Sap and blood mingled together in small rivulets under the careful edge of his knife before he wound a clean cloth around his left hand to staunch the flow. Now that Willow-bark’s Pact had faded, he had expected his exploratory cuts to hurt, and the lack of pain was equally a relief and of concern. Soon, the linen hid the worst of it, leaving only the rough edges exposed like spider’s legs growing down each finger, tiny sprigs of gathering moss like the first fuzz on a baby’s head. Tests had shown that there was no loss of dexterity or feeling from the flesh on spindly fingers, but the bark wrapping around the palm, backhand, and wrist itself only passed on heat, cold, or pressure, and would split apart at the first touch of a blade. So much for the hope that it would at least act like the armor it appeared at first glance to be.
Still, what was done was done, and there was no sense in tears or rage. A hand was a small price to pay for Marinette’s life, and he would do it again even knowing the cost. He worried more about the mark his act had left on her breast: was it merely a scar, a memento of her brush with death, or was it a sign of the curse taking hold on her as well? Yet another question for Grandfather Oak come next market, after the fall harvests were complete and winter stores laid down.
Etienne sighed, then began a series of breathing exercises drilled into him since childhood. After a minute, he opened his eyes, now freed of all the stress and fear their journey into the Thicket had accrued: the nightmare’s cold touch spiking through his heart; the sickening snap as Hugo’s leg was shattered by the thorned grasp of the shades hounding his desperate rescue of Marinette; the weeping sobs of Lunette joining with Rowan’s keening of relief into a song of pathos that brought tears to his eyes at the mere memory; all were breathed out into the world, no longer held within to fester and bring doubt, like a blight scarring healthy wood to uselessness.
His gaze drifted away from the canopy overhead and to the small mound he sat beside, clustered at the base of Oak’s roots. Rowan was back among them, freed from the Thicket, but bound to have scars from their journey and the long task of warding off the Devourer before that. Would it be better to let them sleep, to recover themselves and emerge on their own time, or to accept the help they offered in payment of the debt of their salvation, and potentially cripple their recovery? Only time would tell, but that was the one thing the town was swiftly running out of. Reports on the encounters with the anacrusis beast said that it was only growing stronger and more dangerous, a sure sign of the rising strength of its master. Soon, the townsfolk would have to risk direct conflict with the beast and its horde of slaves and abominations, or else they risked destruction of all they held dear.
The silence of the grove gave him little reassurance. The soft rumbles of the ancestors within their wooden slumber was lost in the slow cadence of the beating of his heart, and his eyes grew heavy. Sleep then, and recover his strength. There would be plenty of challenges come the next day.
Pulling his cloak around his shoulders and tipping the brim of his hat to shade his face, Etienne soon stilled into sleep, shaded by the mighty arms of the great oak tree at his back, the soft breath of leaves meeting with his own snores as the heavens turned overhead.