Again, it seemed I’d just closed my eyes, when the sound of a hard sizzle on iron and the smell of bacon drew me up from a brief moment of slumber.
I sat up, stomach growling even as I wiped the sleep from my eyes. The halfling puttered around the fire, prodding at the hissing iron skillet, stirring at something in another pot.
“I don’t believe it,” Gilliam said, from his place behind me. He sniffed again. “You can keep the Darra,” he told me, “that little one’s kaffa smells like the work of the Immortals.”
“A new day,” Pyrklist said, bowing as Gilliam approached the fireside. “May we meet the challenges Kagyar has forged for us with honors.”
“Let that first challenge be getting to the bottom of a cup of that kaffa,” the warrior said.
Pyrklist grinned, as he poured a cup of the strong dark brew. “The Tarsfotar would frown at your lack of propriety. That which makes them frown makes Pyrklist smile.”
Varis and I took cups. I winced, on sipping, as did the other warrior.
“Halav’s balls!” he swore. “It’s a wonder this didn’t eat straight through the pot.”
Still, beneath the harsh bite of the blend, the halfling had added cinnamon and nutmeg.
Of Ana and the other men, it was difficult to say who was more relieved. It had been Ana’s turn to prepare breakfast this morning.
“Nice to awaken to the smell of bacon, rather than smoke, isn’t it?”
Gilliam got a punch in the arm from the cleric.
We hurried through breakfast, at Aurora’s insistence. She walked with Pyrklist, ahead of the vardo, dividing her attention between the hafling and the mountains that loomed ever closer as he led us east, along the along the southern bank o the Achelos. The hills climbed steadily, getting rockier and more barren with each mile. By the time Sollux had reached its peak, there was too little trail for Demarra to make easy progress with the vardo. Another couple hours’ travel and the trail all but vanished.
Demarra and I unharnessed the horses, and after brushing them down, she gave each a swat on the rear. They merely glanced back at her, tossed their manes, and plodded away the way we’d come.
“That’s it?” Gilliam asked. “You’re just going to turn them loose?”
“Goblins will eat good tonight,” Varis said.
The Darra laughed. “Duardo and Bella will be just fine. In a day or so, they will probably find another kampo. In the mean time, they can fend for themselves.” At Varis’ disbelieving look, she gave another laugh. “Troubles befall the goblin or orc tribe that tries to take that which belongs to the Kaledreshi.”
She stepped up into the vardo, coming back out a few minutes later. She’d changed, into a nearly knee-length tunic of browns and grays, over which she wore a dark woolen vest. She’d traded her skirt for a pair of deep gray leather leggings that thankfully were mostly hidden beneath the length of her tunic. High boots completed her new ensemble, along with a cloak of mottled grays.
Yet she still wore a clamorous mix of gold and bronze and copper bracelets and necklaces.
“Not to worry,” she said, at Gilliam’s disapproving look. She slipped her arm through mine. “You see? They make so little noise this way.”
My skin tingled, and I turned, to see Sera regarding Demarra with narrowed eyes. If the Darra noticed it, she gave no indication, but tugged me along the broken trail after Aurora and the halfling.
Pyrklist pushed us at quite a quick pace, always picking the steeper or narrower of paths when a new choice for direction came about. We rested for a late afternoon meal, reluctantly, but at Aurora’s insistence. Ana and I had taken turns, lingering at the back of the group, waiting for Silva to catch up. She did not have the breath for thanks, and her smiles were touched at the corners with weariness. More often than not when I glanced back at the princess, the white dragonstone at her throat gave off glimmers of light.
“If we move slower, or take an easier path, those are the ones the Relaimants watch,” the halfling said. “The Tarsfotar deal as little as possible with tall folk. If they should find you this close outside Kurest Hurgon… Well, they will show no mercy in keeping the mine’s secrets. And you,” he continued, gesturing towards the girls’ bracers, “well, it is forbidden for any but the Karrnath or his Reclaimants to use the stones.”
At this, Aurora bristled. “If this’ Karrnath’ thinks—“
Pyrklist fell to his knees, pressing his forehead to the ground at the shrike’s feet. “Please, mistress, you must lower your voice!”
“Vatu!” Silva hissed, her posture rod-straight, eyes shining as they darted from crag to crag around us along the wide turn in the trail where we rested.
The silence rang nearly as loud as Aurora’s voice. Then we heard it: a clatter of rocks, the scrape of leather over stone. A muted jangle of armor or buckle.
Varis’ grip tightened around his sword, but he did not draw it. Gilliam’s drawing and nocking an arrow was just a whisper of noise. Aurora made to move in front of her sister, but Silva yanked at her sister’s hand, plopping the shrike back down on the rocks beside her. Her gaze had gone even more distant, and the black stone on her wrist glimmered with sparks of purple.
Above, a hawk that had been circling suddenly dove, leveling out hundreds of feet lower, nearly over our position.
Silva held up three fingers, pointed towards the rocks above us, slightly west of north. Gilliam trained his bow in that direction, squinting. A prickling, icy surge raised the hairs along the back of my neck, and the familiar warm glow somewhere over my stomach reminded me of Sara’s presence as she began gathering her Power.