Autumn – Chapter 2 – 07

            The tiny cottage was only a few miles up the road, and once she’d rounded up Cameron’s horse and her own, getting him there wasn’t all that hard.  She’d had to burn the bodies first, though, not wanting to leave any trace of their presence, mostly to protect the sanctuary a little way away.
            She stopped by the pump outside the cottage to tether the horses and scrub blood and ichor from her hands before daring to knock on the door.  In the end, Neve Vaughan didn’t have to bother, because the cottage door sprang open almost as soon as she’d finished tethering the mounts.
            “What the hell’s going on?  Neve?  What are you doing here?”
            “Don’t sound so pleased to see me, Kira,” Neve muttered, then turned to start pulling Cameron’s unconscious body from across his saddle as if he were an oversized sack of wheat.  “Help me, will you?  Mind the black stuff.”
            “What happened?”  Kira asked as she rushed to help, surveyed the damage.  “What did you two tangle with?”
            Neve shook her head.  “I’ll tell you both at once.  My brother’s inside, right?”
            Kira nodded quickly.  “But he’s asleep, I think.  He’s still regaining his strength.”
            “Still?  It’s been weeks.”  Neve’s nose wrinkled as they started to carry Cameron toward the house.  He must have been more worn out before everything started to come to head than I thought, then.  “Oh well.  I suppose that explains the wardings.”
            Kira stopped dead in her tracks for a moment.  “What’s wrong with the wardings?”
            “Nothing,” Neve said quickly.  “They just feel more like a stiletto than a bludgeon.  Not his style.”  She grinned, though bleakly.  “They’re yours, aren’t they?  Phelan taught you.”
            “Well, someone had to,” Kira said.  “We hadn’t gotten to that when the attacks started.”  She shouldered open the door.  “Come on, we’ll lay him out on the floor in front of the fireplace.”
            Neve grunted and nodded, and together the two women maneuvered Cameron’s inert form over to the smooth-sanded floor in front of the hearth.
            Kira crouched to add another log to the fire before she cleaned her hands on her jeans.  “There’re bandages and a bottle of vodka in the wicker over there.  Just bring the whole thing.”  She started to peel Cameron’s bloody uniform off of him so she could get to the gashes, which still oozed blood sullenly, silently.  She made a soft retching sound.  “Ungh, these smell ghastly.  How old are they?”
            “Half an hour,” Neve said as she hauled the basket over, suddenly acutely aware of the fact that she hadn’t gotten to clean up outside and was still covered in filth from the fight.  “I’ll get some water and then kick Teague out of bed.  We may need his help.”
            “No need for any kicking,” her brother’s sleep-thickened voice said quietly from behind her.  “I’m up.  What are you doing here, Neve?”
            Neve spun toward him.  He was scrubbing at one eye blearily, looking as if he really had just rolled out of a deep sleep.
            Still, she marched over to him and planted a finger against his breastbone, poking hard.  “There was a pack of six Dirae on the road three miles from here.  They’re still hunting you, Teague.  What the hell did you do to piss someone off that badly?”
            He stared at her for a long moment, tilting his head to one side to look past her, toward Cameron.  “Did it ever occur to you that they might have been after him?”
            “Why the hell would they be after Cameron?”  Neve demanded as Teague deftly slipped past her and shuffled toward Kira, Cameron, and the fire.
            “Any number of reasons,” Teague said evenly as he flipped the basket open and pulled out the bottle of vodka and a wad of white fabric.  “Go clean up and bring a bucket of water in here.  These are putrefying almost as fast as if he had Áes Dána blood in him.”
            Tamping down temper, Neve glared at him for a moment, then spun on her heel and marched outside to the horses and the pump.  She washed quickly, thoughts storming as she scrubbed the blood as best she could from her hands.
            Why would the Dirae be interested in Cameron?  He’s nothing special, just a sweet guy that happens to be sensitive to danger.
            But if he’s nothing special, why the hell did you turn around and follow him?  And why the sword?  Why did you throw him that sword?  She glanced toward the blade in question, dangling silently in its scabbard from where she’d slung it across her horse’s saddle.
            As she started to draw the water to bring back inside, another thought struck her.  If he’s nothing special, then why was he on his way here?
            She swallowed bile.  Oh hell.  I’ll disembowel him myself.  Damn you, big brother.  You have to stop playing so much so damn close to the vest!  Neve gave a little snarl and hauled the water back to the house, cursing under her breath as it sloshed out of the bucket and soaked her thighs and shins.
            Kira was near the door to relieve her of the bucket.  “Are you all right?” she asked in a low voice.
            Neve nodded with a soft grunt.  “Angry as hell, but otherwise sound.  They never touched me.  Cameron took the worst of it.”  Her lips thinned.  “His name’s Cameron MacKenzie, by the way.  He…”  Her voice trailed away as she looked past Kira toward where Teague was on his knees next to the other man with a bowl of steaming water, already trying to draw the Dirae’s poison out of Cameron’s wounds, out of his blood.  Neve sighed softly and shook her head.
            “Never mind,” she whispered.  “I’m going to go take care of the horses before I change my clothes.”
            She stopped when Kira touched her arm.
            “I don’t know why you’re both here, either, Neve,” Kira said softly.  “But I can’t say I’m not glad you are.  He’s almost impossible, you know.”
            Neve barked a weak laugh.  “What, no one warned you about that?”  She squeezed Kira’s hand briefly.  “We’ll figure out what’s going on here together.  Let me take care of those horses.  It’s been a long road and they deserve a rest.”
            Kira nodded and released her.  Neve stepped back outside, into the clean, cool air of a Canadian autumn.  It reminded her vaguely of home, of things lost and forgotten.
            The horses, as predicted, were more than grateful to be stabled with the pair Kira and Teague already had in the barn beyond the cabin, and Neve took her time rubbing them down, trying to avoid the worst of what Kira and Teague would need to do in tending Cameron’s wounds.
            Guilty tears began to sting in her eyes.  I should have moved faster.  Now he’ll be scarred for life, at the very least.  At worst, he would die from the poisons burning through his blood right now.  She swallowed again and leaned against her mount’s flank, listening to the horse breathe, to the pounding of its heart.
            He’s not one of us, though.  He’s like Kira.  He’ll survive.  It’ll be okay.  One bitter tear trickled down her cheek.  If it wasn’t, it would be her fault for not acting sooner, for not riding harder.
            For all she’d railed at her brother, she knew the truth.  The pack of Dirae had been following Cameron all right, though she couldn’t begin to imagine why.  He was just another survivor, like dozens—hundreds—of others left in the shattered wreck of a world.

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