Chapter 9

​For several strange moments, all Adal could hear was his own heartbeat thundering in his ears.

Time had a peculiar way of slowing down during certain moments. Moments of intense concentration. Moments that necessitated intense quiet, such as creeping through the underbrush behind enemy lines. Moments when his body seemed to all but shut down and take the clock with it, freeing his mind up to think through its next move.

It’s just like last time, he thought with some dismay. The first casualty. It’s going to become a running joke.

He had the presence of mind to stretch out his legs, bracing himself against the log where he sat by leaning his weight through his arms. He stared down at his calf, dumb with shock. He’d barely even felt it.

So what next, then?

Time sped up, slingshotting him into the present. Calay arrived in a scramble, half-dressed with his satchel slung over-shoulder. When his eyes met Adal’s, they were wide with surprise, if not quite worry. The medic was quick on his feet, dashing over and folding himself into a neat, careful kneel beside Adal’s boots.

“Did you get a good look at it?” he asked.

Adal blinked. “What’s there to see? It’s just two holes in my leg.”

Calay also blinked, but it was the prolonged blink of a long-suffering parent, the type who regrets telling their child there are no stupid questions.

“The snake,” he said, voice flat. “Did you get a look at the snake.

Oh. He had not.

“It was just a blur and ripples. It was half in the water. I barely saw a thing.” Adal’s mouth tightened as he spoke. Because upon saying those words, he realized what he was admitting to: that he had no idea what type of treatment to suggest. No idea what path to set Calay down. He still didn’t trust the man, something about him set Adal’s teeth on edge. Now Adal had no choice but to… listen to him. To trust his purported wisdom. To listen to some smooth-talker with a northern accent get all father-knows-best.

“All right,” Calay said, inhaling. He reached down and grabbed the cuff of Adal’s pant leg. He rolled it up, yanking the canvas up without asking permission. Adal might normally have voiced complaint, but something strange was occurring inside his body.

His heart began to pound. That heartbeat which had rushed in his ears earlier now doubled in time, the beats of it no less strong and no less steady, just faster. Urgent. He swallowed. Was his heart racing because of the venom? Already? Or was his heart racing because he was afraid at the prospect of what the venom might do? Was there even any way to tell? Were his palms getting sweaty because of some bodily response, or was it just nerves?

Sitting stiffly, Adal wiped his palms on the knees of his trousers while Calay examined the wound.

“It’s impossible to say what did this,” the medic said after a short inspection. “There are three common venomous snakes on this island. They’re all rather different. Katangas and the vipers like that are more common in the northlands. In the south, you get blackmouths and rattlers and that sort. Did you hear a rattle?”

Adal tried to think back. He tried to school his body into calm by force of will alone. It was not working. The calm with which Calay addressed him, the way he spoke with an almost academic detachment about the potential poisons that could be working their way through Adal’s body that very instant, did little to quell the little peaks of fear beginning to rise in him.

“I don’t think so,” he said at last.

Calay’s fine silver-blond brows knit together in a look of consternation. He flipped his satchel open and extracted a small dark-wood box. Flipping open the hinge, he revealed inside a glittering array of glass vials, each filled with a scant amount of liquid and stoppered with wax. The liquids inside ranged from deep pine green to various shades of sickly, rotten brown.

“Well, Adalgis,” he said, and something about the way he said Adal’s full name was like the scrape of a fork on fine china. “I’ve got nine doses of antivenin for snakes. But most of them are fairly different. You a gambling man?”

Adal sat up straighter. His brows shot down low over his eyes.

“Fuck you,” he growled. What kind of bedside manner was this? Who had taught this man to be a physician? A bloody hangman?

“Give him the blackmouth.”

The voice that piped up from behind Adal’s shoulder was young, almost prepubescent.

Geetsha stood there, dressed in nothing but her undershift, which fortunately fell all the way to her knees. She was barefoot. She stood in a patch of moss, twisting it through her toes as she shifted her weight from foot to foot.

“I saw it,” she said. “Was a blackmouth. Give it to him or he’ll fall sick shortly.”

Adal’s heart twitched in his chest. That time was definitely nerves. The way Geetsha spoke, with an almost otherworldly confidence that seemed to come from somewhere outside her small, scrawny body…

Really, out of anyone to be at his side in his moment of need, anyone in this party, did it have to be Geetsha and Calay?

Calay regarded Geetsha with open distrust, eyes locked on her in a puzzled glare that approximated exactly what Adal felt inside. How long had she been standing there? How had she seen the snake? Hells, had she been watching him relieve himself?

“Where did you see it?” Calay asked, even as his fingers moved toward one of the vials in the box.

Adal’s palms grew sweatier still. He felt beads of sweat beginning to form upon his brow. Each breath seemed to come a little shallower than the last, as though he were trying to catch his breath after a long swim. He breathed in slow and deep to steady himself, or at least he tried to, because halfway through it just felt… difficult. Like filling his lungs all the way was a lot of work.

“There.” Geetsha lifted a long sleeve and pointed off into the swamp. Adal peered the way her arm gestured, but he didn’t see anything. Just stagnant puddles and mud.

Calay turned his head, also following the gesture, and let out a noncommittal grunt. Looking back to Adal, he shifted a little closer.

“Well,” he said. “You’re starting to look a little pale. If it was a blackmouth, you’ll be winded in twenty minutes and your heart will give out within the hour.”

Adal couldn’t hold it in any longer.

“Where did you learn medicine, lad?” He gasped. He started to say something else, a stronger admonition, but all that resulted from his efforts was a wheeze. “The… the muh…”

His voice sounded shrill with panic. Oh, how he hated that. But Calay did something that surprised him then. He reached up with his vial-free hand and settled it on Adal’s knee. Speaking calmly and clearly, he looked Adal straight in the eye.

“I learned from a man who knew what he was doing. I know what I am doing. If Geetsha really saw a blackmouth out there, all we’ve got to do is get this down your gullet, treat the wound, and you’ll feel fluey for a couple days but otherwise carry on living.” He took a short breath, then gave Adal’s knee a squeeze.

“But in order for me to treat you, you have to stop being a gigantic fucking baby.” Calay said that last bit with a smile that was knife-edge thin.

Adal couldn’t even think of an appropriate comeback.

“Churchbells, you’re a little shit,” he grumbled. He was glad to get that all out in a single breath. He put out his hand for the vial all the same.

###

Things got worse before they got better.

For starters, Calay’s antivenin tasted like garlic-slathered rot. Adal gagged as he swallowed it. Calay stood beside him, crouching to eye level, and coaxed him through drinking it down. He passed Adal a canteen afterward and told him to chase it with as much water as his stomach could hold.

“You’re astute,” Calay said in between all of Adal’s short-winded griping. “It does have wild garlic in it.”

He managed to hold it down, but he suspected that was simply due to the fact that he had yet to eat.

Calay rinsed and dressed the two tiny punctures in his calf. The man’s fingers were light; Adal barely felt it. His limbs felt somewhat far away. Far away and heavy, like they were each hundreds of miles long and burdened with millstones. Sitting up all the way was a chore. He watched the top of Calay’s head as he worked, deft hands spreading some sort of cream along the punctured skin, then winding a neat cloth bandage into place. It was tidy enough work. He’d received worse in field hospitals. And he’d recovered from all that.

“We ought to get you back to camp,” said Calay as he rose from his crouch. “You’re going to need a bit while this stuff works through your system.”

As Adal soon found, that was a marked understatement.

The stomach cramps kicked in not long after. Adal shuddered up off the log where he sat, and as loath as he was to accept the assistance, Calay had to help him down the path back to the campsite. Geetsha stood near the fire, conversing with Riss. Presumably she’d told Riss what was the matter, because Riss kept glancing over Adal’s direction, and when she finally saw him walking toward her, she blew Geetsha off in a hurry and raced to his side.

“Please don’t say anything,” Adal begged her through clenched teeth.

But Riss didn’t look like she was busy formulating any smart remarks. She looked sincerely worried. Which meant he must have looked as garbage as that concoction had tasted.

“Let’s get you down,” Riss said, and she moved to his other side. One arm each around Riss and Calay’s shoulders, Adal let himself be all but carried back to his bedroll. Muscle cramps started in his calf and worked their way upward into his guts, strange little flexes of the body that he had no control over whatsoever. When they hit near his diaphragm, his already-labored breath grew even more difficult. Be it the stress or the poison or the cure or what, his heart hammered against his sternum like it was trying to escape.

He sank down onto his bedroll with a soft, weary sigh. When he turned his head, he found the bedroll already wet, such was the sweat that was pouring from his brow.

“You’re sure he’ll be fine?” Riss asked Calay from far, far above him. He could see their boots, but their faces seemed a thousand miles away.

“If that’s what bit him, he’ll be fine.” Calay’s confidence was stern, almost soldierly. Almost. He lacked the discipline, Adal already knew. There was no way he’d served. He was too…

“Hey, old fella. You need more water?”

He ticked his eyes sideways. Towering over him like an ancient, ageless tree, Torcha peered down. She moved so quick that tracking her made him dizzy. Adal forced his eyes to close even though he was far, far too keyed up to even consider sleeping. The strange, distorted height was just a little too much taken with the cramping and the breathing and the sweating. The last thing he needed was to empty the remnants of dinner onto his bed for the next week and a half.

“I’m fine,” he said through tightly-grit teeth.

“Give him a little space, Torch.” Riss again. Footsteps sounded near his head. He couldn’t tell if they were moving closer or away.

Cramps rolled through his body in dizzying waves. He tried to find that far-off, silent place inside himself. The place he’d learned to go to that had gotten him through battlefield hospitals and long, agonizing wagon rides, when they’d carried him away from the front a mile at a time, his lung collapsed and his mind wild with what passed for army painkillers. But all that training felt like something from long, long ago. From another lifetime.

Through the cramps and the sweat and the too-recent memories itching their way to the surface, he focused on the sound of Riss’ voice. He could no longer make out exactly what words she was saying, but the calm, confident manner in which she was saying it gave him something to hold on to when the room started spinning in earnest.

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