Benton – An Unsteady Heart
The natural light affronted Benton’s eyes then. He’d been trapped inside the dungeon for so long that he had forgotten what sunlight, even fading as it was on the horizon, could look like.
Stepping into the forest clearing, the knight found even the feeling of soft earth beneath him quite strange. After all, one step back, he was on the roughhewn stone of a place that clung to him with fiendish claws, along with a strange assortment of companions that he’d made during his ordeal—including a version of one of his regular traveling companions. That one, though, was from another world entirely.
Benton looked back, wondering if he made the right choice. A normal life could never be lived in the dungeon, surely, but at least there, he wasn’t living with a secret, and his heart ached to know that he left something sure and real behind.
The way back was gone to him, though. A sound that reminded him of a powerful gust of wind echoed in his ear, the only sign that something unnatural truly happened to him. As swiftly and unexpectedly as the dungeon entrance seemed to appear, the portal that took him home had disappeared.
He stood there for a time, knowing, believing without a second doubt, that he had been whisked away to some unfamiliar place. Even then, however, he could feel the strangeness of it all. It was real, but it was so distant and strange that it almost felt dreamlike.
Well, more a nightmare, he thought.
Although there was one thing that made the experience one worth remembering.
He turned about again, toward where he remembered his camp being. Though he was certain that he had spent days, possibly even a fortnight in the dungeon, he somehow knew that nothing had changed since he’d left. The distant voices of his companions—mirthful and not worried—confirmed his suspicions.
A few moments later, he stood at the perimeter of the clearing, where Pomir, Ste’Narl, and Fe’Pavi sat around a crackling fire, laughing about their latest quest. No one seemed to put any great significance on Benton’s return.
He hummed to himself, realizing that they never realized he had left. To them, it had not yet been an hour since he had gone.
“Ah, there he is,” Ste’Narl, his orc friend finally said. “The fire is still strong, but…” His words trailed off, and he arched an eyebrow when he took a better look at the knight. “I don’t see any tinder or sticks we could use to keep this going much longer, though it doesn’t look like it’s for a lack of trying.”
Benton looked down and noticed how dirtied his once-pristine armor was. The knights of Gardone, from which he’d received much of his training, were known for their meticulous upkeep. Though he no longer served with the order, he often kept to their habits. After his journey through the dungeon though, he was simply happy not to be in tatters.
“Well,” Pomir, the kobold of the group, said, slapping his legs before he labored to his feet, “I suppose that means it’s time for us to see if we can scrounge something better up. Maybe I can find us a few hares or a grouse. You’ve got the easy job, Sten. All you have to do is show back up with more wood than our mighty knight over there did.”
The orc parted his lips to protest, but Pomir insisted with a hardy punch to Ste’Narl’s shoulder. That silenced him, and the pair walked the opposite way into the woods, leaving Benton with the last member of their group, Fe’Pavi.
He swallowed away his tension then, for the kaja was not even looking in his direction. She alternated between sharpening her dagger and ensuring the rope holding her bola together was tight and sturdy.
“Are you doing all right, Fee?” he asked.
“Hmm?” she asked, looking over her shoulder.
Benton realized that it was the first time that she had looked in his direction since he returned to camp. “Nothing. Don’t worry about it.” He rubbed the back of his neck then, bringing his lower jaw forward before he clenched his teeth together. He blew out a sigh and drew closer to his companion, looking down to her. “I guess I haven’t been gone too long. It sure feels like it was a lot longer though.”
“You’re just tired,” she replied. She stopped, and took a better look at the man, tilting her head somewhat. “You look different today, Benton.”
He had just been through a tremendous ordeal, he thought, and he’d come out having shown off his heroics. Perhaps some of that was shining through.
“Are those bags under your eyes?” she teased. “Perhaps that’s why you’re becoming forgetful, and things feel like they’re taking longer than they should.”
Benton nodded. “Maybe you’re right. I’ll likely just get my bedroll prepared and lay down for a rest.”
She sprang to her feet, twirling her dagger in her hand before she slid it into the sheath on her belt. Fe’Pavi dusted off her hands then and looked about in the trees. “I’ll see if I can’t scrounge up something that will help you sleep tonight.”
“No,” Benton said. “Just…just stay here.”
“What?” she wondered. “Is everything okay?” She drew a little closer and looked at him, her gaze meeting his.
As she drew close, Benton was reminded of the truth he was able to share with the Fe’Pavi of the other world who he’d met in the dungeon. It was easier to reveal his feelings for someone he knew he would never see again. And she had made her emotions a bit more accessible.
He realized that his Fe’Pavi had never quite done such a thing, and decided that his feelings were unrequited in his own world. Benton cleared his throat and shook his head. “It’s nothing. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t make you feel like you need to look after me.”
“Nonsense,” she said. “It’s the least I can do.”
As she took her leave, the knight bowed his head, ashamed that he could not tell her his desires. With his eyes averted as they were, he didn’t catch sight of Fe’Pavi as she stole a fleeting glance in his direction.
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