Oralech pressed into the river without a second thought. Erisa hesitated on the bank.
“Oralech,” she called out after him. “It’s a log --!”
Oralech didn’t answer. He was already out past his waist. The mass of bramble was caught on the rocks a quarter of the way out. Stuck, but only just. The current battered the wood back and forth. Nothing would stay that way for long.
“Oralech,” called Erisa. “Do you even know how to swim?”
“Some,” called Oralech, not looking away from the rocks. He heard Erisa snarl and pull off her scarves before wading in after him.
It took some stumbling in the mud, but they got out to the rocks. Oralech grabbed at the thickest branch he could find.
“This way,” he murmured. “Do not be afraid. We have you.”
The wood groaned and scraped over the rocks.
“You see?” said Erisa. She bobbed against the current. She helped hold him steady. “You see? We’re doing this for a log.”
A hand scrabbled at the front of Oralech’s soaked robe.
“We have you,” said Oralech, grasping it. He pulled the sap’s limb over his shoulder.
“Oh,” said Erisa.
“Grab their other arm."
Erisa grabbed it. Together they pulled the stranger up the bank. The sap’s trunk left a deep impression in the river bank. Together they dragged them to the dryer grasses of the higher meadows, where they’d parked the wagon. Erisa grabbed blankets. Ti’zo brought Oralech’s medicine bag. The stranger lay senseless, tangled in the frayed remnants of their prisoner’s robes. The whiff of rot was strong.
“Your knife,” said Oralech. Erisa sighed and handed it over.
“Not now.” Oralech cut at the fabric. Oralech arranged the stranger’s limbs into as comfortable a configuration as he could figure. Generally man-shaped, probably male presenting. Oralech checked his ear whorls and mouth. No blockages. No pulse either, but that was to be expected. The stranger’s eyes fluttered. They glowed, but only with a dim, blue-black light.
“Peace,” murmured Oralech. “Peace, peace. You are safe. Can you hear me?”
The stranger’s head lulled.
“Fresh water,” said Oralech.
Erisa vanished into the wagon. She put the waterskins down next to Oralech, keeping a respectful distance from the patient.
“He’s branded,” she said.
“So are we.”
“Do you trust me?”
“I don’t trust anyone.”
“Then he and I are as equals,” said Oralech.
“That’s not what I meant--” Erisa stopped as Oralech stripped off the last bit of the stranger’s robes. “Shit. Is that normal?”
Ostensibly, injuries were minimal: brand freshly carved in the wooden ridge above his right eye, rings of fresh bark around the wrists and neck from the chains, broken collar branches from being battered against the rocks. One might even go so far to say, at a glance, that he’d survived the trip down the falls in fairly good shape.
The stench, however, told another story.
The trip down the river took too long. The cage floor always flooded. The stranger must’ve been soaking in it for days. It would have been bad enough for a human or cur or harp, who often ended up with fluid in their lungs by the time they made it to some vague semblance of dry land, but for a sap it meant something else entirely. His roots had taken up too much water. The roots had taken to rot and, apparent from some areas of discoloration, mold. The black spongy spots ran up nearly a quarter of his right root system, and up a section of his right limb as well. The hand that had grasped at Oralech when he’d fished him from the river was half withered and speckled by a grey fuzz. That grey fuzz broke and oozed. The bark was soft and sank in on itself. The exposed vital fluids beneath ran dark and corrupted.
“Scribes have mercy on you,” said Oralech at last. “You have seen so little of it."
“That bad?” asked Erisa.
Oralech pressed his hand to the stranger’s main trunk, just under his collar. After a moment he put his ear there, tried to hear for something. He heard nothing but a shuddering creak. Saps were not unheard of in the Commonwealth, but they never came to the front. No pulse. They didn’t have one. No movement in the chest. They didn’t have lungs.
Oralech sat up. He could glean only three things: The first was that this man was in terrible pain. The second was that the rot had spread up his body in a manner of days. The third was that, if left uncared for, he would die -- and likely very soon.
“I have seen this before,” said Oralech, “in nomads and curs. It happens often on the border. The filth of the battlefield creeps into their wounds, and they rot while still alive.”
Erisa made a face. “Sounds fun. So what do you do?”
“Something I had hoped I would never have to do again.”
“Will it work on a sap?”
“Want to put him out?” asked Erisa.
Oralech said nothing.
“I can do it if that’s not your thing,” said Erisa. She didn’t blink. “You can just go over there if you want. You don’t have to watch. I’ll make it quick. He won’t suffer. He won’t even wake up.”
Oralech looked up at her.
“Bring me your carving tools,” said Oralech. He picked up the waterskin, and sloshed the clean water out over his hands.
“Fuck,” said Erisa.
Erisa brought him her kit. Erisa brought out one of Ti’zo’s nests, a lit lamp, and Oralech’s herb kit. Erisa started a fire. Erisa took her musket down from over the wagon door and went to stand watch. Night came on fast in the Downside.
It took more than an hour. Oralech tried his best not to cut too deep, or cut away too much. In some places, the softness hadn’t made it too far past the stranger’s bark layer. On his upper thigh, he only needed to scrape off the blackened patches. He did it as quick as he could, but he had to take care to stop as soon as he found the hard patches beneath. Every now and again the man seized and gasped, too weak to even yell. Oralech turned the lamp over his head until he stilled. The laughing herbs didn’t work very well. The smoke was meant to dull human senses. It didn’t even do that well enough for something like this.
Speed was the only mercy Oralech had to offer in this. Speed, and the efficiency of the battlefield when a harp could drop a nest of metal and firecrackers on your head at any moment.
He saved the stranger’s body, his damaged arm, and his upper leg. He wasn’t so lucky with the sap’s afflicted root system, or his right hand. The rot had made it all the way through. By the end, blackened, stinking roots lay in a pile, along with three fingers. Oralech considered heating his knife in the the fire and cauterizing the wounds, but one look at the crackling grass in the fire itself changed his mind. Instead, he packed bandages into the exposed pieces and painted them with antiseptics. After that, he carried the blackened roots back to the river and tossed them out. He returned and knelt next to him, checking him one last time for any signs of mold. He shut off the lamp. He pulled off his cape and tucked it under the man’s head. He groaned. It sounded like a loose plank.
“Getting pretty dark,” said Erisa. She’d finally turned around. “Wanna drag him in?”
“He will need the light,” said Oralech. “They eat sunlight.”
“Won’t be getting any of that for awhile,” said Erisa. The stars winked above. Oralech didn’t look up at them just then.
“Then go sleep,” said Oralech. “It is my turn to keep watch.”
“Ok, but if you pass out in the fire and die, I’m not burying you,” said Erisa.
“I would not expect you to,” said Oralech.
“Great,” said Erisa. “Don’t, all right? There kind of needs to be three of us.”
“We three shall be as one,” promised Oralech. “So it has been since the beginning of the age.”
“It must be bad if you’ve gone this religious.”
Erisa set the musket down beside him. She pulled off her shawl and draped it over him. She left before he could comment on it. Oralech tugged the shawl over his shoulders, watching the stranger’s gnarled eyelids twist in pain. The sky went dark blue, then black, then dark blue again.
Something soft brushed Oralech’s cheek. The imp. He sat on Oralech’s shoulder, his gold eyes bright in the dark and full of worry.
“Hello, little one,” said Oralech. “How is your horn?”
“Hyunnnn rii kriii,” said Ti’zo, whose horn had only hurt a little that morning. He was more curious about this stranger, and whether or not he would live.
“We shall see,” said Oralech. “He is far gone.”
“Skriihihi,” said Ti’zo. He had firsthand experience with Oralech’s skill as a doctor and believed that he would save the stranger, whoever he was.
Oralech smiled. “My abilities have taken me this far. We shall see if they last us one more night.”
“Krii,” said Ti’zo.
“And perhaps the one after. Yes, that would be a fine thing. Will you not rest, Ti’zo?”
Ti’zo curled up on his leg.
“Stubborn,” said Oralech. He pressed his hand to the imp’s head.
In the morning, light crept through the valley and Oralech looked up. He had fallen asleep sitting up. Erisa must have come back out at some point in the night. She’d taken back her shawl and her musket. She liked to hunt. Ti’zo had rolled off Oralech’s leg. He lay face down in the dirt, snoring. Oralech picked him up and turned him over. The imp snorted. He didn’t wake up.
His patient hadn’t died in the night. In fact, some time in the morning light had improved his condition. The green of his mouth and eyes had a steadier glow. When Oralech knelt to check his bandages, the man even turned turned towards the shadow he cast.
“Where...?” groaned the stranger, lifting his bandaged hand.
Oralech took him by the wrist.
“Pay that no mind,” said Oralech.
“Nobody,” said Oralech. He needn’t have bothered with an answer. The stranger passed out of consciousness the moment before he answered. Erisa returned with breakfast, some squirming multi-legged insect she’d dropped out in the fields. It tasted like oil, but it didn’t kill them.
“We can’t stay here forever,” said Erisa. “You know that right?”
“If he survives until the afternoon,” said Oralech, “we shall see if he can be moved.”
“So he is coming with. Don’t know why I even thought I could ask.”
“His life is in our hands.”
“Everyone’s life’s in someone’s hands,” said Erisa. She stared into her bowl. “Boy, can you pick ‘em. Kinda thought we’d be done with that type. Even the brand’s the same.”
Oralech glanced at her.
“As Brighton,” said Erisa. “The one he had on his -- you remember, right? Right?”
Oralech looked at the stranger. The man slept. A pained and fitful sleep but, mercifully, more settled than the night before. He checked his leg. He checked his hand. Then, after a bit, he checked his forehead. The inverted star, the Downside arrows...
“Huh,” said Oralech.
“Seriously,” said Erisa. “You didn’t notice...”
“No sign of rot,” said Oralech. “Good.”
“Fine,” said Erisa. “Fine, fine, fine. Guess I’ll just go, I don’t know, turn over a bunk or something!”
“If you would.”
She swore and kicked a rock, but she did it. In a few hours, the blackwagon took off from the prairie. They traveled through the night, only the occasional collision with a howler shook them. Oralech spent the night next to the stranger, who stirred in short fits. He kept a window open to give him some light. When he was sure it would not harm him, he poured some water onto a towel and pressed it against his undamaged roots. The stranger sighed with relief.
“Nobody,” whispered the the stranger, after a few rounds of this. He managed to open his eyes. They had a definite glow to them now. Still weak, still flickering, but still alive, if bright with delirium. “Nobody did this. Nobody. That is not a name. Do you know that story? I could tell you.”
“You would not like mine if you knew it,” said Oralech. The stranger tried to sit up. Oralech put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down. He didn’t need to know he couldn’t stand. Not yet, anyway.
“Ah, but it aches,” muttered the stranger. “Surely, I must attend the sentencing. What of the trial? What of the verdict?”
“Long given,” said Oralech, he put a hand over his glowing eyes. “For both of us. Rest, stranger. No harm shall come to you while you are here. That is all you need to know.”
The stranger laughed. His eyes burned with fever. He laughed until he slept. It didn’t take long.
“So he talks now,” said Erisa.
“You tell him you cut off his foot?”
Oralech walked past her and peered over the edge of the wagon.
“How fares Hollowroot?”
“They’ve still got tents up,” said Erisa, putting down the spyglass. “Looks like a market might be in. Wanna stop through?”
“Wanna drop him off?”
“They don’t just give that brand to anyone,” said Erisa.
“Then he is in fine company,” said Oralech.
“‘Fine’ huh,” said Erisa.
“We are the Nightwings, are we not?” said Oralech, “We make for necessary villains.”
“Sure,” said Erisa, “when we’re not dragging people out of rivers and training up lost drive imps. Look, Doc, I know we all have our things . You told your superiors to go fuck themselves. I bashed a man’s head in with a hammer. That guy did something complicated .”
“Are we ones to judge?’
“No,” said Erisa, “but we know who is .”
“And you said that already.”
“If he is well enough by the time we reach Hollowroot,” said Oralech, “we will decide then.”
Saps didn’t need to wear clothes, but they preferred them. Since Oralech had wrecked the stranger’s prisoner robes, he offered up a set of the older raiments in compensation. It was the only thing they owned that could possibly fit. It was some form of blasphemy, he was sure, but the minstrel had been asleep in the corner for months and offered no particular insight or objection. Oralech helped the stranger dress. The stranger let him. His wounds had mostly closed. He could sit up, with support. Barely. He fell against him as he did his ties.
“Nobody,” muttered the stranger, “is still not a name.”
“And would you tell me yours?” asked Oralech.
The stranger didn’t answer. He grasped at Oralech’s arm.
“These symbols,” he murmured, shaking the sleeve of the raiments. The sigils sewn into the trim glinted in the afternoon light. “The grand trine. The vernal star. The…”
Oralech took his wrist.
“Peace,” he said. “You trouble yourself with that which had best go unsaid.”
“It has gone unsaid long enough,” sighed the stranger, sliding his hand around to tangle with Oralech’s.
It was the injured one. That was when Oralech noticed the bandages had gained a lumpy appearance. Oralech laid the sap back across the bunk. He checked his roots. The bandages had come loose. Not because Oralech hadn’t bound them tight -- he knew he had done that. The roots had grown out some time in the night. He hadn’t known they could do that.
“Peace,” said Oralech again, but he found he meant something very different this time. He waited until the man was sleeping. He wandered down into the common area.
“What’s got you all worked up?” asked Erisa.
Oralech walked past her and out to the slugmarket. A worn, red denizen greeted him. Oralech sold him two glowing flowers and and two fish. He bought fresh herbs. He bought some fresh bedding for Ti’zo, and some powder for Erisa. He bought the largest set of clothes he could find. And, for the hell of it, he bought a small pinwheel. Ti’zo would like it, perhaps, and it always helped to know which way the wind blew.
That evening he discovered their guest had wandered out into the common room and gotten himself bitten by Ti’zo. Ti’zo, for his part, was embarrassed by the whole incident. The stranger had been snooping. He’d tried to touch the minstrel. Ti’zo liked the minstrel and had been afraid the stranger might hurt him. The threat was imagined. Ti’zo realized this. The stranger had almost immediately fallen to the floor. He hadn’t been able to get back up until Oralech gathered him up. Erisa had been ready to just leave him there the rest of the night.
“My apologies,” said the stranger, who had, it seemed, regained the ability to finish his sentences. “I was overly curious. Did you know that man gives off his own light? I am not sure he is entirely of this world. I hope I have not harmed him. It was not my intent.”
“The minstrel is more than what he seems,” said Oralech, as he painted a new set of bandages for the fresh teethmarks in the stranger’s arm, “and it would take more than a half dead sap to inconvenience him.”
“I suppose I have been that,” said the man, “and I hope I have not inconvenienced you . This is all so very new to me. Do I know you, though? I feel as though we must have met. You never happened to take classes in Solias? Or perhaps Vibernum? Or perhaps--”
“You are chattier without the fever,” said Oralech, “and you have been with us for nearly a week.”
“Ah,” said the man. “That would explain it. What did I say?”
“Nobody is not a name,” recited Oralech. “Mine is Oralech.”
“Oralech,” the stranger’s eyes followed him slowly as he moved on to the bandages on his hand. He was still tired and raw. He couldn’t quite hide his reaction. Oralech wrapped his hand slowly, making sure to allow more space for his new fingers, which were a soft, supple green, and only just barely erupted from the gnarled bark of his hand.
“You recognize it,” said Oralech, when he cut off the ends.
The stranger nodded.
“Hm. Well,” said Oralech, “then they haven’t buried me in full. What do they call me, up there?”
“Would you really like to know?”
Oralech shrugged. “It is worth the laugh.”
“Oralech the Traitor.”
“Hah,” said Oralech, as promised. “In the flesh. Accurate enough. I did warn you wouldn’t like it.”
“I find it hard to form an ill opinion,” said the stranger, “when I am reasonably sure you have saved my life.”
He had also stood over him and tore a chunk out of his side, too, but Oralech could see as clear as anything that he barely remembered that.
“An old habit,” said Oralech. “You are free to go as soon as your roots might carry you.”
“Free to… I beg your pardon?”
“You would simply let me go?”
“Once I am certain you will not be felled by an imp the moment you step into the common area. Is there an issue?”
The man’s leaves rustled sheepishly.
“Not as such,” he said, “but, I admit, I am at a loss. Surely, you must expect some form of payment. I can’t offer it at this exact moment, but I believe I can offer you some recompense as soon as I’ve gotten my bearings...”
“Or a favor of some kind, if that is preferred?”
Oralech tilted his head.
“I should like to do something for you,” said the man, finally. “It seems you have done a great deal for me.”
“If it is so important,” said Oralech, “then tell me your name. Since you were so insistent on knowing mine.”
“My name. You didn’t… I see.” The man blanched -- as much as a sap could -- but, after a moment of hedging, he gathered himself and told him. Oralech blinked. The stranger's hesitance became clear. Oralech actually recognized it. It was fairly notorious.
“Volfred Sandalwood,” he repeated. “The publisher.”
“In the flesh,” said Volfred. “So to speak.”