They met no travelers that day, and when orange twilight fell around them, Joshua and Celeste found a suitable grove of trees a little off the beaten path in which they decided to set up camp. Celeste, by now used to such chores, quickly lost herself to the actions she had completed every night she was on the road. First, she relieved Nutmeg of his load, saddle, and reigns. She took from her pack a collapsible bucket made of sturdy canvas and poured some of her water they had gotten from a river earlier in it for Nutmeg so he could drink as she gave him a quick brush down. It took only a few minutes before she finished. Then she covered the horse with a blanket to keep him warm as he cooled in the evening air. Satisfied, she brought the horse to a nearby tree since he was known to wander in search of greener grass if he were allowed. After tying him, he turned a baleful eye upon her. “Don’t look at me like that.” Celeste tutted. “There’s green grass here. Well,” she corrected, looking at the grass, “it is a little brown, but spring hasn’t fully come yet, so you won’t find better elsewhere.”
“Are you talking to your horse?” Joshua casually asked from nearby where he was still brushing down his horse Amos. Celeste, having forgotten she was not traveling alone anymore, had slipped back into her habit of talking to Nutmeg.
“Yes, I am. The horse talks to me sometimes, and I talk back… I’m not crazy, though, just so you know.”
“No, no, I would never call you crazy.” He shook his head to reassure her. Glancing away then back at her, he finished his train of thought, “Perhaps you may be missing a few arrows in your quiver, if you know what I mean, but I’d never say crazy.” He ducked, laughing, as a rock flew over his head. “Hey! Now that was just rude. Do you have any idea how much being struck by a rock hurts?”
“Ah, so unsurprisingly, this isn’t the first projectile that’s been aimed at your head. Are rocks the usual or do others get more creative?”
“Oh,” Joshua murmured humbly, “I may have gotten a lump or two from stones that seemed to fall from the sky for seemingly no reason.” He waved his hand dismissively. “Of course, I could not have caused someone to throw something at me. I’m really far too well behaved.”
Rolling her eyes, Celeste said, “Sure you are.” Looking at Nutmeg, she gave in and explained, “Until I came to Juroosh, I had always traveled with someone. This time I traveled alone. Occasionally the dreary days and nights got lonesome, and this was when I really started talking to Nutmeg. He’s actually a very good listener. As a matter of fact, sometimes he gives me such looks that I don’t think he needs language to communicate. He conveys himself quite well.”
“Interesting. I can’t say I’ve never spoken to Amos, but I guess he’s more the strong, silent type, as I’ve never noticed him talking back.” Joshua patted his almost black horse. Amos stood tall and strong. He was beautiful.
“I don’t know about that.” Celeste said, watching the horse. “I think he’s speaking to you right now. Look at the way he holds his head and glances at you and then me. He’s saying ‘we’re really traveling with this girl?’” Celeste tilted her head at Amos. “He’s rather proud for a horse. Perhaps this will help.” She pulled a lump of sugar from her pocket. She’d had plenty extra money from the coins Joshua had given her after buying their own supplies, so she’d bought some sugar for the horses. Amos’s eyes found the lump in her hand, and his nostrils flared, his hoofs shifting slightly as he fought an inward battle. “Oh, come on,” Celeste said, “I’m really not as bad as you think I am, you know.” She held the sugar out to him, and, with a snort, Amos gave in, devouring the sugar in her palm. Celeste chuckled as the horse peered at her out of the corner of his eye, seeming to say, “Ok. A truce.”
“Well, what do you know?” Joshua said. “I think you made a new friend. It took me years before Amos began to tolerate me.”
“You should have given him more sugar.” Celeste returned to Nutmeg to soothe his jealousy with two lumps of sugar.
“You should have seen the buckets of sugar I gave this guy.” Joshua pretended to be offended. ”Obviously, he’s more easily won over my women.” Amos huffed at this remark, shook his main, and nudged Joshua.
With a chuckle, Celeste murmured, “no worries. He still likes you better.”
“If you say so.”
Smiling, Celeste began to collect branches for a small fire. Twilight was fading into darkness as the sun sank below the horizon, and pretty soon, they would have no light by which they could see and prepare some kind of dinner. Some of the sticks were damp from the recent snow, but Celeste found the driest ones and got a bundle together to use. With flint and steal, it didn’t take long to ignite a suitable fire that pushed back the encroaching chill and provided a nice circle of light. Setting a pot over the fire, she added some water and one of the packets of prepared seasoning she had bought to make soup. Joshua found a few mushrooms that he promised her were not poisonous, and Celeste even added some of the tough jerky-like meat they had eaten for lunch. The fine soup now bubbling over the fire, Celeste scooped it into bowls, and the two of them ate.
Finding she was ravenous, Celeste dug in and didn’t bother making conversation. As the meal was drawing to close, however, and she was beginning to yawn, Joshua said, “By the way, I forgot to give you the Prophecy Stone.”
Celeste stiffened, as a tingling went up her spine and ghostly tremors ran through her. The pain the stone had caused her when she had first touched it couldn’t easily be forgotten. “That’s alright. You can keep it.”
“You have to take it, Celeste.”
“Why? You do remember the thing killed me the first time I touched it, right?”
“There’s no way I could forget, but it won’t do that this time.”
“How do you know? And please don’t say the prophecy says so.”
“No, the prophecy just says that the Stone will awaken your power, but we did research into such things after the prophecy came. There aren’t many books on magic left in the world, but the palace library had a few, and all of them agreed that a newly made sorcerer needs his stone. I’m not sure how long you have to carry it with you, but the stone seems to basically add kindling to the fire. It gives your new power some punch while you’re simply learning how to use it, and the stone makes it more powerful in the meantime. Once a new sorcerer no longer needs his stone, it breaks.” Joshua took a small pouch from his pocket and emptied its contents—the Stone—onto his hand. “As you can see, your stone is still whole.”
Celeste warily observed glowing orb, seeing the swirling mist inside and wondering how such a small, beautiful thing could cause such chaos.
“It’ll be ok.” Joshua reassured her. “I’m certain.”
Celeste let out a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding. She closed her eyes for a second, and when she opened them, she grabbed the stone without hesitating. It warmed slightly in her touch and glowed brighter, but other than that, nothing happened. No pain. No dying. Joshua sighed in relief and looked at her strangely.
“Like pulling off a bandage,” she explained.
“Here,” he said, giving her the small pouch he had had the Stone in. “You can wear it ‘round your neck.”
Celeste tied the straps of the pouch and pulled it over her head as Joshua had suggested. She put the pouch under her shirt so it couldn’t be seen.
“Well, then. Now that that’s taken care of,” Joshua said. “And I’m not weeping bitterly over your prone corpse, I think I’m gonna hit the proverbial hay.”
“Aw,” Celeste teased, “you would have wept bitterly if I had died? That’s so sweet.”
“Well I just really can’t stand dead women. They’re really not good at making conversation!”
“Ah, I see. So you wouldn’t have missed me or anything.”
“Hm,” Joshua paused to consider. “Now that you mention it, I suppose I may have missed you, so it’s doubly good that you didn’t die.” He grinned, rubbing Celeste’s hair irritatingly as he got up to retrieve his blanket from his saddlebags. As he returned and lay by the fire, he quietly murmured, “Goodnight,” and turned his back the other way.
“Goodnight,” Celeste whispered, trying to fix her mussed hair.
She watched Joshua for a few moments, then turned her eyes to the flames, losing herself to the fiery dance. She stayed up for probably longer than she should have, thinking how her life had changed in so short a time. Absently, her hand found the pouch under her shirt and her fingers slipped in to brush over the warm stone. After a while, she sighed, added some branches to the dying embers, and lay down with her blanket to sleep. It didn’t take long before she was fully unconscious.
In the trees, the animals were silent. Nutmeg and Amos shifted nervously as they smelled the strange scent in the breeze, their breaths creating small puffs of white mist in the air as they huffed. A twig cracked as the man with the Korelian ring shifted his weight and gave the signal to advance.