The Joy Thief (Cathell Series #3)

Funny how a day could turn on you.

This thought came to Theo without any humor at all as she watched the feral dog from where she was crouched. Black as a shadow, it almost looked unreal as it stalked toward her through the seagrass. The parting grass blades, however, told her it was deadly real.

This movement was the only thing that had warned her of the dog’s presence. The roaring surf behind her drowned out whatever sounds the dog had made. But when she stopped to frown at the angry wounds on her leg, the movement caught her eye and made her turn. It was then that she saw the new threat coming her way.

The dog’s watery, bloodshot eyes held her. It bared its teeth. The pounding in her chest filled her ears, muting the dog’s snarl and all else around her. She quickly decided that dying from the infection in her leg was a far better way to end her ten years of life than becoming a snack.

She slid her eyes left to where she had dropped her boots—her dagger inside the right one—but they were too far out of reach. The dog would close the distance between them before she even got halfway. Aeryn was even farther down the beach, her attention on some spot far out to sea.

Theo was on her own.

The breeze threw her dark blond hair into her eyes. She pushed it back, slowly standing up. The dog barked, low and vicious. Rowan neighed loudly from their camp behind her. Theo backpedaled away from the dog and shouted Aeryn’s name, whether or not the sell-sword would hear her.

The dog leapt at Theo, its jaws aimed for her throat. She cried out and fell backward, arm raised to shield herself. The dog just missed her, but broken shells in the sand sliced open her hand when she tried to break her fall. Theo ignored the pain, flipping onto her stomach and keeping her eyes on the dog.

It skidded to a stop and turned again to face her, sending up a small cloud of brown sand in its wake. Aeryn was coming up fast behind it, her dark hair streaming behind her as her long legs narrowed the distance between her and the dog. The sell-sword shouted as she ran to draw the dog’s attention, but it ignored her. Aeryn grabbed a rock off the beach and whipped it at the dog, striking it in the back. Finally, it spun in her direction.

Aeryn stopped and stared the dog down. Her storm gray eyes dared the dog to make the first move. She pulled Aric from the sheath on her back and held the sword at the ready. Finally, the dog sprang at her. She swung to meet it with her blade. Theo squeezed her eyes shut.

The feral dog let loose a high-pitched yelp, signaling the end.

When she opened her eyes again, the mongrel lay on the beach, a deep gash in its throat. Blood poured from the wound, onto the pale sand under it. The dog’s paws twitched and then stopped.

Aeryn ran to her side. “Are you alright?”

Theo nodded.

Aeryn knelt by her and took Theo’s bleeding hand. She frowned at the cuts on her palm. “These need cleaned out.”

“There’s something else.”

“Did it bite you?”

She shook her head, pointing to the red welts on her left leg, just below the rolled-up cuffs of her dark wool pants. “The scrapes I got when I slipped off that boulder the other day. I think they’re infected.”

Aeryn’s frown deepened. “How long have they looked like this?”

She paused and looked down at her bare feet. “At least a day. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before. I hoped it would just go away on its own.”

The reproachful look Aeryn gave her was as loud as any shout. She almost wished Aeryn would shout at her. She deserved it. But that was not Aeryn’s way.

“Let’s care for your hand first.”

She sank Aric’s blood-covered blade point first in the sand, then nodded her head at the surf coming in. Theo followed Aeryn down to the water’s edge. The sell-sword rolled up the sleeves of her blue tunic and waded into the sea without removing her shin-high boots. They went far enough that Theo could put her hand in without getting the sand floating in the water in the cuts.

Aeryn crouched beside her and rubbed vigorously at them, unheeding of the water soaking her leather legging. The salt water burned Theo like fire. She let out a sharp curse, but did not pull back.

When the wound seemed clean enough for Aeryn’s satisfaction, she led Theo back up the beach to their camp. She told Theo to sit and went to her saddlebags, lying not far from Rowan. The red-brown stallion looked in Aeryn’s direction, then returned to his grazing. Now that the dog had been dispatched, the seagrass was clearly more interesting to him.

Theo sat on one of the low rocks that dotted their camp and much of the beach. She pushed up her shirtsleeves, suddenly too warm, the cool autumn breeze cutting inland from the sea. The warmer weather in the south meant she did not need a cloak as often as she did in the Northlands. This was the first time, however, that sweat had actually broken out on her forehead. She wiped it away with her arm.

The wet leather of Aeryn’s boots creaked as she knelt in front of Theo. She held a bundle of cloth and a vial of salve. This had become a familiar ritual for them, the last time being when Theo slipped off the rocks she had been climbing over, barefoot.

She knew the rocks were still wet from the receding tide, but they were between her and the cove on the other side. The tide pools there had looked too interesting to pass up then, but part of her now wished she had let that cove go unexplored. The scrapes she got from her fall ran from ankle to shin on both legs. Only one set looked infected, though—a gods-sent miracle, she supposed.

Aeryn poured drops of the salve onto Theo’s injured palm. Her calloused fingers gently rubbed it into the wound. The salve mixed with Theo's blood, making a reddish paste. The salve at least did not burn like the seawater.

The breeze again tossed Theo's hair into her eyes. She smoothed the hair, lighter now from weeks in the sun, back behind an ear with her uninjured hand and watched as Aeryn wrapped her wounds, slow and deliberate in her movements. She considered, really for the first time, how much things had changed between them since they met months before.

At one time, Aeryn was nothing more than an obstacle, standing between Theo and the sword she needed to trade for her brother, Brien, who was being held by the head of Valis’s Thieves’ Guild. Their forced partnership after Aeryn discovered Theo shadowing her did little to change her view. The resurrection of the god who called himself The Harbinger did.

Pythun may have been the one who killed her brother, leaving him to die in a cell below the guild, but The Harbinger made it a point to destroy everything else she had ever cared about. Then, Aeryn destroyed him.

Aeryn had saved her life too many times to be considered just a friend. The sell-sword had instead fallen into the role of guardian and protector, a role she was sure Aeryn had never wanted. She did not want Aeryn to be more than that, which seemed just fine by Aeryn.

Theo had already had two mothers in her life: the one her father killed when she was barely six summers old and her mother’s friend, Willa, with whom Brien left her on the night their mother died. Willa had let her stay in her room at The Thirsty Noble when she needed a place to sleep, fussed over her, and lectured her. She was as much a mother to her as her birth mother had been. And then The Harbinger murdered her.

Aeryn finished bandaging her wounds. “Better?”

Theo flexed her hand a few times. The wounds complained, but at a tolerable level. She nodded. “Better.”

Then Aeryn turned her attention to Theo’s leg. She ran her fingers over the angry welts. Theo flinched at the pain caused by her fingertips on the wounds. Aeryn frowned again.

“I need to clean these out right away. The hard way. It’s going to hurt. A lot.”

Theo appreciated the warning, but did not know what “the hard way” was. She decided not to ask and nodded her acceptance.

Aeryn pulled out one of her daggers and took a firm hold of Theo’s leg. Aeryn had not exaggerated when she said the hard way would hurt. She used the point of her dagger to pick off the scabs and then squeezed the white pus out of each angry welt. Theo bit her lip to keep from crying out. Soon, she could taste blood.

When she was done, Aeryn retrieved a flask of strong liquor from her saddlebags, the flask she kept for emergencies. She told Theo to squeeze her hand and then dumped the liquor on the open wounds. This time Theo could not keep silent. She cried out, squeezing her eyes shut against the fire in her leg. The fact that this was her own fault made the pain that much worse.

Aeryn held her hand until the burning stopped, then wrapped Theo’s leg. When she left Theo to put the salve, flask, and bandages away, Theo wiped the tears from her face with the sleeves of her pale woven shirt. She wrapped her arms around herself and tried to stop her tears, not wanting Aeryn to think she was being a baby about the pain.

When Aeryn came back, she held another bundle in her hand. Theo could not help but smile, knowing what it was. She unwrapped it and broke off a piece of the chocolate, the only thing they had left from Pius, besides the memories and nightmares. She handed it to Theo, then took a small piece for herself before she wrapped it up again. Theo popped the chocolate into her mouth and let its sweetness melt and fill her. It did not end her pain, but seemed to ease it.

Aeryn settled down next to her with a waterskin, and the thick cloth she kept for cleaning her blades. She poured water on Aric’s blade to loosen the dog’s dried blood and grimly ran the cloth along the blade’s length, then started again.

She glanced at Theo and said, “We need to find you a healer. What I did is only temporary. The infection will only get worse.”

It was just as bad as Theo had feared. “Where?”

“I was thinking Eben would be the best place to go. It’s on our way north and just two days’ ride from here. We are close to needing more supplies anyhow.”

Hearing that they would have to leave the coast and all the wonderful things she had found there disappointed her, but she also did not want to die just because she slipped on a rock. She did not voice this disappointment. Aeryn had accommodated her need to explore every bit of beach and rock without complaint, even joining in when she was not in one of her brooding moods. It was only right that she be as accommodating for Aeryn.

“Is Eben very far inland?”

“No. It’s a port city.”

Aeryn finished cleaning her sword and resheathed it. She then took out one of the many maps she carried, her obsessive defense against getting lost. The one she spread on the ground showed a broad view of Cathell. She pointed to the large dot labeled “Eben” next to the squiggly line indicating the coastline.

“My father’s regiment used to travel down to Eben once a year for a regional competition.” She paused and frowned at something, but whatever had bothered her seemed to pass quickly. “If you’re up to it, I suggest we be on our way, so we can reach Eben's gates before evenfall on the day after tomorrow.”

Theo knew she meant her adoptive father, Derrick Ravane, the Fang soldier, and not her birth father, a farmer. Aeryn rarely talked about the family she had before war took them all from her.

She finally nodded, still wishing they did not need to break camp so soon. The sand and sea had eased her mind after the horrors they had experienced while chasing The Harbinger. The crashing waves serenaded her each night before she fell asleep. Their thunder, at times, had chased away her nightmares.

Aeryn laid a hand on her shoulder. “I know you wanted to stay here longer, but I don’t have the medicines you need.”

Theo knew she was right and said so.

“I think you’ll like Eben.” Aeryn stood up and helped Theo up as well, and then turned away to gather up their camp. “It has a wide harbor where all the shipping vessels dock for unloading. We could find an empty pier to walk out on. It’s amazing how far out you can see from the end of one.”

Theo thought about this. Valis was in the foothills of the Black Mountains, nowhere near the coast. She had never seen a boat, much less a shipping vessel.

She nodded more enthusiastically. “I’d like that.”

When she retrieved her boots, she tugged them on, careful of her bandages, and looked back toward the beach, wanting to take it all in one last time before they left. She caught sight of the dog’s corpse lying on the sand. A dark cloud buzzed above it. Flies.

She shuddered. Going to Eben suddenly felt like an even better idea. At least in a city, there were fewer places where something could creep up and try to kill you.

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