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It wasn’t until the loose brick she’d pried from the kitchen hearth found its target that Paige realized the trespasser might still be human. She lit a lamp with shaking hands. As Paige crept up to figure out who had come into her home in the middle of the night she wondered if this would be the boulder that broke Horatio’s Scale.
After each lifetime the gods weighed your good deeds against your bad. The heavier side of the scale influenced whether your next lifetime was easy or difficult, long or short. Rarely someone would do something so terrible that Horatio’s Scale cracked underneath the weight of it all, and the punishment for this was becoming Death. Collect enough souls and you might get a second chance, although Paige doubted the world was old enough for anyone to have served their full sentence yet.
The trespasser was human. Male. Breathing shallowly. Light brown hair matted with blood. His thin, wispy beard made her guess he was 14 or 15 years old, but he was small for his age. The only personal item in his possession was small black stone. She tossed it aside without a second glance.
Whatever his intentions tonight, they couldn’t have been good. Daphne rolled him onto his back and wondered what to do next. Was he a drifter or would someone come looking for him in a few days? Her thoughts were interrupted by Wilma’s cries, and she left the stranger alone to tend to her great-grandaughter.
Isaac’s eyes grew big when he returned to Paige’s house. The soldier was alive for now, but his pupils were uneven and the wound on his head continued to seep. There were no bandages, and Isaac didn’t know how the local gods would feel about being interceded for the fate of a stranger, but he sent a silent prayer to them anyway as he wiped away the blood and began applying pressure on the wound.
“I thought he was Death,” Paige said as she snuffed out the sputtering lamp, added more oil, and then relit it. Isaac was about to ask her what she meant when she spoke up again. “I’d never hurt a real person.” Had her fever been that high? It was as if she was telling him one of the fairy stories from her childhood about flying wagons and people that appeared and disappeared at will, not recounting something that had happened within the last hour.
“What do we do now?” Paige asked after Daphne’s son explained what little he knew of the stranger’s origins. Was it better to try to contact the army leader and explain what happened or wait until they came looking for their comrade? The boy’s breathing was slowing down, and Isaac wondered if he’d live long enough for them to fix everything.
“We have to treat him here,” Isaac said. He knew almost nothing about medicine, but he doubted it would be wise to move someone with such a serious wound. People with even the worst injuries sometimes recovered if you stopped the bleeding and gave their bodies time to heal.
Paige started a fire with the wood Isaac had brought in while he did his best to keep the soldier alive. By the time the fire grew large enough to illuminate the puddle of blood at the entryway Isaac realized that his efforts were in vain. The stranger never regained consciousness. Isaac wished he knew what the soldier was doing creeping around in the middle of the night. When the next soldier came looking for his or her comrade Paige and the child would have no way to defend themselves, and neither one was strong enough to go running for help. All Isaac could do was hope his mother understood in the morning.
Suddenly Daphne was wide awake, her heart thumping wildly as she shifted to a less painful sleeping position. Lemon whined and licked her hand. Morning light was just beginning to leak through the front door, and for a second she didn’t notice Delphine’s daughter curled up next to the dog. How on earth did a sick toddler walk three miles through the freezing desert in the middle of the night?
Isaac was sitting at the kitchen table staring at the steam rising from his cup of tea. Daphne’s stomach clenched in apprehension as he recounted the strange events from the night before. She’d been suspicious of the soldier’s intentions before, but learning that they were targeting other families as well strengthened her resolve to fight back. All she had to do first was figure out how to keep the vapours that had made Willa and Delphine so ill from spreading to anyone else.
“Set up the travelling tents in the front yard,” she told her son. “You, Ephraim, and Felix will sleep outside for now. I’ll look after the others.” She shuddered at the thought of getting ill, but Daphne preferred taking that risk herself over asking her sons to do it. Paige would be well soon anyway, and between the two of them they could hopefully nurse the girl back to health as well.
Isaac stared at her in disbelief. It was rare for his mother to change her mind so rapidly. As a boy he’d often been frustrated by her obstinate refusal to change her mind once she made up her mind about something. Even Nevaeh had struggled to get through to her when she’d decided to push her kids into doing something for their own good.
Then again, nothing like this had ever happened before and Nevaeh was no longer around to temper Daphne’s stubbornness.
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