The two friends rose early the next morning, forgoing the oats gently stewing in the inn’s kitchen in favour of what little they had left of the scones Shay had stolen. They both would have preferred a warming bowl of the porridge they had been offered, but the inn charged separately for food and they had spent every last penny Shay had earned just getting beds for the night. They had never needed to be aware of it before, but the two of them were starting to realise just how expensive the world was.

The duo had agreed to meet Shay just shy of the market at nine, and though Shay didn’t own a watch they elected to trust his boasts that he had excellent time keeping skills.

Naturally, he was late.

The first thing they knew of Shay’s arrival—almost an hour later—wasn’t the man himself but a yelling in the distance. It hadn’t concerned them at first, figuring it was someone else’s business and they had no good reason to meddle in someone else’s affairs, but as the volume of it increased and the voice began to sound closer, they had a sinking feeling that Shay had managed to get them into trouble already.

As they turned to trace the coming onslaught, someone or something ran past them in a blur, a shaky out of breath laugh following with it. It didn’t take a genius to guess it was Shay, and hen faced with whatever scheme he had in mind this time, or the yelling, red faced man charging towards them, Aoife and Rin chose to turn tail and run after their new associate. Heaven forbid they should ever have an easy day in his company.

The trio didn’t stop running until they were safely out of Honeywell, trading the tiny white cottages with their thatched roofs for a wide open field, the grass beneath them beginning to wilt in the winter chill. They were out of their breath, and their legs ached from the distance they had run, but as Shay sank to the ground, sprawled out on his back, the three of them all found themselves laughing anyway. They felt like children again, as if they had managed to escape from a scolding parent. In Shay’s case, that wasn’t entirely untrue.

Now that they were no longer in motion, Shay’s state of undress became all too apparent. He hadn’t been dressed all that finely in the first place, but he was lacking the shabby coat he’d donned back at his camp, and his shirt was left unbuttoned, the fabric gaping at his chest and revealing the briefest glimpses of discoloured skin. Only one side of his braces had been attached to the tin buttons on his trousers, and the other strap lay sprawled in the grass behind him. Rin, in all his wisdom, was starting to put two and two together, but Aoife was as clueless as she had been before. Forgive the girl her innocence, but she had never put much thought into bedding men, especially not as an unmarried woman.

Shay propped himself up on his elbows, a tear rolling down his cheek as he tried to quell his laughter. “Oh, that was too good,” he murmured, huffing out another laugh. “Sorry I got us kicked outta Honeywell. It’s not like we could’ve conned the place again, anyway.”

“We couldn’t?” Aoife questioned.

Shay shook his head. “No, dollface, they already know our faces. Unless you’ve got a beard stashed under that dress, there’s no way we could’ve done it.”

Aoife hadn’t expected that. Call it naivety or ignorance, whichever you preferred, but she’d expected to procure more resources from Honeywell before they went on their way. Now they were penniless and without food or shelter, and the only settlement nearby that she knew of was the place they had just been run out of, courtesy of Shay’s carelessness. As dreary and dismal as their situation looked, though, she had faith in her two companions, and she would trust them for as long as they gave her no reason not to. If Shay had everything at hand, she would just have to have faith in him that everything would work out okay.

Shay didn’t lift himself from his spot on the ground, a thoughtful expression flashing across his features. He didn’t know the South too well, having never left Olmaea before in his life, but he remembered hearing stories of a town on the coast. Karasti, he thought it was called, but he couldn’t be certain. The place only seemed to be of note for the fact that an Oracle claimed to live there, and that had the sound of coins jingling through his head. Olmaea was rife with ‘Oracles’ who preyed on unsuspecting tourists and superstitious aristocrats with more money than sense. They boasted of prophetic visions and the power to cast or lift curses, but in reality were little more than economising women who wouldn’t stoop as low as prostitution. Olmaea’s Oracles were always clad in golden rings and necklaces, they dressed in colourful silks and could afford powder and rouge just like the upper class ladies. If Karasti had an Oracle, there would be money to steal, and plenty of it.

He informed his companions of their new plan of attack, while Rinian scoured that endless memory of his for any maps he might have seen that listed Karasti. There was one, perhaps, but it had been incredibly old and put together by an amateur, but it was satisfactory enough for Shay. It would take them a few days to arrive there—two if they walked without stopping, three if they took breaks to rest and to try and scrounge together something to eat—but Shay assured them a goldmine would be waiting for them, and they could take all the time in the world if they so wished. Karasti and its Oracle weren’t going anywhere, and Shay was relatively good enough at catching rabbits to ensure they didn’t starve. Provided they gave him a few days to catch something, anyway.

She didn’t voice her opinion, not wanting to cause a fuss when things had already been laid out, but Aoife would rather have kept walking. Unbeknown to Shay, and accidentally forgotten by Rinian, it was her birthday in three days. Much as she could pretend they were only borrowing things from the people of Karasti, she would sooner have spent her birthday in the company of her god, and the memory of her lost friends, not helping Shay to steal from innocent people. She just had to hope Rin remembered the coming celebration, not that she felt she had much reason to celebrate. If anything, the day would just be another poignant reminder of something she would get to do that Niamh never would.

As they made their way to Karasti, sticking to the back roads at Shay’s insistence, Aoife and Rin became all too aware of how sparsely populated the South was. Considering Eturia had once been the South’s capital, and by extension the seat of the Valenara family—the Royals—the two had expected it to be more densely populated than it was. It was only natural to assume that the South would have blossomed under such circumstances, but they came across more fields than towns or villages. In fact, the sheer number of wide open fields had Rin more confused than any of the trio. While the Aur Valley wasn’t exactly famed for it’s fields and farms, his few brief childhood excursions into the greater expanse of the Riverlands had taught him that the mineral rich soil there had ensured the Riverlands earned its place as the farming country. The Riverlands grew most of the crops the rest of the world depended on, and it had given them an incredibly powerful position that hadn’t been abused since the days of the MacCleirk family, who had raised more rebellions against the crown than could really be accounted for.

Why then were there so many unused fields surrounding Eturia? Sure, in the days of old they had been used more as a battleground than for anything all that fruitful, but there hadn’t been a war in over a hundred years. Did they really expect to need them again? And of course, one could consider that perhaps they were areas of outstanding natural beauty, that both scientists and artists alike had sought to preserve for future generations. But they weren’t. There was nothing outstanding about a field, surrounded by yet more fields, and the further East they headed, the fewer signs of the Riverlands there were. Dense forests on the horizon gave way to yet more openness, with the odd town dotted here and there. Were it not for Shay, he was certain they would have gotten themselves lost by now, and for the very first time since leaving his native Midland home, the boy began to wonder if he had done the right thing. Perhaps he should have stayed in the Valley and gone into a trade just as his father had wanted.

One thing they ought to have been thankful of, though, was the fact that the sheer number of fields made it incredibly easy for them not to be spotted by anyone they might otherwise wish to avoid. They didn’t realise it just yet, but the sheer openness of the South was perhaps the only thing keeping them safe.

By the end of their first day of travelling, tensions between Shay and Rin were higher than ever. Throughout their trek, Shay had been showing off to Aoife in ways that only someone of his standing could. He recounted tales of the Oracles in Olmaea, of the royal processions that used to pass his neighbourhood each year—he left out the parts about himself and his kinsmen spitting at said procession, along with other such unsavoury behaviour—and of his physical feats. He had, or so he claimed, been winning drinking contests since the tender age of six, and arm wrestling matches from the age of ten. Rin had expected Aoife to be disgusted, considering her infatuation with chivalry and good manners, but by some kind of sorcery she only seemed further enamoured with the man. He knew he couldn’t hope to possibly compete with Shay as far as brute strength went, but surely she’d noticed how dim he was? They had to read road signs for him, for he didn’t seem to have any comprehension of the written word, and while he was good with timing, his skill with numbers themselves didn’t leave much to be desired. How could she be so obsessed with such a man?

As night began to fall, they set up Shay’s shambling tent and the Olmaean managed to coax a small fire into life, so they had at least a little warmth. It was decided that, unless the weather took a turn for the worse, Aoife would sleep in the tent, since in Shay’s experience women sucumbed to the cold much faster than men, and he would do whatever he needed to keep the young orphan from complaining, as he was often used to women doing in undesirable situations. Once she was settled, Shay voiced his intention to try and set some rabbit traps that they could check in the morning, and much to his surprise, Rin offered to join him. Out in the middle of nowhere as they were, none of the trio had any reason to suspect anything untoward would happen to their female companion if they were to leave her unaccompanied, but the two men still felt the need to find her something she could use as a weapon should she need to, eventually settling for Shay’s knife which still had patches of dried blood on its blade from the last rabbit he had managed to catch.

Rin wasn’t entirely sure how Shay planned to catch rabbits in the middle of such dense… well, he wasn’t sure what to call it. He wanted to say farmland, but without any farms it didn’t quite do the area justice. All the same, the landscape was flat as a board, and they hadn’t caught sight nor sound of any rabbits for miles. The matter at the forefront of his mind, though, was Aoife.

“You seem awfully interested in Aoife,” he said once they had wandered far enough from their camp that she wouldn’t be able to hear them.

“Is this the part where you pretend you aren’t?” Shay questioned, tying off a length of twine in a frail attempt at making a snare. He could get so far on bravado alone, but when it came down to it, he wasn’t the best at this sort of thing.

“That is beside the point,” Rin said huffily. “I don’t intend to cause her trouble, as I’m sure you do.”

“Causing girls trouble is the last thing I want to do, Rinian,” Shay said, rolling his eyes. “Aren’t you supposed to be watching and learning here?”

“I am watching. If causing her trouble is the last thing you wish to do, why do you continue to let her fawn over you constantly? Why not put her right?”

“‘Put her right?’” Shay asked, incredulous. “Is that what they teach nice young boys in the West?”

“You know that’s not what I mean.”

Shay smirked, kneeling in the half light of the evening as he set up his snare trap. In truth, he wasn’t expecting to catch anything with it, but he’d needed a chance to go off on his own. Aoife and Rin were just a means to an end, and having to spend this much time with them was starting to grate on him. Especially with Rin shooting his daggers constantly. He could practically feel the knife in his back already, and if he’d thought the kid had more nerve he’d have taken to sleeping with one eye open, just in case he tried to smother him in his sleep. Frankly he wasn’t sure Rin could even kill an animal, let alone another human being.

“Well, Rinian, if you’re so interested in her, why don’t you stake your claim?”

Rin crooked an eyebrow at Shay. “I’m not sure I follow…”

“Maker’s Eye, you’re not that dense, are you? I’m talking about sex, Rinian.”

Rin was by no means a prude, but talking about the act so openly had blood rushing to his cheeks, and his arguably aggressive stance dissolving into something more awkward and defensive. His head was dipped, gaze firmly on the ground beneath him, and his hands fumbled with each other adequately enough to betray any semblance of confidence that he had hoped to regain. All it did was serve to make the Olmaean’s smirk widen, and an all too amused laugh slip from his lips.

“If you tell her you’re interested, I’ll back right off, I promise,” Shay said, at least half sincere.

“And if I don’t?”

“Then she’s fair game, and I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I think she’s more interested in me.”

If looks could kill, Shay would have dropped dead right there.

“She isn’t a piece of meat, Shay,” Rin protested, but all it earned him was a laugh. “If you do anything to hurt her, I’ll—”

“You’ll what, Rinian? I’m bigger than you, I’m stronger than you, and while you might have a few brains in your head, that doesn’t mean shit.”

The Olmaean didn’t give him a chance to respond, putting the finishing touches to his snare and striding past Rin back to their camp. Maker, it made Rin’s blood boil. He couldn’t stay there, he’d scare off the rabbits they weren’t going to catch in the first place, but he wouldn’t follow Shay back to camp like a lost child. Ultimately, though, he had to return to their camp, and try his best to ignore the smirk Shay shot him each time Aoife cuddled up to him. He just had to endure the day—he was adamant it would still only take two days, despite Shay’s protests—it would take them to reach Karasti, and then hopefully he would be out of their lives once he had his money. Unfortunately for his frayed patience, fate wouldn’t be so fortuitous.

The End

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