Ch. 15 - One of them

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Goeden and his cats lazed by the campfire.

“I thought you had run back to your village,” Goeden said. He appraised the crusty blood on her clothes. “So you are one of us then?”

She nodded, her lips tight. She wanted to tell him that she had not hurt anyone, but she knew he would see right through the lie. And she didn’t want to slip up and reveal that Devan was alive. She was one of the Wished now, or at least she had to be until she figured out what to do.

 He hopped up on the stump next to her, balancing himself with his naked tail; he grabbed her hand and yanked it up into the air. “One of us!”

His gang whooped. A few jumped up to clap her on the back, but they were not as careful with their claws as Blayd. Her skin crawled as sharp points prickled through her shirt.

Lacey had to ball her hands into fists to prevent her from scratching Goeden’s eyes out, but that only gave her the urge to punch him in the face. Visions of the battle were still fresh in her mind and all around her were people from those visions--people who had cut down her friends where they stood, for no good reason. And now she had to pretend to be one of them.

She managed to keep herself in check until Blayd deposited her back in Cooper’s hovel. He didn’t stay this time. He seemed disappointed in her.

The bed made a cracking noise as she fell onto it. She stifled scream into the pillow, pounding it with her fist. The bed survived; she didn’t know if she would. How could she stay here? But where else could she go?

“Oh little one.” Cooper pushed her shabby tail out of the way and sat beside Lacey.

But instead of fully committing to sitting down, Cooper perched on the edge of the cot. Her eyes lingered over the bloodstains on Lacey’s clothes; raccoon mask doing nothing to hide her trepidation. This was how the people in Pine Ridge would react if she went home. Probably worse. Envoy Yasmina would probably send her away to Founder City, where people went when they lost the Path.

A bowl of stew wobbled in Cooper’s hands. Lacey was right back where she started. She would have laughed, if her friend wasn’t sitting there wondering if she was a killer.

“I didn’t—Everything happened so fast. I am not one of those killers!“

Cooper cleared her throat and began her stirring ritual. She didn’t look at Lacey. “They are foul beasts. But they brought us some much-needed equipment, yesterday. Knives, cloaks, rope. Rope is so useful. They bring us the things we need to survive.”

“They killed and robbed. The ropes, the cloaks…is it worth knowing what they do to get them?” And she was worried what Cooper thought of her.

“When survival is at stake, you find yourself accepting things.” Cooper closed her eyes, the bowl heavy in her hands. “I wish—” She stopped herself. “I wish I would stop wishing.”

Cooper scooped up a spoonful of stew, but Lacey held up her fully healed hand.

“I can do it myself.”

Cooper put down the bowl and pulled Lacey’s hands into her small black ones. She ran her silken fingertips over Lacey’s palms.

“How?” Cooper looked up, blinking.

“I put my hands in a spring, and then they were healed.”

Cooper’s round eyes shone with a faraway look. “Do you think it could cure me too?”

Lacey sat forward. “Cooper, are you ill?”

Cooper shook her head. “I just thought maybe…if the wish was like an illness, it could be cured.” She plucked at the fur on her arm.

Lacey sighed. “If the spring could make us human, I would not still have these.” Lacey poked at her fangs with her index finger. They were still there. They even seemed longer than she remembered. “I don’t think the spring cures curses.”

“Not human,” Cooper said, with a deep breath. “I want my old life back. My days were simple then. I avoided creatures like those out there.” She nodded in the direction of the campfire. “My only concern was keeping my kits safe. My kits…” Cooper sobbed, hunching over against Lacey’s shoulder.

Lacey patted the raccoon woman’s arm. Not sure what to say.

Someone pounded on the door. Cooper took a moment to compose herself before getting up to open it.

Goeden, Arley, and Golden-Eyes barged in. The cougar’s muscles rippled under his svelte fur. They strode over to Lacey, full of glory and ego.

Goeden produced a deerskin blanket and tossed it dramatically around Lacey’s shoulders. “A prize of the hunt,” he said. “One of many to come.”

Arley winked a black-lined eye at her. “We noticed you had lost your cloak and didn’t want you to catch a chill.”

Lacey dug her nails into her palms. The blanket was soft and supple, tanned expertly by a craftsman. Not something these creatures could produce in this rude camp. It had probably belonged to one of her friends.

“I won’t hunt with you,” she hissed.

Goeden’s eyes were like pits of venom. The patches of fur on his cheeks bristled and he raised himself to his fullest height. He was still no taller than Cooper’s child-sized stature, but suddenly he seemed loom over everyone. He growled, “You will.”

Cooper sat back on the bed and hid her face behind Lacey’s shoulder; even the cats drew back a little. Lacey kept stock-still. She stared at him, hoping she looked brave, instead of like a petrified animal caught in a corner.

And then he winked and gave her a knowing grin, as if they were long time friends discussing some mischief. “Everyone must contribute.” He used the same phrase Envoy Yasmina like to repeat whenever possible. What did this creature know of the Path?

Lacey’s stomach twisted. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t pretend to be one of them, not for her life, not even for Devan’s—not if it meant becoming a killer.  She was about to stand up, throw his vile gift in his face, and knock the little rat flat on his back. But a soft hand pressed on her knee.

Cooper’s touch was not insisting; it was pleading.

Lacey faltered. There was something in the bow of the raccoon’s head—she couldn’t abandon one more friend’s fate to these animals. Lacey put her arm around Cooper like a shield. “Lady Ezerelle said that I could choose Hunter or Herd. I do not have to hunt.”

The venom returned to his rodent eyes. “You? Herd? It isn’t in your nature.”

“Maybe not. But it’s my choice!” Lacey stood up.

The cats growled and Goeden fingered the bones of his necklace. They looked almost like human finger bones. Whatever dark magic lurked in them, she was not eager to witness it. But she stood her ground.

“Goeden.” Cooper stood up beside her, her eyes cast down and her voice barely a whisper. “She is from the bats. They are night hunters. Perhaps it would be better if she hunted with Blayd.”

Lacey’s eyebrows shot up. Blayd did not hunt with the cats. “Yes, I could hunt with Blayd.”

Goeden grunted; he gave Cooper a black look that made the raccoon squeak. Then he turned and left, without another word. The cats followed their master, slitted golden discs flashed back at her as the door closed.

Cooper breathed a sigh of relief; she ran to the door and leaned her back against it.

Lacey pushed the deerskin blanket off her shoulders in disgust. It was the same shade as Ezerelle’s fur. She folded it up and tucked it under the pillow out of sight.

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