Riss was only eleven years old when her father took her on their first hunt. Stalking patiently through the bush alongside him, she’d killed a boar with nothing but a spear. Sure, her father had been standing by with a matchlock pistol, but that hadn’t made the threat any less lethal. The fear hadn’t been any less real.
She was seventeen when she first killed a man. Shot him point blank through the face when he and his brigand friends had waylaid a client’s carriage. In the seconds before she’d pulled the trigger, the fear had gripped her by the throat.
The war? That was year upon year of fresh new fear, fear for her life and fear for those under her command.
She was thirty-one when she’d led Gaspard and the crew into that ambush, then dragged him bleeding into the wagon. The fear then was a new fear, a fear of loss. It had been insurmountable.
Every time she’d felt that fear, she’d smothered it. For her father. For her clients. For her crew. For Gaspard.
She was an expert at swallowing fear and appearing stonefaced. And she swallowed that same fear when it rose in her like bile at the sight of Adal sprawled out on that bedroll, his eyes sunken, his face beset by an eerie pallor that reminded Riss far too much of a dead man. She ground her boot into the fear’s throat and glanced aside at Calay, who observed the sickly man with a physician’s distance.
“Give him an hour.” Calay’s voice was smoothly confident. Riss wasn’t always the best judge of character–that’s what she kept Adal around for–but his confidence didn’t sound to her like that of a man trying to convince himself. He sounded sure.
Funny, then, that his companion Gaz kept looking to him so nervously. Like Calay were the one he was worried about rather than the one who’d been bit by the snake.
Riss made a mental note to come back to that later. She had bigger things to worry about. She lifted her voice for the benefit of the entire camp.
“I’d give him ten hours if I had to.” She made a point of glancing around, making eye contact. “Same as I would for any of you.” Another pause. She nodded slightly over to Vosk. “Besides. It isn’t as though we’ve got other options for an apothecary, given the circumstances. Take all the time you need, Calay.”
Every hour they weren’t moving forward was an hour that whittled the already-slim chances of survival for the missing logging party. It meant another hour spent in unfamiliar terrain with resources that would further dwindle. Riss was aware of all that. But she wouldn’t risk Adal’s health unless it became a do-or-die necessity. And even then…
Calay rolled a slim shoulder and rose up from his crouch.
“I’ve done all I can for him. Water and rest are all he needs. If we’ve got the right antivenin he’ll be right as rain.”
The words didn’t soothe Riss’ fear as much as she’d hoped they would. She trusted Calay as much as she trusted any short term hire for a contract like this. Which meant she trusted him to do his job like a competent professional. Nobody got paid if they all died. And if her Second died on his watch, Calay’s medic share would certainly suffer for it. He wanted to get paid just like any other. He wouldn’t screw this up.
“It was just bad luck.”
Riss’ ear caught the tail end of a conversation happening over by the fire. Geetsha and Torcha sat, conversing in quiet murmurs, and when Torcha’s eyes met Riss’, her mouth bowed into a sympathetic grimace.
“The snakes are more afraid of you than you are of them,” said Geetsha in her odd, creaky voice.
The present moment was just a little too much for Riss. Too much chaos, too much creepy swamp girl, too much worry for her dear friend. She pinched the bridge of her nose and let her eyes fall closed, inhaling deeply. She took a moment so simply shut it all out. To take inventory of tasks that needed completing: breakfast, packing up the camp, readying themselves to move once Adal was able.
At her side, someone softly cleared their throat. A male. Riss peeled an eye open.
Vosk stood beside her, rubbing at his chin. He stared awkwardly aside for a moment, then spoke askance, briefly:
“This place doesn’t hesitate to show its hand early.”
Riss furrowed her brows.
“What I mean to say is I’m sorry about your friend. This swamp is a horrid place. I wish I’d never set foot in it.” Vosk continued to observe her from a sort of oblique angle, as though he feared her wrath should he face her head on. Riss shrugged minutely, as if physically shrugging his comments off.
“Adal is a veteran and a fighter,” she said. “He’ll be fine.”
She wasn’t about to let one of Tarn’s guards comfort her like some weeping willow.
“Of course.” Vosk took a step aside. He gave her a there-and-gone smile that was just as much in apology as sympathy. “I’d never imply otherwise.”
It occurred to Riss that perhaps Vosk had been speaking to her for his own benefit rather than hers. Who knew the details of exactly what horrors he’d experienced, stuck out here for as many nights as he’d been. Perhaps Vosk was just blowing off steam, the way someone stuck in a shit-sack swamp would do to someone else who had just been victimized by said shit-sack swamp.
Now defying both her fear and her natural tendency to rebuff kindness, Riss gave Vosk a quick little smile of her own.
“It’s a minor setback,” she said. “Certainly not how we’d prefer things, but well within our capabilities.”
She hoped to strike the right balance between confident camaraderie and empathy for the terrors he’d witnessed. And it appeared to work, because Vosk buckled with what looked like genuine relief.
“I knew you were the right one for this job,” he said. “The Baron told us about you. He said we’d be in good hands.”
Flattery, though, was where Riss drew a line.
“I’m sure he did,” she said. “And I’m sure he grossly exaggerated half of it, bless him.”
“Riss?” Calay called out to her across the encampment. He’d returned to Adal’s side, adopting a loose kneel.
She rushed over, taking wide steps and attempting not to look as hurried as she actually was.
A hint of color had returned to Adal’s face, which appeared drier. Residual sweat still dampened his bangs and skin, but when Calay mopped it away, it stayed mopped.
“His sweat’s broke,” Calay announced, stating the obvious. “Like I said, he’ll be just fine.”
Riss allowed herself a smile, her heart beating so frantically that it was a wonder the entire company couldn’t hear it.
Breakfast was a tense, quiet affair: leftover swamp hen eaten in silence punctuated by the sounds of Adal’s uneasy slumber. He murmured through his unconsciousness, twitching occasionally, and Riss kept glancing over, half-expecting him to be pale as death again. But no. He appeared to be improving, despite his obvious discomfort.
Geetsha offered to take the moa for a forage. Everyone dispersed to their own business. Riss crossed her legs and settled down beside Adal’s bedroll, at a loss for what else to do.
When he awoke, it was sudden and swift, as though he’d been roused from a nap. He jerked upright, blinking furiously, and scrubbed a hand down his face. His gaze held the disoriented quality of a man in a foreign place, until he set eyes on Riss and relaxed.
“Lieutenant,” she said, swinging him a casual little two-fingered salute. “It is very good to see you.”
Adal fell back onto the bedroll with a relieved groan.
Riss didn’t bother to ask him how he felt. He probably felt like shit. Instead, she took a more productive approach.
He was both. She’d saved him some stewed hen, which he accepted in rapacious silence, and he asked to have his water topped up three times. Riss watched him eat, mindful of his pace, and couldn’t help but laugh a little.
“Save some for the rest of us,” she said, and he paused with his spoon halfway to his mouth.
The severity in his eyes surprised her. He stared for a moment, then glanced back down into the bowl.
“I feel like I’ve been asleep for days,” he said. “Like I haven’t eaten for half a week.”
That explained the appetite, Riss supposed. She lifted a hand.
“Maybe your body was working overtime to get that snakebite out of you. Needs extra fuel.”
Adal’s shoulders hunched in a wary shrug. He kept eating, though slower now.
“How long has it really been?” he asked.
Riss glanced up at the sky. Tough to gauge the position of the sun given the encroaching treetops, but she could see enough for an estimate.
“An hour, maybe closer to two.”
Adal squinted at her. “You’re not bullshitting me, are you,” he finally said. As if she ever had.
“I dreamt it took days,” he added after a moment. When he finished his stew, he licked the spoon clean. “It feels as though it took days. I expected to wake up with a beard.”
Riss thought it might be better not to ask him, but curiosity got the best of her.
“Dream anything else interesting?” she asked, slowly gathering to her feet.
Adal’s silence said a lot. She didn’t press further.
Vosk’s voice rose up from over near the pair of moa, sudden and surprised:
“Eight? Where’s Eight gone?”
Riss cast a curious glance around the camp. The dog was nowhere to be seen. She hadn’t even noticed. As panicked as she’d been for Adal, she might not have even noticed if a person had gone missing.
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