“But Tabo, I’m ‘ungry,” Falient pleaded, reaching for a bit of the meat on his father’s makeshift plate.
“You ate earlier today,” growled Tiermond, swatting his hand away. “Some of us haven’t had anything in days.”
Falient stood next to him, looking up at him with forlorn eyes. “Tabo–” he ventured again.
“Don’t call me that!” snapped Tiermond, pushing him away. “Go on with you! You ain’t gonna starve.”
Falient surrendered and trudged away, striking off up the hillside to sit among the rocks above their camp. He drew his knees up to his chest as the wind gusted, and he imagined it rattling in his ribs. He rubbed his hands together, watching the Runners hiss at the Warmongers below, defending their own portions of the kill as the Warmongers growled and tugged at the scraps.
“You haven’t been slowing us down this week,” came a voice behind him.
Falient started and scrambled, finding Belara behind him. He hadn’t heard her approach, and decided the wind must have masked the sound of her steps– or he told himself so at any rate. The silver Runner was in her human form, clad in a straight grey dress, which was fraying at the hem and cuffs, with her shoulders wrapped in fur against the chill.
“Well done,” she continued, and tossed him a fist-sized chunk of the half-cooked meat.
Falient caught it and immediately sank his teeth in, gulping it down like an emaciated coyote. Belara stepped up beside him, glancing down at the camp for a moment, then knelt next to him as he ate, producing a long scrap of fur from their kill.
“It’s not quite finished curing yet, but I smoked it a good long while, and I figure it’s better than nothing.” She tossed it around him like a blanket.
Falient hunkered into it, hardly noticing its stench.
“You have favored me,” he said. It was the closest phrase he knew to express the gratitude he felt.
“Can’t have you starve or freeze to death,” she told him. “You might be useful when you’re bigger.”
Belara glanced at him with that look Falient liked. His favorite missions were the ones when Tiermond worked with her. She was always kinder to him than the others. Even though she always had some excuse for feeding him or keeping him warm, sometimes she looked at him in a way that was softer than the others. He had no word for it, but he liked it.
“Belara,” said the boy as he finished gulping down the meat, “Have you seen m’mother lately?”
The Runner’s pale blue eyes glanced at him, the softness gone, replaced with wariness. “Not since the summer,” she replied.
“Does she ever ask about me?”
Falient looked down at the frozen dust and pulled the fur tighter around his shoulders. “Maybe sometime you could tell her I’d like t’see her?”
“It’s not for me to ask things of Demons.” She turned her nose up as only an English Runner could do.
“But you’d only be passin’ a message along from me–”
“If Velserka wanted to see you, you’d have seen her by now,” said the Runner.
Falient fell silent, and went back to studying the pale grit under his feet. Belara glanced at him again with that softer look, and a faint frown that might have been sympathy.
“Demons don’t care about anyone,” she told him, “Not even their spawn. It’s nothing to do with you, that’s just the way they are. There is no care among the Dark.”
“But you care about me–”
“I most certainly do not,” snarled Belara. Her eyes flicked back to the camp, taking quick inventory to make sure no one had ventured within earshot. “I do what is needed to keep you alive and in relatively sound order, because my employers have a lot invested in you.”
Falient was silent for a moment, wondering if she were still sitting beside him to guard the “investment” or if it was to offer him some semblance of company.
“But I care about you,” he murmured. “And Tabo, and m’mother–”
“Never speak such words,” hissed the Runner. “Caring about anyone but yourself is a sign of the Light, and to be suspected of harboring Light feelings means death. If you want to stay alive, you’ll keep those thoughts to yourself.”
Falient bit his lip, looking down at his father, who sat near the feeble fire below.
“Is that what you do?” he asked after a moment, and looked up at her, wanting to make sure he saw her face when she answered.
“We all do what we have to in order to live,” she replied, with surprising gentleness. “Our lives are all we have.”
Falient absorbed this in silence. He watched his father finish picking over his meager meal, and wondered if Tiermond cared at all for him and just couldn’t say so. He decided that must not be so, because Tiermond only ever treated him like a nuisance. At least Belara didn’t often snap at him unless he deserved it.
“You should come back down by the fire,” the Runner told him. “You’ll freeze to death up here.” With that, she headed back down the rocky hillside, not waiting to see if the boy would follow.