Windrider hated sand. It had been bad enough as a pit fighter, when he had fought on it. Many bouts ended with sand kicked in his face, or he and rolling on it as he tried to subdue foe. People came to the arena to see melee combat, but fist fights and grappling weren’t unheard of, only frowned upon.
At least in Copperhead there had been baths. He could dunk himself full under steaming water and scrub raw his bruised skin. Slave girls would sooth him. They bandaged his open cuts and treated him with gentle hands. Afterwards he was more than victorious and spent; he was clean.
He hadn’t bathed in days. The inn at Fort Waken hadn’t had a tub. A bucket of water cost as much as a month’s stay. When he had explained the concept of a bath, the innkeeper had treated him like some foreign monster. It had been a special offense with Nather in view the whole time.
That one didn’t bath either. He didn’t sweat, itself a blessing. If Nather found his skin marred he brushed or burned it away until all that was left was unblemished skin. It was more akin to polishing than washing.
Balor didn’t appear to get dirty. Windrider suspected something mystic involved, but was too miserable to question it.
“I can make you hard to burn too,” Nather had told Windrider after one of the gladiator’s prolonged spells of cursing. “Then blast you clean.”
Windrider had declined. He would find himself water that wasn’t for drinking and wash himself properly. The boy’s magics had been a boon in surviving the trek to Waken, not to mention melting off their chains at the start of all this, but Windrider remembered the story of Menolag. Fair enough, the man had been dead, but the boy had overdone his breath and turned his mentor to ash. If something like that could happen to a wizard, the ‘greatest wizard,’ Windrider would rather not chance it.
“I can make water,” Zura said.
Windrider frowned at the priest. He was suspicious of clergy. They chanted and prayed and did little besides tending the elves whims. But then, those were the red clad old priests. This olive skinned woman was young, maybe younger than him, and had not a stitch of crimson on her. She wore the color of her church with discretion, shocks of blue here and there in a sea of white linen. The obvious show of allegiance hung about her neck, a disk of lapis lazuli her fingers found every few minutes in their long walk.
“As can I,” Windrider said. “Though I need some to start, and what comes back isn’t much good for drinking.”
They had discovered the woman as she exited a home that shared walls with three others, and may well have hosted two families inside it. Presented with the conditions of them shepherding her to Fort Sommer, the priestess accepted with a nod of her head and said she was ready. She had no pack, and her only weapon was a mace of unbroken steel.
At Windrider’s jape she held up a hand, palm at a height with his forehead. She spoke words, soft and low. They were not foreign, nor secret. She spoke quietly, pleading with her god to bring water to parched earth.
Water came. It dropped in three gallons upon Windrider, who blinked and sputtered. He dabbed at his lips and sucked droplets from his fingers.
“Dare I say,” he smiled at Balor. “I think we made a good trade, Anya for her.”
Nather shook his head. “I’m worried about Anya.”
Zura shook her head and touched Nather on his shoulder. “If your friend made it from this town you spoke of to Waken with the three of you, it should be easy enough with a compliment of militia.”
Windrider noticed that the woman had been keeping close to the boy. He was about to call her out on the tenderness when Balor spoke.
“Except,” the orc said, “for the fact that such a force has already been sent ahead of us, and there has been no word back from them.”
“How much farther?” Windrider asked Balor.
“At our rate, two hours. We’re making good time.”
Despite me holding you up, Windrider thought. The orc and the boy were too light on their feet. Never before had Windrider felt clumsy, but either of them made him feel more ox than fighter. Maybe it was that they each refused armor. Suicidal, by his estimate, but something had to contribute to the fact they were always ahead of him.
It was good to have another human to slow them up. He felt less a bane to his comrades. He tried not to question when he had started to think of them as such.
He noticed that Zura herself was armored. He could not tell with her covering of linen folds, but she moved with the fixed precision of someone clad wrists to ankles in something more stiff and jointed than silks and cloth.
“It’ll be nightfall when we get there,” Windrider said. “Hard to observe with no light.”
“I can make light,” Nather said.
Zura smiled at him.
“Helpful as that may be,” Windrider said, “it’ll also help any raiders see us. Maybe we should make camp here and do the rest in the morning.”
Balor was quiet for a time, and from behind them in the growing dusk, Windrider saw Nather staring up at the orc.
“I don’t intend to only look.”
Windrider sighed. “Well, they’ll have a great stinking wall between them and us, whoever’s in the place. If it’s the guards, we can chat them up and likely get in with Harrison’s little mark.” The Captain had given them a clay sigil to mark them as his representatives to his men. “But if it’s raiders they’re more like to keep us out. Also, there’ll be arrows.”
“I can stop arrows,” Balor said. It seemed everyone was sharing a little something about themselves this trip.
Windrider’s eyes went up. “Oh?”
“I have trained to catch them out of the air.”
“Wonderful. How many can you catch at once? I’m going to guess not more than two, unless those quick feet of yours get involved.”
Balor said nothing.
“Right,” Windrider said. “So you’ll catch the first two that try to get you, and the boy, the priestess, and I will catch the rest with our chests.”
“That’d kill me, Windrider.” Nather said, as though in admitting so he had given something up.
“Night may allow me to slip in. I could scale the wall, drop behind it, and assess the situation.”
“And,” Windrider said, “get yourself in it too deep to get back over the wall and return to us. You’re a devil in a fight, Balor, don’t get me wrong, but think. Worst case, we’ve got an occupied outpost. That’ll mean people either numerous and armed enough to overpower the guards, or they’ll be cunning enough to have gotten past the wall themselves and taken the place by wit. Which of those would you rather walk into alone?”
Balor took a breath. Windrider saw his shoulders rise and then sink back as the air came and went. In that time, he himself had taken three breaths. The orc’s lungs must have been larger than bellows.
“You’re right,” Balor said. “Cover of night is not the boon I had hoped. We’ll wait out the dark, then go at first light.”
Windrider’s face broke into a smile and he dropped his pack then and there. “Nather, a fire please. This salted meat is a travesty of a meal, but I think a bit of warmth will do it wonders.” To Zura, he said, “Water enough to get me clean might take me a ways to converting.”
In the end they had him pick his bag up and move to where the dunes would obscure the light from someone on watch. Zura had promised only to refill his waterskin if he used it out of sight to wash himself.
“Might be patrols,” Windrider said as he swallowed another bite. They sat around the fire. It danced. Nather made it humanoid tonight. Stubby legs and waving vapor tipped arms spun about with no care where each other were pointing. The head wobbled, and body was all belly, swinging around the center like an overfed belly dancer.
“We will have one on watch at all hours,” Balor said. “It is the same as when we made it to Waken.”
“Not exactly,” Windrider said, watching the priestess. Zura had sat beside Nather, who hadn’t noticed. He was too fixed on his fire to be at all aware of the woman looking at him much the way he did the dancing flame.
“The shifts will be the same length,” Balor said. “And I do not sleep. We will be fine.”
“You snore a great deal for one that doesn’t sleep,” Windrider said. In town it had been funny. Out here it might be their lives to think the orc capable of springing into action from a cross legged nap.
Nather was quiet. He had been so since they made camp. The two who had known him longest realized it together and watched the boy. He held out a hand, the way someone would to enjoy the warmth, but his fingers moved in little ways, and the dancing fire moved like a puppet getting its strings pulled.
“You could eat that?” Windrider asked.
Nather looked up, blinking. The hand went still and the fire wobbled, then snapped from its humanoid shape into a ball, heat trailing from the top to give it the look of a candle’s flame without a wick stuck up under it. “Huh?” Nather’s eyes focused, though it was something Windrider saw more in the boy’s face than the yellow orbs with their coal dots at the center. “I could suck it up. No point though. I’m not hurt.”
Balor cocked his head, looking between fire and ruddy skinned boy. “Does it sate you to do so?”
At the boy’s expression, Windrider said, “He means does it make you less hungry to eat fire. Could you live off it?”
They had avoided talking about his peculiar hunger in front of Anya. That he could heal himself with fire seemed something to be kept from a half-elf that might turn on them the moment it suited her. That they spoke of it in front of the priestess was either a sign of instant trust, or of how the question had nagged at both the human and the orc their entire journey.
Nather shook his head. “No. I need food. It’s better cooked. I mean, not just something hot, but with fire on it. That’s the best. But fire on its own?” He frowned like surviving on heat alone had never come into his mind. “I don’t think so. I need something solid in my stomach or it rumbles.”
Each time the boy had eaten on in their time together he had helped prepare the food, and careful as could be not to burn anything. Then after each other person was served, he took his own food and breathed onto it until it glowed and blackened. Then he put flaming meat on his tongue, chewed, and swallowed. It was like a trick. Each time Windrider had seen it he waited for the reveal.
He had seen magic. He saw it only today when Zura had splashed him. But magic didn’t work in the brains of normal folk. It was met with suspicion and fear because it made the world work differently than it did when left alone.
Nather straightened then and looked at Windrider oddly. “You said you wanted to get clean before, when you said you didn’t want me to blow on you.”
Balor gave Windrider a look, and the gladiator waved him off. “Yes?”
“Well,” Nather said, edging away from Zura “That’s the thing with the water, right?”
Windrider nodded, smiling as a thousand memories brushed up against the present like a voice calling him home. “Yes. After we eat I’m going to pour all this,” he held up his water skin, “over my tired body and tomorrow I’ll go into battle smelling better than I have in weeks. Surely our enemies will be thankful.”
Zura reached for him. “Are you cold?” The very notion seemed queer to her.
“No. Just…water. To have it all around you. And you go under and…” Nather started breathing harder, and the fire between the three of them grew dim, shadows eating up their small circle of light.
Balor wrapped a hand in a drab sash from his waist and touched the boy’s forearm. “Nather, calm down.” He looked at Windrider and nodded. Not scalding. That much was a relief. “There’s no water out here. Not enough to drown a person for miles.”
Nather looked wide eyed at Zura, as though she were some embodied danger about to unleash itself on him, then turned to the orc. He looked at the hand on him, as though he felt it only after seeing the outstretched arm. “Drown? What’s drown?”
Windrider gave his answer careful thought, but he had to get his words out before Balor’s need to educate did them in. “People need air to live,” he said. “Water, it can keep them from that air. Drowning, and as Balor said this isn’t a thing you have to worry about, because we’re in the middle of the bloody desert, but drowning is when a person dies from having water keep them from getting air.”
Nather’s eyes went wide, and Balor looked, with his wide eyes in his cowl, as if the last thing he wanted was to be touching the boy as this revelation was made. But Nather nodded, and slumped. He glanced once more at Zura, thenlooked into the fire. It grew three sizes, ending up larger than it had started.
The priestess was silent, but questions screamed in her eyes. She was more lost than either of Balor or Windrider, but had the sense to not push given the looks she received from the boy.
“I knew it,” Nather said
“Knew what?” Balor asked, words careful.
“Menolag tried to kill me. A long time ago, he put me in water and held me under. It was the worst thing ever. I thought I was going to die. That’s what he wanted. He was trying to drown me.”
Windrider shook his head. “Nather, were you dirty when he put you in?”
Nather nodded. “was dirty a lot. That time I was covered in paint. And herbs. And some pages from a book.”
“He was trying to bath you,” Zura said, speaking as you would to a child. Though he looked a young man, Nather was more like a new arrival to the world. “A bath is when you get into the water to get clean. Was this before you learned how to burn it all off yourself?”
“Well…” Nather thought then said, “Yes. Menolag started putting me on a grill after that. I just thought he wanted to kill me, but changed his mind.”
“He never intended to kill you,” Zura said. “You were a child. Children get cleaned by their parents. Or, in your case, their guardians.”
Nather looked between his companions, then settled his eyes on Zura. “So, he never tried to hurt me?”
“No,” they said in unison, pleased that this one time the questions put to them by the boy were so easy to answer.
“Oh.” The boy smiled, and the fire blazed higher. “Okay.”
“But Nather,” Balor said, “do bring the fire down. We don’t want to be spotted.”
It shrank back as the boy bunched himself up, embarrassed. “Sorry.”
Fundamental Forces, Episode 13 by Ryan Deugan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.