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Whenever he passed someone on the road, he saw the same sorts of looks: Anguish. Fear. Anger. But sorrow was the one he saw the most. These emotions were carried by men, spouses, children, even some of the animals felt the pain of being uprooted from home and being thrust out into the world. It wasn’t a nice feeling; he had felt it the same as these people.
He road on his horse--which made traveling much, much, easier--and guilt passed his thoughts as he saw the envious looks of the weary folk traveling in the opposite direction he was. They went north. He south. But they had a favoring wind at their back, and his guilt lessened as it pushed broadly against his chest.
As he crested a hill, he looked on with a warm feeling in his heart. The wind brushed him gently and the sun felt pleasant then, and a view of the grasslands surrounded him. They were framed on two sides by the tall mountains that ruled Aventor, a country smack in the middle of the continent. They ran west and east, and if one traveled far enough in those directions then they would find the great oceans, and possibly get a view of huge trade ships. Great, hulking things that were made of heavy wood and powerful steel. These came from countries south, and territories to the north sent goods back on those same ships.
The only bad things about the grasslands was that they were far too hill strewn for his horse to bear for extended journeys, and trees that could block hard winds in the autumn months were sparse. Twisters were rare though, and that at least was a boon. The people that passed him wouldn’t care though, for they probably wished for something of the sort to happen.
He continued for several hours more, until the sun dwindled to a ball of orange ducking on the edge of the horizon. Finding a small circle of shrub-like foliage, he set up camp, made his horse comfortable, and set up a fire. Building the flame was hard, what with the area around being filled with minimal dead plants for tinder, and the wind sweep the heat away. But as soon as it was a smolder ready to burn, he set off for a steam he had spotted nearby. There was water needing to be collected for supper.
A few minutes later, he was there, and the running liquid was cool and refreshing to his questioning hands. He took a few extra moments to wash his arms and face, then filled a bucket. With curiosity he peered inside.
His face was dominant. I need a shave. It was merely a stubble--he could never really grow a full beard--but the inspection led to further discoveries. His hair had grown quite longer, and his eyes glistened with a sparkle they rarely entertained.
It must be the traveling, He concluded. It’s been long since I’ve gotten to see the world.
Once the other bucket was filled, he took them to the campsite and stopped. There was a girl standing near his horse, stroking its mane and hugging his side. She couldn’t be far out of her teens, but she held an air of...what. He couldn’t place it.
He walked calmly into the site and set to preparing supper. He sliced carrots, celery, and onions, took strips of beef and cut them into squares, and placed it all on a rectangular wooden plate. Taking one of the buckets, he filled a cooking pot with water.
The sloshing alerted the girl to his presence, and while twirling around she uttered a cry. Shakily, she drew a rusty dagger from a belt at her side.
“Who are you?” She demanded. Her eyes were wide, but they betrayed an intelligence that he had rarely seen. Hair as golden as wheat issued from within her hood, framing her face shockingly well, and her face angled in a way that was noble, but cute.
He waved a hand in front of him. “Peace.” He slid the ingredients he had prepared into the water filled pot, but as he stood to put it on the fire she leveled her dagger at him.
“Who. Are. You.”
He sighed. “Normally, since this is my camp I should be asking that of you, but I’ll answer: a traveler. I was getting ready for supper when you came in.”
Her knife lowered into its sheath, and she stepped back a few paces. Apparently he was still a threat. He resigned himself and put the pot to fire, where he stood warming his hands. As heavy silence laid down upon them, the awkwardness she felt was palpable, and yet he felt only a state of calm.
“What’s your name?” He asked, taking the initiative. He didn’t look towards her, only down at the bubbling stew.
With hesitance, she said, “Marla.” They way she spoke it was with a certain unfamiliar quality, and she almost certainly made it up on the spot. “And yours?”
“Silrox.” He said. Dropping to a sitting position, he glanced at her, and surprisingly enough she plopped down opposite him around the fire. “Would you care to join me for supper?”
The question was two sided. Asking her to dinner would use up the rest of the twilight, and she would have to camp with him, something that Silrox intended. ‘Martha’ was obviously poorly prepared for the grasslands, and the world, for that matter. The clumsy way she held her dagger proved just that. Anyone from bandits, corrupted guards, unruly citizens, and even angry refugees could strip her of her weapon and would proceed to do things that would shame her family. Silrox intended to prevent that.
“Yes.” ‘Marla’ said. It seemed she understood the complications of the question, and had accepted them, if only for now. Her saying that word though, surprised a flash from his eyes. “What?”
“Nothing, it’s just been a long time since I’ve heard that word. That means you come from the north, then?” As he retrieved two bowls from his horses pouch, he saw her nod. Silrox scooped the brew into the bowls and handed one to ‘Marla’ with a spoon.
Both of them hungrily attacked the meal, but after they finished and Silrox took their bowls back to the pack, a second silence descended. As if on cue, the sun disappeared west and the moons replaced it in the east. Jön, the white moon, was perched over the silver moon, L?k. It was a grand sight.
“Silrox really isn’t your name is it.” ‘Marla’ said in a way that befitted a comment, rather than a statement.
“Is it any truer than Marla?” The shocked look was all Silrox could have asked for, and he relished it. “No, Silrox is not my real name, but it is my name here.” He gazed up at the moons.
“What do you mean?” She asked with slight bitterness.
Silrox truly considered it. If he was to look back, he started using Silrox right when he came to. . .“--Here. This place.” He waved his arms above and around himself in a sweeping motion.
“No! This realm, this land.” He stood quickly and paced the circumference of the camp, his hands in his tunic, and his eyes tilted downwards. The conversation had flung him into sorrowful nostalgia, and his heart fluttered as he remembered what he had lost.
“I--” Silrox started. He stopped pacing. “No. The story is too long. Too painful. Besides, why would I give it to a stranger that won’t even tell me her name?”
The irony of his accusing statement wasn’t lost on her, but she relented. “Ysilia. Ysilia is my name.”
Silrox forced himself to go back over to the fire, and said. “It’s a beautiful name. Maybe in the future I’ll tell you mine, but for now, it’s time for bed.” He went over to his horse and brought out bedding.
“C’mon.” He said. “I’ve spare blankets you can use.” They gathered their things, brought them near the fire, and laid under the stars.
Silrox didn’t know when he passed from memories into dreams, but it took what seemed like several long, painful years.
The sun rose, and Ysilia was gone. Silrox wasn’t surprised, no; disappointment and worry clouded his mind. He found her bedding had been folded up and set next to the horse, with a small note. It was rolled in torn parchment, and rasped with a scuffing sound as he opened it. It read:
Thank you for the meal.
It wasn’t much, but the script she wrote in made Silrox smile, and as he rode back onto the main path he even chuckled.
It was a blustery day, and unlike the gentle breeze from yesterday, the wind tore at his clothes, dried out his eyes, and whipped his rough brown hair in every direction it chose. Even his horses long eyelashes couldn’t protect it completely. After a couple hours, he decided to walk, and save the horse the extra energy.
There were less people on the road, but now the balance had shifted from the majority being civilians or peasants to guardsman. Trouble was brewing, but as for what kind, Silrox had only the vaguest of ideas. If he had to guess, it would be war, though there was an equal chance that it was a large group of bandits and thieves. If the latter was true, then the conflict would be swiftly solved in a matter of days. If not, well, all people of the continent knew what wars did to the land, to the people, and to the politicians.
Noon came, and with it a strange realization: he was being followed. It happened when he stopped to let his horse rest, and he was taking a drink from his wineskin when he noticed a hooded figure leaning against a small tree on the far side of the road, fifty feet back. He didn’t know it yet, and merely thought it was a fellow traveler on the road. Shrugging, he took his horse’s rope and set off again.
Then the stranger got up from his tree.
Silrox’s instincts throbbed like a blood vessel in his head, and he tried to shake it, but couldn’t. Reluctantly, he bent to his knee, imitating the act of tying his boot, and looked behind himself discretely. The stranger had stopped, and was pretending to sip from their water pouch.
Silrox wasn’t fooled. He went to his horse and whispered to him, “Let’s go, friend.” Jumping into the saddle, they flew down the road and quickly left the stranger in the dust. Over a hill his horse galloped, and with his eyes narrowed, Silrox spotted a group of tall bushes and swung the horse toward them. They jumped over the tallest, and Silrox made the horse lay down.
“Quiet, please.” The horse looked at him, almost saying, If I must. Silrox nodded and took his spyglass from a pocket of the saddle, and, laying down, peered through the sprigy leaves they had leaped over.
Through the small glass pane he watched the hill as the grass on it swayed brutally. No sign of the person came, and he started to wonder if he had given up when he bounded over the hill. Or she, he noticed. The person didn’t look around as Silrox had thought she would, but ran with the speed of the wind.
Just then a gust swept the area and the stranger’s hood collapsed back from golden hair. “Ysilia?” Silrox said. Damn! He had been such a fool! He should’ve known as soon as she had started following him that it was her.
The pounding of horse-hooves came, but didn’t notice; he was already on his horse and going to her calling, “Ysilia!”
She turned, terror in her eyes. “Silrox!” She cried. “Silrox, help me!” Ysilia pointed back up the road.
His heart sank as he followed her extended finger and saw three people charging on horseback, and all of them looked to be bandits. Silrox rode even harder to Ysilia, and she started toward him. “No!” He yelled. “Run that way, along the horse!”
Without confirmation, she did what he said, and he soon caught up to her. Ysilia raised a hand and he caught it, and he pulled her up behind him. She clutched at his waist, and they went even faster, bending over his horse’s neck to try and avoid the wind. Even with this, the bandits were gaining ground.
“Hiltbane is a warhorse!” Silrox explained to Ysilia. “He isn’t as fast as the horses those men are on, but if we can just stay ahead of them he will outlast them!” In response, she gripped his abdomen a little tighter than before.
The race went for five minutes--or more, for Silrox couldn’t tell with his heart racing like it was--and all the time the hoots and hollers of the bandits spiked the air. They didn’t have bows, it seemed, or they chose not to use them, which was their mistake: Silrox wasn’t a terrified peasant like they were accustomed to. They rode on into a crevice between hills, which turned into a small valley. Soon they were far into it, and the sides were much higher than any of them could climb.
“Ysilia,” Silrox said just over the sound of the horses and bandits. “I need you to get something for me. Reach down into the long bag to your right.” Slowly, she prodded into it and grabbed something cold. Ysilia pulled it out of its case, and stared at the most beautifully crafted sheath she had ever seen, and protruding out of it was the hilt of a sword.
“I thought Hiltbane could outlast them!” She said.
Smiling grimly, he said, “Look ahead.”
A mile south from where they were lay the one gorge of the grasslands, one that nearly split the country into two equal parts, and whose only two bridges were up the walls of the valley and far to the east and west. The gorge itself was monstrous in size, and Ysilia could only minimally see the other edge where the grass sprouted again.
“We’re going to have to fight them.” She said despairingly. Handing the sword to him, she put a hand on her dagger.
“Yes,” Silrox agreed. “We could go right or left, but we need to end this while it’s still in our control.”
In thirty seconds, they had half a mile to the gorge to go, and Silrox nudged Hiltbane even faster. They went almost all the way to the edge and slid to a halt, where Silrox and Ysilia slid off the horse. They had left the bandits a mile behind, and started preparing.
Silrox took a second, smaller blade, from Hiltbane’s saddle and tossed it to her. “Use this. It’ll be better then that rusty kitchen knife you showed be yesterday.” With a flourish he drew his sword, and she couldn’t help but notice its nobility. Not only was it expertly crafted, but it was nearly half a sword longer than any blade she’d seen.
“Who forged that?” She asked, while eyeing the short-sword he handed her.
Silrox looked beyond the land, clearly in memories. “A friend from the north, who wields flame like you wouldn’t believe. . . ” He shook himself and said. “Take a few swings, memorize the feel of it.”
Ysilia swung it, and rapidly learned of it’s weight.
“Good,” Silrox said. Dust rose over a hill where they came from. “Get ready.”
The horse of the first bandit trotted showily over it and led the other two to Silrox and Ysilia, where they encircled them. They were three burly men, covered in ruined armor and crusted clothing, and the sound of their loose fit met their ears. The one on the biggest horse---the leader---had a large chin on which grew the orangest beard Silrox had ever seen. His eyes were of a beady black that’s gaze centered at Ysilia hungrily, and Silrox felt a bubbling fury rise to his head.
The lead bandit chuckled disgustingly. “We want the girl, peasant. If you leave her with us you might just live.” At this, him and the other bandits laughed hardily. “Just might.”
Silrox stared at him, and Ysilia feared that gaze. It would shake anyone not ignorant of it’s ferocity to the core. Sadly, the bandits were ignorant.
“What?” The leader guffawed. “Does your voice leave you at such a frightening sight, or are you just--”
“Shut you mouth.” Silrox’s eyes were blazing. His hands were white with strain at the strength of his gripping the sword. “You don’t seem poor-born, with your speech, but you are undoubtedly a fool.” Silrox advanced a few steps towards the bandits. “You must be a fallen nobleman’s son, banished from his household due to long nights of drinking and bedding with easy-bought maidens. Whatever the case, you have overstepped you boundaries and vied for this woman.” The words struck the men like a fist, and they backed up their horses. Silrox marched forward, sword raised. “But I swear it, I will kill you where you sit if you do not leave now, and bother us no more.”
The men turned to each other and whispered words. It sounded harsh, questioning, but the leader reassured them with his false-confidence.
“We will accept your challenge, peasant!” The leader said.
Silrox nodded like he knew it would come to this, and said, “Then off your horses and at me, cowards!”
Ysilia’s heart quickened as they got off and drew their blades. She raised her sword, but Silrox put a hand on her shoulder and stopped her. “Stay back now, Ysilia. I got you into this, and I wont see you hurt.”
“I can fight for myself if I want to!” Ysilia shook his hand off and stepped forward.
The bandits recovered some of their pride, and laughed at this, until Ysilia swept forward and stabbed the one next to the leader in the neck. Silrox was just as fast as she and gutted the other lesser bandit, swinging with fearful control. The leader was shocked into backing up, all illusions of taking Ysilia gone, and he ran for it.
“Do you want him gone?” Silrox asked Ysilia. It was true that her skill was clunky and slow, but she showed signs of previous training. What was more, her ability to kill without remorse gladdened him; it would save time the mental training warriors needed to undergo took, and he had an idea that they would travel together for a while. Besides, he thought that women that could kill were better than women that cook, and his opinion of Ysilia grew.
“No. . . His shame will follow him for his days.” She said. Silrox’s heart quickened. Her maturity was much older than he first thought it was.
They went back to the horse, and slouched on the ground. Ysilia offered Silrox the short-sword, but he pushed it back to her.
“Keep it,” He said. “You have already proven you deserve it.”
“Thank you.” She truly began examining the sword, and with it, understanding.
A familiar silence crept between them, but crickets began chirping at the coming of the heat of the afternoon. Silrox breathed deeply, and sighed.
“I’m going south, to a town were I’m needed.” He said.
Ysilia sighed. “I don’t know where I’m going.” A questioning look from him prompted, “It’s a long story.”
Silrox laughed. “We have that in common. A long story.” He grabbed a tuft of grass and threw them into the air, where the breeze took them. “Ysilia?”
“Let’s travel together.”
And like that it was settled.