Past Lives: Crossing The River: 7

seven

companion

The beggar said he was “no-one,

Nothing to know or see,

There is nothing important in me;

Now, we must be going to cross the river.”

Martin wakes to the sound of birds, but otherwise silence. Not an angry silence, but a tired one, an uncertain one, and when he sits up, rubbing his head with a groan, Aerith says nothing. She meets his eye, opens her mouth as if to speak, and then looks away – it bares her neck, the movement unexpectedly vulnerable. “Good morning. Is there anything of use left here?”

There’s a moment as he sits there – hands still planted on the ground but ready to be raised in self-defence, if necessary – when he waits for her to say something about last night, to strike out at him (verbally or otherwise) for his presumption. She regards him from a face still swollen and painful-looking. There are bruises where blood once was (blood that he remembers wiping away, revealing skin under his fingers), and only her eyes are clear, untouched. He feels like they’re looking right through him suddenly, the sensation unnerving, and so he looks at the sword next to her, focuses on the patterns in the sheath’s leather, and waits. Nothing more happens until she takes the sword and places it across her crossed legs, balancing it on her knees and forcing his eyes back up to hers. She raises an eyebrow, obviously wondering what the matter is with him. He clears his throat, realises that she means useful herbs or business to attend to, and replies, “No. Nothing.”

She nods. “Make preparations to move, in that case.”

He nods in return, and she stands – slowly, her leg seeming to pain her. The words, “I could dress that,” slip out before he intends them to, and she pauses, tenses, her eyes meeting his.

“I am perfectly capable,” she tells him shortly, moving across the makeshift camp to dig in the ragged sack she calls a bag and pulling out strips of fabric. Of course he knew she was dressing her wounds somehow – he supposes that his mother must have given her the bandages – and he exhales in what is decidedly non-surprise. That changes when no poultice appears with them. She holds onto a tree, using it to sit slowly, painfully, wincing as she does so. Then, without ceremony, she pulls off her boot, draws up the leg of her britches, and looks down. He sees her eyes narrow in a suppressed grimace, then even that small weakness is gone. His eyes narrow too, for very different reasons. Her calf is a mess, and so is her shin, her lower leg covered with hastily tied bandages that are bloodstained and yellowing.

“When did you last change this?” he demands of her suddenly, his voice sharper than he intended, anger making him brave.

She doesn’t take her eyes off her injuries, begins slowly unwinding the bandages. “What does it matter?” is her equally harsh reply, the fact that it is not truly an answer telling him all he needs to know.

“It matters plenty.” His reply is quiet but still clearly a retort. He pretends for both of their sakes not to hear the regular hisses of pain she lets out, and that he can’t smell the wound. “It’ll fester.” It already has, a voice whispers somewhere in the back of his head, but he doesn’t want to give the thought too much credence. The thought very nearly upsets him, though it only sinks in after a second or two. She is not easy. She is not a friend, and judging from this she may certainly be a fool. Yet she is brave, and he respects that, strange as it may be. She is stil walking – even if slowly – and the thought of that walk stopping seems wrong, somehow.

A sharp nod, and she admits, “It may well do.” It takes her a moment to add, “I won’t die.”

He loks at her in disbelief, and the comment comes out drier than he intended, with less frustration behind it.  “You seem remarkably certain for a woman who can barely walk.”

“I can walk,” she grits out. “I do walk.”

She is dodging the point completely, and he wants to give up and put an end to a conversation that seems at many points like an uphill struggle, but something makes him continue, “Honey?”

She nods; he looks down at the mess of gore and God-knows-what-else that is her unbound leg and hopes to see the product of his mother’s bees’ hard work; it is a central part of the dressing, helps to stop the wound rotting. Picking up a rag, she begins dabbing off the wound – gently, not seeming to worsen it, he’s relieved to see – and then roots around in her bag until she takes out a small pot of honey along with some fresh bandages. He looks to the horizon, pretends not to watch as she applies it, re-wrapping her injury.

“You know you cannot simply leave it,” he tells her.

“I am aware,” she tells him. But I frequently find myself busy. I have people to see and things to kill.” She looks away, off to the horizon. “Besides, this is most likely not an infinite supply.”

Hearing that, he grabs his own bag and oulls from it to a similar pot. “I have spares. You need only have asked.”

She looks at the item in his hand for a moment, then the anger fades from her face to leave it blank; but there is something in the set of her mouth and the flash of her eyes that’s almost… embarrassment. “Ah.”

“Surely you’ve dealt with injuries before?” he asks her, the question seeming like a stupid one, what with the way she chooses to spend her time.

Again she doesn’t meet his eye, and seems uncertain of her reply. He is used to seeing many thingd from her, but not hesitance. “Yes. No. Yes. But there were wards, guards, things I did… things I do.”

Wards and guards. There is a moment where he struggles for comprehension, and then he realises what she means. Not the herbs he and his mother use, the useful little things that look good but are really nothing more than glorified nature study. She means magic, true magic, and the knowledge of it has him fighting not to get up and run from her.

He has never heard of a swordswoman, but he has certainly heard of witches, and nothing good ever comes from them.

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