Trava’s eyes darted around. The old man’s appearance must be a hoax, she thought. She’d left him inside a burning building. She’d been certain the old man had died in there.
“I overheard that you are ready to go to Arden,” the old man said. He paced in front of Trava, then immediately stopped and spread his arms. “You’re ready to meet your destiny,” the old man said.
Trava felt a bitter laugh press against her gagged lips. She was half-convinced she’d gone crazy. Then again, Trava thought, the old man really had been this ridiculous back when he was alive.
The old man frowned, looking at the gag he’d placed on her. “Are you ready to speak?” he asked. He walked out of her vision for a moment, and Trava felt the gag loosen.
She tensed and put the back of her foot against the tree. The gag loosened a little more. Trava pushed away from the tree and felt the gag come away.
She took off running. The old man had untied her, and that meant he was real. She heard the old man’s shrill voice from behind her. “Where are you going?”
Trava didn’t respond. She just ran away. The old man had been a nuisance back at the tavern, and now he’d assaulted her in the woods. Trava wasn’t inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
She sprinted for a little while before having to stop to catch her breath. A black bird landed on a tree branch above her, then fluttered away.
Trava frowned. She’d been seeing that black bird far too many times. She couldn’t fathom why it was following her. Trava took a few more deep breaths to steady herself, then took off running. As she passed the tree the black bird had been on, she felt her shin collide with something. She tripped and hit the ground, then pulled herself back up.
The old man stepped toward her from behind the tree, grinning. He held out a tree branch in his hand.
He tripped me, Trava thought. She felt so confused. He couldn’t have caught up with her. He certainly couldn’t have gotten ahead of her enough to trip her. Old people weren’t that fast.
“Are you ready to talk?” the old man asked.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to talk with someone who assaulted me in the woods,” Trava snapped. She took off running again. The old man must have caught up with me when I stopped, Trava thought. She had taken more time than she should have for her break.
I guess I better not stop, Trava thought. She steadied herself into a jog. She’d have to go for endurance.
She heard coins jingle in her clothes. They were weighing her down, but Trava didn’t want to get rid of them. She’d need them later.
The black bird soared over her head. Was the bird still following her? She saw it swoop behind a tree far in front of her.
Trava pursed her lips. The bird had also landed in the tree where she’d been tripped moments before. She knew it was probably wrong to assume that would happen again, but still…
Trava swerved wide around the tree and looked behind it. There was the old man, holding a stick. Trava’s eyes widened. The black bird had gone to the tree the old man was hiding behind. She couldn’t dismiss it as a fluke.
The old man looked at her, waved his stick, and cursed. He hobbled after her.
She took her eyes off the old man for a moment to make sure she didn’t trip on any natural underbrush. The woods didn’t have a clear path through them.
Trava glanced back over her shoulder, but she didn’t see the old man following her. She glanced over her other shoulder to make sure. But the old man was nowhere to be seen. Trava just saw the black bird with brown eyes flying after her.
Trava still didn’t understand how the old man had caught up to her twice. She’d seen him try to run after her, and he hadn’t been fast.
The black bird soared past Trava’s head. She kept her eyes on it. The bird had signalled her to evade the old man before.
The bird landed on a tree in front of her and Trava immediately darted away from that tree. But when she ran past the bird’s tree, she didn’t see the old man behind it. And the bird was already flying to another tree.
Trava came to a stop. She was getting tired, and the black bird’s last tree landing hadn’t indicated where the old man was. She figured that meant the old man wasn’t around at the moment.
She kept her eyes on the bird anyway. She didn’t know why it had been landing on the trees the old man had been hiding behind, or why it had been following her. It didn’t act like a normal bird, and that made Trava suspicious.
The bird landed on another tree and Trava tensed. Maybe its landing was innocuous, but she wasn’t going to take anything for granted.
The bird hopped and fluttered toward the back of the tree, out of Trava’s sight. She immediately moved toward the side, hoping to catch sight of the black bird again.
She saw it land on the ground behind the tree. The old man wasn’t behind the tree.
And then the bird changed.
It happened in an instant. One moment the bird was there, and the next moment, the old man appeared where the bird had been. Trava stifled a scream.
It became clear to Trava why the black bird had been landing on the trees the old man had appeared behind. She understood how the old man had caught up to her three times, despite being an old drunk. He could turn into a bird.
Or maybe the bird can turn into him, Trava thought. After seeing the transformation, she wasn’t about to discount any possibility.
Trava carefully backed away out of the old man’s line of sight. He was standing behind the tree, still holding a stick. He probably planned to trip her if she got near the tree.
Trava wiped sweat from her forehead. She knew she couldn’t outrun the old man, since he could turn into a bird. She’d have to find some other way to keep him from harassing her.
He doesn’t know that I know he’s been turning into a bird, Trava thought. But that didn’t seem like much of an advantage.
It was the only edge she had, though.
Trava backed further away from the tree the old man was behind, then started climbing a different tree. The old man would turn into a bird and come after her again, she was sure. She needed to be prepared.
Trava settled herself into some of the upper branches of the tree and saw the black bird – the old man – flying toward her.
Her heart pounded as she broke off a small branch. She waited until the bird got close, then swung the branch at it.
She hit the bird, and it failed to land on the tree branch. It circled toward her again.
Trava stood up. It was precarious footing in the tree, but she needed more reach than she could manage when sitting down.
The black bird landed on a branch out of her reach. Trava stepped toward the bird, but the branch it was on was too thin to support her weight. She had to retreat.
The black bird hopped a little closer. Trava could swear the old man was just taunting her. She’d make him regret it.
Trava swung her legs over a large, steady branch that was parallel to the thin branch. She kicked outward, splitting the thin branch with her foot. It snapped, and Trava grabbed it and yanked it toward her.
The bird squawked shrilly, sounding just like the old man. The bird tried to fly away, but Trava grabbed it around its midsection, eliciting another shrill screech. She held it away from the tree. If the bird turned back into the old man, she wanted to drop him to the ground. Maybe that would stop him from harassing her.
She heard hoofbeats. Some deer were running through.
The bird pecked Trava’s fingers, but it didn’t hurt. Trava smiled. For the first time in days, she felt in control.
And she did have questions for the old man.
“Can you talk?” asked Trava. If the old man couldn’t talk while he was a bird, getting answers out of him would be tough.
The bird looked at her with a disapproving brown eye. Trava stared back unblinking. She squeezed the bird’s midsection harder.
“Of course I can talk,” the bird said in the old man’s shrill voice. Trava nearly dropped it in surprise. Even though she’d asked it whether it could talk, getting a response was still startling.
Trava recovered quickly. “Good,” she said. “Tell me everything you know about my mother.”
The bird made a sound like it was clearing its throat. “You’ll find your mother if you come with me to Arden,” the bird said.
“You’ve told me that already,” Trava said, anger coloring her voice. “Tell me something new.”
“She wants you to find her,” the bird said.
Trava fumed. “You’re not going to tell me anything useful, are you?” she asked. “Everything you’ve done and said, it’s all about getting me to go to Arden with you.” Trava shook her head. “If you were actually trying to help me find my mother, you wouldn’t hold back information!” Trava had to raise her voice so that she could hear herself over the hoofbeats below.
“I have have a mind to tie you up here!” Trava yelled.
“Quiet,” the bird said, “Or you’ll get us both killed.”
Trava raised her eyebrows. That was off topic, she thought. “Why?” asked Trava, quieter this time.
The bird’s brown eyes met hers. Its fear looked very human. “There’s a dragon coming,” the bird said.