CW: Drug Use.
“Hey, it's you! Are you done doing prince stuff now?”
“I am. Where's Eliza?”
Off the beaten track, and in the surrounding woodland, Axel approached as Kayn stood in a clearing, a dog at his heels and a baby in his arms. The site in the distance behind them was slowly turning from derelict and neglected into something homely and inviting, not least because of the smell of livestock cooking and the fires which contributed to that, but there was music and chattering as the people worked at their various undertakings within the larger group. There were also plenty of children in David's group to entertain and teach, many of them orphaned and otherwise made destitute by Albion's design.
“Doing a piss. You know she's only fifteen? She's got five of these to look after with the others here. None of them are her own family. She must be bloody knackered.” He played with the infant he was holding, cooing and jiggling at her to her delight. A shock of jet black hair against her ivory-cream skin was offset by blazing, blood-red eyes. “So, are they coming with us or not?”
“Henrik and Radulf will come until we reach the cliffs where the horses cannot climb down, and bring the mares back here for Cudjél and Moord to collect, and they'll give us two unmarked crows as well.” At that, a nearby bird cawed loudly as if in agreement with him.
“That's good of them. A good plan. They'll show a lot of people the way then. Henrik's pretty good with that dart pipe.”
“Heh, yeah. Jed's gonna be so annoyed by watching his back.” He laughed. “The rest don't know if they want to follow or not yet. David says they want to wait a while. I can see why they're nervous.” He placed hand on his arm. “You know we can't make them come, right?”
“I know.” Kayn is oblivious to the question, the baby laughing and clapping at his silly songs and fart noises. In a camp filled with people he is in his element, enjoying the new company and all of the gossip that came with it.
“Aha! Look at you two standing there looking like a perfect family!” Eliza returned proving she was really there the whole time. “You can keep her if you want!” She laughed, holding her arms out for the child, reassuring Axel that she was only kidding.
Kayn sulked at her advance, turning away from it and blowing a raspberry over his shoulder at her, and giggling when it was returned by the little one in his arms. “Nooo, not yet... just a bit longer...”
The girl, relieved, stretched out her muscles and appreciated the newly arrived sun on her face, petting the mutt that shadowed them. “Take all the time you want, honestly. Will you be walking back or staying out, then?”
“We'll come in now with you. I want the fire. Come on, Skidmark...”
Axel coughed. “Are you talking to the dog or the baby?”
“Rude of you. The kid's called Evanne, actually. Although, I dunno if you've ever seen inside a napkin before.” He pulled a face.
Reaching the outbuildings, Eliza took the baby back, insisting it is time for her nap, and Kayn wrapped his arms around himself, missing the feeling of the child against his body, waving at her waving at him.
“I know. Soon.”
Metal hit wood, for the nth time that day. An impromptu quarters had been set up seperately nearby while the Sanguine waited for Reed's return, where Tristin was conducting target practice with Henrik's ax. Recovered enough to sit outside again, Jed was now in full flow, loud about how hard it was to hold back and not end the kid for what he'd done to him, Axel doing his best to change the subject before he could dwell on it for too long.
“You did so well persuading him, though. They gave us so much information. He's gonna be talking about us for years.”
“Why did the New Guard have to choose the word 'protectors' to represent themselves though? I really hate that. David's face when he described them...” Jed shook his head. The more he talked the more Tristin was demonstrating how it is that he won’t execute his enemies, not that he can’t – with Issané still in the temple decompressing from over exerting her power adding an extra layer to his annoyance. “It ain't fair that people are driven to live like that. Like it's expensive to be comfortable. How are they going to overcharge for comfort? for a full belly? It's so fucked up. That ax cost me nothing. A meal and a minor inconvenience. Still, Tris. You'd better not break it before I get a turn, I'm gonna build the biggest fire you've ever seen with it.”
Kayn was enthused by the image he conjoured in his mind. “Ooooh, I want to see that!”
“If I can build it big enough, I'll name it after him. Or no. After the baby, if Reed gets a name. Least I can do after being this close to making his wife a widow.”
“Do you want to stop saying that?” THWACK “Because I want to stop hearing it.”
Kayn nodded, sage. “Yeah, Tris is right. Like, there's kids involved. We've got to be more careful from now on.”
Knowing that Tristin could best him on any given day, Jed is thankful that on this that they are friends, slightly unnerved by his show of irritation. Less of an ax, it was more of a splitting maul. Didn't matter, how hard Tristin was throwing. He laughed at realising it. “That's not a weapon, it's a tool. Axel, get it off him before he ruins it.”
“I like it because it's heavy. If I wanted blades, I'd be using them.”
Axel held out his hand. “And yet, here you are giving the Random Ax of Kindness to me.” He shook his head in mock disbelief. “So weird.”
Reluctantly, he handed it over, taking the roll of throwing knives and spreading it out instead. “You're twisting my bellend, man... We're not calling it that. Stop trying to make it a thing.”
“But what about defence? We know the cities have guards that even Sal keeps out of the way of. Towns? Worse, somehow. Less guards, but more with the, 'You're not from round here' braver types. You know, Ordinary People. Villages, though? Those stricter hierarchies? They're worse than that. And so what about these protectors, now they're added to that then? We don't know anything about them, or their plans.”
“Yeah, no. We don't. And if they're working for those Albion pricks, I for one am going to keep it that way.”
“Oh, mine's wearing off. Is yours?”
“Mmm. Shall I make another batch?”
“You got enough for everyone?”
“Really? Everyone? Even Reed?”
“Yeah, It'll be fine. Just put it all in the kettle. I'm making porridge. With honey.”
“Ohh, I want some of that.”
Issané had returned, the evening drawn in, and the Sanguine were stretched out, blankets and cushions and lamps all around. Quiet for an hour or so after dinner, Kayn chattered now. “So what was the deal with that tea? It was really grassy tasting? Are we that low on supplies?
“No.” Issané sat up. “I put grass in it...?”
“Eww. Grass? Why would you do that?”
“Because it's grass? Like, you know? Not grass, grass. Highweed? Dunno why but It grows like mad up here. I thought you knew? I've been collecting it along the way. Tris, you were meant to warn them...”
“Hm?” Tristin looked up. His head wobbled slightly as he blinked slowly at her, through the steam off his bowl. Remembering a thing scrunched up his face, before straightening it out again, his eyebrows raised. “Oh... Guys. There's, like, weed. But, you know, it's in the tea. Because she can't smoke any more.” He realised his mistake when she punched his arm and coughed, over the top. Deciding he didn't give a fuck today, he went with it anyway. “Yeah, you know... No thanks to Kayn...”
Axel stirred, from where he hadn't yet realised his head was resting in Kayn's lap. “Am I... high? Wait a minute. Is that what this is?” Looking down from above, Kayn had his head resting on one hand, one eye closed, trying to focus on him. The other hand patted him on the back, encouraging him to rest easy again. “Oh my stars,” he giggled, as he lay back down, getting the furs all around him again. “Yeaaaah, man. Tea is different to a smoke. My toes are all tingly...”
“Mh. Jed's out cold, look.” Kayn smiled, serene, yet mildly concerned. “Someone needs to get him on his side and wedge him there otherwise he'll snore like mad.” His grin widens at Axel’s overt reaction to his words.
“Is he going to be alright?” Issané signed. “I didn't think I made it that strong?”
“Yeah. No, it's not. It's taken a bigger dose than this to take him down before. I think he just needs the rest more than anything else right now, so that's what he's doing.” He paused as Kayn helped him to sit, failing to get up himself after three tries, tangled up in quilts. “He'll sleep like a log, probably.”
“A log? Not, like, a rock or some kind of really big stone?”
“Nope. A log.” He strained against the bulk he couldn’t shift alone. “A heavy as fuck one.”
“One with, like, a saw going through it. That'll be the sound he makes. It'll kill all of our buzzes. There's a joke there. Ahh.. I can't get to it... Nope. Never mind.”
It takes three of them to move his dead weight onto his side – all laughing, falling on top of each other, and tucking him in, shushing each other in the end – when they realise one of them is not joining in. Arms crossed, Reed's unimpressed, critical glare at them turned into a sneer, before he realised they are all looking at him, and a smirk changed into a snort. “You little...” He looked down, trying to hide his mirth, before failing and starting to laugh at them himself. “I'm gonna kill you for this.”
“You can try...” Issané's raised eyebrow met his.
Axel's squawk at that is loud enough to make Jed open an eye for a beat or so. “Yes, Issané!” He turned back to Reed. “You're the super serious one who ties himself up in knots to save us all, and now you're the one going to kill us?” His laugh is almost maniacal in the silence, and he looks to the others. “Don't you think that is funny? Talk about cheetahs and goats...”
“I don’t know who you think is raising who around here, baby boy. You might be the leader, Prince Axel of Wherever it is We Are Now, but I am still First Sanguine.”
A ripple ran through their audience, with a collective, ‘Oooh...’ and Axel felt all eyes on him in anticipation. “First? First??” He mocked. “Look at me, everyone. I was here first, everybody. I'm the oldest. All of you listen to me. I've brought life into the world, therefore I am a god now.” He smirked himself, waggling his fingers in the air. “Ancient Reed's ancient wisdom... ness. Gather round and listen everyone. Old father time has something of dire importance to tell us all.”
Reed looked uncomfortable suddenly in the spotlight, until he lifted his leg and let rip, sending them all into hysterics, which doubles when the smell follows the sound. “There's your wisdom, High Elf Axel De Klaark of Elvenshire or wherever the fuck it is you came from...”
“High Elf!” Axel ignored his rudeness, his silent, mouth open laugh interrupted by clapping which drew attention to Issané, but none of her signals are making any sense, at least not until she can sit upright again.
Confused, the others wait until they can understand her. “Reed... He said...” Scribbling a note instead, marking the letters bold for all to see, she holds it aloft. “Reed said fuck!”
While they claim that the smell is making their eyes water, and Tristin put down his bowl, pushing it away from him, he simply retorted, “Well, I do keep telling you not to put milk in everything and you never listen... You know I can’t have it.”
“We haven't had milk in months! Next you'll be blaming the squirrels!”
“But have you ever smelled a squirrel's fart, though?” He laughed and nudged Axel with his boot. “And anyway. There’s no way to know who was first out of the two of us. We were just alone before that.”
Curled up together, Kayn continued a thread of questioning that'd been a recurring theme since his return, not even bothering to look up from where his head lay. “Did you see a baby, Reed?”
“How baby was the baby?”
He looked at Axel looking up at him, and slow blinked. “So, We’re not alone out here then now, are we? It's not gonna be just us?”
“Can't wait to get off this road, though.”
“And we can, now we know where we're going?”
“Yep, all thanks to Issané.”
Tristin huffed at that. “At least you all still had your trousers on. Fucking flapping around in the wind out here...”
“You know what I miss?” Thinking of home, Reed's jibe reminding him of it, had sent Axel off on a tangent once his wheezing had finally died down. “I miss really little things like my Dad's stew. Like, because we sailed around and traded, we had the pick of the best foods around, and he would just... I dunno how he did it, but he put everything in a pot, all the spices, all the herbs, and it was just, magic. It must only have been magic. He just knew what vegetables went together, barely looking, going by touch instead, but it didn't matter in the end because the ingredients were just so good. I've never even seen that dish since I stepped onto dry land, let alone smelled anything like it. But the fruit though? You've never tasted anything that good before in your life, but wow, the texture too? Have you ever peeled and eaten a mango off the stone over the side of a boat, washing your hands and face in the sea? It's not the same over a trough... And I swear nothing gets ripe up here. It's too cold. It's sad they won't grow where we're going. Figs, and mangos and bananas – put your honey on those! If only cooking and sailing were things I gave a crap about – I might be there still. But no, he said to me, 'Kid, get off my ship and find your own calling. Don't come here pretending that this is what you want out of life. I can see it when I look at you. Take your mother's stories, and go and wander. This is mine. Get your own.'” He smiled, fond. “Oh wow, I haven't talked about him like that for ages. That felt so nice.” Kayn, rapt, made to bring a drink while Issané signed not to give him more cider, but water instead, laughing when he guzzled it, and sighed, “Sina's grace. Water...”
“Then we'll get onto the mango people to find you some, when we get home.”
“Mango people!” Axel is slain again, legs in the air, on his back, choking. “What the fucking hell just came out of your mouth? You can't say that around here!”
“I didn't mean...”
“I know what you meant, just, don't say that out loud again. I'm telling you now, if David hears you, you'll get your head kicked in.”
“Not as sorry as you're gonna be when he sends Henrik over here to do it. You're too cute to risk it. So don't.”
As they settled again, Issané's second wave is kicking in. “It's so nice to have just, like, one thought at a time.”
“Mmmh I know. Relaxing, innit?” Tristin righted himself to look at her, getting up to the cook-fire anyway. “So, then. What ya thinking?”
“Nothing...” She grinned up at him. “Like... At all.”
“Am I hungry?” Axel enquired. “Are we hungry?”
“Tristin's making another round of porridge.”
“Ah no, but I need crunch, though.”
“Is mango crunchy?”
They give up waiting for an answer to this question, since Axel is still laughing about it ten minutes later. Thinking he'll wake Jed – although he stays true to their predictions, out cold and blissfully unaware of it – their shushing him does absolutely nothing to shush him. Watching the sleeping hellion for a minute, he grinned again. “Isn't he cute, though? All tucked up like that? So pretty. I've always thought of him as pretty, don't you?”
Tristin sneered good-naturedly, handing around the food, pleased by their appreciative noises at eating it. “What? Tall, dark, and devastatingly handsome? Plays with fire? Would defend you with his dying breath, even if you tried to kill him? I guess he’s a catch, if you like that sort of thing...”
“I like how shiny his hair is.” Remembering, Kayn flapped, albeit lazily, “Oh man, you should have seen the drawing Tris did of Issané the other day. Did you keep it, Tris? Show it to everyone. It was really, really good.”
He’d been watching her look at one of his books, across from him in the firelight. Catching her at the perfect angle, he couldn't help himself, sketching fast, before returning to it to complete it later. The others, well used to the quality of his artistry by this time, are impressed by the effort put into this one as they pass it around. Issané sees the tension still between them when he speaks again, passing it back to him.
“Ah, Tris, I told you. That is a good one. You really caught her well there. Pretty.”
He grunted at him, the fierceness in his scowl still telling him to back off, and he does, heeding the warning, sitting away from them, while Issané, defiant, moved to sit closer. Seeing the attempt he was making, and how hard he was trying, she plopped her arse firmly down on the log beside him. Resolved to fix all animosity still between them by forcing Tristin to speak for her, she indicated that he is left without a choice now, making Axel and Reed jeer.
“Pretty? The drawing, or me?”
“What?” Kayn was still confused by most of the things she signalled, even if he pretended he wasn't.
She rolled her eyes. “Didn’t you hear me?”
Tristin snorted at her snark. “Stop trying to guess what she’s saying. Let her tell you. It’s all in the eyebrows. You’ve got to watch her face and her hands. Look at her eyes. She'll not turn you to stone, Kayn.”
She signed slower. “Do I need to say it louder for you?”
“I'm not Deaf...”
Issané gestured between Kayn and Axel. “Nope, but some nights I wish I was.”
“Oh! I got that one!” Kayn blushed, radiant, as Reed guffawed in agreement before checking his undisguised behaviour, reigning it in again.
“You didn't answer my question. Am I pretty...?”
“It's okay. You don't have to tell me now.” She went slowly, making him concentrate. “Why don't you tell Tristin about Cúdjel and Moord instead?”
“I don't want to argue about the map again, Issané. Can't we just drop it?”
“When you've told him why you gave it away.”
“Because of the horses.”
“Because they were going to search the dray.”
“Because you were hiding from them in there.” She held up her hand to her ear, supercilious, gesturing that he should repeat himself, and continue on for the benefit of the group – a song which would be music to her ears, and he sighed. “I gave the map away to protect Issané from attack. Tris, I'm sorry I couldn't sell it, I had to sweeten the deal we were making, we need them on our side if we run into them again. Stars in the fucking sky, why couldn't I have just said that before?”
“You weren't even using it properly, anyway!” She crowed, clapping again. “If you were, you'd be there by now...”
Trying very hard to ignore her 'you care about me, ha ha, how gutting for you!' dance in Kayn's direction, Tristin is cowed too. “Why didn't you say-”
She cut him off, abrupt. “None of my business what goes on between you two.”
“Kayn, I didn't know.” He is genuinely sorry, and wanted him to know it. “I should have given you room to tell me. It was shitty of me not to – no wonder we argued. Listen, I don't want to fight with you any more...”
“Me neither. But... I mean for real. After Issané, and Jed and Henrik,” He tic'd as the memory of the recent violence they had been through slid down his spine, “I don't want to fight any more. Like, at all. Tristin, listen to me, you've had the right of it this whole time. I don't want to fight anyone any more. I need to turn this, I don't know what to call it – survival mode, I guess – off? I just want to go home.” He reddened, aware that everyone was turning to him. Even Jed had opened one eye and had it trained on him. “I'm not doing it any more. If we're as close as we keep saying, then let's just go the fuck home.”
Agreement ran through the Sanguine, all except Jed, who looked confused. Chewing over the enormity of what had just been said, his eyes narrowed in his way. “Okay, great. That's fantastic news and all, but could someone please explain to me why the fuck I've woken up high as fuck?”
Thank you for reading, here's my carrd.
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Copyright © 2021 by BB Chapman