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Chapter 4

The morning started with Miran taking her sword to her hair, estimating the precision it would take to give herself a decent looking haircut.

"What are you doing?" Nessa's voice was barely a whisper, but it cut through the silence.

Miran looked over at her bunkmate in the hay, confused, "You said I should cut my hair." She thought she was being quiet. Apparently, Nessa was a light sleeper. Good to know.

"I changed my mind," Nessa said, sitting up. "No one would buy it. Your face is too feminine. You'll just have to hope that your foes will be intimidated by your height."

Miran lowered her sword, "How do you do manage?" She wondered.

Nessa let out a dry laugh, "I've been told I'm cold. Distant. Unapproachable." Nessa snorted, "Boys have never given me trouble."

Miran tried to think of something to say. She wanted to say there was a boy out there for her, but she felt that wasn't the reason for Nessa's tone. Nessa was small and thin. She looked liked she would present no challenge to a bandit on the road. Miran knew that to not be the case. If people went after her, they did it because she looked like an easy mark, not because she looked like a girl. Her strong facial features and short hair meant people didn't think anything the wiser and no one got close enough to find out the truth.

Miran had training in self-defense, but no real experience, if yesterday was any indication. She was tall and willowy with a face that attracted attention. Her almond eyes weren't exactly commonplace in the kingdoms. Tolin had the most dense population, but the bulk of people with faces like her lived in a few specific locations. One was the southern islands of Nami.

She would look out of place once they crossed into Byard. Not that it mattered. No one would be looking for her then. Her father had always warned that her face would bring nothing but trouble. He was right, just not in the way he'd intended.

"A haircut isn't going to disguise your face, but it might take a little of the load off. If you want to go through with it-" a knife landed just to Miran's left, the blade sunk deep in straw chaff, "-that'll make less of a botch job."

"What do you think?" Miran wondered. She had a notion that Nessa was one of those people who didn't censor herself for anyone. She said what she thought-at least, she had so far.

Since meeting Nessa, Miran had been considering cutting her hair, if it would make things easier. The redhead was saying now that a haircut wouldn't help-because of her face. Miran wondered if having long hair would make her stand out when they crossed into Byard. She didn't mind too terribly abandoning the clothes that had defined her station. Her hair was a different matter. If cutting it was a necessary step, she would do it, but she'd rather not. Her hair was one of the few things she took pride in.

"I was always taught that it had to be off my collar and out of my eyes," Nessa shrugged, running a hand through her short hair. "This is easy to manage, and no one can grab onto it in a tussle." She had other reasons, but none of them were relevant for discussion with an almost perfect stranger.

"Do you fight often?" Miran found herself asking. She loved that the redhead's size belied her prowess. Miran wanted to talk more about it, but Nessa had shut down yesterday and she was about to again.

Nessa shrugged again, but offered no audible response.

Miran let it go. She had secrets, they both did. Nessa was showing Miran to Tolin-Byard border. There was no stipulation in their agreement that they become best friends.

Standing, the tall girl sheathed her sword.

Nessa was at her side in an instant.

Miran jumped away, putting up her hands to try to ward the smaller girl off, "What?"

"We're going to have to do something about this," Nessa mused, eyeing the sword and its scabbard unfavorably.

"Why?" Miran demanded. She had given up the clothes. She was willing to give up her hair (it would grow back, she told herself). She was not going to give up the sword. It was non-negotiable. Her father had given it to her. Miran was prepared to fight to prove her point even though she knew she would lose.

"May I?" In contrast to the expression on the redhead's face, her words were remarkably polite.

The second Miran gave an unsure nod, Nessa's hands were at the buckle of the belt.

The older girl jumped away as her personal space was violated. She swatted the redhead's hands away and hurriedly unbuckled the belt on her own terms, lest Nessa get grabby again.

She offered the belt and sheathed sword to Nessa.

"Go grab the packs," Nessa directed as she took the belt and began analyzing it.

After Miran collected the packs and cleaned up their sleep spaces, she returned to find that the belt looked different somehow.

Nessa instructed her to sling the belt over her shoulder, as a baldric instead.

Miran did as she was told. Instead of sitting at her hip as a traditional baldric would have done, the sword rested in line with the baldric, across her back. From this position, Nessa improved Miran's mobility and balance. With the sword stationary on her back, it wouldn't be swinging about or getting in the way as they climbed the mountains.

"Is it snug enough?" Nessa wanted to know, turning her attention away from Miran as she pawed through her bag, repacking it.

"It's perfect," Miran replied. The clasp was at her chest so it was easy to adjust. "Except how am I supposed to hold up my pants?" The Calem youth was a little bit more round in the waist than Miran was.

Nessa grinned, "There's sure to be a length of spare rope in this barn you can use." There was a pause and then a sigh as she removed items from her pack and moved them around, "There's way too much food in here."

"Have you seen how skinny you are?" Miran asked. "She doesn't want you to starve." She knew the mountains were steep and rugged. It would take a lot of energy to conquer them.

"More food in here means more weight I don't need."

"You need to eat," Miran pointed out. She'd watched Nessa fuss through the food last night already.

"I will. Not everything I carry on my back. I hunt. That's where my meals come from."

"Maybe she just wants you to have a more well-rounded diet," Miran suggested.

Nessa was fixing her with a look that was less than friendly. "More food means more weight. More weight means we won't be moving very fast."

Miran managed a smile, "You're going to be hiking with me. I'm not going to be moving very fast, pack or no. Dame Calem probably wants to do her part to keep you fresh. To save you from exerting excess energy by hunting. That takes time."

Nessa's eerie eyes were ablaze with the unspoken challenge, "You've never seen me hunt."

After a look like that, Miran wasn't sure she wanted to.

Nessa settled down once she got her pack situated how she want and the pair munched on their breakfast meal of bread and cheese. When they were done, they donned their packs, slipped out of the barn and headed towards the rising sun.

Nessa easily led the way as they climbed out of the valley and made their way east. Miran tried to keep her pace, though, by midday, she was beginning to regret her attachment to the sword. She could feel it wearing her down. She refused to give it up though.

Where was she supposed to leave it? Discard it in the woods? Not likely. It was too valuable. Miran would persevere because she was stubborn. She had a purpose and she would need her sword when she got that far.

Because she was trying so hard to keep up with Nessa, Miran felt spent when she caught up with the redhead perched on a rock overlooking the valley come lunchtime. She wasn't hungry either. She had a sinking feeling that her pack was going to be heavy for a long while.

Nessa offered a smile, "I wish I could say that you get used to it. The uphills always burn. I just know that they burn less than when I first started. You'll get there."

Miran didn't feel like she would. She explained her lack of hunger.

Nessa nodded knowingly, "Been there too. Try to eat some bread. Drink your water in sips. You appetite will come back because you'll need the energy. When it does, it'll bring all the friends it's ever met."

Miran nodded, but she couldn't bring herself to smile. She believed Nessa because the girl had experience, but it didn't feel like she'd ever be hungry ever again. She ate a couple chunks of bread because Nessa insisted, but she did not like it.

Nessa slowed down when Miran stared to flag. That was her lack of energy from her lack of food. They'd hiked a rough stretch. Getting back into the big mountains was never easy. The redhead kept an eye out for good spots to pass the night.

Miran hadn't expressed that she needed to get out Tolin urgently, though Nessa suspected that might be the case. They were off the beaten track now. They were in territory where Nessa felt comfortable. She didn't have to make big miles. She just had to make sure Miran survived to hike another day. She wasn't going to do be able to do that if they walked from sun up till sundown on their first day and every day after.

Under the cover of some stout spruces, Nessa decided to make camp.

"Here?" Miran asked, breathless. The sun was going to be up for a few hours still. "Now?"

Nessa smiled, "It's as good a place as any and I like the view."

Miran couldn't disagree. They were in a saddle between two tall mountains. The trees sheltered them from the wind, and you could see where they had come from and where they were going. "I can push on," Miran said.

Nessa laughed, "I know you can. I don't need you to though." She explained that the first days are always the hardest and that quitting early today meant more recovery time tomorrow. "Don't worry about it. We're going to hike more tomorrow, and the day after..."

Miran still looked unsure, like she didn't trust Nessa's words, though she wanted them to be true.

The redhead dropped to the ground and opened her pack. As she munched on some of the food, Miran seemed to realize she was being serious about stopping for the day and slumped to the ground.

The dark-haired girl struggled to get free from her pack. She wiggled her shoulders but the straps refused to slip on like she expected them to. She tried once more to no avail.

This time her whole body got in on the motion.

Still nothing.

She became aware that Nessa was giggling. At her.

Miran blew out a breath and slid the straps off of her shoulders with her hands. Something, she realized, she should have done from the beginning.

Free from the pack, Miran climbed to her feet. She felt weightless. As if she were floating.

She wandered into the woods to make use of the ladies' room.

When she returned, Nessa was going through her bag.

"What are you doing?" Miran wanted to know.

"You're not eating your food and I am, so I'm relieving you of some of the weight."

"But I'm going to get my appetite back. I will eat it, eventually."

"When you do, we'll talk about it," Nessa promised. "Right now it's slowing you down and I can handle the weight."

"I want to handle the weight," Miran said and Nessa blew out a breath.

"When I packed the bags, I didn't factor in how much your sword would weigh."

"It's my sword, I should bear the weight."

Nessa shook her head, "I mean to say that you are carrying more weight than me."

"I should, I'm bigger."

"I'm better conditioned," Nessa shot back.

She started to laugh at the absurdity of their argument and decided she needed more food in her system to keep the hunger-inspired anger at bay. With her mouth full, Nessa said, "I shouldn't have rummaged through your pack. I'm sorry. I figured you would want to be lighter since you were carrying the sword and I can handle the weight. You are carrying more than me. I would like to help."

She also described the amazing phenomenon known to her a hanger, also known as hunger-induced anger.

Miran laughed at the notion and the matter was resolved. The pair rolled out their bedrolls and climbed in, still munching on their food.

"So this is your home?" Miran asked some hours later as the stars lit up the sky. She was exhausted, but she was afraid to fall asleep and find that this was all a dream. Down in the valley, she could see the lights of various homesteads and villages. Above her, she could see various snow-capped peaks glowing in the dark. Why had she never come to the mountains before now? She understood why Nessa didn't claim to live anywhere else. Everywhere else paled in comparison.

Nessa was grinning, "Yes. How do you like it?"

"I am fascinated by your ceiling. How do you do it?"

Nessa's grin widened, "I have a number of tireless minions who go up every night, holding lanterns just so. Their memories are not terribly great, however, so every night is just a little bit different. I don't mind though. It's the thought that counts."

Miran was silent, and when Nessa looked over, she saw the girl's almond-shaped eyes were closed. Good. She was going to need her rest.

Miran woke in the morning with an aching in every single one of her muscles. She was keenly aware of the stiffness that accompanied the soreness as she followed Nessa's lead in packing their gear to head out.

The ache abated after a few days, but the stiffness recurred every morning, despite stretching the night before.

The pair fell into an amiable silence. It was clear that Nessa was a person of few words and that she was keenly attuned to the wilderness. She led the way effortlessly over terrain that had Miran gasping for breath from exertion and past views that stole her breath away.

On their fifth night in the mountains, Nessa informed Miran that they were officially in Byard. They had been for a few days, but Nessa wanted to be able to bring the girl to a town. They would be able to find one tomorrow. From there, Miran would hopefully be able to arrange passage into Cataire.

The Byardi are a mobile society for the most part, rotating through the grasslands that make up the bulk of the country with their livestock. Nessa had been watching a village grow closer every night. As long as the locals didn't pull up all the stakes tomorrow, the girls would be able to reach them by noon. If they were lucky.

Miran dropped right to sleep. She slept soundly each night and was recharged come morning. Nessa approved whole-heartedly. The Tolinese girl struggled to keep pace, but never complained. She was a good companion.

Nessa was almost sad that they would be parting ways tomorrow. Having someone else around kept her sane. Human, at the very least. The longer she stayed on the mountains, the stronger the wild called to her. She didn't have very many human friends in her life. Her first one, she had found in the woods. It seemed like she'd found another one here, too. Miran seemed close enough to call a friend.

There's a strange bond that develops when people hike together by day and share their thoughts at night. It's stronger than friendship, and yet, it doesn't have a name, because it isn't friendship. You understand each other on a level beyond words, because of shared experiences, and yet, at the same time, you know nothing about the other. It's an interesting juxtaposition. They can't judge your choices and mistakes because they don't know them and they don't care. What you do know is that going forward is easier because you are together.

Before Nessa settled in for the night, she looked over her shoulder, out of habit.

She'd been doing it a lot more as of late.

She wanted to think she'd picked it up because of Miran, but she knew that wasn't the reason. She hadn't noticed she was being followed because she'd been distracted by Miran and the turmoil in Tolin. She had noticed it when she returned to the mountains. They were her safe place. There were less distractions so she was more aware when something was wrong.

Someone was out there. Watching them. Watching her. She was being followed.

She'd known it from the beginning. She'd had a vague notion. It wasn't a sure thing. She only suspected because she'd been the prey once before. She was just glad this time there weren't any dogs. Those were harder to shake.

Nessa lay down, ruminating on this development. He must have caught up because she'd slowed down with Miran.

As much as Nessa didn't want Miran to go, now was as good a time as any for the girl to leave before she got caught up in Nessa's troubles. Miran seemed to think she had enough of her own, though she didn't share them, Nessa knew she thought about them as they walked. There's little else to do with your day.

After Miran was gone, Nessa would deal with this tail and then return to Tolin to see if she could find out more about these rumblings of discontent.

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