“Excuse me, ma’am, did you hear me?”
Her gaze rose from the fire with a hum, head shaking slowly. “Yes, patrols…I trust your judgement on them.”
Harriet nodded unsurely, looking down at where one of her legs swung back and forth in front of the chair. She smiled, brushing a strand of hair back from her eyes. “Ma’am, I stopped talking about patrols a while ago.”
Rowena reached down, taking the shoes from her slender feet and setting them aside gently. Her feet arched, arches throbbing even from the heels, the discomfort stretching down to her curled toes. She stretched her legs out, feet burying into the plushness of the spotted rug beneath them.
She looked up again, expression falling. “Tuffett, have I ever told you about my father? He was the single greatest officer the Dravara have ever seen, an expert on most anything you could imagine.”
“I don’t think so,” Harriet answered. “Why?”
Leaning backwards again, she smiled. “The subject of patrols reminded me. Would you happen to know what happen to him? I’d rather not bore you with details you already know.”
Harriet shook her head, still twirling a bit of hair around a finger. “No, ma’am.”
“You know he was murdered, don’t you?”
“I heard he was killed while the two of you were riding, yes, I know that much.”
“Murdered,” Rowena repeated firmly. “And no, it was during a patrol actually. He had taken men against the beasts of the Rift, something of a foolish endeavor in hindsight, but he wasn’t aware of the ambush waiting for him. The monsters murdered him, killed him and would have torn his body apart had they not been frightened off. You understand, Tuffett, the Rift is a savage place.”
“Yes, I know-“
Rowena raised a hand to silence her, smile dipping down to the rug beneath them. “I have another one of these, the hide of the beast that killed him. You wouldn’t believe it, but her fur was black, not white.”
“Her?” Harriet repeated questioningly.
The girl shifted in her seat. “Ma’am, we are talking about one of the beasts, right?”
Straightening, Rowena smiled coolly. “Yes, we are. Is there an issue?”
“No,” Harriet answered, shrinking back in her chair.
Rowena rose to her feet, walking slowly towards Harriet and bracing against the arm of her chair. She smiled still, a purr still on her breath.
“As I said before, the Rift is a savage place and the beasts are the terrors that make it that way. Without them, this place would be just as civilized as any other territory. But, as you know, we are cut off from the rest of the world. You see, Tuffett, I intend on changing that and as quickly as possible.”
“W-why don’t you just do it now, ma’am?” she squeaked. “End it, I mean.”
She reached forward, flicking the long tail of hair that stuck out behind Harriet’s head, twirling it around her fingers thoughtfully. “You’re a practical woman, aren’t you? You understand that practicality may require sacrifice and sacrifice is something I’m willing to make for the time being. For now, there are other more important matters I have the misfortune of dealing with.”
“I understand,” Harriet agreed.
“I know you do,” Rowena replied, stepping back again. “And that is why I trust you to continue operations as they have always been carried out. You asked me early on why I chose you and I believe my answer was that you showed promise.”
“Yes, ma’am, it was.”
Her smile brightened. “There is a great deal of trust between us and the relationship between me and my officers must be built on such a thing. However, I’m quite certain I can trust you already and since I can do that, I know you trust me to make the correct decision when it comes to all things.”
Harriet nodded unsurely.
“Wonderful, then you trust my decision to wait and attend to certain matters before moving against the monsters we both know need to be dealt with. You see, plenty of things are about timing and right now isn’t the time to do that. I have people to deal with, traitors to deal with.”
“Of course,” she replied. “I understand perfectly. I’ll keep patrols running…just like they were. You can focus on those matters. Everything is handled.”
“That’ll be all, Tuffett. Come by in the morning, won’t you?”
Harriet got to her feet, shuffling towards the door and stumbling there, fumbling with the direction. The door opened outward. She didn’t understand why that was so difficult for some to grasp.
~ ~ ~ ~
Silas didn’t know why it mattered, why the dark haired one was so angry with his partner at the apparent misunderstanding. His chest hurt, lungs burning every time he dared to take a breath. It was almost impossible, between the snapped rib and the blood he’d soon be smothered by, and it was only becoming more difficult.
“I won’t hurt her.”
He glanced up, voice ringing in his head. “Who?”
“The girl,” the man grumbled. “I won’t hurt her.”
“Do you want me to thank you?” he hissed, coughing again.
The man was silent.
His attention flashed sideways, across the camp where his brother and Daniel were already tied, hands bound behind them. He couldn’t catch Aurora’s eyes beneath the brim of the hat, but the sight of the knife still sticking through the fabric of his jacket sleeve was enough to make his stomach crawl. And yet, despite the blade and the slow trickle of blood still oozing from his arm, Aurora was utterly silent.
“The town is close,” the man continued. “I’ll leave you your horse to help you since we can’t take you there ourselves.”
“I can’t ride.”
“No, but you can use your animal to help you walk. Put an arm over his back and go one your way. You can do that, can’t you?”
Silas’s eyes narrowed. “Breathing is difficult. Walking at all will be a nightmare.”
“It’s the best I can offer you.”
“And,” he broke off, eyes widening at a particularly bad spasm of pain, “what if I follow?”
The man looked up, blue eyes narrowing. “You won’t. Your saddle will be cut from your horse and Alek…” The man trailed off, turning to hiss. “My partner has already sliced one of your reins. If you can get on your horse, and I am saying this very hypothetically, you will have to find a way to ride with one rein and without your saddle.”
Silas only managed a grunt, lungs still shuttering when he tried to sigh. Instead he only coughed again, jaw clenching and for a moment panic split his scattered thoughts, blood dancing across his tongue. However, he realized, much to some relief, it had only come from the inside of his lip.
“For someone who’s so concerned about wasting time, you’re sure doing an awful lot of that, Crossvale.”
The man sighed heavily, instructing Silas half in a mutter to hold his hand against the wound before he stood. He strode forward, facing the now unhooded woman with a huff. They both looked to be southern, Silas thought, but the woman, taller than him and much darker skinned, seemed a great deal more foreign. She was pretty, mahogany hair cropped short against her head, and heavily freckled.
Part of him hated himself for noticing the detail at all while his chest was still leaking blood, lungs seizing every time he tried to take a deep breath, and hands shaking too harshly for him to even focus at the task at hand.
“I’m already not happy with you-“
“Not happy with me?” she scoffed. “Why’s that?”
His face reddened. “You made me look like a fool. Why didn’t you say something?”
She crossed her arms. “Why bother? You’d already assumed, Crossvale. What was the point in correcting you?”
“This is not the time to argue this,” the man snapped. “We will discuss this later-“
“By all means,” Silas croaked, “don’t stop for me.”
He heard Aurora laugh.
The bounty hunter returned then, ordering him to sit up as best he could as he loosely went to wrap whatever he could. Silas had, with whatever breath he could spare, explained why the wound couldn’t be packed. He had dealt with a wound of a similar sort years ago, far back enough to where he hardly remembered much of it beyond the sound the man had made when his lung collapsed.
That was the greatest of his worries.
Walking, however, was another.
“Can you stand?”
Silas managed a shrug.
He was helped to his feet, surprisingly carefully based on the fact the man who had shot him was the one assisting him. Something felt wrong, beyond just the obvious, but his mind was too focused on other things to take much notice. Standing only made the pain worse and Silas found himself leaning, helpless and unable to do anything else, heavily on the shorter man.
That was until his horse was brought over, stripped of all tack but a saddle and a mangled bridle, one rein cut completely while the other had been shortened considerably. Silas looked down at the gray of his muzzle, reaching out a weak hand to run along the beast’s neck.
“You can keep your horse,” the dark haired man explained. “Should you find some way to follow us, I won’t miss again.”
His voice was calm, clipped still the way it had been before, but something about it held an unsettling gentleness. Silas looked up, shivering at the ice in his gaze before his arm was slung carefully over the back of his horse. Aero was still.
Briefly, his the fog vanished and in a moment of clarify, he thought to grab for the man’s gun, reach for a knife or something he could use. But his body hurt, his lungs burned and the thought of moving at all beyond what he needed was agonizing by itself. He had to stay alive, alert, for Sarafina. Reaching the resistance was their only chance and even if it meant admitting defeat, it was the one thing he could do.
“Did you hear me?”
Silas looked up then, shaking his head. “No.”
“You will take the girl and walk to the nearest town. I expect there will be a doctor to help you, someone who can handle this better than I. Do you understand?”
Silas didn’t answer.
“I think you’ll be happy to know I have no interest in coming for you. My job was to bring those two and that was all. I don’t care who you are as long as you stay far away from my work. You and the girl won’t be hurt as long as the two of them comply.”
“Threatening men already tied,” Aurora called from across the way. “You really are afraid, aren’t you?”
“Shut your mouth,” the man warned, turning slowly.
Sarafina yelped then, pulling herself closer to her father’s side and burying her face in her sleeve.
“You’re scaring her,” Silas scolded, reaching out for him weakly, but only managing to swipe at empty air.
The bounty hunter collected himself, stepping back with a snort. “Girl, come here…please.”
She didn’t move.
“We don’t want to hurt you,” he assured. “If that’s any comfort.”
He cleared his throat. “Come here, please…I’m asking nicely.”
“Yes, I’ve always known strangers ordering children around to be nice. In fact, why don’t you bind her hands while you’re at it? Seeing you’ve already done the same for her father and I. What possible damage could it do?” Aurora quipped, looking up to smile viciously. “I-“
Daniel elbowed him in the ribs. “Aurora, enough.”
“Crossvale, you’re a wonder with children.”
The second moved towards her then, crouching in front of the girl.
“Lay a hand on her and I’ll gut you,” Aurora growled.
She ignored him. “What’s your name?”
Sarafina was silent, only daring to peer up at the woman.
“Mine’s Aazyra,” she continued, extending a hand. “I come from south of here, way south on those islands. Do you know them?”
Aurora jolted, stopped only when Daniel leaned across him to keep him from moving.
“Fina,” the girl squeaked. “Go away, please.”
“Afraid I can’t go away, kid. But,” she paused, still staying crouched, “I can take you over to your friend without my partner bothering you. He doesn’t want anybody hurt, not anymore then they have to be.
She frowned. “Well, I’m afraid you can ask your friend about that.”
“You’re father and his companion are bad people, girl.”
Daniel swallowed. “Leave her alone.”
“Fina,” she corrected, voice steadying as she stood then. “You’re wrong, mister. They’re good…better than you.”
Aurora laughed only to be silenced by Daniel again before he could say anything.
“You don’t even know me,” the man retorted.
“You don’t know them,” Sarafina argued, words fading as she sniffled. “They’re good.”
Silas didn’t hear the remainder of the conversation, ears ringing and chest pulsing too painfully for him to focus. It wasn’t until a small hand grasped his numbing fingers that he looked down at the tears still glimmering in her eyes.
“Brave,” he croaked. “You’re so brave, Fina.”
“You are too,” she replied half in a cry.
Silas smiled. “We’re going to be alright.”
“How do you know?”
“I’m old,” he answered. “I know these things…by now. Please, just keep being brave for your papa and Aurora. Everything is going to be just fine.”
“What about you?”
He shook his head.
“I-I can be brave for you too.”
“Good,” Silas coughed. “That’s good.”
“Don’t forget this,” the man called, leading the small silver pony forward. “You might…need your pony.”
“Are you going to kiss us too?” Aurora barked.
“You’d like that,” the woman huffed.
He smiled, grinning up at her. “If you’re offering, I’m going to have to politely decline. You simply aren’t the right sort for me.”
“Right sort,” she mocked, reaching down to tap a finger over the hilt of the knife still buried in his arm. “Should’ve figured with that hat of yours.”
Aurora flinched, teeth gritting harshly. “Just wait until I’m free.”
“You won’t be free for a long time,” the man cut in.
“Piss off,” Aurora spat.
Silas leaned against Aero, ignoring the squabbling and squeezing the girl’s hand as best he could. The pain in his chest was staggering, trickling down to his fingertips and only increasing when he moved. The resistance, he reminded himself, everything depended on them reaching them in time. Both Daniel and Aurora could be saved if he found them.
However, the harder breathing became, he was beginning to doubt the possibility of that happening. And yet, as long as he could walk and as long as he could struggle to suck air back into his lungs, he had to try. It wasn’t just them that depended on reaching the resistance. The girl at his side was counting on him too.
He didn’t argue.
He didn’t have a choice.