Good Sunday Morning, with most of us having tomorrow off, it's good indeed!
Okay, my pretties, let's move on with Haley's story, shall we? Last week, Haley and Tuggin have left Given Hall. Supposedly he's taking her home...but that remains to be seen, in Haley's mind. She has no plans to trust him, given the whole death threat thing. But...hmmm...out on the road again, things start to change a little. There's glimpses of...dare I say it?...actual humanity in Tuggin. Haley is feeling more comfy with Tuggin, and suddenly finds herself not so anxious to run away...
A couple of days later it was good bye to the occasional shady tree and hello to rock gullies. There were hardly any plants at all. The ground tore the sleipnir’s hooves, and Sorrell stumbled a lot. I gripped every leg muscle around his sides so I wouldn’t be chucked off his back.
“I can see where this place got its name,” I said one afternoon. “It’s hot.”
“Indeed,” Tuggin replied, bending over to inspect his sleipnir’s hoof.
“And dry,” I added, touching my tongue to the roof of my mouth, where it stuck.
Tuggin straightened. “Water is scarce and the sleipnir cannot withstand this terrain. We must ride faster.” He mounted his sleipnir.
I got on Sorrel. “What’s the plan, Stan?”
Tuggin’s brow wrinkled. “I am Tuggin.”
“Never mind. What are we doing?”
“Give Sorrel this command, and hold on.” Tuggin leaned toward his sleipnir’s head and ordered, “Nas’tar!”
His sleipnir galloped off. I gripped my reins, watching the eight-legged klutz run. Its narrow wings flipped out and the sleipnir lifted off the ground, tucking its legs beneath its belly. I held my breath until Tuggin landed beside me.
Amazing. And better yet, sleipnir in the air looked a lot more comfortable than sleipnir on the ground. “Cool.”
“Yes, it is the cooling season. Now give the command.”
I took a deep breath. “Nastare!”
Sorrel didn’t move.
“You do not speak correctly. It is nas’tar.”
I tried again. “Nas’tar!”
I almost somersaulted over Sorrel’s butt when he galloped off. I grabbed his mane while my butt pounded the saddle, with me grunting in time with my butt-pounding. Then he lifted into the air. My stomach was gone; my heart pounded in sync with my panting when I saw the ground fall away. I stretched over his neck, hugging him while we whizzed over the ground, gliding like skaters over glassy ice.
My butt stayed in the saddle, and I gained enough confidence to sit up. Tuggin nodded and almost smiled, I thought, and together we flew across the hills.
By the afternoon we were flying alongside the edge of the desert; not sand, as I’d expected, but dry plains with brittle grass and withered-looking trees. And dirt. Lots and lots of dirt.
As we neared a clump of buildings, Tuggin ordered, “Stop here.”
I tugged the reins and Sorrel tucked in his wings, stretched out his legs, and hit the ground running. My head snapped back, and the reins disappeared from my fingers.
“Gah!” My hands went up in the air, my feet were up on Sorrell’s shoulders, and I somersaulted through the air.
The ground blurred as I rocketed toward it. I tucked my head in my arms and rolled across the ground once, then slammed onto my back.
Tuggin dropped to my side and touched my ribs. “Are you injured?”
I took a breath, which hurt, and filled my lungs with much-needed air…just not enough. Tuggin leaned over me, his face just inches from mine. I noticed, for the first time, that little black flecks mingled with the brilliant blue of his eyes.
“I’m okay.” My gaze flicked to his lips, then back to his eyes. I couldn’t catch my breath, and I didn’t think it was because of the fall, though I did feel a little dizzy. I must have hit my head, too.
“You bleed,” he said, gazing at my lower lip.
Tuggin was so close, he was like, right there, and I couldn’t get my shit together. My brain worked enough to order my eyes closed, save me from the simple distraction of his face, but I could feel his breath on my cheek, and his hand resting on my side made my muscles quiver.
I said, “Just lit my bip.”
“Is this an Earth-kin expression?”
“I mean I bit my lip.”
“I do not believe bones have broken.”
“Just got the wind knocked out of me.” His fingers were warm, their heat penetrating my shirt. I tried to remember that I was supposed to hate him, but I felt…warm, and tingly.
“Are you able to rise?”
“Sure, no problem.”
Tuggin pulled me to my feet. My foot twisted, and I almost went down again. His arm shot out and wrapped around my waist. Heat raced across my skin where he touched me, and my heart pounded so loudly I was sure he could hear it. I know I could. I glanced at him; our gazes met, and I licked my lips. Just as quickly as he’d reached for me, he snatched his arm away and rubbed his temple.
I grabbed Sorrel’s reins and inspected the tilted old buildings with crooked rows of blank windows. Wind whistled through cracks in the wood, and pushed sand along the empty streets.
I peeled off my jacket and checked out my scraped arm. “Where is everyone?”
“Desert overtakes our globe. These people have moved on, or death has taken them.” Tuggin led his sleipnir toward a well. Looping the reins over one hand he grabbed the rope and hauled up the bucket. He tipped it, but instead of water, sand trickled out.
“We must conserve.” Tuggin dropped the bucket, and it clanked against the sides of the well. He unsaddled his sleipnir.
I said, “Can’t we keep going? This place gives me the creeps.”
“Net. The sleipnir are tired, and you are bruised. We shall find shade from the buildings.” He glanced at me. “Rest. I will see to Sorrel’s care.”
Slipping my jacket back on, I sat as far from the tilting buildings as I could. Tuggin opened a sack made out of animal skin that was filled with water, holding it while the sleipnir drank. When Tuggin offered me some, I noticed the water in the pail was low. After we each took a few sips, he grabbed a pack for a pillow, dropped to the ground, and closed his eyes.
The pain in my side wasn’t so bad anymore, and I found breathing to be a normal function now that Tuggin wasn’t touching and breathing all over me. The town made the back of my neck tingle with goose bumps. Disturbing. I watched Tuggin instead, and a different kind of goose bump had me shivering with a delicious quiver. Equally disturbing…if not more so.
I had to think of something else besides how good Tuggin looked laying there. He was like a puzzle piece that didn’t know where it belonged in the puzzle…if he was going to kill me, why didn’t he just get it over with? At the same time, he seemed compelled to help me. His actions were a study in conflictions.
“Can I ask you something?” I asked.
“Yes.” He tucked his hands behind his head, but kept his lids closed over his gorgeous baby blues.
“When those dryads had me, how come you didn’t leave me there?”
“You are my charge.”
I fingered the hem of my pants, playing with the frayed edges. “You said that when the dryads take someone, they don’t come back. Why didn’t you assume that I wasn’t coming back and just leave?”
“Your fate was not certain. I feel…responsible for you.” He shrugged, murmuring, “I must remain with you, until our time together concludes.”
I rested my cheek on my knees, watching him. Sitting there, with the sun touching Tuggin’s beautiful face and him acting half-way normal, I wondered if, maybe, I’d imagined that whole death threat thing back at Given Hall.
Two birds circled the sky, soaring above the Dry Hills. Off to the east, smoke smudged the sky.
“Something’s on fire,” I said.
Tuggin sat up and squinted. “Net, that is Ralos.”
“What’s a Ralos?”
He lay back down. “You will not journey there. Danger dwells in Lak ‘Toom, and we are as far into the territory of the Fire Eyid as I care to travel.”
I rolled my eyes. I wished Tuggin would stop telling me what to do. “You know, I heard there was a plot that killed my parents.”
Tuggin raised an eyebrow. “It seems you hear many things.”
“Do you know anything about that?”
He studied me for a long time. “I was but a benyo then.”
My arms tingled, and a second later a boom split the air, echoing through the town. We jumped to our feet, the sleipnir leaping sideways, nostrils flaring.
A white flash streaked across the sky. It slammed into a building, the weathered wood bursting into flames. It seemed like the lightning was alive, picking off buildings in a systematic way, starting from the far end of the street, hunting for us. Fear grabbed my feet and anchored them to the ground.
“Haley!” Tuggin yanked at the hobble and freed his sleipnirs’ legs. “Move!”
My feet unlocked. I ripped the hobble from Sorrel, just as three streaks of lightning torpedoed the town. Three more buildings went up in flames.
Smoke filled my mouth and nose. I coughed, and sucked in more smoke. Another flash of light, and another building exploded. I ducked as pieces of burning wood flew by my ear.
“Follow me.” Pulling his sleipnir, Tuggin ran through the burning town.
Dragging Sorrel, I trotted after him. Tuggin halted to stare at the horizon, and my feet slipped when I tried to stop Sorrel. Thick, dark clouds raced toward us as if all they wanted to do was reach the town and swallow it. And us.
“Are those rain clouds?”
“Indeed.” Tuggin’s face tensed. “In there.”
I followed Tuggin into one of the buildings. The sleipnirs’ hooves clomped over the wooden floor. The sky grew eerily dark with clouds, and then ripped apart. Rain fell so hard I could barely see through the dirty windows.
Wind threw rain at the building, shattering a window and spraying us with glass. The rain hammering the roof sounded like the sky was falling, and we spent our time between ducking and trying to calm the sleipnir until, finally, the fires hissed as they slowly died out. Within minutes the sun disintegrated the clouds, and wet smoke stuck to everything. Sweat left bright trails through the soot on Tuggin’s face.
“The weather around here is kind of freaky,” I said.
Tuggin ran a hand through his hair. Half smiling, he said, “It is the war of the Eyids. You have witnessed a battle between the Fire and Water Eyids.”
“Seriously? They fight, like, in the real world?”
“There is no harmony in nature.”
Well, damn. I’d imagined their fights taking place far away, like in heaven.
Sorrel snorted and backed across the room. “Easy,” I murmured, patting his neck. “The storm’s over, so what’s freaking you out?” Maybe the smell; it stunk. I checked the room. “Oh, shit.”
Tuggin turned from the window. “What is wrong?”
I stared at the bodies in a corner of the room. Skin shrunk around bones, their lips peeled back in jack-o-lantern grins of missing teeth and black gums. Their purplish-gray skin splotched with darker purple streaks. Their eyes stuck out from their faces, surrounded by black rings, staring in a death-trance.
They reminded me of Nala’s vision of Elana.
Tuggin drew up beside me and muttered, “Jahme.”
I buried my face in Sorrel’s mane, swallowing with a lot of noise. “What happened?”
“Death by thirst.”
I’d seen stuff on the news where animals had died because of droughts, always in faraway places, but it had never occurred to me that people could die that way.
Tuggin brushed my arm. “We must depart.”
I followed him outside, keeping my gaze riveted on the back of his head. “Does it hurt to die like those people did?”
“Yes,” he replied.
I shuddered, gazing at the wasteland and wishing I could get the memory out of my head and the smell out of my nose. What if they had been people I knew, like Mom, or Elana, or the brother that I’d never met? The brother I’d never meet if the Eyid descendant got his way and killed everyone off. What kind of sick person would do that?
I had the power to stop it, or so I was told. Could I let someone devastate the globes and murder innocent people? I wanted to say yes, not my problem, all I’d wanted for my seventeenth birthday was some nice clothes and a hot boyfriend.
It could have been Mom or Elana laying there. According to Nala, it would be.
I touched the stone through my shirt. It seemed warm, alive, a part of me. With power came duty; what if someone like Enja got my stone? I doubt she’d help people, or the globes.
But could I?