Nicola didn't know how to carry on. She was exhausted. The surge of fear and resolve that had claimed her in the woods had burnt low, and it was all she could do to not fall asleep on the street where she lay.
"Looks like you need a hand." Came a voice from behind her. Nicola just about reacted before a handsome boy who looked to be in his mid-teens dropped beside her and offered a hand in greeting.
"The name's Andrew, by the way." He said, happily. Nicola was unsure, but his joviality and cheeky grin was infectious and she found herself letting her guard down. Then it occurred to her that he might be in the employ of the King's men.
The boy obviously saw this in her eyes, and found it highly amusing. "Hey, I know I look pretty suspicious, but before you make any decisions you might regret," Andrew motioned towards Nicola's hand, which was firmly clamped around her small dagger, "I have something for you."
From a small pouch at his waist, he produced a shiny green apple, and held it out to Nicola. Noting the look of suspicion creeping across her face, he tossed it into his other hand, and took a quick bite. "See? Food... Good." He added slowly, gesturing wildly with his arms.
"It's lucky you speak Heartland," murmured Nicola, "or you'd be in the same state as him." She gestured towards the bloodied legs of the soldier she had killed, poking out from underneath some charred debris, back down the path.
"That was you?" Andrew asked, incredulous. Nicola only nodded. "In that case, you definitely deserve this apple."
He pushed it towards her, smiling.
With a large amount of effort, to stop herself breaking into a similar grin, Nicola snatched up the fruit and finished it in four bites. She hadn't eaten anything since the loaf that morning (and that was liberally pooled outside the bakery...), and was famished.
"Hey, hey, slow down! You'll choke or something eating like that." Admonished the boy. Nicola was about to snap something about being starving, when she saw he was once again grinning his cheeky grin, eyes twinkling.
How was it he could be happy at a time like this? All around were corpses and pools of blood, yet he was acting as though it was a particularly amusing play.
"How can you joke at a time like this?" Nicola asked, voicing her confused thoughts.
"I have a somewhat, different way, of handling my shock than cutting people's throats."
Once again, Nicola's temper flared, only to see Andrew still had the amused grin on his face.
"You're completely insane." She decided out loud, before standing up and dusting herself off.
"These are pretty insane times," He countered, "And who better to be a companion..."
He was certainly persistent.
"Fine, you can come with me to help find out what made a cry, not 5 minutes ago." Nicola conceded, stepping around him. She had every intention of being the one in authority. After a few seconds, Nicola realised the only footsteps she could hear were her own. Turning around, she saw the Andrew had not moved from where he had stood up, and was staring at the ground, fists balled.
"Andrew?" She called back to him.
He didn't move.
"Are you okay?" She called again, this time a little louder. He was beginning to scare her.
Nicola held the dagger ready in her hand again, and began to walk towards the motionless boy.
When she was within arms reach, Andrew looked up.
Tears were running down his face.
"Are you okay, Andrew?" Nicola repeated, more urgently than the last time.
"That cry." He whispered. Nicola had to lean in to hear him over the popping and crackling of burning timber.
"I-it, it was me." He began to sob openly.
"Why, Andrew?" Nicola said, softly. His tears were running down his chin, and dripping onto the pavement.
"My, my sister-" was all he managed to get out before a racking sob took his words. Nicola stepped up next to him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. Andrew slumped against her, and his larger size made her stagger to keep him upright. Realising she couldn't do that for long, she took him with her to a kneeling position.
"Tell me what happened." She whispered into his ear.
"I-I just... She was-was lying there... And I called-said her name b-but she wouldn't-didn't say anything..." He broke down into a fit of crying after this, but Nicola had the basic story.
The soldiers had killed his sister. Horrified by what this poor boy had seen, she began to stroke his hair. Though no older than him, her maternal instincts were kicking in, and she shushed him softly.
After a minute or so, Andrew regained his composure, and inhaled sharply. He shifted his balance so he wasn't leaning against Nicola any more, and tugged the bottom of his shirt in a futile attempt to fix his appearance.
"Look at me, I don't even know your name and I'm crying on your shoulder." He said, red rimmed eyes attempting a wink.
"It's Nicola. Don't worry about it, I understand perfectly."
"You do?" He inquired, half sarcastically.
Nicola shrugged it off as nothing more than grief stricken hostility on his part.
"Yes. I lost my mother. 2 years ago." She replied simply. Though it still hurt to talk about, it no longer reduced her to tears.
Andrew was suitably rebuffed. He glanced guiltily at the floor.
"We should get out of here," Andrew said after a moment. "This city isn't safe." Nicola shook her head.
"I'm not leaving until I find my friend." She said, steel in her voice.
"You think he's still alive?" He asked.
"He works and lives right in the center of town," She shot back, "The guard barracks are at the center of town. If there's anyone left, they'll be there."
Andrew kicked a loose stone, inhaled sharply through his nose, then gave Nicola a small smile.
"Well, I'm not leaving here without you, so I guess we're going to find your friend."