Cassie woke to the smell of food cooking and the smoke from a nearby fire. Her first thought was that Gemma or Kieran must be awake and preparing something for breakfast. Then she remembered with immense sadness the events of the previous days, which she’d been unable to prevent, and which meant Gemma was no longer with them. She glanced around and saw Kieran sleeping a little way away, exhaustion etched on his face. Suddenly, the implications hit her. She shot upright, wrenching herself out of the dreamy, semi-awake state she’d been in. A stranger was in the clearing. He sat calmly, facing the fire with his back to them. Balanced over the fire were several sticks with meat cooking slowly on them. The young man had blond hair of a paler shade than Kieran’s. It was lacking that golden glow that Kieran’s own hair had, but that was replaced with a gentle, shimmering sort of light. He heard Cassie stand and twisted slightly to see her. She realised that his eyes were similar to Kieran’s too, but where Kieran’s reflected the roiling depths of an untamed ocean, his were a piercing, icy blue, sharp and clear, as they looked towards her. Cassie froze, partly unsure of how to act next, partly captivated by his startling gaze. He saved her from having to decide what to do by speaking.
“I-I-I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to disturb you.” Kieran stirred then, wakened by the sound of the stranger’s voice.
“What are you doing here?” Cassie asked without preamble now.
“I was on my way to the main city and I heard rumours of murdering thieves, targeting people on their own. They steal not because they are poor or needy, but because they enjoy taking what is not theirs and killing those weaker than them.”
Cassie’s breath caught in her throat, her hand flew upwards to cover her mouth in shock. Kieran rose swiftly and put his arm protectively around Cassie’s shoulders.
“Kieran. Was Gemma-” She breathed in deeply, “Was Gemma wearing her necklace, the one Kadi made, was she wearing it when we found her?”
Kieran thought for a moment, frowning. Then his expression hardened. “No, she wasn’t. She always wore it, Kadi had asked her to.”
The stranger spoke, “What are you talking about? Has something happened?”
“Our friend died two days ago.” Cassie spoke in a subdued voice. “She was wearing jewellery which had been crafted by someone very talented and it would be quite valuable.”
“Sadly there are those who place the value of a few coins or a pretty bauble above the value of a life.” He paused for a moment. “I’ve been watching you since last night. I don’t normally like travelling alone, particularly if there are dangerous people also wandering the forest. At first I watched to see if you were a possible threat, I didn’t think you looked the type so I stayed to ask if, perhaps, I could travel with you? I’m headed to Dokapen. Am I correct in thinking you are, too?”
“No.” Cassie stared at Kieran.
“What, Kieran? We are.”
Kieran took Cassie’s hand and led her away a little. “Ok, yes we are going but he can’t come with us.” Kieran looked determined and Cassie frowned at him.
“Kieran, why not? It might be safer with an extra person.”
“Don’t you think it’s all too convenient? I mean he turns up just after Gemma, you know… And he’s got this story about robbers or something. If there really was a group of robbers don’t you think they would have attacked all of us? Why attack Gemma alone? If there was a group of them like he said we’d have been no trouble to attack too. And it would have been tempting, especially if they found her with a necklace like that.”
“Stop it Kieran! You’re clearly upset and angry and wanting someone to blame, and guess what, so am I, but don’t be so stupid. He’s here looking for help and you’re trying to scapegoat him and turn him away for something he never did.”
“How do you know?” Kieran shouted. “Why are you trusting him? Why are you taking his word over mine? You don’t even know his name!”
Cassie stepped back as if physically struck by the sheer force and volume of his words. She stared at Kieran, momentarily lost for words. Why did she trust him? She glanced at the stranger, meeting his eyes. There was just something about him. Turning to face him she spoke, ignoring Kieran standing close by.
“You are welcome to join us. Please take no notice of Kieran. He is not thinking straight at the moment.”
She expected Kieran to react, to shout or argue or something, but he did nothing like this. He seemed to slump, as if folding in on himself, growing smaller even as she watched him from the corner of her eye. Shrugging her shoulders to displace the guilt she felt threatening to creep over her, she walked over to the fire.
She sat beside the young man.
“I’m Cassie, and you are?”
“James.” He paused, a regretful look crossing his face. “I’m sorry, for causing trouble between the two of you. I never meant to do anything like that. If I had known I would never have asked.”
“Never mind that.” Cassie said. She didn’t want to think about it. Even now Kieran sat quietly where he had slept. His head hung, his bunched fists lay in his lap, knuckles white. “So, what’s for breakfast? Something good I hope.” Some part of her whispered that she should not be acting so happily so soon after what had happened to Gemma. James smiled and offered her some of the food he’d been cooking.
“It’s not much but it should taste alright.”
Cassie couldn’t help it, she smiled back. Accepting the food and resolutely shutting the quiet voice in her mind behind a locked door. Behind her Kieran sat watching the scene. Cassie and James smiling at each other. Behind them, Gemma’s grave. The smell of the food sickened him and he stood abruptly.
“I’ll be back later.” He muttered and walked swiftly from the camp, disappearing amongst the trees.