The mewl of an animal in pain jarred Lance out of his stupor.
Distracted, he stumbled over a rut and fell to his knees on the ill-kept road. He scraped the palms of his hands, but the agony in his belly obliterated the other sensations.
Goddess, it hurt.
Breathing harshly, Lance waited for his suffering to ease, then raised one knee. It took far too much effort to push himself back to his feet, and he ground his teeth as the pain rolled over him again.
He hated to admit it, but he couldn’t go much farther.
How close were they to Wexford? He’d been walking in a daze. Now he became aware of the darkening sky and the low clouds threatening rain. Should they press on and hope the village lay around the next bend or seek shelter off the road among the pine trees?
He knew he should make a decision, but his mind felt thick.
A second animal yowl from the woods abraded his nerves. It sounded like a cat being strangled.
Any other time Lance would’ve tried to track down the injured creature and heal it, but right now it took all his willpower to take another step. When he and Sara departed from Gatetown, he’d thought his latest gift from the Goddess a mere bellyache. But over the last five days the pain had only worsened as a tumour swelled his abdomen. He could barely eat for the false sensation of fullness, and what he did choke down he usually retched back up mixed with blood.
Most of the illnesses caused by the sacrifice of his health passed in two or three days, but this one...this one could kill.
He didn’t fear death. He knew the Goddess of Mercy would be waiting for him on the other side. But the thought of dying now made his heart thud. His mother and sister, already grieved by the death of his father, would be hurt anew at a time when they needed all their wits. The breaking of the Hostage Pact had left Kandrith in a precarious position. They needed to find a new way to keep the rapacious Republic ofTemboria outside their borders.
And then there was Sara...If he died, she would be helpless.
“Sara,” he rasped.
She paused on the path ahead, then walked back toward him. He winced when he saw that her long hair was uncombed and the seams of her dress showed, inside out. Even so, her beauty made his throat ache. A perfect oval face, rosebud lips, high breasts...only her blue eyes lacked depth. Life.
Driven, he searched her face for some spark of her former self--and found nothing. Her expression showed no hint of impatience as she waited for him to speak.
She would wait forever.
The thought made him shudder. “If I fall unconscious,” or die, “you must keep going.” He gestured down the road.
Praise Loma they’d escaped the Republicof Temboria. Anyone in Kandrith would be happy to help One who Wore the Brown, but Sara with her blue eyes and her--well, Sara was another matter entirely.
“Find Julen. He’ll help you.” The faint hope that Julen could help Sara in other ways was the reason Lance had decided to swing by Wexford on his way home to the Hall. Lance hissed at another stab of pain before doggedly continuing. “If you can’t find him, go to my sister, Wenda. Tell her I made an oath that she would protect you...”
He trailed off as another caterwaul split the air. This one, however, ended in a human wail, “Motherrr.”
Shock widened his eyes, followed by chagrin. That wasn’t a beast, that was a shandy. He knew of only two cat shandies, but during the recent invasion more people could’ve sacrificed their human form for that of a powerful beast’s.
Which meant--his body quailed--that he couldn’t just stand here. He was going to have to investigate.
He moved off the road, placing each foot carefully. And still sweat burst out of his pores. He inhaled sharply at the renewed stabs of pain in his belly.
Sara followed. She didn’t ask, but he explained anyhow. “I have to go see what’s wrong.” He waved a hand in the direction of the noise. “Why it’s making that sound.”
“It has a spear in its shoulder,” Sara said.
He stilled. “You saw the shandy earlier. When?”
“By the stream.”
He vaguely recalled clumping across some boards that echoed hollowly. He’d been in such a daze he hadn’t noticed the stream underneath.
He could hear running water ahead. “Tell me what you saw.” Grimly, he moved between the trees, clutching the springy pine boughs for support.
“A large golden cat with a spear sticking out of its shoulder lying ten feet upstream from the footbridge, its head almost in the water,” Sara recited.
And you didn’t think to mention any of this to me? His fists clenched. But the true problem didn’t lie in Sara’s not thinking, but in her not caring. He controlled a surge of anger.
It’s not her fault that she’s this way.
“Never do that again,” he said evenly. “If someone is injured and in need of help, let me know immediately. Do you understand?”
She nodded, unperturbed.
He began to walk, short steps with pauses between. Each movement sent pain knifing through his belly. Sweating, Lance focused on taking one step, then another, step after step after step, breathing through the hurt.
He set his jaw against the need to curl up on the ground and clutch his belly. He despised those who Wore the Brown, but moaned and kept to their beds, insisting the sick come to them. Someone needed healing and as long as there was breath in his body he would act for the Goddess.
Finally, after pushing between two willow trees, Lance espied the golden cat shandy's slumped body. Loma’s Mercy, it was Rhiain. He knew all the shandies, but he had a soft spot for the youngest. Despite her pony-size body, Rhiain was only sixteen; she’d become a shandy while still a child.
Murder rose in his heart. If Rhiain died because Sara had neglected to tell him, he'd never forgive... But there he stopped. Because the Sara he’d fallen in love with would have told him. The woman beside him was merely Sara's shell, Sara's body, but the things that made her Sara were gone.
Perhaps never to return.
A debilitating wave of grief accompanied the admission. His throat ached, and his step faltered. No. He couldn’t afford doubts, Sara would heal--and he didn’t have time for this now. Rhiain needed him.
Stooping, he laid his hand on Rhiain's tawny shoulder. To his relief, her skin felt warm, but the amount of blood soaking the dirt worried him.
From the trail of broken vegetation, Rhiain had dragged herself some distance down to the stream. Who had speared her? Was her attacker still around?
After a single wary glance, Lance shrugged off his travel pack and focused on the cat shandy. Before anything else, he needed to get the spear out, otherwise the wound would heal around it.
He stood over six feet tall and the blacksmithing he'd done as a youth had broadened his chest and shoulders; most things moved when he pulled. But today his arms lacked their usual strength. “Sara, grab the spear. Yank upward when I say so.”
He grabbed the shaft close to the wound. “Slow and steady, now.” He tried to keep the shaft straight as they pulled, but the spear remained, lodged deep in muscle and bone.
Rhiain whined, pawing at the wound.
Lance swayed on his feet. Goddess, he hurt. He felt feeble, old. When he could talk, he said to Sara, “Let’s try again. On the count of three, jerk.”
“One.” He dried his sweaty hands on his clothes. “Two.” He gripped the shaft, trying to prepare himself for the pain to come. “Three!”
The sharpened head jerked free, along with a chunk of flesh. Blood gushed.
Rhiain woke on a high-pitched scream. Driven into a frenzy, she lashed out with one paw. Razor-tipped claws sliced through his sleeve, drawing four stripes of blazing pain across his upper arm.
“Rhiain!” He stumbled backward out of reach. His gut stabbed again, stealing his breath. His vision grayed as another wave of crippling pain squeezed his insides like a fist. Gasping, he set his hands on his thighs, hunching over.
Ten breaths. Twenty. This time the agony didn’t fade.
Cold fear gripped him. Rhiain outweighed him by five hundred pounds, most of that muscle. He’d seen her tear out the throat of a wild boar with one slash. A single blow could kill him. It felt like the slightest pressure on his stomach would cause his tumour to rupture, spilling infection into his gut.
He needed time to recover his equilibrium, but Rhiain was losing blood fast. Had the spear nicked an artery?
He thought about her mother, another cat shandy. Shame licked at him. How could he face her mother if he let Rhiain die while he stood helpless not four feet away?
He couldn’t. Decision made, he reached out to the cat shandy. If he could just touch her flank, he could heal her...
A snarl ripped from Rhiain’s throat. Her tawny eyes glazed, she swiped at him a second time. He tensed, but Sara blocked Rhiain’s paw with the spear. Sara pushed between him and the dangerous shandy.
A rock shifted under his foot, and he fell on his arse in the cold stream. He cried out as the red-hot coal in his gut flared into a bonfire of agony.
“No,” he whispered as black spots swarmed before his eyes, multiplying like locusts. He couldn’t die yet. “Must heal...”
The black spots swallowed the sky. He collapsed, falling face-first into the water, unconscious.
As commanded, Sara stopped. Must heal who? She stood still, spear poised over the shandy’s head. One thrust through the eye to the brain would kill it.
It had attacked Lance. Therefore, it was the enemy.
The shandy licked its bleeding shoulder. Sara looked to Lance for instruction and saw that his face lay in the water. Bubbles came out of his nose and mouth.
She waited, but he didn’t sit up. He was drowning.
Sara dropped the spear and splashed into the stream.
She grabbed a handful of his shaggy brown hair and pulled his head out of the water. Rivulets ran down his slack face into his beard. His chest didn’t move.
She thumped him on the back until he coughed up water. He started breathing, but his head lolled and his eyes stayed closed.
This wasn’t the first time he’d lost consciousness during their journey. Because of his sacrifice, Lance was always ill, sometimes seriously. So she knew what to do. Get him warm, wait for him to wake up.
She waded behind him, hooked her hands under his armpits and started pulling. It took effort to haul his heavily muscled body out of the stream up onto the muddy bank. By the time she finished, sweat had gathered under her arms and behind her neck.
The shandy yowled again. Blood ran from its wound, staining its furry shoulder and foreleg.
Must heal, Lance had said. Sara wasn’t hurt. He hadn’t meant her. He couldn’t heal himself. She couldn’t see any other injured people. He must have meant the shandy.
It didn’t make sense. The shandy had attacked Lance when he tried to help it. Healing it would improve its capability to assault him again.
Lance was important. Therefore, she should do as he said.
Lance was important. Therefore, she had to keep him safe.
Sara stood still, breathing hard and trying to think her way through the paradox.
She waited until the shandy’s eyes closed, then picked up the spear and poked its nose with the blunt end.
The shandy snarled and batted weakly at her, but missed.
She counted her heartbeats. When she reached one thousand, she poked it again. This time it didn’t move.
Sara dragged Lance four feet upstream until he lay not far from the shandy’s broad yellow side. She closed his hand around the shandy’s tail, then took up guard with the spear.
The shandy’s blood stopped flowing. Damaged muscle knitted together again, and fur grew over the gaping spear wound. The scent of flowers drifted through the air.
The shandy stirred, ears flattened. Baring its teeth again, it turned its head toward Lance.
Sara rapped its nose to draw its attention to her. Another ripping snarl and a swipe from its claws. She readied her spear to kill it, but then it opened its eyes and cocked its ears. “Sarrra? Why did you hit me?”
It looked at Sara’s face when it asked the question. Lance had told her that meant a person was talking to her and that she should reply. She supposed the rule also applied to shandies.
“I hit you because you hurt Lance.”
“Lance?” The shandy sniffed. “He’s herrre? He must have healed me.” The great cat lunged to its feet, but didn’t attack. “The spearrr! I need to tell him—I have to find--” The shandy stopped speaking, gazing down at Lance’s prone body. “What’s wrrrong with him?”
“He has a stomach tumour. You clawed him, then he fell in the stream and almost drowned,” Sara recounted, still holding the spear.
The shandy made its peculiar wordless noise again. “Oh, no, I hurrrt him? I’m so sorrry.”
“Yes, you hurt him,” Sara answered the question. The apology was irrelevant. “Are you going to attack him again?”
“Of courrrse not,” the shandy growled. It paced forward and sniffed Lance. “How can we help him?”
“He needs to warm up. Lie beside him.” Sara put down the spear, then fetched a blanket from Lance’s abandoned pack and spread it over him.
The shandy curled its large body around Lance while Sara gathered sticks and kindling and piled them on the muddy bank. She removed the flint and striker from Lance’s belt purse and struck several sparks. One took and she fed the tiny flame.
Once the fire was established, Sara examined his scratches. Only a little blood seeped out, but the cuts were already puffy and swollen.
“Will he rrrecoverrr?” The shandy flattened its ears.
“I don’t know,” Sara said. An infection on top of his tumour might well kill him. Her hand shook, and she dropped the bandage. Odd. She wasn’t usually clumsy.
“Wenda told everrryone what you did, the sacrrrifice you made. I wanted to say how grrrateful we all arrre.”
Sara kept bandaging.
When she finished, the shandy stood up. “I’m sorrry, but I can’t stay any longerrr. The man who spearrred me, my prrrisoner--I have to rrrecapture him beforrre the rrrain wipes away his trrrail. If he escapes, the Rrrepublic will invade Kandrrrith again. I can’t let that happen. I prrromised I’d guarrrd him and instead I--” The shandy hung its great head for a moment. “I have to make it rrright. Do you underrrstand?”
“No.” Lance was more important than a prisoner.
“Lance will underrrstand. If I pass a village, I’ll send help.”
The big cat returned to where it had bled, sniffed the grass, then bounded upstream.
Sara fed the fire and counted her pulse. Every thousand heartbeats, she checked Lance to make sure his skin was warm and that he breathed.
Lance had instructed her to continue down the road if he died, to seek first Julen and then Lance’s sister. She usually did what Lance said, but didn’t think she would this time.
Other people were like dim shadows, easy to ignore. They moved and talked, but possessed no meaning. Sara didn’t trouble to remember their names. Lance mattered. His voice resonated in her ear. She heard everything he said. To her perception, he seemed sharper, as if outlined in light.
He tethered her to life.
If he died, she would sit here until she wasted away.