Chapter 4: Grief and Loss

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A PAINED, ANIMAL NOISE escaped my throat as I recognized Jorun, his familiar face frozen in a grimace of pain and fear. Behind me, I heard Volya groan in dismay.

I was right about him and Gretya, I thought, even as I struggled to draw breath. Jorun's eyes were open, staring at a point over my left shoulder. I found that I was backing away through the door unsteadily, my legs threatening to buckle beneath me and send me sprawling on the ground. More of the pained noises were emerging from my lips with each strangled breath—I couldn't seem to stop them.

Hands closed around my arms from either side, supporting me as I continued to stagger backwards, away from the terrible sight.

"That's right. Come away," Andoc said from my right shoulder.

"Deep breaths," Senovo said from my left. "Focus on us."

I tried, I really did—gasping for air that seemed too thick and stale with smoke from burned huts and burned bodies. I was vaguely aware of the sound of the three newly orphaned sisters weeping a short distance away. Andoc was in front of me now, taking my face in his hands as Senovo kept me upright.

"Breathe now," Andoc said, forcing me to meet his gaze eye-to-eye. "We will grieve later. You have people relying on you. Carivel, you are the Horse Master now, and Draebard's horses are running loose in the foothills."

I stared at him like some kind of simpleton. I was the what? Oh, gods. The old Horse Master was dead, and I was the Horse Master's assistant. I felt a jolt through my chest like I'd been kicked by a fractious yearling, and air flooded my lungs at last as I sucked in a gasping breath, and another, and another. The fog in my mind cleared slightly, and I tried to focus on the throbbing of the bruise on my temple—grasping at the dull pain like a lifeline.

"That's it," Andoc said encouragingly, as Senovo cautiously released his grip and left me to stand unaided.

"But... Jorun," I said, my eyes drifting over Andoc's shoulder and toward the crooked doorway. "I should... "

"Volya and I will take care of Jorun and Gretya," Andoc said, pulling my focus back to him. "You should go find Dalon and whoever else you need to round up the horses. Senovo, go to the temple and see if the healer needs any help with Rhystel."

I nodded, my face still framed within Andoc's callused hands, feeling the odd numbness from earlier returning. That same numbness kept me from reacting when Andoc pressed his lips briefly to my bandaged forehead before letting me go. My eyes sought Senovo, who dipped his chin in acknowledgement, his own face pale and haggard as he turned to leave for the temple barracks.

I felt strangely detached from events as I turned to Volya, who had stepped back to give the three of us some privacy.

"I will need use of the horses you and your party were riding," I said.

He nodded. "Leave one in case we have to get a message out for some reason. The rest are at your disposal."

I took my leave, barely able to feel my boots against the ground as my feet carried me toward the horse pens without any conscious direction on my part. Thinking about the details of what I would need to recapture the herd was good. It gave me something to focus on, forcing my mind into working again like a rusty wheel on a chariot axle. My own gelding, Kekenu, was loose with the herd. If I could get within whistling distance, he would come to my call, and we could let him lead us back to the others.

By the time I reached the pens, I had the bare outline of a plan. Between the wolf and the battle, the horses had been in a panic last night. They would probably have headed for the perceived safety of the foothills rather than staying in the open pastureland, though they'd likely ventured down to graze today, now that things were quiet. We would look in the valleys at the base of the hills, and work our way out from there if necessary.

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