Author's Notes: 2,640 words. Yep.
The few days that followed, before and even after Eremia was deemed healthy enough to walk around the camp without supervision, were a blur. Madeleine had been angry at Eremia for the latter's insomnia, but it meant that Katerina was back to her cheery self; that brought the color back to Eremia’s cheeks. Jonathan visited frequently now, whether to start the fire, bring in fresh food, or just sit with Eremia (talking was, with him, a brief event). His presence was always blissful, and he added a drop of exciment to her boring schedule.
The land, in the meantime, grew more arid the farther they headed south. Katerina had said that The Doves were not far from the desert and would soon arrive at The Confederacy's border. This unnerved Eremia, as the border guards were infamous for their defenses; she had read they were most of the reason that the Confederacy had not been challenged by a foreign power for almost a century. Katerina had said they were strict about those coming in - those leaving were usually ignored. The worry didn't dissipate, though.
One morning, when the skies were cloudy and grim, Yorew had arrived instead when she sent out a soldier to fetch Jonathan. The old servant said Jonathan was with a hunting party.
"You summoned me?" Yorew asked, poking at the ashes of the fire with a stick. A few embers jumped out and vanished in the breeze.
Eremia ate porridge from a bowl as she sat, criss-crossed and wrapped in a blanket. She watched the ashes intensely. "Yes," she said at last, eyebrows furrowed. "I would like your help."
"And put the charming young man out of a job?" said Yorew, as neutrally as possible.
Blushing, Eremia set the bowl down between her and the fire. "Hardly," she said, straining to sound sarcastic and roll her eyes. "I would like to do something more than read. Are there any towns nearby?"
Yorew pointed towards a black speck in the distance, past the green-brown flatlands. "What do you want from such a town?"
"A trainer," replied Eremia, picking up the bowl and standing up, staring him in his sunken eyes. "I want to know how to use a sword."
"I-" began Yorew, setting aside the stick and sounding almost indignant.
"You have been busy," said Eremia just as quickly, gaze softening. "I would like someone more available than you and the others here. And I cannot stand walking around here for much longer, as everything is the same."
"That doesn’t sound-" Yorew said, breathing in deeply. "-As you will. Will you bring anyone else with you?"
Eremia thought for a moment, then looked around and waved towards someone in the distance. As that person began to run from the background, Eremia turned to Yorew and nodded. "Katerina, of course."
Katerina arrived in her usual fashion - embracing Eremia and nearly toppling her, knocking the bowl from Eremia's hands and sending it flying into a flustered Yorew's grasp. "What do you have in mind today?" asked Katerina, pushing back to look at Eremia.
The latter pointed off towards the distance, while Katerina turned her head to follow the motion and squint into the distance. "I should like to head to the town and find a trainer."
Katerina looked back and frowned. "That might be hard. I'm not sure if Madeleine would let you leave. And Alarick-"
"Well, this is for my education," said Eremia. "What are they going to do? There are no prisons here, and confining me to a wagon would not be a new punishment." She smiled craftily.
They let go of each other, and Katerina steepled her clawed fingers. "And you've been in one place for so long that they'll hardly think you'll just up and leave. Still, I guess the Doves' spies will figure it out, so we'd better not attract attention to ourselves. Do you have to bring him?" She pointed to Yorew. "He sticks out like a sore thumb."
"We need defenses, correct?" said Eremia, raising an eyebrow.
"Yeah, yeah, that'll be fine," said Katerina, waving off the thought. "I'm sure I can find something for him."
Katerina disappeared without another word, leaving Eremia to wait. Eremia was impatient, as this was to be the first time that she would leave the camp in however many days, and she was interested to see if the culture of Walenty was any different from her home's. She was not pleased when Katerina returned carrying two large, black cloaks, nor did Eremia like Katerina's reasoning that they could pretend Eremia and Yorew were ill. Nevertheless, Eremia wanted badly to leave, so she slipped one of them on, helped Yorew fit into his (it was a few sizes short for him), and let Katerina talk the guards at the edge of camp into enough of a state of boredom to allow them to pass.
A faint wind blew from the south. Eremia was happy that she had her cloak, as the traces of desert sand carried by the breeze buffeted against her. Katerina was unbothered by it, skipping along happily. Both kept a few paces behind Yorew, whose long strides would've cast wide shadows over the earth if the clouds weren't around. They carried on in silence. Eremia swam through the depths of her mind, faint worries rushing through her thoughts. Walenty was the best place for axemen, and she wasn't about to handle something so big and unwieldy. Their disguises looked stupid - maybe the townsfolk would only focus on them more. She hadn't even come up with a good comeback against Yorew.
Actually, she did have one. "And where might your love be, Yorew?"
"We've treated the patients from that little spat," he said calmly. "She doesn't need me much now."
"Naturally," said Eremia. "You might have put her out of a job."
"Now, there'll always be a need for healers. The more, the better." Yorew began to walk faster.
Eremia wiped some sweat from her brow as she tried to catch up. "Is something amiss?"
"Not at all. She merely doesn't need my help."
He went silent and gave the unsubtle impression that he wasn't going to be talking anymore. Eremia whispered in Katerina's ear, "Do you know?"
Katerina thought for a few seconds. "Ceinen's always taken a liking for her. She helped nurse him back to health after he joined us."
Eremia scowled. "The deer who worships false gods? Is that his competition?"
A big gust of wind caused Eremia's cloak to billow, briefly masking Katerina from view. "Well, I don't know if Madeleine likes him back. That's the complicated part."
Throwing her hands up, Eremia groaned. "Ceinen may be threatening him, then? Why should that bother Yorew?"
Shrugging, Katerina said, "I don't know. Isn’t he your servant or something?"
As Yorew moved ever faster, Katerina and Eremia started jogging. Eremia tapped her chin. "Ceinen was gross when I met him, and Yorew has always been a prude. Not as though we talk much."
"Why not?" said Katerina, voice cutting through the mild wind. "He's usually with you, and you seem pretty close."
"Yorew has been quiet. He only answers questions, and in few words." Eremia panted, and her steps became more uncertain.
Katerina laughed. "Like Jonathan, then?"
Hesitating, Eremia thought out a response between her short breaths. "No," she said slowly, "Jonathan is more liable to give advice. Why should that matter, anyhow?"
"Just that you don't seem to like quiet people – I mean, you like me - and they’re both locked doors about feelings."
"However-" said Eremia, before she looked behind her and realized that she'd shot ahead of both Yorew and Katerina. Stopping, she turned around and saw the village spread out in front of her.
It was, to put it simply, small. The main street was mostly abandoned, a dirt road passing from and to nowhere. A tavern/inn, a blacksmith's shop, and a general store were on one side of the road, and a few houses, each with chimneys, graced the other. Homes littered the countryside in the distance; Eremia thought she could see farmers plowing the land. The place seemed desolate, and she thought it amazing that anyone could grow anything here.
"May as well start looking," said Yorew, walking forward. Eremia bent over and tried to catch her breath as Yorew and Katerina went past. As she watched, the two walked towards the two-story, windowed, dull-colored tavern. Yorew said something in hushed tones to Katerina. Katerina nodded, and Yorew pushed open the door of the tavern. He vanished from sight, the faint candlelight of the tavern’s insides peeking through the cracks of the door.
"What - did he ask you?" Eremia said, as Katerina ran back.
"Only that he'd see if anyone was there. If he found somebody, he could tell them that we’re looking for a swordsman."
Eremia pulled herself back to her full height, waving the hair from her eyes. "Why not let you join him?"
Katerina suddenly seemed shy. "You didn't look too well, and he wanted someone to keep an eye on you."
"Fine," replied Eremia. She looked around at the "town," and quickly came to the realization that many of the homes, and even the buildings, seemed to be made of adobe. There were hardly any trees in the area - she guessed the residents had had to do with what they had. The houses were pitiful, composed of blocks stacked together in odd angles, several tilted to one side and with pieces falling out. Not another person, beyond Katerina, was in sight. Smoke emanated from one or two chimneys, but Eremia wasn't in the mood to know what they were burning. She could already smell it. Katerina's fending off an expression of disgust said she’d come to the same conclusion.
A man shoved open the door of the tavern and sprinted down the road, a bronze coin falling out of his coat. The door, knocked off its hinges, lay on the ground. Yorew arrived shortly to lift the door, put it back in place, and pick up the coin from its resting place. He returned to the tavern.
"Is this normal?" Eremia asked, raising an eyebrow as she put a hand over her eyes and squinted at the horizon, watching the fleeing man.
Katerina shrugged again. "Walenty's not a happy country, that's for sure. The King lives off in his palace, but he cares more about burning Wyandanch than helping farmers. I know there's groups of nomads that come in from the south sometimes and raid. There's also-"
"Yeah, they're from the desert. Guess there's more food here than over there. They like to pick on the herders." Katerina watched with Eremia, smiling as the man disappeared behind a distant house.
"I find it hard to believe the herders were doing well in the first place, if these are the farmers," said Eremia, gesturing to the huts.
Yorew carefully pushed open the door and walked outside. "It doesn't seem like it, but at least they don't have to sleep in a house of mud." Katerina noticed Yorew first, turning around and waving to him. "Any luck?"
"Someone lives off to the east," Yorew said, pointing towards a distant shack, not far from where the fleeing man had hidden. "He's shy, doesn't visit the town much. The owner also said he's handy with a sword and he works odd jobs for whoever has the money."
"Well then!" said Katerina, starting off on a brisk pace. "He sounds good enough. Let's meet him!"
Yorew nodded in agreement and followed, quickly regaining the lead. Eremia came last, jogging to catch up with Katerina.
“What did you do to that guy?” Katerina said as the group left the boundaries of the town, briefly running up to Yorew to ask the question.
“He was being a nuisance,” Yorew said, “so I dealt with the problem.”
Satisfied with the answer, Katerina stopped and waited for Eremia to trudge past. “What does he mean by that?” Katerina asked, whispering into Eremia’s ear while staring at Yorew in intense curiosity.
Eremia glowered at Yorew – she was getting tired of how impassive and deflective he was. “Perhaps he just frowned at the man. I have seen Yorew throw people in his yearly analysis, but he does not like to use his strength.”
“Yearly analysis?” Katerina stopped and reached down to pick up a small blue flower. She examined it eagerly as she caught up, slipping it into the fur by her ear.
“He looks after royalty. As old as he is, it never hurts to check.” Eremia though she could see Yorew tense up when she said “old,” but it was hard to gauge his reactions.
“How old?” said Katerina, smiling bemusedly; she had seen what Eremia had.
Eremia shrugged, grinning. “Not a clue. One hundred years, perhaps.”
Yorew briefly coughed, then pointed to a speck in the distance, growing closer. The girls silenced, and Eremia frowned as she tried to walk a little faster to keep up with Yorew. As the figure approached, taking wide steps, Eremia realized it wasn’t the man they had seen before. It didn’t appear to be a man at all, but a bipedal, brown hawk. The hawk looked tall and graceful, dressed in a black tunic adorned with a blue sash. Peeking over its back was the scabbard of a large sword. Beads jumped on the side of his head as it spotted them and walked faster. Yorew slowed and stopped, crossing his arms; Eremia realized he was tensing up.
“Morning!” it hailed in a masculine, deep voice as it stopped beside them. His large wings spread out as he bowed, feathers waving in a faint wind.
Yorew bowed in response. “It is.”
The hawk opened his beak in a smile, showing plenty of sharp white teeth. He closed it quickly and resumed a grim expression, his piercing stare utterly ineffective against Yorew. “Were you the man that frightened that poor bastard I passed?”
Eremia and Katerina exchanged nervous glances. “He was making his leave when I caught him,” said Yorew. “The man dropped a sack of money and sprinted out the door on my command.”
The hawk threw his head up, laughing. “That thief!” he shouted, nearly knocking into Yorew in the wide sweep of his wings. “I always knew that he’d run into trouble. Well done!” He bowed again, after controlling the mirth that shook his feathers. “Might I ask who you are, to scare him off like that?”
Unsubtly, eyes narrowed, Eremia moved behind Katerina, peeking behind Katerina’s head to see the lofty stranger. Yorew made no effort to respond, so Katerina took initiative. “Hello!” she said, bowing deeply herself. “This man here would be Yorew” – she gestured to him – “I’m Katerina, and she’s – well, shy.” Katerina stepped out of the way and stretched her hand to Eremia, who remained glowering.
“Shy? What an odd name,” remarked the hawk without any hint of sarcasm. “My own is Iasquam.”
“-How do you pronounce that?” Katerina replied, smiling uncertainly.
“E-s-kawm,” the hawk said, emphasizing each syllable. “It means ‘Sunset Cloud’ in the Old Language. As a fox, wouldn’t you know that?”
Katerina looked embarrassed. “Well, there are a lot of old languages,” she said, laughing nervously.
Yorew intervened, causing Katerina to breathe a sigh of relief. “I believe you are who we’ve been looking for. Are you the mercenary?”
To Eremia’s surprise, Iasquam’s expression grew sadder, and he looked down momentarily. “Perhaps we’d better talk of this in my home. It’s not far from here.” He turned around, not waiting for a response, and stepped forward briskly. Yorew stood still, watching Iasquam for a few seconds, and then turned to face Eremia, eyebrow raised. She nodded, and they followed the hawk.