Rocking like a ship on rough seas, nuts and bolts barely holding it together, the wagon shuddered down the road. Torcha had them racing along at a breakneck, dangerous pace, but Riss didn’t care.
“Can we go any faster?” she screamed through the door toward the piloting chamber.
“Not if we want to control where we’re going!”
Sprawled across Riss’ lap, Gaspard choked. His labored breath came in gasps and wheezes, dark blood flecking his silver-grey beard. His lone eye rolled upward, still alert, still watching her. She glanced away, not quite able to look him in the face.
The wagon impacted something in the road, likely just a small rock, but at the speed they were going, it sent a shiver of impact through the entire wooden frame. The wheels held fast. Gaspard erupted into coughing.
“Don’t worry,” Riss said, unsure whether he could even hear her over the ruckus. “We’re almost there.”
She tightened her grip on the compress wadded against Gaspard’s chest. The splintered shaft of a crossbow bolt protruded from the blood-soaked fabric squished wetly in her fingers. Riss knew better than to try to move or withdraw it, so she stemmed the bleeding as best she could, tearing fresh strips from both her cloak and his when the cloth soaked through.
A shotgun blast thundered through the air and the shutters of the wagon’s back window blew into pieces, lending Riss a sliver of the view outside: snow-burdened evergreens and patches of bluebird sky.
Another shot. Chunks of the wooden frame exploded away, showering Riss and Gaspard with splinters. She angled forward, shielding him as best she could with her shoulder.
“Sounds like they have more than just a crossbow,” he wheezed in her ear.
“Yeah, yeah.” Riss growled, voice acidic with self-loathing. “I fucked up. I know.”
Before Gaspard could argue with her–which he’d do, she knew it, even in his injured state–Riss twisted again and hammered her fist against the driver’ s partition.
“Torcha! Get back here or get up top! They’re blowing the back of the wagon off!”
Torcha hollered something indistinguishable. Riss couldn’t hear over the rumble of wheels on dirt. Then louder thumping, someone moving around on the wagon’s roof. Adal or Renato could take over driving; they needed Torcha’s eye. If she could pick the shooters off, or their horses, it would buy them enough time…
Gaspard hiked in air through his teeth, dragging bloodied fingers down her arm.
“Just hang in there,” she murmured without looking, eyes on the open window. It was useless, pleading at him. Words like that never worked. Not on the battlefield, not in infirmaries, not anywhere.
“Riss.” Gaspard’s voice, even whittled away to a croak, had an iron backbone to it. She looked down this time.
“Get the fuck out there and help your crew.”
“They’ll be fine.” She dared a glance down at his face and regretted it. The full, stern weight of his dark stare was on her now, his brows drawn. His expression was one of intense pain tempered with a restrained disapproval. Without saying a word, his eye said to her, after all this, you choose to disobey me now?
“I’m not saying they won’t.” He grunted and used an elbow to lever himself into a sitting position. Fresh, hot blood gushed through Riss’ fingers. “I’m saying…”
He paused, smothered a cough.
“I’m saying you can’t help me.”
The words stung. Riss worked her mouth in silence, then shifted so that she rested in a kneel on the wagon’s wooden floor. All around them, strapped-down cargo quivered against the ropes that held it down. Another shake, another forceful impact as they careened over an obstacle in the road.
“I’ll be fine,” he rasped. “If they blast the ass-end of the wagon off to shoot me again, you’ll have–” Another wheeze. “–bigger problems than mourning me.”
He was right. Riss wasn’t any kind of sawbones. If they got into town in time, if they managed to get into town at all without getting blown completely to fuck, that would be the time to talk medical attention.
Until then, there was nothing she could do. Yet she still didn’t want to leave him.
She squeezed his shoulder once, fingers digging in, reluctant to let go. She told him to keep applying pressure, then slid the partition into the wagon’s cab open. It was more of a window than a door, but Riss could wiggle through. Kicking and twisting, she fell in a heap of leather onto the piloting chamber floor.
As she landed, the coachman let out a yelp of surprise, clenching the reins even tighter. Renato sat on the bench beside him, leaned around the wall, pistol in hand.
“They both up top?” asked Riss, of Torcha and Adal. The coachman nodded, barely looking aside at her as he struggled to keep up the pace.
“I won’t let ‘em flank us,” Renato called. “Get up there!”
Up front, with so many layers of hard timber between herself and the gunshots, without Gaspard bleeding out in her lap, Riss felt calmer. She could hear herself think.
Hauling hand-over-hand, she climbed up onto the roof of the wagon, knuckling down near Torcha and Adal’s feet. They were both laid out along the rooftop, taking pot shots at the riders who pursued them. Just as Riss arrived, one of Adal’s shots struck home: a horse stumbled and fell, red spraying from its leg.
Riss couldn’t shoot for shit. Not like those two. So she made herself useful in other ways: hurriedly reloading their rifles while they rotated to the pistols at their belts, all three of them clinging on for dear life.
The wagon rolled to a juddering halt, limping into the yard, its team panting. The horses twitched their necks and threw their heads, muscle spasm visible below their hides. Riss climbed down from the roof as the coachman bellowed for water.
All around them the wagonyard bustled, porters loading and unloading other coaches.
Riss’ heart gradually slowed. As it did, a sudden exhaustion sapped her. She felt spent, as if she’d run down the mountain herself on foot. Beneath her boots, the ground seemed to shudder and buck as though she were still in motion.
Walking around to the rear doors, she grabbed the nearest porter by the arm.
“You,” she said, barely glancing down at the boy, who couldn’t have been out of his teens. “Send into town for a physician.”
She shoved him away without waiting for acknowledgment. The blood spilled down the front of her leathers said enough.
Heaving the lockbar up, she stepped aside as the door and loading plank fell backward into position. Buckshot and hard traveling had bitten whole chunks out of the wagon’s backside, but the important parts appeared intact, for all Riss cared. She gave the wagon itself only a cursory look on her way inside.
She twisted past a row of crates, still lashed to the cargo hold’s walls by some miracle, and crouched.
Gaspard lay right where she’d left him, back propped up on a rucksack, fingers clutching the compress to his gut.
The second she set eyes upon him, she knew.
Riss had seen a lot of people die. She’d seen people die in shitty, war-torn tent hospitals. She’d seen people die by her own hand, when she stood over them on the battlefield and slit their throats to make it quick. She’d held her soldiers while they cried for their husbands and wives and begged for painkillers that had run out months ago.
She couldn’t take a single step closer to his body. It was as though the same sharp, soul-deep magnetism that drew people to Gaspard in life repelled her in death.
Riss walked to the cargo hold doors, then sat down on the loading ramp.
The bastard. The absolute bastard. He’d known. He had known it was about to happen and he’d sent her off so she wouldn’t be there. Like a wounded family pet crawling off under the deck to die alone, so its masters wouldn’t be troubled.
Adal found her there later, still staring into space, the blood spilt down her jerkin yet to dry. She had no idea how much time had passed. The medic arrived; Adal waved him curtly away. He knew, then. She heard Ren and Torcha barking orders at someone, but the words mattered so little that her brain didn’t retain them.
Adal sat down next to her, but a good foot away. Like she’d acquired the same repellent aura that drove her away from Gaspard’s cooling corpse.