• Rebekah Olson

Chapter 53

“We should have run into people by now.” The guide had slowed considerably over the past hour or so, moving with more caution. “We’re close. There should be gatherers, workers, hunters, kids playing around. Scouts at the very least. Where is everyone?” “Are you sure they’re still there?” the hitter asked. “Spring isn’t quite here yet,” the guide said. “There’s still snow in the highest places. Not enough fresh greens to support a whole tribe on the move. They should still be here.” They crested another small rise and came to the edge of the aspens they had been trudging through. Several earsplitting shrieks pierced air, something halfway between a screaming woman and a bird of prey. A cold chill shivered up Jerryck’s spine. Tajor stopped and looked up at the sky. Several large creatures circled through the air, just over the next rise. Most of them had a wingspan wider than the height of a tall man. They slowly descended lower, the bottommost ones disappearing over the hill. Higher up, two of them came so close together, they nearly collided. The larger of the pair let out another bloodcurdling shriek, and slashed at the other with its talons. The smaller one beat its wings, gaining some distance before continuing its descent. The guide watched them. “Something’s wrong.” “Those birds keep circling like carrion eaters,” the hitter said. “They’re not birds…” Jerryck took a step backward, ready to bolt back into the aspens behind them. “I’ve never seen so many of them together all at once.” “They fly like vultures,” the hitter said. “They’re volashes,” the guide said. Another shriek reached them. The smaller one was getting picked on again. “They’re usually solitary. Territorial. I’ve never seen them act like this.” Jerryck took another step backward. “They’re in a feeding frenzy.” “They’re eating the encampment,” the guide whispered, tension crawling up his back, hunching his shoulders, darkening his expression. “You must have made a mistake,” the hitter said. “There must be a herd of animals here. People would be fighting back.” “Dead people don’t fight back,” Tajor said. The smaller volash disengaged from the main group. “If their prey was alive, they wouldn’t be congregated like this,” Jerryck said. “And they’d be whistling, not frenzied. They draw in their prey with audible magic, then terrorize them like a cat with a mouse until their victim’s bodily fluids flavor the meat to their liking. Unless their meal is already dead. Then they just eat.” “This is where those men went this morning,” the guide still whispered, now craning his neck, looking every which direction. “They could still be in the area.” “We’re at least a couple of hours behind them,” Tajor said. “They’ll be gone, on their way back, avoiding the carrion eaters.” “Who are you talking about?” Jerryck asked. The guide backed farther toward the trees. “This is why you didn’t want to come here.” The smaller volash soared several feet in their direction. Jerryck threw up an illusion of the field and trees, so that would cover them visually. It wouldn’t do much good if it scented them. The creature came close enough for them to see how its body undulated beneath the layers of skin flaps that gave it the appearance of a feathered creature. It cocked its flat, snake-like head to one side, its face fixed on something it had sighted on the ground. Then it opened its beak. Jerryck started the words for an ear-blocking spell. The volash’s whistle hit him, piercing through everything. His vision blacked out. His entire body went numb. He couldn’t even hear his own voice as he fought to speak the last word. If the magic behind the whistle hadn’t been spread between so many of them, he might not have succeeded. He severed the magic from his aura and cast it away. He came back to his senses, several feet closer to the volash, his legs having moved while he was unaware, drawn by the whistle. The three guards stumbled mid-step once Jerryck’s deafening magic hit them. They blinked sleepily, and looked around as if awakening from a confused stupor. Jerryck reached out with his aura, trying to sense whatever had caused the volash to start whistling. First, he felt everything nearest to him: the men, the field, the edge of the aspens. He spread forward from there, creeping over the next rise. The grass grew sparse, the ground cold and hard, the sagebrush abundant. There was movement. Someone walked straight for the volash in its continued descent. Jerryck focused, brushing against the aura of the victim: a wounded little girl. The child walked headlong into the middle of the bramble of sedge. The bush caught her up and impeded her progress. The volash stopped whistling and dived, it’s long body stretching out more like a serpent, streamlining it for speed. The girl shook her head and put both her hands on her temples. The volash flew over, bypassing her, flexing at the last moment to spread its faux feathers. Their razor-sharp edges slashed open the girl’s shoulder. She screamed. The sound didn’t penetrate the ear-stopping spell. The vibrations of it flowed back through the contact with her aura. Jerryck reeled, his senses snapping back to normal. Tajor had to have heard the scream. He was already passing hand signals to the three guards. They drew their swords and move forward. They came upon the girl as the volash swooped for another strike. Jerryck threw a wad of raw magic, stunning it. It faltered in the dive and crashed to the ground hard, stunning it further. The guards quickly dispatched it from there. Tajor and Jerryck disentangled the girl from the bush. She was ashen and limp. Her shoulder bled where the volash had struck. Blood oozed from a small, circular wound in her side. The hitter scooped her up and they all ran back to the cover the aspens provided. Jerryck let go of the magic that stopped their ears. The sounds of the volashes feeding, gorging, and dickering among themselves reached them. It spurred them farther into the trees, putting more distance between them and the vicious creatures. As soon as they were out of earshot, they stopped. Jerryck examined the girl’s wounds. She sobbed, talking rapidly, frantically gesturing back the way they’d come. The guide leaned in, staring at her intently. Then he shook his head. “I can’t figure out what she’s saying. She’s talking too fast. Something about a sister.” “She says she stuck her younger sister under a bush to keep her hidden,” Tajor said. The guards stared at him in surprise. Tajor continued, “She wants to go back and get her.” She wouldn’t calm down until Tajor got the exact location of the sister. He left with two of the guards. The hitter stayed with Jerryck and the girl. Jerryck focused on the wounds. He sealed up the gashes where a medic would use a needle and stitches. He stemmed the blood loss from the wound in her side. Then he probed with magic. Inside the wound he found a blunt-pointed lead slug. He could seal the wound, help along the girl’s healing well enough. The question was, did that slug have to come out or would it be detrimental to leave it in? Plenty of people walked around with bits of foreign objects inside their bodies. Smiths got slivers of metal embedded all the time. But that was near the surface. And slivers. Not a large slug deep in the body like this. It should come out, just to err on the side of safety. Now the question became how to do that without causing more damage? He didn’t have enough experience with extracting foreign objects from penetration wounds. He knew of one time, when a large splinter of wood had speared a builder’s leg. Jerryck’s mentor had used purely white magic to force the body to expel the wood. Jerryck concentrated all his attention on the wound and the lead slug. He cobbled together a spell as best he could. He kept his grip on it tight, his control high. He got a stirring of response. Just a stirring. The lead slug stayed in the exact same position. He backed off, and let go of the magic. He had either gotten the words wrong, or this technique simply lay beyond his skill. He would have to do this the way a medic would. “I need some help.” Jerryck grit his teeth while the girl whimpered. He used magic to put her to sleep, then said, “There’s a lead slug inside her. I need a sharp knife, and you’ll have to hold her side open so I can reach in and dig it out.” “She’s already lost a lot of blood,” the guard said. Jerryck gathered energy for magic. “I’ll control the blood loss.” He would control more than blood loss. His hands would need to be sterilized before and after the procedure, along with the knife. He would bespell swollen tissues into relaxing. Magic would also have to close and seal the wound. Over the next several days, he would have to keep a constant vigil against infection. All while they traveled. “You’re lucky I have this.” The guard handed him a Shontese style dagger. “I lost mine.” “Where?” Jerryck took the blade. “Between the ribs of some guy trying to block our escape from Andreno’s camp,” the guard said as nonchalantly as if discussing the weather. He pointed at the dagger. “I got that from our blonde friend when he pulled in on us.” “I don’t remember him doing that,” Jerryck said. “You were so befuddled, I’m surprised you remember anything.” The guard actually looked slightly amused, as if there was anything funny about all this. “The way he held it makes me think he’s got more talent than skill. Easy to get yourself in trouble that way. Makes you overconfident.” “I don’t want to know any more about it,” Jerryck said. He refocused on the girl, and spoke the magic words that sterilized everything. With the guard’s help, he managed to cut in and dig out the slug. It looked almost exactly like the one that the raider had worn on a necklace chain. Jerryck closed and sealed the wound. the guard kept looking around, his attention everywhere but on the girl. Jerryck ended up finishing the final steps himself. “I could have used a little more help,” Jerryck complained. “What’s got you so distracted?” “Just keeping watch,” the guard said. “Don’t want to get sneaked up on.” Jerryck picked up the girl and held her close, sharing his body heat and wrapping her in warming magic. “The volashes are distracted. We’re far enough away we should be fine here until bigger predators come along.” “The bigger predators are what I’m watching for.” The guard stood and slowly circled them, facing outward. “Including the ones that fed the volashes.” “Fed the… What are you talking about?” “We were going to wait a day or two before penetrating their camp to try and rescue you and Tajor,” the guard said. “Wait, watch, study, lay low, strategize, pick off a few loners if we could… Then about half of them formed up and marched out of camp, loaded with weapons and supplies. This winter encampment, this is where they went. They did this.” Jerryck squeezed the girl tighter. “Why?” “Tactics for spearheading an invasion.” The guards tilted his head back, scanning the treetops. “Slash and burn, some call it. You move a powerful group into an area and kill every living person until everyone else backs away from you. Then you bring in the occupying army to hold territory.” Leaves rustled in the direction of the slaughtered people. The guard spun around to face it, dropping into a fighting crouch, dagger in hand, eyes glittering. He relaxed when Tajor and the other two guards stepped into view through the trees, carrying a sniffling toddler. The child caught sight of the girl in Jerryck’s arms and wriggled down to the ground. Tajor quickly caught her back up before she could throw herself on the patient and reopen the newly closed wounds. She started wailing, and saying the same word over and over. “Khata! Khata! Khata!” “Shh, shh,” Tajor rubbed her back and stroked her hair. He spoke gently in the Chemwanitz language until her cries eased back down to sniffles. The quiet guard plucked the girl from Jerryck’s arms, careful of her freshly sealed wounds. Jerryck checked the toddler. She had no injuries other than a few scratches, nothing even a medic would say needed stitches. Then they moved. As quickly as they could. Putting as much distance between them and the volashes as they could manage before the sun set. The creatures would be sleepy after their meal. But where volashes gathered, other predators tended to follow. They spent a restless night in another grove of aspens. Jerryck put wards up. The guards kept a constant watch. Tajor didn’t sleep the entire night. When they arose, Jerryck checked the girl’s wounds and magically nudged them toward healing. She let him do everything he needed to without question or protest. When he finished, the girl and her sister babbled at Tajor, both pointing off in the same direction. The hitter asked, “What are they saying?” “Senka is just copying Khata,” Tajor said. “What? Who?” “Their names…” Tajor squatted beside them. He patted the toddler on the head. “This is Senka, and her big sister is Khata.” “I don’t care who’s copying who,” the hitter snarled. “What are they saying?” “Does it really matter?” Tajor asked. “Something about the next nearest tribe,” the guide said. “Her mother’s brother lives there. And something about shamans gathering. We should go there. Get help.” “From shamans? With a magician for a companion?” Tajor glared at him. “Besides, I had thought the state of that last village proved me correct. We shouldn’t go to any encampment or winter village in this area.” “I already headed us in that direction,” the guide said. “We need supplies. And if shamans are gathering, we can talk to them.” “You can get killed!” Tajor bared his teeth. “If they’re attacked while we’re there, what do you think the chances are that you’ll survive? And even if they’re not attacked, we won’t be able to keep from telling them what happened to Khata’s tribe. We’d be the bearers of bad news. Very bad news! What will they do to us to extract payment?” “If her mother’s brother lives there, she can pass that information to him through the family tie without payment,” the guide said. “We would be doing her a favor. Jerryck saved her. She owes him life debt. If we bring her to let her pass the information on anyway, we’ll be paid, not punished!” “What’s life debt?” Jerryck asked. “You’re discounting human nature,” Tajor said, completely ignoring Jerryck. “The tradition you’re clinging to for hope is missing some pieces.” “Why can’t you ever say anything that makes sense?” The guide picked up a clod of dirt, and threw it at Tajor’s head. Tajor ducked. The dirt missed. Khata asked a question. Tajor said something to her. She started crying. The guide said to Tajor, “You’re truly horrible sometimes.” Khata crawled into Jerryck’s lap and clung, sobbing as if her life were ending. The toddler saw her sister’s distress, and her eyes welled up. She looked around to each of the men in turn, probably expecting them to fix whatever was wrong. “Tajor,” Jerryck said. “Tell us what you said to her.” “I told her we shouldn’t go to where her uncle lives,” Tajor said. Senka’s tears fell. She looked between them all more and more frantically, the more her sister carried on. Khata’s breath hitched in sobs so hard, she was in danger of reopening the wound in her side. “I can’t handle this.” The guide rubbed his eyes with his thumbs. “I don’t care what the rest of you do. I’m taking these two where they want to go.”