“Tell me about mom.”
It was late. Katherine, occupied tidying up the kitchen, hadn’t heard Sebastian come in and, at the sound of his voice, barely contained a curse under her breath. “Seb… What are you doing out of bed?”
“I think I’m old enough to handle staying up late.”
Kat drew in a deep breath, as if to gather patience. “First of all, you don’t get to decide how late you stay up; I’m responsible for you. Second, if you can’t sleep, you can just say so.”
Sebastian walked to the kitchen table and pulled up a chair. “I can’t sleep.”
“I realize that, Sebby.” Katherine momentarily gave up on the unwashed dinner plates and came to sit across from him. One solitary candle illuminated the room—shadows danced across her face, rolling like waves across her sunken eyes as the flame swayed and flickered. Exhaustion seeped through her sweet smile. Was she more tired than usual tonight, or was she always this exhausted and he just didn’t notice? “Why do you want to know about mom?”
“You said we could talk about it when I was ready.”
Kat nodded. “Why are you ready now?”
“It’s weird. I don’t know.” Sebastian looked down at the tabletop and prodded at a small dent in the wood. “Sometimes I think . . . I remember her, but . . . I couldn’t, right?”
“How do you think you remember her?”
“Her voice. In my dreams.”
Katherine reached out to take his hand, halting his attempts to poke a hole through the tabletop. “It was probably your mind filling in the gaps, Sebby.”
“I guess that makes sense.” Sebastian kept his eyes focused on the tabletop. “Do you miss her?”
“Of course I do.”
Sebastian smiled, still avoiding his sister’s eyes. “Life must have been easier, right? When we weren’t around and you could just . . . Be a child.”
“Are riddles better when they’re easy or when they’re a challenge?” She was smiling, he could hear it in her voice.
“It’s not the same thing, Kat.”
“We all need to grow up one day. Sooner or later. It’s not something we decide. It happens before we know it. When we aren’t looking. It’s life. You just need to wake up.”
Sebastian frowned. His gaze trailed along the table’s surface, hesitantly, to where he could feel Katherine’s hand in his. Leather-clad fist sat, solitary, on the tabletop. The bracers he wore sported dark red smudges. Something cold and bitter lodged itself on the back of his throat. He’d never asked Kat about their mother. He wanted to, but kept telling himself it wasn’t the right time. She was busy. She looked tired. He didn’t want to ruin her night talking about depressing things. There would always be time for that some other night.
Except there wasn’t.
“Time stops for no one. It trickles down like sand trapped in an hourglass. Perpetually in motion until, at last, it reaches its final resting place. Then comes stillness. Nothingness. Death.”
The final passage of Gabrielle’s book rang in the back of his mind—an echo of his own voice, calling to nothing and receiving no answer.
Sebastian never asked Katherine about their mother. He would never know if her voice was anything like he’d dreamed. That moment had come and gone, never to return. Like her ghost, sitting across the kitchen table, smiling through her exhaustion. It was gone.
“Sebby, you’re not listening to me. Listen.”
“. . . What?”
“You need to wake up.”
[Safe House | Duellum 13th | Middle of The Night]
Kyle had blood on his hands, Gerald was grunting and limping as he carried an unconscious Sebastian, and they were both too aware of how vulnerable a position they were in.
Gabrielle and Johanna were already there waiting. If Jo’s concern was anything to go by, they had been back for a few hours. They hadn’t quite made it to the door before it flew open. Jo rushed out despite Gabrielle’s stern protest. She hovered around Gerald for a few seconds, then rushed past to meet him. He instinctively tried to shy away when trembling hands patted along his torso, front and back, under his arms, frantically searching for any chink in his armor; any sign of injury. The urge to push her away—however strong it initially was—died when he looked up at her face. It was the first time Kyle looked at Johanna and saw anything even remotely close to panic in her eyes. His resolve fully broken, he allowed the inspection to continue until she was more at ease, then gently pushed his way past to enter the cabin.
The sound of the door closing behind him brought Kyle some sense of security at last, exhaustion starting to set in its wake. “He’s gonna make it, isn’t he? You can pull it out, right?”
“It’s not that simple.” Gerald muttered, carrying Sebastian into the bedroom. “You can’t just pull out an arrow. And I don’t know what kind of head we’re dealing with.”
Kyle swallowed back something bitter. “What. . . What’s gonna happen?”
Gerald had disappeared into the adjacent room. The main area of the cabin was divided between a living room and a small kitchen. A small lumpy couch sat in the center of the living, and Johanna led him there by the hand. “Breathe.”
Kyle shook his head, but sat. “I can’t.”
“You have to. Breathe.”
When Gerald reemerged his face was drained of color, his clenched fists were shaking at his sides, and Gabrielle had to catch him when his left leg gave out from under him. His pant leg was stained dark and wet from blood. He tried to brush her off, uncaring of his own predicament. “What were you thinking? You were supposed to observe and not interfere, Kyle! No matter what happened!”
“He would have shot you straight in the back!” Kyle’s voice reverberated off the walls and he jumped to his feet despite his exhaustion; as though he could somehow make himself taller than Gerald.
“That was my problem. Not yours! You put yourself at risk and look what happened!”
“Tucker, that’s enough.” Gabrielle’s tone was stern, yet, pacifying. “Rivers, sit down.”
Kyle dropped heavily onto the couch once more, still glaring daggers at Gerald.
Gabrielle pulled a chair and coaxed Gerald into sitting down as well. “Let me see that.”
Gerald hiked up his pant leg and removed his boot, revealing jagged lacerations and punctures too bloodied to see the real extent of damage. From what could be seen, something had caught his ankle and pierced the protective leather. “There were five of them. They were expecting us.”
Gabrielle tensed as she grabbed one of the supply bags stashed in the kitchen. “Did you get them?”
Gerald reached into his pocket and retrieved three silver rings varnished with blood. “The one who shot Sebastian got away. I had to make a decision.”
Gabrielle glanced at the rings as she returned with bandages and medicine. “And the other one?”
“I couldn’t find his ring. I think he might have gotten desperate and swallowed it.”
Gabrielle snorted in disdain, leaving the medical supplies nearby and retrieving some water to clean out the blood. “The live one, was he young? The boy’s wound isn’t in a vital area.”
“I couldn’t tell his age, but the branch Sebastian was on snapped. I think he might have been shot mid-fall.”
Gabrielle shook her head, starting to clean the blood off with a soaked cloth and examining the puncture wounds. “These probably won’t need stitches. You’re lucky it caught your boot.”
“I know.” Gerald had to reign in the rush of adrenaline coursing through his veins just enough to allow Gabrielle to work. His uninjured leg bouncing in a bid to release pent up frustration, while the other remained perfectly still. “This isn’t . . . ”
Gabrielle nodded. “It’s far from ideal, yes. This location is now compromised and his injury is . . .”
“His injury is what?” Kyle questioned. “You said . . . It’s not in a vital area, right?”
Gerald drew a deep breath. “Arrows are designed to tear through flesh when yanked out. Some heads can do a tremendous amount of damage even if pushed through, so—”
“Yes. That’s one option. Another, slightly safer, option would be to widen the entry point with a blade in order to remove it. It doesn’t look like it penetrated deep enough to cause much internal damage, so pushing it through sounds counter productive here. Best to cut it out then stitch him up. And then . . . Well, after that it’s up to him.”
Gabrielle hummed, wrapping Gerald’s leg in a tight bandage. “We don’t have anything to work as a sedative.”
“I’m aware.” Gerald grimaced. “If he comes to, he won’t stay awake for long.”
Gabrielle shot Kyle a small glance as she finished the bandage. “There’s a bucket in the kitchen. You look like you’re about to . . .” Before she could finish Kyle jumped from his seat and sped to the kitchen, scrambling for the bucket. “. . . Be sick.”
Gerald glanced in Kyle’s direction and verified that he was, in fact, vomiting profusely into the bucket. “He killed one,” he whispered.
Gabrielle’s tone matched his. “How many shots?”
She hummed. “Better than my first time.”
Gerald shook his head with a faint scoff. “I don’t know if I’d call it ‘good’.”
“You know what I mean, Tucker. Maybe it was sooner than we planned, but sometimes plans fail.”
Gerald opened his mouth to argue, but was interrupted by Johanna as she exited the bedroom and announced: “He’s warm.”
“Not yet, but soon.”
Kyle finished coughing and spitting into the bucket and croaked. “You think the arrow might be poisoned?”
Gabrielle shook her head as she collected the bucket. “He wouldn’t have made it here if it was,” she answered as she carried it outside.
Gerald rolled his pant leg back down and carefully put on his boot. “Jo… I need your smallest, sharpest blade and… There’s some alcohol in that pack over there.” He stood from the chair, hesitantly, but managed to steady himself well enough. “That arrow needs to go.”
Johanna jumped into action, swiftly, moving around the cabin to gather the requested items. When she returned, she’d also gathered needle, thread, and clean cloth. She carried the supplies with her into the room. Gerald went into the kitchen and put a kettle of water on the stove. “Stay here.”
Kyle nodded, still trying to fight off the bile clawing its way up his throat. Gerald followed Jo into the bedroom, leaving him alone in the middle of the kitchen. He remained in the same spot until the sound of the door creaking open announced Gabrielle’s return.
“Is Tucker removing the arrow now?”
“Yeah. He, uh… Told me to stay here.”
“I don’t think he meant literally here. You are more than welcome to sit.”
Kyle once again nodded, taking sluggish steps back to the lumpy couch. He sat heavily, staring down at his hands. His bracers were stained a dark crimson and he fumbled to remove them, tossing them to the ground with excessive force. He wanted to stop himself from shaking and didn’t know how.
Gabrielle’s voice startled Kyle. He’d drowned out the sounds of her rummaging in the kitchen. “No, thank you.” The answer left his lips before he was able to look up and see what she was holding. It smelled sweet and flowery. “I don’t like tea.”
“It’ll help your nerves settle, trust me.”
Kyle forced himself to look up at Gabrielle and accept the tea. “Is that why you’re all always drinking it?”
“It’s one reason.” She sat on the couch beside him. “It also won’t get you drunk.”
Kyle shook his head. “I’m not living that one down any time soon, huh?”
“I’m afraid not.”
While he would normally complain, all Kyle could manage was a weak scoff. He stared at the tea with mild disgust and took a small sip. It did alleviate the bitter taste in his mouth, if nothing else. “You were right.”
“You’ll have to be more specific.”
“It was easier than shooting a rabbit.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle leaned forward to collect his discarded bracers. “A matter of circumstance. You didn’t have to think. There was no choice.”
“Gerald doesn’t seem to think so.”
“Tucker will eventually recall receiving a similar scolding on the night he brought you to the Outpost. Right now, the possibilities are still weighing a little too heavy on his shoulders.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you had both been injured, Rivers, what would he have done?”
Kyle grimaced over the rim of his tea cup. It hadn’t dawned on him that Gerald would never be able to carry them both to the safe house. Seeing the state of the man’s leg, it was shocking that he managed to cary Sebastian. “I don’t know.”
Gabrielle hummed softly. “Neither does he. And under these circumstances, I think it would be kind of you to excuse his outburst.”
Kyle nodded, drinking another sip of tea. “Did you have a change of heart then, about Gerald bringing us to the Outpost?”
“No. It was immeasurably stupid and he shouldn’t have done it.”
“Oh.” Kyle frowned at his tea.
“That said, I understand why he did it. I’m in no way immune to such moments of stupidity myself.”
Kyle smirked over the rim of his cup. “Could have fooled me.”
“You’ll find that in some cases, Rivers, you can only either be cruel or an idiot. No in-between.”
Kyle snorted a small laugh. “That’s a simplistic statement if there ever was one.”
“Yes, but nonetheless it’s true. The smartest course of action back there would have been doing nothing. However, that would hardly have ended well for Tucker.”
“So I did the right thing?”
“Yes. And I would ask you to please refrain from doing so again in the future.”
“Am I dead?”
“Is this what you expect afterlife to be? Our old kitchen? It’s a little too small and… tangible… Don’t you think?” Katherine’s smile was soft and amused.
“I guess this is just…”
“Your mind filling the gaps. Yes.” Katherine stood up and walked to the stove. “Want some tea? I hear you like that now.”
“Sure.” He watched her rummage through the shelves for the kettle, humming softly under her breath. “So this is a… Dream?”
“You’re asking the wrong questions, Sebby.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can only live where there exists light, but were it to shine upon me, I would surely die. Who am I?”
“Kat… This is not the time for riddles.”
“You have plans I’m not aware of?”
Sebastian groaned. “Not funny.”
“You’re stalling, Seb. I know you know the answer.”
“Good. And what is a shadow?”
“That’s a lame riddle.”
“Uhm… The absence of light, I guess.”
“That’s darkness, Sebby.”
Sebastian rubbed his eyes. There was a faint herbal smell permeating the kitchen, but it was offset by something strong and alcoholic. Like that bottle he’d stolen in Blackpond. “A shadow’s, uh, the impression caused by a solid object when it obstruct a source of light.”
“Correct. Now, here’s the riddle: Are they real?”
Sebastian frowned. “What?”
“Are shadows themselves real? Can you say that something exists even if it’s merely an impression of something else?”
“That’s not a riddle, Kat… Hmph…”
Sebastian groaned as sudden pain stabbed at his abdomen. The world blurred in and out. A bright flash of red filled his view, then faded to reveal dimly lit ceiling. The ringing in his ears, he realized, was his own voice, muffled by cloth. The scent of alcohol and stale iron filled his lungs and he choked under the piece of fabric. His body reacted before his mind was able to process the situation; legs kicking and arms flailing in a frantic attempt to rid himself of the pressure weighing him down. His boot connected with something solid and he recognized Gerald’s voice as he hissed out a curse.
“Kyle! Porter! I need some extra hands here!”
Heavy steps rushed into the room. Shadows scrambled across his field of vision. Fingers closed around his wrists and pinned his arms down. Something heavy pressed on his legs, rendering them useless. He could hear his heart pounding against his eardrums, breaths exploding out of his lungs behind the fabric haphazardly stuffed into his mouth.
“Hey. Hey, Seb. Look at me.”
Kyle’s voice was pitched higher than normal. Sebastian struggled to turn his head and focus on his brother, finding him wide-eyed and queasy. It wasn’t a reassuring sight. Sebastian tried again to sit up, at least see what Gerald was trying to do, but Kyle used his entire weight to hold him down to the bed.
“No. No, no, no… Seb, look at me. Listen. You don’t want to see. Just hold still and keep looking at me, alright? You’re gonna be fine.”
Sebastian managed a disgruntled sound through the cloth. Nothing about this indicated he would be fine. Still, he tried to steady his breaths and stopped fighting against his restraints. The next slash of metal against his skin wrenched another scream that burned its way up his throat. His muscles strained under the force holding him in place. His eyes squeezed shut in another flash of red.
“Hang in there, kid. It’s gonna be over soon.” Gerald was more successful than Kyle in sounding collected, though there was a small tremble in his voice as well.
Sebastian groaned weakly in response, opening his eyes and trying to focus on the ceiling. The blemished wood almost reminded him of home.
“Sebby, you’re not listening. Listen.”
The pain subsided. Sebastian’s muscles felt sore and heavy in the aftermath. He felt warm and shivering cold at the same time. Reality became a blur of rushed whispers and frustrated pacing against wooden floorboards. One part of him wanted to fight off the stillness that began taking hold of his body. Another wanted to sink into it. To go home.
“Are shadows real?”
“S’not a riddle.”
A questioning hum answered. Sebastian forced one eye open and glanced around until he spotted Jo, sitting on the ground beside the bed. “Are shadows real?”
Jo frowned in thought for a moment, then shrugged. “Is ‘real’ real?”
Sebastian was unable to hold back a small burst of laughter, but a pained grunt followed. “Ow.”
Jo snorted softly. “Sleep.”
“What if I don’t wake up?”
“It’s not your time.”
“Are you sure?”
Johanna hummed a soft note as she brushed damp strands of hair from his eyes. “Not tonight.”
[Safe House | Duellum 13th | Break of Dawn]
Gerald dropped heavily onto the couch. “I need to go find some herbs. I think . . . I hope some of what we need to fight off this fever grows not too far from here.”
Gabrielle shook her head, handing him a cup of tea. “Let Johanna go when she wakes up. You need to mind that leg.”
“I don’t want her roaming around out there. Even if this place isn’t compromised, the Wolves will be on high alert after what happened.”
“Johanna is more likely to go unnoticed than you if that’s the case. You know that.”
Gerald groaned. “Yes, you’re right. I know.” He glanced at the rays of sunlight starting to peer in through the boarded windows. “That archer probably made it back to their camp by now.”
Gabrielle nodded. “The pressing issue is still the boy’s injury. We’ll deal with the Wolves when the situation arises. In the meantime, I suggest you get some sleep yourself.”
Gerald drank until his cup was mostly empty, then stood. “I’ll make a list of what we need. Tell Jo not to stray too far.”
“Doubtful she’ll listen, but I will.”
Gerald shook his head with a half-amused scoff, retreating into the bedroom. “Good night, Porter.”
Gabrielle didn’t answer. Soon Kyle’s snores were the only sound emanating from the small crowded bedroom. She took Gerald’s place in the lumpy couch; her crossbow sitting across her lap, eyes fixed on the door. One hand rested beside the trigger. The other, concealed within her coat pocket absently toyed with a blood-stained silver ring.