After six more days of travel the town came into view. The sun was setting to the south as the group made camp. They would make the town by the next night if they left early in the morning.
The journey had been tough as they got closer and closer to the desert’s edges. They had gone off course a few times, which had caused the days to stretch. They’d run into a few sandstorms, a close call with a chupacabra, and the horses had suffered from heat exhaustion. Camping now was the best option, they were all tired.
As the temperature started to drop with the setting sun the group gathered around the fire. They were quiet and content as the air filled with the smells of stew, James slowly stirring the pot above the flames.
So far Gobtok was a good addition. He had saved the group when the storms had hit, helping them to bunker down properly. Maximus and Gobtok had become fast friends and when they had stumbled upon the chupacabra he had rode Maximus into battle, using his poison darts to slow the beast down. The small goblin was starting to gain a little weight, eating more than anyone thought possible. Even Samson had grown to like him, trying to hide it but not succeeding.
As the night wrapped around the group Gobtok was the only one not sitting. Instead he jumped and grabbed for bugs while Maximus followed at his heels.
“That almost ready, Captain?” Aikos asked as he propped his feet up.
James took a spoonful of stew and tasted it. “Almost sir, almost.”
“So far your meals have been the best Captain, I sure hope you can hang onto that title,” Aikos said with a grin. It had been an ongoing competition between the two of them. Aikos had made some very good meals, but so far James’ dishes were the best. Aikos was looking forward to knocking him down from his throne.
“I have no doubt that the honor,” James stood, “and the prestige,” he placed the stirring spoon over his heart, “of being the best cook,” he looked out over the fire into the night, “will forever be held by Captain James Highwater!”
Everyone clapped and cheered as he bowed again and again. Everyone except for Aikos that is. As the noise died down, Aikos had a sly smile on his lips. “We will see about that Captain,” he stated taking a drink from his flask.
Gobtok continued to clap and yell, unsure of what was happening, as James took his seat again. Freya told Gobtok about a bug that was trying to sneak by him and he was once again distracted, claiming “No escape!” as he closed in on his prey.
Freya couldn’t help herself as a hearty laugh escaped her. The rest of the group looked over, startled.
“What did he say?” Samson asked watching the goblin follow the bug.
“He said ‘no escape’,” Freya said through chuckles. Her eyes started to water.
Samson let out a snicker, Aikos snorted a laugh, Boom smiled, and James chuckled as he stirred the stew. Soon they were all laughing and smiling. Their faces hurt from it and they weren’t sure if what had happened was really all that funny or if the laughter was what kept them all going.
Eventually they all settled down as the food was served, and the fire’s warmth washed over the group.
As the last bits of food were being scraped up, Aikos turned to Freya with an expression of hesitation. “I’ve been wanting to ask you,” he looked over towards James. James looked back, confused, unsure of what was about to happen.
“What Aikos?” Freya asked as he looked around the fire, looking for help with his eyes. Freya saw Samson shake his head. “You seem scared to even look at me, let alone ask me.”
Aikos looked back to her, a set to his jaw, determined. “What debt did you owe James?”
James immediately stood up, yelling, “How dare you! That is not anything you need concern yourself with! Dishonor!” He went for his sword.
Aikos instinctively stood and went for his own blade.
“Enough!” Freya’s voice crescendoed over the area, cutting through the tension. James hesitated, his hand on his sword, as his neck and cheeks flushed red. Aikos stopped with his eyes locked on James. Even Gobtok stopped dead in his tracks, a small moth hanging halfway out of his mouth.
“Sit down,” she said as she grabbed her pack next to her. The men remained unmoving.
“I said sit down, now!” She yelled at the men. They slowly sheathed their weapons and moved back to their seats. Gobtok didn’t speak common very well, but he sat down faster than anyone else. He spoke anger very well.
Freya rummaged in her pack and produced her flask. Undoing the top she took a large swig from it.
“You don’t have to tell them,” James stated, defensive.
“I know,” Freya said as she looked at the others. “But I trust them.”
She looked around the fire, making sure that she had everyone’s attention. James was clearly pained for her, not wanting her to have to retell the story, but he was not going to interrupt her. She knew he wouldn’t.
She looked straight at Aikos as she began, “Right before I met all of you I had gotten myself into some trouble.”
“You, love? Not possible,” Samson said to ease some of the tension. Freya gave a small smile, grateful for the gesture.
“What kind of trouble?” Aikos asked.
James shifted and stood, moving to the outer edge of the fire. This was hard for him too.
“I fought the wrong person.” She took another swig of her flask. She felt the eyes on her. “I fought him and I lost. I was going to be executed because of it.”
“Why did you fight him?” Aikos asked as he shifted forward in his seat.
Freya took another couple swigs from her flask. “He hurt my family,” her voice wavered as she spoke. James turned around swiftly, his hand resting on his sword, his face was still etched with anger.
“He hurt my sister,” an angry tear escaped her. “And he hurt me.”
The rest of the group was silent. Samson and Aikos each eventually looked away and shook their heads once they realized what she was saying. James was a statue.
“I was to be executed.” She moved her hand under her leathers running her fingers along one of the rough scars she found. “But I was tortured first. Per his orders.” More tears escaped and Freya quickly wiped them away.
“James stopped the torture, and the execution.” She looked up at him, he didn’t look at her. He couldn’t, he hadn’t been there to stop him. It wasn’t something he ever wanted to talk about, the shame of it would break him. Especially not now, not with how much better things had become between Freya and himself.
Freya looked at Aikos, who remained silent. “It cost him. I was in his debt because he put his life on the line,” she looked back at James who still wouldn’t meet her eye. “I owe him my life.”
Another tear fell down her cheek.
She let it.
“She did owe me. She now owes me nothing.” James remained still and wouldn’t look at anyone.
“I didn’t know, I’m sorry,” Aikos said.
No one spoke for a long time.
The silence stretched on.
Freya wiped away her tears and had some sips from her flask. James went over and sat next to her. He tentatively placed an arm around her. She sighed, exhausted, but didn’t push him away. It was comforting to have him there.
Gobtok walked over to Freya. He started to speak to her. A bunch of grunts and clacks from his tongue. When he was finished Freya smiled down at him and said something back.
Gobtok placed a half mutilated moth in her hand and smiled from ear to ear.
Her eyes welled up and she started to cry again.
“What did he say?” Samson asked.
She wiped at her tears. “To put it simply, he said that the tribe is here for me.” She laughed a little. “No escape.”
The rest of the group smiled along with Gobtok.