Ari opens her eyes, her head resting on Vico’s back. She feels the world moving and something breathing beneath her. Her eyes watch the forest slowly move past before glancing down at the animal beneath her.
It takes her a moment to remember what it is…a horse. Someone suggested she should ride and to keep her from falling off, Vico volunteered to ride with her. The gentle motion of the horse walking and listening to Vico’s breathing lulled her into sleep.
“Ariana? Are you awake?” Vico asks, turning his head to see her.
“How long was I asleep?”
“It’s hard to tell in this forest, but it didn’t seem like a restful sleep. More nightmares?”
She sits up, feeling pressure around her waist. She looks down and sees rope around her and Vico’s waists. “What’s this?” She pulls on the rope.
“Like a said, it didn’t seem like a restful sleep. You started to get a little…restless. I didn’t want you to fall off.” He pulls on a loose piece of the rope and it falls off her.
“Thanks.” She wraps her arms around Vico’s waist now that the rope is gone. “I dreamed about my mom again.”
“I had a feeling. Especially when the tears stained my shirt.”
She notices dark patches on his back. “Sorry.”
“There’s nothing to apologize for. Tears always dry. It’s the pain inside that takes longer to heal.”
“You sound like someone I knew back home. He used to say stupid things like that, too.”
He laughs, collecting his rope and putting it back in his bag. “Vesna and I learned that from our father after our mother passed.”
“You don’t have to apologize. Saying it out loud, it is pretty stupid. But sometimes stupid things help the most.”
“You’re awake!” Tal walks next to Ari and Vico. She searches the trees nervously. “I didn’t like the look of these woods outside and I feel even more uneasy now that we’re in the thick of it. Of course, this is the first forest I’ve ever been in. Are they all this dark?”
Shaking her head, Ari pulls out her father’s journal. “We had a forest on the edge of Kellahn. It was beautiful and a very peaceful place. Crofton and I would spend hours sitting in the trees.”
“Perhaps one day I’ll get to see it.”
“My mother used to tell me that all forests have their own magic. Sometimes good, but also bad or evil.”
A nervous sigh escapes Tal’s lips. “And this is the only way, right?”
“Tal,” Indra warns.
“I’m just confirming with our navigator. You don’t like being in here any more than I do.”
Opening her father’s journal, Ari searches for the hand drawn map of the Redlands and the forest. Notes at the edge of the forest lay out approximations of times. “This is the fastest route. If we’d gone around it would’ve taken us at least five more days. Time isn’t really something we can afford to waste.”
“Well, how much longer are we going to be stuck in this darkness?”
“How long have we been in here?”
“Two days,” Vico answers.
“We should be about halfway through. Two days more and we’ll be out.”
“Only if we don’t slow our pace, but we do need to stop soon to let the animals rest,” Tal says, motioning towards two men leading the large beasts called groduns pulling the caravan cart. “That’s what those two keep saying over and over.”
Ari suddenly feels the eyes of the entire group on her, waiting for her to decide. “You waited for me to wake up to decide whether or not we can stop?”
“You’re kind of the leader.”
“I thought I was the navigator?”
“Same thing. What should we do?”
Ari’s eyes search the faces of those around her, looking for one in particular. Walking alone at the back of the group, Crofton watches her carefully. She leaps of the horse, startling Vico, and walks quickly towards him.
“What do you think?”
Crofton stares at her. His expression is something she’s never seen on his face before. Incredulous. “Why are you asking me?”
“I care about your opinion?”
“When did that start?”
“What do you think? Should we stop or keep going?”
As they talk, the group slows to a stop to watch the two. Tal and Indra approach them, keeping quiet.
“You’re the leader. You decide.” Crofton pushes past her, sending a shock through her.
She glances back at him as he avoids the others. She can read his body language. He’s mad at her, but she doesn’t know why.
“Ariana?” Vico walks towards her, the horse now in the hands of one of the others. “What’s your decision?”
“We stop. Let the animals rest and we’ll keep going in a few hours.”
Relief sweeps through the group as men and women relax, gathering close together to create a small camp. The groduns are separated from the carts and given food. Sten and Link, the two in charge of the groduns, struggle to keep the large beasts calm, eventually placing large pieces of cloth over their eyes.
“What did you do to make Crofton angry now?” Kemp asks, placing his bags on the ground. “He’s wandered off into the forest, mumbling.”
“I didn’t do anything…I think.”
“I’ll go talk to him,” Vico says.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Vesna, Vico’s sister, says standing next to Kemp. She takes his hand and moves close. “You might be the last person he wants to talk to.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“I know you don’t.”
Kemp gently nudges Vesna. “Let’s give him some time to cool off. Besides if anyone is going to talk to him, it has to be Ari.”
“Of course, it has to be me. Because I’m the one who keeps pissing him off somehow,” Ari snaps at Kemp.
“Okay, looks like someone else needs some time to cool off. Come on, let’s get something to eat,” Vesna says, pulling Kemp away.
“Do you want me to talk to Crofton?” Vico asks.
Rounding on him, angrily, Ari crosses her arms tightly against her chest. “No. I’m supposed to talk to him. I’m supposed to make all the decisions and make everyone happy. I’m the leader and the navigator.”
He takes a tentative step back. “I’ll take that as a no.”
“I’m sorry. I—”
“No. It’s fine. I’m going to see what we have to eat. Take some time away from everyone. Maybe read through your father’s journal and try to see if he left any more information about this forest.” He squeezed her arm and smiled before following Kemp and Vesna.
She watches him leave and sighs. She squeezes the journal in her hand before turning away.
“The lack of communication between you and those men is shocking,” Tal says, blocking Ari’s path.
She jumps, forgetting about the two who’d been standing behind her. “Gods! You two are like ghosts!”
“Take Vico’s advice. Clear your head and when you’re ready, talk to Crofton. Really talk to him and listen.” Tal follows the others, leaving Indra behind with Ari.
She eyes the silent man. “Anything to add?”
“Listen for the words he won’t say.” He leaves, catching up to Tal and wrapping his arms around her.
Easy for the always listening man to say, Ari thinks. She stares at the surrounding trees, trying to decide which way looked the least creepy.