The road was smooth, the horses were smooth, and every step was still jarring into wounds that Nikol hadn’t even realized she had until she mounted.
They traveled for half the day with no good prospects, both of them tight-jawed with pain neither of them were going to admit and not feeling much like talking. They were moving through what had once been a suburb and was now a burned-out husk; from the looks of things, at least three separate fires had gone through here over the last several decades. Nothing was left now except half of a convenience store, its plastic sign melted into a lump of green and white.
That wasn’t going to get them any food. And the tiny gathering of people they found on the outskirts of town didn’t look like the sort that had much to give them, even if Nikol had anything she was willing to trade.
It was another two hours before they found what she’d been looking for. She sensed the house before she saw it, a half-collapsed wreck but the other half was still stable. And in the backyard, a garden of some sort gone feral.
“How are you with hunting?” she asked her prisoner.
He grunted softly. “Pretty good. Better with two eyes. Thank you,” he added reluctantly. “Some people wouldn’t have—”
“Some people would have gutted you and left you for the Mountain. Since I didn’t do that, I might as well put you back together. Over there, that house will shelter us. And if you can hunt, we can make some sort of meal.”
“I can hunt. Can’t you?” He wasn’t quite looking at her. She wondered why.
“Animals aren’t really my thing. But plants are. And dangerous spaces.”
“Like working for the Mountain.” Now he looked right at her, and she almost wished he hadn’t.
“Like crawling into caves and half-collapsed houses.” The garage was still mostly intact, safe enough to lead the horses into there. She stretched out her body and thought about her magic. She could manage to Work the horses some grain. “All right. Be back here to this house before sunset. Don’t push yourself so hard that you can’t make it back, and if you think you’re going to be captured, leave rather than fight.”
“Ma’am, yes, ma’am.” He saluted sharply. “On foot or on horse?”
“Foot seems better for this terrain.” He eyed her thoughtfully. “Any suggestions?”
She closed her eyes and let her senses reach out over the nearby terrain. “North is going to get you better options, but … West has something bigger. Deer, maybe. Something like that. It’s a terrain sense, not a hunting map.”
“Ma’am. Yes, ma’am.” He bowed this time and headed off north-north west.
She took the time to make house: turned some grass into grain for the horses, who deemed it strange but edible. Harvested the garden for a pot full of vegetables, including some feral squash hybrids that looked lite they were interested in eating her rather than the other way around. Set up a camp kitchen on the back patio, which was in surprisingly good shape.
After that, she set up camp in what had been the living room and was still in tolerably good shape, using a couple quick Workings to make everything a bit cleaner and safer, and then she ventured, very carefully, into the remains of the kitchen.
There were, at least, no remains of the former owners here, just a caved-in roof that had caved in the top cabinets. The stove was electric: no worries about gas leaking. It was off, too, and a peek into the oven told her that they had been cooking dinner when the roof had come down.
She came out of there with six cans of beans and two cans of soup, a very nice pot and a jar of peanut butter. They had been hidden by the way the cupboards had collapsed, all but the pan – not many people scrounged pans, it seemed like. The ceiling shifted a little as she hit the wrong spot on the wall, but did not fall on her head.
Food of sorts acquired, the checked their perimeter three times, removed some tracks, and sat down with a butter knife and the peanut butter for a snack.
She had a decent doctored soup going on the stove outside, had made a little more food for their horses, and had gotten both beasts brushed down nicely by the time that her prisoner came back.
He had a medium-sized animal – some sort of mammal – over his shoulder and a pair of squirrels over the other. He was limping and looked worse for the wear than he had on leaving, although still a little better off than he had the day before.
Nikol frowned. She wanted to make a long-term camp so that they could both recover and work on getting back their energy, but she still felt too close to the Mountain. It was unlikely that they would be tracked down as deserters – but it was still a possibility until they had quite a few more days’ travel between them and their former armies.
Maybe they could spend a day here and then move on? It was a compromise, but one that made her skin prickle. No, a night here, sleeping as solidly as they could, and then they’d have to move.
He tossed the animals onto the ground in front of her and then knelt, the movement clearly paining him, head bowed. “What else would my mistress have of me?”
His voice was rough and he was clearly fighting conflicting urges. Nikol felt something like pity for him. She passed him the peanut butter jar and the butter knife. “I’d have you eat. And then when you feel like you have enough energy, perhaps make enough water for a bath.”
He dug into the peanut butter slowly, like he’d never tried it before, and then with the same betrayed look that sometimes a dog or cat would get when you offered it the same. after a few minutes working it, he sipped a bit of water from his canteen, but said nothing. He was still kneeling.
“You tried to run away, didn’t you?”
“Wouldn’t you?” he grunted. “I’ve heard stories about the way these things work, but nobody said it was a freaking leash and choke collar.”
“Then they did you a disservice. Yes, I would have tried. I don’t blame you for that. But you’re mine until I choose to release you and you choose to accept, and you’re not going to get too far.
“Knew it was too good to be true, you letting me go off to hunt.” He hesitated. “Would’ve brought you food anyway. You coulda killed me and didn’t. You didn’t have to heal me and you did. You coulda kept all the food for yourself and you didn’t.”
“For the time being, however unwillingly, we’re a team.” She turned to the meat he’d brought her and started skinning the squirrels. “After we both clean up, we can have some stew, and then I’ll heal you some more.”
“Where’s the tub?” He stood slowly, as if unsure that he should. “I can do that now.”