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Before heading back to her wagon, she stopped by the chuckwagon’s still-propped-open side to tell Brand how much she’d liked the meal.

They talked briefly, and then Tala thought to ask him if he had an iron flask. He said he thought he might and went to dig in the back.

While she waited, she chatted with one of the other cooks, thanking him, again, for his help with her arm, earlier.

Brand returned with a large flask and a few of small vials. “This flask held a chili-oil, but we’ve used all we needed. It’s been cleaned thoroughly and doesn’t smell like it’s been flavored. Two cup capacity.” He then held up the vials, which also appeared to be iron. “These three held spices for the meals on the first day. They’ve also been cleaned.”

“Why not use glass…” She nodded in understanding. “Not worth the risk of breaking.” I thought they could make glass that was fairly resilient. She supposed that, when considering hundreds of trading missions, the difference in durability between glass and iron would matter.

“Exactly.” He hesitated. “Now, I can’t just give these to you…”

“Two silver sound fair?”

He blinked at her in surprise. “No. That is much too much!”

“Well, I don’t have it on me. You’ll have to wait until Alefast.”

Still, he shook his head. “I cannot sell caravan supplies at a profit.”

“Huh…ok, then. How much?”

“For all four?”

“Yes.”

“One silver, to be paid in Alefast.”

“Agreed.” She took the four vessels and turned…to find Atrexia standing behind her, glowering.

“You promised caution.”

“And I’ll give caution. I have materials I’d like to work with.”

Atrexia’s expression did not improve. “I’ll be watching you.”

Tala shrugged. “Fair enough.” She turned and strode towards a sergeant, whom she’d seen in the distance.

She ended up having to crisscross the wagon-circle several times, before she was able to catch a sergeant and grab their attention. “Sergeant?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Could I borrow a shield or two, to fasten to the top of my wagon?”

He frowned. “Mistress. We need those to-”

She held up a hand cutting him off. “Just at night. I will return them in the morning.”

He hesitated for just a moment before nodding. “I suppose that makes sense. You will be sleeping on the roof of your wagon, yes?”

She nodded.

“Then having a fixed shield to keep you safe as you sleep is wise. I’ll send one to you right away.”

That handled, Tala thanked the sergeant and headed back to her wagon for a much-needed night’s sleep.

 

* * *

 

Tala slept deeply and well, her bedroll spread out comfortably, one of the large tower-shields clipped into the defensive ring atop the wagon, laying overtop her. The wagon occasionally shifted as either Den moved, down in his sleeping area, or a breeze rocked the wagon just a bit.

She did not know what she had been dreaming about, but she came slowly awake to an itch on her left ankle, and a vague memory of the wagon shifting.

Groggily, she pulled her leg back in to scratch the itch and found the foot cold. Guess it was outside the blankets… She scratched absently.

A soft glow and a pull of power called to her sleepy thoughts, and she looked down in puzzlement. A linear series of spell-work was softly shedding light across her ankle, and as she focused, she realized that power was, indeed, flowing through her.

The magic of the berry she’d eaten earlier was gone, but she didn’t know if that was due to time or something else.

Did I scratch that hard? Or were the activation forms that sensitive? No…if I’d activated it, there would be a whole host of scratches, not one clear line.

She was almost fully awake now, and she sat up…straight into the shield arching over her.

A loud thump accompanied her muffled exclamation. “Ow!” She rubbed at her forehead. “That rusting hurt…” She felt a flash of dimensional magic, and the wagon swayed, as if someone had just jumped onto, or off of, the top. She froze, eyes locking on the space where the dimensional magic had originated.

Her mage-sight penetrated the heavy wooden shield with ease revealing, only being blocked by the intermittent iron banding…nothing.

She stood in a rush, pushing the shield out of the way, and swept her gaze around her.

It was late in the night, and the caravan’s fires were nothing but banked coals, only visible to her because of her enhanced perception and mage-sight.

Guards were patrolling regularly, and most everyone else was asleep.

Wind brushed her skin, tugged at her clothes and hair, and coated her with a beautiful, blessed coolness. She felt herself relax, even as she continued to scan. She loved the way the wind felt across her skin and longed to pull off the clothing she was wearing, just to enjoy the breeze more fully. She ignored the urge. It is neither the time, nor the place, Tala. Even so, she took both comfort and joy in the sweeping caress of the air, tugging at her hair and clothing.

Finally, her mage-sight found another source of dimensional magic, though it was currently, largely inactive.

An avian head was just visible, eyes glowing in the low light, staring at her from under a large bush, some fifty feet away, down in a small dell. The bush’s magic had hidden the creature from her initial sweeps, as the bush seemed alive with power, just as most were in the wilds. Sadly, the magic in the bushes she’d seen was almost entirely focused on the growth of the particular species of bush, and a creation of unpleasantness in the digestive system of any who consumed it. Not useless, but hardly useful to Tala.

Tala ignored the useless bush and stared at the creature, knowing, beyond any doubt, that it was the same dimensional terror bird that had attacked her the day before.

She did not let herself shudder in trepidation. She did not break eye contact. Slowly, following some instinct she couldn’t place, she lifted her left arm and waved. This is the arm you broke; you rusting pile of slag. If you are at all intelligent, you will remember-

There was a dimensional blink, and the bird was standing with her on top of the wagon, crouched low.

The wagon rocked subtly under the new weight, and Tala found herself crouching in response to both the motion of the planks underfoot, and the suddenly all-to-close threat.

Do I call the guards? What could they do? I could call for the other Mages…

The terror bird didn’t advance. Instead, it seemed to be studying her.

Tala glanced down at her ankle, a thin line of almost golden light obvious in the gloom. Her eyes lifted back up, briefly examining the bird’s talons. She gestured to her ankle. “That was you. Wasn’t it?”

The avian cocked its head to the side, then righted it, its feathers rippling in the wind. It let out a very soft, low squawk. Tala heard several of the caravan’s oxen shift and make investigative noises following the sound, but no one else seemed to have noticed.

“Is that a ‘yes?’ ”

It didn’t answer. Was it testing if I was puncture proof while sleeping? She did shudder, then. What would it have done if I wasn’t? She imagined it clamping onto her foot and dragging her out into the night, blood gushing from her leg, screams filling her throat and… Nope. Not thinking about that.

The arcanous bird’s eyes narrowed, likely responding to her shudder.

Don’t show fear, Tala. She straightened. “What now? Are we to stare at each other until dawn? Fight to the death?”

The terror bird shook its head in a motion reminiscent of a dog shaking off water. The motion was accompanied by the soft rustle of feathers, but nothing else.

Tala found herself smiling. “You don’t like either idea, do you.”

The avian chuffed, softly. Its eyes flicking around, clearly trying to watch for other threats.

She let herself glance around as well. “Where is your pack?” She suddenly felt an itch between her shoulder blades. It’s distracting me, so that another one can kill me from behind. She fought the urge to spin around and face the new threat. Her reason won out, and she kept her eyes on the terror bird before her. No dimensional magic flashed behind her, and she had a thought. It wouldn’t need others to flank an enemy. It does that quite well, alone.

The bird seemed to have lowered its crouch at her question, and its gaze was now entirely focusing on her once again.

“You’re all alone.” She felt a flicker of sadness at the thought. She knew what it was to be alone.

No response was forthcoming.

“Here.” She bent, sticking her hand into her pack to grab a bit of jerky and pull it out.

At her sudden motion, the terror bird blinked out of existence. Before she had even brought the jerky forth, it was gone.

“Oh…” She sighed, taking a long moment to scan around herself, again. Even looking closely at nearby sources of magic, to see if it had hidden from her mage-sight there, she couldn’t pinpoint the creature. Doesn’t mean it isn’t still watching… She sighed, again, and ate the small bite of jerky she’d grabbed. “What time is it?” She looked up at the sky. She was not good at telling time by the stars, but she saw no brightness on any horizon. Somewhere in the middle of the night then. Not precisely helpful, but worth knowing. I should sleep…

She repositioned the shield and was about to slide back under it when a thought crossed her mind.

Shrugging to herself, she took out a larger section of jerky; the piece would be two good bites for her. The section selected, she set it on the roof, some five feet from her. There. She wasn’t sure what she was hoping to accomplish, but she still felt a bit of sadness when she thought about the lone bird. Even if it did try to gut me…

That done, she slipped under the shield, under her blankets, and back towards sleep.

 

* * *

 

In the morning, she awoke with vague memories of flickering dimensional magic and a rocking of the wagon, but it could also have been a dream. She checked; the jerky was gone. A small smile tugged at her lips. She’d done at least some good, then. Not that that is a fitting meal for a three-hundred-pound creature.

At that thought, she froze. It rocked the wagon. Her alteration of the terror bird’s interactions with gravity had broken. I didn’t put any conditions on that lock. Only death or some other equivalent physical alteration should have broken my restraining spell. Unless the beast could counter her magic, directly? That was a terror inducing thought.

She was suddenly less sure about her pity for the large predator. I…may be in trouble…

Tala was waking slowly, the light of pre-dawn tickling at the edges of her awareness. Despite the implications of the avian’s release from her magics, she felt rested, refreshed, and relaxed. The terror bird will not terrorize me. She did, indeed, feel wonderful.

She slipped out from under the shield and quickly folded and rolled her bedroll. Most of the camp was still asleep, despite the lightening sky, but she could see Brand and the other cooks working in the chuckwagon, through the upper half of one wall, which they propped open when the wagons were stopped. The click of metal on metal, and the other low sounds of kitchen-work floated to her as well, now that she’d turned her focus that direction.

Guards still patrolled the outskirts of the caravan. Others sat atop some of the wagons, keeping a lookout. One of those caught her attention as he waved to her. Ashin? Had he been assigned night duty? I didn’t think that guards would rotate their assigned shift, but I suppose I never asked.

She waved back. Maybe I’ll stop by, after my morning work.

She climbed down as quietly as she could, attempting to let Den continue to sleep.

He slept on.

She stored her gear and went to find the privy. When she returned, she took out the magic detector and iron salve. With a glance around at the mostly silent wagons, she decided not to go to the other side of the wagon.

A minute later, she had swept herself with the inscripted stick, and touched up her iron salve protection, erring on the side of over-applying.

That done, she returned those items to her box, and moved through her stretches. This morning, she decided it was worth doing her exercises, and moved through them quickly once she was limbered sufficiently. Thanks to the coolness of the morning, she didn’t work up much of a sweat, but quickly cleaned herself off afterwards, nonetheless.

Her personal morning tasks complete, she turned her attention to the cargo-slots, one symbol cheerfully ablaze on each. You know…those are glowing even to my normal sight. I wonder how much of the total energy is used just to have an easily visible beacon that doesn’t require mage-sight? She made a note to send a missive back to the Wainwrights’ Guild to forgo that, when they made her specialized set of cargo-slots.

Musings aside, she moved down the line with quick efficiency. Her mini-lecture to Renix the night before came back to her, and she focused special attention on her mental construct for the empowering and found that the added attention, likely aided by her own mental enhancements, was continuing to pay dividends. More efficient, indeed.

Soon, thirty symbols glowed happily, and she was done. I’m getting faster every day. It had only taken her about four and a half minutes this morning, even with the added focus on perfecting her mental construct of the working. Those efforts had also removed most of the power requirement, when compared to her first attempts.

She frowned at that. All I’m doing is filling the spell-forms’ power reserves. How can I be reducing the amount of power that takes? That’d be like saying it no longer takes a gallon of water to full fill a gallon jug…Unless… Was she really spilling so much power, when she’d been trying to fill the forms, earlier? More crucially, does it really take so little power to maintain a dimensional distortion? She supposed that her concept of how much power a given working should take was based on how much power she, and those she’d observed, had needed in the past.

Are we really so inefficient, most of the time? It was an interesting thought.

Sighing, she walked over to the chuckwagon. Dawn had still not fully broken, the sun still not visible, and most people were still in their respective wagons. Am I efficient, or is everyone else lazy? Tala resisted the urge to scan the wagons with her mage-sight, as it felt too much like peeping for her taste.

As she approached the open side of the chuckwagon, Brand held out a steaming earthen-ware mug. “Fresh.”

Tala frowned and took the drink. It couldn’t be… She looked down at the dark brown liquid and caught a whiff of heaven. “This isn’t…”

“Coffee? Yeah. I thought you’d like a cup, today. Especially since you skipped yours, yesterday.”

Tala’s head came up, eyes narrowing. “I was due a cup of coffee, yesterday?”

Brand shrugged, not catching her tone. “Of course. The caravans are one of the primary consumers of the stuff, outside of the intelligentsia. It’s one of the perks of taking the trip; ‘All the coffee you can drink.’ ”

Her eye twitched. I could have had coffee, yesterday… She took a deep breath and steadied her mind. “Thank you, Brand. Could I have another cup?”

He eyed her still full, untouched mug. “Could you finish that one first?”

Tala looked down, then smiled wryly. “I’m going to take it to one of the guards.”

“Oh! Of course.” He quickly fetched another mug for her, and she accepted it gratefully.

She carefully navigated her way over to the wagon on which she’d seen Ashin. It was there that she was presented with a dilemma. I can’t climb the ladder, and I can’t reach the roof…

Thankfully, Ashin, who was still on duty, must have noticed her, because he leaned over the side. “Mistress?”

She held the coffees up. “Can you take these?”

Looking puzzled, he leaned down and did so, freeing her hands.

Thus liberated, she clambered up the ladder quickly. Once she was atop the wagon, specifically the bunk wagon for the guards, she took one of the mugs back. “Thank you."

He offered her the second mug as well.

“Oh! No, that’s for you.”

Ashin frowned. “Oh?”

She shrugged. “I thought you’d like it. Are you just starting your shift, or just ending it?” She settled down into a cross-legged, seated position.

Ashin looked from her to the coffee and back a couple of times before sighing and returning to stand in the center of the wagon, as he had been. “Just near the end. I’ll be relieved when the sun is halfway over the horizon and be able to grab breakfast before climbing into the bunk-wagon for the day.” He tapped his foot lightly in an unneeded indication of the wagon he meant.

Tala took a long, slow drink of the smooth, dark coffee and again, contemplated marrying Brand. He’s already married Tala, and you could hire a cook. It was an odd thought, having enough money to hire a cook. She’d never do it, of course. Such a frivolous expenditure would have to await consideration ‘til after her debts were expunged. I could marry wealthy? She sighed, ruefully, shaking her head. No, Tala. That was a bad idea. Truly terrible. Not worth considering further.

Ashin took a careful sip, and Tala saw his face twitch.

“Do you not drink coffee?” She suddenly felt foolish. Why am I up here? I’m just bugging him, and making him feel obligated…

He smiled. “Not too much, no. It seemed a waste of money, to me, and I didn’t think it wise to pick up the habit while out on a job.” He hesitated, looking down at the drink. “It isn’t bad, and I suppose I am in a caravan more often than I’m not.” He turned back towards her slightly and nodded, lifting the cup slightly. “Thank you, Tala.”

She smiled. “You are welcome.” She took another long drink from her own mug. Delicious. “We’re, what, three days from Alefast?”

“Just about, yeah. We should arrive sometime before sunset on the final day. It’s about 125 miles between Alefast and Bandfast, and we cover about…” He trailed off, seeming a bit embarrassed, then cleared his throat. “Anyways, yes. We should see the third sunset from now from the city walls.”

Tala nodded, deciding not to comment on his initial ramble. “And you’re heading back to Bandfast soon thereafter?”

He nodded. “I try to do out and back trips as much as possible.” After a moment’s hesitation, he spoke on, his eyes continuing to scan the surrounding landscape. “Each spring, I contract for a big loop, that takes two or three months, but this late in the season, I want to be as sure as I can be to winter in Bandfast.”

Tala nodded. “Makes sense. That’s your home, right.”

He just nodded.

Tala found herself finishing off the last of her coffee, and she stared mournfully down into her cup. I suppose Brand will give me more?

She saw Ashin tense.

“What is it?”

“I keep thinking I see something out there, but whenever I look closer, or turn back to look, it’s gone.” He frowned. “It might be your friend, from yesterday afternoon.”

Tala scoffed. “Friend? The thing that tried to gut me?” Oh, rust and slag, what have I done? Does he know I fed it? Does he know it tried to take off my foot last night? What have I done-

He quirked a smile. “Yes, Mistress Tala. I’m aware. I meant it as a joke.”

“Oh! Yes.” She laughed awkwardly. “Of course.”

He cocked his eyebrow at her, then shook his head and turned back to scanning their surroundings. “You continue to amaze, Mistress.”

She almost asked him to explain, but then realized that she didn’t really want him to. “Well… I suppose I should get more coffee.”

Ashin glanced back to her and raised his own mug in salute. “Thank you for this.” After a moment’s silence he smiled. “And for the company.”

She smiled and nodded in return, before climbing down and heading towards more coffee. Well, that went well. She was halfway back to the chuckwagon when she realized that she’d neglected to tell Ashin that she was returning with the next available wagon train, as well. Well, that’s awkward of me… She sighed. I suppose it’s an item for next time.

And she was sure: There would be a next time.

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JLMullins

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