Kisea watched, emotions dulled by exhaustion, as a considerable number of horses drew up at the far side of the river. After a brief bit of activity, Jori fluttered across to perch on the ferryboat, letting out an imperative cry; Kallima went to her. Since Kisea saw, in the light of the rising greater moon, the ferry moving across the river on its own, she figured Jori must have brought the end of a rope across for Kallima to tie to the boat.
She closed her eyes, stroking Matt's hair automatically, a reminder that she was there—about all she could do, right now.
He threw an arm across his eyes, moaned softly.
“Light?” she asked, trying to at least pick up enough from the surface that she'd know if she could help. He made a noise that sounded affirmative, so she tucked a fold of his cloak across his head and shoulders, supported still by her own body so it wouldn't interfere with his rapid breathing. She felt him relax somewhat, at least for the moment.
By the river, she saw shapes she figured were Kallima and her father, in a tight embrace, and he wrapped his own long riding-coat around her. Another figure with them, one with a clearly female outline in rather loose-cut trousers but definitely not a divided skirt, who hugged Kallima at least as tightly... her mother? Hm, there might be a clue there about Kallima's uncommon lack of highborn flightiness. Others, too, men who, from the outlines, were wearing armour of some sort, most of them with staves, and one woman who was wearing a divided riding skirt and who leaned over the injured captives to check them.
Good. They could take care of everything from here on.
She saw a number of glances turned in her direction, and several towards the collapsed cottage, but no one came close to them. She heard Shon, in passable human, and Kian explaining; that was punctuated by questions in an educated male voice and an equally educated female one, with occasional comments added by Kallima. Then things grew quiet, only the sound of the male voice and Shon's both giving instructions. She let her eyes close again, let herself just drift. She'd endured worse, for less reason, than sitting here with Matt through this. These prices that conflicted and combined and dragged him into chaotic internal realities, she liked much less than the simpler ones she remembered; she hoped they were only because he'd been making dramatic efforts over the past day, rather than this now being normal.
“Kisea.” That was that educated female voice, very close.
She opened her eyes and looked up; the woman who had embraced Kallima so tightly crouched next to her, arms across her knees. She had her dark hair in two long braids that glinted with metallic cord, Kisea noticed irrelevantly, but a chain woven into them held a glittering pendant in the centre of her forehead.
“Kian and Shon gave us a very brief summary. Enough to suggest just how much we owe you, for the safety not only of our daughter but our nephews.”
'Our' nephews, Kisea thought. Not 'my husband's nephews', distancing herself from them.
She shrugged. “I suppose. It was more luck than anything. I didn't exactly plan to get involved.” Probably she should be more formal and respectful, but Lady Jordan betrayed no hint of offence.
“No, but you could have stayed out of it, and you chose not to. Once Matt's able to move, my house is yours. Our men are taking those responsible back there now, to be confined until they can be tried. Those able to walk, at least. A wagon is on the way to remove those too injured to walk. I'm taking Kalli back as well. She's had some rough treatment.”
“You should be proud of her.” That was more than a bit presumptuous, to a Lady, but she didn't care anymore. “She's smart and she keeps her head in a crisis. She used an iron pot to knock out the telepath I was fighting, I'm not sure whether I was going to win or not. The fighter who was trying to hold her had her hands full, she almost lost an eye or two. The fighter, I mean.”
Lady Jordan chuckled. “Oh, I am very proud of her, for many reasons. I wasn't raised to be helpless, and I see no reason my daughters should, and I'm blessed with a husband who agrees. With the exception of the previous Lord, the Jordan men appreciate strong and independent women.”
“I'm not so strong,” Kisea sighed. “It looks very much like the only way I can have a better life is to let Matt rescue me and take an enormous risk doing it.”
“And who told you that needing help means being not strong? Kalli could do nothing with a collar around her neck, but freed from that, she did her best to help with her own rescue. There are other sorts of collars that one can't remove alone, and they don't mean being weak, only being trapped. Oh, thank you.” She accepted a handful of something from a silent man, passed it to Kisea. “Pemmican for Matt, and also dried fruit and grain bars for you. Please try to eat.”
There was a knife with a finger-length blade, too, wrapped in the thick paper. Kisea nodded.
“I'll see what I can get Matt to eat.”
“Good. Kalli wants Kian to come with her, but Shon is going to stay here, and Jori of course, and four of the men just in case. They're accustomed to taking orders from Shon.” Lady Jordan rose. “I will likely not see you until tomorrow. I hope Matt recovers quickly and you both rest well.”
She took a bite of one of the fruit-and-grain bars, chewed it thoughtfully. Pemmican helped. One thing helped alasir-blood more, and she could spare it.
She tested the little knife against the pemmican, and concluded that it was extremely sharp. Such a small thing, she could ignore that much pain after what she'd done earlier to get rid of the onyx charm. She used the point to make two very small cuts in the underside of her wrist, about as far apart as the twin marks she was used to, deep enough to draw blood; then she moved the cloak aside just enough that she could hold her wrist over Matt's mouth, right where he'd smell it and taste any that dripped.
She smiled to herself as he groped for her wrist to hold it steady and pressed his mouth hard over the cuts. Yes, instinct was waking up at least, she could feel his blood-teeth extend—which weren't hollow like some people thought, but did have a deep groove up the back starting about a third of the way up, which meant the lower third opened the tiny wounds and then blood could be drawn through the space created by the grooves.
And, of course, no hurting, no itching, no festering, and that lovely gentle euphoric feeling that was as much knowledge of what she was offering as it was anything biological.
She picked up the bar of fruit again in her free hand, and took another bite. If anything could help speed up the process, this was it.
“Very bad this time?” Shon asked softly in alasiran, sinking down next to her.
“All the usual, cold and exhaustion. I'm picking up the edges of a really terrible headache that I can't do anything about. And he had a nosebleed, but it didn't last long. And the moonlight's uncomfortable somehow. At least, I think it's the moonlight, but obviously he can't see it. I thought hypersensitivity went with linking in lifewitch abilities, but I suppose he might have been using absolutely anything in this mess. None of the delirium and sensory distortion he had after the ride, at least, but he's too drained to even really be conscious.”
He rearranged himself so that she could lean against him, if she chose; she decided to take him up on it. There was nothing weak in borrowing the strength of someone who cared, when your own was at an end, was there?
He said nothing more, which was actually a relief. She no more had the energy to deal with emotional issues or the future than she did to drive back Matt's nightmare.
Matt kept ahold of her hand, under the cloak, and though he really didn't take all that much, she did feel him now and then. She wondered how much was the ability of blood to replenish, and how much of it was simply comfort, but it didn't matter. She finished the fruit-and-grain bars, and one of the pemmican ones as well.
“Is there anything around to drink, other than river water?” she asked finally.
“Wine?” Shon suggested. “It isn't Eyrian, but it's bearable.”
“Yes, please,” Matt mumbled. “Lots to drink.”
“Let me up, I'll get it.”
Kisea sat forward and peeked under the cloak. “How are you feeling?”
“Terrible, but alive.” It was still a bit slurred, but coherent. “Probably being dead doesn't feel terrible. Maybe. I don't want to find out soon. Don't you try, either, I don't care that much.”
She smiled, ran her fingers through his hair. “You can rest properly, as soon as we get to the Manor.”
“Kalli's okay?” He pushed the cloak aside, though his eyes still weren't focusing. Well, that was one of the more persistent effects. It would pass, too.
Though long ago, he'd confided his fears to her, that someday it wouldn't be temporary, that blindness or some other price would linger indefinitely.
“Yes, but she wanted Kian to come with her. Who taught her to defend herself?”
“My mother, mostly. Same sort of build, not very big but quick. Kian helped her practice, then Shon too. She probably has Kian right in her room with her with absolutely no concern for propriety, like when she was little and had bad dreams. But if it makes her feel safe, who cares? Her parents don't.”
“She's lucky. I can't see her father trying to arrange a marriage for her without asking her opinion.”
“Never, and not because his wife and his sister would never forgive him.” Carefully, he sat up, though he winced a few times. “I'm only ever this achy after being intensely cold.” He licked his lips. “That's not all yours... mine too? Right, the pressure thing, so, nosebleed.” He rubbed at his lower face with one arm, and sighed. “I still have a headache, but I can ride with that. Let's get to the Manor so you can stop sitting on the hard ground wearing mostly just my cloak waiting for me.”
Shon came back with a small skin of, presumably, wine, and handed it to Kisea; she took a drink, then made sure Matt had a solid grip on it the right way around before letting go.
“Horses?” she asked Shon.
“Kian took Rose, of course, and Butterfly and Jori are here. We're no more than two hours from the Manor at an easy pace by the road, I gather.”
“Arrogant,” Matt muttered, lowering the skin after a long gulp. “Although since the ultimate motive appears to have been for me to find them, I suppose not.” He heaved another sigh. “How did I make enemies that hate me that much, just by trying to protect people?”
Kisea traded glances with Shon, who understood the answer as well as she did.
“Does it matter?” Shon asked gently. “You would have, and will continue to, protect those in need of it regardless of whom it offends or angers or inconveniences.”
“That's just who you are,” Kisea agreed. “The people who understand you know and love that about you. You even take it to absurd lengths like offering to marry a renegade to try to keep her safe.”
Matt tilted his head quizzically. “You're joking, right? You know that's not why? Well, not all of why? Please tell me you know that and you're joking.”
“Yes, dear, I know that and I'm teasing you.”
“I realize these haven't been the best conditions for actually thinking...”
“No. They haven't,” she said firmly. There were just too many ramifications to the whole idea that she needed to work through. “For the moment, you're not getting rid of me, however. I no longer own even a complete set of clothes, and you promised you'd replace my gear that was left behind two hundred miles from here and you can replace what's now under a collapsed building too. Not that you can replace two ninedays of weaving in some really lovely yarn I traded for, or the things with sentimental value. I suppose it's a reasonable sacrifice, though.” Too many years of needing to protect what little she did own were hard to shake. It gave her an uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability to lack even bare essentials along with a strong regret over the loss of beautiful well-made things that held memories.
“I'm sorry. Flooding the cellar and then tearing the building down might have been too much.”
“Kallima and I are alive. We might not be if you hadn't. I'm just sulking. Do you think you can get up?”
He took another mouthful of wine first, held the skin out to Shon, and let both help him to his feet. He wasn't entirely steady, but then, neither was she.
“Jori?” he said.
“Kian changed her before he left,” Shon said. “She's with Butterfly pretending to be a real horse. I'll get them.” He gave Kisea back the wine, and left them again.
“That wasn't how I'd planned to bring up the idea of getting married, but it's better than never getting the chance.” He found her by touch, cupped a hand around her cheek. “I would never try to put chains on you. Just give you a home to come back to. If running the roads with my cousins makes you happy, well, at least I'd know you were safe.”
She stole a kiss. “Let me answer you, before you start thinking up ways to get vacations from my company.”
“That was a joke. This isn't. You don't know me anymore.”
“I know a lot more than you think I know. I know everything that really matters. For anything else, I just get the fun of learning about you all over again.”
“You absolutely will not let any logic sway you, will you?”
“Not the slightest chance,” he said cheerfully. “I've had over a year to think about it. I know what the risks are and I think they're worth it. The only thing still in question is what you want. And I can wait while you decide. Even if you said yes right now, we'll be doing well to get to the Manor, let alone interrupting my uncle to ask him to marry us and heading for the College. Actually, I doubt Shon would let us. Or Kian. Or Jori.”
“Which just proves they have more sense,” she said tartly, and took a last swallow of wine before closing it tightly.
“Who has more sense than whom?” Shon asked, leading Jori and Butterfly over to them.
“You have more sense than Matt,” Kisea said.
“I thought that was understood.” At least Jori could be trusted to stand, rock-solid and four-square, while Shon laced both hands together to boost his exhausted cousin into the saddle, and repeated it with Kisea. He gathered up Butterfly's reins and mounted smoothly. “Two are coming with us, two are staying here to watch the site. More are to come, early in the morning, to remove the dead and make other arrangements for travellers for the short term.”
Kisea's sense of safety had less to do with the two mounted fighters who fell into place, one ahead of them and one behind, and more to do with Shon beside her and Matt, that peculiar sword slung through rings on his saddle like any staff. Even her fatigue-dulled and overextended inner senses could pick up the protectiveness/alertness—as if they needed to.
Probably their human escort wouldn't speak alasiran, and were even less likely to know mixed-village creole, which Kisea guessed Shon must have picked up at least somewhat by now, but there was nothing urgent to say. They rode quietly, Shon urging a trot now and then to get them to their destination more quickly.
The huge manor house should probably have been imposing, if not terrifying, but after that last leg of travelling, she was too numb to care. She was aware of Shon giving orders that everyone hastened to obey even though he never raised his voice, of someone young and female and briskly competent urging her and Matt through a bewildering number of corridors to, finally, a pleasant room with a long table against one wall and an armoire and, more important than anything, a bed that looked like paradise. She stopped paying any attention to what the young female person was saying, got Matt and herself stripped to the skin with some fumbling help from him, barely even flinching from the silver medallion that had been tucked under his shirt, and they both sprawled on the bed.
Vaguely, she felt gentle hands draw a soft quilt up over them, and then she fell asleep.
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