Alton and Sybil rode next to each other at the rear of the caravan, tossing the occasional shy glance at each other before smiling to themselves. Ivy starred on in disgust while Chickadee was quietly reading. There was nothing to do aside from sit in the back, as the mules only needed to obediently follow the line.
“I can’t believe we’ll be doing this for two weeks,” she said in a low and hateful tone.
Chickadee looked up from his book. “They’ll be fighting again soon.” He thought about it for a moment. “I bet one day.”
“I bet two days,” quipped Lydia, despite the two she was with not being able to hear her. “Alton is in a good mood. He might behave himself.”
“May I bet ten minutes and that the two of us find a way to force that to happen?” Ivy pleaded with Chickadee and he shook his head. “Then I’m going to sleep. We have watch tonight, so don’t forget to get some rest.” She moved to where a pile of blankets had been placed on top of the cargo boxes.
Lydia rolled her eyes. “I agree that we should work on finding a way to get those two to fight. I liked it better when he watched her from a distance instead of being all over her.” She was unsurprisingly ignored. “Then I suppose I just fly up and scout! On my own! Alone! Since no one seems to want to talk to me at all!”
Her glare at Alton was deflected by him flashing her a warm smile. He didn’t have time for her to nag at him about his immoral decisions. Sybil was happy. That’s all that mattered.
Chickadee crawled to the back of the wagon to where Ivy was. He stared at her until one of her eyes opened. He then looked down, tapping two of his fingers together bashfully.
“What?” She sat up and stared back. Chickadee muttered something too low for her to hear. “Do you seriously have trouble sleeping alone?” He nodded and her face grimaced. “And I thought Toval was the pervert in the group.”
“... I’m cold.” He muttered as he felt ashamed for even asking.
“I’m not Tish or one of those other floozies you snuggle with,” she spat back. Chickadee gave an understanding nod and crawled over to the corner of the wagon. He curled up in a small, shivering ball. “... Alright fine.” He immediately sat up again. “You’re the pillow, and I will slice you open if you dare touch me inappropriately.” Chickadee crawled over and removed his cloak so Ivy could nestle up on his shoulder. With a quilt and their cloaks as added warmth, the two uncomfortably cuddled with each other until they fell asleep.
In the front wagon, Zaniyah and Anais were sitting on the driver’s bench. Anais’ still unnamed wolf was hanging out in the back. The open design of the wagons made it so that there was no safe place from the cold. Zaniyah stretched out her legs for a moment and shivered. This was more boring than she imagined it would be.
“It’s really going to take two weeks?” She passed a frown to Anais.
“I’m hoping for nine days myself, but honestly that’s being optimistic,” Anais replied. “We need to stop every three hours to give the animals a brief rest, and to make sure their hoof shoes are keeping out ice. We’ll be fine at first because we’ll be on the military path, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it gets worse when we get near Carapace.”
Zaniyah slumped forward in her seat. “Nooo…” Normally she didn’t mind traveling, but she was riding separate from nearly everyone. It was better when they were all grouped together and could talk whenever they wanted.
“I’m certain we’ll find a way to keep you entertained.” Vincent had rode up alongside them so he could listen in on their conversation. “Sir Moss would appreciate it if you caught up on your reading. We may have finished up our classes, but you still have tests to take.”
“All I heard you say was that we finished up our classes.” Zaniyah smiled at the paladin. “It’s all warfare and combat from here on in. I’m going to be running around killing tainted beasts left and right until the core is safe for everyone!”
That wasn’t what Vincent wanted to hear, but there wasn’t anything he could say that would change her mind. Zaniyah would always do whatever it was she wanted. “I’ve asked for permission to transfer into Sir Trewarne’s unit with you.”
“Seriously?!” Zaniyah lit up at the idea. “But I thought you said you wanted to work with your family’s church. Don’t let me get in your way.”
“My family can manage without me and your work is far more important. It will do well to have someone who can manage healing magic within your unit. I would prefer to be that someone.” The two smiled at each other lovingly.
“We don’t have a healer in Horsetalon,” muttered Anais with a far off look. “We’re also supposed to be on tainted beast patrols... I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do to contribute.” She let out an uneasy sigh. “But Mister Kindrick and Chi are going to be there. I know nothing bad is going to happen as long as those two are around.”
“That other guy is going to be there too, so you can be useless with him right?” Zaniyah tilted her head while Anais was confused. “The one guy with those lightning blades that come out of his hands! They go brrawrr and zap!” She made swinging motions with her fists.
Anais nodded. “N-Naiov! I mean, Mister Furrow!” She wrung her hands together nervously. “I suppose he will be there as well.” Her cheeks flushed at the thought.
Zaniyah patted her shoulder. “See? Everything will work out for everyone once we get there, but it’s the getting there part that is going to be a pain.”
Behind them a little ways was Gwyn, who couldn’t make out what anyone else was saying. She was tossing the occasional look at Veximarl. He had resigned himself to avoiding everyone so that he might study some. However, the book in his lap may as well have been written in a foreign language, as he was too distracted to be able to make any sense of it.
This was happening any time he found himself without something to keep him busy. He would blink and he would hear Tish’s voice in his ear, or feel her touch against his skin. Veximarl was certain he was going mad at this point. It was starting to cause him to lose sleep. The memories of that night were morphing into a demon that was robbing him of his abilities to function.
“Are you alright?” Gwyn’s question snapped him to attention. “I’m not asking because I care or anything, I’m still not your friend but I thought I should let you know that you’ve been on the third page of that book for the past hour.” Her eyes darted from the book to him again. “... You are normally not this strange. I will stress that you are strange. You are a very weird person, Mister Tuton, and I thought you should know that as well.”
Veximarl closed the book and let out a quiet laugh. “I haven’t been getting much sleep lately due to the weather. Thank you for your concern.”
“Does this have anything to do with that panic attack you had at the party?” He shook his head. “Did Tish do something to offend you? You and her were missing in the morning.”
He replied by nervously laughing again and shaking his head, which confirmed her suspicions. It was impossible to not to notice that Veximarl would sprint away whenever Tish was nearby. The fact that Tish would sulk around with a pout on her face afterward was just as noticeable.
“Nonsense! Tish is a valued friend of mine and a fellow squad captain. I hesitate to view her as anything else. Isn’t it the same for yourself?” He smiled at her. “You were in the same squire program at Petalmist?”
“There were other duties of mine that kept me from attending school full time. Ivy would know more about her.” Veximarl nodded at her statement. His intrigued expression was appearing more and more fake with every passing moment.
“I see. It must be nice to go to Braytons with long time acquaintances.” She frowned at his disinterest.
“I suppose it is.” She squinted at him and then shook her head. “Follow me to the back.”
Veximarl followed Gwyn through the small gap between the wagon and driver’s bench. This one was also full of boxes. He clambered over them and made himself comfortable while Gwyn looked for a spot. She chose to sit on the opposite side of Veximarl, who was now overly suspicious of any female who asked to meet him in private. He curled his knees towards his chest and put on a frown.
“Is there no concern for the mules becoming distracted?” He gave a quick glance to the driver’s bench.
“Ivy and Mister Cully are most likely already asleep. We won’t be the only ones who have abandoned our post, and Remi will complain if he sees an issue. There may be a few minutes to talk before that happens.” Gwyn took a moment to stretch her back. She had been sitting on the driver’s bench for awhile. It was nice to be able to stretch out.
“You are referring to Sir Moss by his first name?”
Gwyn shrugged. “He’s not that much older than us and he doesn’t seem to mind.” She shook her head at the idea. “Don’t heed my own squad. What did Tish do? Is it something that Ivy and I need to address with when we get back?” She produced a waterskin from underneath her cloak and began to sip from it.
“It is nothing much.” Veximarl scratched at the side of his temple. “The swamplands are infamous for harsh winters and I have had some bad experiences. Those memories had been affecting me negatively. Tish offered to let me have some tea in her room and tell me stories of her youth. Mostly she told me that her home life wasn’t the easiest for her.”
Gwyn sniffed at her waterskin before searching through the pockets of her cloak. She retrieved some dried berries and began to slip them into her drink. “I had heard a rumor that she was boarding at Petalmist while her brothers attended paladin studies in Grand Temple. I don’t know if this has anything to do with it, but priestesses of Eatha are… Fogbloom is a cruel place. I don’t believe she had permission to go to Braytons.
She won’t have a home to return to. I certainly don’t, but pay no heed to that. Regardless of the circumstances, women are supposed to be nothing but obedient. Abandoning one’s duties is the worst action we can take.” Her voice trailed off for a moment. “There is no going back once we have disobeyed our orders.”
“She had said something along those lines, but I failed to understand the severity of the situation.” A heavy weight appeared within his chest. “Having thought about it, I believe that night was about the both of us attempting to find a way to fill a void within ourselves. Company that would distract from bitter memories, or perhaps the hope that someone would come along will save us.”
Gwyn gave him a judgemental look. “Regardless of how you choose to phrase it, it doesn’t change the fact that you engaged in intercourse.” Veximarl couldn’t bring himself to look in her direction. His eyes darting to the side as nose scrunched up uncomfortably. Occasionally his mouth would open, but no sound came out. She tsked her tongue at his response. “I knew it.”
“It was an accident and I haven’t ceased feeling terrible about participating in such a horrific display of lust. We were both vulnerable. Perhaps we are both to blame, but I feel as though I have used her for my own gain... I wasn’t even emotionally invested in her, and I-” He cut himself off and put a hand to his mouth. Those memories were flooding back to him again.
There wasn’t an excuse. The flavor of the candy they had shared was gone, but they were sharing progressively needy nips and kisses. At one point, his jacket slipped off, and then her robes, followed by a tumble onto the floor and... That was that. It happened so quickly that his mind didn’t have the chance to understand that he should have protested.
The point was that he should’ve stopped but it was like he had lost the ability to. Her fingers felt hot again his skin and they remained intertwined as they rolled about in an effort to cast aside the rest of their clothing. Words escaped the both of them. They spoke only in pleasured sighs, gentle bites across the skin, and low moans.
Veximarl held her until she fell asleep before he sulked off to his own room. Any euphoria was gone, replaced with shame and regret. There was no way he could apologize for his behavior… What he did was wrong. He had performed a horrid, vile, and inexcusable act.
“I lost my virginity in Carapace,” muttered Gwyn in a flat tone. The haunted daydreams fled Veximarl in an instant. He sputtered and stared at her wide eyed with his hand still clasped over his mouth. “Don’t you dare lie and claim that wasn’t your first time, and take off those glasses when I’m talking to you. They’re far worse than your eyes are.”
Veximarl pulled out a box from his cloak and placed his glasses within them. He hadn’t worn them in a long time, but the thought of being away from Braytons was leaving him feeling guarded. “... Apologies.”
Gwyn looked off to the side. “Not of word of this to anyone else. I will ignore what happened to you if you keep quiet about what I’m about to say.” Veximarl nodded and Gwyn frowned at him for a moment. She studied his face before continuing. “... There was a gentleman whom I fancied and I made an attempt to court him.
No… That statement is incorrect. I may have ambushed him within his room and pleaded with him to make love to me in a futile attempt to secure a place by his side.” She rolled her eyes. “I was quite pathetic about the entire ordeal. It’s embarrassing to even think about.”
“Was it truly that horrid?” As terrible as Veximarl felt afterward, he couldn’t get over how good he felt while it was happening. That was the part that haunted him the most.
“No, it didn’t hurt all that much, but I… I can’t get out of my head how foolish I was.” Now Gwyn was the one who was hanging her head off to the side. “It was someone I was working with closely and I grew to admire him a great deal. He’s handsome, comes from a good family, and is perfect in an immeasurable way. I approached him when I knew he’d be alone, dropped my dress, and demanded he that take me.
He took pity on me and then he carried on afterward as though nothing had happened. We were once again like strangers to each other. It was as though it hadn’t even mattered. Any time I attempted to ask about it, he would gaze at me in a frigid manner and say that that night shouldn’t have happened... Now that I’m going back to Carapace again, I… I don’t know what I am to do. What if I’m assigned to work closely with him again?”
“If it makes you feel better,” replied Veximarl, “I don’t think anyone can engage in coitus with another without feeling anything. There is always some emotion there. It may be love, or admiration, but it could easily be detestment or anguish.” For him, it was anxiousness. Tish made him feel anxious.
“The thought of him hating me does nothing make me feel better,” she whispered.
“I am not very good at this type of conversation. Apologies, but it is only serving to add to my current anxiety... I am overwhelmed with worry that Tish may be in the exact same state of mind that you are in now, and I realize that my treatment of her as of late has been completely inexcusable.
What we did was a temporary bandage on our insecurities. I am not her shining knight, nor is she my princess. I know that, but I do not know how to phrase that to her.”
Hearing him say that both hurt Gwyn and gave her insight. “During this mission, would it be alright if I contacted you once in awhile? By letter? Ivy will only encourage me to play the fool once again. I would prefer it if someone with a solid mind gave me the reasoning I so desperately need.”
“That would not bother me in the slightest,” he replied.
“We’re still not friends,” she quickly added.
“I would never ask you to do that against your will, Miss Hewitt.” He smiled at her, and she gave him a nod. That seemed to be the most gratitude she would show in him.
“Oh, uhm,” she closed her eyes and quickly shook her head. “I’ve rarely mentioned it, because we are not friends, but what you did… When you insisted that we help out the third years win the war of the years, and the way you took on Kindrick by yourself… That was rather admirable of you.”
“... Thank you.”
“But we still aren’t friends or anything like that.”
“I understand that clearly. There is no need to keep mentioning it.”
“Good… As long as you understand.” Gwyn pointed to the driver’s bench. “I am going to go back to work. Please take the time you need to rest.”
They carried on until dusk. Chickadee jumped down and began to build the fort that they would use for the night. A normal journey would have them stopping at whatever tavern was available, but they chose to make their own shelters when they could for the sake of moving faster.
Chickadee waved his cane about, and walls of stone sprung out of the ground. One room was for the horses and mules and troughs were made for feed. Warm water was put in to keep them hydrated and those assigned to tend the animals went about checking them for injuries and to make sure their fur was dry.
Next was the housing area. It was a room above the animals, so that heat would travel upwards. A small sheltered area was placed on the roof, where the night guards would be set up. Finally was the wagons, which wasn’t difficult. Sealing them off with walls was enough protection from the elements and thieves.
It took around an hour for him to complete it and he would collapse it at dawn. Such a structure wasn’t made to last, and he didn’t want it to fall down on unsuspecting travelers in need of shelter. The group left early in the morning and the following days of travel fell into a boring routine.
As they entered the heavier fog that surrounded the base of the Crimson range, travel became slower. Here was where the military paths broke off. The main roads leading to the city were becoming blocked off by snow.
The squires had to be in a constant alert for anything that could be hiding in the mist, and the faint foul scent of miasma could be detected in the air. It was fortunate that they were able to find an abandoned inn that evening, as Chickadee was becoming weary of building shelters every night.
The animals were set in stables and given dry hay to rest on. Others were relieved to have beds instead of thin bedrolls. They made sure the surrounding area was secure before turning in for the evening. Tonight would be focused not on setting up a guard, but on finally getting a good night’s rest.