Xarah frowns. She frowns deeper. Her lower lip starts quivering as soon as she realizes exactly what is wrong in the scene before her.
As quickly as possible, she scrambles out of the considerably spacious chicken coop, dropping the "borrowed" wooden broom that she sees shivering violently when it hits the ground out of the corners of her eyes. The next thing she knows, it is zooming out of the door faster than Xarah, smacking her slightly on the side of the head at its exit. Xarah keeps running, ignoring the sting from the scratches, and aims straight for her and Cyntia's small hut, though before she get there she crashes into a pair of pants instead.
Blinking, she glances up to a startled Kaven's face, and her eyes immediately fogs into what she now knows is called tears.
"What – um, Xarah? What's going on?"
She only reaches out and tugs at his shirt desperately, and he complies as he follows her back to the chicken coop.
When they reach the door to the chickens' residence, the various cacophonous calls from inside start gnawing at her head and Xarah can no longer bear to look; she just motions for Kaven to look inside, which he does.
Watching half of his silhouette from a view cut by the doorframe, she stands still, her heart pounding and her hand uncharacteristically starting to sweat. Her eyes starts watering again, and she raises a hand to wipe of her tears. As soon as she finishes, she looks back to Kaven, who has already turned back to face her. A slight shaking of his head confirms her dark suspicions, and she sniffs slightly.
He asks, "Do you, um, want to bury him?"
Xarah nods her head, twice in quick succession.
"But...he's...Xarah, he's just a chicken."
"He was Chicky," Xarah says out loud, and her sadness finally overpowers her, forcing her to sit on the floor tiredly. "He was Chicky. I wish he didn't have to die."
Chapter Eight –
The Eternal Idea
"Come on, Xarah. We're making some yogurt. Want to help out?"
"No thank you."
"...You get to milk the cow this time, Xarah!"
"It's okay. You can do it this time."
"Well, I guess you can have all of the yogurt today. Maybe we can even mash some strawberries in."
At this, Xarah's face brightens slightly, though it droops down a moment later. "Chicky isn't going to steal the strawberries today, is he?"
"No, he won't. But come on, Xarah. He's in a good place now. I bet he's cawing out to your grandpas to feed him more rice, that naughty little animal."
Xarah smiles again, and this time it stays for a little longer. "Do you think your parents take care of a farm in heaven, too?"
"I won't be surprised if they did," Cyntia laughs. "They weren't ones who took being outdone by me very lightly." Cyntia finally finishes hammering into place an additional level onto the already head-high drawer that rests in their room, setting the blacksmith hammer into the space she has just attached on. She turns her attention down to the sixth-highest cabinet, taking out a set of paintbrushes with cheap paints, a collapsible and much rusted paint stand, and a half-completed picture drawn on a wood board. "There we are. Do you think Kaven's done washing the dishes?"
"Nope! You know how he is about having to do the –" and here Xarah puts up her two fingers in an air quote – "'ladies' work'. What a wussy!"
Cyntia laughs, though suddenly it sounds a little more strained rather than the good-hearted tone Xarah usually hears. She wonders if she said something wrong, but decides it must just be the new vocabulary she has picked up from that adventure as the tall boy with the long sword.
"Do you want me to check up on him?" she asks. "I can push him into the river to get him going."
"Come on, Xarah," Cyntia chimes sweetly. "We're already in autumn now, the sun won't be up as much as it used to be. We'd better not get any clothes we have wet."
"But think of what happens when Kaven has nothing to wear!" When Cyntia does not immediately answer (her jaw is actually slightly open, Xarah notes) the little girl laughs. "He has to wear girls' clothes! Don't you think that would be so funny to see?"
And now Cyntia giggles, though she also lets out, "I'm not letting him wear my stuff. Are you?"
Xarah's face falls. "Oh. I guess my clothes are too small for him anyways."
"That's what I thought. But yeah, that would be something to see. Maybe we can borrow Nora's clothes instead." This brings forth another round of chortles from the other girl, to which Xarah grins once more.
"Eww, no! Nora's clothes are too pretty!"
"Would you rather see Kaven in girl's clothes or not see pretty clothes on Kaven?" Cyntia counters, a wide, pretty smile etched into her face.
Xarah considers this seriously for a moment, and then says, "I'd rather not see the pretty clothes on Kaven."
"But that was your idea!" Cyntia snickers once more, before jolting up slightly and saying, "Right, can you check up on Kaven? And no pushing into the river, please."
"Oh, all right," Xarah whines and darts quickly out of the room before Cyntia remembers she forgot to add the cherry on top.
Technically it should only take barely fifteen seconds for Xarah to dart the five metres she needed to view Kaven at his spot on the river, ascertain his job is progressing smoothly and report back to Cyntia. When she sees Kaven on the other side of the Adelia stream, however, already walking into the gap in the forest that signalled the start of Dugald Aisle, this train of thought derails immediately.
Where is he going? It looks like he's trying to sneak off.
Perhaps it is a testament of her naivety when the immediate thought that enters her mind at the unexpected sight is not to ask Cyntia what is going on, but instead to sneakily follow him to wherever he is going, so that when she surprises him he'd be so proud to see how good she is at stalking!
Abruptly forgetting that someone is still expecting a report from her, she shivers in anticipation and excitedly hops into motion, moving her shorter legs quickly through a path in the wheat and barley fields, across the bridge and straight into the deciduous forest that swallows her whole.
A long, five-hour trek later, Xarah, who still hasn't gotten rid of her overexitement from being able to outsmart Kaven, watches from behind the corner of the stone building as the brunet converses with a pretty, long-haired girl with glasses and a feminine uniform. Kaven is speaking calmly, while the girl seems flustered. As Xarah watches, she suddenly recognizes the girl as Aeira, the book-seller of Dunbarton, who had generously given her all those free books the last time she had come to the considerably large city.
They seem to be speaking quickly about something Xarah cannot hear, try as she might. Sometimes, she hears snatches of words, like "out", "Tir", "publisher", "soon", among others, but none of it manages to make any sense to her. When the conversation seems to start to close, she grows slightly more annoyed at the fact that this event is barricading her potential boast to Kaven about how perfectly she managed to stalk him.
But if she tried to find out what they are talking about, she'd have to get closer and maybe even ask them, and if that happened she'd probably get in trouble for stalking him in the first place...
Ah, screw it. She's too curious.
She makes to jump out into their group, except when she takes a single step out of her cover Aeira notices her and waves excitedly; as soon as that occurs, Kaven spins around, his eyes widened ever so slightly and his mouth dropping slightly in almost a desperate way, as if he can swallow the scene before him and pretend it doesn't exist. He hurriedly finishes his conversation with Aeira with quiet words that Xarah cannot hear as she runs to them, before she is suddenly yanked by her arm by a somewhat stern-looking Kaven to the direction opposite of where she had been running to.
"Aeira! What were you talking abouuuuut!" she manages to yell to the somewhat disappointed-looking girl, just before Kaven makes a right turn and the alley in which the girl sets up shop is hidden from her view completely.
"Kaven –" she starts to whine, but the man cuts her off.
"Did you follow me all the way here?" He sounded grouchy. As in, the Don't-mess-with-me kind of grouchy. Xarah only gulped and nodded, to which he asked, "Did you tell Cyntia?"
Xarah nearly nodded her head again, but then thought about it and shook her head instead.
"So she has no idea where you are?"
Kaven smacks his head like there is a fly resting there. "She's going to kill me six times over, isn't she?"
"Um...she probably is going to be mad at you. Did you finish the dishes, by the way?"
"Oh, so that's why you saw me," Kaven grumbles. "I placed them right beside your door. I guess you must've missed it."
"Oh." Xarah laughs slightly nervously. "Well, I only wanted to stalk you to see if you can notice me."
"I didn't. I would congratulate you, but I'm too busy mentally preparing my speech to you about your irresponsibility...as well as deciding what shape I like my gravestone best."
"Cyntia won't be that mad...I think. She'll probably forgive you...I hope."
"You're more trouble than you're worth, you know that? Maybe I should just leave you behind."
"Aww, Kaven," Xarah whines, suddenly clinging to the bottom of his long-sleeved shirt. "That would be so mean!"
With a bit of surprise, Xarah notices that they are already heading on a tree-bordered trail due north, back into Dugald forest that Xarah herself had emerged from thirty minutes ago. Before Kaven can comment again, she interrupts, "We're already heading back? But what were you looking for?"
"Xarah, what I'm looking for kinda isn't your business."
"But you wouldn't come all the way down to Dunbarton for nothing!" Something clicks in Xarah's head. "Oh, you're arranging an owl to mail it to you, then? That would explain why you don't have to wait in Dunbarton. Isn't that wasting money though, spending it on owl deliveries?"
"Wha – no! Aeira said she'd send it free –" Kaven coughs. "Not your business."
"Come on, Kaven! What are you getting? Flowers? A cool-looking weapon? New clothes? Some chocolates?"
This time, Kaven actually stops and when she turns, she finds him staring at her somewhat disbelievingly. She is about to ask what he is doing, except he says, "Aeira runs a bookstore" like it should be blatantly obvious.
Which, it actually is. Xarah flushes. "Oh," she mutters. "Yeah. Books. Okay."
Wordlessly, he takes her hand and starts moving forward again. When she risks a peek through her auburn bangs, she is startled to find that Kaven is smirking. From what, she cannot tell, but suddenly her mood lifts again and she steps forward with him.
Though this actually turned out to be a bad idea, since in the next moment a stick sprouts from the ground, piercing through her leather shoes and quite effectively rendering her foot immobile.
It takes half a second for her to realize that the stick must actually have been an arrow, and another half a second to realize it probably came from above, not below. Another second later she realizes she is unhurt; she is lucky enough that the arrow hit an area between her big toe and the next toe. She actually has the time to wiggle her toes, just to make sure they doesn't hurt.
On the third second, she finally realizes they are under attack.
Xarah jerks her head back up, taking in the scene before her. Slightly to her left, Kaven has already unsheathed his gathering knife and is reaching for a thin wooden stick that lies just beside his foot on the dirt path they have followed out of the stony city, except another arrow thunks into place too close to his hand for Xarah's comfort.
Straight ahead is a black-robed person whose odd cat-themed half-mask covered his lower face, therefore limiting Xarah from being able to draw a conclusion as to whether he is a boy or a girl. What she knows for sure, however, is that the bow that the person is holding and the arrow that he (or she) has already notched is not of the toy variety.
Desperately, the girl wrenches her foot away from the wooden skewer and manages to rip her shoe off her foot. She dives to and hides behind the nearest tree, hoping that this assailant's aim isn't good enough to hit any part of her that is sticking out of the skinny cover.
Reorienting on Kaven, she finds he has already moved quickly, taking shelter on the trees lining the other edge of the path. Xarah then becomes confused when he starts moving towards the attacker, rather than away. Did he want to catch this guy?
Well, Xarah doesn't know for sure what he's trying to do, but capturing the man suddenly seems like a good idea. If nothing else, accomplishing that should make Kaven proud for sure!
Hastily she darts forward to another tree, then to another, making her trip between them as short as possible to avoid an unlucky hit. She joins in Kaven with his pressing towards the bowman, darting forward when he ducks and attracting attention so that he can run forward. Xarah remembers this exact same move Kaven and Cyntia has done, where two or more people would press on from different sides, dividing the prey's attention, before one got close enough to go in for the kill. That was the first time they taught her the rudiments of hunting. The wolf meat tasted extra good that night.
The black-clad man apparently notices their manoeuvre, however, as he starts quickly backtracking, sending one shot at a time to both Kaven and Xarah in turn, though it doesn't stop them from closing in the distance. Xarah quickly snatches a bigger wooden stick than the one Kaven had found off the ground, hefting it on her shoulder that suddenly looks tinier in comparison.
After a few more steps the man apparently decides to hold his ground and Xarah is forced to duck once more as he lets loose an arrow in her direction. He grabs another one and manages a quick shot at Kaven, who is sneaking closer and is forced to take cover as well; in that instant Xarah sees that his supply of arrows is already gone.
As soon as his hand starts reaching back again, she charges.
Behind her, she hears a shouted "Hey!" that manages to distract the attacker nicely as she points her stick forward and charges, intent on running him through the rather blunt stick.
And then the man turns back and their eyes connect.
She is surprised at the utterly devoid look to them, almost tripping up her dash. The eyes are like bottomless pits, an ugly, starless sky that stretches wide and expands deeply. It's not the eyes of someone who is warm. Not the eyes of someone who is sympathetic. Not the eyes of someone who...lives.
But surely, someone who had obviously trained with weapons as much as he did has some kind of memory to remember?
Some kind of hope to carry out?
Some kind of...freedom, to treasure?
The next thing she knows, the man raises a hand, and a ball of fire poofs into life.
Which darts forward instantly and hammers her straight on her stomach.
Stars pop into her eyes, and her breath is snatched away from her; neither sensation is pleasant, the stars being vomit-yellow and her breath stolen with little more grace than Dilys with her knife and her tweezer. Somehow, when her mind comes back to reality she finds herself on her knees, gasping, and clutching her stomach, feeling like she is about to faint any second. The wooden stick she had picked up lies on the ground right underneath her view. When she looks up, she only finds the man, a short sword in his hand now, coldly looming over her.
The sword plunges to her head.
Surprisingly, she's not scared. In fact, the she is already disregarding this and forcing herself to think of her next move. After all, she didn't come here alone. Her teammate should be able to cover for her.
The sword moves down.
She grins slightly.
The sword drops faster.
Kaven should intercept it by now.
The sword will stab her eye in half a second.
Xarah doesn't even blink.
A hand comes out of nowhere and grabs inside the swing, while the rest of Kaven's body follows several milliseconds later as he follows up with a rough uppercut straight to what Xarah guesses is the diaphragm. The man coughs out, his body shape halfway between upright and being in the fetal position, allowing Kaven a very nice window at the back of the man's head that he eagerly chops into.
Xarah takes that moment to duck under the cover of Kaven's frame, and then roundhouse kick at the man's knee, exactly the way she had seen Cyntia do so to a bandit. Her shin connects with the front of the attacker's knee with a satisfying crunch.
Pain explodes into her mind. Again.
She screams. She doesn't even try to restrain herself this time. Her leg is blazing with pain, consuming the skin, the muscle, the bone, and she desperately hugs it, trying to quench it out. The injury flares again violently, and then her shoulder starts searing too, but then both sensations starts to die down.
By the time it dies down, leaving her gritting her teeth once more, she becomes aware of a digging sensation into her stomach. Actually, it isn't so much digging as it is a rhythmic jostling, and when she opens her eyes she realizes she is about two metres off the ground, with her centre of gravity higher than her head.
Then she realizes she is being carried on someone's shoulder. An instant later, by the colour of his shirt, she realizes it is Kaven who had collected her. She taps his back twice, but Kaven snaps, "Not now," and Xarah keeps quiet.
She then remembers why they are running in the first place, and raises her head, looking at the direction they are moving away from. Nothing. She doesn't see anything but the dirt path Kaven's feet pounds away at.
Xarah doesn't point this out, however, and dutifully keeps a lookout until Kaven finally dives for one of the huge boulders that litter Dugald Aisle, and she feels Kaven's arm pulling her off at the same time.
"Who was –" she begins, except that's when she sees the bloodied owl cradled in Kaven's other arm. "Oh!"
"Aeira's owl," the man grumbles. "The only time she actually sends something quickly, and this happens." He sighes. "You did a good job, little guy."
The owl gives a small but triumphant hoot. Its left wing seems badly damaged, with a clear, long, bloody slice from the side of its neck all the way down to the tip of its wings on the other side. Xarah feels like she is about to vomit again, but she clenches her teeth and holds out her arms, to which Kaven complies and hands the owl to her.
Xarah hugs the owl gently but firmly, not dissimilarly to how she used to hold Chicky. She gently eases out the owl's injured wing, and holds it out to Kaven, who reaches into his pouch and grabs out a slightly dirty roll of bandages.
"Dammit," she hears him mutter, "can't believe another fifty gold went down the drain…" More loudly, he says, "This might hurt a bit. I'm only used to wrapping up human limbs."
The owl only gives another hoot, and Kaven moves in to wrap the outstretched wing with little less neatness than he usually exhibits. Xarah keeps her eye on both the hitches and coils Kaven makes, and on the path they have just left. A thought crosses her mind as the man finishes treating the owl that now has stilled with its eyes closed.
"Doesn't this remind you of the time we went after that Wisp?"
"Dammit Xarah," Kaven growls lowly, "that was the time you went after the Wisp. I still got burns from it too, so don't you think I forgave you for that."
Despite herself, Xarah could not help a bright grin that intrudes on her face. "Look at us now, though. If Cyntia hadn't taught me what to do after a retreat, then I wouldn't know to keep my ears peeled and eyes open."
"No, you wouldn't," Kaven concedes, "and you'd also know better than to jump into a fight with someone who's way stronger than you."
"And you would know better than to kick someone on their goddamned knee cap. Didn't we teach you to hit the side or the back of a joint? And is your foot fine?"
Xarah's eyes quickly dart down to her shin. It becomes very obvious that it is bruised, though when she touches the bluish tinge of skin, it doesn't sting any more than pecks on the arm Chicky loves to give her. "I think it's fine."
"Hmm." With that, he reaches down to the ground and picks up something she doesn't recognize immediately. It is only when he spreads it and rustles through the sheets that she becomes aware that it is a book.
Or at least, it was a book. Technically it still is – only, half of it, the cover and the first few pages it seems, is missing. As Xarah watches in surprise Kaven skims through the rest of the pages, his eyes not staying on a newly turned passage for more than three seconds. By the time Xarah thinks up of a question, Kaven has already reached the cover that is intact and has stored it away in his ever-present hip pouch.
"Um, what is that?"
"Not much of your business, Xarah," he grumbles again. "It's not Cat-face's business either, but it looks like this is what he was after. Lucky he didn't seem to have grabbed the important pages."
"Nevermind. We should get back. I told Cyntia I was going to work some part time jobs today, but as for you…" Kaven's face sours again.
Xarah only frowns. It isn't like him to keep information from her. Usually he is eager to share whatever facts he gained from reading with her, as if to show off. So this change of behaviour is an unpleasant surprise indeed. "Kaven, I want to know what that was all about. Is he one of those mean men? If he is, then you shouldn't be keeping this from Cyntia."
"I'm not keeping anything from her."
"But is he one of those mean men?"
"…No. He was way stronger." Kaven rubs his off-hand, and it is only now that Xarah notices it is slightly more red than usual. "He was holding back – and he knew if I tried to attack him weaponless I'd be the one hurting. I think he had plate armour underneath that black cloak. And when I chopped down into him – I think his mana was protecting him. I didn't know it could do that. Felt like hitting a marshmallow with lots of splinters packed inside."
"Then what does he want?" Xarah asks insistently. "If he doesn't want money –"
"He wanted to the book. I already said that, and wasn't that obvious enough from when he grabbed it?"
"But I didn't see –" And then Xarah remembers the fact that she was nearly knocked unconscious. "Oh. But then what's the book about?"
"I told you. Nothing important."
"It has to be. Someone attacked us, didn't they? What was in the book?" Kaven only studies her and Xarah feels a rare prick of anger starting to come out of her stomach. "What was that book about?" When Kaven still does not answer, she remarks, "I'm not a little kid, Kaven. Please tell me what it the book was about!"
Kaven blinks slowly. It is a normal enough gesture. But suddenly, when his eyes start to reopen, an elephant's worth of fear crashes into her, nearly knocking her off her feet by the sensation alone. The trepidation abruptly swallows her brain, sending wormy arms into every nook and cranny of her mind. Her stomach starts aching uncomfortably, like it is lowering itself, trying to escape the emotion that plagues her mind. And then her fingers start trembling.
The small, logical part of her brain that could still function isn't sure where this feeling comes from, but as predictably as the day turn to night and the young grow old, she knows for sure that whatever the answer is, it will lead her to total ruin.
But you were only talking about a book…
She quashes this thought viciously. And just when Kaven refocuses his eyes on her, she lets out a shaky sentence.
"Nevermind. I don't want to know."