I didn’t have time for another thought. My knees bent to absorb the shock of the sudden contact, but the soft ground shifted beneath me, and I tumbled backward. North tried to brace us, but I twisted out of his grip and landed flat on my bottom with a gasp, our bags spilling out into the grass.
“All right?” he asked immediately, rubbing his eyes. No wonder he couldn’t see straight – the ground was still shaking beneath us.
“What was that?” I whispered. “I was in Cliffton, I swear….”
“It was dark magic,” North said, “meant to toy with your mind, to trap you in your worst fears. Everyone in the tavern was affected.”
“What did you see?” I asked. “How did you break out of it?”
He didn’t answer. The deep grimace on his face was clear as he knelt beside me, though there was only a sliver of moonlight escaping the clouds. The ground
wasn’t shaking anymore, I realized, nor was I. It was North who was shaking. I could see his hands trembling.
“What’s the matter with you?” I asked. “Why are you acting like this?”
North had gone deathly pale, and the night’s shadows were heavy across his face. A thin sheen of sweat broke out across his brow. He was in pain, and he couldn’t hide it from me.
The wizard didn’t answer. His shaking hands fumbled around in the tall grass for something – a bottle – and he thrust it at me.
“Who was that man?” I asked. “The one with the powder? He was missing an eye and an ear.” I watched an ugly expression take hold of North’s face. “Do you know him?”
Once again, North looked away. “Take…,” he said past his clenched jaw. “Take this and the blanket…and go to sleep.”
“Absolutely not,” I said. “You obviously need whatever it is more than I do.”
“Take it!” he said wildly, pushing the little blue bottle into my hands. “Take it, or by the gods, I’ll pour every drop down your throat!”
“North – ” I began, but he walked away to the small patch of trees and sat down heavily. He clawed at the knot of string around his throat, ripping his cloaks away from him and letting them flutter to the ground. I hadn’t had the chance to fix them since the night before we had left, but I could see how badly they needed it. His back was to me, but I saw how he brought his knees tightly to his chest and pressed his face down hard against them. Something inside of me lurched at the sight, and eventually I got up to wrap his blanket around him. The one my mother had packed for me was thinner, but it was still a comfort. Eventually, I felt the insistent tug of sleep. But all night that little blue bottle lay somewhere between us, past my tired body and just out of reach of his low, muffled cries of pain.
I was restless under the unfamiliar sky. They were the same stars I knew in Cliffton, but the way they glared down at me now was almost mocking. I searched for the constellations, trying to figure out which way the wizard had taken us – east?
I sat up in the soft grass and felt my eyes inevitably drift his way again. He was so still, the rise and fall of his chest so subtle, that for a moment I was actually afraid. His face was cold to the touch, and when my fingers brushed the pale skin of his cheeks he cringed – actually cringed.
My head snapped back up, the weariness in my limbs and mind suddenly gone. Somewhere in the distance an animal let out a long wail, but it didn’t mask the sound of breaking twigs or labored breathing.