Mishal wasn’t sure if the adrenaline simply failed to wear off or if he was about to pass out. He certainly felt airy enough, shivers running through him that made his teeth clack together. Pull yourself together.
“They’re bruised. They’ll heal within a few weeks.” The physician, Adryan, was pulling away from his examination of the purpled, green bruises on Isadora’s ribs. “Keep something cold on them. If you have an enchanter who can charm a soft pad or pillow cold, then the better for you. Don’t overexert yourself and take deep breaths every so often to expand your lungs.”
“Thank you,” Isadora said, her voice quiet and constricted in a way that betrayed her pain.
Adryan nodded to Mishal, and then bustled away, coat swishing behind him.
“Stop pacing,” Isadora said to him, her eyes half-glazed. She looked exhausted. Or maybe it was better described as defeated. “You’re making me dizzy watching you.”
He stopped and the vertigo he’d been attempting to stave off washed over him again. He sat, clunkily and without grace, on the floor in front of her as she pulled her shirt back down.
Isadora’s breathing was shallow, but other than that, she seemed to be all right. Pale, but it was to be expected.
Of all the ways he had ever hoped to see a roc, that was not one of them. He was glad that it had been just the pair of them, and young ones at that. If their whole nesting clan had been there, with experienced hunters with mastery of their elemental talent, the expedition would have been fried. Quite literally.
He glanced up at the sound of hurried footsteps approaching. Thaddeus crouched beside him, holding out a worn, mishappen pillow.
“There’s little to no magic here, nobody practises or knows how to learn.” Thaddeus held out the pillow to Isadora. “But I filled it with ice. It’s the best thing I have. The state you folks came back in, I thought it could be of use.”
Then Thaddeus snuck a glance at him, and he offered Thaddeus a grateful smile. Guilt still wriggled in his stomach at how they had parted, and how fast he had made Thaddeus rush off, but there seemed to be no contempt or ill intent in Thaddeus’ behaviour.
“Thank you,” Isadora said.
Mishal quickly leaned forward to help as struggled to put it on. He tucked it under her shirt, to be held up without her own efforts, and helped her lean back against the sacks of grains behind her. “How are the horses that returned?”
Thaddeus shrugged. “They were run pretty ragged, but Juna can work miracles with any beast. They’ll recover.” He gave them both a kind smile. “I’m going to see if I can be of anymore use, but holler if you need me.”
He wished he could convey his gratitude more sincerely. He nearly reached out to catch Thaddeus’ arm, to look him in the eyes when he said thank you.
But Thaddeus was already gone, and Mishal hadn’t so much as twitched.
They had returned to the village in a disastrous state. Not everyone had gotten back at the same time, and he and Isadora were some of the last. Worse yet, not everyone was back.
Margaretta and Gracia were among the missing. Others had been back for a few days now, while he and Isadora had arrived only earlier in the day themselves.
And that didn’t include those that couldn’t be accounted for. People had run into the woods, into the Wilderlands. He’d heard the screams. The expedition had taken more losses.
And still we haven’t yet reached the ruins.
The two main barn doors slid open with a creak, enough to allow the bronze evening sunlight to spill in and illuminate the dust floating lazily through the air. A figure slipped in and slid the doors shut again.
“Oh!” said the man as he turned. “But what’s happened here?”
Mishal’s pulse quickened and he exchanged a quick glance with Isadora before he stood as everyone else stirred. “Jax?”
Jax, as it was indeed him, looked in their direction. A sorrel-coloured curl fell across his dirt-smudged brow, which he didn’t both to try brushing away. A smile lit up his features, and he said quick hellos to the other party members as he passed them, before stopping in front of Mishal.
“Graces, Storm, you’ve gotten tall. And strong! And you’re almost as handsome as I am.” Jax smiled warmly and opened his arms. Mishal allowed him a quick hug before Jax turned down to Isadora, who was beaming, albeit tiredly, up at them. “And the lovely Belle! Goodness, you’ve grown too! What’s this? You’ve both grown so much!” He bent down and carefully gave Isadora a hug before gesturing towards the pillow at her side. “What’s this now? What’s happened to everyone?”
“We were attacked by rocs,” Isadora said, voice still wispy.
“Lightning rocs,” he added. “A pair of young ones.”
Jax’s smile faded. “Damn! I was trying to get here before you left. There’s been rocs camping in the Marrow Valley for months, possibly longer. Didn’t Margaretta look into that?”
He exchanged a glance with Isadora, who was frowning now. “She’s been pretty single-minded since we left,” she said. “Though there was something else. The Wilderlands split the industrial road and attacked.”
“There were cracks in the road,” he added.
“That would make sense,” Jax said. “The road is never used. The villagers certainly never use it, since it only leads the Castle in the Valley. It hasn’t been upkept in years.” He rubbed his face, smearing some of the dust that had collected and stuck to his skin. “Speaking of Mari, where is she?”
He and Isadora exchanged another glance. “She, Gracia, Kitt, Solomon, and Partridge haven’t returned.”
Jax groaned and buried his face in his hands this time. “Perfect. I didn’t expect you all to be arriving so soon, but I must have gotten the notice late. The poor bird carrying it did look harried.” He stood up. “All right.”
“Where are you going?” Isadora asked, her despair unfurling into distress.
“To ask Justiciar for a little more. I’m going up the road to see if I can find them.” He eyed them. “Don’t get ideas about following.”
He swallowed down his own dislike of Jax leaving already. Without Margaretta, there was no organisation amongst them. Everyone was similarly upset about the situation and worrying about what Margaretta’s absence meant. He didn’t want to water the seeds of chaos that had already been sowed.
Jax’s expression softened as he looked down at Isadora. “I won’t go far, and I won’t put myself in danger. Just a quick search, I’ll be back by the time the sun has gone down.” He offered them both a nod. “Reassure yourselves in the knowledge that Margaretta is too stubborn to die.”
And then he was sweeping away, pausing only for a few moments to speak with the others.
“Gods,” Isadora breathed out. “I hope he’s right.”