The sun shone bright in a clear blue sky, looking down benevolently at the deep green forest and the dirt trail that ran through it. Its warmth made its way through the canopy of leaves to warm a plain, rough wagon as it went its solitary way down the road. The wheels of the wagon rattled a soft rhythmic beat, accompanied by the songs of the birds that flew above and the rattle of leaves blowing in the breeze. Peaceful--soothing in a way that none of the riders had thought it would ever be again. Certainly more serene than it had been a few days ago.
The wagon was relatively new, newer to the road than the three who rode in it. It had been discovered abandoned and quickly confiscated and outfitted by the man and woman who rode on the wagon seat; a lanky, sleepy-eyed man and a calm young woman who looked enough like him that it was obvious that they were brother and sister. It had taken them no more than a couple of days to fall back into their old travelling routine. They'd been travelling for what seemed like so long, it seemed, that the sounds of the woods and the rough bump and sway of the wagon was familiar, just another sound of the road.
The woman lifted her face and took a deep breath. "How nice it is to be out of the city."
The man didn't say anything other than a grunt of agreement. It didn't faze the woman, however, and she continued her monologue.
"The sun is so nice and warm today."
"It's hard to believe so much has happened, isn't it? The world seems to have settled down so quickly."
Her brother rumbled again, shifting in his seat so that he could move his long hair, neatly caught at the nape of his neck by a cord, back over his shoulder. "Yeah." His voice was soft, even sleepy.
A groan from inside the wagon, a pained and pitiful sound, interrupted them. The man who sat behind the reins turned to share a glance with the woman beside him. The lady smiled. "Are you okay, Pacifica?" she asked, her voice soft and sweet.
Another loud groan. "Ohh...I'm dying. Raquel, please do something."
The dark-haired woman looked over her shoulder into the dim interior of the wagon to the girl curled up on her side on her pallet of blankets. Her smile was apologetic. "I'm sorry, Pacifica, but I don't really know any spells to cure stomach aches."
"Next time, don't eat so much," the man said blandly, staring blankly at the road that showed just above the horses' ears.
The young girl lifted her head to glare at him. Her golden hair gleamed in the sunlight that trickled into the wagon. "I love eggs." Her head dropped, and the two at the front of the wagon could hear how her lower lip stuck out as she mumbled, "And it's been a while since I've had them."
Raquel smiled at her. "Maybe you should have saved some of them for later."
"No way! Shannon would have eaten them."
"Then you deserve that stomach ache. I told you not to eat so many in one sitting." The man's voice was calm, even bored. "And don't get sick on the bedding."
That got him another glare. "You really do sound like an old man, Shannon. Or more like an old mother hen..." Her voice trailed off. Then her eyes went wide with horror. "Urf...Stop, stop!"
The wagon lurched to a halt as Pacifica scrambled up onto fours and clambered into the front seat. She climbed over her brother, ignoring his cursing, and stumbled into the bushes by the side of the road. Raquel and Shannon heard retching noises. The two exchanged long-suffering glances.
"I'd better go check on her." Shannon swung his leg over the side and dropped to the dirt road, shifting his sword into a more comfortable position. He reached into the back of the wagon and pulled out a waterskin, slinging it over his shoulder as he slipped into the brush.
He found Pacifica rising from a crouch, wiping at her mouth. Letting the brush rustle loudly as he moved forward, he spoke as she turned to him. "You okay?"
Pacifica nodded weakly. "Yeah." She accepted the waterskin from him and used a mouthful to clear her mouth, spitting it out with a grimace before sipping cautiously. When she looked up, her brother's eyes were on her, a stern expression on his face. "What?"
Shannon shook his head, as if to chase away his thoughts. His face smoothed out into blandness once again. "Nothing." His hand lifted to rest on her shoulder.
She nodded. Guilt washed over her expression. "I'm...I'm sorry."
There was a pause as Shannon looked askance at her. Her head was bowed, her eyes lowered to stare at the ground.
Shannon knew his little sister well enough that he could see all her emotions in her bowed shoulders, though his eyes remained blank. His hand twitched, then lifted to rest on the top of her head. He stroked her pale gold hair once before stepping away, heading for the wagon again. "Then show some restraint next time. What a waste of good money. Next time, I'm not going to buy eggs if all you're going to do is throw them up."
She glared and stomped after him, swinging the waterskin like a weapon. "That's not what I meant, and you know it! Oh! You're such a jerk!" Her words trailed off, and she turned slightly green. Her hand flew to her mouth and she stumbled back to the tree.
He ignored her, sliding between shrubs more quietly than he'd walked through them before. He knew that she was talking about more than the sudden stop and breakfast. And it surprised him how she must have known that he had just been thinking of the same things. Their separation, her death, the final battle in the skies above the holy capital. The work of rebuilding and comforting those caught in the terrible battle between Dragoons and Peacemakers, the deaths of so many people, and their abrupt departure when the people in the city would not accept her. All linked to her. How her life still weighed so heavily, he thought.
Raquel had pulled out a small book and was reading it, sitting still as a statue up on the wagon seat, when he pushed back through the undergrowth. She looked up as Shannon reappeared. "How is she?"
"She'll be fine." He walked in front of the horses and took hold of Dragonov's bridle, leading them and the wagon off to the side of the road. "We may as well stop here for a while."
Pacifica stumbled back a few minutes later, muttering under her breath but looking less pale. She blinked to see the repositioning of the wagon. Raquel was seated on the now lowered tail bed of the wagon, though Shannon had disappeared. Raquel was still reading, her feet swinging slowly. The breeze tugged at her long, raven-black hair, drawing it over her shoulder to be brushed back with an absent gesture. "Raquel? Are we stopping?"
Raquel lowered her book again. "Shannon thought it would be better if you rested for a bit without the movement of the road. You'll probably feel better." The two girls shared a smile, Pacifica's cheeks flushing slightly.
Shannon came back a while later with water for their grazing horses. He exchanged a look with Raquel, then looked to the wagon, where he could see their little sister's boots as she lay inside, resting. He shook his head and went to the horses.
It didn't take long for Pacifica to recover, and soon, she was up and folding the blankets neatly while Shanon re-hitched the horses to the wagon. It was as they were preparing to continue onward that they heard the thunder of hoofbeats coming down the road. The three looked up, and none of them were surprised to see a familiar white horse being ridden by a familiar young redhead.
Shannon, holding a pail of water for the horses to drink from, snorted. "At least we had peace for a couple of days."
Pacifica waved. "Hi Leo! Where have you been?"
Leopold Scorpus reigned in his horse with difficulty, then almost flew over his head as the white charger stopped abruptly alongside the wagon horses. He clutched at the saddle pommel, leaning far forward, almost bumping his nose on his horse's head before bouncing back into place. The giant green head of his Mister Soopy costume cushioned his recoil. He immediately looked at Pacifica, who watched him from the back door of the wagon. His eyes were wounded, his expression similar to that of a kicked puppy. "Miss Pacifica, how could you just leave me behind like that? I went to the castle and found out that you had left, and no one seemed to know which way you had gone." Almost as an afterthought, he gave the other two nods of greeting, "Good afternoon, sister Raquel, brother Shannon."
Both nodded, but Pacifica spoke before they could say anything, her voice indignant. "Why should I have to tell you where we were going? It's none of your business. You don't own me."
The wounded puppy look increased ten-fold. "Miss Pacifica, how could you say that? After all that we've been through?"
Shannon grunted, offering the remains of the water to the lad's horse. "So how did you find us?"
Leo beamed. "Well, this is the most direct route back to your village. I figured it was the best place to start." He drew himself to his full height. "It is my privilege and duty to see my princess safely to her destination."
Pacifica shook her head. Her eyes darkened, brows drawing together in an expression filled with pain. "I'm not a princess, Leo." Her voice was gentle but firm. "The scrapped princess died at the hands of the prince a week ago." That was the gift her brother had given them, announcing that the Scrapped Princess was no more, dead by his own hands. It gave his sister the freedom to leave with her family and start anew.
A flush turned Leo almost as red as his hair as he realized his gaff. Still, it was only a second before his expression firmed. "You will always be my princess, miss Pacifica."
Pacifica's eyes widened. Color pouring into her cheeks, she glared at him. "Who are you calling your princess?"
Shannon heaved a long-suffering sigh and rolled his eyes before tossing the bucket back into the wagon and climbing back into the wagon seat. He took the reins from Raquel and clucked at the horses. As they ambled back onto the dusty road, Leo took his customary place by the wagon's side, riding easily beside them. He seemed to either be ignoring Pacifica's sputtering and ranting or was oblivious to them beyond his own enthusiasm. "So, are we going back to your village?"
Raquel smiled. "Yes." Her voice was serene, filled with satisfaction as she closed her book and looked forward, far, far down the trail. "It's time to go home."