The soldiers led Alaina towards the building. She paused, looking back at the others.
“Prudence?” She said. “Join me? I could use another pair of hands.”
Why the hell is she inviting me? Prudence wondered. Womanly solidarity? I’m no healer.
Nevertheless, she nodded, and padded after the priestess on soft-soled boots. As she walked, she could hear Aleksandr talking to the others. He was already taking charge of the situation, asking about their defenses and their patrols. The gruff fellow that called himself Lefty was answering. Not just answering; he was reporting to Aleksandr.
Does he realize how he takes charge of people? Prudence wondered. Not for the first time. Or does it come so naturally to him that he just thinks he’s talking to them, like anyone would?
Two of the soldiers were leading them to see “the Captain.” One of them was short and thick, with a heavy frame that was mostly muscle but layered with a good amount of fat. The other was the taller fellow that one of the others had called “Perrin.” He had a soft face, for a mercenary. The wispy beginnings of a beard did little to harden it. He was tall, but not too tall. Well built, but not as broad as many of his companions. He’d taken off his iron cap, and his brown hair was plastered to his scalp by sweat and dirt.
Perrin pulled back the flap that covered the entrance to the hovel. He gestured, ushering the women in first. Prudence followed Alaina’s lead.
The room was warm, and thick with smoke despite the simple flue visible in the roof. A nauseating smell permeated the air. The rank odors of sweat and smoke and blood of course. But beneath that Prudence detected a sickly sweet smell.
That’s not a good sign.
Most of the heat was radiating from a crude hearth, filled with banked coals. A faint orange glow radiated from the coals, but it cast most everything in shadow. Alaina held up her lantern, shedding a brighter light across the room.
The Captain of Taraam lay on a bedroll in one corner of the room. He was bundled with furs and blankets, and even so, Prudence saw he was shivering.
That is a dying man, she realized. His soldiers just don’t want to see it yet.
The two Taraamites entered behind them. The heavyset man hesitated near the entryway, but Perrin strode forward. He hunkered down beside the Captain, gently resting a hand on the shivering lump’s shoulder.
“Captain?” he said softly. “Captain, we’ve brought a priestess.”
Does he really expect an answer? He’s probably deep in a fever dream. If he lasts another—
“A priestess?” a hoarse voice rasped from beneath the blankets. His voice sounded odd, beyond the strained quality. The way he rolled the R in priestess. “I do not think you will save my soul now, Perrin. I have killed too many men, and made love to too many women.”
Perrin snorted. Even Alaina chuckled as she crossed the room.
“I am not here to give you the last rites, Captain… Olivenco, yes?” Alaina said.
A hacking sound erupted from the blankets. It took Prudence a moment to realize it was laughter. The sound was wet and ragged.
“Si,” the voice said. “The Cutter of Camarr, cut down by a maldito duende! To die this way, Dios, the embarrassment!”
Spatalian, by the sound of it. That name, Olivenco, surely is. And I think Camarr is a Spatalian city-state. He’s a long way from home.
His outburst degenerated into a wet cough. Alaina knelt by his side.
“And besides, if the killings were just and the women willing, your soul may not be in as much danger as you think,” she said. “I am here to help you. Hopefully, to heal you.”
She sure is optimistic, Prudence thought. She stood behind Alaina as the priestess began to unravel the man’s blankets. Prudence braced herself as she looked down at the man, Olivenco, and waited to see the extent of his injuries.
As he emerged from the blankets, she noted several things. The man was undoubtedly attractive, or he would be if he weren’t clinging to death’s door by his fingertips. His olive skin was pallid. His hair looked like it could hang in thick dark ringlets if it wasn’t soaked with sweat and stuck to his brow. He had facial hair that looked like it was probably kept well-groomed normally, but messy stubble had grown up around a thin mustache and pointed beard.
He was half naked, and at first Prudence saw no wounds. His chest was sparsely dotted with dark hair, and she could see that his frame was lithe and well-muscled.
A little old for my taste, she noted. But if he wasn’t half-dead, he might be able to entice me. They do say Spatalian men are passionate, at least.
A morbid thought, to size up a dying man that way. But if he was dying, then where was the—
Oh. There. Prudence exhaled her breath in a surprised hiss. She heard Alaina sigh. Lefty told us as much. “His sword arm,” he said. I almost forgot.
Olivenco’s right arm was a ruin.
It was swollen, and tendrils of scarlet ran almost to his shoulder. His forearm was mottled red, purple, and black. The one color that was not apparent was the olive tone of his actual skin.
The worst of it was near the elbow. Swathes of filthy bandages, caked with dried blood and other fluids, were wrapped around his forearm and elbow. It looked awful, and as Alaina carefully began to unwind the bandages, it quickly became clear that what lay beneath them looked even worse.
The wound was gruesome. A slash, probably from one of those nasty looking goblin blades the aurin warriors carried. It looked to have opened a deep laceration that ran at an angle from his elbow halfway down his arm. The edges of the cut had been stitched together, but even Prudence could tell it was the work of a man that had, at best, some battlefield experience. Not formal training. The flesh around the wound was dark, and the entire length of it wept thick, oozing pus.
Prudence felt bile rise in the back of her throat. She spun around, rushed to the corner of the room, and emptied the contents of her stomach onto the rocky ground.
She took a second to compose herself. The heavyset man was still standing near the door. Now she understood why. She turned back towards the other three: Perrin, Alaina, and Olivenco.
She heard that sickly coughing sound, and once again realized Olivenco was chuckling. Not just chuckling. He was laughing at her.
“Sorry,” Prudence muttered as she padded back over to them.
Perrin gave her a rueful smile. “Don’t be,” he said. “We’ve all done it at some point or another. It’s… well, it’s not good.”
“I am dying,” Olivenco said. “Dying, it is never good, si? Not for the one who must do the dying.”
“Don’t say that,” Perrin said. “You could still—”
Olivenco hissed out a commanding shush, shaking his head. “Perrin, you are smarter than this. The wound, it is septic. Past septic, si? There is nothing to be—”
“Actually,” Alaina said, cutting in. “That may not be true.”
Olivenco arched an eyebrow at her, dark eyes piercing. “Do not give me false hope, priestess. I am dying. And… the women were willing, si! Of course. But I do not know if all the men deserved their deaths.”
Alaina nodded, and Prudence swallowed nervously as she saw the priestess begin inspecting the wound more closely. “All the more reason to save your life. To give you more time to atone for your past sins.”
“You truly think you can save me?” Olivenco said. “Priestess, are you? Or sorceress?”
“Priestess. We have a sorcerer, but he’d be next to useless in here,” Alaina took a firm grip of the wounded arm, feeling the inflamed flesh.
Olivenco hissed, face contorting in agony. “Dios! Careful, please!”
“I am quite careful,” Alaina said, not releasing her grip on the arm.
She may not know how to defend herself, but she’s fearless. Prudence admired.
Olivenco winced, breathing heavily as he brought the pain under control. Once he’d gathered his wits, he studied Alaina’s face. Prudence saw him look over her shoulder, staring Prudence with a piercing look.
“Who are you?” he asked finally. He glanced at Perrin. “Who are these women, Perrin? A fever dream, I thought. But… no. Who are they?”
The young mercenary shrugged. “Travelers. Leading the priestess through the Underpass. There’re a few others. They helped hold off the last goblin attack, anyway. Lefty trusts ‘em.”
Olivenco nodded. “Then I must as well.”
“Good,” Alaina said. She glanced at the thick man standing in the doorway. “Have you a source of water here?”
He nodded. “The goblins have a spring. Water’s clear enough, we’ve been drinkin’ it these past few days.”
“Good,” Alaina said. “Boil any cloth you still have. If you have a need, I’ve got extra linens in my saddlebags. Aleksandr can show them to you.”
The man blinked, clearly unsure of whether or not he should be taking orders from this strange woman.
Alaina frowned. “Now, please!” she said. She didn’t wait to see if he complied, instead just turning back to Olivenco.
The Captain was staring at her with a wry expression on his clammy face. Prudence noted that the man in the doorway hurried outside, presumably to do as Alaina had commanded.
Alaina continued closely examining the wound, turning Olivenco’s arm to see different angles, indifferent to his winces and gasps of pain. Fluids leaked from the wound, and Prudence looked away. She found herself looking at Perrin, who had stood and was also averting his eyes.
“She’s got an iron stomach,” Perrin whispered, jerking his head towards Alaina.
“She may not look it, but she’s just about made of iron, I think,” Prudence said, her voice even more hushed than Perrin’s.
“I can hear you,” Alaina murmured, not looking up from her task.
“I know,” Prudence lied.
“How’s your stomach?” Alaina asked. “Better?”
Sure, as long as I don’t look at that lump of spoiled meat where an arm is supposed to be. All she said was: “Better.”
“Good. Open my bag, will you? Unroll the toolkit inside.”
Prudence did as she was bidden. The “toolkit” proved to be a rolled up mat of leather, with a dozen or more small thongs woven into it. In each loop was a different item… blades, needles, calipers. The tools of a chirurgeon, from the look of it.
Prudence wasn’t the only one to notice.
“Thought you said she was a priest, not a physicker,” Perrin said.
“The Church libraries hold nearly as much knowledge as the Universities of Cassala,” Alaina said. “I am many things. But first and foremost, yes, a priestess.”
Perrin looked at her with newfound respect. “You really think you can save him, Mother?”
“Alaina,” she said. “Please. And yes, I do. Or at least I hope that I can.”
Perrin’s empty hands twisted around, forming the encircling gesture of praise to Torath.
“Olivenco,” Alaina said, “We will begin soon.”
He blinked. His expression had gone blank, perhaps glazing over to make the pain feel more distant. But now his eyes focused on Alaina, sharp and piercing in their intensity. “The plan, then. What is it?”
“I think you already know,” Alaina said. Her tone was soft. Pitying.
Olivenco gave a single bark of laughter. It sounded forced, torn from his hoarse and ragged throat.
“Fine,” he said. “Take it.”
Perrin’s brow furrowed. “Take it?”
Nobody answered him. After a beat of silence, his eyes widened in understanding.
His arm. His sword arm, and him some sort of legend among soldiers.
“Better an arm than his life,” Prudence offered.
Perrin nodded. Olivenco, however, just exhaled a little laugh. “Is it?” he said. “I am not so sure as the chicacita.”
“Of course it is!” Perrin snapped.
Olivenco coughed. One of Alaina’s hands slipped down with a cloth, deftly wiping away spittle and phlegm from his lips. Olivenco sagged in his bedroll, looking even more exhausted than he had before.
“I am the Cutter of Camarr,” he whispered. “Captain of Taraam. The dance of blades and death, it is all I know. The kiss of iron as familiar as the kiss of a lover. What am I, without this?”
“You’ll still be our captain,” Perrin said. “Arm or no. You fight well enough with your off hand. We’ll—”
The flap of the hovel opened, and two of the other Taraamites hauled in a metal pot. Steam poured off of it, and Prudence saw it was filled to the brim with hot water and cloth.
“Olivenco,” Alaina said. Her voice was low. “Last chance. If you wish to die, I will not waste my time. If you wish to live, say the word.”
Prudence was pretty sure the two newcomers weren’t close enough to hear. But her and Perrin most definitely were. Perrin’s face looked anguished at Alaina’s words, but he held his tongue.
Smart. It’s not his decision.
Olivenco gnawed on his lower lip for a long moment. Finally, he nodded. “It is as I said, priestess. Take it.”
Alaina took a deep breath, held it, then exhaled.
“Then let’s get to work. Prudence, you must be another pair of hands. An extension of my will. Pass me the tools I need, cut where I say, stitch where I point. Understood?”
Prudence swallowed. “Yeah.”
“Perrin, stay close. You’ll be of use as well,” she said.
“Oh? How’s that?”
“I will need someone to hold him down,” Alaina explained. “Because this is going to hurt.”