He knew what pain felt like.
He knew how ribs snapped beneath the weight of a horse and how easy it was to rip a leg out of place, how it felt to have the cage that was supposed to protect his lungs nearly impale them. He knew how agonizing mistakes could be, how much it hurt to have tally marks carved into his chest. He knew how lungs failed, how every shudder of a gasp sent waves of anguish through an aching body.
He had lived it, all of it.
Pain wasn’t foreign; it wasn’t new. It was simple a reality, one that had since crept back from the shadows it had stayed in for some time. He’d done well, as well as one could, at avoiding it, but just as everything did, it was bound to return. Some evil was determined to worm its way back into his life and with it came agony panting at its heels.
Perhaps it just seemed worse than it really was, he considered for what felt like the thousandth time. The pressure in his chest and the struggle of his lungs was only due to worry, the near panic that bubbled up when he thought about where his brother was going. East was a place he’d always sworn Evander would never go, and yet, by the doing of some apparent damnation, that had already happened.
It couldn’t happen again.
“Fina,” he croaked, voice failing.
The girl turned from where she sat on the back of her pony. “Are you-”
His head spun, pulse roaring in his ears. His legs ached from shaking, shuddering every time he took a step. Silas coughed, falling against Aero more until his legs gave out beneath him and he slid painfully to the ground.
The sky spun above his head.
Whether the words made it out into the air or not was lost to him.
For a moment, things were far too quiet until a small hand was tapping his head urgently and he felt the rough nuzzle of Aero at his side. Blinking, he squinted up at the terror on the little girl’s face.
“I’m sorry,” Silas hissed. “I didn’t mean to...scare you. M’alright-”
“You already said so, but,” she paused, swallowing, “you’re bleeding.”
He tried propping himself up on a quivering arm, biting his lip to avoid crying out and shuffling sideways in order to find a tree to rest himself against. Of course, he couldn’t tell her that the wound had been continually bleeding since they left the others, trickling down his side for hours. It hadn’t stopped and instead the pressure in his chest, the crushing weight, was only growing worse.
“You’re bleeding,” she repeated softly.
His eyes rose when she pointed to the red smear across his horse’s side, crimson against a gray speckled copper.
“I know,” he answered. “Can you get firewood? We should make a fire…and I don’t think I can walk anymore.”
Horror flashed to her face. “Ever?”
Silas shook his head. “No, just not right now...I’m tired.”
She came back soon enough, dragging behind her a bundle of twigs and any branches she could carry. A bowl was set down beside him and he heard the sloshing of water as it spilled over the sides, trailing down the torn leg of his trousers.
“Your hands are all dirty,” she said, sitting down crossed-legged. “See? Like mine…they’re dirty too.”
She held up her own hand, small fingers flexing before she began to scratch away at the crimson still flaking away. “But your hands are more dirty, Silas.”
Blood, he thought, his blood, on someone else’s hands. She never should have been there to see any of it, go through something so young. He reached a hand forward, dipping it into the bowl and thanking her in a whisper.
It came away with some scrubbing and with the help of a rag given to him by the small girl at his side. She didn’t speak, only sniffling occasionally, but her eyes had dried and tears no longer slipped down her round cheeks.
Silas couldn’t imagine how much bravery it took for a girl scarcely old enough to understand what was going on. He considered how much of a mistake it was to offer for Daniel and his daughter to join them. She was a child, even younger than either Kallieon when they became involved in something too overwhelming to think about for too long.
And yet, she was likely the only reason any of them were still alive.
“Your pony,” Sarafina hissed, “he’s dirty too.”
A smile slipped across his lips. “I know he is. I’ll…” The words trailed off as his lungs seized, ripping the breath from him and leaving him gasping again.
“I’ll get more water!”
She sprang off before he could argue.
Water wasn’t going to help him; he knew that much.
“Vex it all,” he wheezed, letting his head fall back and sliding down onto his back.
It was getting worse, more difficult and more painful to breathe. Death was something far too difficult for him to admit defeat to. It was indecisive. He couldn’t die, not with a child still in his care and not before they reached the resistance.
There was too much bearing down a chest that barely managed to rise and fall.
Broken hisses replaced his breaths and for some time, the world spun too harshly for him to focus on the image of the girl when she returned, eyes wild and hands shaking as she offered him the waterskin. He couldn’t bring himself to move, only smiling weakly back at her.
Her hand took his.
Silas swallowed harshly. “Fina, tell me about your papa.”
“Why?” the girl quaked.
“If he…and my brother are staying together, for however long...I want to know about him.”
“They’re friends,” she sniffed, “and they need to stay together. They’re going to be fine, right?”
He nodded. “Right.”
The girl shifted where she sat. “He’s not like my mother was. He’s nice...just different. Will you tell me about Rory?”
A laugh stirred behind his ribs. “Rory?”
“He said I could call him that instead when we ran away.”
“Why don’t you...instead?” he asked softly. “Tell me.”
He watched her smile grow, partially hidden behind the still fearful pout of her lip.
“He’s good, nice too. He cares about my papa a lot. I think he really loves him and papa loves him too, but they yell a lot. Papa says it’s because Aurora’s scared, but I don’t think he’s so scared anymore. You made him less scared and papa too, just not as much. I’m trying really hard…”Her words trailed off, choked by a sob. “We’re going to see them again, right?”
“We will,” he assured brokenly.
He didn’t know.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Ma’am, there is a man here to see you.”
Her voice came quietly, nervous as it always was, but lacking the usual quiver, the sniveling shake that usually accompanied her words. They were all so similar, so hesitant until something snapped and every request was taken as an order, every gun fired without question. That was how things shouldn’t have stayed.
“Should I send him in?”
“He says it’s urgent, ma’am,” Harriet continued, “something about your bounty hunter-“
Her hand waved to silence her, nails clicking against the hearth. “Yes, yes, send him in if it’s that important, but isn’t it late to be dealing with things like this?”
“I can tell him to come back-“
“Or,” she paused, head tilting, “you can listen to me.”
The young woman nodded, dipping her head before her image disappeared from the doorway and was replaced by a man she didn’t recognize. He walked forward slowly, favoring a leg and carrying what appeared to be a heavy pack over one shoulder. His eyes lowered. “Evening.”
A brow raised.
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
She sighed, shaking her head and clicking her way over to one of the chairs, swinging an arm out invitingly. “Would you like to sit? It’s nothing, don’t you mind. I was just expecting someone else. Do you have news for me? Something of relevance of course. I don’t like my time to be wasted.”
“He already paid me, don’t have to worry about that. I was just supposed to say something,” the man stopped, shifting uncomfortably, “something important, he said. You know about that, don’t you?”
His only answer was a nod, the smile evaporating.
“Crossvale’s don’t disappoint, he says.”
Rowena blinked. “Anything else?”
“Says he’ll be here soon,” he hesitated, shrugging. “Also said you’d know the rest.”
“I do,” she assured. “I appreciate you coming all this way. I can arrange a room for you if you would like to stay with us for the night. You should know how unsafe the east is to travel after dark.”
The man nodded, hand sliding up the strap of his bag. “Really would. I don’t-“
A scramble, some obnoxious fumbling at the door, and a thinly worded apology all came before the young woman ducked inside. She straightened herself, hands brushing over her jacket.
“Will you see to it that our friend is given a room for the night? Put him up in one of the officer’s quarters, the empty ones, of course.” She stopped, turning to smile. “And have you eaten?”
The man shook his head.
“See he is fed also.”
Harriet nodded, motioning with one arm and mumbling something too quiet for Rowena to hear clearly before the man was gone from her sight. But the young officer stayed, one finger twirling around a hair uncomfortably.
“Ma’am, did he bring good news?”
A frown. “I did tell you to see to the messenger, didn’t I?”
“You did, but I just wanted to ask. I know you sent out the bounty hunter and I was only wondering if-“
“Crossvale is coming this way now and I assume he has done what I’ve asked of him already. I trust he won’t disappoint me,” she paused, chuckling, “as the Crossvales are known not to do so.”
Harriet nodded, flashing an unsure smile.
“Good news indeed then.”
“The officers he was sent after-“
Rowena’s heel clacked sharply against the floor. “Fugitives, Harriet, they aren’t officers any longer.”
“O-of course!” Harriet chimed. “My mistake, ma’am, but, are they alive?”
For a moment she was silent, only staring back at the nervous gaze of the officer before her. Her lips pinched shut, head tilting slightly as the smile widened. “I assume, but why is this any concern of yours?”
“It’s not,” she assured, “I was just curious…t-to make arrangements for when they get here.”
The fire crackled behind them, but the heat evaporated from the room.
“Do you have an issue with the treatment of traitors?”
“Not at all,” Harriet sounded. “I was just thinking that they should be given a chance to explain…”
She trailed off on her own, words stumbling and then finally falling away into nothingness. Rowena’s smile twitched. “Excuse me?”
The young officer’s head bent inward as she stepped towards the door. “Nothing, ma’am. I’ll go see to that messenger-“
Rowena’s teeth glinted as she grinned, pleased, and her hands clapped together just once. “You do that. I’m rather tired. Goodnight, Tuffett.”
She was gone before Harriet was able to finish, vanishing out a door and down into a darkened hallway. A hand rose, fingers tracing the furred snout peering over her shoulder as she made her way towards her room. It was late, dark and colder than it should have been, and she had no intention of dealing with messengers.
While helpful, she often worried just how much they knew.
But that wasn’t it, not entirely, and if she wasted her time on worrying about just who knew what, the world would crumble. It would slip away, melt like snow in a non-existent summer sun. She didn’t have the time nor the energy to worry about the many who possibly knew shreds of information, only the few that were actually something of a threat.
And that was exactly what she was doing.
The door opened with a groan and she moved into the darkness, striking a match to light a candle on a table nearby. Flames sprang to life, twisting on the end of a wick and glinting in eyes, both hers and those glassy marbles stuffed into a head on the wall. Her attention rose to the snarl, teeth bared in something that never made it out of the poor beast’s throat before it had been shot down, slain only a few strides from her horse.
Rowena paid no attention to it, moving to sit down heavily on the edge of the bed and feeling for one of the knives sheathed at her side. The blade that came free was slender, slotted down the middle, and she knew just how nicely it tucked into the spaces between ribs. It was how things were dealt with and how they would be the moment the bounty hunter returned.
It was cleaner that way.
There were some that knew too much, others, the more fortunate, that never knew enough. The bounty hunter was approaching a level far too dangerous to allow slip by. She had no way of knowing what he was told, what lies he was fed by tongues fouled by misunderstandings and falsehoods.
Zayne Crossvale, she thought, was unfortunate as he was compliant.
That combination was as convenient as it was simply divine.