“What are you doing here?” Tarquin asked.
He wasn’t surprised when the monster didn’t answer. Instead he came closer, squinting as he crossed under the light, limping badly and favoring his side. He had dirty straw in his hair and stuck to what was left of his robe, which wasn’t much. He was bleeding everywhere, as badly as the haldur had been, but mostly from a thick line that soaked the side of his grubby robe and drenched his right foot. That was from Ainya’s arrow.
The sort of lizard-monster-person had his arms wrapped around his skinny, red-stained body, and he was shaking like Ainya had before she fainted. Tarquin didn’t know how the monster was even still standing.
The lizard person looked at Ainya, then back at Tarquin.
“My friend is badly injured. I need to get her off the floor and somewhere warm.” Tarquin pitched his voice to the same careful quiet he’d used at night in the seminary, when the youngest craftlings were too scared to sleep. “Can you help me, please? I can’t do it by myself.”
The monster blinked at him, and for a moment Tarquin wondered if he couldn’t understand. And then he lurched over to Ainya. The first thing he did was to grab her bow in both hands and break it in half. Tarquin gasped, but he didn’t say anything.
The monster was shorter and also slighter than Ainya, but he bent, grabbed Tarquin’s cousin and threw her across his shoulders like she weighed less than a child. But Tarquin didn’t miss his grimace of pain, or how he weaved for a moment under Ainya’s weight. He was in worse shape than Tarquin was, possibly even worse shape than Ainya, and Tarquin felt terrible asking him to do this. But he had no choice. He couldn’t leave Ainya unconscious on a freezing floor.
“I’ll find a dry stall,” he said to the lizard person’s unspoken question as he heaved himself to his feet. The best place for Ainya would be the healer’s house, if any of it was even still standing. But Tarquin doubted the monster could carry her that far, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to help him.
There were three stalls that Tarquin had been freshly done. The straw looked thick and clean enough that Tarquin would’ve been happy to sleep on it himself. The walls also gave a welcome shelter from the winter air coming through the missing stable doors. It was still cold, but not nearly as icy as in the rest of the building.
“Here. No, wait.” He dragged himself to Southwind and unstrapped Ainya’s bedroll with his clumsy, half-numb fingers, then went back into the stall and spread it out on the straw. “You can put her down now.”
For a moment the monster stood in the doorway swaying, as if he didn’t know how he was going to manage it. Then he finally took a limping step inside. Tarquin helped as best he could to slide Ainya gently off his shoulder, groaning at how much carrying even part of her weight hurt.
When Ainya was finally as safe and comfortable as they could make her, he staggered to where he’d dropped his cloak. It wasn’t too wet, so he brought it back and laid it over her.
The monster was standing outside the stall, looking like he’d be happy to curl up on the floor too. Tarquin thought he wouldn’t mind joining him, weary enough not to care about whatever in the seven hells he might be. Not to mention the layers and layers of blood and dirt. “You smell like a dead goat,” Tarquin blurted, too tired to censor himself. He winced. “That was rude. I’m sorry.”
To his surprise, the monster grinned, though it was a little unnerving with his mouth full of viciously pointed teeth. Then he leaned closer to Tarquin and made a show of sniffing and then making a disgusted face.
Tarquin shocked himself by laughing, then had to clutch his ribs. “Ow.”
The monster’s predator eyes widened. He looked worried.
Tarquin waved him off. “I’m fine. It’s you and Ainya I’m concerned about. I didn’t get tossed around like a bundle of wood.” He gathered himself, straightening. “I’m going to the healer’s house. I want to get medicine and more bandages for both of you, since we didn’t bring that many. Can you stay with Ainya and protect her, please? I won’t be long,” he added when his new companion’s eyes narrowed.
The monster shook his head, then reached out and put his fingers on Tarquin’s cut arm. He had black claws like a dog’s in place of fingernails. They were quite long, but his touch was so gentle Tarquin barely felt them.
“I’m fine,” he said again, because it was obvious what the monster meant. “And I don’t have time to stand around arguing. I need to look after my friend. Stay here.”
The monster crossed his arms.
“Oh for the love of the Mother!” Tarquin closed his eyes in frustration. He told himself sternly that he was just cold and hurt and exhausted after being terrified. If he hadn’t broken down after nearly dying twice in one night, he sure as the seven hells wouldn’t start wailing because this whatever-he-was wasn’t listening. “Please,” he begged. “Ainya’s my friend—my family—and I have to help her, and I can’t leave her alone like this. Will you watch her for me? Please? I promise I won’t be long.”
The monster’s reluctance was plain in the stiff way he nodded, but he purposely stepped back and gestured for Tarquin to go.
“Thank you,” Tarquin said. He tried to walk quickly, but his ankle didn’t want to help and he ended up hobbling like an old man.
The night outside seemed twice as dark as it had been and ten times as cold, despite the lack of wind. Tarquin’s few remaining hearth magic lights were weak and pathetic, slowly fading along with the strength of the mage who controlled them.
He tried not to look at the frozen lumps as he walked. Even the animals had been slaughtered. Tarquin felt like the last living soul in the entire world. It was terrible leaving them like this: bits of people scattered like leaves. Tomorrow, he promised himself. Tomorrow he’d make a fire for all of them, after he’d healed Ainya. And the monster, if he stayed. Tarquin owed him at least that much.
The healer’s door was still on its hinges, but part of it had been kicked through and it swung open easily. Taking the few steps into the woman’s house felt like crossing the entire city of Kel.
Embers still glowed hopefully in the hearth, lighting that small part of the room and scattering shadows from the jars and boxes littering the floor. It was so cold that the blood on the slats of wood was frozen.
The healer was lying face down. The brave woman was clutching a sword. Tarquin smiled a little to see the dark blood on it.
He swallowed and brought his hearth lights closer, but he knew there was nothing useful left to find. The haldur had swept the boxes and bottles and jars off the shelves to spill and shatter on the floor. Its motivation likely went no farther than rage or pure malice, but the product was the same. The pantry held nothing but shredded sacks and more broken jars. Even the linen chest was empty, still smelling faintly of lavender and mint. Tarquin had wasted his time.
It was pitch dark inside when he shambled back to the stable, thanks to him taking his lights with him when he left. But the lizard person was right there at the door waiting.
“There was nothing I could use,” Tarquin said. “The haldur destroyed everything. I’m sorry.”
The monster nodded, looking sympathetic.
“Thank you for staying with Ainya,” Tarquin said.
The monster nodded again, then picked up the very large and heavy doors one at a time and propped them across the opening. He moved them as easily as if they were made of cloth, though Tarquin could tell by his face that it hurt.
“Good idea.” It would at least give a bit more shelter.
With the stable lit again, he saw that Southwind had been tucked into the stall next to Ainya. His saddle and reins were placed neatly on a nearby stand, and he’d been expertly rubbed down. The horse had his nose stuffed contentedly into the bag of oats Ainya had brought with them. A thick layer of fresh straw covered the bloody puddle, and there was even a wooden pail of water with a dipper in it, next to Ainya’s saddlebags. The haldur’s corpse had been dragged into a corner, like unwanted furniture.
Tarquin blinked at it all, then at the monster. “You did all this? Just while I was gone?”
The look he got in response was eloquent.
“Fine. Yes. You’re right. I’m too tired to think. Thank you for doing all this. Is Ainya all right?” Tarquin limped over to his cousin instead of waiting for an answer. Ainya was still unconscious and awfully pale, but her breaths were even and when he touched her cheek it felt shockingly warm against the frigid skin of his fingers. Her pulse was steady and strong.
“Thank the Mother and Father.” Tarquin sagged against the rough wood at his back and sat down on the straw. He took Ainya’s hand, just wanting the contact.
His eyes slid shut and he might’ve happily slept like that, except a soft tap on the wood dragged him awake again.
The lizard person was standing in the doorway, looking cold and apologetic and holding out a dipper full of water.
“Oh. Thank you.” Tarquin took it and drank quickly, thirstier than he’d realized. “You’re tamer than you look,” he said as he handed it back.
The monster flinched, then he limped away.
“I’m sorry. I was kidding,” Tarquin said, wincing at his own rudeness. “Really, I’m sorry. It was a bad joke.” He made sure that Ainya was still all right, then pulled himself painfully to his feet to go after the stranger.
He hadn’t gone far. Tarquin found him huddled miserably in front of the door to Southwind’s stall, sitting on the horse’s saddle blanket. Southwind seemed completely comfortable with the lizard person right there, and he’d already let the strange creature care for him. Maybe he smelled too awful for the horse to recognize as anything dangerous. The thought was almost amusing enough to make Tarquin smile.
“Hey there,” he said quietly, unsurprised when the monster didn’t acknowledge his words. Tarquin slid down until he was sitting next to him, noting how he shuffled over to share the blanket. Tarquin pushed his hearth magic lights away until he thought they were too far to bother his strange companion’s wyvern-like eyes. “You must be freezing.” Tarquin was sure the monster was completely naked under the inadequate clothing, and Tarquin was freezing, despite being fully dressed. The lizard person’s tail poked out one of the many tears in his too long robe, curled limp and bedraggled around his ankles.
When he shrugged his tail bobbed too.
“I’ll get you something to wear,” Tarquin said. They were close enough in size that he certain the monster could share his clothes, more or less. But Tarquin’s saddlebags were still with poor Hop. It’d have to be Ainya’s spare set, then, though that’d be loose. And they’d have to cut a hole in the pants for the tail.
The lizard person watched impassively as Tarquin rummaged through Ainya’s saddlebags until he found her extra trousers and tunic, then went back for her linen bandage roll.
He handed the clothes to the monster. “Go ahead and change,” he said, nodding at the nearest empty stall. “You’ll be more comfortable.”
He put the clothes in Tarquin’s lap instead.
Tarquin rolled his eyes. “Fine. Have it your way.” Maybe the problem was that the monster was too sore and cold to move. Tarquin gave a mental shrug and snugged closer, until the two of them were pressed together from shoulder to hip. He doubted he could get any dirtier. “Is that all right?”
The lizard person nodded.
“Great.” Tarquin thought about putting Ainya’s clothing away, but it would take too much effort. Besides, between the bundle in his lap and the monster right next to him, he could almost pretend he was warm. He unrolled the bandage and spread it out between his hands. “Here. Turn around. Let me bind your side, at least.”
Tarquin’s companion blinked, then he shook his head and carefully touched Tarquin’s cut arm.
“No, seriously. I wasn’t the one skewered by the best archer in the Realm.” Tarquin reached for him again. “Come on. You’re still bleeding.”
The monster pointedly covered his hurt side with his hands and bared his teeth.
Tarquin let out a frustrated breath. “Fine. Bleed to death, then. See if I care.” He decided he might as well use the bandage rather than waste it, so he began wrapping his left forearm himself, using the tips of his fingers to hold the end of the strip of linen in place. “Thank you,” he said when the lizard person held it for him. “See? I know how to accept help graciously.”
The monster snorted, then went back to huddling with his arms wrapped around his knees.
Tarquin let out a slow, unhappy breath. “I’m sorry I couldn’t find anything at the healer’s house.”
The monster nodded like he understood.
“This has been an awful day,” Tarquin said.
The monster made a sound that was probably agreement. He had his head down, staring at the floor with his strange, catlike yellow eyes.
“What are you?” Tarquin blurted. “Sorry,” he added quickly when the lizard person lifted his head to stare. “But…I mean…what are you?”
The monster shrugged.
“You don’t know?” Tarquin demanded, then clutched his chest because he’d stupidly forgotten that speaking loudly would hurt. “But, you have wyvern blood, right? You have to, with eyes that color.” He blinked, thinking about it. “Wait—are you a shareblood wyvern? No. Not possible.” He shook his head, which also hurt. He held himself very still.
Wyvern were like smaller, two-legged dragons, only meaner and far less intelligent. Tarquin couldn’t imagine a human mating with a wyvern and surviving the experience. Or a shareblood child surviving its wyvern parent.
He looked at his companion again. “Are you a shareblood wyvern?”
The possible shareblood shrugged.
“Are you saying that you’re not a shareblood wyvern? Or that you don’t know?”
“Wait—what question are you shrugging to?” Tarquin asked. “Both of them?”
The monster shrugged again.
Tarquin blinked at him. “I don’t even know what that means.” He breathed out an annoyed huff of air. “All right, you don’t have enough legs and you look nothing like a horse, so you’re obviously not a kintara. Are you a wosu, then? I mean, I’ve never seen a wosu that wasn’t half goat or deer, but…”
“All right, maybe a vyr. A…lizard…vyr?” Tarquin tried, then snorted. “Of course not, because there’s no such thing as a lizard-vyr. Not to mention that no vyr can stay in a half-form this long.” He scrunched up his face, thinking. “Great. Now I’m trying to remember if there’s even such a thing as a lizard-vyr and I can’t.”
The monster shrugged yet again, looking apologetic.
“Right. You don’t know about that either.” Tarquin sighed. “So, you’re a total enigma, then. Congratulations.”
That got a tiny smirk, and Tarquin returned it. “Maybe I’ll call you that, then—’Total Enigma’, because you haven’t told me your name. T.E. for short. What do you think?”
The total enigma rolled his eyes, but he didn’t refuse.
“Perfect. Excellent choice. Tea it is, then,” Tarquin said. But after that they both lapsed back into the cold, unhappy silence.
“Well, regardless of what else you might be, Total Enigma, you’re no monster,” Tarquin said, but wasn’t surprised when his companion didn’t respond to that any more than he’d responded to anything else.