Hallowed

XXIV. The Hanged Man

“That was uncalled for, Frost,” said Garthniiel.

“Uncalled for?” asked Frost. “She told us she was Ephemeral, and she was holding Greoore’s sword like it was nothing!”

“We all saw it, Sister,” said Flame. “You could have waited and spoken with her later.”

“Waited for what? For Avenel to come up with another lie or excuse? She knew the girl is Hallowed—she said so—but she hid it from all of us. Why?”

“That’s their business,” said Flame. “It has nothing to do with us.”

“She’s lying to us!” exclaimed Frost. “Why are you so willing to trust her—both of you? She’s a murderer and a liar! Who knows what else she’s hiding?”

“Frost,” said Garthniiel, “that’s enough.” He turned to Flame. “How’s your wrist?”

“It’s fine,” said Flame. “It’s a little tender, but I can move it.”

“Let me take a look,” said Izra. “Is anyone else hurt?”

“I’m alright,” said Garthniiel. “Frost?”

“Fine,” said Frost. She glanced at Izra. “If you hurt my brother—”

“For the gods’ sake, Sister,” sighed Flame. “You’re being ridiculous. We’ve been travelling together for days.”

Frost scowled. “I’m going to wash off this blood.”

There was a rustle of leaves, and a moment later Deena returned, half tripping over some brambles at the edge of the clearing in her haste. Nicholas caught her before she fell, and she gestured wildly at the woods behind her, too out of breath to speak.

“What is it?” asked Garthniiel. “Where’s Avenel?”

“We—” panted Deena. “There were more bandits—”

Garthniiel didn’t wait for her to finish. He took off in the direction Deena indicated, Nicholas close behind him. “Stay with her,” said Izra to Flame, before she too disappeared into the trees.

Frost hesitated.

“Go,” said Flame. “We’ll be fine.”

Frost nodded.

They followed the trail of broken branches and trampled undergrowth left by Deena until they came across a corpse with a dagger in his throat. Avenel’s sword lay on the ground nearby, but Avenel herself was missing.

“That’s her sword,” said Garthniiel. He looked around. “Avenel?” he called. “Avenel!”

“There’s an arrow here,” said Nicholas, picking it up from where it had been nestled in a clump of grass. The tip was covered in something dark and viscous.

“Don’t touch that,” said Izra warningly. “Give it here.”

“Is it blood?” asked Garthniiel.

“No,” said Izra. “There’s a bit, but—” She sniffed at it. “It could be poison. Some sort of nightshade.” She sniffed again. “Mere bandits shouldn’t have access to this.”

“The Harbinger’s men,” said Garthniiel. His grip tightened around his sword. “They found us.”

“If there’s blood on there, then it cut her,” said Nicholas.

Izra nodded. “Just a graze. The poison shouldn’t be lethal, but—”

“But where is she?” asked Garthniiel. “We came as fast as we could; they can’t have gone far.”

“You and Nicholas go look for her,” said Izra. “Frost, go back to Deena and your brother.”

“What about you?” asked Nicholas.

“I need to figure out what this poison is,” said Izra. “Hurry! Go!”

The others nodded and left, leaving Izra alone with the corpse. She waited a moment longer, then bent down to examine to it. The dead man was fair haired, lean, with the tanned complexion of someone who spent a great deal of time out of doors. The maturity of his bone structure, combined with the lack of wrinkles, suggested that he was Hallowed. His bow had broken in his fall, but it had been of good construction. His clothing, likewise, were made of fine materials, though they were so dirty and tattered as to suggest they had not been changed or cared for in a long time.

Izra frowned. Avenel’s knife was still buried in the dead man’s throat, and she pulled it out and used it to cut open his shirt. There was a long scar down his chest, a straight incision from collarbone to groin stitched skillfully back together.

“Admiring your handiwork?” asked a voice.

Izra looked up. A man stood in front of her with one eye a golden brown and one a brilliant blue.

“You,” said Izra. She wiped her hands on her tunic and stood. “Did you take her?”

“I did,” said the man.

“Why?” asked Izra. “Why are you helping him?”

“Why are you helping her?” asked the man. “You’ve never cared about the fate of the world.”

Izra didn’t answer. She looked away, running a hand over the beads at her wrist.

“She promised you Inoor, didn’t she?” asked the man.

“So what if she did?”

“So she lies,” said the man. “You said yourself that she does; that they both do. Are you still so obsessed with getting back what you’ve lost that you’re willing to destroy what you have?”

“What I have?” asked Izra. “I have nothing without Inoor.”

He took a step forward. “You had me.”

“You were a test,” said Izra. “An experiment to see if I could bring her back. Nothing more.”

He looked at her, his mismatched eyes searching hers, then stepped back. “I see,” he said. “It was good to see you again, Mother.”

“I’m not your mother,” said Izra, but the man was already gone.

It was nearly dark by the time Nicholas and Garthniiel returned. Deena looked up expectantly, but it was clear from the way Garthniiel threw down his sword that they hadn’t had any luck.

“I don’t understand,” he said, kicking over a log. “A group that size must have left some sort of trail, but there’s nothing. How could they have just vanished?”

Nicholas took a seat by the fire. “A planewalker would be able to do it, or at least a strong one could, but—”

“But Asterii is gone,” finished Izra. “There are no living planewalkers.”

“She’s going to be fine, Garth,” said Flame. Izra had placed his sprained wrist in a makeshift brace, but he placed his uninjured one on Garthniiel’s shoulder. “This is Avenel, the Blade of Elyria. I’m sure she’s been in worse scrapes than this.”

“But we don’t know anything about these people,” said Garthniiel. “If they really can use magic—” He buried his face in his hands and sighed. “Deena, did you notice anything unusual when you were attacked? Anything at all?”

“N-no,” said Deena. “I don’t know; it happened too fast.”

“Think, Deena!”

“I said I don’t know!”

“Garth, don’t yell at her,” said Flame.

Garthniiel sighed. “Sorry. I’m just— Sorry.”

“No,” said Deena, pulling her knees up to her chin, “it’s my fault. We wouldn’t have been out there if I hadn’t run off.”

“You only ran off because Frost—” began Garthniiel, but he stopped and shook his head. “No, doing this will get us nowhere.”

“Neither will just sitting around,” said Izra. “We should finish clearing the bodies before it gets dark. And make camp.”

Garthniiel stood. “I’m going to go look some more.”

“We’ve already scoured half the forest,” said Nicholas. “There isn’t any trace of her.”

“So you want us to give up?”

“Of course not,” said Nicholas, rising, “but we already searched everywhere.”

“We could have missed something.”

“If you have, you won’t find it in the dark,” said Flame. “We’ll look in the morning, after we’ve had a chance to rest.”

“How do you expect me to sleep when we don’t even know if she’s alive or dead?”

“She’s alive,” said Izra. “If they wanted to kill her, they would have done it here.”

Garthniiel shook his head. “I’m not taking that chance.” He picked up his sword.

Frost moved to step in front of him. “You’re not going, Garth. You’re not helping anyone if you get yourself hurt out there.”

Garthniiel glared at her. “Step aside, Frost.”

“No. You’re not thinking straight, and I made a promise to Greoore not to let you do anything stupid.”

“Greoore isn’t here. I am. Step aside.”

Frost narrowed her eyes. “Is that an order, your highness?”

“It is.”

Izra sighed and stood up. “This is asinine,” she said, and reached up to put her hand to Garthniiel’s forehead.

“What are you—” began Garthniiel, but the rest of his sentence became an unintelligible slur as he slumped down into Izra’s arms, limp as a doll.

Frost reached for her crossbow. “What did you do?”

“He’ll be fine in the morning,” said Izra, lowering Garthniiel to the ground. “You wanted to stop him, didn’t you?”

“But what did you do?” asked Frost.

“Blood magic,” said Izra. “I reached into his mind and made him sleep.”

The first thing that Avenel noticed was the cold. The second was that she had been blindfolded. The third was that her arms, legs, and torso had all been chained tightly to some cold, flat surface.

“You’re awake,” said a voice. Male, and somehow familiar but strange all at once. “No, don’t struggle; you’ll find that those chains are quite solid. And before you try it, no, dislocating your limbs will not let you slip out of them.”

“Where—” began Avenel. She wanted to ask where she was, but her tongue felt more like a slug than a part of her own body.

“Shh, don’t talk,” said the voice. “You’ll worsen the effects of the drug.”

“What?”

The voice sighed. “I said don’t talk. You haven’t forgotten how to follow orders, have you?”

Her mind felt like fog. What had happened? She remembered the fight, and Deena running off afterward. She remembered chasing after her, then the ambush, then—

“Deena,” said Avenel. The pain in her arm reminded her. The arrow—it had cut her, but it hadn’t been meant for her. “You wanted Deena.”

“I did,” said the voice, “not that I expected to get her, not with you there. But you aren’t a terrible consolation prize.”

Consolation prize—so Deena had gotten away. That was a relief, at least. “Are you—?”

“I’m not the Harbinger, no. It’s silly, how you came to that conclusion. The others, I could understand, but you— Deena is the Harbinger. You already know that, no matter how much you convince yourself otherwise. Frankly, I’m disappointed in how much you’ve managed to delude yourself, but I suppose that’s not any of my business.”

“What do you mean?” asked Avenel. Each word was a struggle, but she had to keep him talking. Keep them talking; buy time—it was something she had learned from Ephraim. She tested the limit of her bonds, but they were so tight she could barely move, and the chains rattled abominably when she tried.

The voice sighed. “Do stop squirming, Kassandra.”

Avenel froze. “How do you know that name?”

“Because I know you,” said the voice. “Kassandra Avenel, daughter to Lord Kenneth Avenel and his wife, and the first of their children to survive past infancy. You were preceded by no less than three stillbirths and five miscarriages, and succeeded by two more until your sister came along. By all rights, you should have joined them, born early as you were, a tiny thing with barely a heartbeat. But by some stroke of fortune, the lifeforce of another came to bolster you just as your own ebbed away, and you drew your first shuddering breath and survived.”

“What do you mean?” asked Avenel.

“I mean,” said the voice, “that the soul within you is not your own. It once belonged to another, to a woman named Inoor.”

“What?”

The voice chuckled, and something about the laugh was familiar enough to send shivers down Avenel’s spine. “Yes,” said the voice. “Izra’s sister. Nicholas’s wife. How Inoor’s soul came to be outside her body is unimportant; what matters is once they realized it still lingered—that it hadn’t been lost as the souls of the dead usually are—they followed it to you.” He paused. “I don’t think Izra ever saw you as anything but a temporary vessel for her sister’s soul, but Nicholas—How long do you think it took Nicholas to realize that you weren’t Inoor?”

Avenel shook her head. “No,” she said. “That’s not—Nicholas, he—”

“—said he loved you?” asked the voice. “And starved for affection as you were, you believed him. He thought you were Inoor reincarnated, his lost love returned. When he said he loved you, he did not mean you. He meant her.”

“No, he—” He what? He didn’t love her—he had said as much that morning by the fire. But that he had been with her for the sake of another, that he had been thinking of another when he held her, when he kissed her—And this was the man for whom she had killed Katrina and set fire to her home. This was the man for whom she had destroyed her world.

Had anyone ever loved her?

“I think you’ve managed to stall for long enough,” said the voice. There was the sound of movement, footsteps on flagstones as the voice came closer. “To kill you would be a waste; Inoor’s soul is special, perhaps uniquely so, and if you died it would only go elsewhere. Until I decide how best to use it, your body is as good a vessel as any.” A pause. “Still, you are too much of a danger to be kept whole.”

Something heavy came down onto her arm—there was a sickening crack—and Kassandra heard herself scream.

There was a time when Izra loved nights. She loved the quiet, the way the only sounds were insects and owls and the rustle of leaves. She loved the dark, the way the blinding sunlight gave way to the soft, pale moon. She loved the feeling of being all alone in the world, of being the only one awake, as though the night was a secret place to which only she had the key. When she was a child, she would sometimes slip out of bed to throw open her window and watch the glittering city as it slept.

She still liked nights, sometimes, when it was cloudy and overcast. But on clear nights as the stars blinked on overhead, Izra couldn’t help but feel watched.

It was a clear night tonight, and the smoke from the smoldering fire did little to obscure the stars. She had volunteered to take the first watch, and by now the others would have fallen asleep; she could tell by the sound of their slow, deep breathing within the tents. Flame and Frost had, with their strength combined, managed to carry Garthniiel out of the open. There was a time when Izra would have felt badly for what she had done—she had once sworn to do no harm, after all—but now… By now she had done worse, far worse, and felt nothing.

The hand she had used on Garthniiel tingled. She had let her magic lay dormant for too long, and now it ached like a disused muscle newly exposed to physical exertion. Her magic had always taken a physical toll on her, but this had been such a small thing. Perhaps, in the morning, she would be treated to a headache, no worse than after a night of drinking. Certainly it would not be so bad as when she… Her hand went to the beads looped around her wrist, cool and smooth beneath her fingers.

She stood. The village looked strange in the firelight, the ruined walls casting shadows that danced like ghosts across the trees. She went inside one of the cottages that still looked fairly sound; replace the rotting shutters and it would almost have been livable. Tomorrow, if they still had not found Avenel, if it became necessary to stay another day, she would suggest they sleep in these instead of the tents.

She did not want to stay another day.

She closed her eyes. “Fix this,” she said. “I know you’re listening. Fix this.”

When she opened her eyes again, there was a woman there, glowing ethereally from the moonlight that streamed in through the broken shutters behind her. “Hello, dear heart,” said the woman.

“Fix this,” said Izra again. She switched to Asterii, to the dead language of her home in case one of the others awoke and overheard. “You need her too; I know you do.”

“I do,” said the woman, “but you already know that he will not kill her. Is that not enough?”

“You promised me—”

“And I intend keep that promise,” said the woman. “I will fulfill my end of our deal, once you have fulfilled yours.”

“That isn’t enough.”

The woman paused. “You’re frightened,” she said. “I cannot interfere directly, but if it would soothe your fears, I can promise you this: He will not strike again until you have reached the sea. Until then, you will be under my protection.”

“So you expect me to leave her?” asked Izra.

“I expect you to do what’s necessary,” said the woman. “As for whether she will escape—That, dear heart, is up to her.”

She must have fallen unconscious, because when she woke again, Kassandra was alone in the cold and dark. All was still but for the sound of her own labored breathing echoing through the empty room.

And the breathing hurt. Every inch of her hurt, an agonizing ache that throbbed throughout her body like a single, hot bruise. And each breath, each involuntary twitch of her limbs, brought forth fresh agony such that she had to bite her lip to keep from screaming.

Her mouth tasted like blood. All she wanted was for the pain to stop. All she wanted was to die. If she had any energy left to speak, and if there had been anyone there to hear her, she might have begged.

No—breathe—she couldn’t die, not yet. She had a promise to fulfill, to protect Deena and keep her alive. She focused on her breathing, on the beating of her heart. There was pain, yes, but what was pain but a transient sensation? She had suffered pain before, had been trained to withstand it, to embrace it, to let it ground her in reality and remind her that she was alive.

It was a long while before the stillness was broken. Hours, or perhaps it only seemed like hours because of the pain. There were muffled footsteps, and then a door clicking open, and then a sound as of lighting a lamp.

Light seeped through the blindfold, a dull red glow from behind her eyelids.

“Are you awake?” asked a voice. Male, but not the same voice as before. It was difficult to tell with just the one sentence, but he sounded hesitant, perhaps even nervous.

Avenel nodded.

Footsteps, and then the blindfold was lifted from her eyes. She blinked once, twice, before the image finally focused. The man standing over her had nut-brown skin and thick, dark lashes, but more startlingly, his eyes were different colors: one brown and one blue. He stared at her, his face inches from her own, his eyes darting searchingly over her features.

“I’m not sure what I expected,” he said. “Say something.”

“Who are you?” asked Avenel. Her voice came out as a hoarse rasp.

The man took out a flask. “I have some water,” he said. “I’m allowed to give you water. Noriiel—he doesn’t want you to die.” He uncorked it and held it over Avenel’s lips. “Here, drink.”

Avenel drank. The water was cold and sweet, and she gulped it down greedily.

When she finished, the man was looking at her injuries, at the cuts and bruises and broken bones. “He could have just hobbled your foot,” he said, “left your arms and the other leg alone. I guess he thought that even on one leg, you might escape.” Gently he prodded at her arm, then pulled away when she involuntarily flinched. “I’m sorry,” he said. “They should be clean breaks, at least. There’s a chance they could still mend.”

“Are you a physician?” asked Avenel.

The man shook his head. “No, I… I worked with one, once.” He looked at her a moment longer, then turned and left the room, taking his lamplight with him.

She was alone again, alone in the dark and the pain.

A few minutes later, he returned, this time followed by a woman with tawny skin and a long black braid. Perhaps it was a trick of the lamplight, but there was something odd about the way she moved, the way she stared straight ahead with an empty expression on her face. The man with the strange eyes gestured for the woman to walk forward, and she did, stopping just before where Avenel lay bound.

“Look at her,” said the man. “Do you feel anything?”

Avenel wasn’t sure who he was speaking to, but the woman gave no response. The blank look in her eyes was unsettling, but apart from that, Avenel felt nothing.

“Does she— does she look familiar to you at all?” asked the man.

Avenel shook her head. “Should she?”

The man stepped forward to place the woman’s hand over Avenel’s. “Nothing?” he asked. “Nothing at all?”

Avenel shook her head again.

The man sighed. “I shouldn’t be surprised.” He looked at her for a moment, then turned to leave the room. He beckoned for the woman with the blank stare to follow. “Come along, Inoor.”

At this, Avenel started. “I thought Inoor was dead.”

“She is,” said the man.

“But—” began Avenel. The woman was already halfway to the door. “Wait!”

The woman stopped. Apart from her vacant expression, she looked very much alive. She breathed, she blinked, and her hand had been warm to the touch.

Avenel swallowed. Alive or not, if the man from before had been correct, if there really was a connection between herself and Inoor, then perhaps— “Izra said you’re a planewalker,” said Avenel. “Could you—could you take me away from here?”

The woman didn’t move, but now the man with the mismatched eyes was watching them both. He hesitated a moment, then placed Inoor’s hand in Avenel’s. “Try again,” he said. “Think about where you want to go.”

“Back,” said Avenel. “I—The village ruins. They might still be there. I need to go back.”

The air began to stir, and Avenel’s vision swam. She felt as though she was spinning, then falling, then all of a sudden the man and the room and her chains disappeared to be replaced by the forest floor below and a dappled dawn above. The woman—Inoor—was still there, and for the first time, she turned her head to look at Avenel. No, not at her. Through her.

She let go of Avenel’s hand.

“Thank you,” said Avenel. “And—and thank your friend.”

If Inoor heard her, she gave no indication. The wind began to whip around her again, and a moment later she was gone, leaving Avenel alone in the woods.

For a moment Avenel lay there. There was still dew on the grass, damp against her skin, and overhead there was a gentle breeze and birdsong. If she closed her eyes and lay perfectly still, she could almost ignore the pain.

But not for long. Somewhere, perhaps just out of sight, Deena was waiting.

Avenel opened her eyes. She took a deep breath, turned, and on broken limbs began to crawl.

Deena dreamed of her father. He was sitting in his study, papers and books piled high on his desk, sunlight streaming in from the window behind him.

“Papa?” she asked, in a child’s voice that wasn’t hers.

The man looked up from his work. “Izra? Shouldn’t you still be at school?”

“The other children kept looking at me, so the teacher told me to leave. He said I’m a distraction.” She twirled a strand of her white hair about her finger. “Papa, why am I different? Why can’t I have dark skin and hair like Inoor? Like you and Mama?”

Her father scooped her up and pulled her onto his lap. “You’ve done nothing wrong, my dove. You are the way you are. Come, we’ll go speak to your teacher and put things right.”

“Can’t I just stay home? You can teach me instead.”

“Izra—”

“Just for today, Papa. Please?”

Her father sighed. “Alright, just for today. But someday, Izra, you’ll have to learn to stand up for yourself and convince them of your worth.”

He set her down, and as she found her footing, her father’s sunlit study changed to a stone balcony with a view of the sea. When she looked up, it was no longer her father looking back at her, but Nicholas standing beside her, watching the stormclouds gather on the horizon.

“You need to convince them,” said Nicholas. “Convince them that it works.”

“I tried,” said Deena. Her voice was older now, no longer a child’s. “They said the procedure is ‘too extreme’ to even consider.”

“So try again,” said Nicholas. “Izi, you need their approval. If you do this behind their backs, you’ll be exiled, maybe worse.”

“What I need is to save Inoor. She’s been unconscious for a week, Nicholas; I don’t have time to sit around and write research proposals.”

“And what if they’re right? What if it is too extreme, and you fail?”

“I won’t. I can save her, Nicholas; I’m the only one who can.”

“By tearing out her soul?”

“Are you going to help me or not?”

Nicholas took a deep breath and sighed. “What do you need me to do?”

Lightning flashed, much closer than the stormclouds would suggest, and in that moment of illumination, the balcony became a windowless stone room.

“If you want to help,” said Deena. “Hold the light steady.”

“I’m trying,” said Nicholas, the magelight hovering in his hand. He raised it higher. “Is that better?”

“A little,” said Deena, and more closely examined the dark smoke swirling like a storm cloud inside the glass jar. Before her, her sister lay prone on the operating table, her chest cut open, her heart beating in time to the movement of the smoke within the jar.

“Is this it?” asked Nicholas. He put his fingertips against the glass. “Is this her soul?”

“It is.”

“Will the glass hold?”

“It’ll have to.” She handed him the jar and turned to the small wooden box sitting atop a side table.

“What are you doing now?”

“Removing the infection.” Carefully, she reached into the box. Something warm and furry met her touch, and she lifted it out, a tiny mouse half the size of her palm. It squirmed for a moment, whiskers twitching, but she stroked its back with a finger, and it soon became calm. “Shh,” she cooed. “It’ll be alright.” Gently, she closed her hand over the mouse, not so tight as to hurt it, but tight enough that it couldn’t get away.

Her other hand, she placed upon the jar. Inoor’s soul was warm, even through the glass, but the warmth was tainted by something else, a different sensation, a tingling numbness that sent goosebumps down her arm. She focused on that feeling and pulled. The color of the smoke began to lighten, its warmth grew stronger, and in her other hand, the mouse began to squeal and thrash.

“Izi, what—?” asked Nicholas, alarmed.

She cut him off. “Shh. I need to concentrate.”

For half a minute, the mouse struggled in her grip, while the smoke became lighter and lighter until it was as white as a cloud on a sunny spring day. When there was no more of the strange tingle beneath her fingers—when there was only warmth—she let her hand fall away from the jar.

The mouse was a desiccated husk in her other hand, and she cast it aside.

“Did it work?” asked Nicholas.

“I think so.” She took the jar from his hand and raised it to the light. The smoke was a pale white wisp, still and calm. “We’ll need to—”

Crack.

“No—” she began, but before she could react, the jar shattered in a shower of glass.

By instinct, she raised her arm to shield her face. When she looked up again, the smoke was still there, suspended in midair before her.

For a moment, she felt relief.

Then, with a sound like a woman’s sigh, the soul dissipated and dissolved into nothing.

“No!” shouted Deena, and her own voice woke her.

There were footsteps outside her tent. “Deena?” asked Flame’s voice. “Is everything alright?”

“S-sorry,” said Deena quickly. “It was just a bad dream.” She shook her head. Her brain felt like fog, and she could no longer remember what the dream had even been about.

Outside, Izra was busying herself by the fire, Nicholas was scarfing down some breakfast, and Frost and Garthniiel were arguing. Garthniiel was whacking a tree with a stick as Frost spoke, bits of bark splintering off with every whack.

“Garth, you know I’m right,” Frost was saying. “If we haven’t found her by now, haven’t found a hint of her—”

“I’m not leaving without her!” snapped Garthniiel. He whacked the tree one more time, hard enough that the stick snapped in two.

“Leaving?” asked Deena, alarmed. “We’re leaving?”

“We’re not leaving,” said Izra, looking up from the fire. “We can afford a few days of delay.”

Frost threw up her hands. “For the love of—Avenel can take care of herself, better than any of us—”

“She was unarmed, Frost,” said Garthniiel. “What’s she going to do, unarmed, against maybe an entire army?”

“What are we going to do if we can’t even find her?” countered Frost. “If we press on now, we’d at least be doing something useful—”

“We’re not leaving without her, Frost, and that’s final!”

Frost glared at him, her expression cold. “Very well, your highness,” she spat. “I guess we’ll all just die when the Harbinger wins, including your precious Avenel.” She turned. “I’m going to go check on the horses.”

“Dammit,” swore Garthniiel, and threw his broken stick down onto the ground.

Deena watched as they walked off in opposite directions. “We’re, um, we’re still going to go look for her, right?” she asked. “I want to help. It’s my fault Avenel’s missing. I should help.”

“No, you’re staying here with Flame,” said Izra. “Someone needs to stay here, in case she comes back.”

“But I want to help,” said Deena again.

“And the best thing you can do is stay here,” said Izra. “Go wash up, then come back and eat some breakfast.”

Deena nodded. She walked to the stream just outside the village ruins and bent down to splash water onto her face.

Something rustled in the undergrowth.

For a moment, Deena thought it was an animal, but then there was another rustle, and a pale hand reached out from the shrubbery. Deena screamed, and was about to run, when a familiar voice stopped her in her tracks.

“Deena?”

Deena rushed forward. She pushed aside the leaves, grass, and undergrowth to reveal Avenel—battered and bloodied, but still recognizably Avenel.

Avenel smiled. “You’re safe,” she said, and collapsed into Deena’s arms.