Chapter 11

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            From the position of the sun beside them, Rika guessed it was early afternoon. They’d put some distance between them and Saimore, the woodlands they’d been walking through having changed into gentler hills scattered copses on and around them, the only remnants of the thick forest she’d arrived in. Dotting the gentle grasslands were white spots she thought were sheep along with the odd farm.

            She guessed that being this far out in the country was why they’d seen so few others. Just a couple of empty carts that had ambled past, and one lone rider who’d left them coughing in a cloud of dust.  It did make for a peaceful, if somewhat boring, walk.

            Not that it seemed to bother the other two. Damek alternated between muttering to himself with punching and kicking the air or rolling across the ground. Rika knew enough not to ask what he was doing, until she was bored enough that listening to him gushing about training was an attractive alternative.

            On the other spectrum of things was Ahisu. He followed behind her, staff in one hand, not saying a word. She’d tried to engage him in some kind of conversation, but more often than not, he ignored her. And even the questions he chose to answer, so far only “Can you fly on a broomstick?” and “Do you use a wand when you do magic?” had both been answered with a short no.

            Rika was about to make another attempt at conversation when she heard the sound of hoofs approaching. She moved to one side of the road with the other two, already used to this, turning so she could see the horses coming. All three of them were brown, one marked with white, the other two with black. Each horse had a rider wearing a blue uniform. It was a dusty blue, and Rika thought paled in comparison to Damek’s hair.

            The men reined their horses in, the cadence of their hoofs changing from a canter to a trot, finally ending with them walking. In minutes, the three of them had been penned in one three sides by horseflesh, forced to stare up at the men riding them.

            “You there, girl,” said the youngest looking of the three. “Who are you and where do you come from?”

            Rika bristled a little at the tone, especially since he didn’t look any older than her. “Excuse me? Who do you think you-”

            Damek grabbed her arm and squeezed it, smiling up at the men. “You’ll have to forgive her. Her manners have always left something to be desired. What can we do for you?”

            “You’ll tell us who she is,” the one riding the brown and white horse said, his eyes locked onto Rika. “Her clothes aren’t of a kind I’ve ever seen before. Is she a foreigner?”

            Her blue-haired friend laughed, still holding tightly onto her arm. “No, of course not! This is my sister Darrika. We’re both from Cotess, so not foreigners. She just has a thing for clothes and is always trying to make something new, a fashion pioneer she says,” Damek said, rolling his eyes. “You know how some girls are. I’ve tried telling her that she looks stupid, but all she does is get mad.”

            Rika, who’d been paying close attention, jerked her arm out of his grip and dropped her hands to her hips. “I’ve told you before, Damek. It’s about standing out and making a statement. You just don’t get fashion.”

            Damek shook his head. “If that means dressing like you, then I don’t want to get it.”

            She harrumphed, looked away and pouted. The soldiers exchanged glances, before the one riding the white and brown horse, moved his horse forward two steps. He was the one Rika suspected was the leader, mostly because he had more silver braid on his uniform than the others. “Who is that?” he said, jerking his chin towards Ahisu.

            “Him?” Damek replied. “Oh, that’s Ahisu. He’s our bo-a family friend. He’s travelling with us to make sure we get home alright. Our father asked him to.”

            The leader stared at him, face betraying no expression. Finally, he nodded. Damek smiled. “Are you looking for foreigners for a reason? Anything we can help you with?”

            “It’s none of your business,” snapped the young one, glaring. His mount, working off his tension Rika guessed, pranced in place and snorted.

            Damek held up his hands. “Sorry, sorry. Didn’t mean to pry. You just stopped us, asking about my sister because of her clothes, so naturally, I was curious.”

            “Don’t think-”

           The young soldier was cut off by his leader. “Enough. We have a lot farther to cover. Our apologies for the inconvenience. Carry on with your business.”

            Before they could say anything else, he turned his horse and kicked it into a canter, the other two horses following suit. Rika exchanged a look with Damek, then glanced at Ahisu. He was staring at the retreating soldiers, his staff angled in front of him. Almost like a shield of sorts. “What was that-”

            She stopped speaking when he swung the staff towards her, touching the head of it to her chest. “Silence.”

            Rika stared at him. Damek looked at the mage, then at the tiny figures that were the horses, disappearing over a hill. His eyes widened momentarily, then he dropped a hand on Rika’s shoulder, shaking his head. “Don’t worry about them, sister. We need to keep going or we’ll never get home.”

            She continued to stare a moment before she finally caught on. Rika nodded. “Yeah, I guess we should keep moving. I can use the time to think of some new outfit ideas. I’ll tell you about them when we stop for the night.”

            Damek rolled his eyes, but the look in them when his gaze met hers, told Rika he’d gotten the message. “I guess I don’t have a choice.”

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