Nikol wasn’t going to apologize for ordering him to come back. Not when he’d already admitted he’d tried to run away. Not when the Mountain might be on their trail.
“Yeah, well. To be honest, you’ve got the horses and our supplies and there’s a slime-slug out there. I probably woulda come back anyway.”
She smirked at him. “Well, supper’s appreciated. And I bet the cats appreciated it too.”
“They’re nice. Wish I could convince them to come with us, but I don’t think they’d like riding horseback. I like animals,” he added defensively. “Well, some animals. The ones that aren’t pests or food or both.” He slapped a little pelt down on the table. “I’ve always gotten along with animals. People are harder.”
“People are hard,” Nikol agreed. “Me, it’s mostly, uh. The landscape. It talks to me.” She rolled her shoulders, feeling a little vulnerable. “Sometimes it’s grumpy, but it’s always at least a little bit chatty. And it doesn’t really lie. Not like-”
“Not like the Mountain.” He looked at her very intensely for a moment, and then dropped his gaze down to the rat pelts and started muttering a Working. In the middle of what sounded like something to shape the rat pelts, he looked back at her. “I’d be fine with a little farm and hunting, you know. The Mountain, they’re too big to fight. But they’re not so big they’re going to expand forever. We can get out of their reach. We can just settle down somewhere and, I dunno, fight off bandits for some little township.”
“The Mountain is a poison. I thought it was just, you know, another set of despots with money. But they’re worse than that, and they poison the land and the people around them. Someone has to stop it.”
“But does it have to be you? I mean. Us. You were working for them. Other people were fighting against them. There will be other forces against them, you know…” He shrugged. “You’re not wrong, I mean. The Mountain is a poison. But I’ve almost died fighting against them three times now, and this last one was the closest. I’m not a cat, and I don’t think I have that many chances left in me.”
He was shifting, not looking at her, rubbing the rat pelts so much she thought he might wear a hole in them. She wasn’t sure she’d ever seen him – or anyone – so uncomfortable.
Nikol sighed. “Okay, look. Once we get settled, safe, we can talk about it. I’ll table the whole idea of going after the Mountain until then, and once we’re there – wherever there is – we can work it out so, if you really don’t want to, you don’t have to go after them. I don’t need you to fight my battles.”
Of course, if she went without him and didn’t release him, if she was captured…. that left him in an uncomfortable and unenviable position. The Mountain didn’t always kill their prisoners; they often didn’t, in fact.
“I’m not afraid of fighting,” he muttered. “You know that. Look at where you found me. It’s just…”
“I get it, I do,” she assured him. “It’s not your hill to die on. I’ll think about it. But not tonight. Tonight… let’s just settle in and try to get some sleep, okay?”
“If you think your power will keep us safe.”
“It told me where you were, didn’t it? When you tried to hamstring me – gut me?” It was a low blow. She wasn’t feeling particularly chivalrous right now, although she couldn’t put a finger on why.
He winced. Even if he didn’t feel bad about it, the bond would make him think he did. “Yeah. Yeah, it did. What do you think? Gloves?”
It was sort of a peace offering and, she thought, at least partially the bond pushing on him, making him want to please her. She avoided saying a G-string mostly because she thought he’d probably do it. “Gloves. Or an archery brace, if I can come by or make another bow and arrow. Can be useful.”
“Got it.” He fussed with the little pelts for a few minutes while Nikol served out their rat soup. Rat soup. She’d hoped she was past eating things like that once the merc troupe got big enough to always have gigs. She’s thought she was past sleeping in broken buildings, too, or stealing horses.
She supposed the lesson was never think your’e done with anything, but it was seeming more and more like don’t run away from even a shitty job.
Next: Out of Hell