Thursday, June 21, 249

The Great Road North

writ as I find the chance to do so

It was nearabout dawn when soft, arguing voices woke me. From the sound, my fellow Hunters were off by the ridge of stone that hid us from the road. I don’t think they realized the stone reflected their voices so I could hear.

“—should have told us you didn’t ward the camp!” Tunstall was saying.

“I was bone tired! I thought you were wise enough to work it out for yourself,” Farmer retorted. “Elyot and the count’s mage could find us if I did. Gods alone know who else they’ve got out here looking. There’s too many poxy mages in this mess, and I’d as soon not stand up and yell, ‘We’re here! Here, tucked out of sight!’ ”

“Heskaly’s drum, what a mess,” Tunstall growled. “Too many poxy mages is right. And there’s another thing. Stop dragging Cooper into your magics. She does enough, working the hound all day.”

“Who will help me?” Farmer demanded, keeping his voice down. “You and all those charms you need to watch me do anything bigger than a hiding spell? You obviously don’t want my lady to assist me. I don’t have six arms for bigger workings.”

“Mattes, Beka has lived with Kora since Beka was a Puppy,” Sabine reminded him. “She’s comfortable with magic. More comfortable than you. She’s volunteered to assist Farmer every time. I’ll tell you something else. She’s been happier at that—at most of this Hunt—than she’s been in months.”

“Months!” Tunstall said, only barely remembering to keep it quiet. “Months? When she had Holborn, and him talking wedding plans?”

“He was, you great looby,” Sabine told him. “She’d been pulling away. She was this close to breaking it off. She likes working with us and Farmer. She likes being on the road, away from people saying how sorry they are he’s gone.”

I turned over in my roll, as if I still slept, so they would not see me blush red with shame. I thought I’d hidden it so well. But I should have known Sabine’s keen eyes would notice more than movement in the brush. I thought, too, it was not so bad if Farmer knew I was not sodden with mourning my dead betrothed. Then I felt guilty, but not as much as before. A Hunt clears a lot of old miseries out of the brain.

I glanced at Farmer’s sleeping spot. His bedding was already rolled up and ready to go. Atop it sat the box he used for his embroidery thread and needles, something I’d seen often during those nights in the marsh, and three lengths of crimson ribbon. Two of them were covered with designs in thread. The third was half done, a needle thrust through the cloth to keep the unfinished design from unraveling. I blinked at it. Where had Farmer drawn the magic to fill these ribbons?

“Enough,” Tunstall was saying. “Farmer, did you report to Lord Gershom?”

“A bit.” Farmer sounded troubled. “But shadows kept passing through the images, and the sound …” He hesitated, as if searching his mind. “It fluttered. I don’t know how much Gershom heard.” He paused, then said, “Our enemies are at it again. They don’t want us in touch with Gershom.”

I sat up, yawning. The others would be thinking as I thought, that Master Ironwood or Mistress Orielle was a traitor. “You let me sleep without taking a watch?” I asked Tunstall.

“Get used to it,” he told me. “You run all day with Achoo, or run and ride. The three of us can manage the watches. And if helping Master Cape with his magic is too much for you …” He glared at Farmer.

I yawned again, so they’d think I hadn’t been awake enough to overhear. “Well, last night you and Sabine set up camp. And at the slaves’ burial ground, Sabine watched the road whilst me’n Achoo waited to see where the trail went next. It was only reasonable I aid Farmer. I help Kora sometimes, when she does medicine work and such.” I got out of my bedclothes. Like the others, I slept in my shirt and breeches. I pulled on stockings and boots. “If you’ll excuse me, I need a visit in the bushes.”

Sabine went with me. She told me she was the one who’d dug the neat trench in the screen of brush nearby.

“You heard us, didn’t you?” she whispered as we were doing our belt buckles up.

“Did you have to mention Holborn?” I murmured.

“Was I wrong?” she asked in her turn.

I shook my head. “Kora and Aniki knew, and Ersken. I just found out Holborn was a boy, and I wanted a man.”

“I’m sorry he turned out that way. You need someone who respects you,” Sabine remarked. “Not a gloomy fellow, but one who understands why you care about people who’ve been thrown away.” She smiled at me. “That’s why I’m so honored to be on this Hunt with you. You care.”

I couldn’t bear the respect and the affection I felt for her just then, but I made certain that she heard me as I looked at my boots and said, “It is an honor and a comfort to me, Lady Sabine, and to Tunstall. We both rejoiced to have you in the Hunt.”

“No, you were doing so well with plain ‘Sabine,’ don’t stop now,” she said, and chuckled. “I always knew Mattes was safe with you to watch his back, but I confess, it is so much better when it’s both of us.” Her voice went darker, making me look up as she said, “And we are hemmed with brambles made of swords, risking death with every step.”

I nodded. There was little more I could say to that.

We left the privy and cleaned up for the day. Sabine coiled her braid and pinned it up for some reason, while I let mine hang as usual. Then we settled to breakfast: fried ham, slices of bread with cheese melted on them, and Farmer’s wake-up tea. Pounce and Achoo feasted on chopped ham. We cleaned our pan and bowls at a nearby pond, then packed up. Today Sabine donned armor, which explained the braiding of her hair. It made her helm fit snugly on her head.

“Why?” Tunstall asked as he helped her to buckle her chest and back armor at her sides. “Why arm up today?”

Sabine looked at him over her shoulder. “Because yesterday it was more important to me that those vermin at Queensgrace thought we weren’t aware of how dangerous they are. We took risks yesterday. Today I want to travel as if there are enemies at our backs.”

Tunstall winced. “Good point,” he said. He and I got what fighting gear we had from our packs.

I donned my cuirass and arm guards, the ones that had many thin blades as ribs and weapons. Next I put on my gorget and gauntlets. I would need to ride since I was armored, but I had the feeling that things would be better this way.

“What gear do you have to wear against weaponry?” Sabine asked Farmer.

He gave her his looby grin. “My charmer’s personality,” he said.

“Cozening wretch,” grumbled Tunstall.

“You’re only sad because I said it first, Mattes,” Farmer replied. Pounce jumped up into the saddle in front of the mage. “There, you see? A cat understands how to be pleasant in the morning. He doesn’t talk.”

Sabine grabbed Tunstall by the sleeve. “Help me ready the horses.” Over her shoulder she called to Farmer, “And stop needling him, you! As far along as we are, you ought to know he’s a grump in the morning!”

“Nobody asks the wizard if he’s a grump in the morning and would like lovely ladies to be nice to him,” Farmer commented, scratching Pounce’s chin.

“Nobody dares,” I said. “I’m filling the privy. No, don’t get down. Gods forbid you should disturb that cat.” Grinning at his folly, I went to do the task everyone else had ducked.

The day passed well, save for Farmer’s attempts to reach Lord Gershom and his teacher Cassine. He was vexed he could find no trace of her in a mirror he carried in a pocket sewn on his outer garment. That was the strangest piece of clothing I’d ever seen, a jacket-like outer tunic, sleeveless, but with six pockets down the front, and six more sewn inside the front. If I caught a glimpse of his back in just the right light, as did Sabine and Tunstall, we could see flashes of signs embroidered within the dark green wool of the cloth.

Late in the morning Farmer made us halt where a cow track crossed the road. Some herder had lost his sun hat. Either it had gotten caught on the low branch where it presently hung, or someone had left it where the herder might find it. The hat was the poorest of things, wide brimmed and low crowned, the brim bent so hard on one side the straw was cracked. Farmer dismounted and gathered some reeds. He took down the hat and held it under one arm as he wove the green reeds together, his lips moving. I saw a sparkle here and there, but nothing big like the night before.

When he finished, he had an exact copy of the hat in his hands. It was the copy that he left on the branch, and the original he put on his own head. Tunstall rolled his eyes. “You look the very gods’ fool in that folderol. There will be folk asking if the Players have come to town.”

“My head gets hot in the sun,” Farmer said mildly. I glared at Tunstall. He can always be annoying when it comes to mages, but he seemed at his worst with Farmer.

“Then why not take the hat and leave off magicking another?” Tunstall wanted to know as we set off. Achoo, having stopped well ahead to wait for us, turned and ran on. “Why hold us up?”

“For one, the lad who lost it may not be in the way of getting another. If he were, why keep wearing this battered thing?” Farmer asked sensibly. “For another, a magicked hat is easy to spot if you’re a mage. I can’t tell if you’ve noticed, but at least four times this morning this area has been examined by mages seeking other mages. I’ve hidden everything of me but myself, including the Gift I used to make the copy. Now not only am I keeping the sun off my head, but I’ve tucked enough magic under this hat not of my own making to hide me. Until they figure it out, it will be as if I vanished, or I’m napping under that tree back there.”

Since I was ahead of her, I could not see Sabine’s face when she said, “You must work your magic far more often than we realize.” She did sound a little startled.

“A bit here, a bit there,” Farmer replied. “When you’re dealing with a conspiracy of powerful mages, it’s safer to use small magics. They’re looking for a great mage, not a normal one.”

“I can’t decide if you’re a powerful mage or simply a thief,” Sabine told him.

“A thief, naturally,” Farmer replied with a grin. “A thief whose stealing is not considered a crime, hiding out with Dogs.”

We halted sometime after noon for a meal at a wayhouse. Here we came in for a bit of luck. The housekeeper told Sabine of a slaver’s cart that had stayed several hours the day before, needing repair to a wheel. A hostler told Tunstall of a dark-skinned, dark-haired lad of the proper age who was chained inside the cart. The cove showed us the whip lash on his cheek that the mot who led the slave group had given him for prying. I was confident in Achoo’s nose, but it was always good to have confirmation of our quarry from other sources.

We stayed only long enough to eat, feed the animals, and give Sabine’s big lads a bit of a rest before we were on the road again. Achoo stayed on the trail, not even hesitating when we came to the divide of the Great Road North and the Frasrlund Road. She took us northwest then, past the royal rest house at the parting of the ways. Signs pointed the way to Babet, a good-sized town three miles north between the roads. We could have laid up at the rest house or Babet for the night. After a short talk we all agreed we’d as soon take advantage of the waning moon and press on, even if it meant a second night on the ground.

Pounce disappeared. He reappeared while we stopped at twilight for supper and a nap as we waited for moonrise. He spoke to none of us that I could tell, but paced along the road, tail whisking back and forth. Tunstall pointed to him and raised his eyebrows. I could only shrug. Pounce would tell us when he felt like it.

When Tunstall roused us at moonrise, I decided to go afoot for the rest of this day. I could run in pieces of armor, though not nearly as long as I could without it. I used soot from our small fire to dim the shine on my round helm, cuirass, and greaves and wrapped a dark scarf around my gorget. Summer or no, the forest cooled off in a hurry. When all of us were ready, I gave Achoo her signal. Off she went on the right side of the road.

It wasn’t much later before we lost the moonlight. The trees here grew high. I fetched out my stone lamp and Achoo and I went on as the others caught up with us. They didn’t say so, but they plainly didn’t want our group too far apart out here in the dark.

It must have been a couple of hours after midnight when Tunstall called a halt. I didn’t mind in the least. The armor weighed me down like boulders. I was glad to strip it off, though I left my gorget and my arm guards on and set my cuirass within reach. I knew from bitter experience I could not sleep in a cuirass and greaves. As I unrolled my bedding I looked for Pounce. He paced at the edge of the fire Tunstall was building, tail all a-twitch again.

“Beka, I’m digging the privy over behind that pine tree,” Farmer told me, pointing. I managed to look where he did and fix the spot in my memory. I was so tired I felt giddy, drunk with exhaustion.

“Sleep, Cooper,” Tunstall ordered me with a smile. “We’ll set up camp and watches.”

I would have argued about not doing my share a second night in a row, but I was already falling asleep. I didn’t even realize I had not gotten under the blankets. Tunstall always set up camp on our other Hunts, anyway. It was having company along that made me so foolish, when I was in no condition to help.

Achoo’s alarm bark—not her usual quiet whuff, but a piercing roar—woke me. Farmer’s bellow of rage got me to my feet as I bent to grab my long knife in my left hand and my baton in my right. I lunged in and kicked our banked fire into flames.

Warriors on foot attacked us. They were all in dark clothes. They had swords in their fambles and masks on their faces. I screamed as one hacked at Achoo. She danced out of the way and leaped for his throat, snarling. Pounce went for the eyes of the cove beside that one. I glimpsed Tunstall at Sabine’s back, the two of them guarding each other. The lady stood braced, wielding her longsword with both hands, keeping three attackers at bay. Tunstall struck at his Rat, his baton in his left hand and his short sword in his right. He used the baton as a shield.

“Kemari!” I cried, summoning Achoo to me. I was still half kneeling on the ground. A Rat came at me on my right. I swung my baton hard into his knees, hearing bone shatter as he pitched face-first toward the fire. He threw himself to the side, away from the flames, but didn’t remember I was still there with my dagger. I killed him and hunkered by his corpse, keeping low. Achoo was with me now, hackles up, her lips skinned back from her teeth. Where was Farmer?

A big sound like crump pushed at me. Dirt and small stones rained down as a column of white fire blazed close to the nearby stream. There stood Farmer, searching for his next foe or foes. I think I saw the remains of three pairs of boots. He did not see two of the enemy crawling toward him over the ground on his off side, one of them shimmering with red fire. I seized a good-sized rock, rose, and threw it hard at the red-fire mage. Seemingly that cove’s magic was not for protection against rocks, for mine struck him square on the skull. That brought Farmer around with a flare of his own power for the other mage’s companion. By the time he’d made sure both were dead, Achoo and I were at his side. Let him take the mages, I thought. We’ll cover him for the rest.

We were fighting off a second mage and two of his guards when I heard high whistles in a definite rhythm. The shrill neigh of a furious horse, followed by another horse’s enraged challenge, sounded from the area where we’d tethered our mounts. Drummer and Steady charged into the light of the fire and of Farmer’s white blaze. Drummer reared, lashing at attackers who battled Tunstall. The warhorse knocked one swordsman down with a steel-clad hoof and trampled the other. Steady grabbed one of Sabine’s foes by the collar and dragged him back, then dropped and stamped on him.

Still the attackers came, another mage, then two. One stayed back, away from Farmer, while the other came in close, though not so close that I could stick him. They showered Farmer with a blaze of magic. Achoo seized one of them by the wrist, shaking it ferociously. When the mage looked away from Farmer, trying to throw off Achoo, Pounce leaped onto his shoulder from the dark, clawing at the side of his face. He managed one scream before I knifed him. That put him down. Farmer did for his friend, wrapping a blue fire snake around the mage’s throat until the cove was dead.

The fighting blurs after that. A bolt of greenish fire came dead at Farmer, and he brought his fiery hands up too slow to counter it. I knocked him down, freeing one of the knife ribs from my arm guard. Onto my knees I went. I threw the knife. The blade struck in the green mage’s throat—they are always looking for magic in a fight, not knives. He tried to get off another strike at Farmer and dropped to the ground, green fire still on his hands.

That’s when I heard Achoo scream.

One of them had stuck a knife into her side, in her belly. I dragged her to me and crouched over her, protecting her, as I drew another reed-thin blade from my arm guard. I threw it at the Rat that had hurt her. He put up an arm, where it stuck. I threw another, and another. I stopped at seven. He’d fallen with four of them in his face. The paralyzing drug Kora had given me to put on the knives had taken hold. I didn’t know that Farmer had knelt beside me. He had a hand on Achoo, pressing the wound to keep it from bleeding more.

They had begun to fall back by then. Killing Achoo was their last sarden act. They tried to take their wounded, but Sabine, Tunstall, and the horses would not let them. Eventually there was only the gasping breath of our group and our animals and the crackling of the fire, which had spread from the fire pit into our woodpile.

“Let me look at her,” Farmer told me quietly. “I’ll do what I can.”

I smoothed Achoo’s fur back from her eyes. “Farmer will help you, all right?” I whispered to her. “This is more than I can fix. Don’t bite him.” Shaking, I got my pack and fetched out Kora’s balm and the kit of things to care for Achoo when she was hurt. I gave them to Farmer and went to help the others clean up, ignoring the pains from where I got pounded without knowing it. Achoo yelped once. I looked. Farmer was stitching the wound in her side. I’d done the same and she’d never yelped before, but it had never been so grave before, either. I kept on working, shifting burning wood into the fire pit. Sabine groomed Drummer and Steady, calming them and washing the blood from their hides and hooves. Tunstall collected the dead, dragging them to the western edge of the camp and setting them out in neat lines for examination. I made sure that our regular packs, taken from our supply mounts and set under some brush where they would not be easily seen, were still there. Assured we had them all and that none appeared to have been meddled with, I found Tunstall’s pack with the big medical kit and carried a bundle of linen bandages to Farmer. He thanked me with a nod as he smeared some odd brownish goo on Achoo’s belly. Her breath came shallow, in soft, short gasps.

I could not watch. Instead I moved out into the woods to search for any bodies, gear, or horses the enemy might have left. They had taken all they had with them, leaving us only those near our fire. When I returned to camp to inspect the Rats I thought might yet live, I found they had swallowed their tongues. I doubted that they had done it apurpose. The plot to kidnap Prince Gareth was riddled with mages who could make them do that.

Tunstall and I went through their pockets, with little satisfaction there, either. They’d left aught that might identify them behind. Even their weapons were unmarked, save for the signs of excellent care. They’d been professional fighters, but we all knew that. They’d chosen a time when we’d be in our deepest sleep, worn out from the day, and our guard in the same condition. Nor did it matter. Whoever had the watch could have been as fresh as April on the ocean, and we would still have been overwhelmed by the numbers of the enemy.

I was shocked by how many were slain, by us, by the horses, by their own hands or a mage’s spell. I hoped the enemy’s leaders would be shocked at the cost, too. They had sent more than twenty-five warriors to take us, and at least six mages. Later I would look at my companions, and Sabine’s horses, with awe. Had there been more witnesses than me, this would have become a battle for songs. As it was, I had run out of things to do, and Achoo turned every bandage that Farmer pressed to her wound crimson.

When I came over to them, Farmer shook his head. “I think she still lives only to say goodbye,” he told me softly.

Achoo tried to wag her tail as I knelt beside her. She licked weakly at the hand I used to cup her head. I took the latest bandage from Farmer and pressed it to the stitched-together wound. “Haven’t I told you again and again that you are not a fighting hound?” I whispered to her.

She ignored you because she was defending us. Pounce sat next to me, washing a bloody paw. He had some cuts and I’d seen him walking with a limp, but he would heal in a day or two. He said only a killing blow would destroy his present body. She always ignores you because she wants to defend us.

“I’m so sorry, Achoo,” I whispered. “I wasn’t at your side.” Her side, Holborn’s side … I bit my lip. I had my share of death.

Achoo tried to raise her head and failed.

“You’d better go,” I told her. “Don’t stay here in pain. The Black God is very nice.” My throat was closing up. “You’ll see.”

A pox on your rules, Pounce said. He did not seem to be talking to me. Punish me as you like.

I looked at him. He was illuminated in silver and very hard on the eyes, as if his light burned. He took two steps forward. Take the bandage away, Beka.

I did as I was told.

Pounce set a forepaw on Achoo’s bleeding wound. Achoo shuddered all over and whined, but held still. Pounce kept his paw there a moment longer, then took it away. The bleeding had stopped. Pounce began to wash the long gash. As he licked Achoo’s side, Farmer’s stitches came away. The wound closed and shrank, until it looked like an old scar Achoo might have carried for a year or two. She stretched out, closed her eyes, and sighed.

For a dreadful moment I thought she was dead. I put my hand before her nostrils and another hand on her ribs. She was breathing the deep, quiet rhythm of sleep.

And I will join her, Pounce declared. No fussing when we wake up, either. Fussing annoys me. He curled up against her belly. If he did not go to sleep instantly, he pretended it very well.

“Pounce, won’t the gods be angry?” Tunstall asked, his voice soft. “So often you’ve told us they forbid you to interfere.”

Pounce opened one eye. Let them be angry. It will take them a time to decide what to do. And if it isn’t permissible for a good hound like Achoo, it should be. He closed his eye again.

“The horses,” Sabine said. Tunstall, Farmer, and I looked at her. “I’m sorry, Beka. I know we’ve had our very own miracle, but if the packhorses and the other mounts are gone …”

She was right. She and I went to find the mounts while Tunstall and Farmer set about freshening the camp. We found our horses not where we had left them, but across the stream in a small clearing, cropping the grass that was there. They had pulled up the tether stakes and found each other to make a small herd, close to their humans and away from the fire and the noise.

“Mother of Mares, I thank you,” Sabine whispered, when we’d counted and seen we had all of them still. We would have been seriously hampered without these brave companions. “Good lads,” she told a couple of the geldings who had come to nuzzle her pockets. “Good girls,” she told the mares. I wondered in that moment, with the waning moon gilding her dark hair, if she didn’t have a little horse goddess in her. Of course, the Mother of Mares sported no black eye.

We cozened and cajoled them into letting us gather their reins and lead them back to camp, bringing them into the side farthest from the dead.

Tunstall, still examining the enemy corpses, looked up at us, grim-faced. “Some of these men Farmer and I met at Queensgrace. They were in service to the count and to the baron of Aspen Vale.”

“Are you surprised?” Sabine wanted to know. I went to the coves I’d taken down with the blades from my arm guards and retrieved my weapons.

Tunstall spat in the face of one of the dead men, which set me back. Even for Tunstall, that was hard.

“I suppose that means you are not surprised they served Queensgrace and Aspen Vale,” my lady said, unflustered. She looked at the others. “Some of these are Prince Baird’s people.”

“His Highness is in it, he’s not in it,” Tunstall said wearily. “I’ll leave that for the king and the lords to decide, if the king is triumphant.”

My heart skipped a beat. Of course the king would be triumphant. Lord Gershom was at his side like a guardian eagle. The great priest mages of the temples of Mithros and the Goddess would uphold their vows to keep the kingdom in peace and prosperity—wouldn’t they? The realm’s great lords would come to the rescue of the Crown, surely.

Farmer came over to say, “I’ve set wards around the camp. Now that you’ve brought the horses inside, I can call up the power, and we can sleep.”

“Before you said you didn’t want to ward the camp,” I reminded him. “You didn’t want strange mages to know where you were.”

Farmer smiled crookedly, but it was Sabine who said, “I think half the kingdom knows where he is now. Am I right, Master Farmer?”

He nodded.

Tunstall thrust himself to his feet and scowled at us. “Sleep? Are you mad?”

“I am worn out,” Farmer replied, meeting Tunstall’s black gaze with his relaxed blue one. “So is Sabine, so is Beka. So, my friend, are you. The horses need to calm down, particularly Drummer and Steady. Horses don’t kill and immediately turn into sweet-natured riding beasts again. Tell him, Sabine.”

“He’s right.” She sighed, taking the pins from her braid. “Drummer is a warhorse, and Steady learned bad habits from him. They’re as jumpy as you are. I know we can’t lose time, but we’ll lose more if a horse goes lame or gets the colic, or if Farmer drives himself too hard.”

“I can put a hard ward on the camp that will keep any creatures from coming in or going out,” Farmer went on. “Look at yourself, Mattes—have you cleaned your wounds yet? What about Beka? Sabine? It will be wonderfully heroic if we drop dead on the road from infection.”

Tunstall grumbled, but he was the one to fetch water for heating over the fire. We spent the next hour or so cleaning and stitching each other up, and smearing balm on lumps, while Farmer worked charms that eased aches and purified the open wounds. Sabine required no stitching, but she had some truly magnificent bruises where enemy swords had worked with her own armor to smash her flesh. Tunstall needed three gouges stitched and a score of little ones covered with ointment. He complained ceaselessly until Sabine dumped a mug of healing tea on his head. I would have thought she had remembered Tunstall is a dreadful patient. Worse, Farmer discovered that Tunstall and Sabine have both been magically healed often enough that any spell isn’t as good on them as it should be.

I had my sore hand and my back—there was a great gouge on it, though I have no idea how it got there—seen to at last. Farmer used an application of some balm that he said was created by his master and should make me good as new.

“You don’t have to give other people credit for what you do,” I mumbled as he rubbed the stuff on my hand. “We all know you’re a strong mage.”

While the men looked the other way, Sabine cut my tunic and shirt to reveal the wound on my lower back. Gods be thanked, it was too shallow for stitches, just badly placed over muscle. The lady set a pad with more ointment on it over the cut, then slid a fresh shirt over my head.

Farmer hunkered down by the fire, his face in his hands. I found the pouch of nuts he’d used before to recover from the poisoned stream and gave them to him. Farmer chewed some and swallowed.

Tunstall passed a cup of tea to Farmer. “Can you still call up your wards?” he asked.

Farmer nodded. “The magic’s in them, not me. I only need a touch to wake them. And then I need sleep.”

Tunstall rubbed his eyes. “It’s near dawn, curse it. We must be on the road by noon. And those bastards will make up the time they lost yesterday.”

Everyone nodded and retreated to the bedrolls. Farmer and I said nothing about how Tunstall’s and Sabine’s bedrolls had merged into one where they lay down together, fenced around by weapons in easy reach in case of a second attack. I banked the fire well and went to my own bed, next to the heavily sleeping Achoo. While Pounce curled up against her belly, I stretched out along her back, resting my hand on her shoulder. She continued to breathe.

From the direction of Farmer’s bedroll, a couple of feet from mine, I heard a lonely sigh. I was trying to think of a response when sleep struck me like a rock. I don’t even remember Farmer calling his wards to wakefulness.

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