The sound of creaking wood and rattling wheels shook Caleb out of a restless sleep – he’d spent the night running through endless dark forests and threatening chasms, chasing after a glowing red star that pulsed and thudded like a beating heart, always just out of reach. For a brief, confused moment he didn’t remember where he was. Then the events of the last evening hit him, with almost physical force.
He’d left home. He’d joined a mercenary company. And now he and a group of people he’d barely even met were heading off to seek a magical talisman which was entirely probably a myth and, if it wasn’t, was likely held somewhere or guarded by something horrifically dangerous.
He felt a broad grin start slowly spreading across his face. He was finally, actually, honestly having an adventure.
Something soft thudded into his face – he opened one eye to find Tam sitting crosslegged opposite him on the floor of the wagon (an unfamiliar floor, which meant he was likely in the other wagon he’d seen last night), readying another pillow in her hand. She grinned. “Morning. You slept longer than I’d expect, for a farmboy.”
He grimaced, sitting up and wiping the last of the sleep out of his eyes. “Weird dreams.”
Tam frowned. “Sorry. Probably should have warned you about that.” She looked back down the wagon towards the bed at the far end, where the still form of the Captain lay covered by an incongruously bright red wool blanket. “You’re one of us now, which means you’ll probably have the same dreams. The red star, right?”
He nodded. “It kept… I almost had my hand on it, and then suddenly it was just out of reach again.”
“And again and again and again. I know.” She shivered, in a way that had nothing to do with the temperature of the wagon. “It’s been happening since we crossed the border. Always the same dream, every night. And it’s all of us. Even Kitten.” She must have noticed his slight confusion as to his surroundings, because she added somewhat hastily: “Sorry about moving you last night. You fell asleep on the floor of Talan’s wagon, and it’s not safe sleeping there – if we’re going over bumpy roads, there’s too much of a chance something might fall on you. Your pack’s with my kit at the back, so don’t worry on that front.”
Well, that made a kind of sense. He took a more detailed look around, noticing immediately that, compared to Talan’s beautiful jewellery box, this particular wagon was practically drab – though compared to the farmhouse back home, it was a riot of colour and decoration. The beams were painted a bright red, and red and gold traceries danced across the ceiling, but instead of colourful bottles and racks of herbs, the walls were lined with clothing and armour hanging from hooks or piled on the floor.
The very back held the Captain’s bed, with a curtain hanging from the ceiling which could be pulled across to hide the space it occupied from the rest of the interior, giving at least a little privacy. Further forward, mats on the floor (including the one he was currently lying on) offered sleeping for a fair number of people, and a pile of brightly coloured blankets and pillows tangled in one corner suggested that even on cold nights the wagon would be a comfortable place to bed down.
Aside from the Captain, he and Tam were the only current occupants – and given his new friend’s general demeanour, he didn’t think that the place was likely to belong to her. Which meant that he had very little idea who he should be thanking for their hospitality.
“Whose wagon is this?”
Something of his surprise must have shown in his face, because she laughed, and then looked around the wagon as though she’d never seen it before. “Huh! I guess if you don’t know him, it really wouldn’t be that obvious.”
“I’m not sure I-”
“Let me guess. You think he’s dark and mysterious and brooding, right?”
Much as he didn’t exactly want to admit it, she’d hit the nail on the head with that guess. “Might do.”
“Thing is, you’re about halfway right. He doesn’t like people, he sits in corners and gets grumpy, and he doesn’t talk much. But he’s also… well, this.” She waved a hand, encompassing the interior of the wagon. “And he’s Kitten’s dad, so that counts for something.”
“He is?” He’d not guessed that. Though, admittedly, he’d not actually exchanged words with Rethan yet. Or even seen what he looked like under his hood.
“Aye. Been raising her on his own since his wife passed – back, what, four years ago now? The rest of us help out, but she’s very much his daughter.” She blew out a breath. “Speaking of… Ahoy, Rethan!”
“Aye?” The voice wasn’t at all what Caleb had been expecting – baritone, and rough around the edges, but with a kind of warmth to it that sat oddly with the mental image he had of the dark figure from the night before. “What do you need?”
“The farmboy’s awake. You want to say hello?”
Rethan gave a somewhat long-suffering sounding sigh. “I’m driving, Tamarind. If he comes out here, I’ll make an effort to be sociable.”
“And that’s about as good as you’re going to get from him.” She ran a hand through her cropped hair, spiking it up in a way that he thought was probably accidental. “We should get out of here before we wake the Captain up, anyway.”
Even having been part of the company for less than a full day, Caleb was already getting an idea of how badly that could possibly end. He nodded, scrambling to his feet and making his way carefully down the length of the wagon towards the open door, following Tam’s lead.
Outside, the sun was already shining bright through the canopy, the wind rustling the leaves of the trees as they passed. The road they were currently on wound ahead through a tunnel of green, dappled patches of shadow making pools of darkness on the dust of the track and speckling the hides of the horses with mottled patterning that made them look almost eldritch in the green-tinged light.
Ahead of Rethan’s wagon the twins rode side by side, engaged, as they had been the night before, in what seemed to be an interminable half-joking argument. Behind came Talan’s wagon, brightly painted and glittering with decoration, and then Ariane and Dana, riding together and talking quietly, with Dana keeping half an eye on the track behind them as she rode.
And on the bench at the front of Rethan’s wagon sat the wagon’s owner himself – still hooded, still gloved, with the reins of the harness in his hands and Kitten sitting happily between his boots, dangling her bare feet over the edge of the footboard and humming quietly to herself.
“All yours,” Tam said, from somewhere behind Caleb’s shoulder. She grinned, and shoved him towards the hooded figure. “Go say hello.”
And there wasn’t really anything else he could do but comply.
Copyright © 2018 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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