They rested only until the bird had caught its wind, then Riss was coaxing everyone up. Through what few gaps in the twisted, reaching treetops existed, she spied ominous grey clouds gathering. They had to keep moving, lest the rain catch them up again.
That and ordering everyone to keep moving felt like the only order she knew how to give anymore.
Before Calay had left, he’d told them not to wait. Put as much distance between yourselves and that critter as possible, he’d said. I can find you. I have my ways. He’d possibly meant to inspire confidence. Instead, the words had weighted Riss with a certain prophetic dread. But they’d let him go. They’d let him go because he was right—he and Gaz had the best odds against that creature, and it was in their best interests to see Torcha out of the swamp alive.
Calay had been right. Adal had been right. Riss was starting to feel like she was on the losing side of every argument. Oh, they all still paid lip service to her rank, but every time, she seemed to find herself on the opposite end of good sense and reasoning.
How had this happened?
Vosk was still in a bad way, scarcely able to lift himself off the ground. They heaved him up onto the bird, let him slump there in a sullen daze. Riss slung his arms over the harness and flashed back to many a hunt with her father, trussing up a stag for the long ride home across the steppes.
Riss rarely thought of her father. The moment she did, she looked to Adal to chase those thoughts away. She recalled with purpose a moment they’d spent on the march, reading passages to one another from Auvrey’s Continental Histories while Gaspard noodled on his guitar. For every poison, there was an elixir.
“What?” asked Adal when he noticed she was staring at him.
Just glad you’re still breathing, she almost said. But anger was as stubborn as the muck that clung to her boots. She couldn’t quite shake herself free. Riss was fully aware of how childish it was, but she wanted him to know it still stung. It would continue to sting each fresh time she remembered she was now touched by sorcery. And she’d had no agency in the matter.
They followed the trail, tracking through the mud, each stretch of spindly tree-trunks and tangled undergrowth much the same as the last. Riss ran through the beat of an old marching song in her mind, too tired to even mumble the words aloud.
Periodically, as they walked, Vosk cried out and convulsed upon the moa. He clenched fistfuls of his hair. He shook like a madman. The side effects of Calay using his blood, she imagined. Riss just hoped he was using it to ensure Torcha’s safety.
At some point on her interminable walk, a thought occurred to Riss that drove her to unsteady, delirious laughter. She’d fucked this expedition up so badly that she’d died. She had actually died, and the only reason her body kept walking was because Calay had dragged it back without her permission.
Followers of the sea and river gods often spoke of there being three hells, the three kingdoms inhabited by beings immortal and beings who had passed on. First there was the world the gods themselves called home. Then there was the domain over which they ruled: the domain of the dead, where all dead souls came to rest. The third was the Hell Beneath, an eternal watery smothering reserved for those who wronged the deities of the river. A hell where you drowned forever.
Riss wondered if any cultist had ever dreamed up a hell of eternal mud. If they had, even their nastiest dreams couldn’t have compared to her present reality.
The tree trunks thinned and the clusters of undergrowth grew lower to the ground. The swamp spilled out into a flat, soupy lowland composed of innumerable shallow puddles. Stalks of reeds grew in erratic clumps and dewdropped cobwebs clung to the upper reaches of the higher bushes. Mist wafted upwards and hung waist-high in a haze that curled and slid around their bodies.
As they walked further from the forest, the temperature plummeted. It wasn’t quite cold–especially not to someone who’d grown up on the steppes–but for the first moment in this entire undertaking, Riss felt as though she actually needed her cloak.
She almost remarked upon the weather, but when she glanced sideways to Adal, a little spark of held-over anger held her tongue. Her frustration with him waxed and waned. She was no longer furious with him for subjecting her to Calay’s treatments, but she couldn’t quite make small talk yet.
Riss already knew she would forgive him. But it felt like a disservice to her very valid anger to forgive him quickly.
If one were to strip away all exterior aspects of Adal’s person, to pry him open and peer inside him like an anatomist might, Riss suspected that one might find him to be a being of pure loyalty. Every stupid, wrong-headed thing he’d done throughout the entirety of their friendship had been with the best intentions. Underneath the embroidered trousers and too-fashionable haircut, he was the most unselfish person she’d ever met.
She held onto her silence, hoped he interpreted it for what it was. He always seemed to guess right.
Do you really think they’ll bring her back, she wanted to say. But that was another conversation she didn’t want to have. When Adal had spoken of fetching Torcha on his own, he’d done it with such conviction that she’d believed him. She trusted Calay much less.
They’d already lost Gaspard. Then Renato, albeit in a very different way. If their remaining trio was cut down to two, where would that leave them?
The puddled, sodden bog seemed endless. The trail had all but dissolved, and when the bird began to move lethargically once again, Riss signaled for a rest at the first patch of dry ground they came across. They’d made good distance. The dark clouds had yet to vent their rain. Dark would fall soon, and Riss wasn’t sure whether she wanted Calay’s “tracking methods” to work or not. If they worked and he returned Torcha to the party, that was acceptable. But she disliked the idea he could do that at all.
She felt like a woman in the last throes of an illness. That sort of clinging, stubborn weakness days before a body shook off a fever. It was infuriating.
Glugging water from her canteen, she sat, curling her toes inside her boots. The soles were well-worn; they were good marching shoes. But good shoes could only do so much.
“Let me know when you’d like to bed down,” said Adal. “I’ll ready the tent.”
Riss felt like she could not walk another step. But it felt early in the day to admit as much. Had they covered enough ground? She couldn’t tell whether her frustration with her weakness stemmed from falling short of realistic expectations or just plain feeling bad about herself.
“I’ll see how I feel after some water,” she said. And when she looked for that anger which had sustained her silence, it was all but gone.
Vosk had been silent too, but now he let out a rough, wavering groan. Adal moved to help him off the moa, sliding him to the ground. His pale, sunken face reminded her of Calay’s when he’d had his arm sawed off. But his eyes were more alert now. He looked between her and Adal, then turned his head and coughed dryly.
“Can I have something to eat?” he asked.
Riss wasn’t sure how long she’d been out, but she didn’t recall seeing him eat since the fish. If Adal hadn’t fed him while she was asleep, it had been almost a full day.
“Sure,” she said. And Adal was already on it, unpacking a rucksack from the bird and digging out a couple parcels. He doled out bread, dried fruit, and a bag of gelsa bulbs, which were commonly roasted around these parts and eaten like nuts. They had a pleasant, savory flavor and they’d been nicely salted. It all left Riss feeling even more thirsty than before, but she’d had worse snacks on the march.
“You ever feel a little bad, eating a bulb before it’s had the chance to grow a flower?” Adal asked as he crunched into one.
Riss stared at him for a time, expression blank. “No,” she finally said. “Don’t reckon so.”
From his slouch on the ground, Vosk gave another rattling cough. “Water?” he asked.
Adal eased up, dusting off his hands. He unpacked one of the big waterskins, then carried it over.
Riss wasn’t looking at them straight on, so she didn’t quite see what happened, only a rush of motion from the corner of her eye. She turned her head just as Vosk lurched upward, unsteady on his feet but moving quickly. He yanked his bound hands up, something clenched between them, and caught Adal with a clumsy two-handed uppercut.
Adal reeled back, a fine red gash spreading up his neck and the underside of his jaw. Riss leapt to her feet, all her aches forgotten, and ran to him. Vosk didn’t hesitate, taking off at a staggering, puddle-splashing run. Every muscle in Riss’ body twinged to chase him like a dog at the races, but no. She couldn’t. Not while—
She crouched, uncaring that her knees planted in wet mud. For a blood-chilling moment, all she saw was Adal on his back and red spreading over his skin and breathing was suddenly very difficult, thinking even more so, her every thought a harsh yank into the past where too many people had bled in her arms and she was equipped to help exactly none of them.
But Adal sat up. He sat up and clamped a hand to his neck and hissed out a piss like he’d nicked himself shaving.
“Are you—” Riss wasn’t sure how she wanted to finish that sentence. She grabbed the fallen waterskin and unstoppered it, squeezing some out over Adal’s fingers.
The long, thin cut that arced up his throat and jawline looked painful, but it was shallow. He was bleeding like a stuck pig, but only because everything did from the shoulders up. Riss let herself breathe.
“I thought he’d slit your throat,” she said, the words a sober contrast to the panic she’d felt.
Adal, grimacing tightly, managed to laugh that off.
“Barely nicked me,” he hissed, through what appeared to be a great deal of discomfort.
Riss looked out in the direction Vosk had run. He’d taken off toward the nearest copse of trees, no doubt wanting the cover. Then she searched for something to staunch the bleeding.
“He won’t have made it far.”
Riss found a kerchief in Adal’s pack, then passed it over. He held it to the wound, scowling belligerently.
“You sure about that?” she asked. “It’s possible he was faking his sickness.”
“No.” Adal smeared his bangs from his eyes with a bloodied hand. “Calay is definitely using his blood. He just caught me off guard. That wasn’t a blow from a hale, healthy man.”
“Do you need me to stitch that up?” Riss asked. It wouldn’t be pretty, but everyone in the Fourth had practiced a bit of embroidery on their comrades.
Heaving up one-handed, Adal tested himself on his feet. He didn’t appear woozy. Shaking his head, he delved around in his pack and retrieved a scarf, winding it around the compress Riss had pressed to the cut.
“We’ll see how it goes,” he said. “I’d rather not give him any more of a head start than he’s already got.”
Adal unpacked fresh ammunition, then checked over his pistol. Riss lashed their kit back to the bird. It didn’t get up. Frowning, Riss gave the big bipedal thing a nudge with a knee. The moa churred petulantly.
“It’s spent,” she said.
“All right.” Adal cocked his pistol and looked toward the trees. “We’re either leaving it or one of us stays with it. I don’t particularly like either of those options.”
Riss stepped away from the moa and all their belongings—their food, their pilfered silks, their antivenins. She gripped her machete hard enough that her knuckles twinged.
“I don’t give a shit about the bird, Adal.”
The swamp had made it clear. If she let the people she cared about out of her sight, it would pick them off one by one. No more of that.
By eye contact alone, they formed a silent agreement and made for the trees.