Looking up and down the carefully layed brick of the road, I spotted a woman driving a cart pulled by two mules. She was headed north, which meant she might be from Barrington. However, the cart was empty, giving me hope she was headed toward home, rather than away from it.
As she approached, I held up two fingers, the accepted gesture to ask for a ride.
She stopped the cart next to me. “Hop on up, if you’re coming.” The woman had a nice smile, despite her many wrinkles.
I climbed up and sat next to her. “Thank you, ma’am.”
She made a clicking sound and the mules moved forward once more.
“Don’t fret over it,” the woman said. “I’ll be stopping in Tartom, so if you’re going farther, I can’t help ya.”
“Right now, I just need to reach Tartom. Thank you.”
As I settled into my seat I looked up the road to the northeast. The road was wide enough for two coaches to pass each other, and the trees on either side stayed back at least that far. Even so, I couldn’t see Tartom yet. But there was an odd looking bird flying directly above the road. It was too far away to tell what kind.
“Is it a boy?” the woman asked, interrupting my examination.
“Are you going to meet a boy?”
“Well, sort of,” I admitted.
“A girl such as yourself, traveling alone, you’re probably either looking for work, or you’re in love. From the look of you, I’d say love.”
I smiled and blushed slightly. I’d never been in love with a boy in all my life. The ‘boy’ I was headed to meet was another Hopeful, and we were setting out on a quest to become dragons. But I didn’t want to remove her assumptions and create more questions. “I appreciate the ride, and I’d rather not discuss why I need to get to Tartom.”
Turning away from her, I looked northward once more. The bird was getting closer, but it was farther away than I thought. It must be a large bird indeed. Probably a vulture, looking for an unlucky rabbit that tried to cross the road.
There was a rasp in the woman’s voice as she laughed. “That’s fine with me. Just be sure you have a good story next time someone asks. Folks in these hills can be mighty suspicious. Especially with that girl who’s gone missing. They said her name was Dani, or Danielle, I think. By the way, what’s your name?”
Instinctively I clutched at the identity charm beneath my blouse. The purple diamond kept anyone from tracking me with magic and changed my appearance, making my hair and skin a bit darker. But it must not have changed it far enough if an old woman could recognize me.
The old lady laughed. “I thought it might be you, though the description doesn’t do you justice.”
My eyes went wide as my blood ran chill. Had I blundered into a trap?
“Don’t fret over a little old thing like me,” she said. “I think young love deserves a chance, even if your parents don’t think so.”
“Well, I assume the man on horseback was your father. He was the first one to ride past.”
I swallowed hard. Mage Bixby had already come this way looking for me. I lived with him for a year, and if any human could be considered responsible for me, it was him. Mages were responsible to care for widows and orphans, and Bixby was even distantly related to me. I did leave without telling him, officially making me a runaway. But I was on a quest now, and his help was no longer needed, or welcome.
“Though why he wasn’t with the red-haired woman, I can’t understand,” she rambled on.
The only red head who would be looking for me was Eyrim. Before Bixby showed up a year ago, Eyrim and her husband Ashej had taken me in during the winter to help with chores. But now Eyrim was somehow convinced I had a dragon-made weapon, and would stop at nothing to get it from me. Bixby was convinced Eyrim must be working for a dragon, though I never would have suspected her of being a Thrall.
“Unless they had a fight over the whole thing,” the woman continued. “I just love a good story, and I won’t tell a soul. Won’t you fill me in on a few of the details?”
I looked up and down the road. There were a few other travelers, but no one was within ear-shot, and there was no sign of Bixby or Eyrim.
But there was a dragon!
What I’d mistaken for a bird was now clearly a huge orange dragon flying low over the road. She was craning her long neck to focus on each traveler on the road as she passed. I couldn’t help but stare at the dark orange scales or the large horns on her head. She was the largest dragon I’d ever seen, but not the only one. I knew she was looking for me, but without my dragon friend nearby, my best chance was to avoid detection.
I watched in horror as the orange dragon’s massive head focused on me. Our eyes met, and I couldn’t help wondering whether Miazan was powerful enough to take her on in a direct battle. A dragon displayed their strength mostly by how many horns they could form on their head. I’d never seen Miazan with more than six, and this dragon was clearly displaying eight, though her fourth set were small enough that I didn’t see them until that very second.
The moment passed and the dragon flew on. The identity charm had worked on the dragon, even if it didn’t fool a little old woman.
“Don’t tell me the dragon is after you as well,” the woman asked.
“No, of course not,” I lied. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near whoever that dragon was looking for.”
“Neither would I,” she agreed. “I’ve never had such a fright in my life. Perhaps you could calm my nerves by filling in some of the details of your love story.”
“Well, I suppose a few details couldn’t hurt,” I said as I tried to sort through which details would do as little harm as possible. “The man you saw is my uncle, and the woman is no more my mother than you are.”
She laughed at this.
“Then why did they both claim to be your parents?”
“Because my parents are both dead, and the two searching for me both claim they want to adopt me.”
She scowled as she studied her mules for a moment. “Well, if that’s true, I can understand why you’re hiding from the woman. She’s a bit of a hot-head.”
“You have no idea.”
This earned another laugh. “If she’s worse than what I saw when I told her to get lost, I’d hide you in my own house to help you get away from her.” She gave me a wink.
Unsure how to take this, I kept quiet.
“But the man seemed nice enough. He actually looked hurt that you ran away.”
I let out a long sigh. “Let’s just say I didn’t like the life he had planned out for me.”
“Wanted to take you back to his home town, I’d wager,” the woman said.
It was my turn to laugh. “How did you know that?”
“What else would take you away from this boy?”
We reached Tartom just as the Evening Star began to shine. She stopped the cart just past the city gates and I hopped down.
“Well, it sounds like you have me all figured out,” I said. “Thank you for the ride.” I handed her a copper dragon’s claw from the magic bag Miazan gave me.
She smiled at the coin. “The story would have been enough, but I can’t afford to turn down generosity. Thank you.”