Alright, for this section I actually have no specific comments to make. It's very well written and paced. The descriptions are vivid and the characters remain faithful to the personalities you've given them. My concern here would be regarding the plot (which might be due to the format we've been using until now). First of all: it seems too fast for them to be crossing into another country on foot. This can be solved by adding a couple of hints here and there as to their relative location on a map or something, but it seems to me that either they're moving too fast or perhaps I don't feel a strong footing regarding time to be able to relate time and distance travelled. Also, (again, might be due to the short fragments and the lapse between them) do we know anything about Rhia's true mission? Sure, she's on the run because her country lies in ashes and -throwing a wild guess here- she is fleeing to keep the Sword safe. But where is she headed and why? Does she perhaps want revenge? And what about Sommir and Makki? Seems to be they're just being dragged around by Rhia. i believe clarfying those points would make it easier for us to get a firmer grasp on the story and the characters. Otherwise, excellent job as usual.
Salt Well was a stone mining town, built entirely of wood. The clustered buildings were neat, sturdy, but the constant abrasion of the dust scoured away any hint of paint. Makki counted: thirty two. In the background the Yellow Sand Mountains rose from behind the horizon, tall enough that the last flickers of sunset painted a tide line on their broken peaks.
“Barely a village.” Sommir said from beside him and rapped his knuckles against the large wooden sign washed stone grey by sun and dirt. ‘Township of Salt Well’ had been carved in letters a finger deep.
“I’ll speak to the mayor; get him to rename it.” Makki replied.
“Assuming this place has a mayor.” Sommir said.
“Not a Mayor – an Overseer.” The Princess rode up, nudging her crisp white mare between their horses. She did that a lot, Makki noted, forced them to talk to her or over her, whether they intended to or not. “These mining townships are built and administrated by prospectors - businessmen. Size depends on the quality of the trade. Judging by this, the Overseer isn’t particularly profitable. Closer to the mountains you’ll see towns ten times this size.”
“Visited Mekbarim often, Princess.” Sommir joked.
“Knowledge of other nations is a prerequisite of my position, soldier, as making corpses is yours. One of us learned something.” Rhiharu snapped back. Sommir shrugged his big shoulders.
“You learn a lot about a people by how they fight.”
“And you learn more through diplomacy.” She countered. “What we need here won’t be achieved at the end of a blade.” Makki rolled his eyes. The little conversation they made was littered with the Princess’s disgust at, and misunderstanding of, Sommir’s humour.
“We should head down, find an inn. Or a hayloft at least.” He said before Sommir could answer. “The horses won’t go another hour at this pace.”
Princess Rhiaru nodded and led them down the slope towards the town. Ahead, in the eastern sky, the first stars floated like cold sparks from the fire kissed mountaintops. The dusty earth was painted with dusk shadows, long and deep in the hollows in the land. There was little grass, less trees, as the rough plains of north Mekbarim gave ways to the barren, sandy foothills of the Yellow Sand Mountains.
“Can’t you at least watch your tongue a bit?” He whispered, hanging far enough behind the Princess as not to be heard. “You may not have a General or Captain looking over your shoulder, but she is still our Sovereign.” Sommir settled his shoulders as though his armour had grown suddenly heavy.
“A Princess of no Kingdom.” Sommir said, words so bitter sharp Makki felt them stab him.
“She still commands our respect.” There was a long pause, filled only with the muffled thud of hooves.
“You’re right, Sir.” Sommir said.
“Don’t ‘Sir’ me. Not now, not ever.” Melu stirred against his chest, cradled between his arms. She had been in the comfortable folds of sleep all day, waking only to take a few sips of water. The silence grew, thickened with hurt. “I’m not chiding you, Sommir. It’s just small barbs grow into thick gorse given enough time, and us three, the last of Kavernath, must hold together.” Sommir puffed out his cheeks.
“Sorry, Makki.” He said. “Kavernath’s gone and the world has been pulled from beneath my feet, but all I can think of is we can’t conduct border patrols without any borders. And now...now...” Makki laid a hand on his friend’s slumped shoulder.
“I know, me too. And the Princess will feel the same way.” The cloud over them remained, but it no longer felt so bruised. Together they rode into Salt Well out of the burgeoning night.
Lamps burned in most of the buildings. They rode past a smith working in the grim, thick, red light of his forge, the tink tink tink of his hammer syncopated with the horse’s footsteps. Most others were residential; a few of the townsfolk sat in chairs on porches, smoking pipes, watching them pass. Almost to a man they were weather-beaten, as scoured by the sun and wind as the facades of their homes. No one spoke. Pipe embers burned darkly. A few sat with families, but most kept a company of none.
A broad thoroughfare clove through the centre of Salt Well, houses a double row on either side. At the far end Makki heard the first real sounds of life. Rich lamplight and the quiet burble of voices spilled from with three sets of windows flanking a wide door. Makki knew an inn when he saw one.
“Lieutenant.” Princess Rhiharu drew rein by the hitching post, on the edge of the light. “You and Sommir do the talking. There may be some merchant or slaver who pays too much attention to politics. Those tend to see profit in many things.”
“Melu will place us as surely as any description of Kavernath’s youngest heir.” He said. Salt Well seemed a haven from the open rolling scrubland. Now they had arrived, the town loomed over them. A thousand misplaced words or gestures hid in the alleys, in darkened windows, waiting to give them away. Makki suddenly yearned for the exposed plains where trouble only ever appeared on the horizon.
“It’s not unheard of for Dragon Riders to go mercenary. And that’s assuming anyone could tell between Etherlings. There are several breeds in Mekbarim alone.” She dismounted with the elegance of one well tutored and well practiced. “Besides, the more attention they pay you, the less they pay me.”
Makki bit his tongue and took a deep breath. He was here to protect her, and if that meant laying suspicion on himself – he was sure he wouldn’t put on a convincing show for anyone – so be it. But by the Blessed Hand he felt foolish. He took a lingering, longing look at the empty, unpopulated darkness outside town.
“As you say, your Highness.” He hitched his horse to the rail and settled Melu into his arms. Sommir shouldered both packs and Rhiharu clutched a bedroll, using it to hide the ornate sword on her hip. Makki took a long breath and lead them through the wide doors of the inn.