"W-Woah, hey! Richard, be careful!"
Richard didn't even know he'd lost his footing again until he felt that slow, sliding, lurching feeling of falling as he started to topple backwards. This time, however, help was a lot closer – Sophie and Asbel both grabbed his arms tight, hauling him back onto the path and against the comfortingly unmovable face of the cliff.
Richard was more than happy to lean against it, breathing hard at his most recent rush with death. Looking properly now, he could see that the path they were on was a scant four paces wide – barely enough for a step to the side, not enough for more, and not enough for them all to do anything but walk in a line. He hadn't even realized he'd listed until…
The boy swallowed, feeling cold and clammy for reasons beyond the night air. Of course, it wasn't half as far down as it had been at the top, when they'd all fallen together. He probably wouldn't even have been hurt. But, Richard had had quite enough of falling for one lifetime, please and thank you.
"Geez, do you like falling off cliffs?" Asbel asked. Richard flinched at the tone of his voice, how sharp it was. But, close as they were, it was a flinch neither Sophie nor Asbel could fail to notice, and when the other boy next spoke, he sounded concerned. "Hey, seriously…are you okay? You're not hurt, are you? You need to speak up if it's something like that!"
"I'm fine," Richard said, trying to swallow past the traitorous shaking in his voice. He also tried his very best not to look down, even though the sound of the ocean still sounded much too close. "I'm not hurt."
And it was true that he wasn't. But, all the same, Richard did not feel well in the slightest. He could feel his limbs trembling even as he leaned back firmly against the base of the cliff, and his vision was starting to swirl – not badly, not really, not enough to make him think he'd hit his head that hard, but enough that he was afraid to take another step. He felt lightheaded and a little sick and tired, so tired. He thought it might be the adrenaline fading, such as after a particularly brutal bout of sword practice, and that just made him think of Bryce, and the thought of those eyes and those claws and that voice made him physically start to shake.
"Richard, h-hey!" Now Asbel sounded truly worried, reaching out to steady the prince with one hand on his stomach, the other on his shoulder. Even Sophie looked concerned as she did the same, adding to Asbel's efforts. "Maybe we should get down. I'm not sure you can make it, like this…"
And then Richard's stomach gave an angry rumble.
Sophie looked around warily, turned on the spot as much as the narrow path allowed, raising her fists. "What was that?" she asked Asbel, her voice still deceptively calm despite the danger all around them.
Asbel, on the other hand, laughed. Loud and happy and relieved, he laughed. "Oh, is that all?" he asked, patting Richard on the shoulder. "I should have known! Especially growing up with Hubert!"
He stared up at the sky thoughtfully, shading his eyes to see the stars, and frowned. It was an almost, genuinely pensive expression, and it was strange to see on Asbel. "Man. I didn't mean for us to be gone this long. Guess princes don't really miss a lot of meals, do they? Hey, Sophie! Are you hungry?"
Sophie tilted her head, seeming to contemplate the question. Then, amazingly, she shook her head. "No."
Richard, for his part, thought it was amazing. Because, with both Asbel and Sophie holding him in place, reassuring him that he wasn't going to fall again, he'd had a chance to calm down and realize that his shakiness and dizziness and lack of focus? Probably was only due to hunger. That Asbel was right, he'd never missed a meal in his life, everyone around him had made sure of that. A prince had to be healthy.
But, what with one thing and another, what with Bryce and falling and passing out…if the dark sky and the height of the moon was anything to go by, suppertime had passed a long time ago.
"What about you, Asbel? Aren't you hungry?" he asked.
"Me? Nah. I forget to eat all the time." Asbel grinned broadly, almost as though he were proud of himself for this. "Especially when I don't have Hubert around to remind me." Yet again, a rare expression of thoughtfulness stole over the boy's face – he tapped a finger against his lips, tilted his head back a bit towards the sky. "But I wonder…"
Richard thought he knew what Asbel was going to say, even before he said it, and he tried to head the other boy off at the pass. "We should keep going. I'm sure everyone is looking for us, and we shouldn't be delayed any more just because of me…"
"Nope! Too late!" Asbel grinned broadly again, grabbing Richard's hand tight in one of his. "You just made me remember that I brought a pork cutlet bowl for the trip! It's probably what's attracting the wolves – better eat it now, right?"
Sophie, seemingly following a cue, took Richard's other hand, and then the prince realized that he'd suddenly become a link in a chain, Asbel to himself to Sophie. Asbel nodded a little ways up the path – it widened a bit, enough that falling probably wouldn't seem like such a constant threat. "Can you make it that far, Richard?"
"Of course I can." Not only did Richard's pride demand this reply, but the promise of actually maybe being able to sit was too tempting. He could make it a few more feet, especially with Asbel and Sophie holding tight to his hands.
Far more slowly and carefully this time, they inched along the path together, keeping their backs to the wall. No one spoke, but Richard knew that was only because they were all, himself included, keeping their eyes peeled for monster. Nothing so far had been that dangerous, not against the three of them, but nothing so far had hit them in such a narrow spot, so that any attack would become a one-on-one fight by necessity.
Therefore, it was with an audible sigh of relief that Richard finally allowed his legs to give out from under him when they reach their chosen spot, and slid down to a sitting position gratefully. The path still wasn't wide enough to let them safely cross one another, and they were even further up now and so even Asbel didn't dare to risk it. Instead, they sat down in what was rapidly becoming a familiar marching order – Sophie on one side, Asbel on the other, and Richard sandwiched safely between them.
It was enough room for Asbel to take off his pack, and go rummaging around in it. "I brought some snacks for the trip!" he said brightly. "You know, some stuff Hubert and I made learning how to dualize. I thought we could eat it on the way back." He laughed a bit, pulling out a small, ovular box – Richard recognized it as a lunch box, the sort favored by mine workers and farmers. "Guess we're doing just that, right? Hey, Richard, pass this to Sophie."
Richard took the box – still warm, despite everything, probably from being buried at the bottom of Asbel's bag – and passed it over. Sophie took it with evident curiosity in her eyes and, as he watched, she turned the tin over and over in her hands with no sign of understanding. "What is this?" she finally asked.
"It's a lunch box! The yellow half is the lid. Just take it off…n-no, wait, not like that! Turn it around first. Now you take it off and bam! You keep food inside."
Richard could see that Sophie's box contained what looked to be pork, vegetables, and rice. He also knew immediately that Asbel's assessment had probably been right – the smell of the meat was even stronger now that the lid was off. It was a savory sort of smell that made his stomach rumble insistently just being near it. He couldn't help but swallow as Sophie completely failed to understand what the little fork kept inside was for, and instead began to take up bits of rice and pieces of meat and start eating them.
"There you go!" said Asbel, only then returning to his rummaging. "I know you're not hungry, Sophie, but it has been a long climb. We've gotta keep our strength up, right? Besides, who knows how long it's been since you've eaten? You could have been asleep on that hill for days."
"Thank you, Asbel." He almost thought he saw her smile.
"Oh, Richard, here."
Richard found himself suddenly with a box in his hands – actually, as he focused, he realized that this one was more of a tin, cylindrical and with a lid. With absolutely shameless and indecent enthusiasm, he went to work unscrewing it. What was revealed inside, he saw by the light of the moon, was…
"Porridge?" he asked curiously. Raising the thermos to his nose, he sniffed it thoughtfully. Yes, porridge, he'd had it when he was ill, and something…else?
Asbel was kind enough to unhook the spoon from the side of the thermos and pass it over to Richard, who had completely failed to even consider looking for a utensil and probably wouldn't have done so well, in his dizzied state, if he had. He almost shuddered to think what might have happened if he'd dropped it.
But, with the spoon safely in hand, Richard went to work drinking up the broth and spooning out the grains that floated among it. It was a few seconds before he even properly realized the taste of what he was eating, but when he did…
"Oops!" said Asbel, sounding alarmed as he caught a glimpse of whatever face Richard was making. "Sorry – I guess I should have warned you. You've really never had plum porridge before? We have to eat it all the time, if we're sick. I guess it does taste a little weird, but there's nothing better for waking you right up!"
"I-I can tell," Richard said, when he finally managed to swallow. Certainly, he felt more alert and awake after the almost overwhelmingly sour taste of the food. But, as he overcame it, he had to admit that the taste wasn't bad – just strange, and powerful. And, like all porridge, it was filling. He knew that his stomach wouldn't be rumbling any time soon, once he got through the thermos.
"Asbel? What are you eating?"
"Ah, don't worry about it, Sophie. I said I wasn't hungry."
"…it has been a long climb. We have to keep our strength up."
It took Richard a few seconds, and a few more bites, to realize what kind of conversation was going on over his head. When he did, he looked up in alarm at the other boy to realize that, yes, Asbel was not eating anything.
"What is the meaning of this?" Richard demanded, stronger than he'd intended or expected. He looked into his thermos, at Sophie's lunchbox, saw that Sophie was actually possibly drawing the same conclusions as himself, before staring back at Asbel, aghast. "Did you give us all the food that you brought?"
"No, no!" Asbel immediately reached into his bag and pulled out another thermos, which he held between Richard and himself like a shield. "See? More rice porridge! Good for you!"
Richard frowned at the sight of it, mollified but only just.
"Don't you like rice porridge, Asbel?" Sophie asked from his other side. He looked around to see her pop another little clump of rice into her mouth.
"Sure I do!"
"Then you should eat it. For your strength." She stared at Richard this time, as though seeking confirmation or some sort of explanation for Asbel's behavior. "Right?"
"That's right," said Richard, looking back at Asbel with all the sternness he could muster as a prince. It seemed to work, too – Asbel seemed almost to wilt a bit on the spot. It still seemed so strange and wrong to see the normally exuberant boy looking like any chastised child, but this time, Richard pressed the advantage. "You're saving it, right? In case we get hungry again on the walk back. Even though you gave us the best food you had." He hadn't missed the way Asbel's gaze kept ticking to the rapidly disappearing number of pork pieces in Sophie's box, or that rice porridge was what was left when Richard had gotten plum porridge.
"That's not it at all!" Asbel protested. Even though, under the twin intensities of Richard's scowl and Sophie's innocent curiosity, he completely failed to offer up an alternate explanation.
"Then what is it?" asked Sophie, pressing her advantage this time.
"Well, it's…look, is that really so bad? I told you guys, I miss meals all the time. I don't even notice. But that's not how it is for you guys. This is a lot of work. You should eat if you're hungry."
"And so should you," said Richard. He was not a stupid child, no matter what Bryce had said. "Missing meals" was not the same as "skipping meals" – one was usually willingly done. The other probably was not. Inspiration struck him, then, and he added with the air of a master knight closing in for the kill: "Just like you shouldn't practice swordsmanship if you're not feeling well!"
He felt, rather than saw, Sophie nod behind him.
"Anything that tries to get to us on this path is probably going to have to go through you first, Asbel," Richard went on, surprised at the emotion in his voice but not pausing to think about it. "We need you to be strong. To…"
To protect us hung unspoken in the air.
It worked. Richard realized that he should have always known it would work. The words were spoken mostly for Asbel's sake, to give the boy some sort of permission that he seemed to need even if he wasn't asking for it. Richard and Sophie hadn't been doing badly against the monsters on the cliff, especially not Sophie, even before Richard had started feeling faint. But the undeniable truth was that Asbel had been taking point, for better or worse.
"Okay!" said Asbel, loud enough to make Richard flinch, and he began digging in to his porridge with almost as much fervor as he'd been exerting to avoid it. He didn't eat with enjoyment, Richard noticed, but with obvious hunger and something like determination. "What was I thinking? I'm gonna need all my strength if I'm gonna protect you guys! Just wait a bit and I'll finish up!"
Asbel turned out to have to wait for them. Richard, despite how hungry he was, couldn't eat too quickly in the face of the plum porridge, and Sophie seemed to genuinely not be hungry in the face of all the odds. "Ah…" he gave a contented little sigh, patting his stomach. "That really hit the spot. Hey Sophie, Richard, how's your food?"
"I…I think I like it," said Sophie, before licking a bit of grease from her fingers.
"It tastes very good." And it did, actually. Richard didn't foresee himself eating plum porridge regularly, but it certainly did the job of waking him up and filling him up. Then, because he realized Sophie had said it, and he hadn't: "Thank you, Asbel."
"Don't sweat it." But Asbel looked away when he said it. He didn't look away quite quickly enough, though, for Richard to miss seeing the coloring to his cheeks.
At least he was smiling, too. Richard was already of the very definite impression that Asbel was someone who deserved to always smile.
Asbel got to his feet, then, balancing easily on the path with a full stomach. "I'm gonna go on ahead a bit," he said. "You guys take your time, okay? Don't want to get sick way up here, right? I'll be back in a bit – scream if anything tries to eat you!"
And, with that dire warning that somehow failed to sound at all dire, Asbel started inching along the path again, sword in hand. Richard and Sophie watched him carefully until he rounded the corner, and then they both let out identical sighs of relief when they heard his footsteps pause shortly after. No, he hadn't gone far. If Richard was any judge, and being a prince meant you learned to read people rather quickly, he'd just been looking for an excuse not to be made to blush again anytime soon.
At least he'd finished his rice porridge. And at least he'd been smiling.
"We should hurry," Richard said, looking back to Sophie. "Everyone will be worried about us, by now."
Sophie nodded. "Okay." And went back to eating with her hands.
Richard eventually managed to explain how to eat with a fork to her, even if he did a bad enough job of it that he heard Asbel trying not to laugh just around the corner. But he managed it, and the eating went a lot quicker after that, and after what felt like no time at all Richard was getting to his feet with a new steadiness to his limbs.
Sophie took his hand without prompting. This time, Richard returned her grip firmly. Together, they moved off along the path to rejoin their new friend, the third link in their chain.
It was going to be a long climb, Richard knew, but at least he was enduring it with a full stomach and in the good company of friends.