First: Spoils of War I: Surrender
Content warning for this chapter: Clumsy field medicine on rat-induced wounds.
They were far enough from the Mountain that nobody looked too worried at soldiers riding into town, but close enough that people were cautious.
“We need clean water, preferably some alcohol for our wounds, grain for the horses, and a sheltered place to sleep,” Nikol told the townsfolk (for a generous definition of “town”), when they were asked what their business was. “We made a bad choice of resting places, and the rat-things in the factory back there—”
The bigger of the cats made a spitting noise and a very indignant face. The four people — three women, one man, all armed — laughed.
“That cat is right. They’re not good eating, I can tell you that, for man nor beast, but they think you’re a pretty decent dinner.” The four of them shared a look. “Toby’s barn on the edge of town is clear right now, there’s a little grain and a clear-water pump. You have something to pay with?”
Nikol showed three of the Red Kingdom Crowns. “We’ve got this,” she offered. “Not much else, but we can work once we’ve rested.”
“Caroline,” one of the women scolded, “they’re guests. They fought the rats and lived.”
“Grain ain’t free, Lydia.”
“One, then. One Crown for the grain and we bring out some blankets for them.”
“Thank you all kindly.” Nikol bowed, not bothering to hide a wince. She was a mess.
“Blankets,” Lydia decided, “and that alcohol. You’re gonna need to clean up.”
In the end, they got blankets, a bottle of grain alcohol that would probably make them blind if they were to drink it, the loan of a needle and some fine thread for sewing themselves up, and the leftovers from the dinner Caroline’s husband had made.
“We’re going to have to do something for them,” Nikol muttered. “They went above and beyond.”
“You keep thinking about that. I’m going to sew you up so you don’t lose everything before you can heal yourself.”
“Shit. Shit, ow-” She bit off the word and stuck her wrist in her mouth, biting down until she could feel her wrist bones with her teeth. Arran worked quickly, splashing the bites with the alcohol and sewing them up.
Then it was her turn to fix the gash in his leg — claws, deeper than she liked, but not looking too disgusting. He bit on a belt while she did the work, hissing the whole time.
She considered the bottle. It was not the sort of thing you should drink, and yet —
He took it away from her and capped it up. “Eat.”
“Pushy.” She took the food and started eating it anyway, because he was right.
“That’s my job. Keep you alive.”
“Is it now?” She blinked at him. She was having trouble keeping her eyes open, much less lifting her hand up to her mouth.
“You really did stretch yourself too far, didn’t you? Here.”
She was surprised and embarrassed at the tenderness he displayed while feeding her — one bite to her, one to him, repeat. He smiled crookedly when he noticed her expression — presuming she was showing some sort of expression; she couldn’t really tell.
“I’ve done this before. That time was broken arms, but similar. Sometimes you can’t heal everything right away. All right, two more bites and you can sleep. As long as you didn’t get hit on the head.”
“I—” She blinked owlishly at him. “No?”
“Sleep, mistress.” He patted her shoulder. “I won’t leave tonight, at least.”
She fell asleep before he’d finished the sentence.
The morning found her waking groggily to the sound of a cat grooming itself and another cat complaining mightily. Aran was fussing at the cat in turn, trying to keep his voice quiet.
“If you don’t hold still, I can’t tell what’s wrong and I can’t heal it, okay? Just sit still, I know you know what I’m saying, and I’m going to heal this gash, all right? I think it’s infected.”
The cat mirrrulped at Arran and he made a noise back that was more feline than human. Nikol stayed where she was until she could tell he had finished the healing, then opened her eyes to look around.
The horses were eating; the cats were sitting against Arran, and their camp looked tidier than it had last night. A little stove she didn’t remember them having was going and water sounded like it was boiling on the top.
She sat up, feeling the stretch of the stitches, and reached for her magic. It was getting better; she could feel the space right around them. She grunted quietly. “Newbie move, stretching myself like that.”
“We got attacked by a giant slug. And then by giant rats.” He didn’t look up from the stove. She could see a little tension in the way he was sitting, though.
She shook herself – carefully. Everything was still sore. And she’d been stupid. “Might’ve been attacked, but, I’m — I was — a mercenary soldier. I’ve been attacked by worse.” She shook her head. “I got stupid.”
“You’ll get better, though. Do you — do you think you can ride today?” Now he looked at her, but she couldn’t figure out what his expression was saying. Worry? Couldn’t be.
“Yeah, I should be good to go.” She stretched again. “Nothing’s too bad now. You?”
“You took the brunt of the rats. I only got a couple gashes. And I did clean them. Twice. But I figure, people are going to only have so much hospitality. We should probably get gone before — before they get worried about us being here.”
Nikol sat down next to him and ran her hands over his shoulders. He flinched away.
“You’re not making it easy.” His mutter wasn’t angry, more like rueful. “And I wasn’t gonna run away when I wasn’t sure you were okay. Not when the cats will probably follow me.”
“Why not?” She pulled his shirt up and checked out the scratches. He’d mended his shirt, too, with tidy stitches that made the rip very hard to see.
They didn’t look too inflamed, but once she had some power left, she was going to want to check on them. Of course, once she had some power left, she’d fix her own stitched-up wounds as well.
He didn’t pull away, but he held very still, very tense. “I owe you. I mean, You own me. But I owe you, even if you did threaten to kill me.”
“… Did you sleep at all?”
It wasn’t an answer to his — his confession? His admission? — but she wasn’t sure what the hell to say to that anyway. So she focused on the tidy campsite and the bags under his eyes.
He shifted. “Maybe an hour? Maybe two. You looked feverish for a while. And I — can’t really heal anyway but I managed to lower the fever.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “You were pretty burned out, too.”
“Yeah, I.” He looked away. “Yeah. I can nap in the saddle. Lots of practice. As long as one of us knows where we’re going, the horses will get us there. Speaking of…”
“You think they’re going to turn on us?” She didn’t like the idea bout couldn’t argue it; it wasn’t like it hadn’t happened before. She levered herself up and rolled her bedroll tightly. Her stolen bedroll. She missed her proper set-up.
“I think if they do, we’re fucked. Let’s say our thank yous and get going?” He stood; he was clearly almost ready to go already.
“…You have a valid point,” she admitted slowly. “All right. Yes. Let’s do that.”
An hour later, she glanced over at him in his saddle. True to his word, he was napping. She’d let him sleep as long as she could. Dead gods alone knew what they’d be running into next.Want more?