Jasna dipped another strip of cloth into the boiling water, holding it there, watching it dance amidst the bubbles. She didn’t want to watch Katarin work, although it was somewhat satisfying to hear the girl giving orders to a Traldar queen as if she were some chiurgeon’s fetching boy.
She lifted the bandage out, laying it among the others in the steaming pile, and draped another over the stick, lowering it into the water.
“I think that’s enough bandages,” Brynne said, squatting next to the steaming pile of cloth heaped on the bronze shield.
“We wanted to see Halav’s shield,” Jasna said, wiping at her eyes. “Well, here it is!”
“It doesn’t look anything like the little representations we saw in the Temple, does it?”
“No, it doesn’t. So we went through all this for a lie.” She squeezed her eyes shut.
“It’s the steam. It’s making my eyes water.”
“She’ll be okay. Katarin is in charge. Petra -- Petra! The mother of all the Wisdoms’ herb lore-- working with her.”
“Listen to you, fawning over that --”
Brynne took the stick from Jasna’s hand, raising the strip of cloth from the boiling water. “You’d best watch what you say. She is still a queen.”
“And how about that king?” Jasna said.
Brynne scrunched her nose up. “Not at all like what the tapestries depict.”
“His gut sticks out like a barrel!”
“He’s probably drunk enough wine to fill a barrel.” Brynne giggled.
“Maybe he shapes up before… you know.”
They grew silent as the big red-bearded man sauntered up to them. The dozen spearmen he’d taken to escort the dwarves from the village had dispersed back into the crowds.
“Ladies,” he said, tipping his bronze helm. Or rather, catching the rim before it could slip down over his eyes.
“Your Majesty,” Brynne said, bowing her head.
“Oh,” he said. “I do like the sound of that.” He ambled away, humming off-key.
* * * * *
“M’ladies, the General and the Queen request your presence.”
Brynne and Jasna glanced at each other over the still-bubbling pot.
“I thought you said we’d have to wear skirts to be called ladies,” Jasna said, to the two guards who’d come to fetch them.
“We saw how that one handles herself in a fight,” said the taller one, Mitri, pointing towards Brynne. “Think we’ll be treating her and her friends with all due respect.”
“You should see what she does with a quarterstaff,” Jasna said.
“I have brothers. They’re about your size. And they’re afraid of me,” the other girl said with a grin.
The two guards shared an uncomfortable look, and then gestured towards the large tent. They made sure to stay out of the girls’ reach.
The tent was stifling. A camp bed had been set up in one corner, as close to one of the braziers as Katarin could get it. The weaver sat near the bed, a small hand poking from beneath the furs clasped in her own.
Petra-the-younger lay pale, her breath coming fast and shallow, with a rattle in it much like Silva’s. Her pale blonde hair was still plastered to her head, and Katarin would squeeze and stroke the girl’s hand when she would begin to trash, or cough, whispering in the girl’s ear until the fit subsided.
The General, the Queen and the tall dark-haired man stood apart, in the other corner, their argument heated, but carried in hushed tones. It only stopped when Jasna and Brynne stepped into the tent.
“Ah, good. There you are. We need--” the red-bearded man began.
Brynne and Jasna ignored him, going to Katarin’s side.
“How is she?” Jasna asked.
“Through the worst of it,” the weaver said. “But there is only so much I could do. Most of my effort went to repairing her lung. I did my best, but… she just does not have the energy to spare. Now I have to keep her asleep.”
“Sleep is probably best for her,” Brynne said.
Katarin shook her head. “She needs to eat. If she wakes up, she’ll change. It will undo all of my work. And if it doesn’t….” She looked over to the Three.
“They seem a bit on edge,” Jasna whispered. “Something about a werewolf.”
“She’s just a rat,” Brynne said. “She’s nowhere near as dangerous as a--”
“She won’t be in control if she changes,” Katarin hissed. “She won’t be our Petra, in there. She’ll just be a… a monster.”
Brynne shook her head. “No. She’ll still be--”
“No,” Jasna said. “It will be like in the dungeons. You saw what she did to that ogre.”
“That’s… just because ogres can’t catch lycanthropy,” Brynne said.
“No, they can’t,” Katarin affirmed. “But people can. They would not let her escape.”
“So… what do we do?” Brynne asked.
“She sleeps, until I can think of something.” Katarin said
Behind them, the tall man cleared his throat.
“My compatriots are inclined to leave the lot of you here, in the path of the Beast Men,” he said.
Brynne’s fists tightened, and she made to rise, but Katarin laid a hand over hers, and the tall man held up a hand in parley.
“Be at ease, ladies. I said that was their inclination, not their decision. May I sit?”
Brynne moved aside, scooting closer to Katarin, leaving a gap between herself and Jasna.
The tall man glanced at both girls before settling Ethengari style between them.
“We will be leaving with the dawn,” the man said. “We will take you with us--”
“She can’t be moved!” Katarin insisted.
“You know this girl?”
“Of course we do!” Brynne said. “She’s our friend!”
The man hesitated, as if reconsidering what he was about to say. He glanced over his shoulder. The Queen and the General looked up from their own whispered conversation. The Queen glowered.
“I do wish we could speak somewhere a bit more privately,” the tall man said with a sigh.
“Allow me,” Katarin said. She took a slow, steady breath, her hand leaving Brynne’s to clutch at the stone about her neck. There was a brief pulse of light from it, and Jasna and Brynne both blinked, suddenly, working their jaws. Asleep, Petra gave a whimper.
“My ears!” Jasna hissed.
“You’ll be fine,” Katarin said, her voice at an odd cadence. “It is merely a Circle of Silence.” She looked over to the tall man, but appeared to be looking through him. “You may speak freely without fear of being overheard.”
“So that’s how you two do it,” Jasna muttered, glancing at the girls across from her.
Katarin’s eyelashes fluttered a bit, the corner of her mouth turning up a bit, but Brynne could not hide the blush.
“Perhaps we should begin with introductions,” the tall man said.
“You are Zirchev, called the Huntsman.” Brynne pointed towards the pair outside the Circle. “That is King Halav Red-hair, and his Queen, Petra of Krakatos.”
The Huntsman looked momentarily shocked, then smiled. “King? His queen?” His smile turned into a laugh. “Perhaps it is good that we sit within this circle of silence, lest either of them hear you say that.”
“But--” Brynne looked over at Katarin, who shrugged.
“Huntsman I may be, but Halav’s eldest brother sits upon the bronze throne in Lavv. And while Petra is Queen, her heart is as much within Halav’s grasp as the moon above. Their two kingdoms have been at war for generations.” He peered at the girls intently. “Anybody within two days’ ride of Lavv knows the only sharing of hearts between those two involves knives.”
“The… stories we have heard say it differently,” Brynne said.
“And you say you are from Lugsid?”
“Yes,” Jasna said, quickly.
Zirchev frowned. “I fail to see how we could have missed one girl, much less four of such… distinction among the survivors.”
“He means our hair,” Katarin said, holding up one of her wavy locks. “We don’t exactly blend in, here.”
“Your accents are not of the northern tribes.” The Huntsman leaned forward. “Speak the truth. Let me help you, or they will strand you here, and leave you to Flaghr’s horde.”
The girls stared at each other for a long moment. Petra gave a deep, ragged breath, and began coughing. Katarin rose, and turned the girl on her side. The cloth she used to wipe Petra’s chin came away a deep crimson.
“Shall I fetch the Queen?” Zirchev asked.
Katarin shook her head. “No. She has already done all she can. I have done all I can.” She looked over to Jasna. “We need Silva.”
“If there is another of your number out there, we need to find her,” Zirchev said, rising. “Those woods are infested with Beast Men… and worse things.”
“Believe me, Silva-- if she was here-- could handle a few Beast Men,” Jasna said with a grin.
“This is not ‘just a few.’ It is an invasion.”
“We know,” Brynne said, taking Zirchev’s hand. “Sit. We have a tale to tell you.”