Chapter 38: Snowbody Gets Left Behind
Clandestine huffed as she stepped out into the snow, breathing puffs of smoke.
Carter was gone.
She was still tired.
There had been a deeper well to draw from - of energy, of heat - but she could still feel the weeks of being trapped in a cell with barely any food or water dragging her down like a heavy weight. Now, the cold wasn't as strong.
But she was bleeding.
The bullet hat entered her stomach, and she didn't think there was anything she could do stop the inevitable. So far, the only thing she could think of that was going well was that she wasn't as cold anymore, but she didn't know if that was because she was actually able to keep herself warm or because the pain of the wound was her primary sensation.
She took in a ragged breath, trying to remember what Svida had said.
Dragons gave their magic away to inheritors. Clandestine didn't even really understood what that meant, but she could feel the difference. A little bit.
But magic didn't change the fact that she was alone again, and wounded, and too tired to do anything about it.
She glanced back down the tunnel, debating if she should go back. She'd only known Svida for a few minutes, at most, but Svida was still a person. Clandestine tested her feet with a few steps, only to stumble on the second, clutching her leg and hissing.
She'd forgotten about the sword. She clenched her teeth and pulled her hands away, seeing the blood come out thick from the back of her leg, dripping down onto the white snow, red as scarlet.
Blood loss would probably kill her first if she didn't get that under control.
She ripped her belt off her waist and looped it above her knee, pulling it tight to cut off blood flow. In the process, she fell back with her butt in the snow, looking down the steep snowy incline as the sun rose up over the horizon.
At least she would die with a view.
She bunched up her shirt around her stomach and applied as much pressure as she could muster, but tears sprung to her eyes again. As they dripped down her cheek they seemed to slow down, fighting against the cold from being turned into little icicles.
Clandestine wheezed, leaning forward, still clenching her gut as she scanned the snowscape.
There was no Svida. No silly dream unicorns. No "Mickey the earth dragon" to help her now.
Then she saw something moving in the distance. She caught a glimpse of a horse.
Instinct told her to run or hide again. It could be Carter, coming back to finish the job now that he'd drawn her out of the mountain.
But she couldn't move that fast, and instead, she opted for leaning back and staying as still and as quiet as she could as she waited for them to come out of the thick of the trees and into view.
First, she saw the golden coat of the horse and its bright white tail.
Then, she saw a black horse, with a white star on its face, following.
Her heart started to race.
The rider was dressed in furs, and his face was hidden from view, but then he looked in her direction.
Clandestine forgot about the pain, and the bleeding, and everything, and she forced herself to her feet as tears built up behind her eyes.
She started running, and running, and it hurt so much to run. She kept skipping, and hopping, and catching herself on the nearest tree, and flinging herself forward.
She watched as James and the horses stopped, and he spotted her. His eyes went wide, and he jumped out of the saddle. He had barely taken two steps towards her before she came sliding down the snowy hill, headed right for him, with no signs of stopping. He steadied his stance to brace himself and opened his arms to catch her.
When they collided, Clandestine tackled him to the ground, and snow flew up all around them. James's hat fell off and it was like she saw so many emotions pass over his face at once, but it landed on a tearful smile.
Clandestine hugged him tightly and buried her face in the long fur around his collar.
He was alive. He was alive. How was he alive? Oh, she didn't care. She didn't know how he survived, but she'd thought she'd never see him again. She started sobbing into James's shoulder, and his arms came around her, holding her, as they laid in the snow.
Elliot and Billy were crowings around them, and Billy was whinnying. Billy came up and licked her hair, and she cried some more, letting Billy nudge her head over and over again with his nose.
James pulled one of his hands away.
"Clandestine -" he said.
It was so good to hear his voice.
Clandestine sniffed, and pulled her head away, looking at his blurry face. She wiped her eyes and sniffed again. Oh yeah. That.
As Clandestine looked up, more horses showed up around them.
There was a giant horse, with a giant man, and two more brown bays with a brown-skinned woman and man. All of them were dressed a little like James and they hopped off their horses. The woman rushed to her and pulled her off James.
Well, she tried to.
Clandestine clung to him for a moment, tugging at him, before realizing the reason he was having trouble getting up was because she was still sitting on top of him.
She got off, and he sat up.
"She's wounded," James said to the woman.
"Robin, get over here," the woman ordered. A small man appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and came to the woman's side. The woman looked at Clandestine's gut and then looked Clandestine in the eyes.
"My name's Mel. Robin and I have healing magic. We're going to help you, okay?"
Clandestine didn't know what to say, so she just nodded. She was still crying.
She looked over to James.
"You can trust them," he said, and she believed him because it was him who said it. Normally, he didn't trust anybody.
The big man and the man who resembled Mel a little brought a blanket that they spread on the snow, and James and the big man helped lay her down on it. Mel and Robin sat on either side, with Mel by her stomach and Robin by her leg. She felt Robin tear away the lower half of her pant leg and Mel lifted up her shirt to get a look at the bullet wound.
They said some things, but Clandestine didn't really hear them.
She looked up, and James was sitting beside her, by her head.
"What happened?" James whispered.
Clandestine stared up at him.
That was a great question.
For some reason, she wasn't expecting that question.
She tried to think of her answer, but before she could say it, she felt a surge of something pulse through her leg, and suddenly, the pain in her leg was gone.
Clandestine's eyes shot wide, and she tried to laugh but ended up coughing.
"That was weird," she wheezed.
"Save the questions until I'm done," Mel scolded.
Then a gradual warmth started to fill her belly. This was a different warmth than the fire magic she always felt stirring. This felt almost like a healing balm, but instead of just soothing and numbing the pain, it was like it was just fading away, slowly, into a dull ache.
Clandestine felt a pat on her belly and Mel pulled her shirt back down.
"All done," Mel said. "Question time."
"Question time?" Clandestine echoed.
"How did you escape?" James asked, helping Clandestine to sit up. The big man came over and brought a fluffy coat, which he handed to James, and James brought it around her shoulders. Clandestine looked around at all of them, studying them all a little closer.
The big man only had one eye and scars running over where the other should've been. The woman and the man standing behind her looked like they could be brother and sister. They had the same eyes. And the smaller man, something seemed different about him... but she couldn't put her finger on it.
And then there was a goblin, who poked her head out from behind the big man's legs.
Clandestine reached for a weapon that wasn't there and ended up kicking her legs and scooting back into the snow. James grabbed her shoulders.
"That's Dinny. She's a friend," James said calmly.
"A friend?!" Clandestine did a double-take between James and Dinny before she squinted, and looked at Dinny closer.
"Wait... she's the one who stabbed me!"
"I'm sorry!" Dinny yelled back, looking at Clandestine with, essentially, puppy eyes. It was only then that Clandestine realized Dinny was holding a toad.
A toad with... a little hat.
"It might be good to start with quick introductions," the big and tall man said. "I'm Bo. You already met Mel and Robin, who healed you just now." He put his hand on the back of the man standing beside him. "This is Raj. He and Mel are siblings. And this is Dinny." He pointed down at his feet.
"And Sticky the toad."
Clandestine looked up at Bo, waiting for more of an explanation.
"We're all mages, from a secret mage guild, and we came here to save you. And recruit you."
Clandestine looked to James, bewildered, and looking for confirmation that this was real. Was she dreaming again? Was she still in the mountain, bleeding out, and this was some moments-before-death dream?
"It's true," James said softly.
"We can talk more about that later, though," Bo said. "For now, we're wondering how you escaped."
Clandestine took in a deep breath and looked at the ground. She snuggled further into the blanket as her eyebrows furrowed, and she sighed.
"Carter let me go. Then he followed me out here and tried to kill me."
She stared into her lap.
"And I... I found... Svida. The fire dragon."
She was expecting some kind of gasp of disbelief, or for someone to argue with her, but when she looked up they were all silent, watching her attentively.
"She died," Clandestine announced.
She could see Bo's shoulders slouch. Clandestine found herself shrugging, and hugging herself.
"I have dragon powers now I guess?" Clandestine whispered, and her lower lip started to quiver.
She didn't know how to explain it, and she was glad no one asked her to.
James scooted forward, so he was more directly in her line of sight.
"You said Carter was following you?" he asked.
Clandestine nodded slowly. "Yeah. We fought, but I got away. I don't know if he's still following me, though."
Mel came up beside Clandestine and put an arm around her, pulling her into a hug. Clandestine kind of wished she didn't, because it made her want to cry again.
"Look. We'll get you back to our home. You'll be safe there, and there's no way he can find us. If we get a move on soon we should be fine, okay?"
Clandestine nodded into Mel's shoulder before Mel pulled away.
"And even if he does catch up to you," Bo spoke up. "You won't be fighting alone this time."
Clandestine just kept nodding, but her nod was getting less and less convincing each time. She looked to James again, quietly wishing that it could just be him explaining everything right now. All of the people with him seemed nice, but she didn't know how she felt at the moment.
Billy came up to her again and nudged her shoulder.
Clandestine broke into a smile and pulled his face to hers, kissing him firmly on the nose before hugging his face.
"I missed you, Billy," she whispered.
The others got to their feet, and Clandestine pulled away from Billy slowly. She looked up at James, and his rosy cheeks, chapped from the cold. His dark blue eyes, still full of life. He held out his hand to help her up and she took it, but as she got to her feet she rushed towards him again and embraced him, squeezing tightly.
"You know, it's a good thing Mel healed me too, otherwise this might really hurt right now," James muttered, strained.
Clandestine squeezed tighter, and James wheezed. She loosened her grip and laughed.
He returned the hug lightly and whispered.
"I'm so happy you're safe."
"I thought I'd never see you again," she said quietly. "I'm so happy you're alive."