Thomani says he will charge the enemy, but all I have seen him do is retreat. Horace says he attacks by defending, but he has lost. Staffal prizes his scouts, and yet his maps are empty.

What fools these men are.

Let me try.

Lisheva Durasoona

 

“Do you ever stop eating?” Sarea demanded.

Arms on her hips, she glared at Ionas. He had a hand deep in her pack. He withdrew it, watching her face. “I have to sleep,” he said.

“Thank small mercies for our food supply.” She curled her fingers. Four days. For at least two of them she’d been thinking kind thoughts. “We’ve got at least a week to Durabilis -”

“And I’ve been maintaining a defensive circle around us every night,” he said thoughtfully, “So I do think I deserve a little extra food.”

She growled at him. He stared up at her, eyes wide. “On the other hand, I can wait until this evening,” he said. “I’ll go see if there’s any carts on the road.” He rolled onto his feet and out of the wooded clearing in moments.

Growling at people, she thought despairingly. Maybe she wasn’t meant for the road.

Well, it’s Ionas, Sarea thought. Did he count as people? He rambled on and on, and didn’t shut up. If he talked about knowledge she could use, like the land and plants around them, it might help. Instead he spoke about the strangest things. What use did she have for magical scales and measurements? She could start a camp fire. Why should she know who a centuries-old general was? She knew of no one called Auros, but Ionas seemed obsessed with two of them.

The man made no sense. He called this teaching?

But she’d seen the signs the hounds left in the morning. She glanced behind her, hugging herself. Safer away from the road, Ionas said. Sure, he’d found them grassing clearings in patches of wood each night. But the charcoal-black gouges in the trees worried her. Marking their territory. They were waiting. Just the sight of it made her arms ache with phantom pain, but that couldn’t be true. The cuts – the claws marks – were healing well.

Her feet did ache, though. By now it was familiar, the dull throb of fresh blisters. Her legs didn’t bother her, but by the end of each day she limped, stumbling over herself trying to get to Ionas’ camp sites. Propping her feet up close to the fire did nothing more than make her feet warm, but what else could she do? At least it’d been dry, if not warm, but the skies grew cloudier each day, and there wasn’t much by way of shelter.

Why couldn’t they just camp by the road? She could just sit down where she stopped –

“Sarea! Come on!”

Ionas. He sounded happy.

She closed her pack up, swung it onto her back, and hurried out of the clearing. If she thought she was watched as she went –

It wasn’t paranoia if something had tried to kill you.

He’d finally flagged down a cart, the first she’d seen since they set out, going either way. If nothing was leaving Durabilis – she pushed the thought away. She didn’t have to worry about South any more.

“This is Jesse,” Ionas said, bouncing. “He’s going to, uh, Netti -”

“Nettinam,” she and Jesse said together. The man on the cart, hands on the reins that controlled a murky brown pony, winked at her. She looked away, cheeks heating up.

“Yes, There. I need to get hold of a map. These little villages keep changing.” Ionas huffed.

“I hear you’re off to Durabilis,” Jesse said. “I don’t go far, but I’ll cut a few days off your journey. My boy here trots faster’n anyone can walk, for sure.”

“Nettinam’s out of our way,” she said, and bit her lip. Take days off? It’d add one. Maybe two.

“Main road twists and turns, lovely. There’s a country road that’ll get you to the city faster.” He gestured at the back of the cart, empty but for a few sacks. “I always come back with less than I left with, you get me? Hop on.”

Ionas caught her hand before she could say no, pulling her along. “Never say no to a free ride,” he said, voice low. “You can always set fire to the cart and run for it.”

She frowned at him. “Thank you, Jesse,” she said, twisting towards the driver.

Jesse grinned. Not like Ionas’ grin, clear and bright and half-mad. Like boys and girls in the village.

She climbed into the cart beside Ionas, sat down with her knees against her chest, and buried her head in her arms. Oh, stars, looking at her. She hadn’t even a chance for her weekly bath since Ionas showed up. Her hair must be black with grease by now –

The cart jolted into moment.

“So, Nettinam,” Ionas said. “What do you know about it?”

She raise her head, sighing. “Trades in wool. Weaves some, dyes some. Doesn’t produce the high-quality woollens.”

“I reckon they’re good enough,” Jesse called out.

“You aint selling them to lords and ladies, neither,” she said, raising her voice. “An’ nobody ‘spects you to.”

“Hey, now, I know that sound.” The front seat creaked. “West-side Durabilis, right?”

She froze, trying to remember how she’d spoken. Tineke spent years teaching her to smooth out the city twang, easing the sharpness with a softer tone. How could she slip?

“I mean no harm by it.” And now she listened, she could hear it in Jesse. “I lived on the border-streets a while. Not a nice place then, and I hear it haven’t changed.”

“I wouldn’t know,” she said after a moment, focusing on rounder sounds. “I was a child when I left.”

“Ah, well, then.” Another creak. “Good on you.”

“Nettinam is rich with wool,” she said quietly. “it’s got a church and a church-house. Gravestones and all. We have a fire-keeper for our dead.” Had. She didn’t belong to South any more. “Merchants have to go off the main road to trade. I thought I heard about them changing the main road before I left Durabilis, so traffic went past more places. There might still be another road, but it won’t be well-travelled.”

Ionas nodded. “That’ll do us just fine,” he said. He twisted around. “Hey, hear any good stories on your travels?”

Jesse laughed. “You bet. Them folks down in South are nattering about demons!”

“Demons? Really?” Sarea found herself impressed by the disbelief colouring Ionas’ voice. “Who believes in them nowadays?”

“Ah, they’re babbling about wolves with glowing torches, something like that. Who ever saw a wolf smart enough to light a fire is what I want to know. I think a batch of grain went bad, I do. But their witch up and disappeared, so…”

“Disappeared?” Sarea turned around too, shifting so she sat with her legs folded. Here she could see the side of Jesse’s face, a glimpse of brown eyes behind ragged-edged brown hair. He tossed her a moment’s smile.

“The local nutter led a lynch mob march right up to her house and got shamed when nobody was home,” he said. “That’s the way I heard in in the inn. Place stood so empty you’d think a ghost’d lived there, I hear tell.”

She worried at a button on her coat. “Demons,” she said, in her city voice. “Don’t they send out the Instigators for ’em?”

“Hey, now. Don’t go naming things that oughtn’t be named. Demons aint around no more, and even them folks know it.” Jesse wasn’t smiling, though.

“The who?” Ionas nudged her. “What’ve I missed this time?”

Sarea shook her head. “Later,” she said.

The cart rolled on, faster than she could walk.

“Suppose you’ve got an inn in Nettinam, right?” Ionas said brightly.

Jesse laughed. “Thinkin’ about a bed?”

“A bath, more like,” Sarea muttered.

Ionas made a show of stretching. “Well, if there’s one to be had.”

“Ah, now, we have two. But the Green Giant’s a place to get drunk and find a girl, you know?” Jesse shrugged. “Not that I’ve ever been.”

“Oh, yes,” Ionas said agreeably, then “Ow!” when her hand reached out and smacked the back of his head of its own accord.

“Now, you’ll be wanting the Guiding Star. Good food, good drink, and music five days a week.” Jesse leaned back. “And plenty of room. it’s almost never full.”

“And you work there, of course,” Sarea said.

“Aint I obvious? Every evening I’m in town.” He shrugged. “First drink’s on me.”

“Free things are just good advertising.” Ionas focused on her. “So you have two voices, huh?”

She looked away from him. “It’s called an accent,” she said, tone mild. “I’ve sure you’ve heard of them before.”

“Not hidden that well.”

She could feel herself tensing up at the thought of home, a brown-brick house on the edge of the marsh-pit. Da went out early and came back late, and sometimes the militia men stormed in and searched it, turning their few belongings upside down again. The west side may have been a place for gentry fifty years back, but the grand buildings were falling apart, filled with squatters and the homeless. No point in them stealing from their own. The gangs went out and stole from everyone else instead. Da hadn’t talked about where their food came from, so she never asked, and she certainly didn’t starve –

“Hey,” he said, leaning in. “What am I to say sorry for?”

“Do we have to go through Durabilis?” she said. “It’s not a place I want to be.”

Ionas sighed. “Connections to make, hidden stashes to collect,” he said. “If I could avoid it, I would.”

She nodded.

“Is it to do with your grandfather?” he said quietly.

She hunched her shoulders.

“I wish you’d tell me,” he said. “Come here.”

Somehow he wound up hugging her, pack and all. She leaned her head against his shoulder, watching the road – and South – get further away.

 

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