He expected a hesitation that never came. Even as the final word was still sliding from his tongue, the leader growled and lunged forward, his short sword held high over his head. Sage barely had time to register the attack; he shrieked and dropped instinctively, and saw the tip of the sword slice past him before it whirled around and came down.
It didn’t even hurt. He had always expected something so much worse.
A ragged gasp tore through his throat and everything seemed to stand still. The edges of his vision blurred, faded, and cleared up once more—and then the pain hit.
His side flared with agony and heat and his hand instantly went to grip the wound. Blood soaked his fingers and spread through his shirt. The blade was gone, but it still felt as though the hot metal was slicing cleanly through his flesh, tearing it.
Somewhere far above him, a man laughed.
“So this is a mighty and powerful Child of the Arbour? I can’t say I’m very impressed. You go down like a stuck pig. Easy enough.”
“Stop dawdling!” another voice shouted. “Just get him onto a horse and tie up that cut. We can bring him back to the Dunes alive like this.”
Something grabbed his shoulders, and Sage yelped and rolled to the side, digging his heels into the dirt to escape not only the bounty hunter trying to hoist him up, but the pain shooting through his body. It crawled through his skin, his nerves, pulsing out through the blood that poured freely from the wound in his side.
He was going to die. He knew it, somehow. Heard somewhere—from Siras? She was a dispenser of useful knowledge—he heard that abdomen wounds could either be nothing but a minor nuisance or a slow, painful way to die.
He tried to squirm away once more, but another pair of hands trapped his ankles together and he was sprawled helplessly between two of the bounty hunters. Rocks and dirt scraped and tore but he was unable to resist as he was lifted and half-carried, half-dragged by his captors.
“Here, put him here. There’s enough room on this horse,” one man grunted. The dagger slipped uselessly from Sage’s hand and thudded to the ground; he managed to blink away the fog glazing his vision, and he saw it half-buried in the grass, right in front of a hoof. Then he was shoved forward, sprawled on his stomach on the back of a horse.
As soon as they started to tie his hands together behind his back, he fought back nausea and the lure of unconsciousness and yanked away his right hand. The bounty hunters shouted to each other, but before they could grab him, Sage slithered off the back of the horse and landed with a thump that stole what little breath he had.
Woozy, he gasped and stared above him, having no energy for anything else. Blood—his blood—slowly oozed from the dark flanks of the horse standing above him. He cursed under his breath and started to crawl away, scooting across the grass and dirt on his back.
One of the men lunged at him, a cloth for binding or gagging clenched tightly in his fist. Not exactly keen on discovering the actual purpose of the cloth, Sage flung up his legs in the air, successfully cracking the hunter’s jaw with his boot. With a crunch and a screech, the man tumbled backwards, giving Sage a chance to flee.
Tightly clutching his wound with one hand, Sage shuffled onto his side and hauled himself onto his knees. Blood dribbled through his fingers and his head was light and his sight blurred—was this what it was like to die? A cough rattled his lungs as he laboriously climbed to his feet. If this was it, he just hoped it would be over soon. It was horrible.
Just as his fingers left the ground and he was starting to straighten out and run—either to flee for help or to crawl somewhere and die alone—something hard and heavy slammed into the small of his back and sent him sprawling into the dirt.
Spasms of pain wracked his body: a steady, bloody throb in his side; an ancient ache in his leg, where the two old injuries had never quite healed; the sharp stabs and dull pulses where rocks ground into his tender flesh and bone.
A fist took a thick wad of fabric from the front of his shirt and hoisted him partway off the ground. Mottled green eyes glared down at him. “Do you ever stop?” the man growled, shaking his fist so Sage’s head rolled uselessly on his neck. “It’s no wonder so many people want you dead!”
Sage opened his mouth, ready to respond, when something collided with his cheek and pain clouded his mind. Lids fluttering, he tried to open his eyes, but another hit came—then another, and another.
He inhaled sharply, feeling like he was swallowing glass, then one final hit came and he went numb.