Chapter 7

Zeb stretched his long arms way above his head. The sun hadn't even begun to peak her head up over the trees yet. He'd always been a morning person and this morning was no exception. In the bed roll next to him, Isfrael snorted and sucked up his drool before rolling over and kicking the blanket off one pale foot. The troll shook his head bemusedly and lifted the tent flap for Aracnotron, chuckling when the mage's little foot snuck back inside the blankets.

Another big stretch was his first order of business. Finally able to stand up completely straight (or at least, as straight as a troll preferred), Zeb inwardly lamented the size of their tent as he did every morning.

Zebrinnu loved pre-dawn. The dew had recently settled on the grass around their campsite and was cool and refreshing on his bare feet. There was a certain stillness in the air – a crisp newness which embodied everything mornings represented. Here was a new start, a day full of possibilities and opportunities.

The fire had died down to a low smoulder over the few hours he had been asleep. The troll and the spider made their way around the side of their tent to where a pile of chopped lumber (which was bountiful in these parts) had been stacked beneath an outside tent flap. An armful of wood and Isfrael's leftover scrap parchment later and the fire was crackling heartily. It almost echoed across the silent sleeping camp.

After rummaging through their food stores, he had settled on pine nut pancakes with (as usual) bacon on the side. Zeb loaded his arms up with ingredients – the cheese, flour, eggs, pine nuts, bacon, syrup – and nearly dropped it all when he turned back to the fire. On the other side of the flames was a familiar bear. A bear who normally didn't roll out of her tent until the last possible moment. Zeb shook his head to clear the cobwebs and grabbed the frying pan before sitting down on a log-seat to start his breakfast.

"Morning dere Leda."

The bear didn't respond except to scratch her nose.

"Couldn't sleep?"

The bear looked at the ground and heaved a forlorn sigh. Dust stirred and the flames flared.

"Worried about Iyo?"

There was no response, but after a moment the bear stood up and shifted sluggishly into his commanding officer. Her lip was bleeding profusely, but she hadn't made a sound. Zeb knew better than to push her. If Leda wanted to talk she would. If Leda didn't want to talk she wouldn't. The fact that she had willingly shifted into a form that could speak was progress.

Moments dragged on. Zeb flipped his pancake, scents of the pear and cinnamon baked into the batter made his mouth water. A log cracked and spit sparks nearly as far as the dew-laden grass.

"I ..." she began and then stopped. She looked confused, uncertain. Zeb turned his attention back to cooking. Someday she'd find a way to feel whole without Iyo around.

"I feel..." she tried and then stopped. A deep breath followed. "I'm worried." Zeb looked up, but Leda had her head down, looking at her hands.

"Worried abou' what?" he asked.

"What if we lose everything? What if everyone dies? What if the elves are more prepared than they let on? What if I fail? What if this whole thing fails?"

"Ya can't let ya life be determined by da ifs, Ledabuhr." He cut a thick slice of brie and lay it on top of the hot pancake.

"Everything seemed so clear yesterday. So easy."

"It be a good plan. We both be knowing dat not all o' dese soldiers are gonna be makin' it back 'ere. Dere is no way dat ya can be sure any o' us be makin' it back either Ledabuhr. Jus' remembah dat dey all signed up for dis. Dey all be believing in you an' ya plan."

Leda didn't respond. The pancake slid easily onto his plate and the brie had melted perfectly. Halfway through his first blissful bite, Leda tensed up and her face shifted from the painful lost expression to the hardened determined look she wore outside their campsite. He marvelled at how fast she went from Ledabuhr to General Savagedawn. Zeb turned to follow her gaze over his shoulder.

Sternhorn.

Zeb looked between the two, a bite of pancake hovering on his fork halfway to his mouth. A blob of brie fell off his fork and onto the waiting plate. Neither tauren said anything. The tension was so thick, he'd need a very sharp axe to cut through it.

"I be uh... jus' inside da tent Ledabuhr." Bacon was carelessly tossed into the hot cast iron pan. "Don' be burning da bacon."

"I saw the smoke from your fire."

Leda didn't respond. She didn't think a response was necessary. Instead she cut right to the point. "Did you have a question about the attack today?"

"I can't sleep before a big battle, either."

"That's not a question."

He sat down on the other end of the log-seat.

"How much did you hear?" She was sure voices would travel in the dead silence of the dawn. Leda watched the flames, mesmerized by their dance, but she could feel his gaze on her. She could feel his pity at her pathetic display of weakness.

"I heard enough," he rumbled. An awkward silence followed. Leda knew she was supposed to respond, but had nothing to say. So she said nothing. "I, well I just wanted you to know that whatever this is, this doubt and dread, you're not alone in it." Sternhorn paused and she could feel him watching her again. "And in the end, we're better leaders because of it." When she said nothing, he stood, bowed respectfully and quietly as he had entered, left their campsite.

"I bettah not be smellin' no burnin' bacon ou' dere Ledabuhr!"

She cringed and leapt for the smoking pan, forgetting about cast iron and hissing when the sensitive skin on the palm of her hand wrapped around the blindingly hot handle. The pan tipped and fell in the dirt, splashing bacon grease on her hoof and dumping her breakfast on the ground.

Zeb was out of his tent in a flash and had her hand wrapped in a very colourful bandage, which looked to be part runecloth and part frostweave. "Dat be da las' time ya be makin' ya own breakfas'." The troll picked up the pan (after grabbing the nearby cooking mitt) and blew off the dust. "Jus' be sittin' tight until Aeth is wakin' up. She'll fix ya." With the pan nearly clean and her hand patched up, Zeb started cooking her breakfast again.

"How much of that did you hear?" Leda knew how thin the tents were.

"I not be hearin' anyt'ing ou'side da tent," Zeb flipped the bacon expertly and then turned to smile at her, "But I be sure dat anyt'ing Sternhorn be sayin' is da trut'."