Eighteen

Isaac woke to a hand over his mouth. Garridan’s face was oppressively close, and he could feel the assassin’s hot breath spread across his cheek.

“If you want to live, you will listen to me very carefully,” he whispered. His voice was so low that Isaac could barely hear him even as the assassin’s lips were pressed nearly against his ear.

It took a moment for Isaac’s awareness to solidify. Fitful dreams had left it soft mush. But when it did, panic immediately seized him. He tried to scream, but the assassin quickly moved his hand from the bard’s mouth to his throat and squeezed, closing off the air.

He should have never helped. He was a fool. He should have trusted Gerard. Now he would die here, at the hands of this criminal, with nothing but this flaccid tent to mark his grave. An ignoble end. His eyes began to water.

Garridan slowly relented, loosening his grip, bit by bit, trying to keep the bard from loudly and suddenly sucking down air.

“I said be quiet.” He looked into Isaac’s panicked, betrayed eyes and instantly understood. “Not me,” he whispered, and he gestured with his head to noises outside the tent.

Isaac could hear shuffling and hushed voices.

“If you want to live, listen to me,” he repeated. He reached over, wincing as every nerve along his side ignited in flames, and grabbed the small bone needle Isaac had used to suture his wound. He put it in Isaac’s palm and closed his fingers around it. He then pulled one of his eyelids down and pointed at it. “The eye,” he whispered. “And don’t hesitate–they won’t.” But nothing registered in Isaac’s face but fear. “I need you to understand,” Garridan said.

Isaac nodded and Garridan slid back over to his spot. He closed his eyes and pretended to sleep and Isaac mimicked him. He pressed his lids together so tightly it ached, as though it would shield him from whatever was going to happen. Outside, he listened to the bandits.

“Lucky day. Would you look at this? Lotta gold. Some sorta noble? Can’t be a trader. Don’t have no stock.”

“Who gives a shit who he is. He’s got coin. All that matters. We’ll take the horse, too. And the clothes. Pretty nice. Fetch a fair price.”

“Alright. I’mma take care of him.”

Isaac listened as the man’s feet squished on the damp ground, first up near his head, then down around the side of the tent, coming to the front. His heart beat faster with every step. He heard the fabric rustle as the man thrust his head in. And then out. The squishing moved back around the side and up by his head again.

“There’s two of ‘em.”

“So?”

“Shouldn’t there be another horse?”

Total silence. Isaac swallowed and thought he had never heard a louder sound.

Finally–“Who cares? Just hurry up.”

The squishing of the man’s feet circled back around again. Isaac had broken out into a sweat, and the cool, damp air felt like a thousand needles dragging across his skin. He heard the man crouch onto his knees and scoot into the tent.

It had to be now.

Isaac’s eyes flew open and he lunged–it seemed to happen in slow motion even though it was but an instant. He could feel his body float through the air as it plunged toward the bandit, he could feel the weight of the needle in his hand, as though it were made of lead and not porous bone. And he could sense the slight adjustment in the bandit’s weight, pushing his bulk onto one leg so that he leaned out of the way and Isaac’s strike cut only through air.

The bandit held a knife and prepared to retaliate, but before he could, Garridan had lurched forward, grabbed the bandit’s hand, and used it to plunge the blade into his neck. He pulled it out and a jet of crimson spurted out and soaked the side of the tent. The thief crumpled instantly.

The other bandit heard the struggle and was rushing to see what had happened. Garridan threw the blade through the side of the tent and sliced the man’s calf. He dropped and scudded across the soft ground. Garridan lifted the side of the tent, collapsing the whole structure into a ball of bloodied fabric, and he slammed the knife into the man’s back. It was over as quickly as it had begun.

“Aggh–” Garridan slumped into the wadded fabric just as Isaac had been able to wiggle out from under it. The assassin’s adrenaline subsided and was replaced with pain that broke across his side like swells of thick magma.

Isaac sat up and looked at the scene with horror and astonishment. “What–how–are you alright?” he stammered.

“No thanks to you,” Garridan panted. He looked down at his side and saw that his gauze was damp and red. “Think I may have torn a stitch.”

“I’ll look at it,” Isaac said. He crawled over and gently peeled the dirtied bandage back. Several of the stitches had broken, and the flesh pulled apart again. He replaced the sutures and re-cleaned the wound and collected the crumpled tent, carefully pulling it out from under Garridan and moving even further away from the stream’s bank.

“Where are you going?” Garridan asked.

“To repitch the tent.”

“I’m not moving again,” the assassin said, still out of breath. “Had enough for tonight.”

“You can’t mean to sleep by their corpses?”

Garridan waved Isaac’s worry off. “Not the corpses that make it hard to sleep.” He laid his head down and began to drift off–or maybe pass out–almost immediately. “Slept a lot worse,” he said, the words soft and drowsy and faraway.

The next day, Garridan woke and found himself in the tent. For a moment, he thought the body next to him was Isaac’s, that the bard must have dragged him into the shelter overnight. But it wasn’t–it was the bandit whose neck had been stabbed. With much effort, Garridan scooted outside and saw that he hadn’t been moved–nothing had. Isaac had simply repitched the tent where it stood, so that Garridan was sheltered. The bard himself was many yards distant, under nothing but a thin blanket and the moor’s cloudy sky. He was curled in the fetal position and used his arm as a pillow.

Garridan limped up the bank and nudged the bard with his boot. Isaac’s eyes slowly creaked open and he stretched as he sat up. He shivered as he looked back at the camp and what happened in the night returned to him, the horror of it slowly percolating back into his consciousness.

“What do we do with them?” he asked softly.

Garridan shrugged. “Leave ‘em for the scavengers.”

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