Their first day back on the trail after the Bat Malice was dispatched, Arkady was actually relieved to be moving again. It felt oddly as if life was getting back to normal, even though he had never traveled like this before a few weeks ago. And the bright grounds of their farmer cohort were showing anticipation for the future, instead of fearful reflection on the events of the past few days.
In the morning there was sunshine, and birdsong, and the world trying to convince them it wasn't such a sorry place after all. Barr couldn't help Arkady with the horses, but Sumac had heated some water for his morning tea, and Remo would likely lend a hand when it came time to load up. Life on the road, Arkady had found, was good for the appetite, if not always for soundness of sleep.
Then Fawn came up to him while he was savoring his tea, and her ground resonated with worry. "Arkady? Is Dag all right?"
Arkady glanced to the woods where Dag had recently limped off towards the latrine hole. He could barely sense his apprentice's ground at the moment. "I checked his ankle last night; it's still painful, but progressing nicely."
He could have made a substantial difference in the ankle's healing if he had intervened more when the injury was fresh, but all his energy at the time had gone to Barr's leg and then Pakko's spine. He had spared the attention to make sure there was no fracture, and he'd eased the swelling around the tendons, but not much else. Now, days later, Arkady had the energy to spare, but it would take disproportionately more time and attention to make any difference to the ankle. There seemed little point when it was healing adequately, if slowly, on its own.
But Fawn shook her head. "It isn't his ankle I'm worried about. He didn't hardly sleep last night, and this morning he's really... grumpy."
Arkady lifted an eyebrow. "Surely the two are related. We've all had our share of bad dreams this week."
"Well, yeah. So... you think he's all right?" Fawn pressed.
"His ground is closed," said Sumac, coming up on Arkady's other side. "We can't tell much when he's like that. But it's pretty normal for him." She glanced over at Arkady. "Or it used to be."
"It took him a few weeks in the medicine tent before he'd hold himself even half open, if he didn't have an immediate reason," Arkady admitted. He had thought Dag's habit of keeping his ground tight-veiled was a result of the distresses and traumas of the past year, but from Sumac's reaction he gathered that it was a much older pattern: the behavior of a man lying in his grave waiting for someone to throw the dirt in? Arkady winced at the thought; the analogy had hardly been charming even at the first, but it was less so now that Fawn had suffered that fate quite literally.
"It's half the reason I didn't recognize him when we first came up on your party," said Sumac. "Lakewalker with his ground open when he's not searching for something? Couldn't be Uncle Dag." She shook her head ruefully.
"The other half being how much his ground had changed?" Arkady guessed. The fluctuations in Dag's ground as he absorbed what he had taken in from various sources continued to be a source of fascination and annoyance to Arkady. Strangely, it seemed that some of the most appalling ground (even a mud-bat!) didn't particularly trouble Dag so long as he was confident he'd taken it for the right reasons. Dag's attack on the renegade Crane, on the other hand, had echoed in his own spinal cord for months afterward, and Arkady could still see the traces if he looked. But there were some types of ground (mosquitoes, ye gods!) that were simply too dangerous to absorb regardless of the reason, and Arkady was determined to make sure his apprentice didn't rip any more noxious creatures.
"It is odd, though," Sumac noted. "Normally about this time he'd be checking everyone out. Even laid up with his bad ankle he should be reaching out with his groundsense, not all closed in on himself."
It was true; Dag had been treating this traveling party like his own responsibility, like a patrol that he was captaining. That need to make sure everyone was all right had only strengthened after the terror and separation of the two malice fights. Yesterday at this time Dag had been sitting quietly on his bedroll, but he had watched every animal being saddled or hitched and checked every human for unusual distress. Earlier in the trip he would have been walking around to check with his eyes as well as groundsense.
"He's not just in a bad mood," Fawn said slowly. "I could understand that after sleeping poorly. But it was almost like... well, not that he didn't remember me, but like he couldn't think why he should care."
That got Arkady's attention. Dag's devotion to Fawn had been blazing and constant since the first day the two had walked into his camp, and it had only gotten more intense since her pregnancy began, and then the battle with the Bat Malice. What could have drawn his attention so thoroughly away from his emotional center?
"His eyes looked weird, too," said Fawn's brother Whit, leading his already-saddled horse up to their fire. "I offered him some bread for breakfast, and when he looked up I saw it."
"Saw what?" An alarm bell started to ring somewhere inside Arkady.
"He had one eye gold, but the other was black."
Arkady shot to his feet so quickly that he spilled his tea, and scarcely noticed enough to set the tin cup down hastily.
"You know what's wrong with him?" Fawn asked, but he was already striding towards the woods.
Perhaps fortunately, he met Dag returning. Not that Arkady would hesitate to seek out a man in the middle of his eliminations if there was a medical reason for it - and he feared there was. But Dag was on his feet, no more unsteady or grim-faced than the injured ankle could account for. And his ground was so tight that it was impossible to tell anything further.
Arkady intercepted his apprentice before he could settle onto the bedroll again. "Dag. Open your ground for me. Please," he added belatedly.
Annoyance flickered across Dag's face, but not the faintest sign appeared in his near-invisible ground. "I don't have to do what you say," he mumbled indistinctly. "I'm not dirty." Awkwardly, he went down on one knee to start packing up his bedroll.
Arkady had heard Dag mumble before when he was embarrassed or reluctant to talk, but the slurring around the edges of the words now heightened his sense of alarm. He was drawing himself up to exert every measure of his groundsetter's authority, aware that it still might not be enough to counter Dag's reflexive resistance, when Fawn stepped forward.
"Dag?" she said tentatively. "I'm worried about the baby. You're certain she's okay?"
Dag squinted up in puzzlement from where he knelt, and Arkady caught his breath as the morning light revealed what Whit had described; one pupil was blown wide.
"Could you check her for me?" Fawn asked, one hand resting on her stomach. The worry in her ground was absolutely genuine, although Arkady suspected only a small portion of it was for the baby.
Dag reached for Fawn with hand and ground. Arkady took a moment to admire Fawn's tactics and to let Dag's focus center on his wife, but already he could see the pulsing abnormality in the front of Dag's head.
Putting a man to sleep with a groundsetting projection was a very dirty trick, and not entirely safe. Arkady had learned about the method years ago from his mentor, who had said it was only to be used on the most hysterical of patients, those in danger of hurting themselves. Arkady had used the trick once on a screaming child that had already punched another medicine-maker in the nose, and once on a woman facing birthing surgery similar to Tawa Killdeer, who had been terrified of the pain. The woman had developed a bleed in her brain as a result, and Arkady had only just managed to stop it in time. She had later died of infection from the surgery, and he often wondered, of a night, if he might have saved her if he had not distracted himself by tinkering with her brain.
Dag was already bleeding in his brain, and Arkady feared to make it worse, but he was more afraid that Dag would close his ground tight again, and keep it closed even while he fell unconscious, until all they could do was sit by and watch him die. Dag's ground-veiling was strong enough to resist the concentrated attention of a malice; Arkady would never be able to get through if Dag didn't want him to. So he snapped out quickly with his ground projection to squeeze on the little organ in Dag's brain, fortunately not near the existing injury.
He had never considered what would happen if he tried this on a resisting fellow groundsetter, one proficient in combat. Dag's head whipped around, his eyes and ground flashed, and he swiped at Arkady with his hook. Then he slumped to the ground.
"Dag!" Fawn gasped in alarm, catching at his shoulders as he went down.
"It's all right," Arkady managed, reaching for the jagged tear Dag had rent in his pants. "I just put him to sleep."
"Oh. It looked almost like when he took down that Crane fellow. He's not... he won't be..." Then Fawn looked up at Arkady. "Oh! Are you hurt?"
Sumac was rushing over to them, followed by Whit and Berry, all of them equally alarmed.
"Nothing to speak of," said Arkady, half distracted. Dag had moved so quickly he wasn't quite sure just what his apprentice had done. Fortunately Dag's hook was not sharp enough to do much more than tear wool and bruise skin, so there was hardly any bleeding to be stopped. Next he checked on Dag's own state; the bleed in the brain was nasty and must be addressed at once, but at least Arkady had not made it worse.
"Your nose is bleeding," said Sumac.
"Oh." Arkady dabbed at it with the back of his wrist. Although he'd acquired some skill at treating his own extremities, he couldn't properly see the core of his own ground, and certainly not the inside of his own nose. "Sumac, a small ground reinforcement here if you please? Whit, go find Calla and ask her to step over here. Berry, I need soap and clean water - boiled and cooled if you can find it, but I need it quickly."
"What happened?" Fawn asked.
"Dag's surliness that you noted is a symptom. So are his uneven eyes. He has an injury to his brain." Arkady bent over Dag's crumpled form. "Here, help me lay him flat on the bedroll, if you please."
"His brain? From when those muleteers knocked him out with a shovel? But that was days ago!"
"The fact that he was knocked out, even for a few minutes, says that there was a bruise inside his head. That was half-healed, but then something must have made it worse again. Did he bump his head last night, even a small bump? Or strain himself lifting something?"
"He was checking Copperhead's hoof and Copperhead moved his leg wrong," Fawn whispered. "But it wasn't even a bump, hardly, he just pushed against Dag's head a moment."
"That might be enough to restart the bleeding." Arkady was cursing himself for having missed it, but he let that go to concentrate on the moment. "Silence now please, while I examine the injury."
He placed his hand over the dark scab on Dag's forehead that marked where he'd been hit with the shovel, and narrowed his focus inward. He had checked the injury when he first saw Dag after it occurred, and he found again the pattern of bruising both at the front and back of the brain where the delicate matter had sloshed after the skull was so rudely jarred. That bruising had indeed begun to heal, but some of the small blood vessels had been leaking, and clotting, and leaking again. Then the pressure from the horse's knee last night had started the process up again, but this time enough blood had filled the area to increase the pressure inside the brain. The body wanted badly to ensure enough blood was getting to the brain, so the heart pushed the blood harder to overcome the pressure inside the skull, causing more bleeding and more pressure in a vicious circle. Arkady had seen such cases turn fatal in an astonishingly short space of time; for Dag the symptoms had developed more slowly. It must have been building up all night. But since one of the first signs was difficulty thinking clearly, Dag had been in no condition to tell anyone that something was wrong.
With careful, delicate ground-fingers, Arkady sealed together the broken blood vessels. The tiniest ones he pinched closed entirely, and soon the bleeding was stopped. But that didn't solve the problem of the extra fluid that had already built up; it only kept it from getting worse. He would have to act quickly before the remaining blood clotted and became impossible to move.
When Arkady surfaced to awareness of the world around him, he found himself at the center of a cluster of people. Berry had retrieved the remainder of the water Sumac had made for his tea, now warm but not scalding, and had it ready for him to wash his hands. Calla had brought two of the packs with his most-useful medicine tent equipment, and Fawn had spread a blanket over Dag's still form.
Calla handed him a scrap of bandage and he looked at it blankly until she gestured to his face. He realized his lips and chin were wet, and he could taste blood. He wiped at it impatiently, then reached for the folded leather kit with his knives. He selected the longest and narrowest and handed it to Calla. "Boil this in water for three hundred heartbeats. When you draw it out, the blade end must touch nothing but air, understood?"
"Arkady, why is your nose bleeding?" Sumac asked uneasily.
Arkady wiped it again. "Dag didn't appreciate my putting him to sleep. It's not dangerous. Likely it will stop by itself in a few more minutes."
"Dag did that to you?" Whit marveled.
"He wasn't thinking clearly. He felt threatened; he lashed out. I should have anticipated the problem." He should have anticipated the possibility that Dag's injury could worsen, should have been watching him closely. "Fawn, if I could trouble you - after I wash my hands I mustn't touch my face."
She nodded and took the scrap of cloth from him as he reached for the soap and water.
"What are you going to do?" Sumac asked.
"Dag has been bleeding inside his brain. Fortunately it's only a few small blood vessels, and not a dangerous amount of blood lost. I've stopped the bleeding, but the blood that already leaked has been building up inside his skull with nowhere to go. I have to get it out."
"And... how are you going to do that?" asked Fawn tensely.
Arkady took a deep breath, shaking water from his hands. "If I had caught this earlier I could have encouraged the blood to come out through his eye socket. It looks alarming but it is the simplest route and the nearest to the site of the injury. Now, it's been too long and there are too many clots. The best way to clear it out is through his ear. I'll have to open up the eardrum."
Fawn winced but didn't say anything.
"I can seal it up again later. I won't have my apprentice half-deafened." By my own incompetence, he did not add. If he couldn't encourage the blood out that way, he might have to cut a hole in Dag's skull, but he wasn't going to tell Fawn about that unless he was certain it would be necessary.
"Is Dag's brain... will he be... himself again?"
Arkady regarded Fawn soberly. "Likely the personality changes you noticed are a temporary symptom that will resolve when the pressure on the brain is reduced. But we'll have to wait until the brain swelling goes down before we'll know for sure."
She nodded. "How long?"
"We'll know in a day or so. Full recovery will take a few more."
"I already told Finch and Ash we're not traveling today," Sumac reported. "It's time to split up the party for climbing the pass, anyway, so they'll take the one wagon up today and then bring the mules back down to us here. If Dag's still not fit to travel tomorrow -" She shrugged. "We'll think of another plan then."
Calla brought back Arkady's knife, held gingerly by the wooden handle. He got his helpers to roll Dag onto his right side, then brought the knife to Dag's left ear. Guiding the blade by groundsense more than vision, he inserted it into the ear canal and cut a neat slit in Dag's eardrum. "Roll him over on his other side, now."
With the left ear facing downward, Arkady set the knife aside and reached into Dag's head with a ground projection to create a second opening, further in, that would allow the blood to reach Dag's ear in the first place. Then he began the long slow work of persuading the old half-clotted blood and other excess fluids to drain down and out. He drew his ground projection through Dag's head like a comb, leaving the folds of delicate tissue untouched but encouraging the fluids to move, slowly and steadily, out through the exit he'd provided.
Something tapped against his ground and he looked up to find Sumac watching him intently. "Yes," he grunted. "Thank you." Fawn moved closer and he felt cloth dabbing at his upper lip. Then he focused inward again.
It was a long, slow process, not to be rushed. He pulled his attention aside from time to time to check that Dag was remaining asleep, and that his heart was beginning to calm. Persuading the heart not to labor so heavily was an impossibly complicated undertaking for groundwork; even with foxglove powder it was hard to strike the right balance. Arkady had tried to study the interrelationships in some of his elderly patients, but there were many organs working together, even those as seemingly disparate as the kidneys. Fortunately, in Dag's case the heart's overwork was not a longstanding problem but a reaction to the injury inside his head, so even if Arkady could not address it directly he could monitor the state of the heart to know if his work was having the desired effect. And slowly, almost imperceptibly, it was.
It must have been a few hours later that Arkady sat back again. Calla, Whit and Berry were gone; only Fawn and Sumac remained. He looked down to find that someone had placed a pad underneath Dag's cheek, now stained with an alarming amount of gore. Alarming but not, to a trained eye, life-threatening. Slowly, remembering how to move his hands instead of his ground, Arkady peeled back Dag's eyelids. The left pupil was still sluggish to respond to the midmorning light, but at least a rim of gold was now visible around the black.
"Are you done?" Sumac asked him.
"With the groundwork, yes. For now," Arkady added. "Dag's body is still working on the rest. Keep him on his side," he told Fawn. "He shouldn't wake, but if he does start to move, try to keep him calm and still. I'm going to -" He tried to get to his feet and staggered on legs gone completely numb. Sumac caught him and helped keep him steady as the numbness rapidly gave way to pins and needles.
When he could stand on his own, Sumac bent to scoop up a waterskin for him. "The boys managed to kill a deer, believe it or not. There'll be roast venison later, but I can get you some trail bread and plunkin strips now if you like."
He drank the water gratefully, but pleaded the need for a visit to the latrine before eating. When he returned he sat, numb with fatigue, on another bedroll close to Dag, checking on his patient every few minutes. Sumac had stepped away to check on the young patrollers and their progress with the cooking.
"Are you all right?" Fawn asked him diffidently. She was sitting by Dag's head, petting his hair. Arkady supposed it was to soothe herself as much as the unconscious man.
"Your nose is still bleeding. Slower, though."
He hunted around for the cloth he'd been using; Fawn handed over a blood-smeared mess. Sighing, Arkady wiped at his face.
"Dag could have killed you, couldn't he?" Fawn continued.
Arkady stirred himself to speak, then. "It would only be fair. I almost killed him."
Fawn's ground rippled with surprise. "How do you figure?"
"My apprentice was bleeding to death, all night long, within a few paces of where I slept, and I never even noticed."
"Isn't that Dag's fault for keeping his ground closed all the time?"
Arkady shook his head, but didn't reply directly. He dabbed at his nose again. "I've had many apprentices over the years. Most of them, at one time or another, did something that might get them killed. Most of them," he sighed, "did not succeed. You might think Dag would be more sensible, with so many years of patrolling, and with his ground sense so much more developed than the average apprentice."
Fawn snorted and gazed down fondly at the black head she was still stroking. "More sensible? Not so's you'd notice."
"Hmm. Apparently, all that experience and ability just means he gets himself into worse trouble than anyone else could manage. I left New Moon thinking I would keep Dag alive long enough to train him up properly. When he was carried off by giant monster bats I had to change that perspective a bit. Still, I was thinking at least he wouldn't die from anything I could prevent. This -" He waved at Dag's head. "This is exactly my area of expertise. And I missed it. I checked his head when I first saw him after that run-in with the muleteers, and I missed the bleed. And I missed Dag making it worse last night. It makes me wonder if I have any call to be teaching medicine making at all."
"No it doesn't," Fawn said firmly.
Arkady drew his head back and looked at her.
"Teaching is what you do. It's what you're best at, even better than medicine making, and for that you're the best in the hinterland. And you know it, too. The real reason you followed Dag? I reckon it's because you never had such an interesting student before." Her cheeks dimpled and she looked down at her husband again. "I should know - that's pretty much why I followed him, too."
Arkady frowned. "Dag has the potential to be a better medicine maker than I am, if he ever applied himself whole-heartedly to the craft. But as much as he feels called to the work, I don't see that he'll ever have a singular focus on medicine making. He's too much a patroller, and a patrol captain, and even a bit of a knife maker."
"What Dag wants," Fawn said surely, "what he needs... is to be a world maker. He'd never say it like that - sounds too grand and uppity, I suppose. But it's what he's trying to do."
"That sounds like a recipe for heartbreak," said Arkady. But she was right; her words brought into focus the mystery of Dag that had teased at his mind ever since he met the man.
"He's got a better chance to make a real difference than anyone I've ever met," Fawn said.
"Well, then!" Arkady took a breath. "I'd better make sure he stays alive long enough to use that chance, eh?"
As he shifted up to move closer to his patient again, Fawn held up a hand. "He's all right for now, isn't he?"
He checked more closely. "The bleeding hasn't resumed. His head is still draining, but all the big clots are gone. He won't be waking up any time soon."
"If he's still draining, it's too soon for you to fix his ear, right?"
"Then go have something to eat. Sumac's right, and I think she's put together a plate for you over by the fire. Send Calla to sit here with me, if you want someone with groundsense to keep checking on him. But take some rest before you start up again."
Arkady narrowed his eyes at her, but she lifted her chin defiantly. After a moment, he shook his head. "As you say, Missus Bluefield." He started toward the fire, then paused and looked back at her. "And Fawn?"
"Thank you. For bringing him to my gate."
Dag woke slowly, first his groundsense (Fawn was very close), then hearing and smell (voices and campfire), then at last he took a shuddering breath and opened his eyes. The sky was pale gray with twilight, but there was something wrong about it. After squinting around for a little, he realized it was evening, not morning.
"Fawn?" he murmured, and his voice came out as a croak. He turned his head to find her sitting next to him, her brow creased with worry. She handed over a waterskin, and when he took a sip he discovered his mouth and tongue wanted more.
"Why'd you let me sleep all day?" he asked in between gulps.
She returned another question: "How do you feel?"
"Groggy from too much sleep. My head hurts a bit, and my ankle." There was something odd about his left ear too - Fawn's voice had been distorted. He reached his right hand around to rub the ear, but Fawn caught and held it. "Spark? What's wrong?"
"How bad does your head hurt?"
"No worse than the last few days. Better, actually." His ankle, though it twinged, was also throbbing less. He frowned down at it. "You going to tell me what happened?"
"You were bleeding. Inside your head. What's the last thing you remember?"
"Going to sleep last night. My head hurt worse then." He stared around in bewilderment. "Did I really sleep that whole time?"
"No, you were up in the morning but you seemed sort of... grumpy and strange. Arkady figured out what was wrong, and then he spent most of the day, off and on, fixing it."
"What's wrong with my ear? Why won't you let me touch it?"
She grimaced and let go of his hand. "Just be careful. Arkady had to, um, coax the blood to come out of your ear because he said it was bad to let it build up inside your head. He fixed your ear, after, but I didn't quite get all the blood washed away. Now you're awake I can reach better, but the sun's gone down so I can't see."
Sure enough, the inside of his ear was crusty and crackling. He made a sound of annoyance as he rubbed at it, twisting his neck around so that he could reach.
"Is your groundsense okay?" Fawn asked.
"Sure. Why?" Dag glanced around the clearing. He realized that half the farmers and wagons were gone, but all the mules were here - apparently preparing to haul the remaining wagons up the next pass. Whit and Berry were by the fire with Remo and Rase. Sumac and Arkady were nearer the trees, Arkady lying and Sumac sitting. As he touched her ground, Sumac got to her feet and approached.
"Dag," she said in neutral tones. "Are you feeling all right?" Oddly, she had her ground half-closed, instead of reaching out to see for herself how he was doing.
"I'm fine now. I don't remember what all has been happening." He remembered Fawn saying he was 'grumpy' - had he said something to annoy Sumac? But he couldn't imagine her holding that against him.
"Can you do a ground projection?" Sumac asked.
"He only just woke up!" Fawn protested, but Dag was already testing himself. Two extra hands flashed in his ground sense.
"Good," said Sumac. "Come over here, Arkady needs some help."
Dag stood up at once - too quickly. Fawn caught him by the arm, and a moment later Sumac was supporting him as well.
"He's not all right yet!" Fawn objected.
"Arkady says it won't take much, but it needs a groundsetter. Just come have a look."
Arkady was awake, sitting up as they approached with his legs neatly curled beneath him. He was dabbing at his nose with a scrap of cloth already stained red - Dag couldn't see much detail in the fading light, but groundsense told him there was a mixture of dried marks and fresher ones, still shining. Arkady's ground was noticeably less dense than usual, though Dag couldn't quite tell if that was from doing too much groundwork in the last week or if it was a consequence of blood loss. Probably both.
"How are you feeling?" were the first words from Arkady's mouth.
"See for yourself," Dag retorted, letting his helpers settle him on the ground. He studied Arkady even as he felt the intense focus of the groundsetter's attention turned on him.
"Hmm," was Arkady's conclusion of qualified satisfaction, but Dag in turn was growing more disturbed by what he saw.
"Who did that to you?" he demanded, finding a blood vessel on the inside of Arkady's sinuses - scarcely a finger's breadth away from his brain - had been stripped of ground to the point where even the natural clotting of blood couldn't properly seal it up.
"Never mind that, can you patch it up? I can't see it properly myself, and it's been leaking all day."
But Dag's mind was continuing down the paths of logic to reach the obvious conclusion. There was only one person within hundreds of miles who could have done that to Arkady. He twisted to look up at Fawn. "You said grumpy, not murderous!"
Arkady tapped his ground sharply. "Stop that. You have a patient to attend to. We'll talk about it later."
Dag looked at him keenly. "You sure you trust me to do that?"
Arkady deliberately misconstrued the question. "It's not complicated. I'm sure you can manage it."
Dag sighed, and with a ground projection that suddenly seemed monstrously huge and clumsy, he reached into Arkady's face to try to persuade the torn blood vessel back together. It didn't work; the groundripping had fundamentally changed the nature of the stretchy tube for a portion of its length. More painstakingly, Dag rerouted the blood around that vessel, encouraging other pathways to open further while he closed off the torn one at its branching.
"All right, that's enough," said Arkady after a while.
"How do you know if you can't see it properly?" Dag grumbled.
"I can see you're getting into finer detail than you need to. It will take care of itself now."
"How can you just trust me to -"
"Stop," said Arkady firmly. "Fawn, Sumac, I need a few minutes alone with my apprentice."
Sumac frowned, but Fawn said brightly, "You must be hungry, Dag. You didn't hardly eat at breakfast and then nothing all day long. I'll see what I can find for you, all right?" She drew Sumac away with her, but the Lakewalker woman unfurled her ground to keep track of them as she moved off.
"Arkady, what the blight -"
Arkady raised his voice a little. "This may not be Challa's medicine tent, but there's no call for foul language."
"If somebody doesn't tell me what happened, I'll give them foul language!"
"You don't remember this morning at all?"
"Do you remember Copperhead kicking you last night?"
"He didn't kick, I just moved my head the wrong way and bumped his knee a little." Copperhead's knees were as hard and bony as his spine.
"That little bump exacerbated the damage from the shovel three - no, four days ago." Arkady touched Dag's forehead lightly, and he was surprised to realize the tenderness of the spot was almost gone. "Sometimes a very mild second blow can prove dangerous, even deadly, where the first did not. You began to bleed inside your brain, slowly. By the time you woke up the next morning you were not yourself. You were not responsible for your actions."
"But what did I do?" Dag asked plaintively. Aside from the evidence in Arkady's head, there was Sumac's distrustful attitude and Fawn's worry to be explained.
"Well, as I understand it, you failed to smile at Fawn and she instantly knew something was wrong." Arkady's lips curved a little. "You also refused to eat, and Whit noted that your pupils were uneven. As soon as I heard that detail I suspected what was wrong, but you were tight-veiled and you refused to open your ground at my request."
Order, more likely, Dag suspected, but he didn't interrupt.
Arkady took a breath. "I was afraid that you would remain closed until it was too late to treat the injury. You were lucky to have awakened at all, you know. So, when Fawn persuaded you to open your ground, I used a projection to put you to sleep."
Dag frowned. "How do you do that?"
"I will describe the method for you, later. I won't demonstrate. It can be dangerous, so it is only to be used in the most extreme circumstances. I thought this case qualified, but I didn't consider how you would react to my, apparently, attacking you with a ground projection."
"I hit back?" Dag guessed, his heart chilling.
"Fortunately, your aim was inexact. You did considerably less harm to me than I did to you through inattention."
"But I could have -"
"If you had killed me, you would have died also. Instead we're both alive; focus on that."
Dag was still thinking about what Arkady had said regarding inattention. "You reckon this was all your fault somehow?"
"I was not paying close enough heed to your injuries. You've been treating everyone on this journey with us as members of your patrol, and you check on them every day and night. If I had done the same - for all my patients - this episode might have been averted." He shook his head and looked away. "I've already had this conversation with Fawn."
"Ah." Dag brightened a little. "She'll set your head straight."
"Quite. So instead of brooding, I will do better going forward. That means you'll open your ground for me morning and evening, every day, so long as you wish to consider yourself my apprentice."
"Yes, sir," Dag said glumly.
"Now. How is your headache?"
"Not bad. About like I spent a day riding in hot sun without a hat. No worse than that."
"Just a general ache."
"Hmm. Give me your hand." Arkady checked the pulse in Dag's wrist, his frown of concentration easing at what he found.
"My ankle feels better too. Is that your work?"
"I spent most of the day sitting and watching your brain leak out through your ear. I had to do something."
Dag rubbed at the ear reflexively.
"How is your hearing?"
"Seems like it would be normal except for all the crusty stuff up here getting in the way."
"Leave it alone tonight and you can have Fawn wipe it in the morning with a clean damp cloth." As if reminded, Arkady picked up his own stained scrap, turned and refolded it until he found an unmarked bit, and pressed it to his nose. When he pulled it away there was no new mark. "Good. Nicely done."
Dag sighed, knowing better than to refuse the compliment even though he felt it was undeserved.
"As for this -" Arkady tapped Dag's cheek, behind which he could presumably see the strip of ground that Dag had ripped from him. "If my ground takes as long to be absorbed as what you took from that renegade Crane fellow, I will be very insulted."
Dag chuckled reluctantly. "I suppose I'll find it a bit easier to take in. But... are you sure you didn't lose too much blood, if that's been leaking all day?"
"I lost less than you did today. But didn't we teach you how to estimate blood loss? Ah, well, I suppose that one is always easier for the female apprentices." Arkady looked up as Fawn and Sumac returned bearing plates with venison and trail bread and, yes, plunkin strips. "Fawn, tell me. Did I lose a dangerous amount of blood today? Did Dag?"
Fawn looked between them, then glanced at Sumac. Sumac opened her mouth briefly and closed it. "Well," said Fawn gamely, "it was more than I would bleed on a day of my monthlies, but not as much as three days. But... that isn't really the same thing, is it?"
"Close enough," Arkady said. "And well reasoned. A healthy adult - man or woman - can afford to lose about as much blood in one event as a woman loses during her monthlies, and not be in danger. When it gets to be about twice as much, or if it's happening more than once in a month, then you worry."
"But... women are also losing blood at their monthlies, so they're halfway there, aren't they?" Dag said doubtfully.
"Women are better at making blood than men, so it nearly balances out. Note, I said a healthy man or woman. Someone who is already weakened from age or illness, or the demands of pregnancy, will be more vulnerable. But enough teaching for now. Let's eat."
Dag found himself hungry and set to the food gladly. Whit and Berry and Calla came over to check on Dag's recovery, then excused themselves to carry a report back to the others waiting by the fire. While he ate, Dag glanced over at Sumac a few times. She was still part-closed, but she seemed more thoughtful now than annoyed. He bumped her ground gently, and she huffed, not quite a laugh.
"Just when I think I've found someone that even my father and grandmother would approve of, suddenly it's Uncle Dag trying to scare him off," Sumac said, mock-indignantly.
"I didn't!" Dag protested. "Much." But even though he was joking, he could feel the patch of stolen ground as an ache in his face, and Arkady gave him a narrow look.
"It wasn't Dag's fault," Fawn said firmly.
"No, and it wasn't Arkady's either," Sumac replied. "Wasn't even the muleteers' fault, really, although sometimes it does seem Lakewalkers take the brunt of farmer stupidity."
"We plan to do something about that," Fawn put in. "Dag, and Arkady, me and my brother, all working together, we're going to teach farmers about what Lakewalkers really do."
"Hmm," said Sumac a little doubtfully. "But what I meant to say is, this is all just the sort of thing that spreads from a malice."
Dag recognized where she was heading now, and he sat up a little, taking breath to speak. At Sumac's sharp look, he subsided. Let her say her piece first, and then he could reply.
"As you can see," Sumac said drily, "Uncle Dag and I have discussed this before. He's seen a lot more malices than I have - more than anyone I know - but I've seen a fair few. And every time, every time we take down a malice, we find there are all sorts of consequences we didn't see on the way. Some are obvious - blight, for example. Or people or animals that were killed directly by the malice itself. It's clear where to put the blame for those things. But then there's more, spreading out all around the malice. Farmers who were mind-slaved and maybe they killed a family member. Or destroyed their own livelihood. Or maybe they only hurt a few strangers, but the guilt of it drives them away from friends and family. I've seen villages emptied, families torn apart, marriages ruined and lives turned upside-down from second and third-hand consequences of what a malice did."
It was all a familiar argument to Dag, but he saw Fawn thinking hard about Sumac's words, and Arkady was intent as well.
Sumac continued, "The bigger the malice, the more chaos it spreads all around it, that's all I'm saying. It's like a form of blight that affects people's spirits instead of their ground."
"It's not blight," Dag protested. "There's nothing special about it. People die around malices, and when people die there will be a lot of hurt. But it's no different from any other way of dying, except for the way it comes in clusters."
"Like a bad plague," Arkady reflected. "We have fever season down south nearly every summer, and lives disrupted aplenty."
Dag nodded. "Or that renegade, Crane - he spread chaos and death all around him like a malice, but it wasn't from his groundworking. Or it was, but that wasn't what caused the chaos, it just... gave him the opportunity to make it all bigger."
"Farmer criminals can affect many lives, too," Arkady agreed. "So can deaths or near-deaths by accident or illness. I think Dag's right, it's not a matter of groundwork. It's just that human lives are interconnected. Affecting one, or several lives, directly, will have indirect effects on dozens of others. Like ripples moving outward from a stone dropped in a pond."
"So you mean, all that spreading awfulness, it isn't malice magic," Fawn concluded. "It's just how people work."
"All right," said Sumac, sitting back on her heels.
Dag blinked. "That's it? All the times we've had this same discussion, and now you're just going to say I'm right?"
"I didn't say that." She began to collect the tin plates they had been eating from.
"Then, what are you saying?"
"Whether it's something special about malices or just 'how people work,' you both admit that what happened today was one of those spreading consequences from having a malice about. Right?"
Dag reached up unthinkingly to scratch his left ear and winced when his hook scraped his jaw. "Well... I could have hurt my head by accident and it could have all come out the same."
Sumac shook her head. "If there hadn't been a half a dozen other unrelated injuries, and all the party splitting up in different directions, and some people terrified and some angry and nearly everyone hungry for a couple-three days, Arkady wouldn't have been so distracted. So you might have hurt your head, but he wouldn't have missed it getting worse."
Arkady glanced away uneasily.
"Oh!" said Fawn. "You're saying they should both stop blaming themselves because it was all the malice's fault, counted one way or the other."
"Your wife understands, Dag. Do you?" Sumac's gaze moved from him to Arkady and back.
"But I -" Dag began.
"That doesn't excuse -" said Arkady at the same moment.
"I don't think it worked," Fawn said candidly to Sumac. "They say they agree, but they're gonna blame themselves anyhow."
"I expect you're right." Sumac rocked back onto her toes and back up to her feet in one smooth move, holding the plates in a stack. "I tried."
"So, then, you're not mad at me for trying to kill your, ehm..." Dag had spent a couple of weeks now trying not to pick a word for the relationship between Sumac and Arkady, at least not until they were ready to make that choice official.
"Or at me for nearly letting your uncle die?" Arkady added.
"Only mad if you keep being fools about it," Sumac told them.
Fawn sighed and climbed to her own feet, retrieving their tin cups and a stray knife. "My mama would say, if you want to be blamed you can wear the ashes, but don't let them blind you to what can be fixed." She gave them sharp looks. "So here's how to fix it: go make the world better, so's malices don't get the chance to spread that sort of chaos all around them." She paused, with one hand brushing lightly across her belly. "You have until our children are all grown up."
Dag and Arkady stared as the two women headed back toward the fire. Then they turned to look at each other.
"I suppose we have our orders," Arkady concluded. "We'd better get to it."
Dag nodded and reach up again to his itching ear. "Right. First thing in the morning."