Chapter 15: Escaped But at What Cost[tm]
James set the spoons and bowls in his lap, sighing as he sat by the water. He ran his hand up his face, into his hair, feeling the grime and the grease - the dirt and the sweat of the past days, and the ash of the recent fire. The side of his face felt tender, and he remembered at some point that he might've fallen, but he couldn't recall how. It must've been after the lumshade.
Wincing at the thought, his hand hovered over his injured shoulder, recalling the sensation, and the unpleasant rush that had run through his veins soon before he lost consciousness.
He leaned down and cupped water in his hands, washing his face with a few splashes.
Whether Alexander had intended to use the full contents of the syringe like he had, it sobered James deeply to think of how he would've been able to use it as a tool to subdue James long-term, or any time he tried to fight back.
James had been used to incurring injuries at the hands of bounty hunters to keep him from easily fleeing or to scare him into submission. But this felt like a different level of escalation to use lumshade, a resource usually reserved for subduing mages, just to capture him.
How had Alexander gotten his hands on that much lumshade anyway?
It had to have been Carter. It was the only thing that made sense.
Saddened at the thought, James got to his feet, bringing the bowls back to their "camp," and tucking them away into Clandestine's things. As he briefly stuffed them into the saddle bag, Billy - if he remembered her horse's name right - stirred.
Buckling the bag shut, James moved into Billy's view.
"It's alright," James mumured. "You can rest."
It seemed enough to calm Billy, who promptly set his head back down. But unfortunately, the sound of his voice nearby seemed to wake Elliot.
Elliot sleepily lifted his head, his ears turning in James's direction. Weakly, James reached out to him, gently petting his snout.
"Hey, buddy," James said softly, letting Elliot rest his head against James's chest. "Good to see you again."
He ran his fingers through Elliot's mane, remembering how they'd parted, briefly, and he'd been too far to help his horse when the fire began to consume the valley. It was painful to think that he could've lost him gruesomely to the flames... but had that happened, that would've been his and Clandestine's fate as well.
Briefly resting his forehead against Elliot's, he took in a deep breath, thinking on all of the burned bridges he'd left in his wake. It wasn't just Carter he'd left behind. He'd left without a goodbye to everyone. No one knew what he was doing - and he'd told no one in hopes of protecting them, so they would'nt be held accountable for his actions. But it came back to bite him in more ways than one.
When James had tried to flee the barracks, he'd run into Ingrid - one among his and Carter's close circle of friends.
At present, she was a commander in the King's Hand, of which Carter was the High Commander.
But back then, he and Ingrid were friends.
No, they were more than that.
She was pained to see him, and he could see it in her eyes, despite her icy exterior and her contemptuous frown. He could tell that she was confused and distressed, unsure of what was going on and why people were clamoring to find him, chasing him down.
She'd ripped him out of the hallway, pulling him into a dark closet to hide him as a group of soldiers passed. Her gloved, armored hand was pressed over his mouth as she held him against the wall, her ear to the door, listening for the footfalls to pass.
The air in the closet was thin. Maybe it was because he'd been running. Maybe it was because he couldn't breathe.
Ingrid huffed through her nose, finally ripping her hand away, letting go of him.
Immediately, James put up his hands in surrender.
"I can explain--" he began.
"I don't want to hear it," she snapped, and he could see her scowl, shadowed in the dark over her pale eyes and skin. Her pitch black hair blended into the darkness.
James snapped his mouth shut, aware that she wasn't lying.
Leaning forward, she towered over him with her height, scowling deeply.
"I will cover for you," she whispered, regret, pain, and anger seeping into her words. "But you will never mention me or my name to anyone. You will never come here again. You never knew me, and I never knew you."
Staring at her, her words were like a knife, lodging in his chest.
But he knew better than to argue or push away a lifeboat when he needed it. And he knew they wouldn't have time to talk. He wouldn't have been able to explain himself even if he wanted. Not if they both were going to get out of this without her looking complicit.
Opening his mouth to thank her, she cut him off before he could.
"Go," she hissed. "Now."
She ripped the door open. The way was clear.
James looked off into the distance, over the shadows of the rolling hills in the night. Elliot huffed wearily, leaning into James's touch. James pet him just a little longer before he scanned the area arond them and dug into his things, pulling out a clean shirt, shrugging it on over his bandages. He left Elliot's side and squinted into the dark, searching for his jacket - which he knew he'd had on before this whole ordeal, but hadn't seen since he'd woken up. Eventually, after several minutes of walking around, sifting through the grass in the dark, he found it, wadded up with his bloodied shirt.
He glanced over at Clandestine, then picked it up. The shirt was bloodier than the jacket, but the jacket had also been the same one the giant sand worm had bit through. The leather was completely fraying on one shoulder, sliced apart from the teeth. The puncture wound was barely noticeable in comparison.
It was a wearisome aspect of his life of constant, violent confrontations for his clothes to get tattered and beaten, but he was just happy his jacket was still mostly intact. Too tired to care, he shrugged the jacket back on, folding the bloodied shirt up in his hands.
He wasn't proud of how numb he'd become to violence. The sights, the smells, the aftermath of it. The fighting, the narrow success, and feeling it all after. All of this felt familiar, despite Clandestine's involvement.
He walked back to Elliot, tucking the dirty shirt away for the time being. He'd wash it later, in the daylight, where he could determine if it was truly salvagable. If he couldn't get the stain out, it wouldn't really be worth wearing. People would notice, and it'd only draw concern at best and suspicion at worst. Either way, it was unwanted attention.
Again, he scanned the hills, finding nothing but darkness and starlight.
His mind wandered back to that day, when he'd miraculously managed to slip out of the kingdom against all odds.
So many times since, James kept wondering if he should've run at all. Initially, his plan had been to get the documents and find like-minded people to help him expose the kingdom. But very quickly, he learned how unrealistic of a dream that was.
He had the information, but no trust. And now, without the information, he didn't even have the proof to build trust. He just had his word.
He wasn't sure if Clandestine even believed him fully. Maybe she did, because it made sense of her own situation, but he didn't imagine that she trusted him. Belief and trust were two very different things, and he hadn't earned the latter.
He knew it was possible he only assumed so because of his own pain around broken trust. Ingrid had covered for him when she didn't have to, but she'd been far crueller about it than he'd ever thought she would.
As for Carter...
James was just about ready to leave. He had Elliot saddled up quickly, and everything was packed and tied down, ready to go. James just had to sneak out the back exit, and he could seamlessly disappear into the city in plainclothes, looking like any another civilian.
Leading Elliot forward past the stalls, James scanned the area, glancing around corners when he heard hurried footsteps skidding behind him.
Whipping around, James tensed when he saw Carter, who knew James well enough that if he had the opportunity, he would go out of his way to get his own horse to escape. He'd just been a few steps behind.
If James had been just a few minutes ahead of him, they would've missed each other.
Instead, they both stood frozen at opposite ends of the stable, with a dozen stalls between them, half of them filled with horses. Hay and dirt laid on the ground between them, patterned with hoofprints and horseshoes.
The midday sun leaked in through the windows, facing the east; the direction of the sunrise.
Carter was breathing heavily, like he'd been running all this time.
"I'm giving you one last chance," Carter said, standing up straight.
James noticed Carter's hand hovered over the sword as his side.
"Carter," James pleaded, his voice barely quiet enough to reach across the distance between them. "You know I can't stay. They'll... they'll kill me."
In his heart, he'd been hoping to hear assurance.
I can change that. We'll figure it out. That's not going to happen. I won't let it.
But instead, Carter swallowed hard, his upper lip twitching into a deep frown.
"I know," Carter said, his voice like ice.
And then he drew his sword.
James idly pet the side of Elliot's neck, refocusing his eyes on the middle distance after he found himself getting lost in a daze, unable to recall exactly how the fight had ensued. All that he could remember was that it'd ended with Carter with a limp, and James leaping onto Elliot, fleeing.
He'd always resented himself on that day for letting fear win over. For choosing to run when Carter was hurt by his own hand. For leaving him behind.
It had taken months for it to sink in that his best friend of 12 years had tried to kill him that day. It had taken even longer for him to decide to forgive him.
And now Carter was sending bounty hunters after him. After five long years.
James stepped away from Elliot, letting him rest as he walked out into the tall grass.
If Carter really did know Alexander personally, to some degree, then Alexander's absence was going to be noticed. If James knew anything about Carter, he probably had a rendezvous point and time in place when they expected to meet, with James in tow. It was possible the date was still far out, but it was just as possible that Alexander had missed his window, which would only cause suspicion.
James kicked at the grass beneath him.
Where had Clandestine buried Alexander, exactly? And where had she found his body? Had it been swallowed up by the fire?
Glancing back at her again, he had a feeling those questions might be too tender to ask at the moment.
But as he looked over her sleeping silhouette, barely visible in the dark, he caught sight of something else.
No. Not just any light. Firelight. Glowing, and pulsing, just over the hill.
Someone was coming over, holding a torch.