The Hand That Steers The Kingdom – Part 13
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Angie arrived moments later and was summarily yanked down amongst the leaves. They waited until the soldiers left, hiding among the bracken. Tacky tear trails dried on Tristan’s face as the flames climbed higher.
Once the last horse vanished, Tristan bolted out from under their cover, her legs eating up the ground between her and the house. Only flames greeted her. Tristan called for her parents. Neither responded. The front door crumbled under the heat and Tristan darted in before the frame could follow. The inside of the house she’d lived in for years was charred and full of smoke. The entire house seemed empty but for the roaring flames that tried to eat through the last pieces of wall that kept them at bay.
Her voice got sucked into the roar of flame and crackling wood as she screamed again. Heat invaded her lungs, and she hacked as she stamped out small fires licking at their blankets. In a moment of clarity, she grabbed one of the wool contraptions and dunked it in the water urn in the kitchen. Once it was soaked, she wrapped it around her shoulders and kicked over the urn. The resulting flood did nothing against the fire. The air was dry even as she breathed through the wet cloth, but Tristan ignored her aching lungs and went room to room, screaming her parents’ names into the dark. No response. They weren’t in the house. Half of her was glad; the other half was terrified. She turned tail and left, jumping through the window with the least amount of fire surrounding it.
Emerging into the cool night air felt like jumping into a frozen lake. Tristan could tell that her face was flushed and red, but the evening breeze helped to clear out her throat that felt raw and abused.
“Did you see them?” Tutti rushed forward. She snatched Tristan’s blanket back. Tuti’s callused hands landed on either side of Tristan’s face and tilted her head forward and back. Satisfied, she looked down at Tristan, eyes desperate. “Were they there? Tell me!”
Tristan shook her head. “I couldn’t find them.” Tutti sagged back, looking lost.
“Where could they have gone?” The mournful tone of her voice wasn’t lost on Tristan. If Connor and Sarai hadn’t been in the house, then they could be with the soldiers or wandering around injured. The two took a minute to rest. Tristan clutched Tutti’s soot-covered frame as the thoughts whirred around in her head.
“Um,” Angie hissed. “What’s that?” They whipped around. Angie was pointing at a wooden snake, not unlike the toys children played with, but more realistic, it’s tongue flicking out to taste the air in front of it.
“Copper.” Tutti breathed out the name like it was her saving grace. The snake slithered up her leg. It’s wooden muscles contracting as it climbed and wrapped itself around her arm. Tristan’s heart began to pound.
“He has them,” she whispered. Tutti pursed her lips and nodded. The three headed down the path through the trees watching for soldiers. Every rustle was an enemy footstep, every creak in the branches was a soldier come to finish the job. Tutti’s breathing turned even more ragged, scraping against her throat like a knife to a whetstone. Tristan had to support her weight more and more as they moved over rocks and roots. Even in the dim light provided by the moon, Tristan could see that Tutti was in a bad way. Angie led the way, her platinum hair guiding them like a beacon as it shone in the scant light.
“It’s only a little further,” Tristan whispered. Even her own voice sounded scratchy and dry to her ears. Tutti didn’t seem to notice. Her eyes had drifted closed, and all of her attention was occupied on putting one foot in front of the other. Tristan had never seen the strong woman so weak. It frightened her.
“How did you get out, anyway?” Angie asked. She flinched as her words echoed back at her. Tutti hacked and spat out a glob of ash-colored phlegm.
“I was putting away the goats and chickens,” Tutti said. She shook her head. “Didn’t even notice until I smelled smoke. By the time I made it up the ridge the roof was aflame, and I couldn’t get past the forge. I tried going through anyway. The whole room was filled with smoke and flame. I couldn’t see in front of me, couldn’t tell where anything was. When it hit the fuel stacks, there was no passing it.” Tristan winced. The forge was filled with piles of dry, seasoned wood and coal. She looked at the hand that was draped over her shoulder, finally noticing the burns and scrapes. Tutti’s steps wavered. “I didn’t want to leave them,” she whimpered, stumbling. “But I saw you coming up the ridge and knew they’d—” Tears prickled Tristan’s eyes as one of the titans from her childhood started breaking down. “I left my girl.”
“You’ll see her soon enough,” Tristan promised, guilt gnawing on her with every step. Copper’s house came into view. By all the gods, she hoped her foster parents were there. She didn’t know what she’d do if they weren’t.
They stumbled their way through the herbs and shrubs that had been imbibed with Copper’s elf magic to form a protective barrier around his house. The heavy blackberry brambles caught on her clothes and scraped her skin as Tristan shoved them away. Angie tried to daintily mince her way over the prickly wall but only succeeded in getting her stockings caught in the thorns. Tristan knocked on the door. Copper answered, looking pale and stressed.
“Get inside,” he said. “Come on.” He took over guiding Tutti, leading her to a cot in the middle of the house. It sat next to a similar, occupied one. Tristan gasped at the sight of Sarai’s prone form lying against the undyed cotton. Her false hand was detached and laying next to her, remarkably unburned
“Mom…” Her feet didn’t want to move, but she forced them to toddle over to Sarai’s body, sinking to the floor in a daze.
Sarai’s head and hands were wrapped in bandages, and there was a thick pad of bloody cloth lying on her stomach. Tristan snaked her fingers around Sarai’s wrist, feeling for the breeze-thin pulse that fluttered in time with her shallow breaths. Sarai was alive. She was alive.
“Where’s Connor?” Tristan asked, fear maintaining its iron grip around her throat. Copper sighed.
“He and the other one were ‘scouting the perimeter’ last I checked,” he huffed. “As if anything was getting past me now.” Sweat was beading on Copper’s forehead and upper lip. Tristan knew that magic took its tole the longer you used it. How long had Copper been keeping watch?
“Who’s the other one?”
“The Fox.” Copper seemed miffed, but Tristan was relieved. Uncle Anfir must have tried to warn them. If he was here, that meant they could get to the bottom of the soldiers’ presence.
“How far are they?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Too far for me to feel. Worry more about yourself for now. They’re big boys.”
Tristan maintained her death grip on Sarai’s arm even as Copper began to treat Tutti, who was looking at her once pupil with something akin to reverence. Angie’s help was enlisted in cleaning cuts and brewing a potion that would clear out Tutti’s lungs. Copper took his time cleaning away the soot and dirt. His fingers drifted over Tutti’s face, feeling for fractures and broken skin. He looked exhausted.
“There’s no concussion, but you’re not getting out of bed until I say. And you’ll drink at least a bucket of water and a pot of soup,” he commanded.
Tutti blew a raspberry at him but didn’t fight the gentle touch that eased her back into the bed. Tristan didn’t notice her friend until Angie thrust a bowl of soup in her face. The smell of meat rose from the dish, and little puddles of fragrant fat sat on the surface between sprigs of herbs she couldn’t identify through the growl of her stomach. Angie left the bowl on the floor in front of her and set a spoon in Tristan’s spare hand.
“Eat,” she ordered before retreating to the kitchen. Tristan awkwardly maneuvered herself so she could eat and keep hold of Sarai at the same time.
Three quick knocks, followed by two slow ones, signaled Connor and Anfir’s return. The two were covered in soot and the dregs of the forest, but that didn’t stop Tristan from clutching onto Conner for dear life, sobbing into the dirty cloth of his shirt. The large man soothed her, whispering reassurances against her hair. Anfir shuffled in place when she finally let go of Connor.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t soon enough, Princess,” he said. “Their advance scout caught us as we were leaving, and they tried to trap us in the house. I didn’t think they’d light it up with their own men inside, but you can never judge Doermans by things like common sense, I suppose.” Tristan bobbed her head and launched into his arms.
“I’m just glad you got out safe.”
Anfir chuckled. “They always seem to forget they don’t have every mage under their thumb.” A smell like lightning and metal filled the room as Anfir’s magic rose under his skin. The hair on the back of Tristan’s neck stood up. She looked at him in confusion.
“You used one of your illusions?” His grin slid off his face.
“After one caught Sarai in the gut and the smoke started pouring in, we didn’t have much of a choice. It was that or stay and suffocate.” Saria had seen Anfir illusion things and go invisible her whole life, it seemed, but she’d never known him to be able to hide more than one person at a time.
“Desperation is a heavy motivator, Majesty,” he sighed. “That and I’ve had a great deal of training on the subject recently.” He gently nudged her back. “Now, if you’ll excuse me?”
He left her with Connor to go and take up Tristan’s vigil at Sarai’s side. Any expression he might have was shuttered by the loose strands of red hair that framed his face as he laced his fingers within Sarai’s darker ones, quietly looking over her.
Tristan had known for years that Connor and Sarai didn’t love each other. She’d been disappointed at first, hoping for a romantic sort of coupling that would make them a “real” family. In the years since she’d abandoned that thought. Sarai and Connor were the solid foundation of her life, her parents in every sense of the word, no matter what anyone said. They didn’t have to be in love to be a real family. She understood that. It was the way Anfir and Sarai had tip-toed around each other for years that she didn’t get.
They might think she didn’t notice, but Tristan had been keeping track of the countless unreturned glances and longing looks on both of their parts. The way they edged closer and apart, orbiting each other. She didn’t think a hundred years would grant her the wisdom to understand the way Anfir chased after Sarai like she was the moon and he was the tide. Like they could pull each other together but never meet in the middle. It almost hurt to watch them now, the way their fingers intertwined, and Anfir watched her chest expand with each haggard breath like a man starved for the sight.
Connor’s heavy hand landed on her shoulder and turned her away from the two.
“Leave him be for now,” he whispered. “He needs this.” She nodded, and they left Anfir to his watch. Tristan prayed Sarai would wake up sooner rather than later, for all their sakes.