We ride silently, the clip-clop of the horses hooves and the creak and groan of the cart the only sounds. The sun shown high above us as I dozed beside the farmer, Harold. The squash in the bed of the cart was hard and lumpy, making it an uncomfortable bed, although believe me, I tried.
“Uh, Tomas?” He asked as I stirred, using the name I had given him. Baker had been right, I had no idea who my enemies were, and without his, or Antoine’s help, I was not going to take too many chances.
“You never told me what you were doing out this far.”
“Yeah I did,” I wished I could at least reach my sword, but Harold had insisted I put it out of reach in the very back of the cart, “I fell into the river.”
“Yeah, I remember that,” he pauses long enough to move the piece of wheat from one corner of his mouth to the other, “but how did you end up in the river?”
“Oh,” I hesitated, maybe a bit too long by the look on Harold’s face, “My father and I were goofing off-“
“Your father? Is he Baker or Antoine?”
My gaze shot back to my weapons, but Harold clucked the horse to a stop. “Go ahead, get them, but don’t get back on if you do. I don’t care if you’re the Crown Prince or not.”
I looked at him wide-eyed.
“You’re not fooling anyone, Sire.”
I sighed, “It’s James.”
“I know.” Harold flicked the reigns, his stubborn mule ignoring the gesture. A flick of the reigns again drew a defiant bray, but the creature began to move and the cart lurched its way onward again. “Look, you must have your reasons for being out here, for lying, but you need to get your story straight before you are asked, not after.”
“I know, I just haven’t had the time.”
“Who are Baker and Antoine, I heard you calling their names long before I saw you at the crossing.”
“They’re friends of mine, we got swept downstream together, well, not exactly together,” I say, looking at my feet. I’ve begun to shiver.
Harold stands and takes what I thought had been a cushion from his side of the cart and unfolds it, draping it around my shoulders. “That’s good.”
“What do you mean?”
“The answer, it may not be a lie, but it is not the whole truth, and it sounded natural.”
“But they are my friends!” I snap at him.
“And they’re more than that, aren’t they?”
I could not deny that, even in the short time that I had known Baker, he had become much more than a friend already. I nodded. “I guess you’re right, but how did you know?”
“I may be a farmer, but I’m a salesman too, I’ve learned to read between the lines. And you left plenty of words between them for me to read.”
“Oh, so what now?”
“Well, that’s up to you. The way I see it, you’re welcome to stay with me until we reach town, and then you can continue on your own, or you can get off now. Your choice, just let me know so I can slow down,” He grinned, his teeth straight but yellow.
“I’m not sure we can go much slower,” I laughed and he laughs too.
“Yeah, Duke there ain’t what he used to be,” he said, nodding toward the mule.
“But I’ll ride,” I tell him, pulling the blanket tighter around me.
“You don’t look too good,” He tells me and I must admit, I am not feeling that hot either.
He is right. We stop as a small stream runs parallel to the road for us both to stretch our legs and to get a drink. I can’t help but notice the circles under my own eyes, the general disheveled look I had undertaken. I look at my arms, my legs, my ribs. Try to count the bruises, but many of them are big enough now that they blend together, one continuous reminder of my trip down the river. I used my reflection to check my back, completely lifting the shirt from my back.
“You weren’t kidding about getting swept down stream,” Harold had approached after hitching Duke back up to the wagon.
I quickly pull my shirt back on, squirming under his gaze. I was gaunt, I could count my ribs in my reflection. I shivered again and grabbed the blanket, losing my balance and stumbling.
“Whoa there,” Harold grabs me, managing to keep me from completely collapsing. “Here we go,” he helps me back to the cart, nearly lifts me into the seat. I lean over, eyes closed, and the groan of the wheels soon lulls me to a restless sleep.
I am vaguely aware of hands on me, but when I open my eyes, the world is white, or grey, or green even. Once.
I am lying flat on my back, a high peaked roof above me when I finally come too. I try to sit up, but only manage to cough, setting my throat on fire.
“Here,” a young woman hands me a glass and helps me bring it to my lips. It is cold water and feels good against my aching throat. She takes the cup from me and sets it out of view. Everything is throbbing, and I wince when she calls for her Pa to come in.
The man that suddenly fills my view looks nothing like the girl. Where she was dainty with hair the color of chestnuts, he is massive, possessing a beard and long hair, both braided, all the shades of an autumn maple tree.
“Good, yer awake!” He says, his voice booming, echoing in the high ceilinged chamber. I wince with each syllable and it only makes him smile brighter. “When Harold brought you in, we weren’t sure what to make of you. I almost gave you to the priest to say last rights over, but the lass wouldn’t have any of it.” He nodded in her direction and she blushes.
“Bah!” He waves his hand at her and then puts a hand the size of my face on my forehead, covering my eyes and almost all of my nose. “Fever’s finally broke. Looks like she was right after all.”
“Pa,” I see her small hand come into the small window I have on the world and playfully slap the old man on his arm, and I can hear the smile in her voice.
I try to turn my head to look at her and groan. Moving hurts. So does groaning.
Her hands appear again before me, guiding the water to my lips. I sip, thankful for the liquid. I try to say thanks, but it comes out as a cough. I smile weakly instead.
“Go get the lad some soup, will ya deary?” The man asks and I can no longer feel the girl hovering by my side. I try to raise my hand, fail feebly.
“How-“ I manage, and the man smiles.
“Give it a day or two, Stasia will get you up and talking again before you know it.”
Stasia. I hope I can remember that. She comes back with a bowl of soup and forces feeds me small spoonfuls. The vegetables are soft and the broth is good, if a little salty. We finish the bowl and I manage to turn my head a little. She really is the opposite of the man she calls ‘Pa.’ Her nose is small, slightly upturned at the tip, green eyes, thin lips that almost disappear when she smiles. Freckles.
I dream of those freckles and they are there when I wake again. I can hear the fire crackling somewhere to my left. I lift that hand, manage to get it a foot off the bed and then let it drop, the muscles in my shoulder aching from the exertion.
“Proud of yourself?” Her voice is softer than I remember, more like suede than velvet, the underlying roughness still apparent in the way she prodded me in the ribs. I wince and she laughs. “Sorry. You need to take it easy. Harold told us where he found you, but I can’t wait to hear your story.” She helped me to some more water and then another bowl of soup. I managed to stay awake a little longer this time, but soon I was snoring again. Or so I was told the next time I woke up.
I have no idea how long I had been asleep, it was dark, and neither Stasia or her Pa was within my limited range of sight, which was lit by the dying fire. I took a deep breath, which hurt my sides, but the pain was manageable. Three more and I gritted my teeth together as I sat up. Doing so almost made me pass out, and I almost fell back when I heard a shocked “Oh!” from somewhere in the dark corner of the room.
Stasia appears from the shadows, a brown and white gown obscuring the parts of her I had yet to see. “Well, nice of you to join us again, even if it is rather early.”
“Thanks,” I manage, surprised that the sound not only made it out, but that it did not hurt any more to talk, or at least did not hurt that much.
She smiles and takes a seat on a small wooden stool beside my bed, sets her hand on mine, and it feels familiar. She probably has been sitting there hand on mine, since I was brought in, how long ago? I had no idea.
I start to say something, but manage to croak out “water” instead and soon a mug is pressed against my lips. The water is not as cold as It had been the first few times I remember it, but it was still wet, and that was what I needed. “Thanks again,” I said, and I laugh. “At least I know how to be polite.” My voice is hoarse, does not sound like me at all.
“At least. How are you feeling?”
“I think I’ll make it.” It is lame, and my weak smile does not help. “How long have I been here?”
I had been prepared for a day, maybe two, but not six. My mind was cloudy, but I pushed the wisps away, did the math. My friends had been missing for nearly nine days. I try to push my way out of bed and feel her hand upon my chest.
“You’re not going anywhere. Lay back down. Whatever it is has waited this long, it will wait another day or two while you regain your strength.” I push against her hand, but do not get anywhere. Her laughter reminds me of the tittering of the maidens of the court. Not when they were supposed to laugh, at some politicians joke, or some hammy thing the jester had done, but of their laughter when they were caught talking amongst themselves, in the hals outside of the throne room, or in the kitchens. Real laughter. Happy laughter.
“Fine,” I try to relax, “Can you at least tell me where here is?”
“You’re at the temple outside of the town of Gabriel’s Crossing.”
“So you’re a Sister?” I say, trying to make sense of everything. She laughs again, and I realize I enjoy the sound.
“No, my pa is caretaker of the cemetery.” Her slight accent made the last syllable sound like ‘tree.’
“Is there any more of the soup?” I ask as I feel my stomach growl.
“A little, let me get you some.”
I manage to sit up even further, placing my back against the headboard of the mattress, while she is getting the food.
“You’re going to hurt yourself,” she tells me as she brings the bowl back.
This elicits a snort from her and she rolls her eyes. “You’re going to hurt yourself,” she says again, gently hitting my shoulder.
“See.” She holds a spoonful of soup before my mouth and I cut my eyes at her, waiting for some kind of an apology, but it never comes. “Fine, if you aren’t going to open your mouth, I’m going back to sleep.” She sets the bowl on the table next to the cup of water and stands, back to me.
Slowly, I reach for the bowl and manage to get it into my lap without spilling a drop. Getting it to my mouth is a different story and soon I am wearing two spoonfuls of carrots and peas.
Stacia sighs from the corner, “Here,” she comes over and cleans me up with a spare strip of cloth and then feeds me the rest of the food, leaving the bowl sitting in my lap.
“Thanks,” I say again.
“Yep polite. Later we can work on being a little less pig headed.” She takes the empty bowl and sets it somewhere out of the range of the fire light and then wishes me good night. “You should get some more sleep,” She says and helps me lie back down.
I try, but spend the early hours of the morning staring at the log beams that make up the ceiling. I have just drifted off when Pa’s voice can be heard from somewhere, nearby, faraway. It is loud, but so is he, so I can not really tell.