Stellan and the two boys made it back just as the soldiers were done setting up camp for the day. Syad walked with a skip in front of them while Baljo and Stellan were in no hurry. As they got close enough for people to see them, Baljo stood in place, and Stellan turned to see why.
“Sorry, I forgot I still had it,” Baljo offered the knife back, holding the knife in his blood-crusted hands.
Stellan got closer and gently turned the boy’s hand, so no accidental stabbings occurred.
“You keep it,” Stellan said, then took the sheath off of his belt and handed it to Baljo. “You’ll need it in the future when you fight in the Reclamation.”
Baljo stared at the knife for a few moments, then he looked up and nodded to Stellan. Sheathing the knife, he held it in his right hand and resumed his walk back to camp. His step was much more lively and confident.
Stellan looked up from the boy and saw Wyn and Naja coming his way. The setting sun made the red, crusted blood look like burned flesh. Stellan saw Naja transform from a worried big sister to a tempestuous matron. Without saying anything to Stellan, she knelt down and began to inspect Baljo’s upper body. After seeing no damage there, she checked his head and finally his legs. Her fingers lingered for a moment on the red line around the small ankle.
“Go wait for me by the wagon,” she told Baljo with a non-negotiable tone.
The boy looked up at Stellan and gave him an apologetic look, then was taken by Wyn.
“What kind of monster are you?” she asked Stellan, her voice cold as winter ground. “Using children to do your work for you. On top of that, walking them up to a tree and hanging them as bait?” Her tone was even, but the blue fire in her eyes blazed.
“I lost track of Syad, I admit-”
“Lost track!” Naja’s nostrils flared. “You almost got both of them killed. All-mother protect me, they’re just children, you can’t use them to hunt breachborn like that.” Both of her hands rose up and spread wide.
“I didn’t,” Stellan said, seeing a chance to jump in, “we ran into them by accident. I don’t need children to set up kills for me, and even if I did, they’ll do what they’re told if they want to be fed and have shelter provided by-”
Stellan stopped talking because a knife had been put to his throat. Naja had gotten it from somewhere on her person and deftly set it against Stellan’s artery.
“Would you like to rethink that last part?” she said through grit teeth.
Her free hand had caught Stellan’s chain-mail vest, and she was a hair’s breadth away from cutting his throat.
Stellan did not move. He did not say anything and just stood there, eyes fixed on Naja’s, waiting to see what she would do. He couldn’t have open insubordination, so he waited to see if she was bluffing.
“Big sis, big sis,” Baljo yelled, running towards them and towing Syad behind. “Wait, stop.” Baljo added with the last of his breath and then stopped nearby.
Syad was pushed forward, and Baljo nodded for him to speak.
“Big sis Naja, it’s not Stellan’s fault,” he said, looking down, his left foot digging the ground. “I wondered off on my own, and Baljo and Stellan had to save me.”
Naja said nothing, and let go of Stellan’s vest and drew back the knife.
“Sorry. I overreacted,” she said and put the knife back on her belt just above the right hip. “I didn’t understand the situation well enough. It won’t happen again.”
“Hopefully,” Stellan said and dragged his fingers across the skin of his neck, looking at them, he saw droplets of blood. “Help them get clean and dry these out for me, please.” Stellan handed her the gathered herbs.
Naja took them, turned around, and urged the two boys forward. As they walked away, Baljo nodded to Stellan, who gave him a nod back and then looked at the gathered men watching the display. Coin started to change hands, and Oak smiled like a mad man.
“See lads, I told you,” Oak said loud enough for Stellan to hear. “Our new commander has nerves of steel. Not even a crazy surgeon makes him sweat.”
A cheer surged. More for Oak’s clever words than for Stellan’s deeds, but that was okay for now. Oak raised the small pouch of coins he’d collected over the bet and swayed it back and forth towards Stellan as if toasting. Wyn was standing to the side of the wagon, speaking to the still dirty Baljo. Stellan caught Wyn’s occasional glances but thought nothing of it as he found a free spot next to the already going campfire and sat, feeling glad to be alive for the first time in many, many days.