Waking up was slow, and hard. Normally I woke up all at once, the transition between unconsciousness and awareness passing so fast that I wasn’t even aware of it happening. I’d always had a tendency towards that, especially after being Changed, but it had really gotten to be a habit in the refugee camps. In that environment, people that didn’t react quickly to changes in their surroundings tended to come down with a nasty case of death.
This time, though, I spent what felt like hours on the cusp between sleeping and waking. I woke, considered opening my eyes, and then drifted off into hazy dreams again. It got to the point that I wasn’t even sure what was real and what only existed inside my head.
What eventually drove me out of the fog was boredom, more than anything else. There was only so long you could spend half-asleep before it got tedious, and since it didn’t seem like I was going to be lapsing fully into sleep again any time soon, I thought I might as well wake up.
I was in my room, lying on my bed. Judging by the light coming in my window, it was late afternoon or early evening. I could hear activity downstairs, people talking and walking.
My first reaction was one of near panic. I’d lost consciousness down in the taproom, so clearly someone had been in my room to move me up here.
After a few moments, though, I relaxed. The door was locked, the box was locked. The books on the dresser were still where they belonged. Everything was where it belonged. I was even still wearing the same bloody clothes from earlier. It looked like whoever had carried me in here had just set me on the bed and left.
My breathing calmed again, and I was able to consider my own situation clearly.
The wound in my leg still hurt. It was more or less just a dull ache, something I was aware of, but not something that overwhelmed my world. My back was actually more uncomfortable, likely from being dragged back to town on a travois over rough ground.
I was more interested in what had been done to the injury, though. I’d seen medics suture wounds back in the camps. The stitching on my leg looked as neat anything I’d seen them do. It was better than anyone could reasonably hope to do without specialized training.
I stood, carefully, testing the leg before I put any real weight on it. It turned the dull ache to a sharp, burning pain, and I could feel the stitches pulling a bit, but the limb seemed functional, and I couldn’t feel anything actually tearing inside me. On the whole, not terrible.
I stripped out of the filthy clothing I was wearing, giving it a critical look as I did. I was guessing it would have to be relegated to the rag pile. It was all irreversibly stained, and physically damaged, too. The leg where the ghoul’s claw had caught me was almost shredded, nothing left but ragged threads, all stained a dull red-brown.
I shivered a little as I looked at that. It was hard not to. I’d come uncomfortably close this time. Had that claw landed slightly differently, or cut even a little bit deeper, it might well have hit a major vein. I didn’t think that I’d have made it back if that had happened.
It was an unsettling feeling, realizing that my choice of clothing that morning had quite likely saved my life.
I tossed the clothes to the floor, and grabbed fresh to pull on instead. It hurt a bit to get dressed, but I managed it. I left, locking the door behind myself.
Stairs were hard with a wounded leg. I leaned heavily on the wall getting down, and I was still pale and shaky by the time I made it to the bottom of the stairs. I paused for a few moments to recover, and then limped out into the taproom.
It wasn’t as busy as I would have expected. Not empty, by any means, but not busy the way it had been for the past few days. It was back to a more typical evening crowd here at the inn, which meant not really a crowd at all.
Corbin turned and stared at me as I walked in. “Silf?” he asked, sounding surprised. “What are you doing up and about?”
I shrugged. “Heard you down here,” I said.
He rolled his eyes. “Sit down, at least,” he said. “Bones and ashes, I wasn’t expecting you to be awake until tomorrow.”
I shrugged, and took a seat at the bar. I wasn’t going to say it, but the truth was that I was just as glad for the chance to take a load off my leg. It hurt more than I would have guessed to walk.
The conversation had gone silent when I walked into the taproom, perhaps unsurprisingly. It wasn’t every day that someone got mauled by ghouls, and my particular history just made it more awkward.
“Heard what happened,” Gunnar said after a few moments, breaking the silence. “Glad you made it all right.”
My head whipped around to stare at him. I wanted to scream at him for his hypocrisy, but my throat seized up at just the right moment, and it came out as a sort of sullen, strangled grunt instead. Just as well, probably.
Gunnar got the message, though. And, credit where credit was due, he had the good grace to look ashamed. He flushed, and looked at the floor, and mumbled something that I couldn’t make out.
Sigmund was the next to speak up. “What were you thinking, going out there?” he asked. Then, before I could retort, he looked away. “Sorry,” he said, sounding more sulky than sorry. “It’s just…we were worried about you.”
“That’s sweet,” Black said. She was sitting almost on top of the fire; I hadn’t even seen her when I walked in. “But I need to check Silf’s stitches, so we’ll be going now.”
She stood and stalked over to me. The villagers moved out of her way without even seeming to realize it; Black just moved with a confidence that assumed the world wouldn’t get in her way, and they assumed she knew what she was talking about. When she reached me she took my hand and led me behind the bar, into the kitchen, and up the stairs.
I was a bit startled by how strong she was. Black didn’t look like all that, but she almost carried me up the stairs, and she didn’t even look like she was trying.
“The stitches are fine,” I said quietly as we started up the stairs.
“I know,” Black replied, just as quietly. There was no way anyone back in the taproom would hear it. “Thought you might want to get out of there. It was getting…tense.”
I snorted, nodded. “Thanks,” I said.
“I should check them, though,” she added. “And make sure there’s no sign of infection.”
I shivered, and nodded.
Black unlocked the door of her room, and waited for me to go in, and then locked it again behind us. The room looked almost exactly as it always did, empty and impersonal. Black hadn’t done much to the place, hadn’t really left any mark on the space. There were a couple of bags on the floor, one of which I recognized as one of the bags which had held weapons during our little training session. The rest weren’t familiar.
“Sit down,” Black said, pointing at the bed. As I obeyed she opened one of the other bags, a plain black one, and took out a smaller pouch which was black marked with a bright red circle. “How does it feel?”
“Hurts a bit,” I said. “Bit unsteady when I put weight on it. Not bad otherwise.”
“How bad would you say the pain is, on a scale of one to ten?”
“Two or three,” I said. “If one is low.”
She paused and stared at me for a second. “Two or a three,” she said. She snorted and shook her head. “I think your scale is broken, Silf.”
I smiled, and shrugged. It was entirely possible that she was right.
“All right,” she said, pulling a few metal tools out of the bag. There was a needle, and forceps, and what looked like a set of probes. “Let me take a look at it, then.”
I pushed my pants down, letting Black get at the wound, and looked at the wall. I wasn’t too uncomfortable with having it happen, but actually watching her prodding at me felt…awkward. “Where are the legionnaires?” I asked, mostly just to have something to talk about.
“Out hunting ghouls,” Black said, taking a probe and pushing the fur out of the way to get a better look at the gash. “Excepting Aelia, but I wouldn’t worry about her noticing anything. She’s sedated heavily enough I don’t think she’d wake up if the building was on fire.”
I swallowed. “What happened?”
“Pure bad luck, as I hear it. She was reloading and the arbalest malfunctioned somehow, crushed her hand.”
I frowned. “A legion arbalest snapped?”
Black shrugged. “I guess so. Normally I’d expect legion equipment to be a bit more reliable than that, but I guess if you build enough arbalests, you’ll build a bad one. Her bad luck to get it.” She paused. “This is healing very well. At this rate it should be almost good as new in a few days.”
I shrugged. “I heal fast.”
“That’s good. Doesn’t look like it’s infected, either. I’ll keep checking up on it, but it’s looking like you should be fine.” Black sat back and started putting her tools back into the bag. “Do you mind if I ask you a question, Silf?”
“What was the problem earlier?” she asked, apparently taking that for agreement. “Down there, when that man was talking to you. You were clearly upset, and it seemed like he knew why, but there was some context that I wasn’t catching.”
“Oh,” I said. “That.” I frowned, trying to think of how to wrap the whole thing up in a few words. “After the Whitewood,” I said eventually, “I didn’t have anywhere to go. Ended up with some refugees heading south, to Akitsuro. I got burned in the city, and it got infected. In Branson’s Ford–this was back when people traveled through here a bit–it got bad enough I couldn’t walk. So they left me.”
“They just left you?” Black asked, sounding indignant.
I shrugged. “We weren’t close. And they had to keep going. Anyway, the people here tried to take care of me. But it was already a hard year. Gunnar said they should just kill me quick, since if the infection didn’t get me I’d starve anyway.”
Black just stared at me for a few seconds. “You’re telling me,” she said slowly, “that a sick, wounded, orphaned, Changed refugee was stranded here. And he suggested that they should kill her?”
“I’m going to skin him,” Black said, standing. She didn’t sound like she was kidding.
I grabbed her sleeve, stopping her. “He was scared,” I said.
“That doesn’t excuse that.”
Black stood there for a few seconds, then sighed and sat back down. “Fine,” she said. “But I’m doing this for you, not for him.”
“Thanks,” I said, letting go of her. “Can I ask you a question?”
Her lips twitched. “Go ahead.”
“How do you know Corbin?”
If Black had been about to smile, that smile was a stillborn one now. “That’s a long story,” she said, very softly.
I sat back on the bed, making it clear that I had no intention of moving any time soon.
Black let out a quick snort of laughter, though she didn’t sound particularly happy. “It started a long time ago,” she said. “It would have been around the time you were born, actually, down in Akitsuro. We were…not friends, exactly, but acquaintances. We knew of each other, we’d spoken a few times. And we had some friends in common whom we both loved dearly. So we spent a fair bit of time together.”
Black shrugged. “Oh, nothing too dramatic. We both moved on. I went back home–I was born in Skelland, you know, only went south to see the world a bit. And then after a while the war came, and…we saw each other again then.”
“You fought together?”
Black shook her head. Her eyes had a faraway look to them, now; I wasn’t even sure she was really seeing the room around us. “No,” she said. “No, we were on different sides.”
Ah. She’d been at war with her friend, then. It was…a more common story than anyone liked to remember. It was that sort of war.
“Corbin joined the legions after I left,” she said. “And when Akitsuro invaded Skelland, I…wasn’t inclined to take it lying down, the way so many people were.” She shrugged. “I guess that’s about it. It was all…a very long time ago, now.”
I nodded. “Do you hate him?”
Black was silent for a long moment, long enough that when she did answer it came as a surprise. I’d been sure that she wasn’t going to. “Not anymore,” she said. “For a while I did. I only saw him once during the war, and then…I would have killed him then, I think, if I could. I was so angry, and I was so sure that we were in the right. Now…well.” She shrugged. “Things don’t seem so simple these days. I’m not so sure he was in the wrong, really.”
“They burned the Whitewood,” I said quietly.
“And the Whitewood sent agents to poison them,” Black replied. Her tone was very level, very calm. “Killed close to two thousand legionnaires in one night, and twice as many camp followers. I’m not saying the legions were innocent, even before the Whitewood. But things aren’t so black and white. Both sides had their sins to bear when the legions took Skelland, and when the legions took the Whitewood. And I’m guessing that even now, when they’ve made it all the way up to the Tears, things still aren’t simple.”
I frowned, and didn’t say anything.
“Now,” Black said, in a tone of obviously forced cheer. “Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to bring some food up for you. There’s venison and apple cobbler tonight, to go with the soup. You’re going to eat it, and then you’re going to go to bed, and when you wake up again you’re going to feel better. Sound good?”
I wasn’t so sure that it would go as well as she was describing. I was still…troubled by this whole thing, and not least by the revelation that Corbin had been in the legions. But I had to answer Black somehow, so I nodded, and smiled.
“Good,” she said firmly. “Let me go get that food.”