Adela stiffened as she sat up-right, gripping her mare’s reddish-brown mane. She glimpsed at the shield that hung from the front of her saddle, but it was no ordinary piece of armor. It was Kasig. Though he’d only been with Adela for a short time, she’d come to depend on him more than expected.
“Are you sure?” Adela asked.
“I’m certain,” Kasig replied.
“He’s right,” the horse interrupted. Elijah slowed his trot, soon coming to a halt. “About a hundred yards back. A young man on foot.”
Adela glanced over one shoulder, then the other. She saw nothing but trees on both sides of the path. The sun had concealed itself behind a few passing clouds, the damp spring air turning slightly cooler as a result.
“I can pick up the pace if you’d like,” Elijah said.
Adela shook her head. “That won’t be necessary.”
“There’s another trail ahead. Would you like me to take it? Perhaps we can lose our pursuer and meet up with the main path later on.”
“What do you think, Kasig?” she asked.
“In theory, it might work, but I’d feel more comfortable sticking to the current route.”
Adela pushed a thumb into the knot forming in her back. She also licked her lips as dehydration started to set in. “You’re due for some rest, Elijah, and I could use a stretch.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Elijah said.
“I insist. Take us to where the trail splits off, and we’ll stop there. That way no one will sneak up on us.”
Elijah carried on for another fifty yards or so, stopping at the fork in the road. Adela dismounted the horse, her boots kicking up dust as they brushed against the ground. With hands on her hips, she arched her back and stretched out. Adela heard a faint trickling of water, so she grabbed the waterskin from one of her saddle bags.
“Where are you going?” Kasig asked.
“I need water,” she replied. “By the sound of it, there’s a stream nearby.”
“Take me with you then.”
Adela waved a casual hand at Kasig. “I appreciate your concern, but I have Harriet with me.”
She gripped the handle of the broadsword sheathed at her side.
“No need to worry,” Harriet said. “I won’t let anything happen to her.”
Grateful for their protective instincts, Adela smiled in response. As she walked down the veering trail, an opening appeared, and what she assumed was a stream turned out to be small, handmade waterfall instead. A stone archway had been erected off to the right, the roof of a house noticeable in the distance.
Concrete steps between the waterfall and archway led to a grassy area above, an intricately-carved bench resting among a rich collection of flowers. Different shades of red and blue littered the grounds, and light from the returning sun gave it an ethereal character.
Adela realized that the trail had ended. “I believe we’re trespassing,” she said to Harriet.
“Even so, you need water. I’m sure the owner won’t notice if you’re quick about it.”
She nodded and made her way over to the waterfall. Adela opened the waterskin, filling it promptly. Something tickled the side of her face. She twitched and stepped back, water spilling from the waterskin and splashing onto the ground.
Tentacles from a green leafy plant gently caressed the skin along her cheek. She recoiled again, unsure what to make of it.
“An azolla fern,” Harriet said.
“They’re harmless,” Harriet insisted, “as long as you have a pure mind. They feed on positive energy.”
Despite Harriet’s reassurance, Adela flinched as another tentacle stroked her arm, the appendage easing into her glove and gently making its way down her hand.
“Take a deep breath,” Harriet said. “It won’t hurt you.”
Adela exhaled and closed her eyes. By focusing on her breathing and nothing else, she managed to calm her mind. The tension in her muscles began to ease as well. Exhausted from the day’s journey, she felt like dozing off, but a disturbance overhead tore Adela from her trance.
Her eyelids snapped open, and a dragonfly zipped by. She ducked, dropping the waterskin as she fought to retain her balance. The flying insect wasn’t the source of the commotion, though. Small pebbles and dirt fell at her feet, forcing her to look up. A man stood along the ledge of the waterfall, only a few feet above her, and stared back.
A popping sound jolted Adela, and a putrid odor filled the air, the scent resembling a combination of skunk and tainted eggs. Adela turned her back to the fern and dropped to her knees. Coughing uncontrollably, she struggled to breath as irritants invaded her lungs and airways.
Adela crossed her arms and rested both hands on her chest, waiting for the energy to build inside. A warmth developed in her belly, steadily making its way higher, her lungs clearing more with each passing second.
“Are you okay?” a male voice said.
Adela nodded, taking a moment to collect herself. Feeling well enough to stand, she turned to face him. Holding a handkerchief in each hand, one over his nose and mouth, he extended a second toward her.
“Thank you,” Adela said, “but I’m fine.”
She nodded again.
Adela heard the clapping of horse hoofs against the ground. She spun around to see Elijah making his way down the trail.
“What is all of the ruckus?” he asked. Elijah gazed past Adela, his eyes swelling. “It’s him.”
“It most certainly is,” Kasig said. “The same one we saw earlier. Why are you following us?”
Adela stared at the man. He lowered the handkerchief, revealing his rich blue eyes and blond goatee, all the while grinning.
“I think it’s an excellent question,” Adela said. “Would you care to answer?”
He shrugged. “I wouldn’t say I was following you. Perhaps a more accurate account would be admiring from afar.”
Adela had grown tired of the attention over the years, particularly from arrogant men who wanted nothing more than to bed her. Most were shallow, self-absorbed, and egotistical, offering little in return, at least to someone like her. Though the man standing in front of her was handsome, she had no interest in forging a relationship with him.
“You have to be careful with these azolla ferns,” he said.
She glanced at the fern, her eyebrows rising at the sight of it. The jellyfish-like plant had transformed into a cocoon.
“It does that in self-defense,” the man added. “Not to mention the stench it releases.”
“No doubt due to you,” Harriet mumbled.
“What was that?” he asked.
Adela rested a hand on Harriet. “Easy.”
Even in light of the accusation and Adela’s talking possessions, the man continued to smile, apparently unfazed by any of it. He eyed Harriet and then met Adela’s gaze. “You have quite the collection of friends.”
“I trust them with my life.”
“That’s good. It’s nice when you can place trust in someone. Or something.” The man chuckled.
Adela kept her grip on Harriet, but it was more for show than anything. She was using her less-dominant left hand to hold the handle, and she would actually have to move across her body with the right hand to draw the broadsword.
The man glanced at the sword a second time. “I assure you I mean no harm.”
“If that’s the case, why did the fern attack?”
“Yes,” Harriet chimed in. “Only the presence of a troubled mind would cause it to do such a thing.”
“Jumping to conclusions, are we?” His smug tone annoyed Adela. “Would you like to see the real culprit?”
No one bothered to reply, but Adela kept her eyes glued to him, watching for any sudden movements by the stranger. She heard buzzing, gradually growing louder. The man quickly extended his arm toward her, clenching his fingers into a fist. Adela drew her sword out of instinct.
“What are you doing?” she asked. He opened his hand, and a squashed dragonfly rested in his palm. Adela gripped her churning stomach. “Why would you do such a thing?”
With his head, he motioned to the fern. “Look.” The cocoon started to open, the plant’s tentacles slowly rising from their slumber. “Dragonflies are one of their biggest predators.”
Adela used the distraction to swipe the lifeless dragonfly from his hand.
“Hey,” he shouted.
Ignoring him, she sheathed the sword and walked to where the two trails intersected. Adela cupped one hand over the other and closed her eyes, whispering a few words. She parted her hands. The dragonfly’s wings rose, and she watched it take flight.
“Impressive,” the man said, lingering in the distance.
Elijah trotted to her side. She slid a boot in one of the stirrups and swung her opposite leg over the saddle. The man approached, not ready to give up on his quest quite yet.
“You forgot your waterskin,” he said, reaching out a hand and offering it to her.
As much as she wanted to ride off without it, leaving him in a trail of dust, doing so would have been irrational. Adela snatched it from his grip. “While I appreciate you returning it to me, I suggest you not pursue us.”
That grin of his, which never seemed to disappear, managed to fade a bit, but only slightly. He glanced at the ground and nodded in apparent defeat. Then he locked eyes with Adela one last time. She gave Elijah a nudge, not bothering to look back as the horse picked up speed and sent them on their way again.
In the midst of all the chaos, Adela never did get a chance to hydrate herself. Parched and still holding the waterskin, she loosened the cap and raised the opening to her mouth. Adela paused before taking a sip, noticing something peculiar about the waterskin. It wasn’t hers.
The embroidered name on the side of it was proof enough. She wanted to curse the man, who apparently went by the name of Merle, but a giggle escaped her lips. Adela could respect that degree of tenacity.