Chapter 16: Rider
The biting wind from the Jaw Mountains was growing stronger. Only fear of lurking predators kept the two miserable women going through the night.
Ada put her hand around Rayn and tried to summon enough warmth to sustain them both. At first, the effort felt like drinking water from a bucket of sand. There was nothing. She felt spent but made another attempt at absorbing what little heat could be extracted from her surroundings. This time it worked, albeit slowly. Warmth spread from deep within her, as if she had been drinking a cup of hot tea.
Rayn shivered and pulled away. ‘Stop it! You’re making it worse.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Ada said, embarrassed as she realised that she had used her friend as the involuntary source of heat.
‘You have no focus.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Have you seen what happens when the sun shines through a magnifying glass?’ Rayn asked.
‘Of course. The sunlight is focused and burns hotter.’
‘That’s right. With you, it’s the other way around. You require extraordinary amounts of heat to work the simplest of spells.’
‘Not true! I did quite well against the intruder last night.’
‘Yes, I noticed. But you were all but sitting in a fireplace, half aflame, and the urgency of the situation might have forced you to focus.’
‘I’m sorry. I have no training, so I don’t know how to focus.’
Rayn didn’t reply. She kept to the left side of the road, hugging herself as she walked.
‘Can you teach me how to use fire magic?’ Ada asked.
‘No. I don’t know much about elemental magic.’
‘Can you teach me how to be a crystal mage, then?’
Rayn snorted. ‘I could. But it would be a waste of time.’
‘Because you clearly have an affinity for the elements, not stones. With training, you would make a decent elementalist, but no more than a mediocre crystal mage peddling worthless crystals and ineffective salves in the streets,’ Rayn said.
‘Crystal mages do that?’
‘Some, I guess. As would some shamans, alchemists and enchanters with little training or experience, never developing their abilities beyond the most basic.’
‘I had no idea the street peddlers knew magic. I thought they were all hustlers and con artists.’
‘There are those, too. But if they were all swindlers, nobody would buy their wares. People buy a rabbit’s foot because they sometimes work.’
Ada laughed. ‘Surely, they don’t.’
‘They do. When properly imbued with the spirit of the animal, a rabbit’s foot will sometimes bring luck. A well-prepared potion might cure a child ridden with pox. Even love potions might work, when done right. That’s why people keep buying them.’
‘I never knew that.’
‘Someone’s coming,’ Rayn whispered.
‘What?’ Ada turned to look behind but saw nobody. She peered into the darkness ahead. ‘Where? I don’t see anybody.’
Rayn was gone.
‘Rayn? Rayn! Where are you?’
Then she heard the hoof steps. Too close. Ada briefly considered jumping into the nearby bushes but did not care enough to make the effort. She carried nothing of value, and she could not imagine anyone would take an interest in killing or abducting her.
She regretted the decision as soon as the cloaked rider appeared, reining in his horse a few feet away. His red eyes found hers, lingering for two or three heartbeats before they started scanning her surroundings.
Ada froze. She had never seen red eyes before, and she did not know what it meant. But she was sure it was not a good sign. ‘Move along, or my friends will release their arrows!’
The rider uttered an unfamiliar sound from underneath his hood and pinned her with his scarlet gaze. ‘You have but one friend, who would already be dead if she carried a bow or any other weapon.’
The rider spoke with an alien accent, his voice smooth and cold as melting ice. Frightening and alluring, with the calm and assured demeanour of one who truly believed he was superior to anyone and anything.
As if boosted by the stranger’s confidence, Ada found her own courage. ‘Where is the nearest town?’
In the silence that followed, Ada examined the rider. He was shorter than most men, and the wet cloak clung to narrow shoulders. Underneath the oversized hood, he’d wrapped a scarf around his head and neck, fully covering his face below his eyes.
‘Up there,’ he said, almost in a whisper. He nodded slightly, in the direction they had been walking.
Ada turned and peered towards the east. If there was a town nearby, she would expect to see some lights. But there was nothing. ‘Is it far?’
‘Not far …’ the rider replied.
‘Take me with you!’ Ada said, and instantly regretted the blatant honesty of the request. ’I mean us. Take us to the town, before the predators chase us down in the night.’
The rider made the strange sound again, longer and louder this time. A laugh, although different from any Ada had ever heard.
‘Worry not about the dangers of the road, girl. If you enter Sha’ton tonight, you’ll find yourself on your back entertaining a pack of predators before dawn.’
‘But we’ll freeze to death if we can’t find shelter!’ she protested, somehow feeling hurt by the stranger’s indifference.
‘There are many ways to die, girl. Freezing to death is preferable to most.’
Tears welled up in Ada’s eyes. ‘How can you be so cold?’
The rider tugged the reins lightly, and the horse started trotting towards the east.
‘If you’d seen what I’ve seen, you would be cold too. One way or the other.’