“Whatever you said to him must have sunk in. He hasn’t said a single word.” I didn’t think I really needed to warn Gunner to keep his temper in check. He’d been notably quiet ever since we left the old site. He was probably thinking the same thing as the rest of us. The Vendans had been caught in the crossfire of a battle that wasn’t theirs.
A shadow passed over us, and I looked up. It was Caemus. He washed up silently near us, but with a long riverbank in both directions, I knew he could have chosen a spot farther away. There was something on his mind.
He scooped up a handful of sand and rubbed it in around his fingernails, trying to scrub away the embedded dirt. “Kerry do a good job?” he finally asked.
Caemus finished his hands, scrubbed his face, then stood, wiping his hands on his trousers. He looked at me, his weathered face still shining with water.
“I didn’t know you had kin buried there.”
I was silent for a moment, old angers rising again, not feeling I had to justify any of the reasons why we wanted them off our land.
“We don’t,” I finally answered. “It’s a spot to mark where an ancestor died.” I stood so we were eye to eye. “We don’t know for sure if it even happened there, but it’s a traditional spot we’ve recognized for generations. And we Ballengers are big on tradition.”
His head cocked to the side, his chin dipping once in acknowledgement. “We have traditions too.”
I looked down at the tether of bones hanging from his belt. “That one of them?”
He nodded. “If you have a minute, I’ll tell you about them.”
I sat back on the bank and pulled Mason down beside me.
“We have a minute.”
The cook dished out hearty stew into bowls and plopped a thick slice of black rye bread on top. Jase had brought in field cooks from the Ballenger lumber camps. If you included Wren, Synové, and me, there were about an equal amount of Vendans and Ballengers. Thirty of them, thirty of us, and as each person got their dinner they filed off to sit with their own.
The Ballenger crew sat on one side of an oak, and the Vendans on the other, which prevented any conversation between them, but maybe that was the goal. This was going to be a long, dreary evening, maybe even a contentious one if someone took a sharp word too personally. A small fire burned in a ring in the center, ready to stave off darkness as dusk rolled in. There were some benches and chairs from among the Vendan belongings, but not enough for everyone, and so they perched on the sides of empty wagons or on stacked lumber as they ate their meal.
Jase was the last to arrive at the cook wagon. As he got his meal, Titus called to him, offering a seat on a crate beside him—on their side. He didn’t even look for me, and I wondered if my encounter with the dogs in the tunnel had created a permanent distance between us.
I noted that the Vendans still watched Jase closely. When we had unloaded wagons, I heard their sentiments, ranging from disbelief to continued wariness, but knew they all felt cautious gratitude. Mostly, they were still puzzled by this new development. Many eyes glistened with tears as they unloaded their goods to a designated spot beneath a strung canvas. There was no question that this was a site that held more promise than the last. One woman had openly wept, but now, as we sat eating, they kept their words quiet and emotions in check, as they had learned to do around outsiders.
But there was a curiosity, too—on both sides. I saw the glances. Even the camp cook had regar
ded them with something that wavered between worry and compassion. He was generous with their portions.
“Well, would you look at that,” Synové said. Her eyes directed us to Gunner across the way. “The nasty one keeps looking at Jurga.”
She’d been the one weeping earlier today.
“How can you be sure he’s looking at her?” I asked. There were several Vendans huddled close to her.
“Because she’s looking back.”
I watched more closely and it was true, but Jurga was careful, only looking sideways at him through lowered lashes when he looked away.
Maybe the divide wasn’t as great as I thought. If the nasty one could catch softhearted Jurga’s eye, maybe the divide only needed a little help to narrow.
“I’ll be right back,” I said. I strolled across the empty expanse, and several pairs of eyes followed me, like I was a plow churning up a furrow of soil in my wake. Gunner didn’t like me. He’d made that clear, but the feeling was mutual so I didn’t hold it against him. Once I signed the letter to the queen, my purpose was done, and I was dead to him. When I stopped in front of him, he looked at me like I was a swarm of flies blocking his view. “She won’t bite, you know? You could go over and say hello.”
“I’m just eating my dinner. Don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Your bowl is empty, Gunner. Your dinner is gone. Would it be the end of the world to get to know some of the people you’re building shelters for?”