Rose paced. She sat and stood and sat and stood. When her stomach growled, she poked at her dinner without taking her eyes off Scott’s for more than five seconds. How dare he go missing? Was it really so difficult to just not do something stupid, or get attacked, or manage to have a tree fall on him, or slip in some mud and hit a rock and crack his skull open-
If she didn’t stop thinking along those lines, she’d drive herself insane. Scott was not dead. She did not just spend two months falling for him so he could go off and leave her. “Goddess bless,” she whimpered to the empty kitchen, “what if he got spooked and ran off?” In many ways, that would be worse. At least if he got injured, it wouldn’t be something he did on purpose to avoid her.
Her stomach churned, and she set the half-eaten pie aside. She snapped her head up when the house creaked, heart pounding and chest tight. It wasn’t the door, and she covered her face. “If your goal is to make sure I really want him, I think we’ve solved that question. Give him back, please.”
No answer came, and she found herself pacing without remembering taking the first step. An eternity later, she forced herself to stop pacing. It accomplished nothing. Waiting accomplished nothing, too. Grabbing her cloak, she tossed the door open and strode outside to… To do something instead of nothing.
With a firm nod to herself, she plunged into the near-dark gloom of twilight, headed for the tavern. Everyone would be there, and Karen would know as much as anyone else. The walk took her past other homes, none of which had any signs of activity. Between two of them, she caught movement as she passed. Something thrashed about in the tall grass the Coopers never bothered to keep tamed.
She stopped and peered that way. “Hello?” It could be a loose sheep or goat. Or, her mind helpfully supplied, a feral boar or wild bear. One that might have gored Scott and dragged him back to its lair for later dining. He could be alive right now, bleeding to death in a cave. Instead of speaking again when she got no answer, she clucked her tongue like the shepherd did to call the sheep in.
A sheep trotted out of the grass to her, baaing its distress to her. At once, relief and despair crashed over her. Then she noticed a long smear of blood on the ewe’s wool. Scratching its head, she bent to get a closer look, and made out a rough hand shape, one that had been swiped across it. She sucked in a breath and froze.
“Rose?” Sheriff Ben’s voice startled her enough that she jumped and upset the animal. “I thought you were going to- What’s wrong? Why do you have a sheep?” When she didn’t – couldn’t – answer, he approached and saw the blood. “Where did you find it?”
Still too stunned to speak, she pointed and watched Ben tromp to the grasses. He kept going and disappeared from sight. Her heart stopped. If something could take Scott, it could take Ben, too. In a blink, her feet forced her to follow him, as if one doughy baker could make all the difference between life and death for two trained and hardened men.
“Rose,” Ben hissed, “what are you doing? Go to the tavern and send down anyone willing to help.”
“If he’s here, I want to see him.”
“And here I thought you were sensible,” he grumbled. She suspected he didn’t mean for her to hear that. Too bad.
The words shook her out of her fear and let her focus on something besides the blood and what it might mean. “Don’t be an ass.” For good measure, she cuffed his arm. “That’s my Scott out there. Don’t you go getting all-” Unable to think of the proper word to put there, she waved her hands growled at him.
“Fine, fine.” In the swiftly gathering dark, she could almost make out a smirk, though it could have been a grimace. “Just keep quiet.” The scrape of his sword as he pulled it from its sheath made her stumble. A few more paces into the tall grass, a groan slipped past them on the breeze. He froze and held out his empty hand to make her stop.
If that moan didn’t come from Scott, Rose would eat her best loaf pan. It meant he was alive, but hurt. She desperately wanted to run to him and glared at Ben’s hand, preventing her from doing so. Except it didn’t. His hand held no real power over her. Shoving him aside, she hurried forward, not caring about the noise she made.
“Scott? Can you hear me?” She ignored Ben’s string of curses behind her and kept running. Another grunt kept her going past the fence of the paddock that sheep must have escaped from. Ahead, she saw where one of the beams had broken, leaving a hole big enough for the animals to wander through.
Ben caught up and grabbed her arm, yanking her hard enough that she spun and hit the ground on her side. The tumble surprised her and scrambled her head. Lifting her head, she shook it and looked around. Just inside the fence, Ben crouched or knelt over something.
“Is he okay?”
“Rose, go to the tavern right now and get help.”
“Is he…?” She gulped and her eyes burned.
“This isn’t him.”
A fistful of grass helped her clamber to her hands and knees. “I heard him.”
“This man is dead, Rose. You didn’t hear him.”
“Scott. I heard Scott.”
Ben huffed in annoyance. “Rose. Get your head on straight. Whatever killed this man is still out here, and you aren’t equipped to deal with it. Tell everyone we need the militia.”
“No,” Ben roared. “Every second you argue with me is a second I could be spending looking for Scott. Go! Tavern, now.”
Rose sniffled and got to her feet, then ran off as quickly as her feet could carry her. If he died because she refused to go when Ben first told her to, she would never forgive herself.