Interlude 01: First Impressions

Shadows Rise

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[White Shadows Camp | Lacus 2nd, 2521 | Midday]

The White Shadows camp was always a little more crowded in the winter. White canvas tents didn’t provide the best insulation, and for those who weren’t critical enough to earn some shelter, a crowded day meant a very long wait sitting in a sleeping mat on top of frozen soil.

“I’m sorry, miss. I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for a couple more hours if you wish to see Master Witters. As you can see, we’re terribly busy today.”

Johanna nodded agreement. Her focus was honed on a scene taking place behind the healer’s back. A small group of healer apprentices rallied around a bowl of stew, trying to gather the nerve to approach an angry patient with their offering. It was almost comical. Sad, but nonetheless comical. Jo remembered her own time spent in the care of the White Shadows and knew how dutiful they were. Denying assistance to anyone, regardless of how much of a jerk they were, was unacceptable.

Her warm brown eyes shifted from the small gathering of frightened teenagers and lingered on the cause of their predicament. The patient in question was a scruffy young man in his late twenties or early thirties. Two healers brought him in shortly after she arrived that morning, and from the moment he became aware enough to do so, he’d given the healers trouble. Jo had watched as he painstakingly moved his sleeping mat the farthest he could carry it with bandaged hands, and settled near the remnants of an ancient building. She definitely heard his angry response when one of the apprentices tried to ask him not to stray that far from the examination tents. While he showed no signs of remorse when the girl all but ran from him with tears in her eyes, he seemed calmer once left to his own devices. At the moment, he sat under the shadows; cast by one of the decrepit walls of the ruin, eyes closed, steam clouds fogged his vision as he steadily controlled his breaths; likely an attempt to fight away the pain. A small twist in his expression gave away the fact it was a losing battle.

Jo’s gaze traveled back to the frightened apprentices and she hummed slightly under her breath. She only came to the healers for medical supplies. There was no need to get involved in this, but Jo couldn’t help but feel sympathy for those kids. With the camp full of sick and injured, the healers were too preoccupied with more urgent cases. They didn’t have time to rescue apprentices from rude patients. She hadn’t been easy to handle herself and she’d been taken care of. In a way, she almost felt like she owed the White Shadows something.

With her mind made up, Jo approached the group of apprentices, unnoticed until one of the younger girls spotted her and startled. Their conversation gradually died out as, one by one, they began to focus on her. She reached for the bowl of stew and gave their misbehaved patient a short glance. Once it dawned on the apprentices what her intentions were, she had no trouble taking the bowl off their hands, and the group dispersed, free to offer assistance to more cooperative patients for the time being.

Johanna observed the man for a few seconds, bowl of lukewarm stew in hand, then began to slowly pace in his direction. The hardened snow crunched under her feet with every step, and she was sure he could hear every single one of them. Jo stopped in front of him with a pleasant smile, even though his eyes were closed. His body grew tenser with her presence and the muscles of his face twitched slightly. It was clear he was choosing to ignore her. A hint of a smirk played across her lips. If he thought that would be enough to sway her, he had another thing coming.

******

Gerald didn’t want to be in that camp. All he wanted was to be left alone, rest, and leave. Leave as fast and as far as he could go. He didn’t know where to and he wasn’t sure it even mattered. What he didn’t want or need were children telling him what to do, or chasing him around like he was an infant in need of supervision. He didn’t want their help or anyone else’s. He didn’t need them or anyone else.

Gerald’s entire body shuddered through his next couple of breaths. He had emphatically refused any sedatives or pain medication. He wanted; needed, to stay alert. Keeping his focus away from the pain, however, proved a daunting task. He’d had a broken nose a couple of times and a few broken ribs before, but the broken bones in his hands were by far the worst injury he’d ever endured. Partly because it was difficult to keep them still even with the bandages, but mostly because he felt useless without them. No matter how hard he tried to close his eyes and relax, no amount of meditation had been able to ease that discomfort.

If all of that wasn’t enough, Gerald could hear the soft crunch of trampled snow drawing closer to his location, and without opening his eyes, he could feel someone standing right in front of him. He didn’t look, hoping that if he ignored whoever it was, they would just give up on him and leave.

He was wrong. With every passing second, the feeling of eyes fixated on him only intensified, and no matter how hard he tried to focus on his breathing, it was making it difficult to relax.

Whoever this was, they weren’t taking the hint, and what little patience Gerald still had was slowly chipping away. He wasn’t sure how long they were planning on standing there, but the more they did, the more wound up he became. When the tension caused an involuntary clench of his fists, the resulting flare of pain sent a growl rising in his throat. Finally, he acknowledged the intruder with a furious glare. “WHAT do you want!?”

The words escaped his lips with a lot more force than he intended, and under different circumstances he’d come to regret it. Now, however, he couldn’t bring himself to care. His gaze rose inquisitively and met with a pair of warm brown eyes. The young woman standing before him definitely wasn’t a healer—no robes—and even less an apprentice. Another patient, more likely. They stared at each other in silence for a small moment, his question still lingering between them, unanswered. Gerald had always been good at reading people. A person’s facial expressions, their eyes, it could tell him everything he needed to know if he just paid enough attention. And he hadn’t failed to notice a slightly satisfied smirk threatening to break through his acquaintance’s friendly smile. Getting him to acknowledge her presence had definitely opened some precedents he didn’t want opened. A mistake he was sure to pay for. There was no doubt in his mind about that.

“What do you want?” he repeated, making sure to soften his tone of voice this time.

While the repeated question finally yielded a response, it was far from what Gerald had hoped for. The woman smiled wider and held out a bowl of vegetable stew. He was more than acquainted with the healers’ cooking and just the smell of it was enough to put a twist in his expression.

“I don’t want it,” he sneered, “leave me alone.”

As if on cue, Gerald’s stomach growled in protest. The woman looked down on him with an inquisitive frown, her gaze moving to his bandaged hands then trailing up to meet his eyes. She scoffed softly, dipped the spoon into the bowl, and offered it to him. If he were honest, it had been some time since he’d had a proper meal, but whatever pride he had left wouldn’t allow him to give in now.

“I don’t need your help.” The angered glare he shot her yielded no response. “I said I don’t want it. Go away.”

Nothing. Not even a flinch.

Normally it would take more than a person’s mere presence to set Gerald off, but the pain made him feel as though all his nerves were exposed. Any little thing became a justifiable reason to lash out. The apprentices were too soft to handle the abuse and he felt horrible about it. It was their obligation to tend to his well-being whether he liked it or not, after all. This woman had no such obligations, nor had she a reason to be so infuriatingly persistent. It would be easier to just eat and hope that would make her leave him alone, but at this point, he was intent on making her mind her own damn business. He asked her to leave again. She smiled and silently shook her head ‘no’. Enough was enough.

“Are you deaf or just retarded? I said I don’t need help. I don’t want food. GO. AWAY.”

This elicited a different response. He saw her smile falter just slightly as she shoved the spoon back into the bowl of cold stew. He thought he’d get her to storm off this time, but no. That would be way too easy. Instead, her friendly grin changed into a far more discreet smile and she covered her left ear with her hand in response to his rhetorical question. It hadn’t been as rhetorical as he intended after all.

“Oh. Oh. Crap.”

She shrugged off his apology before he was able to formulate one and, much to Gerald’s shock, moved to sit right next to him. That was the opposite of what he wanted.

The woman’s eyes lingered on his face. Gerald wasn’t easily rattled, but he also wasn’t used to such intense scrutiny from a complete stranger. When her gaze once again fell on his bandaged hands he instinctively pulled them closer to his body. She breathed out a sigh and shifted her attention elsewhere. Gerald followed her gaze to one of the frightened apprentices from earlier, the girl met her eyes and squirmed; much like he had, but walked over when the woman silently beckoned. Healer apprentices could be as young as eight years old, this one seemed to be twelve or thirteen. When she stopped in front of them to ask what Gerald’s companion wanted, all she managed was a surprised squeal when the woman dug one hand into her supply bag grabbed what she wanted and then dismissed her with a thankful smile. Despite her confusion, and some visible aggravation, the apprentice bowed her head politely and left them.

Gerald shook his head and pushed away any shred of curiosity over what the woman was trying to do. He wasn’t sure how else to express his desire to be left alone, and decided that if the woman wanted to camp by his side; so be it. He closed his eyes again and tried to go back to his mediation. Maybe, just maybe, he’d be able to drift into sleep.

The little intruder had other plans, however, and Gerald opened his eyes with a jolt when he felt the woman’s fingers wrap around his wrist. He pulled his arm from her grasp and recoiled faster than if he had been slapped in the face. The sudden movement hurt. A lot. “Don’t bloody touch me!”

When he glared at her she actually seemed apologetic. It made him feel a slight stab of guilt. She was the one invading his space. She should be the one feeling guilty. He shouldn’t be made to feel guilty.

His right eyebrow arched just slightly when she finally let go of the god-awful bowl of stew, placing it on the ground, and held up a roll of clean bandages, pointing at his hands. He looked down at himself with a frown. The wrappings around his hands were painfully loose and soiled with blood and dirt. He hadn’t trusted any shaky apprentices to redo them without causing him further pain. And he wasn’t sure he could trust this woman either. “Do you even know how to do this? You’re not a healer.”

She responded with an enthusiastic nod and, with some hesitation, rolled up one of her sleeves. Gerald inched closer to give her handy work a scrutinizing look. As much as he wanted to find some fault with it, he couldn’t. Begrudgingly, he took a long calming breath and offered her his right hand.

She pulled a knife and sliced open his bandages in one quick, fluid motion. Gerald had never seen anyone wield a blade with such a level of speed and precision. It was unlikely even the Wolves who left him in this deplorable state were quite this handy with a weapon. The thought led him to once again inspect the woman. She was small compared to him; short and lean, inoffensive in her appearance. Her eyes were round, curious, and full of warmth. Nothing about her seemed particularly dangerous at first glance. She inspired trust somehow; even in him.

Displeasure crossed her expression as she examined the damage. His fingers were swollen and bent out of shape. His clumsy attempts to wrap them himself had done nothing to help the situation. He knew it was a stupid decision on his part; it would have been stupid with only one injured hand, and he’d be more than willing to admit it, if not for the fact the new bandages were causing a whole new level of excruciating pain. It took effort not to scream, never mind form coherent sentences. Thankfully, she worked through it quickly. Once each of his fingers had been individually bandaged, his whole hand was firmly wrapped in yet another layer of soft linen, and Gerald started to feel more comfortable. The pain hadn’t subsided, but the fractures would heal properly now.

Gerald held out his other hand without comment, and found himself relaxing now that he knew what to expect from the new bandages. This realization hit him with a wave of exhaustion. Sleep was such a distant fantasy at this point still. He shot a glance at the abandoned bowl of stew, questioning whether he was hungry enough to find the idea of bland vegetables appealing. When he looked up from the bowl he noticed a smirk playing on the woman’s lips and he knew she’d caught him staring at the food. He looked away and frowned. No. He definitely wasn’t that hungry.

Once wrappings were secured, Gerald drew both hands close to his body with a quiet, “Thank you,” and tried to go back to ignoring his company. Once again, he could feel the woman’s gaze on him. Relentless. And when he could no longer cope he turned to look at her, only to be met with a spoonful of cold vegetables unceremoniously shoved into his mouth.

It took a lot of restraint not to spit the food out. Not only out of sheer spite, but also because it was freezing cold, tasteless mush. There were lines, however, that Gerald wouldn’t cross even out of anger and he swallowed the food with a grimace. The woman smiled at him with an undeniably smug look in her eyes. Gerald was sure that if his hands weren’t useless he’d be very tempted to strangle her to death. Opening his mouth to protest was met with yet another spoonful forcefully shoved in his mouth. This time, despite swallowing the food, Gerald pulled the spoon out of her hands and spat it out in the ground. “I said I don’t want it! Have you no respect for boundaries, you deranged mute lunatic!?” He shouted.

Her eyes widened for a moment, although her expression was filled with poorly contained amusement. She picked up the spoon and half-heartedly brushed the snow from it on the hem of her tunic. “It’s Johanna,” she corrected. Her voice was soft; barely above a whisper, but the note of amusement in her words was very clear as she added. “Ungrateful asswipe.”

The words took Gerald by surprise, but he was unable to hold back an amused smile of his own. Alright, so not a mute. The deranged lunatic part was still on the table. He shook his head, and calmly accepted the next offered spoonful of mush. It was a losing battle. After all, you can’t reason with lunatics.

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