v) “Whoa, whoa,” Shyan says

“Whoa, whoa,” Shyan says. “You don’t wanna be doing that.”

“Who’s there?” Fassn asks from the back.

“Won’t you share what you have?” the hungry woman asks, working the bonnet in her anxious hands. “We don’t eat much.”

“We don’t have anything,” Shyan barks back. She winces with guilt.

The man sniffs the air. “Maybe my olfactories are gettin’ up in years, but smells like ye do.” A glint of steel peeks out where his hand meets his belt.

Abia turns to the poor people, then to Shyan. “Maybe share?”

Shyan sighs. Her own stomach grumbles. “Okay,” she says. “If you can make it to town with us, we’ll share what we have.”

Cang’s muffled voice comes from within the wagon. “Share? I am becoming rather exhausted back here.”

“You can share what we have,” Shyan repeats. “If you help with the stirring.”

iv) A hiss of voices

A hiss of voices, collectively excited and trying to keep hushed, rises up from the spot where the man fell down. Shyan and Abia watch, their wagon slowed to a pace, as the man’s unconscious form is dragged back into the bush by his ankles.

“Mercy,” comes a scrabbly man’s voice. “Gods, that was a hell of a toss.”

“Thank you,” Shyan calls back. “If you be bandits, we’ll ride on.”

“No, not bandits, exactly,” replies the man. The rustling of branches precedes his emergence onto the road. He’s stocky but malnourished, holding a cloth cap in his dirty hands. A moment later, a woman joins him, in much the same state, bearing a bonnet instead of a cap. “We thought about robbin’ ye, sure, but then ye killed my boy with a rock.”

“I don’t think I killed him.”

“Well the least ye can do is share some of your heavenly-smellin’ vittles,” the man says, making a move toward the wagon.

Shyan gives a subtle signal to Abia, who readies the reins. “Nothing in here worth eating, I’m afraid,” she says to the man. “Back off, unless you and your wife want to join your son in dream land.”

The man’s face darkens. His hand drifts slowly to the scabbard at his belt.

iii) Abia drives the wagon

Abia drives the wagon. She doesn’t speak with Larry, though they seem to have an ongoing understanding. She nods, murmurs, rests a gentle hand on his neck. Shyan sits up front with her, scanning the forested landscape for threats. Fassn rides in the back, keeping an eye on their rear and smacking his gums together. Cang sits in the body of the wagon proper, with an improvised bellows, pumping away to ensure their cookfire isn’t extinguished. This is exhausting, and by the time evening draws on, and the gang has left the mushroom grove of Mr. Jashenzizok and the alchemist Burbaloo far behind, his muscles ache.

Shyan spots movement in the underbrush, signals Abia for a halt. The wagon creaks to a stop and Cang complains. “Best to keep moving, friends, no?”

Shyan doesn’t reply. Squinting at the brush, she throws a stone. A man’s surprise grunt precedes his prone form stumbling out of the bushes and collapsing in the road, his eyes agape and vacant.

ii) Shyan wheels on the alchemist

Shyan wheels on the alchemist, anger clouding her face. “Listen,” she says, in a sharp voice. She pauses to see everyone watching them, takes a breath. “We’re not paying you for some stupid horse.”

“Larry,” Abia says.

“For some stupid Larry,” Shyan says.

Burbaloo blanches. Mr. Jashenzizok wears a peculiar, appraising look. Burbaloo puts a protective hand on Larry’s neck, who stares ahead impassively. “But he’s worth a fortune, and–“

“You don’t remember when you stole from us? Every copper penny?”

Cang, on his toes to look over the edge of the cookpot, between steady stirs, calls out, “Time to go. This soup certainly is not becoming any hotter.”

“Remember to keep a reasonable temperature, and stir frequently,” Mr. Jashenzizok says. “You don’t want any of that to burn and stick to the bottom of the pot.”

i) Abia chooses Larry as their beast of burden

Abia chooses Larry as their beast of burden. Burbaloo gives them the go-ahead, though she’s disappointed to lose one of her animals. The horses confer amongst themselves and seem to bid Larry adieu.

Shyan and Cang work at re-fitting Burbaloo’s wagon. They rip out the floor and build in a fairly stable platform for the cookfire to sit upon, and put a circle of large rocks around it to discourage errant embers. Fassn gathers firewood for the journey.

It’s near dark when the wagon is complete. Mr. Jashenzizok watches on with a look of enigmatic sadness upon his mushroomy face. He says, “Well, then, I suppose you must be off.”

“‘Tis about time,” Cang says.

Shyan shakes Mr. Jashenzizok’s hand, confers briefly about directions to a nearby town where they might unload their metal soup.

As the team’s getting ready to climb onto the wagon, Burbaloo clears her throat, speaks up. “So who’s going to pay me for my horse?”