The following morning followed their plan perfectly. Sophia and Connor ambled down the stairs well after sunrise, yawning and complaining of the interrupted night.
The landlord was profuse in his apologies and even moreso as he was called on to serve their breakfast himself. The kitchen hand had needed to leave early in order to tend to a sick relative in a nearby village.
Sophia was all sympathy and concern, Connor had other business on his mind.
“Is the bandit still secured in the cellar?”
“Oh yes sir. I’ll keep him secure there until I can get the authorities, here I assure you.”
“Good to hear. Sophie, did you manage to get that message off to the Overcourt earlier?”
“Yes, it will take a little while for the Steward to get to it but I expect he’ll send orders to the local guard station in the next day or so.”
The landlord blanched and excused himself as soon as he could.
After a generous breakfast, they made the horses ready, paid the landlord and ambled down the road, discussing plans for Lillia.
As they vanished into the forest, Acron circled back to keep an eye on the building as Connor and Sophia made a short cross-country detour onto the Leaf road.
He caught up with them shortly before they arrived at the meeting point, tongue lolling in a wolfy grin.
When questioned by Connor, he demurred, preferring to only tell the story once, after they’d collected the girl who liked animals.
They wound around a bend in the road and came out into the clearing surrounding Connor’s lookout rock, a small figure lurking at its base.
Sophia checked Acron’s forward bound, “Go gently, she doesn’t understand about dragons and she was very scared of you last night.”
Acron drooped and Sophia patted him reassuringly, “Don’t worry, I was scared of you at the beginning too, but it didn’t last five minutes.”
Acron whined a little and Connor chuckled, “He’s worried that he’s supposed to be scary and he’s undermining the reputation of dragons.”
“Oh no. I still have a great deal of respect for your ability to be terrifying and appreciate your choice not to be with us.”
The wolf chuffed and trotted forward proudly.
As they drew closer, Joy visibly relaxed and stood straighter, only to tense again and try to scramble her way up the rock face behind her as Acron trotted up and gently butted his head against her leg.
Sophia dismounted and smiled at Joy reassuringly, “As I said last night, he likes you. He’s just trying to be friends. I can ask him to move away if you want, but if you’re feeling brave, he loves head scratches.”
Joy reached out a tentative hand and Acron nudged under it, “He’s so soft.”
Connor joined them, “What do you think of his eyes?”
Joy looked at them, then into them, then jumped with a gasp, “You spoke to me.”
She looked up, “He spoke to me.”
Sophia pouted, “Now I’m going to be left out.”
Acron immediately trotted over to her and started to fuss.
“It’s alright Acron, I can share your feelings and that’s more important to me when Connor and Joy can translate your words.”
Connor led them around to a sunny nook in the rock, out of sight of the road, “And speaking of words, I want your story from this morning.”
Acron nodded, then paused, looking at Joy who gulped, then nodded, “He’s changing to his natural form.”
A moment later, the white dragon shook himself and plumped down on the ground, looking around happily.
“He says that’s much better.”
Connor laughed, “You do look very pleased with life Acron. Let me get food out for some lunch and you can entertain us while we’re eating.”
Sophia looked at him curiously as he went about unpacking the provisions, “How did you know about this little crevice, in fact, how did you know about this rock at all?”
“I’ve been on and off courier duty for a couple of years now, the King and the Overlord both said it was the best way to get to know the terrain and nature of our various neighbours”
He passed around bread, cheese, meat and a couple of water bags, then settled against the sun-warmed rock and looked at Acron expectantly.
The dragon huffed, took a bite of his share of the food and began telling of the morning’s events, with pauses to allow Connor to relay the story to Sophia.
He had lurked about the inn for only a short time before the landlord had come rushing out of the back door, pushing the bandit from the night before in front of him.
Acron paused for an aside, and Joy answered, “Yes, he’s about ten years older than me, Ma wasn’t built for having babies she said, there were three that died between him and me.”
Acron snorted gently in acknowledgement, and took up the thread.
The Landlord had gone back inside and reappeared with several bags and boxes, shoving them at Joy’s brother, Jem, who accepted them but was clearly complaining. Her uncle came back with a second load and chivvied Jem towards the stable with his luggage.
“We have to get out of here. That damn soldier-boy and his mealy-mouthed wife are going to have the Highway Guard here in days and the last time they were called here the Captain told me plain that if he had to come out to a complaint on my place once more, he’d close it down and put it to the torch.”
The landlord dropped a bag to cuff him, “He’s done it before and he’ll do it again, he has no time for anyone who makes him get on a horse and come out to investigate the cause of a complaint.”
Connor grinned after translating the conversation, “I might need to get the name of that captain, he sounds like my kind of guard.”
Acron resumed, describing the pair of them loading up a donkey cart. As he was bringing the donkey out of the stable Jem asked, “What about Girlie?”
His uncle snorted, “No use to us, she’ll just be a burden in Weriban city. She’ll come back here and either get picked up by the Guard or go snivel in the nearest village until she’s either taken in as a maid or arrested.”
Joy choked and Sophia moved to put an arm around her, the younger girl looked at her, the tears starting, “I know they thought I was a burden, and I didn’t think they’d miss me but he wants me to be put in gaol.”
Sophia squeezed the shaking shoulders and looked at Connor, “Do you think we could make life a little interesting for those two in Weriban?”
“Probably, not urgent though. It would be more fun if they thought they’d got away with it. Leave it until we’re somewhere where we have time to report it all properly.”
Joy glanced between them, “Who are you, that you can have them pursued even to Weiban?”
“As we told your uncle, we’re on errands for the Overlord. He has a very long reach and he doesn’t like his messages going astray. Or their horses.”
“On the bright side, and the reason Acron wanted you to know what happened after you left. Their actions mean we’re not in danger of them following us and trying to either kidnap you back or have another try at stealing our possessions.”
Joy looked at Acron, who had taken advantage of her preoccupation to shuffle up on her other side and lean in, she sniffed, gulped and then gave a watery giggle before giving in to his clear request for head scratches in this form as well.
Connor smiled, “He told her we’re much nicer, and smell much better, than her nasty family and she can be part of ours instead.”