The Minder's Bond (Farthane Stories) (2 page)

The water's cold snatched the breath from my lungs. My head broke the surface, and I saw the abandoned ferry several yards away. Good. Our attacker had chosen his ground for a clear shot without accounting for the
current. The river would take us out of range.

Raimurri
clawed at my neck in a panic of limbs. Her elbow bloodied my nose, so I ducked both of us under to make her let go.

When we came up, she grabbed at me again. Her hand closed on the shaft of the arrow driven through my shoulder. Red stars burst in my vision. I pushed us under a second time. Her panic could drown us both.

Our tangled waterskins floated nearby. They'd come free from the saddle when we hit the water. Raimurri had forgotten to refill them, so they held precious, buoyant air from the night before.

I shoved the
waterskins at Raimurri, who clutched them to her chest and gasped for air.

Cliffs rose on our left and right. The river pulled us downstream faster than a man could run.

The water deepened. A sucking maw pulled at my legs, and a raucous roaring filled my ears.

Shadow and ash!
Rapids.

I tried to break the arrow's shaft but I couldn't get my fingers past the head. Yanking it out was my only choice. It ripped a cry from my lips and flesh from my shoulder when I tore it free.

I pulled Raimurri against my chest, thrust her arms through the straps on the waterskins and yelled into her ear. "Feet downstream. Mouth closed. Hold on!"

I brought my legs up under her, holding her cradled like a child in my lap, steering as best I could with one arm.

The river drowned out all sound. The current carried us over a great rock, then plunged into the churning froth below.

Water poured down my nose and throat. The rapid was a tumbling, sucking maelstrom. The river churned us and dashed us like grain against the pestle.

I lost my grip on Raimurri when we struck a rock broadside against my wounded shoulder. The current sucked me under, and the last I felt of her was the touch of her hair slipping through my fingers as the river claimed me.

* * * *

"Finn."

The word had no meaning; an annoyance. I pulled away from it into the black void of darkness.

"Finn!"

More annoyance. My scalp burned like fire, which was odd since the rest of me seemed to be made of lead blocks. The pain in my scalp shook my head back and forth. The fire spread first to my shoulder, then a thousand other places.

"
Finn
!"

I heaved. Spluttered. Choked for air. The fire spread to my lungs, where
it was cooled by gouts of river water retched from my throat.

I opened one eye, then the other. The river had pinned us against a snag, and
Raimurri was holding my head out of the water by my hair. My horse was nowhere to be found.

I let my danger sense flow. Our assailant was distant, a future threat but not an immediate one.
Raimurri, uninjured, was tangled in the branches of the snag.

I looked around. We'd cleared the gorge, and the river was flattening out. Cliff walls gave way to rocky, brush-covered hills. If we could get free of the snag, I saw a place downstream where we could make dry land.

The current tried to force me under the tree where I'd be caught in a death-trap of branches and debris. The river's cold had stanched the flow of blood from my shoulder, but the arm was mostly useless.

Numb and clumsy, I used my feet and legs to force myself upward through the branches until I could clamber on top of the snag.

The wind chilled me to the bone in my wet clothes. I was shivering by the time I reached Raimurri. The snarled straps of the waterskins bound her against the tree, her cheek against the bark.

By some mercy of the river, I still had my knife. My hands shook so hard I nearly dropped it trying to cut her free. Her lips were blue from cold, her eyes glassy. We'd need fire. And soon.

Free of the snag, we waded downstream in hip-deep water. Twice we fell, and the current threatened to wash us away. I kept Raimurri on my right, on the shallow side between me and the bank.

She held her elbows close to her sides, her hands curled and shaking under her chin. Her teeth chattered. What the river had stolen from me was nothing compared to what it had taken from her.

I could see the cut in the bank just ahead, a rocky beach where we could leave the cursed river. The light was growing dim and grey. In a few more steps, we'd make the bank, find a clearing and build a fire.

I felt at my waist for the small pouch that held my firestones. Still there. We'd dry out, warm up and try to figure out where we were and how to find the caravan again.

An arrow whistled in from across the water. I threw myself on top of Raimurri, flattening her headlong into the river's red mud.

I cursed myself for a wool-gathering fool. I should have been tracking our assailant, but I'd allowed cold and pain to dull my wits. I grabbed
Raimurri out of the mud and dragged her forward at a run.

Arrows flew in our wake. They thudded into the bank and rustled like snakes in the leaves.

We crashed through the underbrush, leaving a trail an idiot could follow. I let my Minder sense guide us; away from danger was my only direction. We ran until we collapsed to the ground.

Our attacker was on the wrong side of the river. He'd have to cross over
before he could pursue us.

Pain lanced through my ribs on one side. Cracked, I thought, maybe broken. The arrow wound was bleeding again, soaking the shoulder of my shirt and staining my hand red.

Raimurri lay in a heap. Mud and leaves stuck to her wet clothing. An arrow jutted from her skirts at an odd angle. She hadn't cried out. Had she been hit? Impossible. An arrow through the leg would have taken her down, and my danger sense would have warned me if she'd been injured.

Her sides heaved. She whimpered, still shivering with cold. Running had pushed the cold from my mind, but it was back again, lulling me into a shaking stupor.

I cast my senses toward the assassin, for that's what he was. No caravan robber would have abandoned his prize to pursue us down river. This was the smokescreen Marrec had warned me about. What I didn't understand was why, or which one of us was his target. I reached for him, but it was like trying to catch smoke on the wind.

He wasn't close, but not far, either. We could take a few moments to rest and plan.

Raimurri didn't flinch when I pulled the tangled arrow free of her skirts. She didn't, but I did.

The shaft and feathers were black like the arrows before, but the head that clenched my heart in an ice-water fist. Chipped from obsidian, the arrowhead had notched edges like a saw. When it penetrated flesh, the teeth broke off in the wound, bringing festering death even if the strike itself wasn't fatal.

Anyone might use black arrows, but only the Shaiuun made arrowheads like this one. Trained assassins. Long ago, they'd hunted the Judicars almost to extinction. Were they stalking Menders, now? What if they were in league with Cimya? I knew I had to get this information back to Marrec.

That explained how the assassin had gotten so close before he tripped my danger sense.
Shaiuun warrior meditation was the stuff of legend. The best among them could mask their intentions long enough to slip past a Minder undetected.

But I had his arrow now, and that gave me an edge. The arrow offered me a link to my enemy like the touch of
Raimurri's hand would have bonded me to her.

Darkness had fallen, and a half moon was rising in the east. If I piled leaves around us for warmth, we might be able to spare an hour of sleep. I looked at
Raimurri, already asleep on the ground.

Asleep? Scatter-wit moron!
I laid my hand to her cheek. Her skin was like cold stone. I shook her gently, calling her name and chafing her hands. She stirred, moaned, and turned her face away from me. I doubted she could walk, and certainly not far.

Think, Finn. Think!
I cast out my senses again. Danger is easy to feel, but the absence of danger is much harder. It's like trying to listen for silence in a crowded market.

A trickle of moonbeams filtered through the brush and trees. Several feet away, something flickered, disappeared, then flickered again. Too silvery to be fireflies. Too small to be metal.

I pushed myself to my feet and followed the flicker with my Minder senses rather than my eyes. It radiated safety. I'd gone no more than ten or twelve steps when I found it—a black thread tied to a tree, a thread shot with silver.

I sat down hard on the ground, jarring my ribs enough to bring tears to my eyes.
A thread?
Our lives were in danger, and I was chasing sparkles in the dark.

I looked at the thread again. Something
Marrec taught me tugged at my memory like a bird on a half-buried worm. The thread glimmered again.
Judicars!

It came over me in a rush. The thread was a
Judicar signal. It meant a refuge nearby, a place with shelter and food.

I ran back to
Raimurri. I tried to pick her up to carry her, but both of us crashed to the ground. My wounded arm couldn't take her weight.

She didn't wake, which made my heart pound. Lying beside her, I rolled her onto my good shoulder. I couldn't carry her in my arms, but if I could stand with her on my shoulder, maybe I could get us to safety.

I straightened under her and felt the ends of my ribs grind together. Broken then for sure.

Black spots swam before my eyes. I stumbled to a tree and held us there until they cleared.

I took a deep breath and focused my senses on the Judicar trail. It was like looking for cobwebs on a moonless night. I took a few slow steps.

Another glimmer beckoned. And another. The trail led to a low rock face.

I stood in front of it, staring stupidly. Rock? I gave my head a shake and tried to remember my Judicar history.

Caves.
Judicars liked caves. They'd created the refuges to escape the Shaiuun purge. There must be a cave nearby.

I felt along the wall with one hand. The path sloped unevenly upward, broken by tree roots, rocks and the occasional stair-step. I shuffled my boots along the ground to avoid stumbling. The rock was still warm from the sun. If I'd been alone I might have pressed myself against it to end the shaking cold. Instead, I pressed on.

The rock face passed behind a screen of brush and trees. When the wall under my hand ended, I nearly fell. I yanked my body back against the solid rock. Raimurri threatened to slide from my shoulder. I leaned there for a moment, swaying with vertigo from relief and injury. We'd found it.

I felt my way along the inner curve of the wall. The echo from the scuff of my boots spoke of a snug cavern. I laid
Raimurri in a pool of moonlight near the mouth, then groped until I found the back wall. Crawling, I swept my hands over the floor. The Judicars used these places as campsites, and they would have left supplies.

I stubbed my fingers against a pile of firewood. Next to it, I found folded blankets. The wood was useless.
Judicar magic hid the cave, but the Shaiuun would smell the smoke. I wrapped one blanket around my shoulders and took the other back to Raimurri.

I rolled her in the blanket, then braced my hands against the stone floor. The black spots came more often and fighting them off was harder. Blood loss, I thought, rather than cold, not that the difference mattered. Dead from one was the same as dead from the other.

I scooped Raimurri into my arms. Marrec said she was a Mender, a Mender too strong to be trained at home. Conscious, she could save us both.

"
Raimurri. Raimurri, wake up." I rubbed her hands, her arms, her cheeks and throat. She stirred, but her eyes didn't open. Her head turned a little, and she tried to push me away.

"
Raimurri, listen to me. I need you to Mend. Draw your power, Raimurri." She shook her head again. Her lips formed the 'o' of no.

My fingers tightened around her shoulders. "Draw! Draw your power or we're both dead." She tried to squirm free of the blanket that held her. I wrapped it tighter and clutched her to my chest to share what little warmth I had.

"Papa," she whimpered, pushing at me like a peevish child.

Her body sagged against me, too cold to shake. Ribbons of wet hair clung to her face and neck like thin, black snakes. I pulled the strands away and found the shallow flutter of a pulse under the pale skin at her throat.

I cursed my decision to deny us fire. If I could not warm her, we would not survive the night.

Papa
. She was hallucinating, but she'd given me an idea. How would Vicenna speak to his daughter?

"'
Murri," I murmured against her ear. A flicker of movement under her purpled eyelids told me she heard me.

"Draw for me, '
Murri, sweetling." She was dead weight in my arms. Her head lolled to the side. "Just a little, 'Murri. Draw for me."

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