Chapter 36 - Old Friend
Rowan whistled when they reached the edge of the forest, and it sounded eerily like a night bird. The response came in the form of an echoing call, far to the right.
Rowan didn’t move. She waited with watchful eyes, and her sword near at hand. Someone, a human, approached with quiet steps that still sounded slow and clumsy to their ears.
Marcus observed her. He also didn’t give his trust easily, and it took little for him to realize her unease had nothing to do with danger. Rowan was starving, and she could detect the distinctive odor of human blood in the air, hear his heartbeat, and feel its pulse in her veins. She stood on the razor edge of her control, and she fought herself with every fiber of her being. Her hands fisted into claws, and her jaw revealed an unbearable tension as she ground her teeth.
Marcus stepped unobtrusively closer. He would interfere if he had to, but he wouldn’t undermine her confidence by trying to restrain her. She was young, and she had to learn. Anyway, she got this far on her own, and he would bet his sword that the pangs of hunger were a familiar discomfort.
The man stepped into their line of sight, and he wasn’t what Marcus expected. He was well past his sixties, his whole demeanor that of a man who worked hard all his life. The scent of farm animals and earth clung to him. His calloused hands proof of physical labor.
He walked with a purpose. His steady hazel gaze rested on them with wary curiosity and gained a warm fondness when it settled on Rowan. He noted the way Marcus stood close to her with a protective attitude, and Alena at his side.
“Please Ardy, stay where you are,” the warning in her tone stopped Ardy’s approach. He didn’t seem surprised by her request, and understanding came quickly and easily to him. He heard the gruffness in her voice, and he noticed her fangs peeking out, the strain in her body, the way her hands clenched.
“You look well,” Rowan said, and he smirked. It was a smile that said he knew she was being polite and he didn’t believe it for a second. It was true though, for his obvious age and the damage of a hard life, he stilled walked and held himself like a man in his prime.
“In other words, you’re starving, and you need a favor,” his amused voice said it all. This man had seen much and lived to tell about it. He knew Rowan well, Marcus deduced, and it was a close bond. He trusted her despite her growing and obvious discomfort.
“Yes. I have to go, and I can’t take Striker with me,” she explained, and he nodded with a thoughtful frown. He didn’t ask where she intended to journey, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t curious. Ardy reasoned that if she wanted him to be aware of her destination, she would tell him.
“How long?” He asked without hesitation, and when she didn’t answer, his eyes on her became more intense; his frown grew deeper, and concern etched into the lines of his face. He understood, with no need for her to say she might not return. Sadness tinged his expression.
“Did he feed?” Ardy asked instead of insisting on an explanation. His voice sounded gruffer with the undertones of worry for her safety and not his safety in the presence of a hungry vampire horse.
“No,” she answered, and he gently slapped against his leg in time with some thought in his head. He nodded, assessed the situation for a moment, and then something occurred to him that made a small smile touched his lips. He nodded to himself.
“Be back,” he promised and left without another word. Rowan seemed used to his ways, and she found herself a place to sit, but the human returned promptly.
“Damned rabbits been eating my vegetable patch,” he explained as he approached Rowan without fear and handed her a sack with three panicked, kicking rabbits inside.
“Not much, but it will quiet him down,” Ardy murmured as he watched Rowan take one rabbit out of the bag. Her touch stilled the animal into near paralysis. Marcus found himself surprised; it was a vampire trait that Alena shared.
Striker wasn’t careful about taking the rabbits, and he didn’t settle for just draining them. He ate them, and there was something just so wrong about a horse tearing into a rabbit. Ardy briefly observed Striker, with no unease at the sight, as if he saw it before and it no longer horrified him.
“Be back,” he excused himself a second time and disappeared for almost an hour. He brought two large, heavy skin bags and handed them to Rowan, who glanced at him with the sheen of unshed tears in her eyes.
“Slaughtered a cow before sunrise. My wife wanted to make blood sausages, and I hate the damn stuff,” Ardy complained, lacking the tiniest bit of sincerity. He turned to Striker who eyed him, and he approached the horse with an absolute lack of fear that was awe-inspiring in a human.
“Come on, Old Fellow; there’s more in the barn,” Ardy invited and turned his back on the horse before he walked away from them without looking back. Striker followed him, gently nudging the old man from behind. Ardy grunted something unintelligible, Striker turned just as Ardy disappeared and whinnied at Rowan, calling her, but she shook her head at him. Rowan still had tears in her eyes, but she fought them like an enemy.
“Go to Ardy,” her voice sounded low and gruff. Striker hesitated for a second and almost turned to her, but she stared him down. With his head hanging low, he followed Ardy.
“Is it safe to leave him with a human?” Alena asked, and Marcus watched Rowan intently for her answer, but he could already see it in her body language. She felt sad to leave Striker behind, but not concerned.