We make our way north towards Meria, cutting through the Izla rather than following the coast in order to find a road. I grow weaker within the first ten minutes pushing the cart, the sharp ache in my chest is gradually intensifying.
I refuse to give up, I won’t be defeated here. I keep pushing, yet the panging grows into a harsh white pain localized in my heart that pulses with its beats. I grit my teeth but collapse a moment later.
“Jessica?!” Yvonne fearfully calls out.
“Igh, gh.” I gargle, shaking on the ground.
She appears by my side as my field of vision grows dark around the edges with silver lines flashing into existence around my heart and I start feeling cold. I would fear that the parasite grew tiny tendrils if I thought Celyz would be so incompetent as to miss it after finding some in my brain.
A pressure mounts a little on the left side of my chest while my jaw and tongue start seizing. I grab my sword’s handle, feeling like something’s extremely wrong, that there is danger.
Yet, I don’t find the strength to draw the blade, assaulted by the pain and my twitching muscles. I detect a healing construct passing through my sternum and expand around my heart, which doesn’t do a thing for the stretching agony accompanying every beat.
“You’re going to be alright, Jessica!” Yvonne tells me with an anguished expression.
It’s not that bad if we stay still. Screw you, evil dwarf. I’m taller than you. We’re the same size. That’s not what people say. I grasp at some fresh air and gulp it in, shivering from the cold.
Yvonne instantly grabs and throws blankets over me while channeling every bit of flow she’s regenerating. I could add mine to the healing construct but the agony is too intense for me to risk it so I give her my energy.
“You can do it.” Yvonne encourages me.
This is worse than a bad cramp. It’s about as painful but it’s scarier from being somewhere inaccessible as well as threatening a vital organ. Yvonne helps me endure through the agony by taking hold of my hand and squeezing it.
It helps me keep fighting and refuse to give up. After a few minutes, I notice that the silver flashes in my chest recede. I’m relieved to find that the white pain starts fading away as well even though my heartbeats remain febrile.
“I’m fine now.” I croak out.
“Okay, but you best keep resting.” Yvonne replies in a conciliatory tone that makes me want to get up.
I don’t move as she might just have saved my life. Besides, it is foolishness to want to prove wrong someone who’s trying to help out of stubborn misplaced pride. In fact, Yvonne carefully pulls me up to a sitting position and helps me rest my back on her shoulder.
“Thanks.” I grunt.
She takes hold of my wrist with her thumb and index to take my pulse. I remain immobile, feeling physically drained. My thoughts wander back to Celyz and the disaster of our last minutes together.
Her behavior reminded me a little of Lance’s with Elizabeth. I suddenly make the connection about what bothered us the most about Elizabeth’s relationship with her, it was because she was with Lance and not Leomi.
Ridiculous, she only grew unhinged from what we did, Lance is Leomi. People act differently according to who they think they’re dealing with and the situation.
Recalling Celyz’ words about a right of conquest sends a chill down my spine yet I cannot deny that it excites me and makes me feel so wanted that I cannot resent her.
It makes me feel sick to my stomach that I twisted both of them. Celyz and Leomi were already manipulative to begin with but I seem to be bringing out a forcefully controlling side to them that I both love and dislike.
Do they act knowingly or is it simply a side-effect of their responsibilities and how they were raised? Not to mention Nobility and Rykz culture. Celyz even spoke of me in the same blind way Leomi has.
I’m not sure if it’s flattery or simply something akin to what I’ve experienced as my opinion of them grew as my feelings intensified. I shake the thoughts away as they only serve to deepen my darkness.
“Are you certain it’s wise to leave now?” Yvonne asks. “Why not go with the Rykz until you’ve recovered?”
“Because I need Leomi and I’m utterly done depending on others for food, the sooner I’m back home the better.” I reply harshly.
“We need to double time back to Meria then.” Yvonne sighs. “But not before you rest.” She quickly adds, adjusting the blankets over me.
“Why keep pushing me?” I grunt, feeling paranoid.
“Because you just collapsed.” Yvonne replies quietly.
“Leomi needs me!” I spout out. “Do you think I’m going to harm her?”
“No! You simply seemed happy until you came back determined to leave.” Yvonne protests.
“You think I should go away like the rest, that’s why you’re here instead of with her.” I growl, trying to pull away from the sword-sworn.
“Not everything is a plot, Jessica.” Yvonne replies gently, moving her arm to not only let me stand up but holding it out to help. “I’m here for you because Leomi’s life is safe. I can only protect her from so many things. I can’t fix her madness about you, and you might not be able to either, but I can help you by being there.”
Her calm acceptance and support undermine my anger, which is quite annoying. I tiredly let myself fall back against her shoulder, finding my bouts of aggression to be silly even though my reaction always seem justified to me in the instant.
“How about I make a fire? I would feel safer if we stay here for the night.” Yvonne proposes. “We’re out of the Rykz’ camp but not so far I couldn’t rush you back in case of emergency.”
“I…” I hesitate. This chest pain means I need to start working on the parasite as soon as possible if my health worsens so much I have to re-implant it, I might as well do so now. “Okay.”
I shift to my left to get off her stupidly forgetting I no longer have an elbow to rely on. A quick flash of silver informs me that Yvonne likely thought or tried to catch me but stopped herself, to her credit, letting me crash on my left side without intervening at all. I scrape myself off the ground with my right hand.
“Thanks for letting me flatten myself like an idiot.” I grunt at her, patting my pants to get rid of the dust. “I’m serious.” I add, thinking that she might take it as sarcasm otherwise.
“Haha.” Yvonne barks out in bright laughter. “I missed you.”
I hold my hand out at her. She takes it and relies on me to get to her feet, not entirely as my forearm starts shaking half-way but plenty enough that I couldn’t find an excuse to feel insulted if I sought one.
Yvonne starts gathering her regenerating flow to shape a fire construct so I start scouring the area for dry wood, bringing back enough twigs to give it a base.
I add to her energy the few scraps I’ve regenerated, deciding it would be unwise to dismantle the healing construct in my chest. I set a pot over the fire for Yvonne to pour water in.
“I’m going for a walk.” I tell her. “See if I can find a hare or something to eat.”
“Can you take care of making a gruel instead? I’m not a great cook, I would rather hunt.” Yvonne replies carefully.
I ponder for a moment before shaking my head, unwilling to rest when I feel so weak. I need to get back in shape. Yvonne doesn’t protest but neither does she let me go alone as I find out when I depart.
I actually feel rather reassured by her presence as I make my way through the Izla’s inclined plains so I decide not to be a prick since I would likely behave just as she is towards her if she ended up as much of a wreck as me. It helps that I feel a lot better now that I’m moving forward again.
“There’s a burrow there.” Yvonne tells me.
“Remember where it is, I’m looking to make a spear first.” I reply.
“You don’t want to set a snare?” She asks in surprise.
“Not really, I haven’t done that in a long time, and it takes a while to set up.” I explain.
“Spear hunting rabbits… this should be entertaining.” Yvonne chuckles.
I ignore her mockery and forge ahead towards a relatively straight sapling lying atop a small hill. I unsheathe my sword on approach as one of the branches appears straight even if a little short.
I set the blade at the base of the branch and take a deep breath before bringing it up and delivering a quick but powerful swing that slices through the young wood.
Yvonne helps me by pruning the twigs and removing the bark while I sharpen the end into a sharp point. I finish the hundred-twenty centimeter spear by bringing it back to the handcart and hardening the tip with fire.
“It’s good enough to fish with but I don’t think there’s a river nearby.” I comment.
“Can you?” Yvonne asks me.
“Never tried so I doubt it.” I chuckle.
She guides me back to the burrow she spotted only to stand aside with her hands on her hips to watch me with a barely restrained mocking smile. I roll my eyes and quickly approach without caring about the noise I’m making.
I kneel in front of the small entrance and gaze into the tunnel, finding it not all that dark even as it plunges rather deep into the ground. I still rise back up and signal Yvonne to come over while inspecting the surrounding area.
“Do you see any signs it’s occupied?” I ask.
“No fur or droppings so nope.” Yvonne replies after checking with a clearly disappointed expression.
“Why does it feel like you care more about seeing me fail than eating meat tonight?” I question.
“Probably because I do?” Yvonne counters cheekily.
I can’t help but chuckle, triggering a slight coughing fit on my part. I sigh and give her my spear so I can use her shoulders as support as we search the area for more burrows.
The sword-sworn thankfully doesn’t make any comment about that, which is good because I would have had to kick her all the way back to Leomi with her tail between her legs.
“There.” I speak up, spotting a small den entrance. Yvonne pauses. “Keep going, I’ll need you.” I tell her.
“They’re going to run deep inside if we make too much noise.” Yvonne notes.
“It’s fine, I wanna try something.” I reply casually.
“Better than spear hunting rabbits?” Yvonne asks, barely restraining her laughter.
“Don’t worry about it.” I reply, sticking my tongue out.
I pull my arm away and take the spear back, leading her a few meters above where the hare or whatever should be sleeping inside the burrow. I kneel down and lean down until my nose is pretty much in the grass.
“I have no idea what you’re doing, but it’s really funny.” Yvonne mocks, giggling at my posture.
“Alright, just stomp a few times.” I reply, ignoring her.
She obeys, slamming her foot into the ground. I catch the slightest of silver flickers beneath the ground, it’s so brief and small that I immediate start doubting myself.
I still place the point of the spear above the general area of the flicker I detected and start pushing the sharp tip into the ground, making it turn to help the effort. As I do, I catch a few more silver flashes but, again, they’re so small that it’s hard to tell if I’m not imagining it. I still reposition my spear accordingly.
“Okay, take hold of the spear and push down with me.” I tell her, getting up.
“Seriously?” She asks, baffled. “Even if it goes through the ground and hits, how are we ever going to get it?”
“We can just dig.” I shrug.
“Ugh.” Yvonne groans.
She still takes hold of the top of the spear. We count to three and shove it down, barely making any progress as the ground is simply too packed to pierce. Whatever is beneath doesn’t even react to our attempt.
“Well, that failed pretty miserably.” I sigh.
“I’ve got string, should we set snares?” Yvonne asks me.
“I guess, can have a stew tomorrow morning if it doesn’t work by night.” I pull the spear out of the ground, having learned some about my eyes. “Pretty sure I would have missed if I threw it anyway.”
“Well, yea.” Yvonne chuckles. “Could always ask Leomi, she learned how to throw spears hunting deer.”
“I might, I used to sling ducks when I was a kid with my brother but I can’t really miss and reload with a single arm.” I reply.
We return to the handcart once more for Yvonne to grab a roll of thin rope. As she does, I fight a sack of wheat with my knees to pour it into the pot’s almost boiling water in an effort not to spill any.
I mark the position of the sun to make sure we won’t return too late to take the gruel off the fire and we take off again, this time seeking animal tracks to find out where to set our traps.
The snares are relatively simple to make, I first cut a small length of wood from my improvised spear that I plant in the ground before making a notch at the top for Yvonne to hang a slipknot in the middle of a hare or rabbit’s habitual path.
There are more reliable ways to catch those animals than to count on them running into those but they’re more elaborate, thus they take more time and resources than we’re willing to put into this.
We set five snares and return to check the first before returning to the camp and taking the pot off the fire. The two of us enjoy a quick meal, thankfully she doesn’t take any container of spice or pepper out this time.
It’s a bit ridiculous to have such an aversion to such a small thing but it makes my skin crawl to spend so much money with the only point I can see is to enjoy a meal just slightly more.
“So, how did it go?” Yvonne asks me. “Parting with the Rykz.”
“Good enough.” I reply. “It was just hard with Celyz at the end.”
“Hard.” Yvonne comments, repressing a chuckle. I glare her which only encourages her to laugh louder. I turn away to look at the setting sun, ignoring her until she quiets down. “But more seriously, I’m here if you want to talk.” She finally tells me.
“I have a ton of details if you want to hear them.” I reply with a vicious grin.
“Hrm.” Yvonne awkwardly clears her throat, looking uncomfortable. “I just meant, your plans in Meria or anything.”
“I mean, she can do a lot with twelve tendrils.” I continue. “It might take a while to explain since there are unusual fluids involved.”
“Ew! Nope, nope, nope, nope!” Yvonne hurriedly calls out, frantically waving her open hands in between us to stop me.
“The stuff dried but it was pretty damn sticky.” I comment, affecting a casual demeanor as I check my arm. “I wonder if there were eggs, Celyz is fertile after all according to her.” I add, smirking as the words cause her to freeze.
“Noooo!” Yvonne suddenly cries out, jumping to her feet to run away.
“Come back! I want to talk about this now, it was really weird!” I yell out as I start chasing after her at a normal pace.
Yvonne picks up in speed, cruising towards the traps we’ve set. She’s definitely exaggerating but probably not all that much. I catch up to her on the third trap as she stopped to untangle a pretty large hare from her slipknot. She watches me approach with a suspicious look.
“You started it.” I note.
“I made one comment! One!” Yvonne cries out in indignation.
“It’ll teach you not to put odd ideas in Leomi’s head about taking other people in indecent places.” I reply back in a falsely offended tone.
We both stare at each other for a while before exploding in laughter together. I actually fall on my butt from the sheer physical strain that mere giggling puts on my body, not that I care as the release is more than worth it.
“But, seriously.” Yvonne says between two gasps of air. “Go take a bath.”
“It just smells like her and the water’s going to be cold.” I reply, sighing. “I’ll just go while you prepare the hare.”
“Um.” Yvonne says, pursing her lips. “How do you?” She asks, having at least the common sense to blush a little in embarrassment.
“Ugh.” I grunt in disgust. “Just take it back, I’ll remove the snares.”
The sword-sworn makes a small grimace and heads out. I go through the traps and pick them all before making my way to the handcart to put them away for later if we have the need.
“Hang it by its hind-legs and cut the throat to let the blood drain out, I’ll be back in a few to gut it.” I tell her.
I head out to the beach which is a good dozen minutes away at walking pace, pushing my body through the pain and exhaustion. Once there, I stay on the edge of the sea to wash, too afraid to go swimming even though it would be faster and likely more efficient.
Once I get back, I find Yvonne in the process of removing the animal’s guts but hasn’t dared try to skin it. She’s likely done something similar before considering she’s struggling but doesn’t look lost.
“At least you’re not entirely ignorant.” I comment.
“I used to fish, this is definitely not a fish.” Yvonne replies with an amused smile as she stares at the bloody entrails.
“What gave it away?” I ask sarcastically.
“Ah, well first, we’re not on a boat.” Yvonne answers nonsensically. “Second, we caught it on land.”
I shake my head, chuckling in spite of myself. I point to her where to cut to make it easier to remove the guts before talking her through taking the lungs and heart out without splashing blood on her clothes.
“Can’t you do it?” Yvonne complains.
“Because I just cleaned up. You should do so as well, it smells a bit.” I respond teasingly. “But not before you skin it.” I quickly add.
I explain the process to her while I cut the hare’s head off. I take the chunk of bone and flesh to the parasite’s chest and throw it inside along with a friendly signal mixed in with a cautionary one.
I then pick the guts up with the tip of my short-sword and carefully wave them over the Little one while throwing carefully picked signals to start reestablishing our relationship as partners.
Once done, I return to the fire to sit down and enjoy the warmth as I guide Yvonne’s efforts to skin the hare from afar. It takes her a while to finish but she eventually does with plenty of entertaining grimaces that I’m quite certain she makes more to brighten my mood than out of actual disgust.
She wraps the hare in a clean piece of white cloth and ties the bundle to the side of the handcart before running away to the sea to clean up, having somehow managed to smear blood on the tip of her nose.
We go to sleep early, before the stars even show up. I wrap myself into two blankets and close my eyes. I fall asleep like a log from fatigue, very satisfied about this end to the afternoon.
— — —