With the required ingredients and some of his tools from the pack, Stellan began to work. His left hand had no gripping strength but it moved well enough to keep a bowl steady. His right hand strained as he crushed and mixed herbs in his mortar. Feeling eyes on him, Stellan looked up and saw Oak, who was standing just outside the wagon, a bottle in his right hand. He was bandaged on the neck and right arm. Smiling, the man raised the bottle and saluted Stellan with it then took a swig. Stellan gave him an angry look and pointed with the pestle in his hand at Oak, who moved the bottle away and made placating gestures with his hands. Naja came into view and began climbing inside the wagon. Oak used her appearance to vanish. Stellan grumbled and continued the tedious task.
“What are you making anyway,” Naja asked when she got close then pinched her nose, “and why in all the gods names does it smell so bad?”
“This,” Stellan moved the pestle up and slammed it into the mortar to indicate his concoction, “is to help my wounds heal up faster.” He moved the pestle up and with its backside gestured to a small dark bottle next to him.
“That over there is what smells, or smelled before I put the stopper on it.”
“Why does it smell so bad still?”
“I need achillea to fight off the toxicity of some of my brews, so that’s why it stinks,” Stellan explained and shrugged his shoulders as the smell had long stopped bothering him. “If you think this is bad, you’ll probably want to leave in the next couple of minutes, cause I’m nearly done with this and then I’ll start preparing for a tonic I’m making. In addition to the achillea it’ll need bearberry as well.”
“Now, now,” Naja said standing up and waving her hands, “there’s no need for that. I don’t want this place to stink for the next week and besides, if you needed help to increase your blood flow in specific areas I could lend you a hand or another body part.” She narrowed her eyes and the small flames danced in them again.
“Get your head out of the gutter woman, I’m not using it for that, I-”
Stellan saw no point in keeping this farcical back and forth going, so he just got the bearberry out and began to clean his mortar out. Naja didn’t take the hint and stood her ground, watching him. The flames in her eyes had turned to a more violent hue. Stellan put the pestle on the stem of the plant and pushed down. A smell so horrid came out that even Stellan’s eyes began to water. Naja withstood the smell for a few moments then put her hand to her mouth and stumbled back until she got down from the wagon.
“This is isn’t over,” she said as tears ran down her cheeks, her eyes were red and mad.
Once she was out of view. Stellan began laughing and coughing from the smell.
“She is persistent, I’ll give her that,” he thought as he continued to mash the plant in his mortar.
His work was done after a few hours. He made the salve for his wounds and the tonic for Wyn whose build was so scrawny that he might just die from a sword swung next to him. Shaking his head, Stellan applied the salve he’d made to some bandages and wrapped them around his wounds. The salve would take effect in about 30 minutes which would mean that Stellan would fall unconscious for the next several hours depending on the severity of the wound. He didn’t like to use this method as it put him in danger for an extended period of time, but now he was surrounded by men with weapons.
“My men,” the thought was like a splinter stuck to his brain, it didn’t feel that bad, but the prospect felt very odd.
“Baljo,” he called out.
“Yeah?” the boy’s head appeared at the entrance.
“Go get Oak for me please.”
“Sure thing,” the boy’s head bobbed and he was away.
Oak made his way to the wagon a few minutes later with Baljo trailing behind him.
“How long before we can move out?” Stellan asked skipping pleasantries.
“Well, some of the men can’t move yet, but if we load them on Naja’s wagon we could probably head out in a few hours, but we wouldn’t have that much sunlight left so I think it’s best for us to camp here tonight and be off first thing in the morning.”
Stellan thought for a moment and decided not to push the men who risked their life for his fanciful mission.
“Okay, but make sure we’re ready first thing,” Stellan said and Oak nodded turning to leave.
“One more thing,” Stellan stopped him in place. “This wagon I’m in, its not the one Naja uses so where did it come from?” His right eyebrow was arched up.
“Oh this,” Oak patted a thin wood beam next to him, “we got it as a thank you gift from the man we saved.”
Stellan gave him a look of confusion so Oak continued.
“Yeah, forgot you were out cold during that. The man we found in the house was the town’s blacksmith, the girl was his daughter. After Naja helped them with their lungs, he was so grateful that he begged us to take him to the next town over where his brother lived. Long story short, he got some money from his brother and asked me what we needed and since I was the ranking officer not taking a nap I asked him for this bad boy,” Oak slapped the carriage on the side affectionately. “He’s still around and we need to talk about him.”
“What do you mean?” Stellan asked as he looked at the inside of the wagon.
“He says he wants to join up,” Oak said and raised his hand and outstretched his fingers as he counted the blacksmith’s reasons, “his house burned down, he wants to repay the debt, he’s worried about his daughter’s safety, he wants to take revenge and one more thing but I forgot.” Oak put his hand back down and shrugged his shoulders.
“I see,” Stellan nodded, “and I’m not sure what you’re asking me?”
“You’re in command, remember? You have to authorize this,” Oak pointed at Stellan with a curt wave of his right hand. “Should we take him or not?”
“Well does the squad need a blacksmith?” Stellan asked.
“Have you asked your superiors for one?”
“When was that?”
“About six months ago.”
“There’s nothing to consider then,” Stellan said cocking his head to the side. “Just take the man with us and lets be done with this.”
“What about the girl?” Oak asked crossing his arms on his chest.
“That shouldn’t be a problem right? I mean we’ve got Naja with us and she hasn’t complained.”
“Naja,” Oak grunted. “That woman pulled a knife on a big guy like you without hesitation, so me and the lads will be steering way clear of her unless she’s there to help us out. But a pretty village girl, well, that’s a whole different story…”
Stellan got his hint and thought for a second.
“Can we do without a blacksmith?” he asked rubbing the annoying stubble on his chin.
“We could, if we did things like before, but you’ve taken us to an all out fight and we’re currently traveling to the outer territories. Resupply and help will dwindle the further we get from the wall.”
“We’re taking them with then,” Stellan nodded and said. “Ask the man over here, I want to talk to him.”
“Okay, but what about the girl? He won’t stay just by himself and there’s nowhere for us to send her.”
“We’ll take her with of course.”
“And the men?”
“Will behave themselves,” Stellan’s voice became low and angry. “If they value their weapons and equipment receiving repair and upkeep.”
Oak looked like he wanted to make a remark but kept quiet and simply nodded.
“One last thing,” Oak said in a somber tone, “we had casualties during the fight, two of the newer lads.”
Stellan just stared at him as the gravity of his decisions began to push him down into the floor of the wagon.
“One of them got hit in the eye early on so there was nothing we could do. The other lost his right arm at the end, Naja tried to help out but…”
Oak paused for a moment, taking a breath and closing his eyes as if for a prayer. His lips didn’t move so if he did say a prayer, it was between him and the gods.
“Do I need to do something?” Stellan asked quietly, looking down at the floor boards.
“No, no, I’ll make the arrangements at the wall probably. We need one of the king’s officials to confirm the death and then sign an official pardon.”
Stellan looked up at the mention of the pardon.
“Yep,” Oak answered the unspoken question, “the only way that I know out of the squad is to meet with the gods.” Oak smirked and continued to speak in his usual jovial manner.
“But, hey, you might have that part covered. After all, I’m trying to get a flaming blacksmith from Command for months and you show up for less then a week and there he is. Some people are just born without any luck,” Oak said shaking his head then stepped out of view. “I’ll send the man over to you.” His voice came from the other side of the tarp.
Stellan tried to look more presentable and realized he was wearing the soaked bandages. How long did he talk to Oak? Fifteen, twenty minutes? He didn’t have much time.
“Better make this quick then,” he thought as the blacksmith appeared at the wagon entrance.
“Hello,” Stellan said and urged the man with his hands, “come up and take a seat.” Stellan pointed to the benches on each side.
He felt silly inviting the man who bought the wagon to its inside but that was the reality of their situation. The man climbed up and Stellan noticed he was very short, about five feet five inches. He had a thick beard and a thicker set of hair. Stellan had presumed all blacksmiths had no hair, either falling out from the heat it was exposed to or just by simple removal of the person who owned it. The man’s head was like a birds nest, strands going in every direction and black as the night. He had made an attempt to keep it in check with a band holding it at the back, but all this accomplished was making the nest portion on the top of his head look even more unruly. Some parts of his face were still covered in soot and his eyes were soft and green. With small steps he made his way close to Stellan and sat down. His daughter came right behind. She had light brown hair almost going to red, her eyes were the same shade and very striking. Her eyebrows were singed at the ends making it look like she was scowling constantly. Her skin was paler than her father’s and the uncleaned soot was still marring her almost white forehead. She sat down and fidgeted with her nose, which was a bit swollen. Her eyes darted to Stellan for a moment then looked away, what they lingered on the most were the visible scars on his arms.
“My name is Stellan,” he introduced himself, “and I’m the leader of the soldiers outside. I’m glad you’re okay.” He smiled at the man whose eyes began to water.
“Thank you, sir Stellan. Thank you so much for helping us,” the man knelt down in front of Stellan and grabbed his left hand in both of his. “We’re forever in your debt. Thank you.”
His daughter stood up then did the same thing to Stellan’s other hand.
“Stellan is just fine,” he said and tried to laugh off the awkwardness he was feeling. “Get up please, its our job to help people like you. No need for debts and such.”
“I’m sorry sir, ugh, Stellan, but I can’t agree to that,” the blacksmith said looking in Stellan’s eyes. “A good deed deserves another and what better deed than saving someone’s life.”
“Fair enough,” Stellan smiled and tried another approach to get his hands free. “I see your point, but before we discuss that can you tell me your names so we can meet each other properly.”
The blacksmith released one hand and slapped it on his forehead.
“Of course, of course. I’m Grimdas but people just call me Grim. I’m a blacksmith and it would be my honor if you let me help you and your men in your work.”
“I’m Halda,” the girl spoke in a quiet tone. “I’m thankful to be alive and I’ll do my best to repay you.”
Halda gently moved her fingers around his palm in a suggestive manner. Stellan looked at her and saw she was just about the age of Yazmin. She wasn’t as beautiful but wasn’t in no means ugly. Just a normal girl from a normal village. Stellan didn’t want the repayment she was consciously or unconsciously offering.
“Nice to meet you both,” Stellan said and pulled his hands away with a quick backwards motion. “Please take your seats again. I’m sitting on the floor because I did something dumb during the fight, so don’t feel awkward on my behalf.” Stellan gestured with his now free right hand towards the benches.
“So, as you said, you would like to come with my squad, right?”
They both nodded.
“That’s fine by me, but before you commit, I have to tell you where we’re going and what we’ll be doing,” Stellan said and paused to make sure he had their attention. “We will be going to the outer territories where we have to take care of several threats to the crown.” Stellan spun the lie as it came to him, deciding to keep with the Military Command mission cover.
“I’m not sure if you’ve been on the outside, but I have,” he said and showed both of his forearms to them, “and it’s extremely dangerous. If you decide to join, I will treat you like part of the squad, that means no freeloading. If you want to stay, you have to earn your keep and so I will have tasks for you. Those are my terms. If you wish to think it over, you have until tomo-”
“We accept,” Grim said without hesitation.
Stellan arched and eyebrow at him.
“Our home burned down, Stellan. My workshop was there as well. All I have in the world is my trade and my daughter. If I don’t work I’m nothing and without work I have no home or way to keep my daughter safe, so please, whatever we need to do, take us with you.”
Stellan nodded and then looked to Halda who hadn’t said anything.
“What about you? You’re free to go if you want to, as I said, it will be very dangerous.”
“Not as dangerous as being alone on the roads,” she said with a distant voice.
Stellan noticed her arms were crossed in front of her, the fingers digging into her flesh and making her knuckles white.
“Then, if you wish to stay you have my permission,” Stellan spoke and felt his tongue going numb.
“It’s coming,” he thought and scrambled to end the conversation.
“Now please, I have to rest,” he said and his body began to slide down to the floor as his muscles gave up. “Speak to Oak to get yourselves settled.” His neck was on the ground and he was looking up at the tarp unable to move at all.
Thanking Stellan profusely, the family began to make their way out of the wagon. Their mouths were still going when Stellan fell unconscious. His body forcefully shut down his functions while it fought off the salve, which increased the tissue regeneration rate but taxed his nervous system greatly. His muscles thought he slept but his mind didn’t. It just kept working and working, taking thoughts to their ends end then beginning a new thread, always thinking, always making Stellan hurt. The past was something he firmly believed should stay there. He was of course grateful to be alive but the way it had happened was so painful that Stellan pushed all of it inside a little space in his mind, only taking it out in extreme circumstances like almost being killed like a fool in a gods forsaken forest. Trapped in his head, he lay like that for hours until the sun broke through the horizon and the wagon started moving. Stellan finally regained the ability to move and just huddled in a still dark corner. Memories of what he’d had to do to survive freshly dredged up from the murky waters of the past. He was glad to move again although the fetal position he was now in felt much more shameful than he expected. Everyone outside was moving about and the only thought that echoed inside his head was - “Please don’t let anyone see me like this.”
It was an intense plea not quite far away from a prayer to the gods, but Stellan knew that asking petty things of the creators was well, petty, so he asked chance to hide his shame and let him keep the small sliver of dignity he still possessed.