Max felt the heat from Riftan’s body, his chin making contact with her unruly hair as he locked an arm around her neck. She had the strangest inkling: thinking he did it because he thought she was cold, and peeked at him from beneath her eyelashes, at a loss what to do.

True to his words, no one paid attention to their closeness; perhaps they pretended not to. Still, Max wasn’t thick-faced enough to be so close to a man... even if it were her husband.

Her tongue mustered the proper words to say, wary of his possible ire. “I-I’m okay. I, I mean... ju-just be a little further away...”

“You’re troubling her. Please be considerate.”

Max raised her head at the sudden voice that interrupted them. Not only was it an ordinary disruption, but a subordinate berating Riftan, their supposed captain. She found that it came from a slender young man, appearing to be in his early twenties, standing three or four steps away with a small lamp in his hand.

“Don’t be nosy, Ruth. Leave.” Riftan sighed, almost impatiently.

Unfazed by his cold reception, Ruth managed to reply coolly. “How long are you going to keep growling like a barbarian. I’m not going to bother you, so you can cease doing that.”

At such brazen words, Max’s eyes opened wide in surprise. The man who relentlessly engaged in speaking against Riftan caught sight of her gaze, and this time his sights turned towards her. Feeling as if he had seen her doing something discourteous, Max stood up in a hurry.

As if held by a string, Riftan followed after her, sitting up reluctantly. “...what’s your business?” he finally said, his tone a tad milder than before.

“I brought it,” he raised the glowing light, “because I thought you’d be cold.” Although the ‘you’ in question was left unspoken, it was obvious it was Max he was referring.

His hands then dived for the pockets in his sides, rummaging for quite some time before taking it out again. Tiny pebbles that emitted soft lights lit the man’s palm. Upon seeing it, Max felt tranquility wrap around her.

The lights grew nearer with the man’s steps. “The Manastone of Fire. It’s a spell to keep you warm. Here, take it and keep it close to you,” he said.

Max instantly felt flustered, “M-me... Sir, this is for me?”

She couldn’t keep off the surprise from showing at the unexpected kindness, making the man’s eyebrows raise in turn.

“Who else? The people gathered here are strong men who can even stay naked under the resilient frost,” he spat out with a careless attitude, not caring one bit if it were a woman on the receiving end of his words.

He then continued explaining, “But you’re different. It looks like you don’t have much stamina either... In any case, it’ll be my responsibility if you catch a cold here. Think of it as a preventive measure.”

Upon hearing she could be a burden, Max accepted it into her hands without another word. Warm air gently enveloped her whole body as soon as the stone was in her hands, just as he had explained. For a moment when she was merely staring at the stone in wonder, she soon realized that she had not yet thanked him for his generosity.

Her head raised in panic. “Th-thank you... S-sir, sir Ruth.”

The man’s taciturn countenance softened at her mumbled gratitude. “I am not a knight but a wizard. You may call me Ruth,” he said.

The man then turned and went back to his seat on the other side, as if finished with whatever purpose he had. Riftan, who had been watching their exchange in silence, laid back down and pulled her with him. Max could feel the tremor in his touch and the nervousness that came with it.

“You’re tired.” He started, “Go to sleep. We’ll leave tomorrow as soon as the first light of dawn breaks.”

Riftan’s hand then moved to turn off the light from the oil lamp placed by his side. As if the other knights had been waiting for him, the lights in the room extinguished in dominoes, submerging the place in gloomy darkness. Max, who was wriggling uncomfortably in the man’s arms, could not endure the terrible fatigue that came and closed her eyes.

The steady drumming from the chest her cheek was in contact with sounds much of a lullaby. And instantly, her worries of sleeping in such quarters faded, replaced only by a deep slumber.

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As morning descended, what was once the creepy semblance of the village from last night was gone, replaced by a lively glow. Before one’s eyes, a beautiful panoramic view of the Yudical forest lay beyond the row of huts like a backdrop. Unending golden fields of wheat stretched before her sight, moving like ocean waves on a calm morning.

Max left the warehouse to wash her face with the only stream available. In the early morning, the water was chilly enough almost to freeze her hands. She wet her long, tangled hair like a vine with it, the cool breeze kissing her damp face, and making her spine erupt in goosebumps at the slight wind.

Finding little efforts for grooming could be done, Max returned to the warehouse, carefully wiping the water off her face with the sleeves of her dress. She saw the knights had already gathered in front of the carriage upon her return, ready for departure.

Riftan was the first to catch sight of her. “Hey, don’t go around alone.”

“I-I’m sorry.” At his stern voice, she dropped her head and rushed forward. Riftan then lifted her to the carriage, his frown still in place, as if he still had a lecture for her.

And as expected, he then added, “Don’t ever act on your own. The Yudical woods house a lot of monsters.”

Max trembled, recalling the horrendous beings she had seen on the first day. However, it was her helplessness against their attacks that made her shake in fear.

“Ye-yes, I’ll be careful.”