Erin looked at Owen and smiled. The setting sun’s final rays pierced through the low-lying cloud and perfectly lit his golden-brown hair into a glowing halo. He looked over at her and mirrored her smile, the creases wrinkling unevenly at his scarred cheek. He turned back to concentrate on the road and Erin absently stroked the curve of her pregnant belly, buried as it was under three layers of fur against the night’s chill.
It was hard to imagine that they had been on the road for almost nine months already without break. Then again, she mused, it wasn’t as if the Church encouraged breaks in reclamation missions for anything much. Pregnancy was a mere mis-step in the grand plan, one that would lead to the child being fostered by one of the many monasteries just like Erin and her husband had.
“Nearly there,” Owen purred in his deep south accent. Erin felt a warm little quiver run through her; even after so long, his voice touched the part of her that loved him deeply. The cart rocked underneath them, drawing them forward into night and towards their journey’s final waypoint. Ahead, at the top of the mountain path, lay Westwatch; the town was nestled in the arms of a pair of mountains and represented the highest settlement in all of Ehrian. Such was its location that it was only accessible from the Dorthian side of the mountains and their route had wended its way south through pretty much the entire country of Dorth, then west through the mountains.
The two donkeys pulling the cart would barely have been able to muster more than a walking pace anyway, but the cart was now full of books and paperwork. This was an excursion that Reclamation Teams like theirs took every few years, to further one of the Church’s aims: to try and obtain a single copy of every written materials ever created. New versions of old texts needed to be sought out; new texts, written in the time since the last team swept the country, needed to be sourced and, where necessary, copied. It was a full-time job which required dedication, patience and the ability to spend a lot of time in a pair.
“Y’know, I was thinking,” Erin said, still gently stroking her belly.
“If it’s a boy-“
Owen flashed her a grin, his teeth white in the growing darkness. “Not this one again,” he said. “I thought we’d sorted it out.”
“Well, it’s not quite time yet. There’s still some time before… before we have to choose.”
“I thought it was Erika for a girl and Thomas for a boy.” The town eased closer, lights coming on as the sun’s light faded behind the horizon.
“I was kind of thinking Trip if it was a boy.”
They rode in silence for a short while. Then, when the town’s border was almost upon them, he sighed. “Trip? Isn’t it a little… new-age?”
“I was thinking it might be a nice way to remember that I carried him for the entire journey,” Erin said, feeling a little foolish. She shrugged. “I guess we can- oh!”
Owen pulled the cart up short at the edge of town and turned, take her face into his hands. He leaned forward and kissed her lightly on each cheek and once on the nose, his beard tickling her. She flushed, the warmth of him chasing away the night’s chill.
“I think it’s a lovely idea,” he said, smiling. “But if it’s a girl, we still get my choice. Erika.”
Erin looked around the quiet street while Owen went into the nearest inn. The buildings were short, generally one storey, made of local stone and wood by the looks of things and seemed to be almost exclusively houses. A few windows had their shutters or curtains open, and just from where she was sat Erin could see several books in windows and, even as she watched, an old lady in the nearest house walked over to a laden shelf and reached up to carefully pull a dusty tome down. She looked up and noticed Erin watching. Erin smiled and waved, but the old woman scowled back and reached over to close the shutters with a slam.
Owen came out. “There’s a room, but it only has twin beds,” he said. “Do you think that will be fine?”
Erin shook her head. “I don’t know. Can you manage to not be disturbed by me getting up and down to the toilet all night?”
Owen laughed and began to lead the donkeys around to a small blank space next to the inn. He unhitched them and started to lead them around the side. “Do you think you can manage to get down by yourself?” he said over his shoulder.
Erin tutted. “You mind yourself, Owen Hazzard, and let me mind myself.” With an unladylike grunt, she slid over to the steps and climbed down from the driver’s platform.
She moved around to the back of the wagon and began tightening the fastenings on the piece of waterproof oil canvas that secured their load. Owen came back around.
“Kid in the stables charged me another ten coppers to take care of Betsy and Beth,” he said, starting to check the fastenings on the other side. “Still, he reckoned they have best-quality hay here. They import it from down on the plains, can’t grow any here, so they only bring in the best.” He dropped the fastening, patted and offered his hand to Erin.
The wagon battened down, husband and wife went arm-in-arm into the inn’s warmth.
Erin used the last of the rough mountain bread to clear the gravy from her bowl. The barman came over with fresh mugs of mead.
“Stew good?” he said, cleaning his hands on his spotless apron.
Erin nodded. “Amazing. What exactly was in it?”
He grinned. “Grandmother’s recipe. Potatoes, carrots, turnroot, a pinch of local herbs and some of the allspice that the traders bring in from time to time. A few local greens to go with it.”
She smiled. “Do you have it written down anywhere?”
The barman grinned. “You’re on a reclamation? You’re with the Church, right?”
Owen nodded. “There was one that came through here, but it was over two decades ago.” He smiled ruefully. “Based on the journey we had up here, I can’t imagine why it’s been missed for so long.”
“Wait here,” the barman said, and disappeared back into the kitchen. In a minute or two he was back, piece of paper in hand. “I remember when the last team came through; I wasn’t lettered in those days. My daughter’s influence,” he said. “Written down now, though. Guess you’re wantin’ a copy?”
“Many thanks,” Owen said, taking the paper. It was signed ‘Cory Mead’. “This you?” he asked.
“Ain’t no-one else here that can write, when my daughter’s not in town!” Mead said. “Whole town’s pretty much illiterate, but the girl wanted me to be able to write to her while she travels, and read her notes.” He shrugged. “Besides, it helps; one or two of the townsfolk have had books for a while and they don’t know what they’ve got.”
Owen grimaced. “We have no way of knowing what the last team to come through will have taken a copy of.”
“I can probably help,” Mead said. “I’ve had chance to see most of the writings here in the town, big or little.” He leaned on the table, his enormous arms bare and bunched with muscles. “Tell you what.You’re staying here tonight, right?” Owen and Erin nodded. “Well, in the mornin’ I’ll take you round each of the houses where I know there’s writings. Introduce you to some of the townsfolk.” He shook his head. “They’re a suspicious lot but they trust me. I’ll get you in, make your job a little easier.”
Owen stood up and stuck a hand out. “You’d do that?”
Mead shook his hand. “‘Course I would.” He laughed. “I’ll do anythin’ I can do to help the only guests we’ve had to the town in over a month”
Erin shifted awkwardly in her seat. Despite the cushion, the wooden bench was less than comfortable. “Business bad?”
“We’re a long way off anywhere useful here, and like I say; the townsfolk are suspicious,” Mead said. He lowered his voice. “I came to this town nigh on twenty five years ago and, well… there’s not been any movement since then. No-one in, no-one out, apart from the occasional lost person, casual visitor or reclamation team. It’s not like there’s anywhere to pass through on the way to.”
“Well, I hope it won’t be an inconvenience if we stay a few nights,” Owen said. “Maybe as much as a week.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Mead said. “See you tomorrow mornin’!”
Erin pushed her empty bowl away. “Owen, I…”
Owen met her eye. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know if it’s just emotions running wild now that the babe’s nearly here. Or whether it’s just intuition.” She lowered her voice and leaned closer to her husband. “I don’t trust this place suddenly.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Owen said, exuding confidence in every word. “We’ll get what we need and be done here in a few days, anyway. Chances are the townsfolk’ll let us take the copies of books they’ve got now, if they can’t read them.”
“That would be great,” Erin said, taking in the sight of her husband. His broad shoulders were well-defined under the shirt he wore, his roughly woven trousers hiding legs that she knew could carry him for miles if needed. They had faced dangerous situations before out on the road, and both had the scars to prove it, but the added vulnerability that had grown within her in the last months made the world seem a darker place. As the conversation of the townsfolk around her rose and fell like a gentle tide, she closed her eyes and snuggled closer to the man she loved.