Chapter (III): Fireside Fights (Part 7)

Chunks of Cassius’ prize, a wild doe, roasted on a makeshift spit over the campfire. It wasn’t much meat: enough for the four of them to have as a very filling dinner, with some extra that Nico said would make for a fine breakfast before they departed in the morning. The sun overhead was gone completely, and stars glittered in a smattering of clusters that offered him some peace.

Cass chomped into the remnants of the deer, and ‘Laine flinched when he heard bones snap and meat rip. The noises disgusted him, but moreover they reminded him of watching Nico carve the better sections of the meat for themselves just a short time prior. The archer had taught both he and Eryn how to skin the creature, which Varlaine had found disgusting enough. The prince’s only experiences with raw meat involved a few wanderings into the castle’s kitchens, and it hadn’t looked anywhere close to as bloody and fresh as the deer’s.

Nico himself turned the spit carefully, with hands that had been rinsed under a canteen but were still tinted red. His shirt, a muddied and stained brown already, had a few new dark blemishes to show for their meal. The archer had convinced both Eryn and ‘Laine to cut their own portions from the carcass after he’d shown them how, and seeing the stains made the prince self-conscious enough to look down over himself. He’d been meticulously careful when he’d cut a piece, and the carving knife had been kept at arm’s length, but his effort was rewarded with clean clothes even after the cutting. The stench of bleeding flesh, though, he couldn’t drive away. He wondered if it was real, or if he was imagining it.

“I didn’t really like carving the meat,” Eryn commented. She sat near Nico, watching him turn the spit, brows creased in a grumpy and uncomfortable stare. “It made my skin crawl. That doe was alive before we came in and…”

“You get used to it,” Nico said simply. He was concentrating on his task, but even Varlaine could see he looked bored. “Not like you’ve been eating vegetables all your life up until now.”

The rider huffed, a noise that made Varlaine wince in preparation for an argument and the nearby, reclining Naz very quietly snort. “I didn’t have to cut up those animals. It isn’t the same.”

“Yeah, well, someone did. Your dinners didn’t skin themselves, city girl.”

Instead of lashing out further, Eryn went quiet. Varlaine was relieved by that; while silence on her part probably meant some amount of brooding, it was better than dragging the camp into a fight. The quiet endured long enough for Nico to become satisfied with the meat, and he took the spit off the fire, jamming it into the ground and inspecting the food.

“Naz, you eat first,” He declared. The mercenary lifted her chin from her palm, tilting her head in confusion, before she shook it in refusal. “No, you need to. The kids are young, but you’re traipsing about in armor that weighs as much as either of ‘em. You need to eat.”

It took a moment for her to accept his reasoning, but Varlaine was glad she did. “Alright. Appreciated.” She got up, carried herself forward, and took the largest chunk of meat from the several skewered on the wooden spit; then she returned to her place without a fuss, sitting and blowing cool air on the food.

“You next,” Nico gestured to Eryn, then held out the spit to her. “Ladies before men.”

Dissatisfied with that, Eryn puffed out her cheeks in annoyance. In the end, likely to alleviate any further bickering, she moved forward to accept the meal. When she sat down, she took a longer time staring at it than Varlaine had seen her deliberate over a meal. Nico stared right along with her, before shaking his head and turning to ‘Laine.

“And here’s yours, my lord.” The prince got the impression that the formal greeting was somewhat bitter, but he bowed his head appreciatively anyways.

“Thank you, very much, for the food,” He expressed. Nico shrugged it off and handed him the chunk of meat, and he took it. The food was warm in his hands, and the exterior had toughened out some, dried by the heat. It wasn’t as soft as what he’d had in town, but then, that had been cooked properly and this was a wild meal. When he bit into the food, its juicier insides, warm and fresh, sated his hunger enough that he couldn’t complain about the texture.

The group ate for a while, a quiet but bonding experience. They each had their own way to go about it, Varlaine noticed: Naz pulled pieces from the whole and placed them between her lips, while Nico tore bites from the bigger piece of meat and chewed on the jagged pieces there. Eryn, for once, seemed uneasy; she too tore off smaller chunks, but each was appreciated in a more subdued, almost unhappy way. The prince decided he’d rather eat like Naz and Eryn, so followed suit.

When all of the meal had been eaten on all parts, Eryn excused herself to care for Cassius. She said something about wanting to help wash his beak and feathers, and departed with the griffon for the stream, leaving Varlaine alone with the two adults.

Chapter (III): Fireside Fights (Part 6)

When the archer made it to their fire, Eryn had put her axe down. She traded the edge for one that accompanied a glare, eyeing up Nico as he came closer. Varlaine was unsure of what to do, so he hesitated; noticing Naz’s fingers tightening around her sword still, he kept his spellbook close.

“Could you drop the weapon?” The guardsman asked. Naz scowled at him, shaking her head tersely. “I’m here to help you.”

“Why did you follow us? Were you followed yourself?” Her questions, one after the other, were supported by a nod from ‘Laine. Eryn, too, carried herself forward. Her head cocked to the side curiously.

“I wasn’t, but you might have been.” When Nico spoke, he shrugged, downplaying the mood with a grin. “I’ve been chasing your trail and clearing it behind you for a week. Campsites, hoofprints, griffon dung—you don’t clean up after yourselves.”

Eryn frowned. “We’re in a hurry,” She excused. “No time for cleaning.”

“You gotta make time.” Nico quirked a brow at her. “If I could follow you, we can damn well bet that Alra can.”

Naz cut in by clearing her throat. “You haven’t answered me. Why did you come?” When challenged on the matter, the brunette dodged with a flop down near the fire, sitting in the patch ‘Laine had cleared for himself. She took a step closer, and he shrugged up at her once more.

“Fort Skyvlan is another week’s worth away,” He said. “By what I figure, you all are nearly down on your supplies. Didn’t exactly leave Dalren with much. Am I right?”

Varlaine looked up at Naz, whom pursed her lips for a moment in frustration. He was. They’d brought along a bag of loaves of bread, some salted meats, a bag full of fruits that had barely lasted two days, and canteens; of that, a couple of dried out bread loaves remained. That was why Cassius had been sent hunting and why they’d settled down earlier than usual.

“I thought you guys could use some help. I can hunt a little meat, I know how to carve it up just fine, and I can cover our tracks as we go,” He continued. ‘Laine had to admit, all of that sounded promising. Food, help if a fight came their way, and someone to keep… whoever was on them off their trail would all be helpful.

Naz chewed on the offer for a few moments before lowering her weapon and her voice. She took a step closer to Nicomenda, and leaned in to speak with him, quietly. “You should be getting the people of Dalren to safety.” Her raspy voice hissed.

“Look, they have a whole town’s worth of defenders if bandits turn up. You have two kids. Groups can defend themselves better than you, no matter how good your sword arm is.” Nico shot back, standing up straighter. His casual smile evaporated in a hurry, and Varlaine could see a dark line under each of his eyes, not unlike the ones sunken beneath Naz’s. Adulthood must take a heavy toll, he thought.

When Naz lacked a suitable response to that, Nico stretched and pulled his bow off his shoulders. Setting it aside, he left it in plain view as he did the same with his quiver; ‘Laine took a moment to appreciate them. While Nico himself was a little roughly cut, with his shirt untucked and messy and his hair shaggy and unkempt, the bow he carried was polished and pristine, some yellow-orange wood. Its accompanying quiver was a clean and well-built leather. While he was no craftsman, the prince had to appreciate their quality.

“So!” Nicomenda yawned. Varlaine tore his eyes away from the bow to look at him, while Eryn jumped in surprise. Naz strayed her gaze aside, towards her bag of belongings. “Where is the big beast that made it so easy to follow you, anyways?”

Eryn frowned. “His name’s Cassius. He’s out hunting for food,” She informed, a huff in her breath. “He’ll be back soon, I bet.” The way she crossed her arm over herself so she could hold the opposite shoulder left Varlaine wondering how confident she was of that fact.

“Hunting, eh? What’s a bird like him typically bring back?” Nico asked. His hand reached to his side, fumbling with something brown that hung from his belt and matched the quiver he’d set aside. “Rabbits? Some fish?”

Eryn shook her head. “Um… usually a deer, when he’d go off in the woods near home.” She answered. Nico’s brows shot up in surprise, as he undid a latch and pulled a sharp, wicked-looking carving knife from its hip holster.

“A deer. Delicious,” He grinned, looking over at Eryn and then down at the blade he held, turning it over in his hand. “When he gets back, I’m gonna teach you kids how to skin. Useful skill.” Varlaine felt his stomach churn at that thought, and Eryn didn’t look like she handled it any better. Still, the young prince nodded his head slowly in agreement. It was, after all, a useful skill.

(Part 7 is up, and can be found here!)