Chapter 11: Beans and Bruises
Consciousness returned to him with the kindness of a wave crashing over him and tossing him onto the shore.
It took him a moment to register that anything was real. For what felt like ages, his mind took him through a maze of ever-worsening nightmares, each one more real than the last, ultimately melting into the next.
But with every dream, he could never remember how it started or how he got there.
When reality truly came, it came slowly.
A headache pierced through his skull, and for a moment, he wondered if it was the pain that woke him up, or if he merely woke up to the pain.
Then there was his shoulder. It felt bruised to the bone, and there was an ache that became more and more prevalent as the lumshade seemed to finally be flushed out of his system. The memory of the needle piercing his skin and muscle made a shiver run down his spine, and he blearily opened his eyes.
He was staring up at the night sky.
It was then that he registered the sensation of a breeze brushing up against his bare skin. He was covered in sweat, and he could feel his skin clinging to the blanket beneath him and the bandages wrapping around his chest and shoulder.
It didn't feel quite real as he took in the deep expanse of sky. It took a while for his eyes to pull the glow of the stars into focus, and eventually, he found himself staring at the distant crescent moon.
Somehow, he was alive.
It came back to him in waves. Moments before he'd lost consciousness, he'd almost been swallowed up by flames. Now, it was quiet, and the eerie glow of the growing fire was gone, replaced by the steady heartbeat of a torch stuck into the ground beside him.
He turned his head, first seeing the large circle of dirt that had been carved around him, and then, a few feet away, a small fire pit dug deep into the ground. Behind the crackling flame and the small pot bubbling over it was Clandestine.
The hearty smell of beans cooking over the fire drifted toward him.
Several missing pieces started falling into place.
Somehow, Clandestine must've woken up before the fire swallowed them both. He didn't know how the fire was put out. He didn't know what happened to Alexander, or Elliot. He didn't know just how much damage the fire had done. He didn't know how he ended up lying on the ground, face-up, not dead. But Clandestine...
She was the only reason he was alive. That he knew without a doubt.
James's mind felt like it was a bog, and he was walking through the thick of it.
What day was it? How long had he been out?
He shifted, drawing his hand over his stomach, finally registering that it was truly bare. He froze as it sunk in that Clandestine had to have stopped the bleeding while he was unconscious, meaning she would've seen all of his scars.
She was going to have questions. Gods, she was going to have questions either way, but the likelihood of them digging up unwanted memories got even higher. He tried to push down the panic that started to build in his chest just thinking about how to explain everything she's unknowingly gotten herself into. There wasn't an easy answer.
The summer heat managed to feel just as suffocating at night as it did during the day. Combined with the heat of the nearby fire and the burst of anxiety eating away at his nerves, he felt like he was burning up.
It hurt to move, but he tried to anyway. With his better arm, he started to push himself up, wincing and hissing through his teeth.
In the corner of his eyes, he watched Clandestine's head shoot up, watching him.
James looked over at her, and for a moment they simply stared at each other, faces blank as the fire crackled in the quiet of the night.
Now that James was upright, he could see the horses in his periphery. He glanced over at them, feeling a measure of relief at seeing Elliot, but it was countered by the sight of a different horse. If James remembered correctly, it belonged to Alexander.
"You're awake," Clandestine commented, sounding surprised. It took James a moment to actually process her words and what they meant.
James still felt like his head was a muddled mess. He didn't think the lumshade was fully out of his system.
"Yeah," he said, far too delayed.
A silence fell between them as he kept himself propped up with his right arm. The pain continued to shoot up and down his left arm and shoulder even though he'd stopped moving, and he didn't think moving it more would help. He clenched his jaw, trying not to wear all of the pain on his face and in his eyes. He knew that when he did, it usually made him look angry.
He stared ahead of him. It was too dark to make out much in the dim light of the silver moon, and he couldn't really see far beyond the circle of light the fire provided for them, but he could hear the trickling of water nearby.
They were still by the stream.
But there was a nagging question James couldn't shake, especially as he glanced back at the bounty hunter's horse beside them.
He swallowed thickly.
"Where's Alexander?" James asked.
It almost felt wrong using the man's name when, in his gut, he knew that he couldn't have survived the bullet wound James gave him. That truth was buried in his gut like a shared pain, melding with all of the guilt he always carried with him. Always present, never forgotten.
He didn't look back at Clandestine until he realized her hesitation. When he looked up, she was staring down into the pot of beans, her brows furrowed, and her eyes hidden in shadow.
"I buried him," she said quietly.
James felt his heart sink into his stomach.
So he was dead. And Clandestine was left to deal with the body left behind.
"I'm so sorry," James whispered. But sorry didn't feel like enough.
Clandestine seemed lost in thought, her eyes still fixed on the contents of the pot. He could see the hidden horror in her eyes, and he found himself wishing he could've warned her, back at the ranch.
Maybe if he'd told her he was a wanted criminal, she'd have never followed him. Maybe if she'd heard it from him, she would've left him alone and never felt obligated to follow and help him, subjecting herself to this.
Another long silence followed, and James looked down, feeling his headache begin to throb in his skull.
"He was going to kill me, wasn't he?" Clandestine asked.
James looked back over to her, and she met his eyes. The look in her eyes made his heart hurt more. She didn't have to speak the obvious, because they both knew: she was a mage. And though that might not have been the only reason for Alexander trying to kill her, they both knew it was the a primary one. If not only to get her out of the way, killing her was - in the eyes of the kingdom Alexander served - doing his duty, and doing the rest of humankind a favor.
He wondered if this was the first time she'd ever had her life threatened because of her magic. It seemed that, prior to the accidental spilling of her secret to James, that no one else knew.
In only two days, two people discovered her secret. And one of them tried to kill her for it.
"Yes," James said lowly, remembering how Alexander had very nearly stabbed her through the heart before James had intervened.
Clandestine nodded, her movements small, and slow.
"Well," she said softly. "...Thank you. For not letting him."
James looked away.
"Yeah," he said distantly.
James felt like his head grew even more foggy, wondering how Clandestine would've buried Alexander in the first place. It was right that he was respectfully buried, but it had to have taken a while, especially since, to his knowledge, none of them had shovels. Which begged the question once more:
"How long was I out?" he asked.