Six. Shifting Intent
The bed creaking in protest, Nikko blinked the sleep from his eyes as he awoke. He had no idea what time it was, and Red's bed stood empty. Settling his feet on the floor, he stood and stretched his sore muscles. His groin screamed at him. Perhaps riding bareback so ferociously wasn't one of his best ideas.
Traversing the manse, he searched through bedrooms, the kitchen, studies, and even the solarium - no sign of Red anywhere. The front door was open. He groaned and tossed his head back. She'd left him high and dry in the desert, with the Black Hunters hot on his tail. With another groan, he pushed the door open and stepped into the hot morning sun.
Kicking up dirt with his boots, he shuffled around to the side of the manse to collect his thoughts. Briefly, he imagined that she had believed him, and would help him figure out how to get rid of the Hunters, and figure out what was going on with the temperature changes in the world. Grumbling to himself and rounding the corner, his legs stopped working of their own accord.
Lightfoot and Hollywood were standing by the shallow well, having their manes brushed out lovingly by Red. Small, hard leather saddles sat upon their backs, the straps tightened comfortably around their bellies. A smile twitched at the corner of her lips and she beckoned to him. His feet began moving again, and he felt a smile working its way onto his face.
"You thought I'd left, didn't you?" she mused. Rubbing the back of his head, he stepped up to Hollywood, who whinnied happily in greeting. He stroked her neck, reveling at how soft her fur was. She leaned against him, swishing her tail, and nearly knocked him to the ground. Red peered over Lightfoot's neck and smiled. Steadying himself, Nikko turned to look at Red.
"Where did you find these saddles?" he asked. Shrugging modestly, she patted the saddle.
"There were some bits of broken leather and buckles lying in a shed behind the mansion. It didn't take much magic to create some saddles," she said. He waggled a finger at her.
"Very crafty, magi," he commented. With a dismissive smile, Red made her way to the edge of the small well. Here, she gathered a few pieces of fruit she'd collected earlier in the morning. She tossed one to Nikko, who caught it deftly. Sinking his teeth into it, his parched mouth rejoiced at its sweet, juicy flavour. Did he catch the taste of passion fruit on his tongue? He drew the fruit away from his mouth and looked down at it - it was certainly not a passion fruit. Puzzled, he looked up at Red, who was also partaking of the strange passion fruit-that-was-not. She smiled and wiped a bit of juice off her chin.
"You're wondering why it tastes like something that it doesn't look like?" Nikko nodded. "The fruit that grows here is special. They all look the same, but it will taste like whatever is the most pleasing fruit to you. Mine tastes like pomegranate," Red explained. Satisfied with the answer, he took another bite. Passion fruit was a rarity in the Arkene, so he didn't get it often.
"It's also excellent sustenance," Red intoned, interrupting his train of thought. "This has as much energy in it as a full breakfast. I've gathered some for the journey to The Keep." She spit a seed into her hand. Walking away from the well, she used the heel of her boot to dig a hole in the sand, dropping the seed into it. Nudging sand to cover the seed, she waved her hand above it and rained moisture onto the mound. Smiling in satisfaction, she turned and made her way back to the Earth Unicorns, finding Nikko comfortably seated on Hollywood.
"We're going to The Keep? Or your keep?" he asked. Jamming her toe into the left stirrup of Lightfoot's saddle, Red heaved herself up into a seated position. Lightfoot stepped in place a few times to shift Red's weight around more comfortably.
"The Keep, where Thane resides. These Black Hunters may be serious business, but they're generally your problem." Nikko narrowed his eyes at her. Red shifted and gazed steadily at him, perceiving his thoughts almost precisely. "You've no right where to direct us in this. With one word, Hollywood would buck you off and we'd not look back on you. I never said I wouldn't help you deal with these guys, but the state of the world comes before one sorcerer, who is faring well," she told him, her voice clipped. "For now."
She reached back and patted Lightfoot's rump, and he took off at a trot, tossing his head. Sighing at his own ignorance, he followed suit, thumping Hollywood gently and holding on as she too trotted into motion. His eyes remained on her as they rode out of the ruins. She sat straight, but not rigid, in the saddle. She braided her long hair loosely, held back from her face. She had pulled her emerald cloak closely about her shoulders, and thoughts of how she managed to stay bundled up flitted through his mind. The unicorns possessed the uncanny ability to move swiftly and keep themselves and their riders balanced remarkably well; this allowed Red to weave little braids into Lightfoot's mane.
She was certainly pretty, Nikko thought. His history with "pretty women" was a very full one, rich with husky laughter and gasping breaths. Had he thought of taking the challenge Red had unwittingly presented him with, of making her another of his conquests? He also thought that if he attempted anything of the sort, she would see it immediately and take him down. This young woman resonated with power, magical and mental, as well as emotional. She was very different from the students he'd encountered in Synara. She allowed him to see that she was human, all the while keeping herself guarded and unreadable.
A smirk pulled at the corners of his lips. She would be a trophy among his collection, he was sure about that. Having such a woman under his belt (his smirk widened at his own pun) would make for excellent fireside chat with the winter nomads of the Arkene.
Suddenly, he frowned. He shouldn't be thinking such thoughts about one who offered to help him get rid of the Black Hunters, no matter how attractive she was or how alluring the challenge. Divesting his life of these madmen meant he could build a home somewhere, a permanent home. He'd no longer have to flee from a secure place every moon cycle. Feeling slightly guilty, he sighed and rode Hollywood up beside Lightfoot. The unicorns whickered a greeting to one another, touching noses.
"I apologize for my behavior back at the ruins. It was.. selfish, and unacceptable," he spoke quietly. Her eyes roved over his face, taking him in, as if assuring herself that he wasn't going to have another irrational attitude problem. Finally, after what seemed like hours of her scrutinizing gaze, she nodded.
"I believe I worded myself wrong, as well. The Black Hunters are important, that is certainly true. But we can run from them and be safe. We can kill them and be safe. But the temperatures are changing, and I don't know if we can find a safe place from that," she told him, shaking her head.
"Then we should probably pick up the pace. We can make good time before we have to stop and rest," Nikko said. With a short nod, she patted Lightfoot again and with a gleeful whinny, he leaped into a gallop. Hollywood and Nikko followed suit, kicking up sand as they crossed the desert beneath the mid morning sun.
After quite some time, chapter five is here! Raneth very generously beta'd for me, and I took what they said into consideration and made some edits. Breaking the habits that I have will be difficult, but I hope to look back on this edited chunk and hopefully that will all carry over into future chapters. Anyway, I hope you guys enjoyed this~ Not a lot of plot development, but hopefully it gave you a better sense of the characters. Fillers!