Lifeblood - Chapter 5

June 10, 2020
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 Mary lurched to her feet, her boots slipping into the water and the cry echoing in her ears.

It was Rike.

She ran in the direction he'd gone, her drowsiness temporarily disorienting her, but she shoved the feeling away.

"Rike?" she yelled. "Rike?"

She scrambled up the hill, using the decline to speed her progress. Her foot caught in a dip in the ground, and her ankle twisted painfully, but she ignored its protest. With every step the twinge lessened until it was no more.

Harrison was nowhere in sight.

Mary kept running. She reached a part of the land that was mostly flat, except for a drop off where, near the edge, a figure clutched his calf.

"Harrison?"

"Stop! Don't come closer," he warned. "There's a snake."

What snake? The grass blocked anything below her knees from view, but it must have been close, because Harrison was frozen to the spot. She crouched, finding a decent-sized stone and threw it over his head to distract it. He crawled backwards, and she rushed to help him up. He was limping.

"Did it bite you?"

He nodded. A bead of sweat dripped down his forehead, but his skin had taken on an ashen pallor. "Don't worry about that right now. Go see if Rike is okay." He pointed past a cluster of rocks at the drop-off.

She sat him down, far from the snake, and rushed to where he indicated. The incline was steep, perhaps carved from an old stream, and at the bottom lay Rike, unmoving.

Mary slid down the hill, gripping roots and dodging patches of sandy ground.

"Rike." She fell beside her friend and hesitated, unsure if she should touch him.

Dark drops littered the stone beneath him. Blood. She dabbed at his hair with her sleeve and lifted his head onto her knees, tilting it to the side to examine the cut.

It was hard to tell the extent of the damage since it bled profusely, dampening the side of his head.

His eyelids fluttered.

"Hey, Rike." When he didn't respond, she gave him a hard tap to his sternum. He shifted and moved his hand to cover his chest.

"Don't," he complained. "My head hurts."

"I bet." The last word jumbled into a laugh of relief. "Does it hurt anywhere else?"

Rike pushed himself into a sitting position. "I mean, yeah." He stretched out his legs and blinked a few times. "Nothing permanent though."

"Can you stand?"

He brought his feet under him, and shakily stood up. He ran a hand through his hair, and did a double take when it came back red. "Cavas N'ain."

"We're going to have to take a better look at that head wound at camp." Mary placed her palms on either side of his face.

"What are you doing?"

"Checking if your pupils are dilated. Look at me."

"I'm fine." He shrugged her off, looking around in confusion. "Where's Harrison?"

A knot of dread seeped into her chest. "He's up there." Mary pointed at the incline where, just beyond their vision, Harrison knelt.

Rike climbed up first, Mary following behind. Grit wedged under her nails and scraped at her skin, and she chose her handholds carefully.

A torn length of cloth had been wrapped around Harrison's calf, right below the knee.

"What happened?" Rike knelt beside him.

"I heard you shout," Harrison panted. "I ran over. And watched you fall. But I didn't see the snake until it was too late." He rolled up his trousers, exposing barely visible puncture wounds around which a nasty bruise was forming.

"What did it look like?" Mary interrogated. "Brown? Did it have patterns on its back?"

"I . . . think so? I was more focused on getting away from it. Why?"

"Striped darters are common around here. And it's getting warm enough for them to be out."

The danger hadn't occurred to her, but it should have. Many deaths were attributed to striped darters, although they were far between and travelers were the main victims. She should have warned them.

Rike wrapped an arm around Harrison, and Mary did the same, helping him limp to camp.

"I have a medical kit in my satchel." Harrison grimaced.

She dug through it and found a smaller bag, containing bandages, ointments, and a needle and thread. None of which would draw out poison.

"Hand me the green bottle."

She did as she was told, but as he shakily opened it, she wanted to take it back and do it for him. Mary had never thought it necessary for her to have medical training, but now she had second thoughts. How did one treat a snake bite? She had no idea how lethal it was, but Harrison needed a physician fast.

Harrison spread the ointment generously over the punctures. "Go clean and stitch Rike's cut so it doesn't get infected."

Mary wet a towel and dabbed at Rike's cut, caked blood smearing it. Thank gods it wasn't deep. "Is it the same as sewing cloth and leather?"

Harrison confirmed with a nod, muscles tense.

"I think we need to take a detour," Rike whispered.

Mary finished the last stitch and told Rike to stay with Harrison while she retrieved the horses, realizing with a jolt she had dropped her cloak in the panic.

At the foot of the juniper tree, a pile of maroon material lay in a heap, the corner of which dipped into the current. She bundled it to her chest, shielding it until she had reassured herself it was safe.

Something soft brushed her ear and Mary startled.

It was Ginger.

Mary let out a nervous laugh, and the horse stomped its foot, as if telling her to get a move on. She unhooked her arms and obliged, draping the leather over her shoulders. She focused on the texture, willing it to become lighter, softer.

And so it did.

She felt the fabric between her index finger and thumb. Blue cotton.

For an instant, Mary regretted bringing her cloak. But she didn't feel comfortable leaving it behind either, and she and Rike would be gone for a month, and that's if all went well. No, it was safest with her.

"Come on," she coaxed Reginald, who shook his mane in annoyance. To her surprise, Harrison's horse needed no prompting, but followed her as she lead them from the creek.

Evening closed in, and shadows spread their reach from stone and grass to her ankles. They warned her of the night, threatening to halt their travel.

"If we leave now we can make it to Zinnia's by tomorrow." Mary handed Rike the reins.

"Will he make it that long?"

"I can hear you." Harrison tipped his head forward, gritting his teeth. "Who's Zinnia?"

"My cousin," Rike informed. "Last we visited, an apprentice physician was living with her."

"Let's hope he's still there," Mary muttered under her breath, loading Harrison's things on Reginald.

Rike watched her fasten their gear. "Why—?"

"It'd be best if you two rode together." She gestured between Rike and Harrison, who protested. "Don't. You look like you're about to collapse. Let Rike help you. "

Mary stooped to collect Harrison's satchel, stray papers with ink smudges and a necklace of flat, wooden beads tossed beside it.

"I'll get that." Harrison stood, flinching when he put weight on his leg.

"I'm not going to read them." She stacked the pages together and slid them and the necklace in the satchel.

Harrison managed to mount his horse without Rike's assistance, but she didn't trust him to keep his balance if it got worse. Rike sat behind him, and Mary roped Reginald's lead to Ginger. "It's getting dark, so stay close." Mary swung her leg over the saddle and kicked her horse to a pace that, in any other circumstance, would be considered hazardous and asking to be thrown off.

Her heart pounded in her chest, skipping a beat every time she maneuvered Ginger around a dip or protrusion, not knowing bush from earth. She strained to make out the ground in front of her, the day's light near expired.

But it didn't get darker.

The moon rose, its unwavering light guiding her path and her heart calmed. Time swept by like sand in the wind and the eerie beauty of the night demanded her fixation, crisp air sending alertness rushing through her system.

"Mary!"

Was someone calling her name?

She snapped out of the haze shrouding her mind and pulled on the reins. Rike fell behind, clutching Harrison tightly. "He's falling unconscious!"

"Let's get him down." Mary dismounted, striding next to them and reaching up.

Rike slid Harrison over, straining against his weight. "Uh, do you got him?"

"We'll find out, won't we?" She braced herself.

"Hmmph." Mary landed on her backside. "Gods, you're heavy."

The fall woke him up. He scrambled off her and promptly upheaved the contents of his stomach. Mary rubbed Harrison's back and guided him to a soft patch of grass.

"He's going to fall off the horse like this." A faint cloud formed from Rike's breath as he panted. "We should tie him on."

Harrison did not respond to their voices, unconscious as soon as they laid him down. How long did he have?

By the moon's position, it was long past midnight. One rider would be faster getting to Zinnia's, but it'd take longer to get back. And what if she left them here? Her knowledge of poison was basic at most, and with every moment Harrison's face paled a bit more. She may be faster, but it wouldn't matter if he died.

And if she stayed?

Mary retrieved one of her own blankets and spread it across Harrison. His shivering juxtaposed with the sweat on his brow and sent a wave of anxiety through her veins.

Rike coaxed him to drink, managing to get him sitting up. Water trickled from the corners of his mouth.

"Rike, do you feel up to riding?" Guilt seeped into her words.

"Of course," he said, but she didn't miss how he swayed when he stood up.

"Go get help. I'll follow more slowly with Harrison; we can't risk him falling off." She took his position next to Harrison, easing the waterskin from Rike's grasp. "Use your compass if you have to. And hey." She held his hand in hers, preventing him from departing just yet. "Be careful."

Rike nodded and lifted himself up onto Harrison's horse.

She prayed he made it.

The hoofbeats melted into silence, leaving her and Harrison to the night. She loved the night, and always had, but now with the company of a dying man, fear and uncertainty clung to her, crawling and crying for attention—

Harrison coughed.

"Are you awake?"

His eyes were slits. He reached out, floundering for something, someone. "Andi?"

"No?" She couldn't tell if he understood her.

"Tell him I . . ." He broke into a coughing fit.

"Here." She gave him the waterskin and he drank deeply. "You need to stand up. There's still a long way to go."

He nodded, and she took his hand in hers, supporting his weight when he stumbled. She hovered closely as he climbed onto Ginger, not looking forward to breaking his fall but preparing in case he did.

"I'm going to tie your legs to the saddle, alright?"

Harrison was taller than her even sitting down. If they had to stop again, Mary wasn't confident she could lift him back on the horse. She rested her chin on his shoulder, straining to make out the safest path. His skin burned against her cheek.

Minutes passed. Tremors traveled under her palm where she held him, but whether they were from Harrison or from her was debatable.

The stars twinkled where they met the earth, and then moved further. She blinked, thinking her sight was playing tricks on her. A glittering expanse of water reflected the sky, slicing through the land and dividing Rillin from Ajercho. The Ephair river.

It lead right to their destination.

Mary grinned. Rike may already be there, and if he wasn't, she would be in a few hours.

Harrison's head lolled to the side, and although he had drifted into unconscious shortly after she strapped him in, she checked his breathing for what must have been the fifteenth time in the last hour.

That . . . wasn't right. She stopped the horses, placing a hand on his chest and leaning closer to hear any hint of breath.

He was still.

Panic surged in her blood. "Harrison?" She shook him, forgoing gentleness. "Harrison!"

No response.

She fumbled with the ropes tying him to the saddle, sliding off Ginger. She braced to catch Harrison, using her body to cushion his fall as he collapsed onto her.

Not now. They were so close. Mary pressed two fingers under his jawline, each second an eternity.

Then, a beat.

But why wasn't he breathing?

Mary dragged him against a slope to help him sit up, then wadded a blanket behind his head. Moonlight caressed Harrison with ghostly tendrils that painted him sickly white, indistinguishable from a corpse. "Can you hear me?" She tilted his chin back, clearing his airway.

Not even a cough.

She paced, pulling her hair in frustration. She hated helplessness. Hated waiting.

Stars faded from the sky one by one, and the glitter reflecting off the water diminished, turning the river from sparkling midnight to dull blue. It was almost morning, and Harrison was almost out of time. If he died, it would be her fault. No one else was here to help.

Mary tugged her sleeve up her wrist, tawny skin pale against the fabric. She stared, each moment of hesitance bringing Harrison closer to death, but she was petrified to go further. Her knife burned in her pocket, daring her to decide.

She halted, a memory tugging at the corners of her mind.

Two years ago, a woman drowned in the Ephair river. Mary did not see her fall in, as she had been passing through, but a small crowd had gathered around her body, and someone had knelt beside her, sharing their breath.

She pulled her sleeve down. The woman didn't make it, but she would ignore that for now. 

Mary lay Harrison flat on his back. She pinched his nose, silently apologizing and covered his mouth with hers, exhaling hard. His chest rose a fraction with her breath. She watched for it to rise again, this time with his own, and when he didn't move she tried again.

And again.

"C'mon," Mary urged him to wake up. She shared her breath once more, and was met with a gasp. "Harrison?!"

He didn't respond, but his breathing evened, and the sweat coating his skin dissipated the longer she stared.

Her vision blurred. Not from tears, but tiredness. Mary slumped next to Harrison, expecting the rise and fall of his chest to stop any minute. The ground sapped the heat from her. It was oddly comforting, in a way, easing the stress from her body.

The horizon swallowed the sliver of moon, and though she fought it, she sank with it, sleep consuming her. 


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