Staring down the hill toward the distant fields of sweet potatoes and the clumps of twiggy springtime trees, Adal tried to get a good look at what was riding toward them. Within a few seconds, he determined that it was a wagon. It looked like the one Tarn had rode in on a couple weeks back, though it was tough to say–who knew how many wagons called Adelheim’s wagonyard home.
“They’ve let the wagon cross the bridge,” he said to Torcha. “So it must be friendly. But the code they’re blowing has the locals rattled. I don’t think it’s an invasion, at least, but it can’t be good.”
Within minutes, the wagon was hurrying up the hill. The closer it got, the more the details solidified stones of sharp, crystalline concern in Adal’s gut: its team was incomplete, a horse missing from the lead pair. Once his mind shed the more fantastical threats–monsters and armies, which both seemed unlikely now–he worried that Tarn’s entourage might have fallen victim to the usual hazards of the road. Bandits, rivals, assassins, none of them less dangerous solely because worse things lurked off-road.
“Come on,” he said to Torcha. “I don’t think we’re in any danger, but we might be needed.”
She made a sound of quiet agreement, content to follow orders, and hurried after him. Rounding the fence, he jogged up the side of the road.
When the wagon caught up with them, rumbling crazily past, he had only half a moment to take it in. Slick, shiny black liquid oozed in streaks down its sides, glittering in the morning sun. The team was indeed missing a horse, its harness empty. The window shutters were drawn and bolted, so he had no idea what was happening inside. The more he saw, the less he liked.
They spotted Gaz a moment later. He’d acquired a forearm-long knife from somewhere and had it up and ready. He’d parked himself in the doorway of a smithy, looming there warily with his eyes on the road.
“Gaz!” Torcha hollered. “C’mon!”
Reluctant to step free from the doorway, he glanced over his shoulder. Adal realized he was talking to someone inside. He gestured a little with the knife, then nodded, his expression dark. When he stepped away, Adal caught a glimpse of a man and woman standing inside, squinting out toward the road in suspicion.
Please don’t tell me he decided to try to rob the fucking blacksmiths in the confusion, he thought. There’d be no coming back from that. No amount of explaining away could–
Gaz reached them. He walked right past Adal and Torcha and peered down the road.
“I don’t see anything!” he hollered, and it took Adal a moment to realize he was speaking to the couple in the smithy.
Finally, he looked to Adal, lowering the blade. “Any idea what’s going on out here?”
“Not a clue.” Adal gestured up the hill. “But the Baron’s wagon took off that way in a hurry, so we’re heading up to find out. I’d suggest you tag along.”
“Don’t gotta tell me twice.” Gaz looked down to the knife in his hand, then back toward the squat, low-roofed building he’d emerged from.
“Keep it!” shouted a woman’s voice from inside. Gaz shrugged and seemed to take that as answer enough. Adal didn’t stop to ask him what all that had been about.
Together, they hurried up toward the castle, following a trail of pitch-black droplets in the road.
At the apex of the hill, out of breath, they reached the gates. More guards than usual clustered around the outside, milling about nervously, and Adal took point in case anybody got over-cautious. Fortunately they had a good memory for faces, because they let him pass without a fuss. As he stepped into the inner yard, the heavy wooden gates shunted closed behind them, the earth momentarily trembling with the impact.
The Baron’s wagon was parked askew in the inner yard, attendants scrambling all over it like flies on a carcass. Gaz dropped to a knee in the road, touching his finger to one of the droplets in the dust.
“Pretty sure that’s lantern oil,” he said. “Looks like someone tried to light your Baron on fire.”
Adal glanced toward the castle’s front door. Surely Tarn had physikers on staff. But all the same, they had a damn good medic sleeping right upstairs.
“Get Calay,” he said. “Just in case.”
Gaz must have had similar thoughts, because he didn’t argue. He sprinted off toward the door, shoving past the throng of servants who were hurrying in the opposite direction.
At that moment, the wagon’s heavy passenger door thumped open. Tarn stomped out into the dusty courtyard, his face flushed and sweaty. Adal’s worry relaxed at first, the sight of the man relieving, but then he spotted the arrow shaft protruding from the Baron’s body.
“Unhand me,” Tarn bellowed at his many hangers-on, waving an arm. When he turned, Adal could see that the arrow was lodged in his left shoulder. Tarn was armored, but he’d gone without pauldrons, and it had cost him. He sputtered frustrated obscenities at anyone who got too near, then took a couple listing steps toward the door. It was then that he spotted Adal, his eyes going wide.
“Adalgis!” he boomed. “You’ve returned from the swamp!”
Adal bit back the urge to salute. Instead he just jogged to the man’s side, approaching him with alacrity. “Sir,” he said. “That I have. Riss is preparing her report now, but–” He glanced to the arrow shaft.
“I’m well aware,” said Tarn.
The Baron’s staff had ceased their attempts at intervention, letting Adal act as their representative until someone with more authority arrived. He cleared his throat.
“We’ve got a talented physik on our team,” he said. “The man saved my life on our expedition. I’m sure you have your own staff for such emergencies, but I feel duty-bound to offer his services.”
Tarn breathed in through clenched teeth. He reached up and touched the arrow shaft that jutted from his sleeve. Adal noted that he didn’t appear to have suffered any further wounds, which was a relief.
“And this, Adalgis.” Tarn tapped the cloth beside where the arrow pierced him. “This is why Lirette is still back home.” He sighed, hand dropping down to his side. “Fine. Fine. Show me to your chirurgeon.”
Adal had wondered where Tarn’s wife was staying. It made sense, her being back in Carbec until the political situation resolved itself. Adal stepped up and, unaware whether he was breaking any formalities or protocol, took Tarn by the elbow.
“This way, sir,” he said.
“You can stop that,” Tarn informed him. “You needn’t sir me in peacetime.”
Adal hadn’t spared it a thought. It had just come out. He nodded then, cheeks puffing out a little. “Right,” he said. “You’re a Baron now. Right this way, Baron.”
Tarn glared at him. Peace had softened that glare, though only a fraction. “Right,” Tarn said with a huff. “Right now I’m not a Baron or a Captain. I’m just fucked off.”
They blustered into the castle’s foyer, trailed at a distance by a dozen harried attendants who dared not get involved.
Adal had some regrets.
For starters, he thought perhaps he should have let Tarn’s own medical staff see to him. Recommending Calay had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now that everyone was gathered in Tarn’s bedchamber and the sorcerer was en route, Adal’s mind reeled with the sheer enormity of how many things could go wrong.
As it turned out, his fears were not misplaced.
The door swung open. Gaz stepped in, mid-sentence, and gave Calay a little nudge to encourage him all the way inside.
Since the last time Adal had set eyes on him, Calay had acquired a black eye and a swollen cheek. His hair was a tangled mess and the clothes he wore didn’t seem to be his own, a borrowed tunic and trousers that hung off him like the trappings of a scarecrow. Gaz had bandaged his arm again, but the bandages weren’t fresh.
“Baron,” Calay said with a deferential nod, not moving any closer.
Tarn, reclined atop his bed while a servant held a compress to his bleeding shoulder, glanced at Adal with a slow lift of his eyebrows. He didn’t say anything, but the look said it all: this is your world-class medic, eh? Adal spread his hands, conciliatory, and beckoned Calay closer.
“Ooh,” Calay said, sighting the arrow. “That looks nasty.”
Was… was he hung over? Adal took a deep breath. Fantastic. That explained why he hadn’t come down for breakfast.
Grunting thickly, Tarn sat up as best he could, the servant pausing in their blood-staunching duty to fluff his pillow. His staff had stripped his chestplate and leathers away, leaving him in a dark green shirt, the fabric pinned to his arm by way of the arrow.
Despite his messy appearance, Calay was all business when he crouched at Tarn’s bedside, inspecting him. “You’re lucky,” he said. “Looks like it’s only gone through the meat. There’s some important tendons and muscles back here…” He gestured with his left hand. “But so long as the head didn’t fragment, you’ll be in the clear.”
The door opened again. This time Riss, Torcha, and Veslin all piled in, the latter leading the others, all of them in a great hurry. Tarn’s eyes snapped up toward the doorway and he growled.
“Everybody out!” he bellowed. “If you weren’t on the marsh expedition and your name isn’t Veslin, out.”
The bedroom emptied. Veslin took over minding Tarn at his bedside while Calay continued his inspection.
Adal explained before Riss even asked. “He says they were set upon at the crossroads. Brigands. Locals who aren’t thrilled with the current distribution of lands and titles. Tried to set his carriage alight, and when that didn’t work they fired off a few and vanished into the woods.”
Riss sniffed, grimacing mildly. “Lucky for him nobody down this way can afford rifles, eh.”
“We’ve gotta talk when you get a second,” Torcha butted in. She glanced toward the door, her eyes narrow.
“One crisis at a time,” said Riss.
Behind them, Calay was busy trimming the sleeve off Tarn’s arm with a small pair of scissors. He worked slowly, Gaz looming behind him like the world’s most menacing nurse, passing him instruments and taking them back in silent intervals.
“Would you like a drink, sir?” Riss called.
“Damn your sirs!” Tarn hollered.
The Baron’s chambers were expansive, a long room with several attached sitting rooms and a massive, carved-basalt hearth. The fire was mere coals for the moment, but Riss walked toward it, seeking something out. The mantel was host to several strange objects: a large reptilian skull of some kind, a thick iron helmet with a dent in one side, a frame with polished medals gleaming inside. Trophies of Tarn’s career with the Inland. Just to the side of all that, Riss located a narrow cabinet. She opened it up and rummaged through it, eventually coming up with a small flask.
“I can give him something more potent than liquor,” Calay offered. He flexed a pair of tweezers in his hand.
“That’s up to him,” said Riss, passing the flask to Tarn without further word. Tarn took it, bit off the cap, and took a swig. He didn’t comment on the contents.
Riss pinched the bridge of her nose as she returned to Adal’s side.
“This is not how I expected to give my briefing,” she said.
Behind her, Tarn let out a hard, low-throated growl of pain as Calay yanked the arrow shaft free. Adal only watched out of the corner of his eye. He’d seen enough of that in the war, thanks. And regardless of how many questions Calay’s current appearance raised, he didn’t doubt the man’s abilities.
“Riss,” Tarn said, swigging from his flask. “You might as well get over here and get–rrgh–started.” Tarn grunted while Calay worked on the wound, digging around with his tweezers.
“I thought we’d begin when he was finished,” she said. But Tarn snapped his fingers, waving her over, and she went. Adal followed with her, Torcha lurking slightly behind.
“You didn’t tell me you had so many northerners on your payroll.” Tarn watched as Calay threaded a thin, curved needle.
“I hire the best people for the job regardless of their city of birth or prior affiliations,” Riss said.
“If I’d known my accent was going to get me constantly punched in the face down here, I might have carried on to Medao,” Calay mused as he began to stitch the Baron shut.
Riss unfolded some notes from a pocket of her coat, scanning over the parchment. She began to brief Tarn on all that had transpired in the swamp.