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When Two Lone Wolves Meet
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Fri Feb 18, 2022 1:07 pm
When Two Lone Wolves Meet
a roleplay by
Last edited by
on Sat Feb 19, 2022 3:51 am, edited 1 time in total.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.
link to listen to my music
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Fri Feb 18, 2022 1:09 pm
There was something alluring about a simple life. James had tasted it in short seasons, the slow rhythm of life, following the flow of the land and listening to the demands of the day, and the silence between you and the creatures around you that became its own conversation. Those seasons had always been broken up by surges of stress, having to fight for his life in one way or another, so he simply learned to take joy in the peace and quiet for however long it would last.
Today was no different.
He sat up in his saddle, nudging Elliot forward into a slow canter as they followed the herd of cattle down the field of rolling grass. It was a warm day, but there was a cool breeze that compensated for the cloudless sky and the bright, beating sun. The smell of cattle had become a familiar one, but every once in a while, if the breeze hit just right, he’d catch a whiff of it like it was new all over again. It was leathery, but also drew with it the stench of musty animals rolling around in the heat of midday.
James rode Elliot around the side of the herd, looking across the field at the other ranch-hands posted at different corners of the herd, making sure none of the cattle went astray. At the back of the herd, he could spot his boss, a simple, middle-aged man named Gregor who had been kind enough to hire him on without too many questions. Or, rather, without any suspicion.
It was getting trickier than usual in the past few months to pass himself off as someone else. Right now, he was Matt, and that was the name he’d respond to, and the one he’d chosen for however long this season would last. He’d been able to come up with a story generic enough that it didn’t deserve much looking into, and he’d been able to mirror Gregor’s personality enough that they had a great start. And Gregor was nice enough that it didn’t matter to James much if he had to pretend about a few things. He did it all the time, and at least these few men were decent, unlike some other people he’d run with in the past.
He glanced up at the sun from under the shade of the brim of his hat, noting it was about noon. When he looked back down, he could see one of the ranch-hands riding over to him. It was their latest hire - a man in his early thirties by the name of Caspar Runeson, but Gregor had resorted to just calling him Cas, and the nickname stuck.
James waved in acknowledgment as he came over.
“Mister Matthew,” Caspar greeted. “Everything looking… in shape over here?” He glanced out over the cattle. “Are you alright with ‘Matthew’, or do you prefer ‘Matt’?”
James grinned. Part of it was to keep character as the friendly, easygoing cowboy he’d convinced everyone he was, but he was also genuinely endeared by the formality of Caspar’s question. Caspar had only been with them for a week, so a lot of their interactions were still a little stiff, but he could compensate for the awkwardness, even if it wasn’t his natural inclination.
“Matt’s just fine,” he said, turning his gaze back to the cattle as well. “And I think I’m alright over here, but if you’re not needed elsewhere, I wouldn’t mind the company.”
Caspar nodded. “Very well.” He finagled with the reins, and looked down either side of his horse.
“I don’t think I caught your horse’s name,” James said, deciding to strike up idle conversation as he started riding forward again, noticing the slow but steady movement of the herd.
Following suit, Caspar started the horse alongside James. Then ahead of him. He turned the horse back around and answered, “Haven’t found one yet,” as they passed by him again.
“I once knew a gal who named her horse Obedience,” James joked, trying to push back a smile as he watched Caspar fumble with the horse. “She was hoping it would be prophetic.”
The horse, done with Caspar’s obvious incompetence, found its way back beside James and Elliot. “It was a good effort,” Caspar said. He dropped the reins, content to let the horse do its thing. “And your horse is…?”
“Elliot,” James answered. “I’ve had him for years, so we go way back.”
“That is nice.” Caspar waved to Elliot. “A pleasure to meet you.”
James paused, looking Caspar’s horse up and down. She didn’t seem like she was flighty, just annoyed with Caspar. James had ridden her a handful of times, so she seemed comfortable enough just keeping pace beside him and Elliot.
“Do you have much riding experience?” James asked.
Caspar laughed and scratched the back of his neck. “That obvious? I, um. I’m better on a boat.”
His horse chuffed, as though in agreement.
“Have you always worked on a ranch, Mister Matt?” Caspar asked.
“Used to work on a farm, then a stable,” James said, easily leaning back on his previous half-truths and lies he’d already weaved together. “Ranch work felt like a natural transition, but I was in your shoes not too long ago as well, being new to all of this. Though… I’m probably more experienced with animals than you are, I’m guessing. I’ve been working with horses all my life.”
“That certainly helps.” Caspar combed his fingers through the horse’s mane. “The most experience I’ve had with animals is feeding stray dogs. Not entirely sure what compelled Mister Gregor to take me on.”
“Well, he’s got a tendency to pick up charity cases,” James said with a little grin, gesturing to himself. “Me included. He’s looking for quality people and thankfully doesn’t mind taking people under his wing. He’s a good guy.”
“Ah, so I’m not completely hopeless.” Caspar took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Mister Gregor does seem to be a generous man.”
“Thankfully so,” James said with a little laugh, looking out over the herd. His eyes landed on another of the ranch-hands across the field, up ahead. He pointed, glancing over to Cas to make sure he caught his eye. “Percy over there, on the spotted mare? He was the town drunk before Gregor pulled him out. And Kenneth,” he said, pointing now to the back of the herd, to the man riding beside Gregor. “Pretty sure he’d lost his wife to the cold last winter, and when he came up north looking for work, Gregor took him in. So I think you’ll be in good hands.”
Caspar followed James’s gaze out across the field. He repeated the names under his breath as he also pointed back and forth between the other ranch-hands. “Do you have a family, Mister Matt?”
“Ah,” James said with a little smile. “Used to, but not anymore. I was an only child, and my parents passed several years ago after a goblin raid.”
“Oh.” Caspar was quiet for a moment. “I’m sorry that happened.”
James shrugged lightly. “Hey, you didn’t know. No worries, Cas,” he said. “It’s in the past now.”
Donning his hat again, Caspar glanced back at James, then back to the cows. “My, uhm. My mother passed when I was a kid. Giving birth to who would’ve been my sister. And my father’s ship was lost in a storm a while after.”
James glanced at Caspar briefly, out of the corner of his eyes, surprised that he opened up so quickly. He hoped he hadn’t felt obligated to share as a sort of compulsory apology in response to James admitting his parents were dead - which was only half true. Still, he could empathize with the loss of a parent, and the loss of a family. He nodded solemnly in response.
“Sorry to hear that,” he said. “What were their names?”
“Calder was my father. Runa, my mother.” He shrugged. “They never decided on a name for the little one. Wanted to see her face first.” Idly swinging his arms back and forth, he looks back at James. “It wasn’t all bad,” he added quickly. “A family friend took me in for a bit. That. That worked out.”
“I’m glad,” James said with a small smile. “Is that how you ended up being familiar with ships?”
“Ah! My father was the fisherman, so I practically grew up on boats and in the water. His friend brought me more in-land after.” He waved a hand. “All that.” Clearing his throat, he asked, “So, are you from around here, or more south…?”
“Well, I grew up in a far-out desert town called Bones,” James said. “Ain’t much there but a bunch of farmers and the smallest main street you’ve ever seen. We had three whole buildings in a row. That was our main street.”
“Teeming with life, it sounds like,” Caspar said.
“Listen,” James said, laughing. “There’s a reason it was called Bones. It was the bare bones of what could be considered a town.”
Caspar huffed a laugh, seeming to brighten a bit now. “Very quaint.”
“We had great corn, though,” James said. “And carrots.”
“The makings of a great tourist destination! They should put up signs and advertise.”
“Well, we would advertise, just not in Bones,” he said. “The farmers in our community would make a seasonal trip to other nearby towns to sell our fresh produce. So we’d bring signs for our booths in the market when we’d set them up.”
Caspar nodded. “Makes sense.”
“You know, there really is nothing like food fresh off the farm, though,” James went on. “Berries right off the vine just picked. It’s something else.”
He smiled. "Unparalleled." He scanned the field. "I'm not in a hurry, but do we stay here awhile now?"
"Well, I think Gregor's wanting to get the cattle up to the river before nightfall," James answered. "We shouldn't be too far. It might take another hour or two, but we should have plenty of time to set up camp for the night. And Kenneth I think will make us dinner again. He's probably the most suited cook out of the five of us apart from Gregor, unless you're hiding a secret talent."
Caspar shook his head. "The best I could do is indiscriminately boil things in one pot. No skill needed for that."
"That's about where I'm at too," James said with a shrug. "There's a big difference between being able to cook and being able to cook well and make things that actually taste good."
"Very true," Caspar agreed.
"But out here, I can't afford to be picky," James said with a small smile and a shrug. "Food is food at the end of the day, and I'm just happy if I get to eat."
"A good philosophy."
"Do you miss fresh seafood?" James asked. "Being so far inland?"
Caspar shrugged. "I miss the sea more than anything. I could honestly do without all the fish."
"Ah," James said. "I've never been to the ocean. What's it like?"
"Well, it's. Vast. Rolling, untameable. Smells really nice. Uhm, salty. The water was usually cold where we lived. The storms..." Folding his arms, Caspar tilted his head up toward the sky, eyes distant.
James couldn't help but notice the wistful look on Caspar's face as he likely was brough back to some kind of memory from his past. It might've had to do with his father, at the mention of storms. He wondered how open Caspar was to talking about it, so he supposed the was only one way to find out and see where the conversation took him.
"What drew you away from the ocean?" he asked quietly. "Why not go back?"
Caspar seemed to snap back to attention. "Ah, well. That's mostly behind me now, I guess. I just..." He waved his hand.
James raised his eyebrows as he looked over at Caspar, expecting Caspar to finish his sentence, but when it hung in the air he had a feeling he'd just stumbled upon a subject Caspar wasn't prepared for. Either he'd just caught Caspar in a lie, or Caspar wasn't sure how to lie, but James knew more than enough about lying to spot it, especially when someone was poor at lying. But in this case, it seemed that Caspar was mostly just trying to dodge the question more than anything.
In any event, James had a feeling Caspar wasn't going to help in resolving the awkward seconds of silence that followed.
"Well, I can understand that," James said. "Some things are better left behind us. Hopefully, you can find a better life here."
And though he meant it, he did take note of Caspar's hesitation. Caspar was hiding something, and it could've been something innocent, but on the off-chance it wasn't, James was already starting to prepare his heart.
"Yeah, that's the dream," Caspar said, rather lamely.
James grinned again, deciding he needed to direct the conversation to lighter things.
"Who knows," James said. "Maybe in a few months, you'll be an even better rancher than me."
Caspar scoffed. "That is wishful thinking."
"Wishful, maybe," James said. "But not impossible if you try."
He looked at Caspar again, noting his posture in the saddle.
"You could start by putting your heels down in the stirrups," he said.
Immediately looking down, Caspar adjusted accordingly.
"And it helps if you sit up straighter," James added. "And I'd recommend keeping a hold on the reins. Not too loose, and not too tight. Just enough slack so when you do tug, they feel it, but that it doesn't pain them."
He lifted up his hands, showing how he was holding his own reins on Elliot.
"You can loop it around your hand like this," he said.
Studying James, Caspar copied him as closely as he could. The horse, for her part, still did not look entirely impressed.
Once all seemed in order, Caspar smiled at James. "Huh. Thank you."
"No problem," James said. "If it helps, I can keep giving you advice as we travel."
"Much appreciated, but don't let me slow you down. I'll manage."
"All due respect," James said. "We're doing this together, so helping you is also helping me. Don't worry too much about it."
Caspar nodded, silently conceding this point.
"Well, now that your posture's been fixed," James said. "Let's see if you can keep it up if we speed it up a little."
He grinned at Caspar as he put pressure on Elliot's sides with his thighs and leaned forward, signaling to Elliot to move a little faster. Caspar's horse delayed behind him for a minute before he started catching up. For someone not too familiar with horses, at least he was catching on.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.
link to listen to my music
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Sat Feb 19, 2022 3:40 am
If nothing else, Caspar at least knew how to gather wood and build a good fire. He never considered himself a prideful man, but it was nice to not feel completely inept for a moment. Kenneth (freckles, Caspar noted, and red hair) gave the fire his seal of approval, which also felt good, and got to work.
The meal wasn't anything fancy, not that Caspar had actually. Had very fancy food before. Kenneth did have the good mind to carry some spices, which elevated the dish by that much. He and Percy (brown hair, and quite a bit of it, and missing a few fingers) got into some friendly debate while he cooked. Mister Gregor sat with his arms folded and stroking his mustache with a fond smile as he simply listened.
Caspar eased himself down on the dirt by Mister Gregor. His back was stiff, and frankly everything hurt. The joys of horse riding, he supposed.
It was nice, though, once Mister Matt instructed him on posture, thus enabling Caspar to actually ride properly.
He peered around Kenneth to find Mister Matt standing by Caspar's horse, brushing her down and gently patting her neck.
He hadn't meant for their conversation earlier to take the turns that it did (especially not about their families). Mister Matt seemed a very perceptive man, but Caspar also wasn't exactly nailing the whole "on the run, laying low" thing quite yet. He was always told he wore his heart on his sleeve, and it was really working against him right now.
"Dinner's served!" Kenneth boomed, stopping said heart momentarily. It was probably for Mister Matt's benefit, though he wasn't very far away to begin with, so maybe he was just loud in general.
Kenneth portioned out the stew (rabbit and potato) and graciously handed Caspar a bowl before he could muster the gumption to move. Relieved, Caspar thanked him with a bright smile, then tucked in.
Mister Matt wandered over and settled down on the opposite side of the fire, taking a bowl from Kenneth as well with a grateful nod.
With all mouths full, not many words were exchanged at first. For this, Caspar was also grateful. He didn't trust himself to not fumble through another mess of a conversation again.
The most said through dinner was Mister Gregor reviewing their route for the next day. Likely for Caspar's benefit, being new and all.
"Matt's been showing you the ropes, eh Cas?" Mister Gregor suddenly said.
Hastily swallowing, Caspar nodded. "He’s been very helpful."
Mister Gregor nodded likewise with a broad grin. "You looked good out there. Knew you had potential, kiddo." He nudged Percy with his elbow. "Didn't I tell you he had potential?"
Percy just shrugged noncommittally. "Never said differently, boss."
"You're too kind," Caspar said, ducking his head.
"Yeah, well, Gregor's got a soft spot for us types," Percy said.
"And what type would that be?" Kenneth asked, looking to Percy. It was clear he was baiting him. In their short time together Caspar had learned that Percy had a tendency to be little blunt - though it was normally played off as a joke.
"Oh, you know," Percy said. "Just a bunch of homeless losers."
"Percy," Gregor said as a gentle rebuke.
"Sorry, not losers," Percy said. "Sorry, Cas. Can't call you a loser since I don't really know you well."
Caspar smiled easily. "It's not that much of a stretch, really."
"But Kenneth," Percy went on. "I know for sure is a loser."
At that, Kenneth reached over and punched Percy in the arm, but it was more playful and brotherly than violent. Mister Gregor laughed jovially, half-heartedly scolding for them to behave.
"Okay, but Cas," Percy said, briefly rubbing his shoulder before returning his attention to his food. "Be honest. Are you enjoying this? Or do you hate the smell of cattle already?"
Caught mid-bite once again, Caspar flailed a little. After swallowing, he said, "It's been great, honestly. The sun, the open fields, good company. I cannot thank you enough, Mister Gregor."
Mister Gregor waved dismissively. "Now, none of that 'mister' business. I say we've got ourselves a good team here, anyhow. No regrets taking you on so far."
"So far," Percy echoed with a little grin, to which Kenneth punched him again, this time a little harder.
"Don't pay attention to him," Kenneth said. "He just likes to mess with people."
Caspar smiled again, assuring him it was fine, but he really did not feel fine anymore. What was he getting himself into?
"Even if a problem did come up," Matt said, speaking up. "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it. Percy's been the source of a lot of trouble of his own, and we rode it out just fine."
He noticed Matt sent Percy a pointed look, to which, Percy huffed through his nose, indignant.
"He has anger problems," Kenneth clarified plainly.
"Anger management problems," Percy clarified again.
"We're working on it," Gregor added calmly. "We're all works in progress. That's just part of life."
"Very true," Caspar said.
"Like for example," Percy said. "Kenneth is getting better at cooking. This stew tastes less like generic vegetable meat than yesterday."
Kenneth swatted at the back of Percy's head this time.
Percy smirked, looking to Caspar. "And they say I have an anger problem."
"You see that rabbit?" Kenneth demanded, demonstratively pointing his fork at his own bowl. "See how it is cooked to perfection? Never gamey! You're free to cook for yourself if my cooking is so mediocre."
"Hey, hey, hey, I'm not that harsh a food critic," Percy defended, turning to the side as if to protect his bowl from Kenneth's annoyance. That seemed to be enough to deescalate Kenneth's frustration, and Kenneth rolled his eyes and let out a long sigh, poking at his own food. The two of them went silent as they started to dig in more.
Mister Gregor shook his head. "Works in progress," he murmured, more to himself than anybody else, almost exasperated.
Caspar found that he smiled more this night than he had in months. And also that a sinking feeling in his gut chased away his appetite entirely at this point. He managed to finish his portion anyway.
Glancing up across the fire, there was an empty space where Mister Matt ate. Caspar scanned the scene to catch sight of Mister Matt as he headed straight back for the horses.
"Well, time to rest up!" Mister Gregor declared. "Who's taking first watch?"
Caspar raised a hand. "I got it."
Percy and Kenneth did not argue.
"Third and fourth, then," Gregory said, pointing to Percy and then Kenneth. "I'm always fifth. I wake up early anyway."
"If you say so, boss," Percy said.
"Catch ya in the morning, Greg," Kenneth said with a smile and a nod.
At that, Kenneth and Percy started to clean up from dinner, collecting bowls and spoons all together before wiping them off and putting them away. Caspar took a moment to stretch away some of the soreness, then fetched more wood while everyone was still awake.
By the time he returned, Percy and Kenneth had already hunkered down and dozed off. Mister Gregor didn't seem too far behind them. He smiled fondly, shaking his head in disbelief. He poked at the fire a bit, propped up a new log to rejuvenate it, and wandered a short ways from the light.
The rolling fields took on a deep blue hue at night. With the way the moon lit their crests, they almost looked like a calm sea, and the cattle were like fishermen's boats.
Tucking his hands in his jacket pockets, Caspar looked up at the clear sky, taking note from the constellations which way was north and which way home was from here.
He whipped around and frantically scanned the area. Nothing seemed amiss. Another crack sounded from the fire-- there must have been moisture in one of the logs-- and the fire seemed to give up on itself and caved in a bit on one side.
Quite relieved but keeping his guard up anyway, Caspar meandered back and set about to fixing it. Once repaired, he sat back on his haunches and stared into the flames a moment.
The same rowdy log from earlier cracked again. A firing pistol flashed in his mind, and there was a pang in his right shoulder. Pushing himself back to standing, he absently rubbed at the old wound.
He thought back to the scars on Mister Matt's face and neck. He mentally cycled through all the possible reasons for them. Were they from separate occasions, all at once? From particularly unfortunate incidents with farming equipment?
No, Mister Matt had apparently been on the farming scene basically his whole life, and the shapes of the scars didn't suggest messy accidents. Not to say accidents don't ever happen to the experienced, but that felt less likely the more Caspar thought rationally about it.
Some of the scars were too...precise, clean. Mostly, anyway. Caspar turned his eyes back out to the cattle, but he wasn't seeing them anymore. He rubbed the side of his neck as he imagined the knotted scars on Mister Matt's.
He shook the thought. None of this was his business anyway.
Peering over his shoulder to the fire, Caspar searched briefly for Mister Matt. The younger man lied facing the fire. Resting, but not quite restful. There was tension in his frame.
Caspar turned back to the fields and started counting the cattle. The night only continued to drag on from there.
He paced. He stretched some more because, goodness, horseback riding was not being very kind to him right now. He walked a wide arc around the light of the fire, just on the threshold of it. He walked the same arc back. He recounted the cows.
Caspar had never been so affected by the dark, but now he was out in the open and hyper-aware of how vulnerable that was. With people who he felt could be wonderful friends, no less, if he stayed around long enough. Did he dare stay now? For their sakes, he probably shouldn't.
Nowhere and no one felt safe anymore, and monsters lurked dangerously close in the cover of night.
He paced some more and counted trees now since all cows were twice accounted for. He went back to maintain the fire. The dancing flames dredged up the pistol. It fired at him again.
He turned back toward the field. Recounted the cows.
The glimmering of the stars drew his attention skyward once more, then homeward...
Caspar dug through all of his pockets and took out a beat up little pocket clock from his jacket. His shift was complete, and everyone was still alive and well. Mission accomplished.
Caspar padded back to the fire and knelt by Mister Matt. He softly tapped a hand on his shoulder and whispered, "You ready?"
Matt stirred, and started to sit up, giving Caspar a sleepy nod.
"Mmhmm," he said, pushing his blanket off and getting to his feet. Once he stood, he twisted his head to the side, stretching his neck, and then reached out to pat Caspar on the shoulder.
"Sleep well," Matt said lowly as he walked past him.
Caspar nodded his thanks and found his way to his own duffle. He settled in the dirt and lied facing the stars. He bid the constellations good night, but was certain that wasn't the end of it.
Finally lying down felt somewhat good, at least.
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Sat Feb 19, 2022 3:50 am
The night passed by uneventfully. On the trail once again, riding lessons promptly resumed. Caspar was still struggling, much to the displeasure of his horse, but he was getting better, little by little. James had to keep reminding him to keep his heels down, and he was starting to walk him through the more subtle cues he could give to his horse to direct her. Thankfully, it didn't hinder their efforts to drive the cattle, and eventually, Caspar seemed to get in a comfortable rhythm - at least, enough so that he didn't need help from James to keep his horse under control.
They were keeping up a relaxed pace as they rode around the backside of the herd, watching the dozens upon dozens of mooing cows take their time walking over the rolling hills, trampling over and grazing on the golden grass.
The sun beat down on them again, a little harder than the day before. James felt sticky, and his sweat made the back of his shirt stick to his skin, but it made him look forward to the end of the day. They'd been loosely following a river, and by nightfall they would be camped out at the water's edge, and they'd be able to clean themselves up, and scrape off all the grime collected over days of travel in the open land.
For a while, he and Caspar rode near each other in silence, sometimes falling into step alongside one another and other times falling behind while the other went ahead, usually making sure some of the cattle didn't stray.
It was James who eventually broke the silence, though, when they matched pace once again.
"Hey, Cas. Did you sleep alright last night?" James asked.
He could remember seeing the man pace back and forth last night, with his footfalls quick and intense. He hadn't been able to tell if it was from stress or if Caspar was just trying to keep himself awake for his shift.
Caspar nodded. "Like a log. You?"
"I slept alright," James said with a little shrug. "A long day of work does pretty well in tiring me out."
Oh, how he wished that were true.
"Who took watch after you?" Caspar asked.
"Percy," James answered. "You're lucky you didn't get the job of waking him up. Sometimes he throws punches in his sleep."
"That does sound unfortunate." Caspar cast him a quick grin. "Would've liked to seen it, though."
"Oh, I'm sure you would've," James said with a little smirk. "It's much more entertaining to see than to experience."
He looked over to Caspar.
"Just don't antagonize him, and you'll escape his wrath," James said, only half joking.
"Tread lightly," he said, nodding again with a laugh. "Will do."
"Kenneth, though," James said. "Is much better tempered. He only gives Percy a hard time because Percy gives him a hard time. And everyone else a hard time, too."
Caspar glanced out over the backs of the cows to Kenneth and Percy, as though he were visually attaching these notes to the men.
"Is this the type of crowd you're used to being with?" James asked, deciding to leave the question open-ended.
"Sort of?" Caspar shrugged. "I don't hang around crowds in general very much. What about you? Were you close to your co-workers at the farm? The stable?"
"Well, when I worked on the farm, it was with my parents," James answered, leaning into the lie. "So I think it's safe to say we were close. As for the stable, I did have a few friends. I was on good terms with most of my co-workers."
"Do you keep in touch with any of your friends?"
"On occasion," James said. "On a job like this, you can be out working with cattle for weeks, sometimes months. But whenever we pass through town and I get a chance to, I try to visit and keep in touch."
He paused, flicking his gaze to Caspar curiously, watching him more closely for his reaction.
"What about you? Do you have any friends you still keep in touch with?"
"Ah. Well." Caspar rubbed the back of his neck. "Most of them are pretty far away, and I can't exactly write to them, so." He shook his head. "They must think I've fallen off the face of the planet completely..."
James nodded slowly. There was a hint of an emotion that pricked at the very bottom of his gut, but he pushed it down, just like he always did. He could understand Caspar's sentiment more than he'd ever know.
"I can imagine that must be very difficult," James said more gently. "I'm sorry you haven't had a chance to see them in so long. I'm sure you miss them."
"Dearly," Caspar said. "Last I saw one of them, he was about to become a dad." He smiled, likely at the memory of it. "That was exciting."
"He...?" James asked, looking to Caspar expectantly. "What's your friend's name?"
"Oliver," he answered, a little quickly.
James hummed. So the man's name probably wasn't Oliver, but it didn't matter that much to him.
"What was he like?" James asked.
Caspar's eyes lit up. "Oh, he's a character. Talks miles a minute, quick as a whip, never stops thinking. Stubborn as a mule. Likes to show off a lot. Cares for people far more than he'd admit."
"Sounds like an entertaining sort of guy," James said with a grin. "Were you two very close?"
"Ah," James said with a nod as his grin disappeared. "A great loss, then. For the both of you."
Caspar met his gaze, eyes a little misty. Then he looked down, the brim of his hat hiding his face. "I think so." Clearing his throat, he composed himself again and looked back up to James. He opened his mouth to say something more, but stayed quiet.
James let a small silence pass between the two of them.
He wanted to give Caspar a moment to collect himself. He could see that he was already trying, and he didn't know yet if Caspar was the kind of person who needed a lull in conversation to recover or if he needed a quick subject change to move on. He was leaning towards the former, though.
Caspar seemed to be a very open man, and James couldn't help but envy him a little - but at the same time, he didn't envy him that much. He'd had to learn the hard way that being unguarded only ever opened you up to a lot of hurt.
Maybe that was what seemed to draw him to Caspar.
Caspar reminded him of himself. Or rather, who he used to be.
Of course, James didn't know all of Caspar's story. But the fact that Caspar had shared any of it at all, and so much of it seemed to be genuine - especially the parts that had to have weighed on him the most - was a testament to Caspar's character. James had a hard time believing any of his words or actions were anything but authentic. At least, with the exception of the poorly executed lies.
But the fact that he was bad at lying had to mean something. Or maybe he was just hoping it did.
James had to stop himself there, because he knew he would start to overthink every interaction and conversation to the point where it would make the rest of this trip miserable. He couldn't account for everything. He could never account for everything, even when he tried. He just had to keep being careful, and right now that looked like telling mild little lies about farming and being a stable-hand with a placid smile and polite words.
That he could manage.
"Did you come up with a name for your horse yet?" he asked, finally speaking up. "Or are you still undecided?"
"Oh! Yes, in fact." Caspar patted the horse's neck. "Eir."
The horse flicked her ear, unconcerned with trivial things such as names.
"Hm," James hummed. "I like it. Short and sweet."
Eir then bobbed her head, as if to concede this point. Caspar seemed pleased with himself.
"I'll have to help you train her to respond to it," James mentioned.
"I am forever in your debt, Mister Matt," Caspar said sincerely.
"Oh, well you don't have to be that dramatic about it," James said with a laugh. "But maybe someday you can pay me back with fishing tips."
"As you wish, my liege," he said grandly with a flourish.
James raised his eyebrows, laughing again.
"I'm hardly nobility, but I appreciate the loyalty," James said with laughter still in his voice.
Caspar laughed too. "Yeah, anytime you want to learn, I'd be glad to help. It's the least I could do in return."
"Well," James smiled. "Again. Much appreciated."
He dipped his head to tip his hat. Caspar gave him a small salute.
When James looked away, he noticed Gregor starting to pick up the pace at the back of the herd. They would space out different times in the day when they'd run the cows through the fields, and it looked like they were going to pick up the pace.
"Ready for another test?" James said suddenly, his smile turning a little mischievous.
Caspar sat straighter, seeming to steel himself.
"Let's speed up," James said, leading Elliot into a canter.
Caspar followed his lead. Eir hesitated at the clumsy command, but caught on and quickly caught up with Elliot. James waited until their pace matched, and then sped up a little more. At the same time, the cattle started to pick up the pace, and James drew in a little closer to herd them in. Caspar and Eir fell behind a little, ensuring there weren't any stragglers in the back. The cattle aligned themselves according to the herders' guidance.
They kept the pace for some time, running the horses and the cattle hard through the fields until they started to get closer to the river. The sun had dragged across the sky in that time, inching closer and closer to the horizon, tempting to pull away the bright blue sky with a colorful curtain before it was night.
But they made it to the river just as the sun was hovering over the horizon.
The cattle bunched together up against the water, lapping it up and happily laying in the cool of the shade and the mud after a long, hot day. After doing one last head count of the cattle, Gregor brought everyone around to the river themselves, where they started to make camp. Everyone was hurrying a little, trying to make use of their last few precious hours of sunlight. They quickly brushed down the horses, got them water, and tied them up by the river where they could drink and graze on the green grass growing on the river bank.
Once all of the animals were taken care of, they cleared away some underbrush and leaves in an open area of grass to set down their things. Gregor was always mindful of getting the most important things out of the way so they could enjoy the rest of their time with less of a rush, so they hurried through washing some dishes and blankets, gathering some firewood, and setting up the rest of camp.
Everything was ready for them to start up a meal for when they returned, and finally, Gregor gave them all the freedom to go wash up to their heart's desire.
Percy was the first to sprint to the river, practically stripping as he ran. He'd done this before, so James knew better and looked away, rolling his eyes with a sigh, only looking back once he heard a splash. He saw Percy's head bob up out of the water.
Meanwhile, Kenneth had run as well but was in less of a hurry. He had started taking off his shoes once he made it to the water's edge, carefully setting his clothes on a rock. He'd also picked up Percy's clothes along the way, which he threw into a bunch on the ground likely for Percy to deal with later.
James, though, took his time. He just walked, and so did Gregor and Caspar with him.
Gregor turned to Caspar with a little smile and a shrug.
"Sometimes it's just exciting to get clean," Gregor said with a little laugh.
Caspar nodded, grinning. "I understand."
Gregor reached over and gave Caspar a heavy pat on the back, nodding. At the nod, he pulled away and started to hasten his pace.
"Well, come on boys. We don't have all night," he said, jogging up to the water. He stepped up behind Kenneth, who had stripped down to his boxers. Just as Kenneth looked down into the water, Gregor pushed him in with a laugh.
Kenneth toppled into the water with a flail of his arms, spinning around and landing in the water on his back. He stayed afloat on the surface for a split second before sinking under, and when he splashed his head back above water he was laughing. Gregor was starting to take off his own layers when Kenneth kicked at the edge of the water, splashing him in retaliation. Percy, clearly wanting in on the laughter, swam up behind Kenneth and dunked his head underwater.
What followed was a bunch of splashing and wrestling in the water while Gregor was left to himself - though he did pull back to avoid all the water flying around.
James himself had finally made his way to the water's edge, just a few feet down from the splash zone. He sat down on a rock and started taking off his boots and socks, glancing over at the others.
Gregory had gotten in the water, and Kenneth and Percy looked like they'd called a truce for the moment. Meanwhile, Caspar was standing off to the side, not quite watching the men in the water directly, and not quite looking like he was eager to do anything at the moment.
James flicked his eyes to the men in the water, and then back to Caspar.
"If you want some privacy," James said. "You could go further down the river. You don't have to jump in right here, you know."
Casting him a grateful look, Caspar followed the river a ways down past James, already shrugging off his jacket.
James watched as he disappeared, wondering how far he was going. He glanced down the other direction of the river. Gregor already knew James liked his space to bathe, so no one shouted after him when he abandoned his shoes and jacket and started walking off to be on his own.
At least he wasn't the only one, now. He felt a little more justified.
He stopped once he couldn't see the others anymore, and he glanced around, checking his surroundings to make sure it was clear. Though he didn't see or hear anything, he was still a little on edge as he hastily threw off his clothes and jumped in the water, not even sparing a glance at himself before he was submerged.
He didn't know how grimy he felt until he started to feel the water washing it off. He scrubbed at his arms and his legs and let the water cool him down. At first, it had felt cold, but after swimming around in it for a minute his body acclimated, and he felt fine.
James didn't really like to spend much time in the water, though. Once he'd made sure he was thoroughly as clean as he could be, he hurried out, eager to dry off and cover himself up again.
Drying off was always his least favorite part of the process. No matter what he was always anticipating someone to come around the corner at any moment, when he was most exposed, and most vulnerable. He sat at the edge of the water hugging his legs, waiting until he was dry enough to put his clothes back on.
Several times, he looked over his shoulder, even when he didn't hear a sound. He tried not to glimpse at his back and the pattern of scars he could only ever see out of the corner of his eye anyway. He tried not to look at himself in general. It was just better not to.
Finally he threw his clothes back on and hurried back to the others on bare feet.
That was the only thing he did enjoy. Walking barefoot. But even so, he was still watching where he stepped. Without his boots, his ankles had less support, and he just had to be careful. His ankles could be tricky, and always were when he least wanted them to.
When he returned to the others, Percy and Kenneth were still splashing around, but Gregor was sitting at the edge of the water shirtless and shoeless, but otherwise clothed.
James sat down beside him, and Gregor turned, looking him over, eyes landing on his still-damp hair.
"All clean?" Gregor asked.
"Yeah," James answered. "All clean."
"Good," was all Gregor said in reply, turning to look out at the river, where Kenneth and Percy had started swimming around.
The short-lived conversation turned to a content silence as they simply sat in the sun. James rolled up his pants and dipped his feet in the water to stay cool, and he leaned back on his arms in as relaxed a position as he could manage.
He probably looked relaxed to everyone else, but his nerves were still on edge.
Eventually, Kenneth came out to dry and Percy did too, after Gregor had to tell him to. Sometimes Percy really did act like a child, even though he was a competent ranch-hand. But he had a feeling that some of that behavior was just to get a reaction, which he never really got out of Gregor, almost always got out of Kenneth, and only rarely got out of James.
Everyone was fully clothed except Percy (who refused to put his shirt on) when Caspar finally returned. He looked happier than before, and his steps were a little lighter.
"Hey, look who's back!" Percy shouted. "We thought the river took ya."
"You know how to swim, right?" Kenneth asked, looking to Cas, then to Percy. "Gregor said he used to be a fisherman."
"Well, did you catch any fish?" Percy asked.
Caspar laughed. "Unfortunately, no. Nothing caught my eye."
"I bet you he could catch a fish with his bare hands," Percy said, looking to Kenneth.
Kenneth looked like he wasn't sure how to respond to that, and instead looked to Caspar to comment.
Caspar just shrugged. "Never really tried. Nets are more effective."
"See?" Kenneth said to Percy. "Nets are more effective. You've learned something."
"I still think it'd be cooler if you could catch it with your bare hands," Percy said, looking to Caspar instead, ignoring Kenneth.
"You're free to try," Caspar said, settling on the shore near James. "Tell me how it goes."
James nodded to Caspar as a silent greeting, noting how Caspar had already seemed to get more attached to him than the others. There was a small part of him that was quietly terrified at that, because he knew it wouldn't last forever. And he knew it would end. And if it was anything like the trend of his life had shown him, it would end quickly and painfully.
Inwardly, he chastised himself for letting this happen.
He knew how to say goodbyes. He knew he'd be fine. But he hadn't meant to befriend Caspar, knowing that he was looking for friends, and James wouldn't be able to stick around.
"Maybe I will!" Percy said loudly as he stood up, ripping James out of his own head.
Kenneth grabbed Percy's hand.
"We don't have much sunlight left," Kenneth said sternly. "And the sun's going down."
Evidently, Percy was looking to jump back in the water. Kenneth's correction didn't seem to talk him down from it, but one look from Gregory did. Percy let out a sigh and turned around, walking back towards camp.
"You left your--" Kenneth started to say, looking at Percy's shirt on the ground. He sighed, instead, shaking his head. "Nevermind."
With Percy gone, the energy between all of them seemed to still, and they all sat in silence for a moment.
"So, uh," Kenneth spoke up. "Caspar. How long were you a fisherman?"
Caspar momentarily looked like a deer in headlights. "Um, just a little while. I worked under my father."
"Oh, so it was a family trade!" Kenneth said with a small smile. "That's nice. I'm sure you learned a lot from him."
Caspar nodded. "Yeah, I did. He was a good man."
"And you're from the Isles, yeah?" Kenneth asked. "What part? I've got family from there."
"Uh, it was really small and kind of removed from the mainland," he said. "Hear of Herron before?"
"I've heard of it, I think," he said. "Never been, though. That's pretty far out from the main ports. Must've been a quiet upbringing."
"It was. Where are you coming from?" Caspar asked Kenneth.
"Ah, well, my father's side of the family lives in Port Brakken. I have a lot of cousins out there," Kenneth said. "Most of 'em are sailors. A few are in the navy, clearing out the waters of sea monsters. I don't envy that job."
"Brave souls," Caspar said, commending.
"They really are," Kenneth said. "One of my cousins, Clara, she's a captain. She's been fighting off sea monsters for years with her crew. I know they've lost a few folks over the years, but she's amazing."
Caspar stared in awe. "Wow," he breathed.
"Now imagine if she knew what I was doing," Kenneth said with a laugh, before shooting a panicked glance at Gregor. "No offense."
"None taken," Gregor said with a shrug. "Ranching isn't always exciting, but it puts food in your stomach. And in others' stomachs!"
"Very true," Kenneth said. "Honestly, I can't complain. I think I prefer this to a profession where I'm constantly in danger. I don't know how monster hunters do it."
"What did you do before this?" Caspar asked.
Kenneth let out a small sigh.
"Ah, yeah," he said. "I was working down south as a butler, if you can imagine it. My wife and I lived in the city, and she worked at her family's shop as a florist. We didn't make a lot, but we got by."
"Still a profession of its own," Caspar said, "with good aspects as well as challenges, just like with any job."
"For sure," Kenneth said. "If things had worked out, I would've liked to learn how to be a florist as well. But alas, it wasn't meant to be."
Caspar shrugged. "Maybe you could try on the side sometime?"
"I will arrange flowers after I'm done branding cows," Kenneth said. "Yes. Brilliant."
"That would be fun to see," Gregory commented with a chuckle.
"You know, maybe I could--" Kenneth started to say, only to abruptly stop as Percy shouted from the camp.
Kenneth already looked annoyed.
Kenneth got to his feet.
"When are we eating?" Percy shouted.
Kenneth let out a long, deep, sigh, and he flicked a glance to James, and James nodded subtly, sharing the moment in understanding.
"We should get the food started," Gregor said slowly. "Caspar, why don't you help Kenneth get a fire started?"
"Yes, sir," he answered dutifully. He gave James a small pat on the shoulder as he stood up, and set off to work.
James watched as Kenneth and Caspar headed back to the camp, and James started getting to his feet but hesitated when Gregor didn't move. Standing, he looked down at the older man.
"Everything alright, Gregor?" he asked.
"Everything's fine, son," Gregor said with a little nod. But then he patted the space on the ground beside him.
James looked off towards the camp at the other three, then looked back down at Gregor. After a second's pause, he hesitantly sat down, facing the river alongside Gregor.
"I see you've taken Caspar under your wing," Gregor said. "That's good. He needs the help. I knew he'd need a lot of guidance starting out."
"I'm just paying it forward," James said, trying to quickly deflect the compliment - if that was even what it was - and direct wherever this conversation was going in a different direction.
"I had a feeling you two would get along," Gregor continued. "I know you and Percy butt heads a lot, and him and Kenneth stick together like glue."
"If you're trying to tell me you hired on Caspar just so I'd have a friend--" James started.
"And?" Gregor interrupted.
James snapped his mouth shut for a moment, but then boldly continued.
"Gregor. Look. I appreciate the thought. But I don't need you doing me any more favors. I'm fine. And you know I told you on the front end that this job will be temporary for me. Just a few months, at most," he went on. "And then I'm moving on."
"Moving on to what, exactly?" Gregor pressed. "Look, Matt, I don't mean to be pushy. But everyone needs friends, even if you think you don't. Friendships keep us sane. They keep us healthy. When they're good ones, at least."
James had to resist letting out a frustrated sigh.
He knew Gregor was only trying to be helpful, and he had the best intentions at heart, but he was meddling, and James didn't want to go there. Not now, not ever, and not with him or anyone else. He was done trying to open up and explain himself all over again, because then things got messy. Then people started asking questions. Then people got suspicious. And then he'd have to leave before anyone else got dragged into his mess and found out who he really was and decided to report him, or turn him in themselves.
James stiffly patted Gregor on the shoulder and got to his feet.
"Thanks for the advice, Gregor," he said, already walking away.
He didn't glance back, but he could sense that Gregor was watching him, and he could only imagine the look of disappointment on his face. At least it was only disappointment and not anger. Or at least, that was what James chose to imagine as he walked over to camp, where Kenneth had started preparing their meal for the night.
When he finally did glance behind him, he noticed Gregor was still sitting at the edge of the river.
Thinking, no doubt. Probably about him. But he chose to put it out of his mind and instead helped Kenneth chop some vegetables instead.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.
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Sat Feb 19, 2022 4:48 pm
The rest of the evening followed the same pattern as before. Kenneth cooked, he argued with Percy, and Mister Gregor gave his two cents on some matter or other. Eating was a good excuse to not join the conversation, even though Caspar didn't feel very hungry, and fortunately they didn't ask him to weigh in. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Mister Matt occasionally glancing his way with an unreadable expression, so Caspar tried to be more present until everyone retired for the night.
That proved difficult. Everyone's voices muddled together a bit, and things right in front of him felt distant.
Caspar took first watch again, and all went well there. Cows were as they should be, he had enough wood to keep the fire going, and everyone else slept soundly. He woke up Matt for second watch, and laid down to rest himself.
He was more tired than he realized. Considering he hadn't really slept at all the past couple of nights, it wasn't that surprising.
He lied facing the fire at first, observing Mister Matt through the flames. He was sitting by the fire, staring out at the fields with a blank expression.
Everything hurt still. Fantastic. Caspar turned over, back toward everyone else, and rubbed at his shoulder. He could hear the river close by.
The night grew, swallowing up the trees and the river.
Caspar found himself standing, not in the fields with the cattle, but now a dense forest. The trees were bare, their branches tangling together in the grey sky. The air bit at his skin like winter, but there wasn't any snow yet.
Looking down, he stood in a partially dug hole in the ground holding a shovel. The spade often struck thick roots and slid off stones as he dug.
The forest was dead silent. Nothing else moved.
He hit something with a hollow thunk. Lifting the shovel again revealed lacquered wood, now broken through.
A faint voice called his name from below. Tossing aside the shovel and dropping to his knees, he pushed away the rest of the dirt with his hands.
He sat back and stared down at a devastatingly small coffin. A name he couldn't read was roughly etched into the top in faded, jagged lines and packed in with soil. When the voice whispered again, he tore at the hole made from the shovel. The wood broke away, the grains staining red as it cut his hands.
A brown-haired boy inside stared up at him with wide, unseeing eyes. His face was colorless and fixed in fear. Caspar reached a shaking hand to touch his cheek.
A bullet tore through his shoulder, ripping him away from the coffin in the forest.
Pushing himself to his knees, Caspar sucked in a breath, clutching his shoulder. He scanned the campsite.
Kenneth, Percy, and Mister Gregor were still asleep. The sky was dark and filled with stars. Cattle dozed nearby in the field. The river rushed a little ways behind him.
He sat back, trying to steady his breath. There were no good options anymore. Staying awake for as long as he willfully could was obviously bad, yet going to sleep was always somehow worse.
"Nightmare?" Matt's voice came softly from the fire.
Raking a hand through his hair, Caspar exhaled slowly. "Yeah."
"I'm sorry," Matt said, keeping his voice low, likely to not wake the others. "Do you have them often?"
Caspar shook his head. "It's fine." He glanced over the fire at Matt.
Matt wasn't looking at him at first, and was instead looking down at some kind of leather bound journal in his lap as he sat by the fire. The moment Matt seemed to catch Caspar looking his way, he closed the journal slowly and set it to the side, flicking his eyes over to him briefly.
"I get them too," he said. "I know how it can be."
Caspar nodded. "Is there a...way to stop them?"
"If there is, I haven't found it," Matt said, staring into the fire. "But I've learned to live with it. After a while, you kind of get used to it. Sad as it sounds."
Huffing a low laugh, Caspar turned his head. "I'm still not used to them."
Matt was quiet for a moment, looking deep in thought as he stared into the fire.
"How long have you been having them?" he asked. "The nightmares?"
Caspar shrugged. "Not long. They've just. Been very persistent since." He waved dismissively. "It's fine."
"You keep saying that," Matt said. "And I would believe you if I hadn't watched you fling yourself awake."
He chuckled wryly. "Yeah, I see how that can cast some doubt."
"It's fine if you're not fine, you know," Matt said quietly, picking up a stick and stoking the fire idly.
Now see, Caspar was stuck between wanting to be actually fine, and being fine with not being fine because that meant what happened mattered. Logically he knew none of this pain would go away. He just wished it would ease up a bit. Was that so much to ask?
Not wanting to dwell on it any further, Caspar cleared his throat. "Do you," he asked slowly, "ever want to go back? To your home town, that is."
Matt glanced at him, but only for a moment. His expression was hard to read.
"Sometimes," he said. "But there's not much for me to return to. It's pretty much a ghost town, now. Even if I wanted to go back, it'll never be the same as it was before."
"Oh." Caspar scrubbed at his eyes. "I'm... I'm sorry." Geez, could he get any worse at talking to people?
"Hey, don't worry about it," Matt said gently. "It's not like you knew. Besides, you would've found out eventually."
Caspar nodded weakly. It did little to reassure him, though. Talking to people often felt like trying to navigate a field riddled with landmines, and he managed to step on pretty much every single one.
He should just forgo talking to people altogether.
Caspar dusted off his hands on his trousers. "Are the cows alright? Uneventful night so far?"
"Nothing much to note," Matt said. "Unless you count cows getting up and moving to lay next to other cows as exciting."
"So, thrilling, I take it. That's good."
"You should see them when they roll over," Matt said, deadpanning. "Then it's really a party."
Caspar cracked a small grin. "Well, far be it from me to keep you from that excitement."
"Ah, well," Matt shrugged. "I'm not much a party person anyway. I appreciate your company."
Caspar fell quiet. He lightly drummed his hands on his knees, feeling horribly out of place. Then he settled back on his elbows and tilted his head up to the stars.
Once he found the archer, he was able to orient himself. The archer's arrow shared a star with the hound's tail, and the hound lept over an anvil. Every other figure in the sky quickly came into focus, and they all ran into each other in a loop that almost told a neverending story.
Drawing in a slow breath, Caspar finally let himself relax a little.
"Hey Cas," Matt said, breaking the silence between them. "What's your favorite food?"
Caspar looked back across the fire, trying to ground himself enough again to register the question and form a reasonable answer.
"Or, it doesn't have to be your favorite. Just a food you enjoy," Matt added. "Whatever first comes to mind."
"Apples are nice," he said. "They're sweet, crunchy. Good to take on the road. Uh, you?"
Matt hummed in thought.
"I like cheese," he said. "Ironically, you don't get much of it working out here with cows."
"Really? That's disappointing."
"It's hard to take on the road," Matt said with a shrug. "Doesn't keep well."
He nodded. "Ah."
"I like pasta too," Matt said. "It's nice and filling. Bread is also nice. That, you can take on the road. But it's not the same. It's not fresh out of the oven, and soft. The crust doesn't crackle when you bite into it. You know?"
"Stale bread doesn't hit the same, I agree." Caspar sat straighter and folded his legs. "You know, I hadn't tried soft bread until I moved inland. We only ever made a crackerbread at home. Which was still good when warm, and also travels pretty well."
"I'd love to try some someday," Matt mused. "Sounds delicious."
"As long as you don't have any issues with seeds," Caspar added. "Or, if you do, just. Leave out the seeds." He scratched at his chin in thought. "Um, do you know any instruments?"
Matt glanced over at Caspar, and there was the hint of a grin on his face.
"Sure. Harmonica," he answered. "You?"
Caspar shook his head. "Never tried anything."
"If you could, what would you want to learn?" Matt asked.
"Ah, let's see..." He pressed his lips in a thin line as he went through all the instruments he listened to before or heard about. "The piano sounds neat. I think I'd try to learn that if I ever had the opportunity."
"I like the sound of the piano," Matt commented. "Only heard it played in a few contexts. They're not easy to come by, but their sound definitely fills a room."
"What were they? The contexts, I mean."
"Ah, only in taverns, really," Matt said.
Pianos appeared in taverns? Caspar made a note to look for such a tavern.
He wanted to ask more, wanted to get to know Matt a little better. Like about that gal with the horse named Obedience, if she and Matt were close at all, what Matt's family was like, where his nightmares stemmed from, what left him with so many scars but still a generous heart and friendly demeanor. He decided maybe it was best to stick with surface-level things.
Maybe the gal and her horse was his safest bet?
Off to the side, Percy stirred in his sleep. Caspar decided against anymore questions altogether. He wasn't supposed to connect with people like this, not anymore.
But he also hated to leave a conversation hanging like this.
But their safety was arguably more important than holding a conversation.
But how could he end it short of really obviously fake yawning or even faking his death and disappearing into the hills altogether?
Maybe he didn't need to go to those extremes, he thought, trying to be more reasonable.
"Think you'll be able to catch any more sleep tonight?" Matt asked, cutting through Caspar's thoughts.
Caspar nodded. "I should try." He didn't want to, but he really should. "You, um. You can keep on with. Cow watching. I've taken up enough of your attention for the night."
Matt took in a deep breath, leaning back as he looked back out at the fields.
"It helped pass the time," he said. "But it would probably be good for you to at least lie down. Even if you can't sleep, it helps."
As always, Matt was a voice of reason. Caspar nodded and settled back again, facing the stars. "Thank you," he said softly.
He found the archer and his hound again, mentally paging through an old story his father weaved about their grand exploits.
The coffin in the woods still lingered in the back of his mind.
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Sun Feb 20, 2022 2:26 am
James was a little annoyed. There was an itch in the back of his brain, telling him to be careful, and no matter what he did to scratch it, it never seemed to go away. But the sensation got worse after his conversation with Gregor the day before, and he knew he'd been too harsh in his response.
The problem was he felt torn. On the one hand, he wanted to, as much as possible, be a decent person. He wanted to be kind. He wanted to be patient, and all of the things that made people good people. But sometimes, the good thing to do - the right thing to do - was to keep people at a safe enough distance away that no one really got hurt. He didn't get attached, they didn't get attached, and then when he'd disappear, no one would miss him.
That was how he always wanted it to go, but people were far too complicated for it to ever work that way. That had been why he'd traveled alone for so many months on end, never staying in any place very long. That was why he did odd jobs like this one. One that wouldn't last long.
Or weren't supposed to.
It wasn't that he hated Gregor for (in the simplest terms) trying to father his employees as much as he trained them on the job. It just made things complicated. Because now people cared. And now he cared.
He made up his mind. When they made it to the ranch, and the cattle were home, and this job was done, he'd leave. He'd part ways, and he'd never see any of these men again. Kenneth and Percy would be fine under Gregor's leadership, and Caspar would surely find his way as well.
At least, that was what he selfishly hoped. It wasn't like he could help Caspar anyway. He wasn't meant for long-lasting friendships anymore. His lot in life was that he was better off alone.
It was night again, and as usual, he didn't sleep through the first watch. He laid there, eyes closed, letting his body rest, but his mind was like a headache, always buzzing. Even his body could only rest so much; he was always ready to move if needed. It had taken years to tame that instinct so that he didn't appear as twitchy or flighty anymore, but it still remained, just like the itch at the back of his brain.
When Caspar tapped him lightly to "wake" him, James didn't have to fake weariness - only drowsiness. The line between the two was always blurry anyway, but distinct enough for an observant person, which he always assumed everyone was. Just to be safe.
James got up for the second watch and Caspar laid down next to the fire, where Gregor, Percy, and Kenneth were all sleeping soundly, with their chests rising and falling under their woven blankets.
He kept an eye on Caspar for a while. Not staring, but just being aware. Caspar was always restless in his sleep, and James understood, but he knew it meant he had to be more careful. He'd had it easy with the other three. Percy, Kenneth, and Gregor all slept like rocks, and that meant James could walk about the campsite on his watch with more freedom. Now he had to be more careful.
So he pulled away from the camp a bit, outside of the circle of dancing firelight and into the shadows of the grove of trees they'd settled by. James passed the horses quietly, and thankfully none of them stirred as he retreated into the cover of the trees.
Once he was alone, he paused in the darkness, standing still and taking in a few deep breaths. The night air was dry and cool, but not cold. There were distant, faint buzzing sounds from crickets in the fields, and a few "moos" from the cattle here and there. The shadows of the trees acted like a cloak, and though he couldn't make out the details of the wild grass that grew around their roots, the earth was still soft beneath him. It hadn't been too long since the last rain. It must've come just before their trip across the plains.
He let the stillness of the night and the small, simple details ground him, silencing his mind for only a moment, but it was all he could get these days.
When the itch returned, he took in another deep breath and shook his hands at his sides, bouncing up and down on his heels.
It was time to let out some of his pent-up energy.
He bounced on his feet a few times, building up momentum before he jumped up, grabbing at a tree branch above him. He pulled himself up so his chin was above the branch, and then went back down. Up, down, up, down. Several sets of pull-ups until he finally dropped down to the ground, wiping his hands on his pants for a moment to clear away the residue of the tree bark.
Still wanting to keep moving, he started to rehearse some fighting forms and stances, weaving in and out of the trees, pretending they were set up like fighting dummies to be dodged or fought. He built up momentum into a flip that led into a kick at a tree, letting it land with a solid hit from his heel. He pulled the hit just a little, so that he didn't completely scuff his boot.
As he completed the flip and planted back on the ground on two feet, he readied himself to do it all again, but then paused.
A nagging feeling crept over him. One that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
He was being watched. He knew it.
He stood up straight slowly, scanning the trees until finally his eyes fell on a shadow. James squinted into the night, trying to make out any identifiable features.
Tall. Hair that fell to his chin. His build resembled Caspar.
"Cas," James said, still breathing a little heavy. "Couldn't sleep again?"
"Um, yeah." Caspar shifted in his spot, like he wanted to step either closer or farther away. "Sorry, you can. Carry on, I just was worried because you didn't seem to be around."
"Hey, it's fine, Cas," James said, trying to reassure him. He couldn't tell if Caspar was wary or just unsure. He couldn't see much in the dark, and there was only so much he could gather from his voice. "I'm sorry for worrying you."
Caspar shrugged. "It's good. I'll just." He took a step back. "Leave you to it."
James blinked, trying to figure out if Caspar was being awkward because he felt intimidated, like he was imposing, or because that was just how he was. He was still learning him.
James glanced back at the tree he'd just kicked and then back at Caspar.
"Are you... are you sure?" James asked.
Would he rather be left alone? Yes. But he didn't want Caspar walking away with... well he didn't know what. How long had Caspar been watching him, exactly?
"Have you slept at all?" James added on.
Caspar paused. "Yeah, a little." He tucked his hands in his pockets. "I'm fine, Mister Matt. I won't keep you."
James pursed his lips, but nodded.
"Sure," he said.
And at that, Caspar turned and ducked under a low-hanging branch on his way back to camp.
James watched as he left, all the way until Caspar was back at the fire and laid back down, joining the other three distant little figures that were blurry from where James currently stood.
It felt awkward to go back to working out after the brief interaction, but he still felt the pent-up anxiety building, adding more pressure, little by little. He knew it was better for everyone if he let it out in a more productive way than if he sat on it and waited for Percy to blindside him again.
He went back to it, going through various exercises and pushing himself until he worked up a sweat and finally started to feel some sense of tiredness. Even if it wasn't quite enough to help him sleep just yet, hopefully it would help him fall asleep when the time finally came.
When he returned back to the fire, everyone seemed to be fast asleep at first glance, but as he heavily sat down by the fire, he noticed Caspar, who was facing the fire, had his eyes open, just a crack.
James glanced at the others. They'd all slept spread out enough that if they spoke in hushed tones, they wouldn't wake each other. Still, just out of courtesy, James got up and walked over to Caspar.
Wordlessly, he sat down near Caspar's feet, leaning back on his hands with a deep sigh.
He knew Caspar was awake, and Caspar knew he was awake. He waited to see if Caspar would initiate.
"You alright?" Caspar eventually murmured.
"Yeah," James said quietly. "Just trying to tire myself out a little bit so I can sleep later."
It wasn't a complete lie.
A beat of silence. "Sorry for. Barging in on you like that."
"Don't worry about it," James said dismissively. "You were worried is all. It's fine."
Pushing himself upright, Caspar scrubbed his face with both hands and stretched his arms behind him a moment. "So, um. Did you win?"
"Win...?" he asked.
Caspar smiled, a little awkward. "I don't think the tree ever really stood a chance."
James huffed through his nose, stifling a laugh.
"Oh, yeah," he said. "Clearly I walked away from it just fine."
Laughing quietly, Caspar lightly bumped shoulders with him. "Your shift almost done?"
"Eh, I've got some time left," James said, eyes drifting to Percy, who was sprawled out with all his limbs sticking out from his blanket. "And... truth be told, I always wake him up a little later than I should."
"I'm sure he appreciates it."
"It helps," James said. "With... you know. Keeping the peace."
"Yeah. And waking up swinging is just his way of saying 'thank you'."
"That's what I assume," James said with a small sigh.
He looked over to Caspar.
"I guess this is what having brothers is like," he commented.
Drawing his knees up and resting his elbows on them, Caspar absently slotted his fingers together. "Do you ever wish you had siblings?"
Somewhere at the back of his mind, his conscience quietly reminded him of the lie he'd created for himself. He did have siblings. He just hadn't seen them in a very, very long time. To pretend, he had to detach. Become a character, not himself.
"Sometimes," he said. "It might've made growing up a little less lonely, sometimes."
Nodding again, Caspar fell quiet. James knew it would be inappropriate to return the same question, knowing about Caspar's sister.
"I was pretty close with my father, though," James continued. "My parents were still my parents, but they knew how to make life fun and enjoyable. As much as they could, of course."
Caspar smiled softly. "I'm glad to hear that."
"You know," James said. "Gregor kind of reminds me of my father. Just a little."
"Yeah? In what ways?"
"Well... my father was always a very calm, patient man," James said slowly. "He wasn't easily worked up to anger, and he liked helping people."
James looked across the fire, where Gregor was all bundled up, fast asleep. His back was facing them, so he couldn't see the older man's face, but he could see the faint rise and fall of his sides.
"Not unlike Gregor," James finished.
Tilting his head, Caspar seemed to study James for a moment. "It must be nice, then, working for Mister Gregor?"
James, feeling the pressure of being observed, found himself carefully curating his facial expression to be subtly wistful as he looked at Gregor.
"I guess so," he said softly. "It's not bad."
Caspar flopped back and slung an arm over his eyes. "You should probably grab a long stick and poke at Percy soon."
James glanced at Caspar, then landed his eyes on Percy.
He was glad that conversation didn't travel further into family territory. When he started mixing in lies with truths things got muddy, and it was always hard to keep track of what was what in the long-term.
Thankfully, this wasn't long-term.
"Right," he said softly, getting to his feet. "I'll catch you in the morning."
With that, he did as Caspar suggested and grabbed a dry stick off the ground that had been tossed aside - not useful for the fire - and walked over to Percy.
It was time to wake him.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.
link to listen to my music
[ Follow ]
Sun Feb 20, 2022 4:44 am
Back on the trail the following morning, they drove the cattle farther along the river. Mister Matt gave Caspar a little nudge in the right direction here and there, and helped him train Eir to respond to her name as he promised. For the most part, though, he stepped back to let Caspar...take the reins from there. So to speak.
Eir seemed to calm once his cues became more confident and clear. She even warmed up to him when she discovered they shared a love for apples, and that Caspar was generous with praise and treats.
Either the soreness from the saddle was finally subsiding, or he was just getting numb all over. Whichever it was, horseback riding was more enjoyable now than when he first started, so that was another plus.
The hills rose and fell like a gentle tide. The sun continued to beat down on them. The river rushed alongside them, a calming force and steady source of relief from the summer heat.
He and Matt continued to settle into a sort of rhythm with each other as well, their comfortable back and forth chipping away at his apprehension about this job and being among people again, little by little.
"Gregor makes this trip every few months," Matt explained. "It's just part of the rhythm of life out here."
Idly, he asked about life on the ranch and Matt obliged.
Surface-level questions, he reminded himself. Small steps.
His reasoning for it had shifted now. Caspar sensed that Mister Matt was a very private person, so him opening up about his parents that morning was... Maybe he put too much credence in these small exchanges, but it felt like a very important moment. Like maybe making another friend wasn't such a terrible idea.
It rallied something within him.
The rest of the week passed smoothly. Well, mostly.
Very early the same day they anticipated their arrival at the ranch, Percy and Matt got into a scuffle.
Percy took great offense that he was roused with a stick more than once, and Matt countered that it provided him a safe distance for this exact reason. After helping separate the two, Caspar quickly cut in that he had suggested the stick in the first place, and it wasn't anything to take personally. To which Percy didn't physically retaliate as anticipated, just pouted instead as he tried calming himself. Meanwhile Kenneth cackled madly about the whole affair.
Incredibly amused despite being awoken so early, Mister Gregor told them to go back to sleep before the day actually began.
When the ranch finally came into view, the sun was inching towards the horizon, leaving them with an hour's worth of daylight. The first thing Caspar noticed were the wooden fences, stretching out around the fields with faded white paint, marking the wide boundary lines of the property. The fencing intersected in several spots, creating smaller sections with metal gates that all eventually led into a large barn.
A small distance from the barn, there was a wide dirt path that led up to a cabin at the top of the hill, overlooking the land and facing the property where the cows would be kept. From afar, it looked simple, and cozy, but as they got closer Caspar could tell that it was a two-story cabin, likely to at least have a few rooms. Though the wood stain seemed a little faded from the sun, it otherwise looked very comfortable, especially after camping outdoors for over a week.
Mister Gregor led the way to the main gate first, and they drove the cattle through the gate, and into one pen after the other until they were all separated. Older cattle were directed to the barns, younger ones were left out in a pen. Pregnant ones were taken to their own stalls.
Once the cattle were situated, and the horses were put away in their own shelter, Mister Gregor finally led them up to the cabin, just as the sun was setting. As they walked, he pointed out the different parts of the ranch as a sort of speed tour and proclaimed them done with work until the next morning or if the animals required urgent tending to. Whichever came first.
The cabin inside was one of those homes that had the kitchen right up front, with a large wooden table in the middle with chairs all around it. Kenneth made a beeline for the stove. Got a fire going and started prepping for dinner after washing off his hands in the sink. The kitchen shelving was open, holding aloft dishes and pots and jars. The floors were well-worn but sturdy. Not much by way of embellishment inside.
"Make yourself at home," Mister Gregor said, clapping a hand on Caspar's shoulder. "Bedrooms are upstairs. Matt, why don't you show him around? I'm going to grab some water. Kenneth, Percy, try not to strangle each other while I'm out." And with that, he plodded with heavy boots straight out the back door.
Caspar stood aimlessly by the front door, bag slung over his shoulder.
"We call the bedroom with the east facing window," Percy said, giving Kenneth a nod before running upstairs with his things in his arms. Kenneth stayed behind in the kitchen.
After Percy disappeared up the stairs, Matt looked to Caspar with a little shrug.
"He likes the view," he explained. "I could care less."
"All I care about is getting a bed," Matt continued, starting to walk towards the staircase himself. "Sleeping on a mattress will be a nice change."
That did sound nice, Caspar thought. He followed after Matt a few paces back.
"There's two sets of bunk beds," Matt said as they made their way up. "So we can each get a bottom bunk, unless you really want to climb for some reason. I prefer not to when I have the option. The ceiling's too close to the top bunk anyway. You're more likely to hit your head."
"Why two sets?" Caspar asked. "Does Mister Gregor usually have more help?"
"Depends on the season," Matt said, turning into the hall and stopping at the first door on their left. "When you've got more cattle, you need more help. When you can afford more help, you get it. Just depends, is all."
Matt opened the door, stepping into a comfortably sized bedroom. Just like he said, there were two sets of big, sturdy wooden bunk beds, each on an opposite wall with a large curtained window between them. Aside from the beds with their simple pastel quilts, the room only has a small dresser under the window, and a few unlit candles sitting atop it in candle-holders.
Matt went to the bunk bed on the right, setting his bag on the floor beside it before he sat down on the bottom bed, flopping backward with a sigh.
After their trip? Caspar really did not feel like climbing into a top bunk. He tossed his bag into the other bottom bunk across from Matt. Shedding his jacket, he circled the room to get to know its imperfections and little quirks. He tapped one of the dresser handles - the knob was a little loose. He made a mental note to look into that later. He was always torn about whether he liked large windows or not. Either way, it was large. A floorboard in the middle of the room creaked underfoot. Taking note.
He eyed the bed where his bag sat. He was tempted to lay down and rest a moment too, but he didn't want to risk falling asleep so soon.
"Dinner!" Kenneth shouted from downstairs.
"Already?" Matt mumbled, sitting up. "Hm. Must've kept it simple. I bet he's tired too."
When they descended to the kitchen, Kenneth and Percy were already sat at the table.
"I kept it simple," Kenneth declared. "I'm tired."
Old bread and baked potatoes. That was fair.
Percy and Kenneth argued the way they do through dinner, though it was noticeably less spirited than normal. Mister Gregor ate pretty quickly and retired for the night with a small, "Night, boys." Hung his hat on his chair and headed up.
"You could've at least salted the potatoes," Percy said.
"Grab some salt yourself," Kenneth grumbled.
Caspar didn't notice the difference. The bread, old as it was, wasn't moldy and still tasted like bread. And the potato was still distinctly potato-flavored, salt or no.
Percy also seemed to speed eat and rushed off to bed, and Kenneth was done very shortly after him. He scanned the kitchen, saw that he didn't really dirty anything to cook, then declared himself officially done for the day.
"Night, Matt, Cas," he called as he disappeared up the stairs.
Caspar nodded his acknowledgement, remembered that Kenneth probably couldn't see him since he was already gone, felt too tired to say anything, and so left it at that.
"Night," Matt said, a little too delayed.
They sat in what Caspar hoped was a comfortable silence. He was happy to not think of coherent things to say at the moment.
Eventually Matt finished first and got up, pausing to look at Caspar.
"I'm going to get ready for bed," he said. "See you in a bit."
"Alright, see you."
Matt nodded with a dip if his head and then was off, disappearing up the stairs along with the others.
Caspar watched him go. Then pushed his chair back and finally took off his boots, wiggled his toes, and stretched out his legs. He tilted his head back, grimacing at a loud crack in his neck. The ceiling was really dark with just candlelight. The faint texture in the grains seemed to swirl and pulse. He shook his head and glanced around the kitchen. Yup. Same as when he last looked at it.
He stood up and stretched both arms. Paced to the kitchen window and peered out into the night. He walked to the other end of the kitchen.
He wondered how long to give Matt. Then he wondered how long he could stave off sleep.
Maybe if he just stood there all night. Maybe that would work.
No, that would appear strange. He should head up soon. In a moment.
A moment passed.
Well. Time to head up, then.
Up in the bedroom, Matt was just crawling into bed, pulling the covers over himself. He glanced over at Caspar, but then rolled over to face away from him. Caspar dragged his bag and jacket off the other bed, letting them drop to the floor, and flopped face down on top of the covers.
"I'm decent," he said, voice muffled.
There was a beat of silence.
"What?" Matt asked, sounding confused.
Caspar turned his head toward Matt and repeated, "I'm decent. If you must look this way, you can."
Matt didn't move at first, but then rolled over, facing Caspar.
"Must is a bit of a strong word for something so optional, but thanks for the update," Matt said.
"Well, maybe you would have to. Maybe there's something like mold on this wall. Very important."
"On your wall or mine?" Matt asked.
"I suppose mine. In that case, you would have to look this way." Turning over onto his back, Caspar poked at the mattress above him. "On your wall, you wouldn't."
"Don't know if I'd see much of anything in this dark," Matt replied. "Never mind mold."
Caspar hummed. "Good point."
"You got good eyes?" Matt asked.
Caspar glanced his way. "I think so. Never been told otherwise. Why?"
"I think you'd know," Matt said. "Things would be blurry for you."
Caspar shrugged. "What if I was only mildly near-sighted? And just figured that things far away are supposed to be a little blurry. I probably wouldn't know the difference until my vision was fixed with something."
"You pose quite the hypothetical, there," Matt said. "I guess a fish doesn't know it breathes water until it's out of it."
Caspar huffed a laugh. "So why do you ask?"
"I don't know," Matt said quickly. "Just curious, I guess."
Interesting. Caspar let the subject drop, though. Sitting up, he bumped his head on the top bunk. "Gah-"
"Ow," Matt said for him. "Yeah, don't sit up too fast. Top bunk's closer than you think."
Rubbing his head, Caspar dropped back down. "Thanks," he said, lamely. No simply sitting here, unfortunately.
"I guess you'll find out if it leaves a bump in the morning," Matt commented.
"Makes for a nice 'welcome home' gift."
He remained on his back as he slid his suspenders off his shoulders and tugged off his gloves. He flexed his fingers experimentally.
"A sad home if you're welcomed with a bruise," Matt said, sounding a little more sleepy.
"Tough love, we'll call it for now," Caspar replied, softening his voice. He couldn't see much of anything in this dark, not even his hand right in front of his face, so he absently felt out the marks on his hands instead.
"I guess that's one way to describe it," Matt replied, matching Caspar's tone.
"You should rest. You sound tired."
"Oh, yeah? So do you," Matt said, his voice getting a little muffled.
Caspar cast another quick look his way. His eyes were slowly adjusting, so he could make out some vague shapes in the room. Matt had pulled his blanket up over his chin. Caspar grinned slightly. "We still get up pretty early, right?"
"Sun's up, we're up," Matt said, repeating the little phrase Gregor would often say.
He nodded. "I'll see you then."
"Sleep well," Matt said quietly.
The dark got darker. Sleep slowly took over. There was a tinge of dread that pricked his heart, but Caspar didn't have it in him to fight it anymore.
He was in that dense winter thicket, the coffin uncovered again. The gunshot sounded, and he bled on the lacquered wood.
Water rushed in on him and the boy, pulling with it the dirt. It drowned out the name on Caspar's lips.
A whimper jolted him from his sleep. Or, at least, it sounded like a whimper, or maybe a muffled cry. It was quickly followed by a stifled groan, and what sounded like the rapid shifting of sheets and blankets.
There was a few seconds when the noises came to a sudden, eerie pause, and then there was shaky, heavy breathing. Like someone was trying and failing to take long deep breaths.
Careful not to bump his head again, Caspar sat on the edge of his bed. He blinked away the sleep from his eyes.
With his back toward Caspar, Matt lied curled up tightly, shoulders rigid, and with his covers tossed aside.
"Matt," he whispered.
There was no response but continued shaky breathing.
Caspar stood slowly. "Matt," he said again, gently, "I'm. Going to come to you, alright?"
Matt still didn't reply. Caspar took a step forward. The floor creaked under him, and he froze.
Matt practically flew up, spinning around faster than Cas had ever seen him move before. He sat up straight in the bed, but held a very clearly defensive stance.
Caspar carefully knelt down, hands held up non-threateningly. "We're in Mister Gregor's home," he said slowly. "I'll just stay right here, if you need."
His eyes were wide, and he held his position for a few seconds before his shoulders and arms slowly lowered, like realization has sunk in. Like Matt had realized who it actually was.
"... Sorry," Matt said, his voice rough and raspy. "Sorry. I didn't mean to wake you."
Matt reached over and grabbed his bed sheets, pulling them back towards him. Caspar noticed his movements seemed stiff and shaky.
"You didn't," Caspar said. He searched through his bag on the floor, and lit a match. Making sure to take quiet steps and avoid the creaky floorboard this time, he lit the candles on the dresser. "I was up." Turning, he leaned back on the dresser, keeping a distance for Matt's sake.
"Yeah, sure, sure," Matt said, barely understandable as his words ran together and he angled his face away from the light. He pulled his blankets up over his legs, clutching them close to his stomach. It almost looked like Matt's knuckles were turning white, but it was hard to tell in the dim light.
"Just a bad dream," Matt said, but it sounded more like a mantra than an explanation from the way he said it. "You know. You're familiar with those. It's over now. Go back to sleep."
Caspar nodded. "I'm good." He thought a moment. "My father used to tell stories about the constellations. The archer and his hound? Hear of them?"
There were a few second's delay. Matt still had his face turned away.
"No," he said, barely audible.
Padding back to the empty bunk, Caspar perched on the edge of his bed. He pulled his gloves back on, keeping his gaze trained on the floor. "If you want to hear, I can try to retell it? If you'd rather quiet, we can do that too."
Matt was slow to respond, but finally said: "You can tell it."
Caspar nodded. He scratched the back of his neck as he wracked his brain for all the details. He hadn't told this story in a little while.
"There was an archer, long ago," Caspar started, slowly. "Of humble beginnings, but he made a name for himself. He practiced his aim for years since his youth, and soon grew to become the best archer in the Isles. And his hound, his loyal companion and friend, was the best game tracker. They were a renowned hunting pair in their time.
"For all the shots he took, there was one he was most afraid but most determined to make. In his town, there was a woman with auburn hair and a golden heart. He finally mustered the courage to ask for her hand in marriage, but her parents didn't think him worthy. The woman begged for them to give the archer a chance, and her parents yielded."
Caspar glanced up at Matt.
"This must be an old Isles's tale," Matt said quietly. "I've never heard it. What happens next?"
"Her parents gave the archer a seemingly impossible task to prove his worth: to fetch the hide of a mammoth bear. And so he did.
"He and his hound trekked deep into the forest to find the beast's cave. The hound drove the animal out, snapping her teeth and baying loudly, and the archer shot it down with three arrows. The hide was thick, though, and he couldn't cut it with his dagger. After some time pondering how he'd get it home, the hound scratched at the creature's paw. Using the claw, the archer was able to skin the mammoth bear.
"He brought it back. The woman's parents were impressed, but insisted he perform another task. And another. And another, until the archer realized he was being taken advantage of. Tired and desperate, he asked that they be more reasonable, that they finally come to a decision about him. They relented, and requested he complete one final task."
The next part, traditionally, was... Well, the story was often told as a tragedy. He never liked it very much himself, and so always told it differently from how his father recounted it.
"They requested he next bring a werewolf's skin."
"The werewolf presented a new set of challenges. Being part human, they had the intelligence and look of a man, but the strength and restraint of a blood-thirsty beast at night. Afraid but determined, the archer set out with his hound for what he hoped was the last time."
"He searched both the wilderness and around town for a month. Werewolves often hid in plain sight, so he knew tracking would take time. His hound led him to a few wolves here and there, but they weren't what the archer needed."
"At last, when the night was darkest and the moon nearly gone, the archer caught sight of a strange figure, wolf-like in many ways but with the intelligent eyes of a human. He stayed hidden in the bushes. His hound silently prowled near by."
"The wolf spoke the archer's name just as he drew his bow and arrow. He froze, and watched agape as it transformed from beast to woman. The woman he wanted to marry."
"The archer couldn't bear to lose her, even as the woman taunted him with lilting voice, to make him doubt their love. He lowered his bow and said, 'I never saw you. Return home, and I shall return to mine.'"
"The woman smiled, and said sincerely, 'I would like for your home to be mine as well.'"
Caspar picked at the palm of his glove. "The archer brought her back, asking once more for her parents' blessing. They at last conceded his worth, having completed his final task. The archer married the woman he loved, and they left town to live peacefully in the wilderness together. The archer, his hound, and the wolf. The end."
He turned his gaze back to Matt.
The whole time he'd told the story, Matt had hardly moved, aside from tilting his head so his ear faced Caspar more directly. After he'd brought the story to an end there was a silence that hung in the air for a moment.
"That's not how the story originally ends," Matt said quietly. "Is it?"
Caspar shook his head. "No, it's not. My dad told it more accurately. He was sort of a stickler like that."
"I think I like your version better," Matt said, looking down into his lap, leaving his face still mostly shadowed from Caspar's view.
"Thank you." Caspar drummed on his knees. "I, um. Hope that helped."
Matt finally turned to look at Caspar in a quick glance. He seemed to be avoiding eye contact, but it was unclear if Matt could even see exactly where he was based on how his eyes looked out emptily into the room.
"It was a nice distraction," Matt admitted.
Caspar cracked a small smile. "Good. I'm glad."
"You should tell stories more often," Matt added. "You're not a bad storyteller."
Caspar huffed a laugh through his nose. "Very high praise, thanks. I'll add it to my list of marketable skills."
Matt let out a huff, but it sounded more akin to a sigh than a laugh. He started to lie back down, facing away from Caspar.
"Storytelling. Fishing. Cattle driving. You could just keep adding to list," Matt said distantly.
"A jack of all trades." Caspar paced back to the candles on the dresser. "Do you want to keep these lit?"
"You can blow them out," Matt answered in a whisper.
"Alright." So he did, plunging them back into darkness. Taking careful, quiet steps back to bed, Caspar looked back across the room. Matt was curled up again, looking utterly small. Caspar ducked back into bed and lied facing up.
"The wolf dies in the original story," Matt's voice came out weary. "Right?"
Caspar bit his lip. "Yeah. She kills the hound, too. Then the archer goes and kills her parents, and there's a whole vengeful mission thing. It's a...real bummer."
"I can see why you'd want to change it," Matt said.
"It was for, um..." He stopped himself there. "You should try to rest. We get to work pretty soon."
"Right," Matt said, his voice getting quieter. "Sleep. Yes. Goodnight again, then."
"Well, morning, technically." Caspar shrugged. "Either way, yeah.
"Good morning," Matt corrected sleepily.
"Morning," Caspar echoed.
He was restless now, and wanted to get up and maybe try to burn some energy, but he decided against it. He figured any movement, even just to leave the room, would disturb Matt. So he lied awake until the sky began to slowly brighten.
[ Follow ]
Sun Feb 20, 2022 4:46 am
When James woke up again, he felt tired as usual. He'd stayed awake for what felt like hours after waking from his nightmare, and by the time he finally fell asleep, the sun started to creep in through the curtains, piercing through the thin veil over the windows.
He let out a muffled groan as he rolled over, forcing himself to wake up and get out of bed despite the headache that built at the front of his head, right behind his eyes. As he slowly sat up, awake of the bunk above him out of hard-learned paranoia, he glanced over at Caspar's bed.
Caspar was awake and sitting up in his bed, flipping through a journal. James had noticed him sitting with it a few times before, normally on their late night shifts. He was glad he wasn't the only one. It made him feel less like an outlier among the men he worked with, even though it was something so small.
James threw off his covers, slipping his legs off the side of the bed as he let out a long sigh, stretching out his arms.
It didn't make sense to ask dull questions about how one another slept - not when he'd woken Caspar up and they both knew neither of them slept much at all. So he put a lid on the small-talk. That way he could avoid the conversation entirely, and he didn't have to talk about the things he could never escape in his mind, and the things that always caught up to him in his sleep.
Though, if he knew Caspar even a little after their constant travel together, he didn't think Caspar would pry about that anyway. He seemed to careful for that.
"Good morning," was all he finally mumbled to Caspar as he reached down to his bag, sifting through the work clothes he needed to get back into.
"Morning." Caspar snapped his journal shut and tossed it aside. "Ready for today?"
James glanced up at Caspar, trying to read his expression. He looked tired more than anything, yet itching to do finally something.
"Every day must happen, whether I feel ready or not," James said as he looked back down to his bag, pulling out socks and a shirt. "Therefore I am always ready as I can be."
Snorting softly, Caspar stood and nudged his bag under the bed with his foot. "A solid outlook on life."
"Just a realistic one," James said as he pulled out his pants, and started closed the flap to his bag again.
He glanced over to Caspar, noting he was already fully dressed and ready for the day.
"Kenneth probably isn't up just yet," James commented. "But if you wanted to help he'll probably need water. You could fetch some from the well out back if you're looking to get busy. There should be a bucket out there."
"I'll get on that, then." Caspar nodded to James. "I'll see you out there."
James nodded in return. With that, Caspar stepped out, quietly shutting the door behind him.
James stared at the door for a moment, waiting until he heard the footsteps grow further away. It wasn't that he didn't think Caspar was a good person, but there were some things he did with everyone. He had decided long ago to never be lax again, because it was always when he started to trust that things went wrong one way or another.
When he was sure Caspar was far down the hall, he got dressed quickly and packed his clothes back away into his bag, making sure his bag was ready to go as it always was, just in case. Everthing inside included the simple bare minimum - the things he'd learned he could not live without. That meant everything inside was solely practical, aside from his journal - of which he considered a practical piece of its own, as it was necessary for his own sanity. Especially when he was
He slung his bag over his shoulder as he got up and padded down the stairs. Gregor had come to accept that James brought his things with him everywhere, and thankfully due to a few moments of him dismissing it as an issue, the others didn't ask any questions anymore.
James was sure that it told the others enough about him without there ever being any words.
He was always ready to go, just in case. They just didn't know why, and they didn't need to.
When he walked downstairs and entered the kitchen, he saw Gregor sitting at the table, reading a book quietly. He had only a handful of books, all kept in his bedroom, and it was normal for him to pick one up and read to pass the time in the early hours of the morning. When James dropped his bag near the foot of the table, he gave Gregor a quiet nod of acknowledgement.
Gregor looked up from his book for a moment with a nod.
"Morning," Gregor said, returning his eyes to his book.
"Morning," James echoed.
"Cas is fetchin' water," Gregor said, likely not knowing James already knew. "Could you pop your head out front to check on the cattle?"
James nodded again.
"Yes, sir," James said, walking towards the front door.
The wooden floorboards by the entrance creaked faintly under his feet as he opened the front door, coming face to face with the bright morning sun.
He squinted, feeling his headache pound harder at the front of his skull as his eyes slowly adjusted. As he closed the door behind him, he tried to blink away the spots in his vision, letting his eyes take a moment as he stood paused by the door.
But the moment his eyes did refocus, he was on high alert.
There was a man on the porch. Sitting slumped against the wall, he looked to be fast asleep. There was a dark horse tied up to the post outside the cabin, nibbling at the dry grass in the warm sun.
James returned his attention to the man. His head was craned back, leaning against the wall, and his mouth hung open a crack, leaving a small trail of drool going down his chin.
He was a tall man - probably around Caspar and Kenneth's height - and he had short, dark black hair, smoothed back, and there was a spot of white right where his hairline met his forehead. He looked young, and had tanned brown skin. He was dressed like a traveler, but his clothing resembled those of people who lived out here in the deserts and plains.
But the thing James took note of the most was that he looked built like a fighter. Or at least, like he was capable. The average traveler or rancher didn't necessarily look like that.
Already on high alert, James hesitated, turning to go back and step inside. But just as he turned to open the door - even though he was careful in his steps and weight distribution to not cause the floorboards to creak - the man started to stir.
James still drew the door open and slipped inside quickly, before he was seen. Or at least, before he
he was seen.
The man could've been a lost traveler in need of a place to stay. He could've been lost. He could've even been a former ranch hand of Gregor's. But James had a bad gut feeling, and he stopped ingoring that feeling a while ago, because even though he was sometimes wrong, he was more often right than not.
Casually, he walked back over to the table.
"Forgot this," he said by way of simple explanation to Gregor as he quickly grabbed his bag and slung it over his shoulder.
"Your bag?" Gregor asked, looking up from his book.
James could tell Gregor knew something was up.
"Yeah," James said simply, deciding that even a believable lie would bring just as much suspicion as he had already earned. He startrd back towards the door. "I'll be back after I check on the cattle."
But that, in and of itself was something he did not think he would follow through on.
When he stepped back out front, the man was on his feet, dusting himself off. As James looked to him, they made brief eye contact. The man's expression only read mild interest and surprise - but he didn't know why he was feeling those things. There could be any number of reasons.
"Oh! Hello," the man said with a small, earnest smile. He seemed apologetic already. "Are you--"
"If you're looking for work," James interrupted. "You should talk to Gregor."
The man blinked and shook his head.
"Gregor--" he repeated, but James didn't let him say any more.
"He's inside," James added, already walking down the porch steps.
"Well, actually, that's not--" the man started to say again, but this time was cut off by the creaking sound of the front door opening.
James paused in his steps, glancing over his shoulder to see Gregor standing in the doorway, looking between the two of them.
"Matt," Gregor said. "Do you know this man?"
James could feel every inch of him screaming to run.
"No," he said. At least that was true.
Gregor looked to the man, giving him a small, polite smile.
"What's your name, son?" Gregor asked.
"Alexander," the man answered. "Are you the owner of this property?"
"That I am," Gregor answered.
"I'm sorry to intrude," Alexander apologized. "But I've been travelling this way on my way to Derra. I'm low on supplies, and was wondering if I'd be able to draw some water from your well."
"Pleasure to meet you, Alexander," Gregor said, and James watched as the two of them exchanged a bow of their head and a brief, firm handshake.
James glanced out at the barn.
If he ran, how far would he get before someone caught up to him?
"How long have you been on the road, son?" Gregor asked.
"About a month, sir," Alexander answered.
James glanced at the horse tied to the post as Gregor kept talking with Alexander. If he was desperate, he might be able to hop on it. Just long enough to get to Elliot faster. But that was a gamble. He didn't know if the horse would obey his command. He didn't know the horse.
He should wait. Things hadn't gone south just yet.
"Oh, Cas!" Gregor called, and James saw him wave Caspar over to the front door.
Buckets of water in either hand, Caspar stopped at the bottom of the front steps. "Mister Gregor." He glanced at Alexander. "Who's this?"
"A weary traveler looking for some help," Gregor said. "I'm going to take him out back to the well. Would you mind going with Matt to do a headcount of the cattle before breakfast?"
Gregor could tell. He could tell James was trying to leave, and he was trapping him into staying by saddling him with someone else, so he couldn't just slip away easily. James would have to figure out a way to get away from Caspar.
Caspar obliged, setting the buckets down on the porch. His eyes flicked back and forth between James and Alexander, seeming to pick up on the tension. He gestured to James. "Uh, lead the way."
James used every ounce of self control in his body to flash a small smile, genuine in appearance, and he nodded his head. Desperately trying to diffuse the tension and bring a sense of assurance. He then tilted his head towards the cattle cate.
"Come along," he said, turning to walk down the dirt path.
Caspar followed closely behind him, casting one more glance over his shoulder.
James tried to keep a controlled pace, holding back from the urge to rush ahead. He didn't say anything.
"I didn't see him before," Caspar said. "Did he just get here?"
"Must have," James said with a shrug of one shoulder.
Caspar fell back a few paces, giving him some room. James glanced back at him, studying him for just a second. He seemed confused, but not like he caught on to anything just yet. It seemed everyone was sensing
, they just didn't know why it put James on edge. But that was good. No one had recognized him yet, and if he got away soon, they never would. At least, not while he was around.
"Are Kenneth and Percy up yet?" James decided to ask.
He should try to keep light conversation to diffuse the tension in the air.
"Kenneth is," Caspar answered. "I didn't see Percy anywhere, so I can't say about him."
"Well, he normally sleeps in if allowed," James said. "He's likely still in bed."
"So, just cow counting, right?" Caspar asked, tone easy. "Not letting them out yet?"
"Yeah," James said as he came up closer to the fence by the gate. They could see all the cattle from here, aside from the ones in the barn.
"How about this," James said. "You count the ones grazing out in the field and I'll do a head-count in the barn. Saves us both some time so we can get back for breakfast."
Nodding, Caspar cast him a brief look. "Cover more ground that way. Sounds good."
"Good," was all he said before he turned to the barn, entered through the gate, and walked away.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.
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Sun Feb 20, 2022 4:48 am
Caspar expected getting thrown into all sorts of things right out the gate upon arrival. Just not this thing.
How long had that traveler been at Mister Gregor's house? Caspar might've been able to gauge better if he used the front door first.
He scanned the cattle, then looked back as Mister Matt walked off to the barn.
Something was off with Matt now, and it was because of the stranger. Mister Gregor seemed to gather that much, as well.
Caspar turned back to the cows. There were still a lot of them, same as always, so he figured they were fine, and he hurried after Matt to check on him.
The barn was full of more cows, but Matt wasn't anywhere to be found. An alarm bell went off in Caspar's head. He looked around some of the cows to see maybe if Matt was just standing behind them, then realized that was a bit foolish, he would've already seen him in that circumstance. He rushed out of the barn without sparing the cattle a second thought.
Where would he go?
Matt had his bag with him. Caspar headed for the stables.
When he entered in, he saw Matt, sitting atop Elliot, who had been fully equipped with his saddle and bridle. Even his bag and other belongings were already strapped down to the saddle, ready for travel.
Matt looked like he was about to ride out, but the moment Caspar entered, Matt turned to look at him. They stared at each other in tense silence for a moment.
"What-" Caspar started.
He was leaving.
"Where are you...?"
Why would he leave like this?
"Caspar," Matt said slowly. "I know you want answers, but I don't have time to explain. This isn't how I wanted to say goodbye, but I need you to let me go. Just... trust me on this, okay?"
He could see Matt's eyes flick behind Caspar's head, somewhere beyond him. Matt swallowed, and he tugged lightly on the reins, and what was only hinted at before was now clear in all of Matt's body language. He was nervous. No, beyond nervous. He was afraid.
Clenching his jaw, Caspar tried calming himself enough to think more rationally about this.
He had barely known Matt for very long, he didn't owe him anything. If he wanted to leave like this, he was well within his rights to.
Matt was running from something. The stranger must have something to do with it, the stranger was a threat.
He could be running for his life.
But, for a selfish moment, Caspar recalled all the family and friends he'd already let go before. He wished that, just this once, he didn't have to let Matt go too.
Matt was completely rigid. Caspar followed his gaze behind him.
In the distance, outside of the cabin, Gregor and Kenneth could be seen on the porch, and the stranger was atop his horse, riding towards... the barn.
Caspar drew a breath in and squared his shoulders. "Go."
"I'm sorry," Matt said. "I really am."
Matt still hadn't moved, and his jaw tightened as he stared out past Caspar. When he tore his eyes away and met Caspar's eyes, what Caspar saw was a flash of deep sadness, but it disappeared as quickly as he caught it.
"Goodbye," Matt said.
Goodbye, goodbye, he was so sick of always saying goodbye.
Caspar couldn't bring himself to respond in kind. He threw a hand toward the back door and shouted, "Go!"
Matt whipped his reins, Elliot started out of the opposite end of the barn, quickly picking up speed.
The stranger veered off course, disappearing around the side of the stable.
Cursing under his breath, Caspar frantically searched for Eir. No saddle. He'll make it work. He grabbed the pitchfork leaning against her stall door. Eir came when he beckoned, and broke straight into a full gallop on command.
Riding without the saddle was definitely worse. Eir felt as unsure as he did at first, but she thankfully kept steady despite the mutual discomfort.
Up ahead, the man was slowly gaining on Matt as they ascended the hill, and then the two of them disappeared behind it. A second later, Caspar heard a gunshot. Then another.
"Come on, Eir, just a little more," Caspar urged.
She pushed on. They cleared the hill, and the riders ahead were back in view. Eir steadily closed the distance. Gripping the pitchfork, Caspar steered her sideways, closer to the stranger.
As Caspar started gaining on him, the stranger looked over his shoulder, catching sight of him. Freeing one hand from the reins, he held a gun, aiming it in Caspar's direction.
Tugging on Eir's mane, they fell behind just enough so that the bullet hit the dirt.
Seeing that he missed, the man turned his attention away from Caspar and instead holstered his gun and turned back around, pushing his horse to go faster to catch up to Elliot. As they sped up he pulled out a loop of rope from his saddle, starting to spin a lasso. Caspar couldn't catch up in time.
Elliot had been keeping pace pretty steadily, speeding ahead of them, but the man's horse stretched forward with a sudden surge, bringing him right up behind Matt and Elliot. Caspar watched as he threw the lasso, and Matt glanced behind him and ducked, but not soon enough. The lasso caught around Matt's chest, and where he had once been sitting atop the saddle, he was violently ripped off as the man led his horse to turn to the side. Elliot ran off ahead, carried away by the momentum.
For just a second, Matt flew through the air, but he quickly hit the ground hard, being dragged beside the galloping horse and dangerously flailing around close to the horse's beating hooves.
The man started to slow down his horse's pace though, circling around to face Eir and Caspar.
Coming up alongside the stranger, Eir didn't slow. Aiming the handle of the pitchfork at the man, Caspar threw him off his horse.
The man fell backwards, and the man's horse finally slowed to a stop. Caspar turned Eir back around, tugging her hair a little for her to slow, and hopped off her back before she could come to a complete stop.
When they got turned around, Caspar could see the man on the ground next to Matt, who was scrambling around the horse, still with the rope taut around his arms, pinning them to his sides. The man got to his feet and tackled Matt to the ground. What happened next happened quick.
The man pulled something out of his jacket and jabbed it into the side of Matt's neck, and almost simultaneously, Matt had pulled a dagger seemingly out of nowhere, and sliced at the man's leg. Caspar broke into a sprint.
Just as Caspar got with a few feet away, the man on top of Matt slid off of him and pulled Matt around in front of him as a shield. In the rapid movement, he managed to wrangle the dagger out of Matt's hand and held it to Matt's neck.
Both of them were panting, and now that Matt's face was turned to Caspar, he could see Matt more clearly. He was scraped all over, and caked in dirt and grass that clung to his body and clothes. The dirt mixed with blood, and it was hard to tell how serious any of his wounds were when he was so disheveled and dirty.
For a split second, Caspar saw the dirtied boy in the coffin instead.
"If you value this man's life," the man holding Matt said coolly, though he was still breathing heavy. "You won't come any closer."
"Cas--" Matt started to say, but the man pressed the dagger harder against his throat, drawing just enough blood to drip down his neck.
"Stop," Caspar choked out, trying to keep the two in focus, trying to keep old memories at bay. He stayed where he was, tightly gripping the pitchfork.
"For someone who hasn't known him very long," the man said. "You seem very persistent. In most cases, that would be good. I can respect that. But I'm afraid to tell you that this man isn't who he says he is. He's a criminal, wanted by the Moonlight Kingdom. I'm sure he conveniently left that bit out when you were introduced to each other."
"If you really need proof," the man went on. "I've got a wanted poster in my pocket. The resemblance is uncanny. Gregor and whats-his-name thought so too."
Caspar's mind spun.
What did Matt do? What else was he hiding?
"I can see that you're having to process all of this just now," the man kept talking. "I understand it might take you some time to let it sink in, but unfortunately, I don't have all day, and neither does he. I'd really rather get on with collecting this bounty and moving on, and I can tell you're a simple man. You should go back to the cabin with your other men and let this one go--"
"No," Caspar said firmly.
"No," the man repeated. "So you want to do this the hard way, then?"
He could see Matt starting to slouch back against the man holding him, like his body was starting to go limp. His eyes started to close partially, like he was losing consciousness.
The boy's face resurfaced. His eyes were closing too. Caspar blinked away the image.
The bounty hunter had the upper hand. How could he leverage this-- Oh!
"What's the bounty?" Caspar said quickly. "How large?"
"You think I'd be stupid enough to tell you?" the man laughed. "Sorry, you'll have to imagine that on your own."
He paused, then added after another cackle: "Besides, this isn't even about the money. I'm doing a personal favor. This has nothing to do with you, cowboy."
"But it could."
"Do I look like an idiot to you?" the man asked, looking Caspar up and down. "You want me to think you ran out here, barely managing to stay atop your horse with a pitchfork of all things because you were just... what? Curious? If you were so willing to defend him a minute ago, why turn on him now? Please. Don't insult my intelligence."
"I- I'm not-- You seem like...a reasonable guy, maybe we can work something out," Caspar said, trying to take on a slightly more diplomatic tone.
"The way this works out is with you walking away," the man answered, narrowing his eyes at him.
Matt looked to no longer be holding up his own weight. He was leaning on the man entirely, and his eyes were half shut, rolled back into his head. He was fading, Caspar was losing him.
"What if I said I'm a wanted man too?" Caspar said desperately.
"Well, that would make things interesting, wouldn't it?" the man said, a small smirk growing on his face. He pulled the dagger away from Matt's neck and watched as Matt fell limply to the ground, unmoving. The man got to his feet with the dagger still in hand and started walking over to him slowly.
"What are you wanted for, then?" the man asked.
Caspar let out a breath he didn't know was holding. He dropped the pitchfork, but stood his ground. "Aiding and abetting, you could say." He glanced around the man at Matt.
Matt was mostly still, but Caspar could see him reaching for his boot, and he pulled out a small knife. He was twisting his arms around to cut the rope around him.
Caspar took some steps back now, trying to draw the man farther away from Matt. "Harboring fugitives, more specifically," he continued slowly.
"Oh really? How curious," the man said, still wearing a smirk as he paced forward towards Caspar. "Would those fugitives happen to be... oh, I don't know, mages? You seem the sympathetic type."
Caspar mustered a small smile. "You are sharp."
"Then I guess that makes you wanted dead, then," the man said with a sickening smile. "Makes it easier for me."
Caspar braced himself for a fight.
The man shifted, about to surge forward, but just as he raised the dagger in his hand, Matt rushed up behind him and knocked him in the back of the head with the handle of a gun. Caspar didn't know where he got it from, but it hit the man's head with a thunk, and the man stood frozen for a moment before his eyes lost focus, and he stumbled forward, landing on his knees.
Though he might've been on his way to being out, Matt struck again, this time harder, and the man fell straight to the ground. Out cold.
Matt stood over the man's fallen body for a moment, his shoulders heaving with heavy breaths. But the moment he looked up to Caspar, his knees wobbled, and he stumbled to the side, barely steadying himself on his feet.
Rushing forward, Caspar held him up. "We need to get out of here."
"Agreed," Matt said thinly, but instead of pulling away, he leaned more of his weight on Caspar. "I've... been drugged."
Caspar glanced back. Sure enough, there was an empty syringe lying in the grass by the rope. "Think you can sit on your horse, at least?"
Matt was quiet for a second.
"Tie me to it," he said faintly. "Elliot can follow."
When he turned to look for Elliot, the horse was already making a beeline for Matt. Caspar hoisted Matt up onto the horse's back. He grabbed the rope from around the syringe, very carefully tying Matt's legs to the saddle and his arms around Elliot's neck. By the time Matt was secure, he barely looked conscious.
Caspar called Eir over. As he hauled himself up onto her back, he looked back at Gregor's cabin. He bit his lip. His bag and supplies were back there still, but was he willing to take time fetching it? He should at least grab a saddle for Eir. But at that point, he may as well...
He studied Elliot. He seemed fine, considering the circumstances. Used to it, even. Caspar glanced down at the bounty hunter on the ground. Taking Elliot's reins, he pulled him along, just to put distance between them and the hunter.
With assurances that he'd be quick, Caspar left Matt and Elliot a distance away from the cabin, where Gregor couldn't see them if he looked.
Eir rushed into the stables, seeming as eager as Caspar was to don proper riding gear. Not wanting to waste time, he rode her to Gregor's back door too. As quietly as he could, he eased the door open and slipped in.
"Where'd you go?" Percy said from the table, mouth full of bread.
Caspar froze. Keeping his tone as even and relaxed as he could, he said, "I, um. Went to grab some water, then Gregor had me count heads."
Percy looked him up and down, then shrugged. "Okay."
Caspar nodded. He bolted upstairs, taking a few steps at a time. In the bedroom, he stuffed any loose things back into his bag.
"What's the rush?" Percy said once he was back downstairs.
"Something came up," Caspar answered, not sparing him even a backwards glance as he rushed back out to Eir.
Kenneth and Gregor's voices came from around the side of the cabin. As much as he wanted to say maybe farewell and thank you out of courtesy, he didn't have the luxury. He flicked the reins. Eir, sensing his urgency, broke straight into a gallop.
Elliot was right where Caspar left him, and Matt still on his back, but completely limp. He hung loosely, leaning to the side in the saddle, but secure. Caspar tugged the straps of his bag, making sure it was fixed to Eir's saddle. Then he grabbed Elliot's reins and looked around to find his bearings.
The immediate threat had passed, but they weren't in the clear yet. They needed water.
The river. If it cut a fairly straight course through the land, it should be a couple of hours northwest.
So that's where they went.
The horses kept a steady trot. Caspar frequently glanced back to check on not-Matt. Eir seemed a bit jumpy. Caspar tried his best to relax for her sake, but he really couldn't help being on edge.
His mind raced at dizzying speeds; between memories that fought and clawed their way to the forefront of his mind, and how Matt wasn't even Matt.
Focus on the now, he told himself.
Matt was a criminal. In fairness, the subject never came up, but that's a big thing to not lead with. Caspar then supposed he wasn't in any position to judge.
But if he wasn't upfront about that, what else was he hiding? Had he outright lied about anything, and how much?
When he spoke of his family, that felt genuine. Despite...all of this, he seemed like a genuine man.
Caspar looked ahead. No river yet. Great.
Elliot kept pace just fine. He behaved like this sort of thing was normal, which was concerning to say the least. How many times had this happened before?
The bounty hunter said retrieving Matt was more a personal favor than anything. So someone with a grudge may have sent him.
The hunter had a gun, which meant he had the money to invest in one. He was a very good hunter, then. That boded well for them.
Caspar thought back to where he left the man. Maybe he should've sent his horse off or something to further delay him. Alas, he didn't.
The hunter went lengths to not kill not-Matt. Definitely a grudge. Something that someone wanted settled face-to-face.
The adrenaline was wearing off, and all Caspar wanted to do was sleep.
The river still was not in view. Not-Matt was still out for the count. Eir settled down, at least.
Caspar scanned the plains, on high alert for any other hunters that could be nearby. Gregor's house was but a speck in the distance now. He really wished he could've said goodbye properly to the man.
Eventually not-Matt began to stir. Just a little. By then, the river was in view but still a ways off.
Not-Matt let out a faint groan.
"We're almost to the river," Caspar said. "You can wash up there."
Not-Matt sounded like he tried to say something, but it was an entirely unintelligible mumble, if it could even be called that.
"Just, hang in there, alright?" he went on, a little softer. "We can talk later."
If not-Matt tried to say anything in reply, it was quiet enough to be drowned out by the sound of flowing water getting louder. Caspar stopped them on the shore, and helped him down from Elliot's back. He was still unable to stand, so Caspar scooped him up and carried him closer to the water.
Not-Matt mumbled something, looking up at Caspar through half-open eyes.
"I just want to clean up the blood a little," Caspar said, "it's not going to be a very thorough wash."
He took quite the tumble back there, though. Caspar didn't want to violate the man's privacy, but he really needed to check for any other injuries.
And what's a half lie for not-Matt's sake in the face of everything else?
Slowly, Caspar set him down and swung down his pack from his shoulder. Grabbing a flask, a clean cloth, and gauze, he first addressed the cut on Matt's neck.
As he bandaged the cut, he cast frequent looks over Matt to take stock of injuries. His leg was still actively bleeding at a sluggish pace. That must've been from one of the gunshots from earlier. There were several large gashes and bloodstains in his shirt, not to mention all the dirt and grass. He'd have to change it out completely.
As he tried tending to the wound on Matt's leg, Caspar's hands started to shake. He clenched them, then flexed. He yanked off his gloves, giving the burn marks on his own skin a cursory glance, and tried willing them to stay steady.
He had to cut the pant leg open a little wider for better access to the wound. The cloth and his palms stained red as he cleaned and dressed the graze as best he could.
Done. He shook his hands out. Moving on.
"Alright, up we go," he murmured, carefully pulling Matt into an upright position.
Matt made a noise that sounded panicked, and he weakly grabbed for Caspar's arm but otherwise didn't fight it.
"We need to take your shirt off," Caspar said apologetically.
"We?" Matt repeated.
Caspar paused to study his face a moment and slowly answered, "Yeah."
Matt's eyebrows were drawn together, but it was almost as if he was too out of it to make as extreme of an expression as he might've wished to.
"It'll be quick," Caspar assured him. "And what you have on right now is barely functional anymore."
Matt stared at Caspar through squinted eyes for a moment before he attempted to push Caspar away, but it was a sad and sloppy attempt. Caspar kept a firm but gentle grip on his arms.
"Should--should've left me... left me there," Matt said, struggling through his words.
Caspar averted his gaze. "But I didn't. So here we are."
Matt pressed his lips together into a deep frown. The expression on his face was probably the clearest one Caspar had seen on him - it was a mix of frustration, desperation, and sadness.
Caspar wasn't sure if it was the drug or Matt letting his guard down enough to be sincere, but just being able to read his face so clearly all of a sudden felt like an intrusion on the man's emotions. He turned his eyes back down to the gashes on Matt's torso.
"It'll be quick," he repeated, "I promise."
As carefully as he could while still supporting him, Caspar removed the tattered shirt. He tossed it aside, and gently wiped down his wounds. He kept his eyes fixed on the fresh ones, though it was hard to ignore the fact that they intersected with so many scars.
He kept his face neutral, but his heart ached for this man, thinking of what could have possibly hurt him like this.
Once he was clean, Caspar grabbed a fresh shirt from his own bag and helped Matt into it, trying not to rush so he didn't jostle the man.
"I think we're in good shape," Caspar said, sighing heavily through his nose. "I mean, given the circumstances."
He shrugged off his jacket, and bunched it up under Matt's head as he eased him down onto his back.
Caspar stared at the torn and bloody shirt. It seemed beyond help at this point. He made the executive decision to ball it up and just toss it into the water.
He sat down again by Matt. He frowned a little.
"That's probably not your name, right?" he said. He'd been assuming this whole time he should just chuck everything he knew about not-Matt right out the window.
Matt stared up at the sky. He still wasn't lucid, and his expression seemed mostly weary, and defeated.
"Tiberius," he said slowly. "Is the name... on the poster."
Caspar drew his knees up to his chest and folded his arms on top of them. "Sorry, nevermind. Just. Take a moment, ignore me."
Matt, or Tiberius, or whoever he was didn't reply. He laid on the ground, taking in deep breaths, and turned his head to the side towards Caspar. He looked at him, but his eyes didn't seem fully focused. It felt more like he was looking through him.
He stared for a while before he said anything.
"Thank you," not-Matt and maybe-Tiberius said quietly. "For... saving me. I'm in your debt."
Cracking a weak grin, Caspar turned his eyes down to the ground. "We'll just call it even."
It was hard to look at him in such a terrible state. Matt was alright, though, he was going to be fine, Caspar told himself.
"It's hardly even," Matt said lowly, dropping his gaze to the ground.
Caspar clenched his trembling hands again. Matt was going to be fine, he didn't lose him.
"You didn't have to help me," Matt said.
Caspar shook his head. "I wanted to." He drew in a sharp breath. "Take it easy for now, alright? You can get going again soon enough."
"He'll be back, you know," Matt said. "The bounty hunter."
"Which is why you should rest now," Caspar said firmly, "so you can go sooner rather than later."
There was a beat of silence.
"Where will you go?" Matt asked.
The age-old question. If Caspar had a copper piece for every time he asked that himself...
He shrugged. "Somewhere." He glanced back at Eir, who was grazing nearby. "I guess I have a horse now, so that helps. Maybe. What about--"
He probably shouldn't ask where Matt would go, so he stopped himself short.
"What about what?" Matt asked in return.
Caspar buried his face in his arms. He really didn't want to be alone again. He took a steadying breath and lifted his head again. "Where would you go?"
There was a several-second delay in Matt's response. Matt took in a deep breath.
"Somewhere else," he said faintly. "Somewhere far. It's always far, and I never get there."
Caspar shook his head. He had to get a grip. "How long have you been running?"
Matt turned his face upward to the sky again.
"About five years now," he said quietly. A pause.
Exhaling slowly, Caspar scratched the back of his neck. "Um, seven-ish years? Maybe."
Matt blinked, and let out a pained laugh that ended shortly with a groan.
"Impressive," he said. "That's a long time."
"Yeah." Certainly felt like it. "Hey, you doing any better? You sound improved already."
"Yeah, well, I'm used to--" Matt started to say, but cut himself off. "It's--it's probably just the-- the drug wearing off. It was probably-- well, nevermind. It doesn't matter."
Caspar looked over to Elliot. "This happens a lot, I take it?"
Matt started to lift his head, trying to prop himself up at his elbows. He took in a deep breath.
"By 'this' do you mean narrowly escaping capture, or just getting thrown around like a punching bag in general?" Matt asked.
"I figure those would count as one thing," Caspar said plainly. "But if you're keeping track of them separately, by all means."
Matt pushed himself up more until he was sitting up, and he seemed like he was looking himself over as he assessed his own wounds. His eyes flicked to Caspar a few times as he pulled his shirt down (though it didn't really need to be) and looked at his leg.
"I'm sure you figured it out yourself," he said lowly.
Caspar nodded slowly. He stood abruptly and dusted himself off. "Well. Let me know when you're ready to go, and I'll make sure to head the opposite direction." And he went down the river a little ways, making sure to keep within earshot if not-Matt needed anything.
He swung his arms back and forth absently. Then tucked his hands in his pockets when he remembered he left his gloves on the ground with not-Matt.
This will be okay, he told himself as he studied some trees. None of this was new for either of them. They would manage.
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Sun Feb 20, 2022 6:47 am
He'd seen it coming.
James knew this was going to be a mess. Even when he was trying, other people got dragged into the trouble that followed him wherever he went. Over and over again. This time it was Caspar, and it stung just as much as the last time someone had to pull him out of a fight. It stung his pride, and it stung the part of him that tried and failed so many times to protect himself and protect others.
He'd told himself that this job would Gregor would be the last one he'd take. Once it was over, he would withdraw into the wilderness forever. There, he could wait for his past to catch up to him or for nature to take him. Whichever happened first, he didn't care. As long as no one else got hurt in the process. He had to stop running, and yet it was all he knew how to do. It was the only thing he was good at, after all this time, and even still, he would never have made it as far as he did if it weren't for people helping him. If it weren't for people - for whatever reasons that he never understood - thinking he was worth it.
He could tell Caspar had already resigned himself to parting ways, but he could also tell Caspar wasn't happy about it.
And why should he be? He'd been lied to. He had every right to be bitter, and angry, and every reason to demand answers after he'd saved James's life, and yet he didn't. Instead, he seemed ready to leave this all behind, like they would both be better off forgetting any of this ever happened.
And he was probably right.
James sat on the forest floor, looking down at his bandaged leg. His head still felt like a messy, foggy storm, and now that any ounce of adrenaline in him had long gone, and the numbing effects of the drug were starting to fade, all the pain was hitting him at once. He wasn't entirely sure if he'd been hit with Lumshade, but the after-effects felt like it. It was one of the only drugs powerful enough to knock someone out for so fast and so long. Then again, he didn't know how much he'd been hit with either.
He scratched at his neck, where the needle had gone in. He could still feel the phantom pain of the sudden stab, and the slow-building sensation of losing feeling, and losing consciousness. It haunted him, and he shook his head, rolling his shoulders to try to shake it off. To feel his blood flowing again, and feeling returning to his body.
Of course, with the returning of feeling came the return of everything else.
He could feel the bruises building all over him. His whole body felt tender and achy - which was annoying, because he already felt a sense of achiness no matter what on a daily basis. This only exacerbated it.
He'd been dragged over something in the chase when he'd been ripped off of Elliot, but he didn't know what it was. He'd hit it three times, though - or maybe it was three different things. Either way, he was well aware of the stinging gashes that Caspar had bandaged underneath his shirt, and well aware that Caspar had to have seen everything whether he was trying to or not.
He hated that his whole body felt like a secret. With each new scar, he only wanted to hide it more. Even if people never asked questions out loud, he knew they always had them, and just knowing that made him want to forget.
He wished he could forget all of it. He wished none of it had ever happened. But he could never forget when each memory was marked on his body forever.
For some people, they wore their battle scars with pride, but every memory attatched to James's only brought shame. He hadn't won them in battle. He hadn't won at all. He hadn't won this time either.
Gritting his teeth, James tucked up his legs and leaned forward, trying to get his blood flowing to his feet again. As he stood up, he could feel the bullet wound start to thump in his thigh with its own heartbeat, but he ignored it. He'd known worse bullet wounds, and this was gratefully only a graze. He was just glad the bullet hadn't gone
would have been far worse.
He glanced behind him, spotting Caspar down the river.
Maybe Caspar just wanted space. Or maybe he was just waiting for James to leave. It was hard to tell, and he still didn't fully trust his own judgement just yet, with everything still feeling so surreal, like it was still catching up to him.
James went over to Elliot, testing his leg for a few steps before he just decided to push through it. Elliot seemed happy and relieved to see him, and James eagerly met him with pets, hugging Elliot around his neck as he scratched near his mane affectionately.
"Thanks for carrying me, buddy," James said softly into Elliot's ear. "I know that was uncomfortable."
Elliot responded by nuzzling James in the stomach with his nose. Though it was sweet, it rubbed right against one of his bandaged wounds, and he hissed through his teeth, pushing Elliot away just a little.
"Okay, okay, easy, there, Elliot," he said thinly, trying to calm Elliot down, since he was getting a little worked up with excitement. He patted him slowly, holding Elliot's reins to keep him from jerking and bobbing his head as much, and then gave Elliot a small kiss on the side of his face.
"There. Okay? Are you good, now?" James asked, looking to Elliot expectantly.
Elliot stayed still for a moment, like he was thinking about it. He nudged James in the side again, but this time it seemed more intentional instead of an accident.
James grit his teeth again as he hissed out a sigh and pulled away.
"Okay, fine," he mumbled. "I guess I deserved that."
He reached over and gave Elliot a few more pets before he turned his attention to his saddle, looking it over to make sure all of his things were still there and nothing was lost when they fled. Everything looked untouched and still ready to go, which meant Caspar must've used his own supplies to bandage him up. Was he wearing Caspar's shirt, too?
He glanced back at where he'd been laid down and saw Caspar's jacket bunched up on the ground. That must have been his pillow.
James looked at Elliot, the jacket, and then glanced back down the river at Caspar, who looked to just be standing idly, looking out at the water.
How long had it been since they'd left the ranch?
James had to pause for a moment, collecting his thoughts.
They were at the river. Just before the fight, it was sun-up. The sun had just come over the horizon. Now it was higher in the sky, but not quite above them yet, so they still had a few hours before noon. Caspar had to have taken the quickest route to the river, which meant it couldn't have been more than two to three hours since everything at the ranch had happened.
James had hit Alexander hard, but there was no telling how long he'd been out for. Could've been a few minutes, maybe more, maybe less. It had to have been enough for them to get away, but he was undoubtedly awake by now.
James wondered if Gregor, Kenneth, and Percy were helping him. Had Alexander told them who he was? If he hadn't before, they definitely knew now.
But what about Caspar?
He'd said he was wanted too.
Aiding and abetting mages, he'd said. Though the last bit was Alexander's assumption. Caspar hadn't exactly confirmed it in word.
James stared off down the river in Caspar's direction.
If Alexander had gotten back up and was in pursuit again, they could have anywhere from an hour to - what, maybe thirty minutes at most? Alexander was clearly a skilled bounty hunter, and the only reason he'd gotten away was because Caspar had managed to distract Alexander just long enough for James to get the upper hand. But he doubted Alexander would let that happen again.
And... Alexander would be out for blood. Caspar's blood, in particular, since James was wanted alive.
Though the posters never said
alive he had to be.
And if Alexander hadn't been lying when he said it was a personal favor, then Alexander had bigger motives than just the monetary reward.
James wondered who could've sent him. How long had Alexander been searching or him, even?
It couldn't be Hoss. Hoss would've tried to come after him on his own. He was too proud to hire someone.
Rita might hire someone, but he had a feeling she wouldn't bother. She was too practical to hold those types of grudges. She was an opportunist, sure, so she'd wait to see if chance brought them together again. But he didn't think she'd hire a bounty hunter.
He hadn't seen Butch in some time, but he got the impression that Butch was done trying to catch him after two failed attempts. Butch had a family, after all.
Was it someone related to Donovan? That seemed to unlikely. That was a reach.
He swallowed, letting the unsettling realization settle like a pit in his stomach.
It was Carter, then. That would explain why Alexander was well equipped with a gun. Bullets. Drugs.
Carter had to be tired of waiting. The only question was if the King knew he'd hired someone, or if Carter had done this on his own.
Either way, it made James less and less keen on wanting to get caught. That same itch in the back of his head bugged him even more. The one that said to run.
You're being watched. You need to get away. Someone's after you. Always.
James took Elliot's lead rope and tied it around a tree by the edge of the river.
"I'll be back," he said. And he meant it.
Elliot was relaxed and simply dipped his head into the water for a drink. While Elliot busied himself with that, James walked over to Caspar's bundled jacket and picked it up, starting to walk down the river towards him.
This spot of the river wasn't running too quick. The water was gurgling, but there was no white water or rapids, and the shallow end was mostly calm - enough to see the pebbles and little tadpoles and crawfish bouncing around the larger rocks.
James had to be careful with his steps since his wounded leg was still a little unreliable, but the ground wasn't too uneven. Just muddy.
Caspar had stopped in the shade of some trees. Out of the sun, it felt just a little cooler, like some of the coolness was coming from the river as well.
James held out the jacket towards Caspar, silently offering it back to him. Caspar looked between James and the jacket for a brief moment before taking it and tugging it back on. He hid his hands in the pockets.
"Already back on your feet," he said. "That's good."
"Force of habit," James said, realizing the response didn't lend itself to the conversation he was aiming for.
"So," he said quickly before Caspar could reply. "...Are you really wanted, or was that just a bluff?"
Ducking his head, Caspar scuffed his heel in the dirt. "Uh, yeah. That was true. Would've been a really bold bluff, though."
"And the part about harboring mages?" James asked.
Caspar shifted his weight back and forth, seeming a little restless. He looked up and evenly met James's eyes. "Yes. That too."
James hummed and nodded sharply.
"I respect that," he said simply.
Huffing a laugh, Caspar took a step back. "You heading out now?"
Caspar looked very reluctant as he asked the question. Like he was desperately trying to push James away before... well, he didn't know what.
"That would be the safest thing," James said slowly. "For you. I have a very strong feeling that Alexander will be back for me. And that he won't be happy if he saw you again."
Setting his jaw, Caspar nodded. He turned his gaze back down to his boots, but not before James caught a flash of hurt in his eyes. His frame seemed to dip a little under an invisible weight. It was strange, seeing someone else express a feeling that James was all to familiar with. It felt like Caspar was mirroring him, except James knew that for him, he'd long since stopped showing the feeling so visibly.
It pricked something inside of him. Caspar had been running for seven years, longer than even he had. He probably knew just as much if not more heartbreak when it came to saying goodbyes, and if he always wore his heart on his sleeve and his expressions on his face like he was now, James could only imagine how much more painful every goodbye had been.
He felt guilty.
Because they were
trying to get each other to say goodbye now.
It was hard to convince himself that it was for the best when he had to look at Caspar like this. But if Caspar ended up dead because of him, he would never be able to forgive himself. He hadn't forgiven himself for any of the others either.
"Look," James said stiffly, breaking the tense silence that had followed. "I... I don't really have any plans besides... trying to get away from here and surviving."
He didn't know what he was trying to say, and he didn't know how to say it. Looking up, Caspar seemed just as confused, but he waited quietly.
"I mean -- this-- this job. With Gregor. It was only ever supposed to be temporary," James said, trying to backtrack in his thoughts.
Why was he telling Caspar all of this? He didn't owe Caspar an explanation. But he still felt like he did.
"I didn't plan on making any friends," James said, feeling awkward as the confession flew out of his mouth, just sitting there in the open air. James stared down at his feet.
"I was just going to get some money, restock on supplies, and go," James said quieter. "That was my original plan. And from there, I... I didn't..."
He trailed off, not wanting to admit what his plans were from there.
"I'm. Sorry that it didn't go the way you hoped," Caspar said, a little flat. He shrugged, struggling to find the right thing to say. "It happens, though."
James fought to keep his face a stone wall. He took in a slow, deep breath.
"Are you equipped to travel alone?" James asked. "I know you used medical supplies on me."
Caspar blinked. "I think so? I'd have to check." He shook his head and waved his hands a little. "You don't. Owe me anything, okay? S'fine."
"You didn't get to stay long enough for pay day," James said, ignoring Caspar's dismissal. "It's the least I could do to help you in return."
Chewing on his lip, Caspar glanced back out over the water as he weighed his options.
James couldn't help but feel the pit from earlier in his stomach growing as he wondered if all of this was a big mistake. He was always making the same mistakes over and over again. He didn't want to regret this, but he was always afraid the same things would happen again no matter how hard he tried. It was like that was just a part of his story.
And here he was about to do it all over again.
At the end of all of this, would Caspar hate him too? Or would he be dead?
Caspar turned back to James. He hesitated, then held out a hand. "I think I'll take you up on that."
James flashed a smile to mask the ball of dread still growing in his gut. He took Caspar's hand and shook it firmly.
"Alright then," he said, pulling his hand away. "Well, we should get moving, then."
Caspar shoved his hand back in his pocket. "I'll grab my stuff." He stepped around James, paused, then turned back around. "Are you alright to walk, or...?"
James forced another small smile.
Any doctor with a brain would tell him to stop walking, but he was not a doctor, and he couldn't afford to take care of his body like he had time to spare.
"I should be fine," he said, which was as much of a bluff as ever. "I'll ride for a bit."
Even riding, though, took energy.
By the time he finally got a chance to lie down he knew he'd feel it all hit him like a ton of bricks.
"You know what," Caspar said suddenly, "that was a stupid question. Come here."
James blinked, staring at Caspar blankly for a moment in confusion.
Taking long strides, Caspar came back and, before James could protest, swept him off his feet and carried him back down the river.
James said, forcing himself not to kick or hit Caspar - though he wanted to. He just didn't want to put
in more pain by fighting it at this point, but Caspar was walking on
James snapped. "Put me down!"
"No," Caspar agreed, tone light, "but you are injured. Arguably worse in some instances. Settle down, there's Elliot right now."
He didn't even put James back down on his feet, just set him directly on the horse's back.
James grabbed for the horn of the saddle to steady himself but shook his head and shoulders as Caspar let go of him, shaking him away. Nonplussed, Caspar untied Elliot and handed James the reins.
James took them, but shot Caspar a pointed glare.
"That was unecessary," he said tersely.
Caspar shrugged. "I disagree." He turned and gathered his things from the shore, then went out into the tall grass and walked Eir back. "We should try to take it slow for a bit," he said. "Don't want to disturb your wounds."
"They've already been disturbed," James said, giving Caspar a look.
Blowing a raspberry, Caspar waved dismissively. "It wasn't that bad. Where to, do you think?"
James pursed his lips for a moment and took in a deep breath, deciding to let the carrying-him-without-asking incident slide for the moment for the sake of the more pressing issue that was getting as far away from Alexander as possible.
"There should be a land bridge over the river if we keep going north. We'll want to stay by water anyway, and if we can cross that puts just a little more distance between us and him," James said, already turning Elliot northward, going up the river.
Caspar followed on foot with Eir trailing closely behind him. "Sounds like a plan."
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.
link to listen to my music
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Mon Feb 21, 2022 5:35 am
Caspar walking on foot forced not-Matt to take it slow at first, and it gave Caspar and Eir a break from each other for a bit. With not-Matt in front of him, Caspar couldn't see his face. The man was able to hold himself up now, which was good, but he definitely was not in good shape. He slumped forward like a tree bowing under a harsh wind.
The sedative had worn off, so he must have been in pain too.
He hopped up onto Eir at some point, who fell into step beside Elliot. He unstrapped his bag from her saddle and dug through.
"So what should I call you now?" he asked conversationally.
Not-Matt glanced over to Caspar with a sharp movement of his head, almost like he'd been surprised Caspar spoke up, or like he'd been ripped out of some internal conversation.
"Depends," he said slowly.
Giving him a once over, Caspar held out a flask to him. "Well, we're past pretenses at this point," he said plainly. "What do you want to be called?"
The man eyed Caspar's flask, but didn't take it. He looked distracted, and looked off to the side with his eyebrows furrowed together, like he was in deep thought.
"James," the man finally said.
Caspar nodded. "A pleasure, James." He twisted off the cap from the flask. "Do you need a drink?"
James hesitated. "That's water, right?" he asked.
"Uh, no. It can take the edge off, though."
James seemed to stiffen, visibly drawing back just a little.
"Thanks, but I don't drink," he said.
Huh. Duly noted. Caspar took a small swig himself, then exchanged the flask for a canteen. He nudged James's shoulder with it. "Water it is, then."
"I have--" James started to protest, his eyes flicking to his own bag. But he seemed to be either too tired to argue or too tired to care, and instead just snapped his mouth shut and sighed, taking the canteen.
"Thanks," he mumbled, taking a quick sip before handing it back to Caspar.
He nodded, and hung the canteen on Eir's saddle.
He had questions. A lot of them. However, he didn't want to pry while James wasn't quite one hundred percent, it would feel like he was taking advantage.
Maybe something small wouldn't hurt.
Caspar wracked his brain for any information he could offer up in turn, but a lot of what he already shared was true. Then he figured it would be worth reiterating.
"I am from Herron, in the Isles," he started, a bit stiff. "My dad was a fisherman, so I was too." Caspar glanced over at James. "I, uh, neglected to change much of anything about myself. Perhaps foolishly, but." He shrugged. "So where are you really from?"
James looked ahead of them, his eyes scanning the forest, looking everywhere but at Caspar.
"Down south," he said. "I was born in the Moonlight Kingdom."
Caspar also looked out around them. "And your family's farm?"
"My family had a farm, yes," he said.
"And yes, there was a goblin raid, and the farm doesn't exist anymore. My father's dead, and I'm dead to the rest of my family as far as they're concerned, so yes. I can't go home," he said quickly, like he was forcing every word out.
James's knuckles were turning white as he gripped the reins. Caspar averted his gaze once more, letting the silence sit tensely between them.
"I'm sorry I lied to you," James cut through the long pause. "But I've been lying to everyone for years. It wasn't just you. I make things up all the time. Twist things into partial truths."
"I understand," Caspar said gently. "You do what you have to. To stay safe." Relatively.
"Still never works for very long," James muttered, just loud enough to be heard.
Caspar nodded. He began to wonder what the man's family was like, and wanted to ask about siblings again, but kept his mouth shut. He felt he'd prodded enough for the moment.
"How did you make it seven years?" James asked suddenly, finally looking to Caspar.
Straightening, Caspar thought a moment. "How? I... I just did." He rubbed at his shoulder. "I mean, it's been a...long seven years."
James stared at Caspar for a moment with a piercing intensity, but then quickly looked away, shaking his head.
"Yeah," he said. "I can imagine."
Caspar fiddled with Eir's reins, twisting them around his hands, then unwinding them again. "I've... I lost a lot of people. Needlessly. I keep trying to live normally, try to put down roots somewhere, but that's of course stupid..."
"How much of the seven years have you spent alone?" James asked.
He let out a breath through his nose and leaned back a little. He closed his eyes as he tried counting all the nights he'd spent fearing sleep and all the days he wandered endlessly with no clear direction. "I'm really not sure. Everything's been blurring together lately."
James looked down at the river.
"It does that," he said faintly.
Caspar swallowed thickly. He raked a hand through his hair, then idly stroked Eir's mane. "The, um, woman with the horse named Obedience," he said suddenly. "Was she a friend of yours?"
James's shoulder seemed to slump a little as he let out a sigh, still looking at the river.
"Was," he answered. "A very long time ago."
"What was she like?"
James was quiet for a moment, like he was taking time to recall.
"Stubborn," he said. "Always insisted on her own way, but also stubbornly loyal..."
He trailed off, but picked up the sentence elsewhere. Caspar watched him from the corner of his eye, to study him without making the man feel pinned down.
"But we were kids, back then. We were both different people," he said.
Caspar could get the feeling that James was carefully curating his words. Answering questions, just enough, yet still holding back.
"Do you think," he asked slowly, "that you could be friends now? If circumstances allowed."
James looked out into the forest with a smile, but a deep, sad bitterness leaked through his eyes. James let out a wry laugh.
"No," he said bluntly.
Caspar refrained from asking why. It felt like he'd dug deep enough into that.
"So," James said, like he was grabbing the reins of the conversation after he'd brought down the mood. "You saved some mages seven years ago, and you've been running ever since? Is that right?"
An easy question. Caspar nodded. "Correct."
"Were some of them the friends you talked to me about before?" James asked.
"Yes..." What was the name he used then? "Uh, Oliver and his family."
"You know if you tell me his real name it means nothing to me, right?" James asked. "Even if I wanted to turn him in - which I don't - I can't exactly walk into a sheriff's office as a wanted man myself."
Caspar snorted. "True." He cleared his throat. "Very well. His name is Lyall. He was a doctor for a while until he was found out. His house burned down when authorities came, and he and his family slipped away in the chaos."
The crumbling house flashed in his mind, and heated words exchanged in anger rang in his head. He tugged at the edge of his glove.
"I'm hoping he was presumed dead, but I can't be sure."
"Have you seen him since then?" James asked.
Caspar shook his head. "As far as I know, he could have been caught sometime between then and now, or he's made another life for himself..."
James was quiet for a moment.
"I've-- I've met a few mages myself," he said quietly. "And I've heard of secret groups of mages retreating into the wilderness, looking after one another. Maybe Lyall found some of them."
Caspar shrugged. "Maybe." He looked at James. "When did you meet mages? Were you close to any of them?"
James stared at Caspar for half a second like he'd been asked a question he wasn't expecting.
"I was," James said, tearing his eyes away. "Not... anymore."
That felt like another terrible can of worms. Caspar decided against asking what happened.
"You know when-- when you said you've lost people, in the last seven years on the run?" James asked.
Caspar sucked in a breath. He wasn't ready to talk about everyone, but steeled himself nonetheless for searching questions. "Yeah?"
"I've lost people too," James said, his voice stony. "I think you'd understand why I like to leave them in the past."
Guilt punched him in the gut, and the stones under Eir's hooves were suddenly very interesting. "I'm sorry," Caspar said quickly, "I'm prying at this point. We don't have to talk anymore."
James fell quiet, and Caspar thought he was going to leave it at that. But after a few very long, tense seconds passed, he replied.
"Cas," James said through what sounded like a deep sigh. "I'm sorry... You're right to have questions. I just..."
Caspar glanced his way long enough to see James had lifted up a hand to cover part of his face, and rubbed the bridge of his nose between his forefinger and thumb.
"Dragons above, this shouldn't be this hard," James muttered into his hand. He held his nose for a second longer before he let his hand flop down with his arm into his lap, and he let out another sigh.
"Caspar," James said. "There's not a single soul on Nye that knows about my life since I've been on the run. And the one person who knows any significant portion of my life wants me dead. Does that help put anything into perspective?"
Caspar stared at him, searching his face for a second. James looked worn down as he desperately sought to be understood, trying to open up against his better judgement. Caspar nodded.
"We don't have to talk anymore," he repeated softly.
Because it was difficult, he did understand. He'd met his fair share of people who were sadly hardened by their pasts, because they believed that was the only way for them to push on. Caspar really didn't want James to force himself to open up out of obligation or because he was unwell.
James finally seemed to surrender to Caspar's suggestion. His shoulders slumped and he slouched even further, leaning on Elliot's neck. But it still looked like he was fighting it.
Caspar peeked his way, then really looked at him. James was suddenly ashen, and he curled over even more, putting a hand over his stomach. It looked like there was pressure building in his throat from the way James clenched his jaw.
Then James leaned over the side of his saddle, retching. Caspar grabbed the back of his shirt, then his arm, keeping him from possibly falling off. There wasn't a lot coming up, and James started dry heaving, shakily holding onto the horn of Elliot's saddle.
His hacking spell didn't last too long, but by the time it was over, James was still curled over, holding his stomach. Caspar tugged lightly on Elliot's reins, and both horses came to a stop.
"No, no," James rasped. "I just... I just need water. It's fine. We should keep going."
Caspar pressed his canteen back into James's hands, and only let go of his arm when he felt sure he wasn't going to keel over and fall off. "I'm sure we can spare a moment or two."
James started chugging the water, taking several bug gulps before he pulled the canteen away, letting out a low grunt of disgust.
"What the hell did he stick you with?" Caspar asked, more to himself than anything.
After staring off into the distance emptily for a second, he shot his arm out to Caspar, offering the canteen back.
"Can't be sure," James said hoarsely. "My best guess is a Lumshade sedative. Feels like it. 'S the only drug I know that works that hard that fast."
Caspar hesitated, then carefully pushed the canteen back to James. "Whatever it is," he said, "keep hydrated, flush it out as best you can."
"How... how big was the syringe?" James asked, awkwardly pulling the canteen back towards him, hanging it off the horn of his saddle. "I never got a good look."
Scratching his chin, Caspar tried picturing it again. Discarded in the grass by the cut rope. "Ah, sh-- It was kind of big. A few inches long, give or take."
James closed his eyes and let out a groan.
"That explains a lot," James said with a huff, reaching up to his neck, scratching around the bandage. He muttered something under his breath that sounded like a string of curses.
"This is going to be a long day," James said wearily.
Caspar pressed his lips into a thin line.
As much as he wanted to stop completely to let James ride it out with as little discomfort as possible, given his current predicament, they really couldn't afford to sit and wait. They weren't far enough from the ranch - from the bounty hunter - for his comfort yet.
"I'll make it," James said. "I've been through much worse."
Caspar did not take comfort in this as James probably hoped he would. He simply nodded. "Alright. If this worsens--"
"You don't have magic, do you?" James interjected out of the blue.
Caspar frowned. "No. James, if this gets worse, we might have to stop."
"No, we already stopped once," James said with a dismissive wave of his hand, but it was hardly convincing. He was still curling over, holding his stomach with one arm.
"I wasn't asking" Caspar said, "just preparing you for the possibility." He looked him up and down, trying to assess whether James was even able to handle riding right now.
"You know," James said. "It's a sedative, but just because it knocks you out doesn't mean it knocks out your brain."
"That--" Caspar actually had no words for that. "James, no."
"Wish it was a pain killer, though," James said, seemingly ignoring Caspar. "Gods, that would be nice."
He was going downhill fast.
"But it's a good thing I have a good-- I have a high pain tolerance," James said, sitting up a little straighter, even though the movement looked like it pained him. "I discovered that early-- you know, it was probably for the best."
That was disconcerting. "Alright, tough guy."
James squared his shoulders and took in a deep breath, flicking Elliot's reins. Elliot moved forward.
"If I throw up again just ignore it," James said far too casually for such a bizarre statement.
Sweat was beading on James's brow, and he still looked quite pallid. Caspar started Eir forward so that they were side by side with James and Elliot again. He looked frequently back and forth between the "trail" ahead of them and James's pale face.
"You know, I had a feeling about Alexander the moment I saw him," James rambled on, almost sleepily, though he seemed fully awake. "Just a gut feeling, really. Men like that don't just wander up to your doorstep for no reason. And he was armed -- you know, people think they can hide things but if you know what to look for you can spot things real easily. Most people around these parts openly carry some weapons, but Alexander had them hidden, which meant he was trying to be-- to sneak up on me, you know. I think he just wanted to get me away from the group so he didn't get civilians involved in any gunfire and cause a scene."
Caspar's brows furrowed.
The whole spiel was a stark contrast to the closed off, quiet guy from just moments ago.
"Uh, yeah, all good points," he said amiably. "You're very perceptive."
"He's not the first bounty hunter who's -- who's tried this on me, you know," James went on. "I think-- I feel like he might've had more. He didn't-- he probably heard all the stories, and was going to keep me in a drugged state so I was more cooperative. He seems like he's from money, or-- well if--"
James abruptly stumbled over his words, like a part of him was self aware he'd started rambling. Or he was about to say something he didn't want to.
The extreme chattiness, as much it was throwing Caspar for a loop, was manageable. He just watched closely for any wobble or unsteadiness. The fact that his filter seemed to completely malfunction so abruptly was deeply concerning, though, and Caspar feared he would lose his grip on reality completely.
He wasn't very familiar with poisons or anything. Most people who found him didn't waste time or resources on keeping him alive. He was thinking he should've maybe asked Lyall about some of these things while they were still... Anyway, Caspar couldn't be blamed for not foreseeing this particular turn of events.
"I... I don't know Alexander personally," James said slowly. "If that's what you mean."
"I--" He never asked about Alexander. "James, we--" He huffed through his nose. Asking him if he needed to take another break would be dumb, so he didn't.
James was still holding himself up fine. Caspar needed to just...worry less, perhaps, and push on as far as they can.
"I can't talk about it," James said, like he was responding to something else. "It's better if you don't know. It's better if nobody knows. Best forgotten."
Now he was talking to someone else - or maybe still him, he couldn't tell anymore - but now he was answering questions that weren't even being asked in the first place. Fantastic. Wonderful. How was he supposed to help with that?
"James, maybe you should-- Just drink some more water, alright?" Caspar said.
James scrunched his face up in a pained expression, and it looked like he tried to swallow something down as he nodded and grabbed the canteen again. He drank more, with steady gulps, and then put it back down.
"Burns," he said. "I thought you said it was water?"
Caspar's frown deepened. "It is."
"What's in your flask?" James asked.
"Can I have some?" he asked.
Caspar shook his head. "Not a good idea right now." He said a while ago that he didn't drink--
"You thought t'was a good idea like... five minutes ago," James said.
"Well, yeah, before you-- The drug--" Caspar gestured to James broadly. "James, no."
"It's not like I'm dying," James said defensively. "Trust me. I've been dead--dying. Dying. I'm not. Feels-- just trust me on this."
"How'd you get Elliot?" Caspar said, trying to divert the conversation.
He had wanted to get to know James, wanted him to trust enough to confide in Caspar, sure, but this was no way to do it.
"You know, one time I ate--" James started to say halfway through Caspar's question, but he stopped when Caspar's question seemed to finally register. His casual carefree expression started to slowly fade as he stared out ahead of them blankly.
"Elliot..." he said as an echo.
Maybe that wasn't such a good question. Maybe that touched something personal. Divert, divert. Caspar opened his mouth to say something else, but James beat him to it.
"He... he was... a gift," James said, clearing his throat.
Caspar nodded. "Good, nice. Um." He looked around. "Trees! What's your take on them?"
"I've slept in a lot of trees," James said, still looking trapped in a memory. "Fallen out of some. Decent at climbing them. Why do you ask?"
Landmines, landmines everywhere.
Caspar drew in a deep breath. "I personally think they're...neat. I've helped cut down trees and built a boat before."
"You built a boat?" James asked. "Like a skiff or a ship? Or just a rowboat?"
"Uh, yeah, all sorts of boats." Good, this was good. He'll just. Talk about his own experiences, as uncomfortable as it was to draw attention to himself. "I mean, never very large, but a decent size."
"Was this before or after fishing?" James asked.
"Around the same time, actually."
"Did you get to sail in any of them yourself?" James asked.
Caspar shook his head. "Anything I ever contributed to was for other people. My dad was kind of stingy and felt the old boat he had already worked just fine for us."
"Was your father a kind man?"
He glanced at James real quick, trying to gauge if any of this would stick. Then he supposed it didn't matter either way. Caspar tilted his head as he tried to form the right words.
"He... He cared, yes." How much should he divulge? "I mean, he wasn't warm and fuzzy or anything. That was more my mom's thing. But. He cared with-- without a doubt."
James hummed faintly. He seemed to be sweating more, but still sitting up fine. At least, for now.
"My mother... was the same way," he said faintly. "Cared. But not in... that way."
This still felt wrong, it wasn't a fair way to learn about him. Caspar was at a loss for what to do now. James seemed set on spilling everything, no matter what Caspar tried.
"I haven't... haven't seen her..." James started to say, but seemed to be struggling. It became clear that it was because tears had stared to spring to his eyes, but the moment they did James seemed to snap out of it, violently snapping his eyes shut and turning away.
As he did so, though, Caspar could hear him make a disgusting noise, like he was trying to hold back another retching sound in his throat.
"Sun's... warm," James rasped, turning back around, looking more green than before. "How much... further?"
Caspar reached for Elliot's reins. "We can stop for now."
Elliot came to a halt, and James went falling forward onto Elliot's neck, but righted himself at the last second. Caspar jumped down from Eir's back and went to help James.
"No, I'm--I'm slowing us down," James started to say. "I'm slowing us down and he's going to catch up again. And-- and he'll--"
"James, come on," Caspar urged gently, holding onto his arms. "We're fine, we'll just rest for a few minutes."
As Caspar held James steady, James seemed to be unraveling right before his eyes. His chin started to wrinkle as his lips turned down into a frown, and tears sprung back to his eyes. He blinked hard, but that only served to make them fall down his cheeks, instead of pushing them back.
"You're going to die and it'll be my fault," James said, his voice wavering. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
"James, no," Caspar said, trying his best to be firm and reassuring, "I'm not going to die." He eased James down from Elliot's back. "Seven years, and no one's managed to kill me yet. I'll be fine, and you need to lie down."
As he lowered James down, James seemed to panic, flailing his arms out to find solid ground.
"You're okay," Caspar murmured, "I've got you."
When James hit the grass and dirt, the brief panic seemed to dissipate, but he was still crying, and he dug his fingers into the ground beside him.
"Please tell me you'll pretend none of this ever happened," James said through tears.
"You have my word." Caspar stayed on his knees next to him, wondering if he should stay close or give him space. "You're going to be fine."
"I've had Lumshade before," James blurted. "In smaller doses. Just to-- to temporarily subdue and-- it wears off after a while. Feeling comes back, and... it messes with your head. I don't know how much he gave me."
He looked up through Caspar, tears still in his eyes.
"He wouldn't have given me enough to kill me. He knows I'm wanted alive," he said with heavy breaths.
"Right?" his last word was a whisper.
"James, can you look at me for a sec?" Caspar said gently.
James looked like he was trying to focus on Caspar, but his eyes still looked a tad unfocused.
"You're going to be fine, okay?"
"If he catches me again--" James started to choke out.
"I don't think I'll make it this time," James said, tears still streaming down his face. "Not like this. He'll take me to Carter and he'll kill me. I know he's been waiting to all this time--"
Caspar placed a hand on James's shoulder. "James, look at me. I won't let that happen." Carefully, he pulled the man into a loose embrace. "You're alright."
James started sobbing into Caspar's shoulder. With a hand cradling the back of James's head, Caspar held him fully in his arms, trying to physically shield James from all of his fears and hurt.
"I'm not going anywhere."
More tears was the only response he got from James, but he could tell James wasn't feeling right. He was burning up, and starting to tremble subtly.
Caspar started to pull away, slowly. "We need to lower your temperature a bit. I'll be right back, okay?"
James wasn't very responsive as he laid on the grass, staring up at the sky with teary eyes.
"I'm sorry," he said again, repeating it to himself in mumbles.
Caspar silently stepped away to grab his bag once more and tried his best to set up James more comfortably on the ground. Then he figured he should set up camp. He didn't know how long the side effects would last, but what they were presuming was lumshade seemed to have a firm hold on James. They probably weren't going anywhere for a bit.
Staying close to the river kept water very accessible, so that was a plus. And they had some cover from the sun under the trees.
Caspar paced. They still hadn't managed to cover much ground. He grew more on edge with each passing hour.
James floated in and out of consciousness. He was still too pale and looked terribly small. Caspar hovered close by and made sure he stayed hydrated.
The temperature dropped quickly. They would possibly need a fire. He had all the materials at ready, he just. Wasn't sure that was the best idea. They were still only several hours out from the ranch, and the bounty hunter was more likely to spot them.
Darkness descended on them, and the trees turned into looming shadowy figures. He looked down at James on the ground, and, for a split second, the brown-haired boy lied there in his place. He blinked hard, and shook the image from his head.
James would need the warmth. Caspar lit a fire and stood watch.
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Mon Feb 21, 2022 5:37 am
James couldn't remember when things started blending together and when things started getting warm. This was different than the last time he'd been drugged to be caught and captured. Pitch, at least, knew to use restraint and didn't pump him with more than necessary. But this? Maybe he'd been wrong. If this was Lumshade, it was more than his body had ever had to process, and he didn't know when this nightmare would end.
Before they'd made it to the river, his mind had been running with dreams nonstop. He hardly remembered all of them, but the emotions they carried lingered like a weight in his chest. Fear. Panic. Anxiety. Desparation. And a sinking heaviness that pulled him down.
In what had felt like his brief moment of lucidity, he remembered talking with Caspar about something, but any of the details were lost on him now. Had Caspar been trying to leave, or was it him who'd tried to leave?
Had he been left alone? He couldn't remember anymore.
James laid on the ground, and he felt the grass with his fingertips, finding pebbles hidden in the dirt, and what felt like a bug crawling on his hand. But he accidentally found an ant hill, because his hand grazed over a patch of loose dirt and suddenly they were crawling up his arm, swarming him.
He snapped up, letting out a loud curse as he started slapping at his arm and brushing at himself violenty, trying to scramble away. He could see the light of the fire flickering across the grass, and the shifting swarm of ants traveled through it like a shadow following him.
Water. He needed to get to the water. He could feel all of the bites running up his arm, down his back. They were everywhere, and it stung. Everything stung and burned and it felt like he was getting eaten alive. The ants were getting bigger like they were growing as they feasted on his flesh.
As he got to his feet and leaped for the water, he felt a pair of large hands grab him by his arms and drag him back.
He started kicking and fighting it, his breaths getting faster and faster as the ants started to dig into his skin. He diverted his energy to the ants, scratching at his hands and arms to try to get them away. The hands-on his arms then held his wrists, preventing him from getting the ants off.
An instinct burned into his muscle memory kicked in, and James bent his arm, shoving his elbow hard into his attacker's side. But still, they held on.
The stinging pain of the ant bites seemed to burn like fire in his veins, fueling his fear.
He suddenly went limp, releasing all tension for a moment. For just a second, he fell partially from the man's grasp and he used that momentum to pull downward, and the man lost his balance as James dropped to the ground.
He ripped his hands out of the man's grip and sprung away out of reach, crawling to the other side of the fire.
Why was he breathing so hard?
James found himself panting, and sweat was rolling down his forehead in thick droplets.
A shudder ran through his body, giving him chills, and his arms trembled under his own weight. He felt like he could throw up, but his stomach felt achingly empty, and his throat was already hoarse, like he'd been throwing up all day.
How many hours had passed? It was dark out.
Who was with him again? Had Alexander caught up to him?
James wobbled and fell face-first into the ground with a groan.
"You can't... break me," he said into the grass while heaving, trying to muster the strength to push himself back up. "I won't let you. He might've told you-- You don't even know, do you? You're just another pawn too. Just like me."
He shakily pushed himself up, arms trembling. His face felt covered in sweat, and his throat was so painfully dry.
As he stared across the fire his eyes slowly came into some semblance of focus - first, making out a blurry shadow of a tall man, and then finally he could make out the face.
He blinked, squinting at him as Caspar started to slowly approach with his hands out like he was approaching an angry, wounded dog.
"Caspar..." James said. "Where... the bounty hunter? Did you...?"
As he bent down in front of James, Caspar grimaced slightly. "He was never here," he answered, voice calm and steady. "It's just me. You're not seeing things clearly right now."
James blinked again, his vision of Caspar getting blurry.
"Yeah," he said with a slight nod, but just the nod made his head spin. "Your heads. Everywhere."
He was seeing more than double.
"You should come away from the water," Caspar said. "If you need a drink, you should use the canteen."
"I don't drink," James blurted. "Not anymore. I can't. 'S bad for my liver anyway."
"Water," he said. "I meant. If you need water."
James let out a few deep breaths, still feeling like he was panting like he'd just run several miles nonstop. He stared again at Caspar, and for just a moment, his face snapped into focus, crisp and close.
Caspar was watching him with brows drawn and eyes wide, full of worry.
James blinked. For a moment Caspar's face looked like someone else. Amy. Or Brett. There were always too many people to worry for him.
Barely propping himself up enough to look at Brett without being entirely flat on the ground, he tried to meet Brett's eyes.
"You don't have to stay, you know," he said. "You can save yourself. You can go live your life. If you have a chance with your brother, you should take it. I would only be keeping you from the possibility of a better life. You don't have to be saddled with me."
There was a pause, then a quiet scoff. "If you're trying to get out of repaying me for the medical supplies, that's not going to work."
James felt a desparte sense of urgency. This was why he'd tried to sneak away when the others were asleep, so he didn't have to have this conversation. But somehow Brett had woken up and caught him trying to slip away.
This was what the note was supposed to be for. So he didn't have to have this conversation face to face.
"Brett, please listen to me," James begged. "This is better for all of us. All of you, you can... you have options I'll never have. Please just... let me go. Don't try to convince me to stay. You're only making this harder for all of us."
James felt Brett's confusion wriggle into his brain, confusing him too. He hesitated, eyes fluttering as he tried to clear his head and looked down.
The ground was getting closer.
"I... I don't know," James said faintly as the side of his face became flush with the earth, squishing his cheek.
His eyes seemed to close on their own, and he felt like he was melting into the earth. Dust to dust.
Then something tapped him on the shoulder. Water. It was raining. He was going to be washed away.
"Rain," he whispered, relieved at the thought. Then he was slowly turned over onto his back by the waves rolling against him.
A shadow hung over him. A dark storm cloud, rumbling.
The waves kept lapping up against him, pushing him to the side. He let them take him. Maybe they would swallow him up again, and pull him under. He would wash up on a different shore, half dead, half alive, and maybe they'd just let him be so he could meet himself halfway.
It would be nice to die completely for once. Then it would all be over.
Fighting was so exhausting. Running was so exhausting.
Just for a moment, he wanted to rest.
The tides shifted, and he was pushed and pulled away, eventually drawn into the tide, and he let himself sleep.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.
link to listen to my music
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Wed Feb 23, 2022 4:41 pm
With James asleep again and not so close to the river, Caspar sat by the fire. He unbuttoned his shirt halfway and checked his side where James jammed his elbow into him. It was already bruising. He brushed his fingers over it, then winced.
He really wished he didn't have to grab him like that. He knew James wouldn't respond well to it, but--
Gods, what was James seeing? This lumshade was nasty stuff.
James had asked him to pretend none of this happened. It struck Caspar as strange at first, but he promised. And it probably was best to try to put any mentioned names out of his mind.
He pushed himself back to his feet and scanned the area for the umpteenth time. Still no signs of any sort of predators. He poked at the fire and tossed in another log.
The night dragged along. Caspar kept busy. Checked on James, checked on Elliot and Eir - they were just peachy, by the way, content with life as ever - kept the fire burning. There were moments where he felt himself drifting when he sat down, so he splashed his face with the river water and resorted to pacing.
The shadowed trees towered over them, and their shaking boughs looked like the claws of lurking monsters. Caspar turned his attention to the latter half of his journal, tracing the lines of his old sketches with his eyes.
If he came upon some extra cash some time, he'd like to maybe get a new journal. This one ran out of space awhile ago.
Eir appeared to grow less annoyed by his presence with each time he checked on the horses. Caspar patted her nose, and she nuzzled into his touch for a brief moment. Small victories.
Caspar sat down by the fire once more.
James was going to be fine, he repeated to himself. He was going to pull through. Caspar idly rubbed at his shoulder, repeating these reassurances like a mantra in his head.
James suddenly let out a long, low groan, and rolled over onto his side. He slowly propped himself up with his elbow and used his free hand to wipe his hair out of his face. It seemed that his breathing patterns, at least, appeared to turn to normal. His expression looked sullen and drained as he stared at the ground for a moment, holding his head in his hand.
"It's... night," he said slowly, like it was a realization.
Caspar turned to face him fully. "Yeah." Still. It felt like it would never end. "Do you...need water or anything?"
James sat up fully, still holding his head with one hand.
"What... happened?" he asked, pinching his eyes shut. "There was a bounty hunter... and you intervened. We got away?"
Caspar's brows knit together. "No," he said slowly, "no bounty hunter. You almost threw yourself into the river, though."
"Has it been a full day?" James asked, looking up and out into the night. "Night. How much time has passed since Alexander first came to the ranch?"
Caspar exhaled slowly, looking up as he thought. "16, maybe 17 hours?" He nodded. "17, I think."
James's gaze slowly dragged to Caspar, and when it finally landed on him, he looked more present than he had in the last 17 hours, since he'd run to flee Alexander's pursuit in the first place.
"Hell," James said.
Caspar snorted. "I agree."
"Gods, I'm--" James started, leaning forward to hold his head again. "I don't even know what happened, but I know what it's like to-- to have to watch over-- gods. Damn. I'm so sorry, Caspar."
Caspar shook his head and said quietly, "Don't worry. I'm fine."
He took the recently-refilled canteen and closed James's hands around it. "Just water," he assured him.
"You should try to sleep," James said as he took the canteen. "You look exhausted. I can keep watch for the rest of the night."
"I'm fine," Caspar repeated firmly. He tapped the canteen. "Drink."
James furrowed his eyebrows, slowly unscrewing the cap of the canteen before he took a drink.
"I know you've had to stay up keeping watch," James said when he was done. "If you've been running as long as I think you have - if I'm remembering correctly - then you know you should get your rest when you can. Alexander is probably still tracking us. You'll need your rest."
He was admittedly very tempted to lie down. He should stay up, though, just to keep an eye on James. Looking him over, Caspar wondered if the scuffle reopened any of his wounds.
"Seven years, right?" James asked, setting the canteen to the side.
"Yeah," Caspar said faintly, "you remember correctly. Hey, you're not bleeding anywhere, right?"
James blinked, and looked down at himself.
"Uh..." he said as he pushed up his sleeves, checking his arms. The way he inspected them, it was almost like he was expecting to see something that wasn't there. He then leaned over and looked at his leg, inspecting the bandage.
"I don't think I'm actively bleeding," he concluded. "Bandages might need changing at some point, but I can do that myself. I have my own."
Caspar nodded. "Good."
"Might need stitches..." James mumbled, like it was more to himself. He was still looking at his leg.
"I unfortunately don't have anything for that." He hadn't been able to restock on those in a while.
"It's fine," James said quickly. "I'll take care of it. I know medical supplies can be hard to come by."
Nodding again, Caspar turned back to the fire. He ran a shaking hand through his hair and exhaled through his nose.
"You sure you don't want any help?" he asked, looking over his shoulder.
"If anything I'm starting to remember was real or not," James said slowly. "You've already helped more than enough. Please just rest."
How much of that did James remember?
Suppressing a pained grunt as he stood, Caspar fetched James's bag from Elliot's saddle for him. He set the bag by James, then sat on the other side of the fire with his journal in hand.
He cast subtle glances James's way, just to check that he was still alright as he sewed himself up. His movements were measured and practiced, like this was a routine thing for him.
Geez, how did either of them survive this long?
The rabbits on the page in front of him blurred, as though they were actually dashing back and forth through a white field. He blinked and tried to refocus, but the weight of the book dragged his hand down to the grass. He shook his head, trying to shake off the drowsiness. Didn't work.
He leaned back on his hands and stared up at the trees.
Yup. Still there. Maybe. They were hard to make out in the dark, actually. They bled into the night, forming one giant dark mass over their heads.
His arms gave out from under him, and he landed on his back with a grunt. He scrubbed his hands over his face. When he let his hands drop down onto his chest, his eyes stayed closed.
Maybe just a few minutes wouldn't hurt. Just. Resting his eyes, yes. Then he'll be good to go.
Shockingly, sleep didn't fully drag him under quite yet.
The crackling of the fire was still crisp, and its warm aroma filled his nostrils when a gentle breeze turned his way. One of the horses chuffed and scraped their hoof on the dirt. Turning his head, he managed a peek at James. He seemed to be finishing up with stitching already.
Caspar closed his eyes again and let out a slow breath. He listened as James shifted things around in his bag, then took careful steps toward the river, and walked back to the fire.
James was definitely in a better state, Caspar thought contently. The worst of the lumshade had hopefully passed at this point. The tension in his body finally dissipated now that he felt more confident in James's prospects, and the sound of the fire eventually faded into silence.
When was the last time he had good, solid sleep? He rewound the past few weeks, then months, trying to remember...
Nothing and no one haunted him this time. For the first time in a while, he truly rested.
"Caspar," James's voice came from above him, hushed but harsh.
He mumbled incoherently, slinging his arm over his eyes.
"Caspar, we need to move," James said, still in a harsh whisper. "Now."
At that, Caspar was suddenly pulled upright by his shoulders, and James was trying to drag him to his feet.
"Alright, I'm up," he sputtered, clumsily straightening on his own. "What's wrong?"
"Shh," James hissed, pulling away from him. "I was scouting. Alexander is close. We need to move and stay quiet."
Caspar frowned. "James, your leg-- How far did you go?"
"You can lecture me about this later," James said harshly, turning to Elliot and hurrying to pull himself into the saddle. "Get Eir. Let's go."
"Where was he?" Caspar whispered.
"East of us," James responded in hushed tones. "He's coming up on the river. We should shoot up north, but not too fast just yet. He may be close enough to hear us if we start running them hard."
Caspar swore under his breath. He put out the fire, but didn't see a point in covering it up. Time was not on their side. Building one in the first place was stupid. The smell of smoke would leave a trail. He never should have slept, either. They should have left as soon as James's fever broke.
James and Elliot led the way. Eir felt tense and on the verge of bucking Caspar off at a moment's notice. He patted her neck with soft reassurances. She wouldn't settle, but managed to keep pace.
They stayed closer to the water, off the grass. The shoreline was pebbly yet solid, and left a far more subtle trail. Caspar had to reach over and guide Elliot back to the edge once or twice, which made him wonder if lumshade left any lasting damage, particularly in the eyes.
The river was quiet here, so it couldn't mask any audible missteps. The dark sky and the thin forest provided some cover as they traveled slowly. James looked over his shoulder, back at Caspar, then into the trees, but stayed silent.
"How far is the land bridge?" Caspar asked lowly.
"I don't exactly have a map," James whispered. "But I know it's there."
Caspar could just make out James's and Elliot's forms. James was holding up fine, it seemed. His shoulders were held up in a tense, rigid line, and he scanned the darkness around them. Elliot trotted at an even rate, steady as ever.
Caspar's hands shook. His breath was becoming short as his heart pounded. Breathing in through his nose, he forced himself to take slower breaths.
The hunter had a gun. If he was already on their trail, their chances of getting away...
Caspar was wanted dead. He was the easier target, the hunter would probably come for him first anyway. Maybe he could buy James enough time to escape if--
Elliot dug in his hooves, coming to an abrupt halt in front of them. Eir reared back. There was a bang, and a bullet shot by right in front of Caspar's eyes.
For a second, he wasn't in the forest anymore. For a split second, he watched his boy fall lifeless in the mud, and his world shattered all over again. His right shoulder seized up.
James jumped down from Elliot's saddle, snapping Caspar back to the forest and the river.
"Get down!" James hissed before he darted off into the darkness of the forest, leaving Elliot, Eir, and Caspar behind.
When he made to get down and follow, Eir beat him to the punch. Rearing back again, she threw Caspar off. He landed on his back. The air was knocked out of his lungs. Though dazed, his mind raced.
The house was burning. With scorched hands and a hunter charging with a dagger from behind, Caspar watched as Lyall retreated into the trees with his wife and sister. Lyall cast one hardened look back over his shoulder, then was gone.
The knife plunged into his back.
Caspar stood at Felix's front door with blood on his clothes. Not his blood, though. Felix screamed at him, told him that it should've been Caspar, not Henry who got shot in the duel. The anguish in his eyes reflected Caspar's own grief, but the rage burned Caspar's heart. Felix forsook both their honors, then cast him out, shoved him away. The door slammed shut.
The storm blew back in. His father's fishing boat was tossed around in the raging sea. Caspar watched helplessly from the rocky shore as the boat disappeared.
"I'll see you in the morning," his father promised.
Calder lied, then left to be with Runa. He lied to Caspar's face, and let the storm take him.
Caspar dragged himself to his knees, watching James disappear into the trees.
The coffin lied underneath him, and his boy stared up at him with those same scared, empty eyes. He shook his head, and stared down at the black dirt. He forced himself to his feet.
James was gone.
Not ready for another loss, Caspar bolted.
He refused to let James go too.
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Thu Feb 24, 2022 1:39 am
Adrenaline coursed through him, and James ran into the forest with his mind focused and sharp. Though he couldn't see more than a few feet in front of him in the dark of the night, and the thin moon above provided no help, he'd heard the direction the bullet came from.
He quickly slowed down, walking through the forest on practiced light feet, not making a sound as he slowly and carefully snuck through the trees with his head down. He walked on the balls of his feet, each step calculated as he kept his eyes and ears open for sights of Alexander.
The shot couldn't have been made from far off. Even for a well-sighted person, there were too many trees by the river obscuring the shot from a far distance, so James knew Alexander had to be close.
But after a failed shot like that one, it was likely Alexander had stepped off his horse as well. That, or he was poised to shoot again once he had another clear shot.
He hoped Caspar was laying low.
Eir had helped with that, at least, bucking him off onto the ground. It was a painful way to get out of Alexander's line of sight but was likely faster than whatever Caspar's reaction time might've been.
James's breath was steady and controlled.
He'd been through this too many times for him to panic anymore. This needed to be finished now. He couldn't afford to panic. Alexander was out to kill and to do this as efficiently as possible, and he clearly wasn't pulling any punches. Or any shots.
Out of the corner of his eye, James caught movement.
In a split second, he turned and saw Alexander's tall shadow emerging from behind a tree, and James, still crouching low, rose with his knife in hand and threw it straight towards the center of mass.
He saw Alexander's shadow stumble back for a second, but he couldn't make out an expression, or where he'd hit. But he knew he'd hit because Alexander let out an angry, pained growl.
James saw the movement of Alexander's arm, and just before something flew in the air, James ducked. A knife lodged into the tree behind him.
A knife for a knife. What a trade.
James ducked again, this time behind the tree as he heard Alexander charge towards him.
For a moment, they started to dance through the trees. Running, chasing, being chased. James bounced back and forth, zig-zagging through the cover of the trees and the shadows they cast down. He could feel the ache from his leg wound, like a noise in the background, but he ignored it.
This needed to end, and soon. He knew neither of them had the stamina to keep this up for long after a day of running themselves thin running and tracking. Alexander had been wounded too, and likely had a concussion from the hit on the head James had given him. He supposed that put the two of them at an equal disadvantage.
James was still recovering from the Lumshade, and Alexander the concussion.
Did that make it even? Not really.
James was waiting for an opening. He was pushing himself, twisting and turning. He knew his ankles were already tempting to give out (again), but he kept going. Sweat was already starting to make his clothes stick to his skin. Maybe it was just the adrenaline. Or maybe he was still sweating out some of the Lumshade.
He circled back to the tree Alexander had thrown the knife into not on purpose, but by chance, and he decided to take that chance.
As Alexander swooped around in front of James, James backed up against the tree and grabbed the hilt of the knife, hiding it in his hand behind him as Alexander closed in.
He could see the silhouette of something in Alexander's hand. Whether it was another syringe or a knife, James hardly had time to figure it out for himself.
James ripped the knife out of the tree just as Alexander reached out to him, and he sliced at Alexander's arm. Alexander didn't drop whatever it was, though, and he threw his body weight forward, ramming his whole body into James, pinning him against the tree.
James let his legs give for just a moment, and he slid about an inch before Alexander's arm met his neck, pressing down.
James changed tactics.
He reached his arms behind him around the tree and held on tight as he swung his legs up at Alexander's shins. A split second later, he let go of the tree and pushed himself off, using Alexander's shins as a springboard.
It was enough to throw Alexander off balance and free James from his grasp. James went tumbling to the forest floor along with Alexander and sprung up again to face him, this time drawing his dagger.
Alexander spun on the ground, sweeping his legs at James's ankles.
James jumped in time, just barely, and landed back on his feet. He used his momentum from landing to draw his dagger downward in a plunge.
He caught something, but it wasn't Alexander. It was the side of Alexander's jacket, though, and it was firmly planted into the ground, at least, for the moment.
James used the opportunity of having him pinned to the ground to jump on top of him, smashing his fists into Alexander's face. He felt the crack of bone and the wet spurt of blood from a broken nose.
A pair of hands firmly grasped the back of James's jacket and yanked him off Alexander, just as the hunter swung his knife in a wide arc. James was then pushed back, and Caspar surged forward.
Caspar kicked the knife out of Alexander's hand before he could take another swing and shoved the hunter down. His knuckles cracked like lightning against Alexander's jaw. Again and again and again, blow after blow. James watched as Caspar's fist turned black with blood. Alexander went still.
James rushed in and grabbed Caspar's shoulders, ripping him away.
"That's enough!" he shouted.
Caspar instantly relented and stumbled back. His chest heaved. His eyes were unfocused, almost shocked.
James stood over Alexander, pulling his attention away from Caspar's bloodied fist to look down at the bounty hunter who'd been beaten to a pulp.
Part of James hated that in that moment, he couldn't help but see himself in Alexander's face. It felt wrong to take pity on someone who moments ago had tried to murder Caspar in cold blood, and yet, James felt his heart twist into tight knots. The emotions were complicated, and better not felt at all. He pushed it down as he knelt down at Alexander's side, patting his body down to check for any more weapons.
He had a whole belt of knives hidden under his jacket, strapped to his chest. His gun as his side. And James could feel several hidden objects in the layers of Alexander's clothing.
He'd come prepared.
They'd gotten far, far too lucky.
"We should go," Caspar said wearily.
James ignored Caspar, his attention still on the bounty hunter as he scanned him with cold eyes.
He saw Alexander's eyes split open just slightly, revealing the whites of his eyes just enough for James to make it out. James's upper lip flinched in contempt as he grabbed Alexander's wrists and pinned them to the ground, leaning over Alexander to look him in the eyes.
He leaned in and whispered so Caspar couldn't hear.
"Tell Carter," James hissed lowly. "That if you want me, it'll have to be dead."
Alexander stared up at him, and despite his face being all beaten and bloody, he started to smirk, and he coughed up blood, some of it spattering on James's face. James pulled his head back a little.
"Oh, I wish I could kill you," Alexander said, spitting again but this time aiming right for James's face. Unfortunately, it landed right on his cheek.
"But Carter wants to kill you himself," Alexander said lowly, his smile growing.
James punched him square in the temple, and Alexander's head fell limply to the side.
"Have fun with your second concussion," James said coldly and he unbuckled the holster strapped to Alexander's hip. He took off the belt and looped it around his waist, pulling it taut so it hung at his own side.
He then scanned Alexander's body to search for where his own knife went and saw it lodged in Alexander's gut.
If Alexander didn't wake up soon and James pulled it out, he would most definitely die of blood loss.
It was likely he would die regardless, but it felt wrong. At this point, it really didn't matter that much, but James reached into Alexander's jacket and pulled out a throwing knife of his, and took it instead.
Tucking it away into his boot, he sheathed his dagger and, now with a few more weapons than before, turned to Caspar.
Caspar seemed like he was watching intently, but there was something in the way he held his shoulders tensely and his arms loosely at his sides that made it seem he wasn't entirely present. He was likely still riding his own adrenaline rush, and he didn't know when Caspar had last been in a fight with stakes like these.
In any case, James knew he was faring better at the moment, even though his leg was throbbing and he was going to feel all of it once his own adrenaline rush was over.
He walked over to Caspar and gently but firmly placed his hand on Caspar's shoulder, trying to ground him. Holding his own wrist, Caspar ripped his gaze from the hunter to James's eyes, truly looking at him now.
"You ready?" he asked, voice low and shaky.
"Yes," James said, his voice a stark comparison, steady and calm. "Let's go. Come on."
With his hand still on Caspar's shoulder, he gave it a nudge to turn him back towards the river. Caspar let James steer him away, then led the way back to the horses.
They hurried through the trees. James spotted Elliot up ahead right where he'd left him, but he noticed Eir wasn't nearby. She must've run off. Spooked by the gunfire and unwanted action. She'd already been antsy from being woken up in the middle of the night to leave suddenly, so he could only imagine how uneasy she was right now.
He glanced back at Caspar.
"See her anywhere?" he asked.
James trusted Caspar's eyes more than his own.
"Yeah, she's not too far ahead," Caspar said. He gestured to Elliot. "Need help?"
That was a hard no. "Need" was a loose word anyway.
James shook his head and mounted up into Elliot's saddle, intentionally hiding any signs of pain as his leg continued to throb.
Caspar had said Eir was up ahead, and he assumed he meant northward, going against the flow of the river. He started Elliot in that direction at a slow pace - easily manageable for Caspar to follow.
James kept quiet until they made it to Eir. He figured Caspar needed a moment to clear his head, and even then, James wanted to make sure they were both on horseback and making progress moving forward before he brought anything up. That way they could discuss things with a clearer head, even though the two of them were exhausted.
When James finally saw Eir in the distance, she was standing in an open patch of grass with her neck arched down as she grazed. James stopped Elliot a few yards back, watching as Caspar slowly approached.
It occurred to him that maybe he should coach Caspar on how to calm a horse.
This was, however, not the ideal moment. He'd really rather not pause to give a horse behavior lesson when there was an angry bounty hunter not too far behind them - regardless of whether or not that bounty hunter was in any shape to follow them at this point.
Caspar stopped a few feet away, giving Eir a chance to choose to meet him in the middle. She looked up when he called for her, hesitated, then bumped his outstretched hand with her nose. When he moved to climb onto her saddle, she side-stepped away.
"What's next?" Caspar said as he patiently tried approaching again. He sounded calmer than before. "After the bridge?"
James sat up straight in his saddle and took in a deep breath.
"Let's just ride a minute," he said.
He needed a moment to think.
Nodding, Caspar didn't push. He tried mounting again. Though still uneasy, Eir let him.
James rode Elliot over to Eir, hoping that Elliot could help calm her nerves a little and give some direction. As Elliot came close, he reached out with his head and nudged Eir's cheek, then bobbed his head up and down, snorting.
Eir flicked her ears, still seeming a little reluctant to any form of interaction, but as James started to lead Elliot back down the river, Eir - without any clear direction from Caspar - fell into step beside him.
James was relieved that Eir was calm enough to follow, and he let the silence of the night fill the space between the four of them for a moment as they rode on, eyes facing north.
Within a few minutes, James could make out the large rocky arch that reached over the river. In the night, it looked like a large looming shadow, but it was a relief that it was so close. At least they could cross the river. There wasn't another place to cross for a while unless they wanted to swim across, but the river was far deeper and more dangerous than it seemed.
He knew from experience. He wasn't going to relive that memory.
James pulled ahead of Caspar and Eir just a little as they rode out over the bridge.
It was wide enough for the two of them to ride across with no worries about falling. They didn't even have to ride in a line as the horse-hooves gently clapped across the moss and grass-covered rocky-hard earth that stretched over the river. Here, the water ran faster, and though his ears weren't too keen, even he could hear it rushing and lapping against the riverbank.
The ride across the bridge was uneventful, but a little bit of boring was welcome after their brush with death.
The silence dragged on as they continued to ride, and James let it settle his soul as he stared up at the stars.
It was funny how Caspar knew the story of the archer and the hound. James had always learned to find the point of the archer's bow to navigate. The arrow always pointed north.
Of course, he'd always known the story that ended in tragedy. It had been nice to hear a version of it that didn't end in death and heartbreak, even if it was a little sappy and unrealistic.
James wasn't quite sure how much time had passed as they rode under the stars through the grassy fields and patches of trees, but he did have Caspar on his mind, in the back, as a thought to get back to at some point.
He supposed now was as good a time as ever.
They were both tired, but at least now they were both sober. Mostly. James wasn't sure how much of what he was feeling was just exhaustion and physical pain or any lingering effects of the Lumshade. He decided to not overthink it at this point and just let it be. It would pass eventually.
"Hey, Caspar," he started, just to get his attention first.
There was a delay, then a quiet, "Yeah?"
"How are you holding up?" James asked.
He decided to leave it open-ended and let Caspar do the talking. Caspar didn't seem to have trouble expressing his emotions when given the chance. A quiet moment passed. James waited to let him sort through his thoughts.
"I..." Caspar inhaled slowly. "I'll be fine, I just need time to... I don't know, actually. I feel like all I have is time, yet I don't, never really, to--" His voice broke.
James glanced at Caspar, but he really couldn't make out much of his face in the dark of night. But he heard enough in the wavering of Caspar's voice to understand.
"Take your time," James said quietly.
If the man needed to cry, he could cry. James would wait until he was ready to talk again if he wanted to.
Caspar choked back a sob, then fell quiet. Unraveling, but trying desperately to hold himself together. After some minutes passed, James had a feeling that Caspar either needed another nudge, or he didn't want one. He'd have to find out the hard way, he supposed.
"You know," James said softly. "I don't think anyone would expect you to be fine after looking death in the face.
Caspar sniffed loudly. He made a noise like he wanted to say something, but stopped short, not trusting himself to articulate properly yet. He sniffed again and breathed out. "I let my guard down," he mumbled. "I shouldn't have slept, I'm sorry."
James looked at Caspar out of the corner of his eyes. At last, the sun just started to peer over the edge of the horizon with a hint of light. It was just enough for James to make out the vagueness of Caspar's expression. His eyes were distant, haunted. His frame was heavy with what James knew was buried sorrow that ran far too deep.
"Caspar, if you start blaming yourself for a crazed bounty hunter trying to kill you and capture me, I may need to use strong words," James said, pausing only for a moment to take in a breath. "It's not your fault. We were given the short end of the stick and we did the best we could, and at the end of the day--"
He glanced at the sunrise.
"Or rather, the start," he corrected. "We walked away with our lives. I consider that a success. You can beat yourself up over what you could've, would've, and should've done, but it won't do you any good. The only thing you have control over is the here and now."
One more brief pause.
"And for the record," James added. "You needed that sleep."
The words leaving his mouth were sincere, but they still felt bitter. In his heart, he knew he was being a hypocrite, offering advice he knew he would never accept for himself. It hardened something inside him, like another layer of bricks added to a mile-high fortress.
Silence hung between them. Caspar nodded to let James know he was listening, then straightened. Took a steadying breath, and he looked up at the breaking dawn.
"My father," he started slowly, "was... a good man." From his tone, it sounded like he was picking up an unfinished conversation. "He was tough. His own type of 'kind'. He cared. About doing things the right way, about his family-- Well." He paused. "Mostly."
James continued to watch Caspar out of the corner of his eyes, expectantly. He didn't know what was burning in the man's mind, but he was going to let him talk.
Caspar tilted his head and turned his eyes down to Eir's mane. "After my mom died, and we lost the little one, he just." He shrugged. "Kind of gave up. Couldn't bear life without her. So he- he took the boat and sailed out into a storm. And since then, it feels like my life is in a constant state of...grieving. Finding something good, only for it to be ripped away again. Losing friends and family to all sorts of circumstances."
He looked at James, lost and broken and scared. "I, um. I don't want to keep losing people."
James stared at Caspar for a moment, and he couldn't help but feel very small and far away all at once. An overwhelming weight settled in his chest alongside an agonizing emptiness, like Caspar's words were said to an empty room, echoing off the walls.
It wasn't like the sentiment didn't have any resonance. James fully understood.
Caspar didn't want to lose
He was tired of losing people he cared about, and even though they'd hardly been friends a month, Caspar's desire to fight on James's behalf was as much personal as it was a selfless act on behalf of a friend. It was both.
But something about it made James want to squirm. Or run. Or hide.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, an old song reminded him that this was how it always started. It started with caring and letting people in. And the moment he started to get comfortable, it was all ripped away. But he'd learned to get used to losing. He held on in his heart, but he always let go, because he knew he had to leave.
Nothing lasted forever. Nothing at all.
And it had to be that way if he wanted anyone he ever did care about to make it longer than he did. Because gods knew his days were numbered few.
James found himself trapped. He'd asked Caspar how he was doing with good intentions, and he really did want to know. But now he didn't know how to respond.
His chest felt tight to the point of needle-like pain like a knot pulled too taut.
How was he supposed to respond to that?
"I'm... grateful," James said, his answer far too delayed. "For--"
"You don't," Caspar cut in gently, "have to answer or anything. I just- It's--" He waved his hand, also at a loss for the right words. "That's where I am. Right now." He then nodded like that was all there was to it.
James watched him for a second before nodding.
"I understand," he said quietly, and he left it at that.
Most of the time, it was easy to leave a person because it always centered around the discovery of who he was. The betrayal caused enough of a rift that when he left, no one fought him on it.
But he had the unsettling feeling that things would be different with Caspar. Because the truth was, they were both very much in the same boat. Both wanted, on the run, with nowhere to go, and nothing to lose anymore.
Well... except, now, each other.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.
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Thu Feb 24, 2022 1:18 pm
Though he didn't mean for everything to tumble out on them like that, Caspar didn't regret it. He didn't expect an answer, try as James might, the poor man. He just wanted it all out there. He didn't know how long James would stick around, and when he'd next find a soul who would so completely understand him.
After a long silence, James eventually piped up again to tell him about their next destination. A small town named Needle Point built on their fishing industry along the same river James and Caspar had been following. The name came about from the original hope that they would become a source of woven goods. That didn't pan out, and the fish were already there and plentiful.
The terrain remained mostly the same for the first day. By day two, the river hastened and the shoreline grew rocky and jagged. By day three, they passed a small fish storehouse, propped up by stilts in the water. It was a plain structure with chipped red paint on the walls. It reminded Caspar of the storehouses in Herron.
By the afternoon of day three, James finally said, "Welcome to Needle Point."
It actually felt large, though Caspar's frame of reference was Herron, which. Wasn't very big at all. He hardly had any neighbors growing up.
As they entered town where the buildings grew larger and the population denser, James pulled his bandanna up over his nose and avoided eye contact with curious passersby by tilting his hat down. Needle Point was objectively rather small and removed, so it wasn't as likely that they'd run into trouble here. Regardless, playing it safe felt wise. James, it seemed, was a very wanted man.
Caspar himself didn't bother hiding. Actively trying to avoid attention would more likely draw it towards him anyhow.
He dismounted to take a break from riding, and to give Eir a break from carrying. She bumped his face with her nose in an almost affectionate way and followed close behind him without much prompting.
The storefronts left something to be desired. Sun-bleached and weather-worn buildings and signs were never touched up for clarity's sake. Everyone bustling about seemed to know where to find everything with no trouble.
"Have you been to Needle Point before?" Caspar asked.
"In passing," James said. "Didn't stay longer than a few minutes, really."
Caspar was about to ask why, then decided he probably shouldn't. Not in public, anyway. They soon found a general store tucked between two other buildings on a long block. James opted to wait outside with the horses, and handed Caspar some money.
As he entered, he had to immediately step around a harried-looking woman haggling with the mustached man behind the counter. The store was well-stocked, and Caspar grabbed only what he needed. He was content to just wait until the dispute between the store owner and the woman was settled, but then the store owner waved him forward while giving the woman an exasperated, "Wait a sec, ma'am."
This left the woman in a huff, and it made Caspar feel terribly awkward when she glared at him as though he had personally kicked her dog or something.
"I don't have all day, sir," the mustached man beckoned with a sigh and a nervous glance at his disgruntled customer.
Caspar gestured vaguely to the woman. "I'm okay waiting--"
"He's okay waiting," the woman cut in, sounding vindicated. "Now, Mr. Wesley, let's address your outrageous price hike on the flour--"
"Ms. Miller," the store owner said with another heavy sigh, "you understand that flour's hard to come by right now." He nodded to Caspar again. "Please, I am begging of you. Make your purchase."
Avoiding eye contact with the woman, Caspar stiffly set the items on the counter. Mr. Wesley took his time looking over the supplies and tallying the total, trying to put off Ms. Miller's issue for as long as he could. Ms. Miller tapped her foot while she waited, then stopped and tilted her head as she studied Caspar closely. Very closely. He actually had to lean away. Mr. Wesley seemed unconcerned.
Recognition flashed across her face. She wordlessly leaned back out of his space and kept her arms crossed in her very defiant way.
Mr. Wesley gave Caspar a price, Caspar paid with a quiet "thank you", and hurried out of the store.
As the door lazily swung shut behind him, he heard the woman say, "I will be back," to Mr. Wesley in a low voice, then turn to the door herself.
Time to go.
Around the corner of the building, James was exactly as he had left him.
"Here's the change," Caspar said hastily. "Thank you. Let's go."
James took the little pouch of money and stashed it away in his boot before hopping up on Elliot again.
"Everything alright?" he asked, quickly picking up on Caspar's anxiety.
"Uh, yeah," he said, barely concealing apprehension. "We just should get going. Right now."
Caspar grabbed Eir's reins and pulled her along. Just as he turned, Ms. Miller collided into him with an "oof!"
"You!" she exclaimed. "Calder, right?"
Caspar stumbled back into Eir. "N-no."
James had hopped off of Elliot, coming up around his side.
"And who might you be?" James asked, taking a step in front of Caspar.
Ms. Miller looked him over with sharp, searching eyes. James evenly met her gaze.
"You always kept strange company," she said, peeking over James's shoulder at Caspar. "Calder, where did you get this one?"
"Long story," James answered crisply. "What do you want?"
Only one person ever really called Caspar by his father's name.
"Unless your a friend of his," she answered smoothly, "it doesn't concern you."
a friend of his," James retorted coolly, "then this conversation is over."
"Hild!" Caspar said suddenly. Resting a hand on James's shoulder, he came between them for a closer look.
Gods, was it really her? She looked so different. Well. Physically, anyway. Her hair was a much lighter shade then he remembered, and her complexion a tad darker, likely from all the sun in this region. But she held herself in that same self-assured manner, and still seemed to argue tediously and to no end. Just like her brother.
"Ah," she said, cracking the faintest of smiles, "I'm glad to have left such a lasting impression on you."
James glanced at Caspar over his shoulder, searching his face for a moment before he pulled away from Caspar's touch and took a step back.
With an incredulous laugh, Caspar grabbed her up in tight hug and spun her around. Hild flung her arms around his neck just to hang on. Once he set her down on her feet again, she took a quick step back and lightly patted his arm in turn with a tight smile.
"Gods, I can't believe you're here," Caspar said, smiling broadly.
Hild hummed, her face softening once she was out of bear-hug range. "Very fortuitous. I don't believe I ever caught your guard dog's name, though."
"Oh! Of course," Caspar started. He gestured to James. "This is--"
"Matt," James interjected. He was glaring at Hild from under the brim of his hat.
Caspar nodded, collecting himself. Right. Play it safe. "Matt," he echoed. "We were just passing through."
"Well, I live here," Hild said, not giving James another thought. She looked Caspar up and down. "And you look like...you've seen better days. And you reek. Both of you."
Caspar looked down at himself, then at James. He caught James rolling his eyes, looking off to the side. He looked to be scanning to road, keeping watch with his hands in his pockets.
"We've been traveling awhile," Caspar said, tone a little apologetic.
"My house isn't far from here." Hild tilted her head west. "You're probably not staying long in Needle Point, are you?"
Caspar shook his head. "Unfortunately, no."
She took his hand and gave it a quick, light squeeze. "Then take a rest at my place for a day or two before you head out again."
In his excitement and relief to have found a friendly face after so long, Caspar was eager to accept - but stopped himself short. He looked to James, who kept his eyes firmly elsewhere.
"Um, Matt?" he said, a little stiff now that they've reverted. "What do you think?"
James drew his eyes away from whatever point they were fixed on and looked at Caspar. When his eyes landed on Caspar, his expression seemed to soften ever so subtly, but when he looked to Hild, it hardened again.
"I don't see a problem in accepting your friend's generosity," James said.
If it had been a week ago, Caspar would've thought he was being entirely sincere. But there was something off even if his delivery was convincing.
"Besides," James added. "I'm sure you two want some time to catch up."
"It's settled, then," Hild declared. "I'm going to finish my business with Mr. Wesley, then we can go."
Caspar nodded. "Of course. We'll be here."
With that, Hild excused herself and strode back into the general store, a woman on a mission. Caspar felt sorry for Mr. Wesley for just a second. Only mildly.
It felt surreal, seeing her again. He paced and idly swung his arms back and forth, just managing to refrain from jumping up and down and shouting to the hills his immense joy.
James for his part was even and alert as always. Caspar cleared his throat.
"How's the leg?" he asked.
"Still standing," James answered.
"Who is she to you?" James asked, looking off into the store's window.
Caspar followed his gaze. "She's an old friend."
A beat of silence.
"Do you trust her?" James asked a tad quieter.
"Completely," he answered, without hesitation.
James went quiet, only giving a terse nod in response.
Hild re-emerged in a huff, apparently unable to talk Mr. Wesley down into what she felt was a more reasonable price. She muttered about the crumbling integrity of man these days and brushed off the ordeal from her skirt like bothersome dust, then beckoned the men along.
"So, Matt," she said without sparing him so much as a glance over her shoulder, "how long have you been traveling together?" Her tone was conversational and easy, but Caspar sensed a very subtle edge, a rigidity.
"Just between the two of us, not more than a few days," James answered placidly, though the tension seemed reciprocal. "Before that we were on a ranching job together."
"The Hattfield Ranch, just south of here," James answered.
She hummed. "Mr. Hattfield. Nice man, solid business practices, honest." Hild cast him a polite smile. "You must be a reliable worker, then."
"Better to get a testimony of my character from Hattfield than myself," James replied.
"I'd rather hear from you." She looked forward again.
"Sorry to disappoint," James said flatly.
Walking alongside her, Caspar watched as she pressed her lips into a thin line. Not a bad sign, but also not a very good one. He nervously glanced back at James.
"So what kind of mess did Gregory find you in?" she asked.
"Hild," Caspar hissed, "come on."
Hild shrugged. "Gregory likes to tout all of his success stories. Good for business. Pulling men down on their luck out of the gutters of their crumbling lives. I'm only curious about your friend."
"It's fine," James said to Caspar. "It's a fair question."
"Well?" she pressed.
Caspar sighed. Slightly disappointed, but not at all surprised. Hild was selectively tactful. That much has remained the same as well, it seemed.
"I couldn't hold a job because I kept getting into some heated altercations with former employees," James said. "I needed something more stable. Gregor offered that. Though as I'm sure you've already concluded, it didn't last that long. Such is life."
"Oh, a hot temper," she said conclusively.
"What have you been up to?" Caspar asked, hoping to derail the interrogation. "Have you been well?"
Hild gave him an unimpressed look, but humored him nonetheless. "Many things, Calderson. Right now, though, I'm working for a tailor in town."
Caspar nodded. "Finally putting to use those 'cursed embroidery lessons'?"
Her lips ticked up in a small smile. "I still find the work hard on my hands, but it's been solid so far."
She led them to the outskirts of town. The buildings gradually shrunk to residential size, and became more colorful as they went.
Hild said she lived alone. Split from the family not long after Caspar left, and slowly made her way down south through the years. She would take tailoring over house cleaning any day. She had tried being a maid because that was the easiest job to acquire, but she hated the constant cleaning and being bossed around someone else's home.
Her house was a modest shade of yellow with small windows and a blue door. Not far from the river, and the walk from town was actually pretty decent. She didn't have a trough or anything for the horses, and so welcomed them to use the neighbor's trough close by.
"The well's out back," she said, giving them both a pointed look.
James dipped his head and offered Caspar Elliot's reins.
"You take the horses," he said. "I'll fetch water."
Hild disappeared inside, James left for the well, and Caspar was left with the horses.
He was actually relieved to have a quiet moment. Elliot gave him an abrupt nose-bump to the face while Eir stepped away for what Caspar assumed was personal space.
Elliot stayed close, giving Caspar another nudge with his nose on Caspar's cheek, and then licked the side of Caspar's face, huffing with a heavy breath through his nose. Patting Elliot's nose with one hand, Caspar wiped the spray from his eyes with the other. Elliot let out a whinny and bobbed his head, but it almost felt like Elliot was laughing, if a horse could laugh.
"That was--" Caspar blinked away the foreign moisture. "--not entirely appreciated, I'll be honest."
Elliot, of course, couldn't understand him, and instead only nudged Caspar again in the arm. After the nudge, though, he seemed to be done, though he still hovered close. Caspar stroked the side of Elliot's neck, just for something to do.
Before anything, Hild told them firmly, they needed to wash themselves.
"Immediately," she said. "Then we can visit."
James offered for Caspar to bathe first. Caspar was about to decline, but James's voice took the slightest edge and his eyes seemed to really urge him to just take the damn bath. So Caspar stepped out back, feeling terribly awkward and vulnerable to have to wash outdoors again.
Hild told him that no one would see him, and that he can come right inside for lunch once done.
He looked around. Other than the house with the trough, there really weren't a lot of close neighbors. He looked at the recently filled tub, then himself.
He'll just. Be very quick about it.
*surprised scream* Aaaaah, NaNo!
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