Blaze stuck to the woods when the group reached the town the next morning, working their way around the town’s outskirts while Senara and Eryl took the horse and cart to be sold. Don’t forget to get straps, they reminded their human companions not long after parting ways, I want to help carry my share. Blaze had taken the discussion between Senara and Eryl about everyone doing their part to heart. They’d asked if the horse’s saddlebags would fit them, and Eryl had tried, to mixed results. Blaze walked lower to the ground than the horse, and the strap kept catching on twigs and rocks. The packs also had a tendency to slide back as Blaze walked, slipping to their narrower hindquarters and falling off. They could carry the packs in their mouth, but no one was very happy with that solution. Eryl came up with the idea of modifying the saddlebags to be worn like his and Senara’s own travel sacks, hence, the straps.
Once the cart and horse were sold, they bought the straps first, then began working their way down the rest of their list of necessary supplies. “I think it will be another week until we reach the next village,” Senara mused, consulting the map. “There are sure to be a few farms here,” she tapped an open space on the page, “but everything else is forest until we reach the lakes.”
“That’s good,” Eryl said. “Less chance of being seen.” He grunted as he hefted a sack of apples over his shoulder. “Means we’ll need more food, though. It’s too bad we can’t keep the cart just for our things, but the bigger Blaze gets, the less the horse wants anything to do with them.”
“There’s good game in the forests,” Senara stopped in front of a shop staring up at the quiver of arrows on the sign. “Maybe I can help Blaze hunt?”
Eryl’s gaze followed hers and he gave her a speculative look. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but aren’t your archery skills mostly recreational? Do you have any practice with moving targets? Because I’ve got less time with an arrow than you do, so I won’t be able to help you there.”
“You’re right, I was only ever allowed to shoot at stationary objects,” she turned a wry smile on him, “Mother didn’t think anything else was very ladylike. But I understand the basic principles, and I can try, right? Do we have the coin to spare for a bow?”
“Maybe. Won’t be what you’re used to.”
“I’ll make do,” she said, pushing inside the shop.
Buying a bow turned out to be the easy part. They rejoined Blaze outside of town and kept moving until midday before setting up camp. Senara took the bow and went with Blaze to try shooting her new weapon. She didn’t hit anything, but the familiarity of shooting left her surprisingly relaxed. Although she was willing to admit, that might have just been exhaustion from chasing down all of her spent arrows before returning to camp. Blaze had better luck with their hunting and so the party had a hot lunch before turning in to get some sleep.
Night travel seemed to suit all of them better, and they eased into the new routine, waking after sundown, having a quick dinner, traveling until sunrise, breakfast, sleep, and start again the next night.
The night feels safer, Blaze admitted to them a few evenings down the road.
“Less people about,” Eryl agreed. “We don’t have to worry so much about hiding.
“It’s more peaceful, too,” Senara agreed. “I enjoy traveling to owl song.”
I liked your music better, Senara, Blaze said, when you would play for me in the egg. The owls are all right, too, I suppose. Maybe I shouldn’t eat so many of them. The feathers get stuck in my teeth anyway. Rabbits are better, though they’re harder to catch.
“I miss my flute, too,” Senara agreed, only just realizing the truth of that statement. “But I liked playing it because it reminded me of birdsong, so the real thing is always better in my mind.” She rested a hand on Blaze’s neck. “You’re getting better at hunting,” she encouraged them.
You are too.
“They’re right,” Eryl agreed. “Keep this up and between the two of you, we won’t have to worry about food at all.”
“Until we leave the forest, at least,” Senara pointed out. “I don’t know what kind of quarry there will be in the lake lands, and I doubt I can catch fish with arrows.”
Blaze perked up. Fish? My mother loved fish. I wonder if they’re harder to catch than rabbits.
They might not be in the lake lands yet, but there were still a few lakes and ponds to be found along their way. Eryl tried to camp by them when possible, giving Senara and himself a chance to wash. Senara appreciated the gesture, although bathing came with its own frustrations. “The next market we come to, I really am going to remember to buy a comb,” she cursed, trying to untangle her hair by the fire after washing it. “Maybe a mirror, too, although I’m not sure I want to see what I look like at this point.”
Eryl sat nearby, tending the rabbit on the spit. He watched her struggle with clear amusement. “It’s just hair, Senara. It’s not the end of the world if every piece isn’t perfectly in place.”
“Tell that to my mother,” Senara snorted. She narrowed her eyes at him, “or to you, for that matter. Your hair is always tidy! How do you do that?”
He arched an eyebrow. “I have a comb. Which,” he hastened to add as she glowered, “you are welcome to use if you wish. I can go get it–“
“Don’t bother,” Senara sighed as her fingers caught in a nasty snarl. “I’d probably just break it and then we’d both be a mess. But thank you.” The idea of using his comb seemed somehow too personal. Her stomach did a funny turn at the thought, and she dropped her gaze, focusing her attention back on her unruly locks.
Would it be easier to care for if it wasn’t so long? Blaze suggested. Eryl’s mane is much shorter than yours. Maybe that’s why it behaves?
Senara couldn’t help but chuckle at that. She smiled at the dragon. “Humans have different kinds of hair,” she explained, “not just different colors. I think that might have something to do with it. Although you’re right, length is also a factor.” She shrugged and admitted, “I’ve always wanted to cut it much shorter, but Mother would never entertain even the suggestion of doing more than trimming split ends.”
“She’s not here now,” Eryl pointed out.
Senara’s eyes lit up, and her fingers stilled in her hair. “She’s not,” came the whispered realization. A spring of excitement bubbled up inside of her. Could she? Did she dare? Her eyes fell to the knife at Eryl’s belt. “May I borrow your blade?”
“Uh,” he dropped his hand to his waist, staring at her, “are you sure?”
She held out a hand, grinning, “I am.”
“All right,” he pulled the knife free and stood, holding it out, but hesitated when she reached for it. “This really isn’t what it was made for. It’s not going to be a neat cut.”
“When has my hair ever truly been neat?”
He shrugged. “Here you go.”
Senara took the knife and twisted her hair into a coil with one hand, then began sawing at it just above her shoulders. The knife was sharp, and she could feel the coil split in her hands as hair started to give way. Still, it took some time to cut all of the way through, but the second she severed the last hank, she felt a literal weight lift from her shoulders. Her whole body felt lighter as the loose locks swung about her face. She giggled as she held up the coil of hair that was no longer attached. Eryl let out a low whistle. “What do you think?” she asked.
“It’s different,” he said reaching for the knife and inspecting it with a thoughtful look. He glanced up at the sky, which was getting lighter by the minute. Sunrise had found them. “Do you want me to even up the ends?”
“Would you? Yes, please.” She bit her lip as he moved behind her, running his fingers through her hair and comparing the lengths of the strands.
“Won’t be perfect, but you’ll be presentable, at least,” he told her.
“Thank you.” She resisted the urge to lean back against him. “How does it look, really?”
Shorter. Blaze swished their tail.
Eryl laughed. “It is that, yes. I don’t think we’ll know for sure until it’s dry, but,” he finished trimming and stepped in front of her, tilting his head as he assessed her new look, “I think it suits you.” He slipped the knife back in its sheath. “How do you feel about it?”
“Better. I feel better. Thank you, Eryl,” she repeated, smiling up at him. She reached out and put a hand over his.
He smiled back at her and they seemed caught in the moment, just looking at each other, smiling. Then some juice from the rabbit dripped and sizzled in the fire and he jumped. “Breakfast!” He gave himself a little shake and returned to the spit, glancing up with a sheepish look. “This is about done. Why don’t you get rid of that,” he gestured to the loose hair she still held, and I’ll get this ready. Then we can eat and turn in.
Blaze followed her to the edge of the clearing, where she tossed the hair unceremoniously into the trees. You don’t want to keep it?
“No,” she said, turning to them. “I think that’s a sign of the old me. Best to let it go.”
Oh. I think I understand. When we molt, we don’t keep the shed skin.
“Exactly,” she agreed as they turned back to the clearing. “Although, if you molt before we leave Sunpeak’s borders, we might have to do something with what you shed.”
I wouldn’t worry about it. My first molting won’t be for another several months at least.
They settled in to breakfast and made quick work of the washing. Senara’s hair was still damp when she curled into her bedroll and she fell asleep trying to imagine what it would look like when she woke.
It looked like a bird’s nest.
It turned out Senara’s hair had some curl to it. Freed from the weight of its length, it dried into a fluffy halo around her face. Sleeping without it in braids had resulted in more snarls and tangles. Eryl took one look when she emerged from her tent and ducked back into his, returning and handing her his comb without a word. But working out the tangles seemed to take no time at all, and she still felt so much lighter and freer than she had earlier. “I think I like it,” she announced as they packed up, “although I suppose that’s a bold claim without a mirror.”
“It does suit you,” Eryl said, and his smile held no laughter, only kindness.
They pushed on through the forest and into the lake lands, stopping in village markets when their arrival lined up to do so. They didn’t have to buy much in the way of food, as Eryl had predicted. Her archery skills improved with practice and Blaze turned out to be quite adept at catching fish, which they decreed they much preferred to birds and even rabbit. Senara bought a couple of scarves to wrap around her hair for sleeping, and to keep it out of her face in the windier terrain. She felt a little guilty about the expense, as their supply of coins was dwindling. “We don’t know how much we’ll need once we’re in Radia. I wish there was a way we could earn a little coin as we travel. Do you think we could spare a day for that?”
Eryl looked at her as if she’d grown another head. “You want to stop for a day and work to earn coin?”
“I did it on the way from the caravan to you and Blaze,” she said with a shrug.
“How?” He continued to stare.
“There was a farmer taking goods from his village into the capitol. His wife mistook me for someone answering their post on the community board. I helped him load the cart and deliver the goods, and it meant I got to ride to the capitol instead of walking.”
Eryl was quiet as he digested this information. “I guess you were pretty desperate to get away.”
“I was,” she agreed, “and I wanted to reach you two before you moved on. Also,” she felt her face flush, “I was too tired to say no when Mistress Maggie found me.”
“That was lucky, stumbling into something like that. I’m not sure we’ll be that lucky twice. Although,” he paused, staring up at the sign of an inn they were passing, “maybe we can think of something else. But it’s not so dire as you think,” he said, turning to her with a reassuring smile. “We still have that whole purse from your brother. That will keep us a long way yet if we don’t go too wild with our spending.”
“True,” she said, relaxing a little. “I just wish I knew how long we’re going to have to stay in Radia before we find someone from Isola.”
“We’ll make it work, no matter how long it takes.” They had reached the edge of the market and he glanced around, then checked the purchases they were carrying. “Is there anything else you need to get while we’re here?”
Senara shook her head. “No, I’m sorted.” She yawned. It was close to lunch time and they hadn’t slept yet, wanting to press on to the village for supplies. They would need to travel a bit farther before they could stop to rest, wanting to make sure they weren’t too close to the village or any of its surrounding farms. Blaze had skirted the village while they shopped and informed them they were taking a nap while they waited. Camping was a bit more challenging out of the forest.
“Why don’t you go find Blaze and wake them up? I’ve got one more thing to get, but I’ll catch up.”
“Are you sure?”
“I am. You know Blaze takes a while to get moving. We’ll be on the road faster if you get them started now.
“All right,” she laughed and reached out to squeeze his hand. “Don’t be too long.” She slipped onto the main road and made her way out of the village, failing to notice the pleased surprise on Eryl’s face at her gesture.
As expected, Blaze was cranky about being woken. I don’t see why we can’t just camp here, they grumped as Senara tied up her hair and started redistributing the rest of the supplies they’d purchased across the packs. This is a very nice copse of trees, and I don’t like traveling in the day without the forest.
“We’re too close to the village, here,” Senara pointed out, “Anyone could wander by and see us. Also, this copse belongs to someone. They won’t be too happy if they find us setting up camp in it. We’re trying to avoid attention.”
Which is precisely why we should stay put, Blaze insisted. Anyone could see me while we look for our camping spot.
Senara bit the inside of her cheek. They weren’t wrong, exactly, but, “The further away from the village we get, the fewer people there will be. We just need to get beyond this ring of orchards, all right? We’ll stick to the hills instead of the road so there’s less chance of being spotted.” She glanced at the dragon with teasing smile, “If you stay in the tall grass, you’ll be hidden well enough. You blend in.” She tapped their nose.
“We ready?” Eryl asked, slipping into the copse and reaching for his pack.
“Just about. Do you want to split up your things?” She gestured toward his own sack of newly purchased supplies.
“I’ll just carry it. We’re not going far, but we should get a move on.”
Blaze sighed audibly and heaved themself to their feet, tail swishing in annoyance as the group left the cover of the trees for the hills that rolled along the road. “Are you all right?” Senara asked the dragon as they walked. “You seem a bit…”
“Cranky?” Eryl supplied, arching a brow at the dragon.
It’s nothing, Blaze said, trying to keep their head above the grass.
Senara exchanged a look with Eryl. “It’s nothing” meant it was probably something. “Blaze,” she urged, “please tell us. You know we’ll help however we can.”
I miss the forest, the dragon admitted, dipping their head below the grass as if to hide. I could climb the trees there, which wasn’t flying but it was close. I don’t like being stuck on the ground or everything being so open.
Senara drummed her fingers against her thigh, trying to think of how to reassure Blaze.
“I don’t like it, either,” Eryl said, resting a hand on Blaze’s back. “But at least the people are more spread out here so there’s less risk of being seen, and we’ll be in Radia soon.”
Senara showed me the map. There aren’t any forests there either. Or mountains. There are just towns and more people. Their head sank lower and Senara got the distinct impression they were pouting.
“There’s also the ocean,” she tried, “and there are cliffs. You can swim in the water and no one will see you, and at night you can jump from the cliffs to practice flying, right?” She looked to Eryl for support.
“There might not be forests,” Eryl pointed out, “but there are still trees in Radia. Towns will be near woods or orchards. We can find you somewhere safe while we look for the Isols.”
The dragon started to perk up. Do you think so?
“I know so,” Senara promised. “Our whole mission is to get you to safety, Blaze. We’ll find somewhere that you feel comfortable while we figure out how to get to Isola.”
Eryl nodded. “We will.”
All right, Blaze sounded relieved. Their head popped up from the grass and there was an excited gleam in their eyes. I do like to swim. I wonder if there are different kinds of fish in the ocean.