The Crossroads wasn’t truly a village. It had only a few scattered buildings behind the spiny wall the warded off intruders or bandits. Or, so it was meant for. Carter had few doubts that bandits and the like came in anyway.
Despite being in the middle of a meadow, the Crossroads itself was a dusty outpost. The passersby kicked up plumes of pale clouds as they walked along the crudely crafted streets.
Alongside the streets were mostly caravans, with hastily set up stands for shopping convenience. Others were more carefully, well set-up, with bright colours and shades to block out the harsh rays of sun that beat down on the earth.
They walked into the outpost on horseback, but Gideon called for them to dismount after they had gotten in. It wasn’t as if they could shop on the horses, after all.
There were posts to tie them up and leave them, but Carter didn’t feel inclined to let them go. He was saved from having to express this when Isha said it was best they hold onto them if they wanted the horses to remain theirs.
“We can split up,” Isha suggested as they started coming up to a short, squat, and dirty looking tavern. One of the windows was broken and had been covered by some kind of sheet. “Get everything we each need. Carter and Whisper, you both need supplies, from scratch.” She eyed the clothes they had been wearing since yesterday. Carter ducked behind Reese under her scrutiny, but Whisper seemed unconcerned.
“And if trouble comes?” Whisper asked. They looked the picture of poised and unmoving where they stood tall, with Achille on their heel. “Would it not be best that we were together, so we didn’t get split up in the confusion?” There was a hard edge to Whisper’s voice, implying something more that was lost on Carter.
He played with the reins in his hands as Gideon and Isha shared a look. He glanced away, worried he might be called to attention if he was to meet Gideon or Isha’s gazes.
As they passed the tavern, Carter noticed a hooded figure propped against the wall of the tavern. He couldn’t make out their face, a beggar perhaps, given their ragged state. They weren’t wearing shoes either, but rather, wraps that looked like worn bandages over their feet.
The hooded figure turned, and Carter flinched, spinning away so as not to be caught staring. It wasn’t as if he didn’t see beggars and the homeless in Midvale, but he found it was best not to be caught looking at them. Not unless he wanted confrontation.
It made him sick. He knew that, had it not been for Bazzoli, he would be in that place too. If he wouldn’t have died already.
“It would be faster to split up,” Gideon finally replied, glancing sideways at Carter and meeting his eyes only for a second before turning back to Whisper behind him and Villa. “The only thing we have on our side right now is time- and the Fire Forgers will be quick to cut that rope.”
“It would be faster if something goes wrong to leave behind the supposed extra weight, you mean,” Whisper pointed out dryly. Koshar, where he was perched on Achille’s saddle and had been cleaning himself, was now scanning the area through narrowed amber eyes.
Gideon opened his mouth to respond but shut his mouth and scowled instead. Maybe he thought if he looked sour enough, he could remove the truth from Whisper’s words.
“Then we all go together,” Isha cut in, glancing back from where she walked next to Gideon. “It’ll take longer the more we squabble about it.” She twisted back to look at where Carter trailed just behind Whisper, pale hair not captured by her bun twirling around her face.
Whisper nodded, contented, while Gideon made a disgusted noise from the back of his throat and turned back around to face forward, gripping Villa’s reins tight enough to make his knuckles white.
As he moved, Carter could see his shirt pull down, and the harsh black brand marks snaking up from underneath it and running up his neck like a dark, angry snake.
“It’s an identification mark.”
Carter jerked his head to see Isha slowing Fabella down – hard as it was as the mare had seemingly boundless spunk and energy – to fall into step with him and Whisper. He blinked at her, brow crinkling.
Isha nodded towards Gideon. “I’ve seen you staring at the brands. Don’t worry, kitten, I’m not shining the spotlight on you.” She tipped her head towards him, watching him curiously. “They’re identification marks. I suppose you could say they’re like the brands that horses get on their rumps. They’re for what coterie you’re affiliated with, and sometimes something a little fancier like ranking.”
He frowned, stomach swirling. He’d always hated the people who branded their horses like they were some sort of object that needed to be claimed. Bazzoli had thankfully never done that. But there were a few horses he’d bought that had them.
“Why would they do that?” Winnie asked. Their brows were dipped heavily when Carter glanced over at them.
Reese snuffed behind Carter, nuzzling his hair gently. He reached up idly to brush her nose, absent, but grateful she could sense the way his chest was knotting. It didn’t help the Crossroads was bursting with activity, and Carter could still hear shouts coming from the tavern behind them. It’s midday, what are they doing?
“Well, I’m sure each coterie could tell you a different story for how it happened, but it really boils down to control. It’s a reminder that, regardless of how you come into any one of the coteries, you’re there for life. However long or short that may be,” Isha explained. “Either way, it’s a form of initiation too. If you can’t handle the pain of the brand, you’re a weak link. They won’t suffer weak links.”
Carter chewed on the inside of his mouth. His nose itched from all the dust being kicked up, and his stomach was rolling uncomfortably from the branding. He glanced back over to wear Gideon was walking – or rather, clomping – ahead of them.
“Are they- um. Are they all as big as- as Gideon’s?” Carter asked, tracing the lines of the brand on Gideon’s neck. Villa tugged on the reins, tossing her head back, and Gideon tugged her back. Villa then, conveniently, stepped on his foot.
“No,” Isha said, something softer in her tone. He glanced at her to find her watching Gideon as well. “No, they’re not. But Corin- That’s Von Brandt, the leader of the Fire Forger. He’s, for lack of better word, possessive. He wanted everyone to know that Gideon and I were his.” She lifted her right wrist, where Carter had noticed she wore a thick band of leather. A...bracer? “Mine’s obvious when I’m not hiding it. Guess he didn’t think of that when he did it. Gideon! Stop for a moment so we can actually get what we need.”
From where he had been shoving Villa off his foot, Gideon paused and glanced back at Isha with a broody scowl. Isha smirked, catlike and unconcerned for him.
“You should get a scarf or something,” she said when she approached him. “You don’t want to be announcing who you’ve gotten into bed with to the whole world. The authorities won’t be happy with it.”
Surprisingly, Gideon’s cheeks dusted with a light coat of pink. “I haven’t gotten into bed with anyone,” he growled. Then he turned red, glared at Carter as if this was somehow his fault, and gave Villa another push for good measure. She smacked him with her snout.
Isha snorted and gave Fabella a pat on the neck. “That’s nobody’s fault but your own.” She gave Carter a glance and winked.
Carter felt his own face heat up, and suddenly felt the wrath of the sun’s glare above. He really wished he had decided on something cooler yesterday. The night hadn’t even been cold enough to warrant his desire of wearing long sleeves as he was now.
“Come on,” Isha laughed, gently pulling Fabella forward. “Let’s get started before we become the dust in the road.”
* * *
It was as Whisper was negotiating for their rations when Isha, from where she had been leaning against a pole just outside the tent holding Fabella, suddenly stiffened. She walked with Fabella on the side closer to the roads and all the people milling about and stopped beside Gideon. She murmured something to him. The reaction was immediate- Gideon’s eyes snapped up and started scanning the crowd before he narrowed them.
Carter tried to follow his gaze, but then Winnie said, “Carter,” quietly beside him, having moved from the counter to where he stood outside with Reese and Achille, and he turned to them. “Here,” they said, handing him a canvas bag filled with the food. “Can Reese carry it in her saddlebags?”
He nodded and took the bags. Whisper took Achille’s reins back as Carter moved to Reese’s flank and started fitting the bag into Reese’s saddlebags they had also just purchased.
As he was stashing away the rations, a couple of children ran past in the street and Fabella suddenly jerked her head up and started prancing. She made puffing noises, her eyes wide and uneasy.
Achille reacted too, backing up abruptly and running into one of the poles. It collapsed and with it, the awning to the food stand. As the canvas came down, Achille darted forward. Koshar had jumped off sometime during the panic, and Whisper was doing all they could to hold onto Achille and calm him down.
Thankfully Reese hadn’t panicked and Villa was only pinning her eyes and shifting on her hooves. Isha was desperately trying to calm Fabella but the mare was hopping up. Not quite a rear but it was unsettling in itself.
Carter threw Reese’s reins over her head and circled over to Isha. “Let go and take Reese!” he told her, heart thumping against his chest. Isha dropped Fabella’s reins and scrambled backwards as Carter grabbed them before the mare could step on him. “Fabella it’s all right, easy-easy girl. Easy pony, it was- it was only some children.”
The mare continued throwing her head but stopped hopping. She watched Carter nervously, snorting with nostrils flaring as she panted.
Across the street, a shout rang out and Carter heard Gideon curse behind him. He felt a tightness clamp around his chest. He wanted to see what was going on but Fabella still needed reassurance. He didn’t even know if Whisper and Achille were okay.
“We have to go!” Gideon shouted behind him. Carter reached out to touch Fabella’s cheek. She leaned into his touch and let out a loud snort, but her big brown eyes were no longer wild and upset.
The crowd had parted around them, leaving a wide-open space in the street where the horses had panicked. Carter shifted himself around, keeping his hands on Fabella and her reins, and glanced at Gideon. Then, following his gaze, he saw a group of people dressed in tight, red leather clothing. They were also all holding some kind of weapon and were running straight at them.
His heart crawled up his throat as he looked back at Gideon and met his gaze. “It’s the Fire Forgers,” he snapped, before turning to put his foot in Villa’s stirrup and hoisting himself up. “We’re out of time.”
Carter shushed Fabella as she started pawing, absorbing the anxious energy in the air. “Get on- Isha on Reese,” he gasped out, watching as Gideon pulled out a bow that Carter hadn’t noticed was attached to the back of Villa’s saddle. He pulled an arrow out from a quiver behind him and notched it.
He didn’t turn to see if it found it’s target after Gideon released it. The cry of pain was telling enough, and Carter didn’t have the stomach for anything more.
Without turning to see if Isha was on Reese, he put Fabella’s reins over her head. He heard hoofbeats behind him and wasn’t sure who it was. He started to hold onto the saddle, already struggling to do just that as Fabella danced around, when someone grabbed his arm.
He yelped and jerked backwards. Turning, he found one of the people in the tight red leather sneering beside him. “They brought a squealing pig with them? Softies,” he said, and without warning, slashed at Carter with a grotesquely curved knife. It was only instinct that had him ducking away.
Fabella tugged on him, hopping forward at the sudden extra weight. Carter held onto her saddle and yanked his arm away from the man, as he swiped again with his knife.
The man lunged forward again, but midway through the swing, Carter heard something whistle next to his ear and then there was an arrow protruding form the man’s shoulder. He growled but didn’t falter in his advance. And Carter didn’t react fast enough.
He didn’t cry out as the blade cut through his shirt and bit into his collarbone and the front of his shoulder. He didn’t feel it at first, only noticed as another arrow flew past him. He glanced up and saw the arrow, sticking out of the man’s ear. He almost tripped as he stumbled backwards, his stomach lurching, and was caught only by falling back into Fabella.
Twisting to look away as the man collapsed to the ground, he saw Gideon turning Villa back towards the street behind him. Gideon gave him a look before he turned back to the street.
He could hear the clanging of metals and hoofbeats thundering across the street. He wondered if Whisper had ever been able to get Achille under control again, or where they were.
Dust was clouding around them and he saw as Gideon had an arrow notched but was struggling to aim it. Carter couldn’t see over Fabella and she was still freaking out. He could hear screams and shouts as the market descended into chaos.
“Ea-easy girl!” he called to her, trying to keep his voice level and failing to do so. He grabbed onto her saddle again and this time, pulled himself up right onto her back without waiting to be attacked again.
He could make out the figures of people fighting and at least two horses, one dark and one pale, through the thick dust cloud that had been kicked up from the horses and fighting.
One of the horses broke away from the fighting and ran towards Carter and Fabella. Still hopping, he gripped the reins in an iron grip and kept his legs wrapped around her, ready to ask her to take off if it was one of the coterie members.
But Isha was the one who ran up beside him and pulled Reese to a halt beside Fabella. “C’mon, Whisper’s on Achille. We have to get away,” she urged him, pulling Reese to face the road. Carter turned Fabella towards her. He hardly gave Fabella a nudge before she was racing after Reese. He glanced back and saw Gideon and Villa just behind them.
He could make out the dark coat of Achille ahead of them as they ran through the streets. Most everyone had already cleared out after the fighting had started, but those left scattered as they pasted. Dust plumed behind them and Carter could only hope the coterie was blinded enough that they couldn’t follow.
But then he heard shouting and Villa squealed behind him. Whirling in his saddle, he watched as Gideon slid sideways off of Villa, as she turned, trying to compensate for the balance.
“Gideon!” Isha cried ahead of them, yanking back of Reese’s reins to turn and help him. Carter pulled back Fabella and she only tugged on her reins, hardly slowing her pace.
“GO!” Gideon shouted, his voice clearly straining. “Isha, go! Take them away!”
Carter met Isha’s gaze. Her face was contorted, her brows drawn, and her mouth parted. As he started passing, he heard her swear profusely and then spurred Reese on after them. He heard the whistle of arrows sailing past them.
The gates were ajar to let a caravan in. Riding in single-file, with Achille leading them and Reese taking up the rear, they cantered past the startled guards and merchants.
And so, they left the Crossroads behind, a plume of dust in their trail, the sun had faded into the horizon. A blanket of shadows was starting to fall over the plains as they ran towards the forest.
But as such, leaving their pursuers behind had also resulted in leaving behind one of their own. Carter gripped onto Fabella as they ran but glanced back as if expecting to see Gideon catching up to them on Villa. He wasn’t.
I hope he’s okay.
word count: 2,828