Zef kneeled down next to me. "That was a good idea, but it couldn't have waited until you were able to at least walk again? You need to rest."
"I don't know," I said, my voice soft.
"She could be trying to poison us," yelled a Dwarf with a rough voice. "We all know what Treeks are capable of."
"She's not trying to poison us," said another. His tone was nasally. "Look at her, she nearly killed herself to grow us some breakfast." I heard approaching footsteps.
"What are you doing?" asked the Dwarf with the rough voice.
"I'm helping her," said the one speaking through his nose.
"There are Dwarves that need treatment. You're gonna help a Treek over a Dwarf?" said the rough voice.
"No, Dunnel," said the nasally Dwarf. "I am going to help a badly injured patient over a less injured one. She needs help. And she needs it because she just used all of her energy to fill our bellies with food."
The footsteps came closer, heavy and loud even for what sounded like a more bookish Dwarf. He kneeled down beside me. "My name is Cavel," he said. "Can I take a look at the wound?" I tried to nod but barely moved. He placed a hand on my back. He was hesitant, only touching my rough skin lightly. Then he began to feel around the wound. He unwrapped the fabric that was tied around my waist, and then slowly peeled it from the opening. It burned and ripped. Scabs pulled away allowing fresh blood to flow freely.
"I'm going to feel around for your organs," Cavel said. "I haven't worked on a Treek before. I want to make sure everything is intact." He began feeling around my belly and lower back. It hurt and made the opening burn more, but I was too tired to do anything more than wince.
When he was done prodding my back, he said, "It looks like nothing vital was hit, but the cut looks pretty bad. I better clean it up and properly bandage it. We'll need to get you somewhere quick though. It's already infected."
"What happens when it's infected?" asked Zef.
"If you let it go too long, she'll probably need medicine to heal it," said Cavel. "If you let it go longer than that, it could kill her. I don't have much to work with either. There were some supplies in the mountain but..."
"So we get her to the colony," said Zef.
"That sounds like her best chance," said Cavel.
I mustered up the strength to speak. "I can't. They'll kill me."
"We won't let them," said Zef.
"If you stay here, you'll definitely die," said Cavel. "There's only so much I can do without supplies, and creating all of that food just sapped a lot of the energy you should have been using to heal. You need help."
I closed my eyes. Either I die out here or Rodrigo kills me back at the colony. I'd hate to give Rodrigo the satisfaction, but at least the colony would have the supplies Cavel needed to help. Maybe they could ask for supplies when we got there. I wouldn't even need to go near the colony. I couldn't imagine it being that easy though. Nothing ever was.
Cavel poured some water that splattered next to me on the ground. "This is going to hurt," he said. He dabbed a wet cloth on the wound, moistening the crusted blood and wiping it free. The water burned the cut and the pressure didn't help either. I bit my lip.
When he was done torturing me, I heard a tear of cloth. He wrapped a strip of fabric back around my waist. "That should do for now, but you need to rest. Thank you for the food. We really do appreciate it, even though some are skeptical. Don't do it again until you're feeling better though. You need your strength to fight the infection."
"Got it. Thanks," I muttered.
The Dwarf stood and walked away. I heard more footsteps and then two furry arms lifted me from the ground. "That was stupid," said Tigala. "I get it, but it was still stupid."
I smirked. I think she cares about me, I thought.
I woke up beneath the trees and looked around. The Dwarves must have been hard at work, as the makeshift camp we had set ourselves up in now had stone walls strung between the various boulders at the edge. The walls weren't tall, or very thick, but they provided one more obstacle for wandering predators. The cave they had dug into the mountainside served as a good place to retreat to as well.
Tigala, Lolan, Marv, Zef, and Abigail were sitting near other Dwarves around a campfire, eating cooked vegetables. I glanced over to the garden I had grown earlier and found that much of it was picked through. Dwarves at a second campfire were eating as well. I breathed a sigh of relief, seeing that they at least trusted me enough to eat the plants I grew. It was progress.
Along the walls of the mountain, near the entrance to the cavern, there were four bodies encapsulated in stone, with only the heads left free. They hung limp as if dead and had blindfolds covering their eyes. I studied them, and identified Number Four, Five, and Six, still with a pink glow visible at their temples. They were the guards, still taken by whatever magic the Gnomes had used to brainwash them. It looked like a couple of them must have been lost in the rubble.
Riak, I thought. He did this. We could have handled this so much better if he hadn't been so hungry for revenge.
"Hey, you're up...again," said Lolan. "How are you feeling?"
My throat was still hoarse from the smoke inhalation. "Like death."
He stood and walked over to me. "You want to sit by the fire? You should get some food in you."
He didn't wait for an answer and began pulling my arm over his shoulder. He took it slow, cautious of the stab wound in my side and lifted me to my feet. Together, we hobbled over to join the others. Lolan lowered me down to lean against a rock with a good view of the camp. Patches of Dwarves were scattered about eating dinner.
"Thanks," I said as he took a spot next to me. Marv was mid-story as I sat down, talking of a time when he and his brother swam in an underground lake and awakened some creature in the depths.
"Does it feel like it's getting any better?" Lolan asked.
I reached back to the cut and touched it lightly and pain shot through my back. I shook my head. "It's tender."
"That's not good. We might have to take that doctor take another look."
"I'll be fine," I said. "He said there isn't much he can do without medicine."
Lolan nodded. "Oh, Talia woke up for a bit. She says thanks," Lolan said. I looked around and found her laying down in the same spot I had last seen her.
"Is she okay?" I asked.
"I don't know. She had a wound like yours, but hers looks a lot worse. It sounds like she needs help pretty fast," said Lolan.
Tigala shoved a slab of cooked venison on a stone tray at me. The smell made my mouth water. I nodded at Tigala and she responded in kind. The meat was salty and delicious, but I think anything would have been delicious at that point.
"Then why haven't we left yet?" I asked between bites.
"Most of the Dwarves weren't sure they could make the trip today after everything they've been through," said Lolan. "They weren't well-nourished, and that fight wasn't easy. A lot of them are still mourning."
I looked over at the four guard-Dwarves entombed in stone. "And they have to figure out how to bring them," I said.
"Right," said Lolan.
"Are you okay?" I asked. He had been down there in that hallway too. So had Tigala.
"Better than you," he said with a smile. "I was out for a bit too. I'm not sure why it hit you harder though. Tigala barely has anything lingering. Maybe it's because she can reshape herself."
On the topic of magic, I remembered his. "Hey! You can do fire magic though. That's cool," I said.
"Yeah, and look where it got us."
I smirked. He was right. So far his fire magic had caused a Dwarf to start launching boulders at us and then it nearly killed us all in those tunnels. It would be pretty handy if he had more control over it.
I saw a Dwarf sitting around a distant campfire glance over at me. Her eyes sparkled with moisture as she looked. After a moment, she approached. I prepared to be handed more blame for what had happened. The whole thing could have gone smoother, but we had to act while Havik was still unprepared. The Dwarves lost some of their own in that fight though, and that was on me. Maybe I was too brash in trying to talk to Riak. Maybe I should have waited for us to figure out a better plan.
But the woman didn't rebuke me. She walked with her head lowered and pointed at the spot next to me. "May I?" she said.
It took me a moment to figure out what she meant. "Oh. Yeah," I said. The Dwarf sat down next to me, a few feet away.
"I'm Cairn," she said. She was cautious, hesitant, but she remained there, next to me. Cairn's frizzy blond hair sat on her head like a mop, unkempt and dirty.
"I'm Kaia. Hi," I said.
"Is it true, what they're saying?" she said. "You tried to save us? That's why you came?"
"Uh, yeah," I said. "Sorry it didn't go better than it did."
She looked down at the ground. "Yeah, me too. Why did you do it? Why help the Dwarves?"
I had been thinking a lot about that question. Riak made it all more confusing, but somehow more clear at the same time. "You needed help," I said. "Maybe I'll die a martyr for it, but I don't think we can keep living like this."
"What do you mean?" asked Cairn.
"We can't keep hating each other—drawing lines in the sand over who we share a heritage with or what we look like. There has to be a better way. I think I'm starting to find it myself." I looked around the circle at Tigala and Zef and Marv. I glanced at Lolan who sat next to me listening. He smiled back.
"Hatred breeds hatred," I said. "War breeds war. How are any of us supposed to survive if all we ever do is fight?"
Cairn was speechless. Her forehead wrinkled like she was thinking—processing what I had said. It looked like she wasn't sure if she wanted to believe me.
"Did...did you lose anyone? In the fight?" I asked.
The tears welled up in her eyes and she nodded, still staring at the dirt in front of her.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"He was one of the brainwashed," she said. Tears flowed freely and she hiccupped and sniffled. Her lip quivered and she readied her words. "And all that time that we were in there, all I wanted was revenge. I wanted to kill those Gnomes so badly. I wanted them to pay for making me watch Branton like that." Her sobs interrupted her speech. But she regained her composure and wiped the tears with her forearms. "But before the cave fell down, I thought I saw a glimpse of him. Maybe he snapped out of it for a moment. Maybe he didn't realize he was doing it. But when the cave fell, he saved me. He sacrificed himself so that I could live."
My vision grew blurry as tears came to my eyes as well. "I'm so sorry." It was all I could muster.
"And after all of that, after watching him die, all I can think is 'Why?' What am I supposed to do now? He's gone, and he's all that I had. Should I—" her voice caught and she shook. "I keep wondering if revenge is all there is. This is the world we live in now. It's the way things are. But then I see you, with a group of other races... Do you really believe in this? Do you really think it will last?"
I looked up at the group again. Marv had finished his tale and Zef was on to making illusions in the flames that looked like various monsters he'd encountered. Abigail sat awestruck by the stories. Tigala was less interested but studied Zef's images. Lolan still sat in silence next to me. When I looked his way, he kept his eyes forward smiling at the display.
I looked back at Cairn with a tear-soaked face. "I think it will."