In the end, Trent Ikithon, Archmage of Civil Influence for the Cerberus Assembly and number one on the Mighty Nein’s hitlist, had gone down under a rain of vengeance that had left not a small amount of collateral damage in its wake. They’d finally cornered him after a ridiculous amount of plotting, taking advantage of the man’s arrogance to get him alone. They hadn’t counted on the small contingent of guards stationed at the tower near Druvenlode, and though they’d tried to minimize casualties whose names weren’t Trent, a few of them had gone down and not gotten back up again.
Still, the Mighty Nein couldn’t help but celebrate the fall of a man who had so grievously harmed one of their own. The owner of the tavern they were staying in didn’t seem too fazed by their exuberance, and had even helped them shove some tables together to aid in their revelry. Beau was elbow deep in her fourth round when a voice pierced through her buzz.
“Beauregard, will you come here, please?”
Fjord and Jester were reliving the battle with Yasha and Veth, with the small halfling woman enthusiastically portraying the role of the dastardly villain as the others filled in the details for the few patrons still paying attention to their ruckus. As Beau jumped in her seat, they all paused in their retelling and looked to her.
“Everything alright?” Caduceus’ voice rumbled from the seat next to her. He was nursing his customary glass of milk rather than one of the tall ales that had been brought for the table.
“Huh? Yeah. I’m gonna...I gotta pee.” She stood abruptly and started up the stairs, stopping only when Fjord called her name.
“Tell him we’re saving him a seat,” the half-orc smiled sadly.
“Yeah,” Jester added gently. “And tell him…” She frowned deeply, then sighed. “Just tell him that we love him.”
Beau smiled warmly at the tiefling’s words. “I will.”
Caleb’s room was at the end of the hall, and Beau stopped just outside to knock softly with a single knuckle. He didn’t answer, but she assumed that since he’d sent a message that he was expecting her. She opened the door just a crack, then a bit more when she was met with nothing but darkness.
“Ja.” His voice came from the bed, and as Beau closed the door behind her she gave herself a few seconds to let her eyes adjust. He was lying on his back staring blankly up at the ceiling, fingers buried in Frumpkin’s fur as the cat purred loudly on his chest. Beau slinked over quietly and sank down onto the edge of the mattress just next to his hip.
“You alright?” It was a stupid question, but Beau didn’t have another one.
His eyes never left the ceiling, but the corner of his mouth twitched as he huffed a humorless chuckle. “Ja, I am just peachy.”
“Right.” Beau’s eyes fell to Frumpkin, and she absently reached out to stroke under the cat’s chin. “Listen, I’m not sure what to say right now. You know I’m shit at this. You called for me. What did you need?”
Finally he moved, shifting enough that she had to stand to give him room to sit up. She retook her seat, now almost shoulder to shoulder with him. Frumpkin curled up on his lap, but angled his chin toward Beau expectantly.
“I want…” he began, then stopped. He sighed, then spoke in short, halting sentences. “I need to do something. But I’m not...it’s something I feel I must do alone. But I don’t want to be alone. Will…”
Beau recognized the start of a classic Caleb panic, so she laid a firm hand on his shoulder and squeezed. She didn’t say anything, having learned long ago to let his brilliant mind work through the problem. Eventually her patience paid off.
“Would you come with me?”
She didn’t even think about her answer. “Of course.” Then, remembering a conversation in a tavern long ago, added, “Wait, like forever? You want us to leave the group?”
“No!” Caleb grimaced, sending her an annoyed glare out of the corner of his eye. “I just have something that I need to do, and I’d like you to come with me.”
“Yeah, man. Whatever you need.”
“We can leave in the morning?”
“Yeah, sure.” She adjusted her light scratches to just behind Frumpkin’s ears. “You gotta tell the others, though. They’re not gonna be happy about being left behind.”
“Ja, I will.”
After a few seconds of silence, she leaned in and nudged his shoulder with hers. “You gonna come down and celebrate with us? Fjord said he’s saving you a seat. Oh, and Jester said to tell you that they love you. We love you, I guess.” She petered off awkwardly, the sentiment burning her throat worse than bad whiskey, but they’d long ago reached some sort of weird understanding regarding their mutual shortcomings in communication. Beau knew he didn’t take offense.
“In a bit,” he promised. Beau stood, but hesitated next to the bed. Caleb looked up and offered her a flat smile that didn’t quite convince. “Thank you for your...for today.”
Beau remembered the satisfying crunch of Trent’s nose beneath her fist, and his shocked expression as she jabbed just the right spot to cause his muscles to seize painfully. She hadn’t let up, pummeling any part of the man she could lay her fists on until the others could get their own licks in. Veth had delivered a rather nasty shot to Ikithon’s liver, too close to being a perfect killshot to have been anything but intentional. She’d wanted Caleb to land the final blow, but Beau hadn’t given him the chance. She knew how much guilt he carried every time someone died by his hands, whether the individual deserved what they got or they didn’t. Killing Ikithon wouldn’t bring him a reprieve from his demons, only exacerbate them, so Beau had done it for him. An Expositor taking out one of the most corrupt sons-of-bitches on the continent was a good cover, but in her heart Beau had known why she’d done it. She’d made it quick–quicker than he’d deserved—but it was long past time to put Caleb’s ghosts to rest. The look on her friend’s face when she’d turned around was enough to tell her she’d done the right thing.
“Believe me,” she returned his gratitude with just a touch of satisfied vindication. “It was my pleasure.”
They saddled up two of their horses the next morning surrounded by the rest of the Nein. Caleb had explained the situation, and though they hadn’t been happy about it, they understood.
“It’s getting cold,” Veth said as she dug out a well-worn scarf from her bag. “Make sure you two bundle up.” She reached up toward Caleb, who knelt down enough to let her drape it over his neck.
“Of course,” he promised. “Danke.”
Caduceus handed Beau a bulging satchel. “Here’s enough food for about a week,” he told her. “It’s all I could make on such short notice.”
“Thanks, man.” Beau took the bag and attached it to her horse.
“We’ll only be traveling about a day or so away,” Caleb told them solemnly, looking up at each of them in turn. “But I don’t know how long we’ll be gone.”
“We’ll stay here until you get back,” Fjord announced, handing Beau his bag of holding (just in case, he’d said). “Send word if anything changes.”
Caleb hugged Veth then stood up to his full height, casting his gaze over the rest of the group. “Thank you all for understanding,” he told them. “Perhaps when we return, I can tell you more.”
“Of course,” Jester fussed with his saddle straps absently—a bit too absently, actually. Beau made a mental note to check his bags for anything mischievous at their first stop. “Just be careful.”
“We will,” Beau promised. Caduceus held her reins as she mounted the mare, then handed them off. “Stay out of trouble.”
Caleb mounted up as well, cast another long look over their friends, then pointed his horse toward the town limits. Beau gave him a bit of space, sketched a salute to the others, and followed.
They rode for the better part of an hour without speaking a single word to each other. Caleb hadn’t said where they were going, nor how long they would be gone. She thought of the week’s worth of food in her satchel and decided to brave the tense silence.
“So,” she spurred her horse to ride alongside him on the wide road. “Where are we headed?”
“Northwest, a bit,” he replied.
Caleb stared off into the distance as if he could see their destination clearly. Then he blinked and turned to her with a pinched frown. “Home.”
Beau stomped across their campsite, not bothering to hide her irritation. She and Caleb had gotten into a bit of a row after his vague answer, but no matter what she tried she couldn’t get him to say anything else. She wasn’t an idiot; she’d pieced together pretty quickly that he’d meant his home and not hers (mostly because hers was a few day’s travel southwest of them), but he wouldn’t tell her why they were returning to his hometown. Her badgering had turned into a shouting match, and they’d completely missed lunch and rode through most of the afternoon fuming silently at one another.
She ignored him at first out of spite, but with just the two of them out here it was bound to get pretty lonely after a while. Begrudgingly, she turned her head to glare at him.
“Come over here, please.” He was crouched down in front of their fire, though his body shielded most of it from view.
Beau stopped a few feet from him, arms crossed. “What?”
“I just thought that if you were done with the silent treatment that you would like to have some dinner.” He held out a bowl toward her, almost full to the brim with a familiar brown broth. Caduceus was getting quite good at preparing meals for the road, and the stew had been packaged so carefully that not a drop had spilled during their trek.
Beau took it from him, folding her legs beneath her to sit on the cold ground. “For the record,” she grumbled, “this does not let you off the hook. I’d still like to know why we’re going back to your old stomping grounds.”
That troubled frown returned to his face, and Frumpkin nudged Caleb’s elbow with his head. “I...I’m not sure I know myself,” he admitted. “I just had a feeling like it was time.”
“Time for what?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Alright,” Beau relented. “But you have to tell me the moment you figure it out.”
His shoulders slumped in silent relief. “Ja. I can do that.”
“Well, well,” an oily voice interrupted. “What do we got here, boys?”
Beau set her bowl down and cursed silently; her staff was laying carelessly near their horses, out of reach. She jumped to her feet as Caleb did the same, their twin piercing gazes assessing the threat in an instant.
“Only four of ‘em,” Beau mumbled. Caleb nodded ever so slightly in acknowledgement.
The bandits were spread out in a loose semi-circle, obviously intending to menace but without significant numbers they barely managed to look dangerous.
“We don’t want trouble, friend,” Caleb spoke evenly, trying to avoid unnecessary violence even as his fingers flexed in preparation.
The leader, a short, scrawny man with greasy black hair and beady eyes, just smiled. “What a coincidence. Neither do we. So we’ll just take what we need and be on our way.”
Two of the bandits moved toward the horses, obviously intent on rifling through their things. Beau reacted instantly. Four quick steps covered the distance, and she lashed out with her fist toward the nearest one, catching him in the side of the neck. He cried out in pain and dropped to the ground as she spun on her heel and let her foot connect with the other man’s knee. She hit it sideways just above the bend, and as it snapped inward he screamed in agony.
Behind her, the telltale fwoosh of a firebolt was enough to let her know that Caleb had moved the moment she had stepped away. She made sure her two were out of the fight before turning to help fend off the others. One of them was already down, his clothes singed but not burnt. Caleb dodged the leader’s first swipe with a wicked looking dagger, but he wasn’t quite as lucky the second time. The bandit didn’t get a third attempt. Beau launched herself forward, a whirlwind of fists and feet as she rained down blows on the hapless man.
“Mercy,” he begged after a particular vicious strike sent him sprawling into the dirt. “We’ll leave. I swear. Just don’t kill us!”
Beau looked back to where Caleb was clutching as his side, blood oozing between his fingers as he tried to staunch the wound. She snarled and turned back to the man, lashing out with a kick to send him to his back. Her foot settled on his throat, and she ignored his attempts to claw at her leg as she applied pressure slowly.
“Today’s your lucky day,” she growled. “You’re catching me in a good mood.” Behind her, matching groans alerted her to her first two assailants climbing to their feet. “If you move very quickly and don’t come back, you and your friends can go.” She removed her foot from the bandit’s throat, smirking as he gasped for air. He scrambled backward out of reach and made it to his feet, alternating between glaring at her and signaling for his men to retreat as he pulled the fourth man up by the arm.
Beau held her ground, never taking her eyes off of their retreating forms. Only when they were gone from her sight did she relax her stance and turn back to Caleb. He was already trying to lift the hem of his shirt to get a better look at the wound, but where it was on his side made it difficult for him to maneuver.
“Sit down,” she nudged him gently toward the fallen log, “before you fall down.”
“I’m fine,” he insisted, though his face was paler than usual and he was sweating despite the cooler temperatures. He stumbled a bit, saved from falling on his face by Beau’s quick reflexes. “Maybe I am not fine,” he amended, his words slurring a bit.
By the time she got him seated, she was nearly supporting his entire weight. “Shit,” she cursed loudly. “That dagger must have been poisoned.”
He shot her a look that sidled right up to spite and huffed out a single breath in a pained laugh. “Ja, that was my guess as well.”
“No need to get snippy,” she bit back. “Did you bring anything for poisons? Any spells that will help?”
“Nein,” he gasped. “I think I need to lie down.” It was all the warning she got before he lurched sideways toward the cold, hard ground. She managed to keep him from hitting his head, but the fall aggravated the deep gash on his side and he yelped in pain.
“Okay, okay, hang on.” She left him for a moment to rifle through her own bag, pulling out a small vial. “Don’t have too many of these left,” she told him as she uncorked the healing potion and tipped it down his throat.
He spluttered but swallowed most of it, sighing in relief as the wound slowly stopped bleeding and closed over. She tried to help him sit up, but when her hand wrapped around his wrist she winced at the feverish heat still rolling off his skin.
“You think you can make your bubble thing?” she asked him. “It’s getting dark, and you’ll feel better once you’ve slept.” At least she hoped he did; they’d shaken off some pretty crazy things in the past with just a good night’s rest, so she hoped a simple poisoned blade wouldn’t hinder him too much.
“Ja,” his breathing was still shaky, but with her help he managed to sit up and pull his spellbook from inside his coat pocket. That bandit had gotten a lucky shot in; normally the bulk of his coat and the two large tomes holstered under his arms protected his midsection from any blades or arrows, wayward or otherwise (Beau smiled fondly at the long distant memory of “Modern Literature!”).
It took a little over ten minutes, but eventually the familiar sight of Caleb’s hut sprang up around them.
“You think the horses will be alright?” she asked.
“They will be fine. Frumpkin will keep an eye on them.” He nodded out to where a small cat lay curled up in a tuft of grass beneath a tree, the yellow sheen of his feline eyes watchful in the growing darkness.
Beau spent a few minutes putting out the fire and cleaning up their dinner before unfurling her bedroll in the center of the dome next to Caleb’s. He was already lying down, his breathing even and controlled as the poison continued to work through his system. She reached into the bag of holding and pulled out a handmade blanket stitched together haphazardly from several different materials. It wasn’t the prettiest thing, but it had been a gift from Jester’s mom and was subsequently one of Beau’s most prized possessions. She unfolded it and draped it over Caleb’s shivering form before sliding under the other end and rolling to her side to face him.
“I’m okay,” he whispered. “Just need to sleep.” His brow was pinched and tight, like he was in pain but trying to hide it. “Goodnight, Beauregard.”
For half a second she debated calling him on his bullshit, but then thought better of it. There were likely to be many disagreements and squabbles in their near future (they wouldn’t be them if they got along all the time), so Beau decided to pick another battle, another day.
She watched him in the dim moonlight filtering down between the treetops for the better part of the night, finally drifting off just as the blue-black sky began to turn ever so slightly paler with the encroaching dawn.
They arrived in Blumenthal by mid-morning, and Beau got her first look at Caleb’s hometown. It was a quaint hamlet, small but bustling. People milled about on the wide road that cut through the center of town, bracketed on either side for several blocks by shops, boutiques and various other fronts that indicated a thriving market. Caleb slowed his horse to a stop, allowing Beau to come up alongside him. He’d pulled his hood up before they’d crossed into the town proper in an effort to hide his features, so Beau had to lean a bit to see his face. It was blank, expressionless in that way that always sent a chill up her spine. It was the face he made when he was lost to his own memories, or trying desperately not to be, and Beau reached out to lay her hand on his shoulder.
“Caleb,” she whispered, mindful of the attention they were attracting sitting in the middle of the road. “Which way?”
He blinked, and the haunted grief in his eyes focused into something a bit more purposeful. “That way.” His voice was small and quiet, and Beau had to lean in a bit more to hear him. Luckily Caleb had recovered enough to nudge his horse on, and Beau followed.
They rode carefully down the main street, past all of the shops and the single tavern at the end of the row. It would have been as unremarkable as any other inn she’d ever seen, except the middle of the building near the right side was missing part of the first floor. It looked as if the entire inn had been built without that section, and the second floor acted like a bridge over a small empty paddock of some kind. Deciding that her questions could wait until later, Beau turned her eyes away from the odd shaped tavern and nudged her horse forward.
At the end of the road it split into three paths, and Caleb turned on the leftmost one away from the large buildings to the east. A few houses dotted the roadside, separated by gardens or fields of crops. That path split again, and Caleb pushed on to the left. A large field lay barren just past a rotting wooden fence, and the road began to wind a bit through a small copse of trees. Beau remained silent on the ride, her eyes not on their destination but on her companion. With each step their horses took, his posture slumped further as if weighed down by some invisible force. Beau had a pretty good guess where they were going, but she couldn’t find any words that might offer comfort.
Fjord would know what to say, she admonished herself. Or Jester. Or Caduceus. But Caleb hadn’t asked any of them; he’d asked her. Of all of their friends, he’d wanted her with him for this journey. She felt honored, of course, but also completely out of her depth. She didn’t have Caduceus’ wisdom or Fjord’s compassion or Jester’s optimism. She didn’t have Veth’s heart or Yasha’s strength. All she had was her fists, and she was pretty sure this wasn’t something she could punch into submission.
She opened her mouth to ask, finally, why he’d chosen her to come with him, but he’d stopped in the middle of the road so suddenly that she had to pull back on her reins sharply to avoid a collision. His eyes were transfixed on some distance point, something beyond her field of vision. She peered into the midday light, but the only thing she could make out was the road. It bent around a corner and disappeared down a hill, followed faithfully by that same wooden fence.
Wordlessly, Caleb dismounted and began walking. Beau jumped off her own horse and picked up his reins where he’d dropped them, quickly tying them to the fence post with enough slack to let the animals graze in the overgrown grass on the side of the road. Her agility allowed her to catch up to his purposeful strides, and every question she’d had for him had vanished in the face of his grim determination. She kept back a couple of paces, her eyes instinctively scanning their surroundings for any imminent threats as they walked around the bend and over the crest of the hill.
The house—what was left of it—was clearly visible from the hilltop. Its charred frame had fallen inward, the sturdiest timbers of the house now blackened and snapped in several places. The land around the house was unkempt and wild, and as they got closer Beau could make out the weeds and underbrush that was slowly consuming the remains of the Ermendrud home. She debated for a moment as Caleb stumbled forward, unsure if he wanted her close as he faced the worst of his demons. She could practically see his guilt weighing him down like heavy iron chains, forcing his footsteps to drag across the cold-packed earth. He made it right to the edge where the road met what was likely once a garden or small yard, and Beau watched as he swayed in the cold, crisp wind.
Eventually he sank to his knees, his entire form curling in on itself in a gruesome imitation of the ravaged home before him. Beau couldn’t stand by any longer. She moved quickly to his side, careful to make enough noise to alert him to her presence. She stood at his back for a few moments, hesitant and unsure, before she knelt down next to him.
“Hey,” she said softly, more careful than she’d ever been with him before. “It’s alright.” She laid her palm flat on his back, rubbing gently through his layers to press just between his shoulder blades. He sat slumped on his knees, head bowed as he took shaky, stuttering breaths. His lips began to move but his whispers were snatched away by the wind, and though his hood obscured most of his face she couldn’t miss the tears that trailed down his chin and dropped into the dirt.
Useless, she repeated to herself. Why did he pick me?
She could think of nothing to say that might ease his pain, so she did the only thing she could do; she stayed, one hand on his back and the other curled into a loose fist in her lap as he cried silently. No force on this plane or beyond could tear her away from his side right now, and she glared up at the sky as though daring any of the gods to try.
They remained that way for what felt like hours until the breeze shifted, finally bringing his words to her ears.
“...tut mir unendlich leid, Mutti. Bitte verzeih mir. Papa...bitte...es tut mir leid...”
She didn’t understand his words but she heard his pain, and each mournful cry that left his lips broke her heart. Beau slipped her arm further over his shoulder, tucking him into her body as his soft pleas became full sobs. The meaning of the moment slammed into her like a ten ton iron bull. He’d never grieved for his parents’ loss, had never allowed himself that mercy because he’d felt he didn’t deserve it. For too long he believed himself to be the monster Ikithon had made him, and his journey to redemption had been hard-fought and agonizingly slow. But he was free of that now, and twenty years of that bottled up anguish had nowhere to go but out.
She held him as his body shook violently, tears soaking the collar of her coat where his face was pressed against her shoulder. She whispered words to him, nonsensical sounds meant to soothe that he didn’t seem to hear. He continued to speak through his grief, words in a different language that needed no translation. At long last he quieted, his body slumping against hers in exhaustion as the last of his energy flagged. After a few more long moments of silence, she loosened her grip on him and ducked her head to look him in the eye. He looked like he’d aged a decade in just the last few hours, and his face was tear-streaked and red. She fought for anything to say that would offer him comfort, tried to imagine what Fjord or Caduceus would do.
He didn’t ask them to come, her traitorous mind reminded her. He asked you.
Clarity struck her as sure as a bolt from Veth’s crossbow. Taking a deep breath, she carefully disengaged and sat back on her haunches as he settled onto his own. His eyes dropped to his lap, his deep hood falling down over his brow and hiding his face. He was uncertain, and likely embarrassed after such an emotional display, so Beau did the only thing she could think of to do.
She acted normally.
“You look like shit.”
At first he said nothing, and she was afraid she’d gotten it wrong. Then he laughed; it wasn’t loud or even happy, but a soft snort of grateful amusement left his nose and he raised his head to look at her.
“Ja,” he agreed quietly. Then, “Thank you.”
“Sure.” She got to her feet gracefully and stretched out her hand to him. He took it, letting her lift him to his feet. He didn’t let go right away, and as they stood side by side in front of the worst of his sins, he squeezed her fingers gratefully.
“Do you want to look around a bit?” she asked him gently, like she was afraid to spook him.
“Not...not today,” he said finally. “Maybe tomorrow. I’m…” He trailed off, though Beau easily filled in the rest of the sentence for him.
“Alright.” She relaxed her fingers and slid away from him when he released her. “I’ll be up by the horses when you’re ready to go.” She left him alone, no longer hesitant to go now that the worst was over. It was ironic, she thought, that he seemed stronger for having been so terribly broken moments before. Her footsteps were silent on the trek back up the hill, and by the time she untied the horses he was shuffling toward her.
“There’s a tavern in town,” Caleb said evenly as he mounted his horse. “We can stay there tonight.”
That was it. No more tears, no long, drawn out speeches that would make both of them uncomfortable. She wasn’t dumb; she knew there was probably still more to come. But for now he seemed to have reached a temporary peace. She let him lead the way back, for once in her life content to follow.
The Sleeping Bear Inn was a small, one room establishment with a short bar on the right wall and a small scattering of tables taking up the rest of the space. A narrow staircase rose up in the back corner, disappearing around a landing. It was still early in the day, so there weren’t too many people within—a fact which Beau was grateful for as she and Caleb shuffled in. All earlier traces of emotion were gone from his face, leaving behind an expressionless mask that was unsettling.
The old man behind the bar looked up as they entered and raised a hand. “Hallo,” he grinned, his Zemnian accent even thicker than Caleb’s. Luckily Beau had enough experience listening to her friend’s ramblings that she could follow. “Willkommen, welcome. Have a seat, anywhere you like. We don’t get many travelers this far north.”
He came around the bar to greet them properly. He was about Beau’s height, with thick, white hair pulled back from his face by a tie. His beard was full and silver, and his skin weather-worn from a life spent on the harsher reaches of civilization. Still, there was a grandfatherly gentleness about him that eased the tension that had gathered between Beau’s shoulder blades, and she smiled back.
“Hi,” she took the lead, unsure how willing Caleb was to interact with anyone who might recognize him. “We tied up our horses to the post out front,” she jabbed a thumb over her shoulder. “Hope that’s alright.”
The barkeep nodded. “Sure, sure, that is what it’s there for. Will you need a room for the night? Where are you headed?”
“We’ll probably need a room,” Beau answered the first question, but ignored the second. “And a drink?”
“Of course, of course. Have a seat.” He ushered them down to a table near the far wall and rushed back to the bar to fulfill their orders. Beau took the seat facing the door, allowing Caleb to put his back to anyone who might walk in. It also gave her a good vantage point of the entire pub, and she alternated between checking in on her friend and casting her gaze around the space. A few moments later, the man returned with their drinks and small plate of food.
“Had some leftovers from the lunch crowd,” he said. “Looked like you could use something in your stomachs.”
“Thanks,” Beau dug into her coin pouch and produced a couple of gold pieces. “Here you go,” she handed them off, ignoring the way the man’s eyes bugged slightly.
“Danke schön! Name’s Adalard if you need anything else.” He pocketed the coins and turned away, but as he did his eyes finally caught sight of Caleb’s face, now only partially shrouded by his hood. He paused momentarily, his head cocking slightly one side as he stared. “Verzeihung, but are—”
“Hey, do you have any bacon?” Beau interrupted his question abruptly. Adalard startled and turned back to her, though it took a second for his eye to slide away from Caleb.
“Let me go check.” He left them then, and Beau took a long swig from one of the mugs.
“Thank you,” Caleb whispered, readjusting his cloak. “I knew in coming here that there was a chance someone would recognize me. I just didn’t expect it so quickly.”
“Do you know him?” They were quite adept by now in keeping their conversations from carrying too far, even in a quiet, empty room like this.
"Not well, but he and my mother went to school together. This inn belongs to his family.”
“The Sleeping Bear Inn,” Beau said, lilting upward in question.
“Ja,” Caleb glanced around, hunkering down for a moment as Adalard returned with Beau’s bacon. The barkeep lingered for just a moment, obviously trying to catch a better glimpse of Caleb’s face, but he’d obscured his face well enough that Adalard couldn’t see anything without being obvious. Eventually he retreated, leaving Beau and Caleb to their meal and conversation.
They ate in silence for a moment, with Beau consuming the lion’s share as Caleb picked a few pieces from the plate. Adalard came by with a refill on their drinks, his movements quick and precise as he dropped two full mugs and swiped the empty ones almost in the same motion. As Beau polished off the last of the food, Caleb crossed his arms and leaned forward to brace his elbows on the table.
“You are something of a history buff, so I have a story for you,” Caleb began evenly. “This area used to be an independent region, but eventually came under the rule of the Empire. But we Zemnians are a...stubborn people.”
The corner of Beau’s mouth kicked up in a smile. “You don’t say?”
A brief glimmer of amusement lit his face for a moment, though the solemnity of the day still hung heavily over him. “Ja. When I was a boy, my great-grandfather used to tell stories about his nights at the Zum Bär.”
“The zoom bar?”
He flinched visibly at her mangled pronunciation. “No it’s—nevermind. This region used to have large populations of bears, but as people moved in and cultivated the land they were pushed out of their dens. There were many years where bear attacks were quite common.”
“When you were a kid?”
He shook his head. “Before my time. The story Opa told was that the townsfolk were out tending to their fields and preparing for winter one day, and when they came back there was this massive bear sleeping in this exact spot.” He jabbed his finger down onto the table gently. “For a while, no one knew what to do, so they left her to sleep. They were afraid of waking her at first, but as time went on it became clear that even the noise and bustle of the town wasn’t enough to rouse her. They even built this very inn around her,” he gestured to the odd cubic corner of the bar that she’d seen earlier.
“The Sleeping Bear Inn,” Beau smiled both at the cool story and at the affection with which Caleb told it. Clearly it was a good memory for him, and she wanted to preserve this moment a little longer. “What happened to the bear after winter?”
“The townsfolk had collected their harvest, and over time little offerings were left for the bear in the hopes that she wouldn’t rampage through the town immediately upon waking. By the time the winter ended, there was a neat little stockpile for her. She woke, devoured it all and disappeared into the woods.” He gestured toward the small copse of trees that she knew sat just on the other side of the fork in the road.
“Did she ever come back?”
“Opa said she did, but accounts differ.”
Beau opened her mouth to ask more about it, but the door to the inn burst open. Three farmers in dusty clothes hustled in, shooting boisterous greetings to Adalard and shrewd looks at the two strangers in the corner. Caleb’s wistful smile vanished, and he hunched forward slightly to keep his face in shadow.
“It’s getting late,” Beau whispered. “If you want, I can get us a couple of rooms and we can go upstairs.”
A quick, jerky nod was her only reply, and she left Caleb at the table for a moment to approach the bar. Adalard was busy filling three mugs full of ale, but once he was done he looked at her expectantly.
“Need refills already?” he asked.
“Rooms, actually. We’ve traveled a long way and we’re pretty tired.”
“Ja, ja, of course. Two rooms?”
Beau glanced back at her friend, her discomfort at dealing with emotions warring with her need to make sure he was okay. She had no issue rooming with him; they’d shared the same sleeping space too many times to count, and he was more like her family than those related by blood. But he might want to be alone for a while, or at least have the choice. She would let Caleb decide. “Two, yeah.” Beau dropped the coin for a single night, confident that the rooms would likely be available should they need to add a second. She took the keys for the two rooms, located next door to each other on the upper floor, and returned to stand next to Caleb.
“Got ‘em,” she jingled the keys in her hand and waited for him to respond. He didn’t. “Caleb?” She shuffled around the table a bit more and ducked down to see his face better. It was slack and unfocused, his eyes stuck on some middle point between the table and the wall. She reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder, unsurprised when he didn’t react. The door opened again, admitting more townsfolk ready to unwind after a long day’s work. Caleb flinched violently at their boisterous laughter, shying away from the onslaught of noises, and Beau sighed.
“Come on,” she coaxed gently, sliding her hand further around him to haul him to his feet. Thankfully the three men on the opposite side of the tavern were too caught up in their revelry to notice how Caleb stumbled into her, or in the way he sucked in quick, shallow breaths as the panic began to overtake him.
“Shit.” Beau threw his arm around her neck and took some of his weight as she shuffled awkwardly toward the stairs. It was a chore getting him to climb with her, but eventually they made it to the second floor. There were only four rooms, two on either side of the short hall. A door at the far end of the corridor was closed, and Beau’s quick mind deduced that this likely led to the area over the bear paddock. Shoving her curiosity to the back of her mind for now, Beau managed to prop Caleb up against the wall as she opened the first door.
The room was sparsely furnished with just a narrow bed against the wall, a small table and a water basin beneath a single-paned window, and a two-drawer wardrobe that had been repainted several times. It all fit snugly in the cramped space, leaving only a small patch of ratty carpet between the bed and the door. Beau maneuvered Caleb down onto the lumpy mattress, hesitating only a moment before walking back toward the door.
“I’ll be right back, okay?”
He nodded absently, though the slow movement was more out of habit than comprehension. Beau left him in the room and returned downstairs, shouldering through a suddenly larger crowd to get to the counter.
“Your rooms alright?” Adalard shouted over a rather chaotic dice game at the bar.
“Yeah, fine. Is there a stable around here for our horses?”
“Ja, of course. Halfrid here can take them.” He reached out and clapped a young man on the shoulder heartily and spoke a few commands in Zemnian. Beau was fairly decent with languages, but Caleb hadn’t often spoken in his native tongue for more than a few words at a time. She recognized one or two as they spoke back and forth, until eventually Halfrid downed the rest of his ale and dashed out the door.
“He’ll take your horses to Marelda,” Adalard told her. “He and Roth will bring your bags to your rooms.”
Beau looked over to where Halfrid and another young man were coming back in laden with her and Caleb’s packs. She moved to take them with a flat smile of thanks. “I got ‘em.” She handed each of them a silver and turned back toward the stairs. Caleb was where she left him, sitting on the bed with hands folded in his lap and his shoulders slumped. Beau dropped their packs and closed the door, hovering there in case he needed space.
Eventually the light coming in through the window faded, and Beau lit the small oil lamp on the table. A muted yellow glow filled the space, casting deep shadows on the wall opposite. Caleb still hadn’t moved, a silent statue sitting at the edge of the bed. Beau called his name a few times with no response, though further inspection didn’t reveal any of the telltale signs that he was having an episode. He just seemed to be lost in thought, so she left him. There was just enough room for her to do some pushups, so she went through a truncated version of her usual evening workout.
She had just finished her third set of fifty when Caleb called her name softly. Wiping the sweat from her forehead, Beau stood and waited.
“You need a bath,” he said finally.
Beau rolled her eyes, scoffing harshly to hide the smile of relief at his return to something like normal. “Says the smelly wizard man.”
Caleb sighed. “As I have told Jester, that was very early days when I was trying to go unnoticed. I have taken many baths since then.”
He looked up at her then, a faint smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. She freshened up quickly with the tepid water in the basin, then joined him on the bed.
“How ya feeling?”
“Oh,” he drew it out in that sing-song way he had that often preceded a lie. “I’m okay.”
“Wanna talk about anything?”
“No, I think I just want to sleep.”
“Alright,” Beau stood and scooped up her pack. “I guess I’ll see you in the morning.” She shuffled toward the door and reached for the handle, stopping only when Caleb cleared his throat.
“Would you…” he trailed off, obviously uncomfortable and flustered. Though Beau wasn’t great with people, she was pretty decent with Caleb and anticipated his request before he even began stumbling through it.
“Yeah, man. It’s fine.” She dropped her pack again as he shifted back and turned over to face the wall. She kicked off her shoes and made sure the door was locked before pulling out her blanket and moving back over to sit on the edge of the mattress. She stretched out carefully beneath the quilt, lacing her fingers behind her head as she listened to the sound of Caleb’s breathing grow even and slow. Her eyes slipped closed, lulled to sleep by the comfort of her friend’s presence and the promise of a solid roof over her head.
Beau awoke in the middle of the night, though she didn’t immediately know why. She had rolled to her side facing the door, and as she stretched out her senses she could feel Caleb still lying behind her. Very slowly she turned toward him, letting out a small gasp of surprise as her eyes found his piercing blue ones staring back at her in the dark.
“Fuck!” she whispered sharply as she recoiled.
“Sorry.” He was on his side as well, hands curled toward his chest and knees drawn up into his body slightly. Somewhere in the darkness she heard Frumpkin purring, though she couldn’t see the cat in the faint moonlight spilling in past the curtains.
Beau took a few deep breaths to get her heart rate back down before speaking, her whisper almost deafening in the silence. “You’re not sleeping.”
“No,” he told her, matching her volume with his own soft tenor, “but I didn’t want to wake you.”
Beau shifted a bit to tug the blanket around her shoulders, then sighed. “Well I’m awake now. You wanna talk?” She’d already offered once, but Caleb had a bad habit of ignoring his own well-being if he thought it was even the slightest bit of inconvenience to anyone. She could tell he was still struggling with that instinct, so she slipped her hand from beneath her quilt to reach across the six inches between them and squeeze his arm.
His eyes fell closed as though he’d been fighting to keep them open. He looked weary and worn, and the cord of his muscle under her fingers was taut and tense. She waited him out, sure to keep constant pressure on his arm. Eventually he spoke, his voice rough with emotion and so terribly soft.
“My mother used to bring me warm milk in bed whenever I had bad dreams. She would—” his breath caught as he choked back a sob. “She would read me stories until I fell asleep, or let me read to her. She loved books.” He finally opened his eyes, smiling sadly in the darkness. “I miss her.”
“I’m sorry.” Beau’s eyes stung with tears she had no right to, and she clenched her jaw hard to keep them from falling. “She sounds...really cool.”
“She was.” There were several long seconds of silence, then, “Thank you for coming with me, Beauregard.”
Beau scoffed. “I haven’t been much help.”
His arm moved under her hand, then his clever fingers folded over hers in gratitude. “You have. More than I can say. I wanted to invite the others as well, but I’m not certain I could handle their...exuberance right now.”
In a last ditch attempt to isolate him from the rest of the group, Ikithon had laid bare the last of Caleb’s secrets to the Nein. Ikithon might have well have struck him directly for the blow it dealt. Caleb’s knees had buckled, his expression horrified as the truth about his parents’ deaths spilled from his former mentor’s lips. Beau had heard it all before, though the way Trent told it made Caleb seem more like a cold-hearted monster and less like a young man who had been manipulated and abused by someone he trusted. Ikithon weaved an impressively deceptive tale, and to anyone else it might have been enough to convince them of Caleb’s irredeemable guilt. But the Mighty Nein had proven again that they were not just anyone. They’d rallied around Caleb, ignoring Ikithon’s final attempt to save himself. He’d failed, and the Nein were stronger for it, though Caleb was still understandably guarded about the entire ordeal.
Beau knew he was probably analyzing all of the outcomes and trying to suss out each of his friend’s possible reactions. His brilliant mind couldn’t help but conjure worst case scenarios, and she hated to think that it was worrying him at all. If he could just sit and talk with them all, he would understand that they didn’t love him any less, nor blame him for something that was so obviously out of his control. Beau tried to imagine how that conversation would go and winced in sympathy.
“They are a handful sometimes,” she agreed with a hint of a smile, “but they’re our handful. And they mean well.”
Caleb laughed softly. “Good thing they have us to keep them in line.”
She laughed with him as a tear gathered in the corner of her eye. She turned her head just a bit to trap it within the pillowcase, and his eyes tracked her movement. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I don’t know why I’m crying.”
His fingers squeezed around hers gently. “It’s alright. You have been witness to many of my tears as well today.”
“What do you want to do tomorrow?”
His deep breaths filled the space as he considered her question. Finally, he sighed. “I would like to see if there is a...maybe there are graves or something? I feel like I should find out. I don’t know if...I don’t know if I’m ready to see them, but knowing they’re there seems like a good first step.”
His eyelids drooped heavily, and his grip slowly went slack on her fingers. She left her hand there under his as an anchor in case of bad dreams, a promise that she was still with him and not going anywhere.
Beau woke the next morning to the sound of birds right outside the window. She stretched a bit, satisfied at the familiar dull ache in her shoulders from her previous evening’s workout. As she opened her eyes, she expected to see Caleb still sleeping next to her, but there was only empty space. Jerking in alarm she scrambled to her feet to go look for him, her sleep-addled mind already conjuring terrible scenarios. Worse yet, she imagined having to tell the group that he’d left or had been taken, and guilt and panic seized her for a scant few seconds in turn. Then she saw him.
He was sitting on the floor, wedged between the small table and the window with his spellbook open and his fingers dancing idly in his lap. She’d seen this ritual enough to know that he was in the midst of his daily preparations, and her panic slowly began to subside. Frumpkin trotted over and rubbed against her legs, and she bent down to scratch behind his ears gently.
“When he’s done, tell him I’ve got breakfast waiting downstairs,” she told the cat. It had taken some getting used to, treating Frumpkin as more than just an ordinary pet. But she’d seen that cat do some pretty extraordinary things, and so she left them both to their morning ritual and descended to the tavern below.
A young woman was behind the bar, her blonde hair pulled back away from her face with a folded bandana. She looked young, maybe in her early twenties, with green eyes and a round face. She smiled as Beau came down, and Beau smiled back.
“Guten morgen,” she greeted. “Opa told me we had visitors from the southlands.”
“Uh, guten morgen.” Beau’s Zemnian was terrible, but the young woman didn’t seem to mind. “I guess Adalard is your dad?” Beau continued.
“Großvater, my grandfather,” she said. “My name is Lorah.”
“Can I get you some breakfast, Beau?”
“Two plates,” Beau held up two fingers. “Caleb’s coming down soon.”
Lorah nodded and wrote something down on a scrap of paper on the bar. “Caleb is your husband?”
“My friend,” Beau corrected, though the term was woefully inadequate to describe any of the Nein. They were a family—a hilarious hodge-podge of mismatched souls that fit so perfectly together. Caleb was her friend, her brother, her research partner, and so much more, but she suspected Lorah was making polite conversation rather than trying to glean the intricate details of any of Beau’s personal relationships.
Pleasantries over, Lorah reached up over her head for a large tassel hanging from the ceiling. She tugged on it twice, and Beau heard the faint sound of a bell reverberate through the wooden panels overhead. Seconds later a young boy with coloring similar to Lorah’s dashed through the door. He was about nine or ten, with a round, youthful face and quick steps.
“Ziggy, take this to Mutti.” She handed him the scrap of paper, then tossed him a copper piece. He caught it and grinned, barely glancing at Beau on his way out. Lorah turned back to her only customer and leaned against the bar. “So what brings you and your friend this far north, Beau?”
“I’m with the Cobalt Soul,” she answered quickly, the ease of the lie intricately weaving among the truths. “They want me to learn more about the culture and people out here. It’s pretty far from the rest of the Empire, and there’s so much history.” She took a moment to gauge Lorah’s interest in her story, analyzing the young woman’s facial expression. “To be honest, I think they’re just trying to get rid of me,” she continued conspiratorially. “I’m something of a troublemaker. I was never really keen on sitting still for long periods of time and listening to people lecture about a billion boring topics.”
Lorah giggled. “So naturally, you join a monastic order known for its endless archives of information.”
“Naturally,” Beau laughed with her. “So I guess consider this my first official foray into fact-finding in Blumenthal. Anything super interesting about this place?”
“Have you heard about how this inn got its name?” Lorah asked immediately.
“I did, actually,” Beau hitched her hip up over the edge of a barstool and settled in. “Quite an interesting story. Has your family always owned it?”
“My grandfather’s grandfather built this place, and it’s been in our family for five generations.”
“So you must know this place pretty well, then.”
“I grew up here,” Lorah pushed away from the bar and reached for an empty mug. She filled it with a warm, frothy drink that gave off a pleasantly sweet smell when she passed it across to Beau.
“Feenmilch. Fairy’s milk. It’s a local favorite.”
Beau raised the mug and sniffed tentatively, detecting notes of honey and cinnamon. She took a small sip, stifling a wince at the cloying sugary sweetness. Jester would love this, she thought. “It’s good,” she said aloud. “Very sweet.”
“Die Feen love sweet things,” Lorah seemed pleased that Beau liked it. “It is one of my favorites.”
Soft footsteps on the stairs interrupted their chat, and the both turned toward Caleb coming down the stairs.
“Eins für mich bitte,” he said as he joined Beau at the bar. Lorah nodded and added a second mug of fairy’s milk to the countertop, her surprise at Caleb’s obvious Zemnian roots evident on her face. “Danke.”
The young barmaid looked like she wanted to say something or ask more about the strange man who shared her language, so Beau jumped in before she could get a word out. “We’ve got a lot to do today, so as soon as breakfast is over we have to go.” She nudged him subtly beneath the edge of the bar so Lorah didn’t see. To his credit, Caleb played along.
“Ja, of course.”
“Breakfast is on the way,” Lorah added helpfully.
Caleb took a long drink from his mug, and Beau watched out of the corner of her eye as he sighed happily. There was something like nostalgic contentment on his face, and for a moment she forgot that they had come to bury the last of his demons and lay his parents’ memories to rest. There was likely to be quite a bit more pain and grief today, though she suspected the worst of it was over. Still, it was nice to him enjoying himself just a little bit; he didn’t do that nearly often enough in her opinion.
Ziggy returned a few moments later with two plates heaped with food. Beau and Caleb moved to a table to tuck into their breakfast as Lorah and Ziggy began talking to each other in Zemnian. Beau kept glancing at Caleb to see if their conversation made him uncomfortable, but he didn’t react noticeably. Leaning in and lowering her voice, she nudged his arm with her elbow.
“You have any idea where to start looking today?”
“Ja,” he whispered back. “There is a large cemetery on the edge of town.”
“Alright.” Beau shoveled a thick piece of bacon into her mouth and chewed a bit before speaking around it. “Do you want to do that alone or…?”
His response was quick. “Nein, you can come with me. I know your curiosity has been driving you bananas since we arrived.”
“It really has,” she admitted, finally swallowing her bite. “I just thought that asking a lot of questions while you were...still processing, seemed a bit like a dick move.”
He gave her a thin, flat smile in return. “I am, as you say, ‘still processing,’ but I think I would be glad for the company.”
“Alright,” she polished off the last few bites on her plate, then one or two from his as well. He never finished all of his food despite constant prodding from both Caduceus and Veth. “And listen,” she added as they stood to begin their day, “if there’s ever anything you don’t want to answer or if I start to pry too much, you can just tell me fuck off.”
He blinked owlishly at her. “Ja, I know.”
“Okay. Just throwing that out there. Let’s go.” They waved goodbye to Lorah and Ziggy and set off in search of the town cemetery.
The modest single story temple was built to last, with dark wooden timbers and expertly cut stone. A beautiful iron archway marked the entrance to a winding dirt path that led to the temple itself, and though vines had been allowed to intertwine with the bars of the gate, they were well-maintained and artfully trimmed to give the appearance of wildness. Beau and Caleb walked side by side up to the edge of the cemetery proper, but both stopped abruptly when Caleb faltered.
“I am not ready,” he admitted quietly, hands trembling where they were gripping lightly at his forearms. They ducked into the shadow of a nearby tree and he leaned back against the trunk heavily.
“That’s alright,” Beau gave him a bit of space, casting her eyes out over the rows of gravestones just beyond the fence. “Do you want me to go find out where they are buried?” He offered no reply for several long seconds, then a shaky nod. “Alright,” Beau patted his arm. “I’ll be right back.”
Mindful of the hundreds of souls interred beneath the soil around her, she tread lightly down the path. There didn’t seem to be any organization or pattern to the graves. Families were buried together, of course, but other than that their placement seemed to be either the choice of the deceased pre-death or the discretion of the temple master during burial. She walked slowly, her keen eyes scanning the grave markers for a familiar name.
“My mother’s name was Una. My father’s name was Leofric.”
“My name is Bren Aldric Ermendrud.”
It took her the better part of thirty minutes before she found them tucked in a back corner of the graveyard beneath the wilting branches of a tall oak. The fallen leaves covered the ground like snow, a dappled blanket of browns and yellows. Beau stopped a few feet away from the two small markers, identical square stones engraved simply with their names, as well as their birth and death dates. They were well-kept, free of any dirt or creeping vines. Whoever ran the cemetery did so with the utmost care. Caduceus would like them, she thought wryly.
A cold wind whipped through the cemetery, and Beau pulled her hood up to block out the worst of it. Dull gray clouds covered the entire sky from one horizon to the other, lending a somber, heavy tone to the day. It was appropriate, Beau thought, if not a bit depressing.
Standing there in front of the graves of her friend’s parents, she felt a little sheepish. Should she say something? Is that something Zemnians did? She guessed so, or else they wouldn’t bury their dead in a public cemetery. After several slow, deep breaths, Beau cleared her throat quietly.
“Uh, hi. I’m Beau.” She gave a little wave before catching herself. “I’m a friend of Cale—of Bren’s, I guess. Man, it’s weird to call him that. Anyway, I’m a friend of your son’s. He’s here. Well, back there,” she jabbed a thumb over her shoulder back toward the entrance to the cemetery. She’d lost sight of it around a small group of trees about a hundred feet away from her. “He’s saved my ass so many times. Saved lots of other people, too. Even helped stop an entire damn war. You’d be proud of him, even if he thinks he doesn’t deserve it.” Beau rubbed her hand against the short hair at the nape of her neck. “I’m sorry, I’m not good at this.”
“I think you’re doing fine, Fräulein.”
Beau whirled around in alarm, fists raised to defend herself. It wasn’t easy for people to sneak up on her in the best of circumstances, much less in a place filled with dead, crunchy leaves. The man was a head shorter than her, with a balding head and a sharp, pointed nose. He wore a simple tunic and vest, the thick material of both a good barrier between the cold air and his wrinkled but weathered skin. His eyes were kind but piercing, and he looked her up and down shrewdly before raising both bushy eyebrows.
“Entschuldigung,” he held out both hands harmlessly. “I did not mean to startle you.” His eyes slid over her shoulder to the two graves behind her, and Beau could see his mind putting pieces together.
Terrified that she’d exposed her friend’s identity and presence before he was ready, she rushed to explain. “I was just—”
“I could not help but overhear,” the priest interrupted gently. “It has been...many years since anyone in Blumenthal has even uttered the name Ermendrud. Many of us thought Bren had been killed or lost.” Beau remained silent, unwilling to betray her friend’s trust any further. The priest didn’t seem to mind, and he smiled warmly. “I do not pretend to know everyone’s secrets, but I respect their right to keep them. If Bren is here, then all I will say on the matter is I am glad he has returned.”
Beau knew there was no use denying it. “Thank you. He is...things have not been easy for him.”
“These last few years have been trying for us all,” he agreed. He took a single step forward then hesitated, the question written on his face. When Beau nodded, he closed the remaining distance and gazed down at the graves of Una and Leofric Ermendrud. “They were wonderful people,” he told her. “Leofric was a soldier, and he loved his family so fiercely. His father was a farmer, as most are in this area, but he always wanted to see more of the Empire. After a few years of that, he took up a post in Rexxentrum and came home.” The priest looked back up at Beau and smiled warmly. “Una was a musician, a talented lyrist, and would often play in the square during festivals. She used to grow cornflowers in her garden, and Leofric would hand them out to all of the children during her performances.”
“They sound amazing,” Beau said, only the barest hint of envy in her tone.“I wish I could have met them.”
“You have met their son,” he said sagely. “I always thought that Bren was a perfect blend of their best traits, so I suppose in a way, you have.” He turned toward her and extended a hand. “Josef Altergott.”
She took it. “Beauregard Lionett. You can call me Beau.”
“Well, Beau, it was nice to meet you. Please tell Bren that I will be offering prayers to the Dawnfather that he may find the peace he seeks.” Josef turned and began walking the path back to the temple.
“I will,” she called after him. He had almost crested the hill when an idea struck her, and she chased after him. “Hey, uh, Father? Brother? What do I call you?”
“Josef is fine,” he smiled, slowing his pace to allow her to catch up. “Is there something I can do for you?”
“Maybe.” She weighed her options carefully; she had to be sure that this was the right decision. She focused past her own initial impulses, searching for something deeper that might guide her. After a few seconds, she took a cleansing breath and nodded. “Yes, yes there is.”
Caleb was sitting with his back against the tree when she returned. His head was down on his knees and he was rocking slightly, though she could tell if it was the cold or the memories that had forced him down. Beau dropped into a squat next to him, close enough to reach out and touch him, but she didn’t at first.
“Caleb?” No response. “Caleb, you alright?” Silent he remained, though his rocking abated slightly. “I found them. They’re in a nice little corner beneath a big tree. It’s a bit bare now because of the season, but I bet in the spring it’s the most beautiful spot in the whole place.”
Finally he lifted his head, revealing red-rimmed eyes. He wasn’t crying, but it was a near thing. “Thank you,” he whispered.
“Sure.” She thought about telling him more, but he was still warring with whatever demons had taken hold of him. Leaning in, she nudged him slightly with her shoulder. “There’s no rush, you know. Do it when you’re ready.”
“In the meantime, you can take me on a grand tour of your hometown. Show me all your old haunts?” She aimed for a teasing tone, pleased when he seemed to brighten even a bit.
“You saw it all on the ride in,” he replied. “That’s it. That’s the whole town.”
“Yeah, but I wanna know about the stuff they don’t put in the pamphlets. Any seedy bars? Any underground network of smugglers or thieves?”
“I think perhaps you are thinking of another very small farming town outside of Rexxentrum,” he teased. Then, a bit quieter, “I think I’d like to go back ho—back to my parents’ house. I know it’s a long shot, but I want to look through it.”
“It’s been, what, almost twenty years?” Beau asked. “You really think there’ll be anything to find?”
“I won’t know until I look,” he returned.
“That’s fair.” She raised to her feet gracefully, reaching down to tug him up next to her. “Wanna walk or get the horses?”
“Walk,” he decided. “It is a nice day.”
Beau glanced up at the slate gray sky skeptically. “Sure, man. Whatever you say.”
It was midday by the time they made it to the blackened husk of the house. Beau let Caleb go first, the memory of its owners’ graves still fresh in her mind. Despite the crumbled walls, Caleb still started at the charred husk of a door. His foot kicked at something lying beneath years of dirt and overgrowth, his face drawn and pinched in a terrible expression. When Beau got closer she saw the vague outline of a wagon wheel, burnt and misshapen. The memory of Caleb’s voice, pained and cracking as he recounted that horrible night, came back to her in a flash.
“We went to my home and we grabbed a horse cart and, in the middle of the night, placed it against the door and I...set it on fire.”
Caleb stood frozen at the doorway, unable to tear his gaze away from the remains of the cart that had been the starting point for the blaze. Slowly, Beau reached past him and shouldered the door open, snapping him out of his stupor. He shuffled away from the burned wheels and pushed through the open doorway carefully, eyes cast downward into the rubble. Beau remained where she was, waiting for any sign from Caleb that he needed her. Until then, she was content to give him as much time as he needed to sift through the ashes of his past and find whatever peace might be available there.
Roughly twenty minutes later he returned holding a very old, very filthy metal box. It was black in places and rusted over completely, but it was intact. Whatever was inside likely survived the fire. He handed it to her silently, then turned back to search another part of the house. It took all of Beau’s willpower not to open the box, to snoop through something that was quite clearly not her business. Her fingers tightened over the latch for a moment, then she shook off the impulse and tucked the entire thing under her arm. She glanced around her immediate vicinity, toeing the brush and dirt aside to see if she could find anything that wasn’t burned beyond recognition.
Caleb returned twice more, each time handing off some small piece of a life he lived before. By the time the sun began to set, she was laden with mementos of people she’d never met, each one heavier than its physical weight. Eventually Caleb rejoined her, a mud encrusted shawl draped around his shoulders. Beau could tell it had once been beautiful, the faint hint of some blue flower peeking through the grime and soot. It was a miracle it had survived the blaze, as well as the intervening years. It was obviously very precious to him, given the way his fingers clutched at the edges frantically on his approach. His eyes were wet and his face red, as though he’d rubbed his face raw after a good cry. Beau pretended not to notice.
“Ready to go?”
He took everything back from her, somehow keeping hold of it all in his spindly arms. “Ja.”
They walked side by side in silence back up the hill, then down the winding path back to the town. It was dusk by the time they reached the Sleeping Bear Inn, and as they shouldered their way through the door Adalard greeted them.
“Guten Abend! Welcome back, friends.”
“Thanks,” Beau took the lead again as Caleb made a beeline for the stairs laden with the various items he’d salvaged from his past. Adalard eyed him for a moment, his eyes piercing in a way that made Beau uncomfortable. The old man had been too close to discovering the truth about who Caleb had once been, and seeing him carrying an armful of slightly burned, grime-covered items likely only reinforced his suspicions.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said after a long moment, “but I went ahead and extended your stay another night since your things were still in the room. Did you still want both of them?”
“Yeah.” Beau glanced back to make sure Caleb was out of sight before digging through her coin purse. “Here, can you just start a tab?” She laid down a platinum piece, and Adalard’s eyes bugged slightly. “For...anything that might come up.”
“And your discretion,” she added quietly. It might be that he’d already put two and two together, but if he hadn’t then there was no way he missed the deliberate tone of Beau’s request.
“Of course,” Adalard scooped the coins off the bar and tucked them away. “He looks so much like her, I had guessed...egal. It does not matter. Are you hungry? I can have your dinner brought up if you’d like?”
“That would be great,” Beau nodded, grateful for the old man’s understanding. “And some drinks, if you don’t mind.”
“Natürlich. It will be up in a bit.” He scribbled something down on a piece of paper and reached over his head for that same tassel that Lorah had pulled that morning. The familiar dong of a distant bell reverberated, and it didn’t take long for Ziggy to come bursting through the door. Adalard barked something in Zemnian to the boy, who took the paper in hand and dashed away again before Beau could even speak.
“Thanks,” she said again, and retreated upstairs.
She found Caleb standing at the wash basin, his fingers gently cleaning the twenty years of dirt and filth from the shawl. The water was almost brown from the little bit he’d managed to scrub clean, so Beau walked over to their second room and brought its basin of clean water back. Wordlessly she exchanged them, leaving him to his work as she disposed of the dirty water and refilled the basin. They worked in tandem like this for an hour, Caleb’s tiny globes of light dancing over their heads to illuminate the space. Finally the shawl was clean, and the water sluicing over it came away clear. It was a gorgeously woven peace, with bright blue flowers dotted in a spiral pattern outward from the center.
Beau opened the window and, using the shutters in a manner that was not their intended purpose, wedged her staff through to create a place to hang the fabric to dry. Luckily the slats were wide enough to escape damage from the staff’s placement, though Beau was wary that one of them would accidentally stumble into it and crack the whole panel.
The night air was cold but not freezing, and Beau stood there staring down at the street below. People milled about, huddled together against the biting wind as they darted away from the central market. Most of them were going east, and from her second story window Beau could see a group of thatched roofs just beyond the row of storefronts on the main road.
Behind her, Caleb was fiddling with the rest of his salvaged treasures. She turned back and joined him on the small strip of carpet between the bed and the door. He sat with his legs folded under him, Frumpkin rubbing against his knee as he fiddled with the rusted lockbox. He was jamming a small pin into the lock repeatedly, muttering under his breath as he tried to unlock it.
“Can I try?” she asked as she sat across from him, reaching into her pack for her lockpicks. He handed her the box carefully, and the moment his hands were free he grabbed Frumpkin and set the cat in his lap. Beau inspected the lock carefully, determining the right tool for the job. It took her a few minutes to get it open—she was out of practice since Veth took care of most of the infiltration aspects of their adventures—but eventually she managed to get the tumblers lined up and the lock clicked open. Caleb’s hands were already stretched out to take the box from her, and she stuffed her thieves’ tools back into her bag as he gathered it back into his lap.
She tried really hard not to be nosy, but she was reaching the limits of her self-control. She tried to subtly crane her neck to peer over the lid of the box as he pried it open, but all she could see was the edge of some papers and a silver chain before Caleb hunched over and began sifting through the contents.
As he did so, Beau glanced over at the other items sitting on the floor. Deciding to busy herself rather than trying to pry into a private moment, she gathered them up and took them to the water basin to clean them. The hardened leather bracers had originally been dark in color, though years of harsh sunlight had caused them to fade and crack. It took several tries, but eventually the crust of mud and soot came away, revealing the familiar embossed crest of the Empire. She remembered Josef had told her Caleb’s father had been a soldier, so she took great care to get every bit of grime from the crevices and cracks.
Caleb was still entranced by the contents of the box, so Beau reached for the other two items they’d brought back. The first was a small stone figure of a woman, about the length of her hand, her form lithe with flowing hair and long robes. She dunked it into the basin and rubbed at the surface with her thumbs, wiping at the muck away until it was white again. She was standing on a circular base of some kind, one hand clutching a book to her chest and the other held open in front of her. She pulled it from the murky water and set it on the table gently before reaching for the second item.
It had once been a beautiful ivory lyre, with delicate arms that curled up and out gently. Though the strings were burned and destroyed, wherever it had been in the house, it had been shielded from the worst of the flames; Beau guessed from the minimal charring on the edges that it had been tucked away with the shawl now drying on her staff. Beau moved back to her pack and grabbed an extra shirt, then darted back downstairs to refill the extra basin with clean water. Adalard met her at the base of the stairs carrying a tray of food, and he smiled as she appeared on the landing.
“Hallo,” he greeted. “Willa made a special dish for you. Don’t worry,” he added quickly, “I didn’t tell her anything.”
Beau nodded, then glanced down at the plates. Each held what looked like a rolled beef entree, along with potatoes and a small pile of reddish lettuce of some kind. “What is it?”
“Rinderrouladen,” Adalard told her. “It’s a specialty. One, if I remember correctly, Una was quite good at making. It’s not much, but I thought it might have been a while since he had a traditional Zemnian dish.”
Beau traded him the empty water basin for the tray. “Thank you. Can we get this filled with some clean water?”
“Of course, of course. I’ll send Siegfried up with it soon.”
Beau thanked him again and dashed back to the room, balancing the tray carefully in one hand as she opened the door with the other. Caleb was still where she’d left him, hunched over the open box, fingers gliding slowly over the items within.
“Dinner,” she announced, closing the door behind her with her foot. Caleb glanced up briefly, a glazed look in his eyes, before turning his head back toward the box. Beau set the tray down on the bed before moving back to her friend. He was entranced by whatever memories were held within that box, so she gently reached out and closed the lid.
“It’ll be there when we’re done eating,” she told him when he glared at her sharply. “You need to eat.” They had skipped lunch, and Beau’s stomach growled loudly to emphasize her point. Caleb tried to keep up his air of annoyance, but his own stomach echoed the cry for food and she just raised a single eyebrow. Checkmate.
“Fine,” he relented, speaking for the first time since they’d left his childhood home. She took both plates off of the tray and handed one to him, keeping an eye on him for any reaction to the dish. She hadn’t expected much, but the complete lack of expression on his face irritated her, and she huffed slightly as she sat down on the floor with her back against the bed.
Two tiny thumps came from the other side of the door, followed by a boy’s voice. “Hier ist das wasser, gnädige Frau.”
“It’s danke, right?” she whispered at Caleb. He nodded. “Danke!” she called back. Light footsteps retreated from the door, and Beau retrieved the basin full of water quickly. She set it on the table and returned to her meal, happy to see Caleb actually eating with a bit of gusto.
“I don’t remember what that guy called this,” she lied, hoping to get him to at least talk a bit. Ever since his hesitation outside the graveyard, he’d withdrawn even further into that wall he’d long since built, the one she and the other members of the Nein had fought tooth and nail to get past. Now he was more like the old Caleb, skittish and closed off from the world, and she hated it.
“Rinderrouladen,” Caleb answered flatly. When he offered no further commentary, Beau huffed and picked up her fork to take her first bite. It was good, especially after a long day without much in the way of food.
“Mmm,” she hummed. “I bet you ate a lot of this when you were a kid.”
This time he did flinch, though he tried to hide it. But Beau had been keeping a close watch on him, and didn’t miss the way his brow furrowed inward slightly, or his ever so slight glance at the shawl still hanging in the open window. When his eyes returned to Beau, he knew he’d been caught out and sighed.
“My mother used to make it,” he told her. “It was my father’s favorite dish, and she was quite good at it.” He took another bite, chewed it slowly and swallowed. “This is almost as good as hers.”
His voice was so small and pained that Beau felt bad for her almost near-constant prodding. He’d offered up so much of himself in the last couple of days, laid himself bare in ways that he hadn’t ever done before, and she realized it was time to return the favor.
“Mom and Dad weren’t the, uh, the cooking type,” she began slowly, taking another bite. “But there was this woman that worked for my father—Mylah, her name was—that prepared all of our meals. She used to make this dish, it was sort of a layered thing with meat and potatoes and other stuff. She called it a pie of some kind? I remember that because I was seven or something and it didn’t look like any pie I had ever eaten. Said it was something her mother had taught her.” She hated talking about her past, but if it had even the slightest chance of making him feel better, she would do it. “It was my favorite dish that she made, and I’d get a big, heaping bowl full every year on my birthday, and sometimes on special occasions.”
Beau didn’t tell him the whole story—that she had gone to her own mother and asked her to teach her something like that and had been rebuffed. Clara Lionett had plenty of important things to do, none of which equated into imparting family knowledge on to her only daughter. She purposefully left out the more depressing parts of the story; the last thing either of them needed was to get into a self-pity contest. But something in Caleb’s eyes told her that he understood what she wasn’t saying; he’d met her parents and hadn’t been impressed in the slightest in their attitude toward their daughter.
“It sounds delicious,” he said quietly. “Perhaps we can find someone who knows how to make it.”
“Yeah,” she agreed with a small smile. “Maybe we can.”
They ate the remainder of their meal in silence, punctuated only by the clinking of silverware on the plates and the breeze blowing in from the open window. It was growing colder now, and Beau stood up to dismantle the makeshift clothesline before shutting the window. The shawl was cold but mostly dry, and she hung it from the top of her staff as she leaned it into the corner. Without looking back at Caleb, she set to work on cleaning the lyre, using her old shirt as a rag to get into the relief carved into the soundbox. It was beautiful, with two large flowers framing two clasped hands, one obviously smaller than the other. Beau took the time to clean it thoroughly, rinsing her shirt-turned-rag out several times to ensure not one speck of dirt remained.
Caleb’s voice came from just a few inches away from her, and she jumped reflexively at his proximity. “Gah!” She glared at him half-heartedly. “When did you get so sneaky?” she asked harshly.
He raised his brow, unfazed by her brashness. “I was not trying to be,” he informed her. “You were focused on your task and did not hear me get up.”
She glanced past him, surprised to find his things put away and their dishes stacked next to the door. “Oh, right.” She looked down at the lyre in her hands and turned it over, inspecting her work. She’d cleaned just about every inch of it, and in the dim light coming from the oil lamps it almost shined. Leaving it on the table, she stepped back and stretched. Her shoulders and back ached from hunching over the basin for so long, but it was nothing a quick workout wouldn’t cure.
“Thank you.” His gratitude went deeper than a simple ingrained response, and when she looked up at him his eyes were fixed on the lyre. He wasn’t quite lost in a memory, but she could see the beginnings of one dancing across his irises, drawing him away from the present and back into a happier time. “My mother used to play every night,” he whispered. “She was very good.”
“Did she teach you?”
Caleb smiled briefly. “She tried. I was not very good.” He ran his fingers lightly over the ivory soundbox. “Do you think we can get it repaired?”
“Yeah, of course. Maybe not here, but in Rexxentrum or Zadash, sure.” He didn’t move, but she could tell the moment his focus shifted inward, away from this small room and into his past. Beau walked to the door quietly, scooping up her pack on the way. She no longer worried about leaving him alone, and they’d been in each other’s company nearly without break for almost three days now. In her experience, they were due for an argument any time and she was rather enjoying this quiet respite from their usual fond bickering.
“I’ll be next door,” she told him on her way out. “Wake me if you need anything.”
Beau awoke to a knock on her door. The sun was already streaming in through the window, and the sounds of people going about their daily lives filtered in through the thin glass. The knock came again, and Beau grunted loudly.
“It’s me,” Caleb’s voice was muffled by the door, but understandable. “You left your staff in my room last night.”
Beau stood and stretched, throwing her clothes on quickly before opening the door. As promised, Caleb held her staff out toward her. “Thanks,” she mumbled. “Breakfast?”
“I think I smell bacon, yes,” Caleb replied. There were heavy bags under his eyes, but she decided not to call him on it. In his place, she probably wouldn’t have slept much either.
Beau nodded and yawned. “Alright,” she said at the end of it, “let me get my stuff together and I’ll meet you downstairs.”
He nodded and left, closing the door behind him. Beau finished prepping in just a few minutes, decided against bringing her staff and dashed down to join Caleb. He’d claimed the same corner table as before, and from his seat he could see her descending the stairs. There was food already waiting, and Lorah waved at her from behind the bar. Beau waved back and dropped down into the chair across from Caleb with a sigh. She noticed that the small section of the plate nearest him was emptier than the rest of it, so she guessed he’d eaten a bit already.
“Blessed bacon,” she shoved a piece into her mouth and chewed quickly. “So, what do you want to do today?”
“I was thinking,” he said after a long silence, “that I would like to go back to the cemetery today.”
“Okay. You wanna go right after breakfast?”
“Maybe...I was thinking midday. It’ll be a bit warmer then.”
“Sure, whatever you want. You want me to go with you or…?”
“Ja, yes, of course.” He straightened in his chair at her question, eyes wide like he was afraid she would refuse.
“Okay. Just askin’.” She popped another piece of bacon into her mouth. “I’m gonna do some shopping then, after breakfast, if you wanna come with.”
“No, thank you. I’d like to spend some time alone, I think.” He stood and picked a small wedge of potato from the plate. “I’ll see you in three hours and forty-six minutes.” He disappeared back upstairs, leaving Beau to eat alone.
Once she was full and breakfast paid for, she made her way out onto the main road of the town. Blumenthal was a small farming village, so there wasn’t much in the way of shopping like there was in the bigger cities. Most of the stores along the road were a part of the city’s economy; fresh produce stands, some textile shops and a small blacksmith lined one side of the road. Opposite that was a tiny general store attached to a pub of some kind, though the door to the pub was closed and locked. Almost in the center of town, a bakery stood with its double doors open to allow the smell of freshly baked goods to waft out into the town square. Most of the townsfolk were clustered around it, some devouring their purchases and others waiting for their order to be fulfilled. Everyone knew each other, and Beau caught fragments of half a dozen conversations as she approached.
“Sie wünschen?” An older woman in a long apron with graying hair that had once been reddish-blonde and green eyes greeted her as she neared the doors. She was handing out muffins to a few of the patrons lingering near the doors, and she offered the last one to Beau.
“Thanks.” It was delicious, made from some kind of tart berry that still retained quite a bit of juiciness even after baking.
“You are not from Blumenthal,” the woman switched to Common, though her accent was still very thick.
“No, Kamordah,” she answered. “But I mainly stay in Zadash when I’m not traveling around.”
“Willkommen, then. What brings to you our little town?”
“Just visiting,” Beau told her. “I’m a monk with the Cobalt Soul, and I’m here to learn more about the area.” She had gotten quite good at lying with the truth over the years. Practice makes perfect.
“Of course.” The woman turned back toward the bakery, but looked back at Beau. “Well, I’m Hedy if you need anything, Fräulein.”
Beau visited a few other establishments up and down the street, both to maintain her fact-finding story and to get a better idea of the kind of place Caleb had been raised in. It was an idyllic town, the kind of place where everyone knew each other and looked out for one another. The Zemnian people were hearty but warm, and everywhere she went she was greeted like an old friend. By the time midday rolled around, Beau had spent some coin at nearly every establishment and made some new friends.
Caleb was waiting outside the Sleeping Bear Inn when she approached, his hands fidgeting with each other almost frantically. He jumped when Beau called his name, and darted over to her at the nod of her head.
“You ready?” she asked him again. His exhaustion was evident in every heavy shuffle as they walked slowly toward the northeastern side of the town.
“I’m not certain,” he answered quietly, “but I think if I wait until I am certain that I will never go. Best to just...get it over with, I think, like a bandage left on a weeping wound for too long.”
It was an apt analogy, even if it did make Beau cringe. “Alright.” As they walked, Beau couldn’t help but glance behind them occasionally, though she never found anything other than the slowly receding town behind them. By the time they made it to the edge of the cemetery, Caleb had noticed.
“What are you looking for?”
Beau didn’t look at him at first. “Just...something else, I guess.”
Caleb snorted in fake amusement. “Blumenthal hasn’t changed in twenty years,” he told her. “A hundred, more likely. I imagine your earlier shopping excursion will be the talk of the town for weeks to come.”
Beau remembered all of the people she’d met that morning and smiled. “I hope so.”
Caleb frowned, pausing like he wanted to ask about her meaning, to know more, but ultimately left it. As they’d learned with Veth and Jester’s many outings, sometimes it was better not to know.
“Here we are.” Caleb stared up at the iron gate that led into the graveyard proper, uncertainty and pain etched into every line of his face. “Lead the way, please.”
Beau took a hesitant step forward, satisfied when he followed. Though he kept a few paces back, he never turned back or faltered as she followed the familiar path toward the back of the cemetery where a large tree loomed. It was barren now, its brown branches twisting and swaying in the winter breeze. As they passed a small bench Beau slowed down, allowing Caleb to catch up to her.
“Over there,” she whispered, pointing toward where she knew Leofric and Una Ermendrud were laid to rest. “I’ll wait here.”
Panic flitted over his features for a moment before they settled into resignation. This was something he ultimately had to do on his own, though Beau told him with a firm pat to his shoulder that he wasn’t alone. She would be right here, right behind him, should he need her.
“Ja.” He shuffled away, every step agonizingly slow and measured. Beau saw the moment he caught sight of his parents’ graves, as his steps finally faltered and he stumbled. She willed strength into him from twenty or thirty feet away, and after a few long seconds he steadied and continued. He stopped just a few feet in front of the two markers and remained there, unmoving and rigid as stone.
“Hey.” A soft voice floated to Beau on to the wind, and she turned with a relieved smile. Jester stood just over an arm’s reach away, a thick woolen cloak pulled tight around her shoulders. Just behind her, the other four members of their family huddled together.
“Hey,” Beau returned just as quietly, reaching out to hug her friend. “Thanks for coming.”
“Of course!” Jester was still whispering, both of them mindful of Caleb still standing completely still less than thirty feet away. “I’m just glad you found a way to contact us.” She gestured toward her right, and Beau followed her finger to the temple priest, Josef, standing near the entrance to the temple. He raised a hand in greeting but didn’t come any closer. Beau returned his wave with her own, adding a little thumbs up in thanks. Getting a message to someone he didn’t know had been a big ask, but he’d come through after Beau had described her friends in pretty good detail.
Beau turned her eyes back to Caleb, who was still staring down at his parents’ headstones. He hadn’t noticed the others’ arrival, and as they all watched from a distance he slowly began speaking. They couldn’t hear anything from so far away, but by the way his hands were clutching at his chest and wringing together in turns, he was working through an apology of some kind. Almost ten minutes in he fell to his knees quite suddenly, and Beau reached out to hold Jester back from going to comfort him.
“Give him a minute,” she whispered, shifting her grip to wrap her arm around Jester’s shoulders. “He’s had a rough time, but it’s getting better. We’ll go up in a minute.”
Jester leaned in to her side as the others came up to join them, and Beau was enveloped by more arms as her family surrounded them. Caleb’s hands stilled and he slumped forward slightly, and Beau knew it was time. With a quick nod of her head, she led them up the path to the pair of headstones bearing the name of Caleb’s parents. Gesturing for the others to hang back, Beau made her way up to him and knelt down.
“You good, man?”
“You need anything?”
Caleb glanced over at her and straightened. “Can I have a hug?”
Beau was taken aback for a moment at his blatant request—the first of its kind that she could remember. But it was one she granted gladly, and she wrapped both arms around his shoulders to embrace him properly.
Movement to their right startled him, but Beau kept him from leaping up as Jester slipped by them slowly. She laid her free hand on Caleb’s shoulder as she passed, and with the other she laid a single flower on Una Ermendrud’s grave. It was as blue as a clear, spring sky with long, thin petals that radiated outward from a darker center. Beau had seen it before, on the shawl they had so painstakingly cleaned yesterday.
“What?” Caleb stammered, rising to his feet with Beau on one side as Jester came back to slip her arm into the crook of his other elbow. “How?”
Jester laid her head against his shoulder briefly. “We’re your family, Caleb,” she said by way of explanation, “and we’re here for you.”
As she spoke, Fjord stepped up and laid an identical flower on Leofric’s grave before joining the others at Caleb’s side. Veth and Yasha appeared next, laying two flowers on each grave in turn. When they turned to approach the group, Caleb slid his arms free and knelt to embrace Veth fiercely.
“Thank you,” he whispered into her ear.
Caleb let her go and rose back to his feet, his pained smile finally morphing into a genuinely pleased one as he looked fondly upon his family. “Thank you all,” he said. “I cannot...I do not know what to say...other than thank you.”
Caduceus stepped forward at last, his larger form casting a comforting shadow across the group. “Thanks aren’t necessary,” he rumbled, twirling one last cornflower in his fingers. “This is what family does. We support each other, through the bad stuff and the good stuff. Sometimes that’s all you need to change it from one to the other.”
He moved to the graves and knelt down, still twirling the flower in one hand. The other he laid palm to the ground, and the cold breeze wafting through the barren trees suddenly warmed, bringing with it a faint scent of honey and lemon. The flower in his large hand crumbled, as did the other six on the ground, and seconds later an entire bloom of cornflowers sprouted up and around the graves of Leofric and Una Ermendrud.
“Oh,” Caleb breathed, his voice hitching as the emotion overwhelmed him. Beau tucked him back under her arm, pulling him in as the blue flowers continued to multiply and fill the small space between the two resting places, then out and around the gravestones.
“That’s good,” Caduceus smiled as he rose back up to his towering height. “They were good people.”
“Yes, they were,” Caleb agreed as he wrapped an arm around Beau and reached out to pull Veth against his other side. Jester hugged him from the front, squeezing just a bit too tightly if his sudden wheeze was any indication. One by one the others joined their embrace until the entirety of the Nein were circled around Caleb. Beau caught his gaze over the shoulders of their friends and smiled, unsurprised to find his eyes wet with tears. He mouthed two words at her, and with her free hand she reached up and cupped the back of his neck in answer. You’re welcome.
Fjord was the first one to break away, his stomach rumbling loudly enough for everyone to hear. “Is there perhaps a good tavern where we can get a meal and maybe a warm bed? We rode at a rather fast pace to get here and didn’t stop for food.”
“Yes, of course.” Caleb extracted himself from the arms of his companions and stepped back. “We have rooms at the inn down the street.”
Fjord led the way out of the cemetery, arguing good-naturedly with Jester and Veth about their latest plan for mischief as Caduceus and Yasha chatted quietly a few feet behind them. Caleb hung back for a moment, letting his gaze drift back to the now colorful and lush array of flowers framing his parents’ graves. Beau let the others wander ahead, trusting Caduceus or Fjord to find the Sleeping Bear Inn well enough.
“You alright?” she asked him. His cheeks were red from both the biting wind and his earlier grief, but his eyes were clear and bright.
“I am.” Caleb reached into the folds of his coat and pulled out a small bundle. Beau recognized the deep blue flowers embroidered on the white fabric immediately, and she startled as he held out his mother’s carefully folded shawl toward her. “I want you to have this.”
“Dude, no, I can’t—”
“Please,” he urged. “This has been passed down through my family, to the firstborn girl in each generation. My mother had no daughters, but you are my family, Beauregard, and it would mean a lot to me if you would accept it.”
Beau cursed the way her fingers trembled as she took the shawl from him. It was heavier than she expected, and warm from being inside his coat. “Thank you.” She draped it over her left arm and reached out with her right. “Come on,” she slung it around his shoulder and steered him toward the town. “We should make sure the others aren’t causing any trouble.”
Caleb shot her a wry smile. “Our friends?” he drawled as he let her lead him out of the cemetery and back toward his hometown. “Of course not.”