Distractions

Five days of travelling, and the prince had not complained once about his sore feet. Fern was quite impressed.

Well, there had been the day before when the prince had placed a heavy hand on Fern's shoulder, saying with a grimace on his face that they needed to stop. Then the other boy had spent the next hour worrying over his stubbed toe, tweaking it to see if anything had been broken. Needless to say, Fern had rolled his eyes and had taken the opportunity to rest under the shade of a tree.

Five days of travelling was getting to him too. Unfortunately, they had left the last town, where they had met Franz, in a rush. Every time his water canteen bumped against his hip, the hollow vibration it made was an uneasy reminder of how little he had left. The pack slung against his back had been considerably lightened since they had started out again.

Fern glanced at the prince, who was determinedly trudging along the forest litter. The prince caught the movement from the corner of his eye and turned his head.

"Fern?" he asked. The other boy shook his head in answer.

"You keep looking at me!" the prince exclaimed, waving his arms in the air. "What complaints do you have now? Am I not walking correctly? Is there something on my face?"

There was a silence that was punctuated by the rustling of the wrinkled map as Fern retrieved it from the side pocket of his pack.

Red-faced, the prince waved a hand between Fern's face and the map. "You can't fool me with that map! You always use it as a distraction when you don't want to bother with me!"

Fern shot him a dark look, which immediately clamped the prince up.

Sighing, the prince turned his gaze to the sky. Despite all their troubles, despite all their arguments, the sky never failed to stay the same serene blue color. It made everything seem so trivial. Even now, he realized how silly it was that he had just picked an argument with Fern over a simple glance. It was probably nothing anyway.

There was a tap on his shoulder. He turned his head towards Fern who was holding his water canteen upside down. Not a drop of water fell out of its uncapped top.

"Um."

Fern's stern expression said everything for him. The prince gulped, and unhooked his own canteen from his belt. When he shook it, there was a muffled sloshing noise. The sound of it made his stomach feel queasy.

"How long do we have until we arrive at the next village?" the prince asked. Fern frantically shook his head. The mute boy was looking rather pale.

It took a moment for the prince to figure out what he meant. "Have we...already arrived?"

His fears were confirmed when Fern slowly nodded, unfurling the map and pointing to a village on it. Underneath the village, written in scrawling cursive, were the letters G-r-a-d-i-a. As far as the prince was aware, they were standing in a forest, devoid of humanity, save themselves. Had Fern somehow gotten them lost?

As if hearing the doubt in the prince's mind, Fern rolled the map back up and gave him a dirty look.

"Yes, I know. If you haven't gotten us lost so far, you wouldn't have gotten us lost now." The prince scratched his head thoughtfully. "It must be the map. I grabbed the first one I saw out of the castle library, along with all the dust that had piled on top of it. Must be a hundred years old. Maybe this village, Gradia, doesn't exist anymore?"

Two grubby hands grabbed ahold of his shoulders, and shook him violently. The world blurred out as he was pushed and pulled, back and forth, over and over again. The only thing he could even see clearly was the pure and utter hatred in Fern's dark brown eyes. It's your fault, they seemed to say, it's your fault we're both going to die a slow, painful death in the middle of nowhere where no one will ever find our bodies!

"Fe-e-ern, le-eh-et me geh-oh," the prince warbled, and the pressure on his shoulders was released as Fern let him go with a rough shove. He stumbled backwards, taking a moment to brush off his shoulders and regain his bearings. Then, he looked up at Fern again. Though they were the same height, with his head tilted back and his arms crossed against his chest, it seemed as if the peasant boy was looking down on him.

"I'm sorry. I should have been smarter. I should have been-I should have-"

Fern held up a hand, shaking his head. He slid down against the trunk of a tree until he sat there, knees drawn up against his chest. Without the patronizing upward tilt to his head, he looked horribly vulnerable. Small, like he was hiding away from their predicament.

Seeing him there, the prince could only do one thing. He joined him, vaguely wondering how long it took for people to die of thirst. Hopefully not too long, he thought. He wouldn't want Fern to attempt to eat him, after all.

Fern said nothing as the prince plopped down beside him. He did nothing, except bury his head in his arms. His wrists were thin, and the prince, reaching out to feel how bony they were, realized that it was not always so.

"I'm sorry, Fern."

Again, the peasant boy said nothing. In fact, the prince swore that Fern began burying his head further into his arms. He couldn't blame him; he didn't want to listen to himself either. However, the insistent silence between them was unbearable.

He took a deep breath and spoke again. "Amazing, isn't it? To think there was once a village here, but it's all forest now. What do you think might have happened to the villagers?"

Nothing. Not that he was expecting a verbal answer, but at least a nod or a finger wriggle, or even a shrug, would have sufficed. The sight of the back of Fern's head was so bland. The prince reached out and poked the peasant boy's arm, but still nothing happened. Not even a glare.

He gritted his teeth, his hands balling up in the grass, the blades dry enough to prick his palms.

"If you refuse to say anything, or do anything, or be any sort of company right now, you might as well not be here."

Fern's head, still buried in his arms, shifted a little.

"I only had you accompany me so I would not feel so terribly alone! If you won't speak, won't even get us out of this predicament, then you're nothing but a burden to me!" The words spilled out of his mouth one after another, but he barely knew what he was saying. "And you never talk! It's always me speaking, with you glaring at me as if I've said something wrong. Nothing will change even if you go! Perhaps, even, it would be an improvement once you leave!"

Fern stood, and the prince had to crane his neck up to look at him properly. The other boy's hands were balled into fists at his sides. He raised his foot, and like so many times before on their travels, kicked the prince, leaving behind a dusty, brown mark on his shoulder.

Reeling backwards from the force of the blow, the prince felt a gut-wrenching pain in his stomach that was slightly unrelated to the second kick that connected with his abdomen. Though Fern had not held back, after so many days of being kicked, the prince had long build a resistance to the pain. Instead, it was the look on the peasant boy's face, the stern tightness to his mouth and the cold, reproachful glare that he was sending him as if he was a thief who had just robbed his deceased mother's grave. It was nothing like the petty exasperation on Fern's face whenever the prince was being a spoiled brat.

Before the prince could say anything more, Fern drew his foot back, kicked up the dirt into his eyes, and took advantage of the prince's pained cries to sprint away, the sound of his muffled footsteps fading fast behind him.

When the prince's vision finally cleared up, Fern was gone.

The End

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