The bandit’s head hit the ground with an audible crack, her body going suddenly, horribly limp as Caleb rolled away from her.
He couldn’t think. Couldn’t breathe. Could feel the bile rising at the back of his throat, his stomach twisting under his ribs… but everything was being slowly eclipsed by the tension building in his chest, an iron band of pain tightening around his lungs.
Someone was saying something, blurred and far away – he tried to pay attention, but between the roaring in his ears and the blackness swallowing his vision he might as well have been trying to translate a foreign language for all the sense he got from it.
Then there was a sudden explosion of agony in his side, and something grabbing at his shoulder, and he yelled – tried to yell, would have yelled if he’d had the breath for it – and then he was upright, world spinning around him, someone’s hands digging hard into his shoulders, and he stared into a face that wasn’t a face and tried to say something but the words wouldn’t come and he couldn’t feel his lips or his ears (were you even meant to be able to feel your ears?) or the tip of his nose and the roaring in his ears was getting louder and louder, and the world seemed to be spinning away from him and everything
Caleb groaned, opening his eyes and then immediately regretting doing so as the painfully bright glittering interior of Talan’s wagon swam slowly into focus. “Nyuh.”
The apothecary’s face appeared in his field of vision, pale eyebrows drawn down into a slight frown. “How are you feeling, Caleb?”
“…Awful.” His ribs burned with every breath, and there was a dull pain throbbing behind his eyes. He’d regained feeling in his extremities, at least, but they now felt like he’d ended up with a particularly bad case of pins-and-needles, and- oh no. Oh no. “My chest-”
“I had to remove your bindings. I am sorry.” They removed their glasses for a second, rubbing their eyes. “If it is any consolation, we can find you something that will do the job without putting your ribs in as much danger of breaking.”
That… wasn’t what he’d been expecting at all. “Then- you’re not- you don’t-”
Talan gave him a tired smile, sitting back on their heels and resting their hands in their lap. “I would be a terrible hypocrite if I believed people’s bodies dictated who they were, Caleb. You were introduced to me as male, and that is what I will think of you as unless you tell me otherwise.”
“Then you’re-” He tried to think of a way to ask the question that wasn’t going to come across as incredibly rude. “-like me?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.” They frowned, turning away for a second to rummage in a small sack of clothing. “Here. Don’t put it on just yet – your ribs need time to heal – but you’re welcome to keep it. It should at least do better for you than the bandages until we can get you one that’s made for you.”
The thing they had handed him seemed to be some sort of short sleeveless undershirt, though it was made of heavy canvas and had lacing running up both sides. “What is it?”
“I’m not sure it has a name.” They paused, considering the issue. “It’s a binding-shirt, I suppose – if you tighten the laces, it should flatten in the same way that your bandages did, though with significantly less chance of causing you to pass out.”
He winced, grimacing as the realisation of exactly what had happened sank in. Of all the ways to get injured in a fight, being knocked out by your own undergarments was hardly the most heroic he could think of. “Thank you.” Then, as the memory of the rest of the fight came flooding back: “Is… is everyone else alright?”
Talan nodded. “A few cuts and scrapes, but nothing I couldn’t deal with. We were lucky.”
“And the bandits?”
“Either dead, or running.” There was a sudden hardness to their expression. “It’s unlikely they will try that particular trick again.”
He had to ask, even if it made him sound like a fool for doing so. “Did… did we have to kill them?”
Talan’s expression softened, twisting with something that looked almost like pity. “How many fights have you been in, Caleb?”
“Counting today? One.”
“I thought so.” They sighed. “We are an armed and armoured group, who can take care of ourselves. How well do you think an unarmed family would do in the same circumstance?”
“But maybe they wouldn’t kill them?” He was making excuses, and he knew it. But there had to be a way of dealing with the situation that didn’t involve –
His stomach twisted, and he slammed a hand over his mouth as the bile rose in his throat again. She’d been alive, and breathing, and… and then she hadn’t any more, and it’d been his fault, and…
“Here.” Talan slipped an empty metal bowl in front of him. “Better out than in.”
There’d not been time for breakfast. And he’d forgotten to order supper last night, which meant the only thing in his stomach had been the beer.
It didn’t taste much better on the way back up.
Talan waited until he’d finished, and then took the bowl away and patted him companionably on the back. “Don’t worry. Everyone does that after their first fight.”
It might have been a lie, but lie or no, it actually made him feel a little bit better. “Thank you.” He bit his lip, trying to find the words. “I killed someone, didn’t I?”
“I don’t know.” They frowned. “Rethan would, if it’s important to you. He’s the one who brought you to me.”
But he wasn’t sure he wanted to have that conversation with Rethan. He wasn’t sure he wanted to have it with anyone. “If I did…”
“Then you killed in self-defence.” Their frown deepened. “They would have killed you, Caleb. Alak and Kala found bodies in the woods. Travellers, with their throats slit.”
“I… I didn’t know that.” It helped. A little. “But-”
There was a slight sound outside the door of the wagon, and Talan looked up. “Hello, Tam. He’s awake.”
Copyright © 2018 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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