Sparks popped in the campfire behind Kaila as she leaned over Kreg to bathe a cut on his cheek. A faint breeze kissed the skin of her arms heralding the coming night chill.
Kreg’s eyes flickered open.
"Shillond," Kaila said. "He wakes." She stood and stepped back to allow Shillond to take her place at Kreg's side.
"Easy, Kreg," Shillond said. "You took some rude blows. I have used wholesome herbs that will heal you. Until they do so you must rest."
"What happened?" Kaila felt an edge of fear at the weakness in Kreg's voice. Had he taken more hurt than Shillond had apprised her? Already, he had become a friend dear to her. She pushed the fear away. Shillond had said that Kreg's injuries were light and no doubt no more than pain and fatigue took the strength from Kreg's voice. "It burns like fire just to breathe." Kreg squirmed to the side as if trying to avoid a flaming brand, then stopped as a shudder racked his frame.
"Well now." Shillond smiled. "You should expect that with broken ribs. You were fortunate to avoid worse."
"I take it the good guys won?" Kreg started to laugh but the sound became a fit of coughing instead. "Ooh, that hurts."
Kreg sat up, shaking off Shillond's restraining hand to do so. "My thanks, Kaila. It seems I owe my life to you."
"Marry!" The compliment surprised her. "I was overlong in coming to your aid and for that I crave pardon. 'Twas your own leap at the end that gave me the opening to slay the beast. Once again you have proven yourself a man of much courage."
"Courage?" This time Kreg did manage a weak, albeit painful, chuckle. "I was scared witless."
"The more proof of your courage," Shillond said. "Doing what you must despite fear is courage. Facing a hungry sand devil at the bottom of its pit without fear would not be courage. It would be foolishness."
Kaila nodded vigorously. "Shillond speaks sooth. Many times I have seen men whose fear did cause them to quail in their boots, yet still did they proceed and thus accomplish much. Oft' also have I seen men who knew no fear plunge foolishly to their deaths and accomplish naught." So Shillond had told her and so she believed. And yet, what of that part of her heart that strove to drive fear away from her, that condemned her at any thought of fear for herself. Fear for another, that was a worthy thing and could lead to great acts of valor, but fear for herself? Those were deep thoughts that she could not well hold in her head.
Shillond laid his hand on Kreg's shoulder. "Now lie still. Rest. Let the herbs do their work. Tomorrow you will be fit enough to travel and the day after it will be as if you were never injured."
"I can see where magic has its advantages," Kreg said. He lay back down, groaning.
"Sleep now." Shillond waved a hand over Kreg's face. "Sorthenkal!"
Kreg's face relaxed, smoothing away lines of care and pain. A pleasant face he had, Kaila thought. Some might not agree as it lacked the boyishness of many of the swains at court, but Kaila thought it a face well suited to an adult.
The sun in his eyes woke Kreg and he sat up. He groaned and said, "Toenails, toes, feet, ankles, knees, thighs--" His clothing cracked with the motion as dry blood flaked away.
"What do you?" Kaila asked.
"I'm checking everything that hurts," Kreg said. "Hips, back, stomach, chest, shoulders...."
"You should not be up yet,” Shillond said. “The spell should have kept you asleep a while yet." Shillond handed him a cup. "Drink. It will ease the aches."
Kreg sipped at the drink. As the liquid hit his throat he choked, then coughed, spraying Kaila and Shillond. He had been expecting another of the herb drinks and instead the cup contained brandy, strong brandy. He drank again, more cautiously. The drink burned its way down his throat to light a fire in his stomach. The warmth spread. "That's potent stuff."
"Come," Kaila said. "The day is young and we have far to go. We have lost time already and I hunger to be home." She practically leaped onto her saddled horse.
"Really, Kaila." Shillond helped Kreg to his feet. "Have we been gone so long? If I did not know better I'd think you pining for Keven."
"My motives are my own, mage." Kaila tossed her head. "Has't become sinful to desire a return to one's home?"
"Did I say that?" Shillond hung an innocent look on his face. "Did I ever say that? Come, we have far to go."
During this exchange Kreg stood staring down at his saddle. Someone, Kaila probably, had removed it from the corpse of his horse and dragged it out of the pit.
"Kreg?" Shillond's voice interrupted his thoughts. "Allow me to give you a hand?"
Kreg turned to face him. Shillond knelt next to their pack animals. The packs had been consolidated from four to three, leaving one of the horses free. "All of the pack horses are saddle trained and while you are fit enough to travel I don't think you are well enough to consider walking the distance we must go."
Kreg sighed. He had to admit that Shillond was right. He glanced over to where Kaila circled them, her eyes scanning the desert. Her gaze kept drifting to the east where vultures circled. To Shillond, he said, "All right. Let's get to work."
In a short time they had the remaining horse saddled. Kreg placed his left foot in the stirrup and lifted himself into the saddle...almost. As he raised his right leg to swing it over the horse's back his left folded beneath him, depositing him on the sand.
"Kreg?" Shillond brought his horse close.
Kreg stood up and dusted himself off, wincing at the new aches. "It looks like I walk after all."
"Must still be weak from your injuries," Kaila said. She urged her horse next to him as Shillond backed his away. Leaning down, she placed her arm around Kreg just under his shoulders. She tensed then heaved. He felt himself lifted into the air and set on his horse.
"Thanks," Kreg said wryly.
"Let Shillond's magics work their way," Kaila told him. "They will strengthen you. Give them time."
Kaila's eyes again drifted eastward. "I wonder what draws yon carrion eaters."
Shillond shaded his eyes with one hand and followed her gaze. "Probably some animal, dead or dying."
"Or perhaps travelers, like us, travelers in difficulty."
"It is not likely."
"But it could be," Kaila said, looking back at Shillond.
"Aye, it could be." His voice held resignation, a tone that puzzled Kreg.
"It is no more than an hour's ride from our path," Kaila said, "Come." She urged her horse in the direction of the circling vultures.
Shillond shrugged and, motioning Kreg to accompany them, followed her.