With the evening’s dark settling in, they waited out the day beneath the forest cover, every sense on high alert. Aris didn’t return. He’d achieved his goal in felling the Ajnai, and Llew’s stomach clenched over the thought of his hunt for Aenuks resuming. How long until he found her mother? How long before he learned of the Taither tree? They set out down the road at a trot, easing back to a walk when the initial panic subsided. They weren’t free of danger by any means, but there was little they could do about it than be fresh should a fight come to them.
Llew relished the ride. Her body was no longer in agony and she was whole again.
They passed Hinden by and stopped in the middle of nowhere to eat a dinner of dry bread and saliferous meat provided by the Taither Barracks’ kitchen far too long ago. They had yet to attempt buying fresh food within Turhmos but, with their dwindling supplies, they would need to soon.
Jonas suggested they stretch their appetites till they reached Merrid and Ard’s. Merrid would look after them like they were her own children come visiting, but that didn’t make Llew feel much better about the trouble they might be leading to the couple’s door. Still, all things considered, it was the best move they had.
They rode through the night, the brisk wind whipping at their backs for the first half, an oppressive stillness settling for the second. They sought shelter when a hint of purple touched the horizon, and the now-still air began to condense to a misty fog. Hisham praised the weather for the extra cover it would give them, even as it seeped through their clothes, chilling them to their bones.
They found a clearing big enough to take the cart into and deep enough to shelter them from the day’s travelers. Now they had been spotted by the flying Turhmosians, they had to assume hunting parties would be seeking them, but with a lack of any magical way to disappear, all they could do was use what the landscape offered and hope.
Llew was exhausted by the time they stopped, so the fact she would be sleeping by daylight, filtered as it was, bothered her none. Hisham took first watch.
Sometime later, the deep bass of the flying machine approaching had Llew’s eyes flying open. Jonas’s arm tightened around her middle.
‘Hold still,’ he murmured. ‘No point givin’ ’em movement to target on.’
They lay in a tense silence – not that anything would be heard over the racket from the cacophonous contraption. The rumble deepened, was soon joined by the thwack, thwack, thwack of its blades. The treetops above began to sway in its artificial breeze. Llew couldn’t pull her eyes from the gaps created in the canopy. Would they see it? Would it see them? Soon, only the rumble was left, and then even that diminished. Llew breathed a sigh of relief.
‘What is that thing?’ Jonas asked as the sound faded.
‘I told you,’ said Braph. ‘It’s my helioraptor.’
‘You made that?’ It came out as accusing as Llew intended.
‘Dreamt up, designed, built,’ Braph said.
‘And what other contraptions might they have to hunt us with?’ Jonas asked.
Lying on his back, Braph shrugged. ‘Very little, I should think. I built most of my prototypes with a plan to fuel them with Aenuk blood. It’s possible they got one or two going. But going by their success with the Wrist Bands, I doubt it.’
‘So, what might they possibly have got goin’?’
‘If anything, they would only be able to figure out the heliodrone, by my reckoning. Little else would make sense to the uninitiated.’
‘And, if they got this heliodrone goin’, what do we need to keep an eye out for?’
‘Fragments, most likely,’ Braph stated without a hint of humor. ‘Scattered around the base of a building or tree.’
Llew shared a wry look with Jonas. Didn’t sound like they had to worry too much about contraptions from Braph’s workshop. And, thinking of contraptions from Braph’s workshop, Llew shuddered, recalling the mechanical spiders he’d used to draw her blood. Despite her conscious attempts to rationalize why such devices wouldn’t be crawling around the forest floor, she peered into the murky fog around them, half expecting to see several coming to drain her.
‘Get some sleep,’ said Jonas. ‘Hisham will wake us if there’s a real problem.’
They were woken sometime later by the machine flying overhead once more, but again it simply passed over.
Hisham was supposed to wake Llew when it was her turn on watch, but instead she woke alone. Sensing the lateness of the hour as soon as her eyes flickered, she threw her bedroll back and kicked her way free. Hisham gave a small groan at her lack of care for minimizing noise, but otherwise didn’t wake. And Braph, as always, slumbered deeply, safe in the knowledge that he wasn’t trusted to watch over the others while they slept.
Jonas sat at the base of a tree a few strides from the hub of their camp looking off into the distance. The fog hadn’t lifted all day and the air was still freezing.
She walked over and crouched next to him. He smiled at her and patted the ground beside him. She swung down, planting her arse, and drawing her knees up and they sat in an airy silence as was often their custom.
After a sleep broken by so much noise, the quiet stillness of the early evening was more than welcome, and almost enough to give a sense of security. Enveloped in thick fog, it felt as if they were the only two people in the world. Llew smiled to herself, savoring the moment. There hadn’t been too many like it in recent weeks, and she doubted more would be forthcoming anytime soon.
‘What are we doing?’ she asked, more to open dialogue than any desire to know the answer. They were chasing Aris down, on their way to rescuing Llew’s ma and Jonas’s son. What did it matter if Aris was more powerful than anyone else in the world and would more than likely kill them all within minutes of them finding him? Unless they got lucky and stumbled upon him after he’d worn himself out, but Llew was struggling to believe they’d get that lucky.
‘The right thing.’ Jonas sniffed at a drip on the tip of his nose but didn’t bother to wipe it.
‘We’re both a bit daft when it comes to preserving our own lives, aren’t we?’ Llew sought to keep the mood light.
Jonas coughed out one laughing breath, still peering straight ahead into the thick murk.
‘I mean, I’ve died, or nearly died how many times in the last few months? And you? Died once, and tried again yesterday,’ Llew continued. ‘And now, here we are . . .’
Llew wasn’t sure if Jonas was really listening. He seemed lost in his own thoughts.
What little light there was bounced off something twirling between his fingers. The glint had Llew assuming it was Jonas’s little bottle. Disappointed as she was, she could hardly blame him with all they’d been through, but there was still so much more to come. She hoped he hadn’t drunk too much. Looking down, though, she saw it wasn’t glass, but a white flower amongst a small collection of tiny blue flowers. Jonas idly rolled them in his fingers, spinning the flopping flower heads one way and then the other. He must have picked them earlier in his shift, as they had lost their turgor. He turned to her and followed her gaze.
‘Oh!’ He stopped the spinning and gripped the stems in a fist. He flipped his wrist a couple of times, throwing the flowers this way and that, frowning at their flaccid form. ‘These are . . .’ He made to pass them to her, but stopped, pulling back. ‘They were . . .’ He rolled his wrist a couple more times, demonstrating the bouquet’s tiredness again. ‘. . . for you.’ He grimaced.
‘Can I?’ She reached a hand out.
‘Um.’ The flowers flopped once, and again. ‘Oh.’ He passed them to her. ‘Sorry.’
‘They’re lovely.’ Or they would have been. Regardless, the sentiment had been. ‘Thank you.’
He peered at her through the low light. ‘You’re welcome?’
‘No one’s ever given me flowers before.’
She shook her head.
‘Not having nothin’ to compare it to don’t mean you shouldn’t expect better.’ He stood and held out a hand. ‘Come on. Let’s find you some more.’
She let him help her up and followed him away from the camp. The sky was still light, but the sun was well down, nearly gone. A bird fluttered up to the treetops. Another took off behind them. In the still, chilly air, sounds were crisp, clear. They would hear trouble coming.
‘Does it still count if I help you pick them?’ She asked, following the path he was cutting through the swirling mist.
‘I’ll do the pickin’,’ he assured her. ‘But I’ll know you’ll get them at their best.’
Still holding hands, he led her through the sparse trees. Their passage disturbed the fog enough to show low-lying bushy, flowering plants growing at the bases of the trees. The white flowers, of which there were few, stood out against the dark trunk of the tree under which they grew, but there were also blues, yellows, and oranges, all tiny, and visible for brief moments as the fog lifted and eddied. Jonas released Llew’s hand to stoop, sift through the bushels and come up with his own personal selection of the best examples available. Satisfied, he gently scraped the withered earlier attempt from her hand and replaced it with the new.
‘For you,’ he said. He cupped both her hands in his and grinned. ‘I was gettin’ awful used to the idea that touchin’ you would kill me.’
‘And I was getting awful used to the idea that even thinking about you touching me would cause me pain.’ Her light-hearted smile turned to a sickly grimace. Llew just wasn’t good at this. Yet again, she’d tried to be funny, and it resulted in Jonas looking pained and them both standing there awkwardly not quite looking at each other.
‘They’re beautiful,’ she tried, raising the flowers, and they shared a brief nervous smile. She settled her hand back into his and they stood, looking down at the wild bouquet.
Several floundering moments passed with one and then the other looking up only to find themselves trying to give the top of the other’s head a reassuring smile.
Llew gave up and spoke to her feet. ‘I hate that Braph is still the last man who touched me.’ It had been burning at the back of her mind for weeks now. An itch, and her fingernailless.
In the still, cool air, she heard Jonas swallow.
‘I won’t deny I want to help make that right,’ he said, his voice thick. ‘But I can’t. Not before you’re ready.’
She lifted her head, the movement drawing his gaze up in return – in sync, for once – and somehow, she managed to speak without a tremor in her voice, or her cheeks flushing. ‘Make me ready.’
For a moment she thought he was going to dispense with niceties and just take her, his hunger was so vivid. His throat bobbed again; his lips parted. Llew found herself swallowing her own nerves, too, and she couldn’t decide if she was desperate to get on with things or nervous as all hells. Actually, she was almost certain she was both.
But instead, he shook his head, and a combination of relief and disappointment surged through her. Mostly disappointment.
‘Not here. Not now,’ he said.
‘You’re right.’ Llew took a step back. ‘Dumb idea. Time we were moving, anyway.’ She turned to head back to camp.
Jonas grabbed her hand before she took another step and tugged, swinging her back into him. She crashed into his chest, expelling the wind from them both. At least it was funny enough for them to laugh once they had their breath back. Then Jonas’s hand gripped the back of her head, and they engulfed each other in their eagerness to taste, and their denial of their desire to strip off, to make love. Llew had to concentrate to keep her grip on her flowers, her hands wanted so badly to start working on his shirt buttons, no, better yet, straight to his trousers. But they wouldn’t. They mustn’t. Now wasn’t the time.
He released her and they stepped apart, panting. Llew rubbed the back of her hand over her lips. Not to wipe him off, to check they were still there.
‘I hope this Merrid and Ard are real accommodatin’, ’cause I don’t think I can wait till this is all over.’
‘I know I can’t.’ Llew was breathless.