“It’s time to get up, princess.”
I grunted into the pillow. “No. I don’t do breakfast anyway.”
“It isn’t time for breakfast. It’s suppertime. You’ve slept all day.”
I rolled over and glared at him. “There’s a reason for that. I’m exhausted.”
Kieran crossed his arms and shook his head. “You’ll feel better if you eat.”
“Fine. Give me a few minutes to wash up and get ready.” I threw the fur blanket back and Gabriel stretched at the foot of the bed, tail wagging furiously. “Has Gabriel been out today?”
Kieran nodded. “I’ve taken him twice. He stayed out just long enough to relieve himself, and then trotted back up here as quickly as possible. I had a beast of a time trying to keep up with him.”
I chuckled and leaned over, rubbing Gabriel’s ears for a minute before I went to the bathroom. I caught some fresh water in the basin and washed my face and hands, feeling much more alert afterward. I dried off, stretched, and shuffled back into the bedroom.
“All right, I’m ready to go. Lead the way.”
I yawned about a hundred times as Gabriel and I followed Kieran to the hall where supper was being served. My mouth watered at the smells of bread, beef, and vegetables. My stomach rumbled loud enough that Kieran and Gabriel both gave me bewildered stares. Kieran arched a brow. “I told you that you needed to eat.”
I nodded, yawning again. “I guess you were right.”
We grabbed clean wooden bowls from the end of one of the tables and loaded them up. Kieran strode to the unoccupied end of one of the long tables, and I followed.
As distrustful as I had been of him at first, he was the only person in the entire fortress that I really knew.
Kieran’s cousin, Sam, appeared as soon as we were seated and sat himself down opposite me with a charming smile.
“Do you have time to give us a proper introduction now, cousin?” His eyes, a pale blue that was a stark contrast to Kieran’s hazel, shifted away from me to assess his cousin’s face, and I caught an almost challenging undercurrent.
Kieran didn’t bother to look up and, for a long moment, it seemed as if he was ignoring his cousin entirely. “Sam, this is Lauren. Lauren, this is my cousin, Sam. There. You happy?”
“I’d be happier if you’d take a moment and explain to me why she has black hair.”
Kieran snorted, rolling his eyes. “Where she’s from, a lot of people have black hair.”
I arched a brow. “Hey, you know I’m right here, right? You don’t have to discuss me like I’m blind, deaf, and dumb.”
“How charming,” Sam smirked, turning his attention to me.
It was my turn to snort and roll my eyes. “I’d be willing to bet you’re the kind of man who finds anything that counts as female to be ‘charming.’ Am I right?”
Kieran threw his head back and roared with laughter as Sam’s pale cheeks reddened with embarrassment. I studied the both of them for a moment, appreciating their differences, one dark and the other fair. Where Kieran’s hair was mahogany brown, Sam’s was a sunny gold, and where Kieran’s eyes were brown and gold, Sam’s were the pale blue of a winter sky. Kieran was tanned, weathered, and scruffy. Sam’s skin was an almost luminous white and smooth as glass. One was shaggy, the other almost too well-groomed. One half elf and the other full blooded.
Kieran’s laughter subsided into chuckles and he grinned broadly. “Smarter than she looks, eh cousin?”
I frowned and crossed my arms, giving Kieran a frosty stare. “Are you, by any chance, insinuating that I look unintelligent?”
“That’s not what I meant, exactly.”
“Oh? What, exactly, did you mean?”
It was Sam who laughed, then. “I think that my cousin meant, at least in his limited experience, that a pretty face often hides a vacant mind. I, however, would not make such a foolish mistake. I knew you were a smart girl when I first saw you.”
The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and Gabriel let out a low growl from where he lay at my feet. “Nice try, buddy, but flattery doesn’t work on me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m done being a prop in your verbal sparring.” I glared at them both as I stood up, then turned on my heel to walk away.
“Oh, she’s a fun one,” I heard Sam mutter, “I think I’ll quite enjoy her.”
I whirled around, prepared to shame him into the ground and was mildly horrified when I saw that Kieran had him by the throat. “You’ll not be enjoying anything if you make another remark like that, cousin. I don’t care if we are blood kin, I won’t have so much as a modicum of regret if I have to spill yours. Lauren is very important to Rolf, and thus to everyone else in this fortress who has a desire to survive. You’d do well to remember that.”
Sam gasped and coughed, shaking his head as Kieran released him. Only then did I realize that I was staring at them, open-mouthed and dumbfounded.
My gaze zeroed in on Kieran. “I know the guy was an arrogant, offensive, mouthy jerk, but you didn’t have to choke Sam half to death! I think both of you need to get a grip.”
Sam coughed again. “I can assure you, Kieran’s grip is just fine, thank you.”
I rolled my eyes and set my bowl on the floor for Gabriel, allowing him to finish what was left of my food.
“Can you both just chill out and stop acting like spoiled brats?”
“Hah! Not bloody likely as long as we’re in the same room together.”
“You know how to solve that problem?” I arched a brow and crossed my arms. “One or the other of you needs to leave.”
Kieran and Sam spoke simultaneously, each mirroring the other’s incredulity. “Leave?”
I crossed my arms and studied them for a moment. “You obviously can’t get along with one another. So, one or the other of you needs to be man enough to vacate the room before you start bickering like selfish, territorial toddlers again.”
Feminine laughter rang out across the hall at my last comment, and I turned to see Wynne approaching from the other end. “If that isn’t proof that women are the cleverer sex, I don’t know what is.” She winked at me and turned her gaze to the two men. “Sam, Rolf wants to see you.”
Sam bowed and left without a word. I watched a satisfied smirk spread across Kieran’s face as Sam retreated, but Wynne stepped into my line of vision and took my hands with a smile. “How are you feeling after a bath in the hot springs and some much-needed rest, dear?”
“About a thousand times better.” I couldn’t help smiling in her presence. She was a walking ray of sunshine.
“Good. The hot springs have healing properties, you know.”
“I didn’t know,” I shook my head. “But it’s really not surprising, is it? The dwarves seem to have been a pretty brilliant race. They managed to incorporate natural running water into a working sewer system. They incorporated hot springs where people could bathe and wash their clothes into this fortress. With the level of genius I’ve seen from them, I find it unsurprising that the hot springs they utilized have healing properties.”
Wynne laughed again and nodded. “You really are a very smart girl, aren’t you?”
I blushed and shook my head. “No, I’m not. Observant, perhaps, but not smart.”
“Brilliant and modest.” She winked again, and I couldn’t help laughing.
“Whatever you say, Wynne.”
“See? I knew you were smart.”
Gabriel finished eating and stretched, wagging his tail at us. I noticed that he was still a tad muddy.
“What is it, dear?”
“Would it be possible for me to borrow some kind of work frock from you and get Gabriel cleaned up? I hate seeing him covered in mud and matted like this.”
She nodded. “Of course! I tried to give him a bath after Kieran let him out for a walk this morning, but he wouldn’t go anywhere near the water.”
“Thanks for trying, anyway. I might need your help to get him cleaned up.”
“I’m happy to help, Lauren.”
Gabriel was one hundred percent cute and sweet, until Wynne and I started trying to clean him up.
“Holy crap,” I yelped as he wriggled violently. “This is like Gremlins, only nobody warned me not to get him wet or feed him after midnight!”
Wynne stared at me for a moment. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“It was a movie reference.”
Wynne tilted her head and her brow furrowed. “Movie?”
“Never mind. Let’s just get Gabriel cleaned up, and I’ll try to explain afterward.”
Wynne nodded, a grim set to her mouth. “Right. You hold him and try to keep him calm, since he’s your dog, and I’ll do the cleaning. Deal?”
I returned her nod and knelt in front of the dog, stroking Gabriel’s back. “Deal. Just let me talk to him first, okay?”
Wynne looked at me like I had three heads, but she didn’t argue, so I turned my attention to Gabriel. I looked him in the eye and saw fear and distrust for the first time. Obviously, he wasn’t a fan of water.
“I need you to listen to me, Gabriel.”
The dog’s ears pricked up and he tilted his head as if agreeing to my request.
“Maybe this isn’t something we should have sprung on you out of nowhere without explaining ourselves first, but you need a bath.”
He lowered his head and whimpered as if begging us not to do it.
“Gabriel, honey, I don’t know how else to explain this to you…you kind of stink. All we want to do is clean you up a little. You’ll feel better, I promise.”
He shot me a long, reproachful look, but he sat down, burying his face in my shoulder. When I looked up at Wynne to give her the go-ahead to start washing him, she was staring open-mouthed at us both.
“I don’t bloody believe it. You just reasoned with a dog. Is that something you can do with all animals?”
I shook my head, laughing. “Heavens, no. It’s just him. I think Gabriel’s a very special dog.”
His tail started wagging, and Wynne shook her head. “Special, indeed. I’ve never seen anything like the two of you. I’ve heard stories, handed down from ancient times, about powerful mages and their familiars, but I never would have believed such a connection to be possible if I hadn’t borne witness to what you just did.”
I shook my head. “I’m no mage. I don’t know what kind of connection it is that Gabriel and I have, but it certainly isn’t that sort of thing. At least, I don’t think so. I don’t have a magical bone in my body.”
Wynne shrugged, gently rinsing the soap out of Gabriel’s fur. “It was just a thought.”
“Right,” I nodded, rubbing Gabriel’s ears to keep him calm. “You’re doing great, buddy. We’re almost done.” His tail gave a feeble wag at my words, and I stroked my hands down his sides, trying to still his shaking. I shielded his eyes while Wynne cleaned his head and ears and let out a sigh of relief when she passed me a cloth to start drying him with.
I rubbed his fur until the cloth couldn’t absorb any more water, and Wynne passed me a second one. After a few more minutes of labored work, I spread the damp cloth out on the stone floor, and Gabriel rolled around on it. Wynne and I both laughed as he flopped over and started scrubbing his face and ears against it.
“All better, Gabe?”
His bark echoed around the hot springs cavern, and I chuckled. “Good. Come on, then. I suppose we should find Kieran.”
The dog snorted and shook himself until all his fur was standing out, and Wynne’s tinkling laugh filled the room.
“I don’t think he agrees with you. Why don’t we take Gabriel back out? I’m sure he needs to relieve himself again.”
Gabriel’s ears perked up, his tail wagged, and he barked.
“I think he agrees with you.”
“The fresh air will do us all good, anyway. Kieran will find you if he needs you, and in the meantime, you can explain this ‘movie’ thing to me.”
I shrugged. “I suppose I can try.”
“Good.” The redhead beamed at me and laced her arm through mine, leading me outside as Gabriel trotted along beside us.
“So,” Wynne started, not bothering to hide her curiosity, “What are movies? How do they work?”
I shrugged, struggling to find the right words for a world that was not nearly as technologically advanced as Earth. “Movies are moving pictures.”
“Like paintings?” Wynne’s fascination was instantaneous.
“Some of them are drawn, but most are recordings of real people, and they have sound, too. Well, some of them do. There are silent movies, too.”
“But, what is their purpose?”
“Entertainment, mostly. A way to suspend your disbelief for a little while and just enjoy the fiction playing out on the screen.”
“Screen? And why aren’t they about real things?”
I chuckled and shook my head. “Some movies are about real things. I just don’t like those, most of the time. As for the screen, it’s the device that you can view the movie on.”
Wynne bit her lip and blushed. “I’m still not sure I understand.”
“Wait a minute. I may have enough battery left on my iPod to show you.”
I pulled my iPod Classic out of my jeans pocket and handed her the earbuds. "Put the one with ’R’ on it in your right ear and the one with ’L’ on it in your left ear. Try to prepare yourself a little, because it might be a bit startling to you."
"I’m ready." Wynne nodded, excitement at learning something about new technology shining from her green eyes.
I used the wheel to scroll to one of my favorite movies, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and pressed play. Wynne jumped a little as the sound started pouring from the earbuds, but her eyes remained focused on the tiny screen. Her fascination was more than obvious, it was palpable.
"You like it?"
"This is the most wonderful magic I’ve ever seen!"
I couldn’t help laughing. "It’s not magic, Wynne. It’s technology."
"Yes. It runs on electricity, like lightning, but harnessed, so it’s safe. Unfortunately, I don’t have any way to recharge it so it will run out of power soon."
Wynne bit her lip, obviously not wanting to stop watching the movie. "I am almost certain that Sam could work a spell on it to ’recharge’ it, as you say."
"Really? You think he could do that?"
The redhead nodded enthusiastically. "He may be a cad and a bum, but he’s a very magically talented bum who’s had years of training in spell creation. I’m almost positive he can help you if you ask him, and then, perhaps, I could finish watching the movie?"
I grinned. "If Sam can recharge it, you are more than welcome to finish watching the movie. It’s one of my favorites for a reason."
Wynne stared at the ground as we approached the fortress doors. I hadn’t even realized, until that moment, that we’d come full circle around the entire courtyard.
"What is it, Wynne? You sound troubled."
"Do you think that this ’technology’ can help save us."
I ran a hand through my hair and shrugged. "It might be possible, but I don’t know how it would. Not yet, anyway. Maybe I should talk to Sam about what kind of magic he’s capable of working."