Sun Warrior, Page 2P. C. Cast
“But so many of them are hurt. There aren’t any supplies at the Channel. How am I supposed to help them? Nik, I don’t think any of the healers made it out alive. They refused to abandon the patients in the infirmary who couldn’t be moved. I heard them screaming. I think I might always hear them screaming.”
Nik shook Sheena’s shoulders. “Stop it! Stop thinking about it. There are extra supplies at the lookout platform closest to the Channel—you know that. Go there. If the Healers are dead, then we’ll have to stand in their place.”
“Where’s Mari? She’s a Healer. She can help. And Sol? Where’s our Sun Priest?”
Nik made sure his voice was calm and strong. “Mari had to go back to Earth Walker territory. And Sol is dead.”
Sheena’s head shook back and forth. Her eyes were wide and filled with shock. “Sol dead? No. No, it can’t be. Even our sun has turned against us!”
“Sheena, listen to me. What’s happening here has nothing to do with our sun. It has to do with men and greed and prejudice, but I don’t have time to explain. Right now all you need to know is that Thaddeus is dangerous and can’t be trusted. He killed Father.”
“What? How?” she sputtered.
Nik shook his head quickly. “Not now. Later. Now just know you can’t trust him, and maybe even Cyril. I’m not sure how far Thaddeus’s poison has spread. Sheena, our people need us. Get everyone you can to the Channel. I’ll send help. There are always supplies kept at the old meditation platform, and it’s in the Old Forest, far enough from the city that the fire won’t have caught it.” Won’t have caught it yet, Nik thought, but he kept the words to himself and hurried on. “I’ll be sure someone gets those supplies to you.”
“Yes. I can lead as many as possible to the Channel. I—I’ll check the lookout platform for emergency provisions and wait for the supplies. But, Nik, it’s going to get dark. These people are wounded—some badly. The swarm, it’s going to smell the blood and we’ll be—”
“Sheena, pull it together! Take one step at a time. Dusk is hours away. There’s plenty of time to set up a perimeter—even to hang travel cocoons and hammocks in the trees by the Channel if it comes to that. You can do this. I know you can.”
Sheena nodded shakily. “Okay, okay. You’re right. I can. I will. But be fast, Nik. A lot of the wounded are only staying on their feet because of shock and adrenaline. When they crash, they’re going to crash hard. And except for the basics, I have no idea how to help them.”
“I won’t leave you hanging. I promise,” Nik assured her. “Come on, Laru!” As he raced past the column of walking wounded, Nik heard Sheena begin to call encouragement to the people, telling them the Channel was close … safety was close. Nik set his teeth and ran as he silently prayed that his father would lend him strength and wisdom for the nightmare to come.
Close enough to the City in the Trees that the forest was once again a familiar friend, Nik and Laru left the trail. Plunging up the side of the ridge, they chose the quickest way to the heart of the Tribe. The acrid scent of smoke became a taste that coated Nik’s throat, filling his mouth with bitterness. He and Laru paused at a trailhead close to the first of the pine giants that housed the Tribe. Smoke swirled around them, for a moment confusing Nik’s sense of direction. Then the constantly changing wind parted the grayness just as a screaming figure rushed into view. Nik could tell it was a woman and that she clutched a black Terrier in her arms even though the back of her tunic was on fire.
“Stop running!” Nik shouted, sprinting to her. “I can help, but you have to—” From beside him, Laru vaulted toward the flaming woman, knocking her off her feet. The Terrier spilled out of her arms as Nik frantically pulled off his shirt, covering her as he beat out the fire.
“Fala!” she screamed. “Fala!”
“Rose, it’s me, Nik.” He spared a glance at the little Terrier who was pressed against Laru’s side, shivering with shock. “Fala is fine. Laru has her. Hold still. I’ve got the fire out. Now I need to see how badly you’re burned.”
Rose went limp under his hands, though she turned her head so that she could stare out of pain-filled eyes at her Terrier.
“Her pups. Fala’s pups. They’re back there.” Rose’s voice broke and tears spilled down her cheeks. “O’Bryan was trying to save them when a burning branch from the neighboring pine caught our tree on fire.”
“Where is he? Where’s O’Bryan?”
With a shaking hand Rose pointed behind her at the wall of smoke and heat. “There. He’s still back there.”
Nik knelt beside Rose. “Can you sit up?”
She nodded and let Nik help her sit. Fala staggered to her Companion and Rose pulled the little Terrier into her lap, holding her close. “How bad is it?” she asked.
“I’m not a Healer, but I don’t think it’s too bad,” Nik said. “Your tunic’s a mess, but it mostly saved your skin. Can you walk?”
“I think so. But I’m not leaving the pups.” Rose started to get to her feet, still holding Fala. “I have to go back there. I have to get them.”
“I’ll go.” Nik put a restraining hand on her. “You take Fala and follow the trail that goes down the ridge to the Channel. Sheena’s just ahead of you, leading a group of people there. Help will come. And I’ll bring the pups to you when I find them and O’Bryan.”
She stared at him, her eyes wide and glassy with shock. “It will kill Fala if she’s lost the whole litter. That’s what I told O’Bryan when he was helping me. I’m sorry, Nik. I didn’t mean for him to die, too.”
“O’Bryan isn’t dead. Neither are Fala’s pups. You get to safety. I’ll take care of the rest.”
“Nik, where’s Sol? Why hasn’t he stopped the fire?”
“Everything’s going to be fine. The fire will be stopped.” Nik avoided Rose’s questions, turning her so that she was headed in the direction of the path to the Channel. “Go. I’ll meet you at the Channel with Fala’s pups.”
Rose nodded slowly. “Save them and you will be saving Fala and me. I won’t live without her.” Then, cradling her trembling Terrier in her arms, she staggered away.
Nik didn’t hesitate. “We have to find O’Bryan!” he told Laru. The big Shepherd huffed and without hesitation trotted into the wall of smoke with Nik following closely behind.
They’d only gone a few feet when Laru’s head snapped to the side as he alerted on O’Bryan’s scent. Barking enthusiastically, Laru took a left fork in the trail. Nik ran after him, struggling to keep up with the powerful canine.
“O’Bryan! Call out! Where are you?” Nik shouted.
Laru shot ahead into the swirling smoke and Nik lost sight of him completely.
“O’Bryan!” he called again.
“Here, Nik! Here!”
Nik ran toward the sound of his cousin’s voice and Laru’s barking and then had to steady himself on a fallen log as he almost ran into Laru and the man on his knees the Shepherd had stopped beside.
O’Bryan looked up at Nik, a disbelieving smile on his sweat-streaked, fire-reddened face.
“You show up at the strangest places, Cuz,” O’Bryan said between panting breaths. “But I’m glad you keep showing up.”
Nik crouched beside the young man who was more brother than cousin to him. O’Bryan’s tunic looked odd, and he had his arms wrapped around himself as if he were trying to hold his torso together. Fear stabbed Nik. “Where are you hurt? Is it your chest? Are you burned?”
“Not hurt. Not bad. Just catching my breath. These guys are a lot heavier than they look.”
It was only then that Nik noticed the front of his cousin’s shirt was moving. O’Bryan opened his arms, which Nik could see were red, blistered, and singed, to expose five little black heads that were wriggling from under his shirt to poke their muzzles into the smoky air.
“Fala’s pups!” Nik said. “You did save them.”
“Had to. You and Sol can’t be
the only heroes in the family.”
“Your arms are burned—so’s your face.” Nik quickly made his assessment. “Bloody beetle balls, O’Bryan, what were you thinking? Yesterday at this time you were almost dead of the blight.” Nik wasn’t sure if he wanted to hit or hug his cousin.
“You’re right, Cuz. This is definitely an inconvenient time for a forest fire.” He gave Nik a cheeky grin.
Relieved beyond words, Nik sat back as Laru pushed between them to sniff at the squirming Terriers. “Are all the pups okay?”
“They’re fine. We gotta find Rose and Fala. We got separated from them when the tree caught. Fala was frantic, and Rose wasn’t much better.”
“They’re okay. I sent them down to the Channel. Sheena’s leading a group of wounded there. I have to get supplies to them, and then—”
The pernicious wind changed again, lifting Nik’s hair, and in a maelstrom of smoke and sparks and heat it roared around them with an almost human groan—increasing in strength with a seemingly insatiable need to consume the Tribe.
“The entire forest is going to burn! It’s like the wind is feeding it on purpose!” Nik peered around them, trying to see through the smoke and judge which direction the flames would be spreading now.
“Nik, you have to get Sol to the firebreak and have him call down sunfire to stop this before the Mother Trees are destroyed.” All lightness had gone out of O’Bryan’s voice.
O’Bryan’s brow furrowed and he shook his head quickly, as if physically trying to be rid of his cousin’s words. “What?”
“Father is dead.” Nik spoke slowly to keep his voice from breaking.
His cousin’s eyes filled with tears that silently overflowed and tracked down his fire-reddened cheeks. “How?”
“Thaddeus shot him.”
“Wait, no! A Companion shot our Sun Priest? That—that can’t happen! It’s never happened.” One hand fisted the front of Nik’s shirt, and O’Bryan gave his cousin a shake. “It has to be a mistake!”
Nik rested his hand over his cousin’s fist. “No mistake. I was there. Thaddeus was trying to kill Mari. Father saved her life.”
“Mari? But she has to be protected; she can cure the blight!”
“That didn’t matter to Thaddeus, or to Cyril. All that mattered was being sure the Earth Walkers remain our slaves.”
“Cyril was in on it? That’s insane. This happened on Farm Island? Was Mari trying to free the Scratchers—sorry, Earth Walkers?”
“Not free them—not at that moment. She was healing them of the sadness that kills them. Somehow Thaddeus found out she was there—he got Cyril and a group of Warriors together. I can only imagine what beetle shit he fed them about her, and about Father. They attacked. It’s how the fire started. It jumped the Channel and began moving up the ridge.”
“It’s all so hard to believe.” O’Bryan looked from him to Laru and then back at Nik again.
Nik answered his unasked question. “Laru chose not to die with Father. He chose me. He’s my Companion.” The big Shepherd leaned against Nik, looking up at him with amber eyes filled with unconditional love.
“I still don’t understand—can’t believe it.”
Nik hugged Laru before turning back to O’Bryan. “I’ll give you the rest of the details later. First we have to help the Tribe.” O’Bryan nodded somberly, and Nik continued. “Did you see Wilkes and the Warriors? And Thaddeus? Did you see him?”
“I only saw Wilkes and his Odin. They reached the Tribe first and sounded the fire warning. He told the young and old and sick to evacuate, and everyone else to get to Badger Stream. That’s where they want to make the firebreak.”
Nik nodded. It made sense that they’d try to break the fire at their main water source. Badger Stream was a fat, fast tributary that originated deep in the Barrier Mountains northwest of the city and flowed cold, clean water through the heart of the Tribe of the Trees. The area around the stream was always well cleared and meticulously tended, so no brush or debris ever had a chance to accumulate along its banks.
“There’s a good, wide stretch of space on either side of the stream, and of course the fact that there’s a deep stream of running water flowing through the middle of that space is an added benefit. A firebreak could work there,” Nik said.
“Not without a Sun Priest to call down sunfire,” O’Bryan said.
“We don’t have a Sun Priest,” Nik said solemnly.
“Then we’re doomed.”
“Not necessarily. I may have an idea,” Nik said.
“You’re thinking about Mari, aren’t you?”
“No! She can’t come here—not now. Thaddeus would kill her,” Nik said.
“Nik, she called down sunfire when her mother—” O’Bryan began, but Nik interrupted.
“No! I mean, yes, she did. But she has no idea how to do it again, let alone control it. She didn’t even know how to accept the sun’s rays until I showed her. I was thinking more of the Elders, and Warriors like Wilkes—and even me. I can make a cup of water warm if I try hard enough, and you know some of the Elders can coax a spark to light a candle or start a hearth fire.”
O’Bryan gave him a skeptical look. “Warming water, lighting candles, and coaxing sparks to catch dry tinder in the hearth of a cozy nest are very different from calling down sunfire.”
“I’m aware of that. But what if a whole group of the Tribe who can heat water, light candles, and do other small things come together? Couldn’t we combine our power to call sunfire?”
“That sounds like a question that should be put to the Sun Priest.”
“We don’t have a Sun Priest, and we don’t have time for questions. We need to act, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do,” Nik said. “Take the pups. You know the path that leads along the west side of the Channel?”
O’Bryan nodded. “I know it.”
“Head in that direction.” Nik pointed over his shoulder. “You’ll cross a little stream, and then you should run into that path and catch up with Rose and Sheena and the rest of them. Get everyone to the Channel and try to settle them. Be sure everyone drinks plenty of water. Keep them quiet and calm. Don’t tell them Father’s dead—that’d only panic everyone. There are emergency supplies in the lookout platform by the Channel, and I’ll send more supplies and help as soon as I can.”
“Where are you going?” O’Bryan asked.
“To Badger Stream. I’m going to make a firebreak,” Nik said.
“All right then, help me stand up and get these pups settled, and we’ll both be off on our missions.” Holding the wriggling pups against his chest with one arm, he extended his hand so that Nik grasped it and pulled him to his feet. They were just settling the squirming little Terriers more snugly inside O’Bryan’s shirt when Rose stumbled out of the smoke behind Nik.
“O’Bryan! Thanks to the Sun! You did save them!” Rose rushed to O’Bryan, who bent to gently place the pups on the ground so that Fala could be reunited with her happy litter. Through streaming tears, Rose said, “Thank you, oh, thank you! I’ll never be able to repay your bravery.”
“Seeing these little guys with Fala, happy and whole, is payment enough for me,” O’Bryan said.
“Rose, what are you doing here? You were supposed to find the Channel and wait there. Did you get turned around in the smoke?” Nik asked.
Rose shook her head. “We didn’t get turned around. The fire’s spreading along the bottom of the ridge. It cut us off. I didn’t know where else to go.”
“That’s bad,” Nik muttered, more to himself than to Rose. “You can’t go back to the Tribe. The fire’s there, too.”
“How ’bout if we head to the old meditation platform? That’s pretty far from the city,” O’Bryan said.
“Not far enough, and there’s only that little well nearby—no other source of water. You could get trapped there too easily,” Nik said.
Suddenly there was a crashing through the brush and
Captain bolted to them, barking wildly, followed closely by Sheena, who was staggering under the weight of the two young women she was supporting. One looked as if she’d broken an ankle, and the other had burns up and down her left arm and leg.
Nik’s stomach clenched. “What happened?”
As Nik helped guide the injured girls to the mossy ground, Sheena wiped sweat from her sooty face and explained, “Most of the group made it to the path to the Channel. I heard Sarah and Lydia calling for help and I backtracked for them. The wind shifted. Sparks lit a dry cedar and we were cut off from the others.” Sheena motioned for Nik and O’Bryan to step away from the girls and Rose. She lowered her voice. “I don’t know if the others made it to the water. It was bad—really bad. One second there was just smoke and the next sparks and flames everywhere. They might all be dead.” Sheena stared at Nik with haunted eyes. “I should go back for them. I should try to get to them.”
“That won’t do anything but put you and Captain in danger,” O’Bryan said.
“He’s right.” Nik nodded. “If they were caught in the fire, they’re dead. If not, they’re already at the Channel and, hopefully, safe.”
“I’m almost glad Crystal isn’t here. It would devastate her to see the city and our people burning. What in all the levels of hell are we going to do?” Sheena said.
Nik ran his hand through his hair, trying to order his thoughts. There was no telling how far the fire had spread along the bottom of the ridge. They could be completely cut off from the Channel. And there was no sense in having the wounded girls and Rose go back to the city—it wasn’t safe there, either. They needed water and shelter and safety—
And suddenly Nik knew what they had to do.
“O’Bryan, can you find your way to that creek just inside Earth Walker territory where we first found sign of Rigel?”
His cousin’s brows shot up in surprise, but he nodded. “Pretty sure I can, even in this smoke. We spent a lot of time coming and going from there.”
“Okay, here’s what you’re going to do. Lead Sheena and Rose and the girls to the creek. You should be able to take shelter there, at the Earth Walker Gathering Site. I’ll find you as soon as I can, but if something happens … get to Mari. She’ll help you. I know she will.”