Lunch done, Acron moved into an open space, looked at the horses, then concentrated hard.
Moments later, a sweet-faced, barrel-bodied pony stood where the dragon had been. Joy squealed in delight and rushed to pat him, praising him for his talent and good looks.
Connor smiled at Sophia ruefully, “We have a mount for her, but we’re completely lacking a saddle and bridle.”
Acron looked affronted and Connor reassured him, “We know you don’t need it and that you’ll keep Joy safe, it’s more for appearances.”
“Joy, have you ridden before?”
Joy looked around at Sophia, “Oh yes.”
“Good, that’s one less thing to worry about. Now are you used to saddles and bridles or bareback?”
“Bareback and a rope to direct the horse. We rarely had a chance to saddle the horses uncle had us steal.”
Connor dug into his saddle bag, “One length of rope. Acron, you need to pretend Joy is controlling your direction with this if we happen to encounter anyone on our way to Leaf.”
Acron whinnied and stamped Joy patted him sympathetically, “Yes it’s going to be annoying and probably itchy but if I can find you a softer rope when we get somewhere with a market I promise I’ll get it for you.”
“And how were you planning on paying for it?”, Sophia looked severe and Joy blanched.
Connor looked at the sun, “We can discuss this on the way, we’ve stopped more than long enough and I’d like us to get to an inn I can trust before nightfall.”
They mounted and set off beneath the green giants that gave Leaf its name.
Sophia started asking questions as they rode, “Now you’re away from the inn, what is it you’d like to do?”
Joy looked blank, “I’ve never thought that far ahead, it’s always just been a dream about getting away.”
“Alright, what sorts of things do you like to do and what are you good at?”
Joy snorted, “Aside from failing to rob travellers while they sleep? I did most of the cooking at the inn, plus cleaning, laundry, mending and a fair bit of listening in and around corners.”
Connor threw back his head and laughed, “Sophie, I don’t know if you were looking for an extra pair of hands, but I think you’ve found a perfect set.”
Sophia smiled, “I do believe you’re right. Joy, how would you like to work for the Overcourt?”
Joy looked suspicious, “Why would I want to do that?”
“Pay for a start.”
“Pay, as in actual money?”
“Yes, I’ll need to ask around to find out what the usual pay for an apprentice seamstress is, but that will be your official role, while your real one will be to help me measure the women of the various courts for ball dresses and future roles in the Overcourt.”
Joy looked puzzled, Connor grinned, “That last bit’s the fun part as far as Sophie’s concerned, she’s been asked to compile a report on the ladies eligible to become the Overlord’s wife and make sure he doesn’t pick someone completely unsuitable.”
Joy’s eyes rounded and she gave an excited jiggle that made Acron snort and look round at her accusingly.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, but that sounds like a dream better than any I’ve made up about getting free. Can I really?”
Sophia smiled, “I think you can.”
“But you’ll need to get permission from that steward person and he’ll take ages and he might say no.”
“I lied about the steward, I report directly to the Overlord and he most definitely won’t say no. This is important to him both as a ruler and a person. He wants this report as accurate and thorough as we can make it.”
“Ohh, Uncle is in so much trouble.”
Sophia smiled at that decidedly smug statement then returned to business, “You’re going to need different clothes though, no seamstress, apprentice or otherwise, would have a poorly-fitting or ragged dress and moreso for anyone representing the Overcourt in any capacity.”
Connor looked ahead through the trees, “Not much to be done about that until we can get to a town. Would she come close to fitting one of your dresses in the meantime?”
“With adjustments, it’ll do. What are you twitching about?”
“There are people ahead.”
Acron stopped and Joy slid off his back, taking the rope bridle with her. Within a minute, pony had become wolf and ghosted into the forest.
Connor leaned down and hoisted Joy onto the saddle pack behind him with a warning to hold tight.
“Wouldn’t she be better with me if you have to fight?”
“I’d rather run if given a choice and my horse is bigger and stronger than yours. She’ll be able to last longer on a chase with the weight of two than your lady.”
Sophia acknowledged the logic and they continued forward slowly, watching and listening for Acron.
A rustle in the undergrowth heralded his return and the two sharing a horse relaxed at his report. Connor relayed the message to Sophia as Joy slid down and resumed her place on the now slightly muddy pony.
“He says it’s a merchant family, a couple of guards but no threat. They’ve had an accident with their cart, a wheel’s come off and they’re in the process of unloading it so they can lift it back into place.”
“Which way are they heading?”
“Acron says the cart was pointing in the same direction we’re heading.”
“What’s our story?”
Connor blew out his cheeks, “Ours is much as it ever was, we just need to factor in Joy.”
“I think you might have become a newly orphaned girl from a village we passed through and you’ve joined us for safety and company on your way to, what? Relatives or a job in the city?”
“Could be both, Joy, what feels the closest to truth for you?”
“How about an uncle with an inn?”
“They might ask for the inn. Better to work for a private household, or not yet know.”
“Okay, then an aunt in a large house, needs another maid, I don’t know anything more.”
Sophia nodded approval as they ambled around a bend and the other group came into sight, halfway down a relatively straight stretch of the road.