“There was nothing you could have done,” Thom said for at least the tenth time, his arm locked around my shoulders.
“There must have been,” I muttered. My stomach folded in on itself once and then over again. “I should have gone after him when I had the chance—I shouldn’t have let Jay stop me.”
“Hey.” Thom took my chin in his hand and turned my head so I couldn’t keep avoiding his gaze. “I’m glad he stopped you. I’m terrified by what could have happened if he hadn’t.”
I put my hand on his cheek. His eyes were bright with unshed tears that didn’t hide the pain and fear that lurked within the blue. He wasn’t kidding or exaggerating, I realized. I swallowed hard and rested my head against his.
“I don’t want to lose you,” he murmured. “I don’t think I could stand it, Mar.”
“Well, you didn’t this time,” I said quietly. “And you’re not going to any other time.”
He pressed a kiss to my forehead.
Rory cleared his throat to our left. My face flamed for a brief second as Thom and I turned toward him in the same breath, the same motion.
“What is it?” I asked, the warmth disappearing from my cheeks.
He held out a small scrap of folded paper. “Found this. Almost missed it since it’s so damn dark in there. We should’ve snagged a lantern before we went in.”
I took the scrap and began to unfold it with shaky fingers.
“How is he?” Rory asked. I froze in mid-motion.
“I—we don’t know,” I said. “Jac and J.T. are working on him right now—at least they were when they kicked me out of the tent. Jac didn’t want me underfoot again.”
Thom squeezed my arm tightly. I took a deep breath and finally finished unfolding the note.
The handwriting was unfamiliar, but it didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out who’d written it. The writing was slightly rushed, but the words were clear.
I’m sorry. I never wanted to hurt anyone and I don’t want to hurt anyone on accident, which I’m afraid I might if I stay.
So I’m not going to stay.
The voices aren’t shouting right now. I think I’ll make it far enough that I won’t be able to hear them anymore.
Maybe you’ll see me again. Maybe not. I don’t know.
My herbiary is under my pillow. Give it to Jac. She’ll know what to do.
“She walked away,” I murmured. “She walked away so she wouldn’t hurt any of us.” I handed the note to Thom, my gaze drifting toward Rory. “Does it look like she took anything?”
“A backpack, a few boxes of pop tarts, some apples, and a canteen, looked like.” He shook his head slightly. “Enough food—barely—for her to make it a week or so on the road, maybe.”
That’s a lot of toaster pastries. I rubbed my temple, brows knitting. Thom squeezed my arm again.
“She made a choice, Mar. Whatever happens to her from here on out is on her head, not yours.”
I nodded mutely. That only helps a little, but thanks, sweetheart.
Thom passed the note to Rory, who skimmed it before tucking it into his pocket. “Thom’s right,” he said.
“I know,” I muttered, starting to walk away from the supply tent. “But that doesn’t make it much easier.” Was there something we could have done to help her?
I was never going to know the answer to that question.
Camp was eerily quiet as the three of us headed back to the main tent, as if everyone was holding their breath. The only sounds were the animals—the sheep milling around in their makeshift pen, the birds calling to each other from the trees—and the sound of my brother banging on something up on the hillock where his forge would be someday. Thom was staring in that direction, a strange look on his face.
“Maybe you should go up there,” he said quietly as Rory kept walking toward the main tent. “Matt might need to talk.”
“Will you come with me?” I asked.
Thom grunted, shaking his head. “I’m going to go get cleaned up and lay down.” He kissed my temple. “You should do the same after you’ve checked on Matt.”
“Maybe,” I said quietly, glancing toward the hillock. Thom wrapped his arms around me, holding on tight for a few long, precious moments. “I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, Thom,” I murmured into his shoulder. “I keep waiting for the next disaster.”
He stared down at me and shook his head with a faint, wry smile. “Haven’t we had enough for one day?”
I had to laugh. “I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe. I’m really not sure.” I closed my eyes and leaned against him again. I could smell woodsmoke and the forest, a scent that was half real, half imagined.
His arms were around my shoulders as we stared into the campfire at our feet, his beard tickling my temple. I wrapped my hand tightly around one of his and sighed softly.
“I’m sorry I dragged you out here with me,” I whispered. “It must feel like we’re on some insane wild goose chase.”
“I wasn’t going to let you go alone,” he murmured. His whiskers made me squirm as the tip of his nose brushed against the upper rim of my ear. “Whether you asked me or not, you were going to be stuck with me.”
“Even if I told you not to leave them? Not to leave him?”
Thom nodded slightly. “Even then. They’ll have taken good care of him, Mar, you know that—better than I ever could have by myself.”
I closed my eyes.
“I made you a promise,” he whispered. “And it’s not one I’m going to break.”
I shivered a little. Thom’s arms tightened one more time before he let go and stepped back.
“Go on, make sure Matt doesn’t hurt himself,” he said, brushing hair out of my face. “I’ll come up if something changes.”
He smiled. “Promise.”