It wasn't that he was disliked. They still talked to him. It was just that no one was supposed to talk about what was on everyone's mind. Him having been the one to spread the news of what Captain Bron had commanded meant that they made sure to follow the orders in his presence.
Rud got up and stretched.
"What're you doin'?" Erwin, who sat on the log next to him, looked up.
"Going for a walk. Not in the mood for stew."
"'Tis better than army rations. When's last time you ate somethin' good?"
"Don't know, but I'm just not hungry at the moment."
Rud waved to the lads and they grunted their goodbyes. Now that he was gone they might start talking in hushed tones, but Captain Bron couldn't expect him to always be there to put a stop to such things. He had more important things to do.
He headed off towards camp, but as soon as he was out of sight he swerved toward the mountain side. It was going to be a long run, but he'd get to the spring and back before morning.
He had lied to Erwin. He was hungry, but not for food. He hadn't wanted food, water or even ale ever since he took that sip from the spring. All he wanted now was more.
He had waited a night and a day since Swindon's injury and he could wait no longer. His clothing was drenched in sweat from running, but he was in good shape and kept going. There was no need for breaks, he kept breathing strong. At this pace he would make it there a lot faster than expected.
Three fresh graves marked the spot of the secret entry to the path. Rud came to a halt, not even needing to catch his breath. The rest of the path should be followed at a slower pace. There were many rocks and pebbles that could make you lose your footing, but Rud had no time to spare. He ran through the narrow canyon that wound through the mountains to the cave.
His knuckles and knees were bruised from slipping several times, but he barely felt it. Once he had taken another sip from the spring the wounds would heal instantly. He entered the cave and expected to be dazzled by the springs eerie light, but instead he was surprised to see a torch and three of his comrades sprawling near the edge of the lake.
Recognizing the bald patch on the side of Swindon's head, he dashed over to help. With Swindon were two young brothers, Podd and Adam. All three were lying on the ground, wincing in pain with every shallow breath they took. Their faces pale, eyes unable to focus on Rud as he inspected them. Only Swindon saw him and began to mouth something.
"What happened to you?" Rud brought his ear close to Swindon's dry lips. His breath was fowl as it wheezed from his lungs.
"Drank... from... lake."
Rud understood immediately. They hadn't taken the small boat to get water from the spring. They all drank from the edge of the lake. The effects were obviously quite different from those of the spring itself.
"Don't worry. The spring water will help. It must."
Rud got up, took every man's water flask, emptied them and then dragged the small boat that Captain Bron had left behind into the water. It wasn't going to be easy maneuvering the thing on his own, but he felt strong. Each stroke of the paddles brought him closer to the spring.
What if the spring could not help them? The three graves in front of the mountains slipped into his thoughts, a shiver running up his spine. It had to help. It was water sent straight from the Gods. If it could not save them, nothing would.
The trickle grew louder behind his back and he knew that he was almost there. He stopped rowing and turned to see the boat slide through the dark waters of the lake into the crystalline clear blue of the spring.
He held up each flask, one at a time, to fill them all to the brim. The leak between the planks was worse than on his last trip, the bottom of the boat slowly filling with more and more water. It was time to get back to shore. He turned the boat around and started to slowly feel the strength leech from his arms. The black water splashed onto his scraped knees and the abrasions on his hands. Rud started to wonder if he would make it back to shore.
In an act of desperation he grabbed one of the flasks and took a quick swig. The sensation of power returned and the slight wounds he had suffered closed up. The black water no longer mixed with his blood, allowing him to row on in full strength.
With a thud the boat reached the shore. Quickly jumping out of the boat, Rud ran to his fallen comrades. Adam was no longer breathing, while Podd's struggled breathes sounded like a death rattle. Swindon was the only one who had managed to bring himself into a sitting position, but his breathing wasn't much better than Podd's.
Rud gave Podd the first sip and jumped over to Swindon. They both regained their color and breathed with renewed strength almost in an instant. After that he tried dribbling some water down Adam's throat, but no matter how much he hoped for it to help, the boy was dead.