You could go sit at the fire with them.
That small voice always said such strange and kind things. Percival had yet to figure out where it came from or what it was supposed to convey though he had theories. In his opinion, those thoughts might have been worth something if there was someone around worthy enough for the kindness and effort they hinted.
Why make such suggestions with such a life-tired tone? Why make them at all?
It will be out in a matter of hours, the clinical voice in his head said.
Though the wind did not smell like rain, it did smell as though it would only get stronger as the night went on. When they needed it most, their fire would be out.
As he began to set up a spit, the other side of the camp grew quiet. The spot that Adolf and Juliette had chosen was between the group fire out of the way of anywhere the wind could blow embers onto his things. Percival set the skins to hang near his trunks before gutting the fish, fox, and rabbit and cleaning them. Opening one of his bags, he pulled out a bottle of oil and a small bag of herbs.
He heard someone gasp from across the clearing. The small bag had once belonged to someone they all knew. The elderly physician had bequeathed it to Percival in her last moments. Her children had long since either died or moved away from the Black Forest. Percival had spent a great deal of his childhood helping her tend to the ill of Löffeltal. He’d been the closest thing she’d had to an apprentice, and it had been hard to watch her die like the last of their firewood. The magical pouch kept herbs fresh and best for anything they could possibly need and had saved more lives than most of them knew. He built a separate fire to roast his catches over and strung them up on the spit. When he was done, he washed his hands in the stream and returned with a block of wood to whittle while he waited.
Juliette dragged her bag closer to Percival’s fire and continued talking to him though he said little to nothing in reply. Normally, people would have given up on sparking a conversation with him. Juliette seemed to have none of those reservations and continued to fill the silence between them just happy that he answered her it seemed.
He remembered that when he was younger, he was far more inclined to hold conversations. He would be seventeen in a matter of months, and despite his vast vocabulary, the words simply couldn’t make it out of his mouth. Aside from Juliette’s voice, the camp was quiet. Gathering around the large fire they’d built, everyone else decided to either dig through whatever they’d brought with them or whisper amongst themselves about their plans once they arrived in Paris. Juliette pulled out a piece of bread and continued to speak to Percival as she poured water over the bread to soften it.
“Aren’t you going to say something?” Juliette asked. “It’s a little weird to be filling the silence by myself.”
“Water won’t help,” he said.
His voice sounded as flat as his expression probably seemed. He turned the spit and poked the fish to check it as juice dripped into the fire and turned to vapor with a hiss. Juliette sighed, taking a bite of the bread with a grimace.
“The first thing I’m going to do when I get to Paris is find the softest baguette in the city and eat it all by myself.”
“Wine would have helped.”
Juliette glowered at him, “I drank the last of my wine days ago, and it was too expensive in town to buy more.”
She turned at the sound of her name. One of the women beckoned her over to the side of the camp where everyone congregated. She excused herself and went over, carrying her water-softened bread with her. Percival continued carving in the light of the fire as his dinner cooked.
“You heard what the woman in town said, didn’t you?” the woman asked.
“About?” Juliette asked.
“About the prices in Paris.”
“What about them?” Juliette asked. “Did I miss something?”
“It’s expensive,” one of the men said. “I don’t think I could ever make enough money to live on
Another twist of a feeling washed through him.
Amusement, he thought, recognizing that easily as so much of what they spoke about turned out to be amusing in a pitiable way. He glanced over to where Adolf sat and rummaged through his bag. He pulled out a small hunk of bread and cheese and set them aside to continue digging. Though it was dim, there was no mistaking the amused expression on Adolf’s face.
Glad that it’s amusing to someone else as well, Percival thought. Then again, it made sense for it to be amusing to Adolf. He’d learned a lot about the world from the same person who had taught Percival how to make money by leveraging his skills.
He sliced bread for himself and cheese. When he returned to consciousness, he found that he’d placed it back in his bag and cut more than just a portion for himself.
“Did you think Paris was cheap?” Juliette asked across the clearing. “You understand that the Roi and most of the royal court lives there don’t you?”
“Well yes, but why would everything be so expensive?”
“It’s the capital,” Juliette said. “Not to mention it’s not really near a coast and not much by way of fertile land. Of course, it’s expensive. Everything is imported.”
“Well, what are we going to do?”
“What do you mean?” Juliette asked. “I planned for this.”
“I told you to read the news,” Adolf said.
Amusement, Percival said as something fluttered in his chest.
He wanted to laugh, but his body didn’t remember how, leaving it as just strange, vaguely ticklish feeling in his chest.
“You all didn’t make enough to go to Paris, did you?” Juliette asked.
“Well, I thought we would all just get a room together again,” the woman said.
From her tone, Percival could imagine Juliette’s expression. Unconvinced, confused, and perhaps a little annoyed.
“Well yes, how much more expensive could it be?”
Percival snorted, shocked by the sound and impressed. Apparently, he’d remembered how to be sarcastic and derisive of stupidity. Even in East End, the worst part of town, the rent of one room the size that they had in Troyes would be at least double, if not triple as it had been in Troyes. He knew that Troyes had been expensive for them all on its own, so a room in Paris wasn’t an option.
“Even the worst room in Paris will cost you,” Juliette said.
“Then we’ll just stay more to a room.”
“Sure,” Juliette said. “You do that.”
Adolf snorted, biting into an apple. He remembered that Adolf had always been fond of them. However, why he chose the apple over bread and cheese, Percival couldn’t begin to understand.
An apple will not stop your stomach from rumbling, he thought, or maybe he remembered saying it sometime before this night in the woods. He didn’t know, and it didn’t really matter.
Percival looked down at the slices of bread and cheese he’d cut. There was enough for three. It was a bit tricky trying to figure out what his intentions were when he lost spans of time, but this time seemed to be clear: he meant to feed Juliette and Adolf.
Adolf, I can understand, that clinical voice said angrily. But why her?
“What about you?”
“Adolf?” Juliette said turning towards where Adolf sat. “We still good?”
“See,” Juliette said gesturing to Adolf. “We’ve already made arrangements.”
“What?” The woman asked in a panicked voice. “What about us?”
Percival snorted again and watched Adolf do the same.
“I suppose you should look at getting a room together,” Juliette offered.
“What about him?” One of them asked.
Out of the corner of his eye, Percival saw Adolf sit up. A tide of something that made his entire body tense rose. It grew large and dangerous in his chest.
Anger, he thought. Rage.
What right did she or any of them have to question him about his plans and attempt to hold him responsible for their shortcomings? Had he not given them enough?
“Their parents knew! I bet they meant for this to happen!”
“We should sacrifice them all! Maybe then the gods will be appeased!”
He’d grabbed the sword and stood in front of his siblings ready to kill them all if necessary. Perhaps something in his eyes told them his intention because they froze under his glare. Odette had placed a
hand on his shoulder and–
Percival tightened his grip on the knife and the block of wood, seeing through the haze a woman who looked just like the much younger woman approaching him. In his mind’s eye, she was angry and wrapped for the coldest winter any of them had ever experienced. Adolf leaped up as Percival heard someone else arguing with the phantom of this woman to be reasonable.
“We all know half of their blood is descended from traitors why should we think them innocent?”
Kill her, a darker voice. Kill her before she tries to kill you.
He dropped the knife and took a deep breath. The smell of roasting meat, herbs, and oil filled
his senses and drew him back into the present. When she arrived within the circle of his firelight, her eyes darted from his face then to the kills roasting. When he was sure that she meant to come no closer, he picked up the blade and continued whittling.
“What are your plans when we get to Paris?”
She sputtered as her brother came beside her. Another set of footsteps came towards them.
“Leave Percival alone,” Adolf said.
Kill them before they kill us.
They aren’t going to kill us.
How well did that theory work out for us last time?
We’re still alive, aren’t we?
A dark laugh echoed through his mind. He could only clench his jaw at the sound. His gaze drifted up towards their faces. Whatever they saw there made them flinch away from him.
“That’s not an answer!”
“Look,” she said with a sigh. “We’re trying to help you here. Paris is–”
“No need,” he said, setting his knife aside to check the meat again. He turned it once and went back to carving into the little block of wood.
“Well how very inhuman of you,” the man said. The woman nodded in agreement. “No man’s an island, you know?”
“Like your father?” He asked absently.
The two of them flinched again. He went back to ignoring them as Adolf moved between Percival and the siblings. He never found out whatever the brother was going to say nor whatever reaction it would elicit from whichever Percival was in control of his body at the moment. He was glad for it since it was probably for the best.
“Leave Percival alone,” Adolf said. “And spend your time figuring out what you’re going to do. I still have the ads from when we were looking for places perhaps you can start there.”
The quiet seemed louder than the crackling of the fire. They stood at an impasse, and the longer they stood at the edge of the circle of Percival’s firelight, the further away Percival’s mind drifted from the clearing. The knife flipped around, so the blade faced out to his horror as the present continued to fade away.
He could shove Adolf aside and slit their throats in a matter of seconds. Then, tuck, roll–
“Whatever,” the brother said, and they turn back towards the other side of the clearing.
The knife flipped back to its original position; the angry defensive feeling ceded control, and Percival resumed whittling. Forcing his body to relax into the curve of the tree, he watched them retreat. Slowly, the haze cleared and he surfaced back into the present, conscious and aware.
Adolf followed them to the other side and handed them a bulk of paper before returning to stand at the edge of the circle of Percival’s firelight. Percival’s hands continued to work even as his eyes drifted up to see Adolf’s face. Adolf met his gaze and apologized.
“Don’t apologize for them,” Percival said. “It means nothing.”
Adolf stiffened and nodded, not once sparing a glance at the spit or the fire. He turned back to where he’d left his bag and sat down. Juliette crossed the distance to sit beside her bag with the
remains of her watered bread. Her stomach growled even as she stuffed the half-hard mush into her mouth. She chewed roughly and swallowed quickly looking more miserable for eating it than not.
“That what you meant when you said it was complicated?”
He didn’t answer her but set his whittling aside to pull the meat off the spit and assemble sandwiches.
“I’ll let you eat in peace,” she said. “Get some rest, okay?”
He held out two of the assembled sandwiches to her both wrapped in magic cloth napkins he’d purchased from a merchant in Troyes. Their eyes met. Her blue eyes shine with a question that Percival refused to answer. He doesn’t understand the why, but he knew that if he didn’t choose to do it, he would simply lose the time to darkness and come back into consciousness to find it done anyway. Tentatively, she took the sandwiches with a confused expression.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll give the other to Adolf if that’s okay.”
Percival said nothing, lifting his own sandwich to his mouth and allowing the rest of the meat to cool. She left the circle of his fire’s light, dragging her bag towards where Adolf is attempting to sleep. Percival watched her hand one of the sandwiches to Adolf. Adolf glanced at him curiously but said nothing. They ate quietly. Sitting together between the two fires, they devour them as if they had been the only meal they’d had all day.
It probably was, Percival thought, eating his own sandwich and opening his pack for the rest of his reserve equipment.
“I don’t understand,” he heard Juliette ask.
Adolf is quiet for a moment before he answered the question she hadn’t asked and Percival didn’t want to think about.
“You look like his mother and sisters.”
He packed the remains of his kills away quickly and shoved the containers into his bag before carrying the bones to bury in the forest.
“Where are they?” Juliette asked as Percival dug a hole.
“I wouldn’t ask about it.”
He heard her sigh long and withering into the night. It seemed that she was beginning to realize that there were many things that she couldn’t ask this group of young Germans heading to Paris to seek their fortune. He heard Adolf struggling with his old wool blanket and shook his head. From the rough sound of it, it was the same blanket he’d been sleeping under since they left Löffeltal.
“Anything else I shouldn’t ask about?”
“Everything but the weather,” he said. “Actually, everything, especially the weather.”
Percival moved the dirt he’d dug up over the bones he’d dropped into the hole and shook his head. He had extra blankets in his trunk; maybe he should offer them one.
Stop it, that clinical voice hissed. You’ve done enough.
Had it been enough?
It was one thing to know that he owed them nothing. It was another to turn a cold shoulder to people clearly in need and deserving of the help. The sandwiches had been a temporary fix, but the cloth napkins he’d wrapped them in would prove useful in the future to keep their meals warm and were a good deal more expensive than Adolf or Juliette would be able to afford in the near future. Percival also knew that Adolf had only bought the absolute necessities while preparing to travel to Paris. He was attempting to conserve as much money as he possibly could in anticipation of being out of work for at least a few weeks. He’d bought enough food for a few days at most, and it was probably the cheapest scraps he could find. The apple had probably come from a bargain bin. Adolf had probably been saving it until the last possible moment to eat. The hunk of bread and the even smaller chunk of cheese he’d pulled from his bag were probably the last of what food he could afford. That sandwich had probably been the only real meal that Adolf had eaten in weeks.
He wouldn’t have been surprised if the same was true for Juliette. Was he sure that it was enough? He could–
Yes, the clinical voice hissed again. More than enough. You’ve done enough!
Had he? How much would it cost him personally or financially to offer a better blanket to Adolf? To Juliette? To any of them? Would that small act of kindness really kill him or push him too far into the realm of altruism? Would offering food or anything else really hurt him in the end?
What would his parents think of him now? Debating with himself over something so trivial when they–
What good had altruism done them?
He bit his lip, hoping that the pain would overpower the twinge of shock that shot through him. It did nothing but stoke the rage that had just begun to die out. Nothing. It had done nothing for them in the end. It had done nothing, really, for any of them. Even if that was the very definition of altruism, there had to be a limit, right?
“They’re descended from traitors. We all know it!”
“I say throw them out into the storm and let them fend for themselves!”
“I bet they just ran off after everything we’ve done for their families!”
He stood up abruptly and carried the empty napkin he’d carried the bones in back to the camp. He didn’t want to think about the pain or the righteous anger. He didn’t want to think of that gentle hand on his shoulder that had stopped him from silencing those voices himself. He didn’t want to think about the little girl who had cried in his arms at those words. He didn’t want to think about any of them. They weren’t worth the words they spoke or these thoughts that persisted. Whatever his parents would think of him now didn’t matter.
It does, that small voice gasped weakly. It does because you’re still here.
If he could, he would scoff and laugh at the idea. He wasn’t here. Half of his mind was still in that storm-stricken forest. His soul was still twisting in those winds. The only thing that had made it out remotely intact was his body. What good did that do him now as just one of so many? No, none of it mattered now because there was nothing he could do about it. What had happened, would happen and everything in between was out of his hands. If he were meant to know, he would know.
Otherwise, he would find out.
How many times had she told him that? How many times more would she have if—?
His eyes stung, and hot wet streams raced down his cheeks. He wiped them away before entering the clearing again. Stubbornly, he swallowed against the clenching of his throat, sat down by his fire, picked up the figurine he’d been working on, and resumed whittling. Soon enough, Adolf and Juliette were fast asleep beneath Adolf’s old ratty blanket, and the knowledge that he had several perfectly good ones folded in his trunks made every scrape of his knife deafening.
His gaze betrayed him as if that small voice had taken the controls and forced him to look.
She wouldn’t want this, the voice said sadly. None of them would want this no matter what has been said.
His jaw shook, and his chest tightened clenched as a breath came rattling out of him like a mourning sigh. Whatever or whoever that voice was meant to be was right. None of them would have wanted this. His sisters had all loved Adolf like a brother, and his mother had loved him like another son. His parents had raised them all to hold kindness as a standard and to never fear or heed what you knew not to be true.
Lies have short legs, little one, she would say. You will grow taller than any lie can stand.
We are taller than any lie, his father would say. Never forget that you are descended from heroes.
Descended from knights.
Descended from good.
Descended from gods, little one.
His father would have wept to see Adolf several stones lighter and huddling in that threadbare blanket. His mother would have made them both sleep closer to Percival’s fire. Adolf would have stayed with him in Troyes in that room that had felt too big, or in that small camp that Percival built with the tent he’d fashioned in Freiburg. Adolf, Juliette, and the others would have been seated and sleeping around his fire with full bellies and warm blankets.
There would have been more of them in this caravan to Paris. They would have hired a real caravan from Freiburg into France. His jaw trembled again, and he shut his eyes hoping that it would be enough to suppress the tears that threatened to come, but it did nothing to help. He lowered the figurine to the ground and hung his head.
What was he doing?
It doesn’t matter!
It does, Percival thought. Because I’m still here.
They were all still in his heart no matter what had been said. He was still one of the ten thousand, five hundred and seventy-six that had called the heart of the Black Forest their home. Even the ones who sneered at him and curled up by the larger fire, their parents and relatives for all their shortcomings had a spot in his heart. Spots that not even the bitter cold of winter could chill no matter how he wished they could.
Take it, dear, the old physician had said as she lay gasping in the dying firelight. The pouch and what little medicinal equipment she had managed to bring with her had felt so heavy in his hands. They were the last of her worldly possession and testaments to the fact that she had existed. He had been too young to be given such a burden to carry out of the Black Forest. Remember what I have taught you. Remember what your parents have shown you. There is hope for you all.
That’s why we’re here, the small voice said. We promised.
He got up and stepped over the fire towards his luggage. He opened the second largest trunk and pulled out two large blankets. He carried them across the clearing and shook one out to drape over them. Tucking it around them gently, he rolled the other one up and placed it beside Juliette before returning to the tower of luggage to pull out the others.
They don’t deserve it!
Being kind is not about who deserves it, but who needs it, the voice said like an echo from the past. Life in Paris will be hard enough on them. We can be kind.
Kindness, after all, was free. He carried the blankets towards the rest of the group. Percival stomped out the embers that had escaped from their poorly made fire before they could set fire to their thin blankets. He placed one over each of them and tucked them in against the cold. They slept like children as he situated each of them on top of their packs, unworried and unaware of anything. With that done, he returned to his place by his fire and resumed whittling. He glanced at the rest of the camp with a wry and warm sort of feeling.
He’d had exactly seventeen blankets in that trunk enough that each of them could have one. Whether or not he’d been planning for this moment, he couldn’t say, but he didn’t try to puzzle it out. The clinical, angry voice said nothing more, but he felt far more at ease having completed the task. With his heart a little lighter, and his head a little clearer, he picked up the block of wood and resumed whittling. He would keep watch tonight, finish the figurine, and watch over them until they reached Paris.
Then will you stop? Löffeltal no longer has a leader. Löffeltal no longer exists.
The voice was right. Once they’d arrived in Paris, he doubted these feelings would persist, but at least when he arrived the guilt of falling short of everything he’d ever known would not join the knot of emotions he had yet to untangle.