It was the day after Isha had done her best to explain what was going on with the coterie, and with Shiloh. Carter had been restless all night, still unable to conceive why Shiloh had ended up in the coterie in the first place.
He hadn’t gotten a chance to ask how long she had been with them. Now, as they travelled in a formation on the horses – heading for the Crossroads – Carter hadn’t quite worked up the courage to approach Isha or Gideon yet.
Was it something he had done to push her to such an extreme? He and Shiloh didn’t fight often, and they never fought badly. Even comfortable enough to have an argument with his sister, Carter didn’t like raising his voice. And he had known enough discomfort in his life to do his best to be flexible.
She had never hinted towards anything like this. Shiloh wasn’t a criminal- his sister was gentle but stood her ground. She wasn’t afraid to take up a challenge, or do the dirty work, or put herself in harms way. His sister had been, for all intents and purpose, the exact opposite of criminal. If anything, she would have been the crime fighting sort of hero from their adventure stories.
Still, Isha’s accounting…Shiloh suddenly spooking? She was impulsive. Often times she’d bought things, namely for Carter, even if he insisted he didn’t need them- especially since they hardly had the money for it. Once, she’d challenged a knight accompanying a passing caravan to a duel once, just because-
Oh. Oh. Shiloh had won that fight. Carter had always wondered how. He’d never seen Shiloh sword fighting before.
“Why is the cat here?”
Carter jumped in his seat, enough that Reese quickened her pace until Carter shushed her and leaned back, giving her reins a soft tug. She chewed the bit but put her head down and relaxed.
Then he looked up to see Gideon, walking Villa next to them, watching him cautiously. Carter glanced around, as if somebody else would have some sort of answer for him.
Whisper was riding a short distance away from them, and although they weren’t facing Carter, he had a distinct feeling they were watching Gideon closely. Koshar was, surprisingly enough, somehow draped on the saddle in front of them. Achille didn’t seem concerned by this, despite the nervous glances he sent everything else.
A glance towards Isha revealed that she was watching him. Or Gideon. He wasn’t sure, but either way, she was smirking, but looked away when they made eye contact.
He cleared his throat, a tightness coiling around his chest. “Um. What did you-?” Carter turned back to Gideon.
“The- her cat. What’s it’s deal?” Gideon nodded towards Whisper and Koshar. Bird song trilled above them, somewhere behind Carter, and a few scattered leaves fell from the trees around them.
“Oh- Koshar is, well, um. He’s their cat? I mean, he’s been with Whisper for as long as I’ve known them.” He adjusted the reins in his hands, the ebony leather sliding against the brown, calloused skin of his hands.
Gideon opened his mouth to speak but paused as his brow dipped. “Them?” he asked.
Blinking, Carter met his gaze. Warmth spread across his face, but he forced himself not to look away this time. He swallowed instead. “Oh that’s- yeah? Winnie is- goes by they and, um, them? They don’t mind she, and her, I guess. But they’re not like- it’s just that they don’t-” Carter shifted in his saddle, frustrated at his own inadequacy at speaking.
But before he said anything else, Gideon’s gaze shifted curiously past him to Winnie, and he stewed for a moment. Then his brow twitched again, and he nodded. “Oh,” he said, looking away towards Isha in front of them. “I see.”
Carter shifted in his seat again, pressing his heels down in his stirrups and hugging Reese’s barrel. Gideon sees? What did that mean? Was he going to look down on Winnie, just like everyone else in the village? Was he going to be as close-minded and self-centred as to think it affected him?
He glanced down to Villa instead, hoping the sight of the young mare would calm him. Instead, he found Gideon held Villa’s rein tight and she kept bouncing her head up and down. She had a sensitive mouth and preferred softer contact than most of the horses.
His own grip tightened on his reins, but not enough to pull on Reese’s mouth. She still wickered at him softly and her ears swivelled. Carter gave her some slack, and then glanced irritably back at Gideon.
After a few more moments of silent riding that was making Carter only perpetually more uncomfortable, he cleared his throat. Loudly. Gideon glanced over at him in surprise. Carter frowned at him.
“Can you not- You’re pulling on Villa’s mouth,” Carter said, gesturing to Gideon’s hands. For a moment, Gideon looked perplexed, glancing down at the reins as if they were some sort of foreign object he’d never seen before. Carter felt a fire stoke in his chest. Doesn’t he know how to ride? “The- um, the bit. You’re pulling the reins back too far. She’s sensitive.”
Gideon gave him an odd look. “It matters?”
Indignation burned in Carter’s heart and he met Gideon’s gaze head-on, his gaze hot. “Yes, it matters. I’ve- I’ve taught her. She knows how to- how to round, but you can’t pull on her mouth. Loosen your- loosen the reins and let her stretch her neck.”
Still squinting his eyes, Gideon looked away from Carter towards his hands. He let the leather slide carefully from his hands, until Villa stopped tossing her head. Instead, she arched her neck and levelled her nose, chewing more contentedly on the bit.
When Gideon glanced back up at Carter, something softening in his features, it finally dawned on Carter that he had been practically ordering Gideon around. His face grew hot, as if held on the edge of a flame, and he quickly glanced away, his stomach churning.
He didn’t regret it, not really, but it didn’t stop the nausea rolling inside of him.
Villa and Gideon were still beside him, and he could feel Gideon’s gaze burning into the side of his head like a scalding iron. Carter felt his ears grow hot too and became quickly thankful that his head of dark curls covered his ears, so that Gideon could not see how red they were.
He kept his gaze steadfastly ahead, when he realised that sunlight was pouring through the trees ahead of them. He could see the edge of the forest as it opened into a field, or at least a crossing, and the sky swallowed the earth beyond.
“The road’s ahead,” Isha called. “We’ll should be coming to the Crossroads shortly, if the route I checked was correct on the map.”
She then spurred Fabella on into a trot, and the rest were quick to follow. Carter glanced towards his side as they came to the edge of the lush forest – which was certainly less intimidating and much more comforting in the daylight – and saw Whisper nudging Achille closer to him and Reese.
The ground crunched under the relentless hooves of the four horses. Carter couldn’t help but fret over the possibility of one of them stepping onto a rock, or something that would otherwise injure their foot. He was careful back at Bazzoli’s about keeping the horses well cared for, but with little supply and Gideon breathing down his neck, he wasn’t sure how much he could do if one of the horses fell lame.
They had to break their line to find enough space between the trees, but they all managed to break away into the yawning field. Carter blinked as the sunlight beat down on them, glaring into his eyes and blinding him momentarily.
Once the daze had worn off, he found that Isha had been right- ahead of them lay a worn, but well enough kept dust road. It was just ahead of them on a slope from where they were in a slight ditch of long and unkempt grass.
Carter slowed Reese to a walk, not wanting her to misstep and twist something anymore than he wanted her to step on something. He brought her up the slope first, and curiously, everyone else seemed to follow his lead.
Now, out of the shade of the trees, Carter had to admit that even as hot as it was out, the sun kissing his skin felt good. It felt like a blanket being wrapped around him, as though he were a child again and Shiloh was tucking him into his bed for the night.
He sighed, and turned Reese to follow after Isha and Whisper, who were just ahead of him and had encouraged both their mounts to trot again. He nudged Reese with his heels, and she quietly and dutifully obeyed.
Gideon brought Villa back up next to him again, and Carter felt the impending sort of doom that came with a conversation. A glance towards Gideon found him scowling, and Carter could feel all sorts of walls shooting up around him. He had been hoping he was past the scowling, grumpy Gideon. Evidently, he was not.
Then Gideon glanced over at him. “Isha told me she wants to train you,” he said, his voice reserved.
Carter tilted his head before he could think about it. Gideon sounded…unsure? What is he trying to get? Gideon had already made it clear what he thought of Carter. Was he mocking him? Here to tell him he had changed his mind now? To turn back to Midvale?
“You’re going to need it. She wants to train you in physical combat, but it would be best for everyone if you learned how to fight with a sword, or a bow and arrow. At least knowing how to defend yourself. Whisper too, she-” Gideon’s jaw twitched. “They need to learn as well. You- you can’t stay with us if you aren’t going to be useful when combat inevitably falls upon us.”
As Gideon’s words processed through his mind, Carter felt both it and his stomach start to swirl. He wanted to learn how to fight no more than he did last night. That had crossed his mind to- he knew if it came down to it, Carter would probably take a sword to himself than to someone else.
Before he could begin to even consider how to respond, Isha abruptly slowed Fabella to a walk and held up her hands. “We’re here.” She pulled Fabella to a halt and turned back to face Gideon and Carter. They rode up to meet her, although Carter nudged Reese with his right heel to walk up to the far side of Whisper, where he was blocked from Isha and Gideon.
Sure enough, ahead in the distance, Carter could see the posts, erected into a wall in a circle, around what must have been the Crossroads. From here, it didn’t look that big, definitely not bigger than Midvale.
There was a watchtower that stood tall, almost imposing, in front the spiked wall of the outpost. He could see a gate beside the watchtower, and guards that stood on either side of it, armour glinting in the sun’s glare.
Even from where they stood, Carter could smell smoke, from a wood-fire most likely, and rich smells from, undoubtedly, caravans coming through with trade goods.
“Come on,” Isha said, nudging Fabella forward again. “Let’s not wait for the Crossroads to come to us. Hope you all have your grocery lists, we won’t be here for long.”
She and Gideon started off ahead of them, while Carter hesitated to exchange a glance with Winnie. They gave him a quiet smile, one that did wonders to settle Carter’s nerves, and dipped their chin to him.
“Whatever you’re thinking about your sister, stop.” As Carter blinked and his brow furrowed, Whisper shook their head in a sort of exasperated fondness. “I know you well, and I know you’re blaming yourself, so stop. Shiloh wouldn’t have wanted that.”
They gently nudged Achille to step closer to Reese, so Whisper could reach out to touch Carter’s forearm and rub it gently, like a parent would.
“You know Shiloh better than anyone Carter. Trust in your own heart, in your own knowledge. You know whatever mess she got herself in was not born out of malice.”
Carter met Winnie’s eyes, dark and calm, ever watchful and vigilant, and felt a weight roll off his shoulders. He let out a heavy sigh, and his chin dropped, but he still gave them a weak nod.
He didn’t know how they always knew what to say to make him feel better. It was honestly like a special sort of magic that they had. It was, at the very least, somewhat exciting to believe, even if it weren’t true.
“Come,” Winnie spurred Achille forward with a bright smile. “Let’s not keep our companions waiting.”
Warmth blossomed in Carter’s heart, and, in lighter spirits, he asked for Reese to follow suit beside them.
word count: 2,195