Silence hung in the air for the minutes that followed the departure. It was long before the stranger spoke again.
"He won't return. You're safe."
The woman threw the cloak off, and rose wearily to her feet. She shivered in the morning breeze that she had noticed only then.
"If you were that frail figure I met in the town last night, then am I right to believe that you are not a 'dirty whore', as that man so pleasantly put it?" The stranger said, with a curious glint in his eye. Unhidden by darkness, the woman could see his long, raven black hair and his drawn, but not unfriendly, face. His eyes were intent blue, like sapphire oceans that lapped at the black of his pupils.
"I needed to pawn something for money…the shopkeeper drugged me. That man…he was going to take me to…" She closed her eyes at the thought of the horror.
"Do not fear. Your face will quickly be forgotten. Though, I advise you not to go to that town again for a long time."
"How can I repay you, sir? You surely saved my life." The man smiled.
"By not addressing me as 'sir'. I prefer Orion."
"Well, I thank you, Orion."
The man nodded and retrieved his cloak. As he folded it up and placed it nearby, he spoke again. "Your belongings were taken, I presume?"
"I had none but my cloak and the brooch I intended to sell. I thank Tirez that they did not take my pendant." As she said this, the woman felt at her neck for the familiar cord from which hung a small stone. Its pearlescent surface had the symbol of a star etched into it. It was all she had to remind herself of a distant past which she could never return to.
"Here, come sit by the fire. You must be exhausted." He beckoned her to the campfire, and she gladly rested beside its small but warm flames.
"Your cuts look painful." He pushed a new branch into the fire, and the flames leapt upon this new addition of fuel with unquenchable hunger.
"They sting a little, nothing more. It's the sleeping draught that feels the worse."
"Time is a healer. You'll feel better after a proper rest." The woman nodded. She fiddled anxiously with her hands.
"How did you find yourself in this position? I mean, before you came to the town and suffered misfortune."
The woman sighed. She found painful things taxing to talk of. But, this man had been kind and trustworthy so far…it would not matter.
"I left my husband. He-he wasn't the most decent of men."
"So, here I am. Lacking in possessions, status and sense." The woman shrugged, though Orion could see her tremble as she said this.
"And you have nowhere to go, no family or friends to turn to for help?"
"My mother married me off when I was seventeen. If I went to my family, they'd just take me back to my husband. He only let me keep friends he chose himself."
Orion nodded in sympathy. He stared in the direction of the fire, but his eyes studied the woman's face covertly. There were lines there, lines carved by worry and suffering. She was a timid creature. He did not doubt that she had bore pain by her husband's hands. She must have had a hard time deciding whether to trust her rescuer.
Orion cleared his throat. "I am currently in need of a partner to travel with me."
The woman stared at him. "You're offering me…?"
"I can't pay you, I'm afraid, but whatever road you would take would be safer if I was at your side. I can provide you with food and clothes. Was there any way you were planning to go?"
"I…no. I suppose I haven't thought of what I should do, since leaving home. No, I have nowhere I need to go to. Do you?"
"No. I wander, you might say."
"Wander? Why? What do you do?" The woman inquired. A moment later, she apologised for her impoliteness.
"Don't worry. Curiosity is a wise business when conversing with a stranger." He smiled. "You must be hungry. Bread?"
He drew a small loaf wrapped in cloth from his bag, and split it in half. The woman took hers with a polite thanks, resisting the urge to wolf it down in one go, such was her hunger.
"What is your name, then? We can't go around without being properly acquainted."
The woman hesitated, but divulged it a moment later. "Aramantine. It's rather long, I'm afraid."
Orion raised his eyebrows. "Surely you have a shorter version?"
"My husband refused to use anything but all of it…however, I always knew myself as Tara."
"Then Tara it is, thank the Sun." He gave a brief laugh, but Tara frowned.
"The Sun? You do not give thanks to Tirez, god of Earth, or Corel, god of Water?"
Orion's face was expressionless. "I acknowledge Tirez and Corel, but it is not to Earth and Water that I look. When night comes upon the land, we do not stare beneath us, but above, to the stars and the planets. Other humans may choose to worship what lies around and beneath their feet, but I choose to worship what watches over us, and has us beneath its feet."
It was a decent explanation, and did make sense once it grew on the mind, but Tara remained troubled. Was it not the Earth and the Water that dominated, and ruled, their lives, far more than what lay out of reach in the black depths of night?
"I see that you remain unconvinced. It matters not. Perhaps Tirez and Corel and the Sun are all just what they have always been: earth, water and star. In that case, prayers and thanks go unmissed."
Tara nodded, though hoping that Orion's rather blasphemous words would not provoke Tirez to send a great wind, or Corel a hungry flood.
"Our fire is waning. And it is right to do so: we ought to be off. We must reach the next settlement before dark, so that we can get you a mount."
"Your horse-where is it?" Tara asked, remembering that Orion had been in the saddle during their first meeting.
"Walking free beneath the trees. Do not fear, he is a faithful steed. However, unlike other people, I cannot whistle. Therefore, I must summon him with magic."
Tara watched with interest. She had seen magic before, though in small quantities. Magic wielders were uncommon. Rarer still were those trained enough to use it properly.
Orion spread out his palm flat before him, and a white mist began to rise from it. He blew on it, and it melted away into the air. Moments later, a whinny pierced the silent that hung thick between the trees around the clearing, and the same black horse as last night came trotting to his master. Strong muscles rippled beneath his skin, and he tossed his head with a watchful gaze as he inspected Tara.
"Onyx is very good at telling whether a person can be trusted or not." Orion said.
"You're not implying-"
"I myself am not; h0wever, Onyx will only let the worthy accompany me."
The stallion snorted, and paced up to the woman. He nudged her cheek, a clear sign of his approval. She returned his affection, admiring his intelligent nature and strong body.
While she was indulged in making acquaintances with the stallion, Orion prepared to leave. He kicked soil onto the dying embers of the fire and gathered his effects. He spared a glance at the sky; it was a drab grey, but did not appear to be bearing water. If the weather remained kind then they should have a swift road to the intended village.
"Wait-two of us cannot ride the horse." Tara said. Orion raised his hand.
"We will walk at a fast pace. Onyx always has days free of my burden. It keeps his strength up."
At this, Tara could not help but grimace. She could still feel a distant, dull ache in her bones from the sleeping draught. Orion took note of this. He rummaged in his bag and brought out a clear, glass vial of liquid.
"Here, this'll return some of your energy." He offered it to Tara, who looked at it askance. Quickly he remembered how she had been kidnapped.
"You have trusted me this far. I suppose you were given firewater? Chemicals can be planted in it very easily. No, firewater is pleasant to the taste but does not keep a weary rider on his feet. This is pure spring water blessed by magic. Take a few sips."
The woman took it after this, and sipped it tentatively. She handed it back quickly, and even as she did this, a hot wave swept through her. The sensation faded soon, but the ache in her bones was vanquished entirely, and she felt ready for the long day in both body and mind.
"I've never even heard of that liquid before. Why not? It's amazing."
"It takes a while to make it. And too much of it can kill you. No, it is best for the magic wielders to keep the magic drink."
Orion attached Onyx's saddle, and lashed his luggage to this. A bird called from a hidden perch; the man paused to listen to it. A moment later his attention was turned back to his horse. Tara watched him with poorly disguised, never fading curiosity. Magic, a rare gift; and an eye and an ear for nature: she discovered more about this man every minute she was with him.
"Wear my spare cloak until we get to the village. Unless it offends you dearly, I think that men's clothing would be more practical than the usual manner of woman's clothing." Tara's eyes opened wide. Abandon dresses and skirts? Her husband would have beaten her severely for even thinking the notion.
"Your expression tells me that you find this scandalous." Orion said in an amused voice. Tara quickly objected.
"No, no, I don't…my husband would-"
"You are free of your marital bonds now. You make your own choices."
Fear clouded the woman's face. "I'm not…the only way to break the bonds would be for him to give his consent…but he'd rather kill me than end the marriage. You-you don't think he'll hunt me down?"
Orion gave her a reassuring smile. "I doubt it. If you told no one at home of your plans, then it is unlikely that he will be able to find you."
"He is rich…he has plenty of men at his call. The only person who knew of my plans was my maid…" Tara realised something more. "You don't think he'd…torture her to say where I'd gone, do you?"
"Calm yourself, my dear lady. Paranoid thoughts are natural when one is still dealing with shock." Orion answered softly, watching the fretting woman. He did not reveal his personal opinion, though this went unnoticed by Tara.
"I-I suppose so…should we be off? I wouldn't like to be held up before we get to the next village, like you."
Orion nodded briskly, and took reins of Onyx, who had been standing by the pair patiently. With a gentle tug the horse walked forward, led by his master, and tailed by their new companion.
The magic drink did not lose its potency as Tara trailed after the other two travellers, picking a path through the green maze of the forest. Being a married woman in a respectable household, frequent exercise was unheard of, and her flight from her home had been a great shock to her body. Now, thankfully, she was spared of blisters and aches, though she knew its effects would fade eventually.
Hopefully I'll get fitter with all this walking, she thought while stepping over a large tree root that arched out of the ground.
Orion stayed at the front of the line, only sparing glances for Tara to be sure that she was not falling behind, and to check that she had not been caught by a particularly uneven part of the ground, or a devilish root. Other than that, he kept his gaze fixed firmly ahead. He was very conscious of her, and to avoid awkwardness did not give reason for it. She would understand; he needed his eyes trained on the path at all times, so that the travellers would not lose their way.
Silence became well known as the trek went on, pervaded only by the forest's usual happenings: the calls of birds and beasts (nothing larger or more ferocious than a deer though), the swaying and the whispering of trees and scrub, and the crisp sound of water rushing over smoothed pebbles.
"How long before we find a proper road? I mean, one that isn't cluttered by woods." Tara finally said, breaking the taboo of speaking. Orion was taken by surprise at this alien voice, having drifted into a different state where he was one with the forest, and knew only it.
"This forest's thick and long. Of course, I could steer us in another direction and reach a road soon enough, but if you know how to navigate through these places then the route is shorter."
"You've been here before?"
"I get around. Yes, I've made my way through this forest several times." Orion's resigning tone subdued Tara to silence once more, but at least her questions had been answered.
At midday when the sun was at its highest, cutting its way through every space between the trees and piercing the ground with golden shafts, they halted for a brief rest. As restoring as the magic drink was, it did nothing to ward off hunger, and Tara eagerly took the dried fruit she was offered. Onyx quested for grasses and soon found an abundant supply.
"You're quite the hardy traveller." Tara announced as they were sitting down. Orion shrugged.
"I've plenty of experience."
"How old are you? That's if you don't mind me asking…"
"Thirty one. And you?"
"Not as much as that. Only twenty four." Orion nodded, and presently rose. He called Onyx, and the horse came trotting.
"We've made good progress. We should reach Buckbridge by dusk."
Tara rose too, and pulled her cloak around her in an instinctive movement. As her arm tugged at the cloth, the man caught a glimpse of a purple weal smirching the paleness of her skin; the mark of the truth she had told him. A small amount of anger boiled inside him: he was a man of decent morals.
Onyx nudged his friend gently, returning the man's attention back to their departure.
"Come. I for one would rather reach Buckbridge before night hinders us."
He began to walk, and Tara followed after. The forest swallowed them up again. Tree trunks and undergrowth flowed past them as they journeyed on, repetitive but not monotonous.
They had been walking for perhaps an hour when Orion suddenly halted. Taken by surprise in this break of tradition, Tara almost bumped into Onyx before she too stopped.
"What's wrong?" She asked, with worry creeping into her voice, as Orion snatched something from the damp ground a little off their path. He returned to her and the horse, and showed what he held in his palm. It was a small crossbow bolt head, its iron body slick with dew. What at first looked like rust was actually old, dried blood.
"A hunter's bolt." Tara said, unsure of its significance to Orion.
"This is wolf blood." He murmured sorrowfully, clutching the bolt tight in his fist, his eyes closed.
"Wolves…" Tara shivered. The bane of livestock and sometimes of children.
"Why do you utter their name with revulsion?" Orion stared at her in earnest. His sapphire eyes were questioning.
"They...they kill livestock and eat children. They're bloodthirsty."
Orion dipped his head and sighed.
"The ignorance of the uneducated."
"Ignorance?" Tara asked, a little affronted. Orion raised his head again.
"Have you seen a wolf?"
"Yes, of course, the ones the hunters bring back. And the marks they leave."
"The ones the hunters bring back. Have you ever seen a live wolf?"
"I…no. I haven't." Tara was confused. This man seemed to be arguing for the wolves!
"Were the livestock near your home plundered by wolves often?"
"Once or twice, yes. It was a horrible thing too. They kill without need!" She wanted desperately to keep Orion as a friend, but this argument was already pushing them apart.
"And we, humans, the cruellest of all, do not kill without need?"
Tara opened her mouth to speak, and then shut it. She turned this remark over and over in her head, thinking of its meaning.
"I will say no more on this matter. Let us go on." Orion slipped the bolt head into a pocket, and clicked to Onyx. The group resumed their path, though Tara now felt ashamed. Yes, he had defended creatures she thought to be wicked, but now that he had put forward words for them, she began to wonder, and slowly the curtains of folklore and prejudice that spread a blind over her mind began to lift.