Everyone stops and tents now begin to be pitched, it's time to rest.
The loud sound of conversations superposed to the noise of the wind, which had already come back by that point, and who filled the small town of tents in the middle of the empty and desolate land. The tempting smell of food being cooked carried away by the wind. The ashes of the fires, to which everything will one day return and will be the only traces that, one day, somebody was there in this lost land.
All of this is what Nico saw and felt when he finally encountered the Flock.
He had to join them, now that, by some miracle, he had managed to return.
“Hey!” He shouted with all the strength in his lungs.
But he was tired. He had walked for a long time without stopping, trying to catch up with them. He was tired, hungry, thirsty...
Things started to get blurry, but he could see that something was coming closer.
Someone shouts something, but he couldn’t hear exactly what it was. Then, more and more trembling shapes appear, getting closer and closer...
Suddenly he feels the cold ground in his skin and his eyes close, welcoming the darkness.
The top of a dark green canvas tent occupied his vision, what sounded like murmurs entered his ears, and a great smell of something cooking came into his nose.
He realized he was lying down on something and tried to get up and look around, but to no avail, he just fell back into the bedroll and made a lot of noise.
Anyway, because of that, now two people were approaching him.
“Are you awake?” A young woman came to his side and asked, she seemed concerned.
“…What?“ He answered, confused and tired.
Hearing his answer, she seemed relieved and quickly proceeded to explain the situation:
“You came here from who knows where and passed out. What exactly were you doing?“ The woman said as she helped him sit up. “Also, where are your parents?”
She was answered with only silence. Wrinkles of concern were forming on her face.
At that moment, Nico heard another voice:
“Hey, kid, what's your name?“ A middle aged man, with a whitish hair and an austere face, but which was still showing concern, who was on the opposite side of the woman asked him.
“Nico? This name seems familiar. Who are your parents?”
“...Theo and Hilda.“ Nico said as he looked away, turning his eyes towards the corner of the tent.
“Theo and Hilda? …Wait...“ An expression of surprise and terror took over his face “…They didn't come back yesterday, right? Kid, if you came back, where are they?”
His eyes looked desperate, but Nico was silent.
“…Where are your parents?“ With a shaky voice, he asked again.
Nico said nothing. At least not with words, but sometimes silence is worth a thousand of them.
All of the three stayed still, in this very uncomfortable silence, until Nico said something:
“A big and strong man, with a weird, brownish skin who was with me... Where is he?“ He said as his gaze returned to the man, while he bent forward in anticipation for the answer.
The man turned to his daughter, and the two looked at each other with visible confusion.
“What are you talking about?“ He said worriedly.“ There wasn’t anybody with you.
A great fear overcame Nico. What did he mean by there was no one with him? That couldn't be possible.
“He was the one who helped me get here. He definitely was there with me.”
“No one saw a person accompanying you when you arrived. You were alone.”
“…What do you mean…“ He started to tremble slightly, and his hands gripped the blanket “I wasn’t alone… he was there! Right there! I swear!”
“…As I said, when you got here, you were alone.”
“No, I wasn't! I wasn’t! I wasn't!“ Nico interrupted and began to shout, trembling more and more.
But if he really was… No, he shouldn’t think like that… after all it was a thought which he was scared of even completing.
“Nico, think about it. No one…” The man started to say in a calming voice and then interrupted himself, hesitating. It seemed like he didn’t want to say this at all “…no one went to find you and your parents. How could there be someone there? Not only that, but I’ve never seen or heard of a man with brownish skin... You don’t need to be so worried about this. You did something truly incredible you know? It’s really difficult for a kid like you to make its way back into the Flock, most people would be dead by now if they were in your shoes.” While he said all of this, it was possible to see the sadness in his eyes, but he didn’t stop maintaining eye contact for not even a second.
Even after the man finished, Nico continued silent, with his face contorted and tears forming in his eyes. A million different thoughts were dashing through his confused mind. When was the last time he saw the man? In fact, was seeing him even proof? He was in a very bad state during his walk back into the Flock, could it all have been a hallucination? No, maybe it was something entirely different, maybe it was all something his mind came up with after he fainted using the memories from before, which were all mixed up and confusing since he collapsed. After all, he wasn’t even able to remember what happened after he supposedly discovered in which direction he should go
With time, one by one, these thoughts disappeared, and only one thing was left in Nico's mind. Fear. Nico now realized that with all he said to him and did on that day, even in this short amount of time, that mysterious man had become extremely important to him, for he was the one who said he could continue going forward, the one who said he could move on. If he wasn’t real, Nico feared that then this would also be a lie.
But, suddenly, one thought crossed his mind. If the man wasn't real, there wouldn't be a ring on his fingers. So if he could confirm that there was one...
He raised his hand and there was the ring.
“Here! The ring he gave me! Do you believe me now?“ He showed it to them both, with his eyes beaming with hope.
“Are you sure about this?“ The middle aged man ignored the question and said, clearly doubting the boy's words.
“Yes, I am!”
“And do you know how to use a ring?”
“Of course I do!”
“Then why do you have it on your finger?”
“Because he said that's how you wear it.“ he answered and crossed his arms, annoyed by the questionnaire.
“I have never heard of anyone wearing rings on their fingers.”
“That's just because you don't know him!“ Nico said and then turned his face to the side while pouting. With the kid this irritated, the man realized they weren’t going anywhere with this.
“Okay, okay, okay. Calm down. What was his name?”
“His name...“ Nico paused, his eyes opening wide and then shifting to the side“ What was his name again... “I- I don't know… I don’t know his name.” He mumbled, embarrassed with the fact that he wasn’t able to give a proper answer after acting like this.
Hearing this, the man gave a short sigh and continued:
“All right. Then we'll look for this man who came to help you and wears rings on his fingers. Okay?”
“...He also talks in a strange way, and I’m not sure if he uses a ring himself…“ Nico said softly, without having the courage to look directly at the man.
The man sighed again and continued:
“You can stay with us for today. Later we will take you to the Shepherd to see what we’re going to do with you.“ He was about to get up and leave when he remembered something: “My name is Gray, and this beauty is my daughter, Natta. Anyway, you must be hungry and thirsty, dinner will be ready soon. Okay?”
The two left, while Nico continued lying there.
“I am worried about the boy, this whole situation seems to be making him imagine things.“ As his daughter came outside of the tent, Gray said while looking at the Sky, his hands in his pockets because of the cold.
“But are you sure he isn’t right and telling the truth? It seems difficult to me that a child could come back to the Flock alone like this. If he didn't have anyone's help, he would probably be dead by now too.“ She said from behind him.
“I really meant what I said before, Natta.“ He said and then, after a short pause added softly, murmuring to himself“ And that's why he really is the son of Theo and Hilda.
“That's hard to swallow, but ok.“ she said and sighed“ Anyway, what are we going to do with the boy?
“What do you mean what are we going to do about the boy? I already told you what we are going to do with him. Let's take him to the Shepherd and see what we can do.“ He answered, turning himself towards her.
“Oh yes, everybody would love to take care of an 11-year-old orphan. What could possibly go wrong?“ She left a sigh and then continued “I knew you were retarded, but not that much.
“In that case we'll take care of him.“ He said and broke eye contact, looking to the ground to her side.
“Dad! We can't do this! You're getting old and I'm single in my late twenties. Just the two of us can't take care of a third person“ She clenched her fist and said, indignantly.
“I’ll find a way.“ He replied, still avoiding eye contact with her.
“You're not normally like this.“ She said, taking steps towards him while pressing him with an accusing glare. “What happened? You felt guilty of what you did and decided to improve your attitude now? You don’t have the right to do this. You make me sick.“ She said and then went back inside the tent, shutting down their conversation.
“I have my reasons, Natta“ He mumbled, all of this while turning his head to the opposite side from where his daughter was.
Once again inside the tent, Natta took care of Nico. She seemed very irritated, and refused to look him in the face.
When he finally managed to get up, the three of them proceeded to have their meal.
They sat in a circle around a brazier, each holding a small bowl of soup. Besides the three, on the opposite side of Nico, between Gray and Natta, another portion was left as a sacrifice to Ahura Mazda, the god of family and meals. They all ate silently, with Gray acting resignedly while his daughter looked at both him and Nico with a look of disgust and anger.
Of the three, Nico was the last to finish, even though, in hunger, he tried to eat as quickly as possible. The reason for that was that he had received a larger portion in account of the time he had gone without eating, as well as having passed out not long ago. Because of that, when he finished, apart from what had been dedicated to Ahura Mazda, there was nothing left. But in reverence to the deity, he kept quiet. It could be said that, because of his loss, his respect towards family was greater than ever.
After eating, everyone went to sleep. Lying on his bedroll stretched out on the floor, a series of memories passed through his mind: Him playing catch with the other children on top of a hill; Him sleeping together with his parents because of the ever present cold; His father telling him about his amazing achievements in the past while they were eating...
While he slept, covered by his blanket, which he held tightly in a fetal position, one could see the contorted face and hear the tearful sobs coming from this child.