Saturday, 31 May 2014

The Second Realm 7.3: Three Small Words

First Episode - Previous Episode - Season 1 Hub - Season 2 Hub - Season 3 Hub - Smashwords (all major ebook formats, pay what you like) - Next Episode

Photo © Hartmann Linge, Wikimedia Commons, CC-by

Innocent and Incomplete

3. Three Small Words

South of Vessit, the coastline bulged toward the eastern boundary of the First Realm. The land was poor, its settlements sparse. Pevan chose the area for her first sweep because it offered maximum time between stops to think of what to say.

Unfortunately, it also offered Chag more opportunity to make a nuisance of himself. When Pevan paused to sight a course inland, abandoning the steadily-more-inhospitable cliffs, he took a long breath and said, "So, am I forgiven?"

A small copse just West of due South offered as good a target to aim for as any. Pevan closed her eyes and reached for it, pulling it through her Gift to a patch of grass just before her feet. The Gateway drilled through and popped into place.

"Pevan?" Chag's voice had risen a notch.

She sighed and turned to face him. "Forgiven for what?"

"Whatever it is... whatever I did that upset you the other day." He looked down, chewing his lip.

Whether or not it was what he thought he'd done, he'd tried to 'cheer her up' by dragging her into bed. She fixed him with a glare. "Not good enough. You haven't even apologised, how can I forgive you? Do you even know what to apologise for?"

"How could I?" He frowned. "You haven’t said what's wrong."

"I shouldn't have to." She folded her arms.

"What, I'm just supposed to read your mind?" For a moment, he turned his shoulder, glancing out over the cliffs and the grey, choppy sea, but then he turned back. "I'm new at this, Pev. I don't know anything about it. If there's a problem, I'm lost. It's probably because I'm lost."

"Okay, let's start with this, then. You keep telling me you love me, but I don't think that's what you mean when you say it." She stepped backwards into the Gate, falling away from his perplexed gulp in response. She hadn't meant the words to sting, but something in her gut had twisted sharply, bitterly, as she spoke them.

She didn't give Chag the chance to recover. Before his feet had even hit the ground on this side of the Gateway, she had another open and was stepping into it. The broad, low sweep of the land here was perfect for quickly placing Gates of decent length; there were no close horizons to cut her view short.

At first glance, the terrain looked a lot like the rolling valleys around Federas, just flattened out. Other senses told a different story. The soil was hard underfoot, and the air dusty. Though the grass was tall, reaching almost to her knees, there was a tough, reedy quality to it that suggested it had fought hard to establish itself here. Everything seemed too dry, drained of colour to match the steely sky. The wind stung with a combination of coastal salt air and inland grit.

There would be no fertile farms here, and she wasn't sure she wanted to meet the goat or sheep hardy enough to graze this grass, never mind any people tough enough to herd and live off such an animal. But there were towns scattered across the rising inland territory; Wolpan had known of a few, and the same southern Gatemakers whose rounds touched Vessit also came out this way.

Pevan managed to keep Chag off-balance for a good dozen Gateways or more, pushing due South as closely as she could reckon it without the sun visible. They might have covered as much as five miles in that time. Eventually, though, she had to stop again and scan the horizon. Somewhere further south were mountains, the Keilan, and if they reached them, or even saw them, they'd gone much too far.

She didn't get much chance to look for smoke plumes, or anything else that would indicate civilisation. Chag followed her out of the Gate and, out of breath, began, "So... if I'm not... forgiven... why bring me... at all?"

"It was that or give Wolpan the pleasure of locking you up again." She turned and let him see her rolling her eyes. "And I'm not kidding about wanting your Witnessings available. It took me long enough to accept that the Separatists are actually going to attack Vessit, and I've met Ashtenzim. How I'd convince anyone else by myself, I don't know."

"You don't think I'll be more of... a liability than an aid?" Chag straightened up, eyebrow raised. "They might be... isolated out here... but everyone else seems to have heard of me."

Pevan turned slightly to look past him, squinting at the gentle undulation of the horizon. There was a blur off to the East that might have been smoke, though it could just as well have been a rain shower. "The thought did occur to me that the Separatists might have got here ahead of us, like at Ilbertin. If they want to stop us raising an army, it'd be the simplest way."

"You think they'd risk it?" Through his pause, Pevan could hear Chag forcing his breathing steady. "Don't underestimate the will of southern Gifted to defend our homes."

"I'd rather believe they'd risk it than believe they consider any army of ours so little threat that they wouldn't interfere." Pevan tried to force some of the tension from her face. It didn't work, so she put her back to Chag. Better if he didn't see her fear. "They can See everything we can do. If they're not interfering, it means we're not threatening their plan."

"Cheery thought." The cynicism seemed to shore Chag up a bit. She turned back and shared his dry, lopsided smile. "At least it should keep life interesting."

She snorted. "Haven't you had enough of keeping life interesting?" It was hard to swallow the surge of anger that accompanied that thought. Chag had been driving the interest factor of life in the North up for three quarters of a year now. She reached for another Gateway. If there was a town to the East, so much the better. If it was rain, they'd just have to get wet.

"I've had far more of life being boring." Face set in determination, Chag followed her through the Gate much more closely than he had before. "You haven't known uselessness until you've been a Witness in a southern town."

She rolled her eyes again and reached for another Gate. "Uselessness and boredom are different things. Uselessness is watching a hero like Temmer die because you couldn't get to her in time." The Gate swallowed her while Chag was still gaping, but by the time he emerged his face had gone a shade of thoughtful she'd learned to be wary of.

He said, "Would you trade places, then?"

Pevan's next Gate fell away uncompleted, fluttering and writhing down the back of her mind like paper in a fire. "No. No, I wouldn't trade. Look, I'm not going to deny that there's a thrill to being a hero, when fate hands you the opportunity. It's an honour and a pride to defend Federas." She half-raised a hand, then wondered what she'd been meaning to do with it. "But don't forget to count your blessings too."

"Will you hold it against me if I'm glad to be part of something bigger?" There was an edge of hope in his expression. She could tell he was wondering if this was something to do with what had made her angry at him.

"No, of course not." She twitched an eyebrow. "Just because you don't understand me doesn't mean I don't understand you." Then, with a deep breath, "For what it's worth, I'm glad you're part of this too. If the Separatists are waiting for us, or have got to any of these towns ahead of us, or something else goes wrong, I know you'll have my back, you know? You might be an idiot about romance, but as a Gifted I'd have you on my squad any day."

She cracked a proper grin at his speechlessness and grabbed another Gate.

The town they finally found, an hour and two showers later, was surprisingly large. It spread wide, with scattered houses on the fringes trailing into the rugged, wind-battered woodland that must have supplied most of their timber. It was called Orossit, and its six Gifted turned out to be all overweight and old. It took Pevan almost two hours to organise them, and she left with a mental note to check back that they'd actually stirred out of their chairs long enough to put her plans into action.

The story was much the same as she and Chag headed West again. Twilight meant they couldn't really refuse to stay the night in the next town, Regost, but at least there, the four local Gifted seemed appropriately alarmed by what Chag had to show them. There was more energy, more urgency, to the way they talked about organising other Gifted they knew, too. Perhaps it helped that the cloud cleared overnight, but Pevan left Regost somewhat more cheerfully than she'd arrived.

They managed two more towns that day, trapped for lunch at the second while another elderly and unfit Four Knot took an hour to find an out-of-date map. The food was good, and eating kept the grinding of Pevan's teeth from getting too obvious, but she was glad to be away. Returning to Wolpan without an army looked more attractive with each stop.

Following advice, they aimed further South, looking for a place called Yunec. Chag recognised the name when it was mentioned; Rissad had had some training there. Pevan took that as a good sign, hoped it meant that the Gifted of Yunec were a bit more devoted than their neighbours. The word that the Warder who'd given the advice had used was 'fanatical'.

It was a hilltop town, standing proud under blazing sunshine. It had clearly bordered a forest once, but now there was a field of long-dead stumps across the hillside and a log palisade at the top. Gnarled oaks with the twisted look of trees that had survived the Realmcrash stretched away to the West, where the jagged peaks of the Keilan glowed in the sun.

The palisade troubled Pevan. She asked the air, "Do they think that will keep a hungry Wilder out?"

"Noncs in the forest." Chag spoke gruffly, deep in his throat, as if worried about being overheard. If she was any guess, he felt too close to home for comfort, with Tendullor only a couple of hundred miles away.

"Noncs?" Not everyone had accepted the Treaty of Peace when the Gift-Givers had appeared with it at the end of the Realmwar. Those who objected most strongly had left civilisation behind and founded their own communities out in the Northern Wilds. What were Noncs doing down here? And why hadn't they died out long ago? It had been sixty years since the Treaty of Peace.

"Sure. You're surprised?" Chag paused, looked over at the forest, turned back to her. "You've seen what life is like down here. Is it any surprise people get sick of the Treaty from time to time?"

"People go and join the Noncs?" Dissent on that scale would be unthinkable in the North. Maybe that explained why the Southern Gifted seemed so resigned to mediocrity and irrelevance.

"Kids, mostly, running away from their parents." Chag managed to shrug disinterest and sneer contempt at the same time. "The Noncs don't let them leave, though, and every time one goes there's a new round of fighting. I guess this place is to Noncs as Federas is to Wildren. I hadn't realised how close to the forest it is."

A horrible thought dawned on her. "Yunec's Gifted... you don't think they got their reputation from using their Gifts against humans, do you?" She'd been sweating from the glorious day and the climb, but now her sweat turned cold as she looked up at the palisade again.

"What do you think?" Something in Chag's voice made Pevan really not want to look at his face. "We're hundreds of miles of well-defended countryside away from the nearest Sherim. I doubt anyone here has seen a Wilder, save for Gift-Givers."

"We can't..." Pevan swallowed. "We should go."

"You weren't so squeamish at Ilbertin." Chag was scowling at her, but she got the feeling there were other forces at play in him. Rissad had been here for a while, after all. "And these might be the best soldiers you can get for your army. I don't particularly want to go up there, either, but do we really have a choice?"

Pevan looked down the hill again. There were a lot of towns on the sweeping plains to the northwest, and somewhere out there were the Gifted whose vigilance kept Yunec's squad free to trample the spirit of the Treaty. On the other hand, perhaps this was the best way to bring such an abuse to light. The town clearly didn't need whatever Gifted it had, and she could probably engineer their reassignment to Vessit as 'punishment'. They deserved Wolpan, or worse.

She set off again, leaning into the hill, jaw fixed tight. Chag started to say something, but it came out as a strangled noise, as she forced him to scurry to keep up. Probably he didn't understand the significance of what was going on here, but there'd be time to sort him out later. If southern culture accepted this abuse of power, change had to start now.

Imposing though the palisade was, its main gate stood open. Pevan did her best not to look too angry. She wasn't here to judge and censure these Gifted; others would take care of that. She just had to get them to a place where their crimes could be exposed.

The gate opened to a rod-straight street that led right up to the Warding Hall door. There was no-one on it, no-one visible at all. Only plumes of smoke, probably from forges or bakeries, suggested the town wasn't abandoned. Pevan stalked down the street, nerves jangling.

She was already reaching for a just-in-case Gateway back outside the palisade when a voice rang out, "Pevan Atcar and Chag Van Raighan!"

The voice had the ring of sharp, masculine authority. It could have belonged to Sheriff Pollack, back home, except he spoke twice as fast. From back by the gate – hiding behind the gate panels, of course­ – came a rattle of sudden movement. A trap, and from the Sheriff's knowledge of her name, one that had to originate with the Separatists.

The Gateway tunnelled through Pevan's mind, drilling down like a whirlpool.

"I arrest you for-"

Up ahead, more movement, guards piling out through the heavy double-doors of the Warding Hall, bows in hand.

"-conspiring with Noncs-"

Reaching back to grab Chag's arm as the Gateway touched the underside of the road at her feet, but up ahead one of the guards wasn't waiting for his commander to finish posturing.

"-against the Treaty-"

Falling forwards into a puddle of glorious blue sky, with Chag's squawk of alarm – finally catching on – following her.

"-o-FIRE! They're-"

She rolled as they came out of the Gate, pulled Chag across on top of her, and the Sheriff's voice jumped a hundred yards away as the Gate snapped shut. Not the best first step, particularly if there was going to be pursuit, but there hadn't been time to get to know the terrain well enough to Gate further. She wriggled and Chag pushed himself clear.

By the town gate, guards were already forming up, readying their bows. Pevan sat up, trying to get her bearings. Chag heaved himself at her in a clumsy bellyflop and knocked her back down. She started to struggle, but he hissed, "In the trees!"

Lying prone with his elbow driving into one of her ribs made thinking quite hard. She closed her eyes, aware of bowstrings slapping with the first ranging shots. The hill would make the angle difficult for the bowmen by the gate, but not for any who were sensibly positioned in the wood.

Where would they not have covered? Pevan dragged her last Gate back into place and rolled through it while the second volley flew. Chag followed with another flop and they were rolling in the rough hardpack of the street. Pevan pushed up to a knee and then lunged upright, slamming into a body stepping out of a side alley right by where they'd emerged. Chag scrambled past at knee-height, almost seeming to float into the shade. Pevan grappled, slapped, lifted a knee to block an incoming jab, and the floor vanished.

Gateway. She didn't need the tingle running up her leg to tell her. Still locked in the grasp of her assailant – he was a big man, chest all hard bones – Pevan fell. One arm came free as the man grunted, and she flailed upwards, above her head, clawing for his face. There were too many arms waving around for just the two of them to account for.

Wherever they'd just fallen into, the man took the full force of the landing. She felt his knees buckle as Chag's weight hit him from on top. Something pressed on the bottom of Pevan's brain from the inside, the feeling of being Gifted too close to Stable Rods. It gave her a bearing – this would be the cell under the Warding Hall, the closest thing there was to a safe place to keep a Gifted.

Just like Chaiya at Ilbertin had tried to do. And this Gatemaker was strong enough to put a Gate in the ceiling of the cell, not the floor. Pevan could do that, of course, but she couldn't name more than a couple of her colleagues who could. Who might the Separatists have recruited?

Chag had the big man pinned, but probably didn't weigh enough to hold him down long. He wasn't wearing a guard's leathers, which made him most likely a Gifted. From the flamboyant red leather of his boots, one who thought rather a lot of himself. His eyes were open, but glazed, and from the way he was lying he'd cracked his head on the wall on the way down.

That wall should have been bars, not that it would have spared the man. Perhaps this wasn't a Warding Hall cell; maybe just one of the Sheriff's cells, coincidentally located near the Warding Hall. That might just, in this desperate circumstance, be an advantage. Not quite believing her own mind, Pevan wondered whether the felled Gifted would be of value as a hostage.

A Gate spun open in the wall to her left, to reveal a short, slight boy – he was two years older than her, she happened to know, but boy was in his face – wearing a lopsided, smug frown. He hadn't changed much since his brief stay in Federas, before she'd been Gifted. He said, "You're a disgrace to Temmer's memory, Atcar."

"One of us is, that's for sure." She stuck him with a glare learned from Dora. "Had a visit from Soan, Mallas?" And inside, she prayed, tell me he's not still here.

Chag had clearly been distracted enough to lose the upper hand against the big man on the floor. There was some grunting, a muffled curse, but Pevan kept her eyes fixed on Mallas'. The boy's face twitched, ever so slightly.

"He said some very interesting things." Mallas' frown flattened out, into genuine puzzlement. "Why'd you leave the Separatists?"

Pevan took a deep breath, picturing the street that ran between the Warding Hall and the gate. No telling where the guards would be by now, but maybe, if Soan hadn't thought of everything and Yunec had no strong Clearseer of its own, she could Gate to the front of the Hall and be out of the line of fire by a few inches.

"Pevan?" Sunlight streamed in over Mallas' shoulder. A rookie mistake, leaving his Gate in place. There wasn't a lot of street behind him, but it was empty.

She smiled slowly as her own Gate began to uncoil. "One of us is definitely a disgrace to Temmer's training."

The boy yelped as her Gateway swallowed him feet-first. She threw herself forwards, sailing over his head – the temptation was there to lower a knee and see if she could get him in the forehead, but the results would be chaotic at best – and through his Gate. For a hanging moment, anything could have gone wrong, but then she was through, scuffing her elbows on the sandy road surface.

She let her Gate close, hardly checking whether it was clear first. She didn't want to kill Mallas, but losing a leg might cut him down to size a little. Chag would have to trust her for a second while she got her bearings. High-pitched shouting already told her she wasn't far enough from the Warding Hall.

This close to the centre of town, she guessed choice of direction wouldn't matter much as far as getting to the palisade went. Her best bet was to get outside it and Gate back in for Chag. This alley opened to wider streets at both ends; she picked left and ran.

A Gateway let her cross the broader street without being seen, though she stumbled for a few steps on the other side, in another alley where the bare earth clearly didn't get enough sunlight to dry out from the winter. Behind her, shouting receded. She slithered down the alley and caught the end of the house there for a pause to check her bearings.

Mistake. A party of guards stood not twenty feet away, at a crossroads, two of them with bows held ready at their sides. One spotted her, shouted. Time yawned as she jerked back, slammed a Gate into the wall behind her, drilling its other end through to a turning along the street. An opportunistic arrow chopped into shingle behind her as she jumped through the Gateway.

She turned right and broke into a run while indistinct shouts chased around the houses. It was hard to judge where they were coming from, but that was probably a good sign. When it became easy, it would be because the guards were right on top of her.

The alley turned a sharp corner, faced onto another street. Two guards sprinted past without looking at her. Pevan paused, trying to knit her disordered bearings back together. The guards were headed for the palisade, if she was any judge.

They could cut her off pretty easily if she couldn't find an alley leading past them. This one would be no good. She edged to the end and peered out, then jerked back to avoid being spotted. There were guards waiting in both directions. How many did this place have? But of course, if there were regular problems with Noncs...

Her elbow stung. It was bleeding badly enough to drip into the mud. Out in the open, where the ground was dry, she'd leave a trail. She hadn't seen any sign of cover further down the street, just an unbroken terrace of smart, neat housing, running all the way to the end. It might have run all the way to the wall, but she couldn't tell for sure.

How good would these guards be at dealing with a Gifted? In Federas, when they'd been living in fear of Van Raighan's next strike, Pevan and Rel had tried to train some of Sheriff Pollack's men to deal with Gateways and Clearsight, and the guards had been hopeless. Would Soan have had time to be any more effective here?

Praying that he hadn't, Pevan stuck a Gateway in the wall behind her, its far end on the low-pitched roof of the terrace opposite. She poked her head through, only as far as her nose, and squinted to see if the guards noticed. With the extra few feet of height, the breeze was enough to sting her eyes, but it looked safe.

She crawled out onto the tiles, pressing herself as flat as she could, scraped elbow burning with the awkward angle. It wasn't enough. A shout went up, and she scrambled over the peak of the roof. Arrows clattered on terracotta. Head and body bowed, she ran, not much better than staggering.

The terrace did run almost all the way to the palisade, but there was a broad gap, maybe twenty feet, between the last tiles and the spiked tips of the logs. And the two guards who'd been waiting at that end of the street were already moving to intercept her. She wasn't going to be able to jump over the palisade from the roof.

Pevan reached out with a Gate, aiming behind the guards' feet. They weren't thinking right about handling a Gatemaker. One of them raised his bow. She dived sideways, off the roof, letting the Gate snap into place beneath her. There was a curse which jumped suddenly in volume as the Gateway opened.

She rose, hands first, behind the guards, reaching for the top of the wall. Her hands closed around the spikes, and she added her own heave to the momentum from the fall. Splinters stung her palms and fingers. She swung her legs up and over, released her grip as it turned awkward. Sailed over the top of the wall, barely avoiding catching her bleeding elbow on the way.

There was no time to put a Gate under her landing. Her feet struck the turf hard, and she bowled over backwards. Somewhere about the time her back landed, the wind went out of her, but then she flopped heels-over head. She wound up prone, her shin catching on something much harder than grass had any right to be – one of those tree-stumps, dammit.

How long would it take the guards to get a shot at her? With Mallas' help, if she hadn't completely put him out of commission, not long. Grunting something that tried very hard to be a coherent curse, Pevan pushed herself up onto her side and did her best to look around.

Forest stretched away from the bottom of the hill, blessed with shade and broken sight-lines. She couldn't see any guards down by the tree-line. The town couldn't have that many, could it? Pevan squinted, found a likely nook between tree-roots right on the edge of the wood, and put a Gate down. She rolled through and pushed to her feet with a groan.

Limping, wounded arm wrapped around her bowstring-tight diaphragm, she stumbled into the cover of the trees. She only needed to get far enough to be out of sight from Yunec, then she could Gate back, with a little thought, to somewhere on the plains to the North. The floor of the cell where she'd left Chag was lodged in her memory. She could Gate there from five miles away if necessary.

Something fell out of a tree on her, a sack of heavy bones that draped itself across her shoulders, pinning her arms. She almost fell forward, but her weight was caught. Pinned, she struggled, but the man holding her swayed with the motion as if he knew it was coming. Even through the aches and bruises, she could feel her heart sinking.

Only a Clearseer, and a decently strong one at that, could have worked out which tree she'd stumble under. He had the advantage on her in size, too, and probably strength with it. Why couldn't Yunec's Gifted be as indolent as Orossit's? She threw herself sideways against his embrace, to no avail. Mallas and the rest of the town's squad would be on their way.

Pevan went limp, because if nothing else it would keep the Clearseer occupied or force him to drop her. He'd See any Gate she could place coming, particularly if it affected him in anyway. If she could get free of him she could get away, but he wasn't showing any signs of yielding and she still couldn't breathe properly.

She dug in her heels and pushed against the man again. At least this time he had to take a step back. Something red – bright red – caught at the edge of her vision. His boots, Pevan thought, and it took a moment for the rest of the thought to register. Unless there were two large, male Gifted in Yunec with terrible taste in footwear, this was the man who'd grabbed her and Chag before Mallas had Gated them to the cell. It certainly made sense from their side to have a Clearseer make the catch, and Mallas could have got him here from the cell without difficulty.

They'd been so lucky to get the upper hand on him in the cell, but if he was here, that probably meant Chag was now alone. She'd just have to chance that he wasn't also unconscious, or guarded, or... maybe Mallas had been posted to keep watch on him. That would make a degree of sense.

Yunec's Warding fought back as Pevan reached out with her Gift, but even winded and still grappling, she sliced through it with an angry thought. The real question was how to give Chag the drop on the Clearseer. Maybe if she could trick her captor into thinking she was trying to get at him with a Gate instead.

She thrashed in his grip again, side to side, testing his balance. His hold stayed firm, but he did grunt and take another step. Pevan let the Gate snap into place, just wide of his feet. Whatever taunt he responded with was lost beneath her shout of "Chag!"

The Clearseer's sneering became a curse. Pevan swung her weight against him as he tried to move away from the Gateway. Chag's ratty old boots emerged from the opening, and there was a dry slap as one of them connected with some part of the Clearseer. The world reeled. Pevan felt as if she was kicking the planet away, fighting against gravity as much as the man who held her.

Soft mulch cushioned everyone's fall, and the Clearseer's grip finally gave. Gasping, Pevan rolled clear, almost on top of Chag. He surged upward, staggered as he took a share of her weight, and they tangled themselves to their feet. A Gate opened next to Pevan's just as she let hers close.

Lacking time for anything more, she slammed a Gate through the forest to the farthest patch of ground she could see and toppled through it, Chag in tow. Again, the world spun. Swearing voices, one of them unmistakably Mallas', chased them.

Pevan let the Gate snap shut the moment she felt it clear, and heard the glorious noise as whoever had been closest in pursuit plowed face-first into the forest floor where the other end had been. That still meant they were too close, though.

Chag started to say something, and his half-step away from her pulled her off-balance again. She had a Gate in place to catch them both by the time they fell, though, another hastily-grabbed twenty yards. Air rattled out of Chag in what sounded suspiciously like a laugh.

It took longer, this time, to get upright after the Gateway. Every second of it stretched while shouts from the pursuing Gifted bounced around the trees. Pevan held her nerve and took an extra couple of seconds to locate the tree-line to the North. The forest was cover, but it limited her range by sight alone and what they needed now was just as much distance as possible.

With the extra time, Chag was ready for the next Gate. She pushed its width out slightly and got them both comfortably through. It was smooth enough that she landed running. Chag yelped, but gave chase only a breath behind. Squinting for the horizon, Pevan reached as far as she dared and threw out a Gateway that would have made even Temmer jealous.

The Gate hung across her brain like red-hot wire. She really hoped Mallas would try to copy it. She let it go as quickly as she could once they were clear, fell back into a low run. They were out of range of any Yunec archer now, but there was still the off-chance that Mallas would be able to track her Gate.

Behind her, Chag moaned something through gasps. She called back, "One more, come on!" and it seemed to do the trick.

She kept the next Gate more reasonable, only halfway to the horizon, then dragged Chag through another just to be sure. When she turned to look back the way they'd come, she couldn't even see Yunec. Just flat, green plains and the occasional herd of sheep or goats.

Chag sank to the floor, then lay down. Pevan bent double to stretch her legs, then allowed herself to sit next to him. After a moment, Chag's panting turned into hoarse laughter. She cracked a smile. "How was that for keeping life interesting?"

"Hah... you had... all the fun."

"You came back in when I needed you." Pevan reached over and squeezed his hand.

He lifted his head out of the grass to look at her. "I was worried you'd leave me to stew in there for a while."

"I wasn't given much choice." She let him dangle from that for a moment.

"And if you had been?" Chag grinned, face distorted by the odd angle of his neck. "You weren't tempted to ditch me?"

He was fishing for more affection, she could tell. She rolled her eyes at him. "Don't push your luck. Of course I was tempted. But you don't leave members of your squad behind."

With a groan, Chag sat up. He took his hand back, wrapped his arms around his knees. "I'm not going to stop telling you I love you, you know."

Of course he wasn't. "They aren't magic words, Chag. You can't just say that and expect everything to work out like a fairy story." Pevan paused, pushed herself to her feet. Aches coursed up from her calves to her chest and back down again. She looked over her shoulder. "Back there, though, all that counts for a lot. Come on, there are plenty of other towns to visit."

* * *

Next episode

No comments:

Post a Comment