Mela’s first warning was when she started coughing. After the initial spasm passed, she slumped back against the Rider with a sob as Ebona picked her way carefully through the roots and fallen trunks of trees of the overgrown wood. Her head was aching fiercely, which was not a good sign. She closed her eyes and imagined swimming in a cool forest pool, but it didn’t help. How long until her skin cracked and developed sores from being out of the water too long? She groaned and another coughing fit took her. When she recovered, the Rider had removed one of his leather gloves and was holding the back of his hand against her forehead. She looked up at him and almost thought she saw concern in his eyes.
“You’re burning up, child,” he said. “Here.” He held something to her lips and, once she realised it contained water, she drank it down greedily. It helped a little. Once she’d emptied it she looked up at him in time to see him opening another container – which he tipped over her head.
“Hmm…” She reached up and ran her fingers through her hair as the cool water ran over it and soothed the headache somewhat. “Thank you.”
“Is that better?” he asked, and she nodded.
Her fear of the Rider stopped her from speaking any further. He might become angry if she requested more.
“But it’s not enough?” he asked.
She swallowed and nodded.
“I didn’t expect this so soon.” He sighed and looked down at his mount, “Can you find us an unoccupied pool, dear heart – our little mermaid needs to swim.”
“I’m sorry I’m not stronger…” she whispered, looking down.
He reached down and stroked her hair reassuringly. “It’s not your fault. I could do without the delay, but I need you functional to use that.” He pointed at the pendant.
“I can still use it,” she said – afraid he’d think she was trying to delay him. “Drying out won’t kill me. You don’t need to inconvenience yourself for me.”
“Mela.” He reached down and tilted her head back so that she had to meet his eyes. She blinked, unable to figure out what the emotion in them was. “Don’t martyr yourself to get in my good books. It doesn’t impress me. And alive isn’t the same as functional.”
“I don’t want you to think I’m trying to slow you down,” she said.
He chuckled softly. “You aren’t foolish enough to try that. You know Ebona would tell me if you lied to me.”
“There’s a small lake a little way that way.” Ebona gestured with her horn. “There’s no speakers in it, but I can smell fish. We might as well eat while we’re stopped.” Mela stared at the unicorn, wondering how she’d smelled water before her.
“Thanks, Eb.” He stroked the unicorn’s neck. “And yes, I suppose we should eat.”
“You definitely should,” Ebona said tartly. “You don’t eat enough.”
Mela blinked at the unicorn’s tone. Tradition claimed heart friends were slaves; that having been born without heart gems, they sold themselves to humans for power. But these two acted more like friends. They seemed to have a mutual respect, and now Ebona was nagging him to eat like he was a naughty child.
“Okay, okay, Eb, I’ll eat, I promise.” He laughed and looked down at Mela. “I suppose you’re hungry too?”
“I feel sick,” she said. “I’ll probably be hungry once I get into the water. I’ll catch some fish while I’m swimming… if that’s okay.”
“Of course. Would you catch some for me and Eb as well, please?”
“Er…” She stared at him.
“I’d be grateful… It’s that or the dried beef and that tastes awful. I much prefer wearing leather to eating it, and Eb hates the stuff.”
“Er…” she said again, and he began to laugh.
“Our deal involved me not killing your surviving family if you used that little trinket for me. I won’t compel more than that from you. If you don’t want to catch fish for me, I’ll understand. But it can’t hurt to get on my good side, can it?”
“Er…” Mela finally managed to pull herself together. “It’s not that. I was just surprised. I’ll catch you some fish.” She looked round as she smelled the water. Through the trees she saw sunlight glinting on a small lake. It wasn’t a moment too soon, either. Her head was pounding again.
“Here we are.” He dismounted and lifted her down. Her head spun and her legs buckled under her. She would have fallen, but he grabbed her by the waist and lifted her into his arms. “You really are badly dehydrated, aren’t you?” he asked as he carried her to the lake. As soon she was in the water she shifted her legs back into a tail and dived into the depths.
She swam around for a few minutes drinking in the water and letting it soak into her skin. Then she looked around for fish and spotted several brown trout. Great! Trout were good eating, but she wished she had her spear. It was easier than using her hands.
She grabbed two in short order by singing them into a trance. Her mother would have been shocked at her using her power for fishing. She considered using it for mundane tasks to be beneath them. Mela disagreed. Why make something harder than it had to be? She broke the surface and tossed one of the fish to the Rider and the other to Ebona. Then she dove back down to get another for herself.
When she surfaced again, the Rider was cleaning his fish with his knife. He glanced up at her.
“Your song’s prettier than your mother’s.”
“Thank you,” she said and then did a double take, “You heard me singing? I thought land creatures couldn’t hear our underwater songs.”
“No, we can hear them fine.” It was Ebona who answered.
“Oh…” She looked at the fish in her hands. “Do either of you want another fish?”
“Oh no,” he said. “One’s quite enough for me. I’ve got some bread and dried fruit to go with it. Eb probably will though.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” Ebona said. “But you eat that one and catch some more after.”
“Okay.” Mela floated on her back and tore her trout apart with her sharp nails and teeth.
“That’s quite horrible to watch,” the Rider said. He was cooking his own trout over a small fire that he must have lit while she was swimming.
“Says the one who casually killed most of my family,” she retorted without thinking. Then she clapped her hand over her mouth. “Oh, Core’s defenders, I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, so you do have some spirit, Mela,” he said. Her outburst didn’t seem to have angered him. “I’m glad. I thought you must have, since you were so brave earlier. But you’ve been so meek since then that I wondered. I meant what I said; I didn’t want to kill anyone. If your mother had cooperated, it would’ve been fine. Of course, I knew she probably wouldn’t. Her anti-human stance is no secret. I hoped my reputation would faze her, but she had to be stubborn.” He took his fish from the pan and placed it on a plate with a handful of dried berries and some brown slices Mela guessed was the ‘bread’ he’d mentioned.
“You aren’t at all like I expected… Oh!” She rolled over in the water as she sensed someone approaching. She opened her mouth to tell him, but Ebona interrupted her.
“Someone’s coming,” she said. “Three speakers… I think it’s them.”
“Thanks.” The Rider put his plate to one side and lifted his hand palm up. A small sphere of darkness grew from it and engulfed the three of them briefly. It must be some sort of concealment, Mela decided, because she couldn’t sense Ebona anymore even though she could see her. The Rider confirmed her thought a second later. “There, now they won’t be able to sense you. Go and hide.”
â€œThanks.â€ The Rider put his plate to one side and lifted his hand palm up. A small sphere of darkness grew from it and engulfed the three of them briefly. It must be some sort of concealment, Mela decided, because she couldnâ€™t sense Ebona anymore even though she could see her. The Rider confirmed her thought a second later. â€œThere, now they wonâ€™t be able to sense you. Go and hide.â€