I landed just outside the smattering of tents Orlo and his band had set up, and he practically ran over to meet me. It was inefficient for me to try to explain in my language that Keon had decided to stay, so I merely offered him a painted smile in hopes that it might be more easily received. Indeed it was, and he unreservedly lifted me up off the ground in the sincerest of embraces. I couldn’t help but forget some of my troubles in that moment, and my smile became true and welcomed the company of laughter. “You’re welcome,” I chirped, but it wasn’t long before the twist in my stomach returned. The subtlety of guilt again.
Orlo ushered me over to a small fire some of the Alfar had built with dry wood they’d carried with them. He removed the garish cloak that had kept me somewhat dry on my outing, replacing it with a woolen blanket. He also opened a flask and handed it to me. My initial thought was that it held water, but its taste revealed it to be a hearty mead. He watched my reaction as I drank it, concerned at first by my quick pulling away of the flask. I nodded my head and grinned to reassure him that I appreciated the drink very much, and went on sipping. A few minutes passed before I suddenly heard Keon’s voice from behind Orlo, who had been standing behind me off to the side. I turned away from the fire to watch.
“Tihaltak,” I heard Orlo say in seemingly matter-of-fact greeting. I watched as father and son grabbed each others’ right arms and shook somewhat formally. Then Keon cracked his sideways smile and Orlo threw his free arm about the young man’s neck. They were undoubtedly reconciled, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Then Keon noticed me, seated on a log by the fire, and his smile faded somewhat.
“Oliana,” he nodded his head in acknowledgement. “I see they’re keeping you warm.”
Orlo, oblivious of our maladroit encounter earlier, practically shoved his son into a seated position right next to me. I could hear Keon mumbling complaints in his father’s language. “I apologize, dear, they simply won’t leave it alone,” he told me. I looked at him as he spoke the words into the fire, his scruffed face more likely reddened by embarrassment than heat.
I felt compelled to say something. “I… I was rude, earlier. I’m--”
“No need to apologize, dear. I mean… provided that’s what you were going to say next. It’s really quite alright. Let’s just forget the whole thing, shall we?” His words were rushed as he looked over to me with a pleading expression.
“Oh. Yes. Let’s.” I said, reverting my eyes to the flames. We didn’t say much else to each other that night, save a brief mention that, whenever we stopped travelling tomorrow, we would begin to trade skills as promised. For as long as light would allow, he would teach me to wield weaponry and speak the language of the Alfar, and I would teach him to read and write. Orlo gave me my own tent to sleep in that night, and I felt more lonely than I had in a long time. I fell asleep wondering how Dechar was faring.
“I think I’ve got just the weapon!” Keon exclaimed. He had been back to his normal self ever since that morning. After an uneventful day of traveling through, or in my case over, the forest, it was time for Keon to teach me his ways. “Yes, this’ll work quite well considering your flying steed.” He fished through a few bags until he drew out a small, basic-looking wooden crossbow with bolts. To my surprise, he gestured toward a tree on which was posted a sketch of his face.
“These wanted postings don’t do me justice,” he smiled. “I think it’s time we teach them a lesson. So there’s a target for you.”
I couldn’t help but allow my face to light up as I stood roughly twenty feet away from the target on the edge of camp. I had only shot a longbow a few times before in my life, so practicing on a crossbow was an entirely novel and exciting experience. Some of the bandits stood by as curious spectators, and I felt a bit pressured by their audience.
“How do the other bandits feel about Orlo wanting to only steal from the corrupt?” I tried to calm myself with small talk.
“Eh, most of them just keep their mouths shut and do what they’re told, to be honest, dear. They’ve a lot of respect for Orlo, and besides, their options for an alternative line of work are quite limited.”
“And what about mutiny?” I posed.
“Mutiny? Dear, you do have an imagination. The Alfar are a loyal sort of folk. They know that Orlo’s leadership has been reliable all these years, and they know a good captain when they see one. I’m just a bit impetuous, is all.” He loaded the crossbow, resting his foot on it as he spoke.
“Nice word, 'impetuous.'”
“I thought you might like it. Now,” he placed the loaded crossbow in my grasp, “you’re right-handed, yes? Hold it like this. No, right under there is where your other hand goes. There we are.
“Go ahead and line up your target,” he said. “Get that bastard right between the eyes,” he gestured to his illustration.
I couldn’t help but giggle. “Stop that now, you’re breaking my concentration,” I flashed my teeth at him.
“Well, that won’t do. Now, when you’re ready to shoot, here’s what you’ll do, dear.” I felt his body close to mine as he corrected my stance. It wasn’t easy to keep my hands steady with my heart fluttering, the nuisance. Perhaps if there had been a boy my age in our tiny Veringrove Clan, I wouldn’t have been so vulnerable to the wiles of the young rogue, but his charm was undeniable.
“There! Nice shot!” Keon cried. I was surprised at the sudden release of the bolt. I examined where my shot had landed to find it well below the sketched Keon’s face. “What I mean is, if the rest of that fellow’s body were there, you’d have hit him in a place he’d never forget! Well done!” He was laughing hysterically between words, but I knew he didn’t mean it discouragingly.
“Perhaps it was my intention to hit that area all along,” I joshed.
“I wouldn’t put it past you, dear. I wouldn’t put it past you.”