Carter scrambled to his feet, his heart leaping into his throat. Isha stood up beside him. He didn’t turn to see how Whisper reacted.
He saw the palomino first. The colour of young sunrise, a flaxen coat with a silky white mane. The horse slowed from a trot to a walk and the rider gently eased the palomino back into a walk. The rider was a thin, visibly young man with hair as pale as his mount’s. He had pale, ivory skin covered in what looked like dust, and wore what looked like a combination of a sun hat and a cowboy hat.
It was only as this unfamiliar horse and rider had slowed that and Carter had done a quick once-over that he saw the black shadow trailing behind the stranger.
His heart burst like a blossom at the first breath of spring at the sight of the dark mare. He hadn’t wanted to imagine what the coterie might do to her if they got their hands on her. But she was still moving steady, and so far, Carter could see no visible wounds on her body.
Oh, oh, and Gideon was riding her.
Gideon’s face was smudged with dirt and his burnt red hair was far messier than usual. Carter winced at Gideon’s shoulder. His shirt was covered in the clay-pinkish dust from the gravel, and the whole left side of his arm starting from his shoulder and down to his forearm was covered in an abrasion. Dried blood clung this him, mixed with all the grime and dirt.
He looked slightly dazed, his eyes glazing over everyone but there was no feeling of him truly seeing them. He dismounted, and Carter glanced over at the stranger. He met his gaze under the shadow from the brim of his hat. The stranger dipped his chin, and then quickly dismounted the palomino.
“Haven’t I said that one day you’d fall off your horse because you’re a fool who thinks more about pointy sticks than practical necessities?” Isha said. Carter had, admittedly, forgotten she was there and flinched slightly at her raised voice. She had her arms crossed but, despite her words, her expression had smoothed out and her shoulders weren’t so tense anymore.
When Gideon’s eyes landed on her he finally seemed to focus. He frowned, not quite the impressive scowl he usually donned but more of a consternated twist of his brow. “Carroll threw a crate at me,” he said defensively.
Isha walked over to him and Gideon watched her, apprehensively. Leaves and twigs crunched under her dark boots. “What took you so long to get back then?” she asked. Gideon blinked at her, but before he could respond, Isha wrapped her arms around her neck and let her chin rest on his shoulder.
For a moment, Gideon froze, as if unsure how to respond to the gesture. Carter watched as his brow twisted awkwardly before finally relaxing as he tentatively put his arms around Isha.
Carter made to turn around to glance at Whisper, but they’d somehow snuck up beside him. They exchanged a glance with him and raised one of their eyebrows.
When he looked back over, Isha had already pulled away from Gideon and was giving Villa a pat on her neck. Villa snorted, but she seemed not at all upset by the ordeal she’d been through, if not, however, tired. She pawed at the mossy forest floor, ripping up the soil and grass with her hoof, and then yawned.
Gideon’s gaze fell over to Carter and Whisper and that was when he scowled. For a moment, Carter had to wonder how this was his fault until he realised it was directed at Winnie. Gideon pointed behind himself into the stretch of dense, darkened forest.
“You’re cat follo-uh…followed,” Gideon said, and his scowl melted away as he finally looked at Carter. He blinked, looking dazed again before glancing at Isha as if looking for confirmation.
But sure enough, Carter heard a soft rustle from the undergrowth and it only took another moment for a small, disgruntled looking tabby to trot his way straight towards Whisper. They crouched down and held out their hand and Koshar put his chin against their fingertips for a scratch.
“Good boy,” Whisper praised him, their dark eyes soft and a smile tilting their lips as Koshar started to purr.
Turning back to Gideon and Isha, Carter found Gideon still watching him, eyebrows downturned slightly and something that might have been discomfort in his expression. When he met Carter’s gaze, he cleared his throat. “Were you- are you very hurt?” he asked, and Carter glanced down at all the wrappings over his shoulder.
“Oh,” Carter replied, his stomach somersaulting. “Oh I- no it’s, um, it’s fine.”
“Nothing that won’t heal,” Whisper added, still crouching in front of Koshar. “You should be addressed though.” Carter felt Winnie’s gaze turn to him. “Carter can handle you.”
Gideon glanced at Winnie in surprise, then at Carter. “Handle m- oh.” Gideon narrowed his eyes. “You’re a doctor?”
When Whisper didn’t respond, Carter sucked in air, inhaled it funny, and started coughing. “Oh,” he said again. “No, I-I’m not. I just, um, take care of the horses when they-” Carter waved his hand, tension wrapping around his body at the overall stillness of their surroundings. “When they hurt themselves.”
He didn’t think that would placate Gideon enough for him to sit still while Carter tried to pretend he knew what he was doing and take care of the abrasions. Isha hummed softly beside him, and Gideon shrugged.
“I hate to interrupt,” somebody else said, and Carter jerked his head to the left. The stranger, standing by his palomino’s head, was watching them with a silent sort of appraisal. Carter couldn’t tell what was going through his mind. Honestly, he’d forgotten the stranger was there.
“By all means,” Whisper started to say but was overlapped when Isha asked, “Yes, who are you anyway?” Or, Carter was pretty sure that’s what they said.
Whisper and Isha exchanged a glance, and Whisper dipped their head to let Isha speak. They stood up, and Koshar mrrowed with displeasure.
Before Isha could say anything, the stranger held out his hand. “I heard you. My name is Finn. I saw your company entering the Crossroads this morning. You’re not the usual band of merchants or common folk passing through, you had a different look to you.” His eyes strayed towards Gideon. “Then I saw the Fire Forgers trying to sneak through and followed.”
Wind blew through the treetops and Carter shifted, glancing upwards. He still couldn’t see the sky, but he was pretty sure any light that had been there was dissolving. It must have been later than he thought.
“All right,” Isha said, holding herself tall even though she had plenty of height going for her already. Gideon was trying to tug his vest up, as if attempting to cover his brand. “So, your name is Finn, but who are you?”
Finn’s mouth curled slightly. It was then Carter noticed that he wore a curved sheathe attached to his hip and…he wasn’t wearing shoes. Instead, he just had bandages or what looked like bandages wrapped around his feet. Carter looked up in surprise and Finn met his gaze.
“Yes, that was me you saw by the tavern. I was observing,” Finn said to him. “You’d be surprised how easy it is the hide in plain sight when nobody bothers to look at you.” Finn shrugged, and Carter felt his cheeks warm.
He felt silly now, Finn looked nothing like the bedraggled beggar Carter had thought he’d seen.
“I’m nobody you’d know about, but you can consider me a specialist if you want something to tack onto my name,” Finn said to Isha. The palomino beside him let out a puff of air, and Carter felt his hands itch. The horse was unfamiliar, but that didn’t mean he didn’t want to say hi or look the palomino over.
“A specialist in what?” Isha asked, folding her arms across her chest again and narrowing her eyes.
Finn offered his hand for his horse to sniff without looking away from the group. “Many things. Do you want to sit here and talk about me all day? I’m flattered, I don’t usually get this much attention. But I was assuming you would be in want of healing your injuries and figuring out what to do about your pursuers.”
Isha pursed her lips, her shoulders tight once more as she stared him down. Then she snorted and made shooing gestures towards Gideon, taking the reins of Villa from him in a quick motion. “You first, I’ve only got a few bumps. We’ll talk about what to do while Carter…handles you.”
When Gideon glanced over at him, Carter felt the butterflies fluttering in his stomach and weaving through his guts. He wasn’t sure he was as qualified as everyone seemed to believe he was and honestly, Carter wasn’t sure he would have anything helpful to offer Gideon.
He probably should have said as much but his only ducked his head and held his tongue as Gideon approached him. All he managed to shake out of his throat was, “You- you can sit,” and gesture at the mossy boulder in front of him.
Breeze rustled the trees and for a few tense moments, it was about the only sound the woods had to offer. Carter tried to ignore the way the branches seemed to twist and stretch towards them like reaching claws.
The abrasions were worse when he was up close. Nothing that couldn’t be healed and thankfully it wasn’t deep, but there was enough congealed, rusted blood smeared with dirt sticking to his rutile skin to cause concern.
Gideon cleared his throat and Carter pretended not to flinch at the noise. He glanced up to see Gideon watching him closely. Carter felt his gut squirm and tried to ignore the way the hazel eyes bore into him. He looked at Gideon’s cheek instead and, for the first time, noticed a pale pink scar extending from the corner of his mouth.
“You’re-” Gideon rolled his shoulders and Carter noted the way he winced. “You’re more…well built than I had assumed.”
Carter glanced down at himself, blinking at Gideon’s comment. He wasn’t quite sure what he was trying to say, so Carter made a cautious noise from the back of his throat. “Oh- um. I- thank you?” he said, trying to find an implication in Gideon’s expression.
All he got was a grunt before Gideon turned away from him, brows twisting inward, as Isha approached around them to sit on another rock, still holding Villa, who snorted loudly above her.
“Do we, um, have any water?” Carter asked, craning his neck to look back at Whisper. Before they could react, however, Isha pulled her waterskin from where she had it tied to her belt.
“Here,” she said, holding it out to Carter who took it with only a slight hesitance. “I’m sure we’ll find more soon enough.”
He nodded and ignored the way Gideon gave Isha a sharp look and she returned it in equal intensity. He unscrewed the cap and gently put his hand on Gideon’s shoulder, who tensed under his touch. Chewing on his lip for lack of a better distraction, Carter slowly tipped the waterskin over the top of Gideon’s arm.
As the water ran in rivulets down the abrasions, Carter delicately brushed off the wound. Under his hand, he could feel all the particles of gravel and dirt dried in with the blood and scrapes over Gideon’s skin.
He glanced up, chest squeezing as Gideon watched him with a tight jaw. He didn’t look to be outwardly in any pain, but Carter knew better than to assume he wasn’t in any.
As he rubbed the injury with care so as not to open any of the cuts or dig any unwelcome bits of the grime, the blood started to wash away. Pinpricks of fresh scarlet started popping up in the place the congealed blood no longer covered the wounds.
“Winnie,” Carter asked without looking away, “you don’t, um. You don’t happen to have any comfrey- do you have, um. Comfrey?”
He felt both Gideon and Isha’s inquisitive and scrutinising gazes on him and tried not to let his hand shake over Gideon’s abrasion. He shifted in his seat, however, and continued to chew on his lip.
“I do,” Winnie said, their voice contemplative. They made their way over to their saddlebag, resting against one of the thick, gnarled trees with Koshar bouncing beside them. “I grabbed some at the Crossroads. I had a strange hunch that we’d need some.”
As Whisper dug through their back for the comfrey, Isha crossed her leg over the other. “We should stop for the night,” she said. She sent a side glance towards Gideon and Carter. “Leave at first light tomorrow.”
Gideon immediately shook his head, and Carter peered up at him as Gideon turned towards Isha and away from him. “No. We keep going. We have the Fire Forgers on our tail now- we need as much distance between them as us as possible.”
From behind Gideon, Carter saw Finn observing them silently, still standing beside his palomino. The horse was a gelding, Carter noticed, and his forelock reached the top of his wide, brown eyes.
Sending a glance towards Villa, then at the other horses, Carter surprised himself and everyone else by suddenly saying, “No.” His cheeks darkened considerably, heat flooding his face. It took every ounce of control not to simply bury his face in his hands.
“What do you mean no?” Gideon demanded, his infamous scowl twisting his features again.
Carter felt words stick in his throat like honey that was too thick, but he knew if he didn’t say something, it wouldn’t be him suffering. “I- no, um. The horses? They need to, um. Rest. Because they- they’ve already worked hard? So, they…won’t do well if they- if we push them.”
He could see Gideon glaring at him from the corner of his eyes, but Carter studiously kept his gaze towards the forest floor. He heard soft footsteps approaching him and only cautioned a look up to see Whisper approaching him with a wrapped bundle of comfrey in their hand. Koshar sat beside the saddlebags, watching intently.
As he took a small portion of the herb, Gideon snorted. “There’s a town north of these woods. We can get trade for fresh horses there.”
Something dark bubbled in Carter’s chest and now he looked up to meet Gideon’s harsh gaze, swallowing back the thickness in his throat to frown at him. “No,” Carter repeated, his tone sharper now than before. He saw a spark of surprise in the hazel of Gideon’s eyes, but it was replaced by a dark shadow.
Gideon opened his mouth, but Finn coughed behind them and they all turned to him. He shrugged, holding his hands out as if trying to negotiate peace. “He’s right, you know. And no horse owner in their right mind would trade fresh horses for lame mounts. Besides, won’t it be worse if any of you catch infections from your injuries by pushing yourselves?”
For a moment, there was a silence that felt like waiting on the edge of a cliff for someone to push you off. Then Gideon whirled back on Carter, and this time Carter lost his edge. He ducked his head, coils wrapping so tightly around his chest it felt hard to breath. His stomach swirled like a storm and he chewed so hard on his lip it grew raw.
“Then the consequences can fall on your head, stable boy,” Gideon growled, his muscles strung so tight that Carter was sure touching them would feel like touching a rock. “You don’t know the Fire Forgers- any of the coteries like I do. When they find us during the night, don’t expect me to save your life again.” Then Gideon turned away, glaring out into the forest but keeping his arm exposed to Carter. Under his breath, Carter could just barely make out him muttering something about the horses.
He looked at the comfrey in his hands and realised they were shaking now. His whole body, in fact, was shaking. He swallowed hard as the thick tension rose in his throat again, trying to will his hands to stop so he could finish tending Gideon’s wounds.
Carter knew he was right, at least about the horses. It wasn’t like he ran around forests and country sides on merry chases with supplies for survival out in the wilderness on a regular basis. And he would be dead before he let Gideon pawn them away.
Still, he couldn’t help the way his mind whirled and his stomach churned. But there wasn’t anything he could do about it either, nothing except dress Gideon’s arm and pray that the Fire Forgers had lost their trail.
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