Nessa woke up in the morning to find Miran in a deep sleep.
With the sun just coming up, the girl could get a decent look at her companion in a way last night had not allowed. Miran looked like she'd seen eighteen years and was easily a head taller with long wavy tresses of the darkest brown. Her lashes were equally dark, framing almond-shaped eyes in a round face. Her skin appeared naturally tan, though the way she spoke and carried herself suggested she spent little time outdoors.
Miran stirred and Nessa looked away, trying to shake the sleepiness off.
The redhead meandered down to the river to splash some water on her face and prepare for the day.
She was going to do something. She just didn't know what, yet.
She brought the horse with her. The animal was still curled up. She would want water too.
Nessa was all finished up. She waiting for the horse to stop slurping up water when she felt a sensation she hadn't experienced in a long time.
She was trying to put a finger on what it meant when she heard a shout come from the campsite. It was a perfect combination of fear and fury.
Nessa left the horse where it was and flew back to Miran.
Five men in dark clothing were in the clearing Nessa had used to pass the night. They had captured Miran.
A single-edged sword glinted in the sun, discarded among the leaf litter.
Nessa had the element of surprise, not that it mattered.
She had encountered all manner of highwaymen, ruffians, and bandits on her journey. They were something that could hardly be described as competition.
In the half-light of the morning, the situation was easy to assess: two were holding the girl upright, the other three were leering.
Nessa attacked the closest man with a flying leap. In the air, she kicked out a foot that caught him on the cheek. He fell into the man beside him and they dominoed into the third man.
Nessa landed on her feet and launched herself at Miran. The two men holding her were faced with a choice: let go or fall. They chose to let go.
"Run," Nessa whispered to the girl when they made contact with the ground.
Nessa jumped back up and turned to face the men gaping at her. She caught a swish of cloth out of the corner of her eye that told her Miran was taking her advice. Good. It gave her less to worry about and divided less of her attention. Another person was a liability. Someone she would have to defend. It was why she was better on her own.
Nessa was used to taking care of herself.
On top of that, Nessa didn't like what she looked like. Everyone always oohed and ahhed over her performances. She was so graceful, so animalistic. Nessa hated being ogled like a creature in a cage. It was part of why she'd run. A reason that justified her decision.
She'd never chosen this life. It had been chosen for her. Because she was good at it.
She was good at beating people up and escaping unscathed. It was why she needed to keep running and not get involved. Someone else would try to put her in a cage if she them half a chance. She refused to let that happen.
Nessa pushed the thought from her mind and focused on the task at hand. She would help Miran and then she would head back into the mountains. Whatever was going on in Tolin was a human problem, and if this situation and the past six years of her life had taught her anything, it was that she was barely human.
The men were easily dispatched. The men who'd held Miran got their heads bashed together. They went immediately limp and Nessa released her hold on their skulls. They dropped to the ground, unconscious.
The other three were in various stages of untangling themselves and getting to their feet when she came back for them.
The first didn't even have time to get his sword out. Nessa knocked him out with a swift punch and kicked his body out of her way as she stormed to the next unfortunate man. He was halfway to unsheathing his sword when she kicked his sword hand. His grip went slack and the sword dropped back into its scabbard. He tried to block the onslaught of her fists, to no avail. She beat him back until he tripped over a rock and went sprawling. A well-aimed kick to the head when he went down finished the job.
Nessa let out a huff of breath and turned to face the last man, only to find steel a hair's width from her nose. Nessa narrowed her eyes at the man. She didn't care much for swords or anything you had to add to your person to make it a weapon. The body was already a weapon, you just had to know how to wield it as one.
The girl stepped back in a feint and when he went for the swing, she dropped to a squat and simultaneously sprang for his knees.
He didn't stand a chance. Nessa's shoulder made contact with his thigh and she drove him backwards. The man tried to gain control of his own movements.
He could not. He was reduced to flailing.
In doing so, he dropped the sword. It did not prevent his fall.
Once on the ground, he tried to pry Nessa off, but the girl was spry. As soon as she felt his body succumb to gravity, she adjusted her position so that when they landed, she could still make her attack. Nessa refused to be moved. She pummeled him until there was no fight left, and even then...
The redhead felt a tugging at her shoulder.
She jumped up, ready to fight her next opponent, only to find Miran wide-eyed, sword in one hand, horse in the other.
"We should go," the older girl whispered, her eyes roving over the damage Nessa had caused.
Nessa nodded curtly, Miran was right.
Wordlessly, they headed north.
To the mountains.
To safe territory.
If they were being pursued, any trail would be lost in the mountains. It was the best place to go to travel unnoticed, or to lay low for a little while.
The sun was high overhead before Miran spoke again. "Thank you," she said quietly.
Nessa nodded. She'd planned to walk away. Instead, she'd gotten involved.
Why did nothing in her life goes as planned?
In this particular instance, she knew why. She couldn't walk away from Miran knowing what those men were going to do to her. It wasn't right.
Nessa may have been raised in the woods and wasn't always wise in the ways of men, but she was familiar with beasts. Beasts like to demonstrate authority. Men like to assert dominance. For some reason when they demonstrate it for men, they start wars. When they demonstrate it for women, it presents as rape. Nessa never understood the reason for the disparity.
When Nessa didn't make an audible response, Miran continued, "You move so fast."
Nessa nodded again. She was no stranger to this observation. It had led to her naming.
"I notice you don't carry a sword..."
"Don't need one," Nessa replied shortly. "Having one just incites more trouble," she nodded to the one she'd noticed Miran carrying the night before. The one she'd lost in the scramble with the men shortly before Nessa's arrival. "If you're going to carry one, you should at least be able to know how to use it."
"I know how to use it," Miran said, her voice edged with steel, "I'm not used to being outnumbered five to one."
"Get used to it," Nessa replied, just as hard. "Either that or cut your hair. Or wear your hood up more. This country is in rough shape and the men in it are out for all they can get."
"Don't I know it," Miran muttered, but she put her hood back up, despite the sun. She glanced sideways at Nessa.
It sounded like sage womanly advice. It would explain why Nessa looked the way she did. Miran resolved to cut her hair the next chance she got. It certainly couldn't hurt at this point.
Miran snuck another glance at her companion, wondering about the origins of this petite redhead. She was younger than Miran, but she seemed wise beyond her years. Where had she come from? Why had she left? Where was she going?
A small part of the taller, dark-haired girl wished that they were heading in the same direction. Nessa could handle herself, despite her size. She'd taken on five full grown men while wearing a heavy cloak. She would be a definite asset against highwaymen. Miran had some training in hand-to-hand fighting, but no real life experience. That changed the game a little-never knowing when you would be attacked. Being prepared at all times for an assault and not freezing in panic, but reacting.
Why was a girl her age traveling alone? Where had she learned to fight like that? What was she doing in Tolin?
"Where are you headed?" Miran asked as they ascended the foothills.
Nessa just shrugged.
Miran decided to offer up something in exchange. Maybe that would get her to talk, "If I can get out of Tolin, I'd like to make my way to Cataire." She saw an emotion flit across Nessa's face, but it was gone before Miran could define it.
"Why would you want to go there?" Nessa made a face, "That's a long haul."
When Miran didn't respond, Nessa worried her answer had been to harsh. She glanced over at older girl, but Miran didn't look offended. She was thinking.
"Where are you from?" Miran asked suddenly. She had been fascinated with Nessa's peculiar accent since meeting her. Nessa was not from Tolin. Her hair was the wrong color. That's an assumption, Miran scolded herself. There could be red-haired Tolinese. She couldn't vouch for every citizen.
Nessa's accent was all wrong though. That was not up for contention. Her enunciation was not that of neighboring Byard either. Miran had heard accents from Rona, Magen, and Cataire, but none of them matched Nessa.
"The mountains are my country," was Nessa's evasive reply. She'd recognized the hard look in the older girl's dark eyes. Miran wasn't going to drop the topic unless she got an answer, even an evasive one.
Miran nodded. She wanted to apologize for being pushy. She could tell Nessa wasn't comfortable interacting with people in a casual setting. Making conversation was going to be a struggle. The fact that they were both hiding things was going to make topics they could talk about difficult.
Don't think about it, Miran told herself. Think about the timing of meeting this strange girl with the curious accent. A girl of sixteen with no family to travel with was the perfect companion for a girl aged eighteen who had lost her own escort along the way.
Miran needed to get across the border and out of Tolin. Nessa had told her yesterday that her best chance was in the mountains. Now, the pair of them were headed that way together. Perhaps she could appeal to Nessa to guide her. The redhead hadn't admitted to having a destination. What if she just wandered the mountains for a lack of anything else to do?
Miran could go it alone, but she preferred having someone with her who knew their way.
Getting Nessa to agree was going to be hard. She seemed well-used to her own company.
Miran hated asking for favors. She prided herself on being able to do things on her own. She needed the practice. The thing was, she knew she'd need the help and Nessa had proved that she was a useful sort of person. Nessa didn't owe her any favors. In fact, if they were keeping track, it was Miran who was in Nessa's debt.
She had no place to ask, which was why her voice was timid as she forced out the words: "How would you feel about escorting me into Byard? Last night you made it sound possible..."
Nessa nodded, "It is possible…"
That was all she said.
Miran tried to form an argument. She knew she was treading into business that was not her own by asking. By prodding.
She didn't want to do this alone. She could, but she didn't want to. She was going to be alone for a long time in her future. She'd been given premature alone time and didn't like it. She'd take companionship where she could, from reputable people.
Miran could read people. It was part of her job. Nessa was quiet but fierce. She seemed like the type to avoid conflict, but, if it was unavoidable, she would stand up for what she believed in. She seemed loyal, but tentative to trust. She had been wronged before.
It would explain why Nessa was hesitant. She wasn't sure she could invest herself in such an endeavor with a stranger. She didn't know enough of the details.
She shouldn't have asked, Miran scolded herself. She just didn't want to be alone. Nessa had no intention of going anywhere near Cataire. Miran recalled the look on the younger girl's face. She'd wrinkled her nose in disgust at the notion. Miran didn't need the redhead to take her to Cataire. Just out of Tolin. That was the hard part. The border was under heavy guard.
"You aren't from here," Miran said at last. "You got into Tolin. That's no simple feat. All I'm asking is that you help me get out. After that, we can go our separate ways. You don't owe me any favors and I'll understand if you just want to walk away, but I'd appreciate the help."
Nessa let out a breath. "I can get you to the border," she said at last. "Do you think you can make it out of the mountains once you get into Byard?"
Miran gave an eager nod. That was all she wanted, a guide to get her in Byard. She could handle the rest from there.
Nessa eyed the older girl's belongings as she formulated her plan, "First, we've got to get rid of your horse. The terrain isn't favorable. It's not wide enough and the footing's no good in places. We'll have a hard enough time scrambling ourselves."
"But-" Miran looked back at the mare on her lead. She hadn't rescued the animal from a burning barn just to let her loose in the mountains where she would surely die of exposure or starvation.
"Don't worry," Nessa hurried to assure the dark-haired girl, "I know a place up the way. You're going to need supplies and I don't have anything to trade. The horse'll be perfect."
Miran just nodded. Nessa seemed to have matters well in hand. She would leave the organizing to the redhead.
The pair carried on in silence. They had pushed past the foothills and were closing in the mountains. The valley they were walking in began to narrow. Miran eyed the sloping mountainsides and was not looking forward to climbing out. She understood now why they couldn't bring the horse.
The valley wound around a mountain and when the girls rounded the bend, Miran stopped short.
There was a small farmstead at the end of the valley.
The older girl fell a step behind as they approached the door. She fiddled nervously with her hood, worried that an interaction with people might bring recognition.
Though Nessa claimed to know the place, the redhead was hesitant to make contact. She let out a steadying breath and held up her hand for an agonizingly long time, poised to knock.
Miran couldn't handle it. She snuck her hand past the frozen redhead and knocked on the door.
Nessa whipped around to treat Miran to the fiercest of glares. "I was building up to it," she growled.
Miran just shrugged her shoulders and they waited for someone to answer the door.
A stout woman of middle age with a floured apron and mussed dark hair opened the door. She smiled at Nessa and was about to offer a greeting when she noticed Miran not far behind. The woman's dark brows knit together and she chattered in a language that was not common in Tolin.
Miran knew what it was. It was called Tolardi. It was the native language of the area, and an outdated one. The rest of Tolin spoke a more modernized version that most just called Lowlander. It was common among all the kingdoms and integrated native words from all of them, making trade and commerce, as well as politics, easier to discuss. Only the people of the mountains, people who lived in remote locations, still spoke in the old language.
Miran had been taught the language, but she'd never had any practical applications. She only caught every other word or so, enough to piece together a rough understanding of what was happening. Her guide, however, seemed fluent.
Nessa started to speak Tolardi haltingly, like she was rusty, or unsure, but the pair were conversing quite easily now.
Miran stood quietly as she waited for them to negotiate an exchange. She heard mention of food and the horse. She fervently hoped that the horse would not become food. She blamed her novice language skills and waited for what Nessa would relay to her before jumping to any conclusions.
Nessa and the woman concluded their talk with head bowing and a shaking of hands.
As soon as the woman closed the door, Nessa was on the move. Miran followed, "What happened?"
"Dame Calem is going to to talk to her husband. Lucky for us, he's just come into the house. We're to take the horse to the barn in the meantime."
"And nothing. Dame Calem isn't going to make a deal if her husband doesn't agree. I know you want the horse to have a good happy life, but the matter is, a horse needs feeding and folk to look after it. I don't know if the Calems can take that task on. They've only got a small farm here. Your horse is a sizable animal. She will eat a lot."
"She's a strong animal," Miran said. The mare was still recovering from their rough ride the day before, but Miran knew what she was capable of. Here the animal would be tethered to a plow. She was more than a match for hard labor.
"It's not that," Nessa sighed, "it's whether they can afford to feed her. In Tolin, a horse is a noble animal. They raise pigs to eat and cows to work. When the cows can work no longer, they become food too. Horses are something only nobles have. A poor man will eat a horse, but it's a waste of resources. They don't want to do that."
"Why can't they sell it?"
Nessa blew out a breath, "You saved it from a burning stable. What if the owner comes along and claims they stole it? They'll be in a heap of trouble then."
"I could-" Miran started to offer and instead, fell silent. She wanted to offer a bill of sale, but affixing her name to it would only attract more trouble.
"Let's just wait to see what they say," Nessa said.
They reached the barn. It was a two-story building with a fenced in area in the rear. The front held a sliding door. Nessa pushed it open and slipped inside.
Miran followed with the horse.
The place was dark, with a low ceiling, and reeked of-
"Pigs," Nessa made a face.
She slid the door shut after the animal and led the way to the back where the ceiling here was higher and daylight shone in shafts through an upper window onto straw and hay below.
After unsaddling the horse, the mare immediately laid down and the girls lounged in the hay.
"How do you know these people?" Miran wondered. Nessa did not appear to be much of a people person. She was no good at small talk. Even though she had some measure of acquaintance with these people (the woman of the house had lit up upon seeing Nessa at her front door), the girl hadn't wanted to knock. Miran could easily imagine her as someone who did not like to ask for help. Perhaps she was too used to being on her own and didn't know how.
Nessa let out a snort as she recalled the events that led her out of the mountains. "Their son thought he'd be clever and steal game from my snares. He was cleaning them out as I was returning to check them. Since he knew he hadn't set the snares, he rightly supposed them to mine. Not wanting to get caught, or scolded, or worse, he lit out. In his panic, he slipped down into a ravine and broke his leg.
"When I caught up to him, he told me where he lived, so I walked him home. Then I ran to town for a physician. That was a couple days ago. The physician set his leg so it will heal proper."
"Why'd you help him at all?" Miran wondered. "He stole from you."
"Wasn't nothing I couldn't steal back or catch again. Hopefully he'll learn his lesson. If he hadn't stolen my game, his leg wouldn't be broken."
"You could have just left him."
"I could have," Nessa allowed. "His crime was theft though. If I had left him, he surely would have died. His punishment should fit the crime."
Miran nodded, leaving him to die was excessive, by comparison. "But you ran to get him help? Shouldn't you have left him to suffer?"
"I know some about injuries," Nessa said. "The kind he has is not pleasant. If not properly set, he would be useless on this farm, which is a punishment for the whole family."
It sounded like he deserved everything he got and Nessa showed him a great deal of mercy. Miran said as much.
"Where I come from, it is called justice. The leniency you show to others will be reflected back on you."
Miran still looked skeptical.
"We treat second offenses much more seriously," Nessa promised. She paused, "I may not like people, but I believe in doing the right thing. It sets a precedent that gains people's respect. Maybe they'll become better people in turn, or maybe they'll just listen to you."
"Where are you from?" Miran asked and watched the redhead's brows furrow. She had made the mistake of bringing it up and Miran was curious about her where these views had originated from.
Nessa was saved from having to answer by the entrance of Dame Calem. The instant the woman walked through the front door, she was chattering to the girl.
Nessa jumped into a stand and rushed to meet her.
The woman handed off some things and then left the way she'd come.
Miran was on her feet as well, anxious about the decision.
"They'll take the horse because it looks like a solid animal and it belongs in these mountains." To Miran's puzzled look, Nessa said, "You don't know about Mountain Horses? They are the pride of the mountain people. A long time ago, herds of them roamed the alpine meadows, but when the men came exploring and mapping the mountains, they took the animals and brought them to the Lowlands where they sold them for absurd amounts of money because there was no animal like them. Many times since, people have tried to return them to their mountain meadows. Some succeed. Others, not so much. Because they live so close to the mountains, the Calems want to do their part to return the horse to her mountain home. That is why they agreed to take her. They know she will not know how to survive on her own, so they will keep her here and turn her into a plow horse, and at least know the mountains that her ancestors came from."
Miran was gaping, "How do you know all that?"
Nessa shrugged, "I told you, I am from the mountains."
"Are you one of the people you spoke of-who tries to return them?"
Nessa shook her head, "I respect animals both free and domesticated. I don't meddle. Some have history of their past. Others do not. That is the way of things and I accept it."
Miran fell silent as she puzzled these things.
Nessa did not allow her much time. "Dame Calem got these for you," she tossed some things at the older girl.
Miran was only half-prepared to catch them.
Clothes fell into the hay at her feet.
"What's this?" Miran wanted to know, picking them up.
"The deal was to get you better outfitted. Dame Calem has given you some clothes that will be less of a hindrance ascending the mountains."
Miran looked down at herself, the words, "What's wrong with how I'm dressed?" on her lips, only look back at Nessa.
Their encounter last night hadn't allowed for a fashion discussion. There had hardly been time this morning between fending off attackers and running away. Now seemed as good a time as any to compare wardrobe choices.
Nessa was wearing twilled wool pants of a dark brown color that tucked into knee high leather boots, also brown. Her pants were being held up, not by a belt, but by a strange contraption that started on either hip, reached up around her shoulders and disappeared around back. Miran supposed they connected to the pants in the back somehow as well. Her shirt was dark green color and made out of another style of woven wool that looked very durable. Currently, the sleeves were rolled up and the shirt was unbuttoned, revealing another layer underneath. This one looked like linen or silk, a solid base layer.
Nessa had already stowed away her cloak and tarred canvas jacket as they'd hiked, additional layers of warmth.
Miran had exchanged her silken dress for a shorter one made of wool, for the ease of traveling, but it was still a dress. She knew for a fact that dresses got caught, dragged, and tore. Pants would minimize such an incident. Dresses reduced mobility and were partial to drafts. Pants were not. At no point in her life had Miran actually ever argued in favor of dresses before and she was caught offguard by the fact that she was about to try. She didn't like them, she never had. Dresses were indicative of her station so she had to wear them. Not anymore, she realized with a grin.
The dark-haired girl shook out the clothes. There was a heavy long-sleeved shirt with a few buttons near the neckline that would be useful for keeping warm in the mountains at night, a lighter one of linen, and a jacket like Nessa's to keep the rain off. The pants were of a rough-spun wool and were worn in the knees.
When Miran held them up to her waist, she laughed. The cuff ended six inches above her ankle.
Nessa glanced at her, "Oh, you're much taller than the son. Dame Calem suggested you cut them at the knees. There should be socks as well, to match the difference."
A pair of thick black socks were all that remained in the hay on front of Miran.
The girl took a seat and Nessa offered her a knife. Miran trimmed the pant legs and pulled on the shorts she had created. She toed out of her boots to pull on the socks that reached to just shy of her knees. There was no question about her keeping her boots. They were comfortable and broken-in. Anything else would just cause problems. They weren't nearly as intimidating as Nessa's boots, but they were tall enough to support ankles, which would be useful in the tricky terrain that lay ahead.
Miran retreated to find a place to take off the dress and try on the shirts. They fit nicely, and once the dress was off, Miran secured the pants with her belt, which was attached to her sword.
When Miran returned, Nessa was poking through a pack their host had given them, and a basket of food. The redhead looked up when she heard approaching footsteps and grinned, "How's that feel?"
"Like I can take on the mountains," Miran replied, showing off her new outfit. She felt confident about their chances, and for once in her life, she was wearing clothes she didn't have to worry about getting dirty. "What are you up to?"
"Packing," Nessa answered, handing the pack off to Miran. "I tried to divide the food evenly, but we'll find out tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Miran asked.
"It's too late to get started now," Nessa explained. "We can get a good night's rest here. I can't guarantee what the mountains are offering."
Miran nodded. She wanted to be gone, but she understood the folly of a poorly planned escape.
Nessa managed a grin, "We've walked far enough today as it is. Dame Calem has packed us so well, the only thing we have to tomorrow is roll out of bed and start walking."
Miran nodded again. She liked the sound of that.
Dame Calem collected them for the evening meal. Miran followed behind Nessa as they were admitted entry into the house and opted for a seat in the corner of the kitchen shrouded in shadow. Luckily, the Calem dinner table wasn't big enough for guests, so Miran and Nessa could sit where they pleased.
Nessa opted for a seat beside the cook fire.
Miran knew it wasn't polite to wear a hat or hood in the kitchen but, if her current clothes were any indication how much her life had changed, she didn't care. She cowered in the back, convincing herself it was for the safety of all present that she kept to herself.
The dame cooked a scrumptious meal, the first real one Miran had seen, let alone had the privilege to eat, in a good long while.
After the girls had eaten their fill, they didn't linger. Nessa sensed that Miran wasn't her usual chatty self and Nessa knew she couldn't carry the conversation. Maybe it was the language barrier?
She was able to offer up an excuse: they needed to turn in early because they had a big day ahead of them. Nessa thanked the Calems for everything as they departed.
"No, thank you," the mother and father replied in Tolardi, sending a meaningful glance toward their son who sat, with his leg splinted, at the end of the table.
Nessa replied with a timid smile and let herself out.
The girls bedded down in the barn with the pleasanter smelling animals-the horse and pair of cows.