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~ Previous Chapter ~
“HOW BAD IS it? Don’t pretty it up, just tell me the truth.”
Mouse didn’t even look up from cleaning the newest of Imaino’s cuts. Nor did he waste time with spurious questions about what the lieutenant meant. He knew. They all knew. It was what had been on everyone’s mind the moment Mouse started assessing their healing supplies, carefully collected and stored by Nehtl before the first winter snows. As he then moved on to tending the wounded, the atmosphere had grown steadily more strained with the weight of expectation.
Bringing him a fresh bowl of hot water, Greig caught Mouse’s eye and grimaced. Rolling bandages behind the lieutenant’s back, Haelle and Silveo were equally quiet, awaiting Mouse’s verdict.
Which was the moment he realised he’d gone from useless student weakling to fully-fledged head healer. All their older, better qualified healers were dead and since he’d spent the months since the fall of Aquila under Nehtl’s tutelage, the title and all attendant responsibilities had fallen to him.
“Our numbers are down, as you already know,” Mouse began slowly, ordering his thoughts even as he spoke. “Including the five of us here, there are only sixteen left.” Where once there had been more than forty. “Rechar is our only remaining Rider, not including yourself, sir. We have eight students, with myself and Silveo the only ones with any substantial healer training. All our healers are dead. We still have six regulars, including Ullimn and Jym to look after our five nakhounds, Adyn and Gethyr for tracking and hunting, and I’ve been told both Gedanon and Derneon are still with us, though I’ve not seen either in over a month.”
“They’re still here,” Imaino agreed softly. “I sent them under the mountain with a couple of regulars some time ago, to find a way through to Buteo if possible. I saw Derneon this morning, but he left before you woke. Said he had things to do.”
Mouse could well believe the bulky little Ihran had plans. It didn’t surprise him one bit that both his old combat teachers had survived through the worst Aquila had thrown at them. Ihrans might be short, but they were tough and trained to last. It lifted his heart to know they were both still with them.
“And the wounded, Mouse. What are those numbers? The severity? How many can walk?” Though no one looked at Haelle when the lieutenant spoke, Mouse saw her hunch her shoulders out of the corner of his eye.
“Mostly good,” Mouse said, forcing himself to be cheerful. “Of us students, you know about Greig’s arm and my limp. It seems Naelya has a lurching gait to match mine, while Bhern’s still dizzy from a knock to the head. Rossen’s a bit cut up, but nothing’s fatal and he’s recovering well, and like Silveo, Natten seems to have come through everything with nary a scratch.”
Imaino breathed a sigh of relief to hear the state of his few remaining students. “Then they should all be able to make the walk, as long as we compensate for slower gaits.” And the time it would take to carry Haelle, he didn’t say, but it was implied. “Rechar’s fit, isn’t he?”
“As fit as you, sir,” Mouse agreed, smearing some of Nehtl’s precious herbal paste onto the ragged scratches that ran down the lieutenant’s jaw, neck and across his shoulder. They were long, but shallow; he was lucky the kaz-naghkt hadn’t clawed anything vital.
They were all lucky about that, Mouse reflected, pausing to wash his hands. He didn’t know what they would do without the lieutenant to hold them together and push them on. Which made it all the more important that he didn’t let the wound get infected, no matter how much of their dwindling supplies it took.
“And the regulars? How do they fare?”
“Well.” Mouse was pleased with this report. “Jym’s fully adapted now to having only one arm – Healer Nehtl did a very good job there – and Gethyr may yet keep his eye. I won’t be able to tell until the swelling goes down some more. Adyn is another of the limpers, but I think his is just a twisted knee, while Ullimn only needs to stop giving his food to the dogs and swallow some of it himself for his strength to come back.”
“Good.” Imaino nodded firmly. “That’s very good. You’ve done an excellent job, Mouse. Nehtl would be proud of you.” No one mentioned all the others that hadn’t been saved, both before Mouse returned, and after. Like Alyne, their fiery-headed year mate, who’d picked a fight once too often and finally lost, this time to an unlucky kaz-naghkt clawing that had ruptured something vital in her guts, which she’d owned up to far too late to save herself. If she’d ever stood a chance anyway. It was that loss of tiny hope that Mouse most hated though, that possibility she might have been saved, if only she’d said something.
Or Nehtl himself, who’d died in the dark while Mouse listened, chained up against the far wall, unable to do anything save frighten off the rats in the darkness.
As he cleared away his precious supplies, Mouse kept his head down and tried not to think of things he couldn’t change. Of all the ways he’d failed. He couldn’t allow himself such self-indulgences anymore. He wasn’t a child, he was a healer, the best one they had. There would be time for grief and self-recrimination later, for now he had to keep his remaining friends alive.
So he straightened his shoulders and nodded to his lieutenant. “Thank you, sir. If you’ll let me know when you want to leave, Silveo and I will see what we can come up with for Haelle. It’s probably best we get out of here sooner rather than later, especially now the kaz-naghkt are flying again.”
Imaino looked at him for a long moment, then smiled. “Gods, Mouse, for a moment there I thought we had him back with us again. He did his best work on you.” Before either of them could succumb to the moisture in their eyes, Imaino slapped him on the back. “I’ll let you know, healer. Keep up the good work, all of you.”
As he strode off, Mouse took a moment to scrub any rogue moisture from his face before he turned back to face his friends. “Right then, you lot. Where were we?” Picking up a battered journal from the bottom of their all-important medical kit, Mouse flicked through the well-thumbed pages, running his finger across the painfully familiar scrawl. “Section Two, wasn’t it? Properties of the native Aquilan plants and herbs. Come on, Greig, shock us with your memory.”
“Er… nettles?” Greig hazard a guess. “I know we’ve got plenty of them about. I can still feel their presence from last autumn. I swear I still have bumps in the most unusual places.” He glanced at Haelle, all limpid innocent eyes, leaning closer. “I don’t suppose you’d take a look at them for me, would you? You could rub something on them. Maybe kiss them better?” He puckered up his lips.
Haelle rolled her eyes, blushing bright red as she shoved him away, and that quickly Mouse was back to being a student again, surrounded by his friends. True, none of them were quite as they’d once been, but deep down was what mattered most.
So he let himself smile and even chuckle for the first time in months, letting himself be a seventeen-year-old again. Such chances were few and far between these days, and it would be back to the serious stuff soon enough.
Under his hand, the pages of Nehtl’s journal crinkled, and he silently vowed to do everything possible to be worthy of its creator. Whether here, at Buteo or in the world beyond. He owed that man a greater debt than he could ever repay, but he would keep trying nonetheless.
~ Next Chapter ~
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