It had been midday when Anala and Aro had joined them. Jules noted by the movement of the sun that about two hours had passed since then.
He rode beside Aro in somewhat companionable silence. Anala had disappeared into the wagon about an hour earlier for a nap after nearly falling off her horse with exhaustion. Aro had caught her and forced her to rest up. Jules found it amusing that Aro could command someone like Anala without a fight. I guess years of familiarity grant certain benefits.
Presently, Jules himself felt the strain of the road. He wasn’t tired by any means but they’d been riding since dawn at a rather slow pace and the lack of activity made his muscles twitch. The mail caravans rode slowly, but they rode hard, since they had to cover as much ground as possible during the few winter daylight hours. Only in summer was it safe enough to ride through the night.
Still, there were no complaints from the people about Athering’s communication system. Jules had heard that Suncoast didn’t even have the same level of literacy, let alone a public means of sending letters efficiently. He didn’t know how true that rumour was, as Ambassadors from Athering’s neighbour nations had been few and far between in court of recent years and trade had been stifled. The Embassies of Nighttide and Suncoast might as well have been abandoned buildings for all the life they showed. Jules wouldn’t be surprised if the next war erupted with either nation – or even with the Jasmine Isles, coveted for their strategic location and warm climate. The Jasmine Isles, unofficially dubbed the Pirate Isles, had won independence from their vassalhood with Suncoast a few centuries back, and now were ruled by an economic cooperative, if Jules remembered aright from his childhood history lessons. They were also a haven for fugitives and exiles from the other three nations, while they remained a neutral country in cases of wars, trade embargoes, and the like. They did little fair trade themselves, preferring their own pirate navy to raid towns and merchant ships instead. Jules supposed this industry was driven by an old grudge against their former ruling nation, which had treated them none too kindly. Or so the history books said.
He turned his thoughts back to the present when he heard his name spoken. Aro was trying to make conversation. Surprised, Jules responded with a polite “Yes?”
“It would be terribly rude of me to ride absorbed in my own thoughts and not ask how your vacation went, so at the risk of overstepping the bounds of acquaintances….”
Jules smiled and laughed. “Not at all, Aro. And I would that we could be friends, if you’re agreeable to the idea.”
Jules was gratified to note that Aro smiled in return. This was the most they’d spoken since basic training. “Seems as though the higher we get in rank, the fewer friends we have, doesn’t it?”
Jules nodded ruefully. “Some days I’d give anything to be a priva again: camaraderie, good pay, and the simplicity of just obeying orders.”
“Ah, to turn back time…it seems I have a constant headache now from the thinking I must do as second-in-command. I envy our bellicas not a bit.”
“Well-spoken, Friend,” Jules agreed. Aro easily accepted the term. “Shall I talk of my visit with my family, or would it bore you?”
“I wouldn’t be much of a friend if it did,”
Grinning, Jules related the past month of family bonding: his nephew was now walking, and a right handful; Alanea and Nathan continued to try to persuade Jules that it was time to find a wife or husband and settle down; his father’s memory was wandering to the point he’d called for Tania, not remembering she’d passed years before.
“I’m sorry,” Aro said awkwardly. Jules shook his head.
“It happens to all of us. I’m just grateful he’ll spend the rest of his life with family who love and take care of him.” Unlike me, he added to himself, bitterly.
There was a silence in which Jules brooded a bit and Aro shifted uncomfortably on his saddle, until the medic shook himself out of it. “I apologise. I haven’t had much time to adjust. What about your leave? I heard there was some indecision as to where you would go.”
“There was, at that, but Anala and I finally decided on Aeril,” said Aro, relieved to be past the awkwardness.
Jules waited, but Aro remained silent. Respecting the major’s privacy, Jules didn’t ask.
A few minutes later something occurred to him.
“Aro, if you spent your month in Aeril, how came you by the Eastwood Trail? Would it not have been faster to ride directly to Atherton?”
Aro had the look of a mouse in a corner, facing a hungry cat, as he struggled to reply.
“Well, we didn’t spend the whole month in Aeril….”
“But you came not to Atton,” Jules said.
“No. We went and stayed in the wayfarer cabin by the Lake for a bit.” Jules sensed Aro wished to leave it at that, but he couldn’t believe that Anala, reputed for her rationality, would want to go camping in the winter, even if Thaw was already upon them.
Aro sighed, looking caught. “Because Anala needed to be away from people for a while, and it’s safer by the Lake than anywhere else in the woods. Warmer, too.”
That was true enough. The Lake was fed by hot springs far to the north, and so retained a pleasant temperature year-round.
He shrugged. There was something else Aro wasn’t saying, but Jules respected his comrade too much to pry. “I can empathise. So long as you got a decent rest, then.” Aro nodded, relieved.
Jules noticed the caravan was slowing to a stop. Spotting the sun in the sky, he saw they had about an hour of daylight left. Where had the afternoon gone?
“We’re stopping to make camp?” Aro half-asked, half-stated, back to his usual stoic composure.
Jules nodded as Pazil led them to the side of the road, where a campsite was maintained specifically for the caravan’s weekly trips. Grateful for the chance to stretch, he dismounted Suki and walked her to where the other horses were tethered. Aro did the same with his horse.
The caravan’s crew quickly got to work setting up camp and building a fire. Jules stood to the side, remembering from the trip up that they neither required nor wanted help. Aro, looking as much a spare wheel as Jules felt, excused himself to go wake Anala.
Jules nodded and attended to the needs of his horse, who nuzzled him affectionately. “At least I have you, girl,” he said, and she nickered softly in response.