They stopped later than usual that night, pitching tents and tethering horses in the gathering dusk while the rain continued to pour. The forest had become deeper and darker as they’d travelled further south and, when the tents had been set up, Talan brought several lanterns from their wagon to light the corners of the camp.
The canopy here was thick enough to keep the worst of the water out, and the younger members of the company lost no time in getting a hearty fire burning in the centre of the cleared space between the wagons. Alak, true to his word, disappeared off into his and Kala’s tent to retrieve the boxes of spices, leaving Caleb, Kala and Tam to unload the other ingredients from the wagons and get started on the preparations for supper.
Or rather, it turned out, leaving Caleb to get started on the preparations. Kala and Tam started off being involved in the chore, true, but Tam was obviously feeling the need to make up to her girlfriend for having ignored her all day, and Kala wasn’t exactly about to stop her. Which, in practice, meant that while the two of them were still technically helping, between them they were managing about one-and-a-third of a person’s worth of work.
He couldn’t exactly be upset with them for it. They were finding comfort where they could, and it didn’t take four people to make a meal for six, however complicated the recipe Alak had come up with was. And, if he was honest, he’d been worrying about Tam since she’d walked off last night. If she was joking with Kala, she had to be feeling at least a little better.
Or, at least, he amended, watching the two of them disappear into Tam’s tent (ostensibly to get a whetstone for the carving knife), he really hoped so.
He was busy cutting slices off a hunk of salted beef that they’d hauled out of one of the barrels when a sound made him look up. It wasn’t one he’d expected to hear, and for a moment he wondered if he’d been imagining it – hope could do strange things to you, after all. But then he heard it again, far closer this time, and a moment later a pair of small brown arms wrapped themselves around his torso, and a dark head thudded affectionately against his shoulder.
The girl nodded, resting her head against his shoulder. She looked tired, and there were dark smudges under her red-rimmed eyes, but she was awake, and conscious, and-
“…How?” he managed, after a while.
“Look at her hands,” Ariane suggested, sticking her head out of the doorway of Rethan’s wagon. She smiled, tiredly, and wiped her forehead with the back of one shimmering green sleeve. “Talan was the one who reminded me – folk beliefs are usually beliefs for a reason, after all, and they know most of them even if they didn’t grow up Dochasan.”
“Dochasan?” Caleb asked, laying his knife down carefully on the cutting board and leaning back to return Kitten’s hug.
The mage nodded. “Kitten and Rethan’s people, and Talan’s by adoption. They’re travellers – have been since long before most of the other peoples of the world started building their cities and towns, or so the stories go – and so a lot of their belief systems haven’t really been written down in a form anyone else can read, even the ones that they’re willing to share. It’s a shame, really, considering how fascinating some of the-” She cut herself off, belatedly remembering that she’d been in the middle of explaining something. “Anyway. The runes on her hands and face, they’re a protection spell – the Dochasan do that for all their children, to prevent them being stolen by evil spirits-”
“And it turns out that they work just as well against curse blades,” Talan finished, from the doorway of their own wagon. “She’s not out of danger yet, but it looks as though the magic is holding the dark spell at bay in some regard, keeping her from ending up in the same condition as the others.” They sighed. “I should realised that far earlier. Rethan would have.”
Kitten frowned, looking over at Talan and signing something (though Caleb couldn’t help but notice that the movement of her right hand seemed oddly slow and stilted, and the black tendrils still coiled and twisted around her fingers).
The apothecary smiled, though the expression seemed somewhat forced, and shook their head. “No, you’re right. Though I should keep working. If you’ll excuse me.” They retreated back into the wagon, the door clicking shut behind them.
Ariane frowned, dropping down from the footboard of the other wagon and heading across to join Talan – Caleb heard a few muttered words of conversation before the door of the apothecary’s wagon closed again, leaving him and Kitten sole possessors of the campfire.
At least, for a moment. Then, with a delighted yell of ‘Kitty!’, Tam hurtled out of her tent, sprinting over to scoop up the girl into a spinning, laughing hug. The twins weren’t far behind, and Caleb soon found himself pulled into something which had started as a hug but was rapidly becoming some sort of mobile affectionate wrestling match.
And suddenly everything felt as though it might be going to turn out alright after all.
Copyright © 2019 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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