In Which Travis Falls Differently
He watched in awe as the beautiful young lady sauntered to the campsite with all the regal airs of a princess. Her long red hair was coming loose of its braid, several locks of it were free already, gently brushing against her back as she walked. She was dressed in the coarse brown clothes of a holy healer, but if anyone had asked Travis, he would have said that a parade of duchesses in brocade finery wouldn't have looked half as breathtaking.
She plunked herself down gracefully next to the dying fire and struck up a conversation with Damien as though he were an equal. Travis decided that she was a princess, but only in the best possible way. He had never thought that there was a good way for a lady to be a princess, but she managed it with flair.
Part of him was still worried about Tag's taking so long to return, but another, tiny bit that was growing rapidly, hoped that he would be a bit longer. Travis wanted more time to talk to this fascinating lady. It didn't occur to him that she might be anything less than a lady, of course, even as she took off her boots and massaged big feet. They were the loveliest big feet he had ever seen.
When she looked back at him, she looked close to smiling, and motioned him over with an impatient flicking of her wrist. He bounded to her side like a trained hunting dog.
Damien couldn't even ruin it. He was brushing grass out of his hair and chatting politely without making anything like an overture. Travis couldn't dislike him anymore. The whole world was wonderful now, looking at Orah, nothing could ever be bad again.
"I don't know, I was asleep
Travis, where did Tag go?" Damien covered a yawn with one of his large, big-fingered hands.
Coming back down to earth a little, Travis glanced at the village to the east. "He said we'd need more food now that there are three of us. He went to get some." He really should have been back sooner than this. Even if he had stopped to eat someone, two hours was too long.
"Not just some, enough for an army!"
Travis looked up and grinned. There was Tag, wearing a cheesy smile and holding three cloth sacks stuffed to the point of nearly overflowing. "Tag! Hey, this is Orah Wickenfen. She wanted to meet you."
There was obviously plenty of food in the bags, and he didn't have the queer look of a satisfied animal that he got whenever he had eaten. He set all of his bags carefully on the ground with the rest of their packs, then found his own place in the little half circle the others had formed. "I'm sorry, but why would anyone particularly want to meet me?" he asked, looking wary.
Even though Travis couldn't pretend he knew Orah's intentions, he was certain they were pure, without malice. He watched her with open admiration, not much going on in his head that did not include her. Harmless, daydreaming thoughts about how she commanded respect from the others so effortlessly, her easy acceptance of the surroundings, and even the way she wiggled her toes.
She reached behind her head to fuss with her braid. "Travis mentioned you long before even introducing himself," she said. "I thought you must be very important for him to act that way." Then she frowned and looked at Damien. "I've been talking to
Damien, was it? Right. I have to say, if the only healer among you can't even remember how to best treat more than one type of fever, you will be in a sorry state before long."
This statement introduced a few problems, casting a gloom over Travis's rosy sun-framed thoughts. Both he and Tag were decent enough hands with the arts of survival that they almost never needed a healer. Especially not for simple things like fevers. However, they were still holding Damien as an unwitting captive through his belief that they knew nothing.
Travis little liked pretending to be inept, but it was Tag's plan, and a king's ransom for an errant son would set them for life, even in an expensive place like Zevan Blue. He could take up a trade, put the days of trolls and talking horses behind him. Maybe even get married
He realized with a slow sinking feeling that everyone was staring at him, as though waiting for him to speak. He looked down at his boots and sighed. "I was thinking about something else, I'm sorry. I should have been paying attention." It had taken him a good two years to learn that this was the best course of action in a situation like this.
The two years paid off as he looked around and saw three different levels of understanding ringed about him. Orah's was his favorite, of course, but even the commiserating one Damien wore was pretty nice. But it was Tag who spoke at last. "I've asked your friend to accompany us as our healer," he said, a twinkle in his eyes that told Travis there would be more to say on the subject later.
Orah held up a hand, not smiling, but neither did she look unhappy. "Only so far as Cielan. I've business there, it would take too long to expect you to wait for me."
Praising his own love of maps for coming up with a route that had already included the river kingdom, Travis beamed. "Then what were you all looking at me for?"
"Damien doesn't mind her coming, and neither do I," Tag said, shrugging a little. "We only want for your say in the matter."
Travis was dumbstruck. Not because he was unused to his opinion carrying weighton the contrary, he was quite used to it, and was nearly always offended when his views weren't respectedbut because of the way Orah looked in the light of midday. It was distracting and nearly made him forget what was going on. Finally he nodded a little too much and said, "I'd welcome you gladly."
There was more said inside of him than he knew how to express, but that much was sufficient. Orah nodded back to him, smiling, then began talking about Cielan. "I took this message off of a guildboard," she said. "There's an epidemic in Cielan claiming many lives.
The peculiar thing is, I would expect an illness to spread out farther than one kingdom, unless they're containing it, which they usually don't."
Tag, who had scoffed a bit at the mention of a guildboard, shrugged and looked about them. "Some curse or other, I've little doubt. Cielan's contracted them before, their king is a total sod. And the people never learn from any of the curses."
Just when Travis was going to agree, Orah snapped, "Who are you to assume them deserving of an evil fate? The wicked may know evil well enough, but from such a distance?" Her eyes flashed angrily, and even though Travis knew what Tag meant about the kingthey'd met him on a quest oncehe didn't want to say anything. What she'd said had been ugly and insulting, but she couldn't have meant it. She was just annoyed and defending people she didn't know.
Tag seemed to be at a loss, the way he often did when someone found him out and decided to denigrate him as a wicked creature. But then Damien cleared his throat and spoke up. "You can no more call Tag names than he can judge those people," he said very quietly, just loud enough to be heard over the breeze. "You don't know him, which amounts to distance. So let's just let it alone."
It was a while before anyone said anything else. Tag escaped the awkward silence by getting up to put the new supplies in the tamed bag of devouring he kept at his waist. It was tedious work that Travis wasn't allowed to help with, ever since the bag had nearly eaten his arm when he was twelve. Still, it was a useful creature to have around, much better than a bag of holding. It had an infinite capacity, so long as Tag very clearly told it what it was allowed to eat and gave it treats often. It was a deepling he'd brought with him from the Underrealm, so far as Travis knew, and it had hunted with him when he'd been younger. Their friendship had never really recovered since the arm-eating incident.
Still a bit red in the face, Orah stood up. "I've been traveling all night. If no one needs any help, I'll lie down for a while before it's time to set out."
Travis watched her go with mixed feelings, none of which he could adequately explain to himself. He plucked up a thick blade of grass and whistled through it. This was never entertaining for long, and he soon dropped the grass. Then he turned to Damien. "That was kinda nice of you," he said, not too grudgingly.
Damien came close to smiling, not quite managing it. He looked too nervous, but in a tired way. "Someone had to say something before it turned into a row. I just said something before you did."
It was flattering to think anyone would assume he could have dispelled the argument, Travis mused. He liked being flattered, even indirectly. Puffing himself up, he felt he could afford to be friendly. "You're sorta alright for a hero."
"I told you, I'm not one."
"Oh fine, prince then. Same difference." Travis rolled his eyes, but was no ruder than that. "And don't bother saying you aren't one. It's clear that's what you are, and denying it will only make you unhappy."
Damien looked taken aback. "What do you mean?"
"Either you're slow, or you're used to being unhappy." Travis stuck a finger in his ear and wiggled it around to rid himself of a small itch. "You don't have to act like a prince, in fact, we'd all like you better if you kept on not acting like one. But don't say you're not. That'll make you sad eventually."
Although saying it didn't make him feel particularly wise, Damien seemed to think it was; it had an obvious effect on him, at least. He nodded wordlessly, then got up, saying he wanted to see how Tag fit everything into that small bag. Travis shrugged and lay back on the grass to watch the clouds and think about Orah.
In Which Tag Is Unselfish On Purpose
"Alright, that's everything for you, so eat it at your own leisure," Tag said to the bag. He patted it as though it were a dog, then reached for the first sack. "The rest is ours, and I have a list, so if I check later and find you've eaten a single apple not intended for you, I won't give you meat for the rest of the year." Threats worked well on the bag of devouring, but the most effective thing was the fact that it owed him its life. It also helped that it really was a lot like a dog.
He didn't look up when Damien sat near him. Nor did he look up when the prince asked, "How does that work?"
Although his pride was still sore and stinging from the earlier argument, Tag didn't mind answering. So long as it didn't turn into a long conversation. "Have you ever heard of a bag of holding?"
"Of course I have. It's the most useful thing an adventurer can have." Some of his bad mood dissipated at the tone of boyish pride in Damien's voice. He sounded so satisfied with himself for knowing this, it made Tag chuckle inwardly.
As he stuffed a loaf of bread into the little back, he said, "Actually, this is the most useful thing an adventurer can have. Or rather, one they can't have." To illustrate his reason for amending his statement, he stroked the back near the neck, where the drawstring rested loosely. This made the bag purr just loudly enough to make Damien jump. This, in turn, made Tag chuckle outwardly.
Or is something in it?" Damien reached out a curious hand, then seemed to think better of it. Instead, he used his outstretched hand to give Tag a sack of fruit.
Tag took with a smile of thanks and slipped it into the bag. "It's called a bag of devouring," he said, careful not to let it do more than nip at his finger affectionately. "Bags of holding have a lot of limitations, and they can only carry a certain amount before the magic goes ill-smelling on you. This bag can carry just about anything and as much of it as you can imagine."
"It sounds awfully dangerous."
The comment made Tag pause in his task, then he finally looked up to really take notice of the prince. "It is. How did you know?"
Damien handed over a few books intended for lessons and entertainment. "I didn't. It just seems that a living creature made of a bottomless stomach might let its hunger rule it. Without greater moral guidance than that, I wonder it doesn't just eat you
" This was said with, surprisingly, concern.
"You are right about its stomach ruling over its heardit hasn't really got a head, you can see." Tag put in the last of the supplies, then tied the bag of devouring at its favorite spot at his waist. He couldn't understand it the way he could understand birds, but it always made its feelings known as well as it could. "The difference is, I found this creature years ago, and I've helped it out of a scrape or two. You mightn't think so to look at it, but its gratitude is as depthless as its innards."
The healer woman was still resting beneath a shady tree, he could see her lying there almost motionless, and Travis seemed to have wandered off. It seemed to Tag that he might be forced to make nice with the prince, this time without the object of learning secrets. He knew a few of them now, and he still couldn't bring himself to do anything with them, not even to tell Travis. That damned innocent pleading look that Damien had put on was either sickeningly effective magic, or he really meant it all, which was worse.
It would have perhaps been less complicated to tie him up and make his position clear, but Damien was too big to drag around in the literal sense. His anxious friendliness and unease always had a distinct effect on Tag, though, and it was getting harder to mask. It made him want to laugh. Not laughing was starting to give him an incredible headache, even when he did his best to ignore the prince.
Ignoring him did little good when he was still inspiring so much thought. Tag looked at the awkward man and realized that he had been the one paying close attention. This seemed a safe assumption to make, anyway, since as soon as their eyes met, Damien gave a start, as though he'd been knocked out of a deep concentration. He was also very bad at covering it up. Tag shook his head and made up his mind that it was a good time to find out where Travis was hiding. Let the prince have fun staring at less remarkable things than an incubus with a deadly creature hanging from his belt.
Finding Travis hadn't ever gotten any easier than the first time he had run away. Except for when he was fighting, or in a mood to be obnoxious, both of which were how he generally spent a lot of his time, he could be extraordinarily quiet. There was also a plethora of small hills pimpling the surrounding area like pockmarks on an old crone's cheek. Tag headed for the one closest to the dozing healer, trusting the gamble more than he usually would.
It paid off. Travis was leaning against the hill, apparently doing his best to not look at Orah. He was actually doing well with his self-appointed task. So well, that he didn't seem to notice Tag until the incubus had already pushed him to make room. He sat in the cleared spot and watched the boy for further signs of what he rather hoped he'd seen earlier.
The boy's face was pink and happy in an odd way, and his eyes although they were fixed on the ground, sparkled. "What do you think of Orah?"
Tag shrugged. "I've only just met her."
"Still, what do you think? Is she pretty?"
"Yes, I suppose." The truth was, although he had initially thought she was quite nice-looking, it was hard to think well of someone who had attacked him so fervently. Especially since she'd had no real call to, he'd been right about the sodding king of Cielan. The man was an irredeemable git, and his people didn't have much more sense than he did. "You didn't tell her what I am, did you?"
He didn't much care if that was case or not, but it made him feel a bit better to see Travis nod. People who could distinguish him from elves and other such regular races of the Upperrealm made Tag somewhat nervous. "I told her, but only after she said she knew your name is a deepling one."
He frowned and looked at the woman out of the corner of his eye. "My name? Underthestone isn't a deepling name, though, it just sounds like it could be one. It comes from human mining clans somewhere northwest. My mother gave it to me." Other than life, his name was the only thing she'd given him, unless his rapport with the bloody birds was her fault by way of heritage. It was more than most incubi got from their mothers, and he liked his name.
"No, I never said that one. She just said your given name is a deepling one." Travis picked at a very small hole in his sleeve. "Do you think she's
The answer to that was effortlessly given, even though Tag wasn't entirely sure he'd understood the question. "Certainly not. I doubt she does even her own bidding without arguing first."
At first Travis brightened at the vehement reply, but then he began to look confused. He crowned the moment with a slightly slurred, "Wha?"
After a bit of deep contemplation, Tag hoped he knew what the problem was. "Travis, do you know what 'amenable' means?"
He nodded, as though it were a stupid question. "It's an incubus word for food, isn't it?"
Problem determined, solution to be administered. Tag sighed and berated himself as a poor teacher. This was what came from teaching the boy a language from the southern reaches. They had the language handy as a good disguise and a sort of code when they were this far north, but Travis was confused about words in his own native speech. "No. It is a human word, and it means 'willing to cooperate'. I use it to refer to food because my prey has to be willing or they're useless to me."
Travis was quiet for a long while. Then he kicked a leg out to stretch it and made an unattractive noise. "Oh."
"If it helps, the word for food that you were looking for is 'comestible'."
Another flat, "Oh."
"And that really means things like apples and hardtack." Tag was just distracting himself now, getting further away from the important point. When he realized it, he shook himself and then put a hand on Travis's shoulder.
The boy looked at him, wearing an expression like that of a mourning bloodhound. "Does it still mean that you won't eat her?"
Tag nodded, but held in the acerbic things he wanted to say. "You like her," he murmured instead.
A tiny nod, followed by red ears. It was endearing but he had to admit to himself that he would have liked his ward to fall for a girl with a kinder tongue.
There was nothing for it, though. He clapped Travis on the back and pasted on a grin that he felt by only a little more than half. "Many happy returns, kid."
"What d'you mean?"
"I mean, it's about time you got yourself a girl," Tag said, glad that some of that innocence was on its way out the door. "It'll be good for you to learn those parts of life." Perhaps now he would actually find them more interesting.
Travis wrung his hands in his lap. "So you really won't eat her?"
"I swear on my father's eyes, I won't touch her to shake her hand if it's not expressly called for." There was an easy vow.
In Which Damien's Curiosity Gets the Better of Him
Being left to his own devices was usually the way that Damien preferred things to be. But this was not a usual setting, he was in an unfamiliar place, farther than he'd ever dreamed of going. His heart had sunk into the heels of his boots when Tag had sauntered off. Peculiar though he was, the incubus was steadily becoming familiar. Both he and Travis were vastly different from anyone in the court, which was what Damien had been hoping to find by leaving it, but Tag was much less distant than Travis was.
Damien laid back on the grass. He didn't like the general feeling of things as they currently were. Although he did have his own suspicions as to why he'd been coaxed to travel with the odd pair, he didn't think it unfair to be offended by Travis's behavior. The boy acted as though he'd been done an injury rather than a service, and otherwise studiously ignored Damien.
Telling his story, or part of it anyway, to Tag had felt like a bad idea from the word 'go', but he had yet to experience the backlash he expected. Blackmail was his first assumption, and the second
thinking about it made him nervous. But after the short time that had passed, he didn't know what to think anymore.
Tag was practically avoiding him, first going off for supplies, and apparently staying gone for some time, and now he had just walked away. Travis was nowhere to be seen, it was possible they were talking somewhere.
Damien sighed. He wasn't sure if he liked excitement and adventure. Of course he hadn't been looking for it, but he had known that he would inevitably stumble upon some. He just hadn't expected so much so soon.
"Hello, your Majesty," Tag's voice drifted down as though he were sitting in a tree. "Or however you're supposed to be addressed."
Shushing wildly, Damien snapped up into a sitting position. "Please, don't
"Why shouldn't I?" Tag sat near him, far too near, and made a face that hinted at repressed laughter. "You call me 'incubus' or 'deepling' with your eyes whenever you look at me."
"I beg your pardon, I don't mean to at all." It was painful to be so accused; Damien meant no offense by his looks, and felt more than a little ashamed to be so rebuked. "I honestly don't bear you any ill will," he added, perhaps a bit too eager to prove himself amiable.
The look on Tag's face turned suddenly thoughtful, and he nodded. "That isn't at all difficult to believe," he said. "But you do stare so. It's very flattering, but I confess, I find it strange."
The remark made Damien's face burn like a hot coal. At first he could think of nothing to say in his own defense, at least, nothing other than juvenilely worded denials. When he made an attempt, his voice squeaked like a door hinge. It took him another moment or two to recover from that, but Tag made no move to leave. At last, Damien managed to say, "What makes you think I stare at you?"
"I've caught you at it, you silly person." Tag leaned over, as he had done before, affecting a desire to share a secret. "I'd stare back, only I'm shy."
"You never were," Damien retorted, sick of being teased.
"True. For that, I'll grant you a moment's peace," Tag announced in a tone better suited to an arrogant emperor, then moved away.
"Why do you do things like that?" Damien demanded. "It isn't funny, you know."
"Oh, but it is. You've no idea how funny." Tag expression was oddly serious, albeit somewhat mocking. "You ought to try it."
By 'it', he could have meant any number of things. Damien decided to act like a child and assumed it was the least likely. "You mean try and jam my face up in yours until you want to shout at me?" Then he surprised himself by taking it a step further and illustrating his comment with action.
It was the closest he had ever held his face to anyone, and he couldn't help a wavering thrill at discovering such a bizarre perspective. Everything looked unusual. Naturally, most of what he could see was Tag's unearthly handsome face, looking as startled as a hunted deer. The hills behind him and around them both became a blurry sort of green, like the water of a particular river. Damien knew the name of the river, but he couldn't quite bring it to mind just then. There was something to be found in Tag's face, perhaps sleeping in his wide gray eyes, or hiding behind the lock of hair at the center of his hairline.
They remained mutually motionless until Tag blinked several times, and then moved forward a fraction of a barely significant measurement to plant a childish kiss on the tip of Damien's nose. While Damien froze in place and lapsed into silence and a painful blush, Tag retreated. "Consider that a gift, princeling, no strings attached. If you want any better, you'll have to give me flowers like a proper royal suitor."
He must have walked away to have a private laugh, but Damien didn't see. As soon as he could move, he put his face in his hands and was reining in a groan. The only slightly familiar person he had in this new life he was desperately forging from scraps, and he was continually providing evidence that he was a total fool. He whimpered into his palms. It was no wonder that Tag picked on him so much.
A hand on his shoulder made him choke on nothing. He looked upand saw the healer, Orah. In some ways, resembled a princess he had met once, of the nicer sort. Her name had been a great deal longer, and hard to pronounce, which made it just as hard to remember. In spite of that, he did remember that this particular princess had been of the line of King Desire's enchanted canary bride. Like that princess, Orah was not really dark-skinned, but neither was she lily white or carnation pink. Her skin was actually a bit orange, and combined with her dark red hair, she stood out against the clear blue sky like a ruby settled among sapphires. Not a great beauty, but striking all the same.
She patted his shoulder, then withdrew her and as she nodded in a direction, perhaps the one Tag had taken. "Does he always taunt you like that?"
"It's very likely," Damien said, not certain how he should act, yet still growing calmer and more comfortable. "I haven't been with them long enough to know for sure."
"But so far the answer looks to be yes."
"You've got it in one."
The question threw him off. "What do you mean, 'why'? Because he wants to, I suppose. You figure him out, I'm afraid to."
Orah tapped her fingers on her knees. She had nice, work-worn hands, not long-fingered or smooth, like Tag's, which made her look less intimidating. Her expressions were all intimidating enough without perfect hands to wave about when she spoke. "And you don't you think you encourage such attention from him? Playing coy with 'cubi is dangerousyou should hear the stories
It was no great leap of thinking to guess what had prompted her to ask. Damien's face was so warm he wondered how his collar escaped being singed. "That was a stupid, childish thing to do, I know." He hung his head. "I just wanted to give him a taste of his own medicine."
She didn't laugh, for which he was grateful. "Do you still think that's a good way to handle him? Or maybe you've learned your lesson the first time 'round."
For some reason, her choice of words struck him as strange. "No. Nevertheless, I know there is a right way, if not a good one."
"I hope so," she said, "For your sake."
It seemed to him that there was an underlying portion of hopeless pity and head-shaking in her tone that made him as nervous as he'd been before.
In Which Orah is Right (But Asserts Herself Wrongly)
This little group of curiously bizarre men was indeed interesting, but Orah didn't think it was all the good sort of interesting. She was doing her best to make up for her earlier outburstit had been an ignorant, recklessly stupid thing to saybut now it seemed she had a different reason to take issue with Tag. She'd seen her share of unwelcome suitors, some set on her, many others eyeing a beleaguered friend or hapless patient. Perhaps she had never seen a man so besetting another man, but the principle remained the same.
She watched Damien composing himself on the grass. He looked like a person who was drowning on dry land, gasping for something to pull him out of whatever was sucking him in. She didn't want to pity him, and he didn't need it anyway. All that the gentle giant really needed to do was tell his assailant to sod off.
However, it was no skin off of her own nose if he didn't, at least not just then. She shrugged and got up to try and prod them all into getting a move on. While they wallowed in their own little off-stage drama, people in Cielan were dying.
The first one she found was Travis, perched atop a hillock at the edge of what could reasonably be called the camp. He looked like a leggy bird with feathers the color of pale gold floss, the scabbard at his hip sticking out like an awkward extra limb. When he spotted her, he jumped off the hillock and landed almost gracefully.
But only almost. Watching the way he moved, it wasn't hard to imagine how he'd dislocated his arm.
That wasn't his only injury, though. She stepped back to take a better look at him, then regained the step forward and pulled up his long sleeve. "Where'd you get those scrapes?" They'd been treated already, but they didn't look very old.
He grinned, apparently proud of the wounds. "The King of No Reason knocked me off my horse
Well, really it was the King of the Waterfalls's horse, but I borrowed it."
She frowned sternly and folded her arms, counting backwards from ten. "I thought you didn't like heroes," she said as she tugged his sleeve back down.
"I hate them." He spat this, then seemed to remember himself and went back to smiling in a relaxed, rather goofy manner. "Neither of those kings are heroes, though. Were. Um. Well, the King of No Reason definitely wasn't. He tried to smash me into the dirt like a potato bug."
Orah narrowed her eyes. She didn't like where this was going. "He wasn't a hero?" Wasn't. As in past tense.
"Nope. Didn't even pretend, not even at the end." Travis's tone was too tranquil, too unconcerned with his own words.
"Uh-huh. When I killed him."
"You what?!" The shriek ripped out of her like precious stones stripped from a mine, halted and choked by bursts of disbelieving gasps like the strikes of a mattock.
Travis looked like a very young child in fear of a scolding he didn't understand. He raised a hand to his sword, then quickly passed that and moved his arm up to his chest, as if he felt the need to protect himself and only knew two ways to do so. "What's wrong?" he asked in a tiny, frightened voice.
"You killed someone!" Orah's chest was heaving, but she just couldn't take in enough breath. The needle on her moral compass had spun off, and she didn't know what to do. A murderer was standing in front of her, confessing his crime as though it were no more important than missing the midday meal. 'Dreadfully inconvenient, but these things do happen, my dear.' The awful out of place thought echoed in her caretaker's raspy high voice, even more incongruous than the thought itself.
"What's going on?" Tag came running up from somewhere, looking more confused than alarmed. He turned to Travis for an explanation.
But Orah cut him off with a frenzied accusation and pointing finger. "You're a murderer
"He's a kid," Tag shot back at her, standing protectively in front of Travis, who was shaking now. "And you don't know what you're talking about, so you had best hold your tongue." The incubus's voice was trembling with controlled ire.
Orah shook her head so fiercely that her hair came completely free of its braid. "I will not travel one step with"
"Then go ahead on your own!" Tag bellowed, his voice ringing so deep and loud that it shut her up out of shock. It hardly seemed a tone he was capable of, but there it was, hanging in the air like a cloud of stubbornly thick fog. "I'd like to see how you fare against the black buccas and naakis and bloody unicorns!" The first harsh shout had taxed him, he was panting and his voice was hoarse.
Behind her, Orah could hear Damien approach. Perhaps as an automatic gesture of peacemaking, he put a hand on her shoulder. "What's all the shouting about?" he asked, as though he hadn't heard or just hadn't understood any of it.
Travis sidestepped around his guardian and stood in the middle of the confrontation, still shaking and obviously confused. "It's my fault." He didn't sound entirely convinced of this, but it was what he said. "I did something
Orah was so stunned, she could have been knocked onto her rear with a single hard look. He didn't even know why she was so upset. He'd killed someone, treated it as though it meant nothing and actually believed that was all there was to it.
But maybe to him, that really was all.
It did not make it right, she told herself. She continued to tell it to herself even as Damien gave her a tiny shake. He moved away after he did so, closer to Travis and the middle. "What did you do?"
"Um, I killed the King of Reason, but that's it. He was gonna stomp me, so I cut off his foot." Travis hung his head so heavily that his neck must have gotten sore as soon as he did it. "There wasn't any time to think about it, and the shock would've killed him anyway. I just made it quick."
"That's no excuse," Orah whispered, though she was certain no one heard. She had the right of things, she knew, but there seemed no way to get that across. Tag was a deepling, with his own culture and code of behavior, and he had obviously raised Travis to be as good as a deepling himself. Even Damien would have to move away from her side of the debate. He was a prince, well-used to weighing sacrifices, or at least seeing them weighed, and he would have to call this an act of defending oneself, even if he was decent enough to not like it.
Travis took a step towards her, then stepped back again. "Did you know him?"
She wanted to let out a bitter laugh, but knew it would probably just be misinterpreted. "Yes," she lied. "When I was very small." Her pride wouldn't let her allow this drag on into something worse.
But to her dismay, Travis was instantly contrite and fell all over himself to apologize. He started babbling about a sword and promised to make recompense for it. Needless to say, Orah had no idea what any of it was about, only that she wanted to end the mess.
"And it was probably just"
"Forget it," she broke in, unable to look at anything with eyes. She could feel Tag glaring at her with something very close to hate, and she wanted to kick him in the shins with her boots. By his own standards, Travis had not done anything wrong. But only by his standards.
Orah hated heroes too. However, the reason she hated them was definitely very different from Travis's, whatever his reason was. She hated heroes because they tromped about killing things without thinking at all, rarely with any interest but their own in mind. Deeplings or other humans, it didn't matter. Taking a life was wrong, even hunters had given her cause to fret when she'd been younger.
But even with all of these thoughts racing in a never-ending loop inside her mind, she could no longer fit the label of 'murderer' over Travis's head. The King of No Reason's life had meant nothing until she'd pretended to make it mean something, and now they all thought it did. Surprisingly, Damien seemed to be the one who saw through it. He caught her eye as she continued to stave off Travis's attempts at reconciliation, and she shrank back.
"Never mind it, she doesn't want any recompense, don't make her take it," Tag barked. He grabbed two of the haversacks off the ground, then gave the small fire pit a vicious kick that covered it in dirt. "You'll have plenty of time to patch things up on the way to Cielan. It's far enough away."
Guilt from lying and anger from feeling guilty were the only two good reasons Orah had for sticking her tongue out at his back. She took her own haversack and started walking, slower than Tag so she would have no chance of catching up with him. Travis looked like a distressed puppy for a second, the finally jogged up to Tag and walked beside him, looking back occasionally to send Orah sorrowful, repentant looks.
Damien picked up his haversack last, and walked beside Orah. "You shouldn't have said that."
"I know," she growled. "It's a small transgression in comparison."
"You shouldn't make comparisons, either."
She looked up in angry surprise, a retort standing on the tip of her tongue.
Damien didn't give her the opportunity. "Tag is right, Travis is still just a kid. He can learn better."
Swallowing the nasty reply she could hardly remember now, she glowered at the path as they walked. "Who would teach him?"
She just walked slower so that Damien would speed up and walk with the other two.