Seventh Son: Chapter 18

“Kitten!” Dana’s voice, rough and tense with barely-hidden worry. “Where’d you go, little one?”

Kitten tugged at Caleb’s sleeve for a third time, putting all her strength into it and nearly pulling him off-balance. Then, once she was fully confident she had his attention, she let go and ran back around the side of the tree, bare feet kicking up puffs of white dust from the surface of the road as she went.

Caleb followed her, skirting the heavy mass of roots and earth and squeezing through the narrow gap between the end of the fallen tree and the underbrush at the side of the road. There was a particularly large root at around head-height, and he had to bend his head to duck under it, which meant that he reached the other side of the tree without actually having had much of a chance to see what was going on (and, given the tree itself was a good six foot in diameter, he’d not been able to see over it before).

Kitten’d gone ahead, and her sudden cry was the first indication he had that something was wrong. He looked up, and, at first, didn’t quite register what he was seeing.

Then Kitten cried out again, an odd, broken sort of sound, and suddenly the picture before him started to make a horrible kind of sense.

Rethan was sitting with his back against the tree, both hands pressed to his stomach where something dark and metallic glinted wickedly in the dappled sunlight filtering through the canopy. Dana was on her knees next to him – she’d half-turned when Kitten had cried out, and now she held the girl tightly in her arms, the muscles in her shoulders tensing as she kept the child from throwing herself bodily at her father. She was talking quietly, her voice oddly sing-song and musical, and it took Caleb longer that it should have done to realise that she was speaking the same language he’d heard Rethan using earlier, though her words seemed slower and more stilted than the quick easy flow of the masked man’s cadence.

He should have run back to the camp, to get help. Run towards them, to see if there was anything he could do. Yelled for the rest of the company. Done something. 

But his legs wouldn’t move, and his throat was dry, and for some reason all he could think was that it felt a whole lot like someone had emptied a bucket of ice-water down the back of his tunic.

For some reason the thought made him laugh, and laughing made him cough, and coughing made him choke, and all of a sudden he was on his knees in the dust, laughing and sobbing in equal measure, tears streaming down his face as he fought to catch his breath. There was nothing funny about the situation, but the laughter wouldn’t stop – it bubbled out of him like water out of a broken pot, and nothing he could do would patch the hole.


‘I’m sorry!’, he tried to say, but all that came out was more coughing, hiccoughing laughter.

He looked up, eyes blurry with tears, to find Dana crouching in front of him. She’d seated Kitten firmly on one hip, now that the girl had calmed down enough to be reasoned with, and her facial expression was that of someone who wasn’t in the mood for playing around. “Can you talk, Caleb?”

He shook his head, another spasm of unwanted laughter rattling through him. His hands and feet were beginning to go numb, and he could hear his heart thumping in his ears, almost blocking out the sound of his own laboured breathing. If this went on for much longer, he realised, with a stab of terror, he was going to pass out. Again.

“Sorry about this,” Dana said, and slapped him in the face.

The blow sent him rocking back onto his heels, making his ears ring with the force of it, and his vision darkened for a brief second. But the laughter stopped, choking off into a quiet succession of small, wrenching gasps. He looked up at her again, reaching up to rub at the hot skin on his cheek. “Thank you. I’m sorry. I don’t know-”

“Battle-shock,” she replied, shortly. “Don’t need to apologise, seen it before. Tell you about it later.” She stood up, held out her hand. “C’mon. On your feet.”

Gratefully, he grabbed hold of her hand and pulled himself to his feet, wiping the tears from his eyes with the back of his sleeve. “What do you need me to do?”

Dana frowned, looking between him and Rethan. “He’s conscious, just about, and stable for now, but we need Talan. I’ve done what I can, but I’m no chirugeon.”

“Do you want me to run back for them?” He needed to do something, or what good was he? And he’d already taken her away from helping Rethan for long enough.

She shook her head. “Your legs are shaking, and you’ve gone the colour of sour milk. You’d barely make it five feet.” Her tone brooked no argument. “I’ve patched the wound, I know enough to describe it to Talan so they bring the right gear. You stay here with him.” She made a slight sound of discomfort as Kitten reached up and yanked hard on a handful of short-cropped hair. “Fine, with him and Kitten. If anything changes, send her back to the camp for help.”

“Are you sure-”

“Yes.” She lifted Kitten down from her hip, putting both hands on the girl’s shoulders and crouching again to look her full in the face. “Your da’s going to be just fine, little one. I’ll get Talan, and we’ll sort this whole mess out.”

Kitten’s eyes shone with unshed tears, but she nodded gravely and signed something small and shaky-looking.

“Caleb’s going to stay with the both of you. If the bastards come back, you run and get help, alright?”

Another nod.

“Good girl. Go back and be with your da now.” And, as she released her grip on Kitten’s shoulders and the girl broke and ran towards her father: “Just mind what I said about being careful, yes?”

There was no response, but Caleb saw her slow to a careful walk as she approached Rethan’s slumped form, dropping down in the dust next to him and curling up small against his side. Rethan, for his part, moved one gloved hand away from his stomach (revealing a mess of bloodstained leather around the dark metal spur protruding from his abdomen) and put his arm gently around his daughter, drawing her close to him.

Caleb swallowed hard, trying to fight back a resurgence of the image Tam’s earlier comments had forced into his mind. “How bad is it?” he asked, lowering his voice.

Dana scowled. “Bad enough to be dangerous, good enough that we’ve seen and healed worse. He’s in a lot of pain, but it’s Rethan – he could be on fire and you’d not know until he said something.” She wiped her bloodied hands on her jerkin, and nodded towards the far end of the tree. “I’m heading to get Talan. Go look after those two.”

She was halfway across the road by the time something she’d mentioned earlier worked its way through Caleb’s brain. “What did you mean by ‘if the bastards come back’?”

She didn’t turn around. “What I said.”

“But who were they?”

“Spies,” she said, and disappeared into the treeline.


Copyright © 2018 by Finn McLellan.  All rights reserved.

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