As the others sat around the fire, smiling at each other, talking freely, you could see the bonds forming between them. Loyalty, concern, affection. All beautiful symbols of friendship, and all next to useless.
You might think a party who are willing to die for each other would provide a powerful advantage in a fight. But the aim isn’t to die, it’s to stay alive.
What I needed from them was obedience, focus and an unwavering desire to win. Fat chance of getting those qualities out of this lot.
“Get all our equipment out, I’ll be back in a minute.” If it sounds like I was talking down to them, acting like I was in charge, that’s not how it was. They did as I asked not because I was the leader, but because they had started to trust me. They hadn’t just bonded with each other, they had bonded with me as well. We were in this together. Or at least that’s how they saw it.
I saw it in more practical terms. I had to tell them what to do because otherwise they might start thinking for themselves, and then we’d really be in trouble. I know that probably sounds quite arrogant. With me at the helm, we’d be winners in no time! Stage cleared. Flawless victory. No, I didn’t think that. Our survival chance weren’t good no matter who gave the orders. I was just the lesser of five evils.
Plus, the truth was I feared the future. The other groups had found a way to progress and we were way behind. Not that turning on my companions would benefit our cause, but I was edgy as fuck and snapping at people was my coping mechanism. Not a good mechanism, just the only one I had.
I went into the shed where Grayson was sitting at the desk, writing in a ledger of some kind. He used a stick of what looked like charcoal to write with. I couldn’t make head or tail of what he was writing, it was in the strange script that looked like squiggles.
He looked up questioningly.
“Is it alright if I take some of this stuff?” I pointed at the box with the last of the clothes in it.
He nodded. “Tomorrow will be the last day here for us. And for you. We’ll be shutting everything up and going back to the city. You’ll be on your own.”
I had forgotten we’d only been promised three days of care. Or, I hadn’t forgotten, but I had put it out of my mind. Now it was front and centre and I only felt worse.
“Will you be be back in four years?” I asked him.
“Not me. At least I hope not. Some other poor bastard who’s fallen out of favour with the powers that be.”
So this was considered a shit detail, assigned to whoever had pissed his superiors off the most. Grayson did look the type.
“Who is it you work for, exactly?”
“The National Alliance.” He pointed at the map on the wall. “You remember the four cities I mentioned before? They’re each responsible for their own province, but for larger matters there’s a council, the National Alliance, which has representatives from each city. I act under their purview.”
There were probably many more questions I could have asked about this world, how it was run, who was in charge… but Grayson did not give off a chatty vibe. I felt like I was being a huge imposition just breathing the same air as him.
“By the way, do you know what happened to the other groups?”
Grayson gave a noncommittal shrug. It could have meant he didn’t know, or that he wasn’t going to tell me. Or possibly that his shoulders ached and he wanted to go to bed. It was evening and the soldiers tended to disappear once it got dark. I had no idea where to. There was a lot I didn’t know.
My gaze wandered over to the curtain I had only recently become aware of. I’d have liked to had a look in the alcove behind, see what other hidden treasures might be back there, but I doubted Grayson would allow it. He was already back to his writing as though I wasn’t even there.
I grabbed everything from the clothes box and returned to the courtyard. The others had spread our gear out in front of the fire. A paltry collection.
I handed a woollen tank top, too small for even the girls, to Dudley. “Can you pick that apart? We can use the wool as thread for the needle.” We did have some thread but I already had plans for it. Plus it wouldn’t be good for heavy duty stuff which the wool might. Maybe.
“Can someone thread this needle?” I held up the sewing kit we had bought earlier. Claire took it from me. “By the way, can either of you sew?”
Both girls gave me that look modern girls like to throw around when you say something that could be perceived as sexist. The one that says, “What do I look like? Your mother?” Which is hugely unreasonable, since my mother is also a modern girl and totally useless when it comes to household stuff.
“I’m just asking, a simple yes or no would do.”
Claire shook her head but Flossie said, “Little bit.”
“Okay, great.” I handed the rest of the clothes to Maurice. “Can you cut these into strips? We can sew them to the sacks to make them easier to carry. The rest we can wrap around some sticks to make torches. We’ll probably need light in a dark place at some point.”
I went over to the woodpile and selected a few suitable sticks for the torches, and also retrieved the collection of junk I’d got from the smithy that I’d stashed there. I didn’t think they would get stolen, I hid them so no one would mistake them for trash and throw them away. Now that we had needle and thread I could attempt making a sap by sewing the bits of metal inside a piece of leather.
If this were a movie, we’d be putting all this stuff together in a montage with cool music over it. The heroes prepare for action. In real life it probably looked more like we were sorting out the recycling for the bin men.