The gentle heat of the sun warmed the travellers as they made their way along the road. It was a beautiful day, a soft breeze kept them cool as they walked, and the wide green plains that streched out in all directions were picturesque. Only Rubin’s fevered groans, punctuating Vahkragg’s steps, could keep moods from rising now they were finally free from the gloom of the forest.
Pan stared into the sky bright blue of the sky trying to remember the way it used to make him feel alive. Another rhasping moan came from behind, but he didn’t look back. There was no point, he couldn’t do anything for Rubin. He hadn’t been able to do anything for Verumalleus. The thought came unprovoked, as it too often did. The pain was too fresh, the wound too bare. He knew he wasn’t to blame for her death, that there was nothing he could have realisitcally done. He’d lost people before. He was familiar with the guilt, the irrational anger, the emptiness that came with it. So he tried to forgive himself, or at least push it out of mind until the present dangers had passed. But it didn’t work that way. In a way, that was the only feeling he felt refuge in. Like his pain proved his love had been real.
“It’s beautiful here, the world beyond the forest.”
The tagalong forest witch Zsófia had crept up beside him. She smiled to match the meaningof her words, but her smile never met her eyes. She was scared for Rubin, and being the most familiar with his sickness, that didn’t seem like a good sign.
Ever since he’d comforted her and stood up for her at camp that morning she had kept subtly close by. He didn’t blame her, the others hadn’t gone out of their way to make her feel welcome and it must be frightening to leave your home like this.
“The forest was beautiful too,” she continued, “But this is so different. Everything is so bright, and open. I can see for miles.”
It was true. The Märchenwald stretched out to the south, stalking them in the distance even as they followed the road towards civilisation. While in the far distance to the east the Leibgottes mountains mark the Kingdom’s borders.
Along the road, Verwich could be seen growing painfully slowly into view, still several hours march away. At the head of the party, Pan and Zsófia are far enough seperated from the others that they could speak with being overheard but regardless Pan very subtly increased his pace to gain some distance anyway.
“How are you feeling?” He asked once they had moved far enough away to be certain.
The question struck Zsófia more than he’d expected. The facade she’d worn while discussing the landscape shattered and the vulnerability she’d tried to hide with it was laid bare. For a moment she is conflicted, but it’s obvious she needs to speak.
“I don’t know. I’m worried about Rubin.”
That’s not it, Pan thinks to himself. Not doubting she’s concerned about his health, her true worries ran deeper.
“Do you think he’d spare the same thoughts for you?”
She looked at him incredulously, clearly not expecting the harsh sentiment after the kindness he’d displayed to her this far. He felt guilty, and questioned if he was being cruel because of his own feelings, but without knowing the answer decided to push on.
“Rubin has been nothing but cruel to you since the start, he’s effectively argued for your death by petitioning for your arrest. I know you didn’t maledict him, but he thinks you did, and Telfor is realist enough to recognise you how you might decide killing him would be justified.”
Zsófia remained silent.
“You saved both of their lives, but that doesn’t mean they’ll just look the other way if they think you put a curse on him. They’re men of faith, but that doesn’t mean they’ll accept your story of the Horned God being the culprit.”
The girl’s expression hardened as he spoke, but emotion seeped through the gaps as she struggled to hold back tears. Atyx take me, I’m just making things worse. Get to the point already.
“I have a way to prove your innocence.” Despite the distance he lowers his voice. Zsófia brightened at the words and with a fierce pleading she faced him. “It’s not something I can talk freely about, but I can’t think of any other options. Will you trust me?”
“Good. When we get to Verwich I’m going to introduce you to some people, but until then pretend we never had this conversation. Tell me about how beautiful you think it is here.”
From Pan’s perspective Zsófia seemed completely off-balance by his brutally honest description of the situation followed by the ray of hope without any kind of explanation behind it. Whatever she’d expected from talking to Pan, that hadn’t been it, but to her credit she was able to control her expression and what curiosity she must have to instead switch to discussing the landscape.
They’re going to be furious at me when I bring in an uninitiated. Gods, I hope they agree with me about her value. I wish Veru was here.
As the two shared words of appreciation over the surrounding landscape, the towering ancient walls of Verwich grow before them as the sun lowers in the sky behind them. Lessening their pace, Zsófia and Pan allowed the larger men to catch up before the four approach the wide open gates to the city. Second largest of the cities in the Kingdom after Capitol, the sprawling, bustling streets immediately swallow the group up. The only one comfortable here, Pan instinctively guides the group down winding, senselessly arranged streets until at last they arrived. A large inn, situated in a relatively quiet section of the town, its entrance almost hidden down a narrow street.
“The Valian Retreat,” Pan announced before entering. The inn was empty but for a single woman behind the bar, “Everyone, let me introduce Lily. Lily, we have a dying friend. We need to see Edda, is she in?”
Featured Image source (I believe): Christopher Rabenhorst http://christopherrabenhorst.blogspot.com/