Rhian repeated it dully, as if she repeating sounds she hadn’t understood yet. “You fixed me…” It was only a whisper. Then, after a moment, she blinked fast. Tilting her head up, she stared at Seryn.
Seryn met her eye without flinching. “If I cut deep enough,” she said. “The bruise-blood will spill out, and you’ll stop seeing things that aren’t there.”
Rhian tried to take a deep breath. She almost lost the strength in her arms. “It hurts.”
“I’m sorry,” Seryn said flatly.
“You’re letting me bleed?” Rhian asked.
“I’ll get you back to the fort before it goes too far,” Seryn told her. She glanced at her shoulders again. “I’ll get Tegan to stitch you back up. I hear he can do it so fine, the scars look like stray threads.”
“Scars?” Rhian almost laughed, but her face twisted again instead. She dropped her head. “We never scar.”
“I think you will this time,” Seryn said.
Rhian took one shaking breath, then another. Seconds seemed too long for her to wait through, and she shook, and she shut her eyes, cutting every moment in half with a breath to make it short enough for her to withstand. For a moment, Seryn thought that she would fall into the grass, give up keeping her arms straight, but Rhian refused to drop. The muscles of her arms and back stayed taut, as if she were physically holding back her agony.
Seryn tried to imagine that. She tried to imagine the kind of pain that would pile into her if she gave up and let go. It turned her stomach. She looked at Rhian and told herself she would count to ten, then take the other woman back to the fort.
“How long will I have?” Rhian asked.
“I told you,” Seryn said. “You’re not dying.” One.
“No,” Rhian said. “Before I have to do this again.”
Seryn tilted her head to the side, focusing on her face. Three. “Why would you do it again?”
“When the ghosts come back,” Rhian said. “Everyone says, once we get sick, even if it goes away for a little while, it always comes back.” She didn’t look up as she spoke, laying the words out slowly between breaths.
Seryn blinked at the back of her head. “I think this is permanent.” Nine.
“Permanent?” Rhian repeated. “We don’t stay sick?” Ten.
“We do,” Seryn said.
Sliding her knife back into its sheath, Seryn leaned forward and tucked Rhian’s knife back into place at the other woman’s hip. Then she stood, pulling Rhian up with her. Rhian’s grip hurt, tightening around her arm, but she just set her shoulder underneath the other woman’s and lifted her onto her feet. Rhian winced and gasped when Seryn set her arm behind her back. When Seryn was sure Rhian wouldn’t fall back to the ground, she led her through the first step.
“Then what did you do?” Rhian asked.
Seryn watched their feet. She had to keep her stride short, to avoid the tree roots, to let Rhian lean against her. “Someone told me once that it worked. Fixed us. Twice. You won’t see things, and you won’t need to worry about making too big a fire anymore, either.”
Rhian looked at the side of her face, but didn’t seem to find anything to say.
She winced on the next step. “When does it stop hurting?”
“I think you’ll sleep it off, as soon as it lets up enough for you to sleep at all,” Seryn told her. “When you wake up, you should be fine.”
“Who you told you about this?” Rhian asked.
“A friend,” Seryn said. “Met him on the battle lines. He’d done it to himself.”
“Was he useless?” Rhian asked.
Seryn paused, a moment too long, though Rhian didn’t seem to notice. “No.”
It took them twice as long to worm their way back out of the woods than it had to hide themselves inside. Seryn listened to the breeze and counted breaths, and moved, one foot at a time. By the time they broke through the treeline, Rhian was quiet beside her. She was breathing and she moved her own limbs, but her head hung forward a little too far. She didn’t breathe as heavily as before.
Seryn would have liked to have her inside already. The bleeding should have been stopped, the cuts stitched and bandaged. Rhian should have been sitting on her cot, hands wrapped around a mug of birch and arnica. Seryn wanted her to sleep, but didn’t want to worry about the speed with which it was creeping up on her. She pushed forward.
Rhian stumbled, coming out into the sunlight and Seryn realized she had tried to pull to a stop.
“We’re almost there,” Seryn murmured. “Come on.”
“How are we going to explain this?” Rhian whispered.
Seryn blinked at her, stared for just a moment. “There was a bear,” she said.
Rhian laughed, near silently. “Did I save your life, Seryn?”
“I was frozen in fear,” Seryn murmured. “You were a pillar of courage.”
“And here I thought I tried to stab you,” Rhian said.
“Did you?” Seryn asked. She pushed Rhian forward again. “I wasn’t sure.” She didn’t wait for Rhian to answer. Lifting her head, she called to the guards at the gate: “Hey, get over here! She’s bleeding!”