Old vs New, part 2

Yeah — I’ve been feeling tons better. It’s amazing what the lack of pain will do for one’s creativity level.

I realize LJ’s dying/dead, and probably not a lot of people read this, but hey, these are for me. Blogging is an intensely personal experience, whether you have readers or not.

Continuing with the last post and my “old vs new”; I’m trying to stay with scenes that are direct parallels to each other, or at least in the right action sequence. Many scenes from the old tales aren’t making it intact to the new. They get split up, or completely removed, or bits & pieces jump over, or part goes HERE and another part goes THERE, or the order of events gets moved around completely. You can see the bones of the old tale beneath the skin, muscle & fat of the new, but these have really become all new tales.

So for the next comparison of “Severed Earth” (aka “To Catch A King”, the original fanfic title), these scenes don’t *quite* match, but they’re the next step in what happens to the stranded band. The old version first:


—————–

“He’s what?!?”

I didn’t think Neal could hit that note. Jonathan was packing up what little in gear they had, trying to appear calm. “I told you, they think Steve is a king. There wasn’t a thing I could do to convince ’em otherwise.”

“Perry ain’t no king,” Neal said stubbornly.

“Look, Neal, you go tell those fighters that, ok? I didn’t wanna push my luck. I came too damn near to getting killed as it was.”

“Cool it, Jay,” Smitty said, from his place by the fire. “You did the right thing. Neal’s just being his usual.”

“I know.” Jonathan kept his gaze firmly on the pack. He’d bolted from the mercenaries’ camp, not trusting the mercs to keep their word about not harming him, only to be grabbed by Ross before he’d gone more than a few yards. Ross had grinned, holding up a pack of stuff — supplies, some weapons — that he’d stolen from the tents while the mercs’ attention had been on Jonathan.

I could’ve killed him, but we can use the stuff. Too bad no cash, but that’s life. They’d ridden straight back, to find Smitty up and limping around and Neal ready to ride after them.

“Besides, it could be worse,” Smitty was saying, turning towards Neal.

“I don’t see how–” Neal started, but Smitty continued right over top of him.

“They could’ve grabbed you.”

“Yeah, I could see that,” Ross chimed in. “First time at the royal dinner table, Neal asks for a Big Mac, and they demote him to royal jester.”

The joke was weak, but it still caught Neal with his mouth open.

“Ok, ok.” Neal sat down with a sigh. “I’m being a prick. But I’d still like to know what we’re gonna do about all this.”

“I’m open for ideas,” Jonathan said. “Because I’m out of them.”

Neal nodded towards the packs and the horses. “Yeah. Right. You’re planning on following those guys to Kern, I can see that. What’ll you do when you get there?”

“That’s easy. Kern’ll take one look at Steve’s nose, they’ll know he’s not the king,” Ross said.

“Ross, I’m trying to be serious here!”

“Yeah, but we don’t need to worry ourselves into an early grave, ok?” Ross handed Jonathan one of the packs. “I’m more worried about that magic-user.”

“I’d be worried too,” Smitty said, “if someone was throwing fire at me.”

Ross shook his head. “That’s not what I meant.”

“He did look familiar,” Jonathan said. “But I don’t know where –” Then it sunk in. “The gypsy. He looked like that damn gypsy.”

“The gypsy was a woman,” Neal said.

“We’re talking magic here, Neal,” Ross said. “He could probably look like anything he wanted to.”

“The gypsy brought us over,” Jonathan said, staring at the horses. “Brought us over and left us the horses –”

“Set-up city,” Ross said. “And it gets worse. That Vicari bastard was a noble or something.”

“Yeah, so?” Neal said.

“So what’s a nobleman doing with a common merc troop? Why’d he waste so much energy just to keep us away from Steve? Those mercs could’ve done the job for him.”

“He didn’t look like he was wasting energy,” Jonathan said. “He was flinging those bolts like it was child’s play.”

“It’s an energy waste,” Ross insisted. “You try lighting fire out of nothing but air. It takes a lot of energy, believe me.”

“You know a lot about this stuff for never having seen it before,” Jonathan said quietly.

Ross actually flushed. “Ahhh…I played Dungeons & Dragons for a while. One of my friends in the group was into paganism. Real magic, occult stuff and all that. Made me read a few books on it.You’d be surprised at how much of it follows science.”

“Gimme a break.” Neal glared at Ross. “When did you turn into such a genius?”

“Neal, shut up,” Jonathan looked back at Ross. “Ok. Any ideas?”

“I know there’s something else going on.” But then Ross shrugged. “But nothing definite. Maybe we can get those mercs drunk and they’ll talk or something.”

The ride to the mercenaries’ camp was uneventful, until they arrived at the camp site and found the mercs gone.

“Looks like your buddies didn’t wait,” Neal said. “Now what?”

Jonathan counted to ten, slowly, not trusting himself to speak at that point.

“It’s pretty obvious,” Smitty said quietly, gesturing down the trail and at the tracks in the dusty road. “They went that way.They weren’t bothering to hide their trail.” He dusted himself off, limped back over to his horse. “Kern’s gotta be a major city to have a royal family and all that. We should be able to find it ourselves easy enough.”

Staring at the trail, Jonathan felt uneasy.

“We are gonna follow, right?” Smitty persisted.

Jonathan ignored that, found himself looking back over Neal’s head, at Ross.

Ross caught the look, nodded at the trail. “Wondering why they left?”

“It doesn’t make sense,” Jonathan said.

“Especially when they knew we couldn’t take ’em on in a fight. We weren’t about to steal Steve from ’em. What are they gonna do, ride all night, just to keep away from a group of vagabonds?” Ross fell silent, staring at the trail and chewing on his lower lip.

Ross would state the obvious. We’re in deep shit. I know it.

“You said there was a reward,” Smitty broke in. “Maybe they just didn’t want to share it.” He didn’t sound convinced, though.

“The gypsy knew who we were,” Ross said slowly. “If the gypsy was Vicari…”

“–then Vicari knew I was bluffing,” Jonathan said, “and that Steve really wasn’t the king.”

“Maybe he wanted you to get away,” Smitty said.

But Jonathan was still staring at Ross.

The bassist visibly shook himself out of his thoughts. “We might as well go on to Kern. We’ve gone this far.”

“Like hell,” Neal said. He slung himself down off his horse and came over to grab the reins of Jonathan’s. “Smitty took a hell of a fall back there. He looks awful, and I know your fall was even worse. Then you decide to go play hero and nearly get yourself killed –”

Jonathan put a hand to his head. “Neal–”

“Don’t ‘Neal’ me, mister. We can’t catch up to those mercs right now, and you and Smitty need to rest. We know where they’re going. Perry’ll wait.”

“Wait?” Jonathan said. “You even been listening to what we’re saying? That mage –”

“That mage is way ahead of us,” Neal said. “If they wanna hurt Perry, we couldn’t stop them even if we could get there in time. There’s nothing we can do about it.”

“And when Kern sees he’s not the king, what’s he gonna do then? You even think of that?” Jonathan’s headache was back.

“You two need the rest,” Neal said stubbornly. “Perry’ll wait. Singing for his supper for a day ain’t gonna kill him.”

————–

Ergh. That’s STILL painful to read. Too much use of fantasy jargon that the guys would NOT know; too much competence in skills that there’s probably no way in hell they’d have — like horse-riding. Though in the fan-fic, it’s justified; the old Journey fan-club had made a big deal of Jonathan knowing how to ride. But no one would know tracking, or woodscraft, or even how to survive with nothing but (maybe) a knife in the deep backwoods. And the dialogue SUCKS, bluntly.

So, here’s the new. Just to get you up to speed, the “gypsy at the Ren Faire” of the fanfic became the “record rep in the studio” in the new version. In the new version, the band is very much down-at-the-heels broke, in the wake of the death of their scamming, embezzling first manager (Izzy) — which left them suffering all the financial backlash of Izzy’s schemes. So…here’s the new version. It almost immediately follows the last posted scene.

————-

Rain fell outside, a soft mist through the open window. Jonathan lay shivering in the damp breeze, Lisa snuggled against him, the curve of her belly rising and falling with her breathing. He was safe, he was home, and he curled his arms around her, breathing in the warmth of her hair.

Faint laughter whispered outside the door, then someone was screaming…

Thunder cracked overhead. Jonathan jolted, stared wildly around. Whatever he was on swayed and jounced, and he was surrounded by shadows and the smell of damp wood, wet leaves, old blood.

Memory caught up as thunder cracked again and rain swept in, drenching them. The shadows were his friends. He was on horseback, Rafe staggering alongside. Jonathan slumped, his eyes squeezed shut. A dream. He had dozed off. He wanted to go back to it. This couldn’t be happening. He couldn’t be here.

Shivering, fighting nausea, he leaned over the horse’s neck to leech warmth from the beast. He felt hot, cold, bruised and sore, his chest burning where they’d slashed him, his head pounding. He was splashed with mud and soaked with rain and blood, the path they followed a morass of grass, horse dung, and mud. But it wasn’t as bad as the psychos’ camp, even with the nausea and the migraine squeezing his eyes, even with hunger biting his gut. Jonathan kept telling himself that. Sooner or later he’d believe it, just as he had to believe they’d get out of this. It was either believe it or give in to the fear clenched inside, and that, they did not need.

Night greyed into overcast dawn. The psychos had grabbed three of the horses in the ambush and Ian and Rafe insisted on Jonathan and Dylan riding the remaining two, Ian leading the beasts on reins and keeping them soothed. About noon, they hit the road the woman had told them about, little better than a wide mud-track, but it wasn’t reassuring. Nothing was, now. No one spoke; they huddled close, bent against the rain and wind as they made their way through jagged, forested hills of sodden, red-orange trees. They had no food, though Ian took advantage of another downpour and the resulting puddles to fill a waterskin he’d stolen from the camp. The rainwater tasted of wet grass and mud; it wasn’t enough to take the edge off hunger. The chill and wet weren’t enough to distract from ever-present fear. Nothing mattered except getting away, far away.

As the grey day stretched on, Jonathan saw that fear in everyone’s faces, saw it in the way Dylan stared at the sky, that Ian clutched a branch whittled sharp at one end, and that Rafe jumped at the slightest noise, the slightest movement. Jonathan saw it in theirs, felt it in his own, and he couldn’t protect them. He could only endure and pray.

“Up ahead,” Ian called, over the thunder.

Jonathan wiped dripping hair out of his eyes, squinted. A break in the tree-line — low wood and thatch buildings huddled along the trail just ahead, surrounded by a circular mound of earth. Plowed fields outlay the mound, withered stalks and muddy puddles, nothing green. Perhaps they could get a corner of a barn, anything to get out of this rain and get warm again.

Amish, maybe? It was possible they’d been drugged, that it was only now wearing off. Jonathan swallowed bile, hot again despite the chill air; his headache hadn’t let up. If the village was Amish, then they were out east somewhere. Somehow. But how they’d gotten here…

They reached the edge of the earth barrier and found an open path in, as the smell of burnt wood and meat reached them. The buildings were ruined, wood scorched black, the thatch charred and collapsed.

“My god,” Dylan breathed. “You don’t think those bastards…?”

Jonathan barely heard. Another surge of nausea rolled up and, shaking, dizzy, Jonathan slid down, made it to the side of the trail, heaved. There wasn’t much in his stomach to come up; Jonathan sat back on his haunches in the mud, his heart racing. He tilted his head up, took a mouthful from the waterskin, spat it out, then swallowed another mouthful, unsure whether it would stay down but needing a drink. He shivered convulsively, felt at his slashed shirt and cut chest. The cut oozed grey-white, the skin around it streaky-red and swollen, painful to touch, surrounded with deep bruises.

The world swayed; Jonathan collapsed over his knees, hands pressed into the muddy ground. The contact shocked through him — no, not mud, scars torn into the land, and somewhere, someone screamed…

Jonathan jerked his hands back. He didn’t need his imagination acting up right now.

Someone touched his shoulder — Rafe, shivering. “You okay?”

Jonathan didn’t answer. Everything was wrong, beyond Vão, beyond what they knew, and they rushed headlong into it…

“Hermano,” Rafe said quietly, urging Jonathan up, “come on.”

Once on his feet, Jonathan staggered back to the horse under his own power. Rafe shadowed him, the mud sucking at their feet with each dragging step.

“I’m fine,” Jonathan said as Rafe snagged the horses’s bridle; the beast tossed its head, bared teeth.

“Bullshit,” Rafe said.

Shivering, Jonathan clutched his slashed shirt closed. His mouth felt thick. He leaned against the horse for warmth; it snorted, sidled. “It’s not bad. My head hurts like hell —”

Rafe’s face was plainly don’t-feed-me-that-shit.

“— and I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere with you guys.” Jonathan managed a weak grin. “Other than that, I’m fine.”

“You bounced on your head too hard,” Rafe said.

“And you’re not Rafe, so that’s a serious injury.” Dylan wiped rainwater from his face.

Jonathan batted Rafe’s hands away. “I’d be dead by now if my head was causing this. Or in a coma or something.”

“I call this something,” Rafe muttered.

“Can we get out of the rain?” Ian said plaintively. “That place has most of its roof. Let’s dry off before we start fighting.”

The place Ian pointed at was missing a wall and part of the roof had collapsed, but it was shelter, of a sort. Before anyone else moved, Rafe staggered over to peer around the edge. Then he stopped, and Rafe’s expression was enough to make Jonathan stagger towards him, Ian at his heels with the horses, and Dylan sliding down from the saddle to follow.

They came to a ragged halt beside Rafe. Bodies. The first was a woman, her throat torn out, clutching a bloody sickle. The other blew all thoughts of drugging and hallucination to the winds for good. It was fang and sinew, long sinuous legs, light glistening wetly on dark scales. It was split wide open, across the midsection, its guts spilling black and wet to the packed dirt floor.

“We donna take kindly to looters,” said a gnarled voice.

Rafe made a noise, shoved Jonathan behind him, even as Dylan jumped, and Ian stepped in closer to Rafe.

A small group of men and women stood a few paces away in the rain, all in ragged, mud-smeared tunics and clutching sickles, hoes, pitchforks, some of grey chipped stone, others of yellow metal. None looked friendly; all looked grim. Jonathan’s gut clenched, the world swayed again, and he reached out to the nearby wall.

“We donna want trouble,” said the gnarled voice, an older, brawny man at the front of the group. His teeth were black, his face pock-marked. “If ye thought to loot, ye will find nothin’.”

“We’re just passing through,” Ian said, his hand gripping Rafe’s shoulder.

“Then pass,” the man said. “Ye ha’ na business here.”

“We’re getting out of that.” Dylan’s gesture took in the rain, the storm, the mud. “If you were out in this crap and saw a chance to get out, you’d check it out, too.”

“Got ye there, Tam,” said another man, with a faint chuckle.
The world swayed again; Jonathan caught himself against Ian. He felt cold, hot. Given the moons, given the bodies in front of them, there wasn’t any explanation they could give, not without getting into more trouble.

“I saw ’em come from land-fall.” A sallow-faced teenaged boy clutched a yellow-metal scythe so hard his hands shook. “I was up on hill an’ saw ’em, Tam.”

“Land-fall,” Tam echoed. “Ayo?”

“They sound it,” said a woman. “They look it, wi’ th’ blood.”

Ayo. What the psychos had said. Jonathan inched back, hoping to get against the wall before they decided to attack.

The movement caught Tam’s attention. “Hares in snare, or ye seek to snare us? I see th’ horses. Ye Chulain? O’ Ayo?”

“Not that shit again,” Rafe muttered.

“Land, Tam,” said another woman, fleshy and snaggle-toothed. “Ayo, certain. Look a’ the twain there.” She lifted her chin in Rafe’s and Jonathan’s direction. “Na wonder they be scared witless.”

“O’ playin’ it,” Tam said. “Caught an’ know it.”

“You can’t be worse than what we left,” Ian said.

Sound murmured at that. The second woman’s gaze picked them over. “Here now, ye be na in Ayo. Ye cross the Danu’cha, ye be in Kern.”

“Jordan,” said someone else. “They call it ‘Jordan’ o’er there.”

“Wha’e’er,” the woman said. “Ye be in Kern. Na burnin’s. Na hunters, na finders.”

“Kern?” Jonathan said, confused. Dizziness swayed him again; Rafe steadied him. “Here?”

“Land, ye are witless,” said another man. “Did ye na know where ye run?”

“Hold yer gab,” said the woman. “They be soaked bloody fro’ escapin’ hunters, an’ we keep ’em in the wet.”

“We ha’ na space,” Tam said.

“Four more will na hurt,” she said. “Na now.”

Tam gave in with a shrug, gestured at the others around him. “Go on, move. Search the outers again, be sure we ha’ everyone.”

“Come,” said the woman to the band. “Bring yer beasts. Stable still standin’, but na much for two-feets. Corner in the commons, bit o’ pottage, if ye wish. I am Keelin, and we offer ye hospitality.”

“You and the drowned-puppy act, I swear,” Ian murmured to Jonathan.

“We don’t got no money,” Rafe said to the woman. “We got nothin’ worth coppin’.”

“Ye be in Kern, na Ayo,” she said stiffly. “But if ye truly wish to guest, well, use yer gift.” She nodded at Jonathan. “We got hurt ones, aye. Na many, praise the land, but too much for me own miodha.”

“Gift?” Jonathan was confused again.

“Aye, gift,” she said. “Na curse, na here.” Jonathan stared blankly; she shrugged. “Too soon, mayhap. Ye will learn. Bu’ ye need warm an’ dry first, ye do.” She started towards the remaining whole building.

It looked like a large haystack on top of notched logs, smelling of wet grass, and the ends of the thatch were tied off into dollies, straw-human forms of dried grass with legs and arms streaked with reddish brown. Inside, it was a dark round space, support beams laden with hanging braids of dried herbs and root vegetables, a smoky fire-pit in the center. It seemed as if the entire village huddled here, stinking of wood-smoke and wet, unwashed bodies, sour and sweaty. The people weren’t dressed as Amish, the colors too strong, the style too loose-fitting.

Keelin herded the band to a spot on the far side, and shooed away a few children that wandered over in wide-eyed curiosity.

“Now,” she said in no-nonsense tones, “get ou’ o’ tha’ cloth. Down to skin, mind. I know ye donna do tha’ in Ayo, but ye donna want fever and hunters track by blood-smell.” She turned and disappeared into the chaos.

“I thought I was confused before,” Dylan said, his teeth chattering.

“They think we’re refugees,” Ian said quietly.

“Bullshit,” Rafe said. “They’re crazy. We’re out past Milpitas. One of those stupid hill communes.”

“You saw the moons.”

Rafe looked away. “Drugs.”

Ian snorted. “Damn good trip if we’re all seeing the same thing.”

Jonathan eased to sit on the floor — the wonderfully dry, un-muddy wood floor — and with a sigh, laid his head against his knees. He was hot, thirsty; he hoped they had water. “As long as they don’t ask questions.”

“Just keep quiet,” Ian said, “like you don’t want to talk about it.”

“Rafe, keep his mouth shut,” Dylan said. “Right.”

“Chingate,” Rafe muttered, but there wasn’t any heat in it. He was watching the people; Jonathan followed his gaze. It was an effort to focus. At first, Jonathan only saw a sweep of faces and colors, nothing special, huddled people, some lying down, children getting underfoot and shooed away. Then the sounds sunk in. The murmuring held weeping, groans, and anger; those lying down were crudely bandaged. The room smelled of blood and herbs, woodsmoke and dung.

Across the room, Keelin and Tam were talking — too far to hear, but the meaning was clear with Tam glaring their way. Jonathan dropped his gaze, not wanting to give the man any excuse.

“Bastard,” Rafe said.

“Kern,” Jonathan said at the same time, his voice soft and lost. Keelin was headed back towards them. “They said we’re already in Kern.”

“Easy,” Ian said. “We’ll figure it out.”

“Wha’, ye still in the wet?” Keelin stood over them, her arms full of cloth. “I brought dry. Nothin’ fancy, jus’ castoffs. Some weaves t’ sleep on, old skins. Now change. Na one here will care. We ha’ other worries.”

“What happened?” Ian nodded at the room, as Jonathan pulled off his sopping shirt and jeans.

“Raiders.” Her face tightened. “Chulains. Slavers.” She broke off, staring at Dylan and Jonathan.

Jonathan shifted uneasily, his heart pounding. The bruises from his fall were large and ugly, spread over his arms, chest, and right side; the slash on his chest was swollen, oozing grey pus. Dylan was bruised as badly, one eye swollen shut and nose bleeding again, with deeper purple patches spread over his chest, and he prodded gingerly at those, his breath hissing in.

Dylan caught Jonathan’s look and grimaced. “Matched set.”

“Land,” Keelin whispered. “The hunters?”

Jonathan had no idea what she was talking about. He kept his gaze on the floor and didn’t answer, closing his eyes against another bout of dizziness.

I fell off my bike, ma’am, Da’ll tell you…

“He’s been throwing up.” Ian nodded at Jonathan.

Keelin’s face went grim. She knelt to lay hands on Jonathan’s head; Jonathan went still at the odd touch. “Cracked skull,” Keelin said flatly. “Land, ye burn. Wound-fever. Na, sit, child — an’ ye are child, if ye na sense to care fer yerself.”

“Wound fever,” Ian whispered. “Infection. Oh christ.”

Jonathan tried to pull away, but Keelin had his chin in a strong grip, turning his head to face her.

“Na, na a’ me. Loo’ a’ torch, up there. Good. Ye ha’ movement. Hold and donna move.” She repeated the same brusque examination with Dylan, then pushed herself to her feet and disappeared into the crowd again.

“Told you it was something,” Rafe said to Jonathan.

Jonathan somehow managed a rueful smile. He snagged something from the cloth pile, shook it out. An oversized coarse-woven shirt, undyed, splotched; he pulled it on. It was rough and scratchy but dry, all he cared about.

The woman returned with a waterskin, a bowl of something soft and foul-smelling, a bucket of water, and a rag. She motioned for Jonathan to pull his shirt up, then she dipped the rag into the water, then the bowl, and started to scrub the slash out. It hurt, a lot. Jonathan yelped, caught himself, forced himself to hold still.

Ian shoved Rafe back down. “That’s soap, idiot.”

The world was spinning again. Nausea surged as the slash bled freely, and Jonathan swallowed, jaw clenched. He would not scream. He would not vomit. Rafe shoved past Ian to Jonathan’s side, gripping Jonathan’s hand, a tight brother-to-brother clasp.

Keelin eyed the slash, then untied the waterskin, carefully poured its contents over Jonathan’s chest. The liquid stung and stank of alcohol, and Jonathan clenched his teeth, heard Rafe’s sharp gasp as Jonathan’s grip tightened. “Sorry,” Jonathan whispered.

“Fuckin’ piano player,” Rafe said from clenched teeth, but didn’t let go the grip.

“Herb-wine.” Keelin used the rag to catch the spillage, careful not to touch the slash. “Na good for drink, good for wound. I canna heal wound fever. Let bleed, then we poultice wi’ mold an’ web, and ye rest, eh?”

“We can’t stay,” Rafe said.

“We canna loan ye shovel.”

Rafe looked confused. “Shovel?”

“Fer buryin’.” Her voice was matter-of-fact. “Tha’ be Ayo custom, aye?”

“It’s not that bad,” Jonathan said.

“Yet.” Keelin studied Jonathan, her hand on his chest; it stung with static. “Fever na run its course. Ye be here day-span, least. They dip tha’ blade in dung?”

“I don’t know,” Jonathan said, shaken. She’d seen her truth. Now the accusations would start.

“Land.” She spat into the dirt. “Ayoans. Bad a’ slavers, a’ tha’.”

“Slavers?” Ian said.

“Chulains,” Keelin said, as if that explained everything. Her hands were back on Jonathan’s head, warm, soothing, and he started to nod off. The migraine faded to a dull, distant throb; the slash had already slowed its bleeding. Keelin patted his shoulder, then moved to Dylan and repeated the same brusque scrub of his cuts and bruises. She finally laid her hands on his chest; everyone watched, confused, uncertain. Dylan gasped, his face clenched, then suddenly relaxed and let out a shuddering breath. The woman shook her head, then shook her hands out.

“Twa ribs,” she said. “I set, but rest, mind. Now, pottage by fire, there.” She gestured towards the room’s center. “Na one say na to ye. Na ye.” She pushed Jonathan back down as he tried to rise. “Ye rest. Ye, too.” That was snapped at Dylan, who had started to get up. “Let yer friends gi’ ye food.” She looked as if to say more, then turned to go again. “Forgi’ me. Too many others hurt. Be back wi’ poultice later.”

“Wait.” Jonathan caught her arm. His mouth was thick and clumsy, and he stumbled over the words, but he had to find out. “You said we’re in Kern.”

“Aye?”

“We — there was another of us. We got jumped and they grabbed him.”

Keelin looked away. “Chulains be well-armed an’ fast. Na chance o’ helpin’ him.”

“No. They’re taking him to Kern. We learned that much. But you said we’re already here.”

“Crown city. Land-rise o’ here.” She lowered her voice. “There be lairds tha’ profit by th’ Chulains, na matter tha’ King Faolán claims truce.”

“King Faolán,” Jonathan echoed.

“Aye. Forgi’ me, I mus’ go.” Keelin pulled from Jonathan’s grasp and turned back to the chaos of the hall.

Everyone’s gaze turned to Dylan, who huddled against a support post.

“What the hell was that?” Rafe said.

“I —” Dylan closed his eyes, breathed. “It hurt like hell for a second, then — I — I don’t know.“ He broke off, shivering, then snagged at the the pile of cast-offs, pulled a tunic on. It hung loose, making him look as a scarecrow in rags.

Jonathan rested his head on his knees, his gaze on the wounded and the dying. All he could think of was the unplanted land and the shock through his hands. Dizziness spun him; he was exhausted. With a muffled groan, he spread one of the worn skins on the ground — what animal, he didn’t know, something with black, slick fur — and curled against it. It didn’t help.

Rafe was watching him. Rafe hadn’t changed clothes, only sat huddled in on himself. “We’re jacked,” Rafe said softly.

“We’re better than you think.” Ian toyed with a stick, scraping against the wood floor. “We got information.”

“Get real,” Rafe said.

Ian ignored him. “There’s two moons, so we’re…somewhere else. They call it Kern, and somewhere north’s a city where we can get help. That woman said that. South’s someplace called Ayo —”

“I think we want to avoid that,” Dylan said.

Ian grinned. “Yeah. That.”

“Bullshit,” Rafe said. “They speak English. We’re home. We gotta be.”

“I didn’t say it made sense.” Ian focused on the stick. “I just said what it is.”

“And you just figured this out,” Rafe said sarcastically.

Ian looked up. “I paid attention.”

“They said Vão’s a king,” Jonathan said, with a nervous glance at the surrounding villagers.

“I heard,” Ian said.

A random memory came back. “They said we kidnapped him. And murdered that guy.”

“The horses,” Ian said softly. “Think how Vão was. A set-up.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Dylan said. “They could’ve killed us without all that.”

“They almost did,” Rafe’s voice rose, agitated. “That crew’s after our ass. We can’t mess with this shit. We gotta get home.”

“We’re all ears, Rafe,” Dylan said.

Rafe shoved to his feet and stalked away, towards the fire pit in the center of the room. Jonathan watched him, then forced his attention back to Ian. It was hard to stay awake.

“Not the troop.” Ian’s gaze was on Rafe’s retreating back. “That rep. He used us to cover something. I don’t think we were supposed to survive it.”

“The rep?” Jonathan said.

“The record rep,” Ian said, then when Jonathan only stared back, “Jay, he was standing right over you!”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Magic,” Dylan said. Despite dizziness, nausea, exhaustion, Jonathan gave Dylan a look; Dylan only grinned.

“I heard him,” Ian said slowly, staring at Jonathan. “That Vicari guy. He wanted you guys dead. Not answering questions.”

“What’s that got to do with the rep?”

Ian closed his eyes, rubbing at his face with one hand. “Jay…”

“The record rep was Vicari,” Dylan said quietly.

“Yeah,” Ian said. “So that means he knows Vão’s not the king.” Lower, “Which means he had to have something to do with the real king going missing.”

Jonathan stared at him, at Dylan, then laid his head back against his knees; it made no sense. He couldn’t think through the nausea and dizziness. At the fire pit, Tam had intercepted Rafe. The older man stood belligerent and accusing, with his chin thrust out and his arms crossed. Rafe’s jaw clenched, but he pushed past Tam without a word.

“So next question is,” Dylan said, “where’s Kev?”

“I don’t know,” Ian said, “and that scares me.””

Another memory, of Kevin swaying, a bleeding cut on his face…Vão, bound and bleeding, a dead body in the thorns, and blood splattered over all of them…

Blood.

Jonathan curled against the skin, trying to still his shivering and not succeeding. His stomach twisted again; he felt hot, sweating, sick. Someone else’s lies, and he was caught, again.

Rafe knelt beside him, pushed a wooden bowl into Jonathan’s hands before handing Dylan another. “Go on,” Rafe said roughly. “Eat. We need that, too. We can’t eat information.”

“Never said we could.” Ian got to his feet, stretched, headed towards the fire.

Jonathan didn’t feel like eating, but Rafe was glaring, and finally, with his fingers, Jonathan scooped a hesitant mouthful from the bowl, thick oatmeal that tasted of pork fat and sage. It didn’t immediately come back up, and Jonathan tried another finger-full. The bowl was hot; he huddled around it, trying to draw its heat into his body.

Beyond the smoky fire, Jonathan could still see Tam watching them, his expression hidden in the shadows. A form crossed his line of sight, Ian coming back with his own bowl, sitting down to scoop the oatmeal into his mouth.

“Kings and troops and plots, oh my,” Dylan said. “And we’re right in the middle.”

“Question is,” Ian said, “do we want to help Vão out?”

Silence was his answer, broken only by the moans and cries of the wounded….

———-

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