Carter didn't know how long they rode, but the horses were hot and sticky with sweat by the time they came to a stop.
They were in the middle of the forest again, but this time the trees were thicker and darker. The northern part of the woods - Amaranth Wood? Ambrose Wood? Carter wasn't sure of the name - was wilder and there were shadows lurking here that hadn't existed near Midvale.
The thick canopy let in little sunlight and Carter could no longer see the sky. He couldn't help but jump at the snap of branches, the flash as a squirrel darted by them. He could feel invisible coils wrapping around his chest, and he was trying to pretend he wasn't struggling to breathe.
Isha had been silent and still ever since they had left the Crossroads. Carter, on the other hand, couldn’t help but continuously check behind them. But Gideon didn't appear behind them any more than he had the last twenty times Carter had done so.
He wanted to ask Isha if Gideon was going to be all right, but he wasn't that stupid or insensitive. Tough ex-coterie mercenary or not, Isha was just as tense as the rest of them.
"Let's take a rest," Isha called, pulling Reese around to face Whisper and Carter. She considered them for a moment. When her gaze fell on Carter, she frowned, and he squirmed underneath it.
It didn't help that she had a cut above her eyebrow, and blood had trickled down her face that did nothing to soften her expression.
"Kitten, you're hurt," Isha said, her voice a little gentler now.
He immediately felt Whisper's sharp gaze fall on him. He also glanced down to his shoulder, where his shirt was torn and hanging in a bedraggled, sad limp. Blood had dried on both the fabric and his skin, turning the cream shirt a rusted sort of scarlet. While his skin was dark enough that the blood wasn't too apparent, the red against the shirt was a harsh contrast.
And yeah, it did hurt. The adrenaline that had sung through his veins was starting to wear off. He no longer felt that buzz throbbing under his skin, but he could feel the sting where the blade had sliced through his skin.
"It's- it's okay," Carter finally said, his quivering voice sounding anything but sure. But he didn't want it to be a big deal. Gideon and Isha dealt with this all the time, right? Yeah, he was gritting his teeth now and he could feel pinpricks of sweat breaking out across his forehead, but they dealt with worse.
He could prove he wasn't some soft pushover. He wouldn't be a burden, he wouldn't. It was just a little scrape.
"Get off Fabella, Carter, so that I can see what trouble you've gotten into this time," Winnie said, sliding off of Achille before sending Carter a warning look. "Or I'll pull you off myself." Their eyes glittered almost gold in the abysmal light.
He glanced down at his mount, who was stretching out her long, slender neck and itching her snout against her legs. Heat flooded his cheeks at Winnie's threat, but nausea rolled in his stomach. What trouble I've gotten into this time?
Carter glanced back over at Isha, who was already on her feet next to Reese and watching them both distantly. He slowly slid off Fabella, who let out a heaving sigh as he did so, and then turned in an attempt to rub her face against Carter.
"It hasn't escaped my notice you sustained injuries too, Isha," Whisper said. They turned to meet Isha's gaze. "After I have finished Carter, he can check you. The horses would appreciate a reprieve from their saddles in the meantime."
"He can check me? Not you?" Isha asked, her brows twisting. Reese stretched out to softly snuffle Isha's pale hair.
Honestly, Carter wasn't sure why Winnie was volunteering him either. He was no doctor, had no medical expertise. Not on people, anyway.
Whisper hummed. "He knows how to treat the horses. Knows more about wounds than I do."
For a moment, Isha considered. Then nodded and moved to his side to take Fabella from him. At least now, after burning energy from their escape, the chestnut mare wasn’t so flighty anymore. Achille was still watching the forest nervously, but his eyes weren’t so wild and his breathing had evened out now.
Still, Carter eyed the horses nervously as Isha set about tying them up. He let Whisper push him down to sit on a nearby rock, covered in moss and leaves.
“Take off your shirt,” they told him. Their voice had grown dulcet, their features smooth and serene. Carter let his muscles relax, after being wound up so tightly, and carefully undid his vest and removed it and his shirt.
The movement disrupted the sense of calm that had washed over him by Winnie’s presence. A sharp sensation like needles shot through his veins like the blood running through them. Carter bit the inside of his cheek to keep from making a noise, and Winnie glanced up to meet his gaze and give him a look.
“Since when do you act like all those fool men who pretend to play tougher than they are?” Winnie wondered. They leaned forward, breaking eye contact with him to peer at the slash carved across his shoulder. Carter squirmed, glancing around as if expecting Gideon to suddenly appear and scowl at him.
He opened him mouth to respond, but his mind was as blank as an unused piece of parchment. He shut his mouth, managing only a small croak in response.
Winnie’s dark eyes looked up to meet his and they let out a soft sigh. “This is about our companions, isn’t it?” they asked, their voice lowered for only Carter’s ears. He glanced over to see Isha removing Fabella’s saddle, fussing with his shirt still in his hands. She made no acknowledgment that she could hear them.
When he still made no response, Whisper stood up and walked away from him. They walked over to their saddlebags, which Isha had already removed, and then came back over him with a rag and their water canteen.
“You shouldn’t listen to Gideon,” Whisper said as they wet the rag. They carefully dabbed the wound. Carter braced himself for the inevitable pain that came along with it, but it hurt surprisingly less than he imagined it would. It wasn’t much more than a slight sting blossoming around the area.
Carter swallowed as his throat grew dry. He had to look away from Whisper and stare out into the menacing woods. “But he’s right- I mean, um, well, isn’t he?” Carter squirmed under Winnie’s touch. “I am too soft to- to be out here? I’m a stable hand. Not- not some adventurer. I’m not- I can’t be like them.”
Whisper’s hand must have slipped because suddenly the gentle dabbing turned into a sharp jab. Carter yelped and almost fell backwards as pain suddenly burst like fire through his shoulder. When he met Whisper’s gaze, their expression was twisted sharply. All the tranquility Carter had felt a moment ago drained from his body like blood from an open wound.
“Don’t ever write yourself off like that, Carter,” Whisper said sharply under their breath. Carter was almost too busy trying not to let tears flood his eyes as the pain overwhelmed him so suddenly to listen. Whisper seemed to notice and sat backwards with a sigh. “I’m sorry. You are different from them, though. You aren’t like them because you’re you. You’re special, and you’ve had a completely other life than they have.” They gave him a quiet smile that soothed Carter’s frying nerves. “Nobody in your life that cares for you would ask you to change who you are. So don’t you ask that of yourself either.”
He realised he was gripping his shirt in a white knuckle clutch, and as the pain started to lessen, he let the shirt go and set it aside. Ducking his head, he felt a flush run across his cheeks and he swallowed. He wanted to protest, what good am I going to do for Shiloh? For anyone? Or It doesn’t matter if I’m special if I end up dead, or worse, accidentally letting somebody else die because I’m incapable.
Carter said none of this, however, and instead gave Winnie the best smile he could muster at that moment, which wasn’t too impressive. Still, they patted his knee and then nodded towards his injury.
“Let me go find something to bandage that,” they said, and stood up one more. Carter watched them leaving for a moment.
He jumped when he heard a sudden thud beside him. Isha didn’t turn to him at first and didn’t seem to notice she’d startled him. She was watching Winnie to for a moment, before Carter nervously cleared his throat beside her and she turned to him.
Despite calling her attention, Carter ducked his head again when she glanced at him. He didn’t actually have something to say and felt silly now for making any noise. No longer holding his shirt, he started to pick at the damp moss coating the rock he sat on.
The forest was void of any noise to fill it. There was no birdsong, no rushing water. Barely even a crinkle of leaves or shrubbery stirring in the wind. It made the occasional noise of a twig snapping or grass crunching all the more eerie and unsettling.
It was probably the discomfort of it all that made Carter try to fill the silence by blurting, “What are we going to do about Gideon?” in some more or less garbled and almost too fast to make out discernible words.
Still, he could feel the second Isha’s gaze snapped over to him again. He could hear the soft intake of breath from where she sat beside him. But when he cautiously – more instinctively than by choice – met her gaze, her expression was neutral.
“If he can, he’ll catch up to us,” Isha replied, her voice carefully unemotional. Carter couldn’t help but blink at how blank she had grown- he had thought her to be…more so than Gideon? Or at least, more sensitive…or something.
Carter swallowed, ripping of a chunk of moss that crumbled into earthy bits in his fingers. “And if he can’t?”
It was hardly a movement, but Carter saw Isha’s jaw tightened and felt butterflies twitch in his stomach. “Then he- we move on. Gideon would know that we had to. Shiloh’s still out there, at best, she’s alone.”
She didn’t add “at worst” and Carter didn’t ask her to. He could hear the slightest quaver in Isha’s voice. She didn’t need to spell it out for him.
“I- why um, why all this for my sister?” Carter asked, a sense of dread hovering over him like an unwanted storm cloud. “Why-why abandon Gideon?”
It wasn’t that he didn’t feel the urgency of finding Shiloh like a boulder resting against his chest- quite the opposite really. But as practical as Isha and Gideon were, why would Isha be willing to so easily leave Gideon behind when he was perhaps just a short ride behind them?
Isha took a deep breath, her brow twitching as if she meant to frown and was trying hard not to. “For one thing, I don’t know about you, but I don’t really want to simply run back to turn myself back over to the Fire Forgers. We’re severely outnumbered, even if Gideon was here. Shiloh’s life will be forfeit if we run back on a fool’s errand to try to rescue Gideon.
“Two, I hope to any powers that be that the fool of a leader for the Fire Forgers is stupid enough to believe some lunatic source that came up with our mission. But since we don’t know, I cannot risk him getting his hands on Shiloh and the relic he’s looking for.” Isha finished with a huff and rubbed at her face in irritation.
Carter’s cheeks grew hot. He hadn’t thought about the fact the Fire Forgers probably had Gideon now and there was no way they could simply fight them for him. He gratefully averted his eyes as Whisper approached again with some sort of gauze.
They crouched in front of Carter and started unrolling a part of the gauze. “The relic?” they asked. “Hold your arm up,” Whisper said, to Carter this time, and started wrapping the gauze around his shoulder when he did so. He pretended not to wince as they did so.
“Yes,” Isha replied, and shook her head. “Look, Corin’s crazy. He has this…idea. Or something. I don’t know what he thinks he can achieve, but he’s fascinated by the stories of old magic. He’s been obsessed with finding some way to bring it back. It’s all nonsense, and all the leads he’s made us chase are dead ends. Now he thinks he’s found some sort of relic that will grant him magical powers, so he can take over the island and rule. Probably thinks he can sail to the mainland and do the same, if that’s the case.”
“You said it’s nonsense, and yet you are scared enough that it is true that you would sacrifice Gideon’s life to stop Von Brandt?” Whisper wondered, their eyes never leaving Carter as they patched him up.
Isha glanced at Whisper and finally they looked up to meet her gaze. Isha exhaled and finally caved, smiling wearily at them. “All right. I do think magic is mostly nonsense, but I’m not stupid enough not to worry about the threat that kind of obsession causes,” she admitted, shrugging. She tugged at the wrap holding her hair back and it draped over her back like an ivory blanket. “And it’s not in the religious way like those followers of the Divines are whatever they call themselves are.”
“Believers,” Whisper corrected gently. Then they patted Carter’s newly wrapped shoulder carefully. He looked silly- with gauze over his shoulder and stretching across his chest just because the gash was at such an awkward angle. “They Believe one day that magic will return, as the Divines foretold it.”
“Yeah,” Isha waved her hand, “that. But he’s crazier, and he doesn’t believe those four have anything to do with it. I think he believes he’s going to be some sort of deity.” She rolled her eyes. “He’s really not as impressive as he thinks he is. Drove me nuts.”
Whisper hummed, sitting back against the dark and musty forest floor. They tilted their head slightly, their eyes absent and expression relaxed. It was the sort of look Whisper got when they were contemplating- a frequent look Carter saw nearly every time he was with them.
It was stupidly nostalgic and comforting. But it was familiar, and with everything that had been going on, Carter missed familiar. His stomach rolled, but at least his chest didn’t feel so tight.
In the distance, he heard a flock of birds crying out. It sounded like crows, but he couldn’t be sure. Whisper’s eyes grew more focused, but Isha didn’t seem to notice. Carter twisted on the rock and listened.
And in the distance, faint but definitely there, he heard the storming of hoofbeats disturbing the silent forest air.
word count: 2,571