It was raining when they set off the next day, pale sunlight barely piercing the thick grey clouds that rolled across the washed-out sky. Heavy droplets pelted the arched roofs of the wagons, running down the brightly-painted ribs to spatter onto the clinging white mud of the roadway, and even the green light filtering through the trees had taken on a sickly cast, blotching the faces of the company with bruised-looking smudges of shadow.
They’d spent the morning finishing the job of clearing the road, and Caleb’s boots and trews were splattered up to the thigh with mud and muck from the task – though he’d fared better than Kala, who’d slipped and fallen in the rut left by the tree and ended up covered head to foot with filth. She’d made an attempt to get the worst of it off her face and hands, but her leathers were stained several shades lighter, and before she’d mounted up she’d been shedding flakes of dried mud with every step, even in the downpour.
Tam had managed to avoid the worst of the mud, though clumps of it still clung to the soles of her boots, and her arms and face were streaked with it from tethering and untethering the horses. True to Ariane’s word, she’d ended up driving Rethan’s wagon – she sat on the bench, reins loose in her hands, Rethan’s borrowed hood keeping the worst of the rain off her face, staring ahead at nothing in particular. Kala had attempted to catch her attention a couple of times, presumably wondering if getting her involved in conversation might help, but she’d been monosyllabic at best, and the half-elf had finally given up trying, riding ahead to take up her usual place at the head of the column.
Given Dana was unconscious and Ariane was busy with her books (and refusing to be pried from her partner’s side, in any case), Alak had dropped back to take the rearguard. He’d not complained about it, but he’d hardly seemed happy either, and it was only Caleb’s complete lack of ability to ride that had stopped him offering to take the older boy’s place. As it was, he’d made a slightly awkward attempt at commiserating, which had been received with a mixture of confusion and gratitude, and then somehow ended up offering to cook supper for the whole company when they stopped for the night.
He wasn’t entirely sure why he’d offered, other than a burning desire to be doing something useful, but Alak’s reaction had more than made up for any second thoughts he might have had. The half-elf had barely restrained himself from throwing his arms around Caleb, and had immediately started offering suggestions of meals he could help prepare, and ingredients he and his sister might possibly have hidden away, just waiting for the right moment to be deployed. Obviously, he’d been overjoyed at the possibility of something – anything- that might distract from their current predicament, but his reaction seemed to hint at something more than that, and, when Caleb had pressed him on it, he’d been more than willing to explain.
Alak, it turned out, was a cook. The issues with the joints in his and his sisters’ fingers made creating large or complex meals almost impossible without help (unless he wanted to be in intense pain for the next few days) but he and Kala had between them managed to pick up a treasure trove of spices and herbs from various markets on their travels, and he’d been waiting for a chance to put some of them to use. Add to that the fact that Caleb was a new face and therefore far more willing to put up with the twins’ hijinks than most (and, unlike Tam, wouldn’t be stealing his sister away for… distractions, mid-preparation) and it wasn’t exactly surprising that the suggestion had immediately brightened his mood.
Now, if only Caleb could think up something that would do the same for Tam.
He sighed, pushing damp hair out of his eyes, and looked across at her, trying to will his brain into coming up with something that might do the job of getting her at least talking to people again. He wasn’t exactly hopeful – after all, if her girlfriend couldn’t manage it, what chance did he have? – but it was something to do and, if nothing else, it was keeping his mind off the state of the three wounded members of the company in the wagon.
“Are you alright?” he asked, after a while.
Unsurprisingly, she didn’t answer. Though she did at least favour him with a slight shrug, which was something.
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
Another shrug. Then, with almost none of her usual good cheer: “Turn back time a few days? Somehow magically make everyone better? Bring the Phoenix here so I can carve her heart out with a rusty sodding spoon? Take your pick, farmboy, because right now I’ll gladly take any of ’em.”
He winced. “I’m sorry. I just…”
“You wanted to help.” She sighed, pushing back her borrowed hood and letting the rain trickle over her mud-stained face. “I wish it was that easy, mate. But this?” She took a hand off the reins, gesturing back towards the body of the wagon. “This is what adventuring is. It’s mud and rain and your friends and family hurting and you not able to do a damn thing to deal with it.”
“But we’re going to Glimmerglass, aren’t we? To Aster’s library?”
“And that’s a week’s travel, if the directions we’ve got are any use. If that infection spreads-” She cut herself off, made a gesture as though throwing something away. “No. You’re right. We’ll get there, they’ll deal with it, it’ll be fine. And then we’ll go find the magical artefact that no-one’s seen in more than a hundred years and which is probably guarded by who knows what, and we’ll bring it back and save the Captain and we’ll all live happily ever bloody after. Well done us. Proper heroes. They’ll probably write a song about us and everything.”
“You’re right,” he said, before he’d even had time to think about it.
“What?” She actually turned to look at him, eyebrows raised.
“I said, you’re right.” And as he said it, he found that he actually, truly believed it. Yes, they were hurting. Yes, things looked bad. But that wasn’t how this story ended. Not here, not now, and not if he had any say in the matter. He took a breath, squared his shoulders, looked her straight in the eye. “It will be fine. We will go find the Heart, we willbring it back and save the Captain, and they will write a song about it, if I’ve got anything to do with it.” He found himself grinning, fierce and desperate, feeling the fire of determination coursing through his veins. “And if we’re really lucky, we might well actually all get to live happily ever after. Though that one I can take or leave.”
Tam looked at him for a long moment, frowning slightly. Then she rolled her eyes, smiled and reached out to clasp his hand, looking almost like her usual self again. “You might want to be careful there, farmboy.”
“You’re starting to sound like a hero.”
Copyright © 2019 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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