Some days were better than others.
Other days seemed perfectly fine until the very moment they suddenly spiraled out of control. Like the morning he saw the woman in the Exchange…
He had been in the Auction House on office business, submitting Armamentarium requests for bids as instructed by his boss, the Lord Valse Triste. Things had gone well. The main floor of the Auction House had been quiet and without the press of noisy, yelling crowds that so often made Teithio feel tense and anxious. Work complete, he paused in the shadow of the doorway, eyes combing rapidly over the Exchange as he habitually scanned for danger.
He knew, of course, that there weren’t really snipers on the rooftops here. He knew the trees didn’t conceal kaldorei fighters and that the occasional drift of leaves or discarded paper didn’t hide a booby trap. He knew these things, in the rational part of his mind. Convincing his body and subconscious of these truths seemed a different matter.
And so he hid who he was from the world, a veneer of normality over a core of confusion and fear and anger and self-loathing. The pause in the doorway? That was merely to light a cigarette. The involuntary crouch of frightened reaction to a loud noise? Nothing more than a bootlace needing to be retied. His preference for walking around open spaces instead of across them? Simply that, a preference, a pleasant stroll for a man never in a hurry. That’s all. Nothing to see here. Nothing unusual. Nothing wrong with me.
Cigarette sparked to life, Teithio took a deep breath and stepped out from under cover. As he reached the bottom of the stairs his scanning gaze caught a tiny flash of light and all was undone.
She’d turned her head, laughing happily at something her companion was saying, the small movement enough to make her dangling gold earring dance in the sun.
He pressed his hands harder against the Boy’s torn belly and yelled for her to go faster. She turned her head again, the earrings rocking with the motion of the wagon and said something he couldn’t make out through the muffed ringing that was all he’d heard since the explosion. She stretched blood-stained fingers toward the boy and must have cast another healing spell as Teithio saw the pinched expression on the youth’s pale face ease a little. Why couldn’t he remember the Boy’s name? He’d only been with the platoon for a few days, but still, Teithio should remember.
The cigarette dropped unnoticed to the flagstones of the Exchange as he moved away from the stairs.
The Boy had been screaming over the body of his friend when she’d appeared down the trail in her wagon. The bomb had gone off with no warning and knocked them all down, sucking the oxygen from their lungs and stealing senses – suddenly the forest had no sound or smell and the only taste left was blood and gunpowder. The Boy’s friend had caught the blast full on and was dead. Teithio had stared at the body for quite some time as his mind refused to process the information his eyes were passing along. The corpse wasn’t bloody or dismembered, he was limp and his limbs folded in the wrong directions, his torso crumpled in half, easily folded without the normal restriction of a spine. Half of his clothes were gone. It didn’t make sense. It didn’t look real. He didn’t look real.
Now the Boy was screaming, though, screaming and pawing desperately at his friend, begging him to get up, to open his eyes, to be alive. Wanting this not to be true. Teithio couldn’t hear any of it properly, his ears thick and muffled with wet cloth, or so it seemed, but he could tell. It was easy to read. The Boy’s white fingers plucked frantically at the twisted arm of the dead man. Needing this not to be real. Pleading.
He leaned against the wall to the side of the Auction House, taking deep breaths, eyes fixed on the hedge there. A woman towed her child safely past, hissing something disapprovingly about drunks.
Teithio was trying to pull the Boy away when the ram pulling the wagon drew level with them and the woman leaped nimbly down from the driver's seat. She’d taken in the tableau with a swift look and turned away to collect Swiftstream, the platoon’s long-range archer who was seated, stunned and clutching a bloodied arm to his chest. A piece of bone was visible and grotesquely white amongst the scarlet of his flesh. Teithio puzzled that out for a moment before belatedly noticed Swanflight, who’d been on rear watch, standing on the root of a giant tree and keeping watch – maybe he’d flagged down the woman from the road from where their little trail had branched off.
She joined him now, the fall of her glossy dark hair pressing close to the Boy’s pale cheek as she added her strength to pulling the distraught youth away from his fallen friend. Between them she and Teithio got the Boy to the little steps where he stood, shaking and crying and refusing to climb unless his friend was rescued too. Their eyes met, Teithio’s and the woman's, and he knew that she knew there was no hope, yet still he turned and retraced his steps away from the wagon anyway. If he couldn't remember the Boy's name, perhaps he could at least bring his friend home for burial.
He’d just sit down and rest for a minute first, his back against the stone, the wall of the Auction House looming to one side and the hedge to his other. It felt secure.
Deafened as he was, the first Teithio realized of the attack was the arrow that skimmed across his upper back before gouging itself into one tricep. It didn't hurt, not until the next day, but it wrested his attention back from the numb fuzziness of his shocked mind. He spun back towards the others just in time to see the woman cast a magical shield over the Boy, who seemed to have been attacked by a nightsaber as the big cat’s dead body lay with one of Swanflight’s swords buried in its flank. Rushing for the cover of the wagon, Teithio realized he no longer had his rifle and hadn’t seen it since the explosion. He settled for bodily flinging the Boy up and into the wagon as their rescuer scrambled her way into the driver’s nook.
An arrow buried itself into the woodwork near the steps but they were already rolling. Swiftstream hunched next to the Boy, the two of them with faces glazed by pain. Swanflight was perched awkwardly on the running board next to the driver’s nook, a fireball forming in his palm to help secure their retreat. And in the seat itself the woman with the dark hair and the bright gold earrings.
He yelled at her to go faster. The Boy was bleeding out. She nodded and, the healing spell cast, turned away, snapping the reins to urge on the ram between the traces.
Across the Exchange she walked into the distance, merged with the crowd, and disappeared.
Teithio closed his eyes and let his head sink onto his folded arms.
If only he could remember the Boy's name...