Al’s superior night vision helped immensely as they ran through the forest. They still tripped over stones and scratches their legs on bushes, but they were able to keep to the path. There were breaks where they needed to make their way down ravines or cross streams at a slow pace, giving them a chance to catch their breaths.
They ran until late morning. Neither had thought to ask the guard if any of the cultists had tracking skills. Would they try anyway, desperate to get her back even though their deadline had passed? They didn’t know, so they ran for as long and as far as they could.
All three of them were soaked through. The rain had stopped a few hours before dawn, but without the sun their clothes remained damp. They were beyond exhausted, hungry, and thirsty.
He spotted an overhang of schist in a small glen they were hiking through. “We need to stop,” he said, stumbling forward heavily. Anla took Silfa from him as he sat for a moment on a boulder. “Here. This will do.”
“What if they find us, though?”
“My gut says the noon deadline passed and they quit. They might be looking for her, for the reward, but I’d put my money on them following the trail south. I’m hoping we got enough of a lead that they can’t find us.”
Her shoulders sagged with fatigue before she nodded. “I suppose it’s worth the risk. None of us are going to keep this up for much longer.”
Anla and Al tried to get the lady to sit underneath the overhang while they scavenged for wood, but she had grown attached to the both of them and refused. They would leave her there, promising her treats if she stayed. She managed to find them three times before they gave up. Al bent down and slung her over his back.
Silfa had said nothing the entire time she had clung to Al’s front. Alpine supposed it was undignified of her to be treated like that. He understood. Royals were more delicate than the average person and certainly a young lady would be the daintiest of them.
Al carried the kindling until Silfa started pulling the sticks from his hand and storing them in a bundle between her chest and his back. After a while, it became a game for them. She’d point to an area, whisper “over there!”, then held on as he sped over to where she had indicated. He didn’t mind; he knew that an end was in sight and he’d hit his sixth or seventh wind some time before their game began.
The two of them made their way back to the overhanging and deposited the wood outside. Silfa watched while Al set up their beds and prepared the food for an early dinner. Anladet returned with larger pieces of wood and fetched water for the stew from the river nearby. As they chatted, they didn’t notice that Silfa had taken Al’s tools and started the fire herself.
The flames were licking the wood when they smelled smoke and rushed outside to see Silfa warming her hands. She looked over at Al and Anla, then grinned and pointed at the fire.
Anladet sat next to her. “You started this all by yourself. Thank you for helping out. Where did you learn how to start a fire?”
She moved her mouth up to Anla’s ear and whispered, “Daddy.”
“Oh! Your father taught you. What else do you know how to do?”
Silfa grabbed Al’s knife and began whittling something from a piece of wood. Anla watched her, then sat behind her and braided her hair in an intricate manner while she worked. By the time they began setting up a crane over the fire, she had whittled Alpine a little person.
He held it up. “This is just..,” he said, giving a dramatic pause, “…magnificent. “How many museums is your work in, my lady?”
“None,” she said, pleased.
“That’s a crying shame. Who taught you how to make exquisite works of art like this?”
“Daddy,” she said, inching closer to Al.
“Is he a great artist? Does he paint paintings or make sculptures?”
“No, he’s the Duke of Sharka.”
“The Duke of Sharka! Anla, did you know we had such prestigious company?”
The girl eyed him for a moment then hit him lightly. “You knew!”
“Yes,” Al said. “I knew you must be noble, but I thought you were a princess the whole time.”
Her shy smile faded, though she still seemed happy. “Did my father send you?”
Al pressed his lips together, trying to think of a tactful way of telling her. “In a way. He asked the whole duchy to come find you. He missed you very much and was worried sick about you.”
“Did he promise money?”
Al and Anladet were both taken aback slightly. “Um, yes, Lady Silfa,” he said. “He did. It’s to give people a reason and to make sure that we’re compensated for…”
She folded her hands in her lap. “It was a very smart economical decision. I applaud his efforts and wish him good fortune.”
It took Al a moment to realize she was parroting something she must have overheard her father say, though it was still strange to hear it coming from an eight year old. “Well, yes. It was a smart decision. But I think he did it more because he loves you dearly and less because it’s ‘economical’. You do know that, right? Your dad loves you.”
“I know. I miss him. Will we see him soon?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact,” Anla said, “so maybe we should look more presentable. Ladies bath time! No gentleman near the river!”
The two trotted off while Al looked into provisions. He had a small pot that he added peeled and cut potatoes, beans, and salted venison. When the girls returned, he’d fill it with water and ask Anla how to make a crane to put over the fire. Or maybe Silfa knew that as well.
And then it hit him. He had been expecting his normal symptoms to start at some point. When they didn’t, he thought maybe his weariness was going to eclipse his symptoms and he’d sink into a deep slumber instead. He had forgotten about the repercussions until the moment when everything went dark.
Any thoughts of happiness or relief that they had escaped vanished. He was left with a cold, hollow feeling in his chest and an utter sense of unworthiness. It washed over him, a flood of self-loathing and cynicism that astonished him in its breadth. He had left his life behind, his family, his friends, his job and everyone that depended on him. What kind of horrid person would do that? Who leaves an innocent child who loves them alone with a mother who doesn’t?
Every barb he pulled out, assuaging them with pitiful excuses and meager promises of restitution, left him vexed and unnerved. If he was worthy of survival, and he wasn’t, how would he live after his money had dried up? He had been so careless and stupid. He was bleeding money and hadn’t even thought of the future. And what if they were caught by the cultists? He hoped they had given up, but behind any tree the cultists could be lurking, waiting to strike. Or highwaymen. Or wild animals.
Each of those fears dissipated, not due to logical assumptions or planning, but due to this encompassing event playing out. And when everything was gone, he was left with nothing. No anger, no fear, no loathing for himself. Nothing. Surprisingly, it was worse than the pain because it meant he had no reason to exist. He was a shell, a non-feeling entity who couldn’t do anything right by anyone.
He felt so heavy. His shoulders slumped forward. His head hung limp. Some part of him knew this wasn’t right. In a moment of self-preservation, he picked up the knife he had been cutting food with and threw it long out of his reach. Then, he sat and started grasping the ground, pulling up clumps of vegetation and dirt so that he could feel something. Even the pain of ripping his fingernails off was better than the hollow nothingness.
Eons later, Anla and Silfa returned from their bath. They were still in good spirits, having splashed and played while in the stream. Anla was surprised to see Al sitting away from the fire, clutching dirt between his hands. When he didn’t respond to her calls, she jogged to him and knelt before him. Even when she held his face between her hands, he stared ahead without saying anything.
“What’s wrong with him?” Silfa asked, sitting nearby on a rock.
“He’s a wizard. He told me that when he stops using magic after a long time, he gets bad feelings. It hasn’t been like this, though. Not this bad.”
“What should we do?”
“We’ll stay with him and make sure he doesn’t do anything to himself. Can you watch him while I cook dinner?”
Silfa nodded and slipped her fingers between Al’s. His hand stopped wringing the soil and went limp. He began grasping the grass with his other hand. She spoke softly to him, telling him about funny things that had happened at court. His face could have been made of ice and it would have given more warmth.
Al wanted them to go away. He didn’t want to smile. What he wanted was for his soul to be pulled out of him while someone pounded his body into a paste, spraying it all over the woods while he watched from above. The concept should have been grotesque to him, but there was no gravity to any of the thoughts he had.
Anla fed him the stew she cooked. He chewed and swallowed, tasting nothing. They brought him under the overhang, piled the blankets on top of him. They laid next to him, warming his cold body. Anla went so far as to tie her leg to his with the rope, to make sure he didn’t walk away and do something drastic.
Silfa nodded off quickly, snuggled in the crook of Al’s arm. Anladet waited until Al’s breathing grew deep and steady before she allowed herself to fall into a deep and much needed rest.