Somewhere, at some point, Devon remembered hearing that Izoold was the largest port on the western continent. With that in mind he had expected to arrive at a bustling city, much like his home Palmacosta. But his impression couldn’t have been farther from the truth. If Izoold was the largest port on this continent, then this continent was in worse shape than he had heard.
“It’s almost as small as Thoda!” Melody exclaimed, following behind him.
He didn’t bother to answer, but continued walking. His hand slid up his sword handle and he frowned. It was unlikely that he would find any sort of metalworker in this place; it was little more than a fishing village.
Indeed there were only a few small buildings, only one of which appeared to be something other than a residency. He supposed it was the local market. But there weren’t any buildings large enough to be an inn. The largest port on the continent didn’t even have an inn! It was depressing. The town was fairly bustling at the moment, but even with disembarking passengers there were less than twelve people out. Devon ignored them all as studiously as he was apparently ignoring his companion.
Melody eyed him curiously, but decided not to try to draw him out. He had been quiet all morning, and all her attempts to draw him into conversation had failed. It reminded her of the first two days she had known him. She was beginning to wonder if she hadn’t imagined the other Devon – the friendly, cheerful one. This personality seemed to suit him better. She had to remind herself that he was a soldier after all. This was probably the real Devon. She stopped short as his arm shot out in front of her. Following his line of sight she saw a pair of Desians. Her eyes flew to him. He seemed almost serenely calm, visibly relaxed, but the air around him was charged with tension. She had no doubt that he was ready for whatever might happen. Subconsciously she moved closer to him, clutching her staff tightly. Fortunately the Desians didn’t look their way. After a moment each placed his right forefinger on his opposite hand and the two disappeared.
“That’s a new trick.” Devon muttered darkly. Desians tended not to reveal their more advanced magitechnology to the common people of Sylvarant. They must have been in a hurry. He dropped his arm back to his side, glancing briefly at Melody before continuing down the street.
“What was that?”
“Magitechnology. I saw them use something like that at the ranch once.”
It didn’t really answer her question, and the coldness in his voice almost made her wish he hadn’t spoken, but it was the first response he had given her all day and she would take it.
“Well, at least they didn’t see us.” she forced herself to sound cheerful, but she didn’t have to force the relief in her voice. Knowing he would look back she took a conscious step away from him and put some bounce in her step. It wouldn’t do for him to realize how frightened she was. Especially after her comment the day before. She didn’t want him to think she regretted coming.
He gave a noncommittal grunt and resumed scanning the few buildings of the village.
“Excuse me.” Melody turned to look at the woman Devon had addressed. She was rather young, and her clothing was the simplest Melody had ever seen. She looked down at her own clothes and felt guilty. Still, she seemed cheerful enough and she didn’t appear to be in any hurry.
“Sir?” her voice was soft, which struck Melody as unusual. It held a gentility that was at odds with her simple clothing and work-roughened hands. She darted a quick glance at Devon, but he seemed undisturbed. That seemed odd as well, since he was from a far more affluent town than she was, but then, he had traveled quite a bit as well.
“I need to know if there is a smith in town.”
The woman smiled, shaking her head, “Not here, sir.”
“An inn then?”
She laughed lightly, "If you want to call it that."
Melody wanted to sigh, but since Devon wasn’t disturbed she was determined not to be either.
“Then, can you tell me the way to Iselia?”
This caused a real reaction in the woman. She appeared somewhat uneasy at first but quickly schooled her expression back to normal. She was not quite as successful with her tone, “Why?” she asked guardedly.
This caught Devon’s interest, “I’m looking for someone.” His voice betrayed none of his curiosity.
“In Iselia?” she laughed once more, “not much out there, except Desians.” She shifted her glance away and Devon made no effort to hide his searching look. He knew the people of this small continent were poorer than those of his own, and that they were more compliant with the Desians, but were they altogether broken already? They hadn’t appeared upset by the Desian soldiers he had seen. Looking closely he saw more than fear in her face. What was she hiding? “I’m sorry,” she said quickly, “but I can’t help you. As for a smith,” she continued without giving him chance to interrupt, “I’d suggest you try Triet. But I warn you, it’s a hard climb through the mountains and a grueling walk through the desert after. If you were smart you’d hop back on that ship and head home. It’s likely the last ship going out for quite some time what with the monsters and all.” She cast a glance behind her at the fishing boats on the dock. Only one slip was empty, “Only Max is crazy enough to go out and about at a time like this. And you foreigners.” And with that she was gone, back to whatever work she had been performing before their interruption.
“That was different.” Melody commented. “Are you going to ask anyone else?”
Devon shook his head. “No. If she doesn’t know, they won’t either.” Melody eyed him curiously, “I chose her for a reason.” He remarked, in answer to her unspoken question, “she’s the town gossip from what I’ve seen this morning.” Melody just stared at him, and he stared back. Finally he broke eye contact, “We’d better see if we can barter anything at the market. If we’re going to travel through a desert we’ll need something to carry water in.”
They had been walking for hours, but Melody wasn’t about to complain. She couldn’t, because in his present mood Devon might march her right back to Izoold and stick her back on the ship. And she couldn’t let him do this alone. She was already embarrassed because he was carrying nearly all of their things, leaving her with just her staff. If she hadn’t tripped over that stupid root... but, then, she probably wouldn’t still be able to walk if she had been carrying their things all this way. She was already nearly panting.
“It’s the altitude.”
“What?” he hadn’t spoken since they had left Izoold, not even when he had helped her up and taken her stuff. He had simply held out a hand and then helped her take the bag off her shoulder.
“The altitude. The air in the mountains is thinner than the air nearer sea level, and much thinner than the air of a sea village. I’m surprised you didn’t feel the effects sooner.” He had stopped walking, and he offered her a jug of water.
Gratefully she took it, taking a small sip before sinking to the ground. She was suddenly very glad she had cut her hair. She couldn’t imagine how uncomfortable she would have been with the long strands sticking to her face and neck.
“You’re from a port city too.” She pointed out.
He shook his head, “I’m in much better shape than you,” he pointed out, “besides, this is nothing compared to Hakonesia Peak.”
She tilted her head.
“A large mountain north of our homes. It’s the pass between the northern and southern continents.” She nodded in understanding. They sat in silence for a time. After a moment she felt her breath return to normal and she stood.
“Well, I guess we should go now.” She ventured, brushing back her hair. Maybe she should have cut it shorter... she grimaced at the mental image of herself completely bald and then quickly smiled again, hoping he hadn’t seen her distraught look and misinterpreted it. She needn’t have bothered, for he had risen and was facing the other way with an intent expression. It seemed as though he was listening to something in the distance. He glanced around and then closed his eyes to shut out distraction. Melody looked around uncomfortably.
“Melody,” he said softly.
“Hmmm?” she was nervous now. Why was he so tense? And what was that buzzing noise? It seemed to be getting closer.
“I think you should get down.” She looked at him curiously, forgetting that he couldn’t see her at the moment.
“Down, on the ground. Get down.” He commanded, and she started to comply. But as she turned to grab her staff she found herself face to face with a red-winged insect of some sort. It was larger than her head!
“Melody!” Devon turned, his eyes snapping open. He saw the bug that had startled her, but he also saw something that was a much bigger problem. There was a large mandragora and two hawks as well, and those were far more trouble. Drawing his sword he charged. He wished he had been able to find a longer sword, Desian short swords were far too limiting as far as he was concerned. But it would just have to do. The birds he made short work of, but it appeared the mandragora would take more effort. And he could only hope Melody had overcome her fear and been able to stop the giant beetle. She had stopped shrieking, which was either a very good thing or a very bad thing, depending on the reason she had stopped. Dodging a plant-like whip he darted in on the side and thrust his sword into the creature. He preferred slicing attacks, but this sword just wasn’t made for that. The monster twitched once and stopped.
Turning he noticed that Melody was still alive, but she wasn’t having much luck with the bug, and two more were approaching. They flew straight at him, but when he thrust with his sword they darted out of the way. After several attempts he was almost growling and was tempted to attempt a retreat, but Melody suddenly caught his eye. She had apparently grown tired of running away from her pursuer, and now stood with her staff clutched in both hands, raised in front of her. As the bug came near her she swung at it, and it was unable to avoid the long staff. It ricocheted off the wood and on to the ground where it landed on its back and was, evidently, unable to right itself and resume its flight.
She whirled quickly, a look a near desperation in her eyes. “What? Did I do something wrong?”
He nearly laughed, but settled for a grin instead, “No! You did something right!”
She wasn’t certain whether to be pleased or insulted, but at least he seemed happy. She gave a weak smile in return.
“Can you do that again?” he asked, coming closer to her. She eyed the bugs behind him and nodded uneasily. “Good!” He patted her shoulder, “They’re all yours.”
“And what are you going to do?” she demanded shakily. She wanted to turn to look at him as he stepped behind her, but she was afraid to take her eyes off the bugs.
“I’ll finish what you started.” He replied easily. A moment later she heard a sickening crunch, but she couldn’t turn to look, so she did as she had been told. Taking a deep breath she set her feet and swung at the approaching bugs. Neither managed to escape and soon both were on the ground, squirming and buzzing unhappily. Devon walked to them and thrust his sword into their undersides. The action was accompanied by that same crunching sound and she realized it was the sound of their exoskeleton breaking on contact. A bit of green liquid oozed out, and then the bugs stilled, clearly dead. Her nose wrinkled in distaste and Devon shook his head.
“What did you expect me to do?” he asked, amusement lurking in the back of his brown eyes, “help them back up?”
“Of course not!” she looked away from them quickly, “that’s just... they smell funny.” She defended.
He gave her a knowing and almost sympathetic look, “they would have killed us if we’d given them the chance, Mel. But it’s okay to be upset. Most people are the first time.”
She didn’t want this to be the “first time”, she wanted it to be the “only time”, but she knew it wouldn’t happen. She had chosen to come, and now she would have to deal with the consequences. In fact, now she was a little embarrassed because she hadn’t really done much in the battle. As if reading her thoughts he came over and touched her shoulder.
“You did great.” He remarked.
She stared at him as though he had lost his mind, “Are you kidding? I shrieked like a toddler and then swung my staff around blindly!”
He chuckled, “Yes, you did. But you also found their weakness and that gave us victory.” He pointed out, “Never spit in the face of blind luck, it might decide to abandon you for someone else.”
“You’re crazy.” She insisted.
“Perhaps, but I’m glad you came.”
She almost forgot to breath. He was glad she had come. He would never know what that meant to her, especially in light of her recent doubts. It boosted her failing spirits, and it strengthened her resolve. No one had ever needed her before – she wouldn’t let him down.
He was tired. Very tired. This mountain pass seemed to be nothing but an endless trail of monsters. He preferred to avoid such places, but he didn’t know the area well enough to circumvent the mountain. From what he had heard the surrounding area could be even worse. At least the larger monsters didn’t generally live up here. Well... there had been that one beast, the bear, it had been more than twice his size and with his short sword he was practically defenseless against it, but it had been slow and not very persistent so they had managed to escape. He would be glad to leave this mountain, but he wished they could stop for a while to rest. Melody was having a hard time. And, if he was tired, she had to be exhausted. It was never good to enter a desert in less than perfect condition. But they didn’t really have a choice. They would never get any rest here. He could only hope the harsh conditions of the desert would keep the monsters away.
It was a good thing he didn’t set his hopes too high. Because, after about an hour in the desert, they had already fought twelve monsters. At least that gave him little time to reflect on his stupidity in not asking where, exactly, Triet was in the desert. He hadn’t really thought about that before, but now that he was there and there was no town in sight...
“Are we lost?”
“Of course not.” You could only be lost if you had had a clue where you were trying to get to in the first place. At least, that’s what he told himself - albeit darkly.
“Do we know where we are?”
“In the desert.”
Melody sighed, “Do we know where Triet is?”
“Across the desert.”
“Across the desert where?”
He finally looked at her, “I don’t know, Mel. I guess I assumed that if it was hard to find she would have told us how to find it.”
“It isn’t hopeless, I saw a town when we were on the mountain peak. It was north west, so that’s where I’ve been heading.”
“Oh.” she didn’t sound very relieved, and he couldn’t blame her. He wasn’t very hopeful himself. He deftly kicked some sort of burrowing monster, rendering it unconscious, without breaking stride. They had enough water for two days. But if they didn’t reach the end of the desert by then they were out of luck.
“Melody,” she didn’t stir at Devon’s call. “Melody!” he shook her shoulder. “You have to get up now! We need to get moving.” Melody groaned as she sat up. She was very, very sore. But she knew he was right.
“What time is it?” she asked groggily.
He glanced at the sun, “late afternoon.” They had spent the last two days traveling in the morning and evening, and hiding in the mid-day. They had until tonight to find some water.
“Oh... guess I’m a little late.” She blushed lightly.
“It’s alright. A few minutes won’t hurt us.” It wouldn’t matter at all at the rate they were going. He helped her out of their makeshift shelter and then went back in to grab their few remaining supplies.
He swung the pouch up on to his shoulder and hurried outside.
“What is that?” Melody was pointing in the distance. At first Devon thought it was a strangely colored outcropping of rocks. But he realized the patterns were too regular.
He grinned, “That’s our ticket out of here! Come on!” he grabbed her hand and set off at a brisk pace toward the area. It wasn’t nearly as far as it had seemed, and they reached it in well under an hour.
Devon was pleased to see that he had been correct. The distant object had been a series of tents and makeshift buildings - and a very large wagon. This was a caravan of some sort.
“Hello, my friends. Welcome to Nova’s Caravan.” A kindly man was smiling warmly at them and Devon felt Melody sag against him in relief. “Might I offer you some provisions and shelter?” the man offered.
“We’d be very grateful.” Devon managed to keep his voice even, but he wanted to sag in relief too.
The man, who Devon assumed was Nova, studied them for a moment and then nodded. “Yes, you have traveled for some time, my friends. We will get you some food and drink.” He moved back toward the largest tent and then paused to motion to them, “Come, come. Sit at the table. My wife will be pleased to have visitors.”
Devon led Melody to the table and they sank onto benches. In a moment a middle aged woman bustled out.
“Oh! You poor things!” she clucked over them like a mother hen, “We’ll get you a light meal and then we’ll talk. I’d offer you a bath, but I’m afraid we haven’t much water out here in the desert. But I’ll get a bowl so you can wash your hands and faces.” And off she bustled once more.
Devon and Melody exchanged amused glances. She was wonderful. A moment later she returned with the promised bowl, and behind her came two younger adults each carrying something for the “light meal”. They were obviously curious about the newcomers, but no one bothered them until they had eaten. When they had had their fill Nova opened the conversation.
“Where are you from, children?” somehow they knew that he meant no offense by this, it was just his fatherly nature.
“The eastern continent.” Devon answered, somewhat evasively. They knew very little about this man, and Devon was wanted.
“Quite a journey my friends, quite a journey.”
Devon nodded, “We’re looking for Triet, but we got a little lost.”
“Ahh, yes,” Nova nodded sagely, ‘The desert is good for that. But I can help you. Triet is less than a day’s journey west of this camp. On a clear day you can see it from here. I will show you in the morning – if you wish to stay the night with us that is.” He raised a brow at Devon and the younger man considered briefly before nodding. “Good!” Nova clapped his hands together. “Then we had best let you rest, tomorrow will be a hard journey and you look exhausted.”
Melody managed a grateful look and quiet ‘thank you’ and then allowed herself to be led off by Nova’s wife. Devon remained at the table a few moments longer before Nova’s son led him to a tent. There were no true beds, but this was far better than their sleeping conditions the last week, and he was extremely grateful.