As Nessa's first week in the care of Hunter came to a close, she found herself wishing that she hadn't turned to him for help and instead, carried on alone.
Coursers jumped out of the woods to attack them, once a day it seemed. Sometimes, it was a single man who was easily dispatched. Other days, it was a group of Coursers who fell on Nessa and her companions and they had to fight for their lives.
Hunter seemed to think that his name would keep other Coursers at bay. Nessa felt that his name was the reason the attacks kept coming. They wanted to strip Hunter of his prize. Either that or the desire for fame won out over Hunter's reputation. Whoever returned Nessa to the king would be greatly rewarded.
Nessa understood the cutthroat nature of Coursers. All of them were willing to kill anyone they perceived to be an obstacle in the way of the kingdom's greatest prize. Most of them especially wanted to see Hunter dead. The Stone sisters were the first, but they were far from the only ones.
This knowledge infuriated Nessa. On the bright side, it meant when they were attacked by a group of Coursers, the Coursers focused the fight on Hunter. Miran and Nessa didn't have to get involved if they didn't want to. On the other hand, it meant Miran and Nessa had to save the Courser's life on more than one occasion. He was good with a sword and a creative fighter and they needed that on their side.
Nessa wished she had let the Stone sisters kill him. Twins meant they had an extra sword at their back and Nessa wouldn't have to deal with his chauvinist personality anymore.
Hunter thought a lot of himself.
Nessa was fairly certain he was intimidated by her reputation. Catarans knew the worth of women. Peacekeepers were female-only positions until fairly recently. Women have always been welcome in the Cataran armies.
In Magen things were a little different. The women there were hunters and worked in the woods. While they were comparable to men in those fields, they were not considered fit for combat. The reason being that women needed to perpetuate the species. They were useless if they were lying dead on a battlefield.
Hunter knew the worth of the girl in his company. The girl who wasn't officially a Peacekeeper but had been labelled as Rogue. He'd known her reputation going in. He was skeptical. You have to be. You have to think you stand a chance, or else, what's the point? She was fast and left nary a trail, but he knew many Magenite women capable of the same. It was when she fought along beside him that his opinion of her changed. He thought, at first, it was because he was glad for someone to have his back. It gets exhausting, always having to look behind you.
It was more than that.
She could anticipate his moves and follow in his wake. He never watched his blind side because he knew it was covered now. The girl was indispensable in a fight. She couldn't read people in an everyday situation. She had no comprehension of moods or feelings, but the girl was clairvoyant on the battlefield. She seemed to know and anticipate what other people were going to do before they did it.
Sometimes he got a glimpse of it action. Other times, he picked it up when he watched Nessa train the Tolinese girl.
Miran wasn't half-bad in a fight either. He could have done worse choosing his companions. The Tolinese girl was lightning fast, and moved in a way that suggested she had not been Academy trained. It was graceful, but dangerous. Watching her was like watching a dance.
He was considering asking why Nessa was training Miran as they ambled along.
A twig snapped in the forest and he forgot all about his question as he honed in on the sound.
There came another sound.
Something in flight.
It dropped Nessa in her tracks.
She went down on her knees and couldn't control any part of her body.
Hunter sprinted toward her. Sling shot, he deduced, watching a pebble fall away.
As far as attacks go, it was the best way to subdue the girl who was untouchable. No one was going to win a fight if they tried to go head-to-head with her. The smart ones were trying to overwhelm them with numbers.
A sneak attack was a better plan. You had the element of surprise. The trick was getting the drop on her. It was rumored she was uncannily in tune with the forest. It would be difficult to catch her unawares. Unless, she was in the middle of giving Miran a verbal tutorial on how to joust.
The Tolinese girl was on horseback and Nessa had just dismounted, determined to describe how to maintain a good seat when it happened.
Miran was too shocked to do much in the way of fighting when the Coursers burst out of the bushes.
Hunter managed to save the day, but barely. He scooped up Nessa and, in the same motion, drew his sword, using her body as a shield. He was surprised at how hefty she was for such a little thing, even though he knew she was made of muscle through and through.
The Coursers knew they'd be in trouble if they made the mistake of killing Nessa Lightfoot. That was a job reserved for the High King. They tried to fight around her. It was difficult.
Hunter fended the Coursers off as best he could. There were five in total, and they were ignoring Miran, focusing completely on him.
One of the attackers sliced his arm open. It was an attempt to get Hunter to let go of Nessa. He wasn't going to do it, no matter how deep the wound, regardless of blood loss.
Down to one arm, Hunter was in a desperate situation. He was losing a lot of blood. Nessa was still unconscious and Miran was still frozen in place, watching everything play out. Hunter let out a roar, "I am Cavan Hunter and this one is mine!"
That sent everyone skittering back into the foliage. As soon as the Coursers were gone from view, Hunter let out a world-weary sigh, not sure how much longer he could hold on. He wasn't going to let go until he knew the Coursers were well on their way.
Once he was sure they had dissolved completely into the woods and they weren't coming back, that was when he allowed himself to sink to his knees.
He was utterly exhausted.
He suspected the blood loss to be a big part of it. The fighting, to a lesser degree. The mental strain from being on high alert probably didn't help either. He'd gotten used to Nessa having his back. He didn't have a contingency plan for what to do if she wasn't in a condition to fight and they were outnumbered.
He wanted to yell at Miran.
The girl had been useless.
Miran slipped down off of her horse and cautiously approached the fallen Courser. His brilliantly blonde hair was greasy from too few washings and his face was smudged with dirt. His sword was still drawn and Nessa lay across his lap. His right arm was covered in blood. Nessa was too.
When the dark-haired girl tried to pull Nessa from the Courser's grasp, he held onto her tighter. Miran saw his sword flash in the sunlight and scampered out of the way, lest he think she was the enemy.
"Hunter," she whispered, creeping close again.
The Courser's grey eyes stared into the distance.
"You're bleeding out," her voice was more forceful this time. "You need to let go of Nessa."
"Make me," he growled.
Miran rolled her eyes and wound up for a punch.
Her fist made contact with his face and he fell back. His grip on the sword loosened.
Miran dragged both bodies out of the road and bandaged the Courser's arm. He was much more cooperative, though a little woozy. He kept looking over at Nessa laying prone on the ground.
The redhead was conscious now, but out of sorts.
Giving her a head injury was a good way to get a jump on her, but it was also a good way to get her killed, Miran mused. Given how much energy Hunter put into chasing her when killing her and dragging her body back would be so much easier, Miran guessed that whoever wanted Nessa wanted her alive. The Coursers had made a serious gamble.
Once everyone looked like they were going to survive, Miran set up camp. There was no way they'd be walking any farther today. After seeing to everything, Miran went to have a look at Hunter's arm. Hopefully, it had stopped bleeding.
Hunter was more coherent. Nessa was still in a daze. Or dozing. It was hard to tell. The redhead was slumped against her gear.
The Courser winced as Miran inspected underneath the bandage she'd made. The wound was deep but the blood was beginning to clot in places.
He wasn't paying any attention. It was fixed on his bounty. "Is she going to be all right?"
Nessa chose that moment to let out a heavy breath. She was sleeping. That was good and bad.
"Head injuries are a dangerous business," Miran replied honestly. "Rest is the only way I know to fix it. You should be worried about yourself. You've lost a lot of blood."
"I've had worse."
Miran doubted it.
She resolved to watch both of her patients carefully through the night.
Hunter didn't sleep a wink. He was convinced he was the protector now that Nessa was out of commission. He wasn't going to heal without rest, but he refused to listen to reason.
Miran stayed awake to check their vitals. Hunter didn't bleed through his bandage, so that was a good sign. "I can sew that for you," the girl suggested some time in the wee hours of the morning. She didn't know what they had available for sewing materials, but she was sure between the Courser and Nessa's gear she would be able to pull something together.
"We can take care of it when the sun comes up."
Miran knew what that meant. It meant he was going to shy away from it. Hopefully, a town wasn't too far away. If they were lucky, that town would have a tavern. Liquor would be her best friend in this situation. It would sterilize the wound and it would dull the pain.
They could deal with that tomorrow. Since Hunter's condition had stabilized, the only one Miran was worried about was Nessa. She just needed the redhead to wake up. She could handle Hunter's grouchiness from lack of sleep and blood loss if Nessa survived the night.
She wasn't in any condition to be moved. That meant another day in camp. With Nessa in no condition to hunt, and Hunter unable to draw a bow (his wound ran the length of his forearm, Miran had a notion his muscles would object and start bleeding again). That left the Tolinese girl to take the bow and a couple arrows and try her luck in the woods.
She was successful, not only in bringing down a partridge, but in finding wild onion and garlic on her way back to camp.
When the girl pushed back into camp, she saw Hunter crowding Nessa's sleeping form. "What's wrong?" Miran demanded, clutching tightly to her finds.
Hunter whipped his head around and shushed her. "She's fine," he whispered. "She woke up briefly, but she's sleeping again. Is that natural?"
"It's part of the healing process," Miran replied striding over. "You need to sleep too."
"I can't," Hunter said. "Not until I know she's going to be all right."
"All we can do is wait," Miran responded, taking a seat. "There's nothing better to do than sleep while you wait."
Hunter's grey eyes narrowed suspiciously, "You aren't going to quit."
"No. Either you sleep or you let me at that arm."
Hunter tugged his arm closer to his core.
"If you let me stitch it, it'll heal faster. And the scar won't be so ghastly."
Hunter grinned at Miran, "I need the scars. It's how I get the ladies."
"Well, this one doesn't have to be big. It's the story that matters. Once you tell them that you got it saving a damsel in distress they'll probably jump you then and there."
He seemed to consider it, "You may have a point."
"Listen," Miran said, scooting closer, "I used to work in some clinics back home. I know that stitches, though painful, heal wounds quicker and reduce infections. I know you want to be manly and push through the pain, but the fact of the matter is, you're useless to Nessa if you don't do anything about that injury."
The Courser squinted at her, trying to determine if she was telling the truth or just spouting shit.
After a lengthy assessment, he offered her his arm.
Miran came up with some fishing line and a hook. Perfect.
Even more perfect was the small flask of whisky the Courser kept in his pack. She used it to sanitize the wound.
Hunter swallowed the rest of the contents.
Despite his hesitation about the whole procedure, Hunter gave no indication of pain after the initial grimace that came with the removal of the bandage. Miran found herself rather impressed by his behavior.
Stitching is a tedious procedure. Miran had a lot of experience with it, though not in this particular field.
"Your stitches are so tiny," Hunter remarked. "I've never—"
"Most battlefield and backwoods physicians don't need the stitches to be neat and even. They just need to sew you up so you stop bleeding. I was trained differently."
"Thanks," Hunter said with complete sincerity when the girl finished.
He had been furious with Miran for freezing when Nessa got hit, but she was making up for it remarkably well. She'd successfully hunted game and now she'd stitched him up. He wondered about her life before all this back in Tolin and why she was journeying so far from her home.
He gathered it was something she didn't like discussing. These two girls had bonded because they were leaving behind the place they knew for something different. Nessa was running. Was Miran on the run too?
The Courser was jolted from his reverie.
Nessa was stirring.
Both Miran and Hunter rushed to her side. Miran asked a series of questions that were met with drowsy responses. The takeaway was that Nessa was queasy and not hungry, but complied when Miran demanded she drink some water. Miran tucked the redhead back in and let her fall back asleep.
The Tolinese girl made the dinner meal and told Hunter to nap while she did. When Hunter objected, like she expected he would she said, "You need to sleep now because I am exhausted and plan to sleep tonight. That means you will have the night watch. Do you understand?"
Hunter did as he was told, amused. Nessa didn't say much, so when she did speak up, you listened. Miran was chatty, but polite. She didn't seem the bossy type, but when she used that tone, Hunter knew better than to argue.
It would be awhile before Nessa was a hundred percent, but she was more alert the next day. She saddled up and rode one of the horses while her companions walked. They didn't hike far. Nessa slept late, took a nap during lunch, and was ready to call it a day pretty early.
On the bright side, they didn't encounter any Coursers.
It was another couple of days before Nessa spent the whole day on the power of her own two feet. Miran spent a good part of the day amused. Nessa suspected it was because of Hunter's close proximity. If she so much as stutter-stepped, the Courser was ready to catch her.
Her glare wasn't a hundred percent, which is probably why it wasn't working to keep him at bay. He was the last person she wanted to touch her. She knew where his hands had been. The idea made her skin crawl. She thought of the girl in the stable some weeks back and the Stone sisters.
She didn't want him anywhere near her, but she understood his concern. If she was broken when she got back to Coghlan Castle, the High King would not be pleased. He might not get his payday. This last round of Coursers had been their closest call yet. Nessa didn't remember much, but she did know that they'd almost gotten her.
They didn't talk about it.
She remembered getting clocked in the head, and she noticed a lengthy slice on Hunter's forearm. Miran had really stepped up. She was a good caretaker, bullying Hunter about keeping his wound clean, collecting food for them to eat. Nessa managed a grin as she watched the dark-haired girl build a fire and roast the night's dinner.