It was rare, whenever they had time to slow down and take their journey softly, calmly. It wasn't often that they could actually enjoy themselves on their ride; usually they were on guard against attacks and dangers hidden along the trail, but this far out in the Wild, they were as safe as the world could let them be.
It wasn't a surprise when the girl asked the man to pause for a day or two when she saw the clearing. She was a Rooter, as she liked to joke; she had to put down roots in order to survive, and while she had her traveling home, she often sought to walk along the wagon. She said that the feel of the earth beneath her feet kept her grounded and aware, but they both knew it was her way of connecting to the Old Life, and he respected her enough to never mention it. She never dallied in these Rootings as they called them, she only asked once in a great while when the harshness and severity of their lifestyle had worn her down and she needed a respite. Rootings usually only lasted one or two days at the most, occasionally three but that was usually near a holiday or a bad storm was rolling in and they needed to wait it out, so he agreed and drew the team to a halt.
She hopped down almost immediately, shuffling to the yoke and removing their first ox, a strong male name Osric, after a forgotten king from books forgotten to almost all but them, leading him to a tree and tying the lead before brushing him down. Osric was sort of her pet, as she didn't have cats like she used to, or even the ability to train a dog, and being the motherly sort of soul she clung to the ox like he was her baby, coddling and petting and talking to him in a baby voice.
When he first teased her about it, she laughed and said that Osric was her living journal, a physical testament to where they had been, what they had seen, and how they had survived it all. She had punctuated her words with a kiss between the ox's horns, and he never teased her about it again.
As she tended to Osric, he sighed and unhitched the other, a female called "Darlin'" because she lacked any personality to actually give her a name. The oxen were good sturdy beasts, picked up south of St. Louis from a farmer whose land had gone bust. He couldn't afford his animals or his land, and so was selling them off, piece by piece and head by head. As soon as she had seen the ad in the paper, she had squealed and grabbed his arm, pointing and jabbering excitedly, and they both knew it was time. They rented a truck, drove down to the farm, bought the oxen for cheaper than their birthing price, and brought them back to her house.
The next day, she had locked the doors for the last time, patted the old brick fondly, and placed a kiss on the old maple tree in the back yard before taking his hand and climbing into their wagon. With a cluck of the tongue, they were off and it took all her control not to look back at the house where she had grown up, and had spent the last three years in perfect happiness.
Six days later, the neighborhood had been burned to the ground, decimated by a faction of wannabe freedom fighters. She had wept when she heard the news; great big tears that soaked into her stuffed rabbit and threatened to spill onto the floor and ruin the finish he had painstakingly spread over the wood. He had comforted her, telling her stories of all the things they would see and all the places they'd go, and the different winds that would call to them. She had smiled a watery smile at him, laughing weakly when the wind chime outside the door had tinkled in a breeze.
It was a sign, she said, a sign they had been blessed by the gods. She had stepped out of the wagon with her pocket knife then, and scratched a skeleton tree into the face of a rock wall along the road, before marking a jagged "S" underneath.
"For those who choose to follow." she had smiled, a true smile, and he knew then that she would be alright.
And so they wandered, soul-brother and soul-sister, the sun tanning their skin and bleaching their hair, the world hardening their faces and scarring their hands, but not their hearts. Eventually the came across others who had similar ideas to theirs, similar but different and all wanted to join them in their travels. The girl said yes, the man said no, and the people would laugh uncomfortably until the man would sigh and ask them three questions.
"Would you die for them?"
If they failed...
"Would you go without to make sure they did not?"
...any of the three...
"Would you fight to defend them and your home, even when outnumbered and you have the chance to run?"
...they would not join them.
The girl would always watch them, her eyes flashing colors as she studied their eyes and voice when they answered. She would often pull out her pipe and light a batch of the dried fruit she preferred to smoke, or perhaps even tobacco if they had it, puffing away and watching them almost amusedly, like the world was playing a great big joke on them and only she was privy to it, and he would sit back and merely ask the questions, watching and waiting for her announcement.
None had been able to pass all three questions, and after a while she had stopped agreeing for strangers to join them, stating her brother and she were not ones for the Old World and were merely passing through. She would deaden her eyes and widen her stare, just enough to unnerve them and send them on their way. After the first few months, their wagon had been known as the Witch's Wagon, and they nearly died from laughing so hard, clutching their bellies and wiping away humorous tears.
"After all, little girls dream of being witches!" she had snickered before climbing on top the wagon, her legs dangling off the side as she threw her head back and sang at the top of her lungs, her voice cracked and off-key and mangling the foreign words with her clumsy tongue. He had laughed and chided her gently for scaring off their dinner for the night, and she merely stuck out her tongue and resumed singing, this time at a lower volume.
Not long after that, they had stopped for the first Rooting, a simple cave caused by a rock fall in Missouri. The oxen had been put to graze and she had sat on a rock and sang softly to herself, before getting up and spinning in circles through the rocks. He warned her to be careful as he gutted the rabbit he had caught for dinner, but she ignored him and merely sprang about without a care.
The next day, when they left the cave, he noticed she seemed lighter, gayer, and more pleasant company. He loved his soul-sister, but she could be and was a bit too much at times, especially when cranky. After the third Rooting, she had come up with the name in a fit of fancy, giggling and cheering at the fact she was putting down roots each time, marking the different places with a cheap version of their sigil and name, showing the world that they had come that way and continued on, searching for the perfect land.
He was drawn out of his thoughts when she leaped lightly into the wagon, hands busy and voice muttering. She always spoke to herself when she cooked, spoke or sang things to keep her mind occupied and her hands on autopilot. Tonight would be a simple meal, unleavened bread with dried meat and fruit, and simple mead from a bottle she had gotten in a town a while back, cut with water to lower the effects. The cups and plates, given to her by her parents long ago, were all part of the Old Life and the New Life. She had only taken what they could carry in the wagon, leaving behind memories and love and things she would have taken had they the room, but decided against at the last minute. The heavy crockery and cookware was all she had taken, although she refused to part with the tea set and heirloom silver that went with it. He had laughingly agreed, and she would often look at it when she thought he wasn't looking, remembering her family and loved ones with a smile.
She mourned them, as he did his, but neither let it control them. Their fingers brushed as she handed him a plate of food, and he nodded at her as he took his seat at the table inside. Little touches like that, harmless things that meant the world to one so used to physical contact, were just something he did to make her transition easier. The need for tactile comfort was an often silently-acknowledged trait shared between them, both for comfort and reassurance. She was dependent upon him in many ways, as a brother, protector, father and friend, but he was just as dependent upon her in the same way. She was a sister, a defender, mother and attendant, always bustling about with a cheerful smile and a giggle that kept them going.
After dinner, she hummed lightly as she prepared the wagon for sleep, and he built up the fire in the middle of the camp. They still had a bit to go til they reached their destination; they returning from their friend up North, a lovely girl who understood them more than they realized and welcomed them with open arms and a wide smile. They had left her home with their cupboards full of travel food and fresh water and wine, and a bit of tobacco for the girl's pipe, and a promise to write once they reached their destination. The girl had fallen in love with the broad landscapes up North, in love with the rolling hills and the green trees and the bitingly cold and free wind, unencumbered by buildings or ruins.
They had promised to return later, perhaps once they had gotten tired of the road and the hardships that accompanied it, but until then they refused to leave the path.
Picking up a slender stick, he stuck it in the fire til it had a nice flame going. He handed it to her with a grin and she smiled back, pulling out her pipe and tamping some tobacco into it.
"How'd you know?"
"It's after dinner." He shrugged.
"Fair enough." She nodded.
Later on, they sat around the fire, the girl reclining on her elbows with her pipe clenched in her teeth, the man sitting on the step to the wagon, strumming his guitar.
"Penny?" she offered, staring at the sky.
"Just thinkin' 'bout what's gunna happen when we pick him up." He shrugged, his fingers plucking a intelligible melody. "Things are gunna change, ya know?"
"I'd imagine so." She answered with a grin, puffing out a mangled attempt at a smoke ring. It always turned out like a weird shaped cloud, but she never stopped trying anyway. "We'll have another hand to help out, and maybe help bard for supper."
He chuckled. "You're so young sometimes still."
"It's amazing. You're soft, and no matter what, you retain it all."
"Course I do. It's in my blood to be soft, we can't all be bricks of Scot." She joked, turning her head to the side and giving him a smirk.
"Never lose that softness."
"I dun intend to." She shrugged, laying back on the grass. "I need to stay soft. If I let it strip it away... then I'll lose who I am. I can't let that happen, I won't."
Chuckling at her again, he began playing a light tune, one the girl recognized and began to hum along to. They usually spent nights this way, whenever they stopped for a bit. He'd play and sing and she'd sing and dance and they'd both laugh, and one would go to sleep and the other would stay up to keep watch. They'd swap in a few hours, juggling shifts until the morning light, when they would move on with their creaking wagon and shuffling footsteps and whispered conversations.
Really, words were unnecessary between them. Looks and quirks of the head, slight motions of the hand and smiles were all that were needed to communicate. Only when the need for noise or conversation arose did they really speak, but they didn't mind it so much.
"What d'ya think it'll be like, once we reach him?" she whispered, eyes wide as she watched the stars. "D'ya think he'll be happy with us?"
"Dunno." He shrugged, continuing to play. "We'll have to see, won't we?"
The girl didn't answer, softly singing the chorus to the song he was gently strumming into the night instead. He wasn't upset; the question was rhetorical and they both didn't want to think of it.
He was a brother they had both claimed, but the girl wasn't as close. She had accepted that, many years ago, and embraced it now. She was different, she reflected, watching the fire crack and pop and send embers into the sky. She wasn't so needy, so whiny. She still laughed, and was still "soft" as her brother had deemed her, but she was no longer just soft. Her steel had come out and would often encase her, hiding the softness behind deadened eyes and thinned lips, calloused hands and a lack of fear doing what her gaze could not.
She had a bad feeling about this stop. Neither trusted their brother's chosen mate. They couldn't help it, but something set both of them off, the girl even more so than the man. Even now, she shivered lightly at the thought of the other woman, a woman with eyes and energy that were like brittle crushed glass. She lightly ran her fingers over the pipe in her lips; a lovingly-made gift from the man a few months ago. It was one of her favorites and she made certain to tell him so. It calmed her at times, when the feel of the knife in her boot and the one at her waist did not.
She hated carrying guns, for she was not a killer. She defended herself when needed, but she preferred to sing and cook for their keep, even selling bits and pieces she had made on the road. However, at night she would keep the shotgun across her lap as she kept watch, her oft-unlit pipe clenched between her teeth as she hummed to keep the ghosts at bay. Mara, as her old love would have said, keep the mara at bay.
"Mine turn for watch tonight." She murmured to him, standing and brushing her skirts off. "Tuck in for a bit."
The look in his eyes made her glance away, staring at the fire again. "You're haunted again."
"It'll pass." She shrugged. "Give me the gun and get to bed."
"You can't keep doing this, you know." He grumbled, running a hand tiredly through his hair. "You'll get sick-"
"I know!" she snapped harshly; her eyes softened immediately after. "I know." She repeated. "I just... it's close. A storm's building and it needs to break."
"I know." He replied with a smirk. "Why d'ya think I chose that song tonight?"
"Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes, for to save her shoes from gravel." She answered, a slight smile on her face. "And I sing bonny boys, bonny mad boys..."
"Indeed." He nodded. "Don't wear yourself out, Maudlin."
"Don't worry, Mad Tom." She shot back teasingly, climbing up into the wagon seat almost effortlessly. With a quick lift she was on top of the roof, one leg bent and one hanging off the side. He silently handed her the gun, and she nodded as he went inside the wagon.
She wasn't lying when she told him of the storm, a warning of the most cryptic kind that only they understood, and him usually with the help of vague hints from her. She couldn't help what she spoke in her... fits, and he knew it well enough. Usually he would offer her a cup of hot water with mint leaves dropped in, a weak attempt at the tea he knew would calm her nerves and one she appreciated all the more when she was disturbed.
Sitting on the roof, she watched the sky above. A yellowish sickle moon hung over the horizon, and she slipped her fingers beneath her blouse's neckline to feel the comforting weight of a small leather bag. Inside, nestled between the folds of worn deerskin, rattled little stones and trinkets given to her by her precious people, before the Old World ended. The bag was her protection against the ghosts that haunted her nightly, against the terrors that sought her attention and demanded their due.
Sighing, she squeezed the bag lightly before returning it to it's place, under her blouse and between her breasts. It would protect her during the night, as her brother protected her during the day, but she still worried.
Things never came easy to those on the path of the Saiorse Clan.