Spoils of War V: Rest Stop

First: Spoils of War I: Surrender
Previous: House

Aran came down from the upstairs bathroom scrubbed, looking like another person.  He had even found a razor and cleaned up his scruffy beard to something that reminded her of a goatee.  “Guessing they left in a hurry.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Haven’t used anything like those soaps in a long time.  I smell like a funeral.”

“You smell like flowers.”  She stepped up close and sniffed his hair; he froze but didn’t complain.  “Well, like the chemical equivalent, at least. Not bad.”

He leaned down and sniffed her hair.  “You, too. Like one of those days in spring where everything is going crazy.”

When it had turned out that the house had two tubs, Aran had filled them both with hot water, then, looking uncomfortable, given her first choice of which.  Hers had come with a more floral shampoo and soap than his; there had even been a mostly-clean towel left hanging there.

“Great.  I smell like bee porn.” She grinned at him.  “Soup’s ready.”

The mixture was missing the spices and herbs she’d been squirreling away for years, but she’d pulled enough things out of the kitchen and the garden that it tasted like food, and, more than food, almost like good food.  They ate slowly and silently, both of them filling up their stomachs and then eating until they were so full they could eat no more.

“Nice place,” Aran muttered, gesturing at the garden, the nearby woods, and the un-collapsed part of the house.  “Tubs, food, everything.”

“Too close to the Mountain.”  It was almost exactly the argument she’d been having with herself.   “I don’t want to get hauled back and I’m pretty sure you don’t, either.”

He grunted.  “Them, you…” He flapped a hand at her.  “No. You’re right. Not the same thing at all.  I’d rather be hauled around by a soldier than eaten by the Mountain.”

“Then we keep going.  After a night of sleep, and the rest of the stew, and maybe some uh… Lucky Charms.  They look like they could last through anything,” she added defensively. “Not sure what they were but I think they were for breakfast.”

He snorted.  “Prewar people were weird.”

“Yeah.  Prewar people were lucky, too.  They had everything they needed and, at most, they had to go down to a store.  In a thing that didn’t need feeding and didn’t leave shit in the garage.”

“Yeah.  And they left us with this mess.  Nice of ‘em.”

“You know, I don’t really think it was their fault.  I mean, they did some awful things, but I think it was something about the gods coming back…”  She shrugged. “I don’t remember it. Anyway. Did you see anything when you were hunting that looked like pursuit?”

“If I had, don’t you think I would have – no, not if it had been my people, hunh.  Well, I didn’t see any of my people, any of your people, or any people at all.” He rolled his shoulders and shifted a little bit away from her.  “I don’t want to be caught either. And I want to eat this food and sleep somewhere that’s not made out of stone, and not feel like I was beaten to a pulp just ten minutes ago.”

“That was over a day ago.”  Not that she wasn’t feeling much the same.  She took a couple bites of her stew and started on some healing Workings, dealing with the worst of the aches first.

When she had finished her meal, he had finished his own meal, and they were both mostly put back together, she pointed him in the direction of the upstairs.  “We can put together a bed spot up there.”

A couple quick Workings between the two of them, and the mattress in the surviving bedroom was cozy and comfortable to sleep on.  They settled in a vantage spot at the top of the stairs, sprawled out on the mattress with nearly a foot of space between them.

“Watches?” Aran offered.

She shook her head.  “Nice part of my power.  It’ll tell me when someone is in the area.  And wake me,” she added. “It’s done so before.”

“And if they are?”

“They I wake you and we flee if we can, fight if we have to.  No witnesses left behind if we can help it.”

He made a quiet noise of thought.  A moment later, he did a Working. “There,” he muttered.  “Now the horses and us are invisible. Should last till almost the morning.  If we have to run, we can do it.”

She nodded appreciatively.  “Good idea.” The people coming after them might be her people, might be his people, might be the Mountain.  If it was either of the first two, she didn’t want to have to kill them and she imagined he didn’t either.

She stretched her power out as far as it would go and fell asleep, trusting in her knowledge of footsteps-on-ground and people-moving-through-here to wake her.

The dawn woke her instead — the dawn, and Aran snoring quietly a few inches from her ear.  She rolled over slowly and studied him, the way his arm had draped over her, the way he relaxed in sleep, the way he had scars from old battles running over his face and down to his neck.

He was a fighter.  He was right; her best option would be to sell him to some slaver.  But she and he were both on the run and-

It was an excuse, of course it was.  One more slave in a pen would be anonymous.  Even if he wasn’t, what would the factor remember about the woman who had sold the slave?  She could sell him and the horses and be gone, leaving far less track as one woman on foot than two warriors on horseback left.

He opened his eyes, the vulnerability vanishing.  “trouble?” He barely mouthed the word, but it was enough to tell her that she’d tensed.

She shook her head.  “Bad dreams,” she murmured.  “Nobody’s snuck up on us in the night.”

“Time to break camp and move, then.”  He stretched, eyes closing. Nikol watched him frankly.  He was good-looking, for the sort that he was. “Where we headed?  Anyplace more than ‘away?’”

“Still away.  Unless you have someplace we could go and be safe.”

He opened his eyes and studied her for a minute.  He was considering something, she was fairly sure.  She wished she knew what. “No,” he answered, slowly and with dishonesty clear in his body language, the way he couldn’t quite look her in the face.  “I came from by the Mountain, remember?”

That part looked honest.  “I remember. And I – well, I’ve been with that troupe for way too long.  I hope they all cleared out, but you never know. Things have been… strange lately.”  She stood up slowly. “So we head away, and when the back of both of our necks stops itching, then maybe we find a place to settle in. Then we decide what we do next.”

“What do you mean, ‘next?’”  He sat up and watched her, his shoulders tense.  “You’re not going to ransom me to my people, so you sell me.  There’s no ‘we’, there’s no ‘next’. You captured me. You sell me.  We move on.”

“I told you already, I’m not going to sell you.”

“You also told me you wanted to get something back for attempting to gut you,” he pointed out.  Now he was sitting ramrod-straight, staring at her.

“Yeah?  That’s true, too.  But right now what I want is someone on the road with me, someone helping to make camp and hunt, someone watching my back.  Stay there a moment.” She looked him over and did a final set of healing Workings. “That should be everything. Let’s get packed up.”

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