W E MADE POOR TIME the next day, as Krin and I were forced to lead the three horses and Ell besides. Luckily, the horses were well-behaved, as Edema-trained horses tend to be. If they had been as wayward-witted as the poor mayor’s daughter, we might never have made it to Levinshir at all.
Even so, the horses were almost more trouble than they were worth. The glossy roan in particular liked to wander off into the underbrush, foraging. Three times now I’d had to drag him out, and we were irritated with each other. I’d named him Burrback for obvious reasons.
The fourth time I had to pull him back onto the road, I seriously considered cutting him loose to save myself the trouble. I didn’t, of course. A good horse is the same as money in your pocket. And it would be quicker to ride back to Severen than walk the whole way.
Krin and I did our best to keep Ell engaged in conversation as we walked. It seemed to help a bit. And by the time our noon meal came around she seemed almost aware of what was going on around her. Almost.
I had an idea as we were getting ready to set out again after lunch. I led our dappled grey mare over to where Ell stood. Her golden hair was one great tangle and she was trying to run one of her hands through it while her eyes wandered around in a distracted way, as if she didn’t quite understand where she was.
“Ell.” She turned to look. “Have you met Greytail?” I gestured to the mare.
A faint, confused shake of the head.
“I need your help leading her. Have you led a horse before?”
“She needs someone to take care of her. Can you do it?” Greytail looked at me with one large eye, as if to let me know she needed leading as much as I needed wheels to walk. But then she lowered her head a bit and nuzzled Ell in a motherly way. The girl reached out a hand to pet her nose almost automatically, then took the reins from me.
“Do you think that’s a good idea?” Krin asked when I came back to pack the other horses.
“Greytail is gentle as a lamb.”
“Just because Ell is witless as a sheep,” Krin said archly, “doesn’t make them a good pairing.”
I cracked a smile at that. “We’ll watch them close for an hour or so. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t. But sometimes the best help a person can find is helping someone else.”
* * *
Since I had slept poorly I was twice weary today. My stomach was sour, and I felt gritty, like someone had sanded the first two layers of my skin away. I was almost tempted to doze in the saddle, but I couldn’t bring myself to ride while the girls walked.
So I plodded along, leading my horse and nodding on my feet. But today I couldn’t fall into the comfortable half-sleep I tend to use when walking. I was plagued with thoughts of Alleg, wondering if he was still alive.
I knew from my time in the Medica that the gut wound I’d given him was fatal. I also knew it was a slow death. Slow and painful. With proper care it might be a full span of days before he died. Even alone in the middle of nowhere he could live for days with such a wound.
Not pleasant days. He would grow delirious with fever as the infection set in. Every movement would tear the wound open again. He couldn’t walk on his hamstrung leg, either. So if he wanted to move he’d have to crawl. He would be cramped with hunger and burning with thirst by now.
But not dead from thirst. No. I had left a full waterskin nearby. I had laid it at his side before we had left. Not out of kindness. Not to make his last hours more bearable. I had left it because I knew that with water he would live longer, suffer more.
Leaving him that waterskin was the most terrible thing I’d ever done, and now that my anger had cooled to ashes I regretted it. I wondered how much longer he would live because of it. A day? Two? Certainly no more than two. I tried not to think of what those two days would be like.
But even when I forced thoughts of Alleg from my mind, I had other demons to fight. I remembered bits and pieces of that night, the things the false troupers had said as I cut them down. The sounds my sword had made as it dug into them. The smell of their skin as I had branded them. I had killed two women. What would Vashet think of my actions? What would anyone think?
Exhausted from worry and lack of sleep, my thoughts spun in these circles for the remainder of the day. I set up camp from force of habit and kept up a conversation with Ell through an effort of sheer will. The time for sleep came before I was ready, and I found myself rolled in my shaed, in the front of the girls’ tent. I was dimly aware that Krin had started giving me the same worried look she’d been giving Ell for the past two days.
I lay wide-eyed for an hour before falling asleep, wondering about Alleg.
When I slept I dreamed of killing them. In my dream I stalked the forest like grim death, unwavering.
But it was different this time. I killed Otto, his blood spattering my hands like hot grease. Then I killed Laren and Josh and Tim. They moaned and screamed, twisting on the ground. Their wounds were horrible, but I could not look away.
Then the faces changed. I was killing Taren, the bearded ex-mercenary in my troupe. Then I killed Trip. Then I was chasing Shandi through the forest, my sword naked in my hand. She was crying out, weeping in fear. When I finally caught her she clutched at me, knocking me to the ground, burying her face in my chest, sobbing. “No no no,” she begged. “No no no.”
I came awake. I lay on my back, terrified and not knowing where my dream ended and the world began. After a brief moment I realized the truth. Ell had crawled from the tent and lay curled against me. Her face pressed against my chest, her hand grasping desperately at my arm.
“No no,” she choked out. “No no no no no.” Her body shook with helpless sobs when she couldn’t say it anymore. My shirt was wet with hot tears. My arm was bleeding where she clutched it.
I made consoling noises and brushed at her hair with my hand. After a long while she quieted and eventually fell into an exhausted sleep, still clinging tightly to my chest.
I lay very still, not wanting to wake her by moving. My teeth were clenched. I thought of Alleg and Otto and all the rest. I remembered the blood and screaming and the smell of burning skin. I remembered it all and dreamed of worse things I could have done to them.
I never had the nightmares again. Sometimes I think of Alleg and I smile.
* * *
We made it to Levinshir the next day. Ell had come to her senses, but remained quiet and withdrawn. Still, things went more quickly now, especially as the girls decided they had recovered enough to take turns riding Greytail.
We covered six miles before we stopped at midday, with the girls becoming increasingly excited as they began to recognize parts of the countryside. The shape of hills in the distance. A crooked tree by the road.
But as we grew closer to Levinshir they grew quiet.
“It’s just over the rise there,” Krin said, getting down off the roan. “You ride from here, Ell.”
Ell looked from her, to me, to her feet. She shook her head.
I watched them. “Are the two of you okay?”
“My father’s going to kill me.” Krin’s voice was barely a whisper, her face full of serious fear.
“Your father will be one of the happiest men in the world tonight,” I said, then thought it best to be honest. “He might be angry too. But that’s only because he’s been scared out of his mind for the last eight days.”
Krin seemed slightly reassured, but Ell burst out crying. Krin put her arms around her, making gentle sounds.
“No one will marry me,” Ell sobbed. “I was going to marry Jason Waterson and help him run his store. He won’t marry me now. No one will.”
I looked up to Krin and saw the same fear reflected in her wet eyes. But Krin’s eyes were angry while Ell’s held nothing but despair.
“Any man who thinks that way is a fool,” I said, weighting my voice with all the conviction I could bring to bear. “And the two of you are too clever and too beautiful to be marrying fools.”
It seemed to calm Ell somewhat, her eyes turning up at me as if looking for something to believe.
“It’s the truth,” I said. “And none of this was your fault. Make sure you remember that for these next couple days.”
“I hate them!” Ell spat, surprising me with her sudden rage. “I hate men!” Her knuckles were white as she gripped Greytail’s reins. Her face twisted into a mask of anger. Krin put her arms around Ell, but when she looked at me I saw the sentiment reflected quietly in her dark eyes.
“You have every right to hate them,” I said, feeling more anger and helplessness than ever before in my life. “But I’m a man too. Not all of us are like that.”
We stayed there for a while, not more than a half-mile from town. We had a drink of water and a small bite to settle our nerves. And then I took them home.