Elise edged along the side of Gabriella’s work shed, clutching the arrows she’d come to get. She gaped incredulously as the fighting broke out between the chief Kin’keska and Gabriella. As if that were a signal, the other Kin’keska in the wagon each marked one of her friends and began to bear down on them. But – no one was running toward her – no one saw her peeking around the shed in the shadows. That gave her an advantage. Sickened, she nocked an arrow and scanned the grisly scene for a target. Derrick was blocking her aim for Andrew’s assailant, but even as she watched, they went down and a shot would have been hopeless anyway.
Then she realized what she was contemplating – murder! Of another human being! Elise retreated back to the side of the shed and pressed her back against its wall, whimpering a little. (oh….)
--This is another world entirely. This sort of thing happens every day in this world. You would be wise to accept this and act upon it. You may save a life out there...--
Fiaz was right, she thought weakly. This was another world. Here, it was survival of the fittest. Kill or be killed. She filled her lungs with a resolute breath and crept back around the shed to view the fighting once again. Derrick seemed to be doing well enough, especially for someone who was only an amateur. Andrew had dispatched his assailant and was gauging how best to assist Fiona, who was wrestling with another Kin’keska. But Rick.... Rick moved about as though he were tiring, continually dodging out of reach of his attacker’s sword. And the man exploited the significant size disparity, too, towering above Rick. Elise stole stealthily out of the shadows and, with a shuddering breath, aimed with her bow for the leviathan Kin’keska Rick was evading. She sent a brief prayer for forgiveness to whatever gods might be looking down on her and stretched her bow string taut, waiting for the right moment. Rick leapt back again, out of reach. The huge man lunged for him with his sword as Fiaz roared....
Kill or be killed.... Elise released the arrow.
Initially, she was unable to determine if she had missed her mark or not, but then Rick stumbled back in shock and the Kin’keska lurched forward, bringing to her attention her arrow lodged in his neck. Rick was ogling all around for who had loosed the arrow, and then down at himself in horror as the dead man’s blood sprayed all over him, on his face and clothes.... But time did not allow Elise to embrace victory, nor even feel sick, for the fluid black shadow that was Fiaz had suddenly sprung forward with startling velocity and another unnerving roar accompanying it. She looked –
And he leaped upon an old wrinkled Kin’keska woman who was facing Elise with a fully nocked and drawn bow in her hands! Elise averted her eyes from the gruesome scene, flushing. In endeavoring to prevent the loss of other lives, she’d nearly lost her own! What had she been thinking, bestowing herself upon her enemies as a target like that! She hadn’t even spared a glance about, she’d just stepped out and aimed. What a fool she was! Her heart was pounding as she directed her humiliated gaze back toward Fiaz again. He stood atop the old woman, who, after a final spasm, ceased to move as he licked his jaws with distaste.
-- I have sampled creatures much farther down the food chain than you humans who tasted much better, -- came Fiaz’s mental growl. He jumped casually off of the dead Kin’keska crone and sauntered toward the cabin, the tip of his tail twitching. He had saved her. Elise sent a heartfelt rush of gratitude to him, but before she could do or say more, she caught sight of Gabriella stalking toward the cabin, having slain the Kin’keska she had been battling.
“Come,” she commanded tersely.
Fiaz had immediately been dispatched by Gabriella to ensure that no other Kin’keska were intent on following up on their emissaries’ success, and if there were, he was to ‘discourage’ them via any means he deemed appropriate.
Fiona had passed out from blood loss. While Andrew and Gabriella worked busily over Fiona and Rick ran to and from the workroom bringing medical supplies, Elise shook herself and decided to approach Derrick, whose shirt sported bright splotches of blood spreading across it, running in rivulets into his shorts. Unaware of her approach, anxiety consumed his features as he stared in Fiona’s direction. Elise bit her lip worriedly as a rivulet of blood appeared below the hem of his shorts and trailed down his leg nonchalantly.
She didn’t know whether she was trembling because she had just killed someone or trembling because she was afraid one of her friends might die.
He looked down at her, panting, and his aquamarine eyes glinted with what seemed to Elise a bit of an unfocused cast. Still clutching his sword, he leaned notably on it. “Is she okay?” He gestured with his whiskered chin at Fiona.
She glanced at Rick handing Gabriella some gauze, while Andrew sat with Fiona’s head in his lap. They seemed to have that predicament under control. “I’m a little more concerned about you than her right now.”
Derrick peered back down at her, a mixture of amusement, shock, wonder, and worry on his face. Right in front of her, he swayed. Elise’s heart jumped into her throat. (no!) She instantly schooled her features to exclude any fear; she didn’t want him to panic.
Elise placed a slim hand on his chest and started to push him backward gently toward the cabin. “Come on, you big brute,” she said lightly, moving him slowly one step at a time. Once they reached the outer wall of the cabin, he sagged heavily against it, his strength visibly waning. Where was she supposed to start? She’d never administered first aid before!
Calm down, she snapped at herself suddenly, mastering her emotions, smoothing out her wrinkled brow and attempting to appear unflustered. If everyone else’s attention was occupied, then she was all Derrick had, so she better compose herself, for prudence dictated that she perform her best. She decided the first thing she needed to do was remove his shirt so she could attend to the wounds and assess the degree of damage if she could. So much blood soaked his shirt, it difficult to establish where the wounds originated.
Elise stepped forward but stopped, his sword in the way. “Give me your sword, first.” Derrick surrendered his sword to her, a bit taken aback that it was still in his grasp. She propped the heavy sword against the wall of the cabin nearby. Gingerly, she inched the soaked shirt out of his shorts as carefully as she could. A sudden intake of breath from Derrick caused her to glance up. He was staring stoically at the sky, his jaw clenched. As she gently peeled the shirt away from his skin, the muscle in his jaw flexed. Afraid to look down, she sucked in another deep breath.
A gaping vertical slash above his hip allowed deep red blood to ooze out, its lips opening whenever he exhaled. It reminded her of the gill of a fish. Elise bit her lip again and fought back tears. (oh my –) This required a more skilled hand; she was compelled to summon Gabriella, the injury looked so serious, but still Gabriella was engaged with Fiona and Elise didn’t want to distract her…. She steeled herself to continue.
Part of the wound was obstructed by the waistline of his shorts; awkwardly, feeling her cheeks heat, she slipped her fingers under the waistline and edged it down beneath his tan line, revealing the bottom of the slash. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Derrick’s fists clench, but he made no sound. The lips of the wound yawned at her as he let out a breath he must have been holding. Blood welled out of the wound. This was too severe for merely a bandage; it required stitching. She knew at once that she couldn’t ask him to hold up his arms so she could pull the shirt off; raising his arms would send blood gushing forth. Pulling her hunting knife out, she lifted her eyes up to meet Derrick’s gaze, trying to exude a calm demeanor.
Sweat matting his sunstreaked hair to his face, ashen beneath his tan, he gave the trembling blade in her hand a fleeting look, folded his lips inward, and nodded once with comprehension. Elise licked her lips, steeled her nerve, and, slipping the knife underneath his shirt, severed it from the neckline down to peel it away.
Then she focused her attention on the wound in his arm. Elise had never appreciated just how much taller Derrick was than she; she had to balance on her toes to slide her knife beneath the shoulder of his shirt. It separated under her blade with a wet rip.
Seeing that the sleeve was stuck to the wound that it concealed, Elise glanced up at Derrick again. “This is probably going to hurt,” she warned, wondering if he had heard her voice shaking or if it was just her.
His aquamarine eyes met hers. “Do it,” he grated, clenching his jaw again.
Elise peeled the material away as Derrick drew in a sharp breath. She stared at the new wound as she pulled the sleeve over gently his hand and dropped it the grass. This injury looked even deeper than the first, cutting across the chiseled bicep of his arm. Squinting, she recognized some of the fiber from his shirt stuck in the wound. With shaking fingers, she extracted it with her fingernail tips. It was hard to tell which of the wounds was worse. She had to obtain something to apply pressure to them, prevent him from losing any more blood or he might pass out like Fiona….
Elise looked up at Derrick. The muscle in his jaw was flexing again. He looked down at her, sending a shadow across her face.
“I’m going to be right back. Don’t move,” she emphasized her final words. She scurried through the open door of the workroom, searching frantically for the bandages she’d seen Gabriella using on Fiona. How she wished for Gabriella’s assistance! Finding a disheveled bowl of medical supplies, Elise grabbed a handful of thick, spongy cloth from the bowl and scampered back to where Derrick, pale, leaned against the cabin, blood running freely down his leg and into his shoe.
She folded up some of the material and told Derrick, “I’m going to put this on…” Elise counted out loud and, biting her lip, pressed the absorbent material against the wound on his hip. She winced as Derrick drew in a huge breath, his heavily muscled chest rising under her hand. Why wouldn’t he just scream? Elise knew she’d have screamed in pain by now were she in his position.
Alarmed then to see how swiftly the material turned a wet, dripping red, Elise, her reserve forsaken, called loudly for Gabriella, her concern rising as Derrick’s blood coursed down her arm in rushing streams. She swished a mosquito out of the way impatiently with her free hand, waiting for Gabriella.
She looked up at Derrick.
“Is it bad?” His aquamarine eyes searched her face intently.
Elise swallowed and managed a small smile. “Well,” she said shakily, “you won’t have to cut trees down for a while,” glancing back to see Gabriella stalking peremptorily in their direction. Finally!
With reluctance, she met Derrick’s gaze again. Still that intent look of iron held her. She cleared her throat nervously but didn’t look away. “You’ve lost a lot of blood,” she said softly, a small breeze stirring the bangs on her temple. Elise folded her lips against the tears that rose in her throat. She related with little accord to him, but she certainly didn’t want him to (die!).
Derrick stared at her, seeing the tears in her eyes that she couldn’t hide. She wondered what was going through his mind. Suddenly, his knees buckled, sending him lurching forward. He was passing out!
“No, no, Derrick, no! Come on, stand up,” Elise exclaimed with alarm, her heart in her throat again. “Lean on me!” She placed his unwounded arm around her shoulder, thankful that some inner store of strength had kept him conscious. “Stay with me, big guy,” she whispered as Derrick leaned heavily on her, crushing her shoulder with his hand as he tried with immense effort to prop himself up.
Elise and Andrew had been appointed the loathsome task of body disposal, as the only ones uninjured. Fiona was now bandaged up and resting. Derrick too, was resting, though both of them had suffered from heavy blood loss and been administered large amounts of crushed herbs that Gabriella used for Healing potions. Upon first inspection, Gabriella had immediately wanted Derrick inside lying down, but Derrick had passed out when, supported by Rick and Elise, he’d tried to take a step forward. Together, Gabriella, Rick, Andrew, and Elise somehow struggled to get the heavy giant of a boy inside and flat upon his bed furs, though the endeavor had sent blood gushing from his wounds. Elise had feared that he was dying in their arms. Upon reflection, his collapse was probably quite timely for he hadn’t had to suffer through any of the pain that the unwieldy undertaking of heaving him inside would have indubitably caused.
Gabriella was more concerned about his blood loss than the severity of his injuries; the arm cut had missed both his tricep and his bicep muscle, but had cut to the bone between them. The other wound, while also deep, had fortunately avoided any organs and would heal, though both would likely leave in their wake cruel scars regardless of her Healing capabilities.
Elise did not bother to speculate how Gabriella obtained this information. In this land, there was a saying, Gabriella had explained quietly, a man who found himself defenseless would not live long, as certainly they had just experienced for themselves. Elise was familiar already with this adage, for she had quite by accident recently stumbled across it while looking for a Healing recipe in a book for Gabriella. Elise recalled the adage well, for it had consumed her thoughts while hunting later that afternoon. A man who defends himself not, lives long not, and charity’s memory spans a short distance.
Stitched and bandaged up, Derrick and Fiona both slept deeply in a painless slumber, of which their weakened condition demanded an abundance. Even Rick sported an injury of sorts, his battle had produced the unpleasant consequence of a sprained wrist. Barring Gabriella, who would not leave Derrick’s or Fiona’s side, that left Andrew and Elise.
I’d rather skin and gut dead animals all day than this, she decided as she tried not to contemplate upon the dead body she lugged behind her. They had originally tried carrying the bodies together – she had grabbed the hands and Andrew the feet. But when they proceeded to the old Kin’keska woman Fiaz had mauled, nausea consumed each of them to the point that they resolved just to drag a corpse behind them. It would terminate the grisly chore quicker and prevent them from glimpsing the body (and, not so accidentally, from getting gore on them, Elise thought with distaste as the vivid memory of the crone’s blood splashing on her feet sprang unbidden to mind).
“Do you want the – uhm – arrow?” Andrew asked. He stood looking down at the man she’d... shot. (yes, I shot a man. just say it - shotshotshotshotshot.)
“Huh-uh,” Elise replied, gooseflesh rising as she watched him remove the offending missile from the Kin’keska’s neck. They started dragging the body to the creek. She would never have guessed that a dead body could weigh so much....
Panting, she dropped her burden in the creek with a splash and nudged the rest of the body in with her foot. She sighed with as much physical exhaustion as mental and met Andrew’s gaze as she rotated the sore shoulder that was already bruising from supporting Derrick’s weight earlier. Shivering, Elise observed glumly that Andrew, too, was not looking particularly lively himself.
“One more,” he sighed, not bothering to disguise the weariness from his voice. His steel blue eyes held a sobriety in them that she was sure was reflected in her own.
They tramped back to the battle sight, returning slowly on purpose. She stopped some feet away from the last corpse. She knew there was a reason Andrew had saved this one, Derrick’s victim, for last, and she wasn’t sure she cared to ascertain why. She heard Andrew let out a long breath behind her.
“Come on,” he said lowly, putting a supporting arm around her shoulders. They crossed the last remaining distance between them and the body. Elise looked down – and was immediately sorry.
When she finished vomiting, this time for good, she sat up weakly. She discovered Andrew beside her, wiping his own mouth, and she wondered vaguely how long he’d been there. She felt so dirty. Well, ‘dirty’ wasn’t really the right word, but she was at a loss for a more fitting term, never having disposed of still warm, stiffening, dead bodies before.
Elise sighed again, not for any real reason except that it seemed to dispel the awful, sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. Breathing in deeply, she listened to the birds in the trees and the scampering of the wickas overhead, the singing of the crickets, the soft whickering of the iros in their stable.... The sooner she completed this horrific mission, the sooner she could scrub herself raw in the creek – upstream, very upstream.
She rose uneasily to her feet and took another deep breath, ignoring the thick stench of vomit in the air. Clearing her throat timidly, she quietly asked, “Are you ready?”
Andrew stood up in answer and sucked in a deep breath himself, his freckles standing out against his pale skin.
She forced herself not to look at anything but the arm she was going to take hold of. Experiencing nothing but chills, Elise grabbed the arm and together they hauled the dead man toward the creek. She tried not to notice when the body thumped over rocks in the earth as though it were a sack of flour, and tried not to notice when one of the boots caught on an upturned root. She focused her attention skyward while Andrew righted the boot. Finally, they reached the creek and shoved the body into the water. As the water flowed perfunctorily over the dead man, some of his entrails floated out into the water and the flies flew away. Sickened anew, Elise watched as the Kin’keska corpse drifted downstream. She finally looked at Andrew. He was very pale. Suddenly tears were rolling down her face. She fell to her knees, sobbing a little.