Part 1: Fallout
A damp, chilly morning greeted Tomas as he opened his eyes. Peeking his head out of the tent, he found Kari sitting with her back against a tree, facing the Lake. Her eyes were closed. “Sleep well?” She didn’t open her eyes as she said it.
“You were supposed to wake me up for another watch. More than one, actually.” Tomas rubbed his eyes as he left the tent.
Kari shrugged. “You need your sleep. How’s the shoulder?”
“Hurts. I can move it fine. You need your sleep too.”
Kari said nothing as she moved to take down the tent. Automatically, Tomas moved to spread out the remains of the fire Kari had kept burning through the night.
“Kari, you really should have woken me up.”
She just shrugged again.
They finished breaking down their small camp in silence.
When it was done, they shouldered their packs and continued walking south, the Lake on their right. They were still close enough to the water that Tomas could hear waves lapping against the shore. The day before, it had been a comforting sound, a small piece of his Home north of the Mountains. Today, it was an unsettling reminder of the previous night’s terrors. They walked side by side in silence for a while, each munching on a breakfast of hard sausage.
Once he’d finished his small meal, Tomas found the waves impossible to ignore; the sound of his chewing had been a flimsy barrier against the incessant noise coming from the beach. Now even it was gone. “We should make it to Vacen today, right?”
After a moment, Tomas tried again. “Are we gonna try to find an inn? Or camp outside the city limits?”
Tomas clenched his teeth. It wasn’t just the unsettling quiet all around him that was putting him on edge anymore, punctuated as it was by his lingering fears. Kari had started walking faster. Trotting to keep up with her, he said a bit too loud, “You’re going to have to talk to me at some point. So you might as well tell me what’s eating you. We’re in this together, remember?”
“In this together.” She muttered it more than anything else.
“Right. We are.” She stopped walking and whirled around to face him. “If it weren’t for me last night, you wouldn’t be here today.” Her voice echoed among the trees around them, the silence still only a breath away. Waves beat against the Lake shore. “I’m not looking for thanks, Tomas. I just…” Her voice broke and she trailed off.
Tomas caught up to her and waited for her to finish. He knew she had more to say, she was just searching for the words. He was grateful for the break in walking and took the moment to catch his breath.
Kari set her jaw and looked past Tomas, out over the Lake. “It’s just…when I’m asleep, who’s gonna protect me?” At this, she met Tomas’ gaze. [After the fact, Tomas often wrote about how vulnerable Kari truly was in this moment. She hadn’t meant it to hurt him, though he couldn’t see that at the time.]
The fear in her eyes was lost on Tomas, though, and he stormed off down the path, in the direction of Vacen. “Let’s just go. Won’t be any monsters in Vacen, will there?”
Kari stood very still for a moment as he pulled away, then wordlessly fell into step behind him, the path still wide enough for two.
* * *
They walked in silence for a while, each alone with their fears. Tomas found it preferable to fighting with his companion, [understandably, if you ask me.] They had enough bread and cheese for a final meal before they entered the city, and when they came to an old, seemingly unused watchtower on the Lake, they sat at its base and had their lunch.
After a few silent bites, Kari spoke. “Hey, I’m sorry. That wasn’t called for.”
Tomas didn’t reply right away. But after a deep breath, “No, it kind of was. You’re right, if that thing had come back while you were asleep, there would’ve been nothing I could do. After all, you’re downright impossible to wake sometimes.”
This made Kari laugh, and when she did, something that had been knotted up inside Tomas came loose. He laughed with her and relaxed a bit against the smooth, cool stone tower.
“I’ve decided something, though.” Tomas had finished eating and was in the process of repacking the remnants of his lunch.
“We’re not leaving Vacen until I have some way to protect you. It’s impractical otherwise. And we’ve seen that there are things out here that are no joke.”
“Good thought. I just hope we can get some answers.”
“Well, then I’m not leaving Vacen until I have at least a lead.”
“Wasn’t that always the plan?” Kari’s lingering smile turned almost impish.
“Oh, you know what I mean.” Tomas couldn’t help but laugh again.
Together, they stood up and shouldered their packs, feeling ready to face Vacen together.
* * *
“They couldn’t possibly have been ready, though. Has anyone here seen the City of Stone? I know many of us have, so I’ll say it like this: could you imagine seeing that town—just those walls even—having lived here for your whole life prior? There was nothing that could have prepared them for the spectacle that awaited them.”
I smile as I hear murmurs of assent pop up here and there.
“The rest of you need not worry, though, for Tomas,” here I pat the journal resting open in my lap, “he was awestruck. I wouldn’t leave anyone behind in this story, so long as they’re listening carefully.
“So,” I search the faces of the crowd for a moment before whirling around to stare down one of the children sitting at my feet. “Are you listening carefully?”
The child’s eyes grow wide with surprise; she shrinks away from me just noticeably. After a moment of fright, she nods somberly.
I smile grandly at her and say, “Well, then. I suppose it’s time to move on.”