I put the twins to work feeding the horses, and busied myself making a similar morning meal for my companions: a gruel of oats and a bit of barley, spiced with cinnamon and sage. Gilliam nearly wept when he saw that Demarra had a store of kaffa beans.
“Thorn, if you do not want the Darra, I will gladly take her off your hands,” he said, counting out the beans and then setting to work with mortar and pestle.
“I am not his to give or take.”
Gilliam very nearly overturned the mortar. “How did you—“
Demarra smiled. She stood over our shoulders, clad in a garish mix of purple and yellow and red wool, all of it accented with jewelry of gold. Neither of us had heard the brass chimes, nor the creak of the door. A glance at the vardo revealed no more than the gentle sway of the various chimes in the morning breeze.
“If you are good,” the Darra said, “I have a cousin I could introduce you to. Several cousins, if that is your preference.”
“Please, do not encourage him.” The chimes rang out as Ana stepped down from the vardo, pulling her cloak tighter against her shoulders. She wore a knee-length tunic of white wool over cream colored leather breeches. The silver flame-shaped pendant glittered at her breast.
Demarra laughed. “I would give him a week before they manage to break him,” she said.
Gilliam’s smile broadened. “Now that’s a bet I’ll happily take up.“
Ana muttered something about “men,” and stomped across the camp, to check on the twins.
She returned a bit later, the girls in tow, and Sera finally joined us, settling next to me, huddling over her steaming bowl of gruel.
“Thorn tells us we tread on ogre’s territory,” Varis said, finally breaking the silence after we’d all taken a few spoonfuls of breakfast. “Did you not think to mention this to us a bit sooner?”
Demarra shrugged. “We travel a long-disused trade road. We should be the only ones on the trail for quite some days, still.”
“And what of Achl’ss?” I asked.
The Darra waved a hand. “The green should still be fast asleep on her hoard. You know the greens do not like the cold any better than the black. If we are quiet, and avoid the use of magics for a few days’ travel, we will be fine.”
Varis frowned, as did Ana. “How would you like to make that bet?” the cleric of the Flame asked Gilliam.
He shook his head. “Oh, no. Only a fool bets when dragons are involved.”
We all turned to regard Demarra, but she only shrugged again. “Do not mistake confidence for foolishness,” she said. “If the Darine had to take the long road ‘round every time dragons and ogres were involved, we would have never left Traladara, for all our wandering.” She raised her arm, shaking it so that the bracelets slipped far enough down her wrist to reveal the faintly glowing glyph. “This is road the gift bids me follow, and I have never doubted Zirchev’s guidance.”
* * * * *
A thrush’s call drifted on the cold morning wind, and Varis raised his hand, bringing our small column to a halt.
The thrush’s call was followed by a winter magpie: Danger approaches.
We all dropped from our saddles, with the exception of Varis, who plucked his shield from its place on his horse’s flank.
“Into the wagon, you two!” he shouted at the twins, drawing his sword and guiding his mount in a slow circle, getting it used to taking guidance from the warrior’s knees rather than the reins.
Gilliam’s white charged around the bend in the trail, the saddle empty. I heard Ana and Sera gasp, but moments later, the warrior bounded into view, loosing two arrows in rapid succession.
Two ogres plodded along the trail, each bristling with arrow shafts, fighting as much with each other as trying to squash Gilliam with their great clubs.
“What was that about this road being abandoned?” Ana asked the Darra. She tugged at the cord holding the leather cover over the blade of her scythe.
Varis spurred his horse forward, his shout of challenge distracting the ogres enough that Gilliam could gain more distance on them along the road.
The closest of the ogres swung, and Varis ducked, bringing his sword out as he charged past. The ogre bellowed, but appeared more surprised than hurt. Varis’ blade didn’t come away stained with blood; the ogre must have been wearing several layers of furs and leathers.
Gilliam kept the arrows hissing at both creatures, and they waved them away as we might buzzing flies. Varis took the opportunity to turn his mount, readying to make another pass.
One of the ogres swiped at Gilliam with a bellow, sending up a plume of snow and frozen chips of mud. Its’ yellow eyes fell on the vardo, and it gave another rumbling growl, swatting the bowman aside as it stomped down the trail towards us.
Gilliam swore, shaking his head, his hands shaking as he tried to nock another arrow.
Ana checked her grip on the haft of her scythe.
A clang of wood upon metal told us Varis was engaged with the other ogre. We were on our own.
I readied my grip on my staff, keeping well to one side of the reach of Ana’s blade. I raised my staff.
“Begone!” I called to the beast. “We are travelers, and will be through your lands before the sun sets! We do not wish to—“
The ogre did not wish to let me continue, and I had to duck its wide-armed swing.
Ana stepped into a swing of her own, but the silver blade chimed as it struck metal beneath the ogre’s leg-wrappings.
Sera gave a shriek, backpedaling as the ogre reached past me. The horse gave a frightened whinny of its own, lashing out with its hooves. It had better luck, and the ogre howled, stepping back and shaking its hand.
“It’s after the horses!” Ana shouted. Her swing was better aimed, but the ogre stepped aside, and she was only able to nick it’s great hairy knee. She barely ducked under its retaliatory swipe.
I leapt in, bringing my staff down on the ogre’s foot. I got the back of it’s hand for my efforts, and the clamor of battle was drowned under a great surging roar that rang in my ears. The sky swam, overbright, blotted out by two clubs raised above me.
The creature gave a roar as something streaked by, striking it in the shoulder. It gave another roar, it’s head snapping back. A rock bounced into the ground nearby, and I blinked hard, as it finally resolved into but a single image.
A flash of white, whiter than the snow darted over me, a glint of silver as a pale hand scooped up the rock. Snow flew as Silva turned, standing over me, letting fly with the rock again. As the ogre rocked back, the siren knelt, tugging at my arm. “Up! Up, Thorn!”
The beast roared, its shadow looming over us. It brought the club down in a two-handed overhead swing.