Tam poked her head round the door, face breaking into a relieved grin as she caught sight of Caleb. “Ahoy, farmboy! You’re looking terrible.”
He laughed, then winced as the pain in his ribs flared. “I feel worse.”
“Ai selah!” She pushed her way into the wagon, flopping down crosslegged next to him on the cushion-covered floor. “For what it’s worth, you weren’t bad out there. Even with the whole throwing-yourself-off-the-wagon thing.”
He grimaced, clutching the blankets tighter around his chest. “I didn’t exactly choose to do that. It just… sort of happened.”
“Y’know, I didn’t reckon it was a particularly thought-out tactic. Effective, though.” She laughed. “I don’t think she know what hit her.”
“Me. Apparently.” And there was that sick feeling again, twisting deep in his belly. “She’s dead, isn’t she?”
Tam nodded. “Broken neck.”
“Oh.” It was what he’d expected, but somehow it was still painful to hear. “I didn’t mean to-”
“Don’t waste your pity. She was scum.” Tam’s face was flushed, her voice heavier with anger than he’d yet heard it. “Whole pile of bodies in the woods. Half of ’em didn’t even have sheaths for belt-knives. More than half of ’em didn’t have any defensive wounds – just slit throats.” And, seeing the blank look on his face: “They held ’em up. They stole from ’em. And then, when they were defenceless and unresisting and no harm to anyone, they executed ’em.”
He should have realised. Nobody’d ever said bandits were nice, after all. And everyone knew what they did to farms and outlying villages – everyone had a cousin, or a friend, or a child who’d gone out to settle the wilder parts of the country and then the letters had stopped coming, and the king’s patrols had been sent out, and then the reports had come in of burned out buildings and corpses hanging from trees, and…
But somehow he’d not managed to make the connection between the rumours and stories and half-whispered descriptions of shadowy horrors and the flesh-and-blood girl with the rusted breastplate and the broken nose.
Broken neck, now. Because of him.
He was starting to feel a little less bad about that.
Talan, who’d slipped out earlier in the conversation, returned, carrying the now clean and empty metal bowl. They set it down on the worktable with an audible thud, causing the two younger members of the company to look up at them. “Much as I hate to distract the two of you, food’s about to be served.” They frowned, considering something. “Caleb, you can eat in the wagon if your ribs are still painful.”
He probably ought to say yes. But he couldn’t hide in here forever – if nothing else, he should go and thank Rethan for pulling him out of the fight – and the longer he stayed away from the rest of the group, the more awkward it was going to be when he inevitably had to make conversation with them. If he was going to be part of this company, he’d have to start by actually getting to know the rest of its members.
But equally well, he wasn’t going out there without binding his chest.
He looked down at the binding-shirt Talan had handed him, trying to work out how it was supposed to function (and whether he was going to be able to put it on without help). “I think- I think I’d like to eat with everyone else.” He could hardly ask Talan to leave their own wagon, but at the same time, he wasn’t about to go shirtless in front of them. “Though I need to put on clothes first.”
Talan nodded. “Tam, let’s you and I go and help dish up.” They turned to Caleb. “Everyone’s by the fire, when you’re ready. You can’t miss it.”
“See you out there.” Tam winked. “If it’s Ariane cooking for us, you’re in for a treat. She makes the best damn stew I’ve ever tasted.”
And then the two of them were gone, leaving Caleb alone with his thoughts, his bruises, and his newly-acquired underwear.
Slowly, carefully, he sat up and dropped the blankets away from his chest, hissing as the the movement jarred his still-tender ribs. Someone – Talan, presumably – had wrapped a bandage around his lower torso, holding a pad of linen containing something warm and soft tight against the right-hand side of his ribcage; the pad gave off a strong but not unpleasant smell of herbs when he prodded it experimentally with one finger.
The binding shirt went on easily enough, though his ribs protested when he tightened the lacing on the sides, and he had to admit that it was significantly more comfortable than his bandages had been – though he couldn’t pull it entirely as tight as he’d have liked, given his bruises. The heavy canvas flattened his chest more than he’d expected it to, though, and the whole thing, though slightly too big on him, generally fitted better than he’d thought it would.
His shirt and the leather jerkin Tam had lent him were in a neatly folded pile next to the mattress he’d been lying on – he pulled them both on, belted them in place, and painfully levered himself to his feet. The world spun upsettingly around him for a few moments, and he almost fell, but he leaned hard against the wall and waited until the dizziness subsided before making his slow, tentative way towards the door.
It was dark outside.
He blinked, rubbed his eyes, and stared up at the scraps of star-flecked sky visible through the black latticework of the canopy. He’d not been unconscious for that long, surely?
The wagons weren’t on the road any more: instead, they’d been parked in a clearing deeper in the woods. A small thicket of tents had sprung up around them, encircling a large fire which in turn was surrounded by silhouetted figures – the rest of the party, comfortably chatting amongst themselves and eating what smelled like the best lamb stew Caleb’d ever encountered.
As he watched, one of the figures got to their feet, and a clear alto voice rose over the buzz of conversation. He didn’t recognise the language of the song, but the tune was an old one – a drinking song, that told of adventure and mystery and the lure of travel – and other voices soon rose to join the first, baritone, soprano and tenor weaving a tapestry of sound that seemed to surround the campsite in an almost-visible blanket of warmth and companionship.
He suddenly felt very very alone.
He was about to turn around and go back into the wagon when a voice broke from the singing, calling out to him across the darkened clearing. “Ahoy! Farmboy!”
There was a pause in the song, and then the chatter resumed – but this time, it was directed his way. Voices layered on top of one another – questions about his health, offers of food, jokes about how long he’d been asleep – and he found himself half-unconsciously drawn towards the fire, accepting a plate of food and a spoon, and being sat down with his back against a bundle of canvas and a blanket over his knees and told in no uncertain terms that if he wanted anything, all he had to do was ask.
“Thank you,” he managed, once his mind had caught up with his body. He wasn’t sure who he was saying it to, but it hardly seemed to matter – pretty much everyone around the fire immediately reassured him that it’d been no trouble at all, and Kitten signed something fast and enthusiastic and then, to the amusement of the rest of the company, promptly marched over and ensconced herself under the blanket next to him, carefully leaning her head against the unbruised side of his ribcage.
“Try the stew!” Tam offered from across the fire, words blurred around a mouthful of bread.
He did as he was told. It was, as she’d promised, mouthwateringly good, seasoned with spices he’d never tasted before, and heavy with rich, good meat. The company must be rich, to afford such fare, but they sat and et and drank and sang like all the folk he’d known back home, laughing and joking with each other as though they were family.
And, he realised suddenly, laughing and joking with him as though he were part of that family. Never mind that he’d only known them a day. Never mind that he was from a completely different country and, it seemed, a completely different culture. He’d shed blood with them, he’d promised himself to them, and he was one of them. Simple as that.
And it felt good.
Copyright © 2018 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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