The sky was clear and bright with only a single fluffy cloud. A ruby red cardinal flew overhead before landing beside its ruddy brown mate. Webs of glistening silk suspended between long, broad blades of grass sparkled with dew in the sunlight.
Willow spotted Rohan over by the horses, putting his time on watch to good use. He caught her eye and beckoned her over, a huge grin crinkling the corners of his bright blue eyes. His long hair blew across his face in the gentle breeze.
Willow’s answering smile was just as brilliant, and she unconsciously released a sigh of deep contentment. This was how their relationship had always been. Simple. Easy. Natural. Before Devon Riley, that was.
She bounced over to his side, determined to maintain her resolution to keep things lighthearted and carefree. If only he was willing to cooperate.
“Hey, you!” she said, throwing her arms around his narrow waist.
“You're in a good mood this morning,” he said, crushing her in a tight bear hug.
did he get so strong?
“I’m just happy to see you; that’s all,” she beamed.
“I’m sure that can’t be all. I know you too well...you’re not this much of a morning person.”
“Come on...aren’t you enough to boost my spirits? But if you really need another reason -- I guess you can blame the Unicorn. It was amazing! I wish you could have seen it yourself.”
“I think it’s better this way, actually.”
do you mean? What reason could you possibly have for not wanting to see a
Unicorn? It’s not like they come around every day -- not anymore any way.”
“Sure, I’m a little disappointed, but this way...it’s like it was meant especially for your eyes and only yours. Your own personal miracle. And the way I see it, no one deserves something like that more than you.”
“Aw, you’re making me blush,” she said in an airy tone attempting to mask how much his words touched her. Light and carefree, she reminded herself.
“That’s not difficult these days,” he laughed. “Honestly, I’m having a hard time recalling your complexion without envisioning a brilliant shade of crimson coloring your cheeks.”
“Very funny,” she said, playfully socking him on the shoulder.
“I’m quite serious, actually. Ever since Devon Riley decided to grace us with his presence, it’s become a permanent feature of yours,” he said with a bitter edge in his voice.
Uh-oh. Too deep, too deep, she cautioned herself. Devon was clearly a sore subject. So much so, that she wondered why Rohan brought him up. Ever since confirming that their views of him were so pointedly different, Rohan had been making it a point to avoid talking about him -- except for the occasional unsuppressed grumbling.
Was she so hopelessly transparent that Rohan could sense he subtle reactions to Devon? Was Devon just as perceptive? Or was her relationship with Rohan so concrete that he was able to ascertain the slightest degree of change in her mannerisms? She inwardly vowed to keep her blushing in check, while acknowledging the impossibility of such a task.
“Oh, please. You’re just not use to having all this uninterrupted time with me. What you see is what you get, my friend. The good, the bad, and the ugly,” she said jokingly.
“I like what I see just fine, actually. And it’s neither bad nor ugly. Only good.”
“See. There you go again -- making me blush,” she said thankful for the diversion from the Devon topic.
“That’s what I’m here for...well, the horses are all set.”
“You’re on your game today,” she teased.
“I try,” he said with an attempt at modesty that did not quite work.
“Thanks for getting the horses prepped. That will save us some precious time,” Devon said as he walked over to them.
“No problem. I was up anyway so I figured – why not?”
“Good thinking. If we can make it to North Port before nightfall, we can board in the Tavern Ora for the night. I, for one, could use a hot bath. And I’m sure Apollo and Bellefire would appreciate a warm night in a stable and something other than grass to eat.”
The morning hours were fairly uneventful, other than Rohan spotting a Fire Snake. By early afternoon, Willow caught glimpses of thinly dispersed farm houses in the distance. It was the first sign of civilization they had come across since leaving the churchyard for the Elfin Forest.
The thoughts of hot baths and soft warm beds drove them forward. Desperate to arrive before nightfall, they pressed on past field after cultivated field. The fresh air gradually turned salty as a briny gust from the coast washed over them.
Just as twilight approached, they reached a series of low sand dunes. Willow could sense that the sea was hidden just beyond them. Sure enough, they soon came across a well worn dirt road skirting the wide, protective bay that North Port had built itself around.
To both the north and south, craggy bluffs hemmed the town. A long narrow rock ridge jutted out into a point where a sturdy brick lighthouse stood precariously at the tip. A steady beam of light rotating three-hundred-sixty degrees marked the bay, and offered a warning of shallow shoals and jagged reefs. Gulls circled overhead in the fading light.
Mariners were unloading the last of the day's cargo down by the docks. A few lanterns were lit and swung forlornly above them, giving little light for their tasks. Nearby drunken crewmen were swaying in the streets, pints of ale splashing down their fronts as they sung out of tune. Catching sight of Willow, they shouted out things that made her blush in a far different way than she did with either Devon or Riley.
The trio steered the horses east towards the Tavern Ora. The town seemed deserted now that they had headed away from the docks. Rohan waited outside with the horses while Willow and Devon saw about procuring a room for the night. The downstairs was full of sailors and travelers with buckets full to the brim with warm mead. Spiraling columns of smoke from pipes and cigars filled the small room, creating a hazy, billowing ceiling. For such a large crowd, despondency hung in the air. Devon took Willow’s hand, leading her as they wove their way between the intoxicated patrons.
Willow indulged in the warmth of Devon’s touch. His strong hand entwined around hers, and she decided that she never wanted him to release her. But all too soon they arrived at the counter, and Devon dropped her hand to get the tender’s attention. Willow was jostled by a pushy seaman as he demanded more ale.
“Excuse me, sir!” Devon said in a commanding but polite tone.
The barkeep was a weathered balding man with a shiny scalp. He had been downcast, but the sight of the two young people gave light to his eyes, taking the edge off of his otherwise severe appearance.
“The name’s Birch Cenwig,” he said with a full face smile. “What can I do you for?”
“We need a room,” Devon said, nodding towards Willow.
The man eyed her appreciatively. “We don't often see the likes of such a fine lady.”
Willow almost laughed. Her clothes were filthy, her hair greasy, and she knew she didn't exactly smell like flowers.
“Single or double, what’s your pleasure?” he asked.
“A room suited for three, actually,” Devon answered.
“Hmm, I’m afraid that the best I can offer is a double with a couch. I’m told it’s quite comfortable, though I’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing it myself.”
“We’ll take it. We’ll also need two stalls in the stable if you’ve got them.”
“Right-o. Pleasure doing business with you,” Mr. Cenwig said extending his hand. They shook, and then he hollered over his shoulder, “Yo, Hackett. Can you hold down the fort for a spell? We’ve got new guests that need tending to.”
A plump man with foggy glasses resting above a hooked nose, his greasy hair pulled back in a ponytail, and a grimy stained apron tied round his vast waist -- clearly the tavern’s cook -- appeared out of the door behind the bar.
“Sure thing, Boss,” he said, fruitlessly polishing his glasses on the corner of his dirty apron.
He nodded at Devon, before his beady eyes rested upon Willow. They widened substantially, and he offered her a poor attempt at a bow. Willow smiled politely in response. Mr. Cenwig clapped Hackett on the back before walking around the counter.
“Right this way,” he said as he led them back out into the salty air.
Willow noticed a hitch in his step and a haunch in his stature. Her eyes drifted down the length of his right leg and she noted that a wooden peg leg replaced flesh and bone from the knee below.
“I’m Devon Riley, and this here is Willow Payton. The boy over by the horses just yonder is Rohan Brewster,” Devon said conversationally.
“It’s nice to meet you all,” Mr. Cenwig said, shaking Rohan’s hand as they converged.
Mr. Cenwig led them behind the tavern to the stable.
“So what brings you three to North Port? Business or pleasure?”
“Strictly business,” Devon answered.
“Right-o. Usually the case. Not much happiness in this town.”
The stable was a modest structure, a little worse for wear after countless years of salty air, gusty winds, and swelling seas, but more than accommodating for Bellefire and Apollo.
Willow and Rohan removed the saddles and bridles and gave the horses a thorough pat down -- a task made much easier by the aid of mounting blocks -- while Devon and Mr. Cenwig chatted good naturedly like old friends. They had set the horses upon the troughs overflowing with fresh hay in each of the stalls. A salt block and water bucket were secured to the wall. Willow walked over to a barrel and gave each horse a crunchy carrot and a sugar lump before heading into the tavern after the boys and Mr. Cenwig.
Rohan found a small, wobbly wooden table in a dimly lit corner and guided Willow to it. His pale freckled hand rested lightly on the small of her back. Devon ordered three steaming bowls of chowder and three cups of hot tea. Every patron stared at them, some grimly smiling at Rohan’s luck, clearly envious of his beautiful prize. Their scrutinizing eyes made Willow uncomfortable, and her gaze fell to the wooden planks on the floor. Much to her dismay, Rohan left Willow to help Devon carry the food.
Willow did not realize just how hungry she was until the first glorious spoonful. This was the closest they had come to a home-cooked meal since dinning with the Gnomes. They emptied their bowls in minutes, tipping them against their lips to catch every delicious drop before draining their tea cups. They ordered a second round of each, which they devoured just as quickly. After a third bowl for the boys, their bellies full to bursting, they headed upstairs to bathe and collapse exhausted into bed.
The room was at the end of a narrow hall on the second floor, lit by candlesticks dripping with spider webs. Muffled sounds from the bar below wafted up the stairs. The door opened with a loud groan. Willow ignited the candles in the room to get a better feel for their lodging. The room was cramped, scarcely containing the two beds, a small rickety dresser, and a moldy couch by the hearth. Eying the fireplace, Willow easily produced a cozy blaze. The creaky wooden floor boards were hidden under a fine layer of dust. But to the dead tired travelers, it was nothing short of paradise.
Willow was unanimously given a bed to herself, and Rohan and Devon tossed for the second. Devon pulled a small gold coin -- a Stips (the equivalent of a silver dollar) -- from his pocket. It was embellished on one side with the Council’s crest -- the lion with eagle’s wings -- and the maxim Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly, inscribed beneath. The lion emitted a soft roar, beating its wings and swishing its tail. The opposite side depicted a perfect representation of Credo School for Little Saints.
“Credo or crest?” Devon asked.
“Hm...Credo,” Rohan said.
Devon tossed the coin. Willow’s eyes followed the somersaulting coin. Devon caught it in his right fist before slapping it against his left wrist.
“Crest,” he said smugly.
Rohan exhaled loudly and wearily eyed the stained couch.
“You can have my bed,” Willow offered, seeing the defeat in his eyes.
“Be serious. I’m not going to let you sleep on that,” he said in a disgusted tone. “It’s fine. I don’t mind.”
Willow could see right through his facade.
“See?” he said jumping lithely onto the couch. He was immediately engulfed in a cloud of brown dust.
“Rohan...” Willow said.
“It’s fine,” he said through a fit of coughing. “Absolutely fine.”
Willow decided that arguing further would not do anyone any good, as stubborn as Rohan could be, and she reluctantly climbed into her four-poster. The pillow soft mattress felt wonderful beneath her weary muscles. In record time she heard soft snores coming from the direction of the couch. Just maybe, it was not as uncomfortable as it had first appeared to be. She comforted herself with that thought.
Willow wormed her way beneath the heavy, warm comforter and extinguished the candles’ flickering flames with her mind. Quicker than should have been possible, she fell soundly asleep, nestled in her warm cocoon. The weary journeyers slept solidly, dead to the world, after too many long days of endless travel.