this one came on in full force. The herder’s camp was still a long distance away, but Brace had to try and reach it. It was the only sort of shelter available to him for miles.
Brace broke into a run across the open brush, knowing full well that his effort was all but pointless. There was no possible way that he could reach the walled encampment before the storm came to swallow him up. The flat ground had become more rugged as he had traveled farther to the east, and now Brace had to be careful not to strike his feet against any of the stones that were scattered here and there.
By now, the wind had gotten stronger, and it pulled at his hair and at his long wool cloak. Flecks of dirt irritated his eyes, and he shut them as often as he could, stumbling along from one sturdy tree to another for support. It was only a short time longer until the wind began to howl, and even with his eyes open, Brace could only see a few steps ahead. He found breathing difficult, as the air was now clogged with dirt. He pulled the edge of his cloak around his face and huddled against the rough surface of the nearest tree.
He was just beginning to dwell on what a mess he’d gotten himself into, and wondering how on this earth he would manage to survive the storm, when he thought he heard voices. He lifted his head slightly. Could it be possible? Was he only hearing things? Was that odd group of traveling companions that he had met the previous night really so close by that he could hear them?
Brace strained to listen past the wind that swirled all around him.
There! Again, there were the sound of voices shouting to be heard over the constant high– and low-pitched roaring of the storm.
If there were other travelers nearby, whoever they might be, Brace had to make them aware of his dire straits.
“Hello!” He called out, but no sooner had he opened his mouth that it was filled with dust. He choked and coughed, pulling the hood of his cloak tightly around his face. It was no use, he realized, trying to call out while the wind swirled around him so fiercely. He slumped to the ground against the base of the tree, pulled his knees to his chest, and covered his face with his arms to wait out the storm as best he could.
Only a moment had passed when Brace felt a hand squeeze his shoulder tightly, and he looked up in surprise to see a somewhat familiar face. It was the old man, Ovard, with a cloth tied across his nose and mouth to keep out the wildly flying dirt.
“Come with us!” Ovard shouted.
“Come with us!” He repeated, pulling Brace to his feet. “We’re making shelter. Help us, and you can take cover with us. We need your hands.”
Brace nodded. “All right. I’ll come.”
Always having been self-reliant at any cost, Brace was in foreign territory, he felt, as he struggled to follow Ovard toward the others. They soon came into view, partially visible through the dust-filled air. Arden and Leandra, cloths tied across their faces, pulled at large pieces of heavy woven fabric, lacing them together with long strips of leather.
They were tents, Brace realized, as Ovard went to help them—individual-sized tents that they were joining into one large shelter. Tassie stood nearby, her long dark hair blowing wildly around her face. The boy was huddled against her, and she held him close. Zorix lay at their feet, his raccoon-like front feet pressed over his face, his long tail wrapped around his body. He was covered in brown dust, through which Brace could see that his fur had changed color once again, to a lighter blue.
“So that was you calling out through the storm,” Arden addressed Brace in mild surprise.
Brace only nodded.
“Here,” Leandra raised her voice over the noise of the wind rushing through the trees. She held out a long leather strip, and Brace took it. She pointed.
Brace obeyed without hesitating. He wanted shelter from the storm as badly as the rest of them.
Weaving the leather through the pre-existing holes in the heavy cloth was not the easiest task, for no matter how tightly Ovard held onto it, the strong wind continued to push and pull it in every direction. Brace was constantly having to shut his eyes against the dust blowing into them.
When all of the sides of the fabric had been secured together, Arden grabbed a long, smooth wooden pole, fitted at the top with a wide, flat disc, and dove under the side of the large tent. In a moment, the top raised up from underneath, and Ovard hurried to Tassie’s side. He managed to get her attention, and she gave the boy a shove toward the tent. He disappeared inside, and she and Ovard began grabbing the bundles of their belongings and throwing them inside the tent. They didn’t have much, and the work was finished quickly. Ovard pointed toward the shelter, and Tassie nodded, darting inside. Leandra gathered Zorix into her arms and followed her. Ovard grabbed Brace’s shoulder and pushed him toward the tent. Brace dove for cover, with Ovard right behind him.
Inside the enclosure, Arden was kneeling in the center, tightly clutching the wooden pole to keep it upright. He instructed everyone to seat themselves on top of the lower edges of the fabric, to keep it firmly on the ground. Their belongings were scattered all around them.
Small clouds of dust managed to work their way through the seams, but conditions inside the tent were a vast improvement on the conditions outside.
Brace was coughing and wheezing uncontrollably, having been the only one in the group with nothing to adequately cover his face. As he struggled to catch his breath, Leandra leaned forward and offered him the wide strip of cloth that she’d been wearing. He had no time to accept it, however. Tassie gently pushed Leandra’s hand away, shaking her head. She moved to sit close at Brace’s side.
“Lean forward,” she told him in his ear, placing her hand on the back of his head. Still choking on the dust in his lungs, Brace surrendered once again to Tassie’s directions. She pushed the hood of his cloak out of the way and pressed her fingertips firmly into the back of his neck. She squeezed him arm reassuringly.
“You’ll be all right,” she told him.
As the moments passed, Brace found it easier to breathe, and he gratefully gasped in lungs full of air.
“Thank you,” he wheezed, being sure to face her.
“Don’t talk,” Tassie replied. “Just breathe.”
The dust storm had seemed as though it would never end. While it lasted, none of them hardly spoke. Brace realized that the rest of them, like himself, were straining to listen for signs that the wind was letting up. Everyone but Tassie.
The young boy had again pushed back his hood, and he and the others had all removed the cloths away from their mouths. Arden had not let up his grip on the tent pole, and the cloth hung loosely around his neck, just under his chin.
The boy—whose name Brace had not yet learned—was watching him with open curiosity. He smiled a little when Brace looked over at him, but Brace was in no mood for smiling in return. The unusual markings on the side of the boy’s face were quite visible now, but for the moment, Brace had lost all interest in such things. He was feeling very trapped. He had never been comfortable in small, tight spaces, and the crowded tent seemed to be getting smaller.
He kept his gaze on his dusty leather boots and waited in silence.
When the storm finally cleared away, everyone emerged thankfully into the fading daylight, but none so thankful as Brace.
They were all cramped and covered with a layer of brown dirt from head to toe. The dirt had managed to find it’s way into every nook and cranny that it could, penetrating though the layers of their clothing, getting into their ears, their eyes, and their mouths. Brace could taste it, and feel it coating his teeth.
Their hair was gritty with dirt. When they blew their noses into the wide strips of cloth, it came out brown.
Tassie had dampened some small cloth rags, which she had pulled out of that large leather bag of hers, and she gave one to everyone in the group, to wipe their faces clean. She offered one to Brace as well. He accepted it, struck by how much heart she seemed to have toward him. He recalled how she had gripped his arm to comfort him when he had been fighting for breath.
“How did you do that?” He asked her. When she did not answer him, he realized she hadn’t been looking in her direction when he’d spoken to her. Tentatively, Brace reached out and touched her arm. She looked at him then, in mild surprise.
“How did you do that?” He asked again. “In the tent there—how did you stop my coughing?”
Tassie gave Brace a weary smile. “Our bodies have many ways to heal,” she told him. “One only needs to learn what they are.”
He nodded, understanding. “How.. Or, you speak very well. How is that, if you can’t hear anything?”
“No more questions,” Arden told him gruffly. Brace turned his face away from Tassie toward the archer, and she followed his gaze. “We need to find a water source,” the tall, muscular man continued, wiping the dust from his hands. “All of our throats are dry. The day is half gone. If we’re going to find water before dark, we need to start looking now.”
Leandra, unable to rid her hair of any more dirt, tied it back to get it out of the way. “I agree,” she told Arden, “but I’m afraid that any lakes or streams will be clogged with dirt for some time before they clear themselves enough to be suitable for drinking.”
“What do you suggest we do?” Ovard asked, his short beard now more brown than gray.
Leandra turned her eyes onto Brace. “You said you were heading for the herder’s camp,” she told him. “They have a well there, yes?”
Brace nodded. “Yes.”
“I say we head there ourselves, then. It’s our best option given the circumstances.”
“Will you permit us to journey there with you?” Ovard directed his question toward Brace, and he stopped in the middle of washing the dirt from his face.
“You’re asking me to let you come with me?”
“That’s what I’m asking.”
Brace was incredulous. “What happened to your not trusting me?” He asked. “Your archer friend certainly doesn’t want me around, even now.”
Ovard and Arden exchanged glances.
“That’s right,” Brace continued. “I know he’s an archer. Although I don’t see you wearing your crest anywhere. Who are you hiding from?”
Arden stepped forward, a harsh look in his eyes. Zorix snarled and began pacing back and forth between Arden and Brace. Leandra
“What is it, Leandra?” Ovard asked her. “What is he telling you?”
“He’s feeling frustrated,” she answered. “He says…. We know that he’s hiding, and he knows that we’re hiding. Zorix doesn’t believe that the traveler poses any threat to us. He says that… flaring tempers only lead to trouble, and we don’t need any more trouble.”
Brace stared wide-eyed at Zorix. That animal really could communicate with Leandra. Until now, he still hadn’t been too sure that he believed it.