Between bringing a defensive spell near the front of her mind and watching both her guide and her step, Mara followed him slowly. He looked back frequently, too, and matched her pace. Mara was glad he did not seem impatient, but could not pin down what impression he gave instead. Hopeful? Afraid she might disappear? Either way, when they rounded the bottom of the scree slope, perpendicular rather than parallel to the ward lines, the feeling of being watched nagged a little. Since the man walked through them without issue, and she could not see a sign of magic on him, it would be reasonable to conclude only the outer perimeter registered anything, and she could cross them safely. She could have a closer look to confirm, but that would involve at least a light trance, leaving her vulnerable. In the end she took a slight detour, no matter how silly evading something invisible would make her look.
The stranger noticed, but did not comment, maybe because she studiously avoided his eyes.
Beyond the scree slope there was what charitably might have been called a path: a slight rut in the debris of pine needles. As they followed it, the ground evened out, and the vegetation grew a little more varied; leaves were involved . Subtle water sounds added variety to the background noise.
The stream trickled through a nest of fallen twigs onto the slip-off slope of a bend of the river. The latter was too wide to just step over, but Mara thought she might know a few people who could jump it with a running start. The air felt a little cooler here, which was a relief, but gnats seemed to enjoy the place.
They crossed the stream and followed the river near the slightly elevated shelf that would be the river bank in less dry months. A bush at the right hand, with its boughs cut or broken at the side they passed, tipped Mara off that for all the twisting this was a path deliberately cleared. Their destination was stretch of riverbank that consisted of a solid slab of rock, only harbouring moss and a few weeds in the cracks. The other side looked similar, forcing the water into a narrow channel. The sides of the valley likewise were sheer rock, and close, shading their spot. They would have to talk a bit louder over the sound of the rushing water, but would not have to swat so many gnats.
While her guide slipped off straw sandals and let his feet dangle over the water, Mara kept her boots on and sat one knee propped up.
"Why here?" she asked.
"I was going to pass through here." He pointed downriver, where the path continued. "For foraging. It's cool here." The man trailed off, staring at her, head canted.
Not used to conversations any more? She tried a reassuring smile. "My name's Mara."
"Ah." He smiled back and shifted position, pulling one leg under himself and turning so he could face her more fully. "I'm Paell kan Akaeff."
Curiosity overriding the question if she should give her full name in turn, Mara forged on, "And you live near a dragon because it does not let you leave. Can you tell me more about that?" It sounded unbelievable, considering tales of dragons who had developed a taste for hunting and eating people, rather than only livestock.
"Very near. You could say 'live with', I guess." His smile turned rather sheepish just then. "I work for it, you could say."
"Doing what? And getting paid how?" Maybe he was lying. Or insane. The thought that dragons, or this dragon, might be a lot smarter than an animal should be was not a comfortable one. Mara's sudden idea that the hunters might know, but have kept it from her was worse.
"I don't think it quite understands payment. It shares its kills, sometimes. When it remembers. Or maybe when it's not very hungry. It doesn't seem to mind when I occasionally pick up something valuable it stole and take it to my corner, though there's no-one to trade with." He sighed. "These days I'd be more interested in peas than shiny things."
Mara's hand went to the pocked hanging from her belt at the back. She retrieved some way-bread, filling stuff which had peas and nuts mixed in the dough. She broke it in half and held one part up. "I'm trading for information." Paell was leaning forward; she had his full attention. "How can you work for an animal?"
"Well, for room? The den is nicely warm in winter. More or less my joke, really. The dragon likes getting scratched behind the jaw, though. And then there's the mites. Don't ask about the mites, but I keep them down."
Mara handed him the bread in part to stop his babbling. He tore off a big chunk with his teeth and chewed with relish.
"You're lucky that one doesn't like people like you like bread."
Paell gave the actual point a perfunctory nod, and, after swallowing, answered the teasing. "Haven't had bread in three years. I'm no farmer, you know?"
Mara had guessed. His looks and name meant it was highly unlikely he was local, and the fact he had addressed her in Karengal, which originated in the north, rather than the local Harrash, all but sealed it.
Chewing again, more slowly this time, he nodded.
"Do dragons sleep long?"
Another nod. "Usually. Days left, I think."
Mara looked at the band of sky right overhead, and the sunlight on the cliff opposite, and hoped she wasn't misjudging her time. But this had to be a strange story, and she would have to figure out if it was true. "So, how about you tell me how you ended up as a dragon's back-scratcher?"This entry was also posted at http://anke.dreamwidth.org/115017.html. You can comment wherever you prefer.