Silence hung thick and heavy in the air as Mia and Orden rode along a narrow path cut between the trees. Orden led, riding a few feet ahead on an impressive palomino stallion called Ecobar. Mia’s horse, an old bay mare whose name Mia had already forgotten, followed in Orden’s wake, stopping occasionally to sample the underbrush. Mia nearly tumbled over the horse’s neck every time.
In the chaos that had ensued once Mia and Breahn had come down out of the loft—Mia’s hair braided back from her freshly scrubbed face—no one had thought to ask if she’d ever ridden a horse before. The opportunity to bring it up never came, not with Hanna flapping about the stable yard like an enraged mother goose.
“Look at you!” Hanna had exclaimed, holding Mia away from her, face scrunching in disgust. No doubt Hanna smelled the fumes of honey mead seeping from Mia’s pores. “Eldhor’s sake child, what were you thinking?”
“You can’t possibly think to take her anywhere in this state?” Hanna had tucked Mia against her side and turned on Orden, who had been standing there, waiting with two fully saddled and provisioned horses.
Orden for his part had ignored the question, sliding his sunken eyes to Mia instead. After half-a-second, Mia had nodded.
“She has agreed to go.”
Hanna was not placated.
She protested, questioning the sanity of their impending journey while, Mia finding herself forgotten for a moment, had quietly asked herself two questions. The first: When had she become so predictable? And the second: Where was Vander?
Mia thought it was a fluke when she hadn’t immediately spotted Vander upon stepping into the yard. He was just behind one of the horses or had gone to fetch some missing supply and would be returning soon. No need to get her hopes up. But as Orden had answered each of Hanna’s increasingly desperate outbursts in an infinitely patient tone, it had seemed less and less likely that Vander would appear. There were only two horses after all.
And still, Mia hadn’t allowed herself to feel relieved. Not yet. Not until she and Orden were safely away. Mia had bitten her tongue quite badly to keep from telling Hanna to back off and let them go. As much as she’d hated the thought of being alone with Orden, without buffers or escape, Mia hated the idea of facing Vander more. There were too many emotions involved there. Mia much preferred the familiarity of guilt to unending embarrassment.
“Ma.” Breahn finally said, cutting Hanna off in the middle of her tirade with a sharp tone. “Enough. Let them go.”
Hanna had gaped at her daughter as if Breahn had suddenly sprouted a third eye. Then she had turned her wide, disbelieving eyes on Mia, then Orden, hurt and defeat draining the color from her skin. It had been painful to watch. But as Hanna had continued to stare at Orden, her back had straightened, her shoulders going back. “If anything happens to that girl while she’s under your care Orden Metrosson—”
“She will be safe.” Orden had said in the pause that followed.
Hanna had stared at him, her lips pressed into a thin hard line, “Do not bother returning here if she is not.”
Before Orden could say another word to reassure Hanna of Mia’s safety, Hanna had turned from them all and stormed toward the house, her hurried steps accompanied by the furious snapping of her dress.
“She’ll be alright.” Breahn had said to Mia who had winced violently at the harsh slam of the kitchen door. The other girl had taken Mia’s hand in hers and coaxed Mia toward Orden and the waiting horses.
Mia couldn’t know if it was hangover or fear that had made her head spin when she’d looked up at the saddle, impossibly high on the mare’s back. Before she was able to puzzle it out, Orden had stepped toward her, his large hands laced together to form a platform of his palms.
His appearance had shocked her. The redness of his eyes and the deep shadows beneath them, the dark hollows at his temples. Orden’s clothes were wrinkled, suggesting that like her, he’d slept in them the previous night. If he’d slept at all. Orden looked like he hadn’t slept in years.
Orden had only dipped his chin toward his waiting hands and Mia had realized his intentions with a start. She’d shot Breahn an uncertain look, one that Breahn returned with an encouraging nod. It had all happened rather fast then. One moment Mia had been standing on the hard-packed earth of the yard—the next she was perched in the saddle, clinging to the hard knob of leather at the front of the saddle, a warm, breathing animal beneath her.
She’d twitched in surprise as Orden had taken her by the heel of one boot and guided her toe into the stirrup hanging by the horse’s side. Their eyes had met briefly as Orden handed her the leather reins, then Mia had looked away, fixing her gaze on her white knuckles.
“Promise me you’ll try to listen to what he has to say.” Breahn had murmured to Mia, slipping Mia’s right foot into the other stirrup while Orden had been in the midst of mounting his horse.
Mia had met Breahn’s gaze, hope so clearly written in her wide blue eyes, and had jerked her head in a forced nod. She would listen. She owed them that much… Mia would listen, knowing that nothing Orden said would change her mind. She’d looked away before Breahn could read the truth on her face and was relieved when Orden clicked his tongue and urged his horse into a walk. Mia’s mare had lurched after the golden stallion, nearly unseating her in the process, and had followed Orden past the barn toward the looming tree line.
The soothing effect of Breahn’s tea was beginning to wear off. The forest was a vague blur of green and brown in Mia’s peripheral as she bumped and swayed to the awkward rhythm of the horse beneath her. She clung to the saddle horn in front of her, her nails biting into the leather, and tried with increasing desperation, not to be sick. Up ahead, Orden rode on in silence, unaware of Mia’s condition. They hadn’t said a word to one another, not since they’d left the homestead behind. That was an hour ago—more? Mia wasn’t sure.
In the space between the forest floor and the thick canopy high above, time seemed to lose relevance. Suspended in permanent twilight. Adding to that unsettling atmosphere was the immediate silence that accompanied their progress. It reminded Mia uncomfortably of walking into a room full of people only to have them go quiet at your arrival. The lively rustlings and sounds of animals striking up again as soon as she and Orden had ridden on.
The quiet unnerved her.
Mia should have been relieved when Orden didn’t immediately try to bring up yesterday’s events. She wasn’t. And as the silence had stretched on, her anxiety mounted, tying tight little knots in her belly. It only made her nausea worse. Mia clenched her teeth, forcing air through her nose as another wave of it crested high in her chest. She didn’t know how much more she could take before throwing herself into the underbrush.
She could ask Orden to stop—the thought made Mia dig her nails deeper into the leather saddle horn. She wasn’t ready to talk to him, and she’d be damned if her first words to him in however long it had been were: “Can we stop? I need to puke.” No, Mia would rather suffer in silence.
Very little light remained between the trees when Mia heard a low, “Whoa,” and felt her horse immediately slow and come to a stop. She opened her eyes in time to see Orden swing down from the saddle, his movements so stiff they looked painful. Mia winced. Her own muscles ached in a way she had never experienced before, the result of spending hours draped over a horse’s neck. Mia’s dignity had deserted her after she’d been sick the third time.
Mia grunted in protest as Orden helped her from her horse, her entire body tense with pain. He released a puff go breath when Mia’s legs wouldn’t hold her, and she collapsed against him. She made no effort to apologize. He’d waited as Mia had scrambled from the saddle. Listened as she’d emptied her stomach into the thick undergrowth. Silent as a stone he’d been there to help her back onto the mare’s back. All without a single word.
If he wouldn’t speak, then neither would she.
Orden propped Mia against a nearby tree and left her to watch as he first built a fire and then unpacked the horses. The words were there, the offer on the tip of her tongue, but they wouldn’t come. Her limbs were cast in iron. They dragged her down to the base of the tree, heedless of the bark that scraped along her spine. The pain was secondary to the pounding in her head.
Mia’s eyes drifted shut for only a second.