Chapter 15: Setback

Within an hour of riding, Miara was quite certain she was about five minutes from shooting Liren. For someone who hated complaining people so much, he certainly was a whiner. She understood that he had been raised in luxury, but really. A hunter and warrior should really have been trained to deal with something as mundane as wind.

Of course, none of them liked the grit blowing in their faces, but the other three made do; wrapping scarves around their mouths and noses and squinting to keep most of the stuff out of their eyes.

Finally, the gale grew so vicious that Miara called for a halt, and the four of them hunkered down beside their mounts, immensely grateful for the windbreaks. The horses tucked in their heads beside their riders, taking advantage of the shelter provided by their own bodies.

Curled beside Riyin in the small haven against Harbinger's flank, Kirical noticed that the prince would not look at him. He wondered if he had crossed a line last night, asking such personal questions. Riyin was withdrawn at the best of times, reclusive to the point of isolation at most others. To an extent, he trusted Kirical – but so far, he had revealed little personal information. And after his reaction last night, Kirical hesitated to ask again.

Despite Liren's distrust of the mage, he was the twin that Kirical knew better. Kirical knew Liren as a powerful fighter, a skilled hunter and devoted brother. He feared the unknown, hated the dragons and missed his home. Liren did not hide his feelings or his identity as Riyin did. And so Kirical also knew without question that Liren did not trust him – might never trust him.

The storm raged, building small dunes against the horses' sides and almost choking them with sand. Blankets provided slightly more shelter for the humans who hid under them, but they too felt the wind's vicious bite. In the distance, they heard the high, frightened whinny of a lone horse trapped by the storm.

They didn't know how long they waited, or even when night claimed the day – the whirling sand blocked out the sun – before the wind died down. Liren dared to raise his head above Dahlia's back and brush some of the sand from his eyes. Stray eddies still tossed the loose earth, but the vicious gale had subsided. In the clearer air, he noticed Pet, hunkered down miserably beside a silty pool in an attempt to escape the storm. She still wore her tack, though the reins hung broken from the bridle, and the saddle and packs bore severe damage from the rough conditions. She appeared to have rubbed against one of the spiky trees in an attempt to get rid of the things; a few spines stuck out of the pack and a few others in the old horse's skin. The mare whickered gratefully when Miara took her reins and led her toward Kirical, who patted the roan and gave her some clean water from their stores, grain and an apple that had somehow survived the destruction of the pack. Even in spite of his nervousness, he preferred riding the huge horse alone to a long, awkward day of clinging to Riyin's waist, and he thanked the gods that Pet had returned.

Nyla licked Riyin's face, whining anxiously as the prince refused to wake. He groaned, his face pained in the grip of nightmares. Uneasily, Kirical laid a hand on the older boy's forehead to find it burning with fever. Riyin's eyes shifted randomly beneath flickering lids, and he shied away from Kirical's gentle touch. With trembling hands, Kirical unwound the sand-crusted bandage around Riyin's calf, praying in vain that he wouldn't find what he feared.

The knotted scar had turned an angry red over the swollen flesh of Riyin's injured leg. The skin was shiny, stretched tight over the swelling. Kirical knew how much pain Riyin had to be in, and wondered mutely why he had said nothing. Sliding up the sleeve of the prince's cloak, the mage found his arm similarly affected. Terrified, Kirical's face whitened.

"We need to get to the outpost, and quickly. All this riding, all the sand, and the heat… they make it worse. I might be able to draw out the infection, but not here."

"It's still over a day's ride from here, and he's in no condition for riding," Miara said, her voice clipped with nerves. Kirical bit his lip. Desperately, he searched for an answer, some way to heal Riyin before the infection got worse.

"I could go ahead on Harbinger. With Riyin."

"You really think that horse will listen to you?" Liren asked skeptically.

"I think so. If it's to save Riyin. He's smart enough to understand. And he's the only one with the speed and the endurance to get there today, before the infection spreads."

After several minutes of consideration, Miara nodded. Someone had to go with Riyin, and it had to be the healer.

"Go. Quickly."

Liren gritted his teeth. He didn't want to let his wounded brother out of his sight, especially in Kirical's company; but more than that, he didn't want to owe Kirical for anything else. But despite his grudge, he could not allow himself to endanger Riyin further. He boosted Kirical onto Harbinger's back while the stallion shifted and rolled his white-ringed eyes. Feeling woefully inadequate and rather awkward, Liren held Harbinger's bridle and told him that he had to carry Kirical because the boy would help Riyin. The black merely glared at Liren and made to aim a kick, but he calmed the moment he saw Riyin, barely half-conscious, his left arm slung over Miara's shoulders. With genuine concern in his deep brown eyes, the horse nickered and brushed Riyin's face with his soft muzzle. Woodenly, Riyin petted his horse's face before allowing himself to be hauled aboard in front of Kirical, who took Harbinger's reins with as much confidence as he could muster.

Liren had to bite his lip to avoid saying something caustic, an angry warning that if the mage harmed his brother, he would pay.

Riyin seemed disoriented, sitting on Harbinger's back while someone else held his reins. He twined his fingers into fistfuls of the stallion's mane in an iron grip, and Kirical wondered if he would have to cut away the hair to get Riyin off of the horse when they reached town.

With a long glance back, the mage touched his heels to Harbinger's sides, and the black sprang into motion, galloping as fast as he dared.

Kirical marveled at the strength and dexterity of the great horse beneath him. Not once did Harbinger misstep, jolt his passengers or trip. He skimmed lightly over the ground, a dramatic change from Bear's short, choppy strides and Pet's slow plodding.

Still, he could not fully appreciate Harbinger's magnificence; Riyin slumped lifelessly against his horse's neck, his rasping breath coming in short, harsh gasps and his hands still anchored in the thick mane. Kirical felt the heat of his fevered body from inches away and urged the stallion still faster.

And Harbinger galloped on, through the burning in his tired muscles, the stress of his delicate legs pounding on the hard ground to which the sandy earth gave way; he ran because he loved Riyin and knew he had to keep going to save him. Even Kirical's inexperienced hands and unfamiliar weight on his back did not faze him.

Kirical could not know how his extra weight and that of his pack – heavy with medicines and food – taxed the black stallion; and Riyin, who would have known in half a second when Harbinger began to favor his left foreleg, was beyond reason.

Valiantly, the horse ran on, his neck stretched out and breath blowing hard through his flared nostrils.

Finally the outpost loomed in the distance, gray in the dim light of dusk. Miles and miles away, though they seemed so close, the mountains towered over the tiny settlement, blanketing it in their shadows.

As they entered Elkance, Harbinger's damaged leg finally betrayed him, and the stallion collapsed, pitching his precious cargo to the ground and whinnying in desperate hurt.

Riyin, jolted momentarily to lucidity by his horse's cry of pain, staggered to Harbinger's side, whispering softly to the injured animal and running a hand down the afflicted foreleg.

"Thank you, boy," he whispered, and he passed out, his head on Harbinger's neck.

A small crowd gathered around boys and horse, and Kirical enlisted two of the younger ones, a boy and a girl he presumed were twins. As Kirical lifted Riyin, the prince's arm over the mage's shoulders, the brother and sister coaxed Harbinger to his feet, and he stood miserably with his foreleg lifted slightly off the ground. Slowly, painfully, they hobbled toward the nearest inn.

"Is there a healer in town?" Kirical asked the brother, Kuran. His sister, Katri, had stayed with Harbinger in the stables, treating the stallion's leg – with extreme difficulty, as the horse did not know or trust her.

"We have one herbalist. She may be out on a call, but I'll try to find her if you like."

Kirical nodded gratefully, and Kuran left.

Concern etched into his face, the young mage brushed back the sweaty hair from Riyin's burning forehead. Riyin moaned and shivered, and Kirical drew a blanket over his shuddering form. Once he seemed less miserable, Kirical rolled up the right leg of Riyin's pants and lightly touched the angry, infected scar. He called his magic, but Riyin only flinched and cried out as the glow touched his injury. Kirical jerked away, apologizing with tears forming in his emerald eyes. He had lied. He had no idea how to save Riyin.

"The poison is inside," a voice came.

Kirical whirled quickly at the sound to see a woman at the door.

Short, stout and ancient, the herbalist entered the room, carrying her small bag of supplies and wearing a face of concern.

"Can you help him?" Kirical asked desperately. "I can't… I'm not strong enough…."

The old woman patted the boy's shoulder.

"Your magic is undeveloped and self-taught, child. I'm impressed it's as powerful as it is. And yes. I believe I can heal your friend."

With slow, measured movements, the healer ran her wizened hand over Riyin's infected leg, so gently as not to provoke pain.

"There is poison in his blood. Come here, boy. Let me teach you something."

As Kirical approached, the old herbalist's hands began to glow gold. Slowly, the pain in Riyin's face receded, and then the woman opened the place where Kirical had knotted his lacerated flesh back together. The wounded tissue remained raw and bleeding on the inside. The healing glow of the old woman's hands lessened the flow of blood, and then she raised her claw-like hand and a thick whitish liquid drew itself out of Riyin's bloodstream to settle on her curled fingers. The ancient healer cast the venom from her nails into a large bowl she had set by the bed.

"Flame viper. You have powerful enemies."

Kirical's eyes widened. He knew people who had died of flame viper poison. The snake was among the deadliest creatures of the sandy plain, though he knew that some of the wandering tribes kept the animals as companions and even worshipped them as deities. As beautiful and intelligent as they were lethal, flame vipers lived long lives and only very rarely did humans collect their venom. He knew that in another day or so, Riyin would have been beyond help – and that if he hadn't acted quickly the night of the attack, the forest prince would have died already.

"I'm impressed you kept him alive as long as you did," the old woman said after closing the gash and repeating her methods on the other injury. "It takes skill even to slow this venom's spread."

Kirical humbly thanked the herbalist; but internally, he suspected that the dragon had had a hand in Riyin's survival. She couldn't have her host dying, after all. He had no doubt she had somehow contained the poison and kept it away from his heart and brain.

"Thank you, ma'am…." he mumbled.

"My name is Tera, child."

"I'm Kirical. Thank you, Tera."

Tera smiled, showing her few remaining teeth. Truly, she enjoyed her work, and was glad she could save this young man, no matter who he might be, no matter what enemies he might have. A life was a life, and to the old healer, all deserved a chance to thrive.

"How long… before he recovers?"

"Completely?" Tera inquired. "It will take days, perhaps weeks. His body is not strong, and the venom has made him gravely ill. My magic can do only so much; I can't give back the strength it took from him."

Kirical touched Riyin's hollow cheek, feeling the heat of the fever that refused to break. The older boy's eyelids fluttered wearily open.

"Where are we?" he rasped, voice cracking.

Kirical told the story; Riyin's frightening collapse, their desperate flight across the wasteland, Tera's rescue and discovery of the deadly poison in his blood.

Suddenly, Riyin's eyes flew open, wide with fear.

"Harbinger. He's hurt."

"… Yes."

"Where is he? Take me to him. Please, Kirical…."

The young mage looked to Tera, who nodded.

"Better for both to see each other. Their bond makes them strong; separation weakens them further in their pain."

Kirical helped Riyin to his feet, shocked at the change in him. Riyin had lost weight he could not afford to lose; his ribs pressed into Kirical's side, and his eyes looked sunken, his cheeks hollow. Even the short walk to the stables exhausted him, though the mage supported most of his slight weight.

Harbinger sulked in the back of his stall, his damaged leg held off the floor. Katri had managed to wrap it, though not without receiving numerous bruises and other minor injuries. The stallion had been drinking, but would not touch his feed.

But when Riyin's familiar, beloved scent reached him, the stallion neighed joyously and thrust his fine head out of the stall, searching for his treasured friend.

Riyin released his hold on Kirical's shoulder to lean on the stall door, resting his weary head against Harbinger's silky cheek.

"Hello, beauty," he whispered, smiling as he hugged his horse's neck. "Thank you… thank you, boy."

Harbinger laid his head over Riyin's shoulder and squeezed, holding the boy close and nickering softly. Katri looked on from the other side of the aisle where she had been icing her kicked shoulder, and gaped.

"One-man horse, I guess," she said. Kirical nodded with a small smile. He didn't mind that Harbinger didn't trust anyone else, as long as the wild creature kept Riyin safe to the best of his ability.

Silently, he thanked the black for his determination, his strength in the face of pain. Hurt though he was, the horse had run on, even more desperate to save Riyin than Kirical had been.

The mage didn't need to understand the connection to appreciate it – even to desire such a bond himself. His family had owned two cart horses and his mother had befriended a feral cat in hopes that the little animal would hunt the mice infesting the barn. None of them ever trusted Kirical – possibly because the young boy feared the huge horses and had once pulled the cat's tail. The hand upon which the feline took out her wrath took a week to heal and still bore scars. But he'd never really gotten to know any animal, and now he regretted it, looking on at Riyin and his horse, who took strength simply by being in one another's presence. He thought it unlikely that he would ever connect to Pet that way; the old mare barely knew him, and Harbinger had been with Riyin for most of the horse's life. But seeing the pair together, he resolved to try. Perhaps he could at least become the mare's friend, if not her other half.

For the next few days, Kirical groomed and fed Pet himself as well as taking care of Riyin, with Tera's help. He found a godsend in the old woman – she knew more about healing magic than he had ever imagined existing – and she found a very eager pupil in him. She taught him everything she could about magic; from limits to channels, detection and extraction of poisons, and the manipulation of the body's energies. Though keen to learn, Kirical remained rather nervous. Never having had a proper teacher, he apologized profusely and became very unsure of himself when he made mistakes. Nonetheless, the old healer remained encouraging, and the younger mage learned quickly.

Riyin recovered his meager strength very slowly. On the second day after their arrival, Liren and Miara had clattered into Elkance, and Liren had to eat his acid words when Tera informed him of the venom that she had taken from Riyin's blood – and Kirical's essential role in his survival. Liren nodded curt thanks before going to Riyin's side.

Riyin's leg still refused to bear much of his weight, and he leaned on Harbinger as much as possible while walking the horse around the courtyard. The stallion's strained tendon and bruised feet were healing nicely with Tera's help – she knew less about animal healing, but enough to speed it a little – and no one doubted that he would recover long before Riyin did.

Miara and Kirical watched them make their daily round of the yard, Harbinger's limp gone and Riyin's impossible to ignore.

"We can't afford to wait much longer," Miara muttered, rubbing her arms. "The dragons won't let us stay here."

"Riyin's is already hurting him," Kirical said. "But for now, his leg is worse. The muscles degenerated, and some nerves were damaged by the poison. But you're right… we have to move on soon."

Liren grew more restless, more nervous by the hour. The dragon's urge to move burned in his mind, warring with his own desire to allow Riyin more time to recover.

They all fought time. And they were about to lose.