Peering through the labyrinth of roots, Calay tried to survey the damage. Behind him, Riss and Vosk had the old bonfire blazing once more, superstitions about doubling up on campfires be damned. The extra light helped, but he still couldn’t quite tell where the root structure began and the victim ended. The man was wrapped up as if in the tentacles of some legendary sea-beast. Calay couldn’t see any evidence of wood melding into his flesh, but he was bound up tightly and twisted through the spine.
“There’s a good chance his back is broken.” He rose up from his crouch and patted one of his belt pouches. “I can give him pain relief, but we’ll have to wait for dawn if we want to try cutting him loose.”
“If we keep the fire stoked all night, that should keep the tree inert,” said Vosk.
“Have you asked him what he wants?” Torcha hopped up onto a dead branch beside him, peering downward.
“He’s barely conscious. We’ll see if the laudanum gets him talking.”
Calay extracted a dropper from his belt, then squinted down into the tangled roots. He rocked forward onto the balls of his feet, then stopped. He had to be careful. The last thing he wanted was to touch some still-living part of that tree and merge with it.
“Here,” said Torcha. She offered him a hand.
Balancing carefully, Calay gripped her hand in his right, then leaned down, dropper in hand, over his newest patient. Torcha’s hold on him was strong enough that it surprised him–for someone who came up to maybe his shoulder and didn’t look especially sturdy, she had a grip on her.
“If you’re awake, open up.” He spoke down to the man, angling his hand. The man groaned out a wordless response, jaw hanging as agape as ever. At least it was easy enough to get a couple droplets down his gullet. With Torcha’s assistance, Calay leaned back up.
“That will take the edge off,” he said, unsure whether the man could even hear him. “I’m sorry we can’t do more until morning.”
A memory struck him, fleeting and startling: similar words spoken to a young woman with a broken jaw at the Indigents’ Clinic, Calay painstakingly sucking blood free of her airways. It was so easy then, gathering blood. Yet out here in the damp, mud-caked nowhere, the other side of the job was easier: out here he didn’t have to pretend he was performing charity out of the goodness of his heart. Riss was paying him to do a job. And he was a professional. He’d do it.
Torcha, though. She was easy to like. If a tree sucked her up and tried to absorb her guts or whatnot, Calay would shoot it with earnest dislike in his heart.
“How’s he doing?” asked Vosk, speaking up from beside the crackling fire. Calay lifted his shoulders in response.
“Far too early to tell. Once we’ve got full light, we’re going to try to cut him free. We’ll see then how badly he’s hurt beneath all that.”
“He said anything useful?”
Calay only shook his head.
Torcha’s mouth scrunched to one side. She chewed the side of her cheek for a moment, squinting toward the tree with its strange eruption of gold and crimson glitter.
“Any idea what the hells is all that, then?” she asked.
Calay didn’t have a clue. Truth be told, he didn’t like looking at it. Murderous trees trying to eat them? He could deal with that. They’d blown one apart rather handily, and beyond that he had his magicks. But this weird color-spouting nonsense, the threads in the brambles, all of that was beyond his experience, beyond his understanding. Attention to detail had kept Calay alive more than any other skill of his over the years. Having a handful of details with no clue how they fit together and no idea what they meant for the future was not ideal.
He sought out Riss. She’d proved a competent sergeant thus far and if ever there was a time to voice his concerns, it was now.
“I don’t like this,” he told her, sidling up to where she and Adalgis stacked firewood.
“You’ll have to be more specific,” said Adal. “There’s rather a lot about the last few days to dislike.”
Calay grunted half a laugh. Adal was growing on him.
“I know what you mean, though.” Riss dusted off her hands after stacking the last of the deadfall.
Calay sliced a hand toward the glittering tree, its golden threads shining in the firelight.
“This isn’t like the last one. It may be dormant now, but there’s no guarantee it isn’t going to wake up in the middle of the night. Vosk’s advice on smoking it down is all well and good, but…” He trailed off. He wanted to leave room for Riss to alleviate his worries without him voicing them. He’d learned over the years how to handle these conversations as a second-in-command, or a whisperer-in-the-ear. It wouldn’t help his case to tell Riss we’d be stupid to camp down here because that would imply he thought she was stupid enough to do it. She didn’t seem that reckless.
“I completely agree. Vosk’s advice is handy to have, but there’s no sense in risking our entire crew on it.” Riss rolled her shoulders and smothered a yawn with the back of a hand. “We’ve been working hard. We walked longer than planned. I’m sweaty and sore. We need good sleep tonight, not the type of sleep we’ll get a stone’s throw from that thing.”
“Shall we start making camp up top then?” asked Adal.
Calay took a moment to observe him. Adalgis appeared to have softened some in his exhaustion, or perhaps he’d just decided he could trust Calay after all. Before, his mouth had possessed this almost permanent downturn, as if he were perpetually mildly peeved. But now he looked like just another tired soldier after a long march. Flecks of muck on his face, leftover tree-stink on his armor, the whole bit.
There were a lot of unkind words for people like him in the slums of Vasile. He was much more tolerable when he was dirty and tired.
“Camp up top sounds splendid.” Calay flashed a sharp smile at the pair. “I don’t know about you but I’m knackered.”
Once camp was made, they lit another fire. Calay sank down beside it, sitting knee-to-knee with Gaz. His body was exhausted but his mind couldn’t quite settle down yet. Which was a problem, given he was on second watch. Gaz and Torcha kept a languid eye on the camp while everyone else busied themselves with settling down and tiredly collapsing. The moa, walked harder and father than usual, sank down beneath the drape of a willow at the fringes of the firelight.
“It’s just crazy you two weren’t in the war,” Torcha was saying to Gaz, shaking her head.
“It was deliberate,” Calay chimed in. “Wasn’t a thing we wanted part of.”
Gaz gave a little nod, digging through a small toiletry bag at his foot. He withdrew a pocket mirror, a razor, and a tin of grease.
“What he says. City makes a lot of money off a war, but most Vasa folks aren’t patriotic enough to take up a sword.”
“And they wouldn’t conscript you? At least you, Calay?” She sounded disbelieving.
She was right about that. Medics had been in short supply on both fronts. Had Calay been a licensed practitioner in a mid-city clinic, he might very well have had a knock at the door and a letter from the Leycenate.
“Think of it this way,” he said. “There’s degrees of north. Down here in the Deel, you’d call this place the southlands, yeah? But you wouldn’t call the fisher-islands part of the southlands.”
Gaz slicked up his palms and smoothed them along the sides of his head.
“It’s funny,” said Torcha. “So many folks don’t really give a shit about the war now that it’s over. I honestly never think how many of ‘em didn’t give a shit while it was on, either. It’s hard to imagine being so far removed.”
“Geography makes it easy.” Calay worked his mouth in a sympathetic grimace. “And I imagine the opposite was true in your case.”
“Mhm.” Torcha turned to the side, watching as Gaz began to shave the sides of his stubbled scalp. “We got occupied.”
Something in the fire popped and everyone glanced toward it. Beyond, in the dark, the forest was oddly silent. All the little background signs of life–buzzing midges, distant birds, the sound of little rodent feet scuttling through underbrush–were absent here. Geetsha was right. Nothing else dared to live where the crawling trees did.
Calay wanted to ask her more. She was clearly younger than the others, possibly by as much as ten years or so. And given the comments she’d made about stumbling into the war with Riss’ lot, there was clearly a good story to be had.
But he was tired. And pushing her for more would mean that he’d have to reveal more about himself. Or make it up. He and Gaz had a well-rehearsed cover story sprinkled with just enough truth to make it real, but inviting someone to test its boundaries seemed like a needless risk.
“You oughta sleep, boss,” said Gaz, wiping goo off his razor.
“I really ought to.” Calay rubbed his thumb along the bridge of his nose. He unfolded from his seat and trudged over to his bedroll, stepping past the sleeping bulk of Adalgis and Geetsha as he went.
Under his thin blanket, rolled onto his side, he listened to the silence of the world. Gaz and Torcha’s conversation died away as soon as Calay left. All he could hear was the crackle of the fire and the breath of his companions. Someone sounded like they too weren’t quite asleep either, but he couldn’t tell who. He couldn’t blame them. If they weren’t running themselves half-ragged on foot, how could anyone sleep in this place?
He blinked his eyes closed, and in what felt like the next instant Vosk was shaking him awake for watch.