The first day went by quickly. We ran what we could, making sure to keep our walking pace up in spite of the extra exertion. Ardon was determined to go see Sorin, and nothing I said could dissuade him.
Night fell, though not soon enough for me. I was worn to the bone when we stopped to make camp. We set our packs down and I slipped off my cloak and pulled out my bedroll. The night was very cool, so I used my cloak as an extra cover instead of a pillow.
"Don' you want supper?" Ardon asked. He had taken off his pack and started digging a a small pit in the dirt to build a fire. I was already halfway in my bedroll, boots off.
I sighed. "I'll help you make a fire, but after that, you're on your own. I'm not hungry at all." I slipped back out of the warm comfort and pulled my boots back on, trying to keep my eyes open.
"Well, why don' we build a fire and eat what we've packed?" he suggested. "We'll need it for warmth tonight, but we don' need to hunt and cook if you're not up to it."
I mumbled sleepy nonsense and started looking for tinder while he dug. Once we finished building the fire up to a decent size, I turned back to my bedroll and pulled off my boots.
"You need to eat something," Ardon said. He came over and laid his bedroll out near mine. "Even if it's just a little jerky, try and eat. It was a hard day and you'll need the energy for tomorrow."
I sighed and rummaged in my pack until I found some traveler's rolls. I tore one in half and shoved the rest in my bag. "I just want to sleep," I said, my hand holding the roll limply in my lap. "Why is it so cold?"
"It's really not that cold," he said, chuckling. "You're just too skinny- the wind blows right through you. Here." He moved his bedroll closer and sat, putting his arm around me. "Eat, little fire," he reminded me.
I leaned against him with a tired sigh and lifted the bread to my mouth. He smelled so nice, woodsy, a little musky...I started to drift off, thinking of how his breath smelled of the mint he was so fond of chewing. I don't know how long he sat there with me, letting me sleep on his broad shoulder, but I roused a little when he finally moved. I felt him lean me back and cover me up; I fell back to sleep with his arm around me, as comfortable as I could possibly be on the cold hard ground.
We wandered in a dark wood full of serpents and vines, spending more time untangling ourselves than moving forward, ignoring the bites of the snakes and insects. I complained about not taking the road in a far away voice, but Ardon kept fighting forward. Beniamino tried to lead me to the road home, but Brannagh cried out from an iron cage on the thorny path ahead.
"Saoirse! Why? Why?" she sobbed. She was bruised all over and sitting on the floor of her prison, surrounded by mangled rodents and poisonous vipers. Her eyes widened as she cried out to us, her hands grasping through the gaps in the bars, bloody and bent. Her clothes were like her dress from home, but torn and ragged, exposing raw skin and open wounds.
We finally reached the cage, and without hesitation, my dream/nightmare-self ran my slender katana through her. I turned to Ardon, both of us soaked in his sisters' blood, to find his own sword through my stomach.
I woke up in a cold sweat and sat up. Everything was still for a moment, but then I began to sob into my hands. I tried to be as quiet as possible, but Ardon woke up.
"What's wrong, lass?" he asked, sitting up beside me.
I just shook my head and tried to stop trembling. "Go back to sleep, I'm fine, just a dream."
He wrapped his arms around me and stroked my hair. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Flashes came back to me. I swallowed hard. "No, I don't think that's a good idea."
He just pressed his lips to my hair and I belatedly registered that he was not wearing a shirt. How inappropriate. I blushed slightly and pushed away from him, but he just held me tighter and moved his lips to my forehead. I kept my hands as firmly as I could against his shoulder and after a moment he moved back, lying down, by pulling me with him.
He chuckled as I tried to turn away. "Don' worry, little fire, just sleep. Everythin's goin' to be alright."
I pressed my icy hands to my warm face and tried to sleep again.
We woke early and had breakfast on the road. We paused after about thirty minutes of walking at my pace to stretch. We picked up the pace after that, jogging a few miles on the road until the grassland seemed to die away and the way forward forked. If we went right, we'd find ourselves back at the centaurs' old camp. Straight would take us to Brannagh, and left would take us to the dragon.
I continued casually jogging straight ahead, but Ardon caught the back of my shirt, and I jogged in place for a few moments. He turned me toward the left path and let me go. I stopped and winced at him.
"Do we really need to see the dragon?" I asked. "What if it tries to eat us?"
"'It' is a 'he' and his name is Sorin," Ardon chided. "The dragons are different here, remember? They explained it to you, too. Sorin is a fire dragon, and they only eat desert vegetation and the small animals they find. Well, I guess you might be considered a small animal-"
I punched him and took the left path toward the dwindling grass and golden sands. We ran until the heat was too much and the road ended. We stopped for lunch under the hot sun and spread some of the skin cream in our packs on our exposed skin. Beniamino had made it for us and I could feel his magic in it, comforting out here in the suns' light as it kept away the burn.
"It was so nice of all of them to help us the way they did," I commented as I rubbed some balm on the back of my neck.
"Honestly, I think they had fun. They all seemed to enjoy havin' projects and the like, even quiet Yumiko," Ardon said with amusement. "They must not have much to do with themselves otherwise."
"Yeah, but still. This cream is nice," I said, closing the jar back up. "Beniamino did a good job."
Ardon just gave me a half smile and stood to go. "Ready, Saoirse?"
I wrinkled my nose and took his hand as he pulled me up and I thunked into his chest. "I don't know why you do that. It's like you and him think I weigh a hundred kilograms or something."
"What?" he asked with a frown.
"Whenever Beniamino helped me up off the rocks by the river, he pulled me too hard, just like you always do, and I always end up bouncing off the both of you."
Ardon's nostrils flared and he dropped my hand. "Let's go."
I followed him, frowning. "What's wrong?"
He sighed. "I just want to get to Sorin so we can head for Brannagh," he said.
The dream came back to me and I shuddered, despite the burning heat of the environment around us that was rapidly becoming more desert like. I couldn't get her terrified face out my mind, the sense that all of this was my fault. It was like I really did run a sword through her. And Ardon had every right to hate me, but here he was, letting me tag along, trying to save his sister when it should be me doing everything. He should be the one tagging along, watching me struggle as I tried to right the severe wrong I had done.
I shook my head, trying to rid myself of the demons. No wallowing, I told myself. Focus on the goal.
We walked over dune after dune, with only a compass to guide us. After two hours, we had drained all our water and started looking around for an oasis. It was three more dry, painful hours before I finally smelled water. It was strange- I knew I wasn't smelling with my nose, and it was a curious sensation.
"There's water," I rasped. "A mile that way." I pointed. It was almost opposite the way we were going, but we needed water and soon.
Ardon didn't even pause to think about it, he just nodded, checked the compass, and followed me. It took us over half an hour because of the dunes and our weariness, but we finally found it. There was a large fresh water spring surrounded and shaded by fig trees that were in turn shaded by desert palms. I saw a fennec fox panting beside the water on the opposite side of the pond from us.
"That is the cutest fox I have ever seen ever, ever, ever," I whispered to Ardon as I pointed it out.
He smiled and just pulled me down the sand to the water. We drank as much as we could and napped for an hour. When we finished dozing, we relieved ourselves and again drank as much water as we could. We stuffed as many figs as we could into our packs under our cool canteens, grabbed a few more figs to eat on our way and set off again toward Sorin's oasis.
We had three more hours of daylight left to walk, but when the suns began to fall, the temperature dropped drastically. We finally settled ourselves under the overhang of a huge rock in the sand and curled up, wrapped in all the covering we had and still shivering. The night crept by slowly, both of us waking up several times before the suns finally rose in the sky, baking the world around us.
He finished getting ready before me and stood. I reached for my pack to find a fig and yelped when something stung me.
"Ow," I said firmly, yanking my hand away. Something big and bright blue scuttled away over the sand. Ardon sprung after it and killed it with a rock.
"I tried to crush it as little as possible. We should reach Sorin by noon, and he can tell us if it's poisonous." He scooped it up and wrapped carefully in a cloth, avoiding the sting. He took my hand and looked at the puncture between my thumb and first finger. "It's swollen," he said with a frown. "Do you feel alright?"
Actually, I felt great, like I could run the rest of the way to the dragon. "Yeah, I feel fine," I said. "Let's go."
I grabbed my pack- with more caution this time- and sprung to my feet. We made good time at first. I kept his pace easily for an hour before I started to feel wrong. The world seemed to be flashing by, as if we were running with the speed of a wildcat. Everything seemed to be intensely colorful and bright, but I could bear it. I could bear it and more. I felt like I was flying. Suddenly the ground rose up and a woman was screaming.