The Long Retreat No. 33

Sif watched him sneakily. Weariness showed in his face. He looked like a rope pulled almost to breaking. She wondered if she looked the same. Suddenly, it hit her: of all the people in the world, she knew nobody as well as these three, who were almost strangers. Her thoughts turned somewhere dark and dangerous—yesterday, the stench of the monsters, and of blood, the screams of her friends covered by the guttural roars of the ontr—the feel of her heart pounding in her chest. No, she thought. Not now. They had too far still to go for her to fall apart now. She listened to her heart beat, and willed it slower with a few deep breaths. Nobody seemed to notice. She hoped it stayed that way.

Hrothgar watched Alfhilde out of the corner of his eye. She was bearing the hardship well. Ahead, the diviner absentmindedly stepped over a hole in the road. The man was effective, Hrothgar would grudgingly admit, but his cavalier air drove Hrothgar mad. Lives were at stake, and Falthejn Arnarsson saw it as a chance to play games and show off. Worse, Alfhilde seemed not to notice—she put more stock in the diviner’s words than his own. Hrothgar frowned. Something would have to change.

It did not escape Alfhilde’s notice. She knew Hrothgar better than he thought, and perhaps better than he knew himself. He would be feeling useless, cut out of the decision-making, with few skills he could bring forward. He was, at his heart, a man of action, and not content to run in a herd. She wished she could say something, but she could think of nothing he would have the ears to hear. She only hoped he could keep himself from doing anything rash.

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