“I suggest,” Deline murmured, her voice as low and her body as still as she could manage,” that you try to stay relatively still until I move. Also, if you are prone to praying, now would be a good time for it.” Behind him, she move her hand very slowly towards the biggest cluster of berries. “And when I move – hold your breath. It would be a good idea to close your eyes, too.”
He grunted in the affirmative. She watched the bear, hungry and ponderous, shifting towards them as it sensed that they were actually prey. She could hear Carrone’s heartbeat, his breath that he was struggling to keep even. She got her hand as far as it would move under the cover of Carrone’s back.
Please, Mother Bear, she prayed again, and in one quick movement, she grabbed the berries, crushed them in her hand, and threw them at the bear’s eyes.
With her other hand she grabbed Carrone and hauled him backwards. They tumbled back together, running before they got turned around, and dove into the cave.
Her wards were still there, if down. It was a matter of five heartbeats to bring them back up, five heartbeats while the bear roared and stumbled and got closer and closer.
She leaned back against Carrone and pulled a pack of things out of her bag. A second ward followed the first one, as she muttered and whispered her way through a spell that normally took two or three people singing.
On the third repetition, as the bear was close enough that its roars felt like they were shaking the cave, she elbowed Carrone. “Repeat with me,” she whispered.
He made a noise that was definitely a complaint and shifted, glaring at her. But as she muttered through the next repetition, he stumbled through. On the fifth repetition, his voice was steady.
They fell quiet as the bear came into sight, wiping its eyes and looking very irritable. It walked right up to the edge of their cave, sniffed, and backed up, rubbing its nose with a paw.
Thank you, Mother Bear. Deline was still holding her breath. The bear was rumbling around, looking for them, but didn’t come back to the edge of the cave.
It looked by the bush that she’d watered, snuffed at it before backing up, and looked at the bush that Carrone had been standing by before it wandered back off.
Deline let out a breath.
“Pants.” She wasn’t going to think too hard about how close they’d just come to dying – to dying at the hands of a bear. She would never live it down. Other Claws would be mocking her in the hall of Claws for centuries. Did you hear about the Claw who got herself clawed to death? And she was of the Bear, too!
“Excuse me?” He was shaking. He wasn’t looking at her, either, instead staring off at some point in the cave.
“Give me your pants and I’ll mend them before we head off.”
“I can mend my own pants,” he snapped. That seemed to galvanize him enough to move; he stripped off his pants and pulled a small sewing kit from his pack.
The stitching seemed to settle his hands, but he was still not looking near her. When he’d mended almost the entire rip – his stitches were small and tidy; he clearly knew what he was doing – he muttered something in Haloran.
She had thought she was fairly decent with the language until she encountered him. “What was that?”
“You made me do magic.” He wasn’t speaking much louder than he had been. “You’re a – a -” he repeated the word in Haloran; this time she could tell that it was an insult. “It’s one thing to do it, but you forced me to do your nastiness with you.”
Deline huffed at him. “I couldn’t put up the second ward without help. Would you rather have died?”
“I would rather have not been forced into doing magic. It’s- it’s-” He rubbed at his arms with his hands, like he was trying to wipe something off of himself.
“You’re going to have to get over this stupid fear at some point, you know. You’re in the Bear Empire now. We do magery here.”
“And whose fault is it that I’m here, anyway?” He kicked at the wall as if it were the source of his anger. “That I’m in the foothills of nowhere in a cave, hiding from a bear in the Bear Empire and mending my pants because a bush couldn’t be polite enough to not tear them when I was just trying to give it some water!”
By the end, Deline thought he’d lost track of the question, so she waited, quietly, to see if he would move on to something more useful or if he would keep kicking the wall.
He turned towards her in a quick angry movement while he stabbed the needle into the fabric. “Well?”
“Well?” She leaned back at the force of his glare. “Considering your decisions led you here, I’d say it’s your fault.”
“You could have killed me! You could have arrested me; you’re the wife of the Emperor! What are we doing, running around in caves?”
“Not getting killed,” Deline snapped at him. “If we headed directly back to the capitol, to my bed in my home-”
“What,” he sneered, “the Imperial Palace?”
“Who has palaces?” She sent his sneer right back to him, with interest. “We’re talking the northern edge of the world here. It’s not some pretty-spired decorative summer home for some weak cloistered prince and his family.”
“My king isn’t weak!“ He roared it out and then, the words echoing in the tiny cave, seemed to deflate. “Halor’s king isn’t weak. I’m not weak, either. This stupid country with its stupid bears….”
Next: 26: A Place