"Long ago, when the gods first made the world, before they made people- they made other worlds. We were sort of a surprise to them, really. They built beautiful places, beautiful lands, seas, creatures...sea creatures," he chuckled. "But then they grew bored with this place."
"See, this wasn' the first time they built a world and grown bored of it. There were many other beautiful places out there with fantastic creatures in them and wild things. After a while, the gods decided they should take responsibility for their creations and so they divided the worlds among them. But one of the gods felt that it was wrong to keep the worlds apart, and so he scattered little doors throughout them, so they could remain connected. Lorcan's Lagoon is supposed to be one of those places. And you, little flame, you opened one of those doors, didn't you?"
"You're a terrible story teller," Brannagh complained, her nose wrinkled. "Da was much better at it than you."
"If you can do it better, than have at it, sister," Ardon said scornfully.
They continued on, but I was too tuned into my guilt. "So I got us stuck here," I mumbled to myself as they bickered.
He heard me anyway. "Don't think of it as a bad thing, as your fault," he said with a grin. "Think of it as an adventure- you threw a door wide open and brought us into something new!"
I ignored him and knelt beside the stream we had finally reached. We were all still pretty wet, so i just stuck my face in and drank. The water was icy and felt incredible as it flowed down my throat. When I finally pulled up, my stomach sloshed audibly and I sighed.
"Saved some for the fishes?" he asked with a smile. They bent to drink and came up simultaneously.
"Think there's a door here?" Brannagh asked.
"I think there's only water," I said glumly. "I felt no pull."
"Pull?" he said with a frown.
"When I went into the lagoon, I felt like something was tugging me, pulling me down toward that stone. I resisted the first time, but I went back...and..." I sank to my knees in depression and started ringing out my clothes. "We need to get dry. And we need shoes."
The twins shrugged and pulled me up. "I guess we need to find a town, then," his sister said.
"What if there are no towns in this world?" I asked, trying to keep the panic from my voice. Ardon put a large warm hand on my shoulder.
"We'll figure something out," he promised. "But since it seems to be early in the day here, we should count ourselves lucky and start walking."
"Well, yes, but- shoes-" I picked at a small tear in my clothes tugged, pulling off a strip. "Can you pull three strips off without forsaking modesty?" I asked Brannagh.
Her lips twitched when I said 'modesty,' but she nodded and started tearing. We each handed one to Ardon and then we all began wrapping what we could of our feet.
"That'll help some," he said with a smile on his handsome face. I realized I was having a moment when I noticed how straight his nose was, how square his jaw was, his straight black brows...I tore my eyes away and started walking.
"Hey, now," he grabbed the back of my clothes to stop me. "We'll have a better chance of finding a town if we go this way."
"How do you know?" I asked.
"I can smell...something. I don't know. I think we should go this way, though." He let me go and started walking. Brannagh and I shrugged at each other and followed his lean, muscled body through the trees. We didn't walk in silence- Ardon liked to talk- but it felt like hours before we finally found some sign of civilization. It was a tattered grey blanket near a stream larger than the first one we found. He was delighted.
"It takes hands and a brain to make a blanket," he said with a smile. "Why don't we give it a scrub and take it with us, just in case?"
Brannagh took it from him, rolling her eyes at his enthusiasm, and started to wash it in the stream. When she was done, I helped her ring it out and shake it. "This must have been very nice, once," she said, her lips pursed. She was right, the fabric was incredibly soft, even though it was wet. I'd never felt anything like it.
The trees were wide enough here for the two of us to drape it over our arms to dry as we walked. A few hours later, we were all dry, clothes and blanket, but our feet were horribly sore. None of this seemed to bother Ardon, especially when he discovered another sign of civilization.
"It looks like the hilt of a sword," he said, practically beaming. "But it has a slight curve to it, and it's covered in fabric."
"I'm hungry!" Brannagh snapped at him. "So unless it's an edible sword hilt, drop it!"
"Maybe you should have said picnic instead of swim," he hissed back.
"Maybe you shouldn't have been dropped on your head as a babe," she growled.
"If you're so hungry, why don' you find us something to eat instead of cryin' like the babe you are?"
"You're younger than me!"
"Two minutes," he scoffed.
"You're so irresponsible!"
"Stop!" I cried. "All of us are hungry. This is my fault. I'll try and find us something to eat." I turned to go. I turned right into something hard. "Ow, tree," I stated, touching my nose.
"I am not a tree," a low, song-like voice came from over my head. I took a step back and looked up in shock.
Ardon pulled me back to safely stand beside his sister. He stepped forward to greet the most incredible creature I'd ever seen in my life. From the waist up he was a man, a very large man with a blacksmith's arms and an iron chest. His skin was a golden brown and his eyes were like black coals, tilted up at an angle under straight dark brown brows. His hair was straight and almost to his shoulders and also a deep brown. Strangely, his ears were long and pointed. But that isn't what shocked me.
The surprise was the rest of him. He was half horse- a half that was much lighter than his...mane of hair, but still a rich brown. His...tail...matched his hair perfectly. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, but somehow Ardon took it in stride.
"Hello, stranger," he said, holding out a hand. The horse-man cocked his head and blinked.
"What are you doing in Vanavear Forest?" he asked. He didn't seem threatening, verbally anyway. "Your kind are not allowed to hunt in our space."
Ardon ignored the question. "How do you speak our language?" he asked, curiously.
"I can speak many languages. I learned this tongue from your tribe many years ago. Why are you here?" he asked again.
"I'm afraid we're lost," Ardon admitted. "We sort of ended up here by accident."
"You must be new to your magics," he said with amusement. "Young ones should not be playing with traveling spells. I am Aloysius."
"Hello, Aloysius. My name's Ardon and this is my sister, Brannagh, and our best friend, Saoirse."
"You wear strange clothes," he said with a smile. "If you are lost, I can lead you to your people. Perhaps we should stop by my herd for a few supplies." Brannagh's stomach rumbled loudly. "And some food."
"That would be most welcome," Ardon said, gesturing for us to follow. We fell into a line of three abreast behind the horse-man as we walked after him. I was convinced my feet were bleeding by the time we finally made it to Aloysius's herd.
"Gasparus!" He cried as we walked into a clearing full of of horse-men and women. A slimmer version of Aloysius came trotting toward us, a confused look on his face.
"Frater?" he said. Aloysius began talking to him in a language I vaguely recognized as Latin. When he finished, his brother replied and then left, winding his way through the herd.
"Where is he going?" I asked shyly.
"He is going to pack some essentials. We will rest here for tonight and I will take you back to your people tomorrow," the horse-man explained.
"Humans?" Brannagh asked.
"You're humans?" he asked with a frown. "No one there uses that word anymore. They call themselves Magi, now. They have further classifications, but I never paid much attention. Are you not from Hybris?"
"Well, no," Ardon began, but his sister cut him off.
"We are, we're just a little confused from the bad spell," she quickly said, elbowing Ardon casually in the ribs as she slipped a hand into her pocket.
Her brother frowned, but said nothing. "Where do we sleep?" he asked instead.
I clutched the blanket to myself with worry. The suns- suns? There were two of them in the sky, sinking slowly and I could feel the temperature drop. This was our only blanket and I didn't want any of us to be cold.
Aloysius seemed to notice my worry because he smiled and said "My brother is bringing bedrolls from the goods caravan. We're on our way to the town of Mirala to trade, but we can work out payment later."
"You're merchants?" Ardon asked, intrigued.
"We have to make a living. We could live off the land, but the human half of us craves comfort and progress, so we create and we sell."
Payment later. I was only half listening to what they were speaking of now, because those words kept echoing in my head. We had nothing to give, but he made it clear nothing was free with those words. I hoped he would only require a service from us, perhaps washing or cooking, and I could follow Brannagh's lead.
I wanted to ask, but I didn't like speaking to people I didn't know. The suns fell further down the sky and eventually Aloysius's and Ardon's conversation drew to a close and the horse-man drifted off. We settled into our borrowed bedrolls for the night in a line. They insisted on putting me in the middle so they could protect me.
"Here you are not my maid, Brannagh- I am not your responsibility. You are both my responsibility," I argued quietly. "I'm the one who got us stuck here."
"We're each others responsibility, Saoirse," Ardon had whispered back. "If we're goin' to find a way home, we have to take care of each other."
His sister yawned and agreed, turning her back to me to sleep on her side. I was dead tired, too, but I didn't feel ready to sleep. He seemed to be of the same mind. I glanced at him and saw him staring up at the night sky.
"The constellations are so different here," he said softly. "I hope we can learn some while we wander." He rolled on his side to face me, propped with his elbow. "What kind of payment do you think he wants to work out?" he whispered as quietly as he could.
I bit my lip and looked him in the eye. "I know it's silly, because they all seem so kind, but I'm scared." I turned my face to the stars, fretting. "I want to think he just needs us to do a little work for the caravan, but...I don't know, the way he said it so casually, it was almost suspicious. Maybe I'm just being paranoid."
He sighed, closing his emerald eyes and curling his arm under his head to rest on. "I don't think so, little fire."