“Several,” he corrected, reaching his hand across the desk to pluck the stack of papers that had been set there.
Zayne thanked the man, nodding his head as he made his way out the door again with Alekzander following just behind. They had made a few stops, but never once let the travelers get more than a town ahead of them. With the map, things had only gotten easier, but the pain in his side every time he took a step, after every stride of his horse, and every clumsy dismount certainly put a damper on the trek.
It never should have been difficult in the first place.
Truly, they were stalling.
They were instructed to hold letters for him, notes passed along from potential employers and anyone who actually knew how to find them. As he’d explained to Alekzander, there were several scattered about the land. He flipped through letters, some marked by sigils, seals of people he recognized from before, but it wasn’t until he reached the one marked with a scribble and a very specific eastern stamp that he stopped. Frowning, Zayne handed the remaining letters over to his companion before moving to peel the wax off from the tightly pressed bits of paper.
“I’m not some packhorse,” Alekzander complained, snatching the letters away.
“Just a moment,” he replied, scanning over the words quickly. “This is important.
Alekzander sighed, leaning against the wall of the building they had just exited. He flipped lazily through letters, reading some and seeming to utterly disregard others. A snort and he tapped a curved nail against one particular note. “This one doesn’t seem too happy.”
“Well,” Zayne answered, looking up from his own letter, “people tend to get that way when they’re ignored.”
“Why’re you ignoring him then?”
“Never mind,” the bounty hunter huffed, taking them back again, “there has been a change of plans.”
“News travels fast when Crossvales fail, I guess.”
His eyes narrowed. “A setback is not a failure. And no, it wasn’t about that. She wants them alive.”
“Alive?” Alekzander scoffed. “That hat bastard took my knives, set them down where I couldn’t get to them.”
“Alive,” Zayne agreed, brushing a hand over his side. “This might be proving to be more trouble than it’s worth.”
“Why should you care? You’re getting paid, aren’t you?”
He looked down, glancing through the letters again before stuffing them into the pocket of his jacket. “Not nearly enough.”
“Not nearly enough,” Alekzander mocked, voice lowering to match Zayne’s.
Startled, he turned, shaking his head. “Your voice…it sounded like me-“
“Call it a gift.”
Zayne frowned, watching as Alekzander reached down to pluck a knife from his belt and a small block of wood he’d been carving at for a while. He still couldn’t tell what the man was making, but it was beginning to take shape, a round head topped with a pair of ears.
“Brothers and I, the little ones, and my sister too used to carve these things, sell them to whoever would buy in the harbors. Another gift,” he looked up, eyes glittering beneath his hood, “I guess. Got any gifts, Crossvale?”
“Minding my own business for one,” he scoffed.
“Right,” Alekzander snorted, looking towards their horses. “Alive, you said. Just how do you feel about that?”
“I feel like things are going to be even more difficult,” Zayne sighed, fumbling with the buttons of his jacket.
“Nothing you can’t handle, right, Crossvale? I forgot what you said before. What was that about disappointing?” he hummed.
Zayne’s eyes narrowed and he turned, stalking towards his horse. “The Crossvale’s don’t disappoint. Those words have been drilled into my head since I was a boy and I can’t exactly accept a failure now.”
“You’re hardly older than a boy now.”
“I’m a man,” he snapped.
Alekzander laughed, ordering his horse down to the ground and then climbing on swiftly. “You don’t look a day over fourteen. Did you even serve in the Dravara?”
“I had more important things to do than piss my days away freezing to death,” he retorted. “I’m assuming you know nothing about important matters, do you?”
Alekzander was quiet for a moment, shifting in his saddle. “Starting to think the hat bastard was right about you.”
“And just what did he say about me?”
“You sounded like a prick,” Alekzander drawled. “He wasn’t wrong, Crossvale. Doesn’t surprise me you don’t have any friends now.”
He straightened in his saddle, clearing his throat. “I’m sorry.”
“S’alright,” the man answered. “I’ll just think harder about cutting your damned throat while you sleep.”
Zayne ignored him, sighing.
He didn’t have the time to argue.
Their targets would move on again, soon by his best guess. Storming the inn was messy, not something he wanted to deal with especially with the child around. Killing people, even those who deserved it, was always an inconvenience. The news of spilled blood traveled and it was something he tended to avoid, even if it was only to dodge the stigma, if at all possible.
Things, he reminded himself, would be over soon enough.
~ ~ ~ ~
The walk to the clearing was quiet.
It wasn’t hard to find and the trail of footsteps accompanied by the mark of a cane every so often only made the path more obvious. The tracks were days old, half covered by leaves and crossed by the highways of game trails that only obscured them further. Blindfolded, he could have found the place himself, knowing the way and how the forest gave way to the thinning thickets until finally they dropped away completely.
Sunlight filtered down through the dissipating treetops, chasing the shadows from his face and dripping down his fingertips to the ground. It was warm, the warmest day he’d felt in a while and even in the shade, he didn’t feel the familiar chill that usually still hung in the air. Something about it, the pleasantness of the day in a place that he had only witnessed horror, made him feel dreadfully uneasy.
Shouts of direction, voices echoing in the trees, the tightness in his chest from cold clutched lungs as he shot off into the woods. They had run for what felt like days, blurred faces stalking just out of reach. And then it exploded, a shot and a burst of crimson, and the blooming of red in a field of white.
Aurora tried his best not to think about that as he made his way from the trees, but it was the only thing that flashed back into his mind. He stopped, seeing a place where the ground didn’t match the rest of the grassy field, a spot where flowers grew, planted on hand and knee one by one. For a moment, he watched them sway, leaves waving, beckoning, in the breeze that danced across them. He swallowed a lump in his throat, hands clenching at his sides.
The flowers still danced.
Looking down, hat falling to cover his eyes, he started forward again. His feet were heavy, clumsy as he stepped around the flowers, weaving between the clusters until he could manage to lower himself down onto the ground. Pulling his knees to his chest, he stared down at the place where the ground was different, odd, green against the rest of the still winter yellowed field.
He studied the plants for a while, eyes flitting between the flowers until he finally managed to tear his attention away. Warm, he thought, and yet his hands betrayed him, trembling as he reached down to brush a gentle finger over a nearby leaf.
“Jackson told me about these, the flowers. They’re beautiful.”
Aurora frowned. “They did the same to me,” he paused, reaching down to run a hand over his abdomen, “hurt, still does. I’m sorry you had to…”
The words froze in his throat, strangling him until Aurora managed to cough. Everything he said felt wrong, every thought a mistake. His fists clenched, nails pricking against his palms. He swallowed harshly, steadying himself. “I’m sorry it happened the way it did. I never meant to hurt you.”
He had slept the night before and most of the day after. For once in well beyond a decade, he didn’t wake in terror, edging on insanity and still plagued with a sense of wrongness that never seemed to fade. Instead, for the first time in far too long, he dreamed of something other than the blood, the whimper as her knees buckled, and the echo of his gun.
“I assume you would scold me for sulking for so long,” he stopped, smiling. “You’re probably cursing me wherever you are. I’m sorry for that too, but I couldn’t…this wasn’t something you just move on from.” Aurora looked up, shaking his head. “I talked to Jackson about it. He misses you, we all do. I’m sorry…for all of it.”
He stared down at a leaf again, feeling it brush over his leg. “Just tell me you’re causing havoc wherever you are, haunting my ass for not shooting that bitch down just yet. I’m going to, I swear that much. I just wish you were here with me too. This place doesn’t feel the same without you. Jackson, he’s still something of the same. I think Daniel and I are to blame for why he takes in runaways now. This morning he told me about a group that had just left, three boys and a girl, and how they had been running for almost a year.”
Sighing, he looked over at the green again. “We are going to stop this, all of it. Even if it kills me and if it does, I’m sure you will have a stern word with me about what I did wrong. I’ll be waiting for that if it happens.”
Aurora leaned backwards, staying silent as he lay back between the flowers, careful not to crush a stem or leaf beneath him. The hat tumbled down beside him, landing just behind where his head rested. Silence fell, the only sound coming from the creaking of the trees and the chorus of birds tucked between them.
His eyes closed and for a while, awake, asleep or somewhere in between, he stayed.
“Will you thank her for me?”
Sitting upright again, Aurora’s eyes flashed to the sound o f a voice, settling over the image of Daniel in the trees. He stayed where he was, watching as the man moved cautiously closer, sitting down just beside him.
“Why would I do that?” Aurora asked, shoving Daniel carefully away from one of the budding plants. “Watch the flowers.”
“Don’t worry,” Daniel assured him, bracing an arm behind him. “I won’t crush any of them, but thank her for me.”
Aurora frowned. “Why can’t you do it yourself?” He stopped, eyes narrowing. “How did you even know I was here?”
“Silas was afraid you would get into trouble, so I followed you.”
He just nodded, staring down at his hands that had come to fold in his lap. Daniel cleared his throat. “How do you feel?”
“Strange,” Aurora admitted.
Smiling, he felt Daniel shift nervously beside him. “Is that a better strange than things have been? I noticed you slept…for a long time. We were afraid you were dead. Silas had me check on you every so often. Your room-“
“It hasn’t changed, I know.”
Daniel chuckled. “Well, mine has. I guess I’m the least favorite son again.”
Aurora nudged him sideways with his shoulder.
“He’s worried about you,” Daniel said simply.
Breathing out a huff, Aurora glanced sideways at him. “I’m feeling better, if that’s any consolation to any of you.”
“Well, I guess that depends on what better is exactly,” Daniel answered hopefully.
He shrugged tiredly. “Better as in I don’t feel like grabbing a pistol and filling my head full of metal.”
“Aurora,” he scolded. “You realize that doesn’t make me feel any better-“
“Daniel, I have something to fight for. For the first time in far too long, there are things in my life that matter. I don’t think you understand how strange that is for me to feel.”
A smile flickered across his friend’s face. “I’m glad. But, what exactly?”
“You,” he paused, glancing up, “your daughter, Silas, Jackson, and the others that suffered because of her just like we did. Silas was right when he said this wasn’t just about me.”
Daniel looked away from him, smiling still.
“We should be getting back,” Aurora huffed. “Silas spoke about leaving once it got dark again. Are you coming with us?”
Hesitating, Daniel climbed to his feet. His fingers trailed up the side of his neck, curling to scratch at the freckled skin there. “We aren’t any safer here. If we can get to the resistance, we’ll be at least somewhat protected. That’s what Silas has been saying.”
“Safe,” Aurora grunted. “As if that even applies to us anymore.”
Daniel offered him a hand, helping him up while the two stood facing the flowers and the hat tucked between them.
“In theory, I guess it’s as safe as we’re going to get,” he said, half in a laugh.
“I’m sorry you and your daughter are involved in this. You never should have been, not for my sake.”
Aurora looked up, feeling Daniel tug at his sleeve.
“Aren’t you taking the hat?”
He shook his head. “Not this time.”
Daniel chewed at the inside of his cheek for a moment, nodding slowly in understanding. Aurora would have followed, just behind along the very same path had something not nudged against his ankle softly. His attention flashed downward, seeing the upside down hat and reaching down to sweep it from the ground.
“I think she wants you to keep it.”
Aurora smiled, placing it slowly back on his head.
“Maybe its suits you after all.”
“Don’t insult me,” Aurora scoffed. “Of course it does.”
A laugh and Daniel shook his head.
“Welcome back. I think I missed you.”