She tied her horse to a tree at the edge of the woods. “It’ll probably be faster to go on foot,” she said when she caught Greyson’s disapproving look. “The trees look dense here—the horse would just slow us down.”
Greyson nodded. “Agreed. But you’re just going to tie her up here?”
Ayalah frowned. The smithy had a point, though she hated to admit it. It had been so long since she’d needed to travel on foot, she hadn’t thought twice about the horse’s wellbeing. He didn’t need to explain what he meant: they could be gone days or weeks, and her horse would need to be able to move freely to escape if any predators came along. She knew he was right. “But then when we’re on our way back, we won’t have a horse to ride,” she lamented.
Greyson stared at her, arms crossed, eyebrows raised, in silence.
“Oh, fine, untie the beast, then!” She rolled her eyes. This smithy was unlike anyone she had ever known: refusing to fight, looking his superiors in the eye, being excessively concerned about animals. He was going to get himself beaten or killed one day.
Greyson obeyed, muttering something under his breath—she caught the words beast and inconsiderate and felt her cheeks redden. She said nothing, however, and pretended not to have heard.
“Okay,” he announced. “Ready.” He gave the horse a friendly pat and hoisted the saddlebags onto his massive shoulders.
Ayalah was impressed; she would have offered to carry some of the baggage, but the smithy didn’t seem to need any help. She turned and led the way into the trees, sword out just in case.
Summer was in full bloom this far north, and the forest was buzzing with the activity of the bees, the birds, and the smaller creatures, unused as they were to human predators in their forest. The animals grew less and less cautious as Ayalah and Greyson moved farther into the darkness of the deep forest, and a few squirrels and hares came right up to them to investigate before moving on. Ayalah grew irritated with their furry companions, but Greyson seemed charmed and amused.
The leaves on the trees were dark and thick, blotting out much of the sunlight and keeping the heat in. As they moved north, Ayalah found herself being forced to shed layers, even going so far, at the end of the fourth day in the forest, as to strip off her leather warrior’s jacket and continue in only her undershirt. It was immodest, but the leather trapped too much heat otherwise—and besides, she’d never been one to care for social niceties. Indeed, by the end of the second week in the forest, Greyson, too, had stripped down to his undershirt.
They moved through the forest without any idea of where they were going or which way they needed to go. Ayalah tracked their progress with marks on the trees and cleverly placed bright fabric ties, and they moved without speaking much, listening to the creaks of the trees and the calls of the birds high above them. Every so often they came to a stream and were able to refill their canteens and bathe. The water was warm and didn’t provide much relief from the heat, but at least it washed off some layers of old sweat. A handful of times it rained, but the warm droplets had a hard enough time getting through the leaves, and frequently didn’t make it to Ayalah’s outstretched arms or Greyson’s upturned face. The going was hard; Ayalah was glad for all the water rations she’d taken before they left Miltinoth. Where in all this overgrown forest were they supposed to find this man with a stone, anyway? So far they’d seen no evidence of any human life in this wood. Her patience began to grow thin.
During their third week wandering through the trees, Greyson called a halt: he was too hot, and the saddlebags had begun to chafe. Ayalah was grateful for the excuse to rest; she, too, had sweat dripping down her face, and she felt as if she might collapse at any moment. She helped him remove all the packs from his back, and the two of them sat in weary silence under a tree that looked strangely familiar, though she couldn’t see any of her marks or ribbons nearby.
“Greyson,” Ayalah said slowly, half asleep, “are we missing a bag?”
He looked at her and shook his head. “What makes you say that?”
She yawned. “I don’t know. Something seems wrong…” She leaned her head back against the tree and allowed herself to drift off for a moment. Suddenly, she snapped up, wide awake. “The water bag! Where’s the water?”
Greyson pointed to one of the bags lazily, without reacting to her panic. “Right there.”
She hefted the bag and gasped as the understanding dawned on her. “Greyson—Greyson, we’re out of water. Why didn’t you tell me we were running low?” Suddenly she realized how thirsty she was, and the heat seemed to crowd in on her.
“We’re out of water?” He gaped at her. “But you were the last one to refill our canteens.”
“No I wasn’t. If I had been, I would have noticed.”
“So would I. You were the last one to fill them, I’m telling you.”
“I was not! And even if I was, you’ve been carrying the blasted thing—you should have said something about it being so light.”
“Ayalah, do you really think I would notice such a small thing when my shoulders are hurting and it’s all I can do to keep moving?”
“Well, maybe you should have kept a closer eye on things, too.”
“You useless, annoying, disrespectful smithy! If I hadn’t been forced to drag you along with me—”
“You what? Would’ve had to carry your own bags?”
They were sneering at each other now, and although Ayalah knew it was ridiculous and childish, she couldn’t stop herself. It felt so good to unleash her frustration on someone. “You’re supposed to be here to help me, aren’t you? Well, go make yourself useful. Find us some water. I’ll wait here with the rest of the bags.”
He glared at her. “Are you joking?”
“No.” She raised her eyebrows. “Hop to it, smithy. Before the sun goes down and we lose the little light we have.”
With his typical infuriating disregard for proper manners, he maintained eye contact with her as he rose. “Fine, Warrior.” He said the title as if it were a curse. “I’ll fetch you some water.”
He snatched the bag from her hands and stomped off into the trees.