Aethelstan lay on the floor of the cave, coughing. He was all but certain he could feel the dust leaking out his mouth and nostrils with each cough. And as awful as that sensation was, it was still preferable to thinking about the ache in his arms. And his legs. And his back. And his neck. And…
Actually, the parts of him that weren’t aching would probably be a shorter list.
The Graharz glanced at his brother. “Would you like a drink?”
Aethelstan waited to catch his breath before turning to the Graharz. “So… I could… cough it out again?” He shook his head.
“Well, you have to get a drink eventually,” noted the Graharz.
“Yes,” muttered Aethelstan. “But I want it… when I can swallow…” He took a deep breath. “All right. I think… I think I’ve gotten… most of it out of me…” He raised a hand. “That drink?”
The Graharz pressed the small skin into his brother’s hands. “I’m wondering how you’re going to get through the next day of this.”
“A simple question,” said Aethelstan, finishing the drink. “I won’t. Just add my corpse to your load for extra weight.”
The Graharz stared at him, for a moment. “I believe they’d catch that,” he said at last.
Aethelstan managed to prop his aching, bruised body up against the cave wall, and regarded the Graharz for a long time. Then he started to laugh. “And now--now you go and remind me why it is I followed you out to all this in the first place.”
“I thought it was because you thought we’d win,” noted the Graharz.
“Solid defeats for the Northern League over nearly a decade, and you thought I saw victory around the corner,” laughed Aethelstan. “No, no, I was just being kind to you, brother. I knew we were fucked.”
The Graharz blinked. “Well, you could have told me that,” he said.
“And you’d have had the Band return home?” asked Aethelstan. His brother grimaced at that. “Thought so,” said Aethelstan. “Not that I blame you. Sutekh truly is an evil shit, who needs to be fought.”
“Lady guide our hands,” said the Graharz.
Aethelstan performed an Obeisant Gesticulation, then shut his eyes. “Especially… this latest bit of craziness. As the other option is working to death here. Something that one day’s mining has made intolerable to me.”
“Not just you,” said the Graharz smiling. “I’ve half a mind to just take up a cudgel, and lay into the guards until they cut me down.”
Aethelstan nodded. “A plan I can endorse. Why aren’t we doing it?”
“Because as you said,” replied the Graharz calmly, “King Sutekh is an evil shit who needs to be fought. Something we will have a hard time doing if we die in that manner.”
Aethelstan cracked his eyes open, and stared at his brother for awhile. “I hate it when your madness makes perfect sense on review. Did you know that?”
“I’ve guessed as much,” replied the Graharz.