Under the Oak Tree - chapter 184
Riftan made her lie face down against the blankets and drew a clean cloth and a canteen of water from his bag with a grim expression. Max looked down in embarrassment as he drenched the cloth and began to wipe the sweat off her legs. The cold towel gently cooled her burning skin. He meticulously cleaned her thighs, calves, and even her feet. Then, he picked up the small bottle of oil and pulled the cork out with his teeth. As the slippery liquid slid down her skin, Max’s toes curled. Riftan pressed the center of her feet’s soles with his thumb then slowly moved his hands up to massage her taut calves. Max groaned in pain.
“If I don’t press your muscles, you won’t be able to move when morning comes.”
He relentlessly loosened her tight muscles. All Max could do was stifle her groan as she buried her face in the thick blanket. The pain was so immense that she couldn’t even afford to be ashamed of her current state.
Riftan massaged her calves sufficiently regardless of her pain and applied peppermint-scented oil on her thighs. Max tried to pull away when his rough palms swept down the scorching skin near her private area.
“I… I’m really fine now. Riftan, you must be exhausted too…” Before she could finish, he sighed deeply and pulled her underwear down to her knees. “Ri-Riftan!!”
“Stay still. We have to apply this medicine or else it will be difficult for you to ride on horseback tomorrow.”
“I’ll a-apply it! I can do it so…!”
“What are you so ashamed of?” He huffed and shifted his weight lightly on her thighs to prevent her from wriggling. “Stop exhausting yourself and lie down still. I’m not going to do anything strange.”
Riftan was determined to finish his task. He poured a generous amount of oil onto his palms and began massaging her bare bottom in a circular motion. Max’s ears burned as she clutched the covers tightly. It was so embarrassing to be touched in a clear state of mind, especially right after yelling to everyone that she would become their healer during the expedition. Yet there she was now, the one receiving treatment. It was pathetic.
Still Riftan, oblivious to her inner dilemma, silently applied the peppermint oil to her bruised flesh, and placed her underwear back on when her tight muscles were loosened enough.
“…I’m going to check if the meal is ready. I’ll bring it to you, so lie down and rest.” He murmured in a strained voice as he rubbed the back of his neck. His face was a little red, probably due to being crammed into the little tent. Max simply nodded and pulled up her trousers.
He let out a heavy breath and walked out of the tent with a slight limp from bending his knees too long, while she dropped onto the covers feeling like a pile of soggy noodles, completely exhausted. Max felt shame and pain colliding during Riftan’s massage, but the muscle pain had significantly subsided. She rubbed the parts of her body that he had touched, then crossed her arms and closed her eyes for a moment. Riftan did not return until the orange sunset turned into a blue night.
“I’ve brought smoked ham from the campfire. Here’s some bread to go with it.”
He placed the wooden tray next to her: there was a thick slice of sizzling oil-glazed ham, three fist-sized loaves of bread, a block of cheese, and a canteen of wine. Riftan pulled out a dagger and began cutting the food into smaller pieces for Max, who quickly scooped up the food and popped it into her mouth. The food was definitely much humbler compared to the food in the castle, but she was so hungry that it tasted more delicious than anything else.
“Should I bring you more?”
Riftan asked bluntly upon seeing her shove food down hungrily. Max shook her head, but she almost emptied the tray. Her body felt like a thousand pounds as her belly began to swell and she felt drowsy. Max immediately fell asleep in the blink of an eye, completely forgetting the fact that they were camping in the middle of Anatol mountains that were full of monsters.
The next day, the knights began packing their belongings in preparation for their departure even before the sun had risen. Max also got ready in a hurry and climbed into her saddle. There was no time to wash her face, let alone brush her hair. Fortunately, her butt didn’t hurt as much as she feared it would, courtesy to Riftan’s massage. However, keeping up with the knights was still too overwhelming.
Yulysion helped her navigate the dark mountain path and the lurking knights were constantly on high alert, moving only faster, not slowing down even for a moment. When they reached the foot of the mountain, they slowed down and Max could hardly ask.
“Why do they look so t-tense… I… haven’t seen any monsters at all.”
Garrow, who was traveling beside her, shook his head. “The monsters that inhabit Anatol possess a certain level of intelligence. When large armies pass by, they are intelligent enough to stay hidden in order to survive. They tend to watch from a distance. Last night, I heard from some of the knights that a few forest goblins tried to steal our food supply”.
Yulysion quickly intervened when he saw her face turn a deep blue hue. “Don’t worry. The knights on duty immediately noticed and took care of them.”
“Was anyone h-hurt?”
“Of course not! Forest goblins can’t even hope to scratch a Remdragon knight!”
Yulysion lifted his chin indignantly, as if her words were insulting. Still, Max worried and inspected the knights in the front lines. Everyone calmly rode their horses without a sign of exhaustion. She looked ahead and tried to find Riftan, buried among the big bulky knights, but she quickly gave up and concentrated on driving her horse across the bumpy mountain road.
They finally made it out of the Anatol Mountain ranges after the sun rose high in the sky. They took a short break near a stream that flowed through the meadow. The attending gentlemen tended to the horses, while others began to distribute the food for a late breakfast.
Max quickly washed her face as Rem took a drink by the stream. She wet her neck and pulled out her comb to tame her wild hair. She almost gave up on detangling her hair, but once she was done, she put it in a braid and walked back to the field.
Yulysion handed her an apple and a piece of bread.
“You must be hungry? Please eat this for now. We will have a more decent meal prepared in the evening. We cannot afford to waste time cooking food over fire during the day as we need to travel as quickly as possible.”
“No… not at all… this is good enough.”
She quickly accepted the food and suddenly Yulysion concentrated on her outstretched palms.
“Your hands are red! Did you hurt yourself?”
“It’s because of… the reins.”
She smiled like it was nothing, not realizing how seriously Yulysion was studying the sharp red burns on her palms.
“It looks painful, shouldn’t you get treatment?”
“No… this is nothing…”
“It doesn’t seem so! It’s so swollen…”
Garrow, who was feeding the horses, hurriedly ran towards them as he heard the worried voice of his friend. He thrusted his head between the two of them and looked at her palms as well with a frown.
“Yulysion is right. It will only get worse and you’ll suffer the whole journey. Wouldn’t it be better to cast healing magic on it?”
“I-It’s fine. I don’t need to apply magic to my own body… It’s c-comparable to drinking your own blood when you’re thirsty. Unless it’s fatal, it’s better to let it heal naturally… and… I want to save as much mana as possible.”
“But still, you’re hurting…”
Max sighed at their fuss and sat down on the cape laid down on the grass.
“Really, I’m f-fine… Even if I cast a healing spell… my hands will turn out like this as long as I ride a horse. I can’t heal myself every time. So even if it’s difficult, it’s better to let the body adjust…” She confidently showed them the hands. “If this continues, calluses will inevitably d-develop in a few days. When my palms become rough… it won’t hurt anymore no matter how far I ride on a h-horseback.”
Yulysion had a complicated expression as he looked at her hand, thinking of a solution. Then, he hurriedly went to his bags tied around his saddle and searched through them.
“For now, please use these.”
Max looked at the leather gloves he held out in front of her. “Didn’t… you didn’t bring them for yourself, Yu-Yulysion?”
“I brought it just in case. I don’t need it so please use it without worrying about me.”
Max was hesitant but accepted the gloves. To be honest, her palms were sore. She reached into the soft, tan gloves, but on her diminutive figure, the large gloves just fell off, leaving enough room for another hand.
“Yulysion… your hands are bigger than they appear…” Max commented as she noticed how long his fingers were compared to hers. She was amazed at the sight. Despite the fact that the young apprentice had a delicate face and a slender body, he was still a man. Yulysion blushed and scratched the part behind his head in embarrassment then he pulled a leather string out of his bag.
“I’ll secure it to your wrists. It’ll be a huge problem if it comes off while you’re riding on horseback.”
Max wordlessly raised her hands and allowed Yulysion awkwardly tie a piece of rope around her wrists.
“Isn’t it too tight?”
“…It’s perfect”. She waved her hands a few times to prove it and smiled satisfactorily “Th-Thank you. I’ll use it…well.”
“It’s no big deal.”
Max finished her food with her gloved hands. She looked at Riftan, who was reading a map and discussing routes with the other knights at a distance. After he finished issuing orders, he refolded the map and tucked it in his bag. She sat there, waiting for him to come over and talk to her; however, he only frowned slightly and turned his attention to saddling Talon for departure. Max’s eyes casted downwards at his disgruntled attitude.
After how he cared for her yesterday, she thought things between them would go back to normal. But was he still mad at her for disobeying him and clinging tightly to the expedition? Max contemplated breaking through the wall first and talking to him, but before she could finish thinking, Riftan had already mounted his horse and shouted coldly.
“Don’t sit idle. We have to start moving now. From here on we enter the territories of the half dragons. Never let your guard down, even for a second!”
The knights mounted their horses and formed up, so Max quickly jumped on Rem as well. Riftan, who was in the lead, turned to see how she was doing, then led his horse across the plain at the speed of light.
They traveled along the stream as they combed the lush green field like a wind. Max couldn’t help but smile when she felt the cool, refreshing breeze pleasantly caress her face. She knew this was not the time to ride enjoyably, but that was her first time running her horse so freely across an open plain. Her heart was so overwhelmed beyond comparison to the horrible mountain road from before.
She looked around with dazzling eyes. The sky was clear and cloudless and the deep blue stream flowing through the wild fields sparkled like crystals. Under the nourishing early summer sun, the wildflowers bloomed vibrantly, displaying their vitality. The landscape around her was so peaceful that she couldn’t believe an army of vicious monsters were currently in the move.