The morning broke as it always did in this part of the world, slowly at first as the sun fought to rise above the low rolling hills and then poured down upon the sheltered depressions between them. Caleb's eyes opened slowly as he yawned mightily, stretching out his stiff joints. He lifted himself from Bracken who crooned softly as he lifted his head out from under his wing, clicking his beak and warbling a good morning.
"Good morinng to ye as well." Caleb said gruffly as he turned to stroke Bracken's mane.
The griffin clicked his beak and began to preen himself, cleaning away the morning dew clinging to his feathers as Caleb brought out his feed. Bracken set about eating eagerly as Caleb checked over their gear. He didn't expect any of their companions to have taken anything but old habits died hard.
Caleb turned at Nil's voice to find the girl standing behind him smiling with her hands clasped behind her back.
"Good morning." he replied.
"Are you going to be flying this morning?" she asked eagerly.
Caleb smiled. "Nah, not yet. He needs to eat first and then let his stomach settle."
Nil seemed somewhat disappointed but recovered quickly.
"Won't you come join us? We're having breakfast."
Seeing that Bracken was still happily gorging himself, Caleb accepted the offer. He may not abide the notion of getting any closer to Sheera but the rest of their party certainly was worthy of his attention. Especially if, as he suspected, his life may depend upon it. Given what Sheera was, he imagined that she had no small number of enemies including but not limited to the Church itself. Since he was forced to associate with her for Bracken's sake, her enemies were now his and for whatever reason the rest of their party was along for the ride. He looked at Nil as they joined the others and wondered why the girl was here. That she held no love for the Church was obvious, but it just seemed strange for a simple entertainer to join in with someone as dangerous as Sheera.
As he sat down at the campfire and accepted a bowl of the thick meal stew that Nil handed him. He looked around at the others. Sheera sat quietly with Grimmel curled around her shoulders, the drake's eyes were lidded and Caleb could swear the little beast was purring. His gaze turned to Ikras, the big centaur nodded and continued eating. The minotaur made no move to acknowledge Caleb's presence as he ate and Ra'ma's attention was for her meal alone. Duulingknopf however was leering at Caleb in a manner that was all too disturbing to be comfortable so Caleb quickly looked elsewhere. So much for getting to know them.
He turned his attention to the meaty gruel in his bowl and began to eat. It wasn't the best fair he'd ever had but nor was it the worst. It was certainly filling if somewhat bland. Besides him, Nil produced a small vial from a pouch at her hip and poured some of its contents into her own meal. She looked up at him and offered up the vial.
He nodded his thanks as he took the vial and let several drops of the sweet fluid fall into his meal. Ikras held out his hand.
Caleb looked to Nil who nodded with a smile. "Of course."
And so the vial of honey made the rounds around their stew pot, all but Ra'ma took some of the liquid until it reached Duulingknopf who sat and considered the vial for a long moment before his eyes widened and he puffed up like an irate bird.
"BEES!" he declared thunderously.
And with that, a swarm of the buzzing insects billowed forth from his ears and swarmed around his head angrily.
Caleb shouted in alarm and jumped back as Ra'ma hissed and leapt away from the gnome angrily. The minotaur and Ikras both bellowed their distress and backed away from the scene snorting in terror. Only Sheera and Nil seemed unaffected by the gnome's lunacy, remaining seated by the stew pot as if nothing was amiss. Grimmel rested atop Sheera's shoulder, snapping at the buzzing insects in annoyance but showing no real signs of alarm.
"Come on." Nil chided. "It's too early for that Master Duulingknopf."
Duulingknopf puffed up his beard which turned a vibrant shade of blue and then the bees all burst into rose petals which fluttered down to the ground lightly around where he sat. Caleb looked at his upended bowl and scowled. So much for finishing breakfast.
"I'll be taking Bracken ahead." he said in annoyance.
"Grimmel will accompany you." Sheera said as she continued to eat.
"As will I." Ikras said. "Anything to get away from the gnome."
Caleb couldn't hide his smile as he turned to go with the centaur in tow. It was nice to know he wasn't the only one who found the little midget annoying.
"You weren't going to leave without me, where you?" Nil chided as she joined them.
Caleb blinked. Truth be told he'd completely forgotten about her.
"No, never lass." he said quickly. "Come along."
She smiled at him coyly before looking up at Ikras.
"Are you going to fly too?"
The centaur snorted and tossed his head. "Centaurs do not fly."
He said this with such finality that Caleb couldn't help the memories as they flooded back to him from his childhood. They'd said a half-dwarf had no right to fly either. And yet he'd done so. He chuckled to himself as he remembered the shock that his rearing of Bracken had brought to his family. A tanner's son now a rider. Who'd have thought it?
Bracken had eaten his fill of his feed bag and was resting quietly, with his head between his taloned forepaws. His ears perked up and his blue gaze fixed upon Caleb expectantly as they rejoined him. Caleb checked the feed bag and nodded approvingly. Bracken hadn't eaten a full half of the bag yet. If Sheera was to be believed then their destination was only a handful of days distance by foot...though they'd need to leave the High Way soon to get there. The Miithra hadn't extended the road to the north, it only joined their four major cities, Narsum to the south of Iskander, Adiea to the northeast and beyond that The Compass and further Argolys. Their destination was in the joiner of the Brumrach Ranges and The Seven Gates.
What could possibly be in the Oskillian forest of interest to a thrice damned wood elf was beyond him. He'd grown up to the east of the forest, in the Free Holds where his parents yet lived. Perhaps once all this was over he'd return to them. It had been quite a time since he'd last been at home. He wondered if they'd still feel that he'd abandoned the family to become the rider he was now. Bah, it was a concern for another time. At the moment he had the immediate matter of deciding how best to deposit Nil so that she could ride with him.
Eventually it was decided that she'd ride atop Bracken in Caleb's saddle until Bracken was ready for flight. Then Caleb would have to strap her in just in front of the saddle. It wouldn't be comfortable but it was either that or have her sit atop Bracken's saddlebags and such would never do. The three of them walked for a time, Ikras playing on his pipes as Nil sang. Much to Caleb's surprise, Bracken actually joined in the tune, whistling along in as close a semblance of music as a griffin could manage. It was rather touching Caleb had to admit and despite the lack of conversation he felt closer to both of his companions. In fact if not for the annoying presence of Grimmel high overhead it might have made for a pleasant morning.
As it was, every time the shadow of the drake passed overhead Bracken would jerk his head around nervously despite the soothing music. Nil did her best to calm him but it was Caleb's gruff and gentle voice at his side which made him rest easy each time. Caleb wished he could take his sling and knock the vile little beast from the air but knew better than to risk provoking Sheera in such a manner. After a time Bracken began to grow restless, shaking his shoulders and haunches as he flexed his wings.
Caleb patted Bracken's flank as he looked up at Nil. "It's about that time lass."
Nil's face lit up brightly and she scooted forwards over the saddle's forward boarding as Caleb climbed into the saddle. He lengthened the straps and fixed him around her legs as he fitted his own feet into the stirrups. He'd ridden Bracken bareback on numerous occasions, especially when they were both younger, and had no fear of falling out. However Nil was another matter entirely. He'd never ridden with someone else, at least not anyone conscious. However he wasn't going to deny her the flight, he wasn't sure why, but he felt compelled to do so...it was a strange sensation and if he'd been more concerned about it he might have wondered at it.
Caleb looked to Ikras. "Will ye be well on yer own?"
Ikras nodded. "I have traveled the lands by myself before rider. I will wait here for the others and rejoin their company."
"Right then." Caleb said. "Bracken!"
The griffin let out a delighted cry and bounded forwards, his powerful muscles making Nil's added weight seemingly as naught as he leapt into the air and his wings beat furiously to gain altitude.
Nil shrieked as Bracken suddenly dropped like a stone, clinging to Caleb's armor as the griffin fell and then rose again before circling in an ever widening ascending circle. When they'd finally gained an altitude that Caleb was pleased with he gave Bracken his reins and let the griffin do as he pleased.
Nil for her part let go of Caleb with a sheepish smile. "Sorry, I didn't mean to panic."
Caleb shook his head. "Is naught to be fearful of. Bracken and I won't let ye fall lass."
She nodded and looked around, her eyes widening in wonderment. "This is amazing."
"Aye, that it is."
"It's like I'm...free." Nil whispered quietly, looking out over the vast rolling hills and the scattered woods. "Like the entire world is at my fingertips."
"Aye." Caleb said heavily, she was saying almost exactly what he'd felt all those years ago when he'd first taken flight atop Bracken. The release from the ground was wondrous, though you had to conquer the fear at first and being a half-dwarf...well that fear was greater than most. Still he'd conquered it and the world had indeed become his. That was until he learned the grim realities of war. The wonder had gone out of the world to an extent then...but seeing Nil's excitement at the marvels of flight certainly served to warm his heart a good deal.
Grimmel swooped past Bracken then and the griffin hissed in annoyance, his beak clicking out a warning to the pseudo-drake. Caleb twitched, again wishing to take his sling and knock the annoying little lizard from the air.
"I don't think they like each other very much." Nil said with a slight smile.
"And with good reason." Caleb snapped. "Little bastard keeps provoking Bracken like that I won't be responsible for the results."
"Sheera said that he's poisonous though." Nil reminded him.
Caleb sighed in annoyance. "So she did. Oh well, it's a pleasant thought."
They stayed aloft for what must have been close to an hour before Nil tugged on his leg and pointed down towards the High Way, at the point where it peeled off to the east.
"What is that?"
Caleb focused his vision, squinting against the glare of the sun. Were those tents? He frowned and leaned back, rummaging in the small satchel attached to the backboard of the saddle. He produced a spyglass and popped it open, looking down at what appeared to be a campsite.
"We'd better be getting back to the others." he said quietly.
"Why? What's wrong?"
Caleb's eyes narrowed as he handed Nil the spyglass and took up Bracken's reins once more. He wheeled the griffin around and headed back down the High Way.
"They're armed." he said in reply. "Heavily."
"Do you think they're a war party?" Nil asked, looking down behind them at the receding camp.
"Not here." Caleb replied. "Riders are among the first to be sought out for a war. They're bandits most like, probably soldiers like me without work."
"And so they camp by the High Way to extort travelers." Nil said quietly, her voice growing dark. "I hate that."
Caleb considered for a moment before nodding in agreement. He hated it too. Men like that gave the honest soldier a bad name. Still, he couldn't fault them for trying to make a living in these times. Peace was hard on everyone.