With a passenger, I couldn't run as fast through the normal forest as I had inside the elf lands. Also, the air outside the protective barrier the elves had covered their lands in, was lower in both mana and Presence. I was pretty sure it was because the massive energy barrier let it gather and contained it, and the forest, now that I thought about it, hadn't been several individual forests. It was all one forest, just like the East Forest Glade back on The Order's home world had been.
The only bare spot I had seen the whole time I had travelled was that large clearing, and I was pretty sure that I didn't want to know how that large of a clearing came to be or why it only had short grass and no trees. Whatever had happened there had made the forest abandon it and left it unclaimed.
Maylia, on the other hand, laughed constantly at the speed we ran at. Her joy and exuberance was infectious, so when we stopped to have something to eat for lunch, I had laughed with her.
“That was so much fun!” Maylia said and sat down on a fallen log. “I'm not even tired!”
“Lashina taught me how to do that.” I said, once again bringing her up. “I had no clue how to share energy to run like that, and then suddenly we were running through the forest like water flowing down a river.”
“She sounds like a great person.” Maylia said.
“She is.” I said. “She helped me a lot when I was in a bad spot and she didn't try to manipulate me or change what I thought about the people she worked for.” I said with a smile and held the backpack out to her so she could take what she wanted to eat.
“Thank you.” Maylia said and took a small loaf of bread and a piece of fruit that looked like a cross between an apple and a peach.
“You know, if you were two feet shorter, had white hair and pink skin, you wouldn't look anything like her.” I said with a laugh, and she laughed, too.
“You're supposed to say that I would look like her.” Maylia said and took a bite of bread.
“I could; but, I don't want to compare you to her.” I said, and Maylia glanced at me. “You're different people. Comparing you wouldn't be fair to either of you.”
“You... you aren't using her as an example?” Maylia asked, a bit sheepishly.
“I've known a few strong women in my time. I'd compare you more to Luxea than I would to anyone else.”
“Who's Luxea?” Maylia asked.
I sat down beside her and ate while I told her all about Luxea, how I met her on a ship, and how things were starting to develop between us. Maylia listened attentively and nodded at certain points, then we finished lunch.
“You were starting to care a lot about her.” Maylia said and helped me tuck the uneaten dregs of our food into the roots of the nearest tree. She hadn't said anything as we did that; but, I saw approval on her face and a satisfied smile.
“When I got my mother's necklace back, I had planned to do a lot more than care about her.” I said with a chuckle. “I was actually eager to see what she would be like in bed if we didn't have to keep our hands to ourselves.”
“I think she would have eaten you alive.” Maylia said.
“That's what Donnie said when I met her!” I said and laughed. “With how things were before, I think it would have been dangerous to get involved with her... and yet... by the time we had slept in the same bed for several months and kept things platonic... well, it doesn't matter right now. I need to try and get back in contact with her and my ship.”
“I don't know how you would do that.” Maylia said. “I'm not a magic user outside of the general things guards are taught about living in the environment. Of course, there should be a spell that can let you do that. We can ask the next person we meet if they know the way to the capital and I'm sure we'll find a magic user there that can help you.”
“I haven't detected anyone yet, even though we're sticking close to the road we found.” I said and held a hand out to her. She took it with a smile and I covered her with my energy as she generated her own and they mixed together. “Ready for another quick run?”
“I think I was born ready for this.” Maylia said and we took off into the underbrush and ran between and around the trees. They weren't big enough or tall enough to run across the branches, so we had to go around. After a few minutes, she spoke. “I'm sorry that I'm not a tracker.”
“Maylia, I didn't ask you to come along because of the potential skills you might have had.” I said. “I wanted your company. Going alone would probably be faster and use less food; but, then I wouldn't have such a pretty companion to stare at or to talk to while she tried not to stare back at me.”
Maylia's pace faltered and I came to a stop to catch her in my arms before she fell. “H-how did you see... I'm behind you.” She said as she stared up at me and I smiled at her. “How did you know?”
“I can see everything in my detection range. It doesn't matter if it's in front of me or not.” I said.
“Then... if you can see through metal... can you see...”
“I don't look at women like that.” I said. “People wear clothes for a reason.”
Maylia let out a relieved sigh and smiled. “You can stand me up now.”
“What if I don't want to?” I asked teasingly.
Her eyes widened and she licked her lips automatically, so I stood her up. She had a disappointed look on her face for a moment, which made me smile wider, so I leaned in close and gave her a quick kiss on the lips and pushed a little bit of Presence into her. She caught her breath from that brief touch and put a hand over her mouth.
“I'm sure we'll find a town eventually if we keep following this road.” I said and took her hand again. I shared my energy with her and she closed her eyes at the sensation.
“They won't like that we have pointed ears.” Maylia said and opened her eyes to look at me.
“I'll conceal them when it's necessary.” I said. “Let's go.”
We took off running through the trees and underbrush and avoided the tree roots and pitfalls that existed in every forest. After an hour, I detected a house and slowed down. The forest was coming to an end and we wouldn't be concealed by a natural barrier from here on.
“Do you trust me?” I asked her.
“I left my home and my people that I've sworn to protect to come with you.” Maylia said.
“I guess that is a stupid question to ask you now.” I chuckled and gave her hand a squeeze. “You're still protecting them, you know.”
Maylia nodded and I used my Mask Presence and Stealth techniques on myself while sharing energy with her. She 'saw' me disappear right in front of her and she gasped, then she stopped breathing when my energy flowed over her and she disappeared as well.
“Relax.” I said. “I'm still here, as are you.”
“I can't see you! Or me!” Maylia said, slightly panicked. I used a mental technique to calm down and shared that as well, and she sighed. “Please keep doing that.” She said. “Before showing me such high tier magic would be better, though.”
I chuckled and we went over to the farm house. It was still early afternoon so the house was empty except for a woman that cooked at the stove. I saw a child of about ten was in the barn and there was a man with a horse and plow working in the field nearby.
“Should we reveal ourselves?” Maylia asked in a whisper. “The woman should know which way to go to get to the capital.”
“It's worth a shot.” I said.
“No! Don't kill her!” Maylia exclaimed and tugged on my hand.
“I wasn't going to. Where I come from it's a phrase that means we can try it.”
“Oh, my heart.” Maylia said. “Don't scare me like that.”
“I'm sorry.” I said and dropped the Mask Presence and Stealth techniques. “I'll be more careful about what I say from now on.”
“You don't have to, just warn me beforehand.” Maylia said. “Do you want me to do the talking?”
“No, I will.” I said. “I'm sure the sound of my voice is different enough from the locals that they won't question me when I say I'm from a far away land.”
“It's even true.” Maylia said with a smile.
I made sure that my hood was covering enough of my face and used Presence to cover the tips of my ears to hide them. I did the same with Maylia's and she reached up and touched it.
“Will that really hide them?” Maylia asked.
“Keep your hood up, just in case.” I said and we walked over to the farm house door and I knocked. The woman left the kitchen and came right over to the front door, then paused.
“Who is it?” She asked.
“I'm a traveller from a far away land and I would appreciate directions to the capital.” I said and saw the woman jump a little. She opened the door and looked up at us.
“Are you adventurers? I haven't heard that accent before.”
“It's been an adventure so far, at least.” I said, and she grinned.
“Please come in! I was just cooking supper.”
“We wouldn't want to impose on...”
“Come, come!” The woman said and grabbed my free hand and pulled us inside. “I've got plenty made and little Joquim will just love to meet you!” She shut the door and motioned to the lumpy couch. “Have a seat and I'll holler when it's ready.”
“Ma'am, just directions to the capital is fine.”
“Ma'am!” The woman laughed. “Do I look like a member of high class society?”
I gave her a once over, from head to toe. She had shoulder length curly dark hair, a slightly round face, and two dimples in her cheeks. She was barely above five feet tall and wore a simple dress and an apron.
“You could be the queen for all I know.” I said, and she laughed again.
“The queen! Me? Ha haha hahaha!” The woman turned away and went back to the kitchen and opened a window. “Hey, Hoquan! An adventurer just said I could be the queen!” She hollered out, and a man's deep laugh responded.
“I have to meet them!” He said and I watched him leave the plow where it was, unhooked the horse, and brought it to the barn. The boy, Joquim, took the horse and put it in a stall and set the feed back on its head. The two of them came into the house through the front door and stopped when they saw us.
“Well, I'll be damned!” The farmer named Hoquan said. “I thought Margaret might have gone crazy fer a second; but, yer actually here!”
“How many monsters have you fought?” Joquim asked right away.
“Maylia? How many have you fought?” I asked her. “Within the last couple of months or so.”
“The last thing I killed was a nasty tree wizard.” Maylia said. “He was animating trees and uprooting them to attack the guards.”
“Did he go poof or was he all squishy like real people?” Joquim asked.
Maylia chuckled. “He did both. He went squish first, then he went poof when the spells ended.”
“Wooooow!” Joquim stared up at her in admiration.
Margaret came into the living room to get us.
“Your highness!” Hoquan said and grabbed his wife and kissed her face in different spots several times. She laughed and tried to fend him off.
“Stop that!” Margaret said and managed to get a hand over his still puckered lips. “We have guests!”
The farmer mumbled something and she had to move her hand to find out what he said. “I'm sure they saw someone kiss before.” He said and managed to kiss her cheek again before she pushed him away.
“Wash your hands and get in the dining room, you scamp!” Margaret said and put a hand behind her son's back and pushed him that way, too. She smiled at us and wiped her face off on the end of her apron. “I swear he can make up any excuse to carry on and then he's all over me.”
Maylia stared at her with wide eyes and I just smiled, since the comment didn't really need a response. Neither of us mentioned that Maylia had never seen anyone act that way before, especially a man.
“This way, please.” Margaret said.
We followed her and saw a table full of very modest food. One odd chair was added on one side and I held the normal chair out for Maylia. She looked at me and I motioned for her to sit. She did and I eased the chair into the table. The farmer, the son, and the wife had already sat and stared at me like Maylia was.
“I know that looked odd.” I said with a smile. “Back where I come from, when you sit down to a formal dinner, you hold the chair of the woman you're with so she doesn't look undignified by dragging the chair on her own.”
“Yep, that's really odd.” Hoquan said. “Never heard of that before.”
“Hoquan!” Margaret exclaimed, and he laughed.
“I was just agreeing with him.” The farmer said. “We pray for guidance at the table before we eat. Do you do that where you come from?”
“I do.” I said. “I don't know if Maylia does.”
“We usually thank the queen and the forest for providing for all of our needs.” Maylia said.
“There can be some good hunting in the trees, if you can find a group thick enough to give good cover.” The farmer said and looked at me. “As our guest, you can have the first prayer.”
“I don't think I can put into words...”
“Just speak from the heart and give thanks.” Margaret said and took her son's hand, who took his father's hand. I was fortunate that I had sat beside the man because I was sure Maylia wasn't going to take some random man's hand for a prayer. She looked past her people's prejudice in my case; but, that didn't mean she would look past it for every man she met from now on. I took the man's hand and held a hand out to Maylia. She took mine without hesitation and then she slowly took the woman's hand on her other side.
I took a deep breath and let it out as I close my eyes and ducked my head. I ignored the urge to pray to the Goddess Chaiya and said my own words and not the rote response The Order used all the time.
“Dear god, thank you for having such nice people be the first ones you let us meet on our journey.” I felt a slight flow of mana come from Maylia that went through me and into the farmer. “Thank you for giving me the chance to meet someone as understanding as Maylia and for letting her come with me.” I said and the flow of mana increased and I let some of my mana and Presence enter that flow. “Oh, and thank you for not letting me die.” I said and three gasps met those words as the mana doubled. “Amen.”
I opened my eyes and saw the whole table was covered in a bright green glow. The modest food that had been on the table had changed and became a feast fit for a banquet hall. As the green glow faded, the food remained.
“Is that real?” The boy asked and reached out to take what used to be a plain peach apple from the plate and it was now sliced in half and was sugar-coated with what looked like a scoop of whipped cream in the center instead of the core.
“What kind of meat is this?” The farmer asked as he picked up a big slice of turkey breast meat that used to be a small chunk of chicken breast from a game hen. He took a bite of it and the meat fell apart in his mouth to give him the most flavor. “It's really good!” He said and shoved the rest of it into his mouth. “It's not dry or tough!”
The wife took a piece and tried it herself. “It's almost like chicken.”
“What's this white stuff?” The boy asked and used a spoon to poke at the big bowl of mashed potatoes that used to be just steamed chunks. “Where's the potatoes?”
“That is the potatoes.” I said, now that I was over the shock of having the meal transformed into what I thought was a proper sit-down meal. “It's called mashed potatoes, and it probably has some milk and butter mixed in.”
“Wh-what?” Margaret looked at me with shock. “Why would you waste milk like that?”
“Try it.” I said. “Believe me, it's not a waste.”
Margaret couldn't resist the temptation and used her own spoon to take a small little bit of it out of the bowl. She almost moaned when she put it in her mouth and tasted it. Her husband Hoquan saw her reaction and took a bigger scoop and tried it.
“Well, I'll be damned.” Hoquan said and sat back in his chair. “I've never tasted anything like this before.” He looked over the table and everything that had been there was now a much better version of it. Even the scraggly carrots he had managed to dig out of the hard ground were huge and covered in a sugary glaze. The four of them tried everything and it was all delicious.
Rather than have them pick at everything, I took the initiative and showed them how to load up their plates with turkey on the side, two scoops of mashed potatoes, the glazed carrots on the side, and poured a little bit of gravy over the meat and potatoes for taste. I handed the plate to Maylia and she looked like she wasn't sure how to eat it. I put a hand on her shoulder for a moment, served everyone and then myself, then I showed them how to eat it.
They caught on pretty fast, and soon all of the plates were empty and the farmer went back for seconds. Once he did, the son had another plate as well. When the meal was done, there was still tons of food left and Margaret didn't know what to do with it all. Maylia and I took some to spread our rations out and packed it in the backpack, and I told the farmer and his family how long it should last, assuming it didn't disappear when I left.
“Even if it does disappear, we just had a meal fit fer royalty.” Hoquan said, then he looked at his wife. “Maybe she is a queen after all.”
“She's the queen of your personal kingdom.” I said, and Margaret's face flushed red. “We need to go.” I said and stood. “Can you give us directions to the capital?”
“Follow the road for about ten miles, then take a right. There's a wider road there, so follow that for about a hundred miles to the river. Go upstream from there until you hit the docks. If you want to keep going on land, it's about a month on foot when you get to the cobbled roads and follow the signposts.” He said. “A boat will take you there in about two weeks.”
“Thank you.” I said. “For the meal and for the directions.”
“Can you teach me how to make those mashed potatoes?” Margaret asked.
“It's pretty self-explanatory.” I said with a smile. “Mash them, add a little milk and a spoonful of butter, then mix it together.”
The three family members walked us to the front door.
“It was nice meeting you.” Margaret said. “If you're ever back around this way, please stop in again.”
“If I do come back this way, I promise to visit.” I said. “Goodbye.”
The three of them waved and Maylia and I walked down the driveway to the road. They kept watching us as we walked along the road, and Maylia would occasionally look back and see the kid waving at us. She waved back each time, then we went over a slight hill and we couldn't see the farmhouse anymore.