“You planned this,” Iseult croaked, following her mother to a tree trunk dappled in moonlight.
“Yes, but not for tonight.” Gretchya lifted a long stick from against the tree and motioned up, to where two lumps sat on branches just out of reach—and just out of notice. Gretchya batted off both sacks.
Thump, thump! The bulging satchels hit the earth and dust plumed. A green apple rolled out.
Iseult dragged herself onto the willow’s roots, her back against the wide trunk. Scruffs settled beside her, and with her left hand, she scratched at his ears while Alma continued to coax the pony beneath the branches, the now arrow-filled Nomatsi shield still affixed to her back.
Though Iseult couldn’t see the blood on her right sleeve—not in this darkness—she couldn’t miss the pain. At least, she thought dimly, the cut on my right hand doesn’t hurt anymore.
After rummaging in the bags, Gretchya bustled to Iseult’s side with the dusty apple and a leather healer kit in tow. She wiped the apple on her bodice. “Eat this.”
Iseult took it but barely got it to her mouth before her mother offered her a pendant. A small rose quartz hung from the end of a braided string. “Wear it,” Gretchya ordered, crouching on the earth beside Iseult.
But Iseult made no move to take the necklace. An apple was one thing, but Painstones were rare and cost hundreds of piestras.
Gretchya tossed the stone impatiently; it landed on Iseult’s lap, the quartz glowing a dim pink. Instantly, the pain reared back. Iseult’s breaths deepened. She felt capable of thinking again.
No wonder these things were addictive.
Iseult’s gaze settled on Alma once more, who now stood at the edge of the hanging branches with her back to Iseult and Gretchya. She kept watch while the horses munched at small patches of grass.
“Corlant,” Iseult began as Gretchya scooted to her side, a lancet in one hand and linen cloths in the other, “wanted to kill me. Why?”
“I don’t know.” Gretchya hesitated. “I … can only guess that he thought your arrival was a sign that Alma and I were leaving. He figured out our plans, I think, and hoped to keep us in the settlement by hanging y—” She broke off, wet her lips, and did not finish the sentence.
Before Iseult could point out that Corlant’s measures seemed much too extreme if all he wanted was to keep Gretchya in the tribe, Gretchya was slicing through the arrow shaft poking from Iseult’s bicep. Then she grasped the arrowhead on the left side … and yanked it through.
Blood gushed. It pulsed out in time to Iseult’s heartbeat—not that she could feel it. In fact, she simply munched on her apple, occasionally patted Scruffs’s head, and watched her mother work.
Next came healer witch salves to ward off infection and creams to speed healing. They were all pricey items, yet before Iseult could protest, Gretchya began to speak, and Iseult found herself falling into the familiar, inflectionless voice of her childhood.
“Alma and I began making preparations to flee shortly before you left six and a half years ago,” Gretchya explained. “We gathered piestras and gemstones one by one. Then one by one we sewed them into our gowns. It was slow work. Corlant was often there, forcing himself into the house. Yet he also left often, vanishing from the settlement entirely for days at a time.
“During those times, Alma would take the mare here and drop off supplies. She brought the last of our things only yesterday. Our plan was to flee four days from now. I owe the Moon Mother a thousand thank-yous that we did not leave before you came.”
Somehow, amongst all those words, the ones that shone the brightest for Iseult were the ones unspoken. “You planned all this … before I was even gone from the tribe? Why did you send me away then? Why not just go with me? Or at least tell me w-when I v-visited?”
“Control your tongue, Iseult.” Gretchya flashed her an intolerant look. “You may not realize it, but it took me years of planning to get you out. I had to find you lodging in Veñaza City. I had to find you a job—and I had to do it all without Corlant noticing. So when Alma and I decided to leave as well, it took years more to plan. We would have come for you, Iseult. In Veñaza City. Why did you leave?” she demanded.
“I … got in trouble.” Iseult sensed the stammer, ready to pounce, so she chomped into her apple to hide it. “The settlement was the only place I could think to hide—”
“You should have stayed in the city like I told you to. I ordered you never to return.”
“You ‘ordered’ that three years ago,” Iseult countered. “F-f-forgive me if I tangled your careful weave.”
Her mother’s bandaging grew rougher—tenser. But there was no pain … and thankfully, there was no more reference to her stutter.
“We will go to Saldonica now,” Gretchya said at last. “You can come with us.”
Iseult’s eyebrows shot up. Saldonica was at the opposite end of the Jadansi Sea—a wild city-state, seething with illegal trade and crime of every imaginable sort. “But why there?”
Alma cleared her throat and angled away from her vigil beside the branches. “I have aunts and cousins that live in the Sirmayan Mountains. Their tribe travels to Saldonica each year.”
“In the meantime,” Gretchya added, “we will sell Threadstones. Apparently there is a growing market for them in Saldonica.”
“Pirates need love too.” Alma’s lips fell into that easy smile of hers and she glanced at Gretchya as if this was a shared joke between them.