(Go back to Part 7)
They camped that night in a clearing some distance from the road. McCann tied the horses on either side of them and rolled his bedroll out against a tree. With his sword on one side and an unstrung short bow on the other he climbed under the blanket. Soon his breathing was slow and even; the sergeant was asleep.
Alex hunched against a tree opposite him and munched on a bit of cheese. After finishing, she followed McCann’s example and laid her sword out next to her bedroll.
She stared up at the stars that weren’t obscured by leaves. Alex was tired, but sleep seemed far away; the stony ground was not kind to her sore back and legs. Her thoughts swirled with worry for Dalia, the strange feeling of fresh travel, dislike for the sergeant, and images of the gruesome scene at the caravan.
The caravan . . . McCann hadn’t said anything further about it, but Alex was still thinking about overturned wagons and bodies lying face down in the dirt. She and McCann hadn’t seen any other sign of the raiders who had attacked the caravan. Where were they? Could they be nearby?
She glanced at the sergeant. The man was fast asleep. Alex didn’t know how he could sleep when a gang of bloodthirsty murderers were so near. She didn’t think she would sleep at all . . .
Alex jolted awake. A glance at the stars showed that a few hours had passed. She didn’t know what had woken her. Both horses were awake too, heads up and ears pricked.
“Sergeant?” she whispered, turning to the older man. There was no one there; McCann was gone. His bedroll was still on the ground, but his weapons were not.
“Shit,” whispered Alex. She rolled out of her blankets, tying her boots in the dark and strapping on her sword. Soon she was standing in the middle of the camp, straining her eyes at the darkness around her.
The forest was silent. It offered no clues as to where the sergeant had gone.
Alex frowned. She couldn’t do nothing, but what was she supposed to do? McCann could be anywhere. Did he need help? Were the raiders who destroyed the caravan nearby? What if they were watching her right now?
She needed answers. Alex looked up, checking the stars again, and turned toward the road. Maybe McCann was there, watching for trouble. She’d creep up to the embankment and see if she could find him.
The forest was more difficult to traverse in the dark than she’d expected. Thick roots tripped her feet, and invisible branches tore at her body. Losing patience, Alex bowed her head and bulled through one particularly stubborn obstacle. The ground fell unexpectedly and she fell forward flat on her face.
A black figure tackled her from one side before she could get up. She fought back against this sudden assault, throwing an elbow back into her assailant’s gut and throwing them off. She scrambled to her feet and reached for her sword only to receive a smashing blow to the stomach that winded her. Doubled over and struggling to breathe, she couldn’t fight back as the stranger seized her arm and ground her facefirst back into the dirt. She spat up black loam, struggling to breathe, unable to move.
“Now just what the hell did you think you were doing?” came a familiar voice, although it took Alex a second to place it. It was Sergeant McCann—the knight-sergeant had attacked her in the dark.
“Me?” Alex gasped. “What was I doing? What the hell—what the hell are you doing?”
“I was keeping a very quiet and effective watch over our camp. Now I’m wrestling with an idiot in the middle of the forest, making sure than everyone for a mile around knows exactly where we are and how much we want them to come kill us! Happy?” said McCann.
“You attacked me!” said Alex.
“It was easier than letting the raiders kill you,” replied McCann, “although right now, I’m reconsidering.”
“What was I supposed to do? You were gone, I didn’t know where—”
“You were supposed to stay put while those of us who know what we’re doing take care of things! Goddamn it, Barrius told me you were green, but he didn’t say you were trying to get us both killed.” He released her finally. She sat up, rubbing her shoulder where McCann’s grip had twisted it in the socket.
“You’re crazy,” she said.
“And you’re not ready for this,” he replied.
“Then teach me.”
“What?” McCann recoiled.
“Then teach me! If I’m so hopeless and unready, teach me!” Alex was mad.
Even in the dark, Alex could see him stare at her. He got up and turned away. “No.”
“Sergeant, I’m asking you to—”
“No.” McCann shook his head. He was walking back to camp now, untroubled by the obstacles that had tripped Alex. “No, better to leave you at the next chapter house and let you finish the journey in the spring with someone else. You’re going to get yourself killed in a week out here on the road.”
“Sergeant, I have to.” She followed behind him, stumbling and still not quite able to stand up straight. “I have to go.”
“I’m leaving you at the next chapter house, Acolyte. No discussion.”
“No. Discussion.” He grunted. “I’d leave you with the watch, but you’d get us both killed. Go back to sleep.”
(Continue: Part 9)