The incandescence died within seconds, leaving us all night-blind and gasping for breath. I groped around in the darkness for the others.
“Is everyone all right?” Jacqueline’s voice called tremulously from the barrow.
“Grab a lantern,” I croaked after swallowing a couple times. “Come on over here and have a look.” Had I screamed? My throat felt like I had been, and for a long time.
It had only taken a few seconds, hadn’t it?
I leaned against the staff to stay upright. It was still warm against my palms, almost comforting. I felt like I could fall asleep right there, leaning against that staff.
Thom’s voice shook me fully awake. “Marin! Get over here.”
There was urgency interlaced with fear in his voice. My heart began to thud at breakneck speed.
My eyes began to adjust again as I got moving, toward the sound of Thom’s call, aided a few seconds later by Kellin, who snapped one of the battery operated lanterns on. In its anemic light, I could see Phelan sprawled on the grass, breathing shallowly and staring at the sky.
Shit. Oh shit, oh shit. “Jac!” I crashed to my knees next to Thom, who’d balled up the stocking cap he’d worn out here tonight and had it pressed against a bloody gash in Phelan’s shoulder.
Thom looked at me sidelong and shook his head slightly, looking as frightened as I’d ever seen him in these past few weeks since the end of everything. Phelan’s shirt was soaked with blood. When had this happened?
Probably when she hit him that first time, I realized. When he started sounding like he was trying to talk around steel wool caught in his throat.
Jacqueline was there a few seconds later, taking Phelan’s pulse and checking his eyes. He managed to glare at her for a moment before his expression slackened.
“The bitch,” he mumbled, then his eyes slid closed.
“Damnation, Phelan,” Jacqueline cursed softly. “Don’t pass out on me yet.”
“Is he all right?” Rory asked from behind me. I glanced over my shoulder. He and Drew looked little worse for wear, though Rory had apparent grass stains all along one side of his body and was bleeding a little from a scrape above his eye that he didn’t seem to notice. Beyond them, Carolyn was helping J.T. to his feet. He moved gingerly, as if checking to make sure that he was in one piece.
Jacqueline answered. “No. No, he’s not all right. Keep that right where you’ve got it right now, Thom.”
“Right,” Thom said in a murmur, head bobbing slightly. His eyes were on her hands as she worked, moving deftly across Phelan’s prone body.
“We can’t stay here,” Kellin said, shaking her head firmly. “It’s not safe out here right now.”
“Do you really think she’s going to come back after that?” Jacqueline snapped, looking up at Kellin for a split second.
“Without a goddamned doubt,” Kellin snapped back. “Maybe not in the next ten minutes, but she’s not going to stay away for long. We need to get back to camp, and fast.”
Jacqueline glanced at me and I shook my head. “I wish I didn’t think she was right, Jac. We need to get back inside the wards before she comes back with friends.”
“What the hell was that all about, anyway?” Rory pressed, looking at me, then at Thom, then Kellin. “Do you know?”
“I think the only one who does is currently unconscious.” I shook my head. “We need some kind of stretcher or travois.”
“We’ll handle it,” J.T. said with a grunt as he finished his self-assessment. “Going to have to borrow your crutches, though, Thom. Think you can manage to hobble and not hurt yourself?”
Thom nodded. “I’ll lean on someone.”
Jacqueline looked at me. “I need the cloth from my basket. Tear a few strips off of it so we can tie that hat against his shoulder.”
“On it,” I said, forcing myself up. I paused, then eased the staff closer to Phelan and closed his limp hand around it. It might have been my imagination, but I thought that his breathing eased for a second and his fingers tightened around the wood.
My head started to throb as I was knotting two strips of cloth together to make a makeshift bandage for Phelan’s shoulder.
“Marin! Tear a few more and knot them off. He’s bleeding somewhere else.”
Wonderful. What the hell, Phelan? I thought you were going to help us stay out of trouble, not bring down more on us. My heart thudded against my breast and my head pounded in time with the beats. I did as I was asked and brought the mess over to Jacqueline, who was making full use of Rory’s assistance to get Phelan bound up. I saw the other spot of blood—Phelan’s lower back, above his hip on the left side. I hoped it wasn’t too deep, but his shirt was soaked with enough blood I began to wonder exactly how shallow it could be.
I wavered a little on my feet and Thom touched my arm with a bloody hand, steadying me. I stared at him for a moment. There must have been something written in my gaze, on my face, because he reached out and drew me against his chest. I leaned there for a moment, forgetting about his ribs and his bloody hands, squeezing my eyes shut and trying to calm down.
Green fields stretched out before us, the wind sending the grass rippling in an endless, undulating wave except for where it broke against what was left of a burned down barn, against the rocks that were all that was left of a house’s foundation. Thom’s hand closed around mine and squeezed as we stood on the hill, looking down over the ruins of a world that died years ago, a world slowly being swallowed up by the new world that had fought so hard to be born.
“We’ll find it,” he whispered. “Whatever it takes, however long it takes. And then we’ll go home to them and never have to leave again for all the rest of our days.”
I still wished I knew what it was we were looking for.
I drew a shuddering breath and clung to him for a moment. Thom kissed my temple, squeezed me, then let go. “Time to walk,” he murmured. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” I whispered, fairly certain it was a lie. “Yeah, I’m okay. Let’s get back to the wards.”
He nodded. J.T. and Drew had gotten Phelan loaded onto a makeshift stretcher made of Thom’s crutches and sweatshirts. Greg, Carolyn, and Kellin gathered up all the lanterns they could carry and I scrambled to help them. Thom stooped gingerly to retrieve the drum and another lantern.
We left the two remaining torches where they were, on the far side of the barrow, burning bright with a flame that was strangely more blue than they had been before. I tried to ignore that as we walked away.