First: Spoils of War I: Surrender
Their horses were tired but not injured; they were tired and they both had their share of injuries. They moved at a steady pace rather than rushing, doing their best not to look like they were running away.
Nikol heard Aran mutter Workings two more times. The second time, the words trailed off into a string of cursing.
“Just a little while longer.” The man had tried to hamstring her. Still. “Just hold on a bit longer. It won’t do us any good to have survived that battle if we end up at the Mountain.”
“Aren’t the people running the Mountain your people?”
“No.” The saddle jostled her. Her small cuts all felt like gut wounds. She wanted to fall over in a ditch. “Mercenary troupe. Or we were. Something went weird, the last couple battles.”
“Ha.” His laugh sounded wet, like he was coughing up blood. “Weird is a good word for those bastards. So now what?”
“Now, we find a place to camp and we lie low, moving as much as we can, until we can get out of here.”
“Aren’t you worried I’m going to try to kill you?”
“Don’t try to kill me.”
He snorted. “Yes, ma’am.” He shifted again in his saddle. He was moving oddly.
“How badly injured are you?” She might have to find a place sooner rather than later. She sniffed the air and asked it where it was sneaking and sliding.
“I’m fine.” He sat back heavily in his saddle. “Broken leg You knew that.”
“Tell me what else.” The wind told her of a place – a cave, really – not that far away.
“Uh. Two bullet wounds. Some bitch bullied me into surrendering. I think my left eye is full of blood. There’s some hawthorn in a gash but I can still Work, so it’s not poisoning me too badly yet. And uh. I think I’m going to puke if I have to ride further, but I haven’t eaten in three days.”
“Extra motivation to succeed,” he explained dryly.
“I’m not sure who I hate more, your bosses or mine. Okay.” She hissed out breath slowly, considered their situation, and considered the place in the air where there was a cave again. “Five more minutes of riding. You can do this. Hold on to the pommel if you have to.”
“I can do this.” He put an ironic spin on her words. “If you say so, mistress.”
“I do. Because the option is leaving you here for the coyotes and the turkey vultures, and I think you’ll like my ideas better.”
“…You’re a real bitch, you know that?” He leaned forward a little in the saddle, holding on to the pommel. The horse, tired and ready for its stable, followed Nikol’s mount without needing steering.
“Says the man who tried to gut me. I’m not sure you have room to talk.”
“If my mistress -” he grunted and for a moment said nothing. When he spoke again, his voice was thready. “-if you say I don’t have room to talk, I guess I don’t.”
“You really hate surrendering, don’t you?”
“I hate everything about this goddamned war, from the moment someone shoved me on a horse to the moment you forced a surrender out of me.”
“I gave you options.” She didn’t argue too forcefully: she had bullied a surrender out of him.
“Ha, yes. Options. What does the Mountain even do to people?”
“All I’ve been told is that I don’t want to know, and all that I’ve seen just reinforces that idea. They take people, I can tell you that. And they don’t give people back.”
“But you were working for them.”
“And you were working for their enemy. My contract ended when the enemy surrendered. Until then, I was stuck. What about you?”
“Same.” He shifted in his saddle. “You went to work for the Mountain not knowing what they did?”
“When I took the contract, they looked like decent people trying to defend their territory. They’re really good at that; I don’t know if you’ve noticed? They imitate good people really well.”
“Right up until they’re sticking a knife in your back. Yeah. I grew up around here, ran away as soon as I could get out. And I don’t think I ever would have thought they were nice people. But that’s different, you know.” He shrugged a little. “Maybe outsiders couldn’t see it. Maybe you were just blind because you wanted a job.”
He was starting to sound drunk, and he was listing in his saddle. “Sit up straight,” she snapped. “One more minute. You can do this.”
He pulled himself up like he was on puppet-strings with a grunt. “Bitch.” It had no heat.
“Yeah. That’s Bitch, ma’am to you. Or mistress bitch, depending on how you want to play this.”
“How I want to play this?” He was sitting up straight, but he still turned to stare at her incredulously. “Pretty sure this is up to you.”
“Well, yeah. The whole not dying thing. But how you – fuck.” She flailed with both hands. Right now was not the time. She slid off her horse. “Stay up there,” she ordered him, “but you can stop sitting up straight. Just hold on.”
He slumped over the pommel, strings cut, and held on with both hands while she led the horses, coaxing and clucking and swearing, down a hole that didn’t look big enough for any of them. “This better work,” he muttered, with no strength behind the complaint.
“It will. Because this is what I do.” Inside the opening, the cave opened up into a reasonable-sized hole. It would be tight but tolerable for a hide-out. She coaxed his mount to kneel. “Can you dismount? You have permission to.”
“Gee, thanks,” he muttered, but he slide clumsily off of the horse and landed mostly in NIkol’s arms. “Fuck.”
“Yeah, I can tell. All right.” She laid him down carefully. “I’m going to take care of the horses. Can you heal yourself?”
“If I could heal – no. No, I don’t have that word. Do you?”
“Yeah, and about a drip and a drop of magic left, and it’s not my best combination. I’ll see what I can do.” She stripped both horses down and dug through their packs, finding two decent bedrolls and a very paltry ration of trail food, as well as half a canteen of water and one metal bowl, the remains of a first-aid kit, a belt knife, and some horse feed. “Well, we won’t be able to stay here long, but we can sleep here tonight, at least.” She divvied up the feed between the two horses and laid out the bedrolls touching each other. “Can you do water?”
“I can turn something else into water,” he offered.
“Good. Uh. What sort of else?”
“Rocks are good.”
She piled some pebbles and rocks into the bowl and handed it to him. “Clean water, please. I’m going to wash you up.”
“What, worried I stink?”
“Assessing your damage.”
“Hrrmph. There’s enough of it.” He glared at the bowl and coughed out a Transmute working, leaving the bowl full of clean water. “There. Might be all I have in me tonight.”
“That’s fine. We’re not going anywhere tonight, anyway.” She dipped her cleanest handkerchief in the water and began washing him, pausing only to pull off his shirt and then, after some consideration, to cut off his pants.
“Gonna be fun riding without those,” he muttered. “Guess we’re staying ‘till I can fix them.”
“Better that then you end up getting an infection that festers.” He was a little too thin but had a lot of muscle and quite a few scars. “How long have you been fighting?”
“Since I could hold a sword. Before that, really, with a knife. Got conscripted into the Silver Streak early and then when that fell out, well, moved on because I didn’t know what else to do.”
If he was telling the truth, he was probably fifty or sixty years old – almost as old as she was, and from the looks of it, more prone to diving into fights face first. “And you don’t have the healing words?”
“No. Got myself a few nice scars here and there too.” He gestured; she used a little of what was left of her magic to call up a targeted light and studied the scarring.
He had a long gash just below his ribs that had healed badly, one too high on his thigh that had probably nearly killed him, and under some of his current wounding, she could see one on his collarbone. “You’re a mess.” She kept washing. “I’ve got to set this leg, and that’s going to hurt.”
“Hurts now,” he grunted. “Do what you have to.”
“Relax as much as you can. Focus on your breathing. In, two, three, four, out, two three four. In… out…” She kept her voice low and level until his breathing, too, was even and level, pushed that way by her orders. On an out breath, she pulled his leg back into place.
He hissed out and swore, punching his good leg. “Fuuuuuuuck. Damn. I hate that feeling.”
“All right.” She studied his body slowly. “Pick what you want me to heal tonight and what waits. Oh…” She pulled the tweezers from her med kit and found the gash splintered with hawthorn. “This first.” As quickly as she could, she removed the poison wood from his wound.
“Eye,” he grunted. “No. No, leg. If you don’t heal it, you might have to set it again.”
“Leg it is.” She ran her hands above the leg, and, sparing as little energy as she could, Worked the bones mended and the skin healed. “It’s a patch job, but it won’t break if you use it. Now we eat, ant then we try to sleep.” She passed him half of the trail food. “Eat slowly. Very slowly. You know that.”
He sipped from the canteen, ate a little food, sipped again. “I know it,” he agreed. “So what are you going to do with me? Sell me?”
She huffed in surprise. “No. No, I don’t… is the Mountain that bad?”
“Well, I don’t think they sell people, but you know they do worse than that. I mean.” He paused to chew for a moment. “Sounds like you know that, at least.”
“I didn’t. But I was beginning to get a feeling for it. And then this last battle…” She shook her head. “I’m not going to sell you. I don’t know, what do you think is fair for attempting to gut me?”
“I didn’t succeed,” he pointed out dryly. “So let me go?” He snorted. “I mean, not like I can chase after you or turn you in to the authorities.”
“Whose authorities? Yours, mine, the next town over? Besides, I bet you could. You got yourself on that horse.”
“I’ve got no reason to sell you out, though. We both deserted. And when you come down to it, we both hated the war. Let me go. I won’t try to kill you.”
“Not yet.” She looked him up and down. “You didn’t really think that would work, did you?”
He tensed. “If you’re not gonna sell me and you’re not gonna let me go, what are you going to do with me?”
“Keep you.” She considers that for a bit. “Keep you. Because I could use a partner on the road and you’re pretty damn determined when you set your mind to something.”
“Keep me?” He snorted. “Do I get a cage and water at least?”
“You get a horse and your share of what we catch or scavenge or buy. Partner.”
“Partner with a leash and collar,” he grumbled.
“Hey.” She found herself wanting to smile and so she did. “Lots of ‘man’s best friend’ would be pretty happy with that deal.”
“So what’s that make me? Woman’s best friend?”
“We’ll see, we’ll see. For now, sleep.”
“Cheater,” he murmured as his eyes closed and his breathing evened.
“Mmm.” Niko settled down next to him, wishing for a moment that she had someone to order her to sleep.