(1 of 1. Originally posted on November 18, 2022 for the prompt “Feast or Famine.”)
The searing pain pulsed all the way down Luke’s right leg, confirming the diagnosis even before he lifted his pant leg to peek at the spidery black veins of corruption. Two days, max. Based on the dozens of cases he’d witnessed at home, the last few hours would be…unpleasant.
“We’re close now, Luke,” James didn’t turn to face his brother as he spoke. He focused on smothering the fire and rolling up bedding with an intensity that looked a lot like anger. “We have three days of food left. If we find the cure today, that’s plenty to get us home. But even if it takes until tomorrow we can make it work.”
“Nobody finds the woodfolk if they don’t want to be found,” Luke’s heart felt full and broken at the same time. His brother couldn’t even look at a sick person, but he’d taken the last of the food and set out into the wilds chasing a legend, on the slim chance he might find a cure. “Some who looked never came back. And even if we find them, they may not have a cure. Maybe they’re just naturally immune…”
“James. I may not have two days…” Luke trailed off when his brother held up their travel packs. The food pack had been ripped open during the night, and left empty. He almost didn’t recognize his brother’s face. James the encourager, the embodiment of hope, for the first time in his life looked hopeless.
“I can’t go back. Not without a cure. Not without you. I can’t go back and just watch people die.” James dropped the ruined pack and picked up his bedding in slow motion, with no trace of his earlier frantic energy. His words came out firm, but his face didn’t believe them. “We find the cure, today. We have to.”
Luke pulled himself to his feet, biting back a whimper. He limped after his brother between the trees, pushing himself through the day. A few hours before sunset his strength gave out, and he collapsed. “I’m sorry, James. This is as far as I can go. It’s time to—what is that?”
James followed his gaze to a fist-sized yellow-orange lump half hidden in the brush. He picked it up and smelled it. “It’s some kind of fruit. One I’ve never seen. It smells good.” He handed it to Luke. “You should eat it. It can’t make things worse, and maybe it will help.”
The sweet tangy fragrance made Luke’s stomach rumble. He had it halfway to his mouth before his brain registered the action and stopped him. “I can’t eat this. We’re in woodfolk lands, for sure. Everything here is theirs. I won’t eat their food without permission. Bring me mom’s Gifting Bowl.”
James shook his head and sighed, but he dug through their remaining pack. He pulled out a small, simple, wooden bowl covered in stylized nature paintings. He held it out to Luke. “Are you sure? What if this fruit is the cure?”
Luke nodded and held out his hand. He took the bowl, set the fruit in it, and placed it on the ground as far away from himself as he could reach. Then he watched his brother build a fire and lay out bedding. They didn’t talk that night. They just looked at each other across the fire until they fell asleep.
The pain woke him at dawn. Both legs burned, with threads of fire weaving up into his belly and lower ribs. He looked for the Gifting Bowl first. It was still where he’d left it, but empty. A cry of surprise pulled his attention back toward James.
His brother stood staring down at a pile of flatbread. More than they could eat in a month. It looked rich, lumpy with nuts and whole grains and other unknown things. Two large waterskins lay next to the bread. James picked up a piece of the bread and held it out to Luke, eyes wide. “Will you eat this? I think they mean for us to.”
Luke didn’t trust himself to speak through the pain, but he took the bread and tried a nibble. An hour and several swigs of water later, he finished that piece. Hunger sated, comfortable for the first time in weeks, Luke laid back and closed his eyes.
His eyes popped open. Comfortable. The pain had dwindled to a mild prickle. Even as he thought about it, it faded to a memory.
“James…?” Luke pushed his blanket aside and stood. He couldn’t find the words he wanted, so he used the words he could find. “Let’s go home.”