Chapter 5

The tamed, athletic Strider shook its slender head in an impatient manner at her firm grasp around its neck. It was already familiar to her hands, as they'd travelled a remarkable distance together already, though it didn't inherit a particularly wide tolerance range of motionlessness. Standing still definitely counted as part of it. Attentive to its surroundings, it focused its sensors, which were shaped like tiny fox-ears on top on its head, in every direction, the visual receptors following whenever a sound-disturbance occurred. But by its blue signal light and the relatively calm resting of its hooves Aloy could tell that it completely tolerated her adding the freshly upgraded saddle packs to the hooks she'd placed on its upper flanks.
As time had flown by, she'd become accustomed to modifying her mounts along the road for practical reasons, and this Strider was holding a record by staying with her for over a month now. Actually, she was toying with the idea of giving it a special painting, so that she could spot it more easily in a herd of Striders - and it would mark it as her own. A tempting imagination, that's what it was...

She was adjusting Sylens' modified spear, which was now hers, to the leather strings she'd attached to her mount, when said machine turned its head so that it was looking over her shoulder and showed its pointed ears. Enough cause for Aloy to pause her work for a second and take a look herself. What she found herself confronted with was quite astonishing.

There were five men walking towards her, four of them flanking one in the middle. She couldn't resist a tiny smile when she recognized the familiar faces: Avad, Erend and Blameless Marad, followed by two of the Vanguardsmen. There really were few people on this reborn earth who could tell that they were seen off by people of such greatness.

"You didn't actually intend on vanishing into the blue without saying goodbye, Aloy?", she was greeted by the Sun-King, who showed a small but honest smile.

"That would be anarchy against the standard courtesy", was Marad's comment on the situation, and Erend performed nothing but a grumpy, warm-hearted gesture of relativity. "That wouldn't be Aloy, would it? A shame to see you almost off again - sure it wasn't my unexpected retiring yesterday that brought you to it?"

The Nora huntress couldn't resist a short laugh at this and shook her head firmly. "Never ever! Seeing you again was a joy, Erend, but you should know me by now. I have business to attend to, and it's not located in Meridian."

The gruffy leader of the Vanguard shrugged in response to this, grinned and crossed his arms. "What to expect from a woman whose hair is on fire all the time?"

"Make sure I don't set yours ablaze on comments like that."

They shared a brief but whole-hearted laughter and Aloy turned to face her other visitors again, for she couldn't deny that they were still part of the conversation as well. Blameless Marad did nothing but grant her a strangely proud look, which was impossible to dedicate to anybody. Lucky for her, she didn't have to make the conversation progress herself.

"I dare to say that won't be necessary", Avad spoke, taking a step forward, steadily meeting her eyes. "May I ask you for a private word?"

She gave back a nod, and both Erend and Marad politely stepped back to grant them a little space of privacy. Back in his formal robes of a ruler, he looked far less human than in normal clothing, Aloy thought. Quite a shame, in her humble opinion.

"The statement I made clear yesterday will not sway", he started determinedly. "If in peace or in need of aid, Meridian will always open its gates for you."

She briefly inclined her head in appreciation of his words: "That's a thing only few people ever hear in their life. Though I find it more remarkable to see you walking all the way down here from the palace - just to say goodbye to a huntress? It would have been easier to ready this thing -", she pointed at the awaiting Strider beside her, "- at the edge of a marketplace, of course. But unfortunately, mounts aren't allowed inside."

Avad responded to her subtle joke with an amused smile, taking in the sight of the tamed machine without fear, but with a little curiosity. "It seems we have to bend the admission guidelines a little", he joined in the teasing, but changed the subject very quickly. He was well aware of the fact, that the Sun-King outside of city boundaries would draw attention to itself even more by the second.

"Though you are right, Aloy. I didn't just come to wish you a safe journey, which I'd have done even without another reason to see you. I wanted to give you something that might come in handy."

From the pocket of his wide trousers, he pulled a tiny bundle of cloth, stitched and bound shut at its top by leather strings. Around its blazing midst, there was another fine string of leather.

"It contains a collection of phials which are filled with strongly concentrated medical supplies, made out of herbs and oils. Even though I hope that you won't ever be in need of it along your journey, I find it wiser to know them within your reach."

The bundle was holding, in contrary to its small and compressed outlook, a reassuringly high weight in stock, and Aloy found it surprisingly tight and heavy as Avad placed it in her right hand. She didn't even have time to wonder, for he separated the fine leather string from the bunch of medical aid and revealed it to be a necklace. A bare, black leather string, decorated only by a small, inconspicuous pendant, shaped like a sharpened, stretched O. It was, as the thought of it struck her, an element of the spiky, geometric patterns and mosaics one could find within the decorations of the Palace of the Sun, worked into a small plate of copper and refined with golden inlays. Beautiful craftmanswork, and tiny enough to be easily enfolded in a human hand.

"What is that?", she couldn't stop herself from asking, scanning every inch of it with her bright, green eyes as it was presented to her in his palm.

"A modification I undertook myself", he answered, pointing with his finger at the golden pattern. "It is a talisman. A crystal of sunlight that may shine on your path and keep you from harm, where ever you might go."

He placed the necklace in her hands and met her eyes again, expressing no fear or concern, but complete trust in her. Upon this realization, she felt an unfamiliar but nonetheless very welcome sensation of pride and joy rising up in her body, and her lips curled into the most secret but honest smile she'd ever felt herself expressing. He didn't remind her to be careful, nor did he show extreme doubt of her safety. He simply appreciated that she was capable of handling herself in every situation, and by doing so, he gave her an unexpected boost of self-esteem. She tucked the bundle away safely in her saddle pack and put on the necklace, so that the talisman was resting steadily on her sternum, making a nice contrast to the brown, earthly collar of her armor.

"Thank you, Avad", she said gratefully. "For everything."

"I guess, we could consider ourselves even now", he responded warmly, signaling that he let go of her by stepping back. Ignoring the strange feeling in her chest, Aloy turned around, placed her right boot on the footrest at the side of her Strider and mounted it joyfully easily. The horse-like machine swayed a little to the right to balance itself again and shook its head impatiently at the familiar touch of her hands around the main steering wires.

The Vanguardsmen looked taken aback by the moving, silently snoring machine, but her three friends showed no sign of concern. Grinning down at them proudly, she chose her parting words carefully: "Seems that I have to keep going now. Goodbye for now. We'll see each other again, for sure."

"Naturally", said Erend, showing his fist. "Can't see the last of you that easily. See you around!"

"Farewell, huntress of the Nora. The sundom will always be open for you", was Marad's response as he performed a respectful bow as well.

Avad did nothing more but warmly smile at her. "May you walk in the light, Aloy."

She gave them a last nod of goodbye and finally let her Strider move onwards. It even seemed as if the horse-like machine was glad of trotting down the road, happy to stretch its metallic legs again. Aloy quickly settled in its powerful, steady rhythm as they left Meridian behind. She didn't look back. She had a past to explore.

The End

That's it, guys. I warned you at the beginning that this ride wouldn't take long.

I hope you enjoyed it, and I really would appreciate a few comments on this short story now. Haven't recieved a single one so far, which makes me wonder if I simply write that bad in English, or if it is something else.

Hopefully, this story made your day.