In a twisted, discomfiting way, Riss was almost glad that things had gone completely pig-shit. Had only one thing gone wrong, seeing Adal like that might have broken her. It was only by virtue of the completeness, the totality of the failure cascade that she was able to push through unburdened with emotion.
Not that there were no emotions. Oh, they were there. They prowled at the fenceline, half in shadow, circling her like wolves. Just you wait, they warned her.
“Good news,” Torcha reported, rolling a wooden cask across the ground so that it came to rest near Riss’ feet. “At least one of these is intact.”
Riss knocked it and was rewarded with the deep thunk that signified it was nearly full.
If they were going to traverse the last of the Flats on foot, they’d need all the water they could carry.
Torcha climbed back up and into the wreckage. Riss rolled the water cask over to the small heap of supplies that was gradually accumulating in the shade. By her estimate, they had about five hours before it would be time to set off. After Calay had cautiously, carefully pieced Adal back together, he and Riss had made the call together: they’d travel after dark, both to take advantage of the cooler temperature and to allow their wounded friends a little rest.
Currently, Calay was doing what he could for Gaz’s leg with old fashioned non-sorcerous medicine and a bit of lizard blood. Riss wasn’t sure how it all worked, but he’d explained the basics: blood was at its best when it was human and the person who’d bled it was still alive. A lizard’s blood would suffice for what he called “minor works.” A dead lizard, that was trickier.
He can have some of mine, Riss had offered without hesitation. But Calay had put that idea to rest with a shake of his head. He reminded her of Harlan Vosk, how badly he’d suffered when they’d used him as an unwilling donor during their trek through the swamp.
She recalled the shaking, the night sweats, the chattering teeth. Vosk had appeared as though in the grips of a terrible fever. He’d been unable to walk on his own. And apart from the pain and weakness, there was his unsettling behavior back in Tarn’s dungeon. Riss wasn’t sure how much of that was a side effect of the blood magick and how much might have simply been Calay taking his revenge.
Either way, if they were crossing the Flats on foot, Calay was right: be it one man with an injured leg or one man with a healed leg and a donor who was wobbly in the knees, their options were limited.
Once he had Gaz fixed up, Calay intended to dig through the wreckage for his supplies. If by some miracle he found the rest of his blood, they’d be in business. Riss and Torcha were occupying themselves with more mundane concerns: food, water, ammunition.
Crouching near their cache, Riss took inventory. On some level she knew she was doing this to avoid turning her head, to avoid looking that last little bit to her right, to avoid letting her eyes fall on the bloody smear upon the rocks where Adal had landed.
Two pistols. Three empty waterskins.
She hadn’t even seen him fall.
Fourteen cartridges. One map case.
Heavy, slightly-lopsided footsteps crunched up behind her.
“Hey,” she said, pushing up and turning around. “How’s the leg?”
Gaz, who had loomed up behind her, rocked his weight from side to side. “Still testing it out,” he said.
Whatever Calay had managed to wring from the lizard blood had cleared away the clots of bruising at Gaz’s temples and eyes. The scrapes, too, had mostly healed. The wide wrap of gauze around his thigh had been reinforced with what appeared to be a strip of curtain.
Riss recalled the haste, the urgency with which she’d screamed at Calay to cease treating him and felt an abrupt need to apologize.
“Listen,” she started. “About earlier. I’m…”
She was sorry. But sorry felt like too small a word.
“… You don’t deserve to be in pain,” she finally said. It was completely stupid, but she felt responsible, somehow. She was in charge. She’d made the call. She’d deemed Gaz’s pain less worthy than Adal’s.
Gaz stilled, looking down at her. His brows knit. With slow, deliberate, careful movements, he turned the water cask upright onto its side and sank down atop it, using it as a stool.
Resting his elbows on his knees, back slumped tiredly, he stared at her for a long while.
“Nobody deserves to be in pain,” he finally said.
Riss wasn’t sure about that. She could think of a few. But she realized that wasn’t what he meant.
“I know,” she said. “But… I feel like I shouldn’t have done that. Like I was overstepping. Even though I know I had to.” Even though she’d have done it again.
Gaz picked at the skin around one of his thumbnails, tired eyes falling from her to his hands.
“We both know what would have happened if Adal didn’t get every last drop of that blood,” he said. “There was no way.”
She hadn’t ever really looked at the top of Gaz’s head before. He usually towered over all of them, even her and Adal. For the first time, she noticed the fine latticework of scars that decorated his scalp, just barely visible through the stubble. Most were old and minor, mere lines of faint pale discoloration. But there were a couple that weren’t.
That was a lot of scars for a man whose best friend could heal wounds with a wave of his finger. Years and years of scars.
“You’re right.” She stared at those scars. “That’s the funny thing. The stupid thing. I know we just did what had to be done… But it still feels wrong. Like I shouldn’t have given you an order like that.”
Gaz’s big, blunt fingers ceased their idle picking.
“You and him both said that,” he said. “But I don’t recall anyone giving me any orders.”
“We’re all in this together,” Riss said. “Nobody needs to–”
To martyr themselves. The words got clogged up somewhere between her brain and her tongue.
“Riss.” Gaz grabbed her attention before her thoughts could venture much further. He looked up at her with clear, steady eyes. When he spoke, the words were possessed of an even-keeled calm. The man’s conscience was a serene, cloudless blue sky.
“Neither of you have seen just how difficult it is to force me to do something I don’t want to do.” His eyes crinkled mischievously for a moment, but then his expression went somber. “It was my choice. I made it. You don’t get to turn it into an order just because you feel bad.”
And… what could she possibly say to that? Gaz didn’t often jam a wrench in her logic, but when he did, he was a tough man with whom to pick an argument.
“Suppose there’s no point feeling guilty about something completely outside my control.” Riss gave him a wan half-smile of commiseration.
He pushed up off the water cask, rolling his weight on his foot, testing out a few steps on his bandaged leg.
Already, Riss could feel her emotions crystallizing into a sharp, many-pointed shard of something she could actually use: a slicing, decisive motivation to get the hells out of the gulch and get them somewhere that would have what Calay needed to set things right.
“I’ll get you blood,” she said as parting words, striding off toward the wreckage. That she was so ready to promise blood for sorcerous purposes didn’t even give her pause until after the fact. My, the difference a year could make.
Everyone scavenged what they could from the shattered wagon. Then, one by one, fatigue claimed them all. They napped.
When Riss awoke, she noticed that they’d all piled their bedrolls close together, as if huddling around the warmth of a fire that didn’t exist. As if circled against some threat they couldn’t yet see.
Only once she’d roused everyone did they actually build that fire, both for light and one last warm meal before the push. Shadows came on thick and heavy on the ravine’s floor before the sun had even fully set.
“Right,” Riss said beside the fire. “Calay has kindly volunteered to rig the rope for our ascent. According to the map, the mountains to the north are closest. We won’t have much time to rest, but it’s doable.” In theory. “I wouldn’t waste the weight on anything other than water and the necessities, but you all know that already.”
Every last one of them was a soldier or a vagrant. They were used to leaving things behind. Just how exactly they’d arrange a meeting with Rill having lost their primary bargaining chip, well… Riss would think of something on the walk.
Riss marched up front because Riss always marched up front.
She didn’t think of herself as The Leader in the pompous, proper noun in capital letters sense, but she was the commander of this expedition. She was the owner of the company, had been ever since Gaspard’s death. It made sense to march up front.
She marched up front because she was handier with a machete than a firearm. Guns at the back. That, too, made sense.
Listening to the repetitive crunch and grind of crystallized salt crushed beneath weary, heavy feet, she knew one other reason why she marched up front: those lurking, prowling emotions that she’d worked hard to stave off.
There was far, far less to distract her now. The purple gradient of the sky, the endless salt, the distant rise of mountains, the dry, still air–they were unmoving and still and constant and thus in danger of becoming a backdrop, becoming surroundings that would fade and leave her thoughts front and center.
One set of those weary, dragging footsteps behind her was Adal’s. The ones directly behind her, in fact. Blinking her eyes as if to dislodge some grit, she rubbed at her face, brushing that notion away.
Someone sped up so that they could walk beside her, the crunch-crunch quickening. She tried to guess who it was by sound alone and found she could not. She glanced to her left, finding Calay there. His skin looked pale and cool in the purple cast of the deep twilight. When he looked up to meet her eyes, his shone with an unnatural glimmer, reflecting ambient light like a nocturnal animal’s.
“Hells,” she said, staring at him. “You look like a possum.”
Calay’s face wrinkled in a fine, delicate way, just a little twitch around the eyes and nose.
“Hmph.” He ticked his chin up at her. “And here I was coming to see how you were.”
“Out of everyone out here? I think there are patients of yours more deserving of a check-in,” she deflected.
“Yeah, well,” Calay folded his arms across his narrow chest as he walked alongside her. “Funny thing about shock. It doesn’t restrict itself to the injured.”
“I’m not in shock,” Riss promised him.
And once she took a moment to consider, she knew it was true. She’d felt the numbing bite of shock before, felt the way it held her in its muffling grip and dulled the world and made it all not make sense. Things were crisp now. She was thinking clearly.
Briefly, she considered whether she could be a little more honest. She thought back to their conversation, standing over Adal, Calay bristled with tension at the thought of leaving Gaz’s leg untreated. He hadn’t liked the way Gaz so easily conceded.
“I appreciate what you did back there,” she said rather abruptly. “For Gaz. You stand up for the people you care about.” Even to me.
Calay all but spit-taked. He coughed a little, footsteps stutter-stopping, and then wielded those big, shiny reflective eyes up at her in accusation. She waited for his reply, assumed it would be something sufficiently witty or perhaps just exasperated. Of course I stood up for him. I may be a liar and a highway robber and a sorcerer, but I’m not a complete bastard.
But her words seemed to have stunned him silent for a time. And when he finally did speak, it wasn’t what she expected at all.
“You were right, though. Gaz is walking all right. Adal needed it more.”
Riss recalled how furious she’d been when Adal had sought the same treatment for her. How she woke righteously angry, carried that anger in her like a mouthful of bile. How dead certain she’d been that Calay’s ministrations would deform her somehow, damage her, tarnish her person way down in her soul–which was funny, given she barely believed in souls and never paid her own much thought.
A thought struck her then for the very first time:
Calay had worked as a physiker in Vasile for years, but he’d no doubt concealed his secret. He’d had to stand by and watch his patients suffer and die, knowing all the while that he had an instant cure up his sleeve.
How had he managed that? Had it hurt him as much as Riss imagined it would hurt her?
She didn’t phrase it that way, though.
When she finally spoke again, she swallowed once and said, “It must be a relief not having to hide it anymore.”
For the second time in a day, she left Calay speechless. That must have been some sort of record.
Night was rapidly winning its battle against the loitering traces of sunlight. The last image Riss was able to fully make out before the dark grew too murky was of Calay regarding her sidelong, his mouth lifted at the corners in a smile. Not a smirk, not a self-satisfied grin, but a small, warm smile that sanded down the innate sharpness of his features.
She chose to carry that image in her mind rather than everything prior. It warmed her more than the thoughts of shattered wagons and too-far-away mountains and the horrible, red-white mess of blood and broken teeth that had been Adal’s mouth when she’d found him.
“I’m… gonna check on our walking wounded,” Calay murmured in the dark. Riss heard him moving off. A torch sputtered to life behind her, throwing wobbly shadows into the night.
Riss raised her voice. “Let me know when you need a rest,” she said for Adal and Gaz’s benefit.
You’re more resilient than the last time this happened, she told herself. You’ve been through so much more.
But she still couldn’t bring herself to look back. She knew she’d cry, and there was enough gods-damned salt on the ground. No point in contributing to it.