“No, no,” Uriah said. Saul's thin, graceful body spasmed, and a green froth formed on his lips as Uriah gently lowered him to the ground.
“Her spell hit me,” Saul said.
“I can see that,” Uriah said, settling his friend on the leaf litter. “She meant it for me. Tell me what to do.”
“There isn't anything you can do,” Saul replied.
“There has to be something,” Uriah argued, shaking his head. The thought of Saul, his mentor, his foster father, dying was bad enough, but the thought that Uriah himself had caused it – there had to be something. Anything.
“Anthony,” Saul called. “Is the child safe?”
Anthony scooped up the baby in his long arms, and cradled her to his chest. “Yes,” he said.
“Then I did what I set out to do,” Saul said with a smile.
“Forget about the baby for one second,” Uriah said “and tell me what to do to help.”
“It's poison, Uriah. You know, maybe better than anyone, we don't have a cure for it. And that baby is the entire reason we came tonight. You know that.”
“Just leave me here,” Saul said.
“It'll make the Jade Frog happy to know that I'm dead. Maybe they'll be less hostile to the rest of you if they find me here.”
“You know that's not realistic,” Uriah said, his voice cutting harshly through the night. “You might have been more of a thorn in their side than any of the others, but you're not the first one to try and save their sacrifices.”
“Oh, I know,” Saul said, his voice little more than a whisper now. Uriah could smell the acrid, rotting stench of the poison rising up like a cloud. “As long as I'm not the last.” He lifted pale eyes to Uriah's, and smiled, a thin mask for his pain.
“We'll stay until you've gone, at least,” Anthony said, stepping forward, his sad, drooping face more sad and drooping than usual.
“No, you won't,” Saul said. “She'll be back, and she won't come alone. They'll come looking for me; it's not safe for you to stay, and I'm going to die either way. There's a chance it might do the others some good – but only if you leave. Now.”
“You've obeyed me for many years,” Saul said gently. “I...ask you to do it...one last time.”
Uriah closed his eyes, and his hands curled into fists. “I don't think I can do that,” he said.
“You have to,” Saul said. “And you don't have long. You'll all be fine without me.” Saul turned to Anthony, who was staring at the ground, the child, quiet now, nearly forgotten in his arms. “Anthony.” Anthony looked up. “Take Uriah and the child back, and tell them what happened.”
“Are you sure?” Anthony asked. “We could carry you back, and you could...” die in peace. The unspoken end to his sentence hung in the air.
“I'm certain,” Saul said, his chest heaving with the effort of speaking.
“Very well,” Anthony said softly. “You were the best leader we ever had, Saul,” he added. “Everyone is going to miss you.”
“I know,” Saul said. “I'm sorry.”
“You don't need to be sorry,” Anthony said. “It means you made a difference.” Anthony turned to Uriah, who was kneeling beside Saul, his head bowed. “Uriah?”
Uriah ignored Anthony, holding Saul's head above the ground. He knew he was going to have to leave. Saul was right; if the family lost them all it would be too hard a blow. And the woman was going to come back; they hated Saul with a kind of passionate hate Uriah had never seen before.
“I'm sorry...I was so difficult,” Uriah said, his voice breaking on the last word.
“Most sons are,” Saul said with a smile. “I'm proud of you. Just keep doing the work. Promise me that.”
Uriah did as Saul ordered at last, and as they ran through the forest, he didn't look back. But the moonlight shone on damp tracks on his skin, where tears had fallen and had not been wiped away.
They knew the path well, had run it many times. Usually they were too late, and left the sacrificial clearing empty-handed. The last children they'd saved had been twins, and they had only managed that because it was harder for a witch to defend herself if both arms were full.
Anthony glanced down at the child in his arms. She was watching him with a curious calmness on her face, as if she knew she was safe, but didn't quite know what to make of it. He smiled sadly down at her, and then turned his attention back to the path. She would have to grow up knowing that a man she would never get to meet had died to save her life.
The forest around them was dark, and now that they'd left the clearing behind, the sound of snapping twigs gave way to the soft squishing of the slime underfoot. The slime only gave way around the city, and around the house, where he lived with the others. The plants produced it, and it coated their leaves and branches. Something Anthony always found frustrating, even though he knew they needed it to survive the fire falls. Without the protective coat of slime, the whole forest would go up in flames. But Anthony found it hard to be thankful for it, especially with as carefully as he had to move now, with a baby in his arms. It would be one thing to scrub his own hands and arms clean of the stuff; another entirely for Rachel to have to do it to the poor child. So Anthony shielded the baby as best he could, suffering the occasional slap of a branch on his arms or clothes.
Anthony tried not to think of Uriah, who was following close behind, or Saul, who had probably died by now. There would be time for grief later, once they had reached safety. So he led the way, a task Uriah would usually have done, as they traversed the distance between the sacrificial clearing and the house.
Dawn was approaching before they reached home, the sky a dim gray, the breeze chill as it ruffled their hair. Anthony knew that if Saul hadn't died from the spell by now, the witches in service of the Jade Frog would have found him and fixed that immediately. But he said nothing, only stuffed his grief down again. Whatever he felt, whenever he allowed himself to feel it, would be nothing compared to what Uriah was going to suffer.
Uriah was young, barely into his twenties, and had been Saul's first rescue. Saul had raised him like a son. Most of the older ones adopted the young rescues, and there had been a number of parent-child relationships in the past. But Saul and Uriah had been different. Saul had lived long enough for Uriah to grow up, something that many of the others didn't get. They hadn't just been a father and son, they had been a team.
Usually the rescue of one of their own was cause for celebration. Anthony remembered when Uriah had been brought back. There had been food, and drink, and dancing. Not this time. They would know, the family would, that something was wrong. And they would guess what it was, too.
When they stepped into the clearing they called home, it was as the gray dawn was fading into golds and pinks as the sun gilded the tops of the trees. Dew had formed on the long, green grass and shone like diamonds in the sun.
The gnarled tree that hid their house stood there, at the opposite end of an oval yard, reaching skyward and surrounded by thickets of berry bushes. A break in the bushes marked the place where a hole had been carved into the trunk and covered by a door, disguised to look like the tree. This door stood open, and a woman was standing a few feet away from it, dumping the contents of a bucket into the bushes. She looked up at the sound of their footsteps, and raised a hand in greeting, smiling, as she tossed her long, white braid over her shoulder.
Her hand dropped limply to her side when they did not return the wave, and as she saw their faces, her smile faded into a look of horror. She scanned the forest behind them as they stood in the cold light of early morning, and then met Anthony's eyes. He gave his head a small shake, and she burst into tears.