It is way too hot.
The sun pounds down on the back of my neck, and though I can’t see it, I know the skin there is in the process of changing from white to neon pink. I can feel it tingling, almost as though it were very slowly sizzling...
Ugh. Bad mental image. Stopping right there.
And ouch. Pain. Okay, stopping right here on the pathway too.
It takes Eric about ten seconds to realize that I’m not following him anymore. He turns back, and when he sees me leaning against a tree and rubbing at the canvas cloth around my knee, he groans in exasperation.
“Eric!” I say, imitating his tone. With a grunt, I unsling my rucksack and let it fall onto the packed earth of the trail. “Let’s take a break.”
Eric just looks at me for several long moments. Then he brushes his sweaty hair out of his face, mutters something vaguely obscene, and starts edging back down the trail until he reaches a boulder about halfway between us. “Fine then. We’ll sit on this rock, for a little bit.”
“You can sit there if you like, but I’m quite comfortable right here,” I say. I ease my way down until I’m sitting with my back against the scratchy bark of the tree.
“Nia, you really---”
“It’s fine,” I say. “I’ll be fine.”
He shuts up.
While Eric settles himself on the boulder, I take a gulp of water from my canteen and tentatively touch the back of my neck. There’s no pain yet, but I know there will be. I think some misguided fairy godmother must be the cause of my bad luck, or else it was just some great cosmic joke that I, of all people, ended up with skin the color of vanilla ice cream. The word “tan” simply does not exist in my body’s vocabulary, no matter how many hours I spend in the sun. Which is why I generally prefer to work at night, but I don’t always have a choice about that. As a matter of fact, Eric and I generally have very little choice in when we work, but that’s all part of this glorious profession. Tramping through rocky scrubland with a gimpy knee and a man you can’t stand? Heigh-ho, the glamorous life...
On the pretense of taking in the landscape around me, I glance over at my partner, who has pulled off his boot and is fishing in the bottom of it. Were I a different type of girl, I might think Eric attractive; lots of women certainly do. He’s tall and athletic, with a square jaw and brown skin that complements his dark eyes and hair. He can be quite the flirt too, but his good looks are wasted on me, and he knows it. He’s not looking at me now, but I scowl at him anyways and return to gently massaging my knee---I hope it’s a really big rock in his boot, and that he doesn’t find it.
I only get a couple minutes of blissful silence before Eric starts talking again. I really hate this guy.
“We should reach the camp before dark. Provided we don’t stop again, that is.” I ignore him and continue to rub my leg.
“I wish you’d let them give you something for that.”
“For what?” I ask innocently.
“Don’t get cute with me,” he growls.
“Ohhhhhh,” I say slowly, “you mean this leg? This non-functional leg right here? The one that forces me to limp instead of walk? Oh, yes, I suppose they could give me something for it. Twenty crowns sounds like a decent price, don’t you think---?”
Eric swears loudly and stalks off, shoving his way through the scraggly trees until he disappears from view.
I know my “infirmity” frustrates him, so I generally play it up for all it’s worth. With anyone else, I would probably just grit my teeth and bear it---in my family, weakness is never something to be proud of. But my dealings with Eric are a different story entirely. While we’ve never actually spoken about the incident in question, we both know that he is responsible for my injury, and I have no qualms about reminding him (as often as possible) that my “deactivation and subsequent rehabilitation were a direct consequence of his negligence”. Which is just a fancy way of saying that he screwed up, big-time, and the price for his stupidity was my knee. Tell me there isn’t something wrong with this picture?
Actually, there are a lot of things wrong with this picture, I think, as I scratch in the dirt with a twig. Apart from the aforementioned misapplication of divine justice, there is also the fact that, much as I like to deny it to myself, I’m in no fit state to be working. Technically, I’m still on sick leave, and I’m only supposed to be walking with a knee brace. Yet here I am, hiking through rocky terrain, with that inflexible brace shoved into the back of my closet back home.
Then there’s the fact that I shouldn’t be here at all because I’m not getting paid for this. Yep, that’s right; I’m risking life, limb, and my entire career---not to mention my sanity---for a charity case.
Finally, the whole situation might be bearable if this job were supporting a cause that I was passionately invested in.
But it’s not.
How do I get myself into this kind of thing?
I hear the crash of brush that signals Eric’s return, and a moment later, he stumbles back onto the path. He’s panting, and for a moment, I think he must be faking it---he’s in such good shape that he can’t possibly be out of breath from a little stroll through the bushes. But then he whips around to face me, and I see that his eyes are wide in panic.
“Getupgetupgetup!” he whispers. When I don’t move immediately, he rushes to my side and grabs my arm, hoisting me to my feet.
“Shhhhh!” he hisses, and clamps a hand over my mouth. “D’you want to get us killed?” He releases me, grabs my rucksack, and shoves it into my arms. “Follow me. We gotta be quick and quiet.” Hunched over like he expects something to whiz over his head at any minute, he scuttles back to retrieve his own bag, then signals for me to follow.
It’s amazing how fast your priorities can change when you’re presented with a crisis. My heart thundering in my chest, I sling my bag onto my back and trot after him, the pain in my leg hardly noticeable now that adrenaline is coursing through me. I may not like Eric much, but he’s competent and not the type to make stuff up. Whatever’s wrong, it must be serious.
We plunge into the underbrush. I know we must be leaving quite a trail behind us, shouldering our way between bushes like this, but apparently Eric is more concerned with getting us away quickly than he is with hiding our tracks. I hurry along behind him, my brain focused on running in order to keep my questions at bay. At last, Eric stumbles to a halt. I sag against the nearest boulder and allow myself to feel the pain in my leg; well, it could be worse, that’s for sure.
“What....the hell...was that about?”
Eric drops his bag and stands upright for the first time since he originally stormed off. Taking deep breaths, he holds up one hand, pulls out his canteen, and drinks deeply. I wait. When he finally stops and replaces the cork, I repeat the question. Eric sucks in a lungful of air and blows it out slowly, like he’s buying time. He rubs his eyes and the bridge of his nose, then looks off in the direction we came from. Finally, he mutters, “I saw Iverson.”
My mind has barely begun to register the word when I feel my stomach drop off a cliff. “What?” I say, and then---just to be sure he’s not mistaken---I ask, “Which Iverson?”
“The only Iverson that matters! Who else would I mean?”
“Did you see him? If you just saw a crest or something, it could be any---”
“It. Was. Him,” Eric says tensely. He would be yelling at me right now, if he weren’t so concerned about being overheard. “I saw the big guy...what’s-his-name...the bodyguard...”
“Hugh Mouse,” I say. Oh, the irony---the man is no less than six-foot five, and built like a grizzly bear. I run my fingers through my close-cropped hair and stare at the ground. “Well, damn.”
“Damn,” Eric says. For once, we agree.
It’s tempting to stay right there, in the safety of this little thicket. True, we have a tight schedule and several hours of traveling still ahead of us, but Duke Iverson’s sudden appearance has thrown us for a loop, and staying still is the path of least resistance. After several minutes of sitting there in silence, however, I’m getting antsy.
“Well, gotta get going,” I say, “duke or no duke. We’ve got out-of-the-way places to go and impoverished nobility to see and unwise things to do.” With no small effort, I haul myself to my feet and grab my bag again, slinging it across one shoulder.
Eric doesn’t move for several moments. He continues to stare at the ground, pinching the bridge of his nose between his forefinger and thumb as though trying to sooth a headache.
“Hey there, buddy,” I say with affected sweetness, “I know it’s all a little scary right now, but I promise you---everything will be okay. We just get to the camp, do our thing, and get home. We do not run into Iverson again at any point along the way. Nice and simple, right?”
“Simple,” he repeats, sounding vague and---surprisingly---not the least bit upset. That is VERY odd, actually; patronizing Eric is usually the best way to get a rise out of him, so the fact that he takes my words at face value means his thoughts must be very far away indeed. I hobble over to him and snap my fingers several times in front of his nose until he opens his eyes and turns to look at me.
“No, not nice and simple, unless we get our butts in gear.” I adjust my pack and nudge Eric’s with my toe, indicating he should pick it up. “I’d like to get back to Smithington before I turn 100, if it’s all the same to you.”
Eric is strangely quiet as we set off, zig-zagging our way through the scrubland. Having explained that, “since we can’t go back to the trail, we’ll head for the river,” he lapses into silence. From time to time, I sneak a glance at him out of the corner of my eye; for the most part, he is expressionless, but his eyes have a far-away cast to them, and his jaw is set. What is up with this guy? I’ve known Eric for almost two years now, and I’ve never seen him act like this before.