In Which Travis Tries to Redeem Himself And Learns Something
Head buzzing with the events of the previous day, Travis found it difficult to sleep. He was up sooner than the sun, thinking before his eyes were open. Something he had said or done had been stupid or wrong, but he couldn't understand what it was. Orah had said that she knew the King of No Reason, but even if that was true, which he was beginning to doubt, it didn't explain why she'd gotten so upset. The King of No Reason had been a deadly giant with nothing but material wealth surrounding him. His servants weren't even living creatures, but spirits made tangible by some magic or other.
Travis sat up and rested his elbows on his knees, his chin in one hand. Women were bewildering forces of nature. It made him wonder how Tag could put up with needing them as much as he did. As far as Travis was concerned, they could all go on holiday.
And yet. Every time he came to this wise conclusion, he would risk a glance at Orah. Then it would all crumble into a flat mass of indecision, like the remains of a sand castle under a boulder. He looked at her now, sleeping nearest the fire, and farthest from him and Tag. Yesterday, they had both been careful not to speak to her while they walked.
Although in Tag's case, Travis suspected it had more to do with resentment. Tag had spent most of the time seething, and he hadn't once looked at Damien, even when the prince was walking right next to him. This, naturally, was perfectly fine with Travis. However, he still felt bad for the reason behind it. Unlike Travis, who made short-term friends in many of the places they'd journeyed to and through, Tag didn't take up with anyone he didn't need something from. As much as he disliked it, Travis had started to appreciate the sociability Damien was beginning to draw from Tag. Just a little.
It was also worrying that he'd stopped shouting at the birds. He usually did most of the shouting when Travis was going to sleep, or pretending to be asleep, and other similar times. Either he was successfully ignoring them, or something was more wrong than Travis knew.
The first songbird of the morning cut appropriately into his thoughts, and he was calmed on this score as he listened to Tag sleepily telling it to sod off and go take care of its stupid bloody aunt then. The bird launched into a new song, and Travis chuckled behind his hand as Tag swore and sat up.
"Damn bloody birds," he muttered, barely loud enough to hear. Then he turned to Travis. "g'morning," he slurred, one eye still peacefully shut, as if half of his body was still asleep.
"You should go back to sleep," Travis said, pretending to set an example by laying back down on his pallet. "Sun's yet to rise."
The only answer was a grunt and then Tag had fallen back on his own pallet, curled in an unhappy ball. He continued muttering, presumably at the birds, but it wasn't long before his voice had trailed off and Travis was more or less alone again.
To Tag's left, Damien had set up his own bed, not as far from the rest of them as he had the first night. Travis decided that was a good thing. The closer he moved in, the more he trusted them, and the less likely it was that he knew or suspected what the plan was. He already seemed to think of Tag as very nearly a friend. Travis had seen Tag kiss his nose yesterday, and it had been hard not to laugh. If Tag could get away with that, then dragging Damien back to his kingdom would be easy.
Travis yawned and rolled onto his other side to check on Orah. She was way too close to the fire, but no one had wanted to say anything. Damien had gone ahead and said something anyway, but she hadn't really listened. It was fortunate that she wasn't a rough sleeper. In fact, she hadn't moved much since they'd all turned in. Her hair was still in a braid, although it had loosened a bit, and she had one fisted hand on her pillow, pressing into her chin.
She moved it to rub her eye, then pulled her blanket up higher. Travis held his breath, half-hoping she would wake up so he could talk to her, although it was definitely too early to expect her to listen to anything anyone had to say.
But then she sat up. Rubbing her other eye with one hand and stretching her other arm above her head, she looked like the good kind of fairy. If he hadn't been lying down, Travis might have let his mouth drop open. Instead, he swallowed hard and got up.
Abandoning his pallet, he crawled over to Orah's, moving slowly so she wouldn't smack him. As he approached, he wondered if she would hit him anyway. "Um, hello. Good morning," he whispered.
She winced as she stretched one last time, flexing her fingers towards the still dark sky. Then she let her arm drop into her lap and gave him a dull look, as if she didn't recognize him. After a moment of silent staring, she blinked and the disorientation on her face cleared. "Oh, it's you. Good morning."
"I'm sorry. Again."
"I'm just saying it again. 'Cause I still am."
"Go on being sorry, I can't forgive you."
They were simple words, but they stung like the bolts of a crossbow. Travis fought back the compunction to curl into himself and shy away. "Why can't you?"
She sighed. "It's not my place. I
look, I never met that king. Never even heard of him. But that doesn't"
"I figured." Travis interrupted her a bit later than he'd meant to. "Why did you say you knew him then?"
Orah's cheeks reddened as the dying firelight reflected on her eyes and the small amulet hanging on a thin cord around her neck. The light seemed to be get sucked into the grooves of the Mivalmóan rune carved into the face of the amulet.
He pointed to itwithout reaching into her personal spaceand asked, "What's that mean? I know that it's Mivalmóan, but that's all I can tell."
She looked down, then touched the amulet lightly. "It's just the first rune in my name. 'Or'." When she looked back at him, her expression was less defensive than it had been. Travis could have melted from relief and hope intermingling together.
Instead, he tapped the tips of his fingers together and smiled like a fool. "Tag taught me to write, but he said the House of Mivalmóa has a different way to write."
The only reply was a distracted nod. He was either losing her interest or she didn't want to talk about it. Travis started taking deep breaths and digging his fingers into the dirt in front of him. After a second of awkward and painful quiet between them, he realized that Orah was smiling. It wasn't the sort of smile he wanted to inspire in her, but it was a start. She twisted around a bit, so that they were facing more or less the same direction, then said, "How much can you write in the language you know?"
To show her, he picked up a stick and wrote his given name in the language they shared. "I can read better than I write
" he said, glaring at the treacherously shoddy letters as he scrawled them in the dirt."
"Well that's to be expected, you write with your left hand." Orah found her own stick and wrote a few Mivalmóan runes under his name. "That's always harder."
Travis stared at the runes, then tried to copy them. There was a giddy feeling in his stomach that was difficult to ignore. Part of it felt like the butterflies that had bothered him when lessons had been much more frequent, but most of it was a very different sort of nervousness. The stick caught on a pebble as he struggled through the second rune, and he stopped to move it out of the way. "Do you write a lot?"
She nodded as she wrote out a few more things, ones that he could read. Most of them were names of plants, but some were words he didn't think he'd heard before. "I worked at a healing house, and we needed to keep records for all sorts of things." She paused, then next to each of the words she'd already written, she scratched the names of different maladies.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm going to teach you about healing herbs. If your adopted parent taught you to read and write, then you'll be able to learn these with no trouble at all."
His chest swelled at the compliment and he dropped his stick, forgetting the tricky curves and lines of the runes and began reading the list carefully. He already knew the simpler ones, such as plantain for wasp stings and rose leaves for fevers, but others were strange and hard to even read. "What's tyum, that one?"
"Typhoid. You've never heard of it?"
"Not by a name like that."
As she proceeded to explain what it was and how she and her colleagues treated the horrible illness, Travis wanted to cover his ears and make her stop. But he listened and nodded, and learned, all while his stomach turned and he planned on skipping every meal for the rest of the year.
But the lesson on typhoid was a mercifully short one, and he was able to coax her into a harmless explanation of arthritis and the relief thereof. He only heard half of it. Without the horror of typhoid to distract him, he was inclined to stare at her face and let his mind drift around the air about his head.
In Which Tag Gives His Word
When he'd lived in the Underrealm, the first sound of the morning had always been different than it had been the day before. Tag missed that sometimes, even though that first sound wasn't always very pleasant. Nearly every day in the Upperrealm began with a bloody bird trilling inanely, although they had been wary of the party since it had begun to grow. This morning was far from atypical, so he saw no reason to stay awake.
Conversely, the second time he woke up, the first thing he head was Orah's voice. Afraid she was saying something he would regret, he frowned, but then he listened harder and nearly burst out laughing.
"No, Travis, hawksbeards and dandelions are not the same thing. Look again."
"I am looking again, they look exactly alike!"
She was giving the kid herbology lessons the day after accusing him of 'murder most foul'. Tag rolled his eyes, but grinned just a little. He was grateful for the turnaround, whatever he thought of her. If she was going to insist on being a bleeding heart, he would have had to think of a kind way to discourage Travis's ambitions towards her. Better to sway his feelings to a new target than let her hurt him. Although it was a daunting potential plan of action. There was no shortage of women in the world, but until this one, Travis hadn't shown any interest.
Careful not to catch the attention of teacher and pupil, Tag turned onto his other side to see if Damien was awake yet. The prince had seemed to feel the sudden fracture in camaraderie with unexpected acuteness, although Tag had been too busy spitefully ignoring him to really discern how he felt. But now it was a new day, and Orah had apparently given up her righteous anger to teach Travis about natural science and homeopathic medicine.
Either she was giving him basic healer training so she could ditch them in good conscience, or she was working up to increasingly moral lessons. Whatever her reason, her idea of giving lessons at all was fine with Tag. It freed up the time he would have spent teaching the boy history, and herbology was much more useful than knowing which king was the biggest prat. The bag of devouring wouldn't mind hanging onto the books for a while longer.
The whisper was so soft, it was nearly inaudible. He blinked as the sun's light grew stronger a marathon snail's pace. Damien was awake, and looking right at him. Tag smiled, hoping he was alert enough to be charming. "The little ones are busy," he whispered back. "You don't have to get up yet."
He and Travis were both used to sleeping in whenever it suited one or both of them, hardly in a hurry to get anywhere, but perhaps that would change once the Amazing Guildboard Quest Woman assumed a strong enough position of power. Tag grabbed his pillow to groan into it. She would reach that position sooner than he could handle, he knew. Especially if she thought to hire them as bodyguards. Blinded by money and the already rosy vision of a besotted little boy, Travis would gladly drag them all into her bidding. And Tag would have to follow after for fear of being needed to pick up the pieces.
"Is something troubling you?"
He nearly laughed, it was strange to hear such formal language uttered in a conspirator's whisper. "No. Come, let's sneak off somewhere to talk, this is such a bother
" As he whispered, he tugged himself free of his blanket and began crawling in a promising direction.
His keen ears had alerted him to the presence of a creek nearby, and he wanted a bath. If Damien was going to be awake, then he might as well be persuaded to bathe as well. There was no telling when he'd last had a real bath, or when he would need one again, he looked and smelled so preternaturally clean that it was ludicrous.
As Tag lead Damien away from the campsite and toward the creek, the gentle hum of Orah and Tag bickering over whether or not it was ever justified to spit blood in another person's face. Tag shook his head and chuckled. He'd managed to snag a thick glass bottle filled with shampoo and two bars of light green soap without being noticed, but none of the towels were on hand.
As they came upon the creek, he decided not to fuss about it. In the time it would take him to get clean, the sun would be out sufficient to dry him off, and he could go back and get the terminally shy princeling a towel.
Damien looked around, at the creek, behind them to the camp, and then turned a nervous smile on Tag. "What did you want to talk about?"
"Oh, nothing in particular," Tag said airily, sitting on the creek bed to take off his shoes. "Actually, I thought you might want a bath while we're still near water."
Unsurprisingly, Damien's face turned a predictably dark shade of red, and he crossed his arms over his chest in a pseudo maidenly manner that made Tag fall about laughing so hard he almost fell into the creek.
"Stop making fun of me!"
Tag gasped for air between breathless chuckles. "You must be doing it on purpose, no one is that innocent and untouched." But even as he said it, he wondered. Damien was a runaway prince, surely he'd taken the time for a rendezvous or five.
"Doing what on purpose? I have no idea what you're talking about," Damien said crossly, his arms folded now, but still barring his chest like gate posts.
Inwardly making a few choices, Tag paused with his shirt half off, his back and front bare, with the fabric bunched around his neck and arms. "I guess you aren't doing it on purpose then," he mumbled, then yanked the shirt up over his head. "Perhaps you'd like me to explain."
It hadn't seemed possible that Damien's face could get any redder, and apparently it wasn't. He started turning purple. "No. Thank. You," he said through gritted teeth, separating each word as though doing so would make his meaning clearer.
"Come on now. I thought you'd leap at a chance. You're a scholar, after all, full of questions." Tag winked, hoping his use of special knowledge wouldn't backfire. One of the few confessions that Damien had made the other night had been about his purportedly inappropriate passion for learning.
For a moment, it looked like things could go either way, in Tag's favor or against it. He watched the poor prince's purpling features register the comment and fall into a true scholar's pensive lull. The fact that he was still staring at Tag was also interesting to note.
Finally, he made a swift about-face and slumped to the ground. "The only explanation I want is
Why do you say things like that? To me?" The perplexion in his voice was thoroughly hopeless and a little sad.
Tag stepped into the water up to his chest. It was wonderfully cold, but did nothing for the situation. He sighed, the fun was being taken away already. "I am what I am, princeling. And after eighty years or so, I'm not likely to stop being what I am." He wasn't quite that old yet, but he was close. Parenthood made the years pass more quickly.
Damien spun around, eyes wild. "Neither am I! I'm not
what you think
" The fire dwindled as quickly as it had flared, leaving him looking like an enormous, sweet-tempered mouse, if a bit tired.
"Then why do you stare at me?" Tag asked, resting his arms on the bank. "And the other day"
Damien interrupted him with a wince and a wave of the hand. "Don't. It was just
True, whatever had prompted the action had probably not been what Tag hoped, but the action itself could still prompt something further. He deflated, but only for the effect such an appearance would have. He also employed the considerable power of well-timed silence and turned his back on the prince. Then, just when the tension was about to peak, he said, "You're a cad. A snake masquerader."
Although he hadn't been sure the insult would quite translate for Damien, it did have the desired effect. When Tag glanced over his shoulder, he could see Damien biting his lip hard and looking like a scolded puppy. "You haven't been serious," he said at last.
"That remains to be seen, doesn't it?" Tag said, with only a touch of the jilted innocent act this time. "But I will give you this, since you're so ridiculously hopeless. Listen closely, I won't say it twice."
Damien stared at him mistrustfully until Tag shot him a new wounded pout. "Go on," he said, then came closer to hear better.
It wasn't a breathless, eager to listen entreaty, but Tag could appreciate it as another sign of the challenge ahead of him. He licked his lips and pulled himself up onto the bank, just enough to raise his face a little higher. "You pretend to be so bothered, I'll leave you alone. I swear on my father's eyes, I won't take so much as your hand
" he took a deep breath, then laid the bait, putting all of his natural talent into the five simple words, "unless you give it freely."
The 'trap' was set, dependant on his own considerable charms and Damien's curiosity. Tag hoped it would be enough. Otherwise he wouldn't have any fun until they got to Zevan Blue.
In Which Damien is Uneasy
Instead of being comforted by Tag's rather seriously worded vow, Damien found himself getting lost in his own head. He took one of the soap bars and trekked to a far end of the creek, nearly out of Tag's sight. More importantly, it put Tag out of his sight.
"I do not stare at him," he muttered as he scrubbed his neck. He'd had a bath before leaving the village and the dirt and muck of the road hadn't managed to penetrate yet, but the soap smelled nice and it felt good to be in the water. But even at a distance, Tag was marring it. "Vain, pompous
Damien set the soap on the bank and dunked himself under the water. He had to stop thinking about it. He stayed under 'til the count of twenty, then surfaced. It didn't do much to reorganize his thoughts.
It was hard to use a bar of soap to wash his hair, but he welcomed the challenge. A few dunkings later, one much longer than twenty seconds, he started to climb out of the creek
and then realized he didn't have a towel.
Certainly, he could just put on his clothes, drip back to the camp, then find a private place to change. It was an elaborate, ridiculous plan, with no ready alternative. Not even a less appealing one. He slipped sulkily back into the pool and pulled himself into the water until the level was just below his eyes.
"Need some help?"
He looked up to see Tag standing on the waterline. The incubus was dressed, but barefoot, his hair still wet and shining in the sun. He was holding a towel and Damien's haversack.
Damien glared up at him suspiciously. "Where's the catch?"
"If there is one, it'd be back at camp, and it would have very little to do with me."
Mystified, Damien reached up to accept the towel. He expected to have to fight for it, or at least have to put up with more teasing, but Tag just dropped it onto his outstretched hand.
Even more surprising, after he'd set the haversack on the ground, Tag walked back in the direction of the camp. He didn't even pretend at a reason to stay, or look back.
Damien shrugged and got out of the water as soon as Tag was gone. He dried himself hurriedly, using one hand to rifle through his haversack. Everything was still there. It wasn't that he expected anyone to turn thief, but he had wondered if Tag would hide his clothes or something. He hadn't promised not to do things like that, after all. And in spite of the nature of the promise, Damien wasn't convinced that it meant what it appeared to mean.
He walked back to camp at a brisk pace, the haversack slung over one shoulder and the towel draped over the other. It couldn't have been very long since he and Tag had gone to the creek, but the camp was already fully deconstructed and the others looked prepared to leave.
Orah stood off on her own, noticeably farther from Tag than Travis, although she was by no means next to him either. She looked tired and a little annoyed, but not as angry as the day before.
"Are you ready to go?" It was Travis who asked.
Damien nodded and indicated with a sweep of his arm that someone else should lead. Travis grinned and started off, heading confidently northeast. After a sighing glance at the clear sky, Orah fell into step a bit behind him, and Tag did the sameafter winking at Damien.
Damien found himself blushing again, rather than glowering, as he felt he ought. It was such a ridiculous notion, hardly worth thinking on. And yet.
He'd done his bestthough the result had been dishearteningnot to allow himself to admit it, but even hidden, it was there. What Tag had said about Damien's scholarly leanings had struck a chord. He was deathly curious about everything, especially things that were far removed from himself and those things that were most familiar to him.
He jogged to catch up with the others, still rather lost in his own thoughts. Tag, he realized with a sudden sharpness he didn't like, was as different and therefore as inviting as the idea of an imperfect princess. Damien laughed inwardly at this notion, concluding it as funny, but true. Yes, that was it exactly. What could be a bigger flaw in a princess than not being a woman?
Of course, when logic knocked on the door of the argument and demanded inclusion, the joke shied away. That didn't make it any less amusing, especially when he compared Tag to his mental menagerie of princesses both flawed and perfect.
The midmorning weather was mild in spite of the season, and it did much to soften them all to one another. Even Tag and Orah put away their mutual dislike to talk about places one had been and the other still wanted to see. Travis chipped in whenever he had a question or something to add, but Damien was happiest just listening to all of them getting along.
"I'm sorry, but it isn't there anymore," Tag said, shaking his head sadly. Orah looked devastated. "The mad conquerors from Peygah invaded and burned down half the city, starting with the library."
Travis hopped over a weed poking out of the dirt. "They did save some of the books, though."
It was a well-known tragedy to Damien, as his home was only a few weeks' journey from Cielan. He remembered Frojd crying when they'd received the news, and Ramm had wanted to go to the front line. Damien had studied at the great library often before its destruction, but he was afraid to say so now.
By the time they walked through the welcoming city gats, Travis's shoulder had healed enough that he could abandon the sling, but he was beginning to act like an impatient child. He hadn't solved any of the riddles Orah had shared that day, and ended up so flustered that he tripped. Although Damien felt for him, having seen Frojd suffer from similar events, he was careful to stay out of the way.
Once inside the main city proper, Tag announced that he had business in the market square, and Travis plodded after him, muttering about replacing a sword
Damien had not been to Cielan in years, but the main city didn't seem to have changed very much. The people seemed sadder though, and less numerous, but not enough to explain Orah's claim of an epidemic.
"Did the guildboard notice say where you would be needed?" he inquired kindly when he noticed Orah looking a bit lost.
She shook her head. "To be honest, it really wasn't all that clear a message." She paused to kick up a tiny cloud of dirt and glared at it. "It was a bloody note scrawled on a shirtsleeve, I could barely read it."
For a second, she simply stared at him, confusion pushing away some of her frustrated anger. Then she rolled her eyes, although she didn't look particularly irritated. "Yes, actually."
Had he been traveling under more legitimate circumstances, Damien could have offered better help. He'd had connections, there were important people owed his family favors, and so forth. He didn't like feeling so impaired by his situation, and it was even harder to bear when someone else suffered because of it.
He stopped suddenly as he realized that he had been unintentionally leading Orah to the Marquis Sauke's audience hall. Whether or not the Marquis's health had allowed him to accept public attention, it would not have mattered if Damien could give his true name. Even if he were to give the name of one of his brothers, it would grant himand as it followed, Orahaccess to the Marquis. But that wasn't possible either, by now, Frojd had probably gone to rescue Ramm. And rub his face in it.
"You've been acting strange all day," she said quietly, sounding much calmer than she most often did.
He inhaled deeply, then released a shaky breath, as though his lungs were more unsure of themselves than he was of himself. "It's nothing." That was a lie, but it shouldn't have been. He had no right to think of his old privileges when he had so cavalierly tossed them aside.
As he could have expected, she would have none of that. She took firmly by the arm, then rather more gently lead him to one side, out of the way of the bustle of the city streets. "Did Tag
Damien smiled in place of laughter. "No, in fact, he swore he wouldn't."
"Don't be so quick to judge. He sounded quite serious
" Looking down at Orah's dubious expression, he had to wonder if she had a point. Tag had a certain look about him all the time, to be sure, but it was just his way, wasn't it? Nothing intentionally sinister about that.
Orah tugged at the thick tuft of hair at the very end of her braid. "I suppose you know what you're about," she said, "or at least I hope you do. If it's not Tag, then what is bothering you?"
He almost told her. She made him feel comfortable. Not rarely, like Travis, in spurting moments that could never be predicted, or more often but even more erratically, like Tag. A sort of
constant comfort. Like a little sister or an aunt.
Finally, he said, "I could have been of assistance, if I hadn't already
made certain choices."
"Of what sort?"
Running away from home." There, that was all he would tell her.
She rolled her eyes and leaned forward to push him, knocking out some of his breath. "You great fool. Will someone recognize you here?"
He balked. Had he given away so much already? Then, sighing, he let his shoulders slump and found a wall to lean against. "Not really. I haven't been here since I was twelve."
"How many years ago?"
He scowled, wondering if she was implying that he was either an old windbag or a young idiot. "Nine, smart-pants."
She giggled at this, hiding it behind her hand. "I was only asking," she said, still smiling too much. "If it's been that long, though, you shouldn't be recognized, at least."
"But I also can't use my connections."
"Fie on your connections. Use your brain." She took his arm again and headed for the audience hall. "You were taking me there, weren't you?"
He nodded dumbly, then found his voice and explained what the large building was.
The information seemed to delight her. "Perfect. Listen you, with a bit of ingenuity and a lot of perseverance, it won't matter if you're the legendary Duke of Kraudy. We're getting in to find out about this epidemic."
Far from convinced, he let her drag him, only taking control of their mutual walk to move out of the way of inattentive pedestrians. "What if the Marquis isn't"
"Then we ditch the bloody audience hall and go find someone else to ask. It's an epidemic, it should be common knowledge."
It also should have more readily available evidence of its occurrence, Damien thought. They hadn't seen so much as a ghost of a corpse pit or quarantine. The people did look haggard and worried, but if his knowledge of politics hadn't gotten too out of date in the past few weeks, then that could simply be due to economic stress.
When they reached the audience hall, it was packed. Damien clung to Orah's femininely muscular arm and trusted her to wade them through the crowd.
In Which Orah Learns Something of the World
The audience hall was packed, not only with people, but also animals, baskets of food, tribute, items relevant to a quarrel, and most prevalently, the smell. At first, it was merely pungent, but after a few minutes of brow-beating their way through farther towards the center, Orah was so overpowered by the nearly sentient aroma that she was certain Damien would faint.
It could have taken hours simply find words to describe some of the odors that drifted about like evil butterflies, let alone label all of them. Damien summed it up succinctly, using a phrase that Travis had used when speaking of a semi-poisonous cloud he'd once encountered. "It smells like the inside of a troll's pants."
"I wonder exactly how accurate that is," she said, trying to joke, and not really succeeding. "Come on, this is either hopeless and disgusting, or just disgusting. Let's go to the market."
She made sure they both got safely out of the stinking pit of people, although she nearly lost him several times. When they had enough room to stand apart, she let go of his arm and did her best to survey herself without showing it too much. Her clothes were rumpled and damp with sweat from the heat of so many bodies in one place, and she could feel her hair pulling its way free of the braid in large, uneven clumps. While she did her best to right her appearance, she couldn't help noticing that Damien's only outward sign of distress was a furrowed brow.
He looked around, then pointed farther up the street. "We can get to the market from there," he said. "And if we find the others, we can all split up and ask around, then meet up somewhere later."
It was a logical plan. However, Orah didn't think it was really necessary. An epidemic was hardly something that only a handful of people would know about, unless it was a conspiracy. That wasn't very likely, considering the news had been shared via a bloody garment on a guildboard as far south as Orah's starting point. "I shouldn't think we'll need to"
"We have to leave. Now." Tag had materialized out of nowhere, a pale-faced Travis in tow.
"Why?" Orah blinked at him, still trying to make sense of his sudden appearance.
He didn't answer her, but instead pushed her into Travis, and began leading Damien to the gate they'd come through such a short time ago.
Orah silently cheered the prince as he wrenched himself free and, in an astonishingly commanding way, said, "What's going on?"
The noble display was lost on Tag, who just rolled his eyes and put his head in his hand. "None of that now, princeling," he muttered, "we haven't the time for it
Travis, who had been amusingly tender about bustling Orah along, said, "There's something really bad here," then began walking again, practically lifting her off her feet to keep up with his long-legged strides.
She would have gladly followed Damien's admirable example had Travis not been so much taller and physically stronger than she was. It might have been a bad idea to bite his arm, but she was frustrated and hoped this action would later be excused.
Damien was still holding his ground, while Tag looked like he wanted to throttle the prince. After a short battle of fiercely staring wills, Tag swore and called Travis back. In a low voice, not quite a whisper, he explained. "There's no epidemic."
Thoroughly confused and more than a little angry, Orah shrugged herself free of Travis at last and yanked her haversack off of her back. "Then what about"
Tag snatched the guildboard message, his face drained of color. "Someone got something wrong," he said quietly, then went completely quiet as he laboring to read the now rather smelly blood on the shirt.
Not convinced that this was a real event and not an inexplicable daydream, Orah watched him.
In utter disbelief and even slight horror, Orah stared at Tag. He was engrossed in the bloody message, lips moving and eyes squinting his face into strange distortions that would have made her laugh at any other time. Not this time, it wasn't right for it. She scowled, confused. "How"
Whatever words she'd haphazardly chosen, they were never spoken that day, not in the order she'd originally intended. Tag swore quietly in some incomprehensible deepling tongue, then shoved the shirt in her face.
"Can't you read?!" he hissed, as though he wanted to shout, but was too afraid. "That does not say 'epidemic'!"
Damien drew him away from her, with all the sensitive mannerisms of a doddering aunty. "What does it say then?"
As he turned to push the shirt at him, Tag's entire frame shook. "Edicada."
Orah frowned, wondering if the single-word answer was meant to have a dramatic effect. Beside her, Travis shuddered and stepped closer in a hesitant, gawky way. It was as if he wanted to protect her, but didn't know where to stand to be in between her and danger. Tag obviously understood the meaning of his own alarm, but Orah was a bit exasperated to realize that Damien did as well. "Am I the only one who doesn't know what's going on?"
"Apparently, Miss Healing House Busybody," Tag said dryly.
Damien shot him a warning look, then said, "Edicadas are"
He might have had a long elaborate explanation to share, even a memorized history of edicadas, but it wasn't necessary. A bone-gripping howl unlike anything Orah had imagined outside of nightmare rent the air like a knife through a side of beef. She strained her neck to look up, and up, and up, until she bumped into Travis trying to see the top of the beast towering over the city.
There was no scream inside her throat, not even a dead one. Travis wrapped an arm around her waist, then picked her up like a sack of grain and ran. Tag and Damien followed close behind.
"What in heaven's name is that?" she screeched, her stomach protesting violently at the rough handling as she lurched in Travis's hold.
Tag swore in the same odd-sounding deepling curses. "That, my dear, is an edicada."
Lumbering, wall-eyed, and covered in dark brown fur the color of over-watered potting soil, the edicada roared behind them. As it stomped through the city, its steps made no sound, yet the ground shook terribly.
Orah craned her neck to look back at it, and shouted incomprehensibly at what she saw. With paws the size of small houses, it plucked person after person delicately from the cobblestones, and ate them with messy satisfaction, blood and tatters of flesh and fabric littering its face and chest.
"Stop!" she bellowed, "we have to help those people!"
"Like hell!" Travis shouted back. "We have to take care of ourselves!!"
She started kicking, and when this failed to affect him, punched whatever part of him she could reach. To no avail. He held tight, and endured the abuse with little more than 'off's and mild curses.
They reached an empty alley, and the three men swung themselves into it, Orah still whacking at Travis. He set her down to make room, but kept his unexpectedly strong arms around her waist, preventing her from running out to combat the edicada.
"Let me go!" she demanded, grunting with effort as she twisted and bent any which way. "Let go!"
"Don't be a raving moron," Tag said, breathing heavily. "That hulking monster would gobble you up quicker than you could eat a few crumbs of bread."
She was even more disheartened to see Damien agreeing with this estimation. The big man was shivering like a twiggy dead tree in a strong wind. He cast a careful glance outside the alley, then quickly drew his head back into the safety it provided. "We don't stand a chance against that thing."
"But we have to do something!"
"Do you want to try and kill it?" Tag pulled her roughly away from Travis to the edge of the alley, forcing her to take another look at the hideous edicada.
It leaned down with almost majestic lethargy, bottom jaw horrifically slack, and glommed onto the top of a building. As its thick drool dribbled down the walls in gluey veins, people ran screaming through every exit. Orah gulped and stepped back into the alley; Tag did not impede her retreat. She looked down at her booted feet, ashamed. "No
"I didn't think so."
"Then what are we going to do, O Brilliant Leader?" she asked expectantly.
Tag glanced back out into the chaos, then slunk over to half-hide behind Damien, like a sodden cat. If he was thinking about trying the prince out as a hero, he didn't seem happy about it. Travis stepped forward to take Orah farther back into the alley, and she let him. While they stood in this unhappy hush, the screams of the dying citizens pervaded the air and the edicada's soundless footsteps continued to quake the earth beneath them.
"I'll" Damien started, but Tag put a hand over his mouth before he could say much.
"Begging your pardon, Majesty," he said, not removing his hand, "but we'll have none of that either. We'll just scarper."
Travis bit his lip, then stepped forward. "We could. I mean, that wall isn't very high, and there's plenty of stuff to climb on to get over it, but
" He looked at Orah, and she held her breath. "Orah's right, though. We have to help somehow, and I bet we can."
"Darkness's sake, she's gone and made you as barmy as she is!" Tag took his hand back and used it and the other to tug on his own hair. "What can we do, Trav? Take your entire sword collection out of the bag of devouring and stab the hell out of the edicada's feet?!"
Damien made a squeaking noise and grabbed Tag by the shoulders. "That's it!" he cried.