Percival didn’t sleep. Instead, he busied himself with whittling and catching breakfast until the sun rose. Sometime before dawn, he caught a few fish and a bird large enough to eat. After he set them on the spit, he left the camp to bathe. Hopefully, the others would wake up, with just enough time to be too worried about the late hour to do more than stuff the blankets in their bags and hurriedly rush through the forest. He had no explanation for his actions, and he didn’t want to be thanked. Percival just wanted to get to Paris in one piece and finally be done with any connection to Löffeltal. It was gone, and it was more than time to finally put it to rest.
The sun rose slowly into the sky as Percival stepped into a deeper bank of water. It was noticeably warmer than the rest of the stream. He scrubbed quickly and efficiently. The longer he was naked in the stream, the louder his instinct would scream, and he just didn’t need that right now. The scars that ran across his body were smooth and lightly glowing in the early morning light. The glow grew brighter as his survival instincts made his shoulders tense.
A sound came downstream from him, and he stilled. Turning towards the sound and crouching until it covered his shoulders, he grabbed a rock and breathed deeply. The scent was familiar: female, around his age, marked by the scent of honest determination.
Juliette, he thought and released the rock as she stumbled through the brush half asleep. She turned to look at him through bleary eyes and gave him a dopey smile. Percival watched her kneel on the bank.
“Guten Hagen,” she said rubbing her eyes.
He wondered how long it would take her to realize that he was naked, but soon enough Juliette shook off the last vestiges of sleep. Her blue eyes grew more alert, and her cheeks turned red. If there was anything that could solidify that Juliette was not his relative, it was this. His sisters had never had qualms about seeing him naked. He wondered still if it was because they and his mother knew that Percival wasn’t attracted to the female form in the slightest.
“Oh! I’m so sorry. I didn’t–” she turned her back to him, “Sorry.”
He stood his full height and walked to the bank of trees where he’d left his clothes. He poured oil into his hand and rubbed it into his skin as Juliette remained on the bank of the river.
“I didn’t think the stream would be warm enough to bathe in,” Juliette said, her voice nervous and tentative, “Though I doubt with your size, that’s a concern. Did you sleep well?”
She gave a nervous laugh as he dressed. The morning was cool, but it would get more than warm enough by the fire to finish drying him. When he was dressed, and his skin was oiled, he carried his dirty clothes, the bottle of soap, and his unused washing and drying cloths towards her.
Kindness, he thought. This was kindness, and it felt right as if his mother’s hand was on his shoulder. He didn’t dare turn his head for fear of seeing a phantom of her there.
Be sure to keep in contact with Juliette, he could hear her say at the back of his mind. Bring her around for dinner, the poor thing.
Make sure she’s okay, son, Wolfgang would have said. She could use a real brother. Gods know that you can never have enough sisters.
She turned tentatively as he neared her, and he held out the unused cloths and the rest of the soap to her. Her blue eyes looked up at him confused. The familiar shade sent shocks of pain and sorrow through him. Adolf was right. She looked just like them all and that among other things was enough to make him feel obligated. If any of his sisters had been there, he would have given up a whole lot of things for their comfort, and they would have done the same for him.
Juliette couldn’t do anything for him except maybe converse with him, but even that eased some of the discomfort. Besides, most of his sisters would have done nothing more than talk to him, and that was really all he wanted from them anyway.
You’re so responsible, Percy, Odette would say, I swear you’re the oldest.
Yes, he thought. The sight of Juliette made him uncomfortable because she looked just like them. Just being around her made his heartache and made him far more willing to do what he knows they would have done.
There was no helping it and Percival, despite that clinical voice’s thoughts on the matter, wasn’t sure that he wanted help for it. The pain was because he remembered them and he could never forget them or anyone else they’d lost.
Her hands took the towel, and she gasped as he walked back towards camp without a word to her. The tightness in his chest and the burning in his eyes made him stumble. He pressed a hand to his chest that felt too warm and forced himself to breathe around the memories. A soft glow showed through his thin tunic. He heard her step into the water, and he forced himself to walk. Cursing his body that wouldn’t cooperate, he swooned against another tree as the warmth and tightness turned into a burning and crushing sensation.
He couldn’t breathe as his body sunk to the ground struggling for breath and the present.
There was nowhere to run. It was over. He wasn’t there anymore–
Get up, Percival, he urged. Get up.
The memories subsided, and the present surged forward. He had no idea how long he’d been struggling with the episode, but he didn’t mind it. The fish and bird on the spit smelled almost done, so it couldn’t have been too long. His body felt weak and cold, but he forced himself to stand and return to camp.
He cut bread for three and not one voice had anything to say about it. Juliette returned as he was assembling another set of sandwiches. She offered the bottle of soap back to him.
“Thank you,” Juliette said, “When they’re clean–”
“Keep them,” he said and closed his bag.
She opened her mouth but closed it and thanked him again before taking a seat. She scrunched her damp hair in the towel with a satisfied sigh. She gasped and stood up to rush across the camp to where the cloth napkins were. She grabbed them and folded the blanket up neatly before crossing the camp to return them to him.
“Thank you for last night,” she said, “I can honestly say I haven’t had anything so filling since leaving Freiburg and never felt so warm either.”
He took the napkins, shook them out and activated the cleansing sigils before using them to wrap the sandwiches and set them aside.
“Keep it,” Percival said gesturing to the blanket.
He pulled out a wooden plate and a fork. Placing a whole fish on it, he handed it across the fire to her.
“I couldn’t, really.”
“Take it,” he said.
She took it looking a tad guilty, “Thank you. I feel terrible that you’re feeding me and I have nothing to give you. Let me buy you food when we get to Paris.”
“No need,” he said beginning to eat.
Adolf stirred and began to pack up his blanket. He paused and closed his hands in the thick blanket that Percival had tucked around him and Juliette. He stared at the fabric for more than a few minutes before his eyes drifted up to look at Percival. Their eyes met for only a moment as Percival made another plate and set it aside for him.
Adolf’s eyes widened, and Percival glanced towards the stream. He nodded slowly. It’s an old signal between them.
Wash up, and come eat, it said. It was so familiar that it almost made Percival swoon at the rush of years past since the last time he’d actually done it, but Adolf stood, packed up both blankets, stretched, and walked into the forest as if not a day had passed since they last shared a comfortable meal.
“You finished it?”
He frowned and turned his head to where she was pointing at the small woodcarving. A mermaid and a Leviathan chasing one another in the light brown of fresh wood. The scales on each of the subjects were carved with exact details. He didn’t remember finishing it but picked it up. The mermaid has such a gentle smile, carefree and open, but it’s her facial features that make his heart clench. The face was one of his memories– his mother. he’s shocked that he can remember her face in such striking detail when he’d been trying so hard not to look at the pictures he’d brought with him. The waves and feeling of the piece don’t reflect his mindset when he’d made it, unable to sleep for fear of the ghosts that had yet to be laid to rest.
He handed it to her and watched her gasp in awe as she inspected the details and ran her fingers over the scales and waves.
“It’s amazing. No wonder you’ve done so well,” she said, shaking her head, “That’s some seriously marketable talent.”
In another life, he would have given it to–
Can I keep it, Percy?
“Keep it,” he said clenching his plate tightly in an attempt to stop the trembling.
You do too much, Percy.
Guess we know who’s taking over Dad’s workshop.
He shuddered and forced himself to breathe through the sorrow. They would never say those things to him. There would never be another day that he could give Odette another charm for her hair, or Anna another figurine for her collection, or Agatha a new toy. He’d never fix their necklaces again or hear them talk. He thought he’d never have anything to do with the figurines he would inevitably carve, and here was Juliette as if she had simply been put before him to keep him thinking of them.
You’re the best little brother a girl could ask for.
You’re the best little brother I have, Percy.
“But…” Juliette’s voice faded off as he finished eating and Adolf returned. Percival gave him the plate and stood up to check the lines where he’d strung up the rabbit and fox furs.
“Thank you, Percival,” Adolf said, “For the blanket, too.”
Percival looked at him at a loss of why Adolf would say that. He wasn’t Xiomar who had always seemed to think that it was Percival’s job to maintain his hunting equipment. Adolf had never been anything but grateful.
He heard Juliette stand up and follow him to the other side of his luggage after throwing the fish bones into the fire. She stood far enough away not to spook him, but perhaps to just observe him. He’d been concerned that he hadn’t been able to get all the blood off the fur in the dark, but it seems that he had. He grabbed his tanning rod and began to wave it over the furs in slow even strokes until they cured fully. He ran his fingers through the fur careful and methodical. In the early light, the rabbit’s fur was a near glowing white while the fox was a rich auburn and tawny color rather than the red-brown he’d thought it would be.
“Is this what you were doing in Troyes? Tanning furs?”
When they were fully tanned, he pulled them down to inspect, brush, and charm them in the way of the Lang family. They were beautiful and would be extremely warm even without the Lang charms, but it was a habit that he still could not let go. Someone in Paris would pay well for them. He folded and packed them away carefully in his trading trunk as the rest of the camp began to wake up and force whatever little food they had left in their packs into their mouths. As he’d hoped, they were so flustered about oversleeping that they didn’t even notice that the blankets they woke up under weren’t the blankets that they’d gone to sleep under. They rolled them up hastily and shoved them in their bags. Adolf came through the brush with his and Juliette’s plates washed.
“Don’t worry about it,” Adolf said setting the plates and silverware on Percival’s side of the fire.
“Thank you, Percival–”
“It’s past midday!” Someone cried behind them, “We won’t make it to Paris by nightfall!”
Someone else moaned, “I’m so hungry.”
Percival would have been amused, but there was a sort of sad feeling that was getting in the way of it. As they hurriedly packed up their ratty blankets and the blankets that Percival put over them, Percival realized that it was something akin to pity. They, like their parents, had such a small understanding of reality. Their parents had grown up upper class even though they held no position in their town. They left the management of their affairs to others and sneered at the Leonhard and Lang family for their prestige despite their apparently simple way of life. They knew nothing, and if they thought that living in Freiburg, Troyes, or Nancy was hard, he had no idea how they would survive in Paris if they didn’t start planning beyond the short term. Juliette and Adolf had a better chance of survival in Paris because they knew something about hard work.
“Perhaps if we get moving and move fast, maybe we can get close enough.”
Some of them shrugged on their packs and started walking back towards the road to Paris. Adolf and Juliette remained behind with Percival who didn’t bother to hurry to get ready as he pulled on his weaponry. He stomped out his fires and picked up his traveling pack to follow behind them with his luggage.
For a while, they took the lead, but for all of their gusto, they didn’t have the energy to keep up the kind of pace they were trying to set. Soon, Percival walked past them and left them just far enough behind that the rest of the caravan could only glare at his back as he held the distance. Juliette and Adolf managed to stay a few paces behind him, calling back and forward when the others began to fall further behind, and they needed to take a break. Percival stopped exactly where he was and sat down. His luggage hovered beside him and waited for him to move as he listened to the forest. Adolf and Juliette took seats on a fallen tree not far from him as he heard rustling in the underbrush and felt eyes of something watching them. He’d had the feeling for a while, but it was only now that the gaze seemed to carry some intent.
Bandits, he thought from the glint between the trees. It was a basic signal to get ready to attack now that the caravan was apparently exhausted.
“Juliette,” he said quietly, “Come here.”
Juliette glanced at Adolf but crossed the area to where Percival sat. Adolf swallowed and glanced towards where Percival’s attention was directed. The bandits were behind them where the others were chatting amongst themselves for the most part, but there was a small group of them closer to Percival, Adolf, and Juliette.
From the hushed sounds of their footsteps, there were at least twenty of them total and almost half of the group had their attention focused on Percival. They were all male he was sure, lighter than he was, and older than all of them. They wouldn’t give him much trouble, but with Juliette and Adolf nearby and unharmed he would have to be careful and quick in dispatching them,
“What is it?”
She frowned at that but drew closer when someone at the back of the group cried, “Bandits!”
Juliette dropped to the ground as Percival drew his sword and blocked the first assailant coming towards his tower of luggage. With a turn of his body, he divested the attacked of his sword and turned on the rest of the group.
He looked over to where Adolf wrestled with one of them for his bag. He fought hard and yelled back at the rest of the group to run forward as Percival threw his pocket knife at the assailant. It landed with a solid thunk in the tree beside the bandit’s hand embedded handle deep. The bandit froze and jumped off Adolf with a scream at the sound. He turned his gaze to Percival who stood in the middle of several bodies that he didn’t remember stabbing.
“Leave him alone,” Percival said no louder than a whisper.
Whether it was the flatness of Percival’s tone or the gleam of blood on his blade that made the man release Adolf’s bad and back away, he didn’t know. Adolf clutched his bag to his chest and shook in terror as Percival turned his gaze to the remaining bandits.
“Unless you’d like to join them,” Percival said, “Go.”
They scurried back into the forest and away with whatever loot they’d managed to steal from the rest of the caravan. Percival turned to Adolf who stared at him the same way he had when Percival had arrived in the hospital in Freiburg covered in blood.
Someone screamed in frustration and hurried up the road toward them. Some of them were without their bags, but everyone was alive. The contents of their packs had all been spilled, and from the looks of it, the bandits had only taken what looked to be the most valuable rather than food or water.
“Everyone alright?” Adolf asked as Percival crossed the road to where Adolf was still curled up against the tree.
Percival pulled his carving knife out of the tree and helped Adolf to his feet.
“No!” One of the women said, “They took everything! Where the hell were you?”
She glared at Percival as he sheathed his sword and pulled the knife from the tree.
“You weren’t the only ones attacked,” Adolf said, “Be glad–”
“We’re the only ones missing anything!” She protested, “What good are you?”
“I’m not your guard,” Percival said plainly and turned to Juliette, “Are you okay?”
Juliette nodded, “Thank you.”
“That’s bullshit! What did you think we invited you for?”
He looked at them, and Adolf raised both of his hands as he stood between them.
“Why were we the only ones stolen from? He’s supposed to protect us!”
“Let’s calm down. That is not why I invited Percival, first. Second, he is not obligated to protect anyone but himself.”
“What’s the use of him having those swords then?”
“He’s supposed to protect us!”
“He’s not supposed to do anything,” Adolf said, “You were stolen from because you fell behind. If you were counting on Percival’s strength, shouldn’t you have made sure to be somewhere he could protect you if he were so inclined?”
“At least now you may be able to keep up,” Adolf said, “And you’re alive. Count your blessings. We should be in Paris by early tomorrow if we hurry up–”
“Paris?!” She shrieked, “All of my stuff is gone! How am I supposed to pay for anything?!”
“You’re free to do as you like,” Adolf said, “But as you said before, we have to look after our own interests, and mine lie in Paris.”
She growled. The others who had been divested of their packs grumbled, but they said nothing more. Whether it was because they couldn’t argue with Adolf, or saw that he wouldn’t be budged on the subject, Percival didn’t know but he didn’t care either. If their bonds were so strong, they would be able to band together to cover one another, but he doubted that they were, yet another reason why Adolf wouldn’t have trusted them with any of his plans. If Percival had to guess, Adolf had warned Juliette against doing so as well. He and Juliette had an understanding and a trust, yet they’d known each other for less than a year.
The others had grown up with Adolf and Percival, but Percival wouldn’t trust them with a loaf of bread, let alone his well being. Percival watched the rest of the group seethe as Adolf collected his bearings and turned towards him.
He and Juliette would be good friends for a long time because they were business partners foremost. It would be a long road, as far as Adolf knew, to get his mother to somewhere she could actually be treated for her illness. Adolf needed someone like Juliette on his team to make ends meet.
Even though some part of him seemed to be inclined towards kindness, the letter he’d written Adolf and kept on his person being evidence of that, he would never feel the need to feel any sort of generosity for the kind of people they were. They had lost their clothes and trinkets maybe, but their coin purses were all firmly attached to their persons. Attempting to blame someone else and extort something from them was something that Percival could never support.
Just like their parents, he thought coldly.
There was a reason no one wanted to help their families, and they struggled the way they did. They were selfish at their cores.
“The money in your purse should suffice,” Percival said and turned. His luggage followed after him, “Let’s keep moving.”
When they stop that night, Percival doesn’t hunt. He doesn’t do much of anything. He doesn’t even whittle. Instead, he sat beside the nearest body of water with his luggage away from the fire and enjoyed the quiet of the night while eating the food he’d brought with him. He’d made a point to give the other two sandwiches to Adolf and Juliette when they had stopped for the night.
“We should make it to Paris by early tomorrow if we rise early enough,” Adolf said as he sat beside Percival on the bank of the river, “I’m surprised that we didn’t rise early today considering.”
Percival didn’t look at him as he sighed.
“Thanks,” Adolf said, “For coming with us. I know you could have gone without us.”
Percival took another bite of his warm sandwich and a drink from his water skein. The sky was beautiful tonight. Stars winked at him through the darkness of the sky and moonlight gleamed on the river’s surface. There were no winds coming tonight nor rain. Whatever the rest of the caravan had managed to salvage from the attack would be enough to survive their last night in the forest.
“And for earlier you could have let them take my pack too. And for–” Adolf sighed, “Just thanks for everything.”
Percival turned to look at him, and their gazes met. Adolf’s jaw tensed as though he wants to say something more. His scent shifted with a multitude of feelings and reaction that Percival couldn’t comprehend. His expression said that there were too many words and feelings that wanted to come pouring out, but Adolf couldn’t express any of it. Louder than what Adolf wasn’t saying was the apology in his eyes that Percival didn’t need or want from him. Adolf had nothing to apologize for, and he should have known that. Adolf’s dark eyes welled with tears, and his jaw trembled.
“You’re welcome,” Percival said. Adolf closed his mouth, wiped his face and turned to stare back at the bank.
He stood up beside Percival, “We should keep in touch when we get there, Percival. I know we’re not as close as we used to be, but we could be again when you’re ready. If you want, I mean.”
Percival said nothing, but he had a feeling that Adolf hadn’t expected a response.