Waking once more to the vibrant scent of pigeon poop hadn’t been anyone’s perfect morning, but as Minkus, Jindel, Penny, and Ventyr left Stoneguard behind them, all felt more energized than they had the previous day. Ventyr silently concluded that, exhausted as they were, the four of them would probably have been able to sleep soundly just about anywhere, and he knew it was good that they’d gotten that quality of sleep. That day, they’d be traversing Guardian’s Pass, the last potentially dangerous segment of their journey. If they could make it through this without incident, the rest of the way should be peaceful, and he could once again focus on the true purpose of his task.
He patted the side of his tunic, feeling the lump still held in the inner pocket, right against his ribs. He wasn’t a person prone to anxiety, but after nearly losing his parcel to the band of thieves who’d taken them captive and killed Braxus, he’d started patting himself more often, just to ensure those jagged shards of stone were still there to press back. But, every time he touched them, he was reminded again of that wretched scene in the ruins at the Duststruck Moors: broken bodies bleeding out upon the stones, limbs savagely rended and tossed haphazardly across the turf, and the contorted faces of his fellow crusaders still frozen in horror. Sad as it was to think, that situation was actually a fortunate one. If the creature hadn’t spontaneously fallen to pieces, no one would have been left standing. And if such a creature had attacked anywhere else? Perhaps a civilian population? Ventyr didn’t wish to think too hard about the possibilities, though it was in his nature to do so.
The important part was that he had to see his parcel through to the Vigil Keep, to learn what the creature was, in case it wasn’t the only one. Or worse, in case it was connected to another dragon.
“Sir?” Jindel asked, interrupting his thought. She watched Ventyr expectantly as they continued down the road in step.
He blinked and looked over at her. “Yes. I’m sorry, crusader. I was thinking. What did you say?”
She raised an eyebrow, but only for a moment before repeating her remark. “Sir, I was just saying that the best place to veer off the road is only about a half-mile further down. We can arc around the Kipling farmhouse, cross the meadows, and meet up again with the road just before Nebo.”
“Yes, I’m familiar with that path,” he said, tilting his head. He went a few more strides before continuing. “You seem well acquainted with the landscape here, Crusader.”
“Yes, sir, I should be,” she affirmed with a nod. “My father often did business with the farmers in the area. Most times he brought me and my brothers along. Educational trips, he called them.” She looked at the ground passing beneath her feet as a gentle smile spread across her face.
“What sort of business?” Ventyr asked, keeping his eyes on the road ahead. It had only been a few days they’d been together, but he decided he should better get to know the soldier in his charge.
“Cattle ranching.” Jindel said. She looked up and around the landscape reflectively, and Ventyr’s gaze followed. The hills were coated in thick, tall grasses, green and golden, that waved and rolled along the landscape as a breeze sped down off the foothills, across the road, and toward Nebo. Thick, padded clouds drifted gently across the sky, and he took a deep breath of the crisp air, only the slightest chill of winter hanging on.
“Cattle ranching, huh?” Minkus piped in from behind them. “That’s a good business, I imagine.”
“Very good, in fact,” she replied, looking over her shoulder at him as they continued to walk. She looked ahead again, a skewed smirk lifting her cheek. “My oldest brother runs the business with him now, and the other two care for the herds. I miss those idiots.”
Minkus chortled at the familial comment, then pursued further. “You wanted to join the Vigil instead?”
Jindel released a heavy, mirthless sigh. “Valliford women don’t inherit the family ranch,” she said, “or any part of the business.”
Ventyr made no comment and his straight face never changed. Minkus’ face, however, fell. “So you left?” he asked, deflated.
“So I left.” A subtle chill settled on Jindel’s tone. “I figured if cattle and business are too hard for little Valliford girls, maybe I should do something more my pathetic, female speed: like joining the Vigil, fighting dragons, saving the world. You know, the easy stuff.” At that she fell silent, reaching up under her coat and tunic to run her fingers over the remaining scar in her shoulder. “We can all see how that turned out,” she said with another tense sigh.
As the others had been talking, Penny slowly drifted further and further behind them, until she was a good twenty paces to the rear of the party. Arms crossed, she still marched in stride with them, but the subject of family wasn’t one she had any interest in discussing. As the conversation went on, and she went on ignoring it, a tingle crawled up the back of her neck. She slowed her pace, scanning the horizon, not yet aware of why, but she could feel it: that old feeling she’d felt so often as a kid in the Reach. They were being watched.
Suddenly she spotted it. No more than a hundred yards away, settled in among the rocky outcroppings just west of the road, it stood perfectly still, its lightly armored shoulders and chest nearly blending into the dirty shades of gray that made up the hillside. All was camouflaged except for the crisp chestnut coloration to its lower half, all four legs of its lower half.
She froze, eyes widening. A centaur. She hadn’t considered the possibility of encountering one since Scaver Plateau. And yet, there it stood, the first one she’d seen since before she’d moved to the Reach all those years ago.
“What’s the matter?” Minkus asked, coming back beside his friend.
Penny made no movement. She only whispered, “Don’t make any sudden moves. Over there.” She nodded almost imperceptibly. “We’re being watched.”
Minkus followed Penny’s gesture. For a moment he didn’t see what she was talking about, but then it came into focus. Nestled in between a group of large boulders stood a centaur scout. Minkus jumped.
That was all it took to tell the scout she’d been seen. The centaur began back-stepping away from her vantage point.
“Don’t let it get away!” Penny cried, grabbing the pistol on her hip and taking off at a sprint toward the hillside. After only a few strides, she’d slipped out of the smartpack and let it go behind her, picking up speed.
Ventyr and Jindel turned back to see what was going on. “Centaur!” Penny yelled at them, still running. The Tamini scout turned to flee but stopped short before disappearing around a pile of boulders.
Penny was nearly half the distance away now, looking back over each shoulder to see who was following her. Ventyr and Jindel were heading in her direction, but Minkus hadn’t moved an inch, his eyes wide enough she could make them out even at that distance. “Torment, Minkus,” she rasped to herself before turning back to her pursuit.
With a start, she locked her legs, sliding to a stop. Ahead, the scout had turned back to face her, drawing a spear from the long quiver at its side. Behind the first centaur, there were now three more, with a greatsword and two bows drawn.
Penny sneered, not an ounce of her fire dissipating. Was it anger? Was it fear? No, she wouldn’t be afraid, not of a centaur. Still, a quiver ran through her core.
The fury refocused itself as she clenched a fist around the pistol grip and called back over her shoulder. “Minkus, now’s not the time to shit yourself! Get up here!”