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Pulling at the scabbard of his sword, Ulrich winced in pain. His shoulder, ripped and leaking crimson, was pulled hallway across his body, a thin strip of leather keeping it tucked in to him, like a folded wing. A large broadsword hung sheathed on his back.
Looking ahead at the sunrise, Ulrich found himself leaning forward, his chest nearly pushing against his steed’s neck. The rhythmic clopping of his horse’s hooves and the sun’s tardiness in rising above the sloping hills of the desert had lulled him into a dangerous sleep. Twilight was among the sand.
As if in answer to his silent prayers, and much to the relief of his heavy head, a building rose up before him, wide and two-storied. A low lean-to had been fixed to its side, a pair of horses dozing under it. As Ulrich’s horse thundered closer at the spurring of its master, a bark sounded from a watchdog. A light was struck somewhere in the closed recesses of the house; he could see a thin shape silhouetted in the windows as it moved from room to room, presumably hoisting a lamp with it.
A chill wind picked up, the type of breeze that plagued the frigid nighttime desert, and a small hand had to cover the candle to shield it from the hungry jaws of air that wanted to snuff out the flame. Ulrich stared dumbly at the shimmering light, his eyes nearly watering. As the shape came closer, soft paws pattering after it (the watchdog, guarding its master), he saw that it was a young woman. Her hair was the color of a solar eclipse from the dancing of the firelight on it. Her eyes looked warm, sparkling with the warmth emanating from the candle. “Do you need help, sir?” she asked, her soft voice seeming like a bellow as it cut through the thick silence of the nighttime.
Ulrich didn’t know what he said before his body collapsed off of his horse, straight for the woman’s arms. Somehow, she managed to catch him, though jostling his injured shoulder. He was so tired…
He felt himself being dragged to the source of the candle, but half a foot in front of his face. They seemed to walk for hours as she took him inside and up the stairs, always following the light, but never reaching it. Had the man been in his right mind, he might have struck up a conversation to pass the time, at the very least.
He was laid to rest on something soft and comfortable, in a place where the icy fingers of wind couldn’t reach him. His boots were pulled off, a blanket pulled over him. Ulrich tried to say something, thanking the young woman for her long hours’ trek, but his tongue was too large for his mouth.
He awoke to a heat that nearly suffocated him in its dry warmth. Gasping for breath, he sat up, still fully dressed under the covers, and looked around. Ulrich put a hand to his arm, which had been removed from the sling. Instead, his sleeve was torn open and a bandage was tied firmly in its place. He looked over at the small table that stood by his bed, finding a glass of water standing there. Jolting towards it, he drank with an inhuman thirst, his parched throat whining for more. There was no more, however, and he was forced to stand and traverse the small length of the room to open the door and look out.
The rugs and flowers in the small hallway seemed to whisper their subtle welcome to Ulrich as he moved to the stairs. At one point, he thought he heard several voices urging him to stay. He knew he could not, though… only recover, and then be on the road again.
She materialized in front of him again, and in the noon’s light he could see her hair was dark brown, almost black, and her eyes a light green. He’d been too delirious a few hours ago to recognize it. Freckles had been scattered across her face, and a simple dress tied in a bow at the back. She was holding a tray for him, her lips pulled across her face in a smile.
“I thought you weren’t going to wake up, stranger,” she said warmly. “Hungry, I bet,” the young woman came to the conclusion, and shouldered past him to set the tray down in the place of his glass. To Ulrich’s joy, she’s brought a pitcher of water for him, the liquid so cool it was being sweated out on the outside of the glass. “Rest a little more, please. Come find me if you need anything.” With that, the girl—for that was all she was, he realized— brushed her hands off on the front of her dress and danced out.
Ulrich ate and rested, the throbbing in his arm going steadily off to, no doubt, bother someone else. His bags had been deposited in his room, somehow, and from this care he was able to infer that his horse was likewise well taken care of. When he was able to stand on his feet without his vision clouding with stars, he did indeed stand and walk to the end of the hall once more. A window let him know that it was sundown by now, and below that, a courtyard was visible.
He saw his hostess dance, literally dance, across from one side, into the arms of a young man, only a few years younger than Ulrich himself. They laughed as one of their friends, another boy, came up and took her hand, spinning her around.
The way that the sun hit their faces, Ulrich could make out the sweaty sheen of their skin, but he smiled anyway. Taking the stairs one at a time, his foot finally reached the bottom and he looked around. There was an old man stoking the fire early, for the night would soon get cold to the ridiculous degree that the day was hot. Ulrich presumed that the inn was his, and the young woman was his daughter, but he couldn’t be sure.
Just then, rowdy voices entered the room, and the same girl walked in, grinning from ear to ear. As she saw Ulrich, however, she sobered a little, concern flitting among her expression. “Are you all right? Well, no matter now. Come eat with us,” she held her hand out to him, offering to show him to the dining room as a bell went off, signaling dinnertime, Ulrich guessed.
“Such a lovely place…” he managed to mutter out in compliment to both her and the man whom he assumed to be her father as his hand closed around hers, soft in his grasp. His own was rough and calloused, quite the opposite, but she didn’t seem to mind. A sweet fragrance came from her, and Ulrich noted that she didn’t offend, even after her dance in the drowning desert sun.
The girl smiled. “Thank you. Please sit,” she showed him to his seat at a long banquet table, her hand slipping from his like a ghost. Dishes were already set for dinner, though Ulrich hadn’t seen any servants flitting around from room to room. The house was so peaceful, he found himself thinking, like a sanctuary. Never a sharp movement, never a loud yell, save for the jostling movements of the girl.
She poured him a drink that was a light shade of pink, like wine and water, and he drank thirstily, even though he’d polished off the entire pitcher of water that she had brought him. A couple young men walked in, just as graceful, if not more, than the girl, and from that Ulrich decided that they were siblings. All three had the same dark brown hair, light eyes, as well. He listened to them banter, all the while he and their father stayed quiet.
Before him was a large bouquet, and it once again drew him in with a light-hearted welcome, the same as the ones in the hallway. He was snapped out of his thoughts by the old man’s voice.
“They haven’t been that spirited in years,” he laughed, seeming to draw from their energy, as well.
After dinner, Ulrich was ushered straight to bed. He was inexplicably tired, though his day had been nothing but relaxing. He crawled into bed, listening to the repeated welcoming of, it seemed, the entire inn.
He was awoken at some point during the night by his door opening silently, and footsteps. A shape moved just out of his sight. There was no light, and he couldn’t see much more than long hair and a thin shape. Something grasped his hand, crouching by his bedside, and he recognized the hands. At first, he nearly jumped up in alarm, but then the young woman let go and sat down on the floor. “My friends will make you waste away, stranger,” her voice whispered in the darkness. “We are all stuck here. Go, while you can.”
Ulrich sat up. “What do you mean?” he asked, his voice low and confused. “My shoulder keeps me prisoner,” he reminded her, knowing he couldn’t go, even if he’d wanted to.
“We are all prisoners here, of our own device.” Her response was cut off by his window flying open, cold wind reaching Ulrich’s shirtless arms and chest, making him shiver. When he looked again, she was gone, and—
He couldn’t breathe! Flailing out of bed, teeth chattering, he ran to close the window before he caught his death. His head still fuzzy, he tripped over his feet and fell with a loud ‘thump’ to the floor…
He awoke seconds later, his vision clearing. Ulrich lay on sand, the desert cold and windy around him. The sand which he lay on had swept up over his face. His horse, having given up on waking him hours ago, cantered around him. The man looked down at his arm, its blood having trickled into the dust, still slung close to his body. He shook his head, looking around. It was sundown, and nothing around him for miles but hills of sand. Breathing heavily, he pulled himself to his feet, sending a silent thanks to whatever was looking out for him. An hour more, and he would have frozen. A minute more, and the sand would have suffocated him.
Ulrich pulled himself onto his horse with a grunt, pulling at the scabbard of his sword again, and wincing in pain as his shoulder bled.
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