93. Ordeals and Mysteries

They withdraw into the forest, as far from the road as the horses will go on the ever steeper ground.

They stop in a clearing under fir boughs so dense it is as though they were once again inside a cave, a hall built by nature herself.

Garroth lights a small fire and goes about examining everyone’s wounds. There’s little he can do for Stellia’s ear but to put some honey and dried myrrh on the injury and wrap a bandage around her head. He offers her some wine from a goatskin he purchased in Talvain, but she refuses. Sedwin’s thigh presents a far more serious problem. He sits propped up against a tree trunk while Garroth inspects the projectile lodged in his flesh.

“I can’t risk pulling it out,” Garroth says. “The heads of these damn quarrels are barbed. I’d rip off half your leg with it.”

Sedwin takes another swig from the goatskin. He is sweating in spite of the bitter cold. His face is dreadfully pale, and his eyes look misty and distant. Garroth pours some liquid from a flask into a small pan, which he places over the fire.

“Vinegar,” he explains. “To stave off puss and rot.”

Stellia and Nevynne look on in horror as he proceeds to pour the boiling liquid on Sedwin’s wound. Sedwin clenches his teeth and stifles a scream. After that, Garroth wraps an elaborate bandage around Sedwin’s leg, leaving the quarrel untouched. Then he turns to Nevynne.

“You were a bit luckier, My Lady.”

“Is that so?” Nevynne groans as Garroth touches the hooked piece of iron that protrudes from the back of her arm. Her sleeve glistens, drenched with blood. Garroth slices the cloth open with his skinning knife.

“A new shirt, at that,” Nevynne mutters.

“The quarrel’s gone clean through,” Garroth says. “I should be able to pull it out without causing too much damage.” He looks Nevynne in the eye with a stern expression. “It will hurt. A lot. But once I clean and dress the wound, it will have a decent chance of healing without too much trouble.”

“Can I have wine?”

“As much as you can stomach.” Garroth produces another goatskin from his saddle bag and hands it to Nevynne. “Here. I’ll start as soon as it takes effect.”

Nevynne drinks long and deep from the skin. When she puts it down, she makes a face. “That’s terrible. Is that even made from grapes?”

“It’s strong, and that’s all that matters now. So drink up. That was quite a shot, by the way. A man’s neck, at that distance… a slim target, to say the least.”

Nevynne takes another swig. “I had to be sure he went down.”

“And none could be more grateful than I. But how do you know archery? Last time I was in Baramond, the closest young noblewomen came to killing anything was by hunting with falcons.”

“My brother taught me, in secret.” Nevynne’s syllables are beginning to melt into one another. More than usually, anyway. “Why aren’t we heading back to Talvain? We could get help there.”

“Help,” Garroth says, “and a dagger to the back, or poison in our food. More enemies may lie in wait there. It is what they would expect, for us to seek aid in the town.”

“Who were they?” Stellia asks. “What did they want?”

“To kill us. What else?”

“But why?”

“Gold. Bounties. Who knows?”

“Bounties?”

“I’m sure our young Lady Combray’s head would fetch a fine price,” Garroth says. “If someone were to deliver it to her fair-faced queen.”

“That is certain.” Nevynne watches with apprehension as Garroth heats more vinegar in the small pan. Sweat pearls on her forehead. “But could the Guardian not also have learned of your mission?”

“The Guardian would not send assassins,” Sedwin says. He, too, slurs his words. “She would want us alive, to learn the Lost Prince’s whereabouts from us.”

“These villains certainly did not want us alive,” Nevynne says. “But why did the hooded man kill his own companion, just as he was about to—” She winces, and does not finish the sentence.

“Put a crossbow quarrel through my chest?” Garroth smiles grimly. “That is puzzling, to be sure. He could easily have finished me, and dealt with the rest of you at leisure. I would never have reached him before he loosed the shot.” The smile fades from his lips, and a shadow passes over his eyes. “Still, I came close enough for a look at that hooded fellow. I wish I hadn’t.”

Nevynne frowns. “What makes you say that?”

“He was scarred,” Garroth says. “Disfigured. I caught only a glimpse, mind you, and his face was hidden under that cowl for the most part. His teeth were exposed as in a dog’s snarl, and his nose, I think, was mutilated. It seemed to me…” He seems to suppress a shudder. “That it was not a living face.”

“You describe a fiend,” Nevynne says.

“In appearance, perhaps.” Garroth rummages around in his satchel and pulls out a strip of thick leather. “He did save my life, whatever his reasons. Through his deed, all of you were spared.”

“But why did he do it? Was it not their intent to slaughter us?”

“The intent of the two men with him, without a doubt. But he himself wasn’t even armed. He seized the second assassin’s own sword to kill him with it.”

“Perhaps he was a tracker.” Sedwin’s eyes are half-closed. He sounds like a man talking in his sleep. “Brought along to find the quarry, but unprepared for the slaughter.”

“Nor willing to abide it and do nothing.” Garroth shakes his head, and grunts. “Poor wretch. I wonder who he was, and how he came by that ghastly visage.”

“Torture, perhaps.” Nevynne drains the goatskin of its last contents. “Not all of Ingharad’s servants do her dirty work willingly.”

“If indeed they were sent by her,” Garroth says. “But we won’t solve this riddle here and now. We’ve more pressing business.” He takes the empty wineskin from Nevynne and hands her the strip of leather. “Bite down on this, My Lady, and try not to make too much noise. We don’t want to advertise our presence here to the entire forest.”

Stellia looks away, wishing she could cover both her ears with her fists. But the mere thought of touching her ruined ear sends shudders down her spine.

“It might be helpful if you could hold her arm in place,” Garroth tells her. “Use both hands. Especially when I pour the vinegar.”

NEXT: Witch’s Medicine

 

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