The feather mattress was soft: too soft for his liking. The fire in the woodstove was nothing but coals, though it wasn’t a problem; the room was warm with the sun that beat through the window. He had forgotten to draw the curtains, a mistake he had to live with now that the light had woken him. The light, and the thumping of whoever was in the room beside him. They had been enjoying their time for over an hour, and he was sure they weren’t going to stop anytime soon.
Yanking himself to his feet, the floor was cool as he scurried over to the basin in the corner. The water was cold, but it would do a fine enough job to jolt him awake. His robe hung on the hook by the door. It would need a good wash when he returned to Demor, but it would last until then. It didn’t smell too horrid, and with his sandalwood oil, he would smell presentable to others around.
After he had washed his face and hands in the basin, dabbed the oil behind his ears and on his neck, and combed his hair and beard, Caldor dressed and left the room. He had time to explore the village alone before tending to the Steward. There were plenty of shops he wished to admire and food to try. Maybe he would even visit the lakeshore before fully immersing himself within the market.
Bay’s Lake was a popular trading post for in and around Derm. As part of the neutral strip between Derm and Sydrin, Bay’s Lake had a variety of diverse customers and merchants selling all kinds of rare or exotic goods. Some, Caldor was sure, he would purchase before returning across the Northern border.
Leaving his room and making his way down the uneven wooden stairwell leading to the main floor of the inn, Caldor noticed he was alone. That didn’t bother him at all. He’d rather not entertain others with needless conversations or useless questions.
The streets weren’t busy in the morning. There were people, those picking up ingredients for breakfast and so forth, but nothing like the overcrowded masses that would be swallowing every inch of space later on.
The air was damp and cool, with the smell of fish in the air. He wasn’t surprised by that, as there was little else to smell on the island in the middle of the lake. Sure there were a few trees, and the villagers had set up some beautiful flower gardens near the marketplace, but fish was their livelihood.
Caldor wandered through the market listening to the vendors and ignoring the chaos singers. Children ran about, playing games. One child ran past, knocking into Caldor. The sage checked his robe to make sure he still had his purse. All he needed was his money to be taken. Sure, Foe could cover the costs, but he preferred to pay his way.
Continuing down the road, he made his way to the lakefront. The trees were tall, and their colourful leaves danced in the breeze before carpeting the path. A squirrel darted up a tree, chattering in defense of his hideaway.
The shore was covered with nets and boats. Groups of fisherman worked away on repairing their equipment. Others gutted and packed their morning catch while gulls flew overhead hoping to find an easy snack.
The sage worked his way along the rocky shore. The water glistened like glass, and he could hear children laughing. He spotted a group of children chasing each other around. They shouted and laughed, but it wasn’t those children that drew his attention. It was the quiet one, sitting on a flat rock staring out at the water. She didn’t pay attention to the others. She was fixated on admiring the lake view.
Caldor peered out at the scene. White sails flapped in the wind. Gulls dived at the water. The sky was clear and bright blue. It was a beautiful day to spend outside. There wasn’t going to be many warm days left once autumn was in full motion.
One of the other children - a girl with brown curls - called to the girl on the shoreline. The other children were beckoning her to join, but Caldor could see the hesitation in how her arms tightened around her knees.
The other children won. They dragged the lonesome girl to her feet. They were huddled in a circle while they poked her. They laughed, and the girl laughed. It took a minute, but they all began playing.
He would have stayed on the rock. Large groups didn’t interest him. There was nothing playing would accomplish that a good book couldn’t.
The group disappeared farther down the shore out of his view, leaving the beach with the sounds of hollering fisherman and the rolling waves against the shoreline.
Caldor took a deep breath.
Silence was nice. No loud boisterous Dermite loomed behind him. He should have visited the lakefront the day before. If the view was already breathtaking in the morning, it would certainly be a sight to behold at sundown.
Sitting on the rock where the girl had been, Caldor gazed out at the water. There were other issues he needed to address, but spending time admiring the view wouldn’t hinder his plans. He could allow himself some time to relax since he spent the last weeks travelling.
Minutes turned into hours and it was noon when Caldor arrived back in the village. He lost time when admiring the lake. He had watched the fishermen work on their boats and listened to the cheers of some fishermen who were pulling in a large catch from the lake.
The old sage shuffled pass a cart selling roasted chestnuts. They popped and sizzled over the small woodstove. His mouth watered. Hunger began to take a hold of him. He hadn’t had a treat like that for a while.
“One bag,” Caldor lifted a wrinkled index finger. The vendor began to scoop the shucked chestnuts into a small bag made of brown paper.
The sage turned to look at the next cart on his left. A young woman spoke obnoxiously loud to the older woman beside her. Their discussion was on the conflict between the North and South, along with a recent battle somewhere in the southwest.
Complaining about the conflict wasn’t going to resolve it, but these people couldn’t do anything else. Everyone had opinions on the relations between the North and South, but that didn’t mean they comprehended the full extent of what was happening. There was history behind the conflict. Several centuries of anger and hatred couldn’t be fixed overnight. What had started out as a war to gain more land, became a war over resources, which changed to a war over honor.
Caldor knew there was no reason for the fighting. Charn knew there was no reason, as did the Southern king. The issue was neither side was willing to apologize. Neither side wanted to move past the fighting. The divide between the two countries was so deep and so old, neither side knew how to move past it.
They couldn’t just stop fighting. It would take a stronger force, with better resources and a better leader, to put them both in their place. That wasn’t going to happen since there were only two superpowers. Easterly wouldn’t get involved; the Chijin were people of knowledge and art, not war. The Western power was no longer around and La’reen was kept under the South’s thumb.
There was no one with the numbers or the skill to outman and outsmart those who were causing so much damage to the world. If only people understood how complicated the situation was, maybe they wouldn’t have been complaining, but trying to find a solution.
His train of thought was broken when the women switched topics. When he heard the word seer slip out of the younger woman’s mouth, he cringed so hard a sudden pain shot through his neck.
There was no escaping the idiotic ideas surrounding these so-called fortune tellers. It was the younger, louder woman who had mentioned the seer; suggesting the old woman to see if her questions could be answered. The young woman was confident in this person’s abilities and mentioned how the seer had told her about her husband’s death before the soldiers from Derm had arrived to give her the news.
Enough was enough. One stupid person was fine, but he had to stop this young woman from damaging her companion with ridiculous stories.
“You know,” Caldor handed the vendor money and took the bag of chestnuts before approaching the women, “seers are not real. They take your money and give you false hope.”
“Na,” the young woman said, “this one is real and don’ ask for nothing.”
That was strange. The seers he had heard of were money hungry liars. Most pretended to be all-seeing beings in order to prey on the fools that believed in such nonsense.
“Just because your seer doesn’t charge money, does not mean they are not filling your head with mullock,” Caldor snipped.
“Yar the one speaking mullock, old coot,” the young woman spat. “Yah know nothing about what this girl can do. Come, Mara.”
The two women lifted their noses, disappearing into the crowd. Caldor rolled his eyes before popping one of the nuts into his mouth. It was warm and sweet. Oh, how he loved chestnuts. Nothing could change his mood for the better than winning an argument with two fools.
Wine. A nice berry wine. Caldor added, taking another nut between his stubby fingers. That would have made the rest of the day perfect.
Strolling back through the market, Caldor continued eating while studying the people around him. There were Dermite and Chijin, and a mixture of those in-between. He had even spotted a southern merchant or two with busy carts.
Brave souls to be setting up shop so close to the border. Caldor noticed the people admiring the Sydi silks and oils. People in the North did like exotic items, and those merchants delivered.
Hearing laughter to his right, Caldor turned to spot the older woman from earlier sitting in the garden. The sage moved closer, stopping behind the hedges that made up a small barrier. The older woman was sitting on a wooden bench facing a girl who sat beside her. They were talking.
Now that Caldor was closer he recognized the girl as the lonesome child from the lake. She held the old woman’s hands, speaking to the old woman before the old woman raised a hand to her mouth to stifle a sob. The girl hugged her, rubbing her back.
What’s going on? Caldor didn’t understand. Was this girl the woman’s grandchild? What had made the old woman cry?
The woman moved away, standing before placing a hand on the girl’s cheek. She then passed the child a silver coin, thanking her for whatever they had been discussing. The girl dipped her head, smiling at the old woman, who wandered out of the garden on the far right side. The girl stayed seated on the bench, as he saw her attention fall on him.
“Hello,” the girl chirped. She crossed her legs and straightened herself up. Her hands gripping her ankles, while her wild locks twisted over her boney shoulders.
“Good day,” Caldor replied, taking a step into the garden. All that remained of the flowers were the mums. The rest had begun to fade away for the season.
“Here ta admire the garden?” the girl tilted her head.
“Yes,” Caldor wasn’t going to admit that he had watched what went on between her and the old woman. That wouldn’t have been appropriate, but Caldor noticed the girl’s brow twitch at hearing his answer.
“My iznata told me telling lies cause more problems than telling truths,” the girl lifted one hand and then the other as if the options were resting in her palms.
How was the girl able to know he had lied? He hadn’t made it too obvious with an elaborate back story. He hadn’t expressed too much emotion when answering. Yet, somehow the girl had concluded he wasn’t telling her the truth.
The girl smiled at him, before hopping off the bench. She swayed forward on her toes and back on her heels before she balanced herself straight. There was no woolen tunic or leggings on the girl, but a short cotton dress.
“Wait, you said iznata? Is that Morzi?” Caldor asked. The girl’s eyes widen and a smile grow in her face. She nodded her head in excitement.
“Yeah, you know Morzi?” she beamed, darting forward.
“It is yes, not yeah, and yes - I know some,” Caldor replied, noticing the girl’s smile widen to wrinkle the corners of her steel grey eyes.
“Li!” a wide brutish man called from down the road. His bald head shone in the sun, as the left side of his face sagged. “Li, missus wants yah.”
“I got ta go. It was nice talking ta you,” the girl chimed, hurrying out of the garden.
Li was the nickname the Pellar had used for Naygu’s granddaughter. This girl did have the same almond shaped eyes and forward attitude as the old woman. There was also the point that she had spoken Morzi.
The girl jumped over the waist high wall of the property down the street. The brute was gone, but waiting there with his wild hair and fur robe, was the monkey man he had seen at the herbalist. The prim placed a hand on the back of the girl’s head, ushering her to go ahead of him inside the house.
Liora. Caldor took a step before stopping. How strange would it have been for a stranger to go knocking on their door? Those people were most likely eating lunch at that time of day, and the house - from what he could tell - was safe enough for a while longer. The brutish man with the sagging face had sounded harsh, but his slow staggers back to the house and the girl’s unguarded reaction put Caldor at ease.
When he had spoken to the girl, she was healthy. A little thinner than he would have liked a child her age to be, but that was from all the hiking and travelling. Once she was settled in Demor, the girl would have time to fatten herself before the cold winter. That’s if she wanted to join them.
That smile she had on her face was genuine, and those she was living with appeared to care for her. The prim was beastly in appearance, but he had been gentle with her. What right did he have with taking her away from a place that could make her happy?
Sure, Liora would have been safer in Demor with the guards and soldiers about. The girl would have a better education than what the Pellar or Downrow could provide. Naygu would have wanted the girl to be happy and safe. Demor could provide both, while Downrow could not. There was a higher chance the South would raid Downrow. It would be a lot harder for the Southerners to break through the Demor ramparts.
The old woman would have wanted the girl to learn to her fullest potential, and Caldor knew that was something he was capable of doing. With his connections with the university, the girl would have no issue with learning whatever her heart desired.
The most important part was the girl could translate the book. If she could read it and translate it, than the prince’s chances would increase. The boy would live and the girl would be considered a hero of the North. The Morzi would be respected, and the girl would gain respect. He would be thanked for finding the child, and possibly rewarded for his part in bringing her to Demor.
The girl would amount to great things if given the right guidance. Right now, though, they had to figure out a way to persuade her.
Working his way back through the market, the sage was amazed how empty the streets were in the afternoon. The sun was hot, and the market did provide little shelter from the heat but most of the people were in their homes eating their meals. Even the vendors had closed down for the time being, to give themselves an hour or so of rest.
Derm didn’t do such things. Those who worked in the markets worked in shifts. Those who were hungry were replaced by those who weren’t. The market ran from dawn to dusk, and there was no rest for the working man.
Bay’s Lake took a more western approach. They worked to live, not lived to work. The village was happier that way. It gave locals time with their family or to do what they wanted.
The inn was a welcoming sight as the sage stepped over the threshold. The dark wood walls were a caramel colour that clashed with the yellow woolen rug in the center of the main entrance in front of the stone fireplace. Two padded leather chairs sat before the fireplace, empty like the rest of the room.
The sage had no time to complain. He had a Morzi to convince and a Dermite to drag out of his room. He hurried for the stairs. When he climbed to the second level, his feet made little noise. At the top he scurried down the hall as fast as his feet could take him to Foe’s room. The sound of his quick knocking echoed down the hall. The sage needed his friend to wake up, or at least open the door, so they could talk about what he had discovered.
“Foe, open the damn door. It is important,” Caldor ordered, hearing the click of the lock before the Steward bent down to lean into the entrance. The man bent down to peer out of the room as Caldor hurried inside, “Thank Fate. Here I thought you might have left.”
“Nowhere to go. What do yah want?” Foe scratched the back of his head.
“I found her and we need to go now,” Caldor commanded, seeing Foe’s brow lift. “Now!”
“By her, you mean the girl?” Foe asked.
“Yes, who else would I have meant? Now come on. Grab what you need and we will go,” Caldor pointed at the broadsword leaning against the bedside table. If it wasn’t as tall as him, he would have grabbed it himself.
Foe lumbered over, taking his sword and attaching it to his belt. Caldor hurried out of the room, Foe following close behind.
“So… yah saw the girl?” Foe asked.
“Yes, she looks like a young version of her grandmother,” they entered the street, strolling passed some of the patrons relaxing at the tables.
“How did yah spot her?” Foe asked.
“I spotted her first this morning - I assume - daydreaming on the lakeshore. I saw her again in the garden with her head in the clouds speaking with an old woman. She does not appear to be all there, but she is polite,” Caldor replied.
“That’s common for children. Me son stares blankly at the wall or ceiling. He laughs at nothin’. He also has gotten into the nasty habit of hidin’ in small nooks around the castle pretendin’ he’s a dragon. Mind yah, it’s not fun when he gets stuck but ah well… that’s what being a child is - findin’ fun in the small things. Marcia and I find it humorous,” Foe shrugged.
“Simple things entertain simple minds,” Caldor snipped, hearing his friend chuckle. “This just confirms you are a big child.”
“And yar an old prune,” Foe retorted, “if yah ever had wee ones of yar own ya’d be the same.”
Caldor laughed. The whole purpose of not having children was to give himself more time to work on his own. Children were troublesome. He didn’t have time for that when he had more important matters to attend to. There was no time for children in his life, and he had sacrificed a lot to make sure no one would get in his way.
The only reason he was willing to have this girl under his care was the fact she was able to complete the task he was not. When the translations were done, he wouldn’t care if the girl went back to live in Downrow, though Naygu would have preferred the child to stay with a skillful healer.
They stopped before the little hovel. The windows were dirty and the door was off its hinges. The garden was overgrown and he could hear shouts and a young child bleating. The brute lumbered passed the dirty window as Caldor pushed open the gate to the hovel. The porch creaked under his weight.
“Hello,” he called, “is anyone in?”
A little boy in a tattered tunic waddled around the corner on the left. Dirt smudged across his cheeks and forehead as he scratched the top of his shaved head. The boy couldn’t have been older than four.
“Wa yah wan,” the little boy screamed.
“Jib, get away from tat door,” a woman’s voice shouted from the other room, as she came out with another little one on her hip. “Yeah, wat yah wan?”
“Is there a girl here? About my height with long hair,” Caldor asked, peering in.
“Yah gotta give me more than tat,” the woman spat. “I’ve got five lil brats like that.”
“Her name is Li,” Caldor added.
“Li!” the woman screamed back to the other room. “An old coot’s askin’ for yah.”
The girl came sauntering out from the room. Her wild hair was tied back in a ponytail. There had to be ten other children, from what Caldor counted, but from the sounds of it, there were more. Liora wrapped her arms around the smaller children that clung to her, as the brute loomed behind the girl.
The group reminded the old man of an opossum nest, with all the beady eyes staring back at him with blank expressions.
“Oh, hello,” the Morzi girl chimed, peeling the smaller children from her legs before she moved closer to the door.
Caldor could tell she recognized him from earlier, tilting her head to the side before moving closer. The girl stood before the door, her hands folded in front of her. A small smile was on her bow lips, but her bright eyes showed he had her attention.
“Can we talk, alone for a moment?” Caldor muttered, looking back at the crowd that stared at him.
“Wait a min, Li,” another gruff voice came from the other room as the prim came stomping out. He was taller than Caldor had expected him to be when he moved to stand before the girl in the doorway. “What’d yah want wit’ me Li?”
“We wish to talk with her,” Caldor held out his hands. “You see Li might be able to help us with something.”
“Oh, she can help yah, eh?” Pellar moved the girl to stand further behind him. The wee man was no threat but there was a Dermite that would give Bruce a difficult time if a confrontation ensued. “I don’ like people tat use children, even friendly lookin’ fellows like yarselves.”
Caldor didn’t know why the prim was so protective of the child. They weren’t going to harm her, or steal her away. Could they not see that he and his companion were good people?
“We ain’ slavers and aren’ lookin’ to buy the girl,” Foe barked from the garden. “We aren’ gonna ‘use’ her in the sense ya’re thinkin’. We ain’ gonna use her at all. We just wanna check if she’s the one we’re lookin’ for.”
Foe lumbered forward to be closer to his friend. He understood why the prim was being protective. Families in these parts were harassed by slavers to sell their children. It was better to sell some than lose them all to starvation. A choice Foe couldn’t imagine making. It was easy for the prim to mistake their intentions, since he didn’t have any idea who they were.
“Me friend’s a Master Healer from La’reen. I’m the Steward to Derm and Lord of Demor. We’re lookin’ for a girl that matches that child ya’re protectin’ there,” Foe explained, noticing for just a split second the prim relax before he narrowed his brown eyes and stepped back from the door.
Did the man think they were liars? Sure, it was uncommon of such important people to be among those of the lower class without guards, but the guards would draw attention. Foe could handle himself if there were issues, and he could handle any issues for Caldor as well. The only conflict they had run into was this standstill between a protective prim and the Morzi survivor.
“Why’s a wee fart an’ a important big fart lookin’ for me girl?” Pellar glanced to the side. All the other children were in the other room, and Bruce was standing in the archway waiting for a signal. They could chase these two men away from the hut, but Pellar wanted to know what was so important regarding the girl under his care.
It had taken the girl a month to come out of her shell. She was just starting to open up to people again and share what had happened to her. Those wounds across her back, throat and arms may have faded into scars but it was the unseen damage that still haunted her through night terrors and visions.
Pellar had helped her find ways of controlling them. Figured out how filling her mind with good thoughts would keep the bad ones at bay, but there was a lot about this child that these men wouldn’t understand. They just couldn’t.
“Li’s been through enough see, an’ I don’ need two farts comin’ and messin’ her up,” Pellar looked down at the girl. Her hand was in his. He gave it a squeeze. They would have to go through him before getting to her.
Liora had noticed the large blond man, but it had been the small man that kept her attention. They had spoken in the garden. He had been nice to her, but it was the fact he had lied about something so small that had made her uneasy.
She could sense he was a good person. He had good intentions for coming to the house, but that’s all she could tell. The small man had a tangled pepper beard with loose braided hair. His eyes stared at her, and though they were stern, they were kind.
When her eyes reached the old man’s belt holding his woolen robe in place, she felt her heart race. A thick leather book hooked to his side. The padded leather was polished to a shine; the gold trim was shimmering in the afternoon sun. The silver painted edges of the pages were the same.
“You have her almanac,” Liora squeaked before pointing to the Chijin, “he got my iznata’s almanac.”
“Yar what’s?” Pellar and the blond man asked in unison.
“Her grandmother’s book,” Caldor stated, taking a step towards the doorway. “That is why we are here - to find you to help us.”
“How did you get it? Why?” Liora’s voice was sharp as she glared. She had tried to find it but the hut was a mess. The few books she had found were completely damaged and she had believed the almanac met a similar fate.
Caldor glanced back at Foe, before looking back at the girl. Those steel eyes were as sharp as daggers as they peered past the man who stood between them.
“Well, my friend had been kind enough to give you our titles but not our names. I am Caldor and that there is Foe.”
“I didn’t ask for names. I asked how you have my iznata’s almanac,” Liora demanded.
“I am sorry, child. Let me explain…” Caldor lowered his hands, taking a slow breath. “I am your grandmother’s friend. The night of your new year we - my friend and I - were watching the lights. We saw the explosion but arrived too late. Naygu told me of this book and its importance. I found it in the floor of her hut and took it for safe keeping.”
“Why? A Chijin like you can’t read it. Why would you want a book you can’t even read?” she asked a good question. Most wouldn’t have cared about the book, even if it was important to the people of the village. If no one could read it, what was the point?
“Your grandmother was a smart woman, she knew a lot when it came to healing - knowledge which I need to help someone very important,” he noticed the girl move out from behind the Pellar. “Naygu did not survive, and so I hoped I would be able to translate the book to see if there was anything in her almanac that could help.”
“And you’re a shezamest, like my iznata?” the man was apparently a healer, but she wanted him to confirm his friend’s explanation from earlier.
“Not in the same way your grandmother was, no. I heal wherever I am needed, not just in one location,” Caldor explained. “A shezamest or shazamest is the title of the head healer of the Morzi, yes?”
“Yes,” the girl nodded.
“I am a master healer, but one without your western knowledge,” Caldor could see the girl understood what he was saying. She chewed the inside of her mouth and rubbed her arm, but her stiff nod showed he had gotten his point across.
It was good the book was safe. Those in the South would have destroyed it without realizing how important the information was inside. There were stories of her people’s history and charts of bloodlines leading back to the first of the southern clans. Methods on training and breeding dragons were written in those pages, along with recipes for medicines only known to her iznata and their line. There were even detailed descriptions of traditional ceremonies like choosing the next Mor - Warden - to lead their people.
That almanac was so much more than what the old Chijin believed it to be, but she wasn’t going to share that with him unless he asked.
“Have you translated the book?” she asked.
“No, unfortunately we have not,” Caldor sighed.
“Tell me about this boy you need ta mend,” Liora noticed the old man’s brow twitch before he glanced back at his friend.
Caldor couldn’t remember if he had mentioned the boy, but he must have if the girl knew that.
“He is son to a very important man,” Caldor answered.
“A prince,” Foe explained, “the heir of Derm.”
“A northern kezt?” that surprised her. “This kezt has no siblings?”
The men glimpsed at one another. The sage understood why the girl had asked the question. Most Dermite had big families, like the brood she was living with in this small hovel. Charn could have had more children, but chose not to remarry since his wife’s passing.
Charn had been wild and impulsive when he was younger. If the king had wanted to do something, he did it without thinking of the repercussions. His behaviors had changed when he had married the late queen, and even more when she had passed on.
“You see child, the king wishes us to find a cure for his son. This book - I was hoping - would have that cure but I cannot be sure since I cannot read it,” Caldor explained, taking a step towards her as she moved back behind Pellar.
“So you found me ta translate it?” Liora understood about the book but not how they found her.
“No, not at first. We noticed your footprints in Morza. My companion and I both agreed there was a survivor- someone who might have known what happened - you. Only when speaking with Talia in Downrow did I realize you had survived. Your grandmother spoke about you in her letters,” Caldor felt the corner of his mouth twitch at saying that. “She was very proud of you.”
Liora didn’t reply. The man hadn’t lied like he had back in the garden. Everything he was saying was the truth. Still, it was hard to believe that her iznata was proud. The old woman never acted proud.
This man had gone through great lengths to find her. He had gone to Morza and made his way back from the West. They wouldn’t have met unless there was a reason for them to be brought together like this.
“How did you come to be here?” Caldor asked.
Liora glimpsed at her feet before an anxious wave washed over her. She didn’t want to tell these strangers, not yet. If she said what happened, then she would be making it true.
“You think there’s a cure in the book?” Liora forced out a question instead.
“Yes,” Caldor thought he had covered that question in one of his explanations but he had been telling the girl a lot, she possibly didn’t absorb it all.
“And if I go with you to Demor, I’ll live there until the translations are done?” Liora saw the two men nod. “I can’t translate it here?”
“No, it would be best to be close to the prince. If something you translate could help him, we would rather not delay,” Caldor explained.
The girl went quiet as she rubbed her arm. She glanced up at the wild man who gave her a grin to reassure her. He had his hand on the back of her head. His fingers tangled in her raven locks.
“Can you give me a minute?” Liora squeaked. “I’d like ta talk with Pellar.”
Caldor stepped back down into the garden, as did Foe. The two stood near the wall, glancing towards the door. The prim and the girl were talking as the wild man had both hands on the girl’s shoulders.
“Yah don’ ‘ave ta go if yah don’ want. Don’ feel forced if yah don’ trust ’em,” Pellar breathed.
“I do. The small one speaks the truth… and if I can help…” Liora wanted to stay. The wild man had been so kind to her. He had listened to her and healed her.
“I know… ya’ll ’ave ta visit,” Pellar knelt before wrapping his arms around her, “and if yah hate it in those stone walls, ya’ll always ’ave a place at me camp.”
“I know,” Liora whispered, smelling the man’s body odor. It made her eyes water, “I’ll visit. I promise.”
“All ’ight,” he stood, patting the girl on the back, “off yah go.”
Liora took two steps before stopping to look back at the wild man. He was forcing a smile while tears rolled down his face. He was strange, but she liked that about him. The steps creaked as she hopped down into the overgrown garden. Liora stopped between her two new companions; one as large and strong as a bull, the other small and prickly like a hedgehog.
“Back to the inn,” Caldor chimed, waving for the girl to go first.
Liora glanced up at the blond man, his stern expression still on his face from before. Those ice blue eyes were shadowed by his heavy brow.
“Lass first,” his voice rumbled like thunder.
Scurrying passed, Liora waited for the old sage to lead the way. When they reached the garden Liora could hear the howling cries of the Pellar. Her heart ached when she peered back towards the hovel.
“Oh for pity’s sake,” Caldor grumbled, rolling his eyes, “there is no need for that.”
Liora paused. She wanted to go back and console her friend. She wanted Pellar to be smiling, not howling like a teething infant now that she was off on a new adventure. Liora felt a heavy hand on her shoulder, jumping away at seeing it had been the blond man. She scurried to catch up to Caldor before looking back over her shoulder at Foe.
They were strolling through the market when Liora stopped for a moment to look up at the sky. A set of wrens flew overhead and towards the lake. The birds had the right idea to spend such a warm day near the cool water.
The lake would be nicer than going back to the inn and it would give her time to get to know the old man that had taken charge of her care. If the old man didn’t want to go, that was also fine. She had gone to the lake on her own before. She could find her way back to the inn on her own.
“I’m going ta the lake,” she chimed, skipping towards the dirt path she had taken earlier that day. “I want ta watch the boats.”
“Wait, what?” Caldor stuttered, seeing the girl disappear down the path. The girl hadn’t been with them for five minutes and she had already ran off.
“She went to the lake,” Foe repeated, a smirk on his lips. The girl was bold, he’d give her that. “I’ll get some food, yah go keep her company.”
The Steward lumbered off towards the market before the sage headed down to the waterfront. The gravel path gripped to the soles of his leather shoes, and the waxwings and wren sang their sweet songs in the trees. More noise came from the birds than from the market.
Why had the girl felt the urge to run off? She could have asked instead of stating her intentions before hurrying out of sight. The sweet smell of fall leaves filled the air with the bitter scent of cedar while he listened to the roaring of the waves grow closer.
Crawling over a large rock blocking the end of the path, Caldor spotted the girl standing with the water up around her ankles. Her wild locks blew in the breeze. Her linen dress twisted around her knees, her arms by her side. White sails looked pink in the light of the setting sun, which painted the sky in orange and red, and the clouds resembled pink candy floss.
“Girl,” Caldor huffed, as Liora turn, “what are you doing running off like that?”
“I wanted ta see the boats. I told you,” Liora chimed, noticing the old man’s face was flushed as he bent over trying to catch his breath. “There’s no need ta get worked up.”
“To, not ta,” Caldor corrected, “and I am not worked up. I just wished you gave me more warning before running off. That way I would have joined you. A young girl alone could be taken you know.”
“No one would take me. Everyone knows me here,” Liora said, crossing her arms, “anyway, you caught up and I’m safe.”
Caldor sighed. The girl knew how to argue. With a grandmother like Naygu, had it really been such a surprise? The girl had to contend with the old woman and before that a mother who held the position as Morza’s ambassador to La’reen. Liora took a step back from the water to sit on the shore. Her knees pressed into her chest while her hair blew over her face.
“You may have escaped Morza on your own, but for now, Foe and I are your guardians. We are responsible for you until that book is translated,” Caldor admonished, sitting down beside her.
Liora didn’t like that. Pellar had let her go wherever she pleased, as did her iznata. All she had to do was inform them of her intentions. She had told Caldor, but the man still didn’t trust her on her own. If she was nine, maybe she wouldn’t have been insulted, but she was turning fifteen in the spring. Independence should have been allowed for someone her age.
Lifting her head, she glanced at the old sage who peered out over the lake. The old sage rested the pipe between his teeth - unlit - as he chewed on the end in thought. The ivory pipe with a badger carved on the side of the bowl. The stem of the pipe was ebony, and glimmered like onyx. The pipe looked familiar. She saw images of an older bald Chijin with a braided mustache dart through her mind.
“That’s the pipe Stelo gave you?” Liora chimed, noticing the old man look at her.
“Yes,” he nodded, turning his attention back to the water before turning back to the girl, “how do you know that?”
“I saw it,” Liora shrugged. The strange images had started when she had awoken in Morza, but they had calmed down a lot since then.
“Anyone hungry?” Foe’s voice boomed from behind, dropping a basket of fish on the shoreline. He took out three long pointed sticks from his belt. “Do yah know how to make a fire lil Li?”
Liora tucked her knees tighter into her chest and leered away. There were a lot of giant people in the North, but Foe was the tallest she’d seen so far. If he wanted, she could have been his meal for that evening.
Most of the people in her village were much shorter than this Dermite, and the Dermite she had seen hadn’t been this tall either. Her people had said that the Dermite were born from breeding with giants, and now meeting this fellow, Liora wouldn’t have been that surprised if it was true. He must have been over six feet tall. He could have crushed her head in one of his hands.
“I’ll take that as a no,” Foe sighed. “I’ll go make it then.”
The Steward lumbered off towards the forest again. The thick trees helped hide him from her view, but she could hear the crashing and snapping of the smaller trees he was collecting for their fire.
“Girl,” Caldor’s voice was a growl, “be honest now. No one likes a liar - how did you know that?”
“I just saw it - like moving pictures in my head,” Liora spat. “I’ve seen lots of them since Morza. I think it was my head playing tricks but…”
“I thought - not think,” Caldor muttered. The girl’s common was surprisingly good for living in a remote community like Morza, but there were parts that she could improve on. As for these moving images, Caldor didn’t know what to make of that.
Liora took a deep breath before looking out over the lake. The waves crashed over the stones, rolling the smaller ones into the dark waters. Those rocks left behind were sparkling in the light of the late noon sun, polished like gemstones.
Caldor was observing the girl. Her eyes were glistening like the water before them as she stared harshly at the picturesque display. The girl looked to be trying to work through whatever thoughts were bombarding her mind while she bit her bottom lip and scrunched her nose and brow. He understood how she felt. With everything that had happened, it was difficult to keep everything straight. There were more questions than answers, and those questions he wanted to ask the girl, she deflected or ignored.
Now that he was closer to her, Caldor could tell the child had suffered. Small burns clustered across her upper right arm and shoulder like pink freckles. They weren’t what drew his attention though. What caught his attention was the beveled thin scar where her chin and neck connected. The scar was similar to those on the corpses in Morza, but unlike those left to rot in the piles, this girl had miraculously survived.
As much as he wanted to know, he wasn’t going to push. No one, especially a child, should have experienced such pain.
But, what about these images? How had she known about his professor from Calin? That part of his life he had moved passed and put to the back of his mind. Although, whenever he held his pipe there was a fleeting moment where Stelo danced through his thoughts. No, the girl couldn’t have read his mind. That was illogical.
“Do you think those are cirrus or stratus?” Liora asked.
Caldor glanced at the sky. She was curious and asked interesting questions. The fact she even knew those names impressed him.
“Cirrus,” Caldor smiled, “they are wispy and thin in places. Stratus is long and thick.”
“Who’s thick?” Foe pried.
Foe hadn’t been listening to the conversation until he had the flames going. The girl had looked at him briefly before hiding her face in her knees again. He didn’t know what her problem was. He hadn’t done anything to make her dislike him.
“We were discussing the clouds. Come watch them with us,” Caldor chimed. They had to wait for the coals to grow before they could start cooking the fish.