CW: Drug use, Alcohol.
Grinning as he blew the last of his smoke into the mist surrounding them, in the dim half-light, Axel can at last make out Kayn’s approach in the lane – leading with him two of the butchest mares he’d ever seen. Wide as they were tall, complete with sackcloth covering their hooves, they followed him gladly, sploshing through the puddles in the mud, appreciating all of the carrots he’d lured them with.
Jed, however, was more than apprehensive at the sight. Waiting in the open for his return for long enough, the packed dray was a beacon to anyone who would rob them – and now, they were more than likely to be hunted down as horse thieves on top of everything else, because of this. “What are you doing with those? Fucking hell. Those are vanners, Kayn.”
His girls stopped when he did, nosing at him for more treats, close to pushing him over. He laughed at them, but his answer to him was stern. “You reckon I wouldn’t know that?”
“Well then, have you considered that they’ll be missed? They’re not exactly inconspicuous.” He sighed at the blank face staring back, explaining further. “Anyone searching for their own non-existent horses would spot these ones a mile away.”
“Reckon I’m owed them anyway.” He shrugged, petulant.
Reed couldn’t help but interject, patience as thin as Jed's at this insolence, sitting atop a shaggy cob that nipped if you stood between him and his nosebag for too long. “Alright then, smart-arse, how are we going to feed them along with all these others through the winter? They’ll eat their bodyweight, soon as look at you.”
“I’ve thought of that, obviously. And if we're going to be rude about their weight, then Jed and Tris could always stand to eat less oats too. There’s plenty anyway, I made sure.” He tapped his head, indicating the knowledge was all in there. “Why'd you think I picked the biggest ones I could find? That dray won’t pull itself will it? Look, they're going to get skinny, but when it’s spring again, we’ll graze them 'til they're fed back up. Like we always do.” Annoyed at having to justify his choice to them, they should know by now that he’d thought of everything twice over. Of course he'd be able to look after them.
Amused, Axel coughed, it taking a while to clear his throat. Although Kayn was clearly nettled as he hitched them to the cart, he could tell there was a back-story to them already. “What are their names, then?”
“Okay. So...” He stood up from under a belly, leather and buckle in hand, immediately brightening, irritation dissolved in a beat. “The grey one is Phyllis, and the... greyer one, I suppose? That's Henrietta. I was only going to bring Phyll, but Hettie insisted she wouldn’t be left.” He watered them, laughing as they got it everywhere, pretend scolding them for getting it in his boots. “They met at a farmers market ten years ago, where they’d sniped at each other over the last artisanal made, organic, free range, locally grown hay bale.” He climbed up, mares secured and refreshed, and patted the bench beside him, ignoring Reed kicking at the oblivious equine beneath him. “They’d decided to split it in the end, and chosen a bottle of wine together too, instead of going home alone and the rest has been history ever since.” He grinned, Axel reaching for a blanket, cold. “Hettie, here, teaches nursery foals their ABCs and Phyll is in plate armour repair...”
Leaving as planned, The Sanguine have taken from the richer establishments whatever they need for their winter-long camp. Filling the new cart with extra food, furs and hides, they add to the stock and equipment already gathered together. The main bulk being sacks of potatoes and oats for the pot, as well as as much alcohol as they could get their hands on. Jed reasoned that they would want warming from the inside as well. No one argued with him.
Kayn was right too. This cart was bigger than they’d ever had before, Phyll pulling it on her own would have been nowhere near enough, while they headed up towards the foothills and pines. If the law was at their door, anyone else might not be far behind them. They'd have to move fast and conceal themselves through the snows to let the dust settle, in case they needed to come back this way. Six strong now, they were moving on, but Axel never allowed an escape route to stay cut off – as ever, two steps ahead of anyone else.
Riding on, they hunt and rob whatever riches come into their path, while they look for the perfect spot to hole up – Jed nicknaming Issané a lucky charm when he sees their stockpile grow large, and she rolls her eyes at him. It isn’t luck or magic, it’s skill providing them with enough to get through until spring and she reiterated her point by way of waving her bloodied knife at him while he likes to ruffle the black thatch on her head, further irritating the hell out of her.
He does so half because he knows it's annoying, and half of him still not able to believe this little firecracker is more dangerous than she looks. Fearsome as she is, twin blades and all, he is still sure she is never alone whenever Tristin and Reed leave to hunt deeper into the woods. Kayn would not get to her on his watch. Not again.
But the further on they go, Issané grows more aware that he is pensive, morose even. The more they rode away from the towns, out into the cold, up and into the trees, his laugh was scarcer, the chattering all but stopped. No one else seemed to notice his odd behaviour – yet it wasn't as though they didn't care, more that the dive in his demeanour didn't suggest anything was out of the ordinary to any of them. Riding slower, he was inside of himself, not even paying attention to the deeply rutted tracks they followed, only urging his horse on every now and then.
Tristin and Reed after a deer, Axel and Kayn well ahead – laughing together over a particularly gruesome game of Would You Rather – Issané notices his silence, louder as it was between the two of them now. Staring at his back, she catches him wipe a tear, and hang his head. After a deep breath, he shook out his tresses and squared his shoulders, patting his horse. But it was too late. She’d seen.
Catching him up and reigning in, Jed is direct in following suit, ever the protector. “What’s the matter? Stopping to piss?” He looked up, and Issané’s concern was unmistakable. It pierced him. He’d seen her look at Reed the same way whenever he was off key. And if anyone's head needed fixing, it was Reed...
“No. You got something in your eye?”
Defensive, he snapped. “There’s nothing wrong with my eyes...”
“Then why are you sad?” Picking up her reins again, she turned her horse, facing him. “Is it because of me? Because of what I did?”
He paused, not ready to break, but her worry cut through him and he blustered in a release of pent-up sorrow. “What? Because you took Tris and Kayn off of me in one fell swoop? Because I have to share a tent with Reed now? Because we’re in the middle of nowhere in the freezing, stars be damned, fucking cold?” Shaking his head, he breathes, calming, and his voice was bitter, yet soft. “No... No. I hate being out here and that's true, and Reed is no bloody comfort in the night... But he's still there.” He looked to the cart in the distance, pointing. “And those two happy is enough to warm me through. I’ve never seen Kayn like this. Well, I have, but not for this long in one go.” Pausing again, nodding, he blinks back tears. “Watching Axel love the fuck out of him more than makes up for what I’ve left behind. We all knew he would. Only you weren’t scared to push them over the edge together.”
“What is it, then? Jed? Why are you crying?”
He couldn't avoid it now. Hiding it from her was useless. “Someone I couldn’t protect.” He sniffed, hard. “Someone we left behind.”
Surprised, and then not, the sob he could not contain sticks in his throat, as the emotion he was holding back filled him faster than he could control, and it spilt from him, in choked words and tears. “She was supposed to come back. She always said she'd be back. She never... We looked all over for her. Kayn never gave up hope. Even when searching took all of the mercy out of him, what little he had left, and turned him into the man you now know, he never stopped looking. We've got him back, but something happened to her, and we’re just... walking away from it. All of the shit we watched happen to him, and he still wouldn’t give up, and it turns out now that was all for nothing?” He gulped for air, composing himself. “I knew one day we'd have to stop. Have to leave. I didn’t think I would have to do it alone. They’ve forgotten-”
“But you remember. You won't forget, and you'll remind them, right? That's what counts.” Issané lets him cry, listening to him explain how much he missed her, and how amazing she was, what an excellent Sanguine she was going to make, and how she deserved her place with them where they were going.
“She'd have loved you, and she would have kicked my arse in front of you for leaving you in that cell. I meant to come back. But Kayn... I couldn't leave him. Issané, I'm so sorry that I didn't know how to stop him from hurting you.”
She cut in again, not letting him change the subject. “This isn't about me, or him. Sal wasn't here, Jed. You would have found her if she was still here. You didn't, so it's okay to move on.”
“I know that. I do know.”
Finished, when it was all out, she has one piece of advice. She traced the letters into his palm again, the blueness of her glow getting the message to him so it'd stick. “Tell them.”
Shaking the melancholy from him, running a hand through the knots he hadn’t bothered to comb out recently, he winced. “No. It’s out now. I’ll be fine now I've said it aloud. I’m good. If I bring her up, it’ll upset what they've only just found. And that’s so delicate right now, I couldn’t live with myself if it was my fault their whole relationship went tits-up after what it took to get them together. I've no business interfering with them any more, and you shouldn't mention it either. It’s enough that Reed’s given up his spot on Kayn’s bench and is sitting that arsehole horse.” His laugh is wry. “If I start sticking my nose where it isn't wanted, who knows where that argument will end. They deserve to be happy, so let them alone for the time being. Promise me, Issané. Keep it shut. When we get where we’re going, we’ll all find what we’re looking for. I’ll be happy then, yeah?”
“But you need someone? Someone who knows without you having to explain. Tris, then. You can have him back?”
The sincerity in her expression earned her a laugh. A big one. Jed shone down on her as a sliver of his usual self began to return, pulling himself up tall in the saddle, and watching her confused expression made him laugh all the more. “That one would never forgive me in a million years.”
Laughing still, he tore away, yelling at her to keep up, and indignantly again when she overtook him. Gladdened all the more to find the cart hadn’t gone more than a few miles, he saw that they were unpacking the camp for the night. Cheerful at the sight of Axel and Kayn setting themselves up together, the novelty of that not yet worn off, he set the fire, building it big, as he told himself he could do with a fucking drink or two by it.
On the bench of the dray, awaiting the others, minding his own business, Kayn is disturbed from his daydream by a frantic rustling in the trees – and the closer it got to him, the more he thought about reaching for a weapon. Certain it is another deer, and wondering if he will be able to take it out by himself, but knowing it could be anything coming for him, he has to blink twice when he sees it is Issané pelting down the track. Hurtling towards him again, she was wearing that expression.
A shout from further up the track distracted him, and two large figures are there, way back in the distance. Unrecognisable, he squinted at them not being Tristin or Jed as she ran past the horses, doubling back and shimmying between the two to climb up onto the bench. Hefting herself up, graceful, almost acrobatic, she used his knee and shoulder as leverage, wriggling under the canvas covering the goods in the back. Not before kicking him in the head as she passed, and while his vision clears, and the closer they got, the more he understood the look on her face.
Re-closing the top behind her, he jumped down, greeting his new guests. “Afternoon. What can I do you ladies for?”
An elite goon with her brute companion introduce themselves as Cúdjel and Moord. One of them had a spade, the other a spiked club. Both looked like they could bury him six foot deep in as many minutes flat. And they looked like they wanted to, recognising their mares. The women want them back, but they are looking for Issané too.
“You... Ah... You wanna put those weapons away?” Kayn tried hard to keep his voice under control, hoping he was pulling it off.
“You want to give us back our horses first?” The code followed, Moord stopped repeatedly hefting her weapon into her free hand and popped it onto her shoulder instead, while Cúdjel dug her spade into the dank leaf mulch, leaning on it. “That do ya?”
He nodded that it would well enough, and their compliance gave him the confidence to answer brashly. “Well, as you can see, we're kind of using them...” He added, quick, as they stepped towards him, “But we can pay if you like. There's coin.”
“We?” Cúdjel's eyes narrowed. “You and that little toothpick we were chasing?”
He grinned inwardly at their description, relieved that they seemed to have stopped their advance. Flipping back the covering, whistling loudly and rummaging, his eyes are on her as she pressed herself harder against the sacks and barrels to avoid being exposed. Looking for something to appease them with, he paid them off with more than enough to take back, hoping to successfully bargain his way out of trouble. Although – upon realising the stock he actually had – they made to look for themselves, still he stopped their advance with the whip he never used, prodding the bag of coin with it and pointing out that it was more than a fair price.
They leave it, but not without a threat. “No point smashing up this scrawny little ferret. It'd be too easy.”
“Mmmh,” Cúdjel agreed. “I'd feel bad.” The bag was heavy enough, yet she wasn't willing to put it down. “We don't need to do anything here. If he's into nicking horses, someone else will catch up with him.”
Swallowing hard, and with gritted teeth, he was explicit with his directions for the next town – helpfully throwing a map for them into the equation, but not without first snatching it back. “Oh but, you're probably not lost anyway. Sorry, I didn't mean to assume you were. Please, excuse my rudeness.”
Yanking it from his hand, Moord patted him on the head, propping herself up on a shoulder, looking at it as he explained Tristin's artwork and Reed's handwriting. “This is good, little ferret. Nicely drawn. Might even get an extra few coins for this alone... Looks like you've been a busy boy indeed. What exactly are you using our horses for, then?”
She guffawed genially at that, approving. “And we can use this to get those two back?”
He nodded. “We're headed towards the cross there. We think it'll take less than a year.”
“All that way and no weapon for you, though?” Cúdjel enquired, disbelieving.
“Nah. I've got these.” He held up his fists, still somewhat smushed by being leaned on, whip tucked under his arm. “Never know how fast someone will come at you. I'm way faster.”
“If you say so.”
“That a threat?” Moord wanted to know.
“I said I was fast, not looking for an early grave.” A movement came from the cart, and a dash of irritation accompanied the cough Kayn used to divert attention from it – quickly replaced with a hidden mirth when the two are surreptitious in stepping back, away from his splutter.
Too far out to risk picking up any extra pathogens and satisfied the deal was done, Cúdjel and Moord checked over his new loan, checking hooves and eyes, running hands over legs looking for heat, and pulling ears through hands to say goodbye, Kayn offering apples and carrots to speed up the process. When they'd done, and gone on a decent distance, he stomped around to the other side of the dray, and rapped the canvas top with his whip handle, hitting Issané directly underneath it, hard. The shape of her obvious to him, he wonders how on earth they failed to see her there. Especially since she couldn't keep bloody well still.
Emerging, rubbing the shoulder where he’d struck her, she looked sheepish, and his mood is anything but cheerful now – anxiety clear in his face. “Something tickle you under there? Eh?” He pushed her, irked as she stood her ground. “Something funny?” Yet the more he looked at her, the more amused he became again. She stood in front, looking directly up at him, scowling, tightness in her eyes and downturned mouth, fists clenched at her sides. He didn’t know how Tristin could understand what she was saying, but he was getting this message loud and clear.
“Whatever you’re going to do, do it now. I ain’t scared of you. Go on. Prick.”
He scoffed his response. “You think you've got time to stop and give me a look like that? You'd better get your arse back on your horse, before I tear you a new one.” Indicating the equipment he intended to use for that purpose, he bent down to her height, giving her the same look back. “You’re lucky I’m in a good mood. Now piss off.”
She does, angrily, as Jed turns up, crashing through the undergrowth, looking for her. He hadn't seen why she’d legged it – explaining that one minute she was picking berries and the next, going like shit off a shovel – confused by her sudden departure.
“You want to take better care of her. She led two whole bosses straight to us. I had to defeat 'em because of you. All by myself, no less.”
Taking in his explanation, his shock is obvious. “What? Kayn – they won’t be able to spend any of it in the town we left behind us. Or the one before that. They'll be arrested in a heartbeat. Did you warn them?”
“Oh no.” His head tipped to the side with a tut and a sigh. “Whatever are we going to do with me? Chop me up for firewood? I forgot.” Dishing out oatcakes and pats before taking up their water bucket and pulling himself up onto his bench again, his voice drifts, as gossamer as his breath in the air. “Oh no, wait...” Softer again. “Come back...”
Jed smirks, a sideways glance at the deliberate trick, as he turns away, a little jealous that he’d never have thought of his plan himself. “You'd better hope they don't catch up with us again.”
“I hope they do. Guards will be no match at all for them – and honestly? We need 'em.” Kayn turns back to his girls, and Axel is beside him out of thin air. Refusing to explain the overt and leering expression on his face, it provokes him into annoyance. “What?”
“Nothing.” Axel beams. “Absolutely nothing.”
“I didn’t hurt them.”
“I followed the rules.”
“Yep. I saw it all.”
“Not my fault what happens to them after that.” He starts his mares on their way, but Axel is still beatific, and some how winsome at the same time, which aggravates him all the more. “Can you not?” He squirms, uncomfortable but laughing. “Oh my days, Axel – stop looking at me so loud!”
Thank you for reading, here's my carrd.
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Copyright © 2021 by BB Chapman