Chapter Five

Standing by her brave words proved to be a lot more challenging than Melona could have ever thought. Right after breakfast, Gaelwyn simply packed up and walked away, his lute strapped across his back, beneath his pack. At first, Mel thought nothing of his callous dismissal of her. She simply followed along behind him like a lost little puppy. But then the sun rose all the way into the sky and Gaelwyn just kept walking. Midmorning came and went and Gaelwyn just kept walking. Melona panted hard as she struggled to keep up with his long-legged stride and Gaelwyn just kept walking. Eventually, Mel fell back and had to push herself far beyond what she thought to be her own physical limits just to keep him in view and Gaelwyn just kept walking.

Around midday, Gaelwyn moved to the side of the dirt road they followed and settled down in the grass, unpacking some wrapped bundles of food. Heartened through her exhaustion, Mel continued to place one foot firmly in front of the other, finally catching her second wind at the prospect of even a short respite. But by the time she had nearly caught up, Gaelwyn was just brushing crumbs off his lap. He stood and retrieved all of his gear, then turned back down the road without so much as a glance in Melona's general direction.

Feeling thoroughly defeated, fiercely angry, and decidedly bitter, Mel growled in deep frustration and continued to dog his steps.

After a while, Gaelwyn glanced back almost furtively, as though checking to see if Mel was still there. The girl grinned savagely and straightened up a bit as his gaze fell on her, but he turned away in an instant. They passed a man on a very old horse shortly afterward, and by midafternoon Mel caught sight of the first roadsign. The wooden plank that pointed in the direction they headed read "Westerdam" in all five of the high tongues. Melona gritted her teeth and focused in on Gaelwyn's steadily receding back.

As the sun began to sink low in the western sky, Mel caught her first glimpse of their destination. High, decorative walls ringed the dazzling city. Slender, sweeping towers in the style of the imperialistic vedan tossed reflected sunlight back out at the world, shining so brilliantly it hurt to look. Music and laughter and many raised voices touched Mel's sharp ears, and what she could see of the streets through the wide open gates bustled with activity. Far above, elegant vedae traversed the network of ropes that connected the city's major structures, their feathery wings spread for balance. A few swooped and dove through the air, apparently engaged in some sort of game. The city seemed to overflow its bounderies; humble huts and festive tents and stalls sprawled out beyond the walls, giving the impression of a place with arms wide open to receive its visitors.

Gaelwyn passed through the gates and melted into the crowd before Mel even reached the outside edge of the outer town. The intensity of the sights and smells and sounds around her infused Mel with new energy, and she rushed to catch up, ignoring the little aches and pains that plagued her weary body. The dirt road changed suddenly to heavy flagstones, tidy and well cared for.

Mel reached the edge of the milling mass of bodies and looked around wildly, but Gaelwyn was nowhere to be seen. She stopped and seemed to shrink a bit, suddenly very lost and confused.

"Hey, girl! Over there!"

One of the vedae far above waved lazily at Melona, pointing off down the wide main street. Mel turned in that direction and caught sight of Gaelwyn's long, distinctive auburn hair, tied back at the nape of his neck. She waved back to the friendly vedan and followed the elusive bard as he bobbed and wove among the many, many inhabitants of Westerdam.

Eventually, the crowd thinned out considerably. A large stone pillar on one side of the street announced the end of the Foreign Quarter in big, bold, vedan lettering. Mel passed the pillar and entered into a section of the city identified as Piper's Plaza. Music and merriment poured from the open doors and windows that lined the street, which widened considerably, sketching out an elongated curve before narrowing down again at the far end of the plaza. A small, elliptical garden graced the center of the street, dominated by a huge stone fountain in the shape of lone vedan female with wings spread, one hand reaching up to the heavens, poised as if she might leap into the air any moment now. Her other hand hung down by the graceful curve of her hips, the fingers turned back behind her. Water spewed from all ten fingertips, sprinkling down into the circular pool that ringed the stone platform she stood upon.

Mel could see Gaelwyn clearly now. The man made a beeline for one of the many rowdy establishments in Piper's Plaza. The girl followed closely on his heels. Gaelwyn held a quick conversation with the hulking human who stood behind the bar across the room. Melona picked her way through the crowded place. Music and laughter filled the air, and acrid-smelling beverages filled every mug. Conversations sputtered and died when people turned to stare at Melona as she walked by. She felt her ears begin to burn. She knew they were all staring at her like everyone at the Keep had. She tried to ignore the prying eyes.

By the time Mel had made her way to the counter, the imposing man was just turning away from the door he had allowed Gaelwyn to pass through. Mel moved as though to open the door, but the grizzly proprietor caught her wrist roughly. Mel jerked free, glaring fiercely.

"Where d'you think you're going, little lady?" The forboding man glowered.

Mel drew herself up to her full height. She stood nearly to the middle of the man's chest. "I'm following Gaelwyn."

"I think not. Only certain people are allowed back there."

"Well, Gaelwyn's back there and I'm following him just now, so if you could please step aside a bit..."

The man complied readily enough, stepping to one side and planting himself squarely between Melona and the closed door.

Melona huffed in irritation. For all she knew, Gaelwyn could be escaping on the other side of that door, and she couldn't let him do that. He was her only ticket back home; she could not afford to allow him to slip away now. But there was no way she could get past this guy, and they were beginning to draw a lot of attention. "Fine," she snapped irritably. "What do I have to do to get back there?"

"You? There's nothing you can do to gain access."

The way he said it caused Mel to bristle in indignation. She gritted her teeth so hard her head hurt. "Try me, you squishy-faced little dweeb," she growled.

The man blinked in surprise. "What did you call me?"

"You heard me. Or is your head so full of rocks they clog your ears?"

"Look here, now, little lady. You better get that foul mouth of yours in check. You're really asking for trouble here."

"Bring it on, you great, hulking, furless bear," Mel jeered. She danced back a step or two, as though gaining distance in preparation for a fight.

The man did not keep her waiting. He produced a short club from behind the bar and charged, swinging it in a wide arc. But Mel was quick on her feet, and her emmorian blood served her well as she ducked gracefully by and dove for the door. Her hands fell on the latch and she pulled...but it was locked. Rats!

Mel turned just in time to flatten herself against the door, dodging what she imagined would have been a rather nasty blow to the head. The proprietor swung again, coming down from above this time, and Mel yelped and leapt to the side just in time. Maybe this wasn't the best idea, after all, she mused, beginning to tremble in fear. The heavy club whisked by and smashed into the door, splintering the thick wood all the way down until it came into contact with the handle, which snapped off beneath the bone-crushing blow. The door listed a bit to one side and creaked open just a little.

By now, everyone in the crowded room had either split and run or gathered around, watching the decidedly one-sided fight with great interest and enthusiasm. Mel thought she caught the glint of gold coins changing hands. They were gambling on the outcome! No one moved to intervene.

The man with the club rounded on Mel, towering over her and looking very, very angry. "Hold still, you little squirt," he snarled, "and I'll crush you into a pile of dust unfit for a mangy cat to make dirt in!" Shouts and cheers from the gathering crowd greeted this announcement, and Melona decided abruptly that she definitely did not like the vast majority of the people present. She swallowed hard.

"I'd rather not," Mel replied meekly, her voice squeaking just a bit. Her opponent glowered, lifting his club high to make good his threat.

Mel cried out in dismay and dove forward, right under his arm. She hit the ground too hard and fell even as the hulking man whirled and swept his club toward her once more. Mel threw herself to the side, rolling wildly until she smacked into something very solid. The thing gave way under the force of the impact, and Mel tucked her head in and rolled one more time, intending to regain her feet in the same fluid motion. Unfortunately, she rolled down a flight of stairs and began a very painful, seemingly interminable, headlong plunge instead.

The halfling tumbled head over heels again and again. She swore she bounced off every step on the way down. She must have acquired a thousand new bumps and bruises, but she tried hard to keep her arms protectively over her head. At one point, her left forearm smashed against the edge of one step with all of her weight behind it, and a jolt of searing pain blasted through her entire body. Mel had never broken a bone before, but there was a first time for everything, and the girl was relatively certain that this was it. After that, every time she jarred her arm even a tiny bit, the pain made her gasp and tear up.

And then, after what seemed like an eternity, Mel found solid ground once more. She sprawled facedown on a dusty stone floor, covered in dirt and wracked with pain. Her left arm extended off to the side, bent at an odd angle. She dared not look at it, but the dark liquid poolig slowly beneath her really eliminated the need. She bit her lip until she tasted the metallic tang of blood and her own tears mixed freely with the oozing fluid.

Suddenly, a flickering light entered Mel's field of vision from the direction opposite the stairs. She rolled her head that way, but could do little more than peer blearily up at the shadowy, blurry figure that moved swiftly toward her.

"Melona? What are you doing? You should not be here."

Gaelwyn. Mel struggled briefly, trying to sit up, but every time she even so much as thought about shifting her arm, it exploded in pain, so she stopped and simply turned her head away, upset and frustrated.

"Who is this?" The new voice seemed not to be really a voice at all, because Mel's ears utterly failed to register its presence. But she could hear it speaking nonetheless.

Either Gaelwyn did not hear the second voice, or he chose to ignore it. "Melona?" A note of fear wormed its way into the bard's deep voice. "Melona, speak to me. What are you doing here? Melona!"

The girl swallowed hard several times. She could feel her strength ebbing away, as unstoppable as the setting sun. She had to focus really hard just to continue glaring at the dust that swirled all around her. At this point, trying to move at all was out of the question. But there was something she really, really had to say to Gaelwyn, something that simply could not wait. Mel gathered the last of her strength and drew in as deep a breath as she dared.