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Chapter 3

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Eomalaa 4, 542 CSE, Brigga Province

Thirty-three days with the Swords and Wymrick was working desperately to imagine how it could possibly get any worse than it was right now.

The push had come at dawn, as if that was any surprise. Judge’s detachment had gotten them cleanly and clearly up to the initial outer wall breach site. Then as fast as they arrived, she and her two scouts had vanished back into the morning dawn.

The outer wall had been much easier to breach than expected. They’d had some casualties but the losses were so minimal Top made the decision to push almost immediately through the inner wall to maintain their momentum and, gods willing, catch the Brigga militia off-guard.

That, of course, had gone exceedingly well, if exceedingly well meant terribly. This was the first time Wymrick clearly figured out what a wartime tactical mistake was.

The Brigga strategists had been anticipating the Swords would likely decide to push forward, gaining ground, from the ease of the outer wall breach. Which is why they’d arranged a very nasty little surprise.

As good as the scouts' reconnaissance information had been, they couldn’t very well see behind the walls. The Brigga engineers had turned it into a minefield of burning pitch and boiling oil. As the Swords had breached the outer wall and stormed through to get their foothold, the Brigga militia had lit the waiting trench lines of oil immediately into an obstructive and deadly blaze across the battlefield. At the same time several units of small artillery trebuchets began hurling bags of pitch down into the boiling hellfire, spreading sticky oil and mud everywhere.

On the very first barrage they’d lost seven Serinnian shields as well as Feral, who’d gotten himself stuck between a section of ground and one of the flying Brigga munition drops. Before anyone could retreat though, Top had lit his own fire under their asses and pushed them into a charge and a direct assault across the open, fire-boiling, ground. Wymrick was sure he was going to die at this point.

That was also the first time Wyrmick clearly figured out how to turn a wartime tactical mistake into a grab-you-by-the-shorthairs-save-your-ass moment.

If they’d retreated or stood their ground to defend, the fire trenches would have reached full ignition and the oil-dumping artillery would have had a chance to get into a steady rhythm and they’d have been cooked faster than a fat goose during halenfeder. The fire trenches had been dug, presumably, to allow the defenders the means to get down safely. So there was about a dozen paces of space between the inner wall and where the trenches began. That’s where Top aimed the company.

It certainly didn’t mean the Brigga militia was unprepared. That would’ve been too easy. The moment the unit had gotten close to the inner wall, the Brigga infantry had repelled down under overwatch from a half-dozen or so heavy sharpshooters. Lash and a handful of other Serinnian grounders had been a little too eager to engage and as Top was yelling for the unit to take the right flank, they’d either misheard or ignored the order and hit the waiting enemy head on.

Lash’s death got such a visceral reaction from Wormfoot that Farwing had to hit her on the side of the head to bring her back to her senses. And with those heavy, thick hands, they were almost as big as Slab’s, the Jotinar didn’t have to hit her hard. Good thing, too, Wymrick thought, because he’d grown to appreciate what that pick and hammer she used could do.

One thing that had really gone their way was the arrival of Brigga militia support. Or, the lack of speed thereof. When the first group had repelled down to engage them it became apparent that the initial strike was meant to occupy them so ladders could be lowered and more troops could descend. But they’d failed to predict the Swords would immediately push further in and they also failed to estimate how long it would take to hold off the Swords and their Serinnian support units once the inner wall was reached. In fact, judging by how slow the descenders were moving they’d vastly underestimated.

“Sharpeyes! Hit the climbers!” Top bellowed out across the battlefield. It was almost instantly rewarded with several of Switch’s pale, blue fletched arrows taking out two of the descending soldiers. These were immediately followed by bolt fire from Stick, Catch and a number of the Serinnian soldiers that could use crossbows.

Wymrick was beginning to regret having to give his crossbow over to Catch for this battle.

As the ground battle started to turn in the Sword's favor, Top had directed Bear team to start taking out ladders. Farwing and his team obliged by attacking their targets with a manic glee. Wormwood, understandably, seemed to be enjoying her work.

Wymrick had already killed one of the ground defenders from the first descent. He, Punch and LIttle-eye had gotten to the inner wall quicker than the others.

He and Little-eye were casting glances to either flank. Punch was yelling across the field toward Top. “Top! Top! On my voice. We’ve got it clear!”

Little-eye cursed in nosck, then said, “I can’t see shit with all this smoke.

“I don't speak Nosck!” Wymrick yelled over the din of the battlefield.

“Not the time, New Guy!” was the reply as a ball of fire from a trebuchet landed about fifteen paces from them with a loud explosion followed by the sounds of screams. Wymrick felt a spasm in the pit of his stomach, the sinking feeling everything was going to go really bad, but Little-eye punched him in the arm and shook her head as she yelled over the din of the battle. “We’re too close. They got no chance of hitting us here!”

When another explosion came immediately and much closer, he opened his mouth to comment on whether Little-eye was trying to get them killed but Top, a warmage he’d never seen before, and two Serinnian soldiers careened into their little nitch by the wall.

The strange little warmage - Wymrick was having a hard time figuring out if it was a he or she under all that grime and hair - pushed him hard and then promptly sat down. It hawked up phlegm and then spit into its palms and started drawing things in the dirt, all the while mumbling something that didn’t sound like any language Wymrick had ever heard. Yeah, Little-eye was right, they trebuchets couldn’t get them here but his stomach was right, too, because whatever this warmage was getting ready to do was probably going to get them all killed.

Top wasted no time. “Punch.” He gestured toward a dark stained spot along the wall that was about a dozen paces toward the center of the attack. “That’s our target. Judge said there’s water damage all along the foundation walls on this side of the city barricade. That one looks a mess. You and Wymrick are going to get to the other side of it. Hug the walls and the archers won’t be able to hit you. Protect Little-eye at all costs.”

Punch nodded matter-of-fact and squinted across the area to decide the best way to get there. Only one ladder lay between them and their destination, but the Brigga militia was continuing to drop more and who knew if another would appear soon.

“Little-eye,” Top yelled. “You’re going to stay with us and handle the charge.” He glanced down quickly at the warmage. “Hob, how long?”

The warmage never even batted an eye, as it continued to...gods be damned it was cutting its own wrists and mixing the blood in the dirt! “I’m going as fast as I can but I can always speed it up by blowing the damn thing right here.”

Top, in turn, seemed to get more information out of that comment then Wymrick heard. “Ten count and we go. Punch, you and Wymrick move now.”

Punch winked at Wymrick, “One!” and took off running. Wymrick swore under his breath but didn’t have any time to hesitate.

“Two!” They passed the ladder and two enemy soldiers much too high to reach but they clearly spotted the two of them as one looked back toward the top of the wall.

“We’ve got four down along the wall!”

“Three!”

Glancing back over his shoulder, Wyrmick watched Top, heedless of the missile fire and the buckets of oil being tossed around, step away from the wall several paces, tap his torc, and bellow as loud as he could. “Samazar! Seven count! Seven!”

“Four!”

A stray arrow sank into Top’s upper arm, through the armor, and with a grunt he snapped it off leaving the broken shaft jutting from the bleeding wound.

“Five!”

Wymrick had no more time to look as one of the descending enemies behind him dropped the remaining distance with a loud clatter and charged straight toward him and Punch. The second soldier was not far behind.

He heard another voice scream behind him, “HA! NOW,” but didn’t have time to see where it was coming from as he and Punch frantically reached the opposite side of the foundation crack that had been their target.

At the same time an explosion slammed into the middle of the killing field. Punch whirled, eyes wide. “Six! That’s a full trebuchet. They must have brought up one of the big ones! Seven! Hells!”

The first soldier came at them and Punch jammed his shield right into the attacker’s face guard. Wymrick shoved his blade up through the chin. The soldier spit blood and part of her tongue as the light in her eyes faded and she collapsed at their feet.

“Eight!” They glanced back at the others. Top was in the lead and met the second enemy soldier head on, barreling into the man with enough force to slam the two of them hard against the inner wall. Behind them, Little-eye was running as fast as her legs would carry her. The warmage was still sitting where it had been and…Wymrick yanked his eyes away and muttered a silent prayer asking to never see that again.

“Nine!” Across the field Wymrick could see Stick, Grin, Lapdance and Samazar running pell-mell for what, hopefully, would soon be a breach in the inner wall.

“Ten!” Little-eye never slowed down. She hurled something at the water-stained weakened foundation crack in the inner wall and then dived toward Wymrick and Punch. The ‘something’ made a sickening, splatting noise, even over the din of battle. All three of them tumbled backward in a comical splaying of arms and legs.

There was one extra count, unspoken. Then the world erupted.

The explosion wasn’t huge, by any shake of the stick, but as close as they were Wymrick knew his ears would probably be ringing for at least three days. He felt his head smack against the stone wall and it rattled the teeth inside his head.

Everything, all the noise and the lights, suddenly seemed far away. Everything was muffled and Wymrick’s eyes were having a hard time adjusting to all of the colors and flashing and heat. He felt his feet stumble. Felt a knee hit the ground. “New guy!” He stretched out his arm - so tired - and touched the face. 

Punch knocked his hand away yelling something in his face. “New guy!” Wymrick saw shapes, figures, who the hell knew, rushing around him and past him. Someone grabbed his shoulder and he lashed out with a bellow.

Something else hit him, and so much harder than was necessary, across his jaw. Everything else froze. Wymrick felt his eyes blink twice. Samazar and his team were plowing head first through the newly opened gap in the inner wall. At least six more enemy soldiers were sliding, not climbing, down the ladders to engage. Across the killing field he could see the remainder of Cobra, and what was left of the Serinnian support, engaging the larger enemy force descending on the southern side of the gap.

Then Punch’s face, one blue eye, one green eye, suddenly materialized right in front of him.

“If you don’t get your sorry ass up right now I’m going to leave you for the Brigga civilians to bugger you.”

He realized his right leg felt hot and wet. Glancing down he could see a piece of something, maybe wood, jutted from the side of his right thigh. How the hell did that get there? A hand on the nap of his neck, around the top of his leather jerkin, yanked him hard. 

Shaking his head, doing his damned best to throw off the hollowness and the cobwebs and the flashing lights, he felt his feet stumble and scramble but eventually gained footing. The noise of the battlefield rushed back in full force and it hit him, harder than a blow from a battering ram, in the chest. He could feel the full pain of the wooden shaft sticking from the leg, the bloodied wound on the right side of the head from cracking his noggin’ on the wall, the sting Punch had, well, punched across his jaw, the heat of the boiling trench fields.

But his thoughts were clearer.

Punch yelled again over the cacophony around them. “We’re moving in! Let’s go!”

Wymrick nodded and followed. The warmage had somehow gotten from over there to over here and was following hot on the tail of Top, who was disappearing into the new opening of the inner wall.

Cobra was nearly to them. One of the Serinnian Twelfth soldiers mistepped and hit the side of one of the burning trenches. As the edge collapsed under his foot, he shrieked in surprise, but it was cut off before he could finish as he toppled into the boiling oil.

Punch grabbed Wymrick’s free arm, the one not holding the sword, and slung it around his shoulder. “We’re going, New Guy, hold on.”

Wymrick felt his feet moving under his legs, surprisingly more steady then he would have expected.

He felt his shoulder scrape against the edge of the newly demolished inner wall gap as Punch pushed them through to the other side.

“Bolt-thrower!” Someone screamed to his left. There was a loud thump.

The moment they were through, Punch spun and dropped Wymrick in a heap to one side of the opening. “I’ll come back to get you!”

As Punch turned back to the battle, not an arm’s length from him, Wymrick felt a strange rushing of air and vibration in his feet. Then Punch’s head and upper body exploded.

The large bolt, nearly the length of a man, slammed into the inner wall, shredding bits of stone, mortar, pieces of Punch and drenching Wymrick in all of it.

Wymrick couldn’t breathe.

He was still trying when he lost consciousness.

*****

With a shriek and a huge gasping inhalation of air, Wymrick sat up. Or tried to. His head was restrained, strapped to something, holding it down, preventing him from rising. His ears were ringing.

Odd, his arms and legs were also secured. Tightly.

He yelled out something like ‘what the hell is going on?” but he couldn't’ be sure if his tongue had actually formed the sounds in the right way.

All he did know was he couldn’t move; he was staring at the ceiling, a dark stained canvas of sorts; his leg was on fire, again; and he was fairly certain he’d pissed himself at some point. So the shock of a face appearing directly in his line of vision felt both unnerving and like a cold, wet slap in the face at the same time.

“You’ll want to be quiet now. Everyone else is sleeping.”

Surprisingly that got an immediate reaction of silence from him. He couldn’t figure out how to react to the voice. It was firm, clear, and vibrant. The face made it even more uncomfortable. She couldn’t have been older than, what, maybe twelve, thirteen? Had she even blooded yet?

Her face was soft and round, covered in too much dirt and mud. Her hair was matted and all over the place, as if permanently startled. Her breath smelled sweet, like honey and bread. Her eyes were green, bright, unsoiled by the ravages of smoke and fire, but, more strikingly, he could almost feel a savvy and mettle that belied what was obviously someone way too young to be on a battlefield.

A heavier voice, unseen and familiar, asked, “Is he coherent or is this more rambling?”

The ringing in his ears was starting to fade into the background noise, present like an annoying buzz, but not overwhelming.

The young face disappeared and he was left staring at the dark canvas overhead. Was that a water stain?

“Yes. He’ll be fine. Just make him drink this.” The strong, young voice said.

“When?”

There was a rustling noise, something clicked and then a little more shuffling. “When he asks for it. Not before.”

A pause. “Got it.”

Wymrick decided he at least wasn’t dead. “You know, I can hear both of you.”

“Thanks, Kaylee,” the deeper voice said. Then Samazar’s face appeared above his. 

Given the last face he had just seen, Wyrmick recoiled a bit in horror. “Gods be damned, Samazar, don’t do that.”

Samazar grinned. “You know, I could get used to this. New guy. Strapped down. Yeah, this might be a good tactic for the future.”

Wyrmick’s eyes widened to about twice their normal size. “Don’t do this, Samazar. Please. I’m good to go. I can fight. Let me up, I’ll show you.”

Samazar just nodded, chuckled and then disappeared from view.

“Samazar!” Wymrick bellowed. “Please! Come on! I’ll do dump digs. I won’t bitch about it. Just let me back in the battle.” He coughed, that bellow scraped at his throat, made him wince.

The last word hung in the air and he knew he was alone again, strapped to...what the hell was he laying on? The only thing in sight was the tent top overhead; only the gentle sound of crickets and a crackling fire. The smell of bacon. Wait, bacon?

Samazar’s deadly serious face reappeared again so abruptly that Wymrick actually choked. He coughed several times and Samazar’s expression never wavered, a hard stern eye staring down into Wymrick’s. “Please, I’m okay. I can get up.”

There was a very long moment of silence. The Samazar cocked an eyebrow. “No bitching about dump digs?” Then he grinned.

It took a moment to register, Wymrick was still a bit groggy and fuzzy, but his eyes narrowed. “Can I transfer to Vulture?”

Samazar disappeared from view again.

“No bitching about dump digs?”

Then Wyrmick remembered.

His face drained of color. He closed his eyes and tried to wipe the memory out of his head. In the silence he could hear Samazar’s breathing slow and steady and deep. “Punch,” was all Wymrick could stammer out.

There was a very long pause. He could sense Samazar hadn’t moved, that he was still standing next to him. Then, his team leader’s rough voice said, “Let’s get you on your feet and cleaned up.”

Wymrick felt the leather strap holding his head down yank and slide, then it came free and the pressure released. He turned his head to see Samazar step toward the very small fire crackling in the middle of the tent, the smoke flowing up and out a release gap at the top of one side of the tent. 

With a single grimace but a lot of grunting, Wymrick rolled over and managed to get himself into a sitting position. Once he was upright, sitting on the edge of the cot, his leg wrapped tightly in a bandage, he paused a moment and took several deep breaths.

Not bad. “Samazar, I didn’t...” He stopped talking. The room started to spin. His arms and toes began to tingle. All of the moisture seemed to drain from his mouth. His throat felt like a hot poker had been shoved down into it. He tried to lick his lips, grabbed at his throat. Eyes bulging he shook his head, looked to Samazar, flailed his other arm pointing to his mouth.

Samazar, still squatting across from the fire he was stoking, looked at him calmly and pointed to Wymrick’s left.

Wymrick flailed frantically as he turned and almost immediately spotted the tankard sitting on a makeshift table next to the cot. Without a second thought he grabbed it and completely drained the tankard. There was a soothing to the burning but it was only slight. It tasted terrible. It still felt like…

He took a huge inhalation of breath and belched so loud he heard several horses that must have been close by the tent outside bray in protest.

Immediately the tingling was gone, the fire in his throat died and he could feel his tongue again. His mouth was still dry but moving his tongue around he could feel saliva starting to work.

He also realized he was famished. But before he could ask for something else he glanced over to see Samazar staring into the fire, paying him no heed.

“You’re probably going to need to take it easy for a few days. And if you don’t Kaylee will...well you don’t want to get on her bad side.”

Wymrick rubbed his jaw, which was surprisingly sore now that the other, more painful symptoms had gotten relief. “Isn’t she a little young…?

Samazar shook his head. “She’s not a Sword. Camp follower. Has been since she was about ten.”

Wait. That didn’t sound right. Wymrick tried to do a fast mental calculation. “How old is she?”

“I think she’s thirteen years past, or close to it at least.”

Wymrick was stunned. “She’s been a camp follower for three years? Three?”

Moments passed as Samazar continued to stare into the fire. Then he stood and wiped his hands on his pants. “Don’t let her age fool you.” His eyes narrowed a bit and his brow creased. “You need to learn, right now, right here, to stop trying to figure people out by the way they look.”

“I don’t…”

He didn’t get the other word out before something flared in Samazar’s eyes and the team leader took two quick, long strides to come right at Wymrick. Bending at the waist Samazar got eye to eye and almost nose to nose with him. “Say ‘yes, understood.’ Anything else and I will finish the job the battlefield didn’t.”

Wymrick didn’t look away. He clamped down on the knot in his gut and swallowed as best he could. “Yes. Understood.”

Samazar immediately turned away and walked to the entrance of the tent. As he pulled the flap back, he looked back. “Get dressed. And get out here when you’re done.” Then he left.

That’s when Wymrick first noticed he was naked except for his threadbare linen undershirt and the warm metal torc around his neck.

His face was as red as his beard as he fumbled for his clothes, wincing around the pain in his leg.

*****

The camp had moved. Sometime since Wymrick had blacked out things had settled, the assault had ended and it looked like a contingent of the Swords had set up along the inner and outer wall. He guessed this had happened after they’d cleared out the burning trenches. Maybe thirty or so unit tents were scattered around this particular area and by the sound of things: clanking of metal, chopping of wood, a chorus of cadence songs far off, they were digging in to be here a while.

Following fast on Samazar’s heels, and he was moving very quickly, Wymrick let out a grunt about every third or fourth step at the jabbing pain in his leg. “Samazar, can we ease up just a bit?”

To his surprise, his team leader slowed his pace. Not comfortable but at least more manageable and Wymrick didn’t have to try to trot to keep up with him. As his breathing eased a bit, he asked, “How long was I out?”

“Almost two days.”

“What?”

Samazar glared over at him. “Did I stutter or were your ears flapping?”

Wymrick shook his head. “No, sorry. Two days? What happened.” He looked toward the inner wall and could just make out the breach spot.

He nearly ran into Samazar when the large warrior came to an abrupt halt.

“Battles over. The Brigga ‘heads of state,’” there was a great deal of disdain in his voice, “asked for parlay and mercy.”

“So why are we digging in?”

“You ask a lot of annoying questions.”

Wymrick almost relented and backed down, “I’m trying to carry my weight.” He paused and then added, “Hope that isn’t asking too much.”

Samazar grinned at the hint of sarcasm. Then he laughed softly. “Not at all, New Guy.” He cocked his head to one side and Wymrick thought that was probably not a good sign as it was rather uncharacteristic of Samazar. “Why do you want to know?”

Wymrick shrugged. “Understand the tactics.”

“And just where is that going to get you?”

A voice rang out somewhere to their right. “Samazar!”

As they turned, Samazar grunted and said to Wymrick, “stand at ease.”

Coming toward them, weaving through a couple of tents was a nosck. The lower jutting tusks were a dead giveaway and the ritual scarring along the shoulders was the second. That and the fact that he was nearly two heads taller than both of them. The nosck was dressed in heavy boiled leather and carrying a metal helm in one hand. The other rested along the handle of a nasty looking mace.

Samazar drew himself to his full height as the nosck reached them. “Deputy Commander Fallen.” 

“Stand easy,” Fallen said. He looked Wymrick over for a moment then returned his gaze to Samazar. “You have done well. Top spoke to me of the honor your unit showed during battle.”

Samazar nodded once.

Fallen grinned and looked back to all the tents. “How is Top’s company to you?”

“Well, Commander. He points, we take out what’s needed.”

This earned a chuckle. “This is too bad.”

Samazar looked genuinely surprised. Wymrick was fairly certain that’s what that look meant, but he couldn’t be completely sure because he’d never seen that look on Samazar’s face before.

“Commander?”

“2nd Company of Herald’s regiment lost its leader in the battle. Top has put forth your name. I have agreed. So gather your bags. Report as ordered.”

“Trying to get rid of me, sir?”

Fallen laughed even heartier. “I do not like to lose soldiers. In battle or in peace. But losing a good one to make them better, that is honor bestowed. Leave my unit now, soldier.”

“Yes, Commander. On my way.”

The regiment leader turned sharply and headed back the way he came. Samazar watched him go. Wymrick had to watch as well but the glee in Samazar’s eyes was making him uncomfortable.

When the deputy commander had disappeared from sight, the grin widened and Samazar turned to look at Wymrick. Wymrick had the clear image of a mortain hill cat preparing to have dinner. Samazar growled. “This way.”

*****

“Bear, circle up.”

The bellow came from outside the tent. Evening had set in. Wymrick had arrived to find he’d been shoved into the tent with the company’s two transport mules. He wasn’t that bothered though. Once you got used to the smell, the warmth the animals gave off made the tent almost comfortable.

He’d tossed his ruck and bedroll in the opposite corner and dropped down to rest. He was up and moving but he was still exhausted and Samazar had said he was relieved of labor duty until Kaylee told him otherwise.

The others had, for the most part, given him space.

When Samazar’s bellow came, he groaned, opened his eyes and climbed slowly to his feet to head outside, grabbing his gambeson and worming his way into it. The leg was still tender and walking was uncomfortable but the agony in his throat and the pain in his jaw were dim after-thoughts.

Samazar was standing in the center of their team tent circle.  His gear was piled at his feet. The fire next to him was flickering in the wind that whistled between the inner and outer wall. Behind him on the far side of the fire was Kaylee. She looked pretty much the same as she had when Wymrick had seen her earlier. She was staring into the fire and leaning on a long staff, etched with aquamarine motifs that resembled the waves of the ocean. It looked familiar to Wymrick but he couldn’t place why.

The others in the unit, Grin, Stick, Little-eye and Lapdance were all gathering around as Wymrick joined them. The noticeable absence of Punch made his throat hurt again. Stick winked at him and nodded.

“I’ll make this short, you bunch of dead mules,” Samazar growled. “I’ve been bumped to 3rd Hesir with Coad Regiment. Second Company. Little-eye, Top named you as Bear’s lead.”

Grin rolled his eyes and started giggling. Stick threw his hands up in the air. “Well, there go my plans to conquer the world.”

Little-eye just smiled and suggested he bugger his mother.

Samazar blew snot from his nose to clear the left nostril and then gave an uncharacteristically melodramatic sigh. “Wymrick the Red!”

There was a very long pause. Wymrick looked around, wondering what was going to happen next and they were all looking at him. He suddenly realized Samazar had used his name.

“What? Wait. Are you...are you talking to me?”

That got an entire five minutes of hilarity out of the other members of the team. Grin was giggling so hard, he started to hyperventilate.

When they settled down, Samazar grew more serious. “Yeah. You.”

“You said, ‘Wymrick...the Red?”

“I did. And it ain’t because your hair is red. My last gift before I go because I want it to haunt you forever.”

He glowered a moment and then turned to the others. “I’d say it’s been a pleasure, but that would be like saying Grin’s cooking is better than Momma Kindeep’s sweet rolls.” Samazar said.

That got a bit more laughter and some digs at Grin from the rest of the unit, except Wymrick who had no idea what it meant.

“Come on! I swear I won’t mix up the spices next time.” Grin bellowed through his giggling.

Samazar slung his ruck over one shoulder. “Broken Swords Forever.”

“Broken Swords Forever,” the rest of them echoed. They shook hands or clapped shoulders and then Samazar headed off into the evening.

The silence held, sounds of the other soldiers in the camp settling in. Wymrick could hear several dogs off in the distance as well as some of the siege engines being strapped down and covered for the night. Shit. That meant rain.

Grin started to giggle again and this time Lapdance smacked him in the back of the head. “Will you cut that out?”

“Can’t help it, all this seriousness is giving me a rash.”

Another moment of silence and given the way Little-eye was staring at him, he was really hoping they’d get dismissed soon.

“Red?”

The others all looked at him now as well. Shit. He’d been hearing ‘New Guy’ in his sleep for so long now he was going to have to remember ‘Red.’ He was fairly certain this was just more humiliation but he just kept his mouth shut and nodded to her.

“You good?”

“I’m fine. I’ll be on my feet…”

“Well, good but, that’s actually not what I’m asking about.”

There it was again. That weight. It stood out in her eyes and it had nothing to do with his leg or their little altercation over breakfast several days ago. He tried to think of something witty to say. Something sarcastic. Something to get them to look at something else. “He was right next to me.”

Grin giggled again and stomped off. Stick shot him a nasty look and then nodded back to Wymrick. “Yeah. Happens.”

“That bolt thrower could have hit me. Maybe it should’ve? He was all over me. Just like the horse and the bodies in the trench. All that blood. Two feet to either side. Why? It could’ve missed both of us.”

Little-eye took several steps toward him. “When you figure out how to answer that, let the rest of us know.”

The others each clapped Wymrick on the shoulder, without a word, as they headed back to their tents.

He was staring at the fire for a long time before he realized Kaylee was still standing there. Now, though, she was watching him, her head slightly tilted to one side.

She didn’t say anything when he looked at her.

“Um,” he stammered, a little unnerved at her gaze. “Is there something you need from me?”

She nodded lightly. “I need to check the leg wound, and make sure your head’s on straight.”

Wymrick suddenly let out a laugh. It surprised him a little, it didn’t seem to phase the girl. “I’m sorry. What?”

She pointed with the bottom end of her staff. “Your leg. Bad. Check. Heal. Make better.”

That brought an immediate halt to the laugh. “I got that. I’m not a dullard.”

“And I’m not a child. Keep treating me like one and I’m going to let you hobble on a bad leg until one of those bolt-throwers makes it point.”

That rage in the pit of his stomach flared. His brow creased together and he took several steps toward the girl. “Listen to me, you little…”

He was completely taken by surprise when she whacked him hard enough on top of his head with the light end of her staff to rattle his teeth. He let out a sharp cry of pain and stumbled backwards, the awkward stepping tweaked the wound in his leg and he sat down hard on the ground with a grunt.

He suddenly realized he was very tired

Kaylee squatted down across from him. “Look, Top asked me to check after you. He also asked me to look after six others in the company who are wounded. Do you want to be better or not? The Mistress won’t wait long.”

Wymrick choked. “Mistress?” The ocean! That's why the staff was familiar. “You’re a water witch?”

She tilted her head again slightly and her nose crinkled and her eyes narrowed. “You know we don’t like that.”

He nodded, waved a hand. “Sorry, yeah, um, uh,” he was having a hard time clearing his head, trying to find the right words. “You’re one of Madzi’s Chosen?”

She stood up and grinned from ear to ear, very pleased. Her eyes were bright, gentle and very intense. “I am indeed. And with proper tribute she’s going to make you better.”

Wymrick just sat on the ground looking up at her.

When he didn’t say anything she looked exasperated. “Well, get up. I need to look at the wound. If I’m right, it should be mostly mended by morning.”

“I had another leg wound about a month ago…”

She nodded. “Yes, I took care of that. But you were still sleeping then, it was easier.”

“You said something before about my head.”

Again she nodded. “Yes, that too. But that’s going to take more time. We’ll just start with the leg tonight.”

“All right.” He climbed to his feet awkwardly and waited.

Kaylee raised her eyebrows.

Wyrmick looked around and shook his head, “what?”

She made the exasperated look again, sighed and rolled her eyes. “Drop your pants.”

“What?”

“I can’t very well look at it if I can’t see it.” With a gesture of her staff, she set it aside and squatted next to him to open the small wooden case she had slung at her side.

“Yeah, but…”

She stood up again quickly and looked up at him, her face screwed up in frustration. “What did we just talk about?”

“Well, yeah, I know, but…”

“No buts.” She giggled and then made a serious face again. “Drop them.”

Wymrick was at a total loss. His mind was trying to wrap around the idea that she was clearly capable of what she said she was capable of but she was also still...a memory of his younger sister, long since gone, only the gods knew where, when they were both near Kaylee’s age filled his vision. His sister had been fascinated with their father’s cobbling. She’d taken to it like he’d never seen her take to anything before. When he ran away, she’d been cobbling shoes for almost two years and she’d only been fifteen summers.

Nodding, he looked her in the eyes. “Okay, thanks, Kaylee.”

He almost regretted it when she giggled again as he worked at the latch to his belt.

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