Chapter 12:

Once again, he feels alone

The Journey

Another day had passed, and they had just had dinner, which, this time, had been prepared by Natta.Bookmark here

This was good news, for Nico feared she would keep refusing forever, although it wasn’t like it had been easy to convince her today either. Bookmark here

That said, he had something more important to do today. Bookmark here

He had to gain help.Bookmark here

Things probably wouldn’t go very well if he were to take care of Gray alone. He knew this. So, he had to find someone to help them. Bookmark here

And so, as Natta cooked, he went to Gian and Rocco’s tent. Bookmark here

As he neared it, he saw the two, together with Rocco’s mother and sister. They were eating together, seated very closely around the brazier, whose weak fire, thanks to a lack of what to burn, only faintly illuminated them. Bookmark here

It was a closed group of five people, one at the side of the other, sharing the same heat. People who would help one another, and always be there for them.Bookmark here

As he observed them, Nico had come to a halt.Bookmark here

He stood there, staring at them with his mouth slightly agape, entranced by the sight.Bookmark here

He wished he could be like them.Bookmark here

To have someone forever by his side…Bookmark here

“Hey” he softly called, not referring or being heard by anyone.Bookmark here

He closed his mouth and no other words came out.Bookmark here

He bit his lips and, slowly, his body started to tremble slightly.Bookmark here

Oh no, this was no good. He came there for a reason, right? What was he doing?Bookmark here

Nico gulped down and took a step further.Bookmark here

It seemed like a place where he could not enter.Bookmark here

“Nico?” Bookmark here

From the five, suddenly came a voice. It was Rocco, who had raised his head and now waved at him. His eyes, which gleamed with happiness, were like a strong burning fire, and made Nico feel a little envious of him.Bookmark here

“H-hello” he stuttered as he timidly raised his hand as some sort of greeting. Bookmark here

“Oh, Nico. Hello,” Gian turned his upper body towards Nico and greeted him. “You came here to see Rocco?”Bookmark here

“N-no, I…”Bookmark here

“You?”Bookmark here

“Uh… I-I…” Bookmark here

He didn’t know what words to use, he didn’t know what to say. Was it too sudden to come here and tell them what happened just like that? Should he have done something else? Bookmark here

“Nico? Did something happen?” Gian stood up and approached him, putting his hand over Nico’s shoulder. “Are you ok?”Bookmark here

Nico took a deep breath, trying to calm himself down, and then answered.Bookmark here

“...Yeah, I’m ok.”Bookmark here

“Good. So, did something happen?”Bookmark here

Nico took a look at Gian’s members. His skinny arms and legs, and the tired look on his face. Should he really say it? Or would this only be more weight on his shoulders?Bookmark here

Bookmark here

No, he had to do it.Bookmark here

“Gray… he’s… not very well...” he murmured, trying to not look directly at Gian.Bookmark here

“So the problem is with Gray?” Gian asked worriedly.Bookmark here

“Y-yeah…”Bookmark here

“Oh no…”Bookmark here

‘By the way, didn’t some guy who supposedly couldn’t stop coughing die a few days ago? I heard a story like this.’Bookmark here

A few weeks ago, that’s what he had heard Gian say.Bookmark here

At first, he ignored it, but now...Bookmark here

Now, this weighed his mind.Bookmark here

“Yesterday he just collapsed on the ground as we walked… We put him on the cart and I and Natta pulled it together.”Bookmark here

“And then?”Bookmark here

“And then what?”Bookmark here

“How is he now?” Bookmark here

“...He’s very weak, and can’t walk well, but he is awake.”Bookmark here

Once Nico said this, a great sense of relief passed through Gian’s face, who then, more calmly, addressed Nico again.Bookmark here

“That’s great. But you won’t last much without help, right? Did you already talk to the Shepherd?”Bookmark here

Nico pursed his lips and stayed silent, not saying anything.Bookmark here

“...That’s enough of an answer,” Gian sighed. “You should go see him, you know?”Bookmark here

“...I guess so....”Bookmark here

“So what’s the problem? Go there, fast.”Bookmark here

What’s the problem?Bookmark here

“I don’t know if I want to see him…” Nico murmured.Bookmark here

“Why?”Bookmark here

“Because… because…”Bookmark here

Because he will try to confront me.Bookmark here

No… I had already made up my mind, didn't I?Bookmark here

I should go see him.Bookmark here

“...Bring me to the Shepherd.”Bookmark here

Gian continued looking at him for a moment and sighed. He didn’t expect this change of heart at all.Bookmark here

“Okay. Let’s go.”Bookmark here

Before walking away, Nico gave a last look at Rocco and wore a small, reluctant smile, which Rocco replied to with a wide and happy grin.Bookmark here

It would be good if at least this continued the same, forever, he thought. Bookmark here

He was tired of sudden changes.Bookmark here

He turned back and went together with Gian towards the Shepherd.Bookmark here

———————————————————Bookmark here

“So, what brings you here, Gian?”Bookmark here

The one who asked that question was the Shepherd, who had the usual wide smile which characterized him on his face. Bookmark here

“So, we have a problem... Gray is ill, and we need help,” Gian said, without any further ado or hesitation about talking with the Shepherd.Bookmark here

The Shepherd was the most important person in the Flock, how could Gian talk so calmly with him?Bookmark here

...No.Bookmark here

Now that he realized, but probably he was the only one who had this problem. After all, something that he had forgotten, the Shepherd was mostly a pretty nice person, provided that you don’t get on his bad side.Bookmark here

But he was sure he was on his bad side, though.Bookmark here

“Ill? Huh, I see… has he been coughing a lot or what?”Bookmark here

“He was coughing frequently before, and still does, although not so much anymore. He also has a high fever, and is always very tired and weak.”Bookmark here

Nico answered instead of Gian, trying to say everything quickly, eye to eye with him, without much hesitation.Bookmark here

He hoped that this way things would be easier.Bookmark here

“I see…” the Shepherd started to say. “Well…” Bookmark here

But interrupted himself.Bookmark here

His eyes were directed towards the ring on Nico’s right hand, and the smile on his face was starting to falter. In his face, he had a disappointed look on his face.Bookmark here

Nico immediately retracted his arm, and covered his right hand with his other one. As the Shepherd proceeded to give some advice on how to take care of Gray, his face was lowered and his gaze turned to the side.Bookmark here

Based on what the Shepherd said, they would apparently need to prepare some herbs in a special way and give them daily to him. Besides that, apparently they had to do some daily rituals to make the spirits take more care of his health.Bookmark here

“Take this,” the Shepherd said as he took a few herbs out of a box which he had taken from inside the carriage, and gave them to Nico. “In normal times, I would give you more, but we are having problems right now…”Bookmark here

“Problems?” asked Gian.Bookmark here

“The number of sick people has increased drastically. You’re not the only ones to come here with this problem. And from what you told me, it seems like Gray is infected by the very same disease as most people.”Bookmark here

“…That’s unfortunate,” Gian said in resignation. Bookmark here

“It really is… Even more so because usually it affects the weaker people, like the elderly or small children, or…” the Shepherd paused for a moment, and directed a look at Gian’s skinnier and skinnier arms and legs.Bookmark here

“Ah” Gian muttered.Bookmark here

“…You know, what? Wait a little bit.”Bookmark here

The Shepherd walked away and exchanged a few words with a guy, who soon came back carrying a bag. Bookmark here

“Take this, Gian. I wish I could give you more but, as I said, we aren’t in the best situation right now.”Bookmark here

“Don’t worry. Your help is appreciated,” Gian replied with a weak smile on his face. “...Is there something else that is important you tell us?”Bookmark here

“I don’t think so. You two are free to go.”Bookmark here

“Okay.”Bookmark here

Gian started to turn and walk away, but then he noticed something.Bookmark here

Nico wasn’t at his side.Bookmark here

“Nico?” he turned and asked. Nico was there, in front of the Shepherd, with his face slightly bowed. “Do you have something else you want to ask?”Bookmark here

Nico nodded, and set his mouth slightly agape for a moment before saying.Bookmark here

“Will he… will he get worse?”Bookmark here

His voice trembled slightly, and hot, anxious breath was coming out of his mouth. Bookmark here

As he stood there, his fist was closed, trying to grip something that was not there, and he had his eyes fixated on the ground in front of him, trying to contain himself. Bookmark here

A hand reached for the top of his head, which now touched the Shepherd’s chest, and caressed his hair. From above, a gentle voice came out.Bookmark here

“As long as the gods are with him, he shall recover... If we believe in what is right, if we stay strong, without ever doubting the truth of the gods...”Bookmark here

To return to what is right… Bookmark here

To give up on such blasphemy…Bookmark here

The Shepherd pulled away from him, and continued. Bookmark here

“...Then, things will be okay.”Bookmark here

“...Really?” he murmured, with a weak, fragile voice of something that could break at any moment.Bookmark here

“Really.”Bookmark here

The Shepherd extended his hand to Nico’s right one.Bookmark here

“You do not need this to find solace. Happiness lies within the words of the gods,” he said, as his fingers caressed the ring on Nico’s index finger. “Devious ideas bring misfortune, and we shall let go of them as soon as possible, so we can find what is good.”Bookmark here

The Shepherd started to pull the ring out of his hand.Bookmark here

Misfortune.Bookmark here

Wasn’t this what plagued his life so much since that day?Bookmark here

And when things were going well, it all fell apart thanks to him denying the truth.Bookmark here

Should he just let go?Bookmark here

Slowly, the ring slided down it’s index finger, until it would, eventually, get out of it.Bookmark here

“W-wait…” he muttered, and with his other hand, stopped the Shepherd, holding the ring on his finger. “I-I… I only use it because I liked having it on my finger… there isn’t anything else to it. Not anymore…”Bookmark here

The Shepherd distanced himself, although he didn’t seem convinced. Pity could be seen in his eyes, and the smile he had on his face had lost its shine.Bookmark here

“...I see” the Shepherd let out a disappointed sigh. “Well, bye I guess.”Bookmark here

Without returning the ‘bye’, Nico turned and started to walk away behind Gian.Bookmark here

Should he have done this? Or should he have stopped the Shepherd sooner, and say the truth?Bookmark here

Why did he hesitate to not let him take out the ring from his finger?Bookmark here

Was he doubting himself?Bookmark here

But…Bookmark here

That moment, when he was facing that shadow.Bookmark here

Back then, he was so sure of what he was saying. What had changed in such a small amount of time?Bookmark here

Or maybe, he was like this since before.Bookmark here

Wasn’t he doubting himself before he talked to the boy too?
What was different about him the moment he met the boy, the shadow, the god, or whatever it is?Bookmark here

Something, something was very off with this.Bookmark here

No, something always was very off with this. Bookmark here

He wished he could talk to someone about this, but he knew he shouldn’t. He had already walked on the line before, what if he now started saying he had met and talked to a god?Bookmark here

It was considered possible to see one in specific rituals, like the one at the funeral, but talking to them in his dreams… Bookmark here

This was something only the Shepherd should be able to do.Bookmark here

When he got back to his tent, dinner was already ready for some time, and both Gray and Natta had already eaten and were sleeping.Bookmark here

And so, alone, he ate his soup. It was already long cold, and the taste wasn’t anything to talk home about.Bookmark here

They were at the very back end of the column, so he could see all the gray hills and cliffs at the distance. Thanks to his position, near him there was near to no one up, outside their tents, doing something anymore. Bookmark here

It felt like he was the only one there, all alone, without anybody.Bookmark here

According to what he had discussed with Gian as they returned from the Shepherd, Nico, Gray and Natta would now walk together with Gian and his family. So maybe this wouldn’t be for long. But until then...Bookmark here

It was a depressing sight.Bookmark here

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