A heavy, fatigued breath echoed in Nico’s ears, as if he was watching someone run an entire marathon, while he sat beside the lying figure, both only illuminated inside the dark tent by the small candle he held in his hand.
He touched the small piece of wet cloth on Gray’s forehead, it was already warm. Maybe it was already time to switch to the other one.
“Oh, so it’s already time,” Gray murmured, as Nico took the cloth from his forehead, soaked another one in water and put it in its place.
Besides nodding discreetly, Nico didn’t say anything in return, only continuing what he was doing.
His eyes didn’t leave Gray for a split second, but his mind was wandering through far away thoughts.
This had been the norm for some days now. He would do everything in his new routine in a way that at the same time seemed like his mind was paying attention to something else, and seemed to have extreme care put into it.
But for a moment, this changed.
His eyes changed, seeming more vivid, and he assumed a posture that seemed like he had something to do. It was as if he had found a solution to a difficult problem.
In any way though, did he have a happy expression.
“Hey Gray“ he called softly.
“Tell me… How my father was?”
This question caught Gray off guard, and his, even if lethargic, body, soon showed an expression of surprise in its face.
“…What do you mean?” he asked slowly. “You lived for 11 years with him… Cough cough …how am I supposed to answer this?” he said with his rough and weak voice.
“Just ignore this fact and tell me.”
Gray’s marked and exhausted eyes, which seemed to belong to someone 10 years older than his actual age, sent Nico a weird look.
But he answered anyway.
“Theo… how can I begin to describe him?” he muttered. “He was very kind, brave, and he would do what no one else would. If something needed to be done, he would be the first to step in…”
As he spoke about Theo, his voice seemed to gain some vigour again. It was as if this topic opened the way for some kind of remaining strength hidden within him.
“He wouldn’t ever let someone who was passing through difficult times alone, and would always do his best to help them, no matter who they were or what they had done to him. He would do everything that was in his reach, and even what was beyond it sometimes, so everyone could lead a better life… He was very selfless, and also humble, he followed the same rules as everyone and listened to other people’s opinions, even if he probably was much more important than them…” he said and was interrupted by his own coughs.
“…Water” he said, as he extended his trembling hand to Nico.
“Here” Nico said and gave him a canteen full of water, which he immediately brought to his mouth and drank from.
Gray thanked him and continued.
“Well… He also was some sort of leader. People would always follow him, and ask him for guidance… He didn’t like this very much, and would always say we should ‘make our own decisions and do what we think is right’, but nonetheless, he would tell us what he thought we should do… he would never draw a line where we would have to do things by ourselves, he was too kind to do this… In the end, to us the truth was what he said it was, we would blindly follow him. Although to be fair, nearly he really was correct…”
Gradually, Gray’s voice became quieter and quieter, and his face, which previously expressed passion and admiration, now had a hint of guilt in it.
“Maybe you could say the one problem he had was being too forgiving… No matter how much one disappointed him, he would never give up on them, always giving a second chance. It’s almost like he was some sort of a kind, all forgiving god.”
Before finishing, he left out one last murmur.
“…Not that this did anything bad for him, but it might have caused some trouble for others.”
And so, Gray finally went silent.
“Someone who always did what needed to be done, huh…”
In other words, someone who wouldn’t let himself be too caught up in his dreams to do anything.
“Who listened to other people and followed the same rules as them…”
So, someone who wouldn’t ever commit blasphemy.
“And who was very selfless…”
That is, someone very different from him.
“I see… Thanks for the answer.”
Gray didn’t look at him, only nodding in return.
One, two, three… and four.
Three weeks after the announcement of the Shepherd, this was the number of sick people Nico could count in his sight. Ones were better than others, while some might be soon on the verge of death. All had someone helping, taking care of them, be it only one person, or a full family of 4.
Just like the Shepherd had said, more and more people were getting ill, and the word plague was on everyone’s mouths.
Everyone acted slow, lethargic under the invisible weights of their unanswered questions upon their shoulders. Adding to this, several of them were skinnier than ever, be it because they were ill and weak, be it because putting food on the table was harder than ever when you also have to take care of someone, or when this someone was responsible for the sustenance of the family.
Gradually though, something brung the people out of this weird, desperate lethargy, and they started to turn and look at one same direction.
From where he was, Nico couldn’t see what they were looking at, but this didn’t stop him from hearing it.
It was loud and daring, there was no way it could not bring attention upon itself. Provocative, but also giving voice to what some thought needed to be said. Noisy, but also giving an opportunity to what many thought needed to be heard.
“Everyone!” he shouted.
“The times are rough,” he affirmed.
“But, this is exactly why we need to pay attention to this, why this shall not continue, why this is more important than ever,” he claimed.
Powerful as a thunder, the imposing voice of a man rang across the whole area, echoing in everyone’s ears, and accompanying it, was the sound of dozens of steps. It was from the crowd who followed him, and occasionally shouted together with him.
“With each day that passes, more and more people fall victim to their wrongdoings. With each day that passes, the gods' image of us is tarnished. With each day that passes, the wicked bring disgrace upon us! Their sinful acts, blasphemous beliefs, their nefarious minds, bring both the ire of the gods and the curses they beset upon us!”
Accompanying this short speech, a loud, collective “Hooray!” could be heard, and as the mob approached, Nico’s trembling hands quickly closed the door of the tent, locking himself inside it.
He took a deep breath, and looked at what was in front of him. A dark, illuminated only by a single candle at the corner, inside of a tent. At the more illuminated corner, was Gray, who laid asleep on top of his bedroll, and at the opposite one, was Natta, who sat with her knees up holding in her hand an empty bottle of alcohol.
He avoided continuing to look at her, and directed his gaze at the ground in front of him.
“Did you hear this?” he asked.
As far as he could remember, this was the first time he ever tried to initiate an actual conversation with her.
“Yeah, I did.”
“Do you think they will do something?”
She raised her head and looked at him. Her eyes, dark as always, mixed with the shadows, barely visible to an observer, and her dark hair almost disappeared within the badly illuminated corner.
“…Maybe, I don’t know.”
“Huh… Well, Natta, do you think that when we do something bad, something bad happens to us in return? As if there was some sort of cosmic force determining that stuff.”
Before answering, she made a pause.
“Some time ago I would certainly have said yes, but now I don’t know very well… though the answer still is probably the same. But I never thought about it in the same sense as these guys.”
Nico turned his head and finally looked directly at her. For a moment, he had his mouth slightly agape, but soon he let out a small, short sigh and closed it.
“You know, I didn’t expect you to answer me, at least not seriously or without trying to insult me somehow.”
“…Uhum” she murmured, as if she was nodding for some reason.
“So…” he said as he stood up and opened the door slightly ajar, checking if the mob had walked away, “you approach it in a more personal way? Instead of something that affects the collective, like these guys think?”
“…I guess you could say so.”
“Then… does this have anything to do with why you hate me?”
“…Maybe,” she answered, without bothering to continue staring at him now that he wasn’t looking.
“This didn’t sound very convincing, but I guess it’s enough.”
“Stop complaining. I just don’t know if you did anything especially bad before knowing me, ok? Or do just plain, direct cause and consequence work too?” she yelled in retort.
Not before, but after.
He didn’t reply, and just changed topics to something else.
“You know, we might have to sell your liquor, or reduce our meals significantly, unless you don’t want to eat anything for a few days.”
“Well, unfortunately for you I already drank it all.”
“…Really?” Nico sighed.
“Yeah. Got a problem?”
“Do I really need to say?”
“I don’t give a fuck though, reduce our meals or whatever, I don’t care.”
“Honestly, you’re such a bother…”
“If you’re so stressed with this, then why don’t you just give up?”
“Give up on what?”
“On taking care of this family, just let us starve to death or whatever. It would also be great if you joined us in this too.”
Now, this was too much.
This, this was something he wouldn’t permit to happen, or to even be considered.
After all, it was his responsibility, his duty, his fault.
Not only this, in fact, all of this situation.
All of it.
“You’re reminding me of things I would rather forget. So, stop.”
After saying this, she went totally silent, shutting him down completely.
He was left there, staring at her, but also without saying a word anymore.
Looking at her, her dark eyes, which seemed like life was being taken out of them, her dark hair which faded seamlessly into the background, and her cramped posture, it now seemed like she could just disappear at any moment, and no one would take notice.
So, she thought that it did happen, but didn’t think that it had much to do with this plague.
She was half right, and half wrong.
He still wasn’t sure which half was which though, but it seemed like at each moment, he was getting closer to a conclusion.
Funnily enough, not even now he would be the only one punished. He was pretty sure he was basically the only one who fitted their description, so he knew they would also come after many unrelated people for the most menial reasons.
What would his father do in his place?
He didn’t know, he was not him.