The walk to the border of the Caer of the Lakes wasn’t far. The caer was about ten miles or so. Call it three and a bit hours, at a slow walk. He didn’t want to tire Rebeccitha unnecessarily; she’d be doing enough walking soon anyway, but it was as far as it was. Aside from anything else, it would give him a chance to see how the sleep had affected her, if at all. He wondered how long he had slept in the company of the Augments. She hadn’t seemed too off last night. She’d been able to run for a short distance, seemingly without any trouble. That meant at least his more basic conclusions had been accurate: she was physically healthy at least. They’d be no real chance for him to test her mental state until they could communicate better.
Too much risk of doing damage, poking unknowingly at something sensitive.
He got up from the blankets under him and rolled them into a tight bundle. Picking them up as he stood, he put them on the table, placed next to the pack. He patted it a moment, before pausing to listen.
“Rebeccitha,” he called to the silence. He heard a rustling from the bedroom as she picked herself up and made her way to the door. She pushed the curtain to one side and stepped into the main room. Her clothing, so clean and delicate just two days ago was a mess. He’d done what he could to protect her from the worst of it, but the ground had been cold and damp in places, and it had stained with mud and frayed where she’d moved in the nights. A couple of small tears had opened on the sides. They’d have to see about new clothes when they got to the caer.
He pointed to the small kitchen. As before, she walked to him, but waited for him to move towards the door before following. He pushed the cloth to one side, and gestured to the dried meats and fish, hanging on hooks, as well as a small pile of fruit vegetables.
“Food. Eat,” he said, waning one hand at the various things, before taking down a ham. He picked a long, curved knife from next to the vegetables, and a smaller one from a low shelf, along with two wooden bowls. He quickly chopped a handful of the roots roughly, before handing her the smaller of the two knives and bowls, then turned and walked back to the main room. He laid the joint of meat on it, and with a heavy blow, hacked most of the way through it, with more care, he then cut the rest of the way through and handed her the smaller part.
“Food,” he said, pointing at the pieces in the bowl. Then he picked up his haunch and took a bite. He chewed a moment and swallowed. “Eat,” he repeated. Rebeccitha sniffed at the meat a moment, then bit into it. She chewed it thoughtfully, then nodded at him seriously before taking another, larger bite.
Unsure about dried meat. Possible she’s not eaten it before. Raised in a family who don’t eat meat? Unlikely, although not impossible. Possibly from the South, more common there. Also amongst Underdwellers. Hard to imagine her being from there though. She’d speak English, unless she was from another Land. Potentially brought here from abroad? Why though, and why would she be with Augments?
There were too many questions, with no obvious answers. Not even any non-obvious ones for that matter. He had too little information to go on.
He took a large bite from his own ham, as he listened. He could hear the chatter of insects near the mouth of the cave as well as a small wild dog, yapping angrily at something, and the call of a small flight of birds. The sun was up. They’d need to be moving soon.
They sat on the chairs by the table and ate in silence. It suited Matthias. He wasn’t good with people at the best of times, let alone with someone with whom communication involved a lot of hand waving. He’d preferred the wild spaces, the quiet honesty of the mountains, ever since he’d been a boy. Even more so after… He didn’t follow where that thought led. It was an old wound of an old memory, best left where it lay.
When there was nothing left but two lumps of bone, Matthias sighed deeply and stood. Time to be moving on. He motioned to Rebeccitha to stand, picked up the pack, and together they walked out of the door, and headed out towards the mouth of the cave. The land around was rocky, a mix of dark and light green around the foot of the mountain, with the skeletons of trees grey and brown. Further up, outcrops of rock scarred the landscape in hard grey. Around the top, drifts of snow were falling. Just as the Underdweller had predicted the week before. The snow lay deep near the top already. Lower down and on the flat lands, here and there were was scattered the wreckage of old buildings, fallen in to ruin and decay by time and brought to rubble by the weather and animals and opportunistic locals after raw material, pulling them down for the stone.
There was a lake at the foot of the mountain, maybe a mile away from where he was. It was one of many around here. It was after them that his great great great great grandfather had chosen the name for their village: the Caer of the Lakes. The caer itself sat on an island in the largest of the lakes. The local villagers ran a regular boat ferry to take people from the main body of land to the village itself. In this way, it was protected in the main from attacks from Augments, or from other enterprising Mountaindwellers. Attacks were uncommon and very rare respectively, but they still happened time to time. The last had been in the last winter, a group of Augments adapted to the cold, all ten feet tall and each weighing as much as five big men had come from the north and fought their way across the water, before being turned back by fire from massed arrows, and two men with weapons made by a passing Underdweller. The arrows had hurt them, but they’d kept coming. It was only after the leader of the group had been blown clean in half that they’d turned back. Even then, they’d walked slowly, as if in complete control.
He’d never forgotten the power of those weapons. When he’d talked to their maker, the woman had laughed, said these barely counted. He wouldn’t say he feared those who lived under the River, but anyone who could make such things certainly deserved respect.
They left the mouth of the cave and started the walk to the Caer-Lake. He’d walked all the way around it as a child, and run it many times as a man. Running hard, he could do it in about three hours, he knew. He knew people who’d run it far faster though, beating him by half an hour. He’d never been able to run it that fast though. He was too big, carrying too much weight. His was a body built for fighting, for climbing and sprinting and carrying back a dead animal after hunting all day.
He looked at Rebeccitha. He had little doubt that, were she fit enough and well fed, she could beat him easily. He could better understand her now he saw her in the daylight, moving on her own. She was tall and lithe, with long, toned limbs. He could see the muscles in her legs clearly as she walked. Her arms looked strong, despite being slender. She moved with an easy grace, her feet touching down gently and leaving barely a mark. She moved like a dancer, or one of the fisherwomen who dived while hunting for larger fish in the lakes. That same elegant strength, the measured, precise movements. Efficient.
Looking at the land around him, he let his mind wander. He knew the way well enough that he didn’t need to pay attention, and Rebeccitha seemed content to follow him. How many times had he walked this path with his father as a boy? Before his father had accepted the title of Duke, and agreed to lead the village and the lands around it. Although the village itself where he sat in residence was small, barely more than a few dozen small houses, with a few stores and a hall, the land he ruled was substantial. It ran the full length of the Northern Wall, Hadrian’s Wall as the Underdwellers knew it, down three or four days walk south. The City had exact boundaries, which they made sure every Duke knew, to avoid conflicts over land, but he’d never learned them exactly. It was enough that he knew roughly where his people were from, and whenever he went far away, it was far enough that he didn’t need to worry; he was going to be in someone else’s lands, whether it was to see the people in the Western Isle, the Isles of Beauty, the Westermountains and their two Dukes, or even the City itself, though he’d only visited there once. It hadn’t felt comfortable. For a man born and raised in a place where an exciting day was a particularly good haul of fish, or a harvest feast, the sight of all their technology had been… disconcerting. Frightening, even.
The people who could predict the weather. Who knew what secrets they knew? He knew his father knew more than he had told. Every one of the Dukes of the Island were required to visit the City, to learn and memorise the history of the lands they ruled. To learn the Mistakes of the Past. The Underdwellers believed it vital that those who ruled knew what had come before. That was fine by Matthias, as long as he didn’t have to rule himself. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know what those secrets were, which the Cities kept so close, protected so fiercely.
He wondered at the secrets Rebeccitha knew. Where she’d come from. Who had raised her. Why she was here. Why she’d been delivered to him, of all people. What he should do with her, now her life was his to protect, to care for.
They walked on. After an hour or so, the lake came in to view. They walked to the shore and followed it south, the sounds of the lapping waves, the splash of the fish, the sounds of the birds in the air and the crunch of the stone under their feet. He slowed and let Rebeccitha catch up. He pointed to the water. “Lake,” he said, the first word either of them had said since breakfast that morning. The pointed at the birds. “Birds,” he said. She nodded, understanding. “Lake, birds,” she repeated.
He looked over to an island. One of the villagers was there, setting up a frame of wood to smoke fish. He couldn’t make out who it was from this distance, but he knew the smell and the smoke and what they meant well enough. He pointed at the smoke, and mimed it tumbling into the sky with his hands. “Smoke,” he said. Rebeccitha nodded.
As the walked on, he tested her on the words they’d covered the night before. Her memory was sharp. Surprisingly so. She’d not forgotten a single word, despite the hunger and tiredness she must surely have been feeling. Impressive. He had her walk faster, then jog, and then run. He’d been right; running as fast as he could, she breezed past him, laughing as she did, hair flowing behind her. He slowed and watched her a moment, thinking hard. She was unnaturally quick. He wasn’t the fastest long distance runner, he knew that. But over short distance, he was quick. He’d lost races in his youth, but not often, and he wasn’t that much slower now. She’d outpaced him without even trying.
Who are you? More to the point, what are you? Where did you come from?
She didn’t explain. He worried what it meant.
Slowly, they drew near the boathouse, and the ferry that would take them over the water to the caer. To his father, his family, his friends, and his banishment.