XXII. The Three of Swords
Wilderness; 6 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
For a moment, all was still in the clearing. No one spoke, no one moved, and even the leaves stopped rustling in the breeze.
It was Nicholas who broke the stillness. He took a step forward. “Kassandra?”
In one swft motion, Avenel drew a second arrow from the quiver at her side. “One more step and this goes through your eye.” Next to her, Flame glanced uncertainly between his bow and the naked stranger.
Nicholas put up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I don’t understand,” he said. “I thought you died in the fire. How are you still alive?”
“I could ask the same of you,” said Avenel. “It’s been three hundred years.”
“I—” he looked helplessly at Izra.
Izra merely shrugged. “I told you to leave,” she said.
Nicholas looked back at Avenel. “I’m Hallowed,” he said. “I always have been. I—I’m originally from Heliike.”
Avenel’s jaw tightened. “I loved you.”
“I know,” said Nicholas. “I’m sorry. And I’m sorry about… about Katrina.”
Slowly, Avenel lowered the bow, handing it back to Flame. “It should have been her,” she said. “It should have been Katrina who survived that fire.”
His gaze followed her hand as it fell to her side. “You kept my sword.”
Avenel looked down. She drew the sword, looking at it in the light of the campfire, the reds and oranges reflected in the blade as she held it out. “It’s a nice sword,” she said, and lunged. The tip slashed across his bare chest, and the feel of flesh beneath her blade proved to her that he was real.
She dropped the sword and ran.
“Avenel!” called Garthniiel, but Flame put a hand on his arm to stop him from following.
Nicholas staggered back, staring incredulously down at the blood oozing from his chest. “She cut me,” he said.
“You’re lucky she didn’t do more,” said Izra. “Lie down so I can take a look at you. Deena, hand me that lantern.”
Garthniiel turned. “You’re helping him?”
“Of course,” said Izra. “If Avenel wanted him dead, he would already be dead. She can kill him later, if she changes her mind. Now someone clear the space by the fire. And boil some water.”
“She cut me,” said Nicholas again.
“Yes, that’s been established,” said Izra impatiently. She squinted at the wound. “It’s a shallow enough cut. Shouldn’t be too difficult to stitch back up.”
Nicholas looked up at her. “Didn’t you try to kill me too?”
“I left you to die,” corrected Izra. “There’s a difference.” She rolled up her sleeves. “You might want to bite on something. This is going to hurt.”
Wilderness; 6 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
High up in a tree, Kassandra sat with her arms wrapped around her knees.
A muffled scream emanated from elsewhere in the forest.
Good. Let him suffer.
She should have killed him. A little more force behind that lunge, a stab instead of a slash, and she could have easily run through his lungs, his heart. It would have served him right for lying to her, to Katrina. It would have served him right for hurting her. But killing him wouldn’t bring back Katrina, wouldn’t bring back anyone.
Why him? Of all the people who had died in that fire, why was he the one who survived? Why was she?
She had looked for his body. Lord Ephraim had brought her back, after the flames had died and the ruins had cooled. In a daze, she had looked through the remains of the dead, searching for the source of her rage. She hadn’t found him, but then again, most of the bodies had been burnt beyond recognition. On her own hundredth birthday, she had thought to herself that it no longered mattered if he survived the fire because old age would surely have claimed him anyway.
But apparently, that was not the case. He, like her, would never die of age.
He looked exactly as she remembered, but of course he did; he was Hallowed. Looking at him, she could almost imagine—almost believe—that her three hundred years had been a dream. She had only fallen asleep by the fireplace again, had a nightmare again, that was all. In a moment, he would come to wake her by planting a gentle kiss on her brow, a cup of her favorite spiced wine in his hand.
She closed her eyes. If she opened them now, what would she see? Would it be the fireplace in her father’s library? Or would it just be the forest, lonely and dark, with the soft hoot of an owl in the distance?
When she had stopped by Parvelhaugh with Deena, the place had stirred up old memories, as it always did. She remembered sneaking out of the castle to play in the snow. She remembered the hours spent by her mother’s sickbed. She remembered taking the blame—and subsequent beating—when Katrina broke their father’s vase. She remembered the first time she had heard Nicholas on his sitar, and her first kiss shortly after.
Nicholas. She had never quite let herself love someone like that again. If she didn’t love, she could never be hurt. If she didn’t love, she could never again become the monster she had been at Parvelhaugh. Instead, she had devoted herself to her work, to carving herself into something different than what she had been. She had whittled away the part of her that was small and angry and weak. She whittled away even her name until Kassandra was just a memory, until the world knew only Avenel, a name synonymous with shadows, a name respected and feared. She was the blade of Elyria, a knife in the dark, the stealer of secrets and deliverer of death. An unparalleled assassin, a leader of Elyria, a legend that loomed larger than kings.
But right now, she was none of those things. Right now, she was just a girl who had run away from a man who had hurt her.
Right now, she was just Kassandra, and Kassandra simply wanted to cry.
Wilderness; 7 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
It was nearly dawn when Avenel returned.
The campfire had been reduced to a smoldering pile of ashes. Garthniiel sat beside it, his head on his knees, asleep. He started awake as she approached.
“You’re back,” he said, rubbing the grogginess from his eyes. “What time is it?”
“Early,” said Avenel. “My traps caught some rabbits.” She held them up by the ears. “We could make a stew for breakfast.”
“Right,” said Garthniiel. “I’ll light the fire. Are you hungry? There’s some leftover fish, if you want.”
“I’ll just wait for the stew,” said Avenel. “Were you awake all night?”
Garthniiel nodded, then shook his head. “I was supposed to wake Flame, for the second watch, but I must have fallen asleep. Sorry.”
“It’s alright,” said Avenel. She pulled out a knife and began skinning the rabbits.
Garthniiel searched his pockets then frowned. “Do you have your flint and steel? I think I left mine in the tent, but I don’t want to wake the others.”
“Let me,” said a voice, and Nicholas crawled out from one of the tents, a bandange wrapped around his torso. He snapped his fingers, and the remains of the campfire caught alight.
“You can do magic?” asked Avenel.
Nicholas nodded. “Not so well as Inoor, but I’m alright.”
“Inoor?” asked Avenel.
“Izra’s twin,” said Nicholas, “not that they looked alike, and… and my late wife.”
Avenel looked at him.
“Izra said I should tell the truth,” explained Nicholas, “about who I am.”
Avenel nodded and turned her attention back to the rabbits. “Garth, we’ll need more firewood.”
“Right,” said Garthniiel. He glanced at Nicholas, then back at Avenel. “Will you… will you be alright here?”
“I’ll be fine,” sand Avenel.
Garthniiel nodded, then took one last look back at her before disappearing into the woods.
“He’s a handsome fellow,” said Nicholas. “Are you two…?”
“No,” said Avenel.
“Ah,” said Nicholas. “Do… do you need help with the rabbits?”
“No,” said Avenel again.
“You used to hate watching the kitchens do this.”
“I did,” replied Avenel.
“Seems like a lot has changed. Izra told me a little of what you’ve done, last night. She says you’re an assassin now?”
“Was,” corrected Avenel. “I quit.”
“And now she says you’re all on your way to stop the Harbinger?”
“Huh,” said Nicholas. “I wonder why she didn’t just tell me before she left.”
“Have you been with her this whole time?” asked Avenel.
“Didn’t have much of a choice,” said Nicholas. “She kept me in a cage, and I was stuck as a bird anyway.”
“She turned you into a bird?”
“No, I did that myself, to escape the fire. She might as well have, though. I went to her to ask her to undo the spell, but she refused.” He paused. “I wonder if she really did mean for me to die in that cage.”
“Why don’t you ask her?”
Nicholas shook his head. “Nothing Izra does makes sense, not since Inoor died. I don’t think even she knows what she wants.”
Avenel didn’t answer.
They sat in silence for a while, punctuated only by the sound of the knife sliding through the rabbits’ flesh.
“You’ll probably want your sword back,” said Nicholas. “It’s in your tent. Your handsome friend cleaned it for you.”
“It’s your sword,” said Avenel.
“You’ve had it for longer,” said Nicholas. “I’d say it’s yours, now, and Izra tells me you’re better with it than I ever was.”
“Kassie,” said Nicholas, “I feel like I owe you an explanation. The truth is that I—”
“Did you love me?” asked Avenel.
“All those times you professed to love me, was any of that true?”
Nicholas hesitated, then sighed. “No.”
“Then what more could you possibly have to say?”
???; ???, Year ??? of ???
Deena dreamt of flames.
The fire was everywhere, and smoke burned at her eyes and nose. She was running down a stone corridor, trying to find her way out, but a wooden beam collapsed in front of her, forcing her to stop short. She turned, but the way back was blocked by fire. In the distance, a bell was ringing, people were screaming, and chaos was everywhere.
How had this happened? Was it her fault?
There was a door to her left. She reached out a hand to open it, but her fingers burned on contact with the brass knob. She looked down to examine the rising blisters, and—
Wait. These aren’t my hands.
These were a stranger’s hands, a stranger’s injuries, and she was looking at them through a stranger’s eyes. The hand was long and masculine, the fingertips calloused. Whose hand was this? Where was she? She didn’t know, only knew that there was fire everywhere, the creak and groan of burning timber, and the stranger she inhabited was trapped.
The stranger turned. Across the hall was a narrow window, barely wide enough to fit his head through. Far below, the courtyard was in chaos, with men and women scurrying like panicked ants. Even if he could squeeze through this window, he would never survive the fall.
A warmth coursed through his body, flooding outward from his chest to the very tips of his extremities. He was shrinking, transforming. His bones hollowed, his legs shortened, and brilliant yellow plumage sprouted from his skin. His arms lengthened to become gravity defying wings, and he stepped out from the windowsill into the smoky air.
He circled the burning castle once, twice, but there was an army to the west and nothing he could do.
He flew through the forest, weaving his way through the trees. He flew over a town, over farmland, and through yet another forest before he finally spotted his destination: a little wooden cottage, sitting serenely by a stream.
He landed on the ledge of the open window. There was a woman inside, asleep on a cot. Her back was to the window, and her hair was white as snow.
“Izra!” called the stranger. “Izra, wake up!”
The woman stirred. She sat up and looked out the window, at the empty forest beyond, looking as though she wasn’t quite sure if she had dreamed the voice.
The stanger hopped inside and landed on the woman’s knee. “Izra, it’s me. It’s Nicholas.”
The woman stared at him for a moment, then laughed. “Nicholas? What did you do to yourself?”
“I—There was a fire. You have to change me back, Izi. You’re the only one who can.”
“And why would I help you?”
The stranger’s blood ran cold. “Izi, you can’t be serious. You can’t leave me as a bird forever.”
“Why not? It suits you.”
The woman reached down and picked him up, stroking his head with her finger. “It won’t be forever,” she said. “I’ll change you back as soon as I bring back Inoor.”
Back? Back from what?
The scene dissolved, and when it reformed, the stranger was human again, standing at the door of a windowless stone room. Inside, a woman stood with her back to him, her white hair pulled back into a braid.
“What are you doing, Izra?” asked the stranger.
The woman whirled around. Her hands were covered with blood. On the table behind her, a corpse lay with its chest cut open, various tubes and vials protruding from the cavity.
“How did you find me?” asked the woman.
“Inoor made it so we could always find each other,” said the stranger. “Don’t you remember?” He looked around. “What is this place? Who is that on your table?”
“Nobody,” said the woman. “Just a vagrant who was going to die anyway.”
“And what are you doing with him?”
“You know what I’m trying to do.”
The stranger sighed. “Izi, it’s been decades. More. Don’t you think it’s time to—to move on?”
The woman’s eyes flashed in anger. “Move on?” she asked. “We are talking about Inoor—about your wife! I thought you of all people would understand why I need save her!”
“Of course I do! I want her back more than anything, but don’t you see? She’s already gone.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “You can’t save her, Izi. You can’t bring her back.”
The woman shrugged it away. “If you aren’t going to help, then leave.”
“Not without you,” said the stranger. “What you’re doing here, it isn’t what Inoor would have wanted.”
The woman whirled around. “Don’t you dare tell me what she would or wouldn’t have wanted!” she yelled. “You may have given up on her, but I haven’t—I will never!”
“Dammit, Izra, just let her rest! She’s dead! She’s already dead, and keeping her heart beating in that infernal contraption of yours won’t bring her back no matter how hard we wish it!”
“Then I’ll bring her back from the dead!”
The stranger grabbed her by the arms. “Listen to yourself! I know you’re a healer, Izra. I know you’re a blood mage. But even you can’t bring back the dead.”
The woman push him away. “I’m going to bring her back,” she said. “If I have to go to hell myself to get her back, I will.”
“Get out,” said the woman.
“I said GET OUT!” shouted the woman, and the stranger barely ducked away as she threw a metal implement at his head. “You don’t deserve to be here after what you’ve done.”
And what did he do?
The scene changed yet again. This time, the stranger was in a bedroom, the white-haired woman beside him.
“You did what?!” asked the woman.
“I let her go,” said the stranger. “Izi, you were keeping her here like a—”
“For her own good! She’s sick, Nicholas! She needs to be here where I can look after her!”
“But she begged me! She begged me to let her go! What was I supposed to do, say no?”
The stranger shook his head. “She’s my wife, Izi. I can’t keep her locked here against her will.”
“And so is half the city! Our entire people is dying, and if the Archmage says that she’s our only chance of—”
“You don’t understand, do you? What they’re asking her to do—Don’t you know that it could cost her life?”
The stranger’s hands curled into fists, his nails digging into his palms. “I’m not stupid, Izra,” he said quietly. “Of course I know.”
“Then why did you let her go?”
“Because she asked me to. It’s her life. Her choice.”
The woman glared at him a moment, then turned to stride out of the room. “Not when her choice is to be a martyr,” she said. “I won’t allow it. Not again.”
Again? What does she mean by “again”?
But this time, when the scene changed, the disembodied girl saw only darkness.