The next day began early. Two groups were going out – the bulk of the resistance were riding to intercept a supply caravan Lord Devos had found, one that would help arm and feed them. Tythel, Nicandros, Armin, Eupheme, and Ossman were heading towards the factory that was making the crawlers along with Haradeth, Lorathor and a dozen of Lord Devos’ Abyssals, as well as several broken arcwand packs that would be detonated to destroy the production lines.
The leader of the Abyssals was Urdin Cognasso, a broad man from the eastern isles with hair the color of the sky and light gray skin. His face was long and gave him the appearance of perpetually frowning, one that was enhanced by the fact that he often was actually frowning to go with it.
In Tythel’s opinion, that made him a perfect match for Haradeth, who started the ride in quiet conversation with the dour Abyssal.
Their cover was that of a merchant caravan, one wealthy enough to afford armed guards but not yet able to have purchased a crawler. The cover would also provide reason for their journey to Bardstown, since the crawlers were less expensive if bought near the source.
Horses, carts, and the carriage had been ‘procured’ by Lord Devos during his scouting expedition. Their wares were fish, grabbed out of the ocean and packed with salt that they had boiled out of the seawater, with extra weapons and the dangerously overloaded arcwand packs hidden under the fish and salt. Most of their party was mounted, with Nicandros, Tythel, and Armin riding in the carriage. Lorathor rode atop, and Nicandros assured Tythel that would not be remarked upon even if he was noticed, since the Sylvani were known for their odd habits. All they had to do is claim it was a Sylvani custom, and any who questioned them would have no reason not to accept it.
Nicandros was posing as the merchant, with Tythel as his daughter and Armin her suitor that was also learning Nicandros’ trade. Although Ossman and Eupheme had chuckled at the arrangement, Tythel was just glad to not have to ride one of the horses.
She and Nicandros had discussed the possibility before they left. “It’s not that I don’t think I could, Nicandros. I can’t imagine it’s that much different that riding on Karjon’s back, except I don’t have to worry about wings.” Nicandros had chuckled at that, and Tythel had pressed on “It’s just that…well, they’re animals.”
“I don’t see why that matters” Nicandros had said with a frown. “I’ll be honest, girl, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion riding a horse and riding a dragon are two vastly different arrangements, but I’m not sure I understand your objection.”
“They…I mean, how do you know that they’ll do what you want them to do?”
“And that’s part of why it would be different than riding a dragon. Still, you’re a bit…bigger than would be expected of a merchant’s daughter would be expected.”
It had turned out to be a moot point. As soon as the horses had caught her scent, they’d begun to get skittish, reacting to their eyes telling them human but their noses informing them one of their most dangerous predators was present. Even Haradeth had struggled to calm them, muttering something about the difference between wild animals and tame ones. Once she was safely in the carriage they’d calmed down, although the windows were staying closed to make sure no stray breeze carried her scent to them.
For her part, when they were on the road, Tythel found herself feeling a bit queasy at the rocking of the carriage. “Dearest Tythel,” Armin said, leaning forward to clasp her hands. Tythel noted that ever since he had been told to play the role of her suitor, he’d been doing that a lot. “I know how much these long journeys disagree with you, but I assure you, we will be in Bardstown before too long.”
Tythel did her best to return the smile. Beside Armin, Nicandros shook his head but gave her an encouraging smile of his own. Not there yet, but you’re getting closer. At least, that’s what she thought it meant. It was a small comfort
On top of the nausea, she was wearing the clothes of a merchant’s daughter, which meant a restrictive corset under a dress with layers. She’d needed Eupheme’s help to even get it on! Having worn loose fitting garments most of her life, it felt like being imprisoned. She knew Armin was just playing his part, and Eupheme and Nicandros both had stressed that once they were on the road they had to stay in character the entire time, even when it seemed stupid to Tythel since no one was watching.
That didn’t mean she didn’t want to punch Armin for trying to make her speak right now. “Oh, sweet Armin,” Tythel said, drawing upon every play and tale of young lovers she had read for the right words for this, “I cannot wait to get to Bardstown! It will be so good to be in a proper city again, where you can safely give your glorious sword-”
She didn’t finish the sentence. Armin broke into howling laugher, and Nicandros turned bright red and brought both his hands up to his face and pressed his palms against his eyes. “No, girl, no,” Nicandros growled, as Armin clutched his sides.
Tythel crossed her arms and glared at the two of them. “I am trying not to be sick here, what is so flathing funny?”
“Maybe,” Armin said, before bursting into another peal of laughter he finally managed to reign in, “maybe you should avoid talking about my…” Armin burst out laughing again.
Tythel sighed. “What did I miss? In the stories I’ve read, women are always asking for their men’s sword!” She tilted her head in thought. “Although they never seem to actually be given it…”
Armin was laughing again, and Nicandros’ expression was one she’d only seen on him once, when he’d bit into a fish that had been sitting for a couple days. “Someone please explain this to me?”
Neither of them did. Lorathor came to her rescue, popping open the hatch on top of the carriage. “A woman asking a man for their sword is a slang for intercorse,” the Sylvani said. His tone was matter of fact, but his skin was shifting to a golden shade as it often did when he was amused.
Tythel felt her own skin turn color, although it was mostly her face, and it was far redder than Lorathor’s skin. “Oh,” she said quietly, and Armin howled with laughter again.
For the next hour, at Nicandros’ suggestion, they rode in silence, although Armin kept breaking it to chuckle to himself from time to time. His amusement vanished when they had to pull off the road to let a column of Alohym troops pass.
Tythel peered past the curtains as they did. About three hundred men and women, wearing the woven mail the pilots of those strange walkers had worn, riding on the backs of crawlers that were extended to allow for more seating. Each of the crawlers also had two soldiers in the imperiplate as well. The crawlers were larger and thicker than the one that Otis had piloted. That had looked like a spider, but these put Tythel more in mind of ants, marching in a line to get some food.
With them were three of the pod walkers that had been attacking the forest. It was Tythel’s first time really seeing them in the daylight. They were nearly four times as tall as a man, and the tentacles looked far too thin to keep the pod at the top aloft. She could see small unlight circles at the bottom of the pods, and realized that they were similar to the ones that powered the great ships of the Alohym. It seemed the walkers used a combination of unlight and tentacles to stay aloft. Maybe I can use that somehow if I ever have to fight one again.
Fortunately, the soldiers didn’t pay them any mind, far too focused on whatever was displaying on their emerald visors. Tythel wished she could tell what they were seeing. She could hear it, and it was that strange language Thomah had been speaking before they fought in the woods. Tythel could only make out a few words, and if that was all she could make out, the others wouldn’t hear anything. One of the words she heard made her heart clench, however.
“They’re headed towards Diresburg, where the others are!” she hissed in a low whisper to Nicandros.
He didn’t bother asking her how she knew. The moment the soldiers were out of earshot, he pulled out a device that looked like a flute and spoke a warning into it addressed to Lord Devos, who was heading up that raid. Then he played a few notes on the flute. “Is that how you sing to someone?” Tythel asked, realization finally hitting her.
Nicandros’ nodded, “It’s imperfect, but if you need to get a quick warning, nothing’s better. After we’re done in Bardstown, I’ll show you how to use it.”
Relieved that at least Devos and the outriders would have some warning, Tythel leaned back as they resumed their journey, nausea settling back in from the rocking of the cart.