Chapter eleven: The first night
Injuries ran rampant. The six weary travellers at last stopped at the first high place they could find to make camp when night fell.
Though Chimley claimed to be fine, Fredric was, for the time being, the healthiest and most uninjured member of the Pilgrimage. Chimley was able to help but didn’t, Nolle tried to help but couldn’t do much, Osarius and Xarthanias had difficulty staying conscious for more than five minutes at a time, and so it was Belladia who stayed by Fredric’s side, tending to the others. Chimley wouldn’t allow them to touch him, but he did accept the brew Belladia had made for him that was supposed to help fight infection.
Nolle and Fredric had helped Belladia with Osarius when Fredric had ridden up. With her good hand, Belladia felt the back of her brother’s head and found a swollen lump the size of half a kiwi behind his ear. Belladia instructed Fredric to tear from the roll of fabric in Belladia’s bag a strip to make a wrap for his head. The wrap held a wet handful of nitelee leaves in bless directly on the goose egg, a protective padding to reduce inflammation. She also wrapped his bloody leg.
After Fredric was certain that Osarius was going to live, he had been about to ride back to the clearing to help Chimley and Xarthanias, but they arrived at that moment. Xarthanias was draped over Shimmer’s neck, pale as the moon. Chimley led the horse, the chest under one arm. He refused to explain what had happened, just told them that the blue was still loose and that they had better get to high ground fast if they didn’t want to end up as bear food. Feeling sick, Belladia fluttered helplessly over Xarthanias’s back before they took off. Fredric rode behind Xarthanias to make sure he didn’t bounce off.
Fredric was Belladia’s extra hands for the tasks that didn’t require special care and attention. She showed him what to gather and the best place to find them, and he cheerfully ventured off to bring them to her. When they ran out of powders that Nolle had ground, Fredric ground more, diluting them with water to Belladia’s specifications. They amassed a stock of medicinal plants and special kinds of wood to burn at different times. It was nearly dark, and at the moment cesairi leaves and branches were giving off soothing aroma to keep their minds unclouded. This helped with pain for those in pain and concentration for those busy with healing, and later leroa smoke would help them sleep. She didn’t know what else to do for her own hand and Nolle’s foot, and after some stitches, not much more could be done for Osarius’s leg, so Xarthanias was their main patient. They took his long moments of inertia as an opportunity to tend to the mess that was his back.
Fredric pretended to be busy with something else when Belladia began to clean the wound. He was chary of blood after what had happened to his mother. When it was as clean as it was going to get, they stared in horror at the ribbons of muscle and skin which had paled in the hour since the injury. In her saddlebag Belladia had packed a needle, but after several painful attempts it became clear that she was unable to make the stitches well enough one-handed. She glanced beseechingly at Fredric for help. At once his lot of being the healthiest of the group became less of a blessing.
With the new perspective that he was being asked to touch it, he took one look at Xarthanias’s back and almost bolted.
“It isn’t that bad, Fredric,” Belladia pleaded, dropping the bloody needle into his trembling open hand. “We only have to stitch up the worst parts, alright? What’s the matter, are you scared?” Though she attempted playful goading, her essence betrayed her anxiety that was rapidly turning into panic. Xarthanias’s life seeped into the ground. He had already lost much blood during the ride from the site of the blue attack. There was a nonexistent chance that Chimley would help, and Nolle—who had been washing Xarthanias’s face but had been banished to the other side of the fire when a bout of coughing had concerned Belladia of contagions—looked sickly and nearly unconscious himself. All was bleak.
In the moment, he heard his mother’s voice as though she were with him, encouraging him to be brave: There is goodness to be found in everything, Fredric; seek it for your advantage, if only for the sake of staying above the depths of despair. With efficiency borne of longwinded practice, Fredric regarded the situation distantly and peeled away his reluctance to reveal it for what it was: Xarthanias needed his help. He had the chance to do something important, maybe even save a life. His future king’s life.
A chance he hadn’t seized with his dear mother.
“Nah, of course I’m not scared.”He declared it with as much gusto as he could manage. Fear had its place, but not amongst these dire circumstances. Pushing back images of the night his mother died, he forced himself to breathe in a lungful of sweet cesairi smoke to regain his bearings enough to regard the task looming before him without retching. Holding his breath to keep in the serenity of the sweet cesairi, Fredric pushed away the strips of Xarthanias’s paling skin to get at the first layer, as Belladia had tried to do.
The minute Fredric’s fingers touched it, Xarthanias’s pale green eyes flew open and he screamed.
As fast as she could Belladia had him knocked out with a whiff of burning leroa, but Fredric was shaking.
“I guess I should have done that before,” she conceded, face tight.
“What did I do?” he asked despairingly.
“Nothing, you didn’t do anything wrong. You know how he comes and goes. Please hurry and make those stitches, Fredric, I don’t know how much more blood he can lose!”
Osarius stirred at the yell, and opened his eyes blearily.
Firm and even, firm and even, Fredric reminded himself as he sewed rows and rows of stitches with thread made from dortian stems that would harmlessly break down after about a week. When he was only a quarter of the way done, Xarthanias woke again.
“Don’t!” he yelled before Belladia could grab the leroa, his head jerking from the ground, nearly getting up. Gasping, Belladia slammed her good hand down on his neck, forcing him to stay down so Fredric didn’t lose the needle in his back. “Why did you knock me out? Stop it!”
Belladia scrutinized him. “We can’t have you moving while we stitch you up. That bear got you pretty good.”
Xarthanias furrowed his brow. “I don’t really remember much. I won’t move, don’t worry.”
Belladia shrugged at Fredric. “Get on with it, then, I suppose.”
Fredric gave the prince a quizzical glance and then eased the needle in again. Xarthanias tensed and closed his eyes, but after a deep breath forced himself to relax. Fredric resumed his rhythmic sewing. Belladia followed Fredric’s rows of stitches with a layer of her salve, which had been poured into a small wool pouch stiffened into a drawstring pot. Belladia was almost detached in her calmness and focus.
After the surgery was complete and Xarthanias was wrapped, a pale-faced Fredric excused himself to gather more firewood. Osarius smiled after him teasingly and sat up slowly, fighting dizziness. Gingerly he touched his fingers to the lump under the bandage on his head, and picked at the bandage covering his leg.
When Chimley’s wound had all but closed, miraculously, he deigned to ask if there was anything he could do to help. Nolle also insisted that he was able to do something.
Belladia, grateful for the sudden extra help, assigned Chimley the task of finding water and a list of ingredients for a broth to help them all regain their strength, and told Nolle to look after Xarthanias, who was looking even more green than before, even in the firelight.
“What is the matter?” asked Nolle, hobbling over to his brother.
“I’m not sure,” said Xarthanias, pressing a hand to his forehead. “I think it has something to do with the fact that a rabid animal tried to rip out my spine. How fares Osarius?”
“He’ll be alright. Belladia told me to look after you, so what can I get you?”
Xarthanias considered. “Some water please, and maybe something to eat? We really should have gone back for that bear; it would have tasted wonderful over a shousu fire. Oh, and could you tell me a story?”
“Oh, why do I bother?” wondered Nolle, but a faint smile flickered on his face.
Nolle moved on.
“How’s your head?”he examined Osarius’s bandage. “Your leg”
“I’ll survive, Nolle. All I need is a good rest.”
Nolle tested his foot and found he could put some weight on it, so he helped prepare their meager meal of bread, cheese, and berries from the forest. At last Fredric returned, and for desert, one raspberry roll was divided between them; Chimley refused, so Xarthanias ate the sixth piece.
When they had finished eating, they donned their capes which had been drying by the fire, and wearily settled around the flames to discuss the day they had had along with plans for making up for the excessive loss of time. By all rights, they felt that the events of the day—meeting and recruiting Chimley, all the injuries, losing the chest, the bear attack—should have been the product of a week of travels, not half of one day. They had been warned that the journey would be far from simple, but they hoped against all hope that each day forward would not be as disastrous. The straightest course to the best place to traverse the Volcanic Belt took them from Rahd to Aghyml without another civilization to be seen for days in any other direction, and no way to get help without going irreparably off track. Tomorrow, they would need to rise early and try not to stop for anything if they were to make it to Port Aghyml, their checkpoint, in time.
Excitedly, Xarthanias recounted the tale of the fight with the blue. Chimley rolled his eyes at some parts of the telling, but contributed nothing.
They called it a night after the conclusion. It was still balmy and warm, so they lay on top of the expansive leather Teideko blankets. Nolle told them the story of the Blue Tribesman.
“And as he was leaving, I asked if he didn’t want the blankets back, and he said the oddest thing! He said, ‘Chimley, friends; Pgeden, friends.’”
Fredric glanced at Chimley. How strange.
Shrugging, Chimley rose to his feet. “Pgeden? Yes, we’ve been friends for a while,” was the only thing he would offer.
Chimley decided to sleep in a tree, and Belladia sat cross-legged on the ground at her brother’s side, cradling her bum hand and keeping steady watch over him, though he repeatedly told her to go to sleep. Xarthanias was on her other side, in considerably worse shape, but she paid little attention to him. She brushed off her brother’s annoyance and stubbornly held her ground. Giving up, Osarius closed his eyes against her and was very quickly asleep.
Almost all of her hair had come loose over the onerous day. Sighing, she tugged on her wayward hair remorsefully.
Nolle watched Belladia. He set aside the bag of Chimley’s gifts that he had been sifting through and picked up the chest resting in front of him. Stepping over a softly snoring Fredric, he lowered himself beside Belladia and set the box down. Silently he removed the clips from her hair, his fingers gentle in the silky locks. With surprising skill he twisted her long hair back into its up-do and replaced the clips, restoring the sensible style.
“Thank you,”she said cautiously when he was done, gazing down at her hand. She yawned, rubbing her eye with one finger.
Nolle gazed down at Xarthanias, whose face had lost its pinched look. Nolle truly considered him to be fine, but he lamented to Belladia’s overprotectiveness. “Why not get some rest,” he suggested. “He looks better; I will wake you if something happens.”
Belladia could not contain her dubiousness any longer. For so long he had been so aloof, and the more he avoided her, the more she felt as though she were falling deeper into a pit. She had thought that they might have been having some sort of moment as they sat soaked under that tree. How her heart had leapt as he jumped up to defend her from the shadows.
In the darkness of night she forgot herself, and was lost in the depth of his eyes. She leaned forward, keeping her eyes locked on his. “Nolle…” she whispered, unsure of what she wanted to say.
He seemed to snap out of dream. “What are you doing?” he hissed, his essence flaring revulsion. She sat back, startled and wounded. “Remember your honour, Belladia,” he said in a cold voice she had never heard before. “We are friends. Do not ruin that.”
He retreated to the other side of the little encampment, accidentally stepping on Xarthanias’ hand on the way.