Morning came far too early. Dale’s horse woke him, nuzzling his pocket for sugar, as the sun peeked over the tops of the hills. He groaned and sat up, shoving her nose away. “Now I remember why I hate sleeping on the ground. I don’t remember seeing any boulders under this blanket.” He stood up and stretched, yawning deeply.
The horse snorted and bumped him in the chest with her nose, sending him sprawling.
“Oof!” Dale squinted at the horse with one eye and struggled to sit back up.
The horse stuck her nose into his face and snorted.
Dale pushed her head away again and climbed to his feet. “You know,” he said, stroking her muzzle. “You should work at breaking that addiction. I don’t have any sugar for you.” Kheri snickered and Dale looked at him sideways. “What’s so funny?”
“You,” Kheri grinned. He chuckled and started rolling up his blankets.
Dale grunted an unintelligible reply, picked up his blankets, and followed suit.
Kheri saddled his horse and tied his bedroll in place. “Are we going back to buy water bottles?” he asked over his shoulder while he worked.
“Do we have much choice?” Dale answered without looking up.
“There should be an inn or something on down the road. There usually are.” Kheri glanced over his shoulder at Dale again. “I’m actually surprised we didn’t find one before dark yesterday.”
Dale walked over to saddle his horse. “And if there aren’t? Then what?”
Kheri slung the rest of his gear on his horse’s back and shrugged. “I can’t imagine there not being one, but I guess it would be faster to go back now, instead of this afternoon.”
Dale tethered his horse to the tree again and peered at her. “I don’t want to know how you got loose, but see if you can stand still long enough for me to get this saddle on you.”
She nickered and nipped his hair.
Dale jerked his head away and stepped out of her reach. “Leave the hair alone!” He threw the saddle blanket on her back and dropped the saddle on top of it. “I don’t want to go back at all,” he said while studying the saddle. “The Gorg aren’t going to wait around just because we have to backtrack. We wasted enough time stopping to sleep last night.”
“We couldn’t ride all night!”
“I know that, but we’re still too close to town. If we go back, we might as well never have started.” Dale frowned at the saddle.
“Here, let me.” Kheri stepped in front of him and picked up a strap. “I didn’t think you’d remember, just seeing it done once. Watch.” He went through the steps once more, taking time to explain what the straps were for and how to tighten them correctly. “Think you got it this time?”
“Yes. Now let’s see if I can remember it.”
Kheri grinned and mounted his horse.
Dale struggled up onto the back of his horse, wincing in pain as he threw his leg over the saddle. He shifted and shook his head. “There has got to be a better way,” he muttered, unable to find a comfortable position. “I hurt worse this morning than I did last night!”
Kheri snickered and looked away quickly, trying not to laugh.
Dale shot him a withering glance. “It’s not funny.”
Kheri grinned at him. “Yes it is. You’ll get used to it, though. Honest. Next week you won’t even notice it.”
Dale made a face at him, and then turned and looked at the road. “About the inns you mentioned… how far from the towns are they?”
“A day’s walk. At least that’s what I’ve been told.”
“How far could you walk in one day? Farther than we rode yesterday?”
“Yeah, we went pretty slowly and you took that detour….” Kheri chuckled at the memory of Dale’s horse as it spooked off the road the day before. “We probably could’ve gotten a lot farther on foot.”
Dale attempted to ignore the reminder and studied the road. “All right, here’s what we’ll do. We’ll ride for an hour. If we don’t find an inn by then, we’ll turn around and go back to town.”
Kheri nodded and picked up his reins. “Sure. Lead the way.”
Dale reached into his saddlebags, pulled out the piece of hardtack he’d been worrying the night before then convinced his horse to step out on to the road.
The sun sprinkled gold across the landscape as they traveled and Dale found to his amazement that he had relaxed. The Gorg’s return loomed like threatening clouds on the horizon, they had no water, hadn’t found an inn, and he was still stranded, but a feeling of hope welled up inside him and refused to be ignored. He smiled and tried another mental scan. The terrain opened up around him, the sky empty of everything except for a few birds and the land teeming with life. He rode in silence, watching trees, rocks, and animals not yet visible to the eye spring into his view. He reined to a halt as something large across the road up ahead came into the edge of his mental vision, and motioned to Kheri to stop.
Closing his eyes, he began scanning more deeply, searching the countryside.
Rabbits milled about in a burrow not far from the road. A bright red bird with golden wings perched in a nearby tree, watching two humans on horseback with a beady eye. A skunk dug in the ground under the eaves of the forest, hunting grubs in the soft, pungent leaf mold.
Dale noted each one and moved on.
Kheri grew restless as the minutes passed, restlessness turned to boredom, and he yawned.
Dale reacted instantly. He opened his eyes and turned to face him. “Is there a reason for the road up ahead to be blocked?”
“Bandits, maybe. But,” Kheri peered down the road. “I don’t see anything blocking it.”
“It’s on the other side of that curve up ahead. You can’t see it from here.”
“Unless a tree fell in the last storm, it’s probably an ambush.”
“When was the last storm?”
“A couple weeks back. At least where I was.”
Dale closed his eyes and sent a mental probe down the road to the barrier. It refused to take shape, appearing to him as nothing more than a large, solid mass. He scowled and attempted to increase his scan range. The residual effects of the warp fought back with fury. He broke out into a sweat and gave up again, opened his eyes and rubbed them, trying to think. “How likely do you think it is that we’re about to ride into a roadblock?”
Kheri furrowed his brow and squinted with one eye. “Well… we’re still in the Barony, but the patrols never come out this far.”
“So we assume that we’re about to be ambushed just in case.”
“Yeah. Seems odd someone would set up an ambush here, though. Not a lot of traffic on this road from what I can see.”
The ground ran up a hill to their right, a thicket of trees crowning its top. The eaves of the forest lay to their left and the road curved into it about thirty yards ahead.
“I want a better vantage point,” Dale decided. “Come on.” He turned his horse and started up the hill toward the thicket on the top.