Here goes another one. If anyone reads this: Comment, will you?
The freshness of the morning had long yielded to the heat of a summer’s day, but so far the trees had taken the brunt of the sun’s force, lending shadow to the road and making the temperatures bearable. In the last half hour, however, the sun had slowly aligned with the road and conquered more and more of the road, until all but the tiniest strip had been drenched in brilliant sunlight. The defeat was only temporary; before long the sun would have crossed the road, shadows once again growing from the trees to the west, but for now the road had turned into a melting pot.
Meanwhile Laiva had taken refuge a couple of metres beside the path. Here, between the trees, it was a good deal cooler and the air had even retained some of its moistness, albeit only enough to make her long for more.
With the back of her wrist she wiped the sweat from her brows, before it would run into her eyes. Her boots were already tied to her backpack rather than on her feet and she had long removed the shirt from under her vest, but even in the shadows every movement she did was one too much. Right now, she’d rather doze on the shore of the small lake, a couple of minutes from her village, dangling her feet in the water and diving into it when it got too hot nevertheless. That was the proper way to spent the summer, not marching through the forest at noon, but that couldn’t be helped. There was no way she was going to turn back now, not after what she had been through.
Laiva unstopped her water bottle and took a mouthful; saying it tasted stale was doing it too much of an honour, but it was better than nothing. Her gaze wandered to Mynor at her side, panting heavily. Guilt was stabbing her like daggers for every swing of water she took, even though he had refused any water she had tried to give him so far.
She stopped and knelt down, pouring a little water in her hollow hand for what had to be the hundredths time and offered it to Mynor, holding it right below his nose. She could feel his breath against her hand, could feel him sucking the scent of the water into his nostrils, and for one moment he seemed to be temped to actually lick the liquid from Laiva’s hand, but then turned his head away.
For a moment she looked at the water, most of which had already run through her fingers, hitting the ground in little streams. What a waste. She splashed the remainder on her face and stood up.
Laiva was getting seriously angry. Not about the water, there was no reason to go especially easy on it, but she was certain he was thirsty. He was just putting on a show, a heroic self-sacrifice so she could have more of the water, which wasn’t sparse anyway. Expecting her to be too stupid to realise to see through it, on top of everything else. This was so frustrating. And people kept doing it. Not just her parents, half of the grown ups in the village did it. And now a wolf. Laiva stood up and angrily kicked the ground. Then, for lack of anything else to do, she continued walking, stomping forward rather than wandering in her usual light gait.
Well, he could have the water bucket once she reached the inn. She wanted to refill her bottle with fresh water from the well anyway. Which would, after half an hour, taste just as stale. In fact, the inn was probably visible from the road already, but she wasn’t going to walk out into the heat just to check. There was no risk in missing it anyway; the inns between Pala and the city were all build directly by the road.
Somehow, the inns were even part of the road. The king had them built, so the travellers would have a safe place to sleep. There was no more than a day’s walking distance between two of them and nobody would be turned away; even those who couldn’t afford the copper for the night would always get a place in the stables.
Her daddy had tried to explained it, when he had taken her to the city for the first time. The only thing that had stuck with her back then was, that the inns belonged to the king, which in turn led to the inevitable question why the king was so poor he couldn’t afford an inn as big as theirs at home. For a moment her daddy had given her a startled look, then he had started to laugh and Laiva had laughed and they had laughed together until they had both been out of breath. She had to smile when she remembered that.
In fact, the inns were exactly the right size. They were large enough to accommodate the small number of people that travelled the road, but small enough to keep the repairs affordable. Nevertheless there was no way to make a living from them and the only reason they hadn’t been abandoned a long time ago was a royal decree that put the military in charge to man them. Laiva had picked up that much from the conversations between her daddy and the innkeepers.
This although went a long way of explaining the invariable grey pulp that seemed to be the only hot food you could get in the inns. It had taken a lot of persuasion to make her eat it for the first time, but it was filling, and as long as it was hot tasted not half as bad as it looked.
Ahead of Laiva the forest lightened and then she was standing at the edge of a small clearing, bathed in sunlight and with a brightly painted house in its middle. A short cobbled path lead from the front door to the road on the left and a well was sitting beneath it. Laiva was a bit startled. This was the inn, no doubt about that, but the last time she’d been here it had looked grey in grey and quite a bit run down. Not that she wanted it back the way it had been, in fact she liked it, but she just couldn’t picture the inn’s keeper to get anywhere near anything colourful. Maybe there was a new inn keeper, Laiva though as she walked towards the well. That would spare her some questions she really didn’t want to answer.
She pushed the bucket from the rim of the well and released the catch. Instantly it rushed into the depth and with a loud splash hit the water a few moments later. If getting it up again was only that easy. Laiva grabbed the winch’s handle and started turning. She had been sweating before, from standing in the sun alone, now the sweat was running down her body in streams. The bucket was about one third up when she heard the inn’s door opening behind her and a man stepped out. He looked old, maybe her daddy’s age, but Laiva wasn’t very good at that kind of thing.
‘Let me give you a hand with this.’ he said, giving her a friendly smile. Laiva stepped aside and let him take over the handle. Before long he had cranked the bucket all the way up and placed it outside the well.
‘Reesha at your service. I’m the innkeeper here, by the way.’
‘My name is Laiva. Pleased to meet you.’
She knelt down and refilled her bottle, then scooped some water up and drank, but the little water her hands could hold was only making her long for more. Much more. Laiva pushed the whole of her face into the bucket and greedily sucked the wet in.
‘Looks like someone was really thirsty there.’ Reesha said once she came up again and Laiva felt the blood flushing into her face out of embarrassment. Where were her manners? Drinking from a bucket like a dog. Or a wolf. Laiva shifted to the side and looked at Mynor, who eagerly eagerly followed her invitation and took his turn at drinking.
‘So you are travelling all on your own with your dog?’
Laiva stared at the man with a mixture of confusion and utter disbelieve. How could you confuse a wolf with a dog? Mynor’s thought must have moved along the same lines, as he had stopped drinking the moment Reesha had said this and was looking at him with a remarkably similar expression to Laiva’s, though with a hint of hurt pride added to the mix.
‘He is a wolf.’ Laiva finally said.
‘Wolf dog then, if it’s that important to you.’
‘Not a wolf dog, a wolf.’
Silence ensued, with the both of them staring at each other.
‘You almost had me there. A wolf. Good one.’
He started laughing. It wasn’t an honest laughter, though, but forced. Laiva could read in his face, that he had a hard time of believing in it himself. She felt the strong urge to leave. Now.
For a split second an expression of relieve hushed over the man’s face, only to be replaced for one of weariness and defeat as he realised what he was going to ultimately respond.
‘Won’t you stay for the night? The road is dangerous after dark…’
‘It’s midday.’ Laiva remarked drily. She knew what he meant, but she wasn’t going to stay here any longer than absolutely necessary.
‘But you won’t reach the next inn until…’
‘I’ll be fine.’, she cut him off, and then added a very definite ‘Thank you.’, and turned to go.
Reesha braced himself and grabbed Laiva’s shoulder.
‘I won’t allow it.’
You could hear, that he wasn’t comfortable with this, not at all, but he had a responsibility; a duty.
Laiva whirled around, wrenching away from under his grasp. She didn’t say a thing, but there was no need for words; her eyes told anything there was to say. There was a wildness to them, that made Reesha flinch. He knew that look and he had come to fear it.
Only when Laiva and Mynor were long out of sight did Reesha stop shaking. He had been given this post to put a long distance between him and the southern border. A nice, silent place where he could come to terms with himself and what had happened, until he had recovered enough to reenter active duty. And now he knew that wasn’t going to happen; he would never be a soldier again.