Authors: Frankie Robertson
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #fullybook
Fendrikanin volunteered his water to cleanse the wounds, but Ghav refused it. He merely expressed foul fluid from the wounds and covered them again. Sorn groaned and clenched his hands in the dirt as Ghav worked.
Cele wanted to scream, but instead she knelt and clasped his hands in her own. His grasp hurt, but Cele welcomed the pain. If he hadn’t been protecting her, this might not have happened. This was worse than watching her mother die. Much worse. It hadn’t been easy to see her mother in pain, but at least Cele hadn’t felt responsible for the cancer.
Sorn’s clasp eased as Ghav applied fresh bandages. Then the healer left to tend Kepliner’s arm.
Ghav was halfway across the camp before Cele realized what was about to happen. “I’ll be right back,” she assured Sorn, then she jumped and ran to catch up with the Healer. “You should wash your hands before touching Kep’s arm,” she said in a low voice.
Ghav’s eyes narrowed. “Cleanliness is important, but you seem overly concerned about it, my lady. That’s fine for a lady’s chamber, but it’s a luxury we can’t afford in the field, especially when we’re already short of water.”
Cele put her hand on his arm. “Please, believe me. I know what I’m talking about. Back home we know a lot about this. You carry Sorn’s infection, his…fever, on your hands. You could take it to Kep’s arm if you don’t wash first,” she pleaded softly.
Ghav took an impatient breath, then let it out slowly as his expression became thoughtful. “All right. I’ll sacrifice some water to rinse my hands. We haven’t any soap with us. And when we’re safe in Quartzholm you will explain to me more fully what you think you know about healing.”
Cele poured water while Ghav scrubbed his hands together in the flow, shaking his head all the while. Then she returned to Sorn.
. Though his eyes had remained closed most of the day, she knew the pain had kept him awake. He was as exhausted as if he’d climbed every step himself.
The evening chill followed quickly on the heels of twilight, and Sorn shivered. Cele looked around. Dahleven was nowhere to be seen, but his gear was close by. Cele appropriated Dahleven’s blanket and doubled it over the one already covering Sorn.
His shivering didn’t ease. Cele lifted the edge of the blankets covering him and crawled in close beside him. He was feverish and stank of sweat and shit and pus. Pillowing her head on one bent arm, she draped the other across Sorn’s chest and inched closer, breathing through her mouth to avoid the smell. In a few minutes, Sorn’s shivering eased.
“Thank you, my lady,” Sorn whispered.
Cele startled. “I thought you were asleep.”
“No. Ghav’s herbs have worn off a bit. I’m awake for now.”
“Are you in pain? Should I get Ghav?”
“No, my lady. The pain is tolerable now that I’m still.” Sorn turned his head so he could look at Cele. Their faces were quite close and Sorn spoke softly. “Let’s just talk for a bit.”
“Okay.” Cele fell awkwardly silent. She and her mother had talked easily before her death two years ago, until the pain meds had put her into a coma.
! “I’m an idiot! I have some Tylenol in my kit. It’ll help with the pain.” She started to get up but Sorn stopped her.
“Save it. I may need it more later.”
Cele lay back down. The Tylenol probably wouldn’t help that much, and she didn’t want to think about how much worse his pain could get. Her eyes looked everywhere but at his face.
“Don’t worry yourself about me, my lady. I’ll recover. I promised my father I’d be back for Fanlon’s Feast, and I never break an oath. It’s quite a celebration. I’d hoped to partner a dance with you, but I think that must wait.”
Sorn’s confidence eased Cele’s concern only a little. Attitude counted for a lot in recovery, but the red streaks near his wounds alarmed her. They probably meant septicemia. That could be why Ghav hadn’t bothered to clean the wound again. If Sorn’s blood was infected, there’d be no point in putting him through the torture of it. But she certainly wasn’t going to tell that to Sorn. As for conversation, Sorn had provided an opening, and Cele seized it. “Tell me about your father. Do you look like him?”
“No, I take after my mother. Father is shorter and stocky, like Halsten. His fingers are thick as sausages, but he can do the most delicate work with them.” Sorn fell silent for a moment, then went on. “He likes to laugh a lot. He was always teasing Mother, and she always rose to the jibe. I think sometimes she did it to humor him. I don’t know if he ever guessed.” Sorn’s eyes were a little unfocused, as if he pictured a private scene in his mind, and a thoughtful smile curved the corners of his mouth.
“My mother didn’t laugh much,” Cele said, “but she was always in a good humor. Nothing ever seemed to upset her.” She felt herself blushing as Sorn looked at her. “Certainly
wouldn’t have nearly fainted
in one afternoon.”
Sorn shook his head. “She might have fainted three times if she’d seen what you have today.”
Cele’s voice was critical. “It’s not what I expect of myself.”
“Have you much experience with combat then, on which to base such expectations?”
Sorn’s question zinged home and Cele grimaced. She thumped him gently on the shoulder and was rewarded with a brief grin. “You’re more like your father than you think.”
They fell silent again, and Cele groped for something to say. “Is there anybody special waiting for you at home?” Then she remembered Fendrikanin’s teasing and wanted to kick herself.
It didn’t seem to bother Sorn. “Oh, I’ll have nursing aplenty when I return—of the sisterly sort. I’ll not lack for scolding either, for not dodging fast enough.” Sorn looked in Cele’s eyes. “This wasn’t your fault, my lady. Things happen in battle. Don’t blame yourself.”
“But if I hadn’t distracted you—”
“If you hadn’t acted, one or both of those Renegades would have crushed my head from behind. If you hadn’t acted again, the other would have finished what the first began.” He pulled a cuff bracelet from beneath his sleeve, then pushed it onto Cele’s left forearm. “You saved my life twice over, and I thank you for it.”
The waning moon had just peeked over the ridge, and Cele could see a gold cat embossed into the silver cuff.
“I can’t accept this. It’s too valuable.”
“More valuable than my life?”
“Of course not!”
“Then accept this, and my thanks.”
Cele shut her mouth on her protest, unconvinced, but somehow feeling a little better.
Sorn changed the subject. “You know about me. What about you, my lady? You’ve been gone from your home for days now. You don’t wear the arm-bands of a married woman. Is there a man tearing his clothing in grief at your absence?”
Cele’s mind flashed to Jeff. Six months gone now, but his abrupt departure still left a bitter taste in her mouth. “No. There’s no one like that waiting for me.”
Her face must have shown more than she intended, because Sorn gently asked, “There’s an unhappy tale there, I can see. Will you share it with me? Some have found me a good listener.”
She’d told only Elaine the details of how Jeff had left, and only because she’d needed a place to stay in a hurry. It had hurt too much at first, and later she’d been too embarrassed. But Sorn lay there waiting, breathing a little fast, but with such calm acceptance and concern that Cele found herself telling him the story.
“Well, it’s nothing very unusual. There used to be someone, but he left.” Sorn was silent, and Cele found herself elaborating. “Jeff and I lived together for a year. We were engaged—”
“To be married.”
She liked the old-fashioned word. “Yes, betrothed. Then I came home one day and found a note that said he’d taken a job across the country, it had been fun, and to have a great life. And oh, by the way, the new tenants would be moving in at the end of the week so I had to get my stuff out of the house right away.”
The appalled expression on Sorn’s face was gratifying and encouraged Cele to continue.
“I was in shock for two days, and when I finally had the wits to ask, none of his friends would tell me where he’d gone. By then, I was out of time. The house was in Jeff’s name and he’d rented it out from under me. So I moved in with my friend Elaine.
“I was such a dope! In hindsight there were signs that he was flaking out on me, but I loved him. I thought we’d work it out. I trusted him. I built up this fantasy that he was different. I told myself that he wasn’t like my father, that he would always be there. He said he would, anyway. I guess I had to learn the hard way that words aren’t worth very much. At least he didn’t leave me pregnant.”
She’d only planned to tell Sorn the basic facts, but his attention had drawn the words out of her. And now that they were out, she felt lighter than she had for months.
“The cursed Oathbreaker!”
The force of Sorn’s outrage startled Cele.
“Lady Celia, among us a man who breaks an oath of that sort would pay a heavy fine and bring dishonor upon his family. The cur doesn’t deserve your regard.”
“I sort of figured that out, just a little too late.”
“Men of that stripe are wise in the ways of deception. You shouldn’t punish yourself for loving him. “
“But I should have seen him for what he was!”
Sorn squeezed her hand lying on his chest. “The heart is a wayward thing and goes where it will. You loved him and forgave him his flaws. Better a loving heart than a suspicious one.”
A hard knot that Cele hadn’t realized she carried began to dissolve. “Thank you.”
After a moment, he said, “I would ask a favor of you, my lady.”
Cele brightened, anxious to do something in return for his kindness. “Ask.”
“Do not judge us all by what that Oathbreaker did. No man in this company would act as he did, nor anyone I know.”
Caution and doubt made Cele pause.
Men always stand up for each other
. But the earnest look in his eyes made Cele retract the thought. Sorn was serious, and this was a different world. “Okay. I’ll make you a deal. I don’t know if I can trust words and promises just yet, but I’ll judge you by your own actions, not Jeff’s.”
Or my father’s
Sorn gave her a half smile and Cele became aware of how rapidly he was breathing. She touched his face and was dismayed at how hot his skin was. No wonder she wasn’t feeling the chill, curled against him. He radiated heat like a furnace. Cele started to pull away, but Sorn held her arm. “I’ll be right back,” she said, easing from beneath the blanket. “I’m going to get that Tylenol.”
But Ghav was already there. Cele watched, her arms crossed tightly, as he gave Sorn two different kinds of herbs to chew. Within a few minutes, Sorn breathed more easily and his eyelids drooped. The Tylenol wouldn’t have worked half as well.
Cele relaxed. Sorn’s bracelet almost fell off and she pushed it up past her elbow, where it fit better.
Ghav stood and turned to Cele. “You must eat, and see to your own needs.” When Cele started to protest, he held up his hand. “Don’t be selfish. You need to stay strong. I can’t spare time caring for a woman faint with hunger. Go.”
Dahleven returned from setting the order of watch and stretched out next to his friend. Many times they’d shared blankets, hunting together as boys. Sorn had been the better hunter, moving so quietly up on their prey he could hardly miss, he came so close. But Dahleven had been the one to lead them to their quarry in the first place. They’d made a good team, and better friends.
The camp was subdued. Sorn’s injury affected everyone. One by one, each man stopped a moment beside Sorn and bluffly exchanged a few words, offering nuts or fruit, though Ghav wouldn’t allow anything but a few sips of water.
They’d been lucky in more than one respect: the Renegades hadn’t fouled their claws, so Kep and Dahleven’s wounds hadn’t begun to fester. Falsom would recover. He’d fallen into a heavy sleep as soon as they stopped to camp, barely staying conscious long enough for Halsten to roll him in a blanket, but otherwise he seemed to be whole.
Sorn slept restlessly, despite the herbs Ghav dosed him with, and Dahleven was barely able to doze at his side. So, when Lady Celia finished eating and returned to Sorn, Dahleven waved her off toward Fendrikanin.
No sense in her going without sleep as well
. She took a breath as if to protest, but then clamped her mouth tightly shut and turned away. Dahleven sighed. He’d offended her again. Well, he couldn’t help that. She needed her rest whether she knew it or not.
Sorn stirred again and woke. He gave Dahleven a weak smile. “Like old times, eh?”
Dahleven grunted. “Too much so. You always were one to lie abed. We’ll never catch any game with you flat on your back all day.”
Sorn’s smile widened. “You should try it. The ladies like a man who knows his way around in bed.”
“So this is just a ploy to gain the lady’s sympathy? I can think of better ways to attract women.”
Sorn shifted position and gasped. Dahleven’s gut twisted in sympathy, but he maintained a mocking expression.
“Use them then,” Sorn said. “I can’t wait to see. You won’t catch one with that grim face, though. Women like a man who laughs now and then.”
Dahleven’s pretended humor failed him. “I can’t find much to laugh about just now.”
“Ah, my friend. Our fate is in the hands of the Norns, and they weave as they will. My death blow came defending a lady. It’s a good death. But your fate is much different, I suspect. Though tied to the same lady.”
Dahleven let Sorn’s reference to his death pass without comment. He was right; it would be an honorable death. The skalds would sing songs of his deeds. “The lady is a puzzle.”
“She’s more than a problem to be solved. She’s a woman—as you already know.” Sorn grinned.
Dahleven groaned. “I know it too well.”
“Your fates are woven together. Enjoy it.”
“The Gods respect and reward a man with courage enough to grasp his fate—and change it,” Dahleven countered.