"Do you think we'll find other people tomorrow?"
"I don't see why we won't. There has to be some farmland around here..."
Lorenzo raised his head to look at the tavern-keeper couple while the fire continued to crackle and warm everyone present. He'd learned that their names were Ignazio and Costanza, the knowledge of which allowed him to sympathize with them now that they were travelling together.
Business had been terrible for the husband and wife as a result of a guest succumbing to the plague on their premises. The event was still shocking to Lorenzo despite a fortnight having passed, for he had been one of the last people to speak to Calogero when the young man was still alive and well.
"You were good company that night. Wherever you are now, I hope you're at peace..."
A rustling nearby prompted Lorenzo to glance again at Alessia, the young woman whom had so far been reluctant to talk about her past circumstances. He had a strong suspicion that she must have been a prostitute and the plain, low-cut dress she wore seemed to be strong evidence of it.
She glared at him defensively and he quickly tried to assuage her fears.
"Hey, don't give me that look. You're not my kind of girl anyway..."
Her expression only grew more intense.
"You say that now, but you're going to want a woman's touch sooner or later. You'll be a threat to me then."
Lorenzo decided not to say anymore out of fear of arousing her anger. He turned to look at the fifth person in their party, an old man called Nunzio whom hadn't been without his Jew's harp since they'd left Messina.
Nunzio placed the instrument to his lips and just like back in the tavern, the loud and jaunty twanging helped distract them from their troubles for a while.
A day without anything to drink was taking it's toll on Lorenzo. He found himself feeling dizzy and unwilling to continue walking, while Nunzio and Alessia struggled to keep up.
An earlier argument between Ignazio and Costanza had left them both in angry silence. The tension frustrated him and he began to grasp his dagger tightly.
He entertained himself with the notion of killing the married couple and getting away with it, before some words from Nunzio served to ground him in reality again.
"Carusu..." The old man said almost pleadingly, nudging Lorenzo in the back and using the nickname that he found rather belittling. "Slow down for us please..."
"I thought I told you to stop calling me that..." Lorenzo replied in exasperation. "Do I look like a young boy to you?"
"Yes, you do." Nunzio answered without any hesitation.
"You're a senile old man."
"That I am..."
They did not speak with each other again until Ignazio spotted an orange grove in the distance. The subsequent excitement was enough to motivate them to quicken their pace, so that they could finally get relief.
Two oranges were picked and shared among them. The flesh of the fruit was almost unbearably bitter, but the juice was enough to quench their thirst.
It was only after they all smiled numbly at each other that Costanza said something that gave them all hope.
"These trees couldn't have grown this way on their own. There must be others living nearby."
Their hopes diminished a little when they traveled a further to find that the surrounding crops were quite clearly overgrown and neglected, signalling that whomever had planted them was no longer around to manage things.
It was the stench of decaying flesh when they reached the abandoned house that truly confirmed suspicions. The source of the putrid smell came from an unfinished grave behind the house that contained the bodies of a woman and two young children.
"God have mercy..." Ignazio whispered in horror while crossing himself.
Alessia whimpered at the sight and reached out to grasp Lorenzo's wrist in an attempt to find comfort. He felt her fingers gripping his skin and wasn't sure what to make of it after she'd previously been so wary of his presence.
"I don't want to end up like that..." She muttered quietly.
"You won't. You're with us..." He tried to reassure, though his words did not seem to have much effect. She lowered her head in grief as tears began to roll down her face.
"It's no use..."
"What do you mean?"
She let go of him and stepped back to distance herself from the group. Her sobs were heard by the other three and they turned around to face her in confusion.
"What's going on with her?" Nunzio spoke up in concern.
"I-I'm sorry!" Alessia suddenly screamed, causing them to all quiver.
She extended one arm and pulled up her sleeve to reveal a few dark buboes festering on her skin, before falling to her knees.
"This...this is my punishment for being a whore..." She explained shakily while averting her eyes from Lorenzo and the others' horrified faces. "If you have any mercy at all, take my life now so I don't have to suffer..."
The hopelessness in her voice was enough for Lorenzo to consider fulfilling her wish and he reached for his dagger, before having second thoughts. Killing another person, even out of mercy, was a heinous sin that could bring damnation to one's soul.
Lorenzo had already committed the crime of stealing from his former mentor and the thought of what lay in Hell terrified him. He wasn't ready to take such a risk and instead let his hand drop back down to his side.
"You...you know I can't..." He replied, glancing back at the rest of the group for solace.
"He's right. To do so would only make him a murderer..." Nunzio voiced in agreement despite such words being the last thing Alessia wished to hear at this time.
The old man then turned to grab Lorenzo by the arm and make eye contact.
"Leave her be, Carusu. There's still hope for us."
"Yes, sir..." Lorenzo agreed despite the feeling of guilt growing rapidly in his heart. He looked toward Alessia one last time in pity, only to find that there was now nothing but emptiness in her eyes. "I'm sorry..."
"Remember me, please..." She murmured before burying her face in her hands and beginning to tremble all over.