Chapter 13: The Open Hearth

Arra appeared in the distance, dusty and just on the edge of decrepit. No matter the condition of the place, however, the travelers sighed with relief at the sight of something resembling civilization. They all needed a bath and a decent meal. All they had eaten for the past week was dried fruit from home and whatever wild game they could catch, which largely consisted of gamy, stringy-fleshed lizards.

Even the horses seemed eager to find a stable and something to eat besides dry, tough grass. Dahlia pranced and threw up her head, and Bear whinnied happily. Harbinger wanted to run, but Riyin held him back, running a hand down his neck and murmuring softly to him until the stallion stopped yanking at the reins, though his trot remained quick and impatient.

Kirical's face revealed instantly that he hadn't seen home for a long time, probably several months. Of course, his straggly hair and the state of his camp had given hints, but now he looked truly frightened.

Riyin watched the healer's anxious countenance grow more so with every passing minute – his eyes wide as an owl's, his hands trembling. He meant to ask the boy why the thought of home made him so nervous, but he had no chance before they rode into town and Kirical's nervousness had deteriorated into full-blown panic. His eyes flicked about as if searching and his breath came fast. Miara, riding in front of him, and Liren, just a bit ahead of the others, did not notice; but Riyin did.

The mere smell of Arra unnerved the horses; they flared their nostrils and tossed their heads.

The townspeople were quiet, but did not seem threatening. They lined the streets, bartering for goods and practically ignoring the strangers in their midst, so different from Eshtal. A few people approached cautiously, and they managed to find out from one of them where to find a good inn.

It didn't take long to find; Arra was so small that only three inns existed, and the Open Hearth was both the largest and the cleanest.

A rather large and very hospitable woman greeted them at the door and led them to the stables, where the tired animals fell very quickly to a good meal of hay and grain. Riyin rubbed the sand and dirt from Harbinger's coat before bidding his horse goodbye for the time being and following the hostess into the inn itself.

They paid for a single room – reluctant to sleep apart – with money from Liren's bag, and were shown upstairs to their lodgings, which looked clean, but rather old and tired. The town itself seemed rather old and tired.

The room contained two beds side-by-side, as well as a very small cot, upon which Miara immediately laid her bedroll, ignoring the sheets folded beside it.

"You're welcome to the beds," she said. "I do suggest using your bedrolls instead of the sheets… I've been in too many inns like this to trust them." She scratched her arm ruefully.

The travelers took the very welcome opportunity to wash the filth from their bodies, the results of days – longer in Kirical's case – on the road.

Dinner at the Open Hearth came across as modest, but made with great care. The other patrons seemed very familiar with the friendly hostess, joking amiably with her and generally showing more life than the rest of the town combined.

As the door swung open to admit another customer, Kirical began to cower in his seat, sinking low and trying to hide behind Riyin's taller form. Riyin looked at him curiously for a moment before turning his eyes to the new stranger.

The man was tall and broad-shouldered, his arms thick with powerful muscle. Only his startling green eyes and light brown hair betrayed his resemblance to the nervous boy hiding in the corner of the crowded pub.

Riyin's eyes swept back to Kirical, who bit his lip and crouched still lower in his chair.

"Please, Riyin…." he whispered. "Please don't let him see me…."

"Who is he?"

"I'll explain everything later… as soon as he leaves and we can go back upstairs."

Instinctively, Riyin placed a hand on Kirical's trembling shoulder until the boy calmed slightly, though he still refused to sit up. After two hours, the stranger, the man with Kirical's eyes left, and the boy practically ran to their room, terrified that he would return.

"Who was that man?" Riyin inquired, his voice urgent. Kirical hung his head.

"My father…" he whispered. "He threw me out three years ago, after… something I did. My aunt and uncle took me in for a while, but they…don't like magic very much. I haven't spoken to anyone in my family for over a year. I lived on the street for a while, and then… I went to the desert."

"'Something you did'?" Liren asked. "And what exactly would that be?"

"Liren," Riyin said sharply. "Don't. Not now."

His brother fell silent, though his suspicion did not abate.

"My father threatened to kill me if he saw me again. I've been hiding from him ever since he threw me out." Kirical's shame – and his fear – showed plainly on his face.

Silence fell over the room like a blanket.

Miara finally broke the quiet with a welcome suggestion.

"Go to bed. We're all tired, and we all need rest if we're going to stock up and move on tomorrow."

Without another word, they took to the beds; Liren on one, Riyin on the other. Kirical made to lay his bedroll on the floor, but as Miara and Liren fell asleep, Riyin offered the mage the extra space on his own bed, which he gladly accepted.

When Kirical lay on his side, his hair swept back from the dragon mark that ringed his eye, and Riyin noticed a wide, angry scar that ringed the serpent.

"What happened to you?" he asked softly.

Kirical shuddered.

"It's a long story. I don't like to tell it."

Riyin accepted the answer and allowed sleep to claim him – sleep haunted by ancient serpents whose roars echoed in his ears like the very embodiment of war.

The mark bit into his shoulder until he felt he should bleed, but he did not wake until late morning when Miara shook him and yelled something about rock-headed princes. He noticed that Liren hadn't risen either.

"It's nearly midday and you've slept like logs all night," the Guide muttered. "I've already gone out for supplies; we've enough salted meat to last quite long enough to become truly sick of it, and some fruit. We'll have to keep hunting, but it shouldn't be long before we reach the outpost at the edge of the mountain forest, and food and water should be easier to find there. Now get up and pack before moss starts growing on you."

With a tremendous groan, Liren heaved himself out of bed, followed shortly by Riyin, who paused only long enough to register that Kirical had returned to the floor sometime during the night – or perhaps in the morning before his fellows had woken up.

When they made it down to the stables, and the princes busied themselves readying the horses for the continuing journey, Miara looked contemplatively at Bear, and then to Kirical.

"You know, you should probably have a horse," she mused.

The mage eyed her incredulously.

"I can't ride."

"Well then learn, or ride with one of them. My horse is eighteen and small. He shouldn't be carrying two people and a heavy pack."

The healer looked at Bear. The gelding was small, little more than a pony, and he certainly didn't want to hurt him.

"It's not that hard to walk," Miara said impatiently. "You put one leg on each side and steer with the reins. Squeeze with your legs to go, pull the reins – gently – to stop. But Liren's mare will become quite put out if you try to ride her, and Riyin's animal will throw you. I'm going to buy you a pony."

Kirical bit his lip and laughed nervously. Riding double with Miara made him uncomfortable enough; he was sure that a horse of his own would dump him in the dirt without a second's thought.

In a stroke of either good or terrible luck – depending on whether one asked Miara or Kirical – the innkeeper's young daughter had recently outgrown her aged horse and purchased a younger, stronger animal for riding and chores.

The only problem with the new horse – which Miara purchased the moment she determined that the mare was sound – was that she was a draft breed, built heavily for farm work and taller even than Harbinger. When the Guide led Pet – for that was the roan mare's name – out to the three waiting Marked, Kirical's face went completely white and he froze in place, fairly terrified.

"Quite the pony, Miara," Liren jibed, rolling his eyes.

"Don't think it's easy finding a cheap horse on short notice, Dragonsbreath," the Guide snapped. "Come here, boy. I'll give you a leg up."

Kirical walked slowly up to Pet with the demeanor of the gallows-bound, his eyes growing wider as he grew closer and could truly appreciate her monstrous size. Her shoulder rose above his head, at least eighteen hands – six feet up. When Miara gave him a lift into the saddle – for which he was immensely grateful, as he did not wish to ride bareback – he felt extremely vulnerable and gripped by a powerful fondness for solid ground that he had not known he possessed. His legs reached little more than halfway down the horse's barrel, and the ground seemed both very far away and very likely to be meeting him soon.

Pet barely seemed to notice the slight human on her back; her head hung low and she seemed to be dozing. Riyin wondered absently if the older mare would be able to keep pace with Dahlia and Bear.

The remaining three moved most of Bear's baggage onto Pet's back, much to the relief of the smaller horse and the indifference of the larger. When their supplies had been packed as well as they could ask for, Riyin used a large rock to mount Harbinger, and Miara and Liren swung aboard their own horses.

Miara's old anxiety had returned, and Kirical's was worse than ever. In his eyes, perhaps the greatest disadvantage of his steed's size was how visible she made him, in a place where he spent most of his time trying desperately not to be seen. He wished dearly that he could disappear into her thick red mane, but as the horses' hooves clattered on the old cobbled street, he heard a voice he had hoped to escape forever.

"Murderer!" his father hissed, standing not more than ten yards away, holding a crossbow and wearing a face so twisted with fury that Miara and the twins did not recognize it. Kirical did.

Possessed by his panic, he drove his heels into his mount's sides. Surprised, Pet threw up her head and bolted, the boy flapping wildly on her back – but not before Father fired. Kirical felt the projectile pierce his thigh, and Riyin watched the change take over his face – watched his frightened features twist into something brutal with rage. The young mage hauled his horse to a stop and leapt from her back, landing catlike and predatory on the ground, his nostrils flared and eyes cold with reptilian savagery.

Kirical's father had not expected the change that came over his son. The boy's eyes went cold and empty, and his mouth twisted into a snarl. As his father loosed another bolt, he dodged with startling speed and dropped to all fours with the scream of a wild beast. Kirical was nowhere in this savage creature except in its dragon-marked eye.

Momentarily, his attacker backed down, only to advance again with a determined scowl and another bolt locked into his crossbow.

This one grazed Kirical's ribs half a second before Sojarey lunged, roaring in pain and fury, clutching the dagger meant to pierce Kirical's father's neck and baring murderous teeth.

But before his dagger could find its mark, before his vicious teeth could find their hold, a delicate hand closed around his arm. Infuriated still further, he buried his teeth in Riyin's wrist until blood welled up from broken skin and Riyin released a small noise of pain. Something changed in Kirical's dead eyes.

"Get out of here!" his father screamed. "Out! You freak! You monster! You MURDERER!"

Now Kirical's face filled with fear, with panic. He tore from Riyin's grasp and began to run, not seeming to notice that his mount had fled into the desert, panicked by the smell of blood and atmosphere of terror. Riyin followed, his injured leg screaming in agony.

Harbinger galloped to his friend's side, sinking to his knees to allow Riyin to mount; and then he fled, halting only long enough for Riyin to haul Kirical aboard.

Liren and Miara awaited them at the city limits, and the travelers escaped back into the forbidding wilderness.