Soon, the frightened energy from fleeing the bounty hunters and possible Ragesian pursuers fled before the tedium and discomfort of the ride along the wintry mountain road. Diogenes ordered they stop for the night.
With the aid of Kathor, Rantle set to putting up the two tents they had stolen from the bounty hunters, those unneeded by the dead guards and their leader. Meanwhile the three mages – Diogenes, Torrent, and Sorra – gathered wood and set up a cookfire, discussing their respective experiences with sorcery and formulating tactics in case the group fell under attack. Diogenes used his cigarette-lighting wand to trace a ring in the snow around the camp, and the air within warmed enough to almost be comfortable.
Rivereye, half-hobbled and smaller and weaker than even the twenty year-old Sorra, could only contribute by lending his eye to the gear and coinage they had procured from the Black Horse, letting them know how poor they ultimately were. He mostly kept to himself.
As they settled down to a fortunate but unappetizing dinner of a domestic goat they had found, they considered the faint glow on the southern horizon, where flames reflected across low clouds, marking their destination: the fire forest.
“I’m a little unclear on what comes next,” Rantle said.
Torrent said, “I have several vials of an elixir that will alter the elements of your body and protect against the heat of the fire forest, enough for all of us and maybe a few of the horses. It will work as long as it stays in your body, so you won’t want to urinate unless you have to. It will keep your skin from blistering, but it isn’t enough to stop prolonged exposure to actual fire, though, so don’t go sticking your hands into any bushes.”
“You might want to repeat that one for Rantle,” Diogenes said. “Remember Rantle, that’s ‘don’t
touch the fire,’ alright?”
A snarky laugh came from Rivereye.
Kathor said, “How long will we be in the forest?”
“A day,” Torrent said. “Two at most.”
“What if we get lost?” Sorra asked nervously.
“We’ll be fine,” Rantle said with a smile. “There’s supposed to be an old highway that runs straight through Innenotdar to Dassen. It used to be a minor trade route, so it should be impossible to miss.”
Diogenes said, “And I’ll start gathering sticks in case we have to draw lots on who gets the last of the elixir.”
“I have a compass,” Torrent said condescendingly. “If one of you manages to lead us off the road, it’s just twenty miles due south. Even if we miss the exit to Dassen, we’ll just come out in the mountains.”
“Safely between burning to death and freezing,” Diogenes chuckled. “Then let us not get lost.”
“We’re still assuming no one here betrays us,” Sorra said.
Rantle looked to Kathor and shrugged, but the man said nothing.
“I told you,” Rantle said, “Kathor’s trustworthy.”
Sorra looked away in disdain and muttered, “And why should we trust you
Rantle cleared his throat uncomfortably, and again the group was quiet. It was Rivereye who broke the silence.
“What’s your family?” Rivereye asked.
Kathor glanced at him. “Why?”
Rivereye nodded in the direction of his horse. “Your saddle, and your armor: I recognize the family markings.”
“Then you know my family,” Kathor said.
Sorra looked at Rivereye. “What do you know?”
Rivereye squirmed slightly under the sudden attention. “He’s from the Danava family.”
“Is that a problem?” Rantle said. “Are they a family of notorious liars?”
Diogenes chuckled, “No, that’s my
family. To which I am a notable exception.”
Rivereye looked again at Kathor, but the man was focused on cutting more meat from the roast.
“His family is fine,” Rivereye said. “They’re very honorable.”
“Loyal to Ragesia you mean,” Sorra said.
“Leska is not the emperor of Ragesia,” Kathor said.
Rantle leaned back and patted his stomach, yawning.
“Family doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’ve been an orphan since I was seven. You can’t decide whether to trust me based on my family, so don’t judge the knight based on his. Anyway, if he wanted to harm you, he would have to go through me first. I won’t let a woman come to harm.”
Beyond Sorra, Torrent smirked. “So nice of you to offer.”
Sorra sighed, pulled her knees to her chest, and lay her head down. Tears welled in her eyes. Rantle remembered the man whose body he had pulled from the burning remains of the Apple less than a day ago. Humbled, he held his tongue.
Diogenes stood up and groaned, stretching his left arm but keeping his right hidden in his coat.
“We should have people on guard tonight,” he said, “just in case. We need to leave before sunrise. Anyone who sleeps too deeply or snores too loudly will be left behind.”
* * *
Kathor had provided him with a full supply of firewood before he had gone to bed, so as Rantle kept watch in the midnight hours he had nothing to do but feed the fire and listen to songs from home jostling in his head.
A rustling in the women’s tent got his attention, but when he saw it was just Sorra getting up he relaxed. She cast him only a casual glance as she slipped into her boots and walked out of the perimeter of the camp, to relieve herself, Rantle supposed. When she returned she stopped beside her tent for a moment, then slowly came over to Rantle and sat down on a small boulder near the one he had chosen as his post.
“Everything alright?” Rantle asked.
“No,” she said. “Not much is right at all. I can’t sleep.”
“We could get Diogenes to put
you to sleep.”
Sorra scowled. “He’s too amused with himself. You’re nearly as bad.”
“I-,” Rantle started, but then he strugged. “Look, I know you lost someone close to you. I haven’t. I left before I had a chance to lose anything. It helps me be optimistic.”
“What about your home?”
Rantle chuckled. “I have a couple, but the only real one threw me out. I mean, I’m not a coward. I want to drive back the rags, but back in Gate Pass? That isn’t the place to do it. This Seaquen sounds like a smarter idea. Get away, get safe, and then be the one attacking, instead of the one waiting to die. I’m sure someone’s planning how to do it as we speak.”
Sorra sighed, then looked up, though the sky was choked with clouds.
“Why are you leaving?” Rantle asked. “You sound like you’re having second thoughts.”
“My father ordered me to leave,” she said. “He knew it wasn’t safe, but it’s not fair. He’s Councilman Menash?”
Rantle nodded and smiled. The man was notorious.
Sorra continued, “He was making plans to restart the resistance, like he was some old war hero, but when Ragesia invaded last time he was six years old.”
“Stop thinking about it,” Rantle said. “It’s too late to go back now, and hey, it’s good to have the company.”
Sorra huffed in amusement. “I heard Diogenes telling us about your
daring escape from Gate Pass. He gave particular emphasis to an encounter with a lovesick councilwoman, so please don’t try to pretend your intentions are innocent.”
Rantle shrugged. “I wasn’t trying to be charming. For all I know, you might have left a husband behind.”
“No,” she said.
The sadness in her voice hit Rantle almost physically. He cleared his throat and sat up straight.
“Let’s talk about the future,” he said. “Torrent said it will take a month or so to reach Seaquen. Do you think there’ll be an army forming up?”
Sorra shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t want to . . . to talk now. I just don’t want to sleep.”
Rantle nodded. Wind’s murmur filled the silence as the two of them watched the road.
Softly, Rantle said, “I’m not so good with being quiet, but I’ll do my best. Stay as long as you want, and if you want to talk. . . .”
Sorra said nothing, and Rantle let his words hang.
* * *
Having gotten almost no sleep for two days, the few hours of rest Rantle managed to grab in the evening was not enough to refresh him. The next morning, while Kathor and Torrent led the group, Rantle leaned low in his saddle, still mostly asleep. He was certain occasionally he drifted off to dreams, and so when the sun seemed to rise before him at the end of the road, he was convinced it was just an imagining of his sleep-entangled mind.
The fire forest breathed like a living thing, inhaling long low gusts that pulled at Rantle’s clothes and hair, drawing him toward the flames, exhaling cinders into the sky with a throaty growl, like all the war furnaces of every army in the world working as one. Inaudible words crept into Rantle’s thoughts through his dreams, and when he shook his head to wake himself he could no longer understand what they were saying, if they had existed at all.
“My god,” he said, seeing the forest in the distance.
The Innenotdar fire forest lay in a valley, and though it was still a mile away, as they approached down the slope of the mountain road, he could see it stretching out to the horizon before him: endless trees, mostly pine, some towering a hundred feet high or more, flames clinging to them from the base of their trunks to the crowns of their branches, burning as they had for decades, as if the trees themselves refused to die.
Rocky hills still framed the road on either side here, but there was no snow, and the ground was carpeted with wilted yellow grass and vibrant red flowers. The soil was an almost black grey from falling ash, and already Rantle’s clothes and horse were turning ashen.
The road continued ahead for a few hundred more feet before it reached a broad field on a promontory just outside the fire forest. A gorge marked the clear border of Innenotdar, and an ancient, blackened stone bridge spanned it, steam hissing up from the water beneath it. The sun was nearing noon overhead, but was visible as little more than a platinum smear in the smoky sky.
“This is an interesting development,” Diogenes said.
Rantle followed his gaze to the field on the left side of the road, about a thousand feet away. A pair of squat stone buildings lay inside a low wall made of roughly-mortared rocks. One building looked like a stable large enough to have once belonged to a sizable ranch, and the other was clearly a house, just one story tall but big enough for a small family.
Just outside the house’s front door stood a slender woman holding a wiry black staff. Though Rantle could barely even see her at this distance, he knew for certain she was looking straight at him, and he felt the unblinking stare of the woman’s crystal blue eyes.
Rantle shivered and blinked. When he looked around, he saw the others were shifting uncomfortably as well.
“Enemies?” Torrent asked.
“Let’s find out,” Diogenes said. “Rantle, Kathor, go in front, in case it’s a trap. We’ll be right behind you.”
Rantle nodded, glancing back at Sorra to give her a reassuring smile. Then he and Kathor kicked their horses into a trot and headed down to the field.
When they were still a few hundred feet out, Kathor rode close to Rantle.
“Why do we do what the wizard says?” Kathor asked.
“Because he’s giving orders,” Rantle said. “He sounds like he knows what he’s doing, at least.”
The woman came forward to meet them at the edge of the low wall as they rode up. She looked no older than twenty, wavy dark hair to her shoulders, looking almost frail beneath her thin beige dress. Her arms were bare, with small brass ring bracelets around her wrists, and she held her staff – a starkly black shaft of wood capped with silver, with a smooth red stone set into the wood in its center – out wide, almost as if she was blocking their way. The firelight from the forest glinted violet off her blue eyes, and her gaze slid emptily across Rantle and Kathor.
“Justice flees the Scourge,” she said. “The skulls of the dragon pursue you, and you will ride yourself to your death.”
Rantle glanced at Kathor, who looked just as confused as he was. When he looked back, the young woman had lost her strange intensity, and now she cradled her staff close to her chest. She was as meek as a mouse.
“I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I don’t know what-. . . . Come see my father, please.”
“Wait,” Rantle said. “Hold on. What was that?”
The woman shook her head slightly. “I’m . . . I’m sorry. I sometimes see things that. . . . Please come inside. I need you to help my father.”
“What’s wrong with your father?” Kathor asked.
“The Ragesians are coming,” the woman said. “My father is a mage, and he won’t leave.”
“I must be running into every mage in the damn world,” Rantle groaned.
“You’re going into the fire forest,” the woman said. “Please, let us come with you.”
Rantle put a hand to the sword at his hip and looked to Kathor warily.
“Fire forest?” Rantle said. “What gave you that idea?”
Kathor heaved a single gruff laugh.
Crystin looked back to the house like she was torn. A faint voice called out, barely audible through the open door over the pervasive growl of flames.
“Please just come,” she said quickly.
She looked like she was struggling to say more, but then she bowed her head and turned to head inside.
“I must go to my father,” she said stiffly. “You should leave.”
“Like hell,” Rantle muttered. “This is too damned strange.”
Curiosity getting the better of him, Rantle dismounted and followed after the young woman warily, Kathor a few steps behind him. She went into the house, seemingly oblivious that they were following her. Inside it was dark, the walls shaped of strangely smooth stone with no mortar or bricks. Many paintings hung around the tiny living room, portraits barely distinguishable in the dim light coming through the curtained window. Low embers flickered in a hearth, and in a high-backed chair in the corner sat a man who looked to be in his fifties, with stringy brown hair and cracked, dry wrinkles criss-crossing his face. As Rantle came inside he nearly tripped over a pair of small empty traveling packs lying on the floor near the front door.
The man glared at Rantle with scorn and looked ready to yell at him, but he bent over coughing hideously, the sound like bloody flesh being dragged across a bed of splinters. His wrinkled jowls tensed as he continued to cough for a few seconds, and his daughter – no longer moving so stiffly – set her staff against the wall, bent to the hearth, and lifted a kettle from which she poured tea into a cup on the chair’s arm rest. The man struggled to lift the tea to his mouth and swallow a mouthful, after which his coughing fit subsided.
“Don’t argue, father,” the young woman said. “I know these men will take us to safety.”
The man, still slightly hunched, glowered at her. She lowered her head and stopped talking immediately. Then the old man turned his attention to Rantle and Kathor. His voice was a bitter, dark grumble.
“What in all the hells I’ve ever cursed about are you two doing in my house?”
Rantle smirked. “She asked
us to come in. We were just passing through, and your daughter decided to lure us inside by saying things that didn’t make any damned sense. Please explain to me what’s going on.”
“It’s none,” he started, then coughed, but he managed to keep speaking, continuing to cough every few words, “of your business. Forgive my d-daughter’s oddities.”
Kathor said, “She’s a seer. She knew we were coming.”
The man shrugged, sipping and clearing his throat with a hideous hacking scar of a cough. “She wants me to go with you, but I’m not leaving.”
The old man scowled. Rantle rolled his eyes and scowled back.
“Listen old man,” he said, “you might not know this living out next to a cursed forest, but the rags are looking for hat tricks like you, and they’re probably coming this way. And not just imperial soldiers; the inquisitors are on the prowl. I hear they kill mages. The whole Ragesian military is marching to war, and we probably have a whole company following us right now.
“Now, I don’t know that I’m comfortable with having more helpless people in tow, but your daughter has a good idea. We
are leaving, and you can come along too.”
“I’m staying here,” the man coughed out roughly. “When the Ragesians arrive, I’ll show them that we will still resist them!”
He grimaced and drank the last of his tea, then shook his cup at his daughter to demand a refill as he coughed more. The daughter obediently poured more tea.
“Fine,” Rantle said. “We don’t have time for this. You can stay here and die, but you,” he pointed at the daughter, “if you want to come, we’re ready to go into the fire forest now. We can get you safely to the other side, out of the torchies’ reach. But we’re not waiting.”
The daughter shook her head and calmly said, “No. I am staying with my father.”
Rantle shrugged and turned to leave, too irritated to ask any more questions. Through the door he could see the rest of the group riding up to just beyond the wall surrounding the house.
“Let’s go,” he said to Kathor.
He was just taking his first step when the old man laughed.
“Go, get out of my home!” he shouted. Then he began to cough uncontrollably.
As soon as the father began to cough, the daughter stood and leapt for Rantle, grabbing him by his arm. Her expression was imploring.
“He needs to leave,” she said. “We both do! My father’s just . . . just stubborn.”
The woman’s father looked like he was struggling to control his coughing, and he tried to stand. The daughter began to sway and stiffen, and Rantle pulled away, but Kathor stepped past him back into the house. In the span of two strides he had crossed the room and slammed his fist into the old man’s cheek, knocking him out of his chair and to the floor, where he lay unconscious.
“Kathor!” Rantle yelled in disbelief.
Kathor shrugged. “You said we don’t have time for this. I’ll put him on my horse, and if he still complains when he wakes up, we’ll leave him.”
The daughter was shaking slightly, and she leaned against the wall in shock. Her eyes were locked on her unconscious father with a mix of fear and relief, and Rantle stepped in front of her so she would have to see him.
“Fine,” he said. “I’m Rantle. You’re going to be alright. What’s your name?”
“Crystin,” she said. “Crystin Ja-nafeel. My father is Haddin Ja-laffa. He’ll be furious.”
“Don’t worry about your father,” Rantle said. “You want to come, right?”
Crystin nodded. “But we need to hurry.”
Supporting the unconscious Haddin with one arm, Kathor staggered out and threw the man across his horse. Rantle considered his own horse, too small to support two. Torrent and Sorra were already sharing the other horse, leaving only one option for Haddin’s daughter.
“Crystin,” Rantle said, “outside, you’ll see the ugly little jispin in the back of the group. That’s Rivereye. The two of you should be able to share his horse. Is there anything you need before we leave?”
Crystin stepped over to where she had left her staff. Once she had it, she looked much less nervous.
“My father,” she said, “he wouldn’t let me pack. I need to bring along his tea and medicine, and clothes. Should I bring a weapon?”
Rantle nodded impatiently. “Sure, girl. Anything you think you can swing without hurting one of us. Let’s get this stuff of yours and go.”
Crystin hesitated and turned to one of the smaller paintings on the wall, its frame only a few inches across. She pulled it off and tucked it into a pocket of her dress, then started pointing out things she needed to bring along. Rantle followed behind her, bags in hand, tossing into the first bag tea kettles, packages of leaves, small pouches of supposed magical herbs, and all the survival gear he could find. When it was full, he set it down and followed Crystin to the bedrooms of her and her father, gathering traveling clothes for both of them, since once they got past the fire forest the cold of winter would still be waiting on the other side.
A minute later, Diogenes found him in the house’s pantry as he was struggling to fit a few last bits of food into the second bag. The wizard stopped a few feet behind Rantle and gaped in disbelief.
“Did we not have enough useless people?” he said.
“Complain later,” Rantle said. “The old man’s a wizard too. Aren’t we trying to rescue mages?”
“No,” Diogenes said, “we’re trying to rescue Me, and every minute we waste is another the Ragesians could be catching up to Me. We’re not stopping so you can lay with a woman this time.”
“Yehrun!” Rantle cursed. “We’re coming.”
Slinging the bags over his shoulder, he pointed for Crystin to follow Diogenes outside. When they left the small house, the heat of the fire forest hit him hard.
“Torrent,” Diogenes said, “get those elixirs ready. We’re leaving.”
Sorra called out, “Are you planning to go into the fire forest without eating? We don’t have nearly enough food, so we should stop here.”
Diogenes groaned, but Rantle put a hand on the man’s fake arm.
“She’s right,” he said. “It won’t take long. Crystin, you don’t care if we take anything, do you?”
“I’m trying to hurry,” Diogenes said, “and you’re worried about lunch. We are less than a mile from the damned forest. To stop here would be,” he half-stammered, overcome with frustration, “moronic.”
“What’s that?” Crystin said.
She pointed toward a craggy hill on the opposite side of road to the west, maybe two hundred feet away. Rantle squinted and saw something skulking just at the rise of the hill. The figure, the size of a young boy or a jispin man, was only visible for a moment before ducking away.
“What was that?” Rantle said.
“Khabese scout,” Kathor said urgently. “The army employs them. We need to ride.”
“Just one guy?” Rantle said. “Why don’t we just kill him?”
From the scout’s direction, an arrow cut through the air and struck the wall of the house with a loud thump. A chorus of quiet curses went up around the group, and then another arrow flew in from the south and struck Diogenes in his fake arm. He cried out and ran for the wall at the edge of the yard, diving for cover as the crossfire continued.
Everyone else ducked and moved, or spurred their horses so they wouldn’t be sitting targets. Rantle shoved Crystin toward Rivereye’s horse, then ran for his own.
“How the hell-!” he shouted.
Kathor rode close, holding the unconscious Haddin upright as a human shield.
“Khabese can see in the dark,” Kathor said. “They must’ve cut ahead of us in the night.”
Another two arrows flew in, but people were on the look-out now and they managed to dodge out of the way. The second archer was crouched atop the roof of the stable, less than a hundred feet away, his sulfur yellow coat hiding him against the backdrop of the fire forest. Rantle tried to stoop as he ran for his horse, hoping to get to the crossbow on the saddle, but an arrow flew at him and he had to drop to the ground to dodge it. He began crawling the rest of the way.
The horses were panicking, all but Kathor’s, but Rivereye had managed to pull Crystin onto the saddle behind him. Torrent, meanwhile, was holding out her left hand toward the archers, and as an arrow aimed for her and Sorra whistled in she leaned sideways and the arrow narrowly missed them.
“Torrent,” Diogenes shouted, “where’s the elixir?”
Sorra had pulled open Torrent’s backpack, and she tossed a metal cask the size of man’s head to Diogenes, who tried and failed to catch it one-handed. She took out another, snapped open the mouth, and took a swig herself, then handed it to Torrent, who was mounted in front of her. Torrent, hand still raised to ward off arrows, drank quickly, struggling to keep her horse calm as she shouted directions.
“Just one swallow each,” Torrent said. “And one for your horse, or it will balk at the flames.”
“How do I make my horse drink?” Rivereye yelled in a panic.
Torrent poured a handful of the viscous elixir into her palm and slathered it across her own horse’s lips and nostrils. The horse tried to bite her hand, but then it seemed more interested in licking the slime off its face. She kicked the horse into a trot over to Rivereye, and handed him the flask, giving another handful to the horse he and Crystin were seated upon.
There seemed to just be two Khabese, but they were firing wildly now, an arrow every few seconds, barely aimed. Kathor was the largest target, and Rantle heard at least two arrows click off the man’s armor.
Diogenes had taken a gulp from his cask, and he ran for his horse, dashing the elixir across its face, then dropping the cask on the ground as he leapt into his saddle. He shouted at his horse and spurred it into a gallop toward the fire forest. Almost immediately, a horn sounded from the hill to the west.
Rantle cursed and ran for the cask Diogenes had dropped, picking it up quickly before too much elixir spilled out. Cask in hand, he ducked into the cover of the wall again, gulping down a mouthful as an arrow barely missed him. Almost instantly his throat began to burn and he felt like his skin was shaking, but the feeling passed, and he no longer noticed the heat from the fire forest.
“Kathor,” he shouted.
Kathor rode close and caught the cask as Rantle tossed it up to him. Meanwhile, the other two horses – with Crystin, Rivereye, Torrent, and Sorra – had ridden off after Diogenes, kicking up clouds of ash behind them.
Rantle had kept a large glob of the elixir on his hand, and he waited for the next pair of shots to fly before he made a break for his horse. He smeared the elixir on its lips, and was just stepping into the stirrup when an arrow imbedded into the horse’s foreleg. It reared and tried to bolt, and Rantle was thrown away. As he fell, however, he managed to grab the crossbow. Only when he landed did he realize he didn’t have any bolts for it.
He heard Kathor shouting, and for a moment he hoped the knight was coming to help him, but he saw instead that Kathor was trying to warn the rest of the group that a pair of Ragesian horsemen were riding fast out from behind a hill to the west. Kathor pulled out his huge sword and spurred his mount into a charge, leaving Rantle pinned down and alone.
Rantle lay on his side, outside the protection of the stone wall, and an arrow flew right over his head. It dug into the ground a few feet away, and Rantle scrambled over to it. He yanked it out of the ground, then awkwardly held it as he cranked the crossbow and tried to load it with an arrow. It wasn’t perfect, but it fit, and he rose to one knee, aiming for the nearer archer on the stable roof.
He prayed, then pulled the trigger and fired.
Living in a city, it had been years since Rantle had fired a crossbow, so he was not particularly surprised that his shot went completely astray, but he was nevertheless disappointed with himself. The Khabese archer’s crossfire counterattack was much more precise, and one arrow struck him in the front of his thigh. Growling, he grabbed the arrow, pulled it out, and staggered back toward the cover of the wall, trying to cock the crossbow and load it with an arrow covered with his own blood as he ran.
Once he reached cover, the shots stopped, the archers waiting for him to show himself. Rantle couldn’t hear anything over the roar of the fire forest and the rush of his blood pumping fear, but he knew if he waited the Ragesians would eventually regroup and come back to cut him down. Almost a minute passed as he tried to get his fear under control, preparing to make his move.
He raised his head, ducked, waited for the expected arrows to fly past him, then rose again, aimed for a breath longer than he thought was safe, and fired. The Khabese archer atop the stable was aiming as well, almost perfectly still. Rantle’s arrow struck the man’s chest just as he fired. The scout’s arrow went off course, but Rantle had already leaped back into cover, knowing there was still another archer. He fell to the ground and cowered, but laughed in satisfied disbelief.
He was looking around for other arrows to scavenge when he heard horse hooves approaching. The gait was awkward, like the animal was running with a limp.
“Rantle!” shouted Sorra.
Rantle looked up in shock. Sorra was riding his horse, and he guessed she had removed the arrow that had struck it, since the wound was magically healed. She reined the horse to a stop beside him and reached out to pull him up.
“You’re insane!” he shouted, but he took her hand.
He leapt weakly into the saddle behind her, nearly pulling her off as he struggled to get seated. She kicked to get the horse to turn and run, but it struggled against her for a second. In the distance, the Khabese archer on the hill across the road fired, and Rantle pushed Sorra’s head down. The arrow scraped across his arm and back, and he cursed, then kicked the horse’s sides as hard as he could.
The horse reared up for a moment, then landed and started to run. Rantle grinned, grabbed an arrow out of the quiver on the saddle, and tried to load as the horse sprinted. The Khabese archer waited, taking a long moment to aim ahead of the galloping horse. Rantle saw the next arrow flying in, and he shoved Sorra down, but it was too late.
Sorra screamed as the arrowhead drove into her neck. She reached up to the wound, losing her grip on the reins. Rantle grabbed her, but she fell away, and Rantle fell with her, striking the ground at the speed of a gallop. They rolled together and came to a stop, ash rising in a thick cloud around them.
Rantle crawled coughing to Sorra’s side, and she reached out to him, her face tense with agony. Wet coughs of blood spattered her cheeks, and the flow from the wound itself had soaked her shirt. She was trying to grab the arrow’s shaft, but her hands were too slick.
“No,” Rantle said. “What do I do? You’re- dammit, you’re a healer. What do I do!”
She reached for his hands, and he let her guide him. Her touch was so weak, and her whole body was convulsing, but she pulled his hands to the arrow. Closing his eyes, Rantle grabbed the arrow and pulled. It slid out, and the blood just poured out more quickly.
He kept yelling at her, asking her to tell him what to do, cursing, begging, but her body went limp, and her head lolled to the side. Her final, pained glance was cast northward, back to Gate Pass, and then she closed her eyes and stopped breathing.
Rantle’s voice caught in his throat, and he sat still beside her. Ash kicked up from their fall settled upon them, turning her skin and blood gray.
From behind him came the shuffling sound of someone stepping through the ash-coated road. Rantle felt his shock begin to burn hotter, and he shook with rage as he stood. He drew his sword and stalked out of the haze of ash, coming upon the Khabese archer as the man was trying to grab the reins of Rantle’s horse.
The scout, short like a jispin, covered in weapons and trophies, turned and gaped at Rantle. He knelt to grab his bow, but Rantle was already to him, and he kicked the man in the chest to drive him down, then fell upon him and stabbed him in the stomach. He was only dimly aware of the man’s cries of pain and of the blood slicking his hand as he pushed the blade, continuing until with a snagging sensation he felt its tip poke out the man’s back.
He stepped away, too weak to pull the sword back out. He left the man to whimper. He spared one glance at Sorra, then limped to his horse and grabbed its reins.
The ash had settled, and now Rantle could see the others in the distance, riding for the fire forest, their mounted ambushers dead or scattered. To the north, beyond the mouth of the valley, he heard horns of more approaching Ragesians.
“God damn it,” Rantle spat, feeling cold.
He climbed his horse and kicked it into a gallop toward the fire forest, the scourge following at his heels.