Chapter Three: "Unlikeliest Form of Help"
Falling to her knees beside her brother, coherency gone from her thoughts – No, no, no, no is the mantra that has shattered her mind – Kaethe is suddenly overwhelmed. No, overwhelmed isn’t the word. Frozen is more like it as her fingers suddenly twitch with shivers and her cheeks grow cold as ice. She can’t breathe, can barely continue to think. There’s just so much happening, has happened, that she can barely even process this new gutting twist in the life she is now being forced to struggle through.
“I think . . . I’ve been hit,” Rett forces out through clenched teeth and ragged breaths. He’s turned to his side, arms shaking from that simple stressing on his ribs. There is blood on his jacket, shining in the afternoon sunlight, darkening the material and leaking to his front and back. It looks sticky – feels sticky as she touches her hand tentatively to her brother’s hip. The red seems to soak into her skin and Kaethe wonders if she’ll ever be rid of the feel, the stain – No, never. “M’jacket’s . . . ruined . . . huh?”
She stares at him, wondering how he can sound so calm at a moment like this. What she finds is nerve-wracking to say the least, her brother’s skin turning nearly translucent, his lips paling too and his eyes growing cold and hazy. Gone is the warmth and aura of openness that she has never known Rett to not carry around with him. Instead she can tell that he is fading, slowly but leaving her all the same.
“Yeah,” she allows at last, threading her fingers into the tear and ripping it further. Her wrist throbs, but she pushes that to the wayside, focusing everything on her brother because he’s more important right now – she can worry about herself later, when things aren’t crashing like a summer hurricane. “Hold still, Rett. Hold still.”
“What’s it look like ‘m doin’?” he asks her with irritated bite as he says the words on a hurried, strained breath.
Kaethe swipes at the blood, trying to clear it away so she can get a better look. It just keeps coming, though, all stemming from a gash up his side that slowly gets deeper the closer it comes to the rib that has obviously prevented the arrow from puncturing a lung. It is wedged inside, stuck inside, and the only way to get it out is to cut and chisel away at her brother’s flesh and muscle. The very thought makes her sick and she has to turn her head away so she can gag.
Where’s Mischa when I need her? she thinks silently, only to find out a second later that she’d spoken aloud instead.
“Yeah . . . Mischa’d be ‘lot better at this than you,” Rett groans, craning his neck so he can get a look. He pokes at the arrow, bites through his lower lip, and inhales a hissing breath. “Not’a goo’ idea.”
“Don’t touch,” she snaps at him, shoving his hands away. “I told you not to move.”
“. . . So bossy . . .”
“I am, so just listen to me for once in your life.”
He glares at her, the heat gone behind the distant glazing in his eyes. “Grouchy . . . too.”
A shadow falls over them and Kaethe startles as she remembers the two Barrens that are lingering a foot away. She lifts her head, brushing aside the ratted hair in her eyelashes with a forearm – blood still smears across her forehead and she almost throws up for real this time. Hale and Louk are there, appearing very nervous, hesitant, and strangely worried – especially Hale who pushes forward and kneels beside her. She jumps at the proximity, for a moment wishing that Rett was up and okay so she could hide behind him, but then she pushes the childishness aside and takes a slow breath. Now isn’t the time for her to act the coward.
“What do you need?” Hale asks her.
The question is surprising. She’d half expected him to know what to do and take charge.
“A . . . a knife,” she stammers.
Hale gives her one with no hesitation, pulling it from a sheath at his back. It is long and wide, a deadly weapon for any who hold it. The faith he has placed in her is astounding – if not more than a little idiotic since they hardly know anything about each other. “What else?”
“Hold him?” she asks, gripping the hilt, working her fingers around it as she gets a feel for it in her palm. Kaethe knows she needs to be steady, that she cannot have any hesitation or quivering because it will decide between life or death for her brother. She needs to be calm, so she forces that while on the inside she is anything but.
Hale grabs onto her brother’s legs, pressing his weight down and clenching until his knuckles turn white. “Louk, get his shoulders,” he says, his brother instantly complying.
“Don’t move,” Kaethe orders her brother.
“Kinda . . . can’t,” he replies, glaring as much as he can at the two Barrens who have locked him into the dirt. “Y’all’re heavy. Ge’r’off.”
“For once in your life, Rett,” she snaps, her fear slipping behind the agitation she is now beginning to feel, “shut up.”
He sticks his tongue out in a mature, very Rett way of ending further argument.
Kaethe chooses that moment to press the tip of the knife into her brother’s side. She can see and feel him stiffen, a soft hiss escaping his biting jaw. She pushes deeper, following what she expects is the trajectory of the arrow, widening the already wide wound so that she can get the arrow – and the arrowhead – out of Rett’s side. It’s only a few inches in and up, and if it hadn’t carved a fissure on the way in things wouldn’t be as bad as they are. But the arrow did and Kaethe can tell that the rib it struck is broken, maybe fragmented. She hopes that the arrowhead is in one piece because here, up on a desolate mountain and with no supplies, blood loss is more than enough to kill her brother. Infection will be more than she can handle; more than he can handle, already so tired and weakened from their mad race from home.
When the blade scrapes against the stone of the arrowhead she withdraws. Rett bites back a ragged scream, pressing his forehead into the composting leaves.
“Almost got it,” she lies, setting aside the knife and going to the arrow. She snaps the shaft at half-way, tossing the fletching aside. She looks at the two Barrens, prompting them to press harder just moments before she rips the rest of the arrow out of her brother with a wet squelch that sends Rett bucking.
Bleeding with renewed vigor, Kaethe strips off her shirt, wadding it up and placing it over the gash. She settles her knees against it, bending down, forcing as much of her weight into stopping the bleeding as she can without fracturing the rest of her brother’s ribs. Rett breathes strangled rasps beneath her, his fist grappling at the leaves and twigs, boots flailing for traction as he tries to get away but fails under the combined efforts of her and the Barrens.
“Stop moving,” she growls, her hands feeling sticky-damp as the blood begins to soak through. “If you don’t stop I’m going to let you die.”
Somehow her brother manages to huff out a breath. “G-g-grou-ch-y,” he stutters.
She rolls her eyes but smiles when she sees him looking.
He groans. “Lemme go. Too heavy.”
The Barrens do, little by little, making sure that Rett isn’t going to injure himself further before they finally get up and move away. They linger, Hale rummaging through a pack that Louk had been wearing at the start of this all, pulling out a small pouch. “Here,” he calls, holding it open to reveal a sewing set, thin needle and black thread. “Do you know how to stitch?”
“Yes,” she answers him, pulling away from the wound to see if the bleeding has stopped. She finds that it has only a little, so she pushes back down, ignoring her brother’s wheezing gasp. “You’re going to have a scar, Rett.”
“. . . Cool,” he replies. “Ladies . . . dig scars. Ow! Be gentle!”
“Take it like a man,” she says back.
“I . . . am a man.”
“Yeah, a sissy man.”
“I’ve been shot.”
She snorts, rolling her eyes again. “It’s not even that bad, you momma’s boy.”
“. . . Not my . . . my fault . . . Momma loved me . . . more.”
“As if,” she answers, lifting even more of her weight onto Rett, sinking into his side, forcing a strained exhale from his lungs. “Shallow breaths, bro,” she cautions him, watching as he gapes like a beached fish for a struggling, muffled inhale. “C’mon. You can do it,” Kaethe encourages.
“Squishin’ . . . m’lung.”
“I’m trying to stop the bleeding.” She glances over her shoulder, locating the Barrens easily enough. They are lingering, just a few yards away, watching her and Rett – but mostly Rett with what she knows is surprise over him carrying on a conversation with her even after all the pain of being hit and having the arrow wrenched free. What they could never understand, what she barely understands herself, is that her brother needs conversation, to focus on things and to ignore things, both at the same time. If she wasn’t talking to him, if he was responding, then things would be very dire for sure.
Her brother would more likely than not be dead.
But since he is talking, however stilted his words may be, there is still enough fight left in him for her to know that he’ll pull through.
“Y’re not’a . . . a little girl . . . an’more,” he says. “Too big. Ge’r’off.”
“Yeah right,” she teases. She’s barely even five feet; a hundred-ten pounds soaking wet. But she lets up a little all the same. The bleeding is slowing gradually and before long she is able to stitch the wound closed.
Hale doesn’t have any alcohol, no herbs to apply to clean and prevent infection, Kaethe hadn’t expected him to. Judging from their appearance and their pack of supplies, the two Barrens had been on a hunting trip, not expecting to run into much – if any – trouble, and had been prepared to be laden down by a number of pelts and slabs of meat. This was not on the agenda, so she will take what she can get, which is the needle and thread.
“You been . . . practicin’ . . . y’r cross-stitching?” Rett asks her as she ties the final knot in the end of the thread.
By her count there are forty-six stitches in her brother’s side, the black thread a harsh contrast to his unnaturally dull skin. The stitching is acceptable, she assumes, nowhere near the level that Mischa has set, but passable all the same. They will hold Rett’s skin together; keep him from tearing himself further. It’s good enough until she can figure something else out, such as medicine and potions and salves to help speed up the healing.
“No,” she grumbles, using the one clean edge of her ruined shirt to clean the extra blood from around the wound. It does barely anything, the material too saturated and thin, but the area directly around the gash is as clean as possible given the circumstances, so that is good enough for now once again. “Can you move?”
Rett stares at her for a moment, blinking rapidly, falling to his back. “Yeah,” he says dismissively. “Yeah. Sure. Gotta keep movin’ . . . right?”
“I’m sorry,” she apologizes, grasping tightly to his outstretched hand, preparing to leverage him up to sitting, but the second she starts to pull her wrist flares and she lets go, cradling her arm to her chest. “Ow!”
Her brother is instantly on alert, even from his position on the ground. He fumbles for her arm, cool, clammy fingers brushing along the swollen, purpling joint. “You’ve sprained it,” he declares along mumbling lips. “How?”
Kaethe shakes her head. “Maybe when I fell?” she suggests, looking down, flexing her fatter fingers, wondering if this day can get any worse.
What’re you thinking? Of course it can!
“Here.” Hale is back, dropping to her side. He is holding a roll of bandages. “Let me wrap it up for now.”
She glances to her brother, seeking his permission, wondering if it’s safe to trust them even though they have been nothing but helpful from the very beginning. Rett nods, extending her wrist, holding it as Hale carefully winds the linen around it, tight but not too tight, securing it with a pin.
Louk comes over, a second roll of bandages with him, pointing down to her brother. “We should wrap that before we start moving.”
“Okay,” she agrees.
The Barrens get her brother upright, and then between the three of them manage to lift up his jacket and shirt enough to coil the fabric around his ribs. It is during this time that Kaethe sees the deep bruise on Rett’s side – a cracked rib – before it is covered by the bandage.
“Alright,” Hale says with the second bandage is secured. “Time to get moving.”
Louk nods, going over to their pack rummaging through it for a moment, and then shouldering it. He tosses a wad of fabric to Kaethe who catches it on instinct, staring at the shirt for a moment before she pulls it on – it is big, long, catching in the mountain breeze, but it is better than walking around in her bra. Louk smiles when she thanks him, and picks up his quiver, looping his bow across his chest. He then stands there waiting for his brother to join him so that they can leave.
Only, his brother doesn’t. At least not right away. First Hale pulls Kaethe to her feet, and then he bends down to assist her brother, grabbing onto an arm and draping it across his neck to keep the other standing when his knees shake from the effort and sudden shift.
“What . . . what’re you doing?” she stammers.
The two Barrens share a look.
“Um . . . helping?” Louk offers. “What’s it look like?”
She doesn’t have an answer.
“You can’t expect us to leave you out here,” Hale wonders in disbelief.
“We’re bringing you with us,” Hale adds, firm and steady, as though the answer is obvious.
“But . . . but we’re Eivish!” she exclaims, unable to wrap her head around it all. Barrens and Eivish hate each other; have since the Great Divide a century ago. It’s surprising that Hale and Louk helped them before with their pursuers, but to keep doing so even now? She doesn’t get it.
“Try to keep that quiet?” Louk suggests. “‘kay?”
“At least until we talk to our uncle,” Hale continues while watching her brother who is slowly pulling himself together.
“Yeah . . . why?” Rett puts in, the words rolling off his tongue as though he can’t get it to form them properly.
“Rett, shut up. You sound like you’re drunk,” she snaps at him, all bark but no bite seeing as how he’s barely holding on by his fingertips. Her normally annoying, irritating brother is now being annoyingly endearing, a trait that she has only seen him able to master – it’s no wonder he was always their mother’s favorite, even with all the trouble he got them into as children.
He makes a muttered, unintelligible, gargling sound, but falls silent all the same.
“We might not . . . like Eives,” Hale begins, eyes widening after he says the slur. “Eivish. Eivish,” he amends quickly. “Sorry. Force of habit.”
“What Hale is trying to say,” Louk picks up, “is that we might not like you, but we’re not going to turn our backs on you when you need help. Besides, your brother saved mine. That’s not something we’re going to forget. And neither will our uncle. We’ll get you help, bring you to our house,” he says, looking to Hale for confirmation.
“Yep. We’ll get you to the healer, explain the situation to our uncle, and then he can decide from there.”
She pauses a moment, chewing on her lower lip, thinking it through even though she has already realized that she and Rett don’t have any other choice if they want to survive on this mountain. “Okay.”
“Then let’s go. We’re about a day and a half from the city, even longer with your brother here.”
“‘m’not lame,” Rett murmurs.
“We’ll need to cover as much ground as we can while there’s daylight.”
She nods in agreement, and then, by unspoken consent, they start the trek, Louk in the lead by several yards, and Kaethe walking alongside her brother and Hale