It wasn’t until mid-morning the next day that the storm finally exhausted itself, so we had plenty of time to rest up before heading out again. We followed the trail back to where it crossed Old 6, and that’s where Marek approached Dyani and held out his hand. I could tell it wasn’t something he was used to doing or much liked doing, and it must have cost him some thought and effort.
“Thanks,” he growled. “For saving my ass, I mean. I’m obliged to ya.”
Dyani grasped his hand and gave it a shake. “Okay, Marek, but just remember that in case we meet up again. And if we never do, make sure you pass the favor on to somebody else. It’s my way, and I’m asking you to make it yours.”
“Maybe I’ll do that,” he said. “So, which way you headed?”
“Other way. Got a meet-up with my boss.”
“You got a boss? Figured you’re on your own.”
Marek scowled. “Was. Will be again.” He stepped off about twenty paces, paused, and half turned around. His lips were smiling but his eyes weren’t. “And luck to ya, Dyani. You and your farm boys there are gonna need it.” After dropping that bit of dread in the middle of things, he walked off leaving us to wonder what he’d meant–whether he was just saying the obvious or warning us about some serious trouble he knew we’d run into on our way down south. It didn’t matter one way or the other, though, because we didn’t have much say as to where we were headed.
Dyani gave me a poke in the ribs. “We’re fresh now but gettin’ a late start, so let’s have a look at that map of yours ‘n’ see how far we can get today.” We studied the map and I figured we’d be able to make it to a hamlet and marketplace called Mount Forest about thirty-five or so klicks straight down Old 6.
“OK, Travis. If we hustle, we can do it easy. We stay a night, maybe two, rest up and stock up, and then make a big push down in the direction of the station. What d’ya think?”
I was pleased that she’d softened a bit towards me and thought me smart enough to ask my opinion. “Sure. I think so, too. You know Mount Forest?”
“I do,” Dyani said. “I’ve stopped there for rest and supplies a coupla times since I started scouting this area. It’s a good crossroads and watering hole. Of course you’ve got your share of assholes there, but I’ve got friends there, too, and I don’t think anyone’ll give us any trouble. Besides, the market council keeps it pretty civilized so’s not to scare off trade.”
“What’s your notes say about if it’s safe between here and there?” Dunc asked.
“Well, I can’t promise things haven’t changed,” I said, “but last reports say this stretch of 6 shouldn’t be dangerous. See, there’s no red x’s anywhere, so it looks like we’ll be all right. I mean as long as we don’t run into another Bors, or Meeks, or bandits, or–”
“Right, I get it,” he said. “I just wish Marek hadn’t said we’d need luck is all.”
“I suppose you’d like it better if he said you had bugger-all chance of staying alive,” Dyani said.
“Well, no, but–”
“‘Well, no, but’ nothing. Look here, Dunc. You better get it together and join in all the fun…unless you want to leg it by yourself.”
Dunc was smart enough to shut his gob, hoist his pack, and shoulder his gun. I asked, “Who’s taking point?” to which Dyani said, “Why don’t you, and I’ll take the rear.”
I could see that Dunc was getting twitchy, so I took off the stab vest I’d kept and handed it to him. “Here. Put this on. Way better than luck. Other than that hole you put through it, it’s in good shape.”
He took it and hefted it. “Thanks, but don’t you want it?”
“I’m not gonna lie and say I wouldn’t mind wearing it myself, but let’s consider this my good deed for the day, okay?”
He shrugged out of his pack and slipped the vest on. “Not a bad fit. It’s really light, too,” he said.
“Prob’ly it’ll stop any half-assed stab, but you gotta do your part, too.”
He nodded, geared up again, and we started off.
We’d gone no more than a few dozen steps when a big skeeter hawk zipped over and beyond us maybe ten meters, turned, and hovered about three meters up. Even at that distance, I heard its wings humming. It didn’t stay but only a few seconds before wheeling around and shooting back up Old 6. “The hell!” I said. “There’s loads of dragonflies back on the farm, but I’ve never seen one that big.”
Dyani looked at me doubtfully. “That’s what you think it was? Some kinda dragonfly?”
“Well, it didn’t exactly look like a duck, did it? What do you think it was?”
“That’s Bors,” she said. “Watching us. I don’t know what he means by it, but he calls it his crystal ball. It’s how he knew about that fella your heavies killed. It’s how he knows a lot about what’s going’ on in the woods.”
“You mean he can see us?” Dunc asked, and the look Dyani gave him was answer enough.
“How’s it work, that dragonfly thing?” I asked.
“Don’t exactly know, but it’s hooked up to Bors somehow, and it’s not the only one he’s got flyin’ around.”
“You know, that thing came flying over us from back up the road,” Dunc said. “That’s where Marek’s headed. Bors’ll know he’s coming his way.”
“Not our problem, is it?” Dyani smiled. “Could be Marek’ll need some luck now himself, dunnit?”
That made Dunc grin, and we all shared a laugh before setting off down the road in earnest. The rest of the morning and most of the afternoon turned into a dull, terrible plod as the storm had done little to wring the air out. By the time we reached the last bend before Mount Forest, we all looked like we’d been dunked in a pond.
The muffled noise of a good-sized crowd reached us before we made the turn, and we slowed up to consider our approach. You have to weigh things like that. If you run up on a place, someone might get it in his head that you’re a bandit or a nutter and shoot you down. If you approach too cautiously, you could be taken for an easy mark for fleecing–or worse. Dyani, who knew the ways of the place, told us the best way was to walk into the market square side by each with guns unslung but pointing down, heads up, and no smiles, not looking for trouble but not unable to handle it.
I wasn’t used to playing that part, so I gave myself a bit of a shake to get rid of the jitters that welled up in my gut as we rounded the corner and strolled toward the marketplace. As you’d expect, the jabber and activity nearest us died down some and curious, cautious eyes turned in our direction. I think we all felt a little uneasy until a towering, shaggy bear recognized Dyani and called out her name in a happy greeting.
He lumbered over, circled her waist with powerful-looking arms, and lifted her up until they were eye to eye. “Hey, Dyani! I’ve missed ya! Where’ve ya been?”
She threw back her head and laughed in true pleasure. “Up, down, ‘n’ all around–you know me,” she said.
He lowered her to her feet, and she threw her arms around him and gave him a fierce hug. I don’t know why, but I felt a pinch of jealousy at seeing her so friendly with the bear. Maybe it was because I had begun to want her approval. Maybe because despite her scars I’d begun to find her just a little bit pretty. Anyhow, I didn’t have much time to mull my feelings over because the bear pointed at Dunc and me and asked, “And who’s this you got with ya now? They friends?”
Dyani scratched her nose and looked over at us. “That’s Travis on the right and the other one’s Dunc. They’re farm boys looking for adventure. Sort of. And they’re the sort of friends that we have to be–for now.”
“Name’s Adahy,” the bear said as he approached us. I gave him a hiya, put my hand out to meet his, and wished I hadn’t as my hand vanished in a bone-crunching paw. I tried hard not to wince, but I couldn’t help it. There’d be no walking away from a fair fistfight with this fella, I thought. After giving my hand a final squeeze, he dropped it and offered a shake to Dunc who, so as not to offend, put his hand in the wringer as well. I noticed Dyani watching the proceedings with amusement which did nothing to take away any pain or increase my estimation of myself.