Chapter 19 (Part One) - To Nord or Not?

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I knew my decision, but I couldn't go back yet and face Eluena and Mindy after what Mindy had said. Just thinking of her comment made my cheeks go hot.

Tobin and I had spent the next hour foraging, and I had set a few snares. Tonight and tomorrow morning I'd check them. Maybe we would have fresh meat for dinner.

We worked in a silent comfort before heading back, though he kept his distance. Eluena and Mindy were inside the mine when we returned. They were sitting. Eluena was combing through Mindy's riotous curls about to braid it. Eluena's hair looked freshly done.

The mine was noticeably cooler than out on the ridge top with a hint of moisture coming up from the depths. It felt delightful after working in the scorching sun for the past hour. I gulped down some water before sitting on the gravel floor by them, readying myself.

This conversation was not something I wanted to have especially not with Mindy. I only hoped Eluena would come with Tobin and me, but if she didn't, at least I knew I wasn't alone anymore.

Tobin took the foraged food I had wrapped in a cloth and went towards his pack to find more canisters. Squatting by his equipment, he motioned for me to go ahead.

They knew what this conversation would be, so I made no effort to break the ice. "I'm going with Tobin to Nord," I said, watching for Eluena's reaction.

Mindy snorted. "Of course you are," she drawled.

I had known some comment like that would come out of Mindy and had steeled myself, but my body rebelled with a tingle that crept along my neck and into my cheeks. I stole a glance towards Tobin who was either truly oblivious to our conversation or was acting like it as he set out all our food.

Eluena gave a quick yank on the braid she had just begun on Mindy's hair causing Mindy to suck in a sharp breath of air. Mindy turned and glared at Eluena, reaching up to rub where the braid gathered, and Eluena just gave her one of those 'just shut up' looks, arching her brow.

Then Eluena focused her attention on me. "And?" She gave a short nod of her head towards Tobin.

My gaze darted over to Tobin again. He was still packing food. For a moment, I was conflicted. Telling them what goes on in Shasta felt like a betrayal of him, but he hadn't asked me not to say anything. I hoped they didn't hold what Shasta does against him. Yet, at the same time, they had to know. Eluena was my best friend, and Mindy was... well, Mindy was from home. As much as I couldn't stand her, she was one of the very few things I had left from there.

I cleared my throat, and Tobin glanced up at me with a quick nod and upturning of his lips before going back to work. "You wanted to know what was worse: drought or our people as payment." I shifted, fiddling with my water bottle before continuing. "Our Offerings become slaves there, and many are forced to breed." I pressed my lips together, ready for the onslaught.

Eluena and Mindy only stared blankly at me, tinged with confusion like I had spoken another language. The only noise in the mine was Tobin rustling around, and he soon stopped, looking over at me with one eyebrow quirked up.

"Ah, did you guys hear me?"

Eluena dropped Mindy's braid and scooted around from behind Mindy. "Slaves?" Her hands fell into her lap, looking off into the distance outside the mine before refocusing on me. "That is worse than a drought."

Mindy remained silent, but she drew her knees up in front of her chest and wrapped her arms around them.

I briefed them on the details of what Tobin had told me happened to the Offerings before I said, "I have to stop the payment. We leave tomorrow morning. Are you two with me or not?"

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