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8.

We pounded across the sloping ground, running for the copse of trees I’d seen in my vision. It was the place the bones had pointed to. It was also the source of the strange thunder. The sounds of combat grew as we got closer. The clash of steel on steel, broken regularly by the strange crack of cloudless thunder, and the occasional scream of horses and men flooded every sense. My legs slowed. Even after the magically enhanced night’s rest I was still tired after the last few days. Thomas ran on, quickly getting ahead of me.

I reached the top of a small rise, panting heavily. The vantage point allowed me to see what we were running toward. Jason and Serena stood back to back, moving slowly sideways toward the copse of trees, surrounded by men on horseback. Serena raised her rifle to her shoulder, thunder crashed through the air and one of the riders fell. Jason’s blades wove a silver tracing in the air in front of him, knocking away arrows meant for his body. As I watched, a rider got too close and Jason lunged forward, striking out with blinding speed. The rider screamed and swerved away, holding the freshly severed stump of his arm.

I ran down the far side of a hill and lost sight of the battle, clumsily pulling my sword free and pushing all thoughts out of my mind, focusing only on running. I heard the sound of hooves and a pair of riders appeared, galloping over the hilltop toward me. Thomas clung to the back of one of the horses, grappling with the rider. His right arm was wrapped around the man’s neck while he held tight to the handle of a long knife buried in the rider’s side.

The rider’s face was twisted in blind fury. He struggled to throw Thomas off but his chaotic jerking movements were driving the horse insane. The other rider was swinging a large axe single-handed, trying to cleave Thomas from the other man’s back. I curved my steps, running to catch the axe wielder and bringing my blade to the ready. I felt the cold weight in my hand and leapt at the last minute, screaming in panic, slamming into the rider with a resounding clash.

The impact knocked me away. I landed hard and rolled several times. I scrambled to my feet almost before I had stopped moving. The rider lay on the ground several feet away. My sword was jammed in his chest. I ran to the body and grabbed my sword handle, wrenching it free. Both horses and the other rider were gone and Thomas with them. Thunder sounded again and I ran, racing toward the sound.

I reached the top of the final hill and looked down the slope at the battle. Serena stood with an arrow in her thigh. Jason stood behind her. He was bleeding from a deep gash on the side of his chest, from his shoulder to his waist. Five riders still circled, taking turns charging against the pair. I held my bloodied sword aloft and screamed with all the power I could manage.

The air stirred around me, filling with my panic, rage, and fear. Power ripped through my voice at the riders. I charged forward, swinging my arms and pretending to signal people behind me. Thunder crashed in front of me and a rider’s head vanished. An arcing band of silver clipped another rider whose horse had startled and stepped too close. The remaining three turned and ran; their horses already wild.

I continued running, reaching my companions just as Jason fell to the ground. Serena slipped to one leg beside him. I leapt to Jason’s side, pressing my hands into his wound, squeezing it shut. He looked up at me with fear in his eyes until recognition dawned and he gave me a confused look. “Cary?”

Serena leaned over and pressed her coat into the gaping wound. I shucked off my belt and yelled for Thomas, cinching my belt tight just above the arrow in her leg. She grunted in pain and flinched away from Jason for a moment. Jason’s wound spurted blood at the loss of pressure. I slammed my hand into his would, squeezing it shut.

Thomas collapsed to his knees beside me a few minutes later. Blood ran thick from a long gash on his temple, coating the side of his face in blood. He shook off my look of concern, Jason was nearly dead. His breathing was shallow and I was afraid the bleeding had only slowed because so much of his blood was already outside of him. Thomas knelt beside him. His face was grave as he examined the deep wound. When he looked up his face was relaxed. His eyes and skin began to shine as he pulled power from somewhere deep within himself. “Strip him.”

Serena and I managed to unbuckle Jason’s surcoat and peel it from his body. We treated his shirt with a less care, cutting it off him with my knife. Thomas knelt unmoving beside him.

Thomas leaned forward, placing his hands on Jason’s bare skin and pressing his bare skin to the ground. Serena and I pulled away and watched. No sound reached me at first. Thomas’ lips moved but I heard nothing until a soft breeze carried his whispers to me. The words were garbled even as the sound grew. The wind grew and the sky darkened. The ground below me trembled, shaking with the rhythm of Thomas’ words. He was no longer speaking. His mouth and eyes were closed, but his voice echoed on the wind and groaned out of the ground. Somehow he’d joined with them, molding them into part of his being and bending them to his will.

The landscape turned pale. Color faded out of the world, leaving only Thomas’ hands in the stark brilliance of color. I could feel the power building around me like a string drawing taut. The earth bent, flowing upward through Jason’s body and meeting the sky as Thomas pulled it down.

Thomas’ voice roared out of the world. The opposing forces bent to his will, pouring through Jason’s body. The bend in the world eased. The ground grew still and the wind died. Thomas’ voice returned to a whispered softness and he slumped sideways, his eyes unfocused. I looked down. Jason’s skin had returned to a more healthy pink. His breath was deep and steady. The gash in his side still bled, but it looked smaller and much less severe.

I leapt to Thomas’ side, but he shook his head and pushed me gently away and reached forward to bandage Jason’s wound. I started to help, but Serena’s hand caught my arm as she crawled closer. “Don’t waste time.” She said. “I’ll help Thomas. You go to the trees and cut poles for a stretcher. We’ve got to get Jason back to camp.”

I ran to the trees, stopping along the way to wrench an axe from the cold grip of one of the fallen horsemen. A few swift swings brought down a pair of long sturdy saplings. I stripped the branches and ran back. Tara and Friss were there when I got there. They took the poles and stretched Tara’s cloak across them, folding it in place. Tara and Friss set off at a run, carrying Jason on the stretcher between them with Thomas running alongside.

Serena sighed and watched them go. She shrugged when I looked at her. “I could have used a stretcher ride too you know.” She shook her head. “Oh well…” She raised her hand. “Help me up.”

I hauled her to her feet as gently as I could manage, hooking one of her arms around my shoulders. She settled her weight against me and we started walking. “You’re pretty good at this.”

I’ve had a lot of practice. Usually it’s just getting drunks to bed or to the stables, but every now and then it’s an injury from a fight.”

She clenched her teeth against the pain. “I had forgotten you worked in a tavern.” She smiled broadly, flinching slightly as her wound started bleeding again. “Onward, wench!”

I laughed. “Careful,” I said. “I can always drop you.”

Serena laughed with me, though her face twisted a little more with pain than humor. “Bitch.”

We continued in silence for a while. The taut muscles in Serena’s body trembled with every step, but I could see nothing on her face that looked like pain. I nodded toward her rifle with a sarcastic smile. “Whisper?”

Serena smiled at the rifle with great affection. Her face was pale and her voice soft. “Yeah… My Whisper.”

If that’s your Whisper, I’d hate to hear you yell.”

She grunted. “You’ve got a hell of a yell yourself.”

It was the only thing I could think of.”

It worked. I’m not sure what those men must’ve thought with you running screaming like that. I’m not even sure what I thought.” She shook her head. “That’s not true.” She said. “I thought you’d gone insane. There was so much rage and panic in your voice I almost wanted to run. But it worked. Thank you. Things would have gone very differently if you and Thomas hadn’t shown up.” She winced. “Speaking of Thomas, where is he anyway?”

I hefted her higher in response, taking more of her weight. “He’ll get here eventually.”

Friss jogged back with the stretcher. We held it between us and Serena eased herself down. Friss and I traveled in step to keep the stretcher ride smooth. I sang softly with the rhythm of the movement, hoping to lure Serena into sleep.

My voice was soft and quiet and soon Serena’s breathing slowed and deepened. Her eyes stayed closed until the moment we set her down. She woke immediately, glancing at Thomas and stiffening as he turned toward her. I looked at Jason. His wound was clean and bandaged. Tara, Friss, and I moved away to sit by the rekindled fire.

I stepped to one side and squatted on the ground to collect my pouch and the scattered bones. Friss refilled the coffee pot and set it near the flames. Tara was the first to break the silence. “Thomas said you knew they were in trouble before the first rifle shot.”

Only by a few seconds.” I said. “It was pure luck. I accidentally spilled my pouch and that’s what the bones showed me.”

Tara exchanged a look with Friss. “Can I see these bones of yours?”

I rolled my eyes. “If you must,” I said and handed the pouch over. “But Thomas already gave me the ‘you’re strange for carrying bones around’ speech and I told him he was being an idiot.”

Tara laughed. “It’s nothing like that. I just want to see if they’ll work for me.”

She took a deep breath and held the pouch to her chest. After another moment she let the breath out and upended the pouch. The bones scattered meaninglessly. Tara looked down at the scattered pile for several seconds before looking at me. “Well?” She asked.

Well what?” I asked laughing. “I only see things when they’re trying to show me something.”

She swept the bones back into the bag. “I guess I just don’t have the sight.”

What sight? It’s more like you didn’t save them from a woodland grave after granting the soul of their former master freedom.” I winked at her. “That kind of thing forms a bond.”

Friss snorted and Tara began to laugh. “Fair enough. Tell us about this morning.”

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