Cold. Damp. Brown.
Mary wrapped her slate blue cloak tighter, loathing spring with a passion. It was like winter but wet, nevermind the flowers shaking off a layer of frost, the impatient things. The grass shimmered with a dusting of ice, her and Rike's footprints marring the glitter of winter's waning touch. It would all melt within the hour.
Before the treeline, or rather, scrubline, as the trees were too far apart to be called forest, two horses nickered next to Harrison. He strapped saddlebags onto his mount which was noticeably, but not exceptionally, larger than the other two.
Rike joined him, hefting Mary's bags onto a brown mare. The horse shook its mane, catching the sunlight and setting it aglow as if on fire.
Harrison waved, then pulled a final strap into place.
"Morning," Mary greeted, smoothing down the fabric of her cloak.
She nudged Rike out of the way of her horse and mounted. Rike huffed but said nothing as he got on another, a few shades darker than hers.
Now out of the shade, warmth soaked into the cotton of her cloak, contrasting with the soft bite clinging to the air every time the wind shifted. Mary leaned forward to run her fingers through the horse's mane. She hadn't ridden in months.
"He looks like a Reginald," Rike announced, fondly patting his new stead.
'Reginald' snorted, sending up a cloud.
"He likes it."
An elegant name for an average horse.
Instead of voicing her thoughts, Mary swallowed the 'tsk' waiting at the front of her mouth. "I'm sure he does."
Mary followed after Harrison, who led the way to the main road at the edge of town and spurred his horse into a trot.
Houses dotted the landscape, growing fewer and farther between with each mile traveled. Recently tilled fields scattered across, around, and over uneven terrain, eventually succumbing to the hills and disappearing from sight. The well-trodden road grew smaller, and when it was not yet midday it gave itself up in quiet surrender, swallowed under rocky soil and rolling hills.
Rike made most of the conversation. Harrison was even more silent than Mary, but if the faint but present circles under his eyes were anything to go by, he had a lot on his mind. She had traveled alone plenty enough to sympathize, although perhaps not with whatever purpose Harrison was searching for a Shifter in the first place.
What was that?
Crunch crunch crunch.
Mary located the source of the noise and sighed. "Rike, I can hear you eating from here. What even is that?"
"Hrdf tk." He gulped the 'hrdf tk' down and took another bite.
Harrison took that as a cue. "Why don't we stop for lunch?" He dismounted at the foot of a hillock, and she followed suit. A jolt went up Mary's legs and she suppressed a gasp, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.
"Ow." Rike rubbed his thighs.
"It'll feel better after a couple of days." Harrison tipped his waterskin back for a drink, exposing a necklace with flat, wooden beads under his shirt. Almost like the ones she sold as charms.
Rike trudged to a grassy spot and flopped to the earth with a grunt.
"Where will we be crossing the river? Haldridge?" Mary asked, tossing a handful of dried fruit into her mouth.
"No, there's a fjord a day or two past Eldred's Grove. We'll cross there."
"At this time of the year?" Mary swallowed, pieces of fruit scratching her throat. "It's spring."
"So, the water levels are at their highest right now. I wouldn't try that for another two months at least."
"Have you crossed it before?" Harrison asked.
"A few times." Mary patted her pockets. "Hold on, where did I put my map?"
Harrison dug in his satchel and offered his own.
"Thanks." She smoothed out the folds, the parchment worn from use.
She pointed to a spot on the river. "This is where you were planning on crossing, right?"
"Usually taking that route is a good idea, and would cut the time of travel to Hulf by a day or two, but"—Mary circled a body of water at the southeast end of the Forest of Impressions—"the Ephair river starts at a lake near the Reikald mountain range." She glanced up at Harrison, who was studying where she pointed to on the map. "Most of its snow would have melted into the lake by now."
"I'd listen to her. She's scary into geography and stuff." Rike lay on the ground with an arm covering his eyes. "She even has a giant map covering most of her wall."
"So there's no way to cross before Haldridge?" Harrison propped a hand under his chin, resting it on his knuckles.
Mary waved the edge of her cloak to let the air in. The temperature had risen as the day wore on, but not enough for her to remove her cloak. "Well, last time Rike and I took a raft, but with horses? I don't think that's a good idea."
"I mean, I'm fine swimming across—" Rike started.
"No one else is. So either we need to go to Haldridge, or follow the river and hopefully someone has a raft big enough for a horse or several."
"We'll go to Haldridge, then," Harrison decided.
"I wouldn't have minded finding a raft though." Rike rocked back on his heels, then used the momentum to swing into a standing position. "We could visit Zinnia."
"We'll visit her on our way back."
Rike shrugged, mouth full of hardtack.
After their break, Harrison asked Mary about the area around Hulf, and she spared no detail, except in describing the actual town. The one time she saw it was many years ago, and at a distance.
But when he asked her about the Forest of Impressions, she had nothing to share.
"Other than the general course of the river, the forest is mostly uncharted," she explained.
"There must be something you heard—"
Mary scowled. "You may think otherwise, Harrison, but the Forest of Impressions is dangerous. There are still Beasts there, and anyone stupid enough to go in—or explore it even—has a death wish. Whatever information is there has never left the forest."
"We'll have to find out for ourselves, then." Harrison didn't say more, but focused on the path ahead.
Mary narrowed her eyes. Did he think she knew more than she said? His actions gave her no reason to believe he mistrusted her judgement, and he'd even dropped his plan to cross the river when she argued against it.
Either he trusted her, or held his doubts where they couldn't be seen.
Mary gently pulled on the reins until she was side-by-side with Rike, Harrison out of earshot. "How close do you need to be to find a Shifter?"
"Depends. But there shouldn't be a problem finding it. Unless it's like, dead." Rike ran a hand through his hair, somehow managing to mess it up further. "You know, I don't think I've tried tracking dead things."
"No need to start now." Mary quickly shut him down, not liking where his thoughts were inevitably going. "Is there a possibility you might track a Beast by accident?"
"Doubt it. The compass only points to what I'm searching for—or, it does when I know what I'm trying to find in the first place—so as long as I have a blood sample, or maybe a feather, all we'll have to worry about is what we'll do when we find it."
Mary churned that over, but it wasn't quite the answer she was trying to get at. "What about your rabbit's foot?"
"What about it?"
"You can find other rabbits with it. Does it work the same for . . . ?" Mary fidgeted with the hem of her cloak, wrapping it around her fist.
"Oh. No, they're easier to find because we hunt them so often. I know what I'm looking for. But Shifters? Can't say I've made the acquaintance of any."
"Less likely we'll stumble upon something else, then." Mary relaxed her jaw, not having realized she had been clenching it.
They didn't stop until the sun touched the horizon. The sky had been clear all day, but Mary still set up her tent, and then Rike's when he wasn't back from filling their waterskins. She had learned that spring rained whenever most inconvenient.
Harrison bunched a pile of dead grass under the sticks he collected, too few to last the night if left unattended, but that wouldn't be a problem. They would take turns keeping watch tonight. In this part of Rillin they were unlikely to run into anything more hostile than a fox or a snake, but the risk of bandits, however small, was present.
Mary requested the last watch. Although not necessarily a morning person, she preferred waking first. And when Rike shook her awake, she was relieved to have something to do other than lay on rocks and fail in another attempt at sleeping.
She stretched her legs out, arching her back and breathing deeply through her nose. Cold seeped from the roots she sat on, but she didn't mind. The sting kept her awake.
Morning eased in, casting the world in a soft haze. She had her tent folded at her side with her bag, ready to leave the moment Rike and Harrison woke. But for now they were asleep, and Mary closed her eyes as gradually, then all at once, gold cast away silver and crowned the hills with delicate halos.
The rustle of blankets sounded from Rike's tent. His head poked out, and he grimaced at the change in light.
"You look like you slept on rocks," Mary observed, tilting her head and tapping a finger against her chin.
"Really? You think so?" Rike stretched, his hair sticking up on one side. "Is Harrison up?"
"Nope." Mary held out a handful of jerky, one strip of which had a bite in it. "Want some?"
He plopped down next to her and accepted her offering. "We should start packing up." His tone implied that he did not, in fact, care to pack up anytime soon.
"Way ahead of you." She stood, swinging her tent over her shoulder. "Go wake Harrison maybe?"
He saluted and yawned. "Yes, ma'am."
By the time her horse was saddled, Rike and Harrison had taken down the camp. Mary let it nibble a carrot out of her hand, one she had bitten into and found too bitter tasting for her to eat. It appraised her calmly, letting her rub its neck.
She looks like a Ginger.
She shook her head, dismissing the thought. There was no point in naming an animal, especially a borrowed one.
They left camp, Harrison setting the pace. Mary pinched herself to banish her tiredness, and when that was unsuccessful, studied the landscape.
A creek slithered through the hills, the waters of which would diminish to mud come summer. Green clustered at the bank, where trees loomed over the current and competed for a resource that would abandon them in the dry season. Grass scraped against her boots in the tallest patches, and each stomp of her horse sent up pollen into the air like dust shaken from old fabric. Mary repressed one sneeze, and then another. Her skin itched, and she tugged the cloak to one side, her shirt damp from sweat. She hoped for a breeze, but it was a wish unfulfilled. Other than the snap and rustle of crushed blades under hooves, the grasses were still.
"I haven't seen you wear that in awhile."
Mary jumped. She'd almost forgotten Rike was beside her.
"Aren't you hot? You can take it off you know."
"I don't get hot." A bead of sweat trickled down her spine.
"Because you spend so much time with me you're immune to it?"
Mary's eyebrows furrowed, and then his reference dawned on her. She picked out a burr from her cloak and chucked it at him. "You might want to get that ego checked. I think it's inflated."
"Maybe you should get your arm checked. You have terrible aim."
"Practice makes perfect." She pried another burr from her cloak, careful not to tear it. "Shall I try again?"
He raised his hands in surrender. "Have mercy."
Mary caught Harrison's gaze, who had slowed his pace and watched with the barest hint of a smile on his face. She raised an eyebrow.
"Harrison. Call her off," Rike begged.
"You brought this on yourself." He shrugged. "Deal with the consequences."
Mary bit her lip to hide her own smile and flicked the burr at Rike. It bounced harmlessly off his shoulder.
"That hurt, Harrison. The betrayal, not the burr," he clarified.
"Sometimes blind loyalty to friends is not a wise decision."
"That doesn't sound right. Deep, though."
Mary held up an arm to block the sun, estimating how far from the river they were. If they headed straight to it, it would be another day and a half's ride, but now that they had adjusted their path it would be no less than two.
Rike rolled his shoulders and gestured to Mary's horse, changing the topic. "Have a name for her yet?"
"Hmm?" Pollen invaded her nose and she sneezed yet again. "Oh, the horse. No," she sniffed.
"I think you do." He waved a hand in front of her face, doing a fantastic job of stretching far off his horse without plummeting to the ground.
She swatted his hand away. "Sit up or you're going to fall off. If you get trampled Reginald will have to live with the guilt that he killed you."
"Reginald is more responsible than that. He won't let me die."
"Try reaching farther and we'll see—"
"Are you two done?"
Mary and Rike turned. A dozen yards behind them, Harrison lowered his hands, having used them to amplify his shout. They had passed him without noticing.
"I hate to interrupt but I called your names twice."
"What?" Rike yelled back.
"We heard you." Mary dug her heels in and Ginger—her horse—trotted to Harrison, leaving Rike and 'Reginald' to catch up.
Harrison trickled water over his head, the heat clearly bothering him. His nose showed the beginnings of sunburn, and if she was right about him being from northern Rillin, he was definitely not used to heat. Although, she wasn't much better. The two years she'd spent in Julla made her dread its humid summers even as her hatred for the cold stayed.
"We should take a break while the creek's nearby," he suggested. "The horses need it."
Mary agreed; she wanted to cool off too. Once there, she tied the lead to a half-dead juniper by the bank and slid as close to the current as she dared.
"I'll be right back." Harrison left his horse untied, a habit Mary was beginning to notice.
Rike stole a glance at his compass. He had been doing so all morning, and if it were any less important she would have swiped it from him already.
"Put that away. There's nothing out here."
"On the contrary, there are rabbits nearby. And I, for one, am sick of jerky." He slipped the compass in his pocket and unclasped his bow from the saddle.
"It's been two days. You'll manage." The ache in her thighs had eased, but they were still stiff when she crouched to fill her waterskin.
"Mind watching the horses until I'm back?" Rike strung his bow.
Mary grunted, not so much accepting his request as acknowledging it, and nestled into the juniper's roots. She gnawed on a piece of jerky, pausing mid-bite. He was right. The taste did get old.
She choked the rest down and relaxed, alone for the first time since they'd departed and with a few minutes to kill. Her cloak itched, and she briefly scanned around her before slipping it off her shoulders. She held it close, inhaling the faint smell of leather and dew that never truly went away. However many years had passed, she still recognized it. It was home.
If she lost the cloak, she lost her last connection to her identity. But that wasn't her main concern for bringing her cloak.
Soft splashes accompanied the gurgle of rushing water as the horses cooled off. The evening sun warmed her face, coaxing her to close her eyes. It didn't take long for it to win, and she dozed off.
Then she heard a not-so-distant scream.