Thoughts in Iambic Pentameter

-break-

Joshua winces, but his arm remains mostly still as Natasha heals it. The gash has torn straight through the muscles that connected to his left wrist, and even though left is not his dominant side Natasha knows he would not allow himself to go into battle with even his weak arm damaged. The wound solidifies into healed flesh while she holds it together, and then she lets go of his hand and wipes off the remaining blood with a clean wad of gauze.

"Please move your wrist, Joshua."

He does so, exploring his restored range of motion with a thoughtful expression, and then smiles brightly. "Thank you so much, Natasha!"

"It is my duty as a cleric."

The children have since become accustomed to having their wounds healed within minutes and thank the healers sincerely (especially if it really hurt), but quickly. Innes is too proud to utter more than his curt thanks; the other royals thank them graciously, with the same amount of emotion whether it was a splinter or a broken leg. Other healers are polite, but distant, since the novelty was never really there in the first place.

Jehannans are different. The first time she healed Joshua, Natasha was taken aback, later attributing it to his personality. But even Marisa, who moves quietly and speaks at an easily overpowered volume, has an expression after healing that Natasha has never seen in non-Jehannan fighters.

"They do surprise us, don't they?" Father Moulder had remarked once as they convened next to one of the smaller campfires. Natasha had missed it the first time and looked up hurriedly.

"I'm sorry, Father?"

"The Jehannans," he elaborated. Natasha looked at Joshua first; but then, he was the closest. "When we heal them, they thank us so sincerely."

"Oh yes... I have noticed that, Father."

"They live remarkably harsh lives in that waste of a country, and it is very rare to find a Jehannan with magic at all, much less a healing gift. Every wound they recieve could permanently hinder their performances, to the point where they would not be able to fight, therefore receiving their wages and living out the rest of their lives. Ah, it has made them a strong people... but--"

If Natasha closed her eyes, ignored the differences in voice, and kept addressing Moulder simply as 'Father', then she could imagine that she had never left Grado and her own dear mentor had never left this world. But that was an unhealthy sentiment. Once she opened her eyes, she would be back in whatever region the company was settled in for the night, amongst various non-Grads with all sorts of wounds and differing degrees of gratitude to offer in return for her services.

It took longer than Natasha thought it would take for her emotions to stop spiraling down and further, so she kept her eyes closed a few more moments than necessary. When she finally did open them, Joshua was no longer in her line of vision and Father Moulder had fallen into a peaceful silence. While it lasted, she could hear a distant baritone voice singing, "And come ye down the mountain, for to go back up again..."

-break-

"Yeah, I guess. I don't know if it'd look the same, but sharp edges are sharp no matter which weapon you're holding..."

"I want to watch you again. Please?"

"Sharpening this much, it'll break my blade. But with my luck that's bound to happen anyway, so here goes." A pause, and then: "Take ye up your stone in hand, boys; for climbing up the mountain you must go. Take ye up your blade in hand, boys..."

Vanessa hears the singing first and gravitates towards it, Natasha perhaps a little closer behind than would be normal. "Joshua?"

"Oh, thank the Stones I saw you coming! Otherwise I'd have cut myself." Joshua sheathes his sword but a small, dark rock is still in his hand. "And never mind that either, because Natasha's here. Hi, Natasha!"

"What were you singing?" the pegasus knight asks, curious.

"It was a--" and here Natasha is quite sure she has not heard Ross correctly-- "Wedding song."

"Not marriage," Joshua corrects. "Whetting, with an H. Do you see any water around here?"

Vanessa now looks incredulous, though Natasha is simply confused. "You sing while you sharpen your blade?"

"It's an ancient Jehannan tradition that not only helps to keep your brain from exploding via boredom, but refreshes your memory on how to do it if you ever forget!" From what Joshua's rambling explanation and later demonstration lays out, it is a fairly simple song not unlike a sea chanty, or one of the metaphors used for tying knots. Vanessa's lack of enthusiasm as she watches the blade is obvious, but Natasha listens as Joshua sings the refrain.

"Slow, boys, slow--and you can change it if you're a woman, because the Stones know we don't care--for to keep your blade in hand. And come ye down the mountain for to go back up, again. Slow, boys, slow..."

-break-

"You actually sing that song?" Gerik asks. He'd known instantly who the singer was, from the looks of it. What Natasha finds mildly interesting was the fact that Joshua hadn't been sharpening his sword.

"Oh, yeah. Why? Do you think it's weird?"

"I'd forgot the words, actually. Lucky if anyone in my troop knew the tune."

"Well, I was taught all fifty verses of the sword song. My mother raised me like that."

"Ahh," Gerik says, along with Tethys. Marisa's face has a glimmer of the same expression, but she remains silent as always.

"Not only the training, actually. I'd wake up sometimes and hear her singing. I was a kid, you know, I always thought 'That's Mom, sharpening her sword again!' until we went to Dad's grave after a year and while she poured the flask of water over it she sang. She couldn't get through the whole song, though. Also there was a funeral when I was old enough to remember. They asked her to sing the whole song for them, and she did, and everyone cried. Sometimes I don't even realize I'm singing it now."

"I never heard of the other forty-nine verses," Marisa says suddenly. "My father just taught me all the drills."

Tethys gives the myrmidon a strange, sympathetic glance. "Along with how to sleep on one side without moving?"

"Yes, of course he did." Marisa completely ignores the dancer's sympathy. Though, there is also the possibility that she doesn't see it at all.

"Yeah, that!" Joshua laughs. "My mom went through all our potions in a month trying to teach me that. If she hadn't stayed with me or made my regular teacher do it I would have bled out in my sleep."

"You what?!" Gerik and Marisa are nonplussed, but Tethys is clearly alarmed. Natasha is, as well. "How old were you?!"

"Ah... eight. Why?"

"Your mother did that to you? At least Marisa's dad dulled her swords, but you--and you don't see anything wrong with that?"

"My mother was a proud woman!" Joshua reasons, to little avail. "If I was a girl, she would have done the exact same thing. And I'd probably be best friends forever with Marisa!"

Ah, it has made them a strong people, but...

"Parents!" Tethys scoffs. "And you're joking about it! Like--"

But...

"You ever heard of tough love, Tethys?"

"Tough luck, maybe. Especially for you! But I'm glad I never went through all that crazy training!" Despite her fervor, Tethys is back to her usual charming self the next morning, even with Joshua. Natasha conceals her unease beneath her usual calm mask.

-break-

Natasha hadn't realized it before, but after tending to the various wounds that various people bring to her after they make camp near the Narube River, she has the most obvious thought: should her tomes become useless all of a sudden, there are so many people around ready to defend, that she has no reason to fear for her life anymore. When the responsibility for her safety lay on the shoulders of other people, it oddly enough had not worried her as much as it did now, when she was responsible for her own self. But as Natasha absentmindedly heals a slash on Joshua's sword arm, she hears the water running with silence underneath the chatter of everyone else and the feeling is simply driven home instead of dissipated. She is, for the moment, safe.

Myrrh wanders over nearby and Natasha raises her staff, wondering if Saleh was somehow gravely injured since he made a point of hovering protectively near the dragon girl (who appears mournful but unhurt). After a few seconds of half-heartedly plucking at some flowers in the grass, Myrrh gives a light sigh and wanders back to wherever she came from, dropping the daisies in an uneven trail behind her. She hums a low song as she does, in a language Natasha does not recognize. Joshua twists around curiously, but makes no move on it as Natasha finishes healing him.

He does like music, she has learned--more than everyone else except L'Arachel, let alone a Jehannan. Why else would he know so many songs? He sings, not always when anyone asks him to but whenever he wants, and sometimes when nobody is listening (or if he thinks no one is listening). Natasha would often hear his good-natured baritone threading its way through all the other morning sounds, but she has not heard it recently and she thinks she knows why.

"Ah... Thanks, Natasha." Joshua moves his wrist around and closes his hand to test the muscles, mostly out of habit. Then he looks to both sides and asks, "Am I the last one for you?"

"Yes. I'm sorry it took so long, but... not everyone is used to fighting in a desert." They had been woefully unprepared simply for traveling through one, as Natasha had figured out the hard way. All three of the children and Lute had been confined to their tents because of heatstroke immediately after that horrific battle with Valter. It had been good fortune Prince Ephraim had shown up when he did. Most of them look thinner now, excluding everyone from Jehanna; but in general, Natasha feels confident that no one is going to die.

"Of course they're not used to fighting in a desert. They hadn't been born there, raised there, or kept in a prison with bread and water for two months forced to work only at the hottest part of the day, all three of which I happen to have done in my life. The third was how I got my hat."

Stories as well. Joshua seems the sort of person who enjoys hearing himself talk, truthfully or not. This is one of his more reasonable stories... except for the fact that Natasha doesn't believe it at all, and isn't sure about what to say to him. The recently-promoted swordmaster seems to be fine, but it has not been long since they left Jehanna--and his mother--behind. She was always told to watch close the people who acted perfectly normal after a major death had occurred, since that would mean one of three things. Either they were not thinking about it, and therefore not dealing with it properly; repressing their grief into a corner of their mind, and therefore not dealing with it properly; or honestly did not care at all, and the lack of grief to deal with was a serious problem in itself, to be dealt with by someone more capable of physically restraining the person.

"Natasha?"

"Y-yes?"

"This is where you ask, 'Was this before or after the thing with the Frelian fish-market?' Which I haven't told you about yet, but come on--at least use something you have heard me talk about."

"Oh." Natasha clears her throat lightly. "Was this before or after..." She tries to remember one of the various things he'd claimed to have done for his hat, but all she can think of to complete the sentence is 'the day you left your only family because you felt like an inadequate prince and ended up gone for ten years, only to return when she was dying.' Of course Natasha can't say that, and none of the other things are coming to mind, and it's been such a long time since she trailed off that she just makes a non-committal sigh and apologizes.

Joshua seems faintly disappointed.

-break-

While Natasha allows Vanessa to help button up her sleeves in the tent they share (though the cleric has since learnt to use only one hand for this), she takes advantage of the silence to listen through the thick canvas for the sound of Joshua's voice. She doesn't hear much of anything, and after thanking Vanessa ("It was no problem at all, Sister Natasha," the younger woman says brightly), she walks out of the tent with staff in hand, ready to do her morning rounds. Shortly after she checks up on the children, Gerik approaches her in an admirably casual manner. Once he ceases his ambling stride, however, his voice gives him away.

"Er, Sister... I'm pretty sure it's nothing, but could you maybe check up on Joshua? Guy won't wake up no matter how much I yell at him, so..."

"All right," Natasha answers. "Thank you, Gerik." Once she gets there, Joshua is lying in a perfectly reasonable position with a perfectly normal look of dreaming thoughtlessness on his face: sword within arm's reach, hat draped over the hilt, coat in a messy pile on the other side. Except for the fact that Natasha doesn't believe it at all; and anyway she was taught specifically how to tell when people are pretending to sleep, so she sits down and says outright, "Joshua, I know you're awake."

In a remarkable display of physical discipline, he doesn't so much as twitch. Natasha waits patiently for several minutes and then sighs. "Very well, then." She gets up and walks out of the tent where Gerik is waiting, clearly confused. "He still won't wake up, Gerik."

"It didn't sound like you were trying too--"

Natasha turns around and rips open the tent flap to reveal Joshua clearly sitting up, reaching for his hat. As the light hits his face, he looks up at her and dons a grin of extraordinary brilliance. "Well, look at that!" The swordmaster lets out a terrifying bark of a laugh--terrifying when Natasha compares it to his normal laugh, at least--and goes on to say, "You got me!" She says nothing, and Joshua continues to laugh until it nearly settles into its usual sound. A small crowd has gathered behind them, curious or concerned or both. Father Moulder is probably there watching.

Then Natasha says, "Joshua, I think we need to talk about your mother's death." When the laughter transforms abruptly into hitching gasps, and then sobbing, she walks into the tent and lets the opening close on its own. Without her asking them to leave, there is a moment's silence before a number of uncertain footsteps move away.

-break-

Upon Natasha's exit she sees only the Jehannans, waiting for the news of their own, and Father Moulder awaiting her verdict in exactly the manner her own mentor would used--calm, yet expectant. She glances back at the tent in which Joshua is most likely contemplating his entire life and sighs slightly before delivering it.

"I think he is going to be all right."

The worst of it is already over, Natasha has decided, now that Joshua admits his problem's existence. It would just be a matter of time (as much time as it would take) and occasional discussions on his progress: a perfect illustration of the concept Father Alexei had often related to her, about all issues becoming significantly less terrible once they were actually voiced to another person. Natasha wonders if that might work even for clerics like herself. She has been mourning her mentor's death in a calm and professional manner, but lately finds herself distressed over feeling absolutely no less grief over thoughts of his passing.