v) “No, you can’t,” Shyan replies

“No, you can’t,” Shyan replies. She straightens her spine and adds, “Can they?”

“Nope, no, no,” Fassn says. He struggles to his feet, raises a club. “We’ve got a soup brewin’.”

The brigands chuckle. Their leader’s eyes reflect the steel in his hand, and the mirth ends.

Cang darts into the woods and a few moments later appears ’round the back of the half-dozen men, a short bow raised with deadly intent.

Abia, meanwhile, stands with Larry at the cliff’s edge, tenderly rubbing his mane, her eyes a flat mask. She watches the road people, who talk animatedly in whispered tones. At last, they appear to agree, and both the man and woman stand tall alongside Shyan, hafting improvised weapons of dubious value.

“This wagon’s ours,” the man says.

“These people, too,” says the woman.

The bandits turn to one another, ill at ease with such a show of opposition. Their leader spits and sheathes his knife.

Shyan gives them the road people a nod. “Tell your son to go stir the soup.”

iv) A band of brigands makes itself apparent

A band of brigands makes itself apparent, its leader at the head, chomping the stub of a cigar and wearing a mouldy tricorner hat. The leader sneers and says, “Empty yer pockets.”

Fassn spots the cigar and says, “May Old Ajralan have his fill.” One of the thugs in the back nods solemnly.

Abia steps out to get a look at the half-dozen grimy men, before Shyan steps in front of her. “We have nothing in our pockets. Nothing of value at all.”

“How ’bout yer blades, yer armour, yer fancy wagon?” The leader turns to his men, who chuckle obediently, as though the leader had made a joke.

“Well, you can’t have those,” Shyan says.

Steel sparkles in the leader’s hands. He props the cigar at the edge of his lips as his fellows start toward the wagon. The boss growls, “Can’t we?”

iii) The road people stare at Cang in disbelief

The road people stare at Cang in disbelief. The makings of a wry grin creep onto the woman’s face until she suppresses it.

“You’re mad,” the man says.

“Let him try,” says his wife.

“So, what,” Shyan says, following Cang’s gaze. “You climb down and we send the cookpot down after you?”

“Whereas of course you would prefer to wait here for those who destroyed the bridge? Permit them to freely empty our pockets?” With this, Cang stares daggers at the road people. Their son, still woozy from the rock he caught, cringes back.

From behind the wagon comes an unfamiliar, gravelly voice. “Too late.”

ii) The road people dismount the wagon

The road people dismount the wagon, walk to the bridge’s edge. Fassn, sucking an orange crunchy to a wet paste, tends to the sputtering fire. He uses his frame to block the wind but it whips from all angles, rises up as though with a mind to extinguish the tiny flame.

“Your handiwork?” Shyan asks the road man, gesturing at the ruined bridge.

He shakes his head. “Not us, but others, sure.”

The chasm’s easily half-a-hundred paces. “Too bad we used all that rope on the ugobok,” Shyan says.

The man’s eyes bug out of his head. “You met the ugobok?”

Shyan waves his comment away. “Town is near, yes?”

The road woman nods. “A day’s ride, across the bridge.”

A narrow run creeps down the side of the chasm, the trail of small game. Cang peers over the edge into the gathering gloom below. “I suppose what goes up simply must come down.”

i) The whole crew shares Cang’s mylar

The whole crew shares Cang’s mylar. He sits at the edge of a circle ringing the wagon, rolling his tiny emerald in his fingers, stuffed deep in his pocket, while his friends and the road people munch.

The road people’s son, who’d been unconscious heretofore, gurgles and awakens. His parents attend to his side and gently ply him with orange crunchies. He accepts a few, then catches sight of Shyan, and starts with fear. She gives him a curt wave and returns to her mylar.

After this short repast and its incipient camaraderie, the wagon moves on. Only an hour later, with the wagon’s fire burning low and the wind picking up, the wagoneers find themselves at the edge of a chasm. The bridge is gone.

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.