Locasta did not protest helping the strange camp move quickly away from the site of the roc attack. She didn’t want to be found there when the other roc scouts came looking for their missing friend. Kelvin, it turned out, had skill with healing magic, and restored Trax well enough that he was no longer limping. He and Locasta remained at the rear of the fleeing people, in case of another attack. She watched him for a while, to be certain he was well. He fought lithely, but he was not young, and she worried that he would tire soon.
She did what she could to hide their trail as they passed. It was difficult, even moving as slowly as they were, to cover every sign of their passing, but she at least managed to smooth the earth out enough to keep it from being obvious. She also lowered the stony protection from her skin, because she didn’t like the way the people were looking at her.
Kelvin led them through rocky, desert land for several hours, until they reached a deep cut in the earth. The canyon was hard to see from far off if one wasn’t looking for it, and as they descended she guessed this was where they lived when they weren’t out doing . . . whatever they were doing.
There were small shelters set up along the sandy bottom, and a spring of water that formed a stream down the center. It was cooler in the canyon, and deep enough that even if a roc could find it, it couldn’t follow them down. She doubted anything but a very young Gargant of any kind could follow them into the place. The group spread out as they reached the bottom, greeted by others who had stayed behind. There were children in some of the huts.
“What is this place?” Locasta said quietly to Trax as they watched the crowd disperse.
“It appears to be a village.”
Locasta stopped and looked at him. He may have been smiling. He may also have been wondering how she could not know this was a village.
“A village. Part of no one’s territory, where no Gargant can reach. These people are rebels, Trax.”
“They may simply be outcasts, or refugees from some battle between the lands.” He was looking at a few children playing around the spring, splashing each other and laughing.
“Perhaps some of them are,” Locasta said. “But Kelvin is not. Those guards were not. No Gargant would let them go.”
“What do you mean to do?” Trax turned back to look at her again, his eyes narrowing slightly, his head tilted to one side.
“If there are people here from our lands, we will bring them back with us. The others are not our responsibility.”
“What if they do not wish to leave?”
Locasta frowned and looked away, spinning her spear in her hand a few times before striding forward to find Kelvin. He was busy supervising the distribution of goods through the village. He kindly but firmly told her she would have to wait until they were done.
While Locasta waited, Trax began slowly walking among the people, stopping now and then if there were any that didn’t shy away from him. He helped carry some of the heavier items to people’s huts. Locasta paced, tapping her spear on the ground like a walking stick.
Finally, all the goods had been distributed, and Kelvin turned to Locasta.
“Are you always like this?” he asked her, his mouth twisted into a half smile. Locasta paused, not used to anyone in leadership smiling. It was unnerving. Not as terrifying as when a dragon smiled. But close.
Kelvin laughed. “Never mind. Where is your friend? Join me for a meal, and we’ll talk about all of this.” He waved his hand to signify the village.
The meal was simple. It was mostly vegetables and bread and cheese. They sat in Kelvin’s hut and ate quietly for a while. Locasta was used to catching a meal whenever she could, so she had been ignoring her hunger until now. She did her best to eat calmly, the way Trax did, as though they weren’t in the middle of trying to find a lost compatriot. She was still finished before either of the men.
Kelvin seemed to enjoy her impatience. Rather than start the conversation right away, he watched and ate slowly as she tapped her fork on the table.
“You already have some idea of what we are,” Kelvin said when he had finished, leaning back in his chair. “I won’t insult you by pretending. We are made up of people who have escaped from each of the four lands.”
“Escaped? You mean deserted.” Locasta folded her arms.
“I would say that was true of me, if you insist,” Kelvin said sighing. “But most of the others, they were not soldiers, or guards. They were just citizens, forced into labor for the Gargants.”
“And are fed and protected for it.” Locasta shook her head. “Let’s skip past the ideological bickering and get to the point. What do you intend to do with this band of yours? If you just mean to scrounge out an existence in this hole, that’s fine. But if you mean to be attacking temples-”
“We did not attack the temple. The roc did that. We did go past there to scavenge afterwards, and we weren’t the only ones.”
“Why would the roc attack a temple?” Locasta ignored his remark about other scavengers. At least the thing she was looking for rightfully belonged to the dragons.
“We weren’t sure. But your comment earlier helped me understand. They must be looking for the sword.”
Locasta grimaced. If they were after the sword, they would be after Gerard. She would never doubt a seasoned champion of a city of Dragonhelm, even if she hadn’t seen one in action. And she had watched Gerard fight a Roc, alone. The last she had seen him, he still bore a spear made from one of its talons. But that had been only one, and it had nearly killed him.
“You said that you’ve seen . . . the other champion. Could you describe him for me? Do you know if he had the sword?”
“Well, I’m not quite certain what the sword looks like, so I don’t know that I can help you with that. But he was a tall man, powerfully built, with a long scar along his forearm.”
Locata’s grimace deepened into a scowl. It was Gerard. If he had found the sword he would have returned to Stonehaven. Perhaps he knew where the sword was, and was going after whatever had taken it, the roc that had attacked the temple.
“Where did you see him last?”
“It was on the trail to the temple. It was how we knew that it had been recently attacked.”
“So it was not weeks ago, as you had said before.” Trax spoke up, his level voice sounding strange in the small hut. Kelvin shrugged, but was looking at Trax as though trying to read him. He had said nothing about the camp, and probably never would, Locasta guessed.
“No, only two days.”
“Where is he going?” Locasta asked, sitting forward suddenly. Kelvin swayed back a little.
“I’m not sure. He didn’t seem willing to give up much information. But he was heading north while we were coming south.”
That was all Locasta needed to hear. She stood up and started to head out of the hut.
“Wait, now,” Kelvin daid, hurrying around her and blocking the small door. “You promised to tell me what you were doing in these parts, if I explained what we were doing.”
Locasta sighed deeply. “I thought that was obvious. I am looking for this other champion. It is likely at this point that he has the sword, and is trying to take it back to wherever he’s from.”
Kelvin watched her closely as she spoke, so she did her best to talk as though bored, having to explain the obvious to him. The most important part about lying, Locasta had learned, was that you needed to put as much truth into it as possible. There was nothing untrue about what she had said. Just nothing important either, at least not to a leader of scavengers.
“And what is so special about this sword?” He didn’t look completely convinced.
“There are several things about it that make it useful to the dragons and their champions.” She kept the same disaffected air. This would be the first time Trax was hearing any of this as well. “More symbolic than anything, though there is some magic in the sword. I’m surprised it seems so popular now. The magic that it uses harms the person wielding it as well as the person being attacked.”
Kelvin narrowed his eyes a bit at that. Locasta had hoped that he would focus more on the sword, and its peculiarities, rather than Gerard and their purpose in being so far from home.
“So you’ll be going after him?”
“Of course,” Locasta said, pushing past him, or trying to. “And I’ll be taking along with me any of our people who are part of your little pocket of rebellion.”
He was much more solid than she had expected, and he refused to get out of her way. She grunted a bit and stepped back, looking up at him with no less determination than before.
“Are you going to insist on arguing with me?” she asked.
“Perhaps we should find out what the people would like to do,” Trax said, coming up behind Locasta, and setting a large clawed hand on her shoulder.
“If that makes you feel better,” Locasta said, shrugging him away.
Through the rest of the camp, people from all of the lands mixed together. There were clerics and bowed over servants from giant lands in long brown robes, there were wiry unkempt folk from the roq’s mountains, and wispy haunted eyed sailors from the kraken’s broken coast. The strong, tall people from Dragonhelm kept themselves a little apart from the others, at their own fire, surrounded by their own ring of tents.
When Locasta and Trax appeared near them, they stood up, straightening their dusty clothes, and nodded to them.
“Are you well?” Locasta asked, looking them over. There were a few men, and two women. No children with this group.
“As well as can be expected,” the oldest of them said.
“They’ve been treating you well?”
“Mostly they leave us be.”
“We are going in search of a prize of the dragons, and we are offering to bring you with us.” Trax spoke quickly before Locasta could order them to come along. She looked sideways at him, and then added in Draconic, assuming that wherever Kelvin was from, it was not Dragonhelm.
“You will come along with us. Your place is not with this rabble.”
No one in the group answered, simply hung their heads or bobbed them in agreement.
“See, they are agreed. They’ll come with us,” Locasta said. Then she turned as though to head back out of the ravine right away. Kelvin moved, not to get in her way, but between her and the others.
“My lady champion,” he said, smiling widely. Locasta froze, and then slowly turned to look at Kelvin. “These are my people now. I will not have you threatening them, or leading them into harm.”
“Harm?” Locasta took a long stride toward Kelvin and looked into his face. They were nearly even in height, and though he did a good job of keeping it off of his face, he almost took a step back. “You are dragging these people into the wilderness, and picking scraps from the fights of others like wild dogs.”
“You’d rather have them picking scraps at the tables of the Gargants and their favorites?”
“I can’t speak for the other Gargants, but the dragons protect their folk. Do they look like they were raised on scraps?” She nodded toward the group behind Kelvin. They were healthy, strong people, and relatively well kept even for having lived in the middle of nowhere for so long.
“Really? Is that why I found these ones stranded alone after a battle?”
“There are a million reasons for that. Either way, you have no right to keep them here. And what will you do next time you get caught between a roc and a load of tents? You cannot protect these people forever. They will be safer at home.”
“Fine. Perhaps we can make another trade then,” Kelvin said, holding his hands up against her tirade.
“I’m listening.” Locasta held her hands on her hips and tilted her head.
“Let me come with you. Help you find this pretender champion. If I succeed in leading you to him, you leave these people in peace with me.”
Locasta furrowed her brow, and looked over Kelvin. She couldn’t tell where he was from, not by his speech or by his clothes. When she had first seen him he had been wearing simple leather armor, something they could have made out here in the wastes. He had removed that for dinner, to reveal a plain grey shirt and dark pants, again nothing specific to a region. He spoke with little accent, so she doubted he was from roc or kraken territory, but those from Dragonhelm and those from the giant’s land of Silm sounded fairly similar. He had the courage of someone from the dragon lands, and had managed to lead a band of lost humans. Giants preferred to lead their own themselves. Dragons tended to train others to do it for them.
“Sounds good to me,” Locasta said finally. “Do you want the first blow?”
Kelvin frowned, confused. “What?”
Then Locasta punched him hard in the jaw, making him stumble back a step.
“What was that for?!” Even after being hit by her, he didn’t raise a hand against Locasta. He just looked at her, rubbing his jaw. Locasta nearly rolled her eyes. It usually happened like that the first time, with her opponent in shock that a barely grown woman would hit them. The second time they put up their defenses before she hit them.
“She wishes for you to prove that you are worthy to join us,” Trax explained as Locasta took a fighting stance, raising her spear and pulling her shield around.
Kelvin looked at Trax. “Are you serious? She wants me to fight her?”
“You could fight me instead,” Trax said. His voice was calm and his expression still. He didn’t need to do anything to look terrifying.
“Stop stalling,” Locasta said, and took a stab at him with the spear. It wasn’t meant to harm him, just to get his attention. “Get your hammer.”
Kelvin emerged from his tent carrying his warhammer and wearing his armor. Locasta was waiting for him. A crowd had gathered around the tents, leaving a good amount of space around her.
“Well, you asked for it,” Kelvin said. “Let’s get started.”
“I’ve already hit you once. Your turn,” Locasta reminded him. She was enjoying that Kelvin was no longer smiling.
He was a smart fighter. Rather than running at her, as many men did when faced with what they thought was a weaker opponent, he began to circle to his left. Locasta turned to watch him, while keeping an eye on her surroundings. She was on his turf, and the bottom of the ravine was not exactly even. She would have to carefully watch her step.
Kelvin took a few more measured steps, and then turned to rush her mid stride. She managed to plant her feet and deflect his blow with her shield. The blow rang loudly, echoing through the ravine. Locasta gritted her teeth and twisted with the force of the blow, swinging her spear towards the spot under his arm that wasn’t protected with thick leather. He managed to pull away from her and avoid the blow, but his footing wobbled and he hurried to the far side of what space they had.
“Are you trying to kill me?” His voice was high with shock or disbelief. But there was no fear in his face.
“I’m trying to make sure you know how not to die,” she answered. “And you still haven’t hit me.” She charged at him, steadying her spear against the side of her shield. He deflected her with his hammer, twisting away and letting her rush past him, and managing to land a punch on her side as she passed.
“There, I hit you. Is that enough?”
When Locasta turned, Kelvin stared. Her skin had turned stony gray, and ground dryly against her spear.
“I’ll let you know when I feel it.”
“Not exactly fair, is it?” They were circling each other again, watching for gaps in the other’s defences. “Using your magic against me?”
“Right, because you didn’t ask for the blessing of your god before coming out here to fight?” Locasta took a few stabs, taking advantage of the reach she had with a spear, but he was good at dodging. Or perhaps he was good at reading her. “I have fought clerics before, you know. I remember how it feels. Always just out of reach, always one step ahead.”
“I can’t help it if my god likes me,” Kelvin said. His smile was back.
“So I can use the favor of the Stone Dragon,” Locasta replied. “Doesn’t sound unfair to me at all.”
He charged her again, full steam, his hammer raised high. Locasta took a few steps towards him, feigning a blow with her spear. He responded, pulling that side of him away, and throwing his stride off just enough. Then she planted herself firmly, and crouched as slow as she could. She caught him just above the knees, which would have knocked most charging men off balance, let alone one wielding a heavy warhammer. Kelvin flipped forward, somersaulting over her and landing on his back behind her.
She spun quickly and planted her spear in the earth just beside his ear. “That was better, but a little over the top.”
Kelvin’s response was to wrap his legs around her waist and toss her onto the ground beside him. He shoved himself halfway on top of her, and pushed a dagger to her throat.
“Well, you know, I don’t like to be accused of being over dramatic.”
Locasta laughed, then looked up, away from Kelvin, as a tall shadow moved over them.
“I think he should join us. It’ll be fun.”
Trax, who had just stepped into view over the pair, grunted and shook his head. “I think perhaps we should also discuss your definition of fun. You can get off of her now.”
Kelvin hopped up quickly, brushed himself off, and moved to offer a hand to Locasta, but she hopped up easily on her own.
“All right, let’s go. We still have plenty of daylight left.” Locasta pulled up her spear and started walking back towards the entrance of the ravine. Kelvin sighed loudly, and looked at Trax.
Trax shrugged. “I apologize. She is young. She is very young.”