Another day had passed, and they had just had dinner, which, this time, had been prepared by Natta.
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.
That said, he had something more important to do today.
He had to gain help.
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.
And so, as Natta cooked, he went to Gian and Rocco’s tent.
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.
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.
As he observed them, Nico had come to a halt.
He stood there, staring at them with his mouth slightly agape, entranced by the sight.
He wished he could be like them.
To have someone forever by his side…
“Hey” he softly called, not referring or being heard by anyone.
He closed his mouth and no other words came out.
He bit his lips and, slowly, his body started to tremble slightly.
Oh no, this was no good. He came there for a reason, right? What was he doing?
Nico gulped down and took a step further.
It seemed like a place where he could not enter.
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.
“H-hello” he stuttered as he timidly raised his hand as some sort of greeting.
“Oh, Nico. Hello,” Gian turned his upper body towards Nico and greeted him. “You came here to see Rocco?”
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?
“Nico? Did something happen?” Gian stood up and approached him, putting his hand over Nico’s shoulder. “Are you ok?”
Nico took a deep breath, trying to calm himself down, and then answered.
“...Yeah, I’m ok.”
“Good. So, did something happen?”
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?
No, he had to do it.
“Gray… he’s… not very well...” he murmured, trying to not look directly at Gian.
“So the problem is with Gray?” Gian asked worriedly.
‘By the way, didn’t some guy who supposedly couldn’t stop coughing die a few days ago? I heard a story like this.’
A few weeks ago, that’s what he had heard Gian say.
At first, he ignored it, but now...
Now, this weighed his mind.
“Yesterday he just collapsed on the ground as we walked… We put him on the cart and I and Natta pulled it together.”
“And then what?”
“How is he now?”
“...He’s very weak, and can’t walk well, but he is awake.”
Once Nico said this, a great sense of relief passed through Gian’s face, who then, more calmly, addressed Nico again.
“That’s great. But you won’t last much without help, right? Did you already talk to the Shepherd?”
Nico pursed his lips and stayed silent, not saying anything.
“...That’s enough of an answer,” Gian sighed. “You should go see him, you know?”
“...I guess so....”
“So what’s the problem? Go there, fast.”
What’s the problem?
“I don’t know if I want to see him…” Nico murmured.
Because he will try to confront me.
No… I had already made up my mind, didn't I?
I should go see him.
“...Bring me to the Shepherd.”
Gian continued looking at him for a moment and sighed. He didn’t expect this change of heart at all.
“Okay. Let’s go.”
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.
It would be good if at least this continued the same, forever, he thought.
He was tired of sudden changes.
He turned back and went together with Gian towards the Shepherd.
“So, what brings you here, Gian?”
The one who asked that question was the Shepherd, who had the usual wide smile which characterized him on his face.
“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.
The Shepherd was the most important person in the Flock, how could Gian talk so calmly with him?
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.
But he was sure he was on his bad side, though.
“Ill? Huh, I see… has he been coughing a lot or what?”
“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.”
Nico answered instead of Gian, trying to say everything quickly, eye to eye with him, without much hesitation.
He hoped that this way things would be easier.
“I see…” the Shepherd started to say. “Well…”
But interrupted himself.
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.
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.
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.
“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…”
“Problems?” asked Gian.
“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.”
“…That’s unfortunate,” Gian said in resignation.
“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.
“Ah” Gian muttered.
“…You know, what? Wait a little bit.”
The Shepherd walked away and exchanged a few words with a guy, who soon came back carrying a bag.
“Take this, Gian. I wish I could give you more but, as I said, we aren’t in the best situation right now.”
“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?”
“I don’t think so. You two are free to go.”
Gian started to turn and walk away, but then he noticed something.
Nico wasn’t at his side.
“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?”
Nico nodded, and set his mouth slightly agape for a moment before saying.
“Will he… will he get worse?”
His voice trembled slightly, and hot, anxious breath was coming out of his mouth.
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.
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.
“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...”
To return to what is right…
To give up on such blasphemy…
The Shepherd pulled away from him, and continued.
“...Then, things will be okay.”
“...Really?” he murmured, with a weak, fragile voice of something that could break at any moment.
The Shepherd extended his hand to Nico’s right one.
“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.”
The Shepherd started to pull the ring out of his hand.
Wasn’t this what plagued his life so much since that day?
And when things were going well, it all fell apart thanks to him denying the truth.
Should he just let go?
Slowly, the ring slided down it’s index finger, until it would, eventually, get out of it.
“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…”
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.
“...I see” the Shepherd let out a disappointed sigh. “Well, bye I guess.”
Without returning the ‘bye’, Nico turned and started to walk away behind Gian.
Should he have done this? Or should he have stopped the Shepherd sooner, and say the truth?
Why did he hesitate to not let him take out the ring from his finger?
Was he doubting himself?
That moment, when he was facing that shadow.
Back then, he was so sure of what he was saying. What had changed in such a small amount of time?
Or maybe, he was like this since before.
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?
Something, something was very off with this.
No, something always was very off with this.
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?
It was considered possible to see one in specific rituals, like the one at the funeral, but talking to them in his dreams…
This was something only the Shepherd should be able to do.
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.
And so, alone, he ate his soup. It was already long cold, and the taste wasn’t anything to talk home about.
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.
It felt like he was the only one there, all alone, without anybody.
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...
It was a depressing sight.