v) The road people, Abia, Shyan, and Cang strip off their coats


The road people, Abia, Shyan, and Cang strip off their coats and kerchiefs. Cang, the smallest among them, springs into the wagon with the garments at the ready. He and Fassn improvise a leather-and-linen tarpaulin to keep the rain off the embers of their cookfire.

The bubbling of the soup has slowed. Drops of rain patter against its surface. Fassn gets on his hands and knees, blows air on the dying embers.

Shyan, outside and freezing, calls to Abia. “Isn’t there something you can do?”

Abia shrugs. “Can make soup cold. Can’t make soup hot.”

Suddenly, a frog’s tongue of flame shoots up from the wagon. Shyan and the rest wheel to see it.

A spark has caught the damp wood of the wagon. Fire licks the frame of the vehicle, racing up the side. Cang leaps away, and Fassn tumbles out with the road people’s son under his arms. Abia releases Larry from his harness as the wagon burns.

The blaze roars for an hour — longer than the storm itself. When the charred remains burn down, and the sky spits only tiny flecks of moisture, the gang approaches the ruined wagon. Amidst the debris is the burnt-up cookpot, the golden soup within boiling furiously.

While the road people tend to their son. Shyan, Abia, Cang, and Fassn share a look. They each wrap their hands with whatever leather scraps they can find, each grab an edge of the pot, and sprint toward Gabjeoš.


iv) Within the wagon, Fassn stirs the golden soup


Within the wagon, Fassn stirs the golden soup with both hands gripping a spoon. The road people’s son sits beside him, a shivering wreck, his forehead purple and swollen, his eyes puffy and red. He sputters, coughs, hacks up particulate — some of which floats into the soup. Fassn hums a tuneless song and otherwise ignores the boy.

Outside, the storm rages. Abianarin, hood drawn over her eyes, rests a hand on Larry’s mane, to keep him from spooking as lightning strikes around them. Shyan, Cang, and the road people push the wagon from behind, rocking its warped wheels slowly through grasping mud.

Sibilant hissing comes from within the wagon, the sound of raindrops meeting heat. “Keep that fire lit, Fassn,” Shyan calls out. Fassn’s voice reaches her, muffled from the storm and his absent teeth, saying, “Water’s getting in, Shyan!” Whatever he adds thereafter is swallowed by a fit of coughing from the road people’s son.

The town of Gabjeoš, once so tantalizingly close, has now vanished in the dark.


iii) Overnight, a storm kicks up


Overnight, a storm kicks up. Rain belts the party and wind whips their skin. Within the wagon, Cang and Fassn struggle with an improvised tarpaulin made of tunics and jackets, trying desperately to keep the storm away from their guttering flame.

Outside the wagon, Abia leads Larry, squinting against the rainfall. Visibility is shot; gnarled trees, bare of leaves, rise up around them like some fallen creature’s ruined ribs.

The road people’s son stumbles, cries out. He splashes into the mud, coughing. His parents bend at his side. Shyan joins them.

“Please,” says the woman. “He’s too weak, he cannot go on. Let him rest within the wagon.”

“There’s no rest,” Shyan says. “If Fassn and Cang can’t keep the fire lit, this will all be for nothing.”

The man stands and shakily draws his beltknife. “We’re not asking,” he says, his face betraying his fear.

With a grimace, Shyan casually disarms him, sends his knife skittering out of sight. The man’s son coughs, a pathetic puddle among the mud. Shyan narrows her eyes, says, “Very well.” She bangs on the wagon. “Cang, trade places with the boy. Fassn, keep that fire lit. May Old Ajralan have his fill.”

Cang exits the wagon a moment later, his face flat — but inside, he seethes as the rain comes down.


i) After the bandits depart


After the bandits depart, Shyan, Fassn, Cang, Abia, and the road people sit down to an evening meal of hardtack. The road people’s son idly stirs the golden mushroom soup while his parents eat. The embers are low but the boy’s technique is excellent: smooth, slow, deep strokes keep the soup from burning, and the heady stench of molten gold fills the darkening copse where the group takes its repast.

Beyond the growing twilight gloom lies the port town of Gabjeoš, the group’s destination. From their vantage, they can see tiny fires springing up throughout the town.

Though no one speaks, they’re all glad to see the town. The hardtack is running out, and the road people’s son stares deep into the golden pot during his stirring shifts, for which he’s volunteered rather often. His parents stand aloof from him, watching him with dispassion, whispering quietly to one another.

Shyan calls an end to the repast. “Early night tonight, friends. We’ll be in Gabjeoš by morning.”

As her companions break for rest, Shyan asks the road people’s son if he wants to take first watch. He grunts without looking and continues to stir.