In all the time that he’s been alive - all 73 years, if his count is correct - Nicolo has never experienced weather quite like this. It’s not only hot - it’s stifling, the kind of heat that makes it hard to breathe and even harder to move. The sun is pelting down on his back, burning through his tunic, and it’s been several days since he’s been able to find any sort of shade.
If he was on his own, this would be hell. If it was just him and Yusuf, it would be manageable. But it’s him and Yusuf and about fifteen other people, mostly young women and a few children including a baby boy who can’t be older than a few months. And they’re all relying on him and Yusuf to get them home safely.
It’s a lot of pressure, but there’s no way they’re letting anyone die out here. Not after everything they’ve been through.
He and Yusuf had come across a bandit camp several days ago and discovered the women and children in two small, cramped cages. They’d been starving and thirsty, the women raped and children abused, and it had been going on for weeks. Each of them had been taken from their beds or attacked on the road which ran from the local town. The children weren’t the targets it seemed but added extras, taken along with their mothers.
Nicolo had seen the condition of the prisoners and the shared look of terror, and he’d snapped. The bandits barely had time to draw their own weapons before he was on them, cutting them down like they were nothing and not even waiting to make sure his blow was a killing one. He moved so quickly and with so much rage that Yusuf barely had to lift his own sword, only pausing to finish off a couple of bandits who weren’t dying quickly enough. Nicolo was briefly terrified of what he’d done, but as he opened the cages to free the women and children, all of the regret he’d felt was gone.
Even taking the prisoners needed no discussion, barely even a thought - they were alone and vulnerable, injured and afraid, and there was no way that Nicolo and Yusuf were abandoning them in the wilderness.
The women and children have been nothing but gracious. They thank the two of them every morning and night, their voices soft and gentle. Of the eleven women, four of them haven’t spoken a single word. They’re all young but several are even younger, and they’re the ones who’ve been hit hardest by this trauma. They flinch when someone touches them and cry themselves to sleep, curled up in tiny balls so as to protect themselves from harm. One of them has a child she can’t bear to look at and the girl, barely four years old, doesn’t understand why.
“She is just afraid,” Nicolo tries to tell her one day, but that only raises more questions.
Yusuf lets her ride on his shoulders all day long, lets her twist his curls around her tiny little fingers and makes sure to tuck her in with the other children at night, all of them wrapped in his cloak. Nicolo has seen him around children before but his heart aches as he watches this man try and help these children keep as much of their joy and innocence as is possible after so much cruelty.
As for Nicolo, he tries his best to ensure that everyone is as healthy as they can be. He’s dressed wounds on the women and children, passed out rations of food and even handed around his own waterskin when the group begins to tire. He doesn’t need the water, he tells himself. Thirst is an obstacle for him and a death sentence for them. Sacrificing his own needs for theirs requires no second thoughts.
A few days into their week-long walk, Yusuf notices what he’s doing. He doesn’t mention it, he can’t - they’ve not had a single moment to themselves and talking about how they cannot die from thirst in front of the group doesn’t seem like a sensible idea - but Nicolo sees the mix of sadness and pride in his expression.
When Nicolo’s skin runs dry, Yusuf passes his own around instead. He’s been saving it.
And the lack of water is starting to get to both of them. Yusuf is tiring much quicker than usual and seems to stagger a little under the slight weight of the girl on his shoulders. Nicolo has been hearing and seeing things which are not there. Demons who whisper in his ear, angels who call him a traitor to his people. He’s seen flashes of movement in the distance, shadows moving so quickly that they can’t be human. It’s because of the heat and the thirst and the fact that he hasn’t slept because he’s been so busy keeping watch - Yusuf hasn’t mentioned it, but he’s so tired every night that Nicolo cannot imagine asking him to stay awake.
This is what Nicolo can do to help, and he’ll do it in a heartbeat.
Except today nothing feels right. He’s been watching Yusuf all morning and the man’s steps are unsteady at best. The women have been sending him nervous looks all morning and even the little girl who’s grown so fond of him isn’t on his shoulders but is instead walking alongside him with her tiny fingers wrapped around his. She keeps sending him nervous looks that make Nicolo’s heart ache. Yusuf doesn’t seem to notice their concern, but then he’s stumbled so many times already that he’s clearly not aware of much.
“Yusuf, do you want to take a break?” Nicolo asks softly as he helps Yusuf back to his feet after the third fall of the day. He can feel how dry Yusuf’s skin is, can feel the light tremor which wracks his frame.
But Yusuf shakes his head as he turns to look at Nicolo - or he tries to, but his eyes don’t seem to want to focus on anything. “We’re almost to the town. Then we can rest. We just have to save them first. Please let us save them,” he mumbles, except half his words are slurred together and he’s almost incomprehensible.
Nicolo frowns but nods. “Alright,” he says. Yusuf is a stubborn man and he’ll keep going until he drops.
And he does drop, about an hour later. He pauses midstep and looks around himself, eyes wide and frightened as if he doesn’t know where he is. His eyes lock with Nicolo’s for a moment and there’s no sign of recognition. There’s only fear. And then they roll back into his head. He falls heavily, narrowly avoiding crushing the girl under his weight.
“Yusuf!” Nicolo cries and hurries to his side. Or he tries to anyway, only to be hit by a sudden wave of dizziness. His hand flies to his head and he squeezes his eyes shut. No, not now. Not yet. He needs to get Yusuf on his feet, needs one of them awake to watch out for the group.
He takes one step towards Yusuf and his knees buckle.
Someone cries out as he hits the ground, but by that point he’s already well into oblivion.
There’s hands all over him, hands pulling him upright, hands on his back and chest and face. Hands forcing his dry lips to part and pouring a slow trickle of water into his mouth. He wants to tell them to stop, that they need the water more than he does, but he doesn’t even have the strength to open his eyes let alone fight the many people holding onto him.
But his face must show at least a little of his distress because suddenly there’s a hand brushing his hair from his forehead, and a voice from above him says, “Please, you have both earned a rest. You saved us, now it is our turn to help you.”
If there was any water left in his body, Nicolo is sure that he would be weeping at the kindness of these people, these former prisoners who have experienced such cruelty and should be cold and jaded in response. Their kindness is nothing short of a miracle. It’s more than most people would show.