Awkward and Sleepless
Fantel returned to Rashari and Smith carrying a large bundle of C’aan twigs for kindling wrapped in her coat. Her arms were full of the fleshy blue Nasri stems. She was pleased to see that Rashari had managed to remove the Yammik’a’lim’s shell in one piece and was focused on cutting filets of flesh from its back with one of the creature’s spines, and not Smith. The automaton was perched on Rashari’s shoulder, his jointed legs curled into purpose made holes in the fabric. Rashari had complained bitterly about the tears Smith’s legs made in his coat at first, but stopped after the third time Smith fell off his back during their trek. A few holes were less a nuisance than the annoyance of having to pick Smith up off the ground.
Approaching slowly Fantel observed her human and his automaton. Smith’s eyes glowed a steady, unblinking violet and he seemed to be watching Rashari slice up the Yammik’a’lim. Unlike his old body the spider bot had no means of vocalisation. All the same Fantel knew Smith was talking to Rashari in some way that required no words. There was something in the way Rashari cocked his head, pausing every now and then in his work, as if listening that made her sure of it, but more than that Fantel felt as if she could almost hear Smith. It was difficult to explain. It was more a feeling she had. There was an itch in her thoughts, a subliminal buzz, and with it the inexplicable certainty that she should be able to hear him and the fact that she couldn’t related to a deficit in her understanding and not anything to do with the automaton’s lack of vocal cords. Coming closer the faint buzz in her ears increased, she could almost make sense of the current running between Smith and Rashari, but frustratingly their thoughts and hers remained on different frequencies.
“Ah, Madame, welcome back.” Rashari looked up, noticing her. He beamed and proudly held up one narrow strip of meat between his thumb and forefinger. “What do you think? Do I have a future as a pig-upine butcher?”
Fantel stopped and looked at him. “A what?” She asked delicately.
“This thing,” He nodded to the Yammik’a’lim carcass. “It looks like the product of an illicit liaison between a wild boar and a porcupine, hence the name.” He paused thoughtfully. “Of course neither of those animals have antlers, but pig-upine trips off the tongue far easier than dearcupine, or porcu-dear.”
“Are you feverish?” She asked him peering at him suspiciously.
“No.” Rashari blinked at her. “Why do you ask?”
“You are talking gibberish.” Laying down her coat wrapped bundle of kindling and armful of Nasri stems she sunk down onto the ground opposite him.
“Thank you,” Rashari looked more amused than offended. “What’s all that?” He nodded to the twigs and plants she had gathered.
“Hydration,” Fantel plucked up one of the blue Nasri stems. It was a good specimen. The stem was thick and squishy. The flowers were round and bulbous sprouting in clumps up the length of the stem much like Danitz Sprouts. The frill of short white petals stuck out from each rounded nectar sac, plump and full. The nectar sacs were thickly veined and the flesh covered in a down of soft hairs. Drinkable water could be scarce out on the Steppes, particular out on the H’malium plain. The Nasri flower had long been gathered as a substitute by hunters and travellers. The plant was fully edible from its petals to its roots and full of nutrients. The bundle she had gathered would last them tonight and into the morning but she would have to collect more for the rest of the journey. They would need to keep hydrated and she estimated they had at least another two days travelling over steep terrain before they made it to Olim’g. They could survive without food for a few days should Fantel be unable to catch another meal, but they would not last long without fluids.
Deftly pinching one of the sacs between her fingers she twisted it loose from the stem and offered it to Rashari. “Here. Eat this. It will help with your thirst.”
Eyeing the furry blue sac in her palm warily he made no move to take it from her. “I’d rather not.”
Fantel fixed him with a quelling look. “There is no water here. Death by thirst is a slow and unpleasant experience.”
He still looked reluctant. “I haven’t had the best luck with the local plant-life. Are you sure it’s safe?”
“Perfectly,” She frowned. “Do you think I would offer you something that might do you harm?”
“No, no,” He was quick to reassure her, “Of course not.” He sighed and took the plant from her, rolling it between his fingers gingerly. His expression was almost comical. If possible he looked even less enthused by the Nasri than he had the Yammik’a’lim. He was a very odd human, peculiarly open-minded and practical one moment and peevish and immature the next. Squeezing his eyes closed he popped the Nasri into his mouth, grimace already fixed. She watched the muscles of his stubble covered jaw move as he chewed. His eyes opened and a look of surprise smoothed the crease from his brow. He swallowed.
“That was by no means as unremittingly awful as I imagined.” He said.
“I am glad for you,” Fantel told him dryly. She twisted off another of the nectar sacs and chewed. Nasri nectar was tart and refreshing. Thicker than water in consistency it left a vaguely gritty aftertaste. It had been a long time since she had tasted Nasri. There really wasn’t anything like it back in human dominated Aldlis.
“It’s not precisely pleasant,” Rashari continued meditatively, reaching out a hand as Fantel passed him another stem so he could take as much as he wanted. “It’s quite odd actually. Sour but without acidity; there’s a crispness to it which reminds of green grapes, or gooseberries.” He shook his head and smiled, dark eyes dancing. “Please tell me the meat will taste like chicken.”
“Not especially.” Fantel paused in the action of plucking sacs from her own stem. “It is gamier than that.”
“Which brings me to my next question: how are we going to cook it?” He paused. “We don’t have to eat it raw do we, because taste aside, I am certain that will make us sick.”
“I can kindle a fire using these,” She gestured to the C’aan twigs.
Rashari frowned a look of trepidation passing over his sharp features, “Kindle how?” A world of wariness echoed in those two words. It was Fantel’s turn to frown at him.
“A simple trick of sympathetic magic,” She caught sight of the alarm he didn’t quite manage to hide. “You doubt my capabilities.”
He winced. “It is not that – precisely.” He avoided her eyes. “It is just that your magic seems to have unpredictable consequences. When you offered to provide a stream to bathe in we ended up almost drowned in a raging flood.” He glanced her way and must have seen the flare of hurt and shame warming her cheeks because he hastened to reassure her. “Which I’m not blaming you for, obviously, but surely you can see my point?”
“You fear I shall immolate us both?” She was more than a little offended. The tiny magic she was proposing to light the fire was quite different from what she had attempted earlier. Sparking a flame was well within her capabilities even far from Battlan and the magical energies in the air here.
To his credit he met her eyes steadily. “If you tell me now my fear is unwarranted I’ll say not one word more.”
“Your fear is unwarranted.” She told him crisply, more than a little stung. “Even a neophyte human mage can kindle a small flame with the right conditions.” She glared at him. “You don’t trust me.” It was surprisingly hard to take. Had his assurances earlier been nothing more than empty words? She would sooner he be honest and critical than patronise her with false assurances.
“I trust you implicitly,” he shot back, a hint of irritation in his tone, “and that is not something I say lightly. But trusting you does not preclude me from expressing concern.” It was his turn to hold her gaze and refuse to allow her to look away. “I’m not a fool Madame. Something happened when you tried to contact the forest spirit, something which has left you shaken. Unless I am very much mistaken, whatever happened has been weighing on your mind all day.” He arched an inquiring eyebrow. “Well, am I wrong?”
Fantel twitched, an involuntarily movement that gave everything away. She broke eye contact, her gaze seeking refuge on the ground. “I can light a fire.” She said, not answering his question. After a long moment of silence she was drawn to lift her gaze to his. He watched her with sardonic eyes.
“Y’know, we’re really going to have to work on your evasions. That was pitiful.” Waving a hand to ward off her immediate protestation - which likely would have had no more chance of convincing him than her first attempt – Rashari rose to his feet, bending to wipe grass stems from his trousers. “Well nature calls. I’m going to find a bush to hide behind.” He glanced at her, a cynical light in his eyes. “I’ll let you alone to your fire-starting.”
Fantel watched him wander off for a moment, cheeks hot with a combination of hurt, guilt and annoyance, before turning back to the carcass and the c’aan twigs. Why hadn’t she told Rashari about the other presence? He had handed her the perfect opportunity. He would believe her, she was sure of it. She knew well enough that he did trust her. He had repeatedly made it clear through word and deed that her companionship was important to him, despite the fact that they were all but strangers thrown together by circumstance alone. He might even be able to help her understand what was happening to her, yet for all that, she knew that she would not tell him. She did not want to tell him. She just did not know quite why.
Movement in the periphery of her vision drew her attention to Smith. The automaton crouched in the grass surrounded by a small stack of Yammik’a’lim spines. His violet gaze was steady and inscrutable, yet somehow she sensed the slightest hint of reproach.
“It is not in my nature to trust either,” she told him softly not sure if she was apologising or defending her decision to keep the other presence a secret. If Smith had a reply she could not hear it. After a moment of solemn silence the automaton scuttled away in the direction Rashari had wandered off, leaving Fantel on her own.
The rest of the day and into night was marred by wariness on both their parts. When night drew in they quenched the fire and bedded down, but sleep evaded Fantel. She was bone weary, the meal of yammik’a’lim and nasri stems sitting heavy in her stomach. Her eyes burned with fatigue and her body ached all over. She longed for sleep yet it would not come. Her thoughts swirled sluggishly but a current of anxiety buzzed in the back of her mind. Every time she began to slip away into slumber that current jolted her awake, grating on her like an exposed nerve.
Across the doused campfire Rashari lay on his side, his back to her, fast asleep if the rhythmic hum of his breathing was any indication. Smith lay curled up in the grass by his head. The automaton had hooked his legs together in a tight lattice, and the violet light in his eight eyes had dimmed to a bare shadow of their usual brilliance. Fantel assumed that Smith also was asleep. There was something desperately lonely about being awake when those around you were lost in deepest slumber. It was worse by far than being sleepless and alone.
She sat up, drawing her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs. She looked across the dead fire to Rashari. She envied him his rest, even though she knew he needed it. She couldn’t help but feel just a little slighted that he slept with his back to her. When he’d returned to the campsite he’d been his usual jovial self, comparing the quality of their camp dinner to any number of fine – and not so fine – eating establishments he had visited all around Aldlis, yet there remained a weight of things unspoken between them. Fantel couldn’t help but think he had retired early simply so he longer had to deal with her. For her part Fantel had found the evening difficult. She was firm in her conviction not to tell him about the other presence, yet she could come up with no justification for it. Rashari had never pried into her past, had not in fact even asked the superficial questions that anyone might be expected to ask when first meeting a new acquaintance. Fantel had appreciated this as she would not have answered any questions had he asked them. Their association was not normal; Fantel did not seek permanent companionship. She was an exile and always alone, surrounded by races not her own and cultures strange and alien to her. She had no use for friendship. Rashari had embroiled her in his troubles through a mixture of accident and design – the balance of which she was still debating. He might think this made them comrades but Fantel knew better. She had agreed to help him because she could not walk away. She did not owe him anything more than the aid she had offered. She did not owe him her secrets. Even if he had willingly shared his own.
Why then did she feel so guilty?
The sky offered no answers when she turned her restless gaze upward. The sun had plummeted below the horizon some hours before and plunged the plain into instant twilight. Now purplish clouds rolled across the night sky, the magic within creating its own light so that the night was not completely black. The stubbly grasses of the plain were painted in grey and purple shadow and the faintest breeze brought the taste of rain and magic with it. Fantel sighed and buried her head against her knees. The dawn was a very long way off and she resigned herself to a long sleepless night ahead.