For the next two days, they continued to ride through the forest. The forest itself was no longer as dense as it had been when they had begun their trek, though steep hills were becoming more and more common, which often forced them to wander until they found a path down that would not turn an ankle or hurt an iro. Gabriella had advised them that they would be nearing the highlands as they made their way to Terruth City and if, as Gabriella said, these hills were just hints of what they would find in the highlands, Rick was pretty sure they would be climbing mountains. But he had found a way down the hills that did not require a great deal of care or coordination. He had discovered this new method entirely by accident – it involved sliding on his backside most of the way down the hill, usually due to loose soil that caused him to slip. Since his behind was already tender and nearly raw from riding, the ride down the hills over jutting rocks and roots usually made it quite numb and so he was almost an advantage. Almost.
Gabriella called a halt for the day just then. Though it was earlier than they usually stopped, Rick looked around and was inclined to agree with her. They were in the lee of another monstrous hill that would take them too long to climb, come down safely and still find a good campsite before dark. He hopped down from the cart and began unloading their supplies.
“Ooohhh –” Fiona breathed slowly as she slid painfully down from her mount. Apparently, she was just as raw and sore as Rick was. Derrick swung down from his iro a little less jauntily than usual, though he pretended as though he were in no pain at all as he strode to the wagon to assist Rick.
“Rick, you and Dar get some firewood together. We will set up camp,” Gabriella directed. Rick looked at Derrick and shrugged. He didn’t think it would be easy to get used to everyone’s new names. He was just grateful that he didn’t have a new one. They wandered off, picking up loose branches as they went.
“What do you think it’s going be like?” Rick called. He was anxious to see the town and the people but the closer they got, the less sure he was that he would be able to fade in with the crowd. It sort of felt like the first day at a new school... you didn’t know the kids, you didn’t know how to get around, and everything was different.
“This place we’re going to? I don’t know. I’m afraid I’m going to pronounce something wrong and mortally offend someone. I’ll probably get my head chopped off with a broadsword my first mark there,” Derrick – Dar – called back.
Derrick? Afraid? Nervous? Hm. Well, at least it wasn’t just Rick. He sort of figured that he wouldn’t get as far as pronouncing anything wrong... he was thinking that he’d completely freeze up the minute someone spoke to him. Which was kind of funny... he was rarely without words. Maybe it’d be a learning experience. He was then aware that he hadn’t replied yet.
“Don’t worry. You’re pretty good with a broadsword yourself. Maybe you’ll just chop each other’s heads off,” he quipped as he turned toward another part of the forest. That was the real question, though, wasn’t it? Just how good were they? Good enough to satisfy Gabriella, or good enough to fade in without a trace? It was a question that had been gnawing at him for some time, yet all he could do was wait and see, which consequently left a lump of anxiety in his stomach.
When he arrived back at the campsite, his arms full of limbs and branches, he saw that the camp was indeed, already set up. He was really, truly beat. Falling tiredly onto his bed furs in front of the already snapping fire, he was unable to move.
“Rick, time to get up.”
Rick rolled over and cracked an eye open. He seemed to be the last one up. Oh well. Yawning, he got to his feet and shook out his bed furs. He’d be glad to sleep in an inn... sleeping on the cold, hard ground was getting old fast.
After they broke camp, they set out westward again with Rick on Rasha, who seemed to appreciate his presence on her back about as much as he did. Around midmorning, they emerged from the tree cover onto grassland that was not broken up on the horizon by more trees. He looked inquiringly at Gabriella, who sat up straighter in her saddle.
“We have left the Illyth,” she called out cheerfully.
Rick looked back at the wide expanse of open land with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. The point of no return. Ah, well. He took a deep breath and urged Rasha forward.
After a rushed midday meal, Gabriella asked them to buckle on their sword belts. He exchanged glances with his comrades but said nothing. It was probably best to keep his mouth shut anyway, he thought as he buckled on his sword belt, since his sides were sore now. The new thing for today was that the person nearest you got to pinch you if you used someone’s old name instead of their new one. He hardly knew the others’ new names, so of course he had been pinched on a regular basis. Humans took such delight in inflicting pain.... Let’s see. Andrew is now Ander, Derrick is now Dar, Fiona is now Fiorra, Elise is.... He racked his brain for a moment. She had just announced it last night. Emanuella, that was it, which Gabriella said was the name of a queen from a long time ago. He could remember that one because it rhymed with Gabriella’s, but he still had trouble in general remembering that anyone had new names at all, especially since his had stayed the same.
He was dozing against the side of the wagon when it came to an abrupt halt.
“Well,” came Gabriella’s relieved voice from the front of their little procession. Tiredly, he raised his head up and looked over the load with Fiona – Fiorra – to see what was going on.
Gabriella turned around to look at everyone. “We have reached the road to Tillabeth.”
Rick craned his sunburned neck. And there it was in the long grass, a dirt road stretching out before them.
“How long until we get to Tillabeth?” asked Elise.
“We should arrive before midday tomorrow,” Gabriella replied, tossing her copper red braid behind her.
“We’re that close? Why don’t we just continue on until we get there tonight and get rooms in an inn?” asked Andrew.
Gabriella shook her head. “It would do us no good. With all of the travelers on the road for the Spring Market, the inns are likely to be filled by the time we arrived, so it would be of no use. Unless, of course they have room in the stable...” she suggested with a smile.
Andrew shook his head with a grimace. He hated the smell of dirty animals, Rick knew, and would rather sleep under the stars with clean air than in a stable full of iros.
Finally, they came to another rickety halt. Rick saw nothing about the area worth stopping for, unless someone had to relieve themselves. For the last two marks he had kept an eye out for new and exciting signs of the upcoming civilization, but so far all he had seen were wagon ruts, iro tracks, and dried iro-droppings. No sign that humans had been here. No local equivalent of the soda-cans and snack bags that littered the roads at home, nothing at all, not even maybe a discarded wagon wheel. These people simply did not litter. That was the way it was supposed to be of course, but why couldn’t the people back home grasp that relatively simple concept?
He and Fiona – Fiorra – jumped down as the rest of the party slid off their iros. He looked at Fiorra, and asked lowly, “We’re not setting up camp now, are we?” He looked up at the sun, which offered at least another two marks of daylight.
“Of course. There’s a lake over there so we can get water and bathe,” she replied.
He looked over his shoulder at the lake he hadn’t seen. Of course. A lake.
They had almost completed setting up camp when Elise set down the heavy kettle over the fire and shaded her eyes. “What’s that?”
Rick turned with the rest of the party to look down the road. A dust cloud, as he watched, grew gradually larger as it neared the top of the distant hill.
“People,” Gabriella said.
Rick felt a surge of excitement and nervousness. He looked at Ander, whose eyes were wide with anticipation.
Gabriella turned around again and saw them all staring. She waved her hands at them. “Don’t stare. Go back to what you were doing.”
Rick shook himself and went back to driving the last tent pole into the ground, though he watched the approaching cloud of dust covertly. Finally, it drew close enough for him to make out the details. It was a large wagon, covered by a patched canvas cover, drawn by two enormous and rather ugly horses. Driving the wagon was a man who looked to be about fifty, with a weathered complexion and a short, grizzled beard. Rick couldn’t help watching as the wagon drew closer and drew slowly to a stop.
The horses stamped and snorted as the man eased himself slowly to the sandy ground. Before he approached them, he took a few seconds to speak a few low words to the horses and patted the nearest one on the neck. Rick tried to look as though he weren’t interested but he had the feeling he was failing dismally.
The old man walked up slowly, as though stiff from sitting. He was wearing a version of overalls and an old, nearly threadbare tunic beneath them. Gabriella looked up and walked a few paces to meet the old man part way.
“H’llo thar, tevners. How do ye?”