“For the record,” Jo said, barely wheezing because he was a fit bastard, “I’m blaming you for this.”
Linke didn’t answer that, just concentrated on pumping his legs and not losing the bundle on his back. The drizzle that hadn’t existed ten minutes ago was rapidly becoming hard rain and turning the ground into a muddy, icy mire was determined to see him not succeed.
“To be fair,” Jan piped up, “you agreed to come with us.”
“I didn’t think we’d be going around antagonizing people!”
“You should ask next time.”
Linke did pause then to give Jan a low five. Jo looked pissed, but Linke was starting to think that was his default mood. He smirked at him.
“Hey, isn’t that the guy we saved?” Frank called out. He and the two women were at the front because, wouldn’t you know, the old ladies were way more in shape than the average cultural anthropologist. It was a mind-blowing revelation.
Assuming Frank had not presently lost his mind, Linke looked. To his astonishment, it was the very same man. He was standing on the bank on the opposite side of the river gesticulating madly, almost certainly to get their attention. Linke hoped it wasn’t to tell them they were being followed, because, yeah, they were aware of that.
“…it is. Why’s he waving at us?”
“Probably because he wants us to follow him, Fabi.” Ooh, Jo was a snarky older brother. Linke hedged from “face looking that way” to “being in an almost perpetual state of snark”. Man needed to get laid.
Which might have been the problem. Linke needed to stop thinking. It was a curse, his brain.
“There’s a bridge up ahead we could cross.”
“Fabi, we have eyes. And that is not a bridge. It’s a bunch of rocks and wood.”
That was an adequate description…if you were blind. Clearly there was a stone foundation on either side of the river, lifting wooden pilings lashed together about a meter off the water. It wasn’t the Si-o-se Pol or the Rialto Bridge, but it was undeniably a bridge.
“It’s off the water, isn’t it?” Fabi shot back. “If you wanna jump in the river, you do that. I’m taking the bridge.”
“Since you put it so sweetly…”
Linke pretended not to see the cool glare Jo shot his way.
“That is not a bridge. It’s a bunch of rocks and wood.”
The tone in Jo’s voice sent warnings of danger, danger, danger all through Fabi’s head. It was beyond bitchy, beyond tired, even beyond stressed. This was the voice that meant someone was hurt, and Jo was panicking. It sounded bitchy and snappish to everyone else, but, to Fabi, it meant someone was hurt and it wasn’t Jo. Jo would say if he was hurt or needed a break. He wouldn’t use the voice.
Fabi looked down. There was the off chance he was hurt and didn’t realize it, but, nope, it wasn’t him. He was fine.
His eyes scanned over the rest of their group, dismissing most of them immediately. They’d patched Juri up. Some blood had seeped through his clothes. Fabi didn’t know if that was from before or not. Juri seemed fine. Jan was slowing down and breathing hard, but more in a “I’m a lazy bum who” than actual distress.
So it was Mäx. Mäx was hurt, and Jo didn’t want anyone else to find out. The voice had betrayed him. Fabi looked Mäx up and down. He looked okay, which almost certainly wasn’t a good sign.
This was so very bad.
They crossed the unsteady bridge under the urging of the man whose life they had saved. The stone foundation on the north side was clearly in decay, the primitive mortar crumbling into dust in several places. It held under their weight. The only real danger was the lack of railings or anything else to stop one of them from toppling into the clear water below.
Jo had wanted to wade through the water instead, prompting Linke to toss a smooth rock into the river, where they could watch it sink quickly to the bottom. Although imprecise, the measurement had made one thing clear: the water was deep, well above waist height. They would have to take the bridge or risk getting caught in the current.
The man met them on the other side, flicking his wrist in an invitation to follow him. They only had to travel a little ways before they came upon a structure resembling a yurt, only hexagonal.
“You are safe here. They won’t dare cross river,” the man said via Ivgalrea. “Utmoak would kill them instantly.”
“Then why is there a bridge?” Jo asked. Ivgalrea translated for the man.
He made a gesture similar to a shrug. “Long time ago, Utmoak and Kumjenak were friends. Now, not so much.”
A woman stepped out of the yurt, looking with surprise at the mass of strangely dressed men in her front yard.
“This Uunuun,” the man said. “My wife. And I am Taaq.”
Jan wasn’t trying to be nosy, he wasn’t, but Jo and Mäx were acting weird. This was not new as they were varying stages of weird every second of every day, especially in light of the memories Jan had of them, but it was highly noticeable.
Well, it was mostly noticeable because Linke was in a snippy mood and they’d all told Juri to lie down because he’d just gotten fucking stabbed, and Frank and Fabi were being friendly, which meant Ivga was being a translator. Jan wasn’t so comfortable around these new people just yet, so he was kind of watching from his own corner and focusing on the weirdo show.
And, okay, maybe that sounded a bit mean, but Jo and Mäx had their own secret language going on, one that involved no talking, just looking at each other. Jan had noticed that earlier, but he’d thought maybe Mäx had this whole whipped thing going on, but Fabi said he just didn’t like to talk to outsiders too much. Jan wasn’t sure how that worked out with being an ethnomusicologist, but he himself was sitting in a corner of a hexagonal structure in the middle of a heretofore unknown island with no real interest in getting to know the locals. So maybe he could get where Mäx was coming from a little. But, they still acted weird in a suspicious sense; the things they were doing not matching up right with how normal people acted.
Right now, they were sitting at the back of Uunuun’s home. Jo had stripped Mäx of his coat, which wasn’t weird by itself, and was once again lifting the right side of his shirt and pursing his lips at whatever he saw underneath.
Jan fidgeted. He didn’t want to interfere.
But Mäx might be injured and, clearly, neither he nor Jo had enough medical training to do anything about it- not that Jan was anywhere near a medical doctor or anything- or they would have.
“Hi,” Jan said.
“Can we help you?” Jo sniped.
“Can I see? I’m First Aid certified,” he said, gesturing vaguely at Mäx, who was breathing shallowly. It looked like he was in pain. Jo’s nostrils flared for a second before Mäx touched his arm and he relaxed again.
“Yeah, sure,” he said, Mäx making an affronted sound at being talked around. Jo gave him a level look.
Jan pushed Mäx’s shirt up, careful not to actually touch him in case he was dripping infected fluids or anything like that. He winced when he saw the massive bruise spread across Mäx’s ribs.
“What happened?” he asked.
“He got hit,” Jo answered curtly.
"Okay. Can you take a deep breath for me?” Jan leaned in close to listen for the crackling sound that indicated a broken rib.
Mäx did. There was no crackling sound, which was definitely a good thing.
“Does it hurt?”
Jan got a nod in answer.
“Have you been coughing blood? Getting dizzy? Vomiting?”
Mäx shook his head. Jo looked annoyed, not that he didn’t have reason to be, just that it was making Jan feel bad, all that bad feeling being put on him. It was probably stress or fear, not any real dislike of him. It had nothing to do with how long they had been apart or that Jan had gotten along really well with Fabi but not his brother, or- holy crap, was Jan older than both of them? It didn’t seem that way, and it probably wasn’t any great difference in age but it might explain why Jo was acting like Jan was responsible for this.
“So, did he break a rib or not?” Jo asked testily. Jan blinked and dropped the pebble he’d been fiddling with (and where had he gotten that from?).
“I don’t think so. It’s probably an incomplete fracture, a crack in the bone but not all the way through. I’ll see if Chris has any pain meds. You should take a deep breath every hour to make sure, um, you still can.” Jan was not really sure why Mäx should do that, just that he should.
He scrambled up before Jo could say anything more to go look through Linke’s and Frank’s packs. Aspirin or ibuprofen would work, if, uh, Mäx wasn’t allergic to them.
Also, when the hell had he become a doctor?
“Taaq has bartered with Lachik for passage to city,” Ivgalrea announced while they were eating yet another meal of canned vegetables and ravioli. Whoever had decided on the canned food for their trip must have had an obsession with ravioli. At least fifty percent of the cans Linke had been hauling around had been the nasty, fake pasta. That or Frank liked it, chosen it, and was simply waiting for the rest of them to get sick of it so he could have the rest to himself.
At least Uunuun and Taaq had skins they could cook the food in, which was better than Jan’s rather disastrous solution of peeling the labels and shoving open cans wholesale into the fire. So now they got to eat their ravioli and mushy peas hot. Because that was so much better.
“Lachik?” Frank asked. Linke didn’t even bother to be amazed: chances were Frank had already forgotten.
“They were docked nearby. Taaq went and bartered. Reward for saving his life. We go to them, and they take us to city.”
“Good. We’ll finally get there.”
“How far away are they?” Jo asked.
“Not very far.”
Ivgalrea’s “not very far” was, naturally, six kilometers away. This, naturally, took them an excessively long time to get to. But the Lachik were there, as was their boat, a scow with noticeably short masts, and that was something.
There were no questions asked, all of them too weary to do more than climb inside the scow and be grateful to Taaq. The Lachik were quiet anyhow as they got the boat in order and pushed off.
In less than an hour, they were drifting out of the valley through a passage between two cliff walls.
“Chris,” Jan said, tugging on Linke’s sleeve to get his attention. Linke looked down. “Remember how Ivga was saying people were calling her grandmother a sorceress? I was thinking, um, well, her grandmother probably did kill all those people, only not on purpose. You know how she was saying there was a ‘big sickness’ when her grandmother first arrived?”
“I think it was an Old World sickness, like tuberculosis or syphilis, maybe even influenza. These people would have no defenses against things like that, and they started dying off. It’s happened before.”
“Why’re you telling me this?”
“Well, what if we get these people sick? The last time someone came here was almost a century ago. Think of all the diseases we have now that we didn’t have then.”
“There’s nothing we can do about it now that we’re here.”
“Um…” Jan shifted his gaze to their brown-haired, blue-eyed companion sitting just far enough away not to have overhead.
Linke wasn’t dense. He was perfectly capable of parsing indirect speech like Jan’s, especially since it was Jan’s and Jan was never too terribly direct about anything (which may or may not have something to do with perception and Linke’s own, rather forward manner of speaking). He knew what Jan meant and how he meant it.
See, Linke’s and Frank’s relationship could best be described as decisively “open”. Linke didn’t ask Frank what he did or who he did it with and Frank extended the same courtesy to him. They used protection when they engaged in high risk activities, got tested on a semi-regular basis, that sort of thing. But that was between the two of them.
Linke, honestly, had no fucking clue whether, if Frank took a comprehensive test right now, he would come out negative on all counts. He’d been negative the last time they’d been together months ago. Now? Linke didn’t know.
He was a bit concerned that Jan had guessed at all this or, worse, assumed that Frank was positive, didn’t use protection, but Linke slept with him anyway. It said a lot about the things Jan thought about.
“Yeah. You think maybe you could tell him?”
“Me? Why me?”
Jan smiled sweetly. Linke narrowed his eyes. You sleep with a guy a few times and suddenly you’re responsible for curbing his sexual appetite.
“Fine,” he said. Jan bounced away happily, probably relieved that he didn’t have to think about it anymore. Now it was Linke’s responsibility to ask Frank if he had ever had anything worse than the common cold in the last few months and would he mind not sexing up any of the locals?
Linke groaned. That was going to go over well. Frank would probably turn his sad puppy eyes on him, like why are you denying me this wonderful opportunity? And all Linke would be able to say is, sorry, Jan doesn’t trust you not to start an epidemic.
Goddamnit. No wonder people always said condoms were so important.