Twenty-Nine

Haveraul slid Akura’a an ale. “You ready to talk?”

They’d only been able to get Akura’a back after Haveraul trudged all the way into town on his own and picked up Laterra, Darben, Rovel, and one of their carts. Without Laterra’s muscle it would have been an impossible task, but they somehow managed to hoist the limp orc–if a lump as thick and calloused as an orc could ever really be limp–into the cart.

She’d been just coherent enough that night for them to explain to her how a Cnidellan had saved her. They’d tried to explain to her what a Cnidellan was–a translucent, wispy, soft-bodied race of merlfolk–but their description seemed as impossible to her febrile brain as the vision she had as she sank into the water.

She’d spent the next days in bed while they did business and prepared to move on to the next leg of their journey. Finally, tonight she had joined them at a small, tucked-in tavern. She looked healthier, but no less troubled.

“I’m afraid,” she said, “talking might only make it worse.”

“Well,” Rovel said, “what if ya talk around it? Just say enough, y’know, to help us out. Not the details. Just the gist.”

She nodded, but her eyes were frightened as she began. “Not long ago, Draclaudians stormed our camp. Unprovoked. A massacre. We defended ourselves, but so many were lost. And I–” She stopped as the ice-cold prickle of phantom panic began to materialize, its glass mist trying to cut through. She fought to keep it at bay. She inhaled deeply and retreated–“I ran away. I deserted. It’s a high crime to my people, running. There must be a Retriever after me.”

“Bah,” Haver said. “How could they even know where we are?”

“The shamans will find me if the Godsmiths will it.”

Laterra was even more skeptical. “Ain’t nobody willin’ you to be punished. Gods is just fairytales people tell each other. For comfort. For control. Don’t matter. Nothin’ makes ‘em more real.”

“And ain’t no shame in running from a fight,” Darben said. “Seems dwarves is the only ones that ever learned that. Everybody rushin’ to war like it’s sport. Dumbasses.” It was the most riled up Akura’a had seen Darben, and she offered him a weak smile as thanks.

“I just…keeping reliving it.” She said it as an apology. “It feels so real.”

“That’s ‘cause it is, love,” Haveraul said. “The emotions, anyway. We’re gonna get you out east. We’ll find something better there.”

***

It was Baultu’u that had pulled Sulma from the river. He’d watched as she slunk past the camp and had followed her, observing quietly from a patch of reeds along the shore.

She was typically cranky, even as she gulped air into her soggy lungs, insisting his heroics hadn’t been necessary. He’d walked her back–her protesting the whole time–and tucked her in and had given her a few days to recuperate.

Now he was headed back to her tent, and the others, seeing the direction he was headed, just shook their heads at him. They’d given up on her.

“You’re wastin’ your time, Baultu’u,” Varna’a hollered at him. She was making a stew and tut-tutted as she tossed some root vegetables into the simmering pot. “The ol’ loon ain’t worth it anymore. She don’t want our help anyway. Let her be.”

He stopped and breathed deeply, savoring the earthy aroma that lingered above her pot. “Smells good.”

“Have a bowl,” she offered.

But he shook his head. “I have to,” he reckoned. “She’s been a friend for so long.”

“If she’s broke, though, it ain’t on you to fix it. Don’t kill yourself trying.” She plucked a few herb leaves from their fibrous stems and tossed them in, where they swirled delicately on top. “Don’t lose yourself to somebody else. You’ve lost enough already.”

“That’s why,” he said as he walked away, “I can’t afford to lose a friend.”

Sulma’s tent sat at the very edge of the encampment, just close enough that it felt a part of the settlement, but just far enough that it felt apart. Just as she liked it. The flap was closed and everything was quiet. But as Baultu’u leaned down to investigate, Sulma plunged out, grabbed him by the arm and drug him in, like a spider dragging a cricket into a burrow.

“It’s happened,” she whispered violently.

“You finally lost your mind?”

She punched him in the shoulder. “This isn’t a joke. Baultu’u: those old hacks musta got lucky. They found her somehow. Don’t know how. I didn’t think they had it in ‘em. Hoped they didn’t, at least. Thought maybe the Godsmiths would blind them. I know they’re on her side. I just know it.”

He eased her back onto her cot. “Now slow down. Slow down. How do you know they found her?”

“Because I saw it.”

“Saw what? Saw them see her?”

“No, no. The Retriever. Saw him heading toward Arukadia. It’s Gawro’o. Saw that sack of shit sure as anything, ridin’ toward Arukadia, club in hand.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all? Baultu’u: this could be it. If he brings Akura’a back, she’ll be put to death.”

Sadness broke across his gravelly face, but…it wasn’t quite right. It seemed more for her than for his daughter. He reached over and squeezed her hand. “Sulma. You’ve been a better friend than I have any right to ask for. And you’ve been a better friend than Akura’a deserves. She deserted us. It’s…painful. But she isn’t part of this tribe anymore. I have been trying to come to terms with death of not one child, but two. My heart is broken…but she is the one who broke it. We must accept this.”

She pulled her hand away. He was a stranger to her all of a sudden. She pointed toward the flap. “You have not seen what I have.”

“Sulma…”

She pointed. “You need to go. May the Godsmiths give you clarity.”

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