The morning came far too soon, but the two roused from their makeshift beds when the light fell on them from through the trees. Argarin stood and began to stretch while Xylia made a fuss over a twig stuck in her hair.
Once he had stretched out all of his limbs and felt ready, Argarin looked down at her. “What is wrong?”
“Mmf–” She threaded her fingers through her hair to unravel the mess. “It is stuck, this. I think it is a twig.”
He reached down. “Let me see.”
She paused, then pulled her hands away from her head. With his clawed fingers, he freed the twig by snipping the lock of hair just above the knot. She hardly had any time to react, but she did cry out.
“Argarin!” She jumped to her feet. “Why did you do that!” She punched his chest, though he likely didn’t feel a thing through his thick scales.
He stared at her as one might stare at a child that had just learned to question everything. “Because it was bothering you. We have no time to waste daylight. The problem is solved, isn’t it?”
“I…” She ran her fingers over the hair cut short. “I could have done this myself.” She grabbed one of the daggers resting at her hip and sliced the rest of her hair to match the length. She watched the hair fall with an almost forlorn expression, then looked up at him as she returned the dagger to its sheath. “But I guess, I admit, I did not think of that.”
He nodded. “You’re welcome.”
Her shoulders bunched up as she frowned. “I did not thank you!”
“It sounded close enough from you.” He turned his head to look toward the village. “How should we begin today, then?”
Xylia released a slow, heavy sigh as she composed herself. She put her hands on her hips and surveyed the view before them. “Well, think.” She pursed her lips. “There is activity there.” She pointed toward the hill of Kent. “Perhaps we see what it is about?”
Argarin looked around the hill before spotting an old mill where there was indeed a large group of people, bustling about. The pair walked through the fields and over the bridge until they were near enough to make out what was going on. The crowd was composed of farmers, bringing their grain to have it ground into flour, as well as merchants trying to purchase both the grain and the flour.
Argarin and Xylia stood on the outskirts of the crowd to watch the activity. When one of the merchants glanced their way, Xylia’s shy gaze quickly fell to the ground. She froze, stared for a moment, then started to walk off with determination and focus on her face.
“Xylia?” Argarin looked after her. “What– Oh.”
Argarin knew her expression from when she would hunt game in the forests, so he followed along behind her and remained otherwise silent. She didn’t seem to notice him at all, instead enthralled with tracks of small feet she recognized as female human footprints that led away from the mill and along the river that powered it.
The footprints wandered downstream until they dipped into a small watering hole. It was secluded, just past the edge of Kent and behind a hill that turned the stream into a waterfall that fell into the pond.
Xylia was so focused on the footprints that she didn’t notice a few girls at the other side of the pond. Argarin cleared his throat, his head turned away politely. This roused her from her tracking and she looked up at him.
“What? What is it? I am on to something! I think that the girls, they slip away to here to–”
“I am aware.”
“What?” She deflated. “How do you already know?”
He said nothing, but gestured toward the pond. Xylia looked and jumped, startled by the embarrassed girls. They were already in the process of gathering their things and hurrying back to the fields. They glanced back at the pair with guilt in every corner of their faces.
“I cannot blame them.” Argarin surveyed the area. “A place of tranquility to escape the hardships of their lives. I do not approve, but I cannot blame.”
Xylia crouched down and rubbed her eyes. “I do! Silly girls! They do not like the work, so they avoid it? That will not make it go away. Only work makes work go away!” She sighed. Slowly, she opened her eyes, and not so slowly, she jumped to her feet. “Oh!” She darted around the pond and jumped over the stream to avoid getting wet. “Look, look here!”
Argarin focused more on keeping up with her sudden energy than looking, as he wouldn’t be able to see what her keen eyes could see. “What do you see?”
Xylia almost danced around a particular spot in the dirt, hopping around on the balls of her feet as she pointed seemingly randomly. “Here, there — footprints of a girl, a struggle!” She spun around. “And footprints here and there and there, something else. Something not human! Goblins? Maybe? Yes, I think goblins. They fought, and here–” She jumped away from the pond, then crouched down and walked toward the woods. “They dragged her. Not concealed, must be goblins, they are just this stupid to not hide their tracks! Even you can see how she kicked, how she struggled!”
Argarin could see that the dirt, grass, and leaves were disheveled. He followed her as she ranted on and on until they were in the depths of the forest, standing before a tall stone outcropping with a slender opening.
“What?” She jerked her head to glare at him. “They are hard to follow now that the ground is stone. I need to focus!”
“Xylia, sometimes, I feel you focus too much on the little details. You need to see the big picture.” He gestured at the cavern opening.
Xylia paused, staring at it, her expression blank for a few moments. Finally, she shrugged. “I would have noticed it.”
The two glanced at one another. A silent but deep moment was shared between them: they smiled to reassure the other they had each other’s back; they nodded in agreement that both knew neither of them had any idea what was ahead; and, with their hands poised and ready for combat, they ventured into the darkness.
Heroes of Vallhyn