v) He stares them down

He stares them down. An intense hour passes before Cang’s dedication to the gold outweighs his suspicions, and he climbs into the wagon. Its tiny space is filled with a snoring Fassn, and the cookfire is low and cool. With a start, Cang restores its vitality, then smacks Fassn to wake him up. The older man just grumbles and rolls over. Cang takes up the ladle and stirs.

The road people appear at the window, watching. “We’re awful hungry,” says the woman. “Share some soup?”

“We told you already,” Cang says, in an angry voice unheeding of his sleeping companions. “This soup is not for eating.”

“Share some mylar?” the man asks.

Cang’s face hardens. Slowly, with deliberate movements, he loosens his backpack, withdraws a crinkly bag of mylar. Light floods the road peoples’ eyes despite their attempts to stay cool.

“This, you may share,” Cang says.

The man tears the bag open without skill and vibrant orange arcs the length of a finger come spilling out. A few land in the soup, others upon Fassn’s stringy beard. The road people grab up the orange arcs and start munching.

At the noise, Fassn awakens. Blinking, with a gritty voice, he mumbles, “Hey, Cang. You’ve got mylar in there?”

iv) Cang awakes in the night to find the road people approaching

Cang awakes in the night to find the road people approaching on their tip-toes. Their son still sleeps, wrapped in coarse linens, along with the others. Fassn, ostensibly on watch, snoozes just beside. A dull orange flicker from within the wagon tells him the soup’s still warm.

The road people freeze when they perceive Cang’s alertness. Tension fills the air as he awaits their next move, but they’ve felt his observations and are at a loss for action.

“Perhaps you have mylar on the mind?” Cang asks the darkness in a sibillant whisper.

After a beat or two, the woman replies, “No, sir, just helping my husband to relieve himself. At our age,” she says, trailing off. “You understand.”

Cang sits up and checks his bag, draws tight the straps, secures the clasps. He keeps a stony glare fixed in the direction of the road people, whom he cannot perceive in the gloom. He makes such a racket with his gear that Abia is awoken to a harsh clanging.

“Quiet, please,” she says, rolling over.

Cang sneers. “Friends, why not sleep? I shall take over your watch. I am, after all, awake, and much alert.”

When no reply comes, Cang’s blood turns icy. He hunches himself over his large backpack, embraces it with his short arms. Now and then, he drags the mighty thing to the wagon, to stir and inspect the pot. The night passes, and as the grey-lavender hints of sun creep over the treeline, Cang finds the road people opposite him, beside their prone son, in a squatting pose, their faces hard, watching him.

iii) The wagon’s crammed full of sweating, reeking bodies, Fassn’s not least among them

The wagon’s crammed full of sweating, reeking bodies, Fassn’s not least among them. The crude firepit, rolling along with the wagon’s wheels, cracks and spits, a low flame barely keeping the soup bubbles up. When Fassn leans upon Cang to get a better whiff of the pot, Cang lets out an anguished grunt and jumps out, to alight upon the rocky ground.

Larry scarcely notices. Abia gives him a glance but says nothing. Shyan asks him, “Who’s stirring the pot?”

Cang shrugs. “Our uninvited guests. Or perhaps Old Ajralan himself.”

From within the wagon comes Fassn’s canned reply: “May he have his fill.”

“How much further to town?” Cang asks.

Now Shyan shrugs. “The road people likely have a better idea than we do.” She bangs a fist on the wagon, the noise thundering through the small vehicle. “How far to Gabjeoš, friends?”

“Oh, seven days,” says the woman within. “Perhaps nine, at this interminable pace.” A gentle slapping sound floats out. “Wake up, boy, damn you.”

“Sorry about your son,” Shyan says, blushing. “I’m sure he’s all right.”

“Seven days, Shyan?” Cang says. He glares into the thick trees that press in against the rutted road. “All the mylar in the world will not last.”

Fassn pokes his head out of the wagon. “You got mylar in there, Cang?” he asks again.

ii) “No one likes it, Cang,” Shyan says

“No one likes it, Cang,” Shyan says. “But they’re hungry people, like us, and they need our help.”

“Share with us your savoury soup,” the man says, his eyes wide, taking in the gold’s gentle glow.

“Our son, too, is hungry,” says his wife.

“Certainly not,” Cang says. “You may snack upon the last of my hardtack. But first, a demonstration.” He shows the larger man how to stir the gold at a consistent pace, then digs through his pack. The crinkle of mylar fills the tiny wagon.

“What was that?” Fassn asks.

“Nothing. Tools. Nothing,” Cang says. He withdraws a square of hardtack wrapped in cloth, passes it to the man and his wife. “See you share with your son, and return what you do not require.”

“You got mylar in there, Cang?” Fassn asks, pressing his way into the constricted wagon’s central chamber.

Cang looks annoyed. “No, Fassn,” he says, surreptitiously covering the silvery bags within his pack.

i) “Hey,” Cang hisses from the back

“Hey,” Cang hisses from the back. “I have not agreed to this.” He lets his wooden spoon sink into the pot of molten gold and steps to the front of the wagon. “Already we’re sharing one pot four ways. Now we are to make it seven?”

The man and his wife drag their unconscious companion toward the wagon. Fassn spots them and asks, his mouth toothless, whether they have any soft food to share. He holds up a lip to show them his gums. “See? I lost my teeth.” Tiny points of white show periodically among the bright pink of the tissue. Fassn flexes his shoulders sadly. “I also lost my wings.”

The road people glance at one another, trying to decide between confusion and alarm, before hoisting their friend onto the wagon. Larry whinnies at the excess weight.

“We’re heading to the town of Gabjeoš,” Shyan says. “Know it?”

The woman nods the affirmative, while her husband’s jaw falls slack at the sight of an iron cookpot, full and bubbling with a fortune in liquid gold.

Cang spots the lecherous look in the man’s eye, recognizes it as the same in his own. He speaks clearly, not bothering to hide his disdain. “Shyan,” he says. “I don’t like this.”