Wilderness; 7 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
When Deena woke and emerged from her tent, everyone else was already up and about. Garthniiel and Frost were preparing a stew by the fire, Flame was brushing the horses, and Avenel was sitting by the lake, running a wet comb through her hair.
“You’re back!” exclaimed Deena. She rushed over to wrap her arms around Avenel, then quickly pulled away again. “Sorry,” she said. “I just—I was worried.”
Avenel smiled. “You shouldn’t be. I’m by far the most dangerous thing in this forest.”
“I know that,” said Deena. “I just—” she bit her lip. “I was scared you wouldn’t come back.”
“I wouldn’t leave you behind,” said Avenel. “You know that. Besides, I didn’t go far.”
Across the camp, Nicholas was sitting on a fallen log while Izra changed his bandages.
“Try to be a little gentler, Izi,” said Nicholas, wincing.
“Then hold still,” said Izra. “These stitches are going to tear open if you keep squirming like that.” She scooped out some salve with her fingers and lathered it onto his wound.
“Ow! That hurts!”
“Good,” said Izra. “I was afraid it wouldn’t.”
Deena watched them for a moment, then glanced at Avenel. “What, um, what are you planning to do with him?”
“I don’t know,” said Avenel. “Given his injury, we can’t very well abandon him here.”
“Well he’d deserve it,” huffed Deena.
“You don’t mean that,” said Avenel.
“I guess he doesn’t deserve to die,” sighed Deena. She stood up. “Why don’t you just close the wound?” she asked Nicholas. “The way Izra did. You can do magic, can’t you?”
Nicholas looked up at her. “She showed you that little trick, did she?” He glanced at Izra. “Izi’s a blood mage. She can manipulate flesh and blood in a way that the rest of us can’t. I’d ask her to close it for me, but—”
“No,” said Izra.
Nicholas shrugged. “There. You see?”
The stew was soon ready, and Deena devoured her portion ravenously, having not eaten much the evening before.
“Slow down,” said Avenel. “The stew isn’t going anywhere.”
“Sorry,” said Deena, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “Um, can I have some more?”
“There’s still a bit left,” said Garthniiel. “Help yourself.”
“Gods,” sighed Nicholas, setting down his empty bowl. “You have no idea how good it is to eat real food again. Izi’s fed me nothing but birdseed and table scraps all these years.”
“What have you been eating since your escape?” asked Izra.
“Mostly birdseed and table scraps,” admitted Nicholas. “It isn’t as though you left me any money for a meal.”
“You were a bard, once,” said Izra. “Find a tavern and sing for your keep.”
“I’m not sure there’s much demand for songs from three hundred years ago,” said Nicholas, “though perhaps I’ll learn some new ones on this journey of ours.”
“‘Journey of ours?’” asked Frost. She turned to Garthniiel. “He’s coming with us?”
Garthniiel turned to look at Avenel. “Is he?”
Avenel shrugged. “He can do as he like.”
“Excellent,” said Nicholas, clapping his hands together. “Izra filled me in last night. I thought, given the fate of the world is at stake, I should do what I can.”
“What can you do?” asked Frost. “Didn’t she just say you were a bard?”
“And an astronomer, before that,” added Nicholas.
“Useful,” said Frost sarcastically.
“And I can make a fire with my mind.”
“That actually is pretty useful, Sister,” said Flame.
“I can do other things, too,” said Nicholas. “I’m a bit rusty, but I’m sure they’ll come back to me with some practice.” He looked down at some of the small purple flowers at his feet. With a wave of his hand, the flowers lifted themselves off the ground and wove themselves into a garland. “Here,” he said, handing it to Deena.
“Oh,” said Deena, unsure of whether to take it. “Um—”
Izra knocked the garland from Nicholas’s hands. “Those are poisonous, you idiot,” she said.
“Well I wasn’t suggesting she eat them,” said Nicholas.
“What else can you do?” asked Flame. “I don’t suppose you could magically pack away the tents for us?”
“Not any faster than by hand, I’m afraid,” said Nicholas. “Inoor could have done it, if she was still alive, but—”
“If Inoor was still alive,” interrupted Izra, “you would all be there and back again in a heartbeat.”
“What do you mean?” asked Garthniiel.
“Inoor was a planewalker,” explained Nicholas. “She could send people and things to another place at will. One moment we would be here, and the next, we would be there. She was—she was exceptional.”
“But since she isn’t here,” said Izra, “we still have the problem of being seven people for six horses.”
“Can’t he turn into a bird?” asked Frost, pointing at Nicholas.
“Not with those stitches,” said Izra.
“Deena can ride with me,” said Avenel. She stood. “We should go. We’re wasting daylight.”
The sky remained grey and overcast all morning, threatening rain, though it cleared again by afternoon without ever making good on the threat. The forest around them grew denser and the road narrower, forcing them to ride single file. Deena and Avenel rode at the front, followed by Garthniiel, Frost, and Flame. Somewhere behind them, Nicholas whistled cheerfully.
“Stop that,” said Izra.
“Why?” asked Nicholas. “Do you know how nice it is to have lips again? Not to mention hands and hips and… other things. I don’t miss clothes, though. I forgot how much they itch.”
“You’re keeping them on,” said Izra.
“Must I?” sighed Nicholas. “We’re in the middle of the woods. It isn’t as though anyone can see—”
“I can still rip out your stitches,” interrupted Izra.
Nicholas only laughed.
“I don’t understand them,” said Deena to Avenel that evening, as they left to gather firewood while the others set up camp. “I thought they hated each other. They do hate each other. But they’re bantering like—I don’t know. Like old friends.”
“They are old friends,” said Avenel.
“But they hate each other,” said Deena, “I mean, she kept him locked in a cage for three hundred years, and he—Well she blames him for Inoor dying.”
Avenel looked at her. “You looked into their memories. Deena—”
“I didn’t mean to,” said Deena hurriedly. “I can’t help what I see.”
“Have you told anyone?”
“No, of course not,” said Deena. “But my point is that they don’t make sense. How can they just act like—like none of that ever happened?”
“They’re the last survivors of their respective races,” said Avenel. “They shared the loss of both Asterii and Inoor.”
“So?” asked Deena.
“So their relationship is complex. Memories or not, you can’t know all that goes on in their heads.”
“I guess not,” admitted Deena. “I just don’t understand how anyone can set aside someone trying to kill them or letting their loved one die. Some things are—are unforgivable, aren’t they?”
“Garthniiel thought I killed his uncle, for a long time.”
“No, but I could have. We were at war.”
“That’s different,” said Deena. “You would’ve had a reason.”
“So? Would a reason really make it better?”
Wilderness; 10 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
It was the third day since Nicholas joined them on the road, and the third day of Nicholas constantly inflicting his saccharine cheeriness on Izra.
“Go bother someone else!” snapped Izra at last, as he followed her to the pond near the camp in the morning, humming and using magic to stick wildflowers in her hair.
“But I’m injured,” whined Nicholas. “You can’t turn away a patient; my bandages still need to be changed.”
“Ask Avenel to do it,” said Izra, splashing water onto her face. “She knows how to dress wounds.”
Nicholas glanced at where Avenel was taking down the tents with Garthniiel. “I think I’ve inflicted enough of myself on her,” he said. “Besides, she gave me this wound.” He paused. “Why didn’t you tell me about her? Why didn’t you tell me that she survived the fire? That she became Hallowed?”
Izra shrugged. “What good would it have done? You were a bird.”
“I still would have liked to know,” said Nicholas. “I did wonder why you didn’t—” He shook his head. “But I’m glad. She deserved a chance at a life without our meddling.”
“Without your meddling,” corrected Izra. “I left her alone.” She lifted her arm to dry her face on her sleeve, the black beads clacking against each other as they slid down her wrist.
Nicholas looked at the beads. “Whose memories are those?”
“Mine,” said Izra. She lowered her arm and tugged her sleeve back down over the beads. “And they aren’t your concern.”
“You tampered with your own mind? Izi, that’s—”
“I said it’s not your concern,” said Izra. “And don’t start pretending to care.”
It was just past noon when they came across the ruins of a small village, a collection of crumbled stone walls with missing roofs. A broken well sat in what had once been a village square, now overgrown with vines and bramble.
“Let’s stop here,” said Avenel. “There might still be water in the well.”
There wasn’t, but there was a little stream nearby where they could water their horses and refill their flasks. It was as good a place as any to stop for lunch.
“I wonder what happened here,” said Flame. “The village, I mean.”
“A bad harvest, maybe?” asked Izra. “A hard winter? A plague?”
Garthniiel sat down on a tree stump and unfolded the map over his lap. “It’s not on here,” he said.
“Were you expecting it to be?” asked Avenel. “There’s barely a dozen houses, here. It might not even have had a name.”
“You’re probably right,” said Garthniiel, folding the map back. “I just wanted to see how far we have left until Selkie’s Shore.”
Frost looked up. “We’re going to Selkie’s Shore?”
“It’s the northernmost of the major ports,” said Avenel. “We wanted to travel by land as far as we could.”
Frost turned to Garthniiel. “Why didn’t you tell me that we’re going to Selkie’s Shore?”
“I didn’t?” asked Garthniiel. “I thought I did. It must have slipped my mind.”
“It just ‘slipped your mind’?” asked Frost. “You know that’s where Flame and I are from! Did you ever think that maybe there’s a reason why we left?”
“Well, yes,” said Garthniiel. “You said you left because your father beat you when you were children. But it’s been ages, and he’s Ephemeral; he must be dead by now.”
“That isn’t—” began Frost, then scowled and turned away. “Whatever. I’m going to get some firewood.”
“Frost, wait,” began Garthniiel, but Frost didn’t wait, and quickly disappeared into the trees.
Flame sighed. “I’ll go talk to her.”
Garthniiel frowned. “I didn’t think it would matter. If I had known it would be a problem—”
“It won’t be,” said Flame. “It—It’s just that we haven’t been back there since we left. Give her some time.”
Garthniiel nodded. “She was upset at me at Triinton, too.”
Flame patted him on the arm. “She’ll come around,” he said.
The rest of them had already finished eating by the time Flame returned. Izra was changing Nicholas’s bandages in the shade of a large tree, Avenel sat wittling a piece of wood by the well, Deena was off poking around the ruins of one of the houses, and Garthniiel sat at the edge of the clearing, watching them all while polishing Greoore’s sword.
He stood when he saw Flame return.
“She wants to be alone a little longer,” said Flame. “Is there any food left? I’m starving.”
Garthniiel nodded. “Here,” he said, cutting Flame a piece of cheese. “I looked at the map some more. If we double back a bit, we could cross the river and maybe use the port at—”
Flame shook his head. “It’s fine, Garth. Really. Frost and I talked it over.”
“I really did just forget to tell you,” said Garthniiel.
“I know,” said Flame. “You have enough on your plate.”
“If Selkie’s Shore would stir up too many memories—”
Flame shook his head. “We’ll be fine. Besides, we aren’t the only ones with memories in Selkie’s Shore.”
Almost involuntarily, Garthniiel glanced up at Avenel.
“Do you really believe her when she says she didn’t do it?” asked Flame, following his gaze.
“I do,” said Garthniiel, “but I know what I saw that night. She was there.” He shook his head. “I just don’t understand why.”
“Have you asked her?” asked Flame.
“No,” said Garthniiel. “I’m sure if she wanted me to know, she would’ve told me.” He picked up the rest of the cheese. “Could you take this to Frost? She needs to eat. And some of the bread, too.”
Flame took the food. “I’m sure she has a good reason. If you believe her, then I do too.”
Garthniiel nodded. He sat thinking for a few minutes more after Flame had left, then set down Greoore’s sword and walked to where Avenel sat.
“Do you need something?” she asked, looking up.
“I just throught you looked lonely, sitting by yourself.”
“You were also sitting by yourself,” pointed out Avenel, but she gestured for him to sit beside her.
He sat. “What are you carving?”
Avenel looked down at the piece of wood in her hand. “Nothing in particular,” she said. “How is Frost?”
Garthniiel sighed. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “Flame says she’ll be fine, but… she’s held grudges before.”
“If you knew they had history in Selkie’s Shore, you should have spoken to them before we left.”
“I know,” sighed Garthniiel. “I guess I was only thinking about the Harbinger and my own ties to Selkie’s Shore, and I just… forgot. That was selfish of me.”
Avenel looked at him for a moment. “It was careless of you,” she said, “but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it selfish. It was an honest mistake.”
“But I still upset her,” said Garthniiel. He shook his head. “I’m sorry; you have your own problems to worry about, without adding mine to the mix.” He glanced towards Nicholas and Izra. “Are you sure you’re okay with him tagging along?”
“If I wasn’t, I would have said so.”
“Of course,” said Garthniiel, “but you seemed so upset when he showed up, I—” He broke off. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to pry.”
Avenel was silent a moment. “I loved him once,” she said. “Seeing him reopened some old wounds. That’s all.”
“Ah,” said Garthniiel. He glanced at Nicholas again. “Do you… still have feelings for him?”
“It’s been centuries,” said Avenel. “I’m not sure how to feel.”
She looked about to say more, but at that moment, Flame and Frost burst back into the clearing.
“Bandits,” said Frost, panting, and a moment later the bandits burst into the clearing behind her, a dozen of them all hot on her heels.
Avenel was on her feet in a heartbeat and sent the knife in her hand into the throat of the nearest pursuer. “Deena?” she called. “Deena, where are you?”
“I’m okay!” Deena called back, then gave a terrified squeak as an arrow flew down from the treetops to land by her feet.
Izra grabbed her by the arm. “Hide,” she said, pulling Deena towards one of the huts. “Stay there.”
The arrow had come from the far side of the village ruins. “He’s too far!” shouted Avenel. “Flame—”
“I see him,” replied Flame, but his bow and quiver were still strapped to his horse, more than a dozen paces away.
“Catch!” called Nicholas. With a wave of his hand, the buckle on Flame’s saddle undid itself, and both bow and quiver flew into Flame’s waiting arms. In a single, practiced motion, Flame strung the bow, notched, and fired, and the enemy sniper fell from his perch.
Garthniiel grabbed his sword and found himself clashing blades with a greatsword. The blows weren’t difficult to parry, but he was forced continually backwards until his back was pressed to the ruins of a house. His opponent swung; he ducked sideways, and the bandit’s sword bit into the soft stone. The blade stuck, and Garthniiel stepped around behind him to drive his own sword through the bandit’s skull. To his right, a second bandit swung her mace at his face, but one of Avenel’s knives hit her hand before the blow could come down, and Garthniiel swung his sword through the bandit’s neck.
He turned. “Thanks!” he called to Avenel.
Flame had climbed up onto the roof of one of the huts, for a better vantage. One of the bandits saw him and shot a crossbow his way, but it only managed to graze his shoulder. He retaliated by shooting an arrow through the man’s eye.
Down below, Frost was reloading her crossbow, keeping just out of reach of a bandit with a longsword. The bandit swung for her, but she ducked, slid between his legs, and fired a bolt into his chest. Before she could get back onto her feet, a second bandit swung his axe down at her head, but she kicked him hard in the stomach with both her feet. He staggered back, and an arrow from above finished him off.
“I had that,” said Frost, reloading her crossbow.
“You’re welcome,” said Flame, but before he could say more, the wooden beam below him gave a groan and snap, and he tumbled down to the ground.
“Flame!” screamed Frost, but Izra was already sprinting toward him.
“Where does it hurt?” asked Izra. “Can you move?”
“I’m fine,” said Flame, getting to his feet. “Just my wrist, but I’m—”
There was a piercing scream, and Deena ran out from the hut where she had been hiding, a hulking mountain of a man following behind her. She stumbled, tripping over where Garthniiel had left his saddlebag, and four-hundred-something pounds of bandit came bearing down upon her, pressing her into the dirt.
“Deena!” screamed Avenel, but there was another bandit in her way, trying to fight her, keeping her from getting a clear shot. She slashed bandit’s throat and shoved the body away, but it was too late, she was too far, and even as she ran the monster of a man had closed his ham-sized fist over Deena’s throat—
Time seemed to slow and the world shrank, and Deena ceased being aware of anything but the man on top of her, his breath like the blast of a furnace on her face, his hand squeezing the life out from her throat. As the world grew dim, she scrabbled in the dirt for something—anything—with which to fight him off, and her fingers met the cold metal hilt of a sword.
Fresh air flooded her lungs, and she coughed, only vaguely aware of someone rolling the bandit’s body off of her. Avenel knelt down beside her, cradling her to her chest, and only then did Deena open her eyes and see the bloody sword in her hand.
She turned to look at the bandit, at the gaping wound in his side, blood still draining into the dirt.
Avenel was speaking to her. “Deena, are you alright? Are you hurt?”
Deena looked down at herself. Her tunic was soaked in red but— “N-no,” she said. “I don’t think this is mine.” She looked at the bandit again. He wasn’t moving. “Did I do that?”
“You did what you had to,” said Avenel. She took the sword from her hand and helped her up. “Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.”
Deena looked up. It was Frost who had spoken. They were all there, standing in a circle, looking at her with a mix of concern and apprehension.
“Wait,” said Frost again. “That’s Greoore’s sword.”
Deena looked at the sword. So it was.
“Sister—” began Flame, but Frost cut him off.
“Show me your hand,” she said.
“Frost, we can talk about this later,” said Garthniiel.
“No,” said Frost. “No more surprises! First the whole ‘end of the world’ thing, then suddenly, we’re responsible stopping the Harbinger, then these two—” she gestured at Izra and Nicholas “—and now this! How do you expect us to risk our lives when we don’t even know what’s happening?”
Deena looked down at her hands. Aside from the blood, there was nothing. No blisters, no welts, no burns. “I thought Greoore’s sword was supposed to burn people who aren’t Hallowed.”
“It is,” said Frost. She pointed at the bandit, at the blistering around his wound. “It does.”
“Oh,” said Deena, as the realization slowly dawned. She looked down at her hands again, then up at Avenel. “Did you know?”
“Oh,” said Deena again, and she turned and ran.
“Deena, wait,” called Avenel, but Deena didn’t wait. “Deena, it isn’t safe!” The girl ran into the woods, crashing through the undergrowth, and Avenel had no choice but to follow. “Deena!” It had been a mistake to hide the truth from her for so long, no matter what Vallus had wanted. It was the kind of secret that could only keep for so long, and it would have been better for Deena to find out some other way—any other way—than this.
The girl stopped running, and Avenel stopped too. They were far from the camp now, out of sight and out of earshot, surrounded only by the sound of birds and the soft rustling of wind in the leaves.
“It’s Lord Vallus, isn’t it?” asked Deena, not turning around. “Is he my father?”
“Yes,” said Avenel. There was no point denying it now.
“How long have you known?” asked Deena.
“Since shortly after we met.”
“Did Mr Allard know?”
“Not exactly, but he suspected.”
“Did—did my mother know?”
Avenel hesitated. “Yes.”
Deena nodded. “I—I did wonder why he was so nice to me, but I didn’t think—I didn’t know—” She stopped. “Why didn’t my mother tell me? She said my father died. She said they were married.”
“I can’t answer that,” said Avenel. “I can’t explain her choices.”
“But I’m—I’m Hallowed,” said Deena. “She asked me that night, the night of the fire, how I’d feel if I had to leave Taunsgrove. Is this what she meant? That I’d have to leave when I outlived all my friends? When was she going to tell me?”
“I don’t know.”
Deena turned to look back at Avenel. Her eyes were wet. “When were you going to tell me?”
Avenel didn’t have an answer. When was she going to tell her? She didn’t know. “We were waiting for the right time.”
“And when was that going to be?” asked Deena. “If—if the end of the world really happens, were you just going to let me die without knowing what I am or who my father is?”
She was about to answer, but a movement in the trees caught her eye. She grabbed Deena by the arm to pull her aside just as an arrow flew past. A second arrow flew toward them; she pushed Deena to the side, and the arrow grazed her arm where Deena’s torso had been a moment before.
“Get behind me,” said Avenel. She drew a dagger and flung it in the direction the arrows had come from. There was a wet, choking sound, and the archer fell out of the tree, clutching at where the dagger had buried itself in his throat. There were more assailants, emerging from where they had been hiding in the foliage, and Avenel reached for another dagger only to find nothing. Too late, she remembered that she had expended all her knives in the fight in the clearing, hadn’t had time to retrieve them before running off after Deena.
The last time she had run out of knives, it had ended with Ephraim dying in her arms. All her instincts screamed for her to run. The aggressors were many, but most were on the forest floor, and it would not be difficult to leap from tree to tree to safety. All she had to do was climb—look, there was a low-hanging branch there—and she would be out of danger in moments.
Instead, she drew her sword.
“Deena,” she said, trying to keep her voice as even as she could. “Go get the others.”
Deena turned and ran.