The blue-white spark burned her eye. Amaris just stared. She rubbed her aching neck, and then leaned back onto her elbows, lounging in the snow. Worries evaporated in the icy air. After twenty minutes, no aches or pains remained to distract Amaris. She laid her head onto the stiff snow pack, and breathed a sigh as her eyes lost focus. The small skylight blurred, and the frigged air seeped into her tired bones.
You are a silly woman. Amaris hated this voice, so she ignored the thought, and focused on her freezing frame. Something warm scrapped her face, then softened into a repeated burn. Amaris slapped the hand off her face and turned her body from the heat. She patted the ground, but did not feel the ice anymore. She huffed and mumbled. “Why must you bother me?”
The loathsome man chuckled. “Mostly, I do not wish to lose my employment. If you freeze, I am fired.”
“I will not die. Now leave.”
“Not dead yet.” The man said nothing, then rubbed Amaris’s back. Heat pulled Amaris closer to her life, and she made a fist around the blanket SB had put under her.
“You fail me as a friend.” Amaris tried to ignore her father’s hired hand, but slumber’s call had already left. Still, she lay without movement on the refreshing and icy ground.
“You know what that is.”
Amaris huffed, and closed her eyes. She felt SB’s gaze, not on the new star in the sky. Stupid boy. He ought to stare at the pretty spectacle like she did. It transfixed Amaris, so she looked up again. Aside from the moon, nothing had broken the solid black night for centuries.
“That is your ally, Amaris.”
She rolled her eyes at her friend’s statement. “What, something else is fighting now, too?” The last thing to fight for Amaris died. “It should find a better compatriot. I have good odds of getting it killed.” Sion should have seen this. He stared at the sky every night like a fool. Amaris wanted to hear him chide her about it showing through at last. The warm feeling of energy and confidence surging around and through Amaris fed an unknown craving. Her being resonated with the infant star’s illumination, and it had drug her out here each night for three weeks. She wanted to ruminate on the pain of her actions, not this fickle light that hid until the wort had passed. Soon, Amaris could prove this celestial spectator wrong. She would take its reason for appearing. Amaris sat up, focusing on her wet dress as the breeze licked through it.
SB settled a cloak over Amaris’s shoulders, heat soaking through her damp clothes. “Life knows its allies.” He said.
Amaris smirked. “Maybe I am not one of them.” She found her fingers curled around the broach, the pain of her grasp spreading up her arm. Her feet caught in her skirts when she tried to stand, and SB helped her through the tangle, supporting until she had her footing and could shake off his hold. Then she gripped tighter to the jewel until blood began dripping down her wrist.
“Really?” SB asked.
“What?” Amaris looked back at the star, glaring at the cold light. “We both know I cannot do this.” Her wet tear froze to her cheek. “That star will disappear with me.”
“Amaris this will not help you.” SB’s hand smeared the chilled blood on Amaris’s fingers while he fought her grasp. Her knuckles gave way, and SB held her hand aside, unfastening the broach with his other. The star distracted Amaris until the thing was off, then the scene snapped back into sharp focus.
“Wait!” Amaris turned on SB who hasted back a few steps.
“What is wrong with you?” SB asked.
Amaris bit her lip, but not hard, and shrugged. She touched her cheeks, and found her face wetter than she thought. Then she looked at the blood on her hands.
Amaris looked up at the star. Too pure a light to watch for more than a few seconds, but she did. The white shine cut and judged, and she stared. How unfair for this fair, untouchable light to pierce something so dark on her behalf. “Is it too late for them?”
“The people who died . . . For me.” Silence, and then . . .
“I know there is more darkness, but please, for my sake” -SB’s fingers sank into Amaris’s cold forearm until she dropped her gaze- “focus on the light.”
“For your sake?”
SB’s hand slid down the red mess of Amaris’s skin until his fingers traced hers. “Please —”
His pleading unnerved Amaris, and she dropped the man’s hand from her, and began walking away. She looked over her shoulder, pausing her gait. “I need that back.” She waited. SB shook his head and knelt, cleaning the bloodied broach in the snow, wiping it with his shirt sleeve. He lingered, rubbing his thumb over the scarlet stain on his shirt.
Amaris tightened her lips. The man approached, and Amaris held out her clean hand. SB eyed the bloodied one she withheld. “Leave it,” Amaris pulled SB’s chin, directing his gaze away from the sliced up hand. He did not fight. Their eyes met, and Amaris steeled herself against his scrunched brow and questioning eyes. He pulled her hand from his chin and dropped the broach into it. Amaris left. She had one more night in her room before descending the hills into the South, where she could try to find her felled friends.
The support SB had guessed at had resulted in three thousand horsemen and a two week delay. Some seven thousand foot soldiers planned to follow, while the first mustering made camp north of City and arranged the attack. They would push through to BG’s hidden treasure, and thrust Amaris into the Basins. Amaris thought her suicide only prettied up, but she allowed the “support.” She nestled into her bed, and awaited dawn, but the darkness put her to sleep.
Amaris woke to her father’s nudges, and set her jaw, fighting embarrassment from oversleeping. Fraiton repeated calm phrases to his daughter as she rushed from task to task, throwing the last of the necessary items into her pack. She set her jaw as she closed the door to her room, locking herself from all remnants of her simpler life. After a pause she spun away from the sad scene, and SB stepped back to avoid a colission with her.
“I take it you are ready?” SB raised his eyebrows.
Amaris nodded. “Forgive my tardiness.”
“Of course.” He gestured to the front door, and followed Amaris when she left. It would take weeks to descend the craggy highlands without separating the company which had gathered for their ominous task. During the journey south, Amaris kept to herself, sandwiched between thousands of other horsemen. Those in command had agreed that Amaris should ride as any other soldier, in order to obscure her, although her exact position never escaped them. Fraiton had direct command over Amaris, but while he also agreed to oversee the final mustering of the foot soldiers, SB escorted her in the midst of the mounted forces.
Nelica needed no guidance, so Amaris let her mind wander as the mare mingled with the other beasts for thirteen days of bumping and jostling. For all the Alaquendi grace in horsemanship, Amaris found little serenity among the tiny army making their way south. Even with the icy peaks behind her, Amaris felt her fiery insides freezing over from the silent and cold atmosphere. Nothing but clattering rocks beneath hooves, the occasional whinny of an agitated mount, and short gusts of wind interrupted the still air of the seldom traversed valley. The cliffs on either side mocked Amaris, echoing memories of her slow climb with Nelica up this pass months before, with the memory of deceased companions fresh in her thoughts. Amaris ruminated upon those deaths until the small force of Alaquendi departed the highlands and made camp several dozen leagues north of City.
Amaris sat with knees gathered to her chest in front of her tent, wishing the night would flee so she could depart. At dawn, she would be allowed to seek out her lost allies; to honor their deaths before finishing her task in gory war. SB’s voice crept into her unhappy thoughts, and continued speaking, although Amaris denied him reply. She gazed at the patch of dirt in front of her as the man’s boots stepped there and a small crop of grass began growing around them. Amaris sank her fingers into the lush ground where she sat.
Amaris huffed and glared at SB, his jaw set, arms crossed.
“I can sleep when this is finished — maybe.”
“You do not want to find them, or whatever that ambush left behind, without a little rest.”
Amaris began musing over what she might find; the macabre thoughts a fitting punishment for one such as her. “As long as I am not alone, I will return from this errand alive. That is all we care about, right?”
“Does that mean I have to take your sword and knife before we look for your friends?”
Amaris patted the wet area beneath her left eye which always leaked first; a regular occurrence. “Maybe you should.”
SB did not reply.
Amaris huffed. “Killing myself accomplishes nothing. Do not fret so much.” Amaris smirked to sell her point.
“Do not test me, Amaris.”
SB left the woman, and with the guilt he left her, Amaris went to sleep.
“Stop following me!” Amaris turned and came up against SB. She did not bother with the tears covering both cheeks, and ignored the pounding headache. “And do not follow me so close.” SB held her arm when she tried to leave again. She pulled away until it hurt. “Let me go!” Amaris slammed SB’s hand, but only hurt her arm.
“They were not where you fought last, and looking in the forest will do nothing for your case.”
Amaris pulled back, to no avail. She fought with SB’s firm grip but felt more stuck every second, until the anxiety balled up in her chest. She started gasping for air until she started falling, and would have hit the ground had SB not caught her. He lowered Amaris and kept her from lying down where her air supply would collapse further. “They cannot be gone,” Amaris wailed.
“Amaris, you knew they died.”
Yes, but not finding any traces of their death had not been her plan. Amaris wheezed until SB calmed her enough for tears to take over again. When he kept her from standing and searching again, Amaris beat SB the best her weaponless and weak state allowed. Then she passed out. She woke in the dark to find SB watching over her. Emotions soaked in the groggy haze of night seized Amaris, and she did not sleep again, but slowly recovered some sanity. She stayed silent through sunrise and past dawn. When she woke properly, she stayed sitting like a child until SB conceded to walking deeper into the forest where Amaris hoped to find some reminder of those she had lost. Something to hold onto, to use as kindling for the dying fire inside. But the woods disappointed, and Amaris agreed to turn back, but only after they went a few leagues further south. Nothing availed, so they began their return.
Their return journey took twice the time as their journey south — as Amaris stumbled and needed much rest. During one of the many breaks, Amaris began questioning whether she could recover from losing her allies. She struggled against false sounds of a familiar voice. The voice of one lost to her. Although she knew him only a year — give or take — she recognized the inflections in Sion’s voice. He seemed to be whining of too much work and stress. An unknown being replied within the verbal hallucination, and then Sion continued.
Amaris left her spot and walked until SB stopped her. “What is your issue?” She asked. “I am only continuing our terrible trek back.” But SB did not allow her passage. She started complaining again, when SB’s hand smothered the words from her mouth. She tried to shove him off, and he shook his head, lifting his eyebrows until the woman ceased. Amaris hesitated and looked about her. Multiple of the Alaquendi in her small troop had bows strung and arrows at the ready. SB pulled Amaris behind him, and she obeyed the gesture. The high alert did not abate the voices she heard.
I do not want to deal with anymore of them today, Amaris heard Sion’s voice as if he would appear before her. She sheltered further behind SB, but the sounds continued. She saw a movement beyond her party, obscured for the most part by branches. Amaris closed her eyes and breathed deep, forcing a slow exhale. Real or insanity, she felt too discomfited to aid those surrounding her. In case the assumed assailant lived only in her mind, she wanted to keep herself from reacting. Closing her eyes only paused the vision though. When she looked into the trees again, the disturbance resumed.
Metal. A glint of metal. She focused and saw a blade emerge into full sight, followed by none other than the living body of her recent failure. Amaris screeched, the reaction stinging her senses. This vision — Sion, wielding Amaris’s sword — did not dissipate, although Amaris rubbed her eyes, and blinked over and over. Her own steel, lost in battle, and the man of her dead lover, come to haunt her. She screamed again, and tried to run to the woods, but felt fingers gripped tight around her wrist, sinking into her skin, bruising her intention to flee. SB shouted, face so close she felt his breath, but she did not discern the words. Amaris fought until she fainted.
When she woke, Amaris felt pressed on all sides, she struggled free and realized only a blanket wrapped around her. Then she remembered the thoughts preceding her collapse, and curled up in the thin covering, closing her eyes to reality. She heard SB sigh, and set her jaw against the reproach. “I will not discuss this matter with you, SB,” she muttered into the scratchy cotton. No rebuke returned. Amaris almost sighed with relief, until she felt a hand rest on her back. She sat up quick, and glared at him, then she saw beyond SB. She gasped. There Sion sat, eyebrows raised. Amaris smacked her hands against her ears and shut her eyes.
SB called to Amaris multiple times, and she ignored him. At length, he offered to explain the situation to her. Amaris huffed, laughing at her predicament. “Try.” She replied, but did not expect his response.
“Sion did not die.”
Amaris stared at SB— his face a blank— and grabbed both his shoulders. “What?”
He told Amaris multiple times of Sion’s escape from the peril she had so long assumed to have claimed her fallen allies. Their living did not fit into her mental space. No. Grief had taken place, and surrender filled the gap left by friends. After several minutes, Amaris allowed herself to examine the man’s appearance, and he did resemble Sion. An exact replica. Amaris wondered how long these men took convincing her this double was Sion. She allowed him to sit by her. Guilt from shunning him mixed with unease, sickened her gut. “You are changed,” she commented.
Sion nodded slow, “You as well.” He reached toward Amaris, she flinched, and he paused while she calmed. He then pulled a lock of her hair onto her shoulder, Amaris saw a chunk of the gold that streaked her hair. She continued to forget that tell. She shrugged and pushed it behind her ear, and evaded eye contact.
“Amaris, I know what happened.” Sion said.
Amaris’s gaze flickered to and away from him.
“I would like to hear that,” SB’s voice broke the nostalgic sorrow, and Amaris stared at Sion, shaking her head. Then considered a moment.
“How do you know anything of my condition?” She asked.
Sion breathed deep; preparing himself? Then answered. “Adreaga told the wretched tale.”
Amaris felt herself spin, and then blacked out. In a short time, she recovered from the swoon, and SB insisted she eat and drink, even allowing something to lift her spirits. In time she felt well again — better, in fact, then she had in days. Some semblance of her old existence existed, and when she accepted that, her mind seemed more right.
“Adreaga fought with you,” Sion explained, “but Waylen, Briair and I, we had to run. I still begrudge you for chasing down that girl” — he shrugged — “at least you made it. I did not think I would see you again, though. Not this side of death. Dare I ask how you did it?”
“Did what?” Amaris asked, nibbling the last of her meal.
“Truly, Amaris? Do not play at stupidity, it never suited you.”Sion replied. SB grunted. Amaris rolled her eyes.
She bit her lip and sorted through the ways to tell these men, even a shortened version, of what had befallen her. She decided against answering, pondering instead Adreaga’s survival. When she denied reply, Sion continued filling the gaps in Amaris’s understanding of the last year.
Adreaga had escaped slaughter by faking death while the enemy —quite angered by Amaris’s fleeing — retreated. Adreaga recovered with a friend in the Westlands. Amaris found the youth having any allies in the world beyond her village a quiz, but accepted the claim nonetheless. After regrouping in CITY, Sion, Briair and Waylen had taken up a task of vengeance, completion, or whatever else they opted to call it. By some strange turn in events, Waylen had gathered the Manori troops, and planned to storm the Basins.
Amaris knew enough of Waylen’s testimony to find such a story unlikely. An exiled Manori able to muster her own frustrating people? She might believe the spectacle if she laid eyes on the situation of troops Sion claimed lay encamped several leagues northwest in the forest. Amaris gave no voice to her doubts. SB had agreed to meet the commander that might aid the Alaquendi, so Amaris and her small guard followed Sion toward the Manori forces.
During the ride, Amaris rubbed the hilt of her mother’s sword, returned by Sion. He had picked it off the battle field while searching for Amaris. She planned what she would say to Waylen. To Briair. To Adreaga. At the latter all thoughts eluded her. This girl Amaris rejected had born multiple hits in her stead. Amaris found no answers for the blank slate of speech with which she could greet the youth. She prayed some inspiration might find her.
The surprise that met Amaris stopped all thoughts about Adreaga for the time. Men stepped out of the foliage to greet Sion, and one disappeared at once. The other whispered a short discourse with Sion before leaving him. As they rode on, Amaris saw small groups of people who stared at the small entourage, and then the beings began to shift. Beast took over human form as the sparse gatherings morphed into crowds which deepened into steady streams going here and there among displays of supplies, including a scant sprinkling of tents. The frequency of animals turning to humans and the reverse chilled Amaris, but Sion continued on in apparent ease. Perhaps his story had some truth in it.
When Sion stopped, Amaris looked about, but saw no one familiar. Piercing eyes watched her. When Sion dismounted, she did the same, keeping Nelica in full contact, lest she scare among these weird people.
“Where is Captain Terpain?” Amaris heard Sion ask. The man gave brief instructions, and Sion turned back to his horse.
Amaris grabbed his arm.“She is using her full name?” She asked.
Sion nodded. “It seems a good time to speak your names out loud again.”
“Wait, Captian?” SB asked. He inquired about titles, which seemed insignificant to Amaris, until Sion nodded his understanding and answered that Waylen did not have charge over more than one troop. Her brother, he answered, was the man in sole responsibility of this mess. Amaris loathed any encounter with Waylen’s brother Rayden. How could a man against his — at the time— young sister’s return home ever conspire with her on such a scale?
Sion mounted, and waited for the others to follow. They rode through the large camp until the mass thinned into groups here and there, and then became sparse. They got down and walked beside their horses for a few minutes that stretched out like taffy in Amaris’s mind. Then she saw them, and her heart leapt. Adreaga and Briair, sitting on logs around a fire, and Waylen sleeping in panther form a few feet beyond. Amaris ran to them, and shocked them both, but euphoria ensued. Then Adreaga sobbed into Amaris’s shoulder, apologizing over and over before Amaris could make her stop and explain. Adreaga claimed responsibility for the beating Amaris had taken, saying the latter saved her and almost died because of that action.
“I am sorry you had to watch.” Amaris said. Then she lifted Adreaga’s chin and locked eyes. “My death was stayed by your hand. I thought he took you with that stroke. Never apologize to me again, ever, for anything. Do you understand?” Adreaga nodded, but wept louder, so Amaris cradled her. Then whispered to her. “Do not tell them the full of it, please.”
“I already did.”
“Well, say nothing more about that day.”
“With pleasure I will not recall those details.”
Amaris felt she was protecting not only herself, but the child.
“Now, I think we need to wake her.” Sion said. “Do you mind if I do?”
Amaris nodded. She did not want to startle her old friend as she had the previous year when the woman had discovered her. Sion went and sat beside the black panther laying on a small hill. He touched her head and whispered something. Waylen shifted and buried her face under her arms. Amaris waited, but her patience thinned, and she took a couple steps closer. Waylen jerked, and then sat, staring straight at Amaris. She gasped, and slapped Sion before standing. “It is poor enough of you to wear her sword” —Waylen started rushing forward— “You cannot smell like—” Waylen’s arms wrapped tight around the Alaquendi woman. “Amaris.” Amaris closed her eyes and let herself slip into the reality where her friends survived.
Amaris insisted on staying the week in the Manori camp, and SB agreed, with the caveat of anonymity. As if Amaris wanted to announce her identity in to a sea of human beasts. Waylen’s brother also agreed to conceal Amaris’s import for the time being, in order to reduce gossip and benefit both forces which must now ally. Shape shifters besides Waylen and Rayden stayed a distance from Amaris, and her surname remained absent in conversations. Amaris stayed confined with her friends on the outskirts of camp.
Briair informed Amaris of a continued injury his sister bore in shape of a sore arm, which Amaris learned had not been set before allowed to heal. The entire bone from wrist to elbow hurt without agitation, so Amaris suggested it be immobilized and splinted. Instead, Adreaga practiced archery. The girl’s boldness had grown uncontrollable, and her obedience minimal. Although she sometimes listened to Waylen. Briair seemed unchanged. Either quiet and respectful, or else sarcastic.
Amaris found Waylen difficult to understand sometimes. Her quiet did not bring serenity. Her voice did not sound pleased or engaged. She asked Amaris hundreds of questions, but kept her own answers brief. Amaris’s worry for her might have become a burden, except she realized Sion already had himself employed as Waylen’s safeguard and test audience for anything Waylen needed. When Waylen switched into her authoritative position with the army, the change was jarring and complete. Sion also had some influence with the Manori, but Amaris soon learned that besides Rayden Terpain, Waylen had charge over the army. In fact, Sion said Waylen had instigated the entire movement when Amaris was thought to have died. This entire group wanted to dent the enemy on her behalf. Sion tried to keep Amaris balanced, but the thought of such great forces of Manori and Alaquendi all to defend one person made her sick with anxiety. SB quieted Amaris every day. You are worth the risk. He would tell her. Waylen would watch closely, as if analyzing Amaris’s reactions, her movements, but said little.
At week’s end, Amaris traveled to meet her own army. When she arrived, her father congratulated her on finding her friends, but his real ecstasy came when he talked about the Manori army joining the Alaquendi. Military talks erupted at once, and soon the decision had been made to combine forces for a more sure blow. The soldiers filled with expectation, and when Amaris walked among the Alaquendi,, reverence seemed to flow about her. The discomfort grew until Amaris left the whole lot one night, riding far and wide without a guard, or even permission to leave. Her father was none too happy when she returned. Waylen — there to discuss matters that had already been decided and inform Amaris of their conclusions— did not seem at all disturbed. When plans tangled with her, Amaris worried and steeled her outer self, because the whole war seemed spinning on to which she was the axle. They all knew she had the least battle experience or militaristic potential, and so they schooled her delicately. Tonight, though, Waylen offered Amaris a glass of wine and some company, and suggested they discuss plans on the morrow. Amaris wanted to throw the whole bottle and tell Waylen to be up front with her, instead she accepted.
“I hate all this hush when talking to you.” Waylen settled into a chair once the two women had retired to Amaris tent. The makeshift room had a small table, a cot, and a few chairs. Several small meetings had been held there to bring Amaris more comfort when faced with battle plans. Amaris stayed standing and watched Waylen, who continued. “I cannot say two words around the Manori without half the army hearing my thoughts on a subject. And when I am here, it is understood that some militaristic duty is at hand,” Waylen swept her fingers through her black hair, “Which leaves little, well” — Waylen huffed— “no time to come up with anything more than a quick embrace for you. I am pushing the limits even with that, or my talking with Sion. I am not giving that up, though, the man makes sure I stay sane.” Waylen took a small sip of wine, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes.
“You should sleep.” Amaris had her arms crossed over her chest. Maybe there was not time for anything to pass between her and her old friend before the battle. If there was an afterward, perhaps Waylen and she could connect on a more mutual level.
“No.” Waylen stood up, and leaned forward onto the table. “You misunderstand me. I want you to know why I have been so distant. It is mandatory, and my brother is coughing it down my back every other day. I love you so madly I almost lost myself when I thought you died. I told Adreaga for months that she was lying about your living so I would not build false hopes of seeing you again.” Waylen looked away. “And now you are back and I have to behave myself with such perfection I cannot get within two feet of you most days.”
Amaris walked half way around the table. “The others seem to have no problem. Even Rayden speaks more easily to me.”
“My name is not cleared.” Waylen looked exhausted when she spoke. “The threats on my life would worry you, so you do not hear about them. Half the people in that army wanted me dead from day one, and little has changed their minds about me. What comes out of my mouth is repeated across camp. You cannot afford me to speak about or to you. They care little what Adreaga and Briair say. Sion is an afterthought. And Rayden has too much leeway. To them, I am still the girl in exile.”
Speechless, Amaris watched Waylen who said and expressed nothing more. “You are serious about this.”
Amaris covered her mouth, and tried to firm her emotions about Waylen which would not separate from her thoughts for everything else. “Forgive my actions to you, now, I have little of my authentic self to give. Maybe later . . .” Amaris bit her lip, feeling strings around her heart loosen, letting it go. She grabbed her chest to stop it. But when Waylen put Amaris in her full hug, the latter lost her composure. She tucked her chin over Waylen’s shoulder, and kept her sister from leaving her. The crying was inevitable, and the rush of emotions released in waves; Amaris knew there was more she had inside. She and Waylen had not been so close since Amaris first saw her upon return.
When they calmed, Amaris pulled a chair close and the two laughed, and then they cried, full of the deep sorrows that often held them down. They discussed developments of Sion’s intentions with Waylen, which the latter claimed no time to invest and figure out the validity. And then they sat, still and quiet, removed from the war. Amaris unloaded much of what happened with her after the horrible ambush, although she could not recount the actual barraging. Waylen returned with brief explanation of finding her brother and Adreaga’s return. Things which had happened too fast to understand began pouring out in easy speech. Amaris felt more empty after a few hours, almost ready to receive.
“Now, do not take offense to this, but I do not approve your father’s treatment of you.”
Amaris shrugged. “I can do nothing about him.”
“Understood.” Waylen took a deep breath and exhaled. “So what I am going to tell you is supposed to be in his hearing as well, because decisions about you need to have his approval. But I say damn that idea, you deserve the right to make a choice now and then. You should have been dead last year, and you are not. Anything you do now is like an extra chapter to your life, and you should say what happens in those moments, not him. Do you agree?”
Amaris narrowed her eyes. What decision needed making? She nodded.
“Good,” Waylen studied Amaris. “Allow me to bend the rules a bit further.” She bit her lip. “How awake are you? Maybe I have allowed us to talk too late.”
“Speak. I need to hear what now what you are going to say tomorrow.”
“Fine. I will tell yol.”
Amaris poured herself a full glass of wine and listened.
“First, you will need to come up to speed with what we Manori have been accomplishing in the previous weeks and months.”
Amaris nodded, and prepped for a lecture, but Waylen was to the point and left out any externals.
“Instead of attacking the enemy head on, we want to surround him, take the element of surprise, but our forces cannot get behind his lines. We have improvised, and sent hundreds of men and women as prisoners—” Amrais’s stomach felt sick, but Waylen continued— “Mostly, we have had success. Simple strategy, allow Manori to be captured — and since the ambush earlier this year upon you, BG has deployed dozens of troops each month, so they will believe they are winning a great new crop of soldiers — after their apparent abduction, our men and women are joining forces with the enemy. Now when the battle takes place, they will turn against the enemy, and we will have punctured holes into the entire army.”
“That is fantastic. And horrible.”
Waylen nodded her agreement. “I know. I planned it. They all have paint to apply before war so we do not destroy them in battle.”
Amaris stared at Waylen. “I underestimated you, Waylen.”
“I will not send them where I will not go.”
Amaris felt dizzy. “Please tell me you mean not what I think.”
“Besides the point.” Waylen took a sip of her wine, Amaris could not manage lifting her glass. Her friend was going to turn herself over to the enemy. This is what Amaris had tried to prevent twice, and now Waylen would abandon herself.
“Why did you not tell me this earlier?” Amaris shook her head.
“Do not look sorry for me.” Waylen’s stern eyes were trained on Amaris. “I did not come here to tell you about my challenging position.”
Amaris swallowed and took a great swig of wine. “Alright. What am I to do?”
Waylen sighed. “You are going to have to be very firm in your resolve.”
“Just tell me.”
“This is your choice.”
Amaris cocked her head toward Waylen.
Waylen placed her hand over Amaris’s. “We have established communication with our Manori in the South. We have inquired the most we could without endangering them about how to escort you to the basins, and have come up with only one solution.” Waylen hesitated, and bit her lip. “We are asking you to take the facade of a spy and go to the South in plain sight. We are devising ways to make your stories convincing, and hide your identity.”
“Not the first time.”
Waylen smirked. “I know.”
“Was this your idea?” Amaris could possibly trust her sister. But Waylen shook her head.
“My brother suggested it. I agree with him, though.”
Amaris removed her hand from Waylen’s, and turned away.
“You can think about it. That is why I wanted to tell you before I address your father tomorrow.”
Amaris nodded, still watching the dust on the ground.
“I am sorry we have no alternatives for you.” Waylen walked behind Amaris and squeezed her shoulder before leaving the tent.
Amaris gazed at the ground until her thoughts muddled into haze. She had no decision, and loathed her choice for a second option. Everything in her life would culminate in this gesture, and the wisdom or folly in obeying the Manori suggestion upset her terribly. She might have slept, but did not recall lying down, or dreaming. The night seemed to pass in one continuous question, devoid of answer. Somehow, Amaris found herself sitting across from her father and adjacent to Waylen as her friend unveiled the plan she had spoken to Amaris the night before, with a few details added. Such as a Manori with horse as a second form who would accompany and guide Amaris, protect her if needed, and play part to their scheme. He and Amaris would both receive training, although Waylen mentioned Amaris needing little informing on the enemy in order to blend in.
AF shook his head. “This is too risky. I appreciate your initiative Waylen—”
“This is suggestion of every commander from our army, in addition, Sion wanted you both to know he supports this plan.”
AF nodded with tact, and then continued. “My daughter may not survive down there.”
“With due respect, Amaris has been planning her travel to the basins for decades, has she not?”
“Not in a fashion which exposes her so readily. She must hide.”
Waylen smiled without joviality. “You misunderstand this situation. They are preparing for war. Amaris should have been underway months ago, before everyone in the South began stirring for battle. This is not a suggestion, but a demand from the Manori. We are playing the front lines of this battle, the Alaquendi are supplying the force. Amaris sits between these two armies, because she is the only one providing for both. If Amaris goes alone—” Waylen paused and turned her face so Amaris could not see her expression. “I care for this woman enough to have laid my life down twice already. Her safety keeps me up at night. And I have wracked my brain, searching for a way to slip her past enemy lines. You cannot selfishly deny this solution, because you fear her survival. Amaris must slip out of our hands, or we will fail.”
AF locked eyes with Amaris. “My daughter, I am sorry your life has come to this.”
“Are you planning for me to die?” Amaris pushed back from the table and stood, leaning forward. “I need the Manori’s help, I have the Alaquendi life force. We are out of options, and time is dwindling.” Amaris swallowed, and looked at Waylen, “When do we have to leave?”
Waylen tried to look pleased, but Amaris saw her fight to keep tears at bay. “We leave the same day. Three weeks—”
“Was Sion’s request.” Waylen finished. “I suggested the first of next week.”
Amaris swallowed hard, and nodded. She turned to her father. “Father, give your approval. I do not need it, they do. Keep peace between these armies.”
AF nodded without word.
“Thank you.” Then she looked at Waylen, waiting for orders. Instruction. Something to do now that she had thrown in her lot.
“We return to the Manori camp as soon as your things are ready.”
Amaris lost grip on her words, so she exited the tent. At her tent, she thrust her things into a bag, but they did not fit where they had before. Her hands trembled, and she stuffed them in tighter. A hand settled on her shoulder, and Amaris jumped. Waylen. The woman pointed her head to the bed. Amaris sat and watched Waylen repack the bags with a steady hand. “With your calm, why do you not have the key?”
Waylen shook her head. “What good would I be then? I am a fighter. I draw blood, I do not save it. You are the healer. You mend the kind of damage I intend to inflict.”
“Begging you to come with me would be selfish, or I would ask it.”
Waylen smiled at Amaris. “I knew you would. I want to go with you. It makes too little sense. Only a horse can carry you, a panther would appear frivolous and out of place to the enemy.” She locked eyes with Amaris. “I would be distracted, and our immersion troops would be at a loss without my signals. I suppose we will both have to live to the end of this war, so we can see one another again.”
Amaris had no response, she just watched Waylen. When her friend looked at the half full bottle of wine, next to the empty one, Amaris felt her heart sink. “Had a few rough days?”
“Just a few.”
Pressure seized Amaris instead of relief when she saw her friends at the Manori camp. They all knew why she had come. Knew and expected things. Still, Sion’s embrace eased the suffering a little. But the waiting, sprinkled with whatever training they could think to give Amaris, poisoned her resolve. She met the man who would lead her down. He seemed kind for a shape shifter, and the brown horse he shifted into soothed Amaris enough for her to prepare bidding Nelica farewell. He observed her with vigilance, and soon the wait was through. Sharadin and Amaris would leave on the morrow.