Magic of Thieves, page 5
“Stop!” Dradac shouted. “Let him go.”
Illsman hesitated and during that pause, missed his opportunity. The priest had put the trees between them and was lost from sight.
“Why did you stop me?” Illsman growled. “I had a clean shot. Now we’ll have to chase him down.”
Dradac clutched his shoulder and spoke through gritted teeth. “Forget the old man—it’s unlucky to murder a priest. Besides, he doesn’t know the forest. He’ll stumble around in circles for days before he finds his way free of the trees, and once his safety is secured, I very much doubt he’ll have the courage to return.”
A low moan nearby distracted me from the outlaws’ conversation. I followed the sound to the priest boy, who writhed in pain a few yards from me. I don’t know what instinct or pity made me move toward him, but I did. He lay on his side, hands fumbling uselessly at his injury. To his credit, he wasn’t crying out. Instead, he sucked in his breath in ragged gasps against the pain. His hands were trembling, his knuckles white where he clenched handfuls of his gray robe in his fists, vainly attempting to slow the flow of blood.
His feeble efforts moved me and, unthinkingly, I began to assist him. Trying to remember what little I had learned from our camp healer about tending such injuries, I tore the hem of the boy’s robe, ripping free a long strip of coarse cloth. With effort, I lifted him a few inches from the ground and shifted him enough to twine the bandage twice around his waist, pulling it tight over his injured side to staunch the bleeding. He gasped at the movement and the painful pressure against the wound, but I ignored his reaction, feeling a small surge of satisfaction when I saw the blood flowing less freely. The boy’s face was growing pale as milk.
He opened violet eyes to peer into my face, and I was immediately struck by his gaze. It held none of the panicked dread I’d expected. Slowly, cautiously, I opened my magical sense to the turmoil of his emotions, only to discover there was no turmoil. Intrigued, I dug deeper but could find no fear in him, only a silent cry of determination and a strong will to live. Alongside this, hot waves of agony rippled through him, and I instinctively withdrew before the pain could reach through him and touch me.
I became aware once more of my companions. Dradac, his voice taut with pain, was giving orders. “Seirdric, stay behind and dispose of the bodies. I don’t want anybody stumbling over this mess and wondering how it got here. Nib, you’ll help him and Illsman will accompany me back to camp. I don’t know that I can make it there on my own.”
There were murmurs of agreement as the men leapt to obey his orders. And then they noticed me kneeling over the boy.
“What have you done here, hound?” Seirdric came over to frown down on me. “The boy should’ve bled to death. Now I’ll have to finish him.”
“No, leave him be,” I said, not stopping to consider where I found the courage to speak so firmly. “He’s no older than me. Let’s give him a chance.”
“Sure, a chance to stab us all in the backs,” Seirdric snorted, drawing his knife.
Unthinkingly, I moved to shield the boy from his reach, but the big man shoved me aside easily.
Desperate for support, I cried, “Dradac, help me!”
“What is it, Ilan?” the giant asked impatiently. On his feet and leaning weakly on Illsman’s shoulder, his face was sleeked with sweat at the effort it cost him to stand.
I felt genuine concern for him but had to trouble him anyway. “The priest boy still lives,” I said. “Let me try and help him.”
The giant looked beyond me to the boy’s crumpled form. “Wake up, hound,” he said. “That one’s beyond saving even were we of a mind to. Come now and lend me your arm before I collapse.”
But I wouldn’t be swayed. “Just let me try,” I begged. “I know I can save him.” I actually knew nothing of the sort, but I wouldn’t admit to doubts.
To my surprise, Dradac gave in, ordering Nib to carry the boy. He added, “I doubt he’ll last out the day, but if he’s another priest… Well, I won’t have his blood on my hands. We’ll let him die in a more comfortable bed at least, if the trip doesn’t kill him.”
The rest of the day was difficult. Between the two of us, Illsman and I were able to get Dradac back to camp with Nib trailing behind, carrying the unconscious priest boy. At first, Dradac leaned heavily on Illsman and I for support, but eventually his legs could no longer hold him. He was too heavy for Illsman to carry alone and so I was sent ahead to fetch what help I could. Eventually, with a strong man at either end of him, we were able to drag the giant in. After that point I lost track of what befell him, for I had to worry about the priest boy.
I chose an out of the way spot at the clearing’s edge, near the stream draining from the pool below the fall. I would have liked to put the injured boy under some sort of shelter, but the cave would be too dim and I knew I’d need good lighting. After Nib deposited the lad on the hard ground, I persuaded him to stand by while I cut a pile of pine boughs for him to roll the boy onto. After that, the outlaw disappeared, leaving me alone to care for my charge and to wonder what I had got myself into.
I was glad to see the boy’s bleeding had stemmed, but nervousness tinged my relief. I fiercely wanted him to live, even as I wondered at the strength of my determination. Yet now I was left with the question of what to do for him next. I sought out Javen, the camp healer. Healing was perhaps too optimistic a word for what Javen did, but he was a cobbler in his old life and was accustomed to stitching up the outlaws after their brawls or when someone took a blade. If any of us were ill, it was Javen who prepared the bitter draughts that occasionally helped but more often didn’t.
I hadn’t far to look. I found him examining Dradac, who was laid out near the mouth of the cave. But when I explained my need, Javen only responded distractedly with, “We’ve our own to see to just now, hound.” The most I could extract from him was a promise to look in on the boy after he finished removing the bolt from Dradac’s shoulder. I doubted a healer’s presence would be needed by then, for it was unlikely the boy could survive that long.
Frustrated, I returned to my charge. I guessed he must have awakened temporarily during my absence because he had obviously been thrashing around. He was unconscious again now, but his weak efforts had loosened his crude bandage and fresh blood was visible, soaking through the cloth. I realized with dismay that I could rewrap him, but each time he moved, he would begin bleeding all over again.
As I looked on, he stirred in his sleep, gave a pained whimper, and was still again. Even as he slept, his pale, sweat-streaked face was drawn into a grimace of pain. I felt a wave of pity for him because he looked so young and helpless and, clenching my jaw, I went to work with renewed determination. I wouldn’t think of failure.
The noises I heard in the background told me they were removing the bolt from Dradac’s shoulder now, but, concentrating on my own task, I tried not to hear the giant’s cries. I removed the boy’s gray robes and clumsily worked him out of the tunic he wore beneath them. Then I bellowed for Nib, and incredibly, the outlaw answered my summons. With an authority that surprised even me, I ordered him to heat a kettle of water and fetch me anything that might serve as clean bandaging. He moved quickly to obey and I didn’t stop to wonder why he followed my bidding. My mind was taken up with the task at hand.
I wadded the boy’s dirty robe and applied it with pressure to the gash in his side, attempting to hold back the blood. I longed for Brig to appear just then and take this responsibility off my hands, but he didn’t materialize and I knew he wouldn’t. He was visiting the camp at Molehill and the vagueness I felt when reaching for him told me what a long distance separated us.
Nib returned with the objects I required and surprised me by crouching nearby to await further commands. I was glad of his company. His presence wouldn’t allow me to display fear or doubt. When I peeled the blood-soaked bandage back from the boy’s wound, a crimson stream trickled out, and I despaired. How could I clean the wound when it would
Nib suggested helpfully, “Don’t know much about these things, but it seems to me you should wait for the blood to clot before you take the bandage away.”
“I know that,” I lied, as I looked down on the boy I was struggling to save and asked myself why I was doing this for a complete stranger. I didn’t even know his name.
The minutes ticked by. I expected the boy would slip away at any moment but his breathing held steady. His bleeding had miraculously ceased by the time Javen appeared—I had little idea how. At the healer’s request, I stayed nearby over the next hour, watching as he bathed and stitched the priest boy’s wound and applied fresh bandaging. Javen warned me it was unlikely my charge would survive the night.
At length, the healer departed, declaring he had done all he could. As soon as he had gone, I began constructing a shelter of sorts around the boy. It hardly felt right to let him lay out in the cold all night. Dusk was falling as I tramped into the forest to collect a heap of pine boughs and elder branches. I propped these limbs against one another and bound them with bits of twine, as Brig taught me, to form a flimsy shelter over the ground. More than likely it would blow over with the first gust of wind, I thought, standing back to eye the completed work.
About then I became aware of a savory scent wafting on the evening breeze. One of the men had killed a wild boar and was now roasting it over the campfire. The sight and smell of the food set my empty stomach rumbling and, with a backward glance, I left my little shelter and went to the fire where for a short time I forgot my worries over a greasy slab of meat.
After eating, I remembered Dradac. Abandoning my place at the fire, I ducked into the cave, but on entering, found the giant sleeping deeply, laid out on a thick pallet of animal skins. His face was relaxed and I was relieved to see he wasn’t in pain at the moment. I decided not to wake him and slipped silently back out into the gathering darkness.
I fetched bread and water for the priest boy, but found when I peered into his shelter that he still slept. A mercy, I supposed, as I sank to the earth to eat the dried bread myself. On finishing, I was assailed by a great weariness. The day’s events had been more than I was accustomed to. The camp was silent around me, the other men having departed either to their beds or to their watches. I thought of turning to my own bed, but it seemed wrong to crawl into a warm, safe place while the injured boy slept out here. I moved my sleeping pallet out of the cave and into the shelter, piling my blankets and animal skins over the boy.
Just enough space remained for me to crawl inside and curl up on the hard ground beside him. Rocks jutted into my flesh and insects crawled over me, but I was accustomed to such discomforts. Harder to ignore was the chill that descended as the ground cooled. I shivered and wrapped my arms around myself, eventually slipping into a shallow, miserable sleep.
I was awakened sometime during the night by the commotion of the priest boy groaning and tossing around. A thrashing elbow caught me in the face. I shoved aside the last remnants of sleep clouding my brain and reached out for him. Although he stilled at my touch, his rapid panting never slowed.
“Hurts…” He gritted out weakly.
“I know,” I said. “But you need to relax. Squirming will only make it worse.”
His response was so faint I had to lean closer to hear. “Am I going to die?” he gasped.
Admitting I didn’t know would hardly soothe his fears. He was going to need all the courage he could summon over the next days. “You’re going to be fine,” I assured him. “It’s a minor wound, not as bad as it feels.”
“How bad?” he persisted. “Can I see it?”
“Maybe later. It’s too dark in here now.”
“Dimmingwood,” I said. “You were journeying through the forest with a priest and an escort, remember? You were attacked by brigands, injured, and brought back to the outlaw camp. I’m Ilan and I’m looking after you.”
He groaned. “I remember now. But where is Thilstain?”
“Would that be the balding woodsman with the belly?” I questioned.
“No, Honored Thilstain is a priest. The other was just a stranger, hired to safeguard us on the way to Whitestone Abbey.”
“I’m afraid your escort is dead,” I told him. “I don’t know what became of the old priest. The last I saw of him was his back as he fled into the trees.”
The boy sighed, sounding relieved. “So he has escaped? Then he may return with aid.”
“I doubt that,” I said. “He doesn’t know where you are or even if you’re alive. Besides, I imagine he’s too giddy with joy just now over his own safety to spare much thought for yours.”
I sensed the boy’s disappointment, but all he said was, “Even if he can’t help me, I suppose the fact that he escaped is cause for thankfulness. I wouldn’t wish him harm, dour man though he was. No, I shouldn’t have said that. It’s wrong to criticize a man of the robe. Please, forget you heard it.”
I grinned into the darkness. “I’m scarcely in a position to think less of you for a stray comment. An outlaw has greater wrongs to her credit.”
He sounded suddenly alert. “You’re one of those murderous thieves, then?”
“I’m afraid so,” I said dryly. “But you’ve no cause to fear me. Even I don’t kill Honored Ones.”
“But you do hold them prisoner,” he pointed out.
“No one’s a prisoner here,” I said. “We brought you to our camp to keep you alive. Think of yourself as a kind of guest. For now, just forget everything else and concentrate on recovering. You’ve had a near brush with death.”
“I feel like it,” he admitted. “You’re sure I’m not dying?”
“Positive,” I lied. “Try and think of something besides the pain. Tell me about yourself. You know my name, but I’ve yet to learn yours.”
“Sorry, I didn’t think of it. I’m Terrac of Deep Pool. That’s a settlement near Three Hills in Cros, a long way from here. Honored Thilstain and I were on the road for weeks to get this far.”
His words cut off abruptly as he sucked in a great breath at what I supposed must be a particularly sharp throb of pain. It was a moment before he was able to continue with, “The Honored One goes to Whitestone on pilgrimage, while I journey there to join the priesthood, as was my father’s dying wish. Everyone said if my mother were living, it would have been her wish as well.”
He gasped those last words out in short, panting breaths. As I heard him grinding his teeth against the pain, I hesitated to ask what was on my mind. But I needed to know.
“You’re not already a priest then?” I asked.
“Not yet, but Thilstain was instructing me.”
This isn’t good news, I thought uneasily. “I advise you to keep that fact to yourself,” I told him. “The outlaws spare you for the sake of your priesthood. If they learn you’re not an Honored, they’ll have no compunction at killing you.”
“An upright man doesn’t lie,” he pompously informed me.
“Then that man sets little store by his life,” I answered. But sensing he was going to remain stubborn on the issue, I switched to a more persuasive tone. “Besides, you don’t have to lie exactly. The assumption has already been made. It would be enough simply to hold your peace and let folk believe what they will.”
His tone was hesitant. “But that’s little different from a lie.”
“What does it matter?” I demanded, losing patience. “What’s one small lie to a lot of cutthroats anyway? Give them the truth and they’ll kill you for thanks.”
The boy either lacked the will to argue further or he couldn’t summon the breath to do so.
“You should rest now,” I said. “But think on what I’ve told you. I haven’t gone to all this trouble only to see you kill yourself as soon as you get a chance to open your mouth.”
“I am grateful to you,” he
“Forget it. Do you need anything?”
He asked for a drink of water, so I crept off to the nearby pool, filled a skin with the cool, clear water from the falls, and brought it back to him. After drinking thirstily, he quickly sank into an exhausted slumber.
The next day, noise and activity were kept to a minimum around camp to afford quiet for Dradac. I doubt anyone even remembered Terrac, the boy priest, unless they looked up to see me slithering in and out of the shelter all day, waiting on his needs.
He fared even worse today, waking rarely and only for short lengths of time. He gave no sign he remembered me or last night’s conversation. He moaned and tossed around until he finally tore his stitches open and I had to fetch Javen to repair them. I felt relief each time the injured boy sank down again into a fitful rest.
It was a long day for me because my charge lacked strength to do anything for himself. I fed him, coaxed sips of water down his throat, and changed his bandages. Come nightfall, I was exhausted as I lay down to sleep. As I sprawled on the hard-packed earth beside his sleeping form, a numbing chill stole over the ground. Scooting over to press my back against the still, warm body beside me, I fell asleep wondering what would become of Terrac of Deep Pool and whether or not he would prove worth my efforts.
The following morning, Brig returned and from the moment he strode into camp, things began to improve. He took over the larger share of the work in nursing Terrac and looked impressed with what I had done for him. He didn’t ask for details on how the priest boy came under my care and I didn’t offer them, knowing he wouldn’t approve of my having been placed in such a volatile situation, where it might easily had been me injured instead of the others.
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