Winter – Chapter 26 – 03

            I startled awake, lying flat on my back on the slushy ground.  Snowflakes drifted down above me, landing on my cheeks and nose, melting quickly.  I sucked in a quick, deep breath and blinked again.
            Thom was there a moment later, crouching next to me.  “Marin?”
            “I’m fine,” I said, voice a little faint and shaky.  What just happened?
            As he helped me sit up, I realized that the screaming had stopped.  My breath hitched.  “Did it—”
            “Work?”  Thom smiled grimly.  “Seems like maybe it did.  Not sure what the price of that is, exactly, and not sure yet if it was worth it.”  He took my hand and carefully pulled me to my feet.  My knees felt a little shaky, but otherwise I seemed to be more or less intact.  As I leaned against him, I looked around for Phelan.
            Jacqueline was crouched over him where he lay a few feet away from where I’d fallen.  He was crumpled like a cast-off sheet of paper against one of the watchtower’s supports, his staff still clutched tightly in one hand.
            “What happened?” I whispered.
            Rory answered from the other side of Thom.  “Big green light, all the fire suddenly turned this weird blue-green color, and the screaming stopped.  Then a mini-explosion.  You dropped like a walk and Phelan ended up over there.”  He flexed his fingers, looking at Thom, not at me.  “I’m going to go check out the flaming corpse.”
            “Take someone with you,” Thom said almost absently, watching Jacqueline with Phelan before he shook himself and looked back to me.  I swallowed hard.
            “What was that?” I asked in a bare whisper.
            “The creature?”  Thom’s lips thinned.  “I’m still not sure.”  He wrapped both arms around me and pulled me tight against his chest for a moment.  “Why didn’t you stay where you were?”
            At least he’s not asking why I collapsed and why I was there in the first place.  He’s asking the questions I’d rather answer.  “I saw something,” I said softly.  “I knew where I needed to be when I heard the screaming, so I came.”  I stroked his jaw lightly, stubble rough against my palm and fingers.
            He sighed and shook his head.  “Come on.  There’re people out there and something tells me that I need you with me when I meet them.”  He raised his voice.  “Kel!  Come on.  We’ve got work to do.”
            Kellin dropped from the watchtower to join us, her boots slipping a little in the slushy turf and mud.  “Finally going to go greet the visitors that at least tried to come to our rescue?”
            “Yeah,” Thom said, squinting past the pile of what looked like sod that burned a few dozen yards away from the gate.
            “Wait,” Phelan’s voice rasped from behind us.  Both Jacqueline and J.T. were crouched with him now, though he was feebly trying to ward both of them off.  “Take these two with you.  They’re going to need you more than me.  I’m mostly in one piece.”
            Thom and Kellin both looked at me.  I could feel the solid weight of certainty riding behind Phelan’s words.  “He’s right,” I said.  “We’re going to need you two.”  I looked around for the nearest set of capable hands and spotted Paul.  “Paul, can you help Phelan back over to where we stashed Tala and your sister?”
            “Shouldn’t be a problem,” Paul said.  He headed for Phelan.  I tried to ignore the baleful look Jacqueline gave me as she straightened.
            “Right,” she muttered.  “Let’s go see what we’re dealing with, then.”
            The look J.T. gave me was more worried than upset as he fell into step with us, heading through the gates and skirting past the burning pile of something that Rory was inspecting with Greg, Pippa, and my brother.  Matt gave me a brief nod as we passed and I nodded back.
            “Phelan did that?”  I murmured, eyeing the pile as we walked past.
            “You both did,” Thom murmured to me, shaking his head and turning his gaze to the landscape ahead and the figures beyond the burning carcass, which smelled like a mix of burning flesh and sod as much as it looked like the same.
            I guess we did.  I shuddered at the thought and tried to ignore the remnants of my handiwork.
            One of the figures sprawled on the ground rose slowly at our approach, a bow in his hands.  The string creaked as he notched an arrow and drew back to his ear, ready to let fly.
            “Not another step,” he rumbled.  “What are you, and how did you just kill that firbolg?”

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