The endless drizzle had left her soaked to the bone and cold. The discomfort and the long days of travel piled on top of her weariness. The leader looked at her and then reached for her horse’s bridle. He held her mount back from the others. A silent signal sent them on head. His deputy could haggle over the fare.
The airship sailed silently down to the valley floor and started to load the first few horses. They were lucky to have made such good time. No one wanted to be on the valley floor after dark. The mounts needed to be held fast with words of comfort whispered in their twitching ears. They had done this before, but it didn’t mean that they liked it. The party kept their voices low in order not to spook the horses.
He loosened her reins and her horse dropped its head and started to munch at the incredibly green grass. It must be the constant rain that kept it so lush. The man watched her, concerned that she would fall. He checked, but she slumbered on as the second load started the vertical ascent. The loud clanks and escaping steam of the engine failed to wake her.
He let her wait until the last group. Then he needed to wake her in case she fell while they were on the platform. She also had to hold her own mount. A heel in the side coaxed his horse closer to hers. He leaned over and brushed her cheek with the back of his fingers. The obvious affection in the gesture was hidden from the rest of the party.
“Hey?” he called to her softly.
She leaned into his hand before her eyes fluttered open. She focused on him and then blinked slowly before she sat up and pulled away from his hand. “Sorry,” she muttered.
He shrugged. “You were tired.” He jigged his head upwards. “You need to dismount and hold the horse firmly. She won’t like it, but she can’t stay here.”
“Oh. Okay.” Her eyes opened wide as she caught sight of the airship. “Wha… why?” She was dumbfounded.
“It’s an airship. The cities are built on the cliffs. It travels between the cities and down to the valley floor. The inn is in Eastcliff.”
As he talked, her eyes scanned further down the valley. She could see other towns clinging to the cliff edges. All had enormous wooden docks jutting out over the precipice.
“Why don’t they just build the inn down here?” she asked.
“It’s safer up there.”
“Oh.” She dismounted quickly.
“And we need to travel on from here,” he added.
“Yes.” Her head dropped.
He hated reminding her of their final destination.
She huddled closer to her mount and watched with wide eyes as the airship slowly descended.
They walked their horses carefully onto the hanging platform. With an enormous groan, the ship swayed a little and started to lift. Wheezes and clunks came from the steam powered engine. She startled at the noise and he hid his smile. She was flightier than her horse.
He watched her as she gazed out over the valley, her head turning this way and that in an effort to see everything and take it all in. He felt guilty for not waking her earlier, but he knew how tired she was. She had started to develop dark shadows under her eyes. She was not used to this life and had never travelled before. He half wished she had no need to travel now.
They had another five days before he was supposed to deliver her and be paid. He wondered if they had time for a rest day so that she could be at her best when she arrived; not that it would help her.
His deputy was alone at the docking station. He hadn’t expected the others to wait.
A raised eyebrow was the only comment. They knew each other so well.
“Inn is packed,” Monroe said.
It would be, with so many people travelling for the big celebration.
“Guys want to know if they sleep in the stable, can they pocket the coin?”
“I don’t see why not.” They had an allowance for food and lodging. The stable would be more comfortable than their usual quarters and it would help morale for them to keep the profits. None of them were particularly happy about this job.
The big man nodded and turned to walk away.
The leader turned to help her back on her horse. She shook her head.
“I c-can’t ride anymore today.”
He nodded. “Fair enough,” he agreed. “So, we walk.”
“It’s not as if we will get any wetter,” she said.
He smiled at her before he could stop himself.
She smiled back but her eyes looked sad.
He took a sudden step towards her. He didn’t know what he wanted to do or to say, but she put her hand flat on his chest. “Stop,” she whispered.
“I…” He shook his head. He didn’t have the words.
“I understand,” she said. “I know.” She stressed the last word.
How could she know?
“I know because that’s why I exist,” she answered his unspoken question.
“No,” he said.
“It has to be this way.”
“No,” he repeated.
She reached up and touched his face the way he had touched hers to wake her.
He wanted to scoop her up and run. She knew? She was much braver than he had ever realised.
Her tiny hand slipped into his and she squeezed it gently. “We need to go,” she said.
Her hand fell from his grasp as they sighted the inn.
© AM Gray 2013
Another challenge from writeworld.tumblrIt was a picture but I don't want to post it here as it is from a deviant art account and is probably copyrighted. Alm-atias refuge by andreasrocha. In fact, a lot of his pictures make me want to write stories to go with them...