Saoirse's house, a little stone cottage, was tucked cozily among the large boulders and trees resting on a fairly level piece of ground with wooded hills rising up all around it. The house blended in so well with the land that Tristan would've missed it if the brightly colored flag waving lazily in the breeze hadn't given it away.
The flag was secured to a pole positioned in the ground just a few feet away from the front door. There were no words on the flag, just a faded picture of a blue flower with a delicate green stem—just like the ones they'd seen in the forest—along with a gold crystal and a blue crystal on either side of it. Streaks of blue and gold radiated from the crystals, their colors mixing, creating a purple arch over the blue flower. It was a very beautiful flag and well designed, though Tristan couldn't even begin to decide what the meaning behind the picture must represent. It was indeed like no other flag he had ever seen on Dinotopia.
Saoirse climbed down from Kukka's back and assisted Mathias down next. The boy bravely limped toward the house, but the movement caused fresh blood to seep into the rags tied around his lower legs. He looked so pale that Saoirse assisted him on one side and Taddeo joined him on the other side. Tristan couldn't figure out if Taddeo was so eager to help merely because of his friendly, take action, nature, or because he was clearly taken by this woman and eager to be near her.
Tristan didn't dwell on the matter for long. For the moment, he was faced with the macrauchenia who immediately ambled over to an out building which stood near the cottage, with a little worn out trail leading to it. Though the building was small, it stood tall enough for a macrauchenia to fit comfortably into for the night. Tristan suspected that the building's main purpose was to serve as protection from the possible stray carnivore. Kukka shook her body, as if trying to rid it of the saddle and gear, then she looked toward Saoirse, as if inquiring as to why she wasn't sticking with the normal routine: unsaddle, food, water, cozy barn to safely sleep in for the night.
Saoirse threw a glance over her shoulder. "She's all yours, Tristan." She said brightly. "Just don't make any sudden movements and she'll trust you just fine." She winked. "Taddeo and I will tend to Mathias right away."
The woman's gaze settled on Jamin next. "You there. I haven't heard a peep out of you since I met you. Why don't you come along with us? I can see you're not a complainer, which is admirable, but I can detect a bout of the mountain sickness from a mile away. We'll get you straightened out as well."
Jamin ducked his head in embarrassment at his weakness that obviously had showed. However, he obediently followed, making a 'peep' to Saoirse for the first time, one that Tristan wished he wouldn't have made. "Thank you for offering to help, but Tristan gave me something that seems to help the sore throat." He rasped. "I think I'll be good after some sleep."
Saoirse's gaze shifted back to Tristan. "Is that so?" She said, raising her eyebrows. "Now, aren't you full of surprises?"
Tristan promptly shook his head, but before he could explain, Taddeo decided to add his comments. "Oh, Tristan is becoming quite the healer. He had just the right thing in his pack to give to Jamin, and he also seemed to know what to do after Mathias was attacked and fell out of that tree."
Tristan opened his mouth to protest, but Fira cut him off, tossing in her own tidbit to the conversation. "He's been putting in work hours at the infirmary back at Canyon City." She said. "He's also treated an injured skybax, quite skillfully too."
Tristan shook his head. "It's not what it seems. I don't even—"
"For some reason he doesn't want to take credit." Mathias interrupted. "But he knows more than he lets on. He told me I needed stitches, but I wouldn't let him do it."
Tristan sent a shocked look at Mathias. Had he heard right? Mathias, who had been practically his archenemy since the day they'd fist met, now giving him a compliment, and in front of everyone as well?
"I think he broke more than his nose." Tristan said. "You might want to check what condition his brain is in."
Saoirse threw back her head and laughed. Taddeo joined in and Tristan shot him an annoyed look, certain that the only reason the guy was laughing was because Saoirse was.
Tristan turned away, loosening the buckles on his pack and lowering it to the ground, then turned his attention back to the macrauchenia. With his back to the others, he approached the creature, slowly. He tried to send thoughts to her, but it was too hard to focus at the moment as his mind was clouded with the previous conversation. If seemed like no matter which way he turned, someone was trying to tug him away from his dream of becoming a skybax rider. And here lately it seemed like everyone was trying to make him be a healer instead. To him the goal was simple; just be a skybax rider. That's all he'd ever wanted. Why did everyone always have to make it so complicated?
Just as Tristan held out his hands toward the macrauchenia in order to let the creature sniff his hands to familiarize herself with him, Saoirse called to him. "I changed my mind." She said. "I think Taddeo and this fine young lady can tend to the chores. Seeing how confident the others seem about your healer skills, why don't you help me with these two?"
Tristan cringed, took a deep breath, and turned just enough to throw a quick answer over his shoulder. "They've got it all wrong. I trained to be a skybax rider, not a healer."
"A skybax rider with more skills than just flying is even more valuable." Came Saoirse's reply, just as she and Mathias entered the little cottage.
Tristan dropped his hands to his sides and gave the macrauchenia a frustrated look. "She always wins, doesn't she?" He muttered, looking into the creature's big brown eyes.
Kukka stomped her thick foot in response, her nose flopping as she bobbed her head.
Aha. So you do understand. Tristan thought. He turned around and dutifully picked up his pack again and dragged his feet to the doorstep of the little cottage where Saoirse, Mathias, and Jamin had just passed through the open doorway.
He passed Taddeo who had paused outside the doorway, looking like a rejected saurian who wasn't welcome indoors.
Tristan frowned at the other guy. "You were the one who opened your mouth, and now our jobs shifted."
"Yeah, I wonder why I did that?" Taddeo said, scratching the back of his head.
Fira pursed her lips. "Well, Lotus and I are going to go introduce ourselves to Kukka. Care to join us, Tadd?" Her tone sounded slightly peeved. Without waiting for an answer she sauntered off toward the macrauchenia, with Lotus mimicking her haughty steps.
Tristan and Taddeo watched the struthiomimus's funny antics, then broke into laughter.
"I'm really glad Lotus made it back." Taddeo said. "We need her comic relief."
"Yeah." Tristan still lingered at the doorway. He looked at Taddeo again. "You know what?"
"What? Oh, no, what idea do you have brewing now?" Taddeo teased.
"Why don't you just go on up and help Saoirse and I'll go back and tend to the chores, like we were originally going to do?" Tristan said, grinning slightly. "Who says she has to be boss the whole time, anyway?"
"Hmm. She kind of saved our lives. I'd just about do anything she wanted at this point." Taddeo replied. "I don't want to do anything that would make her change her mind about taking in all of us strays for the night."
"Good point." Tristan said, "But I know her better than you do. She looks and acts tough, but she's got a heart softer than an overripe mango." Tristan gave the young man a light shove against the shoulder. "Go on. Just tell her I wanted to get to know Kukka a little better."
Taddeo grinned. "Well, alright then." With that, he disappeared into the cottage.
Tristan and Fira worked together to get Kukka settled in for the night and Lotus, fascinated with the creature, discovered that she could communicate somewhat with her. As a result, she decided to stay in the barn for the night, assuring the concerned cadets that the large macrauchenia provided enough body heat in the small barn to keep her warm.
Just as darkness was settling over the land, Tristan and Fira entered cottage. It was very small, apparently designed for one, maybe two people. There were two wooden chairs tucked on either side of a small table which rested in front of a window which looked out onto the stone path leading to the main door.
Jamin sat in one of the chairs, looking at them through tired eyes. He held a mug in one hand with a little wisp of steam rising from it.
Fira immediately plopped down into the other chair. "Looks like you got settled in nicely." She said.
Jamin shrugged, but didn't say anything in response.
There were no other vacant chairs at the tiny table, so Tristan made himself comfortable on a braided rug which covered the wooden floor in front of a cold fireplace. As he rested for a few minutes, he took in his new surroundings. Directly to his right, there was a tiny kitchen area with wooden counters, cabinets, drawers, cupboards, and two large wash basins. From the ceiling, strands of roots and herbs were tied to the rafters for drying. To his left there was a small open room filled with shelves of books, and scrolls, rocks, and plants, paintings, and a tiny desk scattered with papers and more books and scrolls. Then, further to the right, almost behind Tristan, he saw a small staircase. He could hear faint sounds of voices coming from up there, so he assumed that was where Saoirse and Taddeo had taken Mathias.
What stood out the most to Tristan about his new surroundings were the paintings hanging here and there, filling what little wall space was not taken up by shelves or the windows of the cottage. Since he was becoming a bit of an artist himself, the paintings immediately drew him in. Each one displayed something or some place within the forest; an old twisted tree, a sparkling brook, a cluster of ferns, an ancient log covered in moss and lichens, and many others beautiful scenes. He was curious to know who had done all these paintings. If it was Saoirse herself, it was something he didn't know yet about her.
Tristan finally tore his attention away from the paintings. It was getting hard to see since the last of the daylight was nearly gone now.
"If our families had any idea what we've gone through so far on this journey, they would probably all regret having allowed us to try and become skybax riders." Jamin finally said, rubbing his eyes tiredly.
"Yes." Fira replied. "But what they don't know won't hurt them, right?"
"Should we try and make something for supper?" Tristan asked, his stomach twisting in hunger. "And we should light some more lamps."
Jamin looked concerned. "Would Miss Rimm mind?"
"She likes to be called simply, Saoirse." Tristan corrected Jamin before answering his question. "She told me once that she thought 'Miss Rimm' sounded too formal. And no, I don't think she'll mind if we try to make some supper. I'll warn you both though, just because I practically grew up in a restaurant doesn't mean I can cook. I'll need your help." He sent Fira a hopeful look.
Fira turned away. "Don't look at me. Just because I'm a girl doesn't mean I can cook either."
Jamin dragged himself out of his chair and made his way into the kitchen. "You know, Tristan, if you would've gone on up there to help Saoirse like she'd first asked, Tadd could be down here cooking us all something good to eat. He proved he had some skill the other day when he made that amazing soup."
Tristan frowned. "He chose to be where he is." He grumbled.
"And he's probably not doing much more than merely gawking over Miss Rimm." Jamin grumbled.
Tristan decided to ignore the last comment. Jamin had always been fairly even tempered, but ever since his bad luck with the cold waters of the swollen creek, he'd been in an overall dark mood. So far this journey was wearing down everyone's nerves. At this point, it felt like their previous lives back in Canyon City and the friendships they'd developed with skybaxes belonged to a distant dream.