They headed back upstream and waited while Lydia cleaned the dishes and refilled the canteens. Even without the danger of attack, none of them wanted to be alone. Who knew what was out there?
Lydia was just filling the final canteen when her currently adrenaline-hyped psychic sense went off. She drew the sword she’d received the previous day and looked around.
Bennu flew up to hover over her protectively. Kimi turned in the same direction with her fur standing on end, lips curled back from her teeth in a snarl.
“It’s a speaker!” Kimi said.
Lydia frowned. Speaker was what Bennu had called other talking creatures when she asked about the rabbit last night, wasn’t it? She dropped into a defensive posture and waited. She hoped she looked convincing, because the sword was very different from the fencing foil she was used to.
A moment later the speaker in question emerged from among some gorse shrubs and seemed taken aback to see a human and two heart friends ready to attack him.
“Peace, humans and my fellow speakers.” He held up a gnarled hand in a pacifying gesture. “I’m not here to attack you. I was merely coming to collect some water from the stream, just as you are.” He nodded to the brook and the canteens lying beside it. Lydia cocked her head at him.
“You’re a dwarf,” she said.
He seemed amused by this. “Indeed,” he replied. “And you’re a human. A female one I believe. The – ah – shape here suggests it anyway.” He made a gesture around his chest area to indicate that she had breasts.
Lydia flushed furiously. “Huh… yeah… I’m female.”
“The stories didn’t mention humans changing colour like chameleons though,” he added in a bemused tone.
Lydia was forced out of her defensive pose as she broke down laughing.
“We don’t,” she replied once she managed to stop. “It’s an emotional response.” She took a breath and looked him up and down.
He looked like a typical fantasy dwarf: short, stocky and wearing a mail shirt. His long reddish-brown hair was topped by a helmet and a beard of the same colour covered his face. He also had a multi-coloured gemstone set between his eyes. Come to think of it, everyone they’d encountered had a similar gem in their forehead except for their heart friends. What did that mean? She’d have to ask Bennu about it when she had time. She didn’t want to antagonise the dwarf by asking something that might be rude.
“So,” the dwarf said, “I suppose I should welcome you good people. I don’t suppose many speakers have been delighted to see you. Humans have a bit of a reputation. There must be some terrible danger afoot if the Core’s opened the gate and called you.” He cocked his head thoughtfully. “I had heard that the dragons were moving again?” He gave Bennu and Kimi a questioning look, but neither responded. “Still, you must here to help us, so I’d best help you. I don’t want to be dragon food.”
His sharp eyes took in the bracelet on Lydia’s wrist, and Andrew’s tired appearance. “Ah, you’re heading for the Ice Heart Bracelet? I can help you there. Its resting place lies on my trading route. You’re welcome to ride in my cart. It won’t be much faster, but it’s got to be better than walking, and I’ve plenty of food to share.”
“Hmm. It’s good of you to offer, but you’ll have to excuse us if we’re a bit suspicious,” Lydia said. “Saying a lot of people aren’t pleased to see us is an understatement. Since we arrived here, everyone we’ve met apart from our heart friends has tried to kill us. That must be some bad reputation.”
“We probably deserve it,” Karen muttered.
Lydia shot her a glance. “Cynic.”
“There are reasons.” The dwarf’s rugged face creased into a smile. “But mostly it’s the Storm Queen. The King’s right, she’s turning into a maniac.”
“You serve the Mountain King then?” Kimi asked.
“I am sworn to King Dariad, yes.”
“It’s possible he’s trustworthy,” Kimi said to the others. “The Mountain King is neutral towards humanity.” The leopard cocked her head at them. “He won’t poison us, that much is certain. I could spot that and he knows it. And if we’re cautious, he won’t be able to kill us while we sleep either.”
“I wouldn’t!” the dwarf said. “I’d be a fool to break the Core’s binding on dwarves by attacking without challenging first. We’re warriors, and warriors don’t attack without warning.”
“Of course,” Kimi said. “It should be safe to go with him. At the very least he won’t attack us without warning.”
“I give you my word before the Core, humans and fellow speakers,” the dwarf said in a formal tone, “that no harm will befall you by my hand between here and the place we travel to if you choose to travel with me.”
“Well, that cinches it. He wouldn’t dare swear a false oath by the Core. It hates that,” Bennu said.
Lydia looked at her brother and sister. Andrew was leaning against a tree looking like he was only half following the conversation. Karen was looking at the dwarf with an odd half-smile, but showed no inclination to ask the question which was bothering Lydia.
“Hold on, back up a sec,” Lydia said. “What the hell is the Core?”
“Err…” Bennu sounded flummoxed by the question. “It’s…”He looked at the other two speakers. “How do I explain it?”
“It’s the heart of the world,” Kimi said. “Which doesn’t really tell you anything, but we wouldn’t exist without it.”
“It’s God?” Lydia asked.
Kimi shook her head in a very human gesture. “No, it didn’t make us, and it’s not all powerful. It’s…” She looked at Bennu and her ears drooped. “You’re right, there’s no way to explain it, but you’ll probably encounter it eventually.”
Lydia stared at them a moment longer and decided they were being honest. “Okay, I’ll accept that.” She looked at her siblings. “So what about this offer?” she asked.
Karen nodded. “I vote yes.” She still had that odd expression on her face.
“Me too,” Andrew added. “It’ll be nice to sit in a cart and doze, what with how I feel.”
Lydia shrugged. “That’s what I thought you’d say.” She turned to Bennu and Kimi. “And you two; what’s your vote?”
They both nodded in agreement.
Lydia smiled and turned back to the dwarf. “Okay, sir, we’ll take you up on your kind offer of transport.” She sheathed her sword and collected the rucksack and canteens. “I’m Lydia, and these are my brother Andrew and sister Karen.”
The dwarf bowed to them. “I’m Korrig. Please come this way.” He led them through the shrubs to where a small covered cart lay. If they’d carried on following Andrew’s instincts they would have missed it entirely. “Climb in the back. If any other speakers come along, hide among the wares.”