Dana reached them first, dropping to her knees beside Rethan’s still form and pushing back his sleeve to press her fingers against one bloodied brown wrist. Her hand was shaking, Caleb noticed, but when she spoke her voice was calm and steady, pitched to carry to the others who’d yet to make it to the mid-point of the tree. “He’s alive.”
Caleb let out a breath he’d not realised he’d been holding, and hugged Kitten tighter to him. The girl’s face was buried in his shoulder, her small hands tangled in the rough material of his shirt, but she seemed calmer than almost any of the adults there (with the exception of Rethan, who was unconscious and thus didn’t count).
“Don’t touch anything,” Talan warned, leaning heavily on their staff as they made their way towards the group. “Not until I have had a chance to examine him, at least.”
Dana growled something under her breath, the fangs in her lower jaw seeming suddenly much more prominent for a brief second, but did as she was bid, sitting back on her heels and watching the slow almost-imperceptible rise and fall of Rethan’s chest, an unreadable expression on her broad, scarred face.
Tam, walking close behind Talan and burdened down with what seemed like half the contents of the apothecary’s wagon, muttered something to her companion. Caleb didn’t hear what was said, but Talan’s expression softened a little and they raised their voice again. “You’ve done all you can for him, Dana. And I’m sure he will thank you for it, when he’s awake.”
Dana nodded curtly, eyes still fixed on Rethan, but didn’t reply. Her hands were clenched into fists on her knees, knuckles pale, skin still stained with drying blood.
There was a scuffling sound from the far end of the tree, followed by a loud muddle of curses in at least three different languages, and a pair of very familiar flame-red heads appeared around the roots, whatever argument they’d been having dying into silence as they took in the scene before them.
“Bloody hell!” Tam exploded, almost dropping the boxes she was carrying as she turned to stare at the new arrivals. “Is the whole company coming to watch?”
“I’ve reinforced the wards around the camp,” Ariane said reassuringly, stepping easily around the twins and heading towards her partner at something which, if she’d not been usually so graceful, Caleb would’ve called a flat run. “And you surely couldn’t expect us to stay back home when something like this has happened?”
“…No,” Tam admitted, after a short pause. She and Talan had reached the group by this point, and she put down her burdens by Rethan’s side, stepping back to let Talan lower themselves to the ground next to their patient.
“Precisely.” Ariane knelt down next to Dana, resting a comforting hand on the taller woman’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, my love.”
Dana shook her head, reaching up to enclose her partner’s hand in her own. “Not your fault. Should’ve been quicker on the draw, should’ve been keeping more of an eye out, shouldn’t’ve let him get hurt.” She took a deep, slightly shaky breath. “Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve. Not helpful.”
Ariane nodded, leaning her head against Dana’s shoulder briefly before getting up and moving to help Talan; the apothecary had opened the front of Rethan’s tunic and his undershirt, and was running brisk capable hands over the blood-slick flesh beneath, careful not to put pressure on the skin around the wound.
There didn’t seem to be much for Caleb to do except keep hold of Kitten, but the girl seemed content to stay where she was, and he wasn’t about to let go of her while she still needed the comfort. As he looked down at her, she moved slightly, untangling her hands from his clothing long enough to sign something before going back to hugging him.
“I’m sorry, I don’t-”
“She’s sayin’ thank you for the hug,” Kala translated, crouching down next to him. She frowned, reaching up to rub at the scar where her eartip should have been. “Y’got any idea who did this?”
“Phoenix’s lot,” Dana snarled, not looking back at them.
Tam swore, loudly, as did Kala, and Alak made a dismayed noise under his breath.
“Are you sure?” Ariane asked, looking up from the pouch of herbs she was rummaging through.
Dana nodded. “If not, it was someone who looked a damn sight like one of her spies.” She growled, the sound coming from somewhere deep in her throat. “Thought we’d seen the last of her.”
“So did I,” Tam admitted. She’d gone an interesting shade of off-white, and, when she spoke again, her voice lacked something of its usual confidence. “But she paid off the bandits as well.” She pulled the scrap of black fabric from her pouch, holding it out to the assembled company in one unsteady hand. “She’s still hunting us.”
Her words fell into a sudden, cold silence, broken only by Talan and Ariane’s muttered conversation, and the rustling of the leaves in the canopy overhead. A shadow seemed to pass across the sun – Caleb felt a shiver run down his spine, and, almost unconsciously, hugged Kitten tighter against him.
“The wards will stop anyone getting to the Captain,” Ariane said, quietly. “She’s probably the safest of us all right now.”
Tam nodded, swallowing hard. “I didn’t think she’d chase us past the border. Not after what happened.”
“Maybe she wants to clear up the remnants,” Alak suggested. “Make a clean kill of it.”
“Nothin’ clean about this,” his sister interjected, frowning heavily. “Ha’penny bandits and one assassin with a shoddy sword who doesn’t stay around to confirm the kill? It doesn’t add up.”
“Maybe she’s gettin’ sloppy.”
“Hardly. If she’s doin’ it this way, she’s doin’ it for a reason.”
“Might be trying to put us off our guard?” Tam offered, though her tone made it abundantly clear she didn’t think it likely.
Dana snorted. “Try harder. There’s got to be a plan here, and it’s going to be bigger than that.”
“Testing our defences?”
“Doesn’t need to. She knows ’em inside and out, thanks to her little friends.”
“Damned if I know. Rethan’s the tactician.”
“Not right now he ain’t,” Kala said. She looked over at the man in question. “How’s he doin’, Talan?”
The apothecary looked up, pushing their glasses up the bridge of their nose with one bloodied forefinger. “He’s not leaving us any time soon, if I can help it.” They frowned. “Though the situation’s rapidly becoming rather more complex than I’d anticipated.”
“What d’you mean?”
“Whatever metal this blade was made from, it’s not anything I’ve seen before. And I’m not entirely certain I can remove it.”
Copyright © 2018 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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