Devon glanced down at the woman walking beside her. From her perch on Tyne, her light-colored mare, Devon could see where her companion's hair was already starting to fill in. The wounds caused by the careless shearing of the woman's blonde hair had healed. Still, with her patchy hair and thin frame, she looked like a plague survivor. She'd have to fatten the girl up once they were able to take a moment to breathe again.
Her musings were interrupted when Liria gazed back up at her suddenly. The smaller woman's sea-green eyes revealed her puzzlement. "What are you thinking?" she asked.
Devon snorted. "That you're damned stubborn."
Liria smiled. "I'm fine," she said yet again. "Besides, that horse is a menace."
Tyne chuffed briefly when Liria pointed at her. "Ah, don't worry, girl," Devon soothed. "Liria just doesn't know you like I do."
The blonde woman shivered and pulled the hood of her mantle over her head. "I miss my hair," she commented.
Devon glanced around at the trees surrounding them. The moisture in the air had settled a vague fog amongst the brush, making casual observation nearly impossible. "Winter will soon be upon us," she said.
"Will we be able to reach your friend in time?" Liria asked.
Considering, Devon answered, "Perhaps not before the first snowfall. How are those boots?"
"Wonderful," Liria preened.
Devon continued on several paces before realizing that her companion had dropped behind her. Pulling up on Tyne's reins, she stopped and twisted in the saddle. Liria stood still, gazing up at the intertwining tree branches above. Devon glanced up herself, but saw nothing out of the ordinary.
"Did you hear anything?" Liria asked.
"No," Devon said, stopping to listen. Besides the basic sounds of birds, a rarer small animal rustling in the brush, and the breeze passing through the tree branches, she heard nothing. The idea that Liria had sensed something she had missed was unsettling.
"I've heard that many forests of the northwest are ruled by the Still Folk," Liria said.
Devon chuckled. She couldn't help it. She tried to tell herself it wasn't her relief that the girl hadn't actually been plucking clues from the air after all. Liria daily revealed just how superstitious a person she truly was.
"You don't believe in fairies?"
Stopping herself from rolling her eyes, Devon replied, "I wouldn't presume. But as long as they don't bother me, I have no problems with them."
Liria frowned at Devon's back as the woman moved forward once again. She knew for a fact that she'd heard a voice. Although she hadn't been able to discern what was being said, she was positive that something had been speaking to her. Casting a worried glance about, she pressed on.
"You're beginning to sound like the man who truly does rule these woods," Devon added several moments later, tossing the words over one shoulder.
Sighing, Liria struggled to catch up. She was slightly out of breath when she took the bait. "And who is that?"
"Lord Malick," Devon answered, staring straight ahead. "The Duke of Kinsington, more precisely. Crazier than a--" she stopped, seeming to remember to whom she was speaking. "Crazy," she amended. "He thinks he sees fairies everywhere, too."
Liria shook her head. "I didn't say that I saw fairies," she argued. "I said only what people claim to be the case in this part of the country."
When Devon didn't answer, Liria fell silent. They continued on like this for several minutes before she finally asked, "Will we meet with trouble here?"
Bright blue eyes flickered down at her briefly. "No. Malick...well, I know him. He won't set anyone on us, not for passing through."
This answer only served to raise further questions, but Devon was remarkably restrained when it came to talking about her past. Liria didn't dare press the issue. She started humming tunelessly, feeling the sudden rush that music always brought her. Although she had yet to feel any new songs coursing through her, it was a start. Rothschild hadn't been able to torment that out of her, at any rate.
As the day reached noontide, the sun hiding behind cloud cover in the sky's apex, Liria began hearing that same mysterious whispering. She knew better than to alert Devon, and simply allowed herself to listen as carefully as was possible. Although she still could not figure out what was being said, the emotion behind the message was becoming clearer. Liria began to feel the tension straining the voice. There was fear behind it.
"Stop," Devon said suddenly, thrusting a hand down on the top of her head.
Liria pulled away in irritation. It may have been the only part of her in easy reach, but she definitely hated it when the taller woman caught her attention like that. "What's wrong?" she asked.
Devon nodded ahead of them. "We'll find out. Hunting party up ahead."
Liria stared forward, trying to pierce the fog and see what lay before them. By the Lady's eyes, how did Devon do that, she wondered. "Poachers?" she asked.
"No, too big of an entourage." Devon paused, eyes narrowed. "It's Malick," she said, relief coloring her words. Dismounting, she pulled the reins over Tyne's head in order to lead her. "Don't worry," she assured Liria. "He won't cause us any problems."
The first men Liria saw were armored guards, the gleaming metal encasing them showing the wealth of their master. At the sight of two women approaching, they showed the proper interest and attention, but none of them drew their swords, even when it was apparent that Devon was armed as well. Liria wondered if it was their sex or recognition of the woman herself that made them relax their guard.
“Who is this?” a deep voice rumbled. Pushing through the group of soldiers, a large man appeared suddenly.
When he saw Devon, his furrowed features smoothed into a hearty grin. The man easily stood as tall as she, his face hidden behind a trimmed black beard. His dark hair curled around his face boyishly. Rushing forward, he grabbed Devon around the waist and lifted her up into a firm embrace. Liria stared in shock at Devon's feet, which had actually left the ground.
To her credit, Devon was able to stifle her apparent unease at being manhandled. She gave the man a wan smile, and carefully extricated herself from his grasp. “I'm not surprised to find you out here,” she murmured.
The man nodded vigorously. “'Tis the best time of year for gaming,” he replied. Then he noticed Liria standing off to one side. “You've taken on a maidservant.”
Liria's mouth dropped open in surprise. Just as she was about to set him straight, Devon interceded, “That's right.” She shot a warning glance at the smaller woman.
“Well, maybe you'll come around at last, then. You know, your uncle was here just a fortnight ago. He asked if I'd seen you since last Michaelmas.”
Devon shook her head. “I would have thought him to be fully absorbed with that new wife of his,” she said, her tone derogatory.
Malick's face tightened with censure. “Ah, let's not start,” he said. “Come, we're about to settle for the evening. You may stay with us.”
He turned and strode away to assist in the preparations. Devon shrugged when she caught Liria glaring at her. “The man hasn't spent a full month in his own home since building it ten years ago,” she said.
Liria's eyes narrowed. “You know that's not the issue,” she said.
“Oh, play along,” Devon said. “Malick is from an old family. He'll automatically assume that someone of your….” her voice drifted off when Liria's expression only grew more thunderous. “He's harmless.”
When they approached the group, Malick tossed a dead rabbit into Liria's arms, clearly intending her to prepare it for supper. She cast another dark look toward Devon, who carefully avoided her gaze. The two immediately started reminiscing again, Malick much more vocal. Liria listened, but after the tantalizing hint concerning Devon's uncle, there was no further information of any use to her. They mostly discussed past hunting expeditions, a hobby that appeared to entirely consume the older man.
Cleaning game wasn't entirely new to Liria. Acquiring a knife from one of the men, she set herself a short distance from the group and knelt on the ground to begin disemboweling the animal. Her angle put her closer to a wagon laden with supplies, and a group of dogs sprawled nearby. The hunting dogs were all tied to a tree near a large covered object resting on a litter. Liria set the carcass on the ground.
Glancing toward the others, she saw they were all well absorbed in discussion, perfectly content to wait for her to feed them. She scowled at them all, but Devon in particular. A sudden rustling sound brought her attention back to the dogs. They sat as still as before, but now instead of watching her lazily, their ears perked forward as they stared at the mysterious item. Curious, Liria moved toward them.
A few of the dogs started growling as she approached, but she merely had to gaze at them calmly to make them quiet. She'd always had a way with animals, ever since she was a child. Crouching down beside the tarp, she cocked her head a moment to listen. Whatever sounds she'd heard had gone silent. Making sure the others hadn't noticed, she grasped the corner of the heavy fabric and yanked it up.
A flurry of movement directly before her made her lurch backward in surprise. As she landed she realized a set of iron bars separated her from the animal now throwing itself at her. It was a cage. Inside, the largest dog she'd ever seen in her life hunched up against the bars, barking raggedly. Eyes widening in surprise, Liria realized just what it was she was looking at.
Devon caught a glimpse of Liria approaching Malick's supplies, but continued to listen as he discussed her uncle's previous visit. She avoided revealing her disgust over the subject matter, and surreptitiously watched the smaller woman as she poked around Malick's possessions. She doubted there was much the woman could do to cause trouble, but steeled herself for that possibility. Liria was able to attract the strangest circumstances.
When the caged animal was uncovered, Malick twisted around in surprise. Devon watched with amazement as the younger woman actually raised one hand and extended it toward the bars. She jumped to her feet and was at Liria's side before any of the men realized what was happening. By then, however, the beast had reversed its assault, retreating to the rear of the cage where it huddled against the floor pitifully.
“You've discovered our most recent find,” Malick stated behind them.
Devon eyed the dog distastefully. It had to be the ugliest thing she'd ever seen. Its breed was indeterminate, but it stood as large as a small pony, and was covered in coarse gray fur. Lifting its eyes toward her, it stared at her aggressively.
“This animal has been taken by madness,” Devon said.
“Nay, it's enchanted,” Malick disagreed. When Devon gave him a look of amused disbelief, he continued, “See the intelligence in its eyes. This is no ordinary dog. Just look at it. It understands what we say.”
Devon shook her head. The man was constantly discovering magical creatures in his own woods, many of which usually managed to escape without a trace before anyone else was able to see them. Now he'd taken an unusual looking animal and decided it was possessed of mystical qualities. Having Liria spend time in his company was a bad idea.
“You would be better off simply putting it out of its misery,” Devon said. “It's obviously diseased.”
Liria looked at her in horror. Then she cocked her head to one side, as though listening to something. Devon sighed and pulled Malick away from the cage. “Let us finish supper on our own,” she suggested.
Nodding, Malick gestured toward one of his men. “Secure that,” he ordered.
There was very little meat to go around after the rabbit had been spitted and roasted over the fire, but Malick was well prepared with plenty of bread and ale to fill their bellies. Devon observed Liria glancing behind them throughout the evening, completely taken by that damned dog. It had been remarkably quiet after their earlier experience.
Malick explained that he understood the logic of the beast's creator. It had been bred to be the perfect servant, with size and intelligence being obvious factors. Its senses were amazingly acute, as it had been able to elude his best hunting dogs for days. Before it was taken, it had managed to injure three of his men—two of them seriously enough to warrant their return home.
“It's a weapon, and a companion,” Malick marveled. “Quite a find.”
Devon could agree with his assessment of the danger the animal posed. No animal stared a human down the way that one had unless it fully intended to attack. It only convinced her that it needed to be destroyed. She wondered how long it had been out on its own before Malick first noticed its presence on his land.
As darkness fell Malick insisted they use his tent to sleep that night. Devon refused at first, not wanting to dull her senses behind the comfort of shelter, but Liria appeared so interested in the offer that she finally relented.
Settling down beneath a mound of blankets, Devon commented, “You've been awfully quiet tonight.”
“I wasn't hungry,” Liria answered, obviously not fully hearing the statement.
Devon frowned. “You're probably just tired. We've been traveling kind of hard these past few days. Get some sleep.”
She didn't grant the dog another thought that night. Unfortunately, her worry that sleeping in the tent would partially insulate her from sensing danger was proven right several hours later. Devon jerked out of sleep at the sound of shouting outside. Leaping from beneath the blankets, she grimly noted that Liria was no longer sleeping on the other side of the tent. Her sword was unsheathed before she ducked through the open flaps at the front.
Dawn had yet to color the sky above the trees, and beneath the canopy it was still quite dark. But Devon quickly spotted Liria's gray dress on the other side of camp. She wasn't particularly surprised at that point to see the empty cage beside her. One of Malick's men stood over her menacingly as Devon emerged. When he raised his sword above Liria's head, she sprinted toward them, her own weapon upraised.
A spark flew between their blades as they connected, his skittering off to the right. Devon jumped between the man and Liria. The blow hadn't disarmed him, and he recovered quickly enough to slash a wide arc toward her middle. It was an easily avoided move. She responded by lifting one leg and kicking him in the gut. As he leaned forward, she threw a fist across the side of his head.
“Stand down!” she ordered him.
The fool actually lifted his sword once again, obviously putting his duties before his own life. Devon cursed inwardly, knowing that based on his training she'd likely have to kill him before he stopped. As she expected, he was able to meet several of her defensive maneuvers as she tried buying herself some time to figure out how to incapacitate him. She made a foolish move, leaving her face exposed as they clashed. His sword glanced off hers, the tip grazing her right cheek. A blaze of pain trailed from her nose to her ear.
She only had to meet his eyes to know he meant to finish this. Disgusted, Devon moved to the offensive, forcing him back several steps in an attempt to avoid her attack. He got one more close call before she ended it, plunging her sword into a vulnerable point in his armor. As he fell to the ground, she faced the rest of the men, all of whom had drawn their own weapons. Marick stood behind them, furious.
“Tell your men to stay back!” Devon called.
Malick shook his head. “The girl should be punished for her thievery.”
“No one touches her. I'll kill every one of your men, I swear to God,” Devon vowed.
He was genuinely surprised by this threat. But his anger overtook him again, and he was scowling when he said, “You are not the girl I knew. Very well, I would not dishonor your father's memory. But you will leave my lands immediately.”
Nodding, Devon turned toward Liria. The girl stood cringing against the empty cage, eyes wide with fear. “Get Tyne,” Devon said.
She left her gore-covered sword unsheathed, not taking her eyes off them men until she heard the sound of her horse walking behind her. Liria had mounted on her own, Tyne obviously sensing the importance of the situation and deciding to behave herself. Devon leapt behind Liria, nudging the horse forward with a sharp tap of her boots. She knew Malick wouldn't follow them.
Striking a course north, they rode hard for several hours. Finally, they had to pause for Tyne's benefit, and stopped near a small stream. This area still belonged to Malick, but they'd gained enough distance to keep Devon comfortable for the immediate future. Liria immediately forced her to sit still long enough for her wound to be tended.
“You're lucky you don't need stitches,” Liria murmured, cleaning the cut with a piece of linen. “But it will leave a mark.”
“It won't be the first,” Devon responded.
Liria stared at her a moment. “You're angry with me,” she said. “I'm sorry about that man—“
“His death is no one's fault but his own,” Devon said. “I gave him every opportunity to rethink his position.” She paused. “But you should not have freed the animal. What if you'd been bitten?”
Liria shook her head. “She wouldn't do that.”
Surprised, Devon echoed, “She?”
“Talia. It's her name.”
Devon frowned. “And how do you know this?” she asked.
Liria shrugged. “She told me.”
Devon took the cloth from Liria's hands and pressed it against her cut. Rising, she walked toward Tyne, intending to brush the sweat from her hide.
“Devon?” Liria called behind her.
“I don't understand you,” Devon mused. “And I'm no closer to it today.”
By late afternoon, Devon suddenly announced that they had left Malick's land. Still, they rode until sunset, finally falling in exhausted heaps around a quickly constructed fire. Liria wasn't able to sleep, however. She waited for some sign of their pursuer.
She didn't think that Devon had ever sensed it, but she'd known since early that morning. It was something one had to sense internally rather than see or hear. Liria heard movement off to her left well after Devon had drifted off, and rose to investigate. The animal whined in greeting as she approached. Glancing back at her companion worriedly, Liria pressed one finger to her lips. When Talia turned to move deeper into the trees, she didn't hesitate to follow.
Back to Main
You are Visitor No: