Chapter 14 | The Red Forest Part II
Rufus observed Lonán while the rest of the people prepared to camp. A merchant is no knight, let alone a mercenary. If only they had kuhl- any spirit, really, would be good for the kid.
A lady, whom many of the others have referred to as Judith, offered Rufus a cup of tea made from the celosia surrounding them. "Tea?"
Embarrassed to take a dainty cup with his roughed hands, he furiously wiped them on the side of his coat.
"Thank you," he bowed.
"It's been rough," she told him. "But we thank you. We thank the lady that she is with us, even if it doesn’t show."
He accepted her gratitude openly before letting her make her way around the entire camp. They both looked around, seeing the many tired faces. Then, their eyes fell on the equally exhausted Asena. Like the camps of Hallerbos and their first day in the red forest, Asena had erected structures from the earth without assistance after healing the injured tree as per the demand of the fairies.
"How can she stay calm? My hands are still trembling from earlier?" Lonán had his hands palm-faced up, staring at them like they were his weapons.
"Child, the lady must do what she must and that is to protect us."
Rufus listened as the Chief tried to calm Lonán.
Though Rufus has known Asena for a little over 6 years, he was still in awe of her raw power. And whenever she paired it with her usage of her fabrications, it truly set her apart. He never questioned why she was knighted at a young age, and he was sure why she'd rejected becoming a commander of the third company that her brother now leads.
Like Lonán and the Chief, Rufus understood how different Asena was. However, he was curious why she needed Lonán to kill an untrained man. No matter the battle and lack of sleep, she usually managed.
Rufus let the two men deal with their business in peace. He approached one of the barracks brandishing his cup. "Dame. Have you tried the tea?"
Before she could answer, a loud scream cut through the forest.
Rufus snapped around followed by Asena.
"Fuck. Fuck. Fuck."
Lonán was on the ground, face covered and huffing profanities. His forearms were drenched in blood.
Asena easily recognized the stench of death.
"What happened here?"
János rushed to his side, placing a calming hand on his extra wrinkly forehead then brushed his hand over his duller cobalt hair.
"They attacked Judith!" A woman answered.
Lonàn stood at the dead center of the brawl, separating the opposing sides.
"They were foaming at the mouth," Jojo's appa claimed.
He was holding Jojo tightly beside an injured Judith.
"You murderers!" Someone from the other side shouted.
Rufus doubled back. "What should we do with him?"
"Our captain was only protecting us." One of the crewmates of Alcidone protested when Asena moved.
"I understand." She held a hand up. "Bring him to the room, Chief. I will deal with it."
They all wanted to know.
"It is clear," Rufus took a step forward, protecting his leader, "that Judith has been attacked by those who are infected. It is true, Lonán of the Alcidone Merchant Company was the one to take out the perpetrators, but we will not be considering it as murder."
Asena agreed to the rational decision.
Furthered by the verdict, the conflict rose with sneers and jeers coming from one side. The air felt heavier as the tension continued to escalate. Asena could tell they were near resorting to their powers to assert dominance. The two young knights were nowhere to be seen, which meant Asena only had Rufus and the continuously aging János to rely on. She wasn’t sure if her depleted state and theirs would be enough to settle the issue. Killing another infected person was not on her list of to-do’s.
She looked to the rattled Lonán. He was not in a state to fight again either.
"Foaming at the mouth... Jojo's appa, follow the Chief. I'd like to hear the details."
Rufus proceeded without waiting for further instructions and tried to calm the people by talking to them less like a knight and just like a regular person.
"It's not as if they've been split between the townsfolk and the merchants," the Chief observed later.
"No, of course not," Jojo's appa agreed.
"Why is that important?" Asena inquired, finding it strange that the topic even came up.
“It means, they didn’t just take a side out of comfort,” Rufus explained. “This has been brewing, has it not? Since Alcidone, even.”
János concurred, “I see. I’m afraid, we’ve overlooked something.”
Lonán was silent, staring at the ground, his hands still damp from the blood, trembling with his entire body. Keeping his eyes cast low, he avoided anyone’s eyes and was taken by surprise by the face looking up at him.
"Here, let me help." The one-armed knight bent down and offered his hand to Lonán.
He instructed Lonán to press the small carnelian gem on his vambrace. Taking a deep breath, he lit a small fire that seared the blood and a bit of the fabric of Lonán's shirt. Just a few days ago, he couldn’t even manage a spark to come out of the gem.
"Ahh, sorry. I'm still not very skilled at channeling."
A bit of color returned to Lonán's cheeks.
"Where were you?" Rufus interrogated.
The knight looked up, a little embarrassed to speak up.
"Scouting," Asena instead answered.
"Yes!" The knight jolted to his feet. "We thought it'd be good to look around since the forest is denser here, for any signs of Creatures of the Night."
"Good job," the Chief praised with a smile.
"Return outside and keep the two factions separated. We don't know whether another fight will happen. Do as Lonán and act first."
Lonán trembled on the ground, the events playing in his mind.
Lost in his most recent memory, he heard Judith scream and in a split second, he found himself cutting the throats of people he was close to calling friends during these past days. He could still see, smell, and hear the cries of those around him. He knew what he’d done was the right thing, but it didn’t feel right. He just couldn’t wrap his head around how knights– how Asena continued to carry on.
The night that the red forest brought was not any calmer than when they were outside, but it was nice knowing that tomorrow, they'll be arriving at Marrens Eve. If only tomorrow would come just a tad quicker.
"Jojo, stop running–"
The children crashed onto the pot of food ready to be brewed.
"Watch where you're going!" A woman shrilled, her hand ready to smack the children.
The air felt heavy once more. Their discourse from earlier in the day was naturally brought up, sparked by the one-off argument. Again, the people took to their sides. The one-armed knight tried to mediate as the other called for his superiors.
The crackle of the fire could be heard between their exchanges.
"Enough!" Rufus's voice echoed through the forest, startling a few small animals and some larger ones.
Angry faces glowered at him.
"Will you take their side again?"
"They've done wrong, you know."
"Look at all that wasted food."
"It was an accident!" a child cried.
"I didn't teach you to lie!" The mother shouted.
"But it was," Jojo defended.
"Shut it, brat."
"You shut it, old man!"
"Jojo!" Jojo's appa stepped up. "Stop shouting at your Samchon."
"He started it!"
"Always eating more than you're helping. Stupid brat."
"I'm not stupid," Jojo whispered back.
"Not stupid? Ha! My son was smart. Hyun-woo was talented. And what are you, a retard!"
"Hyung!" Jojo's appa cupped his daughter's ears.
Tears pooled around Jojo's lashes as she buried her face in her father's chest.
"Jeong-Ho..." the Chief walked over to the other side, his hand reaching over to the uncle. "How could you say that of your niece."
Jeong-Ho swatted the Chief's hand, "what do you know, you halfling!"
"Do not take your anger out on a child," someone on the other side rebutted.
The nerves in the uncle’s eyes bulged and the whites of them reddened crimson.
"You've no idea what I've gone through!" The uncle rammed a hand on Jonás' chest, pushing him flying towards a tree with a force surprising even himself.
A little out of practice, the Chief caught himself just a millimeter from breaking his back.
The hairs on his head and beard turned a dark shade of grey as his magic dissipated. He was left laying in a pool of water.
"That's incredible," Asena stepped into the light the fire cast. "You've become ten times stronger in a span of a few days. How is that possible?"
Jeong-Ho hugged himself, turning away from Asena's strong gaze. He'd awaken from the spell of the moment.
"Would you like to hear my theory?"
The people on the side of Jeong-Ho crowded around him.
"We don't want anything from you!" They spat in anger.
"Of course, you don't. But I'll tell you anyway. I think you're all infected."
Rufus caught a bit of mirth in Asena's voice, a tone he'd never heard from her.
"And you'll tell me exactly when you realized. Won't you?"
"My lady," Jojo's appa called out. "Not my brother, please."
Jeong-Ho grew afraid and agitated as Asena closed in, as did those surrounding him.
"Get away from us," they would chant as she stepped closer and closer.
"Fear. I can see fear in your eyes and trembling lips."
Lonán watched the shadows of death as each person succumbed to the infection, rushing at Asena as a pack. They growled at her just as the man in the early afternoon had.
In the cover of the night with the fire put out by Rufus, Asena put to rest the voices who'd been lost to the infection.
1. Kuhl is a shortened version of al-kuhl which is the Arabic term for alcohol. Rufus and some other knights refer to alcohol as kuhl.