Chapter 5

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            The road, a rutted, wide dirt path that Rika hardly thought deserved the title road, stretched out before them, only disappearing as it rounded a bend far ahead of them. She’d heaved a sigh of relief when they’d finally reached it, the various images of hungry Shinmo attacking them finally being put to rest. There were times she cursed her overactive imagination.

            She’d though they must have been walking for nearly two hours, but when she’d asked, Damek had told her it had only been one. That had been, what felt to her, an hour ago. And so far, they’d only passed one wagon going in the opposite direction, and had a pair of soldiers on horseback canter by. Rika hoped they’d reach town soon. While Damek was a nice guy and very friendly, she could already tell he had a pretty one-track mind.

            He caught her looking at him and grinned. “Only a little over twenty minutes left, I promise. If you think of the walking as training, it’s not so bad. I sometimes run to help keep my wind and stamina up.”

            Rika shook her head. “I only run when I’m late for class.”

            Whatever he was going to say was interrupted by the sound of running feet. They both looked up. Hurrying towards them was a short man wearing a dusty, hooded cloak. He swerved, almost as if he’d caught sight of them, the pace of his steps increasing. He stopped only when he was in front of them, sweeping a hasty bow.

            “My dear travellers,” he panted, voice high and slightly wavering. “I am prepared to offer you a deal such as you have never seen before.”

            Damek’s eyebrows went up. “What kind of deal?”

            “This,” he said, reaching into one of the pouches he wore around his belt and pulling out something that shone in the sunlight. Letting it dangle out in front of him, Rika couldn’t help the gasp of admiration she had for the necklace in front of her. On a delicate gold chain swung an oval locket, the edges filigreed.

            Seeing he had her attention, the man took a step closer. “I have found myself on times harder than I had anticipated and now, have no recourse, but to sell this locket. What, dear lady, would you offer me for it?”

            Rika sighed, reaching into her pocket and pulling out a loonie. “This is all I have,” she said, showing him the coin. “I doubt you’d-”

            She stopped mid-sentence as he snatched the coin and dropped the necklace into her outstretched hand. “No going back on the deal!” he cried, running off the way they’d come before either of them could even move.

            Damek shook his head. “You shouldn’t have shown him the gold. The necklace isn’t worth as much as the coin was.”

            Rika winced. “That was only worth a dollar. There’s no actual gold in it. I think they make it with copper or something. I don’t know. I feel bad. It’s like I took advantage of him.”

            He snorted. “Don’t. That man wasn’t right. He was probably a grifter or some other unsavoury type.”

            “Oh! Then I should turn this in. Is there a Lost and Found or something in town?”

            Damek stared at her for a moment, then chuckled. “No, there isn’t. Don’t worry about it. If someone is missing it, they’ll have left word among the metalsmiths. You can check with them. C’mon, we’re nearly there.”

            Rika nodded, following him. She ran her fingers over the locket, finding the little catch holding it closed. Using one fingernail she flicked it open. Inside was a tiny painting. A woman with a mass of thick black hair and brilliant green eyes smiled out from the painting, cradling an infant with the same hair, though there was a great deal less of it. The portrait made Rika feel worse. She sighed again, carefully closing the locket and putting the necklace on, letting it slip underneath her blouse so it was out of sight. It was the safest place for it at the moment. At least until she found its real owner.

             They had only just been passed by a single rider wearing a blue uniform of some sort, when another lone traveller approached them. But this one had Rika staring. Black robes billowing out behind him, red gemmed staff in one hand, dusky face all the darker for the glare he was wearing, the man looked exactly how Rika had pictured an evil sorcerer would look.

            His gaze caught them and he changed directions. Like the first stranger, he stopped in front of them. The way he held his staff in the crook of his arm while both hands disappeared into the wide sleeves of his robes caught Rika’s attention. It was just so…villain-like. Like he wanted the least amount of skin exposed to the sun as possible. She wondered if he was doing it on purpose.

            He looked them over, not saying anything for a long moment, but blocking their way. Finally, his voice low and almost rusty sounding, he said “Have you seen a short thief pass through this way?”

            Damek snorted. “Yeah. He went that way,” he replied, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. Then he looked at Rika. “I told you he wasn’t a good person.”

            Rika didn’t hear, her attention on the stranger. “What did he steal from you?”

            He looked down at her, shifting his staff to the crook of his other arm. “A locket,” he said after a few seconds of silent study of her face.

            “So it’s yours! Here,” she said, hands already up and unclasping the necklace. “I bought it off him without knowing it was stolen. If it’s yours, then please take it back. I was going to look for its rightful owner once we got to town. This saves me the trouble.”

            She handed him the gold chain with a smile. The fingers that brushed her hand were cool and dry, despite the warmth of the day. When she looked up at his face, she thought she saw a sort of flicker in his eyes, before he nodded his head. “Thank you,” he said, hand disappearing back into his robes.

            Without another word, he walked off in the direction of the thief, leaving both of them staring after him.

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