For a brief moment, Caleb felt as though his heart had stopped beating.
He stumbled backwards, holding Kitten tight against his chest, until the heel of his boot met sudden resistance and he lost his balance, going sprawling backwards onto the floor with an impact that drove the breath from his lungs and sent a wave of stabbing pain and nausea flooding through his body as the girl’s entire weight landed on his already-bruised ribs.
The bright colours of the wagon’s interior swirled and blurred around him, and for a horrible moment he thought he was about to pass out again. But the dizziness passed more quickly this time, leaving him aching and sick but clear-headed, and all too aware of what he’d seen on Kitten’s hand in the moments before the fall.
“Kitten?” he whispered, once he’d enough breath to talk again. “Are you alright?”
No answer, but the small body pressed against his chest shuddered, shoulders shaking with silent sobs. She’d curled in on herself, tucking her hand up against her chest as though she’d burned it, and the patch of his shirt she’d rested her head against was rapidly dampening, cold and wet even through the canvas of the binding-shirt.
He hugged her tighter to him, running one calloused hand over her smooth, braided hair. “Don’t cry. Please. We’ll work out how to fix this, I promise.”
She didn’t stop crying. But she raised her head, wiping her nose on the cuff of her left sleeve as she did so, and blinked reddened eyes at him, the expression on her face needing no translation.
“I promise,” he said again, sounding a lot more confident than he felt.
Apparently, though, confident enough for her. She wiped her nose again, and managed a small, watery smile.
“There. You’re going to be-”
“What in the name of-?!”
Neither of them had noticed the door opening, but Ariane’s voice was unmistakeable, mingled fear and suspicion lending an edge to her words. She crossed the wagon in a few hurried strides, dropping to her knees beside Caleb and Kitten and scooping the girl up into a tight hug. “What happened?”
“She-” Caleb began, but Ariane waved him into silence, waiting for Kitten’s response.
It didn’t come. The girl kept her right hand held tight against her chest, making a few half-gestures with the left before trailing off into silent tears, burying her face in the mage’s shoulder.
“She touched the blade,” he managed, trying to pretend he hadn’t heard the sudden suspicion in her voice. “If you look at her hand…”
The girl nodded a little, uncurling enough for Ariane to catch a brief glimpse of her right hand.
“Gods!” Ariane’s already pale face blanched, her eyes widening in horror. “Is what he’s saying true?”
Another nod, this one firmer, and a sharp, sudden gesture with her left hand.
The mage sighed, some of the tension draining from her shoulders. “You’re right. I’m just on edge, I suppose.” She turned back to Caleb, biting her lip briefly. “I’m sorry. I thought-”
“It’s alright. I understand.” He couldn’t blame her, he supposed, but it still hurt that she’d even suspected that he’d do something to harm them. Best not to think about that now, though. Not when they had bigger problems to deal with. He swallowed, pushing himself up onto his elbows with a grunt of pain. “She went to hug Rethan, and I didn’t stop her, and she touched the blade. I pulled her away as soon as I saw.”
Ariane nodded. “Thank you.” She reached out with the arm that wasn’t currently cradling Kitten, grabbing hold of Dana’s shoulder and shaking her gently. “Dana, love? Wake up, please?”
The taller woman sighed, muttering something in her sleep, but didn’t wake.
“Dana?” And then, as her partner shifted slightly and the blanket tucked around her fell away just enough to expose the muscled flesh and tanned skin of her forearm: “Oh gods no. No. This is not happening.”
She gestured, wordlessly, and his eyes followed the path of her hand, focusing in on the dark threads tracing their way through the scars on Dana’s arm.
“But how-? She didn’t-”
“She must have touched it when she was dealing with the wound in the first place,” Ariane said, voice dull. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply through her nose for a second. “We need Talan. We need to move.”
“At first light. Tam can drive Rethan’s wagon. We’ll put the wounded in there.” Her tone had changed, short clipped phrases replacing her usual run-on sentences, and her jaw was set. “We’re not letting her take anyone else. Not if I have any say in it.”
Copyright © 2018 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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