Cullen was like the big brother Lily had always wanted but couldn’t have because she had sprouted too soon for older siblings. He yelled at her when she wanted to play in the flowers or a brook—just like a big brother should—and warded off wolves just like a big brother should. He even grumbled when she sang!
He held out a hand to help her off of the horse. She stepped down, bouncing off the ground, eager to stretch her legs. Her nose wrinkled. “You smell weird.”
He frowned. “I probably need to wash,” he admitted.
Her head tilted to one side. “Wash?”
“My body. With soap and water. Don’t you wash?”
“Clothes and animals. But not this one. That would be silly. Why would a flower need to bathe?”
He muttered something she couldn’t hear while he dug through a saddlebag. He removed a dry biscuit from a tin. He popped it in his mouth as he removed the horse’s bridle so it could graze.
“Why are we stopping?”
“I need a break,” he explained. He plopped down on a damp log covered in a thick moss.
Bees buzzed around Lily’s head. Her toes wiggled into the dirt and her roots lazily twisted into the nutrient-rich soil. She couldn’t remember ever feasting like this. She wished her homeland was this fertile…
Coming from the east…
She unrooted, looking up. “There’s something…”
She gasped. “Cullen! Get down!” She leaped to take shelter under a large pine tree and crouched amidst fallen needles and exposed roots.
Her behavior more than her words made his body react before his brain had caught up; he dove behind the fallen log. Wings raised tiny hurricane winds. The trees rustled, leaves quaked. The animals hid. The bird's piercing cry drove small, frightened creatures to their burrows. A mouse wasn’t quick enough. Red wings darted downward, snapping to the beast’s sides with the crack of a fire. It crackled as it roared through the branches, diving down, down. Fast!
She cowered. Cullen sat up, watching with half-interest while he tapped his fingers on the moss. Lily quaked as the flames danced around the phoenix. Its sharp beak broke open the mouse’s skin and tore it wide. The air filled with the odor of burned fur and cooking meat. The phoenix lifted the smoking carcass in its mouth and tilted its head back. The bird swallowed the mouse whole. The leaves in the canopy singer and smoked as it flew back the way it had come. A tiny patch of scorched earth remained where it had landed.
Cullen heaved a sigh and clambered back onto the log as if it were some great effort. “I thought it was something important.”
Crawling out from under the tree, she gasped, “It’s a phoenix.”
He rolled his eyes. “We’re too big for it to eat and anyway, you’re a—Oh.” She didn’t fear it eating her; she feared it. “Oh. I’m… I’m sorry.”
She sat down in the dirt, idly scratching at the earth with a—what looked rather a lot like fingernails to Cullen. “They’re scary,” she said quietly.
He sighed, walking over to her. He squatted in front of her. “Hey.” She looked up. “It’s okay; I’m afraid of borderhounds.”
She laughed. “They don’t do anything to people.”
“Not to you!”
They grinned. “Fire is scary.”
He started to argue, then stopped. He shook his head. “Yeah, fire can be scary. But it can be good too.”
She frowned. “How can it be good?”
He smiled. “Well, cooking and light, like the campfire last night.” He rose and extended a hand to help her up. She accepted. His skin was coarse and rough; hers was eerily smooth as plant stalk. He walked from her and picked up the bridle. He walked back, showing her the bit. “The metal here was forged in a fire.”
She looked with interest. “We don’t forge; we trade seeds and fabrics for metal.”
“You do leatherworking.”
“Sure. We tan the leather and feed the meat to the dogs—they’re good for keeping animals out of our flax and cotton crops, rounding up the sheep…”
As he put the bridle back on the horse, she told him about their crops and animals, how she had picked cotton and on alternating days looked after sheep. She preferred the latter.
She said, “The baby ewes are just so cute!” He lifted her back onto the saddle. She grasped the pommel. “But they drink a lot of water, so we’ve had to cull the herds or sell them.”
A flicker of doubt passed over his face. Maybe she really was telling the truth. “Uh-huh.”
She blathered on about ewes and water. He listened to the sound of her voice as background noise, adding to the cacophony of animals calling for a mate. Dahweh, but if he could do the same. If only he could be half as vocal as they were.
A man—maybe a soldier?—with abs he could wash clothes on, a massive cock he could-- He shook his head. Not the time.
“Eek!” she cried.
He turned and raced around to the side of the horse, catching her before she fell. He pushed her back up. She twisted. “I’m sorry—I was trying to look at the branches on the willow tree—” She pointed upwards. “And I lost my balance…” A bluebird flitted by and she lost interest.
At the first howl, Cullen doused the fire and wrapped the horse’s eyes to keep her steady. He checked the tether and cast his spell. The Aldrikan was quieted by a mystified awe of the magic, but it was short-lived.
“How long can it last? Is it hard? What does it look like from outside?”
Up until the last question, his responses had been sarcastic and with a double entendre that was lost on her, but the last one, he couldn’t answer exactly, because every mage’s spell was unique. To sate her curiosity, she pressed her hand against the border, She could see it, but feel no difference between it and empty air. She pushed her hand through it, but it gave no resistance.
“Don’t!” he hissed, blue eyes wide as the borderhound sniffed their trail, another stalking through the unshielded portion of the campsite. She stepped through. The borderhounds did not even look at her. One sniffed at her as she passed it.
She screwed up her eyes and stared, but couldn’t see the golden shimmer from the outside. Her eyes seemed to roll off of the area like water from a duck’s back. Eager to tell Cullen what she saw, she stepped toward it, but her feet moved away. Something in her consciousness told her she couldn’t walk there, as if there was a giant hole in the ground. She closed her eyes to combat the sensation. A feeling of doom welled in her belly. She stepped forward, fully expecting her foot to fall through empty space.
It hit the ground. A sense of wrongness filled her, like she was walking toward a wall or off a cliff. Grinning at the unnaturalness, she stepped again. Fingers laced around her arm and yanked her forward. She laughed. She followed his terrified gaze and the smile wilted on her face. The borderhounds looked at them—or rather, tried to look. They sniffed. For a few heartbeats, Lily thought her actions had spoiled Cullen’s spell—would they have to fight the dogs? Her hand edged toward her dagger.
One attempted to imitate her stepping through the barrier, but the warding was enough to keep it back. They moved on. Her hand dropped away.
He whispered, “There’s been more and more of them lately.” The last vanished in the brush. She pulled away, but stayed within the barrier. Intently, she watched the twitching leaves. “I don’t think it’s a good sign.” She looked back at him. He paused. “There’s been a… a vine—blue, like the Border…”
“Yes. The bloodvines. That’s what we call them. They’ve been spreading—it makes the drought even worse.” She sighed. “So much of Aldrika is in drought, and the little bit on the border to Shalot is covered by the Border and it’s spreading… We have to do something or we won’t have anywhere to go.”
If the aldri withered to brittle, dry leaves and perished in the desertification of Aldrika, it would not matter to Cullen; it was someone else’s problem. What did he care for a few parched weeds?
He’d get her to Millcreek and let the mayor sort her out.
Cullen had given Lily a long piece of string and showed her cat’s cradle—it had kept her mostly quiet and entertained for the last hour. Millcreek was less than half a mile away.
“We’re almost to town,” he began.
She looked up from the game of string, grinning. “Really? A real human village?” She squeaked in excitement. “Oh, wow—”
“Look. I don’t want people to freak out,” he said. “We live longer than you do. I was old enough to fight in the war. I don’t think it would be safe for you to go through town.”
She stilled, frowning. “But… But it’s over.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose. “A lot of people died—it wasn’t that long ago for us.” She opened her mouth to protest and he said, “Just wait. I’ll bring the mayor out to you.”
“Leader of the town.” An elected official, a relic of a bygone era before Shalot had been united. Culture was harder to bring under dominion than law.
“Oh. Like an elder?”
He sighed. Did she mean the tree? “Yes.” He helped her off of the horse and set her down in the dirt. “Just don’t go anywhere.”
She saluted, rooting herself in the earth. “The soil here is really nice.”
“Good. You just stay here. I’ll be back soon.” He swung into the saddle. “Soon. Stay.”
She nodded. Cullen kicked the horse into a trot.
She nestled her toes in the dirt with a sigh of contentment. Many animals napped during the hottest hours of the day. Noon was her favorite time of the day to soak up sunshine; it was nicer to feed during the daylight than at night.
The sound of laughter and children shouting drew her attention. She took a step forward, then stopped. Cullen had been adamant about her staying put. A squeal of delight made her other foot unroot. She grinned, racing toward the alluring sound.