The wicked heroine, p.12
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.12

           Jasmine Giacomo


  In the wee hours, Sanych trudged into the small village called Foothill, doggedly keeping up with Meena’s longer paces.

  Meena led Sanych to the edge of a large, dark building. “Wait here,” the Shanallar ordered, holding up a palm. The girl slumped against the cold wood, panting and exhausted. Her eyes slid shut.

  A quiet clopping sound startled her, and she realized she’d drifted off. Meena approached, leading a black mare by the reins.

  “Get on.”

  As Sanych struggled with the length of the stirrups, she muttered, “How’d you find someone to sell you a horse at this hour?”

  Meena started leading the compliant mare down the street, even before Sanych had settled herself in the stirrups. “I didn’t,” she replied.

  Sanych had to think for several seconds before she realized what Meena wasn’t saying. “You stole this horse from someone? Meena!”

  The Shanallar glared up at the short rider she led. “You prefer I leave you by the side of the road?”

  Sanych admitted that her body immensely appreciated the chance to ride instead of walk. Is morality so easily swayed by exhaustion? she wondered. With a sigh of surrender and a guilty look over her shoulder, she murmured, “At least you only stole one horse.”

  “He didn’t have two.”

  By dawn, the two travelers and their stolen mare had made it through two villages and were not too far from the outer farms of the third. Sanych was ready to drop to the ground and sleep for a year; her eyelids felt like they were attached to five-stone sacks of gravel.

  Meena led the mare off the cold, packed dirt road. Sanych slid off and leaned against the animal for warmth and support. When she managed to open her eyes, she saw Meena standing in a copse of sempergreen trees. “Why are we stopping?”

  “Time to sleep. You curl up; I’ll see to the horse and hide our tracks from the road.”

  “Where should I sleep?” asked Sanych, looking at the brown, needle-strewn ground beneath the trees.

  “I don’t care,” Meena replied, shrugging off her knapsack and duffel.

  Sanych put a hand to her head. Thinking hurt. “Where would you sleep if you were me?”

  Meena paused to look at her. She pointed at Sanych’s feet and said, “Right there, if I were you.”

  Sanych could feel bits of gravel among the needles beneath her boot soles; she knew she had asked an acolyte’s question. “Where would you sleep if you were you?” she amended.

  Meena quickly pointed to a sheltered, cozy spot at the base of three of the sempergreens, then headed back into the snow to cover their tracks. Sanych patted the mare in gratitude, then stumbled to the area Meena had pointed out and struggled out of her pack. She barely stayed awake long enough to sweep wide swaths of fallen needles over herself, and then she was lost to the world.

  Much later, Meena shook her awake.

  “‘S’happening?” Sanych mumbled, groggy and unwilling to wake up.

  “Eat.” Meena handed her a wooden bowl of stew.

  Sanych sat up and sipped the broth around the chunks. It was hot. “You built a fire? What about being followed?” she asked.

  “You’re just bitter because you didn’t think of that earlier. We haven’t been followed. Besides, if you can’t see the fire from where you’re sitting, no one on the road will either.”

  Sanych blinked. Looking around, she saw no sign of a fire.

  “Yes, it’s still burning.” Meena smirked. “Go back to sleep, Bookworm. It’s nearly dusk. We travel in the morning.”

  Sanych finished off her stew, then went to the tree designated for the necessary. Finally climbing back into her needle pile, she took longer to fall asleep, her thoughts on Meena. For someone who could heal people, and who saved entire countries and royal lineages and brokered impossible peace treaties, Meena sure was a granite-arse.

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