He was first cognizant of the sensation of leaves brushing against his face, and a hushing sound beneath him. Shifting, he could feel the squeakiness of plant matter against his skin, before letting out an unintentional groan as something sharp and hard slid up under him and knocked the shoulder of his broken collar bone. And yet, while he anticipated to immediately vomit, he did not. It wasn't until this point that he opened his eyes to the sight of trees idly sliding past above him, dappled light conveying across him as if he were still and all else were in motion around him. The sharp, nausea-inducing pain that had shocked through Dustan prior to his awakening had dissipated to a manageable ache that he would really be embarrassed to complain about.
"Ah," said Faern, whose gnarled and caloused hand was grasping the sleeve of what Dustan recognized as his own Jacket, "You're awake. Good. I'm tired of dragging you." He promptly let the younger man go, and continued on. Dustan watched as he walked casually over to a tree and began to scale it, citing a need to get a look around as the purpose. Getting his bearings, Dustan swung to his feet and stepped off his severely grass-stained and rock-torn jacket. Oh well. It had been through worse at this point, hadn't it? Fire and river and the sweat of those god-forsaken forges.
"This is the fourth time he's done that since we started walking." Came the husky alto of Edel's voice to his left. For a moment, Dustan laughed, shaking his head. He hadn't known Faern all that long, but he'd come to realize that certain behaviors couldn't be described as anything short of "typical Faern." He was taken out of his brief stint of amusement, however, by Edel's stare. It was fixed on Dustan's face with occasional brief wandering to his shoulder, and looked earnest and concerned. "How are you?" he asked carefully, his hands wringing together.
Dustan rolled his shoulders and grinned, "I guess it wasn't broken after all," he said. He could have sworn he felt the crunch of broken bone beneath his skin. The pain had been dizzying, enough so to make him—in that brief moment before he'd fallen unconscious—regret leaving just for the fact that he had accrued such an injury. In fact, it had been bad enough to make him pass out, hadn't it? How else would he have fallen asleep in that moment?
Edel watched him with mixed bag of expressions, most prominently relief, disappointment and a pity whose origins Dustan didn't quite understand. He felt like a child again, being told that his grandfather had passed, and he'd reacted with laughter, insisting that it was a cruel joke on the part of his mother.
A husked nut the size of his fist hit Dustan in the side of the head, sending him reeling to his left a few steps before looking back up at the tree. "What the hell?"
Faern didn't bother explaining now that he'd successfully claimed Dustan's attention, and gestured wildly in a direction perpendicular to the way they were travelling. "Those dogs lost our scent! They're way off in the mountains by now. We should head for town." He waved some more in a shooing fashion as if he hadn't indicated well enough which way the soldiers had gone before he shimmied his way back down the tree. Dustan considered throwing the nut at him, but Edel, apparently sensing his line of thinking, took the nut from Dustan's hand and peeled it to expose the supple, edible nugget beneath the husk before handing it back to him and shrugging, "It's good."
Dustan eyed Edel a bit, then shrugged as he bit into it. The flavor was simultaneously meaty and tart, and despite the supple hand-feel, it was porous in the center, like a hard sponge moist only on the outside. It was the strangest flavor Dustan had ever encountered. "You like this shit?"
Edel laughed a little nervously, then shrugged and smiled, "Yes. It's pretty common around here… er, you know. The Northern Aurish towns. I'm surprised you've never had it."
His backtracking reminded Dustan of a key fact he'd forgotten briefly—they were still in Terthian territory. Faern however seemed all too aware of this fact, for he was already hurrying onward, fully willing to leave them behind by the sight of things. Dustan cursed the old man and hastened to follow, pausing only briefly to make sure that Edel could keep up. The other who, as Dustan was increasingly beginning to realize, may have been even younger than himself as hinted by his narrow shoulders and softer jawline, was trotting along gamely, his frail physique visibly working hard to do so. Guilt fell on Dustan's own broader shoulders as he realized that Edel was the one who probably should have eaten that—whatever it was—nut.
The trip through the woods was slower going than Dustan anticipated. The fortress had been butted up in a field right near the mountains, and the forest followed along the base of said giants, extending down into what had once been Aurish territory, but putting them out of the way of the nearest towns. Then again, those nearest towns had been where the majority of the prisoners in the encampment they'd just fled had come from said towns, so they set their sights further South. Edel seemed to insist that the orchard country might be easy to pass through, as they were peaceful and more concerned with income than politics, and therefore more willing to allow enemies to pass through without alarm.
Faern, however, was dubious. "A gray goblin is a troll is a traitor," he insisted, finding it hard to believe that not a single resident of the orchard country would turn them over. After all, there might be a reward out for the escapees who knew national secrets, right? And if these people liked money, then there it was, walking across their yards.
So Dustan was left to be the decision-maker of the group. Glancing from Faern's lined and unhappily insistent scowl and the broad gestures he was making toward a narrow and potentially trap-ridden marsh that reminded Dustan all too well of the woods he'd been plucked from the night of the attack, and Edel's calm hopefulness, his clasped hands and gentle biting of lip. The orchard country that stretched out to the West certainly looked more comfortable, and overall, more inviting than the dark, dank swamp, which Dustan had been able to smell before he'd seen it. Somehow, it suited Faern's sensibilities, but he imagined the older man tromping on ahead as he hung back to pull Edel out of the belly of a hungry, mud-filled gulch.
It was a no-brainer to the spy. That was why they currently crouched side-by-side in the dark, panting softly after a sprint through a grove of trees, peering over the rain-rotted wooden slats of a fence, waiting for the owners of the house that stood before them to blow out all their lights before intending to make their way past.
The plan was simple enough in theory, yet as they sat squatted as they were with their calves numbing and their feet burning, Dustan knew they were all getting impatient. The most obvious was Faern, who let out a string of soft curses to both Dustan as well as his old, cracky knees about every ten-to-fifteen minutes. He wasn't the type to complain unnecessarily, so Dustan knew he was doing it to make a point to him. It didn't go unnoticed, but he didn't acknowledge it for fear that Edel would feel even worse, a guilty look already painting his face as he stared hopefully up at one of the candle-lit windows. Then, as if by his plea, the figure of a round-faced woman appeared, and blew it out. Within moments, the blackness seemingly created in contrast to the glowing of the house was washed away by moonlight.
"See? It's fine," Dustan said as Faern stood up straight and danced around a bit, shaking his feet before jumping over the rickety Fence. Edel eyed it nervously, and instead walked a few posts down, stepping over one that was already broken. Dustan followed Edel's lead, much to Faern's simultaneous disappointment and amusement as he began to tease them in loud whispers as they stepped carefully forward, the damp evening grass muffling their steps forward, every so often barely broken as a stick or a fallen peach was trodden underfoot. They hugged to the frame of the house so as not to be seen from the windows, crouching low beneath them before scurrying across the door and its stone stoop, where they stopped to let their hearts catch up with their heads, and crouching again to slide under another window.
Suddenly, there came a loud crack like a wheel splitting from a carriage, and out of the corner of his eye Dustan could make out Faern's shape as he fell to his knees, the broken remnants of something wooden on his head and back. Dustan began to turn, but was met with a young, feminine voice that spoke sternly but nervously. "Turn around and I do you like I did him," she said. Edel, who had instantly crouched beside Fearn, looked up toward Dustan, before chancing a glance toward the speaker.
"Oh, my word," she gasped. Only able to gauge the interaction based on Edel's expression, Dustan could tell that his traveling companion was just as surprised as the girl sounded, and although she no longer sounded threatening, Edel was only looking increasingly ill and pleading. "It's you!"
"Me? No. Not me. I'm no one."
"They were here looking for you. You'd better come inside."
Dustan frowned. News had really spread that quickly of their escape? Well, he supposed the army was eager to maintain their secrets.
"How do we know we can trust you?" Dustan voiced with his mind on the practical prospect of having somewhere to hide and rest for the night.
"Because I, like you, am hiding. Please, Your Highness. You can trust me."
"Highness? Who?" Dustan turned around now, his eyes falling on the strange apparition of a light-haired Terthian girl whose breeding was visibly suspect. Her eyes were on the pair on the ground, specifically, on the one who was conscious.