Chapter 9

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Was it really necessary to leave so gods damned early?” Sam groused, hugging her horse’s neck. It was a poor replacement for a pillow. “It’s not even light out yet.”

“Yes, it was necessary,” said Tristan. “And we would have left earlier if I hadn’t had to physically drag you out of bed like a spoiled babe.”

“Two hours of sleep is not humane.”

“If you were looking to be coddled, boy, you’ve come to the wrong place.”

“Children, children,” Braeden murmured with a hint of a smile. Tristan and Sam glared at him in unison.

“It’s your fault we had to leave at this ungodly hour,” Sam complained. “If it weren’t for you--” she choked off her words as she realized what she’d said. “Gods, Braeden, I didn’t mean it!”

Braeden wouldn’t look at her. “It’s fine,” he said, his tone flat. “Ya!” he shouted, urging his horse into a gallop.

Tristan and Sam watched as Braeden slowed his horse to a trot, still in eyesight but far enough away that he wouldn’t be able to hear them. “You’re an idiot,” said Tristan.

“I know,” she replied miserably. Gods damn her sleep-addled, insensitive brain.

Dawn broke over the horizon, the orange of the sun painting stripes of pink and purple against the fading indigo of the night sky. The dirt road they traveled was deserted; the nearest village was still miles away and The Center was now a tiny speck in the distance. Sam had passed through this land before as she made her way from Haywood to The Center, but in the shadowed glow of dawn, it was unrecognizable. Braeden still plodded on ahead, his back ramrod straight, and Tristan was too disgusted with her to talk. With no one but her horse to keep her company, Sam was hit by an unexpected wave of loneliness.

They traveled in silence for several more hours, interrupted only by the thud of hooves against packed ground and the rustling of leaves as the wind whistled through the trees. Sam almost cried for joy when she saw the top of a picket fence and thatched roofs in the distance. People, Sam thought happily. People who talked.

Braeden drew his horse to a stop when the village was in clear sight, waiting for Sam and Tristan to catch up to him. He’d donned a conical straw hat, the brim pulled low over his eyes. With only the bottom of his lower lashes visible, he looked like a foreign young lord come to visit the countryside.

“We’re just passing through, lads,” Tristan warned them as they neared the village gate, blessedly breaking the silence. “We’ve got miles to go before nightfall.”

Though it was only a few hours past dawn, the small village of Gwent was already bustling with activity. The local merchants stood behind their stalls in the market square, hawking their wares to any and every passerby within earshot. The smell of fresh ginger bread wafted in the air from the bakery, and the steady pounding of mallet against cowhide resonated from the leathermaker’s shop. Women in their long woolen gowns and wimples clustered around the village well, trading gossip while they waited their turn to draw water, and the children played games at their mothers' feet.

“Paladin Lyons!” a voice cried in greeting. A round little man waddled over to their horses, a wide smile plastered on his sweaty face.

“Master Collop, it’s good to see you,” Tristan acknowledged.

“Dare I hope that you will spend the night? It’s good for business when I can claim a Paladin among my patrons.”

Tristan shook his head. “Not tonight. But I wouldn’t say no to a bite of breakfast before we continue on our way.”

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