DargonZine 15, Issue 11

Spine

Naia 17, 1016 - Naia 18, 1016


The impact knocked Gaheris Bochara to the earth. His bow flew off into the brush behind him as he was spun around and his breath left him as he sprawled on his back. Gaheris felt his torso go numb around the arrow protruding from his left shoulder. The ground cover of dried leaves crunched with his landing, but failed to cushion him. Colored lights, some near and bright, others far and faint, twinkled in his vision.

 

That one moment of inattention was all it had taken. The consequences of his and his brother’s decisions struck truer than the arrow. Their actions over the last two days surged through his mind.

 

***

 

“Gal, these arrows are going to be the death of me,” Gaheris, ‘Ris’ to his family and friends, said to his twin. He pulled another arrow from the rough wooden racks and held it with both ends between his thumbs and forefingers, bending it gently. He was checking the resiliency of the arrow’s shaft, its spine. Even the smallest of cracks or imperfections would be magnified under the pressure of a bow, Ris knew. Satisfied that the arrow he held was sturdy, he placed it into a second rack.

 

“Agreed, brother, agreed,” Galerth answered, pulling another arrow from the racks.

 

The two brothers sat on logs in the archery clearing. Morning practice had ended over a bell earlier and Sybator, their weapons teacher, had left the brothers to their task. Rather than picking up another arrow, Ris quickly scavenged three rocks from the bare soil and began to juggle them. One of the stones sparkled as it twirled through the air, flecks of a mineral catching the light as Ris kept it moving in its spiraling dance.

 

“Ris! We’re going to be here for days if you’re going to waste time,” Gal said.

 

Ris continued to juggle, venting annoyance with his twin. Brijit Mecammon, the pretty red-haired lass Ris was fond of, had already scolded him about his decision-making. “Ris, one of these days you’re going to get yourself into serious trouble if you keep jumping into these crazy plans of yours without thinking them through first,” she’d said.

 

Ris broke out of his reverie. “Brother, you worry too much. It’s just a momentary break. The arrows are not going anywhere.”

 

“We don’t have time to waste. You’re the one who told Brijit you’d meet her at dusk today. At this rate, you’ll be lucky to see her at midnight … tomorrow. It’ll be days before she forgives you if you break the date. She’s already mad at you for trying to pull that stupid prank. You’ll never get that kiss you’ve been dreaming of.”

 

“It nearly worked. We almost got Dysic,” Ris snapped, ignoring the last of his brother’s jabs.

 

“I don’t know. For once, I agree with Sybator. I think we might have gone to far. Dysic’s not exactly my best friend, but what if he had used those arrows and one had shattered and injured him?”

 

“Gal, you’re starting to sound like Brijit. This wasn’t some huge decision that will change the course of my life. It was a joke. The chances of the arrow splintering completely were pretty slim. I know an arrow with a soft shaft can explode, but usually they just crumble into pieces. And heck, Gal, Dysic pulls like a baby! I doubt he could shatter one.” Ris smiled lopsidedly at his brother.

 

“Our mistake wasn’t the prank, it was getting caught,” Ris continued. The image of Sybator putting heavy-handed pressure on Ris’ shoulder and scowling at the brothers with undisguised anger flashed through Ris’ head. He had caught them early that morning returning Dysic’s arrows to their normal storage spot in the archery clearing. The memory of Sybator’s face caused even the normally unflappable twin to shudder. “We just had bad timing.”

 

“It was definitely bad timing … no matter what way you look at it,” Gal answered his brother. “Why did we have to do this with Melrin approaching? Everyone in Dawnsmist has extra arrows prepared for the tournament.” The arrow Gal was testing cracked under his pressure and he tossed it aside into a small pile of similar cast-offs.

 

“Gal, you complain a lot for someone who had no problem helping me catch the ieonem beetles we needed. And, if I remember correctly, it was your idea to treat a dozen of his arrows, not just one, like I’d planned.” The brothers had spent the better part of a summer evening hunting the woods for the ieonem beetles. They had harvested the creatures — each the size of Ris’ thumb — from within their nests in the boles of fully grown ieonem trees. The beetles made their homes by chewing through the trees’ bark and into the heartwood using their saliva.

 

The saliva was the reason the brothers had spent so much time and effort on the bugs, crushing each beetle and carefully draining its juices into a large bowl of water. They had eventually used this solution to treat Dysic’s arrows.

 

“What if Sybator comes and catches you juggling? You know how he feels about your habit,” Gal said.

 

Sybator had long been trying to break Ris of his penchant for juggling, with little success. In response, the weapon’s master had begun devising more and more unusual punishments to try to break the habit.

 

Ris put down the stones and picked up another arrow, a scowl on his face. He hated to admit when Gal was right.

 

“That’s it for Sybator’s,” Ris said a moment later, putting the last arrow fletched in red and white into their completed rack. Every clan in the valley had a different color pattern for the three feathers in their fletchings. Gaheris and Galerth both had arrows with two yellow and one blue, the colors of the Bocharas. Dysic, a member of the Klefinem clan, used arrows with two black feathers and a purple. Sybator, not born in the valley, had chosen two reds and one white for his weapons.

 

Ris reached for the next row, the Mecammons — Brijit’s family — in purple and yellow, when a voice said the words he’d been dreaming of hearing all morning. “You can stop now.” Sybator walked up to the logs the pair sat on. “I have another task for you.”

 

“Can I say, master, that this is the happiest I’ve ever been to see you?” Ris said, turning a beatific smile at the weapons teacher.

 

“I’m not here to save you from hard work, Gaheris Bochara. I have another, potentially more difficult job for you two.” Sybator looked them over before speaking again. “One that you can do to earn back some of my trust after your … joke.”

 

“Anything is better than more arrows,” Ris said.

 

“You don’t even know what the task is,” Sybator responded. “You cannot escape the consequences of your actions that easily.”

 

Ris hated when Sybator forced them to consider consequences. He greatly respected Sybator for how well he taught the fighting arts, but he could do without the morals in between. Morality lessons were what he expected from Father Tannuay, a Stevenic priest and their teacher of books.

 

Sybator began. “You are aware that Phillip has been shipping bows and arrows to Kenna in order to sell them?” Phillip was the merchant in their woodland village.

 

Both brothers nodded. It was common knowledge in the valley that Phillip had grandiose plans to make piles of Rounds and Bits by selling bows and arrows made of ieonem wood. Its elastic strength and durability made it an ideal material for both pieces of equipment. Yet ieonem trees were rare and only grew in isolated stands; the valley of Dawnsmist had extensive clumps of the trees. Not all of the clans were supportive of the endeavor, but neither brother had done more than watch the heated arguments Phillip’s plans had caused.

 

“His last two shipments were ambushed by bandits on the way to Kenna. The first time they let all his people go. This second time all of them had their throats slit except for one who was sent scurrying back to tell his story.”

 

“Wait, why would the brigands let any of his people go? Shouldn’t they kill ‘em and be done with it? Why leave anybody to tell their tale?” Ris asked. Phillip typically hired men from Kenna as workers, so Ris doubted he knew any of them. The thought of the cold-blooded murder made him queasy, though.

 

“That is one of the questions. They are either very confident, or very stupid,” Sybator answered. “I don’t trust either assumption.”

 

“What do you want us to do?” Gal asked.

 

“I want you two to scout the road, starting where the ambush occurred, and try to find the bandits. If they’re consistently striking the same section of the trail, they likely have a camp nearby.” With only one road to Kenna, and that a beaten track at best, both brothers knew the path Sybator was talking about.

 

“There’s no village in that area,” Gal added.

 

“Yes.” Sybator nodded. “But,” he added emphasis, “once you do find the camp, I want you to return here immediately. Stay out of the way of the bandits. Is that clear?”

 

“Come straight back. Got it,” Ris answered. “Then we’ll muster a party to engage them.” Ris stood up with one swift movement, eager to accept the challenge … and happy to be getting away from the arrows.

 

“If necessary.”

 

“But a small group should go first. Too many and we’re more likely to have them run into us than us run into them,” Gal continued the thought. He eased himself from his sitting position, stretching his shoulders languidly as he spoke.

 

“I am sending you because I think you two have the most to gain by performing this task correctly. This is your chance to show that you can overcome the impulsiveness you often show around the valley in the face of a real test. Now, get your gear together tonight and meet me here at daybreak and no later.” Sybator turned and walked away.

 

Gal and Ris looked at each other and then at the arrows and shrugged.

 

“The arrows will be here when you get back,” Sybator added as he moved out of sight.

 

***

 

Gaheris and Galerth were approaching Sybator’s house when they heard voices raised in argument. They had decided to check their equipment with their teacher before they went to bed, both agreeing that it would be easier to make changes that night rather than the next morning. So they walked the narrow trail that wound from the village center down towards the small house Sybator inhabited near the Mistenbak, the creek that ran through their village.

 

Ris and Gal both paused thirty paces downwind of the house without a word, only trading a glance when they heard two men arguing. The brothers knew both voices well. They belonged to their schoolmasters. The gruff one was Sybator’s. Father Tannuay typically spoke with a soft voice.

 

“… only boys, Sybator. You cannot send them on such a dangerous mission. They are up against bandits. They can and probably will kill the boys if they catch them. You’re sending green fighters against seasoned veterans. Is that wise?” Father Tannuay was speaking with the voice he used when angry. Rather than raising the volume he tended to raise the pitch of his voice, leaving it sounding reedy and thin.

 

“Are you sure we should stop?” Gal swung his fingers through the motions of hand-speak. Sybator had taught it to them for times when silence was essential.

 

“I want to hear what they say. This doesn’t seem like a good time to drop in,” Ris answered.

 

The brothers kneeled down on a grassy patch along the trail and stared up at the house. Father Tannuay stood silhouetted by candlelight in the one window of the single room dwelling.

 

“I have no choice,” Sybator said evenly.

 

“No choice? Every man has a choice. We’ve been friends for many years, but if I weren’t a Stevenic, I’d challenge you to a fight right here. You are holding two boys’ lives in your hands, and you choose to send them off into the worst danger — alone.”

 

“Who would you have me send?”

 

Ris felt the tension in the cabin, even from a distance. He sensed it in the same way he could sense the defeat in the priest’s voice as he began speaking again. “That damned war. It has been over for two years now and still it haunts us with battlefield ghosts.”

 

“Wars do that.”

 

As Sybator spoke, Ris and Gal exchanged a look in the dark.

 

“I know, old friend. I’m sorry … I am just worried for them. I know He will watch over them, but I worry that I will never see them in my lectures again. While those two are not my best pupils, the vigor with which they pursue life is rare. That, and I’m not sure that this village can suffer any more losses. Are you sure they are the best ones for the job? I heard about the prank with Dysic’s arrows.”

 

“They have the most to gain by succeeding. I have seen many men rise to the occasion when confronted with a true challenge. Up to now I have led them in games. We knew someday they would have to confront the real thing.”

 

“For once I wish I had your faith, old friend. I wish there was a way to send someone else with them. I know that with all our warriors of fighting age still somewhere between here and Pyridain answering to the king, all that is left are the old, like you and me, and the young, like them. It’s bad enough that the kingdom has already taken one generation to fight for its cause. It’s even worse that we continue to train the next to be its prize scouts.”

 

“I would go,” Ris could imagine Sybator glancing down at his lame leg, “but I would be more of a burden than a help. I could no longer move fast enough if we got into trouble.”

 

“I know, but you have the experience they lack.” Father Tannuay paused. “I find it strange that the bandits let any of Phillip’s men go free.”

 

Sybator growled a noncommittal response.

 

Father Tannuay started talking again, “You don’t think they could have a contact inside the valley, do you?”

 

“I’d thought of that.”

 

“Is that why you’re sending the twins? Is it because you know that with their tendency to disappear for a few days, usually avoiding your wrath, it’d be nearly a sennight before they are missed around the village?”

 

Ris did not hear a response.

 

“Your decision could get them killed. Is there no other way?”

 

“Everyone has a test in their life that shows their mettle. Some succeed and others … fail.”

 

“Yes, but failure will likely mean their death.”

 

“Death can be a better option than life after failure.” Sybator spoke with a bitter edge that caused Ris to shiver. “We cannot protect them from death forever, Father. This is not a kind world we live in. Our job has long been to prepare them for death’s face. Mine was to train their bodies. Yours was to train their minds and spirits.”

 

They heard Father Tannuay preparing to leave. After sharing a quick glance, they moved hastily back down the trail towards the village. The morning seemed the best time to check their packs. Neither of them spoke as they prepared for bed.

 

***

 

The brothers left Dawnsmist valley at sunrise, tracking a few leagues down the road toward Kenna before turning off the path to try to avoid any bandit scouts that might be lurking in the area. Choosing a smaller, less used game trail that paralleled the main one, they carefully traveled during the morning and early afternoon until they reached the site of the last bandit ambush.

 

While Gal circled to check for scouts, Ris scanned the road, trying to make sense of the proliferation of tracks in the area. With little trouble he found the trail left by a large group leaving the ambush site. They hadn’t taken much care to cover their movement.

 

Ris signaled to Gal, using hand-speak to say that the tracks headed roughly north. The brothers moved off to trace the trail, Gal staying slightly behind his brother and off to the side about a stone’s throw, attempting to scan through the thick foliage for anybody who might be watching for interlopers like them.

 

They followed the trail until they heard the faint clinking of metal on metal and voices carrying through the trees. Moving with caution, the two eased forward to scan carefully for pickets. This proved to be an easy task. The two men on lookout were standing together, talking casually and only occasionally glancing out into the forest.

 

It was simple for the twins to slip to the edge of the clearing that the bandits used as a base of operations. The camp was set in a small hollow where a number of evergreens, their branches high overhead, gave rise to a clear patch in the undergrowth. The clearing was floored with a soft carpet of pine needles. Dense thickets guarded the camp on two sides, a rounded, immense boulder on the third, and the sentries on the fourth, most open egress. The brothers, well-experienced in crawling through brush, had chosen the thicket furthest from the camp for their hiding spot.

 

The twins watched through the afternoon bells until the sun set, studying the layout of the area, the number of bandits, and the placement of the evening watches: only one man each at two positions. The group settled in to tell bawdy tales and drink spirits around their dinner fire. Again, they did little to protect themselves from being seen or heard.

 

As the shadows darkened on the forest floor the brothers prepared to leave. “I think we have seen enough,” Ris signed.

 

“Yes. It’s nearly dark. Nobody should see us,” Gal answered in the same fashion.

 

Ris was shifting his weight to begin crawling when Gal grabbed his shoulder and signed, “Wait!” Even in the near dark, Ris could sense the urgency in Gal’s fingers. Ris snapped his head around, throwing his attention back towards the bandits.

 

One of the bandits left the group at the center of the camp. The rest remained circled around the fire as the lone man picked up a bow and quiver and headed directly for their thicket. The brigand swayed as he walked. He set the quiver against the trunk of a tree not twenty paces from the twins as he strung his bow. Both brothers looked at each other.

 

“Did he see us?” Gal moved his fingers.

 

“I don’t think so,” Ris responded, glancing around quickly. The bandit nocked an arrow and aimed towards the tree trunk closest to the brothers’ hiding place. Both twins tensed. Ris considered running for better cover, but quickly decided that running would be suicide that close to the armed camp. The bandit sighted.

 

The arrow swished as it left the bow, and thunked as it hit the wide bole of the tree. Amazingly, the arrow struck less than a finger from center of the knot the archer seemed to be aiming at.

 

After a short pause as he fumbled for the second arrow, the bandit proceeded to shoot another half dozen arrows at the tree. Each time he fired, the brothers tensed. Although most of the arrows flew wide — his first shot proved lucky — only one of them entered their thicket. It stuck in the dense foliage at the outer edge of the brush, nearly the length of two men from them.

 

Ris felt a hand on his shoulder and turned curiously to see his brother pointing at the arrow the bandit had lofted into the thicket. It was a finely crafted arrow, much like those that the two typically carried. This one was fletched with two black feathers and a purple.

 

“Klefinem,” Gal signed.

 

When Ris turned back towards the camp, the bandit was picking up the empty quiver and heading back towards his comrades.

 

“Vanth, what are you doing? Where are the arrows?” One of the other highwaymen called as he approached the fire.

 

“I’ll pick them up in the mornin’. It’ll be easier to find ‘em then,” Vanth answered.

 

“Vanth, Dinac won’t be happy if you lose any of his arrows,” the same bandit called back. In the brush, both brothers looked at each other.

 

“They aren’t going anywhere,” Vanth replied.

 

Having seen enough, the brothers pulled back to where they could still see the firelight in the distance, but where they felt they could talk in low tones.

 

“I count nine: the two pickets and seven in the camp,” Galerth said.

 

“I counted nine, as well. Now we can guess why they are so sure of themselves. Dinac is passing them information … and likely supplies, as well.” Ris sat on his heels. The darkness enveloped the brothers so that even though they were only four hands apart Ris could barely make out his brother’s features. Dinac Klefinem was Dysic’s older brother. Dinac was strongly opposed to Phillip’s sale of ieonem outside the village. Ris figured that he had decided to stop arguing his point and taken matters into his own hands.

 

“That’s a problem, Ris. If we return to the village and report what we’ve seen, the bandits could very well be forewarned. It’s going to be nearly impossible to keep secret an armed party leaving the village. Dinac will hear right away. We could try keeping him from knowing, but who else of his brothers is involved?” Ris considered the evaluation his brother had given him. He was correct. Dinac had four brothers and any of them could be part of the scheme.

 

“There has to be another option. It seems like it’d be easy to walk in and take most of them out with a surprise attack. I don’t know, though,” Ris answered, throwing his hands up in exasperation. “Those who were left would be trouble. And they do have some decent places where they could set up archers and make it difficult for us to get them all. It would be nearly impossible to sneak into that camp without being seen … then we’d have to fight our way out.”

 

“Wouldn’t the best course be to return to the village and let the council decide? They could deal with Dinac as they see fit,” Gal hedged.

 

“Gal, not making a decision is still making a decision. Father Tannuay tells us that all the time. If the council has to debate the matter, there is no way the bandits will be here when they return. And it’s our word against Dinac’s … and our reputation around the valley isn’t very strong.”

 

“Well, if we could lure them out of the camp we could set up an ambush of our own,” Gal shrugged. “This argument is pointless; we’ve got to return and let Sybator know what we’ve seen.”

 

“Maybe not. You’ve got the beginnings of a great plan. Imagine if we could neutralize the whole band and return with all the bows and arrows. We could redeem ourselves.”

 

“Ris, you know that’s not what Sybator told us to do. How often has Sybator punished us for not thinking things through when we do them, for being impulsive?”

 

“We are thinking, Gal. Sybator always says that a soldier is only as good as his ability to perform in the heat of conflict, including the time before the fires of battle are fully lit. Sometimes a warrior sees situations that contradict his orders and he needs to know when to take his own initiative in those situations. Straight?”

 

“Yes, you’re right,” Gal allowed. “But, if we do this we could be killed or injured. We would have to do everything right.”

 

“Yes, but we can do it. You know that. We could use their overconfidence against them. They’re sloppy. We’ve been trained for this. Sybator would have us running to the Coldwell and back for being as careless as they are.”

 

“Ris, there is so much that could go wrong and we’d be disobeying Sybator.”

 

“When did we ever let what Sybator said stop us before?”

 

Galerth looked off into the dark for a few long moments. “You’re right. We can do this.” Gal nodded.

 

The brothers talked about the plan for close to a bell, honing it to a sharp point. Soon after, they set to work: scouting out the locations they needed, collecting the materials, setting up the trap, and finally settling in for a bell of restless sleep — while the other stood watch — before they woke up in the dark to set their plan in motion.

 

Later, as the dark gave way to grayness, they quickly checked their preparations. With his gear all ready and Gal off to relieve himself, Ris picked up a trio of stones and juggled them to ease his anxiety. When Gal returned, Ris watched him unstrap his belt, sword still attached. He stashed it inside the small cave where they had decided to leave their unneeded equipment.

 

“Gal, what are you doing?” Ris quickly caught and then dropped all three stones.

 

“I’m going. I know that wasn’t the original plan, but don’t argue with me, Ris. I was thinking about it while I was on watch. You’re a little better with the bow and I’m a little quicker. There’s nothing to worry about, straight.”

 

Ris did not say anything. He could not refute his brother’s logic, and did not answer before Gal left. As his twin slipped away into the dark forest, Ris picked up his bow and moved down to the cliff edge.

 

***

 

As the first light of dawn cleared the horizon, Ris kneeled on the top of a low cliff formed by a ragged, exposed rock face. From his elevated perspective, he surveyed the small forest clearing where they had prepared their ambush. Ris forced his shaking hands to be still as he pulled an arrow out of his quiver and stuck it point down into the ground. He flexed his tension-knotted shoulders before ensconcing a second shaft in the moss. His ieonem bow lay strung and waiting by his side.

 

Would he ever get that first kiss that Brijit had been so adroitly withholding from him?

 

That was his one thought before his mind returned to their plan. He wondered what Gal was doing. He pictured his brother crawling into the thicket earlier during the predawn darkness. After that he would use the strange shadows created by the lightening of the sky to sneak up behind one of the pickets. Likely both sentries would be drowsy, roused out of a deep sleep and nearing the end of their quiet watch.

 

The near one would fall quickly to Gal’s knife, hopefully when he approached the thicket to flush some of the drink from the night before. Before the other groggy bandit could realize what had happened, Gal would pull his bow and use a well-placed shot to take him out. The range would be short enough to incapacitate, but more likely kill the man.

 

It was probable that the second picket would have time to get a scream off to warn his comrades. Hopefully Gal would be able to eliminate at least one or two more from the battle before he would be forced to run. At that point the hive would be effectively stirred up.

 

Ris studied the woods again, his bow held at ready. He saw his first glimpse of a body sprinting and dodging through the trees. If things were going as planned, that would be Gal. He heard shouts coming closer and soon was able to pick more moving bodies out of the early morning shadows.

 

With a final surge, Gal broke from the edge of the trees across the clearing. Not a stone’s throw behind him, five bandits came running at full speed. One of them held a poleax, three held bows, and the last sported a sword. As they had hoped, none of the bandits had been able to don more than simple leathers before rushing off in pursuit of Gal.

 

Ris took aim.

 

As planned, Gal threw himself to the ground, rolled to his right, and came up, knife in hand, in a crouch next to a rope carefully concealed in a bushy young sapling.

 

Ris shot, his aim true, lodging an arrow in the upper torso of the first man. The one with the poleax fell to the ground before the others.

 

The bandits stopped at the tree line at the far end of the clearing, again as the brothers had foreseen, and the three archers began nocking arrows as the swordsman stalked forward.

 

Ris took the him through the shoulder with another arrow. Gal severed the rope with his knife and hopped backwards as the swordsman staggered his way.

 

The loose rope snaked up into the nearest tree which held Ris’ leather pack, slit down each side, forming a large tarp. With the rope’s release, the tarp came loose and dumped its watery contents onto the archers standing below.

 

Ris, as he nocked his third arrow, watched closely to see what transpired. One bandit held his bow up to protect his face. The second staggered, wiping the mixture from his eyes. The third was barely splashed and began nocking an arrow. Ris fired another arrow but missed all three. He ducked behind the rock face as the first return arrow from the driest archer came skidding by. Breathing deeply at the close call, he decided it was time to move.

 

Holding his bow in one hand and ducking low, Ris ran off the back of the rock face, leaping a small drop and jogging over to a waist high rock nestled in a rhododendron patch.

 

Gal came running around the rocks as Ris set another arrow onto his bow string. Close behind were the three archers and the injured swordsman. Ris hit the lead archer in the throat with his arrow. The bandit slumped to the ground, his own falling unspent from the bow.

 

A return arrow caught up in the rhododendron leaves to Ris’ left and ricocheted off to the side. With the two archers focused on Ris, Gal continued to run, using Ris and the brush as cover.

 

Shooting off one more quick arrow with just enough accuracy to scatter the two remaining bowmen, Ris ducked out of the back of his cover, keeping low. He began sprinting in a crooked pattern towards their last scouted position.

 

Ris used fear to push him up the small rise to a large-trunked, v-notched tree. Another shaft skimmed off an exposed rock to his right as he scurried around the tree. Below, the first of the two archers set in his stance at the bottom of the rise. Behind him, the swordsman, arm held limply at his side, jogged up. The second archer loped further behind, having fired the last arrow.

 

As Ris nocked another shaft, he peered between the two branches of the tree. He saw the first archer loading an arrow. As the bandit went to pull back, the bow shattered above the hand guard. The force of the bow recoiling was enough to knock the bandit to one knee. The bowstring cut an evil gash in his upper arm.

 

Ris used this distraction to angle his bow between the two trunks and get off another shot. The barb took the already stunned archer in the left thigh, toppling him over from the impact.

 

As Ris’ arrow hit, he watched Gal spring up, his bow now in hand, from a rock-protected position not fifteen paces from the last archer and the sword wielder. Gal sent his shaft into the swordsman’s chest, spinning him around.

 

That moment of inattention had cost Ris. He had just returned his attention to the last archer when the arrow struck him. It came through the split between the trees and embedded itself in his shoulder. All of the events of the previous day flowed through his head as he spun to land in the leaves.

 

Ris lay on the ground for a moment to catch his breath, before the adrenaline of battle surged through him and he fought to rise. He was only able to force himself to one knee before his muscles failed him again and he flopped onto his side, a jolt of pain lancing through his shoulder as he landed. With all of his remaining strength, he rolled himself over to gauge the course of the struggle. He did not want to leave his brother fighting alone.

 

The immediate battle was over. The swordsman lay motionless, with blood gurgling from his chest wound. One archer lay with an arrow in his heart and Gal was tying up the one with the arrow in his thigh. Ris remembered they’d left the rope at Gal’s last hiding place.

 

When Gal finished tying, he turned to wave. Ris saw Gal’s face go ashen when he noticed the arrow sticking out of his brother’s shoulder. The fear in his twin’s eyes was the last image Ris remembered before he blacked out.

 

***

 

Ris woke to a bright light shining onto his face. He blinked in an attempt to clear his vision, but it took a thrash of his head to get the light out of his eyes. That movement sent a sharp lance of agony into his shoulder. As the pain subsided to a steady ache, Ris assessed his surroundings.

 

He felt the uneven bulk of a straw mattress below his back. A window in the wall across of him let in sunlight, the beam ending just below Ris’ eyes. He found that if he moved his head even slightly he was blinded by the overpowering rays. The sun illuminated a small room with a clean wooden floor and hewn log walls, typical of their village. Taking stock of himself, he found his arm bound to his torso and could see a dull dark patch at the corner of his vision on the bandages.

 

“Ris! You’re awake.” Ris recognized Brijit Mecammon’s melodic voice. The red-haired girl entered the room through a curtained doorway, sat down on the mattress and stroked Ris’ forehead.

 

“Brijit, will I be okay?” Ris forced through dry lips.

 

A shadow passed over Brijit’s usually vibrant features and Ris knew it was not good. “You will live,” she started. “But Khalbara is not sure if you will ever have full use of your arm again.”

 

Ris knew that Khalbara was the best healer for leagues around and trusted her judgment, but needed to know more. “Will I be able to fire a bow?”

 

“She does not know. It depends on how you heal, but she thinks there is a good chance you will never get enough strength back to pull a bow.”

 

“Is Gal okay?” Ris could not face that line of questioning any longer.

 

“He’s fine. He’s out with Sybator right now. He carried you all the way back to the village after you were hit. Ris, I’ve seen him worried, but never that bad. He stayed long enough to find out you were going to live, but he’s the only one that could lead the others back.” Brijit paused, looking away. “Ris, was it worth it?”

 

“What?”

 

“I’ve told you many times that you’re not very good at considering the results of your choices and you never believed me.” Ris had problems reading the emotions in Brijit’s voice. “Do you see now? Every decision we make has consequences … The bigger the decision, the bigger the consequence. You are going to have to live with this outcome for the rest of your life. Was it worth it?”

 

“We succeeded, didn’t we? We stopped the bandits without endangering anyone else.” Ris felt a desire to bask in the glory of the victory, at least while he had the wounds to show for it. Brijit couldn’t refuse him that kiss after their bravery. “Our plan worked nearly perfectly.” Ris went back over the details in his mind. The twins had spent most of the night collecting enough ieonem beetles to fill the tarp with a watery mixture of their saliva. They had been close enough to Dawnsmist to find enough ieonem trees to collect the necessary beetles. They had known that they would get the best results if they could soak the bandits’ arrows for a while, but that had not been an option. They’d never considered that the bows saw the most tension and would respond quickest to even the slightest weakening of the wood. That had worked in their favor, though.

 

“You call nearly getting killed perfect?” Brijit stared at him incredulously. You did kill most of the bandits, but some may have gotten away. Likely you could have done it without getting hurt if you’d had help. Ris, how could you have been so reckless? Everyone saw your brother carry you into the village. Dinac has disappeared and his brothers say they don’t know where he went. Did you think at all?”

 

“We thought a lot. We did what we thought was best.” Ris was shocked at how the conversation was going. “It was bad luck that I got hurt. We had the drop on them and a good plan. There wasn’t going to be a better time. What’s wrong?”

 

“That’s the second time you’ve said ‘nearly.’ Don’t you understand that in life some things are certainties. If you’d been killed there is nothing that Khalbara, Gal, Sybator, or I could do that would have brought you back? I sat here all night by your bed, not knowing if you’d wake up. You ‘nearly’ died, Ris, and it scared me.” Ris could see tears in Brijit’s eyes. “I know you did what you thought was right.”

 

“Are you saying that we made the wrong choice?” Ris asked, searching her eyes an answer.

 

“No.” Brijit surprised him with her response. “I don’t know if it was the right thing to do. I just know that it’s going to change everything for you, for us. You cannot go back and walk that trail again. You reached a branch in your path and made your choice … Now it’s your trail to walk.”

 

“I’m sorry.” He searched for something to say. “Brijit, can I have a kiss? It will help me to heal quicker.” He tried his most charming grin.

 

Brijit looked into his eyes and tenderly brushed a lock of hair back from his forehead. “Ris, this is not the time. You’re just looking for something to ease your uncertainty.” Brijit stood up from the bed and began to turn away. Seeming to think better of leaving with those words, she looked down at him again. “I’ll give it you when my kiss means more than just another escape for you. I think you need to rest … and think.” This time she completed her movement and left through the curtain before he could find anything to say.

 

Ris leaned his head back and considered her words. Movement was not an option.

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