Rethan looked up as Caleb approached, the lines of his mask catching the light in a way that horribly mimicked the shard of metal protruding from his belly. “Don’t worry. It’s not- ngh! -as bad as it looks.”
Somehow, Caleb doubted that. But he wasn’t about to argue with the other man right at this moment. “What happened?” Daft question, probably, but if he could keep him talking until Talan got back then he’d at least know that he was still conscious. It wasn’t as if he could tell from his face, after all.
Rethan laughed, or at least, made a sound in his throat which was probably meant to be laughter. “I got stabbed.” He nodded downwards towards his abdomen. “You’d think- ah! -they’d be able to afford swords which didn’t break.”
Caleb winced, his over-active imagination all-too readily providing him with a mental image of exactly what might have happened to cause that particular wound. If he was right, he was surprised the older man was able to carry on a conversation, let alone make sarcastic remarks.
No time to wonder about that now, though. Keep him talking, that was the key. “Who’s ‘they’?”
“Couldn’t say for sure.” He shifted position slightly, hissing in pain as he did so. “I’ve a damn good guess, though.”
“Hah! Hardly. Too well armoured for that-” Another slight hiss of pain, and a muttered curse “-and they don’t normally travel alone.”
True, as far as Caleb knew. There were the occasional lone brigands who ambushed unwary travellers, but they didn’t tend to attack people who weren’t themselves travelling alone, and trended more towards demanding money with menaces than actual attempted murder. Which meant whoever had attacked Rethan and Dana likely had more of an agenda than simple opportunism.
And, thanks to Tam’s explanation, he’d got a horrible suspicion he might know who it might have been. Or, at least, who they might have been working for. “Then… the Phoenix?”
He wasn’t yet proficient in reading Rethan’s expressions, but the tilt of the mask the older man favoured him with looked an awful lot like surprise. Surprise, or possibly suspicion. “Smart lad. Where’d you come across that name?”
“Tam told me.” He took a breath, decided that raking over old scars was probably a better option than letting an armed and probably still dangerous person think he might be a spy. “She told me what happened to the rest of the company. What the Phoenix’s spies did.”
Kitten, nestled in the crook of her father’s arm, made a small whimpering sound and curled up tighter against him. Rethan, for his part, nodded slowly. “Fair.”
“But she said they’d not attack once you’d passed the border. Because it’d be political, I think?”
“Obviously she was wrong.” His voice was getting rougher, the threads of pain running through it becoming more and more apparent with each word. “Not the first time.”
“But… wouldn’t that be an act of war?”
“Because her commander’s not at war with the king?” Caleb hedged. Rethan’s flat confusion was making him start to wonder if Tam had had all the facts when she was explaining the situation to him, and the possibility that the Phoenix could and would send spies after the company wasn’t exactly a pleasant one to contemplate.
“Bollocks,” said Rethan, with feeling. He coughed, winced, and continued in a quieter tone. “She- ngh!- she can send whoever she damn well pleases.”
“Just has to have- ah! -plausible deniability.”
“I don’t understand,” said Caleb, who was rather worrying he was beginning to.
“Means she can deny- ah, hell- deny all knowledge of whatever-” A hiss of indrawn breath, more ragged than before “-whatever she ordered them to do.”
Which made sense. “But if they get captured, then surely-”
Rethan shook his head. “Die before they talk. Not- not always by choice.” He looked down, watching Kitten’s hands for a moment, and then muttered something to her in that same lilting language Caleb’d heard him talking to her in before.
Kitten’s small face crumpled and she shook her head, wrapping her arms around her father’s torso and clinging tight to him, heedless of the blood staining his leathers and her tunic.
“Take her,” Rethan grated, blood-slicked gloves slipping on his daughter’s small hands as he tried to pry her fingers from their death-grip on his jerkin.
There was no arguing with that tone. He reached out, taking hold of Kitten around her middle and pulling her bodily away. For a moment she kept her grip on Rethan’s leathers – then she twisted in his arms like a cat and lashed out, small fingers scrabbling at his face and neck. He jerked his head back, feeling her nails rake down his cheek just below his right eye, and fell backwards, pulling the girl with him.
“Kitten!” It wasn’t a shout – more a harsh whisper – but the girl froze, turning back towards her father with a confused whimper. “Calm.”
Caleb felt a little of the tension drain out of her, though she still pushed against his arms. She reached out towards Rethan, signing fast.
He shook his head, signed back something deliberate and fluid (though Caleb saw the same spasms of pain that’d interrupted his speech tensing the muscles in his arms). Then, as the girl relaxed and turned away to hug Caleb with the same ferocity she’d been attacking him a moment before, he sighed, leant back against the tree and let his hands drop to his sides.
Which was about the moment that Talan, Dana and Tam appeared around the root end of the tree.
Copyright © 2018 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
2 thoughts on “Seventh Son: Chapter 19”