Sapphire and Hiwei tromped down a thin dirt road through a field of weeds. At the far end of the field where the silhouettes of several buildings, which they hoped was a town. Above, the mid-morning sun was already making Sapphire uncomfortably warm. With one hand she fanned herself, putting a little cooling magic into each wave. In her free hand she rubbed several silver coins together. Hiwei glanced back at her, knowing immediately that the amount was far too small.
â€œSapphire, youâ€™ve really not thought this through, have you?â€ Hiwei sighed. â€œNo one would sell us their horses for such a paltry sum.â€
â€œIf you possess a better plan, please put it forward.â€
â€œPerhaps we could simply walk?â€
â€œNot speed enough.â€
â€œYou mean â€˜speedyâ€™? Uh, never mind.â€
â€œCome quickly, we have almost traversed the field. Hopefully people of this small hamlet will be able to render assistance and get us some transport or allow us to come across transport!â€
Still dubious, Hiwei stopped for a moment and considered turning around. After thinking it over, she realized that the four of them traveling together, after the incident in Shal-Qaz, was probably not a good idea.Â She ran to catch up with Sapphire. A large tower loomed over the trail, the thin stone faÃ§ade crumbling off to reveal the adobe behind it. They passed the crumbling walls, near the entrance of the small town. Hiweiâ€™s heart sank, as the few buildings around them seemed dilapidated.
They cautiously approached, wondering if the town was abandoned. They approached two buildings overlooking the trail. Both structures resembled the fortress tower they had passed. Hiwei started getting an odd feeling as she looked around, the uninviting narrow windows glaring down at her. They came to a stop beside a rickety sign bearing the villageâ€™s name.
â€œNashakutum,â€ Hiwei read quietly.
â€œYes,â€ Barked a voice from above. â€œWhat are you doing here?!â€
A man leaned out from a window, aiming an arrow straight for her. Several other windows burst open, deadly arrow tips peered outward. Another group of men spilled out into a small square beyond. Hiwei swallowed, stepping tentatively backwards.
â€œStop right there!â€ The barking man commanded, halting Hiwei dead in her tracks, â€œwho are you and what is your business here? Answer me!â€
â€œGuh, I am Sapphire,â€ Sapphire called frantically, â€œI here am on important business, business concerning you. Please, what provisions might you have stored that I might purchase?â€
â€œWhat my, uh, friend here is trying to say,â€ Hiwei said jumping in, â€œwe would like to buyâ€¦buyâ€¦â€
â€œWhy would you come here to buy something?â€ The man asked skeptically, â€œThere are plenty of trading towns on the river.â€
â€œUh, you see, well.â€
â€œYou know those people who are imprisoning the Kassars? We are attempting to stop them by travelling to Samek and we require your assistance,â€ Sapphire said, obviously not having the same reservation.
â€œWhat are you doing?â€ Hiwei asked through grated teeth.
â€œTelling these people the truth.â€
â€œQuiet, both of you!â€ the man in the window shouted. â€œBiru, get the elder!â€
One of the men on the ground nodded, and headed back into the village. Once he was out of sight, the bowman gestured towards the other two men on the ground.
â€œNow, you two intruders are going to come quietly with my friends there and await the elder.â€
Feeling uncomfortably warm from the sun, and the situation, Sapphire decided to follow. Cautiously she stepped forward and prompted Hiwei to follow suit. Once inside the tiny town square, Sapphire and Hiwei were lead to the fountain in the centre where they were deposited. The number of armed people nearby had decreased, which Sapphire took as a good sign. After waiting a moment to get settled on the ground, she turned around and scooped up a hand full of water from the fountain.
Feeling better from the cool drink, Sapphire was ready to talk with the town elder. He was standing right behind her, having crossed the square without her noticing. She blinked, surprised at the old manâ€™s speed. The grey haired man nodded as he looked over the intruders thoughtfully.
â€œSo, what has brought you two here?â€ he asked in a raspy voice.
â€œUh, well, it might take awhile to explain,â€ Hiwei started, looking over to her compatriot.
â€œWe would like to requisition transport to Samek,â€ Sapphire replied. â€œYou see, we will not be able to travel by ship as I had originally intended. And we would prefer not to walk.â€
â€œAh, interesting,â€ the elder said rubbing his chin. â€œI appreciate honesty, though I must know something, foreigner: what side of the disturbance are you on?â€
â€œOh, I am on your side,â€ Sapphire said confidently.
â€œI never said which side I was on.â€
â€œI, I mean I am working for a man attempting to restore the monarchy.â€
â€œHumf, I suppose you mean those Kassars,â€ the elder grunted. â€œVery well, I suppose theyâ€™re better than the alternative.â€
He turned away and strolled towards the largest house on the edge of the square, not giving a definite answer to anything. Hiwei and Sapphire looked nervously at the guards who still blocked the road out of town. The village elder did not return to the building, but instead paced around the fountain, occasionally glancing over at them. After a moment, he returned to where he had been standing and looked at them again.
â€œWhat are you considering?â€ Sapphire asked impatiently. â€œUh, what I mean to imply is, are you considering our requisition?â€
â€œI am, though I must ask you for something in return.â€
â€œWhat might that be?â€ Hiwei asked expectantly.
â€œI rarely see women traveling alone, for obvious reasons.â€
â€œAh, you see, I am a magic wielder,â€ Hiwei said, standing to her feet. â€œWatch this.â€
She mustered energy into her palm, aiming into the fountain and releasing a blast into the water. The explosion sent water droplets in all directions. As the mist fell to earth, Sapphire cooled the area, turning the mist to snow. It sizzled on the scorching ground and awed the assembled townsfolk. She sighed; glad to have some relief from the dayâ€™s heat.
â€œGood thinking,â€ Hiwei breathed, turning back to face the elder.
â€œThat was a very impressive display,â€ the village elder said enthusiastically.
â€œDisplay of whatâ€¦oh, oh of course,â€ Sapphire said quickly, throwing an arm over Hiwei. â€œWe are a great team.â€
â€œGood, because I want you to deliver something to Samek.â€
â€œWe can do that,â€ Hiwei said nodding, â€œwhat is it you want?â€
â€œHe is my grandson, Hitepshu,â€ the elder said sighing, â€œyou are to protect him on the ride to Samek.â€
â€œWow, you are a most trustful and generous person,â€ Sapphire said happily.
â€œEh, you might not think so in a moment.â€
â€œWhat was that?â€
No sooner had the words left her lips when a young man stumbled from the long building across the square, blinking in the bright sunlight. His nose was oddly short and stuck out at an angle as though it had been broken severely. He had an odd gate, his legs swinging in an odd fashion as he walked into the square. The more Hiwei studied him, the more she felt that something was off about him. The elder sighed as Hitepshu stopped before them.
â€œAh, Hitepshu, thank you for joining us.â€
â€œUh, huh,â€ he said yawning, â€œso whatâ€™s sis about?â€
â€œYouâ€™re going with these people to Samek,â€ the elder explained. â€œGo pack your things; youâ€™re headed to meet Sippiru.â€
At the mention of â€œSippiruâ€, Hitepshuâ€™s face lit up. He turned and dashed to one of the houses near the entrance to the village. Once he was gone, the elder turned back to Sapphire and Hiwei, who looked at him questioningly.
â€œWho is Sippiru?â€
â€œThe daughter of Luheam, a friend in Samek,â€ the elder replied. â€œHeâ€™s our main iron supplier, and our shipment is late.â€
â€œSo, you want to take, uh, Hitepshu to Samek and meet with your iron supplier?â€ Hiwei asked, before hastily adding, â€œnot that Iâ€™m saying we donâ€™t appreciate the transport.â€
â€œAh, well, I shudder at the thought of him going all the way to Samek on his own,â€ he explained, â€œquite likely he wouldnâ€™t make it anyhow. And after those monsters burned half of Qarrahum, I canâ€™t spare anyone to send with him.â€
Hiwei lowered her head, sitting down on the edge of the fountain heavily. She stared at the ground, the words still ringing through her head. It had always been in the back of her mind, the knowledge that something terrible had befallen her home, but Hiwei found hearing the words spoken nearly unbearable. After several minutes of troubled thoughts, she felt a tap on her shoulder. The elder handed her a scrap of paper with the address scrawled across it. Three mules stood nearby, saddled up for the trip. Hitepshu was already on the lead animal.
Ready to leave, Hiwei walked up to the second mule and hoisted herself into the saddle. Before she had finished steadying herself the creature began to move, following the lead mule. Still not completely settled, Hiwei struggled to keep from falling to the ground. Once reasonably sure she was seated properly, she looked back towards the village elder one last time. The old man simply nodded at them as they rode off down the path.
â€œBe sure to get that iron back here!â€ The elder called, â€œand keep my grandson safe!â€
â€œIâ€™ll do that,â€ Hiwei called back, trying to get comfortable.
After only a minute the three of them had already ridden past the old fortress tower and were well on their way to the landing site. It was then, Hewei realized, that despite her attempts to fit herself into the saddle and get her clothing out of the way, she was not going to get comfortable. The saddle was misshapen or simply not made for someone her size. The constant motion of the animal and her long clothing meant she was unable to sit still and relax for even a moment.
Knowing that walking and sailing were out of the question, Hiwei spent the rest of the trip to the shore calculating how long she would have to suffer. Soon they spotted the trees of their landing site, the tall trunks and green foliage standing in stark contrast the brown, gnarled spine trees that dotted the rest of the plain. As they approached the barge, Sapphire looked for their companions nearby. She saw no one. The trio slowed down and then stopped, Hiwei and Sapphire becoming concerned.
The two dismounted, Hiwei doing so quite ungracefully. After Sapphire helped her upright, the two walked between the trees and cautiously approached the tub, fearing the worst. Sapphire bumped into a small metal cup, clanging it against a stone. At the sound Pahwon and Tossmek popped up from behind the gunwale, both pointing weapons shakily at the noise. Quickly the two lowered them and stood up, relief spreading through all present.
â€œShould have mentioned youâ€™d be riding back,â€ Tossmek said, on the verge of laughing. â€œUh, right, what are thoseâ€¦what are they, uh, thoseâ€¦and who is he?â€
Tossmek pointed back at Hitepshu and the three mules, confused. She looked at him and then at the Hiwei and Sapphire.
â€œI was wondering what your plan was, exactly, as well,â€ Pahwon said, awkwardly holding out the note.
â€œBecause of what happened in Shal-Qaz, I determined that it would probably be for the best for us to take separate routes,â€ Sapphire explained, â€œit seems improbable that we will not be pursued, and Iâ€™m fairly conspicuous, after all.â€
â€œOk, thatâ€™s interesting,â€ Tossmek said slowly, leaning back against the mast. â€œSo, can we get moving? I mean, if theyâ€™re chasing us, we should probably get moving, right?â€
â€œGood thinking,â€ Sapphire replied not hearing the last part, â€œOh, and I have taken to hiding half the documents in that sack of stones, just in case.â€
â€œYou what?â€ Tossmek asked, glancing down at her cargo.
â€œImportant paper cargo in there,â€ she said, starting up the shore, â€œplease be cautious towards it.â€
â€œUh, sure, hey, wait, could you untie that line?â€ Tossmek asked, pointing to the rope nearest to Sapphire.
â€œThanks,â€ she murmured, pulling the rope back onboard. â€œIâ€™ll take, uh, caution to that cargo, too.â€
â€œGlad to hear it.â€
As Sapphire, Hiwei, and their new friend started searching for the Old River Road, Tossmek sighed and made the Tub ready to sail. After pulling in all the lines, she and Pahwon hopped down onto the beach and began pushing the craft back into the water. Tossmek noticed Pahwon was pushing with both arms. She smiled at him. Once back onto the boat, she quickly pulled the sail into the wind and sat down at the tiller. After a few hundred feet she looked along the shoreline; spotting their three compatriots riding along the embankment.
For some reason she lingered on the three of them, trying to figure out exactly what about the sight bothered her. A few moments passed before she shook her head, forcing herself to concentrate on steering. The boat rocked gently on the small river swells. Tossmek closed her eyes for a moment, feeling good all around for the first time in a long while. Pahwon practiced walking, trying to get the rhythm back by pacing up and down the tiny cargo deck as best he could.
â€œHey, Pahwon,â€ Tossmek called.
â€œI was wondering, after you reach Samek,â€ she began, â€œI was wondering, what are you going to do then?â€
â€œIâ€™m not exactly sure,â€ he admitted, halting his pacing for a moment, â€œI think weâ€™re meeting a man named Krauss there, heâ€™ll help us. T-thatâ€™s what Sapphire said anyway.â€
â€œRight, well, after that, what are you going to do?â€
â€œIâ€™ll probably head to Al-Ness-Mah,â€ he said quietly, â€œI think thatâ€™s where my mom and dad are.â€
The two fell silent, Pahwon pulling out his lucky little statue and inspecting it. Tossmek nodded, looking out towards the shore where the others were catching up with them. She watched them absentmindedly; thinking about what she would do after reaching Samek.Â After a few moments, it became clear.
â€œUh, so Pahwon, maybe we could all sail to Al-ness-mah,â€ she said quietly, â€œI doubt thereâ€™s much hauling to be done there, and it would beâ€¦nice.â€
â€œYeah, it would be nice,â€ he replied, starting to pace once again.
She watched him for a minute before looking back towards their compatriots. She wondered what they were thinking.
â€œI wonder what she is seeing at?â€ Sapphire asked herself quietly, wondering why Tossmek kept looking back at them.
â€œBoy, you magic wielders sure talk strange,â€ Hitepshu commented loudly. â€œWhat kind of tricks can you perform anyway?â€
â€œIâ€™m skilled in several healing techniques,â€ Hiwei replied proudly.
â€œBoring. So what can you do pale-skinned lady?â€
â€œI have power over the heat and cold,â€ Sapphire replied. â€œRight now, I am giving myself some of the cold as the midday is heat.â€
â€œWow, can you show me?â€
Feeling a bit audacious, Sapphire gave him a blast of cold. Unfortunately, she put a bit more oomph into the spell than she had intended, freezing Hitepshuâ€™s hair and perspiration into a forest of hair-cicles.Â The boy seemed quite impressed by the display, grinning broadly as he wiped the ice out of his eyes.
â€œThatâ€™s a really great thing!â€ he exclaimed, â€œYouâ€™re the most unique person Iâ€™ve ever met.â€
â€œYes,â€ Sapphire agreed, â€œyouâ€¦do not know how correct you are.â€
â€œWhat was that?â€
â€œI said that I am glad to have, uh, entertained you,â€ she clumsily replied, â€œso, It-eep-shoo, how long does a journey to Samek take?â€
â€œI believe a couple days, maybe three, I canâ€™t remember.â€
Sapphire sighed, looking back over the river. The barge sailed far ahead of them, its small sail billowing in the gentle breeze. A slight pang of hunger prompted Sapphire to plunge her hand into the saddlebag and search around for something to eat. To her dismay, it seemed that her donkey was not the one carrying the food. Hoping the others might be convinced to take a short lunch break; Sapphire turned and looked back at the other two. Unfortunately something impossible entered her field of vision. Another ship, far too large for the river, was making its way towards them.
Several unreal moments passed before Sapphireâ€™s brain could understand what she was looking at. Then her eyes landed upon the black and blood red banner waving high above the shipâ€™s deck and it finally clicked. A pirate sloop was sailing up river at full speed. She gaped at the sight for a full minute. The masts were obviously too tall to have sailed under the downstream bridges, and yet the pirates had obviously managed somehow. Sapphire realized that she and Hiwei needed a plan.
â€œUm, Hiwei, river, look river!â€
â€œSapphire, whatâ€™s the matter?â€ Hiwei asked before turning towards the river. â€œWhat in the world is that doing here?!â€
â€œWhat are you two looking at?â€ Hitepshu asked checking for himself, â€œWow, Iâ€™ve never seen a ship like that before! This day gets better all the time!â€
Sapphire and Hiwei looked at each other, dumbstruck. They had known that persuit was inevitable, but hadnâ€™t imagined such a large vessel would be coming after them. The ship was fast approaching; the indistinct shapes on the deck were turning into people. A cold terror flashed through them, knowing that the pirates would be looking for Tossmekâ€™s barge. Sapphireâ€™s mind blanked. She had no idea what to do and glanced at Hiwei, hesitantly, hoping sheâ€™d thought of something.
Hiwei stared blankly at the barge and then back at the pirate ship. The terrified look on her face told Sapphire that neither of them knew what to do. Too many to make a frontal attack, not enough time or darkness for stealth, and no time to warn their friends. With nothing to be done, Sapphire and Hiwei could only watch helplessly as the sloop drew closer to the tiny barge.
â€œWow, just look at that,â€ Hitepshu said reverently of the sloop, â€œI wonder whoâ€™s on it?â€
â€œIndeed, I wonder,â€ Sapphire muttered, carefully pulling out her binoculars.