Half the board of management was already sleeping. Martin doodled another little man, colored its coat in a boring pencil grey, filled in its necktie with the usual blue stripes and killed this one with an anvil.
“Champrose will be two days further, but they have great ale,” Marion said, holding his horse’s reins tightly in one hand, his only good eye scanning the map in their captain’s hands for the city he had just named. He pointed at it with the cheese he was holding. Sean watched with great amusement as Thane’s aristocratic features twisted in a grimace—it made him look like one of these sneering nobles they hated working with—and Thane moved the map away from Marion’s greasy fingers.
“If that’s our criteria, then Vieux-Port should have a festival about now,” John protested. He tried to take the map from Thane, but their leader moved it again, without even looking. “That’ll be way more fun than good ale, Captain, and I bet we can find work once the festival is done,” he said, trying to grab the side of the map closest to him. Thane jerked it away again and promptly folded it, holding it very close to his chest. Thane had a thing about people touching his precious papers. Considering that the last map had gone up in flames, Sean understood that particular hang-up.
Jean took on a thoughtful expression. “Lots of merchants due to be heading back home, I’m sure someone will want protection for the road back.” He said it with a shrug of his bony shoulders. It was rather comical in Sean’s opinion. The man was like a living scarecrow.
Thane had probably already considered the job possibilities himself, but he still nodded to the two.
Brynn’s eyes idly tracked the wisps of fire in the chimney as they danced. He liked this: the warm light of a fire to keep any chills at bay, a room with walls that kept the wind and rain outside where it belonged, even a bed so that he could finally enjoy a solid night’s rest. That being said, he didn’t mind the nights spent on damp ground or hard floors, with a blanket to serve as his mattress and a coat the only thing to keep him warm, but he sure had a newfound appreciation for the comfort that a real mattress provided. Something soft to rest on while he enjoyed the loose feeling that had spread throughout his limbs after his bath—another luxury worth noting. There wasn’t much more he could think to add that would raise his feeling of overall contentment more than it currently….
Well, one thing maybe.
Xander glared at his backpack as the shirt he had been trying to stuff in one-handed caught on the zipper and unfolded itself. Again. With an annoyed humpf, Xander gave up on any semblance of neatness and just shoved the damn thing in the bag. He stared at the rest of the items laid out on his bed and, after a moment of consideration, did the same with the rest of them.
Xander had favoured his left leg all along his journey though the spaceship, but now that he had reached the commons he forced his gait to quicken and even out, disguising the limp as best he could. When a couple of men walking opposite him jolted his injured arm, he clenched his teeth and kept going, ignoring their demands for excuses. There was only one thing he was interested in right now, and that thing was sitting on a couch about three meters away. Nicholas hadn’t noticed him yet and that was just what he was banking on.
Sean watched with fascination as Tom poured more water over his head. It ran down his naked flesh in pink rivulets, getting closer and closer to crimson as it uncovered the wounds hidden under the crust of dried blood. The gouges that appeared were deep, their edges red and swollen, a violent contrast to Tom’s paleness that was as much due to blood loss as the cold that was making him shiver and turned his lips purple. Though he was almost blood-free now, Sean couldn’t erase from his mind the sight of his lover covered in gore. This time had been way too close.
The shout was shriek-like in a way no human voice should ever be. It plunged the longhouse into silence, everyone straining to hear what was going on. Then a very loud, very sharp and very brief sound resounded outside. Suddenly, it was madness all around. Calls turned to shouts, soft footsteps to a loud pounding of feet. In the chaos, a hand took hold of Yahto’s wrist and dragged him along. Mother shouted “RUN!” and so, he did. Inside, on the battered earth, it was easy enough. Once they left the construction for the uneven ground of the forest, things became more complicated. Roots, stones or nothingness under his foot when he had expected solid ground were traps to which he never failed to fall. Each time, the hand would tug upon his and keep him more or less upright. Around them, the forest was filled with the rustling of leaves brushing against running bodies. Behind them, more shouts, more thundering. His mind came back to it, wondering what caused that sound. The distraction meant more fumbling, more jerks of surprise when a branch hit him. Until there was both a root to trip him and no earth to help him regain his footing. He felt himself fall forward, felt the sweat slicked hand lose its grip on his wrist and, finally, felt the pain as his body landed harshly on the ground. “Up, Yahto,” said Mother’s panicked voice “Get up and run!” she ordered while pulling him to his feet. Before he could be up and running again there came another voice, shouting. A man’s voice. His words didn’t mean anything for Yahto who had never heard any such word before. But his mother stopped her tugging and abruptly pushed him back on the ground. She joined him there, her body on top of his, her voice begging, her words suddenly just as impossible to understand as the man’s had been.
Wires and panels. Just like in the old times. Everyone knew something was amiss the moment they set foot aboard. It hung heavily in the air, the uncertainty; the feeling that they wouldn’t like whatever was next. Even the sergeant, an old warhorse that nothing could impress anymore, looked uneasy.
They weren’t assigned sleeping quarters. Instead, the sergeant herded them in a communal area and ordered them to take seats and keep the noise down. They remained there through takeoff. Nervous in the face of such an unusual procedure. Xander was seated between two friends of his, and it didn’t even cross his mind to start a conversation. It felt as if the silence would cut them all should anyone break it.
“Next question. Cite three animals into which a witch is most likely to turn a princess.”
“Let’s see… frog, doe and… rat?”
Tristan’s frown turned into a grimace. “Rat? When did you ever hear a tale where the princess turned into a rat?”
Brynn shrugged. “Well who knows, witches like rats don’t they? Why not turn one of the blond tart into one?”
Tristan sighed. “You, my friend, are hopeless. The right answer is a swan. Frog, doe and swan!”
“Swan, rat, it’s all the same.”
“Until you try to give it a kiss,” Tristan pointed out.