Daniel stood away from the rest, watching the supply bags stack with the remainder of his traveling group. They had already said their goodbyes, some long and others, like his daughter’s, that was a simple wave to a man she hardly knew. His mind wandered, thoughts spinning away from him the longer he watched and the longer he waited for something to happen.
He didn’t mind being last and, in some ways, it was a relief.
When he was younger, despite the age gap between him and his oldest brother, he was always first to do anything. First to run, first to fail his family, and, of course, first to bring disgrace to their name. Most days, he didn’t think about that. It was insignificant, infinitesimal compared to the trouble they faced and the trouble he had a sinking feeling was far from over with.
“Did you hear a word I’ve been saying?”
Shaking his head, he looked up at the sound of Aurora’s voice. “Yes?”
“We’ll be outside,” Silas replied before Aurora could.
Sarafina followed, reaching up to take Aurora’s hand as the three ducked outside and left him standing, still leaned back against the wall. Jackson cleared his throat, pouring himself a mug of something and taking a few firm gulps before he nodded slowly. “It’s good seeing you boys again, nice meeting your daughter too. She’s beautiful…you should be proud.”
“She’s not mine-“
“I never said that about Elizabeth. She’s yours,” Jackson assured him, limping over without his cane to set a heavy hand down on his shoulder. “You watch out for those two, alright?”
“Take care of yourself while we’re gone.”
The man smiled, face lighting up. “Planning on coming back, are you?”
“Not for a while,” Daniel answered in a sigh.
“I understand, boy. Don’t you worry about me. I’d join you all in a heartbeat if it wasn’t for this leg of mine. You wouldn’t want to have me dragging you back,” he laughed, shaking his head. “Besides, I’ve got more coming my way now, people like you looking for someplace safe. Can’t just leave them out in the cold, can I?”
“Just be carefu-“
“You’re the ones out there starting a war. But I will, don’t worry. Keep an eye on Aurora, Silas too, but I hope he’s grown up some now. Just take care of each other and you’ll be alright. We always are.”
Daniel smiled nervously. “I’ve kept Aurora alive for this long, how hard can it be to keep going?”
“Don’t you say that unless you’re looking for trouble,” Jackson scolded lightly. “Just be careful, that’s all I’m saying.”
He nodded, then looked down only to shake his head. “Thank you…for what you did for him. I was scared of what he he’d do given the chance.”
“Stick with him. He’s got a whole road ahead of him and as long as he’s got you and you’re brother, he’s got something to hold onto. Don’t let him lose himself again, alright? He’s counting on you more than either of you know it.”
Daniel smiled, shifting his weight as his eyes went to the door again.
“Go on,” Jackson urged. “Don’t wait around because of me. I’ll be alright.”
“Safe travels, boy. Come home again soon and bring that girl of yours. She’s bright, like her father, and I miss having someone like that around. Goddesses, I miss having all of you around here, but you’ve got work to do.”
“I know,” Daniel agreed, “a lot of it too.”
Jackson nodded, hobbling back towards the bar again and leaning down, running his hand across the wooden patterns, fingers scraping over dents and scratches that had long since been dulled. “If you boys need me, you know where to find me.”
“See you around,” he replied, moving towards the door, “soon, I hope.”
He wanted to say more, thank him for the seventh, eighth or even thousandth time, but nothing came to mind. It wasn’t enough and it never would be, an expression of something far beyond his own understanding and own capacity at realizing just what he’d done for him, for all of them. Instead he only gave a nod, an insult compared to what he should have done, and closed the door behind him with a click, closing the sunlight out with him.
~ ~ ~ ~
Aurora sat up quickly, startled by the touch at his shoulder and blinking to clear the blur from his vision. It wasn’t a nightmare, no race of his heart or panic clutching at his lungs that woke him and instead, it was simply the girl. His eyes narrowed in confusion and he rubbed an eye tiredly. “What are you doing, little fawn?”
She shrugged, sitting down cross legged in front of him.
“You looked cold so I gave you that,” she explained, pointing towards the ragged blanket draped across him.
He smiled, sitting up slowly and stretching an arm over his head. The ground left his limbs stiff, tired and just as worn as the blanket he’d shrugged off himself.
“Well, thank you, Fina.”
The others were nowhere to be found, horses gone and ground vacant where they had been sleeping earlier. He cleared his throat, moving to his feet and looking down when he felt a tug at his sleeve.
“Silas said to give you this when you woke up so here, it’s for you.”
An apple, bruised on one side and dented in the other where it had quite obviously been dropped. Aurora nodded his head, thanking her quickly and taking a bite around the unsavory looking skin.
“Where are your papa and Silas?”
The girl shrugged. “Papa thought he heard something. They told me to stay here and wake you up if I saw anything, but I didn’t.”
He took another bite, nodding and chewing thoughtfully for a moment before his outstretched hand offered the remainder of the apple to one of the horses.
“Did he say what he heard?”
She shook her head, moving closer to run a hand down her pony’s nose. “Just a sound, I guess. Do you want to play a game until they get back?”
He smiled, nerves lighting up with something that edged on panic. “Perhaps later? How long have they been gone?”
The girl nodded, pausing to shrug, before she moved off to sit down heavily on one of the logs surrounding the pile of ash where a fire had been. “I dunno.”
“Did you sleep well?” he asked, moving to sit across from her and reaching up to shake the pieces of bracken from his hair.
A nod was the only reply he got as her mind was far too focused on the small stick that was being dragged through the ashes by small hands. Aurora watched, smiling pleasantly until his eyes flashed up to the cloud cover above them. The day wasn’t cold, but the clouds were dull, shrouding the sun and leaving the forests cloaked in daytime shadows.
The boom of a thunderclap and a small surprised shriek from the girl brought his attention back down again.
“Don’t worry. The rain won’t get us here, remember? It isn’t clever enough to creep through the leaves,” he replied, staring absentmindedly down at his feet. “I-“
He was cut off when she shuffled closer, scooting across the log to lean into his arm.
“Fina, are you afraid of the rain?”
“Not the rain,” she answered in a whisper. “Do you see them?”
Aurora’s head snapped upward, arms prickling with gooseflesh and mind flashing with alarm at her words. It was a moment before he saw them, two horsemen. His eyes narrowed, one hand moving to the holstered pistol at his side, but his fingers halted the moment he recognized the flash of a silver backed stallion.
“It’s just your papa and Silas-“
“Did you hear that sound?”
“Thunder,” he assured.
Sarafina swallowed, clutching his arm tighter. “I don’t think so.”
The horses rode closer and Aurora only shook his head in apparent disbelief. After being on the receiving end of something that created a similar sound, he of all people should have known the difference. However, the closer they rode, the more obvious it became that it had been no harmless crash of thunder.
Daniel dismounted first, rushing over to Aurora and scooping Sarafina swiftly into his arms. His mouth opened, but the words seem to freeze, stuck somewhere between the terror in his eyes.
“They found us. Silas,” he blurted out, pausing then, “help him.”
Aurora didn’t hear what he said to Sarafina before the two fled to the other side of the camp. Instead his eyes only rose to his brother, to the ragged sounding cough that escaped him and the blood seeping through the fabric of his jacket. He pulled his hand away from the side of his chest, staring down at it briefly before his head fall back and his body went slack, tumbling.
He half caught him, half stumbling himself as Silas’ weight knocked into him and he lowered his older sibling to the ground. Silas blinked, unfocused eyes narrowing. “Help me,” he paused, wheezing, “get back on the horse. Give me the hat…run.”
“Where were you hit?” Aurora demanded, helping Silas up against one of the logs and with shaking fingers went to search up his side.
Silas sucked air harshly through his teeth, fingers shaking as he went to undo the buttons of his jacket. He ran a hand up his chest, stopping when he came to the source of the blood, a tear in his shirt on the side of his rib cage. “Here.”
“Were you shot?” Aurora asked, voice breaking.
“Didn’t see him,” Silas rasped. “Aero reared…it still hit me. Give me the hat-“
The fabric of his shirt tore easily and Silas cried out when Aurora lifted his arm out of the way. Aurora supposed they all looked the same, small compared to what damage they really did, but the sight of the wound made his head spin. There had been men in the Dravara shot before, mostly accidents or, very rarely, due to a dispute gone horribly wrong. He didn’t know much, not enough to deal with any of it, but the location of the wound made the pit in his stomach grow deeper the longer he looked.
“Bad, isn’t it?” Silas asked, managing a strangled chuckle. “Just give me the hat-“
“For the last time, no. I’m not letting you take the fall for me again.”
Silas coughed, breath seizing in his throat. “You just don’t want me to take it.”
Aurora ignored him. “Can you breathe?”
He nodded, still half gasping. “There’s a hole…in my chest,” Silas paused, swallowing harshly, “but well enough for now.”
Cursing, Aurora glanced back towards where Daniel had taken Sarafina away only to find them both already on horseback. He didn’t have the chance to be angry.
“I can’t ride,” Silas admitted.
Aurora swore. “I really hadn’t noticed.”
“Is this really the time for that?”
“You’re going to be alright.”
“Of course,” Silas wheezed, coughing again and groaning weakly in protest when Aurora tore the fabric further.
His arm, with whatever limited movement he had, went to cover the scars that crossed his chest. Aurora couldn’t bring himself to scold him for moving and instead only tore off shreds long enough to press against the wound. The bleeding, for the time being, was his greatest worry.
“We’re bad luck,” Silas hissed through clenched teeth. “Have to be.”
“That is probably almost entirely our fault,” Aurora tried joking, but the shake in his voice betrayed him.
Silas was quiet then, slumping further while Aurora’s composure was on the edge of shattering completely. They were close, he knew that much, but Silas was the only one who knew the way. Horror flashed through him at the thought, the fact it was the first thing he considered beyond the blood on his hands and Silas’ ragged breathing.
“Where are the bounty hunters?”
Aurora’s head snapped upward, one hand moving from the site of the wound to turn Silas’ face towards him. His brother’s eyes stared off, glassy and unfocused. Panic ate at Aurora’s mind, stomach curling into a further mess of terrified knots.
“Silas,” he demanded. “Silas, look at me!”
Another cough, eyes flashing to Aurora’s terrified expression. “M’here.”
He bit his lip, nodding. “Good, stay that way…please.”
“Close,” Silas breathed. “They’re close. You need to-“
“I’m not going anywhere.”
A click sounded behind his head.
Aurora froze, hands still in place. “You have my attention.”
The voice came harshly, commanding. “On your feet.”
“I’m a bit occupied. Try again when there isn’t a gaping hole in my-“
“Aurora,” Silas hissed through clenched teeth. “That’s enough.”
There was a pause and he heard the man shuffle behind him before barking an order to the other that Aurora was too distracted to understand. Silas breathed out a broken wheeze, clutching for his arm suddenly. “Vex it…all.”
“Easy,” Aurora croaked. “Stay still.”
“Hurts,” Silas murmured.
The man cleared his throat. “Excuse me, I believe I told you to stand.”
“And I believe I told you to piss off,” Aurora snapped. “Forgive me if I haven’t. I was meaning to.”
“I’m going to ask you one last time nicely before people will start dying.”
Aurora stood slowly, instructing Silas to press his hand against the wound as best he could. He turned slowly, facing the dark haired man with a snarl. “Happy?”
“Step away from him,” the bounty hunter ordered, “slowly.”
“He’s going to die if I don’t help him,” Aurora growled. “I won’t let that happen.”
A sigh and the man shook his head. “He can walk to the next town. It isn’t far and I’m sure he can find some help there.”
His fists clenched. “You say that like he can even stand to begin with.”
The bounty hunter’s eyebrows knitted, blue eyes flashing. “I suppose that does depend on who he is. I was given instructions to watch out for others related to your disloyalty.” He stepped sideways, gun still trained on Aurora. “Who are you?”
Silas looked up, staying silent.
“I asked you a question. Are you ignoring me?”
Aurora stiffened, alarm ripping through him.
“Just a man,” Silas managed, swallowing a cough. “No one.”
“No one,” the bounty hunter repeated, half in a sigh. “That really doesn’t help me.”
His eyes moved across camp to where the other stood, weapon against Daniel’s back. Rage sparked in his gut the moment he spotted the shaking form of Sarafina standing beside her father, eyes closed and hand clutching tightly to his.
Something had to be done.
“I really don’t want to kill anyone when my orders were just changed to keep everyone alive. Please, and I’m being sincere, just give me a name.”
Aurora lunged, crimson covered hands snapping forward for the outstretched gun, the barrel situated a few inches from his chest. He didn’t make it there, not before pain exploded up his arm, sending him backwards against a tree instead of forward. The handle of the knife stuck through his jacket, blade buried into flesh.
“Don’t hurt him!”
Her voice rang in his head, echoing.
The second bounty hunter looked down. “Girl, we don’t want anyone hurt.”
“Aurora’s good,” Sarafina exclaimed in a cry. “Just don’t hurt him…” She trailed off, looking somewhere between scared and frustrated. “Sir?”
The pitch in their voice changed slightly. “Ma’am, since we’re being proper…I guess.”
The comment sent the other whirling on his heel. “What?”