Chapter 12

“Wake up!”
Amaris was rolled back and forth like dough being worked, while she slung into consciousness. She slapped the unseen speaker, and the noise and nauseating movement stopped, but only for a moment.
“Amaris, we need you. Get yourself up.” It was Sion.
Amaris dared to peek into reality, when her eyes focused she remembered the destruction. Ashy gray air penetrated her weakened lungs, sickening her stomach and reminding her of the compressed feeling in her head. Dead soldiers with singed flesh laid around Amaris. She closed her eyes, but could not block out the image of charred faces with half-burned off painful expressions. Any medicinal aid she could offer would be worthless in this refuse. She laid still and watched the smoldering scene. Sion’s hand rested on Amaris’s arm. His voice just a whisper, “I am glad you are sound.” Amaris started nodding, but then turned away and wretched her stomach which felt full of ash. She stopped and blinked the tears from smoke and the force of her vomit. She wiped her mouth and sat turning her face from the mess toward Sion. “Who is left?” Her voice had no emotion.
Sion shook his head. “I have not counted those who survived. I needed to see if you were alive.”
Amaris just nodded.
Sion lowered his voice, and grasped Amaris’s arm, his voice lower than before. “We are not yet safe.”
Amaris’s eyes widened. The dragon, was it still there? She glanced from one destroyed scene to another, until a massive, dark beast obscured her view; it sat right behind her and Sion. It leaned down, and Amaris shied away, planting one hand in her puke as she slid back. The dragon’s head moved closer, and then knocked her onto her back, blocking her from Sion. She heard a smack of steel on something hard. The dragon jerked to the side, and snapped its jaw. “Sion, stop!” Then the dragon’s head swung back to hovering over Amaris. “He will kill us if he wants . . . he already could have.” Amaris narrowed her eyes. The dragon’s large nostrils sniffed Amaris several times, and then exhaled a small, hot breath over her. Amaris closed her eyes and froze. When she heard nothing, she turned her gaze back to the beast above her. He did not move. No. She could not trust her mental fitness after such horror as had just happened, especially not to discern deadly dragons from an odd domesticated hybrid. The thing’s interest in Amaris did not waiver though, so she considered . . . considered what. “I know one dragon,” Amaris whispered. “You cannot be him.” When last she saw the dragon she knew, Emirrol, it still crawled about like an overgrown reptile with blazing red, soft scales and a long, wiry tail. This beast did not resemble her mercenary friend’s little pet in the least. “How would you recognize me?” She asked louder. No answer. If there was such a thing as a dumb dragon, perhaps Amaris had found him.
Amaris heard an arrow’s twain and then a quiet thump. The dragon backed its head and roared. “Emirrol! Please listen—” Amaris froze because the dragon stopped the instant the name left Amaris’s lips. “Do not shoot him.” Adreaga, who walked into view, lowered her bow, looking scared still from the fighting, and the terror now before her. Amaris exhaled and laid still, till the dragon drew close again. Amaris moaned. She lifted her hand and laid it on the massive cheek beyond the monster’s closed mouth. “You are Emirrol, right? Tell me I am not losing my senses. . . or dead.”
“You are not dead, Amaris.” Sion answered.
“If you are Emirrol, move back.” The dragon obeyed, and Amaris stood, and walked toward the body of the large dragon. She touched it’s massive flank.
“Tell me you actually know this dragon?” Sion threw up his hands.
“I might know this dragon.” Just then the dragon swung his head toward Amaris, and now she could see his face, his dark green eyes, and bright red scales. “Thank you.” Amaris looked around, and recognized how much this creature had done to save her and what remained of her company. The dragon — perhaps Emerrol after all — nudged Amaris. “Debt repaid, Emirrol, plenty.” Amaris leaned her cheek against the grown dragon, so strong and intelligent to have distinguish Amaris from such a mass of chaos. The dragon bumped lightly against Amaris’s chest. “Ow!” She touched the spot and realized the broach had gone missing — she threw it! She scurried around, hand over her mouth, holding in vomit as she — and the others after they realized what she was at — searched for the broach. Sion called her name. Amaris looked up, and Sion held the piece of jewelry. Amaris sighed, stood and held out her hand. Sion tossed the broach, and Amaris untied her cape and clipped it back in place.
“Did you call it by a name?” Sion asked.
Amaris walked around the dragon to where Adreaga’s shot had landed. She winced, the arrow stuck, just pinched beneath a scale. “His name’s Emirrol. I think.” Before telling Emirrol to stay still. She climbed up the scaly leg, but then was tipped off when the dragon figured out her purpose. Amaris sat on her bottom, and looked up. “Fine. Keep it there.” But Emirrol laid on his arm and rolled back a little, and Amaris could reach the arrow with ease. She sat one hand on his back, and with the other she pulled loose the arrow, and then patted him. She tossed Adreaga’s arrow toward the girl.
“Sorry, Amaris.” Adreaga said.
“Forget it. You had no idea it was safe.” Amaris rubbed her head. “I would be frustrated if you did not react,” she finished under her breath.
“I would not have.” Sion sounded displeased.
Amaris nodded, and looked at Sion. Scraps made up the last bits of shirt clinging to burnt flesh.“Oh, no, your shoulder . . .” and his back, and arm. She walked behind him, but he turned so she could not see the damage. “Sion, please, you can trust me with healing matters.”
“Of that I am sure. But not now.” He sounded more serious than Amaris could understand.
“Where are they?” Amaris could not blame smoke for her watery eyes now.
“I think they have her.”
“Which one?” Amaris panicked, unsure who to worry for more.
“Illuma.”
Amaris bit her lip until the pain detracted from the tears she held in. “What about Waylen?”
Sion looked frustrated. “I know nothing of Waylen’s condition.”
Amaris already knew Illuma’s fate had slipped out of her reach. But Waylen . . . Amaris saw Briair standing near Adreaga, no others endangered, and Waylen had the greatest strength of the company. “Maybe she passed out from smoke.” Amaris started walking around, eyes on the ground where body after body lay damaged from blade or flame.
“Doubtful.” Sion said as he began searching the ground, and Adreaga and Briair joined him. Amaris wanted Waylen back, but not among the dead, and if her friend had been captured because of Amaris’s foolish attack . . . no, anything but that. She flipped over corpses, half-hoping, and dreading Waylen could be lying beneath one such victim, and yet —
“Amaris.”
Amaris turned to answer the call. Briair stood with his arm around his sister. Adreaga’s hand covered her mouth, eyes staring down, near losing her breath from shock of whatever held her gaze. Amaris rushed to the two siblings, stumbling as she ran, but Sion reached them first; even though he seemed more concerned than she about whose body was stepped on. Then Amaris saw Waylen, lying on the ground, face down. Adreaga grew pale, and Amaris told Briair to remove her. Amaris stood and stared for a moment, fearing what she would discover when she touched Waylen. Amaris knelt down and set her hand on Waylen’s back, pinching her eyes shut against the impending despair. “Please, no.” When Waylen’s back rose and fell the slightest bit, Amaris breathed again, but only until she slid her hand across her friend’s back. She gasped, and her mind lagged.
“Amaris, is she alright?”
Amaris could not answer. She raised her right hand from Waylen’s shoulder, soaked in blood.
“What do we do?” Sion asked, sounding as panicked as Adreaga.
Amaris pulled off her satchel, so tight it had stayed through the fighting, and slung it at Sion. “Bandages, get all of them.” Amaris pressed her hand against the gash and slid her other beneath Waylen and then squeezed the shoulder between. Amaris’s hands filled with blood, and she fought going numb, realizing a blade had pierced all the way through. So much blood had already drained. Amaris pushed Waylen onto her sound shoulder and pressed hard against both gashes, hoping the fluids would flow back to Waylen’s heart, but Amaris saw the red stain on the grass which began soaking into the knee of her skirt, and feared Waylen might be a casualty already. Sion held out the bandages, but Amaris shook her head. It would do nothing for this mess. “Get over here,” Amaris instructed. Sion obeyed. “I need you to hold her . . .” Amaris let go a second before Sion had his strong hands clamping Waylen from either side. Amaris started rummaging through her medical supplies, and ended up dumping the whole bag.
Amaris tore a knife through Waylen’s sleeve and tried to undo the cape, but Waylen wore her sword on her back, and it fit through a slit in the cape. Amaris struggled with the aparatas, but managed to release it, and then spilled water over Sion’s hands and the wound. Clean enough. If only she could see a little better, but the blood spilled too fast to keep up with. She yanked a cork, almost smacking it into her face with the force, from a brown vile and moved Sion’s hands one at a time and poured liquid sap onto Waylen’s shoulder, soaking Sion’s hands and Waylen’s dress. If Waylen survived the next hour, the medicine might be the only thing between her and a death sentence. Amaris willed her hands to stop shaking, while she threaded a needle, and then pushed and pulled the thick, black thread through Waylen’s skin. She laced up Waylen’s flesh as much as possible, stitching more than the normal amount to compensate for the red liquid now covering her own hands. She wiped her fingers on her skirt repeatedly and started on Waylen’s back. She finished soon, but scorned herself for not moving faster.
She scooted back to see Waylen better. The maroon stain had spread over Waylen’s chest and back and splattered onto Sion who still had the woman’s wound smashed between his hands. “This might be over.” Amaris covered her eyes with the back of her palm, and blocked out the scene.
“Amaris. You need to pay attention. I do not know what to do.” Sion said.
Amaris removed her hands, revealing the tears riding down her cheeks. She scooted closer to Waylen and shifted the woman’s weight from Sioin to herself. Waylen’s dark hair laid across her face, and every limb lay limp. Amaris touched Waylen’s cheek, still warm. “Get me the bandages.”
When the wound had been wrapped tight, and the injured propped up on packs and blankets, Amaris washed some of the blood from Waylen. She had sticks piled beside Waylen, and made Emirrol understand he should start a fire. She scrubbed her hands of the scarlet that stained every crease in her skin; the ruby color even found its way beneath her finger nails. Amaris dried her half clean hands and then watched Waylen. A grey pallor dulled Waylen’s dark skin. Shallow breaths gave no movement to the fallen woman whose, eyes, closed and serene, unnerved Amaris. Amaris moved the black hair off Waylen’s face. Amaris’s hand trembled before she laid it on the cold cheek. Sion’s hand gripped Amaris’s shoulder.
“Now what do we do?”
Amaris shook her head.
“Amaris, what do we do?”
She sighed. He sounded as anxious as a child. “Nothing. We cannot do anything more for her.”
Sion’s fingers uncurled from Amaris’s arm. Amaris leaned over and kissed Waylen’s cheek, then whispered an apology. Sion dragged the dead soldiers away from the wounded victim, and then watched over the fire. And Amaris, exhausted, laid beside Waylen, praying she might make it to the dawn. But before she let herself rest, Amaris realized she had not seen to any other but Waylen, and now Sion stared at her from behind the small fire Emirrol had lit. She sighed and sat up. She gestured for Sion to come near, but he shook his head. Then she demanded such, and he listened. She picked though the contents of her satchel she left strewn about.
“What?” Sion had his arms crossed.
“Sit down.”
Sion squatted instead.
“Just listen.”
Sion obeyed without emotion.
“Turn around and let me see what’s become of your back.”
“Amaris, I will be fine, but thank you.”
Amaris grabbed the man’s sleeve before he could escape. She could not very well leave Waylen. “Please, give me permission to help make amends where I can.”
“I doubt you can amend what you have done this time.”
Amaris turned her eyes to the ground before glaring. “Just, come here. What else am I going to accomplish for us right now?” Amaris swept her hand across the small plot of dead bodies where her company had done their best to make camp.
Sion said nothing, but removed his jacket and pulled off his shirt — what remained of it after Emirrol’s flame had burnt holes around Sion’s shoulder — and sat in front of Amaris with his back to her. Amaris examined the burned flesh and sifted through a mental list of medicinal aides she had on hand. She made an ointment from yellow pollen and oil, limiting her use so she could ration the supplies which had begun to dwindle. She had applied more medicines in two hours than all the rest of their trip to the present.
“If you put anything on me that Waylen needs, I will not forgive your kindness.” Sion protested as Amaris opened the vial of medicine she had just closed from treating Waylen.
“These are just to ease the burn.”
“She will need your help managing the pain.”
“I am uncertain if she will ever wake to want these medicines.”
“We cannot afford your speaking like that, Amaris. Do you understand me.”
“Scolding me does nothing.”
“If you lack confidence you cannot treat her.” Sion glanced over his shoulder.
“I only need skill, not hope, which for some is a luxury already over used. I want her to live, Sion, much more than you do. I cannot lose her.” Amaris clamped her jaw to slow emotion, “but I should not harbor the idea of my being able to keep a hold of her. I could die inside, fail completely, and then,” Amaris’s voice grew almost too quiet to hear, “her death would have purchased nothing worth saving.” Amaris pulled the cork from the vile of sap, most of which she had poured onto Waylen’s injuries. She poured a small dosage onto the cloth Sion’s skin had dirtied with puss while she cleaned his back — she would have to beg someone to wash her used rags, nothing clean remained— and smoothed it over the burned surface covering near half Sion’s torso. Only seconds after application, Sion twisted his back away from Amaris; most people reacted such to the medicine they needed most. Amaris had long since developed a sturdy constitution against pain she inflicted to bring healing. She would have informed Sion of how much improved he would be from the sap, but he would then call her out on her word given to only use what Waylen did not need. She corked the vile and placed it behind herself before Sion could see.
“Are you finished?” Sion asked.
“I am through.”
Sion picked up his shirt and started working it back over his wound. “Am I supposed to thank you for that?”
“Later, if ever. I never expect gratitude from my medicinal help. I know it creates great pain, but it is necessary. Trust me.”
Sion nodded to Amaris. “Thank you then.”

Amaris’s stiff joints made movement difficult. She slid out from under the blanket and sat on her knees. Under the light of dawn Waylen seemed sicker still. Amaris hoped her condition would better with the sunlight. She held her breath and set her hand on Waylen’s chilled cheek; a little warmth remained. She held her breath and slid her fingers to Waylen’s neck to feel for real signs of life. Amaris exhaled; Waylen’s heart beat on, for now. She pulled the blanket up to Waylen’s chin. Waylen seemed warm, but not feverish, and she remained so for two days before Amaris decided to redress the wound, and see if she might do anything else.
Amaris bit her lip and deliberated between the two small jars in her hands, the vile from the previous night, and a different medicine. She peered over her options at Waylen; Amaris doubted either choice would bring much benefit. She set down the new medicine and went with repetition, which felt foolish. But Amairs would risk it. Amaris set up her supplies according to need, and then made herself take a deep breath. Her hands seemed steady, so she began peeling back the white and splotchy red strips covering Waylen. Each unravel uncovered thicker layers of blood. Were the stitches making any difference? The closer Amaris’s hands came to Waylen’s actual skin, the more warmth she felt. The last bandage fell on the linen Amaris had spread beneath the gashed shoulder. Black, thick threads mingled with both congealed and running scarlet puddles on the swollen skin. Amaris picked up her cleaned rag, thanks to Sion, and dabbed a glob of sap onto its surface. Amaris smeared the medicinal ointment across Waylen’s injury. She lifted her hand, leaving a sheen over the injury. Waylen’s arms twitched. Amaris scrunched her eyes and watched, but no movement followed. Amaris poured more medicine onto her rag and let it rest on the wound, but she removed her hand when Waylen started jerking.
Waylen jolted into her black panther form and began a roar cut short by a rapid relapse into human. “Waylen, stop!” Amaris screamed.Waylen cried out and squeezed her own arm until the skin around her fingers turned white. Tears slid down her face, as she braced against the pain, arching her back away from the earth. Amaris pushed Waylen down. “Waylen, listen to me. You’ll tear out the stitches. Lie still!” Waylen’s back slammed on the ground, smashing Amaris’s hand which stopped the injury from hitting. Waylen looked at Amaris, and managed a small nod, and then her eyes rolled back into her head before closing. “No!”
Blood seeped out from under Waylen’s right arm. The top stitches were visibly damaged. Amaris did a quick pack of sap on Waylen’s cuts, then turned her efforts to tourniquet the bleeding with tight bandages. She pushed Waylen onto her other shoulder to drain the blood toward her heart. Waylen’s reflexes undid the little Amaris had done to help.
“At we know she can react.”
Amaris glared at Sion. “She better not do it again.” Amaris put gentle pressure on Waylen’s two wounds, hoping she would neither bleed out or wake up again.

The sun heated Amaris like an oven, but she tried to ignore its rising higher, arching over her like a predator over its helpless prey. Since Waylen’s quick reaction to Lunamaya sap, only small noises or movements eeked out, and those winces, flinches, or twitches were not regular. Most of the time was filled with hard to notice breathing and motionless moments that kept Amaris holding her breath. Amaris vaguely registered Sion’s attempt at coaxing her to eat. He set a plate beside her. She nibbled a couple bites, and turned back to Waylen, buried under threatening wounds. When a large shadow fell over her and Waylen, blocking the sun, Amaris didn’t question the source. She craned her neck and saw a massive scarlet form covered in scales and decorated at the top with metallic spikes. Amaris turned back to Waylen and slid her thumb back and forth over her cheek.
Amaris almost fell atop Waylen as the ground jolted. She grabbed the ground and waited for the pounding to stop. When the tremor subsided, Amaris yanked her head around and screamed. What a heartless gesture, bringing pain to a dying woman. A red foot slammed the ground in reply.
“Don’t you see I am losing her? How can you act like that!? My friend could die before I turn around, and you want to make a racket?” Then she mumbled. “You are not a child anymore.” Hot breath swept her skin; she could feel the dragon near her. He lifted her arm with his snout. Amaris didn’t know why, but she clung to the beast. Her shaky hands almost slipped from the horns, and then the dragon lowered his head while Amaris’s tears turned to steam on Emirrol’s hot scales. Amaris’s body shuttered and her arms grew numb from the hands down. She lost her hold on the horns, but the dragon laid down his head, and on it she rested. Her eyes shut to the travesty behind her back. Why watch Waylen die? Her face tingled from crying and her breaths eased in the lengthening distance between sobs. “Thank you.”
She rested for some time, her heartbeat eased into rhythm with Emirro’s breathing. When Emirrol left — not from camp, but from Amaris — the latter felt more at ease. She neglected her physical need for nourishment, and sat emotionless in the middle of the deteriorating battle field.
Sion took a seat beside Amaris. “How do you know the dragon?”
“Emirrol.”
“Right.”
Amaris felt Sion’s eyes on her. “What?”
“I thought I had started to understand you, but . . .” He lowered his voice, “a dragon?”
“I am so sorry you do not understand me. Perhaps if you had perceived my demons sooner, you would have left me in that shack in the woods.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Sion sat next to Amaris.
Amaris huffed and scanned the carnage around her, “this is what happens when I am around.”
“I think that dragon would have blown these people to ashes regardless. Your being with us is the only reason he stopped.”
“Not true, Sion.”
“How?”
“I . . .” Amaris rolled her eyes. “Fine. I will let you have that one.” That should please. “I had not planned to see him again.”
“You did something for him, I know it. He acts like you are bosom friends.”
Amaris huffed. A little fire lizard running around a room at an in, that is what Amaris remembered. The last she had been with Emirrrol, he had been draped about his owner’s neck, an over sized pet of sorts. “Just a favor he does not remember. He will recall my traveling with his mother, that is all.”
Sion’s eyes widened. “You know more dragons, do you?”
“Oh, no. He was adopted by an unworthy friend, but she did good by him.”
“He is domesticated?”
Amaris shrugged. “There is a reason we are not all dead. Years ago he was being peddled, a caged infant. This woman . . .” Amaris considered her words, “stole him, and I, in my unwise, youthful thinking, fought off opposition so she could flee.”
“Is that a joke?”
Amaris did not have a disposition for making fun right now.
“You are serious, then?”
“Absolutely.” Amaris smiled, thinking of her stupid blunders decades ago. “And then the pirate, your father, and I, plus a couple lesser known companions, trooped around together on a great and simple scheme which secured each of us enough financial means to go our own ways.”
Sion’s jaw dropped.
“Do not wear that stupid expression. It is all true, and I do not care if you believe me.”
Sion patted Amaris’s hand, “I believe you.” He still looked shocked.
Amaris shrugged. It was all over now anyway. Amaris’s companions dwindled daily; with luck, she would soon follow. Sion left Amaris alone after that, and she slept.

Chapter 11

Amaris slept. Three nights consistently she rested, and her thoughts remained clear during the day. She began resembling her sane self again. She had so much sleep that she woke before the others. In the still morning, misty and gray shielded from sunlight, she sat and listened. Quiet.
“I am glad to see you rested.”
Amaris startled.
“I apologize,” Waylen whispered. A shimmer came from Waylen’s hand amid the dim light of morning rising from dawn. Amaris scrunched her eyes. Waylen uncurled her fingers, and Amaris’s stone lay in her palm. Unclothed from the silver-metal encasement in which Amaris kept the heirloom, Waylen held the stone naked in her hand. Amaris had not laid eyes on the gem without the metalwork for months . . . no years. She held out her hand to Waylen who let the stone slip off her palm and onto Amaris’s. She closed her eyes and inhaled the crisp air before watching the light show between her fingers. Blue and red danced around purple with shoots of maize. It romanced her, flooding her heart that had been stripped clean for three days, filling her now with energy.
“I never understand this thing.” Amaris said to herself.
“Nor I,” Waylen waited for Amaris’s attention and then tossed her the silver encasement. “Have it back.”
Amaris narrowed her gaze on Waylen crossed her arms and walked away. Amaris huffed. How could the stone frustrate her friend? She fingered the smoothness of the stone until the twins began rousing, at which point she secured the stone in its case and clipped it to the inside of her bodice.

That day they exited Waylen’s hunting ground, leaving the overgrowth behind, and headed through thinner forest toward the main, well-traveled road. Amaris expected to see the pounded down earth, dirt covered path soon, but it was almost night when Waylen called a halt.
“I guide you only this far.” Waylen said. “Tomorrow morning we will be on the road, and more than a few of you, I hope, know where it leads.”
“Then you are leaving?” Sion asked, his voice rising in expectation. Amaris’s heart leapt to her throat.
“Try not to flatter yourself, Sion,” Waylen answered. “I told Amaris I would go with her. Do you think I meant to abandon her as soon as the woods thinned?” Waylen smiled with satisfaction. “What good would that achieve?”
The following day proved long and boring. Dirt and dust made its unwelcome entrance as the company made their way onto the road. Thinner forest, brighter sunlight, and lighter colors did not bless Amaris as she had hoped. She felt hot, weary, and through with horseback riding. Sion appeared groggy, the twins hardly spoke to each other, and Illuma seemed removed. Waylen had long since quited the party to scout ahead. Amaris patted Fleecel and urged her to keep moving, when Waylen’s black feline form rushed toward the quiet procession. Fleecel snorted and back stepped. Amaris tried to quiet her horse and looked at Waylen, ready to hush her before the white horse dumped Amaris, but she did not speak. Waylen stood in her right form, panting and trying to slip words through her breathless state.
“Amaris,” she had to take three deep breaths before continuing, “there is a unit ahead of us.”
Amaris gripped Fleecel’s main and peered above the other riders, but she saw only the empty road. “Where?” She whispered.
Waylen put her hand up and cocked her head. Sion started protesting, but Waylen shushed him, and Sion’s jaw dropped. Waylen glared at Amaris . . . no, to something behind her. Amaris turned in her seat, but the road was quiet. It had been quiet all day. “You are all deaf,” Waylen spat out. “Listen,” she paused, and everyone grew quiet, and Fleecel’s counting grew louder. “I hear them behind us.”
Amaris shook her head, “then get us out of here. Where are they not?’
“South. Off the road, all of you.”
Horse hooves scratched the ground and dirt kicked up a small cloud as the horses turned abreast into the forest. Waylen cursed under her breath, telling them to keep quiet. A whizzing noise caught Amaris’s attention, and she looked back, catching the end of Waylen’s shift as she jumped aside. She still did not see any reason to flee, but the sound unnerved her. “Come on Waylen, with us.” Amaris halted Fleecel. Then the sound came again, and an arrow stuck in the ground near Waylen. Waylen rushed Amaris and smacked Fleecel. The horse jerked into a run, and Amaris gripped the main. The other horses flew alongside her. She hoped Waylen was dodging hooves well. After several minutes of flight, Amaris started looking for Waylen; she owed the woman more than thanks this time. When she couldn’t locate the black cat, she pulled Fleecel’s main several times until the mare stopped. Amaris panted while the others shouted at her, yanking their horses to a halt. Fleecel turned herself in circles as Sion’t horse, and then that of the twins stopped, Adreaga just avoiding a collision with Briair. Amaris panicked, and then black fur raced into view. She exhaled as Waylen materialized from the panther form. She braced her hands on her knees.
“Are you alright?” Sion asked, starting to dismount.
“Stay on your horse!” Waylen took a deep breath, “and keep moving.”
Amaris nodded, and looked at the others for a moment before continuing, but stopped herself. “Illuma,” her heart beat fast and she looked back through the woods.
“I am sorry.” Waylen panted. “I am so sorry.” No one spoke, until Waylen talked again. “They have her now.”
“Wait,is she alive?”
“When I left . . . but her position was already beyond me.”
Amaris nodded, considering how protective her remaining companions were of her survival. She locked eyes with Waylen. “We have to go,” Waylen pleaded.
“I know.” Amaris nodded again, this time with more vigor. She leaned closer to Fleecel, and asked the creature to stop, and then apologized quietly. She stroked the mare’s neck. Then looked at Waylen, and then Sion. “Forgive me.” She ignored his confusion, and kicked her heels into Fleecel’s sides, toward the road from which they had fled.
Amaris closed her eyes, and then forced them open to face whatever force she headed to attack, with one unicorn horn and a sword. The distance seemed twice the space to cover in returning than in escape. A clamor rose before her, and the sound of hooves behind her. Then she saw the road, and rushed onto the black and brown muddle of swords and knives. At least thirty, and somewhere inside this crowd Illuma struggled to survive. Fleecel gored a man and tossed him aside, and Amaris cut down another. A loud feline scowl startled Amaris, until she saw Waylen diving in amongst the enemy. Amaris ached to see the collision of her friends and enemies, but searched the crowd for Illuma. Like a slow disease, people fell, but she could not see Illuma inside the vast mass of bodies and blades, nor could she remove her eyes long enough from the mayhem to search her out. Amaris’s arm grew weary, and her sword heavy with blood. She recognized Sion well enough on foot for her to ward off any blows near him, but took his being unseated as a warning.
Waylen had been engulfed in the mass, and Adreaga and Briair . . . perhaps they had not followed. Amaris and Sion no longer fought on the outskirts of the group, men and women slashed at them from all sides. Occasional taunts caught Amaris’s attention, offers for life in exchange for surrender. Promises of protection, as they jabbed at her horse. Amaris became more confused as those she killed dangled a dark partnership in front of her. Meanwhile, soldiers had separated her from Sion. She tried to fight through to him, lest he fall as Amaris felt sure Illuma had already done. The distance grew instead of shrank. Amaris realized her only chance for survival, escape of any kind, was closing fast. Fleecel would not be able to direct herself through the mess to open ground; if the mare lasted long enough to do such. Amaris, and the broach she wore inside her bodice, should not have been subjected to the foolish risk.
She pushed in, rather than out, of the battle. She tried nearing Sion, but still failed. Then a hiss screeched over the battle, too loud for an arrow, then a deep throated groan shook Amaris’s insides. Flames licked across the population of soldiers, chasing them like a serpent. They dove and scurried, but the fiery assault followed again, and then a third time. Amaris started searching the sky for a dragon, but it revealed itself in moments, surveying the charred bodies screaming in flight. It picked them off, first destroying those who fled. The foul thing swooped low, and came near scraping it’s weathered yellow belly on Fleecel’s horn. Amaris leaned close to the horse, but as soon as the dragon lifted away from her, the mare reared. Amaris tried to grip Fleecel’s main, and tightened the the hold her legs had, but she slid backward from her mount. Amaris gasped as the air went out of her, while Fleecel galloped from the scene. An unfortunate man stripped over Amaris and received a knife in the back. When Amaris stood, she realized not everyone had run.
A fresh opponent followed every small victory, it was like fighting against a brick wall. Without Fleecel, Amaris struggled. She forced her way through small gaps and used kicks as much as her blade. She turned and smashed her sword into another, and froze. Sion. They turned backs against each other, and Amaris learned fast that Sion had a good fight. The sensational screams preceding death or following injury deafened her senses, though, and she her hearing started numbing, more each time the dragon passed. The assailants disappeared, and Amaris’s sword tip drooped from exhaustion. How had she escaped? And she could still feel Sion behind her, and glanced to confirm. He stared back at her.
Amaris saw a red flicker in Sion’s eyes, and a hot blast, warm enough to feel through her own sweat, staggered Amaris from behind. She turned and saw flames pouring through the corpses, and froze. She gripped her sword tighter as a few soldiers ran past instead of at her. Her eyes widened. The screams grew louder, and Amaris thought she heard her name, but it blurred. Someone thrust into her from behind, and knocked her blade. The person smashed her into the ground after she had fallen, covering her entire body.
“Stay down!” Sion screamed into her ear.
Amaris pulled her arms over her head and pressed her face into the ground. Sion pressed harder on top of Amaris. Then she heard him stifle cries of pain and imagined his body in flames on top of hers. No! Amaris could not manage the thought or responsibility for Sion’s charred body. She pushed up against the ground, but Sion thrust her down again. “Sion, you’ll die!” She screeched. He had to listen. She could help if he would get off her back.
Amaris felt a weight fall on her shoulder, she thought it was Sion’s head. She threw him off her back, and saw the flames, as tall as standing men surrounded her. She screamed, but in anger, as if by her shrill cries the fire would recede. Then Amaris saw the orange-red blaze peeling bits of black clothing from Sion, and the hood he had managed to pull over his head. She slapped hard at the small blaze on his back, and then pulled the coat off him, rolling him over and stamping out cinders. He had burns, but he would live. She ducked as the black shadow flickered over head, then again, and again. When the beast landed, Amaris laid over Sion, protecting her unconscious friend, probably all she had left of the company from that morning.
The dragon looked straight at her, and Amaris shouted at it. She stood and cursed the wicked thing, threatening empty words against the giant demon. With eyes unmoving from Amaris, his prey, the dragon swooped its tail above it’s head and slammed it into the flames. He did this repeatedly until Amaris only screamed in return. She burried her face into Sion’s back as the ground shook and her body trembled. Stomping, pounding, and slamming continued for minutes until the throbbing inside Amaris thrummed so hard she did not notice when the thrashing of the ground had finished. Then, when her body stopped shaking, she noticed silence.
Amaris lifted her head. The dragon stared. Why had it not blasted her? Dragons needed to eat, and Amaris was game, fair or not. It watched the two weak beings lying helpless on the ground; all other soldiers had gone, and the flames around Amaris had burned out, but the ground under them still had grass to be eaten up. Why had the fire stopped? The dragon’s tail. His infernal thumping and swatting must have extinguished the blaze. Amaris focused on the giant creature. Dark maroon scales shielded the muscled form towering above her. Amaris saw burned bodies littering the ground and wondered how many of her company were among them, or if they had managed to flee. She could not move to search them out, the smoke suffocated her, and she stayed slumped over Sion, still looking at the dragon. Large eyes, dark like water at night, but with a glint of light reflecting from inside. They were green. Amaris lost sight and her head fell.
A moment later, a rough, bark-like force pried her from Sion. She grabbed it, slitting her eyes enough to make out the dragon’s nostrils as they rolled her from Sion. Amaris clawed the ground, trying to move back to her companion. The dragon leaned over Amaris. She did not move. She had no defense against his force. She pried the broach from beneath her bodice and threw it aside. Now it could have her. The beast kept its mouth closed, though. “Do what you will, but stop playing with me,” Amaris said between her teeth. The dragon yanked its head back and jerked it to the side before leaning over Amaris again. It just stared at her. Why her, because she yelled at it? If it cared, it should eat her, not watch her possibly regain strength amid the diminishing smoke. There was no reason this thing did not — “Emirrol?” The dragon’s reaction to Amaris’s strange remark shocked her. His head jerked up and then lowered toward Amaris. “No, I do not believe this is you.” The large green eyes seemed unfamiliar. Amaris broke into a coughing fit, and wheezed herself to sleep.

Chapter 10

Amaris suffered a night of dripping rain which woke her every time she nodded off. The dark wore off the same time as the rain, and Amaris slept at dawn. She might have allowed herself to sleep longer, but she rolled over and saw Waylen hugging her knees backed up against a tree. She stared, wide eyed, yet still half-conscious.
“Good morning.” Waylen spoke in a quiet tone.
Amaris smiled. “So it was not a dream.”
“Unfortunately not.” Waylen smirked.
“Grow some grace for yourself.” Amaris pushed off her blanket, and then realized she had not brought it from camp. “Thank you for the blanket,” Amaris rolled it and put it aside. Waylen nodded.
The light afforded Amaris her first real opportunity to see Waylen after over a decade’s absence. Waylen sat with ease, but held her legs with the strong arms Amaris had felt the night before, her entire build seemed to have grown in stock. Black hair settled past her shoulders where brunette had laid before. Her chocolate colored skin, darkened several shades with time and perhaps sun, made Waylen’s hazel eyes more piercing then before.
Waylen stared at her.
“You know I could not see last night?”
“Oh,” Waylen smiled. “You mean you could not see me.”
Amaris nodded. “You changed.”
“It happens. Did you expect me to stay a young woman forever.”
“Maybe I did.”
Waylen shrugged. “Sorry, I had no control over this lot. You,” Waylen continued, “I thought would look different. You look exactly the same. Each feature unchanged, your demeanor unaltered, and, from what I can tell, even your character has stayed steady.”
Amaris hoped her character had not changed. The woman who took in a stray person and made her a sister, that is who Waylen remembered. “It is in my blood, I cannot help it.”
“There is nothing wrong with that, Amaris.” She smirked, “I just expected some change.”
“Expected?” Had Waylen planned to see Amaris again. After the gravity of their separation, Amaris was delighted enough to find Waylen had not been killed.
“I always wanted to see you again, is all. Not that I sought you out. I mean, for a while I did. When someone pointed out how foolish it was to ask for you by name, too dangerous for you, I decided to stop and go on my way.”
“Where is your way?”
“Was.” Waylen corrected. Then she shook her head. “You really want would rather stay ignorant about that, believe me.”
“Things went that bad?”
“I told you, you do not want to know.”
Amaris nodded. A subtle ache settled in Amaris’s gut about Waylen. Not fear, but sadness about great pains she had lived through, of which Amaris may never understand, or even be told.
“You will have to let go of your curiosity.” Waylen said.
“I care, but I will not press your boundaries.”
“You have no right to know,” Waylen studied Amaris a moment. “But I am not sure I mind if you understand me better. Details can be left alone, for my sake.” Waylen sat quiet for a minute longer, Waylen seemed able to expend great lengths of patience. “Stop looking sad for me. What happened is done.”
Done indeed.

Entering camp caused all the upheaval expected. Sion at once requested a private conversation with Amaris. She decided she could not put it off forever, but hastened through proper introductions first. Illuma and Waylen both acted more than civil; at least a couple people had some semblance of maturity. While Adreaga and Briair had one more person to hate; perhaps Amaris could have found a way to leave those two behind.

Following Sion out into what would be the heart of the forest at his going rate made Amaris remember the gouge in her calf. “Far enough, Sion.”
“She can hear too well,” Sion turned around to look at Amaris. “That is why she is so damn quiet unless she yells.” He kept on walking for several minutes before stating his case. “Is this is your decision, then, to risk us all, putting your life on the line for an old friendship?” Amaris listened, and calmed Sion the best she could, but it took all of Amaris’s self-control to not yell at the remainder of the company when she returned. To leave, fast. Everyone had said more than their fair share in the last ten hours, and Amaris was tired of listening. After a few minutes of doddling, Amaris barked at the company.
“Come on, I am not waiting all day.”
“Relax,” Briair said under his breath. “I will get my horse. Forget about breakfast,” he mumbled.
Amaris rolled her eyes and waited. “Eat Adreaga’s jerky.” The girl had it out whenever she did not want to interact with others during meal time, said something about her not wanting to be a burden. Right. Amaris just knew to give the girl space, perhaps Sion was right about her, and Briair. She shook her head. If she thought for one more moment, Amaris would send everyone away except Waylen, and the two would attack the basins alone.
After the others were ready, Amaris loosened the slip not on her makeshift bridle, a reminder to Fleecel to not wander in the forest, the horse could leave if she set her mind to it. Amaris tilted her head in a gesture for Waylen to join her. The woman walked closer. “You will ride with me today, if that is alright with you.”
Waylen seemed amused. “I do not need—”
“Please, not today.”
Waylen bit her lower lip. “Alright. Today, I will humor you,” then she leaned in. “Tomorrow, I travel my way.”
How did she plan on getting along? “Waylen, we cannot be slow.”
Waylen huffed. “I can outrun any horse in the trees,” Waylen put up her hand, “tomorrow. No arguing with you today.”
Was Waylen planning on disagreeing often?
Waylen nodded. She walked to Fleecel’s head and went to pet her; better idea, meet the horse first. Fleecel, though, stepped back. “Relax,” Waylen said in a quiet voice. Waylen made calm noises and offered her hand to be smelled. Fleecel sniffed Waylen hand and then walked briskly into the middle of camp. “You smell odder than me.” Waylen said under her breath. Amaris tugged on the horse’s main, and with some effort, pulled her back around. Waylen reached out her hand to stroke Fleecel’s neck, but the white unicorn back stepped further this time. “Stupid horse,” Waylen turned around and tossed her head.
“She will get used to you.” Amaris insisted, struggling for control over Fleecel.
“I do not care if she does.”
Fleecel started walking circles in agitation, and Adreaga had to dodge her once.
“Why bother, Amaris, I can—”
“Stop it.” Amaris sounded the same talking to Waylen as she did trying to command and coax Fleecel. “Sorry,” she looked at Waylen.
Waylen stood, arms crossed, waiting for Amaris to calm Fleecel. The others also watched, amused or disgruntled. With no small effort Fleecel consented to the second rider.
Sion managed to catch Amaris’s gaze. “Trying to make the wrong things work.” He kicked his horse and set off.
Amaris, embarrassed, fell in behind all the other riders, even gesturing Illuma to go in front of her. Waylen’s hands clung to Amaris, and loosened after the first quarter mile, when everyone had run their horses long enough to let their own fumes fly, and began walking the poor beasts.
“What is that about?” Waylen asked as she relaxed, but not completely. Amaris’s back would be sore from her friend’s riding presence.
“A show of authority, I think.” Amaris paused, “or a lack thereof.”
“Hmm.”

Amaris rubbed her forehead while Waylen unloaded on Sion. Usually Waylen did an excellent job controlling her emotions around Sion. She smiled more often than Amaris did, and ignored Sion’s constant distasteful remarks about her. Even now, Waylen hushed her screams at Sion. Amaris obeyed Waylen’s request to let them alone to deal with their differences of opinion between themselves. Amaris wished she could cram something into her ears to help with her pretending her two most important allies were not ripping into each other, again. If Waylen growled at Sion, even Illuma would have to step in to disperse the fight before someone was hurt. Everyday Amaris lost more confidence in Waylen’s promise to leave Sion without injuries.
Twelve days of Waylen in their company, and Sion still was not backing down. Travel during the day was Amaris’s only hope of escape from the tension when everyone had to be together. Waylen, masked in her intimidating panther form, either walked beside the horses, or else ran ahead —more often than not— and met up with them a few times each day, finally settling at camp. Adreaga said little, if anything at all, but her brother was getting sarcastic; taking after the two loudest people he spent time around. Illuma grew more quiet and observant.

Amaris tried to forget about the others when they rode. Everyone had at least a horse’ length of space to them self, and little bickering could take place. Besides, Waylen could not even speak to Sion when they traveled —for the most part, on occasion she would resume her normal form to speak with Amaris about something— panthers and humans did not communicate well. Today, Waylen stayed close to the others. Perhaps she felt bad for having over-irritated Amaris when she lost control the last evening. Whatever the reason, the black panther walked beside Fleecel. The pace was painfully slow, but there seemed no other option, the trees were too close for anything else, because Waylen, having claim to spacial knowledge far beyond the others, had been given permission to direct the entire company off the road. She said as little as possible to communicate the way forward to the others, but to Amaris she gave distinct instructions. At times the overgrowth seemed too thick to get through, but it lasted only for short times. The greenery confounded Amaris after passing through dying plains and failing crops, and she knew the highland’s cold could chill a winter fox Everything in the landscape seemed dead, but this forest had enough healthy trees that the company had to wade through them like weed in a pond.
Once, Amaris broached the subject with Waylen, who smiled and explained her thoughts on the matter. The trees were too much to conquer. They each stood with the strength of several Alaquendi’s life force. BG would need an entirely separate cage for each of the major forests. The world will not fall without a fight. The forests represented the world’s best defense. Amaris smiled at Waylen’s childlike excitement as she explained her hypothesis. Waylen had much pride in the forest from which she had once fled. Amaris wondered often where Waylen lived when not hunting, but never managed the courage to ask. Perhaps she feared the truth would spoil her curiosity, because she knew there were places in the forest from which Waylen was banned under pain of death. And yet she loved the land.
Now, Waylen wove silent through the trees in front of Amaris who had the day’s lead position. Fleecel, despite her disliking Waylen smell, had learned to follow the black creature through the forest where she would otherwise be forced to wander in confusion. All the horses had had to grow accustomed to the predator in their midst. Amaris thought Waylen spent large amounts of time with the horses without telling the others so the other creatures would not fear her. Although, Waylen seemed to harbor an equal disliking to them, so maybe not. Fleecel was smart enough to have connected Waylen’s two forms to one being, Amaris did not know if the other horses had ever figured it out. The trees thinned, and Amaris eased her hold of Fleecel’s main, letting the white hair slip from her fingers.
Amaris grew bored watching the panther’s quiet steps in front of her. Waylen teetered on being too quiet. She seldom made accidental noise in her human state, but when she had four paws each step absorbed any disturbance. Sometimes Amaris could not bring herself to recognize a single sound coming from her friend. No wonder Waylen had slipped into camp —accidental as it may have been— without a single person stirring. Amaris thought it luck that she had even recognized Waylen amid their fight. Amaris saw a panther shift into a woman and did not hesitate in her supposition. Yet . . . Amaris pushed aside the thought of her folly which she only now realized. Many Manori probably turned into panthers. They could only shift to one animal, and so many chose large, dangerous felines. Amaris recognized that Sion had used more wisdom than she. Since Waylen’s disappearance, Amaris had thought often about how her friend had looked that last day. One of the few times Amaris had even seen Waylen’s second shape. Leaping, pounding into the enemy, claws outstretched, Amaris assumed; maybe the first time Waylen had ever fought. She had an imposing presence, though. Her vicious strike had more than satisfied the enemy’s need for brutality. Amaris fled.
Fleecel startled, and took several steps back. Amaris noticed each of her muscles filled with tension. Her hand twitched while resting on Fleecel’s neck and the horse tossed her head. “Sorry,” Amaris whispered.
“Are you alright?” Waylen asked, free of panther form.
Amaris nodded quick, but grasped Fleecel’s main to conceal the quiver in her hands. “She just spooked.” Then she mumbled, “she does that a lot.”
Waylen pet Fleecel and then led on. Amaris’s tossed aside the remembrance of the fighting she had seen Waylen do, hoping it would stay at bay.

Amaris dismounted late afternoon, sore and glad to have the day over. At least when Waylen led, Amaris felt no anxiety about being discovered by anyone, because she was not leading them on a real path, and though their stopping points shrank, they also had more cover.
The memory of the old ambush burdened Amaris’s dreams, which flooded with images of dark people pounding into Waylen. With eyes closed, there was no way for Amaris to escape Waylen screaming. So young, yet telling Amaris to leave while someone kicked the girl in the back. Unlike the reality that had taken place, Amaris did not flee in her dream, she could not move at all. She stood frozen while Waylen cried from the continued beating. No one saw Amaris, no one reacted to her presence, she was a mere spectator to Waylen’s misery. A soldier raised a knife above Waylen who covered her head, face buried in the dirt. Amaris reached forward and screamed.
Black night blinded Amaris when her eyes shot open. She smothered her mouth with a fist so no one would wake.
“Shhh,” a voice soothed.
Amaris startled, and saw Waylen sitting up beside her. Amaris hugged herself and kept her other hand against her mouth. Her loud breathing came in quick, unsteady rasps. Amaris sat up fast, gripping her stomach while her head slumped into her hand, fingers tangling with her hair.Waylen’s arms wrapped around her. Amaris leaned into Waylen’s embrace and felt her body relax again, close to slumber. She gripped her friend’s sleeve, and her thoughts melted.

Amaris rolled over and stared at patches of sky between the treed. Her stomach was sore from lying on it, and wrists hurt, to. She sat up and dazed for several minutes, trying to collect herself as slow memories from the night before became crisp her mind. She wanted to lay back down and forget about progress for a day. She could use the ploy of not feeling well. A silhouette darkened the ground, but Amaris did not lift herself further to look at its owner. Waylen sat beside Amaris, but did not look at her. Amaris watched Waylen’s face, devoid of expression. Waylen turned to Amaris and nodded.
“Do not think we have not noticed how ill at ease you have been the last few days.”
“I know. I am sorry.”
Waylen pulled her eyebrows together. “I think we can understand the stress. There is less than a week until we lose all cover from the forest. But there is no need for you to panic.”
“I am not worried about me.”
“Really?” Waylen sounded surprised.
“Nor am I explaining this right now.”

A sweet aroma wafted into Amaris’s conscious. She sniffed, and confirmed the scent as her favorite tea. She turned her head to the side and saw Illuma sitting by a pot which hung over the fire, but her gaze faced Amaris. As Amaris started jostling the company into action, it became clear that a group vote had elected for a day off. Amaris played along. But only after Sion told her she should rest did Amaris wonder how wasted she looked. She tried to sleep, but woke from another nightmare. She searched wildly for sight of Waylen, when Amaris’s eyes found her, she exhaled. She faked some sleep after that so others would believe her rested. During that effort, she passed out without waking for a few hours.
When she woke, the company took advantage of the slow day to talk about plans for when they reached the plains. Sion and Waylen sat as far away from each other as possible with Illuma and Amaris between them. Adreaga and Briair eavesdropped on and off. Waylen’s displeasure with their lack of a real planning irritated Amaris, while Sion continued encouraging their initial design to seek aid at the city, with which Amaris agreed. Illuma kept quiet and loathed being asked to give any input. Waylen made more than a few suggestive comments about the Alaquendi, but she looked at Illuma and not Amaris when she said these things. Illuma excused herself and then Amaris followed before Sion and Waylen could start bickering about the new disagreement they had discovered.

Amaris sat in quiet with Illuma, and felt almost at home. Sion and Waylen had the courtesy to walk elsewhere with their fight, and Amaris leaned back against a tree while her longtime mentor idled with nothing. Only when night came did Amaris feel anxious again. Waylen had left to hunt for all of the afternoon, and the others napped or chatted in hushed tones (as Adreaga and Briair often did.) The Manori returned at dusk. Amaris felt her hand jerk into a fist. She tried to control those reactions, and most of the time, they went unnoticed, but today, the more involved members of her company were keeping a closer eye on Amaris.
“Tell me,” Illuma’s voice was barely audible. “Why does the sight of your old friend make you anxious?”
Amaris closed her eyes. Amaris stayed quiet as she responded, Waylen could not hear her. “She has not changed enough to keep the memories away.”
“Oh. One of your haunts has returned. I had not thought of it like that.”
“She was part of my past, and now she is in the present. Everything shifted when I started spending more time with her.” At first, Waylen’s difference had made her a being unique to the current moments, but then Amaris noticed a deluge of similarities in Waylen to who she used to be. She was still the same woman. “I remember Valmier too vividly now,” Amaris teared up. I dream about her demise, but when I awake, Waylen is still here.” Amaris waited and methodically spoke what she never admitted to any but her father and SB, the only other witness to Waylen’s capture. “Waylen is alive in no part because of me.”
“There is no need to pull this onto your shoulders.”
“I ran,” Amaris looked at Illuma. “While they dragged her to what I thought was her death, I left.”
“With no sword in hand, pulled by your father. Or did you lie when you told me this?”
Amaris wiped a tear. No, she had not lied. Her father’s insistence on her living had condemned Waylen. “Still, it was a life trade, mine for hers.” Amaris’s lip quivered. “She was only nineteen, Illuma. I was supposed to be helping her, and Waylen almost died in my stead.”
Illuma nodded. “I hope you feel better after saying these things, because your dangerous bent toward yourself is helping no one. Waylen knew her fate before she acted, and look,” she gestured to the black panther curled up and resting on a tree bough, “she is here still, of her own will. No one follows you without knowing your foes. But I have never met any who blame the Tempths for their demons. You are hope, not harm.”
“I am a frail hope, then.”
“Frail is all we have left, Amaris. And I am here knowing that. So is Sion and Waylen, and Adreaga and Briair will do as they wish.”
Amaris nodded. She knew her chance was slim, and she hated knowing she needed help to risk her own life. Amaris swallowed a gob of bitter tears.
“I think Waylen can handle herself, Amaris.”
“But if I am in harm’s way again—”
“She will jump in front of you. A noble way to die. The future will not be here until tomorrow. Then, when it is the present, perhaps you can do something about it. Until then, you might enjoy your companions,” Illuma kept her voice quiet as she swept her hand across camp where Adreaga leaned her head on Briair, smiling up at him while he talked. Waylen’s tail swooped back and forth, and Amaris almost laughed. Sion slept. “Because we are your first line of defense, of camaraderie, and of success. For the time being, we are all safe.”
Amaris exhaled and listened to Illuma’s voice while it continued to soothe.
“And the past is only what happened before we were all here. It cannot touch you, harm you, or break us.”
Amaris nodded and looked at Waylen who seemed less a figment of her imagination and more a physical being.
“Let go of who she used to be,” Illuma whispered quieter. “Embrace the strong woman who knows you well enough to recognize you in the dark while your sword flashed. And who cares enough to not only lead you through the rougher path to ensure your safety, but to stop our procession for your strength to return.”
Amaris studied Waylen.
“Yes, staying here for the day was on her account. Only she knows where we are in this part of the forest. If our guide says we must break . . . I would have agreed without her insistence, and almost suggested it myself, even without knowing of your rough night.”
“You heard me wake?” Amaris turned to Illuma, worried she had disturbed everyone who needed rest.
Illuma shook her head. “Waylen told me this morning. She is sweet, and loves you more than I could have predicted from your stories. Knowing your past strengthens my admiration of that woman. So please let it do the same for you. But do not haunt yourself where there is no ghost.”

The next day, Waylen did not greet Amaris with a good morning, but dragged her away from the others. “Do you honestly think I will let you take guilt for what happened to me? Over fifteen years ago.” She glared.
“Waylen, I—”
“Thought Illuma would understand better than I what is frustrating you.”
“You were—”
“Not asleep. Clearly.” Waylen said through her teeth.
“You listened to my conversation with Illuma?”
“You have been putt off by me for four days, and I did not know why. When I heard my name, I allowed a break in decorum. Cannot say I regret it.”
“Why are you angry with me if you heard what I said?”
“Because you will take credit for all wickedness in this world, and not realize war includes everyone. Not just you. Those soldiers did not even know your name. They stumbled upon your house while raiding the Highlands. They would have killed you and abandoned the broach, burned your house and made you watch.” Waylen seethed.
“How do you know?”
“They had me, not you, remember?”
“How could I forget?” Amaris huffed. Did Waylen honestly think Amaris wanted any of this mess to be on her back. “I was shocked to find out you were alive.”
Waylen stopped tongue tied. “How would you know I survived?”
“I encountered one of the people you talked with while trying to find me. . . . Two weeks too late.”
“That irony is sour.” Waylen stewed for a moment, and then focused again on Amaris. “Regardless, next time you have issue with me, do not expect answers from someone else.”
“I did not want you offended is all.”
“More like you were saving me from things that hurt you worse than they hurt me.”
Amaris could not believe that. “They beat you, and I did not want you to recall that suffering.”
Waylen laughed meanly. “I did not forget it until you brought up the encounter. I learned from them, Amaris. I think about that frequently, and not on accident.”
“You think about pain on purpose?”
Waylen narrowed her eyes. “Know your enemy.”
“I do.”
“Remember that. You can let what happened years ago trample you. I use it before it can use me.”
“I learn, but not with fire on my tongue like you.”
Waylen laughed. “You have condescension instead.”
Amaris crossed her arms and studied Waylen a long moment. “Fair,” she nodded.
“I am sorry,” Waylen sighed.
“No, you speak only truth. I know I seem lofty . . . But I do not know another way of protecting myself, and this damned device.” Amaris flicked the broach which held her cape in place.
Waylen shrugged. “You did not used to act as you do now.”
Amaris had no more replies, and stood in uncomfortable silence with Waylen. The latter bit her lip and narrowed her gaze on Amaris who allowed the scrutiny. “Would you mind if I held it for a moment?”
Amaris rolled her eyes, and unclipped her broach, and handed it to the curious woman who had held it many times before. Waylen took the token and walked away. Amaris stared for a moment, confused. She came to herself and rushed after Waylen. “What are you doing? Give it back!”
“Shhhhh,” Waylen turned toward Amaris and clasped the woman’s shoulder. “I am not stealing this thing. Just feel its absence for a few days while we finish our trek through the forest.”
Amaris wrinkled her brow. Waylen put forth her hand with the treasure and opened it to Amaris. “It is yours.”
“No. You are kind.” Amaris dropped her hand away from Waylen’s. Her friend smiled sad and then embraced Amaris.
“It was not always this hard for you.”
“Nor for you.”

Chapter 9

The forest was too cold for Amaris. She did not expect sleep in such dark, damp conditions. Sion seemed to have no trouble passing out, and Adreaga and Briair slept, too. Amaris rolled onto her side, pulling her cape tighter. Without the scrap of fabric between her and the ground, Amaris would be as wet as moss in this part of the forest. Amaris told herself it was the threat of rain that kept her awake. Thick clouds had brewed all day, and now they blocked the moon in the starless sky. Her mind wandered to the absent stars; could a few of those — whatever they looked like— illuminate even through this dim night? They would be small, a mere fraction of the moon, and so perhaps their presence would alter things little. What the stars might have looked like before their demise kept Amaris following curiosity for several minutes. She blinked at the dark sky, feeling a little more calm and drowsy, and thought any light in such a mass of shadows would fail in its purpose.
A light wind picked up, and Amaris decided she would rather be woken by the storm than kept from sleep. She pulled her hood over her face but the frigid air struck her face time and again. She backed against the tree nearest her, and pulled the blanket over her head, tucking her feet close to her body. Ridiculous. Rain avoided this land, sending plagues in its stead, but now that Amaris took two steps from her house she was going to get drenched. Sion had weeks since left Amaris to her own devices at night. He slept near her, but further than previous nights. Amaris did not need supervision, but she missed the company now. Sion was accustomed to sleeping under an open, dark sky, Amaris reminded herself. He had traveled long months looking for her, years even. In time, she could get used to lack of shelter as he had. But she left home almost a month ago; perhaps she would not adapt. Finally, Amaris felt herself drifting. The cape caught hot breath from her sighs and warmed her face, and her eyes stayed closed at last, but not for long.
A frigid knock in the face woke Amaris, blowing off blanket and hood. Amaris sat quick and threw her fist into the ground. Could she not get five minutes — then she froze. The moon shone where clouds had been, and Amaris saw a dark shadow in camp. It crouched not even ten feet away, and her own sword was not in reach. The panther stared at her. Amaris drew her knife and threw it. She tore off her cape while lunging the few feet to her sword. Her throw made the beast scurry, just long enough to draw her sword, at which she almost failed. Blast the too-long blade! Amaris swung the hilt and scratched the panther with the tip. It leapt back but turned to face Amaris again. It poured out an earthy roar, and Amaris saw the others stirring. Her heart pounded in her throat, almost choking her when the panther rushed her. She tracked its movements with difficulty, and lunged aside before it hit. Her own shrill cry told Amaris she had not avoided the blow entirely. She spun, without watching for the enemy, sword raised,, hoping to nail the final blow. The animal was too close; Amaris would be down before her sword could fall. The creature wheeled back instead of attacking, far from Amaris, and collapsed. Amaris ignored her surprise and charged before the beast changed its mind. With almost slow motions, the panther looked at Amaris and crouched into a ball —as if in premonition of a strike, bowing to the alaquendi’s tactics — and shifted into a human.
Amaris dropped her sword the instant she understood what had happened. She won, but by surrender, not valor. “No!” Amaris ran the small distance between her and the woman she knew lay beneath the cape. Another force jarred Amaris’s course and sent her flying aside where she hit the ground. Sion. He will kill her! “Leave her!” Amaris jumped up and saw her allies freeze at her command. Sion seemed reluctant to stop his assault, sword drawn. “Do not touch her.” Amaris yanked Sion’s arm.
He dropped his sword, and drew his dagger. He jerked the assailant around by her cape. “Who sent you?” The venom in Sion’s voice startled Amaris, and she feared interfering. Then she heard the other’s voice.
“No one.”
Amaris gasped. “Sion, you scratch her and we are finished here. I will leave you so fast you—”
“You will what?” Sion knelt closer to the assailant and pressed his knife against her. The woman’s back arched away from the blade, and she gasped. Was she hurt? Then Amaris remembered cutting the panther. “Amaris, did you hit your head on something? This woman is trying to kill you.” Sion’s threadbare patience thinned in his tone.
Amaris ignored Sion. “Waylen!” The name tasted odd after years of disuse.
“I am fine, Amaris.” The woman sounded put out, but it certainly sounded like the right voice.
Amaris rushed to the woman’s side and tried to turn her over. Sion did not intervene. The woman resisted Amaris, and then Sion kicked the woman out of Amaris’s grip. “Move, Amaris.” Sion leaned over the woman, enmeshing his blade with her black hair, steel against her neck.
Amaris searched for the woman’s belt, and saw a knife. She gripped the hilt, but a dark hand grabbed Amaris’s wrist, and she felt the woman stirring. The woman looked at Amaris, and for a moment they studied each other. “Do not harm him.” Her face, so much darker, and yet so was everything in the dim light, but she had no doubt about this woman. “He is only protecting you.” The woman — indeed Waylen— wiped Amaris’s hand from her knife while twisting away from Sion who did not pursue her further with the blade, and pushed herself up as far as she could with Amaris kneeling on her cape. The latter adjusted her weight and remedied the twisted clothing. Waylen stood and faced Sion. Amaris followed, and stood near her friend. In the dark light, Amaris could see only Sion’s calculating expression, not Waylen’s face. Sion’s eyes narrowed, and he flipped the blade in his hand so he could throw it, the other hand balled into a fist. Waylen spoke again to Amaris. “You need people to protect you.”
Amaris pulled at Waylen’s arm, thicker than she remembered. “Leave him.”
“Excuse me!” Briair interrupted.
Waylen tensed and backed away from Sion. Amaris reiterated her instructions that Waylen be unharmed, and threatened punishment if anyone disobeyed. She noticed Waylen’s slow retreat and grabbed the woman by the arm. Waylen seemed nervous, like an animal trying to escape trappers. “Please,” Amaris turned fully to her old friend. “Do not leave me.”
Waylen bit her lip and closed her eyes. Was she afraid? Why upset? She ignored these questions and embraced Waylen who wrapped her own arms around Amaris. Amaris heard commotion from the others, but would choose her old friend over almost all of them. Waylen inhaled strong and moved her fingers through Amaris’s hair.
“It is you,” she whispered.
Their embrace tightened, and Amaris’s eyes closed against the dark sky. After a suspended moment, Waylen dropped her voice lower still, just audible where her lips hovered near Amaris’s ear. “Your friends need a better explanation.”
So did Amaris. Waylen had no reason to attack her. Amaris nodded, though, and stepped back. What did Waylen want her to do? Amaris had her mouth open, some story she planned to concoct as she spoke, poised on her lips. A hand gripped her shoulder. Waylen spoke into Amaris’s ear. “What are you doing?”
Amaris turned around. “Trying to get us out of trouble.”
“No, I mean what is the business you are about?”
That. Amaris swallowed and stared at Waylen whose expression grew more serious.
“Are you doing what I think?”
Amaris did not respond.
“Do you want me to stay?” Waylen asked.
“I am so lonely.” Amaris’s voice was too quiet for even her own ears to hear, but Waylen seemed to understand. Waylen’s eyebrows came together, and she brushed the tear that had fallen on Amaris’s cheek. Then she watched Amaris for a long moment, studying her with slitted eyes.
“You have me.” Waylen patted Amaris on the arm and then stepped past her. “Sion, I am coming with Amaris.”
Amaris groaned, waiting for the fallout. She saw Illuma whispering wildly to Sion, but could not make out the words.
“No you will not.” Sion told Waylen, and then looked at Amaris. “Not this time.”
Illuma said something beneath her breath and left Sion. Sion approached Amaris. His lips moved as he passed Waylen, but Amaris did not hear his words. She did, however, hear Waylen’s growl. Then Sion turned to Waylen instead of Amaris. Rasps, mumbles, and cruel words started passing between the two until Amaris inserted herself into the conversation. Then silence.
“Find some common ground, unless someone wants to leave.” Amaris looked at Sion.
Both Sion and Waylen stared at Amaris. She was the common interest.
“I said I will stay.”
“Amaris, you need to look out for yourself.” Sion said. “This,” he gestured to Waylen, “is not taking care of yourself.”
Waylen crossed her arms across her chest, and now Amaris could see her glare. Her expression looked more like a threat than irritation.
“I trust Waylen.” Amaris told Sion. “And I trust you.” Amaris sighed. She was the one not receiving any trust right now. Amaris looked between the two. Unmoved. Amaris walked away, after a moment, she heard Waylen behind her. “You can get to know him later.”
“Can she?” Sion’s voice rubbed Amaris like sand paper. Amaris opted to ignore it.
“Can I speak with you?”
Amaris turned to Sion and opened up her arms.
Sion’s stepped close, but did not drop his voice. “I do not care who this wench is, she endangers us again, and you and I will both have hell to pay.”
Amaris knew the thing Sion feared would never happen. Amaris dreaded Sion’s creating disturbances again and groaned inwardly, but held her peace.
“And if you ever touch her—” Sion pointed at Waylen.
“It was an accident!”
“Accident?” He turned his attention. “Amaris, why?” he whined.
“My life is in my hands, not yours. You are here of your own free will. Everyone is.”
Illuma mumbled something which only Sion appeared to catch. Sion whispered so he could deliver his cutting comments in some semblance of privacy. “You risk your death, and you bring it on everyone else.”
“Maybe you can leave, and not have to watch.” Amaris said.
Sion turned on his heel and faced Amaris.
“We tried that before, Amaris. Remember. I am still here. And you let Adreaga and Briair follow. I am staying with you to make sure you do your job,” Sion looked away. “And because I cannot let you get hurt.”
“I am not your charge to guard.”
Sion did not answer.
Amaris turned away from Sion, digesting the insult.
“Can you wait to risk your life until after you have fulfilled your position?”
“I wish I could take your life right now.”
“Do it.”
Amaris bit her tongue and walked away. She had almost left when Adreaga’s voice halted her.
“Amaris, forgetting anything?”
Amaris fingered her naked collar bone and went back. Adreaga held Amaris’s cape, still attached on one half to her broach. She separated broach from fabric, tossing the latter on the ground. Waylen stopped her this time. “Take the cape.”
The sky showed no difference in appearance, and Amaris noticed the sharp wind gusts she had forgotten in the excitement. Waylen reached down and scooped up the cape. Amaris could not find words yet, so she left camp.
“Do not leave your sword.” Sion instructed.
“I cannot leave without it; this way I have to come back in the morning.” Amaris ignored anything else called out and continued walking. She heard faint steps following and looked over her shoulder. Waylen. Amaris kept walking, and she would have continued her retreat had Waylen not stopped her.
“Sit down, love.” Waylen’s gentle tone, almost silent, coaxed Amaris. She shifted her weight with a wince, the pain which had grown in her damaged leg punctuated by her storming off. Waylen intervened and supported Amaris while she found a seat on the ground. Amaris watched Waylen open a black satchel and rifle through it; it was Amaris’s bag. Waylen pulled out bandage and then looked some more before finding a rag. Then the bag was passed to Amaris. “I hate it all, find something you like, and I will dress this wound.”
Amaris closed her eyes, bag in hand, and wished she would have been stronger, less obvious about her injury. “Waylen,” Amaris reached forward and stayed her friend’s hand before any mending could be done. Amaris wanted to console Waylen, but could think of nothing.
“Forgive me.” Waylen stopped her action and dropped her head into her hand.
Again, Amaris had no response. She scooted closer to Waylen, draped her arm around her, and pulled her close. Waylen slumped a little, and Amaris took the opportunity to try and find some fitting words to say. But what could be spoken between two people separated by over a decade and brought back together through a quarrel?
“I am sorry.” Waylen said.
“Waylen, last time I saw you . . .” Amaris choked on her words and knew they had been the wrong choice, but she finished the frayed sentence. “I would take a dozen hits for you.”
“Not from me.” Waylen sat up, away from Amaris. “And no, never will you take any damage for me. You should have people standing between you and the enemy by the hundreds. After a moment’s silence, Waylen changed her tone. “Sit still and let me take care of this mess.”
Amaris obeyed. “What about you?” Amaris did not recall which part of the panther her sword had scraped.
“I have been through worse.”
Waylen squeezed Amaris’s shoulder, “do not worry about it. You inflicted minimal pain, I promise.” By now, Waylen had Amaris’s calf muscle clean and was applying a balm from Amaris before wrapping it in bandage.
“Now let me help with yours,” Amaris said as Waylen cut the bandage and tucked in the loose end.
“There.” Waylen sounded satisfied, and also unwilling to answer Amaris’s comment.
“I will find out what I did and remedy it.”
“You will do nothing of the sort.”
“Let me help.”
“Trust me,” Waylen tossed the bandage roll to Amaris, who almost missed it in the dim light. Waylen lightened her voice. “I will be fine, and you cannot see right now, anyway.”
Right. And Waylen could. Neither spoke for several minutes. Amaris looked at the ground to avoid the frustration of looking at Waylen, but seeing so little in the dim light.
“How long have you been on the road?” Waylen asked.
“Almost a month.”
“I am a little confused about your companions. None of them seem to want to be here. Perhaps the other Alaquendi, she did a good deal of talk in your favor tonight.”
“The twins, Adreaga and Briair that is —”
“Who else would they be?”
Amaris nodded. “Well, they tracked me and I decided to keep them along. They have caused no trouble thus far and the girl will be useful in skirmishes.”
“You trust too easily.”
“I did not say I trusted them. I rather see them as on trial.”
Waylen huffed. “Sion is not a trial, is he.”
“I am afraid not.” Amaris wondered whether she and Sion would ever get back to agreeing on things. “He is the most permanent aid I have at the time.”
“Why?”
Amaris mumbled, “Because he will not leave.” Then she lifted her voice. “He searched me out, which cost him a few years of looking. And then all but insisted I take his help, and any more I could find, and leave for the basins.”
“I do not understand. Your father? The Alaquendi? You should have better connections than these.”
“I will not work with them, they would help out of obligation, if at all.”
“Did you ask?”
“No, and I will thank you to leave that thread alone.”
Waylen moaned. “Amaris, you are acting such a fool. You will take help from a silly boy and not even turn to your own people, who care for and need you.”
“Correct.”
“What about SB—”
“He is bound to my father.”
“Yes! What about your father?”
Amaris narrowed her eyes.
Waylen’s warm palm covered Amaris’s cold hand. “Is he alright?”
“Yes.” Amaris could see Waylen was not going to stop questioning without Amaris giving her some answers. Perhaps, if she joined the expedition, she deserved some explanations.
“Amaris, rethink the way you are going about this.”
“We are going to to try and get extra aid.”
“But not the Alaquendi.”
“Correct.”
“Then I will guard you as you die.”
“Waylen!”
“You know it is true.”
“But you cannot talk like that —”
“I am not going to lie to you, Amaris. You are not going to survive and succeed with this disaster of a plan.”
Surviving was not Amaris’s concern. “I will do my best, like so many others have done. If I fail, so be it.”
“Amaris,” Waylen softened her voice again, but still sounded irritated. “I never doubt your effort . . . Just your judgment. And, I do not trust Sion.”
“He will not harm you.”
Waylen chuckled. “I have no doubt of that..”
Amaris shook off Waylen’s hand. “ He is one of my friend’s son.”
“Good friend? Where is your friend, now.”
“Dead.”
Waylen nodded.
Amaris shook her head, and went into a patchy explanation of her past relationship with Valmier, about Sion, and all that had made her leave and accompany the young man. Waylen grew quiet and asked few questions as Amaris finished. Amaris doubted this meant contentment, more submission she guessed.
“Just because I want you to come, does not mean you have to.” Amaris said at last.
Waylen protested and scooted closer to Amaris. “I am thinking through things, not regretting my choice to come with you. My offer, remember?”
Amaris nodded; drained from the drawn out night. More quiet followed, and lengthening blinks before Waylen suggested Amaris lie down. The latter took the suggestion, but looked at Waylen. “You are not tired?”
“Not in particular.”
“Do you always wander at night?”
Waylen nodded.
Amaris thought it odd but said nothing. Then Waylen offered the explanation of hunting. Of course. What else would shape shifters do for food? “In my camp?” Amaris did not know whether to regret her question or push it further.
“Yes. An accident, I assure you.” Waylen hurried her words. “The wind was doing odd things; I lost my bearings trying to get out of it. —No good hunting when you are upwind.— Especially when you were downwind.” Waylen’s scolded herself.
“I understand.”
“Do you?” Waylen sounded disbelieving.
Amaris shrugged “I threw the knife.”
Waylen chuckled. “ At least you fight well in the dark.”
“Your fighting has changed a lot.” Amaris remembered the small woman who slashed her sword pointlessly to and fro against a small band of raiders.
“Practice. I was not trying to kill you tonight, I try to avoid that.”
“Hmmm.”
Waylen had changed more than Amaris had given credit for. “What?”
Amaris made herself smile. “I am grateful for your little mistake.”
“We shall see.”

Chapter 8

Sleeping next to strangers. When had he signed off on this? “Alright, hand over the weapons.” Sion said. Amaris turned, startled, as if she thought Sion meant her. Sion shot her a ridiculous expression, and then looked at the two siblings. Briair gaped, Adreaga glared, clenching her bow.
“I mean it.”
“You want us to surrender our weapons after you’ve taken us further into the woods?” Briair clenched his hilt, and Sion watched his hand.
“Each night, Sion, Amaris, or I will guard your weapons: so we can get some sleep, to.” Illuma chimed in.
“What?” Adreaga looked at Amaris. If she was hoping for a backup, she failed. Amaris seemed devoid of emotion.
“We did not decide on your coming.” Illuma gestured to herself and Sion. “Just so we are clear, this is our condition.”
Amaris gave a small nod. “Adreaga, Briair, we will not hurt you. But . . .”
“We need to make sure we survive the night.” Sion offered. Amaris’s obvious irritation delighted him. No one else spoke. Adreaga looked like she might cry. “If I were to kill either of you, I would insist on your being armed first.” Sion forced himself not to smile when he saw Briair swallow a knot the size of an egg. “Neither of you have given me a reason to.” Sion held out his hands, but both siblings stood frozen. He nodded to Briair’s sword. The young man unstrapped his belt and laid a sword and knife along Sion’s arms, narrowing his eyes on his opponent as he did so. Sion clasped onto the two and held them to his side. The sword was heavy enough to be of actual use. “I remember your having a dagger.”
“Adreaga has it.”
Sion nodded. The girl ought to have something besides a bow and arrows. What if they encountered enemies close at hand? More than likely. Adreaga evaded Sion’s scrutinizing gaze as she surrendered her weapons. “The second quiver of arrows.” Sion said. Adreaga sighed and retrieved the other arrows from her things. She half threw it at Sion before turning her back on him. “Watch yourselves. Unless you are planning on a temporary stay, getting along with us might be worth a try.” Neither so much as looked toward Illuma, Amaris, or Sion. Sion nodded, assessing the flaring, hushed tempers before him. Given a full day’s advance on their next weapon removal, Adreaga and Briair would have plenty of time to find ways to hide a weapon, or conjure a new one. As Sion did not intend on searching them each night, he would settle in knowing he owned — for a short time — any tools of warfare these two came with. He counted Adreaga’s arrows and then began examining the weapons, though he had to be careful of when he drew Briair’s sword. Offending the man was at the bottom of Sion’s list; still on his list, though. Strong, but simple blades, and a barely usable bow. Sion wondered if Adreaga could manage a decent range with it. Clearly it was meant for hunting, not battles. At least they had defenses. Sion grunted. If only Adreaga and Briair had come to them unarmed, they could have been sent away easily —Sion eyed Amaris— easier.

Sion slept with the weapons tucked between him and a tree. He noticed not only himself, but also Illuma and Amaris, kept their own swords so near by any movement of their blades would waken them. Sion woke with a sore back from pressing against the youngster’s small arsenal. He would need more sufficient rest than this. Sion set his eyes on Adreaga and Briair, already awake and chatting in hushed tones. Early risers, or too terrified to sleep. Sion silenced his groan. He sat and moved a few inches from the bow and sword behind him. “They are all yours,” Sion kept his voice low, the two women still slept with apparent ease. No one moved, the three just exchanged looks. Once Amaris and Illuma got up, the tension rose, but the volume remained stagnant. Only after Sion walked away from the tree did they arm themselves again, and they waisted no time in doing so.

After another long day of traveling, Sion chose not to collect weapons in the evening, but waited to see if Illuma would uphold her side of their deal. Confused relief resulted when Amaris took the sword, bow, and knives. Sion watched with interest as she demanded each piece of defense the two had. They did not fight her or give attitude. No resistance to Amaris, only annoyance and, from Braiair, a deep glare when he turned away — Sion could handle the young man’s discomfort. He mused. Fine, if they wanted to deal with Amaris and not Sion, he would be only too happy to oblige.

For several days Sion said little to Amaris and only studied the two youths. Illuma received courtesy, but nothing more. The group settled into a solid and brittle co-existence. Exchanges translated into sharp words and unreceptive listening. Amaris seemed put out with Sion who could not have cared if he tried. Amaris put him under torture and inconvenience each moment she made a blundering decision. She could live with the consequences, he wanted to ignore the whole situation. His agenda was to protect the daft woman until she had completed her mission, then he could leave. The two younger compatriots did not ignore Sion in return for his silence. They watched him as much as he kept an eye on them, more because they had twice the capacity as he to stare.
The others seemed to settle into Sion keeping to himself. He even started sleeping in — or at least pretending to do so — to drive home his statement. Sion closed his eyes and crossed his arms. Less than five minutes passed and he could feel the atmosphere change in camp. They thought he slept. He heard someone settle to the ground not ten feet away from the sound.
“Sion.”
The whispered hiss made Sion’s face contort with his insides.
“I know you are awake . . .”
Did Amaris Tempth just curse? Sion opened his eyes and arched his neck so he could see her. She brooded with a stunning glare. She seemed actually upset, though. Sion closed his eyes again. “What?” He tried to sound uninterested, but his voice betrayed his bitter resentment. He did not need emotional women. He still did not know what to do with them.
“You are becoming more useless all the time.”
Sion sighed, pretending the comment did not affect him. When Amaris started exercising wisdom again, they could talk. “Turn them away.”
No response. Did she leave?
“That is all you have to say?” Amaris asked.
Clearly.
“Are you still here to help me?”
Sion snickered.
“Why are you here if you do not even speak with me?”
Sion opened his eyes and torqued so Amaris could see his glare. “Because I still have something to accomplish here. Let me know when you are back to thinking about what brought you from home. Until then,” Sion gestured over camp, “this circus is yours.”
“That is how you want it, then?”
“I am trying to help you, and the sooner they leave, the better we can work together.”
Amaris stood and brushed her hands down her skirt, chin facing up. She eyed Sion. She walked closer and leaned down, her voice a stunning threat. “Help or do not, but I will decide what I do. Just remember my grace does have an end with you.”
Sion would have given a variety of responses when Amaris left, but he knew she was serious. Sion pulled in a breath and laid back down, trying to close his eyes again. He slept without waking once, and woke damp with sweat while camp was a flurry with preparations to leave. He shoved his things into his pack and buckled his sword on, ready to mount without even a scrap for breakfast. He had to walk by Amaris to saddle , the others had already prepared their horses to ride. “Trying to leave me?” He said beneath his breath.
“If you would let me.”
Sion stopped and focused on Amaris. She shrugged.
“Let us act like adults, please.”
“Good concept. Sketchy execution.”
Sion snickered, but once he pulled the reigns over ‘s head, Amaris left, before Sion had even mounted. He followed the tense trail of horses, frustrated with Amaris’s scare tactic. Would she really have left him? They took a midday break, and though no one mentioned it, Sion thought Amaris must have pitied Sion’s empty stomach and was allowing him a chance to eat. As he was finishing Amaris mounted, forcing Sion to rush again. When they stopped for the evening, Sion approached Amaris, but she walked straight into the trees. He followed for a few seconds before pulling her around by the arm. “Speak,” she insisted. “I need to go relieve myself for the night.”
Sion scrutinized her in disbelief. “Can you honestly say you feel safer with them? Will Adreaga and Briair have capable enough skills to keep you alive?”
“No! But at least they listen when I speak. I am not willing to keep you around for protective purposes only. I could hire a body guard, I need an ally. Of which you are turning out to be a poor one. Now excuse me.” Amaris peeled Sion’s hand off her and left. Sion wasted no time stripping his horse of its saddle and the children of their weaponry. They seemed too shocked to resist with any words. Illuma watched in silence as Sion resisted throwing the boy’s sword into a tree. These were the people Amaris would take in his stead? Sion sat against a tree, and pushed his fingers into his hair. Ridiculous. Amaris seemed bent on tormenting him.

After more than a few minutes to herself, Amaris returned and started questioning the two tagalongs . She decided now —after they had traveled half way into the forest with the little wretches— was a good time to ask for more information. He listened as Amaris politely grilled Adreaga and Briair. After several minutes Sion realized Amaris was trying to have an actual conversation with the two, not just digging for answers and information. Sion rolled his eyes and pinched the skin between them, willing the moment to pass.

“There is no chance of your telling me why you actually followed me, is there?”
Sion looked at Amaris. Adreaga caught his eye. She was shaking her head at Amaris.
“Please just be pleased we are here,” Briair said casually. “I am hoping we can help you with. . . ?”
“Sorry.” Amaris said no more on the topic.
Sion rolled his eyes at the double standard. He knew how Adreaga and Briair felt and, for a moment, pitied them.
Briair nodded, and the conversation stayed stagnant. “Either way, Adreaga is your greatest asset between us.” His sister stared at the ground. Amaris looked at the girl and nodded. Sion could no longer stand watching the conversation taper off with Amaris standing on a pedestal looking down, again.
“You are ridiculous,” Sion shouted. He joined the group, but did not sit down. “Amaris, if you do not tell these two something, I swear I will leave you this instant.”
Amaris’s face whitened, but she remained calm. “Sion we have discussed—”
“No. What you are doing is not right. Maybe you can stand their blood on your hands, but I will not play part, not with this antic.”
Amaris’s face began reddening, but she did not answer. So Sion looked at Adreaga and Briair. He squatted to their level and looked between their young, hard-set faces. “If you knew what was best for you you would already be on your way home. As it is you have no idea what you are grappling with. This woman will lead you straight to your death.”
“You care since when?” Adreaga said haphazard.
Sion bit the inside of his lip before answering. “If you know where you are throwing your lot, your life, and still chose to waste it—”
“Sion!” Amaris protested. Sion ignored her and continued.
“Then so be it. But until you know what Amaris is about, I do not think anyone should go with her.”
“Yet you follow her.” Briair stated.
“I have a vendetta.”
Briair narrowed his eyes. “Do tell.”
Sion hesitated. Why not? He held out his hand as if to shake Briair’s. “I am Sion, son of Valmier, past lover of this wretch beside me—”
Amaris yanked Sion backward and he toppled off balance. Sion stood and wiped the dirt off himself.
“You are her son?” Briair tried to keep from laughing.
“No!” Sion and Amaris shouted in unison.
“An unfortunate acquaintance is all.” Sion glared at Amaris.
“Sion, do you need a map or anything before you go?” Amaris asked.
“As if I have not directed us half-way here? I think I will be fine, thank you miss Tempth.”
Amaris narrowed her eyes when Sion said her name. He smiled unkindly.
“Get on your way. Now!”Amaris stood up and stared him down.
“I already know you want me gone. I am not listening to you anymore, this is about them.” Sion gestured to Adreaga and Briair. “What Amaris is about will kill you both. Has she told you—”
Amaris grabbed Sion by the arm and started yanking him away from camp. “Loose your grip, Amaris.” Sion pried Amaris’s hand off with ease and walked faster than she could without almost running. Amaris spun him around after they could shout comfortably without being heard.
“What is this about? You are trying to get me hurt. Are you taking vengeance on me for your father?” Amaris’s eyes flashed with panic.
“Of course not.” Sion looked at her with disdain. “How could you think those things? And what good would destroying you accomplish?” Sion shook his head.
“Then what?”
“Do you not care about them at all?”
Amaris did not answer.
“Tell me your heart is not so shattered underneath your ruse you cannot even care for a common person.”
A liquid glaze covered Amaris’s eyes, but she just set her jaw closed tighter. Sion gripped her upper arm and watched red flush her face. She seemed so fragile, unstable, and defensive. Sion worried that emotion was the only thing left of Amaris Tempth. Sion’s tone softened at the pain exuding from Amaris. “Amaris, I thought . . . You are better than seducing children to help you. We will find aid in the city. Why will you not wait?”
“They are here with us for a reason. Sion, they want to come.”
“At least tell them what they are stepping into. Something. I want to help you but—”
Amaris brushed Sion’s hand away. “Do you?”
Sion studied Amaris. He knew her deceptive side dove deep and wondered what else lingered in that depth. His gaze dropped to the broach.
Amaris’s hand flew over the jewel and ripped it off her neck. “Now look at me.” She waited for Sion’s focus before continuing. She wrapped her hand around Sion’s. “Are you willing to help me?”
Amaris looked in that moment both soft and sincere, and Sion saw things beside fear and panic, and much stronger than her tenacity and deception, dancing beside the deep sorrow which never left this woman. “Why the facade Amaris?” Sion barely let go of the words. Sion wanted to dash the broach aside himself if that was what bound Amaris. Amaris, the woman his father pursued in and outside of her presence, should draw at least one breath free from the obligations and burdens which threatened at any moment to crush her.
“I cannot tell you.”
Sion nodded. She had secrets too deep to tell. Maybe their connection with the truth of her errend made it too ominous to speak about. “I can tell Adreaga and Briair your business if you wish not to.” Why was he offering this easy solution to Amaris when she shouted commands at him constantly.
Amaris bit her lip. “You are pushing my hand, Sion.”
“Tell them something to make them understand the danger we are putting them in. Anything. But do not lie to them.”
Amaris looked down and tried to withdraw her hand. Sion squeezed his grip closed around Amaris’s small fingers. “Look here,” and she did. “I did not search for you to leave you. But we are either together, as allies, or I cannot help you.”
“I see.” Amaris contemplated for a moment. “Are we agreed to bring Adreaga and Briair along?”
“If they are going of their own will, I doubt they will harm us. They need to have an informed decision, though, Amaris.”
Amaris nodded quickly, shaking each mask back into place. Sion supposed it must be that way for her own sake. “You tell or I will take care of it for you if you do not want to—”
“I! —Can handle these two.” Amaris huffed. “Probably better than you can.”
Sion smiled. “Too true, miss Tempth.”
Amaris blushed, but smiled and tugged at her hand. Sion instead pulled Amaris into his arms. After hesitating, Amaris returned the favor, and her cheek pressed against his chest. Sion did not want to let her go; she needed protection. But maybe his father had been in too deep to give Amaris what she needed. Maybe Amaris never needed a lover, although she wanted one badly enough. A loyal friend though, an actual ally . . . What could that accomplish? Sion supposed they would find out. Amaris went almost limp. “Hey, could you not faint in my arms? I could not explain it to the others.”
Amaris chuckled and stood back.
“Do you ever sleep?” Sion asked.
Amaris huffed, as if the question was absurd.
“Yet very rarely do you rest.” Sion stated, not asked.
Amaris had no answer.
“You do not have to lie to me. I know you are ill at ease. Resting is like a permanent disease to you, so you avoid it like the plague.”
Amaris looked nervous.
“Relax. The comment was not an attack, just an observation.” Sion sighed. “If we could figure out how to act more of a team, share the burdens more, perhaps you could rest.”
Amaris shrugged. “I prefer not discussing this.”
“With me.” Sion finished what he believed Amaris meant and paused. All the possible progress for the time had been made. “Are we talking to those two now or later?”
Amaris jerked back and gave Sion a dirty look. “I will discuss things with them.”
Sion rushed to stay on Amaris’s heals. They would have looked odd walking back into camp side-by-side anyway. Amaris scrutinized Adreaga and Briair. Sion wanted to tell her to swallow her pride and open her mouth. But she did not speak.
“How old are you?” Sion asked, filling in the silence. “And no lies.”
Briair looked at Sion. “I was not intending on lying.” He turned his gaze away. “We are seventeen.”
Sion nodded slow. He thought as much, but Amaris’s hand flew over her mouth too late to suppress her surprised gasp. Sion was not the only one watching Amaris.
“Children,” she muttered.
Adreaga shook her head with a crewel smile and her brother glowered. “Could two children do what we have? My sister and I are every bit a man and woman as you and Sion. I will thank you to remember so much.”
“Only two children could annoy as much as you do.”Sion said.
Briair stood and approached Sion. “Then you are just as adolescent as I am.”
Sion narrowed his eyes. “You are both seventeen?”
“Adreaga is the elder by seven minutes.”
Sion scrutinized the two, seeing them differently.
Amaris made an exasperated but quiet noise, and started to walk away.
Sion stepped aside and gently grasped Amaris’s arm. “Nice try.”
Amaris all but groaned and talked in circles before she told Adreaga and Briair anything worth listening to; the latter waited patiently as Amaris did so. Then she gave rough outline to why she would endanger them, and also their ludicrous destination, and several other important factors. The story, brief and without emotion, drained Amaris’s visible energy until she finished, and told the two to think about their decision once more, promising she would never ask again. Famished of strength, as if the words had been pulled from her flesh, Amaris left as far as she could without actually leaving the group. She spoke to no one for hours. Sion admired the grace Amaris used when speaking about the broach, a bitter reverence etched in every word. She even hinted at a few of the more poignant family points. Adreaga and Briair must be children in their deep core, they believed every word . . . Or they were proficient actors.
That night, as individuals settled down, Sion sat only a few feet from Amaris, laying his sword beside him.
“What are you doing?” Amaris whispered. Amaris looked like a thousand tears had been shed that day, but she had not cried one.
“Please rest, now.” Sion kept his voice low.
Amaris sighed and her head drooped. Sion laid down and closed his eyes, but he did not sleep until Amaris proceeded him. He knew little actual danger would threaten them yet. Amaris seemed not to understand. He prayed she would rest through the nights so her face would appear less wan throughout the days.

Dawn crept upon Sion with more chill than rest. Dew stained his skin and clung to his clothes. Either fall was threatening to grasp the small company early, or Sion was beginning to feel strain from keeping watch over Amaris. Three days had passed since their treaty of sorts, and his duty to protect their leader fell heavy on Sion’s every decision. He scooted away from Amaris before stretching so he would not wake the latter. After a sound rubbing of his eyes, Sion noticed Illuma watching him. He joined the young-looking woman on the opposite side of camp.
“The way you watch people is a bit unnerving, Illuma.” Sion kept his voice to a light whisper so the three remaining sleepers would rest.
“Habit.”
Sion nodded, his eyes straying to Amaris. “She seems vulnerable.”
“Like a treasured possession you cannot replace.”
“What?”Sion scrutinized Illuma who gave a kind smile in return.
“Amaris. There is only one of her left. She dies and we perish. Every time you look after her, in an odd way, you are protecting yourself.”
Sion did not know how to react to Illuma’s objectification of Amaris. “You think of her that way? A thing to be guarded and used at will.”
“No. A great advantage and equal weakness. And she is my friend . . . Which over complicates the complexity of the Tempths.”
Sion said nothing.
“Do not tell me it has never passed your mind, Sion. I will not believe it.”
Sion bored his gaze into Illuma’s eyes, hoping to see if she meant her words or not. “I abhor those thoughts and hope they pass swiftly. You . . . Churn them into patterns is that right?”
Illuma pursed her lips. “Try a decade with her and then lecture on mental purity.”
“I would rather get her out of this situation, now.”
Illuma gasped so quiet Sion almost missed the sound. “What?” He asked.
“You are not guarding life, just her?”
Sion let loose the glare he had been trying to harness; why should he, since Illuma was being so blunt. “Does she not also deserve life?”
Illuma looked confused.
“At least I know where you stand, what sort of ally you are.” He huffed, and stood. “If only Amaris knew.”
“Sion.”Illuma pleaded, but Sion ignored Illuma until the others woke.

“Sion, is everything alright?” Amaris waited ‘till Sion was near to whisper her concern. Sion smiled and took in her every feature, from creases in her worried brow to the burgundy hair surrounding her pale skin and deep, solemn eyes. Amaris deserved more respect than Illuma gave her. Only then did Sion begin to wonder whom else had so mistreated Amaris. Sion just nodded in return to Amaris’s question. The latter waited and listened for a moment before trusting Sion’s answer.
Throughout the day’s travel, Sion did not once look at Illuma, and the trek lasted long. He had to blink himself awake several times and, whether from the change in weather or his early morning discord with Illuma, Sion’s head started to ache, and grew in pain until they rested from the day. When they stopped for the evening, Sion could hardly slide himself from his mount without stumbling. His feet thudded on the ground, and he winced, leaning against his horse, and waited for the fog to clear. An unfamiliar and firm hand gripped Sion’s arm. He whipped his head to the side. Briair cocked his head, and Sion sorted through the mush of his mind to find words. Nothing came.
“What is wrong with you, man?” Briair asked.
“I will be fine.” Sion blinked long and steadied himself before pulling the reigns over his horse’s head. Briair pulled a little on Sion’s arm.
“Really Briair . . .” Sion could not say anymore, his thoughts drifted and filled with Illuma’s cruelty. He felt tears in his eyes and regretted Briair’s presence.
“Stubborn.” Briair released Sion’s arm, but the latter could feel the young man watching him settle his horse and then laid down. Only then did he find he had forgotten to take off his sword. He managed to unfasten the buckle and lay the weapon aside. Briair approached him again, this time squatting in front of him. Sion had not the will to move.
“Just let me rest.”
Briair rolled his eyes. “Alright.” He sat back and stayed in front of Sion.
“My head just aches Briair, it will pass.” Then he added, feeling more groggy, “leave me alone.” It sounded half-hearted, and felt slurred. Briair did leave, though . . . Only to come back a short time later. He sat beside Sion, closer this time. He took Sion’s hand and put something in it. Sion fully opened his eyes which had been half-closed, and saw some leaves, already beginning to crumble. He looked at Briair.
“Amaris said to chew on these for a while, drink lots of water,” which Briair placed in Sion’s other hand, “ and rest.”
Sion stared a moment and then looked over camp for where Amaris sat watching him. He nodded and she smiled. Sion tossed the leaves in his mouth and winced at the bitter taste.
“Uh . . . do not swallow.” Briair said with caution.
Sion turned his eyes on the boy. What, was he being poisoned?
“Amaris said to chew them, but try to not eat them.”
Lovely. Sion chewed until his jaw ached and his head numbed, then spit out the grainy bits of leaf. He drank water and tried to push himself to a sitting possition. He was somewhat aware of Briair sitting near, but opted to not have any half-conscious conversations. Then he slumped into a more blurry state — what had Amaris given him?

Sion’s eyes batted open. A blanket laid over him and he was curled up like an infant. He judged by the amount of sunlight that he had slept the remainder of the evening and straight through the night. He noticed while propping himself up that his head only had signs of the previous banging. He sighed and pushed the blanket from his shoulders; then he saw Briair watching him. Sion gestured for the young man to join him. Briair listened and silently came and sat beside Sion who could now recognized little pricks of pain in his head.
“Thank you for yesterday.”Sion said.
Briair nodded.
“You certainly have no reason to actually help me.”
Briair nodded again.
“I apologize for my treatment toward you, but how can I trust someone who . . .” Sion shrugged, he could not finish the sentence.
“I understand.” Briair’s strong gaze unnerved Sion who realized he was not dealing with a boy, at least not entirely.
“I could lie to you and say I now believe you are safe,” Sion sighed, “but I will not do such.”
“I appreciate that. I will tell you the same.”
“Why, then, did you come? Three vagabonds who held you by the sword seemed good company to keep?”
Briair smirked. “I know Adreaga provoked you. I smacked her around, to.”
“I did not touch her, Briair.” Sion defended.
Briair held up his palms. “I did not mean to imply such.”
“Where she now?” Sion noticed he could not find any others. “Briair, where are the women?”
Briair smiled toward the trees. “Adreaga is giving a show of her skills.”
Sion’s heart quickened. She had a bow and was actually using it? Her last demonstration, short as it was, had impressed Sion. “You do not mind if I excuse myself?” Sion stood, slow. He took a couple steps and looked back at Briair who lounged back without interest. “No intent on watching your sister at her game?”
“I have seen her shoot hundreds of times.”
“Hundreds? But who—”
“Go watch her. You will see why.”Briar waved Sion away.
Sion started walking, but Briair called his name. “Yes?”
Briair watched Sion a moment. “She came, I had to follow her.”
Sion pressed his lips together. “I am sorry for that.” Then Sion left.

The thrush of a flying arrow made Sion take a quick step back. He could not yet see Adreaga or her small audience. Then an idea came to Sion. He stepped behind a tree and made quiet progress toward the performance in progress. Careful to remain anonymous, Sion slipped behind the last tree he could hide behind before someone would see him. Yes, he could see Adreaga, poised for her next shot, and Amaris standing beside and a little behind the young woman. Perhaps Sion could watch without having to actually interact with the youth who so loathed him.
Sion caught his breath when the next arrow flew; Adreaga had made no preparatory gestures for the shot. The next followed same as last, and so did the following few arrows. An easy-looking pull proceeded a soundless stare down her arrow before she released her effortless grip on the string. After a long guffaw at Adreaga’s form, which made his own seem laborious, Sion turned his head until he saw where the arrows were heading. Narrowing his eyes, Sion began counting arrows when another wooden shaft stuck in the ground beside the others, perhaps five or seven. Adreaga was showing an arc shot. He watched as an arrow flew off Adreaga’s bowstring, glided upward for a fraction of a second, and then dove until its tip thrust into the ground alongside the other which stuck feather end-up in the ground. Sion looked for any missed arrows, perhaps lying without confidence on the dirt beside the others, but he saw nothing. This girl’s aim was ridiculous. Yet, Sion had only seen her shoot the ground, an unimportant target indeed. “Limit the time between shots,” Sion startled Adreaga, but Amaris looked annoyed, as he stepped out and started toward the two women. “And shoot at something that matters.”
Adreaga set an arrow and turned the bow on Sion whose heart ceased beating and feet froze in place. Adreaga jerked her bow in the direction of the other shots, her face still facing Sion with crewel satisfaction. Her arrow shot and spun out of control, smashing into a tree and breaking into wood splinters. Sion felt perspiration on his forehead. “Damn.” He muttered. “Do not ever do that again.” Sion wanted to take the bow from Adreaga and dash it against a rock, but he needed to show better control.
“Can you not trust any skill better than your own?” Adreaga tightened her lips.
“Not without a trial.”
Adreaga smirked, and mumbled. “You must give a lot of tests, then.”
Sion, unamused, asked Adreaga if she would comply.
“What do you want me to show you?”
“Speed. I want to see your accuracy hold up.”
Adreaga mumbled again. “Wake up sooner next time.”
Sion nodded. Perhaps Adreaga had already showed her full potential, but Amaris did not wake Sion, and he needed to see himself, this child’s ability.
“Humor me, please.”
Adreaga gave Sion a cocky grin. “How fast?”
“As fast as you can.”

Within minutes, Sion was outlining paths for the next round of arrows and Amaris watched, void of expression, as Adreaga shot with precision . . . and speed. If only the over-confident annoyance had a polite demeanor, Sion might actually enjoy having this girl around. She shot at his command until she called it quits on account of a sore arm. Sion believed her excuse. Besides, she had proven herself.
“Who taught you, or did you figure archery out on your own?” Amaris asked.
Adreaga huffed. “Not a chance.”
Sion fumbled a moment with Adreaga’s remark. “Wait, which question were you answering?”
Adreaga looked between the two and then walked away.
“Amaris,” Sion shook his head, “I have to teach you about introductory phrases.” He began fetching his arrows which he had volunteered for the demonstration.
“What do you mean by that, Sion?”
“Amaris, you and I have too much history to hide much from each other. Ordinary people need to be coaxed from the shadows a bit. You expect too much, and too rapidly. You will not tell those two more than half of what you are, and you want them to answer your every question?” Sion knew Amaris held back far more than Sion. Over half the time, Sion felt he followed Arian. “Give your words some thought.”
“You think I do not?”
Sion smirked. “You think plenty about your replies, but questions? Respect people enough to ask as slow as you tell.” Sion’s quiver was full, and he had three of Adreaga’s arrows in his hand. Amaris waited to reply, and then she only nodded.
“The girl left some arrows.” Sion joined Amaris who had watched him pick up after Adreaga’s shots.
“I will return them,” Amaris tried to take the arrows, but Sion pulled back his hand.
“No. I finally have the smallest incentive for her to not hate me.”
Amaris laughed. “You need it.”
“Exactly my point.” Sion pricked the tip of one arrow. “Pathetic bow and arrows, really.”
Amaris held an open hand, “Can I? I will give it back—” Sion hesitated “—to you.” He dropped an arrow into Amaris’s palm. She turned it over, flicked the warn feathers, and returned the weapon.
“Odd.”
“I know.”
Amaris nodded.
“She did not damage a single arrow,” Sion exhaled. “Thank god. I cannot afford it.”
“I doubt she can either. Go return her arrows.”
Sion nodded and straitened a bent feather before taking it back to Adreaga.

Chapter 7

Arguing was pointless. Especially since, for once, Sion agreed with Amaris’s judgment. Taking the obscure path through the forest, though it would add several days to their estimated arrival in , showed signs of intelligence instead of the irrational outbursts Amaris exhibited so often. Sion regretted only that he knew nothing of this unmarked road. He submitted at once, though. Amaris could have this one chance to redeem herself. She could have mentioned the path before they reached it though, it would have saved the altercation between her and Sion. She started veering off the road into the trees, and continued her strange path until Sion stopped her for questioning. Then the decision Amaris had clearly made miles, if not weeks before, gained Sion’s approval. He had what choice?
Amaris’s temperament normalized over the following days, and Sion would sit at camp during the evenings in quiet, relaxed that Amaris did not need a constant correction. Even gathering fire wood did not stress him as before. Amaris could handle herself without a nursemaid for awhile. Sion wandered into the thin trees where the forest gave way to tall grass in a clearing. He leaned against a tree and exhaled. Why any man would marry was beyond him. Women played on him like an instrument he wished they would set down. He stood still for moments, minutes, and time swept forward until he could have slept against the tree bark at his back. Pine needles rustled, and Sion opened his eyes to see which small woodland creature had shortened his small rest. Nothing. He leaned away from the tree and stretched. Time to head back anyway. He headed to where the sound had come from. Satisfy curiosity before returning to duty. Maybe something to eat.
Sion pulled his knife and turned the handle in his hands. He glanced between ground and tree, and walked passed the disturbance. He snapped a twig and grimaced, putting his knife back in his belt. He sighed and turned toward camp, when he heard wood break behind him. He looked back and saw a large swath of fabric flash through the trees. He narrowed his eyes, hesitated, and then pulled his knife again.
Sion pursued the unwelcome visitor, who ran much faster than he, dodging the sparse trees. Between branches and trunks, Sion could make out burgundy fabric in a dress-like attire, odd for this part of the country. The man pulled up a hood as he darted into the clearing where the golden grass outlined his thin and short form. When Sion stepped out of the woods the man ducked back into them. Sion followed, rolling his eyes. What coward was he chasing? He could catch him by a chunk of that heavy leather coat in a minute at most, it had to be slowing the man. The small form slowed and Sion stopped running, and walked toward the man, but he lost sight of him and quickened his pace again. The man had a horse.
Sion jumped back before the horse could trample him as it rushed toward the high grasses. Sion raised his knife, but hesitated to wound an unknown scoundrel, but he could not chase the chestnut horse on foot. He loathed to think what report of him and the two silly women could unfold if this man turned out a scout of any kind. Sion focused on the rear flank and raised his arm. Before the knife could fly, another nag entered the clearing, rushing at the first man.
This new rider did not seem to take notice of Sion as his horse spoiled the other’s course. Sion hid behind a tree and watched. No collision, but the chestnut reared and the rider yanked the reins, choking back his mount, and went flying off his seat. He slammed against the ground ank kicked himself away from the horse to avoid stumbling hooves. Sion winced. The man had more to deal with than bruises, because the second rider did not seem to have restraint in mind. Jumping from his mount and abandoning the tan horse, he grabbed the reigns from the other riderless horse. Sion put away his knife and waited, hand on his hilt.
When the thrown rider started scrambling to his feet, the second man released the reins and dove onto the struggling man. Then he watched the chestnut flee in the direction of the other horse. “Damn it! I swear you will be punished for this.” There was no verbal response, but an unequal scuffle where the weaker man never made any progress against the other. He slapped the face above him, and then the second man sneered but did not return the hit. After freeing an arm, the trapped man jambed his elbow into the opponents jaw. The larger man punched the other’s arm in punishment for the hit, and then secured the man, locking one leg on either side.
Sion drew his sword, slow to eliminate noise. He took a deep breath and moved quick to the quarreling men, holding his blade to the bigger man’s back. Sion heard the threat in the man’s voice as he looked to the smaller, and Sion assumed younger. “What did you do?”
“Nothing . . . Yet.” Even angry this man’s speech sounded smooth.
“Hands away from your weapons!” Sion shouted too loud for being nar atop the men.
The brawnier man looked over his shoulder at Sion. Young, too young for taking someone’s life. The square face, bordered with disheveled blond hair, bore dark brown eyes which kept fighting after the man moved his hand from his knife and did something Sion could not see to the smaller man’s face before pulling his arms away from his sides.
“Thank you.” Sion said. “Disarm yourself, and no tricks.”
The man nodded, and then undid his belt, laying it aside. Sion kicked it away. “Good. Now off of him.” Sion gestured to the side with his head and the man stood up accordingly. Sion slid his foot onto the pinned man’s stomach as the other stood up.
“That is not necessary!” The stronger man protested.
“I will decide that,” Sion returned. “Besides, you attacked him, see what I care of your opinion of each other.” Sion pressed his sword against the larger man’s torso so he could feel movement and then looked down. “Your weapons.” The younger man gasped. He should have been so worried the moment before. Sion heard the other man huff while the smaller of the two pulled a quiver off his back, bow inside.
“Your sword,” Sion said.
The man’s face froze.
“What?”
“I don’t have one.”
“Show me you have no other blades.” Sion picked his foot up off the man and kicked the small pile of weapons further away. He heard a groan from the man his blade laid against. “What did you expect?” Sion said without looking away from the smaller man who stood while pulling his hood over his face.
“Look, we will leave.” Insisted the stronger man. “You have my word.”
“No you will not. Not yet.” Sion was dragging these two to Amaris the second he had them disarmed. He shouted at the smaller man. “Show me your weapons, now!”
The man hesitated, looking helpless. He must have a hidden blade he wanted to keep somewhere beneath that over-sized coat. Then the man began undoing the few fastened buttons. There was no blade. Nothing but a burgundy dress wrapped around the fully developed curves of a mature woman. Sion looked at her face. Younger, smaller, weaker, but not a man. The pressure left his sword tip, and Sion turned on the other man — the only man — who was leaning toward the pile of weapons. “Do not move.” Sion accentuated each word. The young man glared. “You cannot protect her after you fought her.” Then the woman scooted toward the weapons. Sion followed instinct and moved closer to the man, arm bent, and blade resting heavily on his torso now. “I will kill him.” Sion did not know why this tactic worked, but it did. The woman’s face drained of color and she obeyed. Sion looked between the two, but he did not see the horses anywhere. There did not appear to be any others. “I do not care what kind of demented lover’s quarrel this is –”
The young man huffed, recoiling from the insult.
“I said I do not care,” Sion continued. “You will both come with me, or I will end it myself.”
The woman nodded. Sion gestured to the forest. He waited untill both were in front of him and then followed behind them, guiding them towards Amaris with verbal commands. The man reached to the woman who crossed her arms. Sion rolled his eyes; perhaps Amaris would be able to conjure an answer for this dilemma.

Illuma’s attention was immediately caught, and Amaris turned her head uninterested, until she saw the small company. “Sion,” she stood up and walked towards him, “what is this?” She half whispered, as if the intruders could not hear. Now, what was the point in that? At least Sion had numbers on his side. He dropped his sword tip and sheathed the blade.
The two strangers stopped at the edge of camp, and Sion was through pushing this couple. “Ask them. The little brats were either spying on us or…” Sion stepped up to the young woman who had made herself look too much a man again. He could fix that. He went for her hood, but the man beside her tossed it back first, exposing the long blond braid. Where was the sense in that? Did the man think women would be less likely to harm his . . . Whatever she was to him. Sion looked at Amaris, her irritation unmasked as she pinched her nose and closed her eyes. Words Sion could not make out slid beneath her breath. Amaris looked at the young woman.
“I thought I we had been over this already, Adreaga.”
Sion stepped between the intruders and Amaris. “You know this girl?”
“Hardly.”
“I am no girl.” Adreaga defended. The voice did indeed belong to a woman.
“I really do not care how old you are.”Sion studied Adreaga whose arms remained crossed in defiance.
“Whoever you are, and whomever this is,” Sion looked with disgust at this woman’s lover, “you can both go back to wherever you —”
“You do not recognize her, Sion?”
Sion turned toward Illuma whose small voice silenced the conversation.
“No. Should I?”
Illuma nodded. “She stopped Amaris, in that town we passed through last week.” Illuma came close and whispered quiet to Sion. “Pay more attention, when you are mad you do not watch close enough.”
Sion nodded, but would go no further to acknowledge the criticism. At least Illuma had enough courtesy to keep such private. “Still,” Sion turned to Adreaga and the silent youth beside her, “I do believe Amaris made her intentions concerning you quite clear.”
“You will be leaving.” Amaris said with sternness Sion admired. She did know how to hold her ground. “After you tell me why in the world you would follow me like this. It is an insult, threat, and absolute defiance to anything I told you. What would make you think I would allow you to come after you hunted us —”
“Tracked you,” the girl corrected.
“For over a week,” Amaris continued without listening to Adreaga. “Only to intrude on our settlement. Whatever you did was enough to set off Sion, and that is enough for me to turn you away. But I have a plethora of reasons.” Sion crossed his arms and listened. “So, please, humor me with an explanation.”
“I want to help.”
Amaris guffawed. “When you pour milk into a bowl to help your mother in the kitchen, you are not actually helping. And I have no time to train innocent youths in warefare. So, you had better be on your way home.”
“What makes you think we cannot fight?” The man beside Adreaga asked. He did have a voice. “Do you think I carry a sword but lack skill to use it?”
Amaris looked them over.
“I took their weapons.” Sion filled in.
Amaris nodded. “Let us say you can fight. I still do not care.”
“Why?” Adreaga’s voice neared begging. “You do not want aid?”
Amaris opened her mouth wide, but clamped it shut, and then spoke quieter. Sion smiled. “I do not want either of you with me for one more second. Did I advertise for adolescent mercenaries?”
“We are not adolescent.” The boy said.
“And we are not mercenaries.”
“Well that is a relief,” Amaris laced her words in sarcasm. “I thought even vengeance had lowered itself with you two.”
The young man rolled his eyes.
“What is your name?” Sion asked.
“Briair.” The man answered, still watching Amaris. To Sion’s dismay, Briar seemed to know Amaris was in charge.
“Wonderful.” Amaris lied. “Briar, go home, and take Adreaga with you. I am finished.” Amaris turned away.
“I can help you if you will let me!” The girl followed after Amaris, who turned and stared into the girl’s eyes.
“I said go home.”
“Besides Adreaga,” Briair said. “Try helping without a horse, or a coat for that matter. I am taking my things when we leave. Now stop bothering these people, and” he emphasized his last words, “let us leave. Now.”
“I have a bow,” Adreaga glared at Briair, “and that is enough.”
Briair smiled and huffed. He either did not take her seriously, or wanted Adreaga to fall into her place.
Sion stepped in front of the man, cutting off his line of sight from the women. “That is enough from you. I have never seen a woman treated in such a volatile way before. You disgust me, and I never want to see you or hear from you again.”
Briair pushed against Sion’s chest, sending the latter back a step. Sion grabbed the man’s wrist and was ready to do anything against the youth to teach an adequate lesson. Except Adreaga piped up. Did these two love or hate each other?
“Please, Briair. I will make it up to you, later, just —”
“What, after your excursion with these strangers?” Briair asked. “You are lucky I came after you. I cannot believe what you are trying to do.”
“Do not get yourself in more trouble.” Adreaga said.
Briair sneered. “You are the one going to pay for this, not me.”
“Do not hurt her,” Sion commanded.
“Or what, you will come after me? I dare you.”
“Briair!” Adreaga cried.
“I will not have to.” Sion grabbed his sword hilt. He gaped at Amaris as she pushed into his side, knocking him off balance. He glared. “I am doing this woman a favor. If you had seen them, Amaris . . .” Sion shook his head and closed his eyes, trying to contain his wrath. His fingers wrapped tighter around his blade.
“Trust me, she is not hurt,” Briair sounded calm now. “Not bad enough for any lasting harm.” Then he looked at Adreaga. “Maybe it will teach her not to run from home.”
“Is that what your business is?” Amaris asked, looking at Briair, but holding her arm out against Sion’s reaction.
“She can leave. In a couple years, Adreaga. When you are older,” he pleaded. “Please, just wait.”
Sion could not read Adreaga or Briair’s faces. Somber, begging, pitiful, and angry.
“No.” Adreaga answered. “I am not staying at home one minute more. I go with them, or I will leave some other way.”
Amaris closed her eyes tight, and then looked between the boy and girl several times. “How are you related?”
“By blood,” Briair answered.
“Sadly only minutes apart,” Adreaga jerked up her eyebrows at Briair.
“Ugh,” Sion groaned. “Leave. Both of you, now.” Now he walked away, hand falling from his hilt. “All we need is two fiery, frustrating children to annoy us.” He heard a chuckle, a familiar one, and looked at Amaris rubbing her forehead with a broad grin.
“Go home,” she looked between the two siblings, and nodded. Then she left the two. “Illuma, Sion, we are leaving now.”
Sion watched as Adreaga panicked and Briair gloated with a threatening face. Sion could not help his concern. The man grabbed his sister’s wrist, and she kicked him in the shin. He let go to hold his leg for a moment. Adreaga did not move.
“Would one of you please help me?” Briair asked.
“No,” Sion and Amaris answered in unison.
Adreaga rushed to Amaris and pulled her around by the arm. Sion reacted, but steadied himself when he saw no harm would come. Amaris froze, but Sion could only see her back. Adreaga hushed her commanding voice, but Sion could still make out the words. “Is there any good reason for not letting me along?”
“Honey, you are no good to us. Trust me, I am doing you a favor.” Amaris pushed back a stray blond wisp. Adreaga pushed Amaris away, the latter leaned forward. Now Sion could see her face, however soft she had tried to make it a moment before, Amaris was livid now.
“I will prove you wrong.” Adreaga spit out.
“Adreaga, please do not.” Briair said.
Amaris raised her hand to Briair, but kept her gaze on Adreaga. “Do it.”
“I need a bow.”
“Archer?” Amaris teased. “Without a bow?”
“I have one, but it is . . .”
“Cracked?” Briair smiled meanly.
Adreaga turned her eyes aside. “And for that I will never forgive you.” Now Sion understood the gasp when he had asked Adreaga to turn over her weapons. She realized how hard she had fallen on her bow.
“If you use mine,” Sion said, “can we get rid of you?”
“Maybe.” Adreaga said.
“Just do it, Sion.” Illuma wined. “I am sick of this circus.”
“Me to.” Sion went to retrieve his quiver. Adreaga grabbed it, but Sion did not let go. “Shoot anything we do not tell you to, and I’ll make it so you cannot return home.”
“Understood.”
Even with Adreaga’s promise, Sion drew his sword and stood beside her while everyone else watched from behind. This should be a good show, hopefully embarrassing enough to send these insolents away.
“The pull will be stronger,” Briair offered.
“Stupid.” She remarked. “I know that.” Adreaga tested the string a few times. Then she loaded an arrow, pulled the string to her cheek — she had that part down smooth enough — and then Sion blinked. He saw the arrow vibrating in a tree.
Amaris chided her. “Distance is nothing without —”
A second arrow stuck, half a foot away. “I was trying to not hit your arrow,” Adreaga sassed Sion.
“She can do that every time.” Briair said.
“Would you chose a side, and shut up?” Sion told the young man.
Sion grabbed his bow and walked passed Amaris, whispering to her before retrieving his arrows. “Now I like her less.”
“Agreed.” Amaris returned.
Now they had to take these two as a threat, at least the girl, and get rid of her and her brother.
“Alright,” Amaris looked from face to face, with calculated expressions. “I need both of you to stand over there,” Amaris pointed, “and keep quiet long enough for us to confer.”
“My pleasure,” Adreaga smiled and brushed by her brother before they occupied a space between some trees where Sion could barely see them.
“I do not like this. Either one of them would be bad news, and sadly there are two.” Sion wasted no time in saying.
Amaris watched Adreaga and Briair.
“You had to go through that town, right?” Sion said.
Amaris rolled her eyes at him. At least now he and Illuma had her attention. Illuma. Would she give so much as two cents of thought? She spoke, as if listening in on Sion’s mind.
“You have a talent for attracting trouble,” she looked at Amaris. “Could you stop using it, please? First that other woman, what was her name —”
“Shh!” Amaris raised her eyebrows, threatening Illuma. Now that Sion wanted to know about. . . Another time.
“Never mind that. But now these two.” Illuma shook her head. “What are we going to do with them?”
“Send them away,” Sion urged. Like he should have to fight for that case. But Illuma chuckled and Amaris huffed.
“That will not work.” Illuma said.
“Why not?” Sion asked.
Amaris rubbed the back of her neck, “they tracked us for six days without our noticing. And that girl . . .”
“What?” Sion demanded.
“I do not think she will stop following us.”
“Then tie them to a tree and hope they do not starve.”
“Sion!” Illuma scorned.
“Really? Could they not use the lesson. Never have I seen two such impolite brats.” Sion heard murmuring from Adreaga and Briair. He turned his head and the girl shushed her brother who then spat some furious word down her neck. “They cannot even get along with each other. I say we leave them.”
“Can we just make a decision and get out of here?” Illuma said.
“They are too determined to leave behind.” Amaris watched the siblings, again.
“You say that as if they are an asset.” Sion said.
Amaris locked eyes with Sion. She had made up her mind.
“This is ridiculous!” Sion whispered the best he could manage. “You will throw your life in with these vagabonds?” No answer. “You are the stupidest woman I have ever met. Could I take that broach off your neck and give it to someone who will take care of it, watch after herself?”
Amaris glared with annoyance. “I say they come.”
Illuma chuckled.
“You,” Sion looked at Illuma, “I am done with.”
“Sion.” Amaris stepped forward. “That is enough out of you.” She walked just past Sion and stood looking at nothing in particular. She seemed unable to watch Sion any longer. Reason must be tough to face when you are stark raving mad.
“Illuma, knock some sense into her, please.”
“I have traveled with worse,” Illuma looked at the two young people and sighed. “I am not in the mood to contradict Amaris. If there would be danger as a result, I would side with you, believe me. Stupid folly . . . ?” Amaris looked over her shoulder, but Sion could not see her expression to Illuma who continued. “Not worth my intruding on another of your disagreements.”
“That is it? You do not care about two armed youths too full of adrenaline to stop fighting one another?”
“I already have to live with you two. How much more bickering could there be?”
“This conversation is over.” Amaris started in the direction of the two siblings.
Sion grabbed her arm. “Think this through.”
“I have,” Amaris narrowed her eyes. “Although I am not sure how well I thought through your coming.”
“Why, because I do not take your orders?”
“Let me go.”
Sion threw Amaris her arm and watched her go over to Adreaga and Briair.
“I am finished.” Sion want to his horse. Illuma followed and began listing a string of convincing reasons why he should stay, meanwhile, he shoved his things into his pack. “No, Illuma. I am done with her. If she wants to get killed, she will. But not while I am watching.”
“She needs you, Sion. I see it in a thousand ways she does not. And her needing your help has nothing to do with your father. You are the first person in a decade to care about her enough to make her leave.”
“I did not make her do anything.”
“It would have been impossible for her to stay after you came. Please, stay with her. If I had to pick between you and me, I would have you go on with her. I would never see her again if I knew she would have your help.”
“Why?” As if Illuma’s leaving would be at all sacrificial.
“She wants to follow you. For as many decisions as she is trying to make, she needs you beside her, or else, she will fail.”
Sion smirked and lowered his voice. “You think she is a lost cause already. Remember?”
Illuma looked grim. “I know. All the more reason for you to not leave us alone.”Illuma’s gentle sorrow made Sion slow in his retreat. He fastened his sack and closed his eyes, facing down, away from Illuma. “You can outmatch either of them,” Illuma said. “If need be you could probably destroy them both at once. We are not in harm.”
Sion muttered under his breath how untrue her statement was. “They sleep without their weapons. I will not be slain at night by these two.”
“Agreed. I will back you on that.”
“Do I have your word you will not cower when Amaris decides otherwise?”
“Yes.”
Sion had to slap back his sanity in order to speak. “I will stay.” At his words Illuma relaxed. “But not if she continues this way.” Sion finished saddling his horse and had all things prepared for himself so he could have both hands free when Adreaga and Briair returned with their horses.
“Did you tell them what we are doing?” Sion asked Amaris.
Amaris shook her head.
“That sounds fair, right? Who needs to know the gravity of the situation? Naw. I bet they are both fine risking their lives, or ours, without knowing why.”
Amaris closed her eyes and breathed deep, and then looked at Sion. “Their ignorance is a condition on their accompanying us. Apparently our business does not matter to them —”
“That should concern you. Wait,” Sion narrowed his gaze. “Conditions?”
Amaris looked annoyed. “How stupid do you think I am?”
Sion shrugged. “You surprise me, Amaris. I cannot yet fathom how stupid you can be.” Sion paused long enough for Amaris to role her eyes, then asked his question. “What did you tell them?”
“They breathe without my permission and I stop holding you back.”
Sion laughed. “You would.” Now they could hate Sion more, and always try to please Amaris. He had to play body guard.

Amaris and Illuma had their things together, and then all three waited for the return of their new allies. If they could be called that. Their new cohorts broke the tree line into camp, almost identical strides, solid and bitter expressions, each clutching reigns by which they pulled along their mounts. Sion realized they had traded horses, and only a single bow remained between them, pushed into the quiver on Adreaga’s back. Both halted and stared at their superiors to whom they had submitted themselves. Sion would not believe the contract until he saw more than rebellion stirring in this young man and woman. Amaris scrutinized them and then lofted herself onto Fleecle. “Illuma ride third, Sion fifth —” fifth? They did not need five people. Why had Amaris done this? “I do not care what order you two put yourselves in.” Adreaga and Briair mounted without a word, but then they whispered a few nasty words to each other before Briair fell in behind Illuma, leaving Adreaga directly in front of Sion. He glared at the scene before he dared mount. He waited until Amaris turned back in her seat, looking for the delay. He squeezed the reigns and shook his head slow. This was wrong. Sion shoved his foot into the stirrup and threw himself over the top of his horse. He was the only man among this ridiculous group, possibly, he had the most footing in reality.
“Get us moving, Amaris.” Before he changed his mind. Sion’s only comfort came in the their forced separation. Quiet. They wouldn’t dare chatter ruthless words over the solemn Alaquendi between them. Watching the backs of three horses and a unicorn for hours made him think he could leave without trouble. Just slip off the back and turn around, or watch them snickering, brooding over their impending failure without him. No one had tied his hands or burned his rope out of the situation. His father had not even charged him with any duty concerning the Alaquendi. Sion’s concernt kept him facing the same direction as the rest of the company. Although it did nothing to lessen his stern disapproval. Maybe Amaris would wake up tomorrow and realize her err, send the two vagabonds packing, and get on with her job. If not . . .
What if he did not play principal as Amaris expected? He could shrug off every annoyance and hope it all landed on Amaris. She could grow up the hard way, he assumed, since she had already passed up the wiser option.

Chapter 6

Sion soon proved the legitimacy of his intent by going to Amaris’s house every day with a deeper and more detailed question than the last, until they settled on a tentative plan. First they had to reach . If any city had power enough to help, did. Having experienced three turn downs for all her proposals and plans, Amaris was less than thrilled about their choice, but since she and Sion could see no harm, she said they would at least try. Three weeks minimum would be absolved in reaching the city, in which time Sion and Amaris could conjure up secondary plans.
Amaris insisted on having one more week before they departed, to fully prepare and ready supplies. She claimed her resolve was such that even if they failed in finding aid, dozens of times even, she would see her goal through to the end. One week extra before leaving was the least she could demand. Sion wondered what she would require at the most. Her mention of her mission’s end grabbed Sion’s attention; did Amaris believe finishing would look the same as success? At any rate, Sion saw no point in arguing the seven days and conceded it to Amaris with little resistance.
He watched, though, as Amaris prepared. Although he did not live with her, Sion saw an unsettling change in Amaris’s mannerism. She stumbled more, not physically — there she was all sound — but mentally. She forgot things on a daily basis, causing needless backtracking through even a simple task. Her second guessing each detail seemed increased to the point where it could have passed as a full-time hobby. Ill at ease did not begin to describe her state.
The last of Amaris’s changes troubled Sion the most. Watching her jump at little noises, but just as often glaze over in a daze unnerved Sion, as if Amaris’s restless nature brushed onto him. He kept a closer eye on her. That is when he noticed the frequency with which she toyed with her broach. She rubbed her thumb across it past the point where her skin must have burned, and tapped it beyond irritating Sion. Her fingers probably ached, and Sion’s last ounce of patience was running low. He kept quiet, however, promising himself Amaris would calm when she found a rhythm in traveling each day, it would give her something else on which to focus.
Perhaps she was over preparing, pulling out the same herbs multiple days in a row and changing quantities, packing away things she decided to leave behind, and condensing her bags countless times. If she did that while Sion was with her, he couldn’t imagine how she occupied herself in his absence. He gave up seeing Amaris unless necessary. Then he noticed she spent decreasing time at home. He worried. What condition had Amaris slipped into? He would be traveling alone with her in less than a week, and she was coming unraveled.

Scene

Illuma chewed on the inside of her lip, and the knocking came again. Did that boy really come back, to accomplish what, added insult to accompany the wound he delivered by trading in her hospitality for the forest floor? She already had to soothe Amaris receiving an inquiry about what Sion meant by different intentions. If Sion so much as spoke a word to Amaris about Illuma’s slip up in trusting him with a couple concerns she would — the knock was louder, but footsteps began taking whomever was at the door away from Illuma’s house. She rushed to the door and threw it open.
“Amaris.”Not who Illuma expected. Who else should she have been looking for, though?
Amaris’s burgundy hair flounced to the side when she turned. “What were you waiting for?”
“I’m sorry,” Illuma waved Amaris toward the door, “come in.”
Amaris passed Illuma and settled herself into a chair, quicker than usual. She leaned over her knees, fingers tangled in her dark hair. Illuma left the door open, hoping for a breeze, and stared at her friend. What was wrong with her now? “Can you not keep composure for more than ten minutes in my absence?”
“Your being around me makes no difference,” Amaris did not look up, “I cannot figure out how to stay calm, regardless of company.” She paused while Illuma absorbed the insult. Her head sunk lower when she said she would not talk until she had had her tea. Illuma smirked and then lit the tinder in her stove.
“Forget that, Illuma, I need something more than tea, today.” She requested an herb meant for patients in extreme pain.
“No. You can remove that from your mind. I will give you no calmers unless you are bleeding, half-dead, and need surgery.”
Amaris huffed. “Thanks for heading to the worst possibility on that one.” Amaris pushed her hand through her hair, releasing it from the tangled grip, and threw back her head to get a breath of air.
Illuma set her hand on Amaris’s shoulder. The latter flinched. “Relax,” Illuma whispered, then kissed the top of Amaris’s head before ruffling the hair Amaris had been messing with. Illuma waited for the tea to steep and cool completely while Amaris entertained herself with everything short of biting her finger nails. Illuma added a slosh of liquor to Amaris’s cold tea before giving it to her young friend. Amaris took a obligatory sip, but then she sighed. “Thank you.”She eyed Illuma who nodded, uninterested.
“Now, are you going to explain why, exactly, you are out of sorts today?”
Amaris held up one finger and took another sip before setting down her already half-finished drink. “Yes.” Illuma waited while Amaris appeared to be collecting her thoughts. Then it came out in one long rush. “I do not think I can do this. Getting the broach to the basins has always been a mockery, with me, it is likely impossible.” Before Illuma could turn down Amaris’s self-insult, the latter hurried on. “I cannot wield a sword better than my enemy. I have no connections anymore. The land has probably changed drastically in my absence, and I am going to see a king who I hate, unless he is dead, and then I have to explain myself from scratch, something I am not good at.” As if Illuma did not already know all of that. “And Sion . . . Well, I am not even sure if he knows anything or can do anything to help me. I just said, yes! What was I thinking? What am I thinking now? Just because he is . . . Is . . . Never mind. My knowing him was a poor reason for deciding to go anywhere but back to my own house where I can continue rotting in regret and dying off with no chance of survival. Illuma, why did you not stop me before I threw myself into this mess?”
Illuma watched Amaris’s eyes widen as her breaths grew panicky. She almost got up to get more alcohol, except Amaris functioned even worse when drunk. “Where do you find this level of panic? You impress me with how much you can lose control when nothing is happening.” Illuma held up her hand to stop Amaris’s rebuttal. “But you are frustrating yourself over the wrong things. You are a deadly swordsman, and have grown some wild instincts, and under actual trials, you hold your own better than many. Additionally, you can persuade a person,” Illuma bit her lip, “when you are not busy unraveling in a tantrum or frenzy.” Amaris glared, but Illuma finished. “Truly, there are better things to concern yourself with.”
“How do you know anything about these apparent skills you mention? We have been at peace here since before I even arrived.”
Illuma swallowed and prepared for the temper. “Once I knew your lineage, I inquired about you.”
“How?” Amaris bit back.
“Mostly your father,” Illuma sighed, “and your aunt.”
“What?! Why would you do that?”
“If I wanted to keep an eye on you, I thought I should know what you can do when I am not around. Turns out you are well prepared.”
A glimmer flashed in Amaris’s eyes, taking with it a few worried wrinkles. “Have you met my father?”
“Now when would I have done that?”
“Perhaps when you go to trade.”
“You have come with me the last several times, and no, sadly I have never met your father. I sent him several messages by the young page.” The only visitor Amaris ever had intentionally. “Are you going to leave notice for him when you go?”
Amaris grimaced, but nodded yes.
“On your door I suppose?”
Amaris looked confused. “No. Of course I would leave it with you.”
“He will go to your place first.”
“Yes, then when I am not there, he will come here, and —”
“I won’t be here, Amaris.”
Amaris leaned toward Illuma with a wrinkled brow. The reaction pleased Illuma who needed some confirmation from Amaris that her decision made sense, that it would not be totally in vain. “I am leaving as well.”
“Where?” Amaris’s light brown eyes started to water.
Illuma smiled and reached her hand to Amaris’s. “With you.”
Amaris gasped and was silent for a moment, letting the words sit. Illuma needed a moment as well, she had yet to speak her decision out loud. And with Sion’s not being in even rough agreement with her, and Amaris in an unsettled state, Illuma felt foolish, yet she could not otherwise have peace with herself. She felt less guilty following Amaris into battle or other danger than staying safe. Amaris started crying, and Illuma insisted she have some more to drink. Then she realized more than liquor, Amaris needed a good long exhale of emotions. Illuma pulled Amaris over to the couch and wrapped her arms around her while Amaris started breathing in quick short gasps filled with tears. Illuma smiled and stroked Amaris’s hair. Tears would soak the shoulder of Illuma’s dress by the time Amaris ran out of steam. “I know you are afraid. But . . .”Illuma bit her lip before she fibbed. “You can do this, I know you can. Why else would Sion have been able to find you?” Amaris gripped Illuma’s sleeve tighter and wailed. Illuma pulled her legs onto the couch and held Amaris closer.

Illuma tried to hide her shock when Amaris consulted her about any changes which the current plan might need. Sion seemed insulted, but complied now with most of Amaris’s decisions. Illuma thought following his example might prove a good tactic. She could watch out for Amaris better if she did not concern herself too much with meaningless details. Within a couple days, Illuma seemed to have found a quiet niche in the small company. Mostly, she watched the two masterminds at their work, hoping they would not slip up and cause too big a mess for her to clean up. However, Sion and Amaris surprised Illuma with their finesse as the time before departure — extended a couple days to allow for their third party to prepare — waned and each person pulled their resources. Now, how would the individual components perform together, and was a unit even the right word?
Illuma provided knowledge and maturity, and more patience than her counterparts combined, and she also carried several potent herbs and the knowhow to utilize them, although she had never delved too deeply into the medicinal arts where Amaris thrived. Sion had brawn, hopefully decent swordplay, and an attitude which swung between peaceful persuasive to unloosed fire, which worried Illuma more. And Amaris had everything else. The broach, her canny ability to use the key, and a tenacity which none could stop after it got going. If only she would turn up her moxie and simmer down the nerves. Instead, the team prepared to leave while Amaris’s nerves soared near Sion’s irritation and Illuma wished they had not decided to depart from her house, where the door to retreat was too close at hand. Sion had reminded Illuma the day before of how many reasons the latter had to stay away from Amaris and her little mission.
“You know I will not tell Amaris what we have talked about, right?” Sion had sounded so casual. Illuma had to ask.
“What things have we discussed which she should not know?” Illuma held her breath when Sion’s words hit the center of what she had pushed aside so she could follow Amaris.
“Your doubt in her success.”
“Oh, that.” Illuma said. “Well, I would almost hope she has a little skepticism herself.”
“I am getting the impression more every day that Amaris does nothing in small quantities. She is either full of passionate fire or completely depressed, terrified, sorrowful, or the like. And then she tries to simmer down any emotion so the rest of us will not get scorched.” Sion paused, but what could Illuma say? He had typified Amaris with perfect accuracy. He spoke again and smashed Illuma’s foolish hope. “I would not expect any small doubts to creep in. I worry more that whatever massive insecurity she is harboring, it is there somewhere, will explode and engulf her. What will we do then?”
“Nothing at all. Without Amaris, we are not hopeless, we are dead.”
“Hmm.”
“Exactly, so let us not dampen her determination.”
“No, but perhaps we can borrow some of her fire for ourselves.”
“Maybe.”
Now, ready to ride away from home and safety, Illuma doubted she could siphon any usable emotions from Amaris. Besides, she wanted no share in her friend’s crazy nerves.
“I still cannot believe that is all you are brining.” Sion looked towards Amaris’s small satchel. Amaris’s eyes widened.
Illuma rebuked him, fearing Amaris would fly off just to load herself with unnecessities. Illuma fastened her small bag onto her horse’s saddle and pulled her heavy one around her torso, it settled on her back and tugged on her chest. Great.
“Well she only packed the stupid thing seventeen times.” Sion rolled his eyes. Illuma almost slapped the man who only had minimal supplies himself.
“Amaris knows what she needs.” Illuma insisted. “Besides, where would she put any more?” Illuma gestured to the naked-backed unicorn. “Sling it around Fleecel’s neck?”
Fleecel whinnied and Amaris smirked. Good. They better leave before anything else upset their departure. Amaris left, in the right direction, and Illuma followed Sion whose horse fell in behind their leader. From the back, Illuma could look behind at her cozy cabin, moss on the stone chimney, vines interlacing the thick logs which held her life together. It would all die without her there. Soon wind would fill the hearth with ash Illuma had neglected to clean out, and dust would accumulate on all her quiet belongings. Perhaps she did not take enough with her. She had thought only about what she would need ahead. But what she left behind . . . She raised her fingers to her lips and blew a quiet kiss to her home and comfort. Then she turned her attention to Amaris and Sion, hoping they had missed her small farewell. Neither of them had much to leave behind, so they could not think their tag-along would need a moment when departing. Illuma decided their ignorance benefited the entire company, including her personal comfort.

Illuma could not peel her eyes from Amaris. Her black cape made Fleecel’s white flanks beam against the muted forest browns. When Amaris had arrived that morning, Illuma had to force her jaw into submission so it would not drop. Her young friend’s burgundy hair laid on top of a black simple, weathered dress which hovered above the ankles of her boots. A same-colored bodice strapped around her torso and her brilliant broach held the last of dark fabric over her shoulders. Illuma grimaced, the procession could draw a lot of attention. Perhaps if they kept quiet, but no, Sion and Amaris destroyed that notion with bickering before they had put a mile between them and Illuma’s home. The pestering did not stop.

“Amaris, we are not going through this town!” Sion rubbed the skin above his eyes.
“We need a few supplies, things I simply did not have at my house.” Amaris’s arms crossed her chest, protecting her stubbornness.
“Fine. Agreed, we need food. I will get some, whatever you chose, and meet you on the other side of this village, but please, do not expose yourself already.”
Illuma interpreted Amaris’s smirk as purely devious. Sion had lost the argument. Illuma groaned internally. They went not only through the town, but riding on their mounts. Not a single person could resist the temptation to stare at the white unicorn which Amaris usually hid quite well. Sion and Illuma followed their faulty leader as she stopped by several shops and took more than adequate time in selecting the simplest items, adding seeming miles to the short little township. Illuma rolled her eyes often, but the others seemed not to notice. Still, they might get through without —
What was that girl doing? Amaris tried backing away from the young woman three times, shaking her head with a kind, plastered on smile. She even went so far as to cover the broach under guise of fidgeting. Illuma wanted to slap her, no one here knew what the broach meant, and drawing any attention to it would only damage their frail safety. Under a barrage of questions and silly looking pleas, Amaris clasped the young woman’s wrist and pushed her back with a stiff, inconspicuous movement. Illuma missed the discussion, but the young woman looked injured only in pride, and glared at Amaris when the latter turned away to rejoin her frustrated company. Illuma saw Sion’s eyes fixated the same as her own. Amaris almost ran into Fleecel who spooked. Sion spilled an unintelligable phrase beneath his breath while Amaris calmed the mare who walked about without reigns. Even in a populated area, Amaris would not so much as halter her horse, if she owned any such equipment, which Illuma doubted.
After the small altercation, Amaris did not doddle, and they were clear of the place soon. Sion jerked the purchases from Amaris and stuffed them into a near-empty bag hanging on his saddle. “Get on your horse.”
Amaris glared, but did not debate. They all wanted to put distance between them and the shanty town. Perhaps Illuma had been to rough on the small patch of population. Maybe Amaris should reap the grief this time. Illuma hoped only her own company could punish Amaris. As the people faded in the distance, Illuma exhaled in relief. No such emotion came from either Sion or Amaris. Although Amaris did ride abreast to Sion, apparently attempting conversation. She failed, and Sion flew ahead. Amaris gave a gentle kick and Fleecel cantered up behind Sion’s horse. Illuma waited further back. Perhaps these two could work through their disagreement without Illuma. Or not. This time Fleecel rushed ahead, and Illuma had to get her poor horse running to catch the insolent youths. Why did she have to watch after them? Could they not end one conversation on the right note?
Only when Illuma shouted did a complaint did the party slow to a reasonable walk. She took the lead and no one seemed upset with her about it. She could lead through empty grass land as well as Sion or Amaris, with less flair and stupidity, too. She would not needlessly tire the horses. With Fleecel’s intelligence, Illuma had no clue why she was listening to Amaris at all. She did drag them on until weariness set in. When Sion suggested a rest, Illuma kept the pace steady, after Amaris whined, they walked on. If Illuma could exhaust Amaris and Sion, as much as could be done while expending so little energy riding, then perhaps they would fall asleep without creating unnecessary drama.
Sion proved Illuma wrong the second he dismounted. Illuma unsaddled her horse and tried to ignore the fight, but she failed. Brushing her horse, unpacking her blanket, eating some bread, she still heard repercussions from the immature decision made hours before.
“Amaris, that was absurd! This is the last time I want to . . .”
“ . . . I never asked you for an opinion . . .”
“I do not think you are the right person to even be leading this —”
Illuma cringed when Sion suggested the elder of the Alaquendi should be in charge of their mission. She pretended not to hear. Then something pricked her ears. “Where are you going to go?” It was Sion’s voice. Illuma torqued her neck and saw him, arms outstretched in both directions. Amaris was not thinking of abandonment already, was she? Illuma made a quick note of Amaris’s expression. No. That shade of red signaled anger, not fearful retreat. Illuma then found a way to relax amid the yelling. After a while, she did suggest quieter tones unless they wanted to draw attention, the topic which started the current disagreement. Both opponents stopped, for a moment, and looked down at Illuma who probably seemed serene. At least maybe they would think so much. She turned away and several hushed volleys followed, after which they settled into an uneasy silence, and Illuma made sure to pay little attention to either, lest she fall on either side of these pointless arguments.
Ignoring Amaris failed. Her friend’s youth magnified when tempers flared. Much as she seemed attempting to hide her insecurity, Amaris looked a picture of anxiety. Illuma reminded herself of Amaris’s age. At 68 Amaris did not need a mediator between her and her own emotions, and she certainly did not need a nurse maid of any sort. But a friend? Illuma wanted to ensure nothing she did would cripple Amaris in any way. She needed strength, but if Amaris paced one more time in her direction . . .
Illuma managed to catch Amaris’s gaze, and then curled her finger twice, beckoning the latter toward her. Amaris squatted and Illuma patted the ground beside her. Amaris sat, but hardly breathed. A hand was set on Amaris’s back, and she sighed. “Sounds like you could use a few more of those.” Illuma whispered.
Amaris shook her head.
“What, you feel a need to be perfect, because we are not at home?”
“Clearly not perfect” Amaris mumbled.
Illuma chuckled. “True. I still wish you would relax a little. You are kinder, more patient, and wiser.”
“Hmmm.”
“At least consider it.”
Amaris did not respond, but Illuma wrapped an arm around her stiff friend anyway. When Illuma heard Amaris stirring throughout the night, she realized relaxing had become a complex thing. Either Amaris still could not decide whether or not to calm down, or else she did not know how to release the pressure and rest. In the morning heavy steps and shadowed eyes from sleep lack clung to Amaris. Sion had better watch his temper or Amaris would fly off at him for something not worth their effort.

Even before Amaris woke, Sion busied himself irking Illuma. Far beneath his testy attitude, Sion seemed concerned. Amaris was getting to him. Illuma would have lied to say she was not also far beyond pestered by her friend.
“Is there no way you can find to calm her? Every time she loses it, I lose my calm.”
“That’s insinuating you have a measure of sane communication without her on edge.”
“Almost three weeks she has been like this,” Sion hushed his voice, trying to not wake Amaris. Illuma wanted her to sleep as well.
“Well, let us hope she sleeps off whatever is lingering of her nerves.”
“You think she is only suffering left over anxiety?” Sion looked unconvinced.
“No I do not. Trust me, she will come back to herself.”
“You told me she would be exhausted out of her little frenzies.”
Yes, Illuma had claimed such before they left. She thought it would be so simple. “Be patient.” Is all she said now. “For now we will let her sleep.” Sion seemed less than content with Illuma’s answers, and sat festering in frustration until Amaris awoke. Illuma waited to see if perhaps her friend would act more normal so they could get along a little easier. Then Illuma would only have Sion’s immaturity.
Amaris woke, late, and filled Illuma with disappointment. Amaris pushed to get camp picked up quick, and resisted food, insisting they move forward. Amaris whispered angrily to Illuma while the latter saddled her horse. “I do not expect you to allow me to sleep so late again until we are in the forest. Do you understand me?”
Illuma dropped the strap she held and stared at her friend and her dictatorial tone. “Excuse me?” The younger woman only glared. “How about you find gratitude for some extra rest. Calm yourself enough to sleep at night and you will not have to do so in the day, when you are being looked after, might I add.” Illuma mumbled. “Idiot. She is being watched over in daylight, but would prefer sleeping without guard at night.”
“It is not fair to take advantage of you and Sion so I can sleep too much. I have responsibilities to see to.” Amaris walked away before Illuma could even conjure a response.
The pace Amaris kept, leading the company, was near frenetic. Did she think someone followed them? Stupid woman would exhaust the poor horses, but Illuma gave Amaris her way, like a horse was given head to run as it pleased. Amaris managed another fidgety evening and restless night. She moved so much after dark, turning over, rolling into different positions —looking much like a sausage cooking in a pan— Illuma almost could not sleep herself.

“What has happened to you?” Illuma asked. Amaris seemed much to calm the next morning. Bizarre to say the least. Almost serene?
“Nothing.” Amaris resettled things into her small bag while she spoke with a smooth voice.
“Right.” Illuma said, disbelieving.
Amaris lifted her gaze and then dropped it, pausing. Then she fastened her satchel and slung it over her shoulder. “I am faking it, trying to fool myself into calm.”
Illuma smiled. “Any success?”
“We will see.”
Illuma smiled, trying to support Amaris’s feeble attempt. At least Amaris let off her pressure on Fleecel. They traveled at a walk which must have tortured Amaris. Frequent adjustments to her riding position and a constant resettling of her pack which had to be rubbing her shoulder raw with how many times it had been moved, exposed Amaris’s still-short fuse. But she was otherwise — outwardly at least — patient, sitting through the day with few words and less needless suggestions and complaints. She spent the evening in quiet, and slept in the same unhealthy pattern of the past nights. At least she had a new way of showing her anxiety, swallowing all she could, and mulling out the rest alone. Sion quieted down in response, spending more time resting, even taking to waiting to rise until Amaris or Illuma waked him in the morning. One queer result of Amaris’s solitude was Illuma and Sion’s increased time together, doing little, usually talking light about serious matters. Stating obvious hurdles as if they were hardly a problem steeped Illuma in a comforting sarcastic attitude. When she shared any intentional comic relief with Amaris though, the results were unpleasant. Almost bored, they trudged on. The forest would provide a nice change of scenery; several days on the plains was too much. Soon. Trees would appear, soon.

Chapter 5

Amaris tapped lightly on the door, and then thumped her thumb on the jewelry beneath her neck while waiting. Amaris tilted up her chin when the door opened, not sure who would answer. Illuma grinned, studying Amaris. “Hello, you are looking better.”
Amaris responded with a smile and a hug which felt stronger than any kindness she had offered for a fortnight. Then she set her friend at arm’s length. “Where is he?”
“Tea or anything first?”
Amaris shook her head.
“One minute.” Illuma turned back into her house. “Come in if you like,” she said over her shoulder.
Amaris stepped over the threshold and examined the abode. Clean and quiet. Sion emerged from the guest room.
“Alright,” Illuma turned on her heel. “I will give you two some space.”
“It is your home, we will leave.” Amaris kept Sion’s eyes. He nodded to Amaris and then Illuma as he walked toward the previous. Amaris held the door open and Sion passed through. “I will come back before I leave for the day,” Amaris told Illuma who tipped her head in return.
She turned and had to stop from running into Sion who had put less than two feet between them. Amaris narrowed her eyes a moment. “Come on,” Amaris walked away from Illuma’s. She heard steps behind her and inhaled, waiting to see who would take the first verbal blow. Several minutes passed while Sion walked beside Amaris, making occasional glances which never seemed to land far from the broach beneath Amaris’s chin.
“What are your questions for me?” Amaris looked ahead still. After no answer she side-glanced Sion. “Do not tell me you have no inquiries, I will not believe such from you.”
“Is that it?”
Amaris pulled her head back. What? Then she traced Sion’s eyes to the great jewel at her collar. She smiled. “You know what this is, then. Your father did not leave out all details, less for me to fill in.” Amaris felt relieved, perhaps Sion did not need schooling. Wait, that meant simple answers would be in low demand.
“What are you going to do with it?”
Amaris had not prepared for the condemning tone this soon. Her steps faltered and she stopped walking. A thick lump took the clarity from her voice. “Exactly what I am supposed to.”
Sion nodded, but his eyes turned to slits. “Can you explain why you have not finished your task yet?”
Amaris bit the inside of her lip as hard as she could without drawing blood. “Are you one of the people who thinks this is an easy walk down the lane? Because if so, I don’t have time for you. I need help, not opposition, or accusation.”
Sion opened his eyes wider. Amaris had the right to talk about her problem without skirting it in a petty facade.
“Are you telling me no one has the position of keeping you accountable?”
Amaris ground her teeth. “Certainly not you.”
“But does anyone . . . Or do you just shelter that broach, and get away with doing nothing?”
Amaris turned away and glared.
Sion huffed. “Gese! Do you think it belongs to you? Your ancestors took care of it, you are supposed to do the same.”
“Does it look in poor condition to you?”
“Are you ever going to use it?”
Amaris held silence for a minute. “Funny how your not mentioning how no one else in my family line ever made use out of the key, either. Because I am the current owner, responsibility for hundred’s of years falls on me?” Now, Sion stayed silent. “As if I am the only one to ever fail at my duty.”
“If their neglect makes yours more palatable, so be it. Multiple wrongs does nothing to assuage my frustrations.”
Amaris’s palm snapped into a fist and she closed her eyes lest she actually hit the man. She pressed the hand against her lips, trying to blur out the insult Sion had just unknowingly cast onto her mother. Her eyes shot open and she wished Sion could suffer the fire she felt inside. “You ignorant child! You cannot know anything about my lineage and spew horrendous lies like you just did.” Amaris shook her head. “I don’t know if I can handle traveling three feet with you at my side.” She started off deeper into the forest.
“You are just going to leave the conversation then?”
“No, fool, keep up.” Amaris forced the dagger at her side out of her mind. Sion caught up and needed a few moments to get back his breathing rhythm. Amaris could keep the pace all day after what she had just heard. “Tell me now, would you actually help me?”
“What are your other resources?”
Amaris stopped, and Sion jerked to a halt. “Me.” She answered.
Sion nodded but seemed displeased. “Then you need my help.”
“Why do you think I have stayed in this damned forest for so long?”
“Maybe if you did not send people away —”
“I know who means me harm, and I will not have them near me.”
“What is your plan?”
Amaris was taken aback, and stood in silence. She had nothing more to say.
“I see.”
“You make a plan for two people. Watch me tell you how insane it is. One broach. One of me. No aid.”
“Have you ever thought about —”
“If you want me to have daughters to preserve my line, I will slice out your tongue.”
Sion tilted his head down and looked up at Amaris. “Getting more than two people to chance this with?”
Amaris chuckled. “You are ignorant. But your optimism is refreshing, regardless of its folly.” She nodded in assent. “Then again . . . It has been some time since my last pounding on king’s and captain’s doors. Perhaps they will have forgotten my annoyance by now.” Then she estimated the years it had been since her efforts had exhausted her into unofficial retirement. “Better still, maybe they are dead.” But then she pinched her eyelids shut. Just all the wrong ones. Valmier. Amaris looked up, and Sion’s disposition softened. She shrugged.
“Will you come with me?” At Sion’s hesitation Amaris added a consideration. “Of course you can think about it, and then . . .”
“I have pondered that for years, and decided I would accompany you to the basins if ever the chance came.”
Everything fell quiet and solemn, like the world had to wait for the moment to pass. Amaris nodded at length, thinking about what Sion’s answer really meant. The basins were a haunt for death. “I need you to read something before anything else is decided.”
“I will.” Neither had broken the respectful tone, rare at best between them. They walked wordless back to Illuma’s. As the house came into sight, Amaris told Sion he was more then welcome to return to her home or else stay with Illuma, but she needed to lend him something from her place either way.
“And you would prefer?”
Amaris resisted the sigh of relief and answered honestly. Sion seemed not offended, and would stay with Illuma, whose welcome he had not yet worn thin.
Illuma seemed shocked to see Amaris and Sion so soon. Sion looked at Amaris, “Do you want me to come with you to get the . . .”
Amaris shook her head. “I can see to that.”
Sion nodded to Amaris and tipped his head to Illuma. “If you ladies will excuse me.” Sion turned and walked away, probably to wander anywhere alone.
“What happened?” Illuma began.
“Soon enough we will know. I will . . .” she watched Sion walk beyond the first trees, “return later. I have to get something.”

Amaris delayed at her house because she knew Sion would wander for some time, and she wanted to be the one handing him the book, not Illuma. Sion had to hear Amaris’s threat of what would happen if he damaged the heirloom. She did not loan it out to many, it caused too much anxiety, opened too many doors, and answered too many questions. She returned to Illuma’s, and still had to wait. Illuma recognizing the loosely bound, multi-author book, and discretely offered Amaris company until Sion’s return. Few words passed as the time drug on. They drank tea, although Illuma admitted to a low supply of Safrima, and said she wanted to save it, so a different drink attempted to sooth Amaris. The emotional repercussions from the past month had to be stripping years off her life.
Amaris set down her third cup of tea after dinner as Sion opened the door. She greeted Sion and quieted him before he could finish apologizing for his long absence. “I did not mind the time.” Amaris picked up the book and rubbed the worn burgundy leather. “Take care of this, and read it slowly. There are few pages, and I can be patient with you.” She placed it in Sion’s hands, and tried to discern the puzzle in his eyes. “This is my lineage.” Amaris choked back the familiar lump. “Our stories back to the day, the instant our family was set apart.”
Sion opened to a middle page and turned a few leaves. “This is how old?”
“Not as old as I wish. A foggy replica of the original which, to our great misfortune, burned.” Amaris felt her stability waining. “Just return it when you are finished. Then we will talk again.” Amaris began leaving, but Illuma caught her up in a hug before she let her leave. Soon Amaris would be home and could begin rethinking what she had just allowed Sion to read.

Scene
Sion studied the surface of Amaris’s revered book.
“She is serious about this, Sion, the whole thing. Make sure you know what your offer means.” Then Illuma retired to her room.
Sion took a seat by the fire. His leisurely walk could have lead him in circles for days, his mind teetering between surprise at Amaris’s turn in behavior, and his still frustration with her dishonesty to this point. Yet, after a month so filled with lies it soured his stomach, Sion had been convinced with rapidity that Amaris was who she claimed, and he just as fast committed himself to her aid. And now she entrusted him with her family story, a history few had probably seen in full. To what had he agreed? Curiosity made him want to tear open the cover, but Amaris’s threats slowed his hand; damaging the book would get him no where fast with this woman.
The pages looked aged, but still thick and strong. Amaris told him it was not old, but to an Alaquendi years must seem more like months. Sion stretched his back before turning to the first page where he expected some boredom from familiarity. His father told him the entire story, from the time darkness rose to the life of Amaris, at which point everything seemed almost redundant with repetition. He sighed. He supposed he should hear it from Amaris’s perspective as well — at least her family’s angle.
It started dull enough. Sion knew of the Alaquendi’s unfortunate location when one of their corrupt offspring had reversed his flow of life so he took rather than gave the substance. Unlike his kin, walked followed by a decaying of the earth, and a rapture of the energy Alaquendi emitted. His bullying of his people turned to brash injustice, and he began converting others to his cause. When his strength had grown enough, he began taking over the south, an epicenter of Alaquendi activity. With excessive water sources, the southern coast, the Basins, became advantageous and easy to protect. Apparently the story in Amaris’s little book started within the falling of this community when a young couple found by a troop of ‘s followers would not convert to BG’s cause. They were taken to . Why? So he could have the pleasure of killing them himself.
Sion wanted to skip the next bit, anticipating their wrongful end, but it seemed the man and woman would serve as an audience before they turned to prey. forced the two Alaquendi to watch as he pulled the lid from a large stone chest, beginning a terrific phenomenon in a small shack. Light burst into the room, through the door, the walls and up from the bare dirt floor, pouring into the stone box. For hours this thing occurred. The Alaquendi did not understand what they were witnessing. The color ceased flashing around and began stirring in the chest. At a loud command, the men helped lift the heavy lid into place, which further confused the captive couple. No one remembered to hold their bound arms any more, but they could not leave without resolution. As the lid slid into place, the door to the room was slammed shut.
A bright streak poured from a crack in the chest, a minor opening between the lid and base, which kept the room just visible, though much darker after the fade of such resplendence. rummaged the ground, picked up a rock, and shoved it into the hole which was releasing light. The Alaquendi started to understand. The woman gasped. roared as he was thrown back from the chest by the force he had trapped inside, and smashed into a wall. He nursed his arm only a moment before leaping to his feet. He tried again to place the rock in the crack, this time a scraping sound announced small movements from the lid as it slid back, releasing pounds of pure light which hit the ground where grass began quickly spreading. shouted and the lid was centered again, the stone removed.
dropped the glowing rock, and a patch of dirt around it turned green. “Get it away from me!” Two guards dove for the rock. BG threw one, smashing him against a wall where he slumped over and stopped moving. The woman gasped, confronted for the first time with actual death. BG turned to the Alaquendi, and the woman scampered back at the black in his eyes. “They will take it.” His dark and loud tone sunk the air around him. “I want these two to throw the damned key over the cliffs, and then they can follow their new treasure into the sea!” He stared at the captives as he spoke. The couple was forced outside. The wife looked over her shoulder and saw the room close with inside, his eyes marring the beauty within, and she cried the first tears over life’s great defeat.
Bits of grass had grown while the man and wife were closed within, and now began shriveling. The woman’s gaze stayed on the ground, and she watched greenery growing from the grass again. Everywhere her husband stepped, grass sprouted, dying as he moved past the spot. The woman’s smile grew and faded as fast as the grass. A few minutes passed before more people became aware of the strange phenomenon. The guards hushed their panic and channeled it into shoving the Alaquendi forward, keeping back from them as if the two had a disease to be feared, leaving the two bruised long before they reached the cliff.
Once at the cliffs, the woman realized how far ‘s damage had spread. She and her husband had walked along the same ridge that morning, enjoying sunshine, fresh grass, and wisps of ocean air. Rough straw, the remnants of grass, blanketed the earth now, and the waves crashing into rocks below did not calm the woman as it had before. One of the men dropped the rock, the key, at the Alaquendi’s feet. “There, take it.” The woman scooped up and cradled it. The smooth surface soothed her hands and a feeling, similar to the light she had seen in the room, coursed through her arms and into the rest of her being. “Now throw it!” The woman shook her head just a little while she looked down at the stone. A key indeed. A rare gemstone. She knew then, no other could have its likeness. The thing did not reflect light, but produced its own radiance. “Get rid of it,” A guard pushed the woman into her husband, and he held her while she covered the gem. They had given it to her, and she would protect it.
A terrible struggle pushed the two Alaquendi closer to the cliff. When the woman still would not release the stone over the edge, the men began talking of throwing her over. If she had to die, she would try and keep the key safe. Her husband, who had never had the chance to touch the key, panicked, and threw himself into the men. Swords drove into him from all directions. The woman screeched and fled from the men. Her ordinarily slow legs carried her faster than her pursuits could follow. Miles she ran, after the sound of men faded, she ran faster, fearing they might find mounts with which to follow her.
She reached home and collapsed. Her grip released, and the rock skipped before settling. Before she even had breath enough to cease panting, Ariadne began pouring out tears. For her husband’s demise, and the terrible things she had just witnessed, some reckless assault on life leaving her with a stone and nothing else. The day’s torture forced any possible tears from the woman’s eyes until she could shed no more.
And so the story began.
Sion shook his head in disbelief, coming to from the midst of the horrors Amaris’s book unveiled. Sion repented his arrogance, shocked stupid by detail, and frustrated within a a few pages. His mouth dried out, and the room started tilting. He shook his head, trying to stabilize everything . . . anything. When that failed he closed his eyes. Black shut out the wobbling fire place and shaky flames. His heart slowed into a dull rhythm and his head fell back against the couch. No. He could not possibly have heard the truth so far askew as to make Amaris’s version foreign on the whole. Or had he? Sion had vague pictures before now, only enough to sketch together what happened. Now he had fact.
His eyes shot open and he slammed the book. Self-control made him set the book down before pushing himself from his chair. He closed himself in his guest room. Throughout that night, Sion pondered the new information. Momentary mental agonies spoiled sleep and poisoned any peace. Parts of the tale unsettled him out of bed, and he paced himself tired before laying down again. Eventually, the sun gave him an excuse to rise from the broken rest.
He was careful to be quiet opening his door; his personal disturbance did not have to wake Illuma. If he could just finish the story, perhaps he would settle enough for real sleep. He sat on the couch and waited, book in his lap, appreciating the cold hearth and quiet room. The light burned his sleep deprived eyes, which closed and opened in slow intervals. He dozed before he could read, and woke to the sounds and smells of breakfast. He watched Illuma turn sausages over in a skillet, but she paid him no attention. He did not feel conscious until he had eaten half his plate.
“Did you sleep last night?” Illuma asked.
“No.”
“I thought as much.”
“Well, what did you do when she told you, when you read that?”
“I cannot compare with your reaction.” Illuma’s mouth lifted on one side. “My realization was more subtle.” Illuma studied the contents of her plate for several moments and then returned her attention to the Sion. “Is there anything you need to talk about? I do know the story well. And though you can certainly address any questions with Amaris, perhaps you would feel more comfortable discussing this topic with someone other than her.”
Sion pressed his lips together. “What can I say? I am still so ignorant.”
“No. Perhaps protected though. I thought your father had told you more.”
Sion shook his head. “So did I. If he were here he would have a lot of questions to answer for more than just one person.” Such as why Valmier sent Sion on a wild goose chase without telling him what in the world he was actually seeking out.
“Perhaps you will get your answers from somewhere else.”
Illuma brewed tea and forced Sion into sitting down with a cup. He humored her and then started turning pages again. Perhaps the story would take a turn for the better. Instead the tale worsened. Ariadne found anything she could call a weapon and armed herself. Taking her family’s horse, and any supplies she could quickly lay hands on, and went to retrieve her two children from playing in the recently green and tall grasses. They fled to the nearest town where the small broken family was accepted. But her two children found more consolation in the Alaquendis’ kindness than did Ariadne. The Alaquendi believed little of what she said. After a few weeks dragged past, Ariadne — against all advice — left her children in another family’s care, and headed to the place where the key had been made.
She assumed her presence went unsuspected, as she met no opposition, and she nearly reached the room when saw her. After a momentary recognition of each other, Ariadne fled, never having a chance to use the sword at her side. Peaceful times had rendered weaponry as decoration, and she trusted her feet to run more than her hand to wield the blade. When she returned, after some practice with a blade, alone once more —for no one yet believed her — she found new structures built up around the one which housed the chest. She gathered the chest could not be moved, or else she thought they would have done so. Instead fortification had started. She fled again, this time with serious wounds.
When Ariadne returned to her people, her condition drew attention, and she pored out her story again. After evaluating the stone, and listening to the woman’s account, the Alaquendi began believing her. Weeks after Ariadne’s first arrival, the Alaquendi noticed changes in the landscape, and soon after admitted to a lessening of their own power. Dead grass, destroyed crops and the absence of stars which they first blamed on an unseen storm. They needed answers. When Ariadne had left them, the Alaquendi recognized they now contributed growth to the earth wherever they stepped. Grass — and seldomer flowers — grew from straight beneath their feet, where before the lush lawns had made this ability unknown to them. A bloodied and damaged Ariadne with her shining stone lent some explanation.
Stemming from their loss, the Alaquendi withdrew further from other people groups, embarrassed by their condition. Months they wallowed and even years did not recover them. With help, Ariadne did revive. Her healing was strange, though. Not unlike others, she possessed a gift to give small amounts of life back to the now ill earth. A gift was not the right description though for a constant and slow draining of life from a person whose being created too much for their self. However, rather than producing growth in her immediate interaction with the ground, life spread out before Ariadne like a small wave. Grass rippled into bloom, flowers grew frequently, and she healed fast from her injuries. People assumed Ariadne’s excessive health and ability came from her interaction with the stone. Because she seemed strengthened beyond her people, but had little skill with any weapon and was small in stature, they thought she could never complete a mission to open the chest — which they now deemed the best option for redemption. So they took the stone from her and gave it to a strong, trustworthy man, skilled with a blade, and a swift rider. He befriended Ariadne, but her heartbreak increased without the stone she had fought to protect. She cleaved to her children who grew increasingly resentful of their mother for her fame and infamy.
Derek, the man who now possessed the stone, tried many times to reach the room, to which Ariadne had given direction. He failed time and again, and each attempt brought reports of the enemy growing in size and number. They began hunting Derek, tracking him with the select Manori who now worked for . ‘s forces drew close to finding the Alaquendi settlement where Derek lived, burning many other towns, and torturing people for information in the process. ‘S ranks filled with those who surrendered their service in exchange for their life. The Alaquendi fled.
After resettling, and admitting defeat, Derek married Ariadne who had two daughters. Their eldest, Madrian, grew much taller than her mother, almost to the height of her father. She learned skills from Derek and the story of her grandfather’s death from her mother. Derek only ever made one more attempt at loosing life, during which he died and the broach was retrieved by a comrade. Three generations passed where the stone was given to sturdy, dependable men who tried valiantly to reach the basins and release life. Each attempt seemed to fail faster than the previous. With the lessened Alaquendi lifespans, a mere ninety years of age since the forming of the key, children and grandchildren grew and died quickly. As decades perished, Ariadne observed their passing, dying herself at 120 years old, her eldest daughter survived ten years past her mother’s age. However, Ariadne’s line, giving themselves over to Ariadne’s rejection, severed ties with the Alaquendi. They discovered their thriving state and right to the stone long before any others had.
One man succeeded in reaching the chest while a great many men held back . He inserted the stone and fifteen strong men heaved against the lid. It did not move. Three people escaped with the stone, all others perished or suffered the consequences of capture. There seemed no way to actually release the life in the chest, and Ariadne’s story fell into doubt. 74 years passed before the Alaquendi took notice again of Ariadne’s descendants. They lived long lives with extraordinary abilities to carry life. Since other efforts had failed, a willing grandson was given the stone and expected to attempt the same mission dozens had failed at already. He did try, but felt ill equipped, seeming absent of the abilities many in his family possessed. Another thirty years of insistence of Ariadne’s family, and the Alaquendi finally recognized in entirety why only a handful in each family stood out. A couple daughters of every mother would have their legendary lifespan. These women then were given the stone since it seemed only a family heirloom after the previous failure to unlock the chest. Once received, the stone reinforced the individual’s strength and she became prominent, standing out among Alaquendi, and taking on every trait which had set Ariadne apart during her lifetime.
The Alaquendi seized the stone long enough to have a craftsman surround it in a silver-metal setting and fasten it to a broach so it would be easier to keep track of. Then they gave it to the women of Ariadne’s line, only a few of whom seemed especially enabled. The thinking developed that only these women could unlock the chest. And around the seventh generation a woman decided to pass on her last name to her daughter. From that family each person who was given the broach also took her mother’s surname. Thus the Tempth line developed from Ariadne’s descendants. The Alaquendi traced and recorded the Tempth lineage, making additions each time the a mother passed on the broach; the original purpose of Amaris’s book.

Scene
Sion grew tired of reading Amaris’s book. The Alaquendi’s past cruelty, the devastation of the races and their land. For the first time, Sion understood the condition of the world was not a well-known matter. No wonder the Alaquendi retreated, hiding their identity under feet of snow and permafrost. If no one could see the earth, they could not discern Alaquendi from human or Manori. had to wipe out the carriers of life if he wanted his death to survive.
Sion suffered a wonderful amount guilt for ever ridiculing these people. The Alaquendi would be, and always had been, the best defense against . Sion began censoring himself around Illuma, softening his actions which prejudice had made rude. Perhaps if he apologized for mis-conceptualizing Amaris and Illuma, the current arrangements would not feel so imposed on his part. Assuaging guilt seemed inappropriate though, so Sion tried to reform quietly. Would Amaris ever look at him without condemnation after his irresponsible ignorance? Then again, she had still misbehaved almost greater than Sion.
Sion’s condition only worsened as he slowly forced himself to finish the Tempth’s story. Bounties without number haunted this family. Their daughters hid, tried to find success in their ever-failing mission, or died in some unseemly fashion. The broach slid through the family line which had few survivors at the end of each generation. Few could have met their grandparents, and no woman survived to see a single grandchild. Their failure depressed Sion’s hope of a simple victory. He almost wanted to leave the story unfinished and depart from Amaris, her forest home, and all her tragic memories. But there were only a few pages left.
Little detail came from the story Amaris had lent Sion. Overarching themes were fleshed out and only select portions seemed complete, but mostly it skipped vaguely through centuries of Tempths. Even with brevity, Sion found himself stuck at an especially depressing part. A woman’s baby was taken from her and killed. She died shortly after having another daughter whom others raised and informed before dropping the broach into her life. He could not read any more, and abandoned the book.

Scene
“Please eat that.”
“I do not mean to be rude, but I am not terribly hungry, Illuma.”
“If you allow yourself to lose strength reading that book, how are you going to help Amaris?”
Sion looked up from his barely touched food. He could not remember making eye contact with Illuma the entire day. She looked sad for him. Why on his account, why not about her own people?
Sion nibbled himself through the meal, hoping to finish the food, knowing he would suffer several nauseous hours of trying to keep it down.
“How close are you to the end of that book?” Illuma asked.
“Near . . . I think.” Sion eyed the book he had left untouched for two days.
“The back pages are blank, you know” Illuma mentioned.
Sion nodded. He had fingered through the ones with writing and counted what remained. Less than four.
“You have not reached Amaris’s mother yet, have you? Femeena?”
Sion felt dazed. He wondered if Amaris’s story would be like the one he had just started, an orphan with no one to support the poor child. “No, I have not,” he mumbled.
Illuma focused her sad eyes on Sion. “Finish reading it. There is no point to stopping where you are now.”

Illuma went to sleep, and Sion stared at the fire the woman had left for him in the hearth. Not tonight. Yet the book still sat on his lap from hours of scourge from his imagination about what might be the story’s end. Maybe he better find out what Amaris’s past looked like before he could invent too many variations on his own. He opened the book and let it sit open for a while. His eyes strayed to the words and began scrolling through sentences.
He hoped the orphan he had last read of had a happy marriage, because he next discovered she had seven daughters and one son, and most of her children had the potential to carry the broach. Each story unfolded into a life of some type of horrific adventure where the woman died at the end. Four of them had the broach in turn. Two perished before marriage, another was threatened too many times and fled with her family. Two of the three girls who could not use the broach were killed in an attack on their mother. So three siblings remained — the father abandoned his family during the persecution — Fredrick, Emily, and Femeena. The orphan was Amaris’s grandmother. A powerful desire to help Amaris — decades ago when she needed it — overpowered his wanting to close the book. He turned the page.
Freedrick, the eldest of the survivors, loved and cherished his two sisters, only one of which would carry the broach. Not by choice, Emily, the youngest, could do little to help her older sister Femeena, who married a man named Aliston, and had only one child. Her siblings could do little to protect her though, and she and Alison moved far south to escape the crippling attacks on their family. Five years passed where the Tempth family had rest, and they established a home in the forest. Sion wondered a moment if this might be Amaris’s home, but her abode seemed too small for three people. The book answered all questions, too soon. Fire, murder, death. He clenched his fist to try and find composure, and backtracked to read through more slowly the parts he had rushed past.
Femeena, Amaris’s mother, was killed in a direct ambush on the Tempth home. Seven-year-old Amaris was thrown in the house which was set on fire . . . The handwriting of the story changed, and the tone became dry and sharp. After seeing her mother run through with a blade, Amaris fought, kicked, and screamed at the men pulling her back into her house. They threw her inside, and she recovered from the slam to the floor while watching the door close. She tried to find a way out, as her father screamed on the other side of the door. Windows were too small, and horrid men looked inside them, watching her scamper like a trapped animal. She looked in her parent’s room, trying to get out through the one big window, but wood covered it from outside. Crackling noises started in the big room, so she ran there, but could not see what made them. She remembered them from somewhere but could not make them out as they spread above her head. She started crying about her mother, as sticks lit on fire started flying through the windows, and she wondered if her father was gone now to. One hit Amaris’s arm before landing at her feet. She stamped out her sleeve and threw something on the flame. When she got it put out, she saw many little fires around her house, and started dumping water on them. But the fire spread fast and she had no more water. Rather than fight them all, Amaris hid under a table where she screamed for her father until she passed out from smoke.
The handwriting changed back to the original, giving only vague details about Amaris’s survival. Alaquendi from the area showed up to help the perishing family, being alerted about the enemy’s presence. — They had questioned a nervous young man who had escaped a small group of soldiers the week before, and he admitted to giving information about the Tempths — The outnumbered enemy fled, including , who had himself slain Femeena. Amaris was rescued by her father who also salvaged the broach before leaving the burning house behind. His wife’s body was taken and buried in the Highlands with her family. The Tempth’s relocated many times to keep enemy troops away. Eventually they settled (the book specified no location.) At twenty-two years old, Amaris received the broach from her father who had kept it until his daughter came of age.
The book ended, but Sion had none of the closure he desired. Amaris must have written her own description of the fire. A scattered child’s wild emotions painted the page with vivid descriptions of panic. Sion could not have recounted such an event; how Amaris managed, he could not comprehend. She was more an orphan than he. Sion ruminated over the last page for some time before going to bed where he laid awake for even longer.

Scene
Sion forced himself from bed well after he felt lazy for the delay. Clumsy distraction marked his day. From beginning to end, he caused small accidents when his mind would split attention between Amaris and what ever he had busied himself with. He apologized to Illuma for the damage his absent thoughts caused. At day’s end he had broken a mug, scattered cinders from the fire while prodding a deteriorating log, only just preventing it from catching the house, and knocked over countless items. Before heading to his room where he could conceal his half-conscious state, he saw Amaris’s book lying open from his last reading. He closed and left it, and then closed himself in his room.
The next day promised nothing better than the previous. Staring at the ceiling only worsened the shock Sion felt, deep in his gut where it kicked around any food he had stomached. Poor Illuma probably thought the young man did not appreciate her cooking. He would have to make it up to her later, but not now. Today, Sion would be contented if he could manage staying outside his temporary lodging without suffocating under the hard shell covering his upset core. He cracked the door, not wanting to wake Illuma so early, and then he froze.
The quiet Alaquendi had Amaris’s book open in her lap, one knee pulled into her chest. She did not seem to notice Sion, so he watched. Illuma’s expressions danced between sorrow and anguish. Then all her facial features compressed into a look of physical pain. If Illuma had ever looked up, she would have seen Sion leaning in the doorway to his room. Therefore, Sion decided to own no guilt, and continued studying her sadness. Sion narrowed his eyes, when Illuma started flipping backwards through the pages she had just finished reading. She repeated this strange action several times. With each passing she read faster, and her face seemed more worried, confused about something. Sion felt rude then, and receded to his room. Later, he tried to find closure with Illuma, but could not bring himself to broach the subject.
“Does this ever become easier to handle? I mean, can you ever look at Amaris and not see her entire history screaming at you?” Sion asked.
Illuma stared at the table she had not bothered to clear. Sion planned to give Illuma a few more minutes before he took the task of clearing off her hands; she never let him help enough. Just when Sion thought he had asked too personal a question, Illuma turned her eyes on the man and quietly answered. “Sion, I love Amaris as if she were my own flesh and blood, but I can never stand being around her.”
“Why?”
“Because I lose her more every day.” Illuma tried and failed to swallow her tears. “I have to surrender her to the fate of her ancestors.”
Sion could say nothing, now he knew what Illuma meant. He had known Amaris a short time, and already felt uncomfortable with her daunting task.
“She is so . . .” Illuma struggled for words. “Painful,” she spit out. “Absolutely wretched to be around.”
“I see.” Sion whispered.
“Do you?” Illuma’s speech resembled a child begging help from their parent. She gripped the top of her chair on which she sat sideways, twisted backward to watch Sion.
Sion bit his lip. “No. But perhaps I know why my father chased her so. And, maybe, I can now fathom why she let him go.”
“She made him leave, Sion. Your father’s absence torments her . . . and now it always will.”
Sion felt guilt. But why? Valmier never could have asked Sion’s opinion before leaving Amaris so alone. He should not have to hear, repeatedly, how much his father had betrayed Amaris, especially when Valmeir was only obeying the woman’s wish — or the facade of a wish. Yes, Sion could understand why his father left, and the thousand reasons he should have stayed. Sion turned the subject matter. “Then maybe we need to get her to the basins before she fizzles out. She does not need to have sacrificed and destroyed so many joys just to fail. No. I will not see such take place if I can do anything other.”
Illuma’s eye sparkled for a second before fading into an even duller brown than before. “Perhaps you are right. She does deserve a fair chance. Only . . .”Illuma’s smile hurt to look at. “She will never really get that opportunity.”
Sion was too confused by the woman’s words to conjure any response. He made his eyes more stern and watched as Illuma stared into him with a dark defeat. “If Amaris has no chance, why have you not told her so?”
“She knows it already. Look at her face when she talks about the basins. The cavalier attitude is a facade to mask predetermined defeat. Watch how she acts, she is such a poor liar, Sion.” Illuma smirked. “Well,” Illuma continued — Sion had bought deceit from Amaris for weeks — “I think she is.”
“Why do you support her when you believe she has no chance?”
Illuma smirked with a nasty edge. “We all have to die in this battle somehow.”
Sion did not smile in return. His stomach churned. “I will take care of the dishes tonight.”
“Suit yourself.” Illuma’s now expression free face sank back into its shadow. Sion cleared and cleaned around Illuma. As soon as he had finished, he retired to his room and mulled over Illuma’s opinion. He felt uncomfortable in her presence. He looked at Amaris and saw something besides a liar. He might be able to pry loose whatever power lay underneath Amaris’s shallow surface. Sion did not think, however, that he could stay with Illuma any longer. There had to be somewhere else he could stay. Perhaps he and Amaris could work out their differences, at least for now. The next day he went to inquire of Amaris.

In the week and a half since he’d seen her, anything could have changed Amaris’s mind. But when he saw Amaris, he realized how unfounded were his concerns. The woman still wore the broach —on her dress since the weather did not dictate any sort of cape or outer covering— and she stood tall, exuding sureness. Her entire posture unnerved Sion, because he knew the story which gave this woman the right to walk with such aloof dignity. Amaris did not bother with a smile for courtesy, and Sion’s face stayed flat. They met outside Amaris’s home, and she received back the book Sion returned, before setting a second chair on her porch. She sat and gestured to the other seat.
“Amaris, I apologize for how I have treated you, but I cannot stay with Illuma.” As he spoke, Sion realized Amaris deserved space more than he deserved accommodations, so he modified the request into a statement. “I wanted to tell you I will be making a camp nearby.”
Amaris seemed confused. “Wait, why do you not want to stay with her anymore?”
“I do not think we understand one another. Our agendas, I fear, are not aligned.”
Amaris bit her lip and looked hard at Sion. “Am I to understand, then, that one of you have developed feelings for the other?”
“No! What? That is not at all what I meant.”
“Good.” Amaris let out a long breath.
“I meant our intentions with you.”
Amaris held her breath again. “Go on.”
Great, Sion’s misleading words dragged him right where he had meant to avoid. She shook his head politely. “Forget I said that.” Sion stood, trying to cut the conversation short. “I just wanted to let you know I will be staying elsewhere.”
“Wait, are you leaving?” Amaris had a moment with wild eyes and her hands clenched the seat of her chair. Sion lifted half his mouth in a smile. He stayed quiet for a moment to watch Amaris’s composure fade, and then he answered.
“I do not think so, Amaris. But your concern is reassuring.” Amaris’s grip eased, but Sion had irritated her. “It seems you and I have several items to discuss in the following days,” he cocked his head, “before we depart.”
Sion slept well that night. Head on the ground, covered with a blanket too thick for the still-warm weather. He did not wake until the sun arrived, promising something besides agonizing waiting and obeying Illuma’s gentle suggestions. Now he could make all addresses to Amaris.

Chapter 4

Amaris tried subduing her cough which bothered her so much that Sion offered her water before continuing his barrage of questions. She answered with as much grace as Sion’s tone would allow. Each time she said a topic would be explained later, Sion became less bearable. Amaris developed a headache, and Sion even seemed tired from his emotions. Amaris suggested they leave the thing alone for a time, but Sion persisted until Amaris protested. Then he only glared while she tried to relax for a few moments. She shut her eyes, but could feel Sion’s boring into her, still. “I think I have changed my mind. I will see your father.”
“Why?”
Amaris opened her eyes, and looked back at the man. His face exhausted her. “Just for the satisfaction of lecturing his every parenting skill in raising so rude a son.” Amaris shook her head. “How you can be his offspring at all, amazes me.”
“I am not.”
“What?” Amaris’s heart skipped a beat; had she been duped? Sion did not respond beyond a sigh. Amaris pressed her palms against the table. “Explain this lie to me.”
“No lie, Amaris. You just never asked if I was his child by birth.” The man now lacked any of the emotion which had flared moments before.
“Oh,” Amaris’s eyes strayed across the room onto nothing. What did that mean?
“My father did not give up on you for twelve years. And as soon as my mother died, his heart strayed right back to you. That is why I had to find you, it is not fair —” Sion cut himself off and studied Amaris. “Though, now I do not see how he ever loved such a woman. You lie like poison, and your crudeness is unsettling at to say the least.”
“Thank you, I need the added blame on my conscience.” Amaris turned away; so that was the story. After losing his wife, who probably served him faithfully, Valmier fell in love with Amaris once more, as she had been. Now she lacked the desire to ever bring back in herself the woman she had been.
Sion sighed. “I suppose I will tell you, anyway. Since you clearly are the woman my father always went on about.” The man paused, and waited until Amaris gave him her full attention. “Valmier passed several years ago, I thought you should know, in person, from someone else he cared for.”
Amaris blinked, but nothing of Sion’s words sank in. Sion said more, but it sounded more like the rushing sound which surrounds someone submerged in water than words. Amaris put her palm up to Sion, and he ceased. She stared, and neither spoke for a long moment. “Are you saying Valmier is dead?” The man sighed, and nodded. Amaris’s eyes glazed over, and then began watering. She excused herself and closed the door behind her. She leaned against the house for several minutes while the news sunk into place. First it made sense, and then it seeped into her thoughts until the reality planted itself in her heart beside the hope she had held back, even from her conscious mind, that she might see Valmier again. Memories and desires for the past to repeat swept over her. Her hand in his. His fingers brushing through her hair as she smiled like she had not done since. Their words running together like a flowing river of perfect sense.
When Amaris’s came to her conscious self, face soaked from tears, she began wandering through the forest. She walked in circles, and then zig zags until her sense of direction blurred like her wet eyes. Her focus slipped, and she found herself sobbing on a wet patch of moss. Her hair damp and tangled, and she pulled out clumps of the sponge-like greenery in her frustration, until muddy dirt loosened for her tears to mix with. Sion found her, hours later, and forced her to let him guide her stiff, cold form back to the house in the dell. She lay, number in the warmth than the cold, and stared at the ceiling above her bed, unable to bring so much as a syllable to her lips. She drifted, and felt herself slip into a pool of aimless travel to her deeper pain where Valmier resided, now only in her memory.

Light hurt. Amaris’s eyes flickered open and then a few seconds of pain forced them shut again. Her head ached, and smothering it with her hand did not help. She knew Sion was somewhere in the room. Mostly she neglected him and hoped he would do the same for her. Her stomach announced noon’s nearing, but Amaris could not make herself rise. Eventually, she slept again.
When she managed to heave herself out of bed, over twenty-four hours after hearing the news about Valmier, her stomach and sides ached from being curled up for hours without moving, hoping she would stop breathing if she froze still long enough. She cringed when she saw Sion, because now he could see her as she really was. She knew her hair was matted, and the only water her face had seen in two days came from tears. Amaris felt naked in her exposure while she and Sion watched each other.
“I will let you change.” Sion said at last, leaving the door closed behind him when he left the house.
“Gracious man,” Amaris mumbled before finding clothes to put on.
Amaris’s shaky hands struggled with her corset strings, so she left them looser than usual. Sion’s courtesy usually kept him away for much longer than any female needed to change. So Amaris pulled on her boots and then sank back onto her bed. She had nothing more to tell this man, but as much as Amaris tried to skirt the truth, she knew she had gone too far this time with her lies. Which heaped difficulty onto mending the fragile acquaintance she and Valmier’s son had forged. If she could not, then Sion would probably leave and have anything to do with Amaris, again. For whatever odd reason, the possibility bothered her. Half truths had mucked up the air — they usually did — but a fuller unveiling might repair the damage. Worth a try, and honestly, the only weapon Amaris had left.
A tap on the door made Amaris’s plans drop and shatter before she finished forming them. She had had a sound mind only a moment ago, but it withered quick, leaving Amaris grasping for sanity again. She stood up and straightened her plain dress, then realized she had done nothing to her nested hair. “Come in.” Amaris grabbed a clip and began pulling back the crown of her hair. Sion remained quiet after stepping inside, leaving the door open.
“You seem much improved.” Sion said.
“Another facade.” Amaris worked at her hair. Sion huffed, almost chuckling, and Amaris glared out the corner of her eye.
“Arian,”Sion shook his head. Amaris hoped it would be the last time she heard the name. “I cannot believe you did this to me, but I am not the first. You do it to so many people, am I right? Anyone who can lie so effortlessly ought not be trusted.”
“Effortlessly!” Amaris bit her lips and took a deep breath before saying anything else. “This has been more torture to me than for you.”
Sion shook his head.
“You can believe me or not.”
“I probably never will.”
Amaris felt a quick and sharp pain which withered fast. She should not care. “Fine.”
“That is it? Fine. You will give no more effort to make amends?”
“I acted wrongfully to you. And I have done the same to dozens before. What should I say to change the matter?” Amaris shook off the dismal feeling, and focused on Sion. “I did not want to deceive you, Sion. But what else I could I have done?”
“I have no answer for you, Amaris. But I never thought of you this way in all the years since I have known about you.”
“Good. No one needs to view me like this. Actually,I prefer no see me at all.”
“Now I think I never have. Nothing of you is true, now.”
“I assure you there is more truth than lie. I just have to clean up what I have told you.”
“I am too exhausted with you to hear a word.”
“Good.” Amaris looked away, finishing with her hair. “I need some time. I am going to see Illuma.”
“She called you Arian to your face.”
“I know. She listens to her friend, maybe too much. Please know I am sorry for how far this went.”
“You still will not repent your first deceptions, even though you know who I was.”
Amaris opened her mouth —
“Just leave!”
Amaris glared. She left because she wanted space as much as Sion did. When hours of pointless wandering, without Fleecel, only further tangled things, leaving Amaris’s thoughts drifting to Valmer, she went to Illuma’s.

Amaris’s hand trembled, and she heard nothing. She knocked again.
“One minute!”
“Sorry,” Amaris struggled to hear her own timid voice.
The door flung open like the woman might hit Amaris. The latter tried to harden herself. But Illuma’s wrath withered upon seeing Amaris. Amaris felt warm hands wrap around her chilly palms and hold them from shaking. She looked at the floor, unable to explain. Her mouth seemed a deathtrap for creating trouble. She had treated Illuma unjustly the last month, with her actions, stiff manners, and sliding tongue. Now, she had no way to answer for herself. Illuma tugged Amaris’s hands and the latter looked up. Her mentor looked concerned. Amaris knew the expression too well; Illuma’s firm posture, brows close together on her pale face that leaned just a little bit closer than usual, and no words beginning to form. The image blurred behind the newest coat of liquid encasing Amaris’s eyes. She pushed passed the hard shell she had tried to form and pressed against Illuma who held the crying woman.
Sitting in a familiar chair further displaced clear thoughts. The Safrima tea scent that wafted toward Amaris, and the dark feeling from an empty hearth lead Amaris deeper into directionless mind wandering. Only Amaris’s mind had nowhere to go. The blanket of grief distanced what remained in her world. Illuma’s hand should have comforted, but Amaris could hardly feel the touch.
Amaris gave a blurry and disjointed explanation, and realized her friend’s grip on her hand tightening. And as Illuma held tighter, Amaris felt her whole world loosen and begin to slip.“I do not know what to do.” When she lifted her face, she saw Illuma’s strewn in tears. Perhaps with someone else crying, Amaris could manage with less. She went numb, and Illuma wrapped her in a close embrace. Amaris could not lift her hands from the couch in return. And then she sat, the stinted story laying dead on the air. Tea went cold, and the room grew dark with the dusk. Illuma rubbed Amaris’s hands between her own.
“I should have seen this before.” Amaris stared passed her friend. “Why did I think Valmier could go on living? We should all die eventually?”
“Yes, but some of us live as well. He did that, because of you.”
“He would have lived without me,” Amaris refrained from shouting. Haughty lies could not sooth her pain. Amaris never would have loved someone like she did Valmier if he was dependent on her for life.
“He —”
“I need answers, not consolation, Illuma. I need to—” she stood ans looked around. Should she go home?
“Where are you heading?”
Amaris bit her lip.
“Until you have an answer,” when Illuma stood, she seemed to tower over Amaris, “Come with me.” Illuma started pulling Amaris’s hand.
“Wait, where am I going?” Amaris stumbled a few steps. Illuma steadied Amaris, and kept on toward the spare bedroom.
“Rest.”
“Oh.”
Amaris could not resist without an alternative. Pouring out her soul in tears for another three hours alone in the woods would be pointless. She wanted to avoid Sion. And Amaris did not want to walk home; she might turn aside and end up in the woods, unarmed, at night. Ending up at Illuma’s without her sense of direction had been miracle enough. Life did not afford too many blessings for the Tempths; Amaris should take this one.

[I like what follows, but if it’s not pertinent, it can be pulled.]
Illuma opened the door, prepared to settle the day’s next crisis; Sion.
“Is Arian here?” Sion evaded Illuma’s eye contact.
“She told me you already know.”
Sion’s jaw tightened visibly. “But is she still here?”
“Yes, she is.”
“I need to talk to her. Sheltering her will do no good.”
Illuma crinkled her face. Amaris was not a child to be protected, but a friend to be looked after. “Not today.”
“Excuse me?” The man’s eyebrows shot up and he leaned against the door posts.
“She’s too sick to function. I have confined her until this grief subsides some. She is staying in bed and there will be no further discussion about the matter.”
Sion’s face reddened, and he breaths became audible.
“If you want a truthful and understandable explanation from Amaris, wait until she can complete a sentence.”
“Her condition cannot have deteriorated that fast. She was shouting at me yesterday.”
“Of that I am sure. She is good at defenses, but not always the calm conversations needed. Now, I suggest you take some time and simmer down before you and Amaris see each other again. Otherwise you will slam her with words that shorten her fuse and we will be repeating this conversation several times over.”
Sion locked his eyes on Illuma. Intimidation would not have worked if Sion was even half Illuma’s age.
“Try and remember why you have searched Amaris out.” Illuma softened her tone into what she thought might be maternal. “The last few weeks have been rough, I know.” She set her hand on Sion’s arm. He looked at it, but did not otherwise respond. “When Amaris has recovered some, her business is solely with you. I promise.”
Sion’s silence screamed discontentment, and Illuma prepared for the volume to meet emotion. It did not. “Just tell me when that woman has settled herself.”
Illuma locked her tongue behind her teeth.
“Please.”
“She will tell you herself.”
Sion huffed. “I suppose I am supposed to thank you for your time?”
“My pleasure, Sion.” Illuma counted the seconds until Sion stomped off with the immaturity Amaris kept in frequent practice. Illuma knew these spells well.
“Thanks.” Nothing but sarcasm. Sion left angrier, and with less flair than Amaris would have displayed. If Illuma could survive the next week without her friend crumpling or this man causing catastrophe, she could call herself a success. But the two in civilized conversation could not be imagined.

After her two day convalescence, Amaris worried Sion might quit the forest without so much as a word to her. Illuma told Amaris she had sent Sion away once already, when he had inquired about her, demanding a decent conversation. Amaris thought 48 hours would prove a test enough for this man’s determination, so she headed home. The long walk gave her time to think, but she still struggled to focus.
Sion had not left. After the usual minutes of silence, Amaris made her only request. “Sion, we can talk, but I do not need a lecture.”
“When did I ask what you need?”
Amaris mumbled that he had not,, took off her cape and tried to set it down before the tremble made it fall. She managed to catch it, but Sion stared, shaking his head. “Your friend informs me you cannot give a decent conversation justice until you have had ample time to grieve my father. There is no point in your falling ill. I can wait.”
“I will never finish grieving your father.” She watched Sion, waiting for his next gesture, word, anything for her to follow.
“You need to rest.” He said.
She nodded but refused to break eye contact. “What are you going to do once my strength is returned?”
Sion’s eyes narrowed. “I am not exactly sure yet.”
“Do you want to know what I will do?”
Sion’s mouth began to open and then he pressed his lips together. “Entirely up to you.” Sion exited the house. Good. It should be up to her.
Amaris changed into lighter clothes, and sat by a new fire, staring until the flames burned outlines into her eyes. Sion’s insistence on Amaris’s health, his protecting her, even from fatigue, had a familiar feel on the receiving end. Almost like her rest and recuperation was part of her duty to others. She could care about her own health without being told. Her location alone should have made clear her desire to remain in relative safety. Perhaps time would tell if Sion could respect as well as he spouted off.

Amaris struggled for a week over a chest cold she had succumbed to shortly after returning home from Illuma’s. Sion said less than necessary, as if his words would singe the air and stint Amaris’s recovery. Amaris felt him watching her, though. His observance of her every moment made her so nervous that sleep felt like a chore and she avoided waking lest she fall under his watchful eyes again. Her finicky cough made resting her mind more difficult, and whenever she felt at ease, she remembered Sion, and it peace slipped away.
Her mind strayed often to the spare room at Illuma’s. Asking Sion to remove himself there seemed rude, but assuming favor from her friend would be worse. How, though, could Amaris right herself with this man lingering about? She had taken the man in willingly — although under the pressure of rain and guilt — but nothing inside her wanted to keep Sion under her roof. Even when she had masqueraded as Arian, the man’s presence unnerved her. Perhaps all along his eyes had not strayed from her, and yet she just not perceived it. But she had taken him in under a guise and pried into his business. Since most secrets were now open, all reasons — besides courtesy, which both Amaris and Sion lacked — for concealing gazes and quiet listening disappeared. Only because of her own spying did Amaris let Sion remain.
Three days passed and Sion seemed intent upon watching Amaris like a timer, waiting for her health to return so he could continue with a half-finished thought. Amaris decided she could not breath normally with such sensory. She needed space, and so did Sion, whether he liked the suggestion or not. Illuma reluctantly agreed, and Sion practically spewed silent flames at Amaris when she made the arrangement known. Only when she made clear the demand was not a request did the man pack his things and leave, promising to return. The door closed, and Amaris exhaled. “I know you are not leaving.” Amaris dropped into an uncomfortable chair. “Maybe I should go before you come back.” He would probably track her through the forest and across the plains until he had finished their conversation. In place of fleeing, Amaris slept, feeling nearer ease than she had for more than a month. She seemed able to do little more than feed herself between naps, and she never wanted to climb out of bed to accomplish even that. She wished her old love would stop by and give her a hand in crawling out of the pain his absence caused. But reality had to sink in. She grew in acceptance that Valmier had passed away, letting the tears and burning pain sweep over her.
Four days passed passed before Amaris could surface from that emotional barrage. No, five? Amaris splashed water onto her face. She had woken up feeling anxious and unsettled. She fetched water from the stream, sloshed some into her wash basin and began cleaning everything her dress did not cover, ending up soaked anyway. Clothes were changed, and the dirty ones stowed in the box housing her small but growing pile of unwashed laundry. Restlessness stopped her from taking time to amend the mess. Could not she relax for more than a day or two without growing panicky and agitated? Others could. Dressed and minimally armed, Amaris threw open her door. Then she waited.
Something seemed out of place. That. She closed her eyes before looking over her shoulder into her house, knowing what made her uneasy about leaving. It could go unsupervised; had for years, hidden. Her feet froze though, so she turned back into her home to get the thing. The object had caused all her current grief and strife, it make sense she could not set anything right without it. She climbed onto the bed and pulled her feet under herself. Her fingers slid along the wood grains and dug into the wall, pulling a crack loose until her small box separated from the wood around it. She pulled it out, and set it on her lap, taking a deep breath. She did not want it open, she pulled her knees up and leaned her head against the little wooden cage. Her fingers let go and the box fell, dumping its treasure onto her. Amaris opened her eyes, and stared at the smooth stone. She had neglected it since Sion’s appearance, but knew how it would feel in her hand. Like water and gemstone combined, as the flashy colors swirled to her touch. Purple and burnt red hues glowed in her shadow. She picked it up, and clipped the broach beneath her chin. The heavy power sunk her to her back, and she laid, helpless, and filling with strength. She had not used the clip for a decade, but it held fast when she stood up. Now she could leave.
Her eyes seemed dry from tears, but she still had a few to wipe away as she called and waited for Fleecel. She remembered the uncanny danger mixed with joy when she wore this haunting device. Drawing death to herself with the one thing which could thrust it away permanently. Only with this piece of her life could Amaris reconcile herself with Valmier’s death. After a few minutes, she gained the courage to rub her thumb over the stone. She felt guilty for hiding it for so many years, but what else could she have done? When she kept her grudge against the heirloom, she seemed to keep these messes at bay. The strange passion and life which filled her, overtaking intelligence, mixing with everything inside her, would force her into action again. Never had good come of this. With this jewel, only a matter of time separated her from the determination Valmier had treasured in her. The drive she feared.

Chapter 3

“He is safe.”
“What?” Amaris paid attention to finishing her letter to her father, and lost Fraiton’s voice amid the task.
Fraiton took Amaris hands in his, and she looked up. “Sion. I said he is safe. He is exactly who he claims to be.”
“You are certain?”
“Would I tell you this answer without having confidence in its truth?”
Amaris sighed, and pushed the paper away.
“It is all yours to decide, now, Arian.”
Amaris moaned.
“Oh, come now, where is the fiery girl with attitude fiery enough to match her hair who will pick a bone with anyone?” Fraiton mouth widened into a great smile.
“I’m not 16 anymore.”
“I was talking about last year. You can handle him just fine.”
Amaris mocked Fraiton’s comment, but felt sick in her stomach with nervs.
“What report should I take to your father?”
Amaris looked at her half-written letter and frowned. She crumpled it, and stared. “Whatever you please.”
“Amaris, I have to tell your father something.”
“Tell him I am well, and anything else you find — pertinent.”
Fraiton chuckled. “I only wish I could stay and watch this game play out.”
Amaris forced a smirk, eyes staring blank at the floorboards. “Thank you for visiting me. Forgive the circumstances.”
“Always.”
In the morning, Fraiton left, and Sion’s persistence about Amaris intensified.

Amaris tried to act cordially toward Sion, but guest or not, the man pushed her every nerve. Even in silence, she loathed his presence. Relocating back to her home, away from Illuma, her only block from Sion, was too much.
“Arian.”
“What!”
Sion raised his eyebrows. “What is your livelihood?”
“Excuse me?” She was confused by the sudden shift of topic away from Amaris towards her alias.
“I saw what you sent for trade, but, as wonderful as it is,” he rushed to explain, “I do not see how you make the winter through.”
Amaris shrugged.
“You asked me to pay more attention to you and less to Amaris.” Sion explained.
She had requested such. “I asked you that a week ago, and you are only now going to listen?” Amaris dropped her eyes, and tried ignoring the fact that anyone’s paying attention to her meant they learned more about Amaris. She sorted through the plethora of occupations she half employed. “I do bits of half a dozen trades.”
Sion nodded her on.
“What is yours?” Amaris asked, and then mumbled, “meanwhile I’ll find a better way to explain mine.”
“Well, for the last year I have been preoccupied.”
Amaris nodded. “And before, you were . . .” She watched the expressionless man.
“Honestly?”
“Generally, yes, that is what I mean when I ask a question.”
Sion actually smiled. “I do not know whether to follow my father’s position at the guard, so I came looking for Amaris while I make up my mind.”
Amaris nodded.
“And you? Have you decided a way to explain your specialties? Besides making this forest beautiful by your nature.”
Amaris smirked. “I wondered if you would pick up on that small trait of mine.”
“Arian, had I not recognized your ethnicity, I never would have mentioned Amaris’s name.”
Relief at some consideration to her privacy and safe keeping calmed Amaris. “You understand, then, that Illuma is also my kind.”
Sion nodded. “Of that she told me. But you are both unmistakable.”
“So much for hiding.”
Sion’s eyes narrowed.
“Ask me later.”
“Fine. Your occupation would be . . .?”
“I am a doctor of sorts. It doesn’t pay well, but it can bring some satisfaction.” Amaris leaned her elbows on her table and looked at her shelves filled with medicines, knives, bandages and such. “I can live off the land well enough. The forest is full of game. And my father has and always will provide well for me. Not that I always needed it. Amaris and I got into a few blunders which happily proved more than beneficial for our purses. That lasted me quite a while.” Amaris looked away and said under her breath, “not entirely spent yet.”
“Wait, there are enough funds from a venture years ago, I assume years? —” Amaris nodded. “—To support you even now?”
Amaris tilted her head back and forth. “Sort of. It helps, anyway.”
“I never believed that lifestyle could succeed. What did you and Amaris do?”
Amaris shook her head. “No. Not going there boy.”
Sion pressed his lips together.
Amaris shook her head. “It has too much to do with Amaris. I am sorry.” Amaris believed her own kind tone. Though she might enjoy telling this man about her adventures. She had not spoken about them in so long. They would seem like child’s play to Illuma, and Amaris did not speak to anyone else. Sion might not have heard about the two young liars who started the venture, Captain Jaws pet dragon, or the countless blunders that beget success. He would never know how much Amaris wanted that mess to continue forever to give her excuses to stay with Valmier. She sighed, letting the moment slide. It would hurt too much to have said it all aloud. Maybe she would try to find others from that motley group; it would beat living the same events every year. Trying to hide longer, meant getting used to lonelier. Sion’s voice broke her stupor.
“How can all your life have to do so much with Amaris?”
“Ask your father.” Amaris looked away, and bit the inside of her mouth.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Sion put up his hand, as if a large entourage of thought was assaulting him. “You know Valmier?”
“Knew.” Amaris nodded to herself until she could accept the word. The man who left, and found another woman, that person was foreign to her.
“You thought this unimportant to tell me?” Sion studied Amaris with confusion. “I do not understand you, Arian. If my father is your friend, how could you not ask after him, for three weeks?”
“I did not say we are friends. The man barely recognized me next to Amaris.”
Sion’s eyes lit up. “Ah, that is the venture of which you spoke. The silly treasure hunt Amaris dragged my father into.”
“Dragged? She mentioned her intention, and he followed like a tamed pet.” Amaris smiled. “You should have seen those two, like children, they never would have left each other.”
“But they did.”
Amaris nodded. “Indeed.” Her thoughts went to the old blue eyes of this boy’s father that caught her attention off any other source. Had she commanded Valmier, or the other way around?
“How they did so though, I will never quite understand.” Sion looked disappointed.
“Leave it, then. And think of something better. Leave Amaris and Valmier to their own demise, the one which they designed.”
Sion shrugged, but he did drop the topic. And Amaris was pleased to have only one other question to answer for the day; Sion flattered her by asking about Arian. He wanted to know her age, which Amaris had long since stopped blushing about. Sixty-eight. She had the pleasure of bragging that Illuma had two decades on her. Telling Sion anything about the Alaquendi, herself especially, seemed odd, though, because Amaris had not spoken about her race in over a decade. Why would she? Illuma and Fraiton, both being Alaquendi, already knew their lifespan would stretch to a hundred years at least, if not twenty years longer. Before they died, their life would start seeping out at rapid speed, bleeding gold or silver — or both — into their hair, spilling out onto the ground, and draining for several years before their heart stopped beating. Until then, no one would see them as different than a human, unless they watched how their steps changed the earth.
Amaris could lie down on dirt, and make a puddle of grass and flowers from her weight. The blessing and curse of her kind. Vessels carrying life without the choice of distribution. It slipped from them in a thousand unconscious ways, and they could not control the visibility. So they hid, because, like their legendary ancestors, the Alaquendi had enemies who would hunt them. No one could truly poison a land, or destroy its people while an entire race held onto life just by staying alive. Compromise the Alaquendi, and a foothold could be established. They scattered into cities, where barren ground repelled any visible growth (so long as an Alaquendi did not linger in a spot, until greenery appeared.) Many more escaped to the highlands where snow pack hid the earth. Humans hated the cold that didn’t phase the Alaquendi, adding an extra protective layer against an entire race of tale tellers.Other Alaquendi, like Amaris and Illuma, lived nomadic, or solitary lives. The forest absorbed most of Amaris’s troublesome life energy, and only looked more natural for the effort. Only fools let themselves meet exposure to the public.
Learned people, like Sion, would find the Alaquendi regardless. Amaris tried to pretend such people did not exist. Knowing the contrary truth kept her up at night, stomach in knots, praying in silence that she might not be found. Her pleas always failed, as they had once again. Then she had to temper even half truths to keep strangers or acquaintances from the darker reality. Amaris, if not murdered first, would outlive Illuma, Fraiton, and any Alaquendi less than thirty years younger than she. Some in her family line had lived past one hundred forty years. The thought tormented Amaris, almost more than knowing thousands of the most dangerous people wanted to cut her time line short. The thought killed the remainder of Amaris’s day, and numbed her to sleep that night. Unlike usual bouts of trepidation, this time, Amaris’s plague did not diminish, and her stomach ached so much she hardly ate. She had no mirror to check how colorless her skin would look, and her speech slowed under the weight pf worry.
Illuma visited Amaris after having been told by Sion of Amaris’s weakened health. But Amaris had no illness from which to be cured, and so her friend gave pity and company, and then left. Nothing improved Amaris’s condition, and Sion being near unnerved her more than before. She could hardly stay alert enough to answer any questions, and the man asked fewer now. One day, with Sion absent, Amaris broke into tears over the matter. Sion found her weeping by the fireplace when he returned in the evening with game.
“Arain, what happened?” Sion sat in the second seat in front of the hearth. Amaris shook her head, and continued crying.Then Sion asked the unforeseen question. “Do you want me to leave? Because there has to be some way to find Amaris without bringing such pain to you.”
Amaris bit her lips together, and tears spilled from her eyes anew. Sion said nothing more, and Amaris’s head cluttered with answers she could not give. Finally, she decided another half truth. “If you leave, you will never find her.” Sion did well to not scream at Amaris, but the latter knew it took great self-control. “Trust me,” she said. “You are very near her — and yet far — now.”
“Will I ever meet her?”
Amaris opened her mouth, but all words clogged at the back of her throat.
“Arian. Be honest with me. If it were just your choice, would you tell me who she is?”
She nodded, and her heart skipped a beat. How could she, in honest safety, tell Sion anything?
“Then why do you not? If you are her friend, I am related to the man she loved — what is stopping you from telling me?”
Amaris panicked and spit out a new facade. “I am her cousin.”
Sion’s jaw dropped. Then he said, with delicacy, “what is your last name?”
“Not — the same as hers.” Then she mumbled, “no one wants that target on their head.”
“Too true.”
Amaris filled the silence with tears, and Sion showed no signs of understanding comfort. “Are you going to be alright?”
“Not as long as she is alive.” Her voice squeezed out the words passed the choke in her throat.
“Arian, why did you not tell me this before?” Sion’s soft voice made him sound almost trustworthy. But weakness on Amaris’s part did not merit speaking without a filter.
“Amaris has me around for a reason.”
“That is why you live in a dell.” Sion nodded, thinking he understood. “Amaris keeps you here so you will guard her.”
“Not quite. I live by my own decisions. She has no sisters. No brothers. And her father is useless. I am all she has. So I have given up all I had for her.”
“You do not have to do that, Arian. I know you so little, but trust me, we can find another way, for both of you.”
Amaris did not know whether to cry harder, or laugh aloud. “So many have tried. That is why we resorted to this option.”
“She might not have other options, but you do.” Amaris tried to halt Sion, but he continued as she cried harder. “I see where you are coming from, but things are just different for her than for you. She has to live a difficult life, although I pity her for that, but you do not. She can obviously stay hidden without your help, so let her. Visit, but do not live like this.”
“Sion . . .” Amaris’s breaths shook between her tear-less sobs, “you have to stop this, now. Trust me . . .” She held up her hand while she caught her words, “sometime I will tell you why. . . I cannot leave this dell.” Sion stayed quiet in his defeat. Amaris calmed down, and laid in bed awake and trembling.

Amaris did not sleep, so Sion’s leaving the house early did not escape her attention. Exhausted, Amaris spilled from bed, shaking and feeling ill all throughout her unrested muscles. She squinted her sore eyes, and viewed her empty home. Slow moments stretched into minutes, and Amaris’s line of sight drooped, landing on the table top. A letter, written and folded in yellow parchment. It had not been there before. She stepped closer and saw the name of her alias printed across it in what she guessed would be Sion’s writing. The short contents scared Amaris. Sion decided to leave, no longer wanting to plague Arian about her cousin. Amaris slammed her fist down on the table. “No!” She rushed out the door, but Sion had already gone beyond sight. She screamed his name three times with no answer. She whistled for Fleecel and returned inside. Belting her sword onto her side, and buckling a cape around her neck. Sion had to be found.
Fleecel and Amaris had not long tracked Sion when they found the man. She rode up beside him, and startled his mount with her speed. Sion calmed the horse, and looked at Amaris. “Arian, what are you doing?”
“I need to tell you something before you leave.”
“Fine. Then I will be no more trouble.”
Amaris bit her lip, and felt her throat swell. Sion waited while Amaris struggled. Amaris had constructed lives for Arian and herself, filled with truths and lies that belonged only to herself. How could she untangle that so fast? She thought hard, and came up with something thin that might pass for a few minutes while she thought. Her plan might not be seamless, but Amaris had to try. “Amaris has returned to the area, I spoke to her yesterday.”
Sion’s attention heightened, his horse jerked under the tension. “Did you tell her about me?”
Amaris nodded.
“That is why you were upset last night?”
She nodded again, hoping for help in the unbearable topic.
“Well, what did she decide?”
“She trusts my judgment, and she has only one problem with meeting you.” Amaris paused, “your father.”
“He is the only reason you let me stay, is he not?”
Amaris nodded. “Ironic. She is nervous about a reunion with Valmier. Or else she would be willing to see you this day.” Valmier’s name burned Amaris’s lips and she winced. Sion narrowed his eyes at the expression.
“Well, I have some things to discuss with her, whether or not she wants to meet my father in person, again.”
“You could write Amaris a letter, and I will deliver it sealed. I promise.”
Sion shook his head. “She has to hear it from me, face to face.”
“Hear what?”Amaris listened so closely, that when Sion shouted, her ears rang and her stomach lurched.
“No! I did not come all this way to give my news to Amaris’s cousin.”
Amaris trembled from not sleeping. Sion apologized, but Amaris no longer wanted to talk about herself. “Never mind.” Amaris shook her head, and turned Fleecel toward home. He begged forgiveness for yelling, and he followed her. A few minutes of Sion’s persistence, and Amaris shouted back. The conversation bled into an argument, and Amaris promised Sion would get no where near her cousin. Then Sion lost his temper. Amaris had yet to see him scream so loud. Her emotions collapsed into a wall, behind which she watched Sion. She heard nothing he said, but observed his face as it pinched in pain, or exploded in words blurred as noise. Amaris spurred on Fleecel and rode for several minutes, Sion still beside her, until she had almost reached home. Then, Sion’s voice, all strength already exerted, quietly asked why. Amaris stopped her mare, and turned to Sion. She shook her head. Why had she given him the idea of finding her? Amaris searched Sion’s face. So like a lost boy. The child of another woman, one she could never face, whose husband had come as near killing Amaris with pain as could any blade. “You would not understand. My cousin is more vulnerable of heart than many give her credit. She heard your father’s name and turned pale. She vowed to never see him again. And hearing of you brought her to pieces. She loved Valmier, and has never turned to another, but your father moved passed her within a few years.” Sion promised his father would not come within thirty miles of the place where he would meet Amaris. This disquieted Amaris more. She wanted Valmier to find her again. Just not with his child and wife. Everything between them had spoiled.
“Seeing you might harm her, as well.”
“Then we will have to risk that.”
Amaris mouth hung open, she felt exposed.
“I need to see Amaris. Today.”
“Maybe you will see her. But not today. Please leave me alone now.” Amaris’s voice broke again, and she dismounted to descend the dell, just a few more seconds and she would be inside. Sion cut her off, and held her arm.
“What is wrong with you?” Sion looked confused.
“Nothing.” Amaris cried.
“Why do you care so much about Amaris, she does not seem to care about you.”
“I am all she has.” Amaris was two seconds short of wailing, and pulled away from Sion. She rushed to the house, and closed the door behind her. She sobbed on her bed. How could she see Valmier? How could she not see him? The door opened slow. Sion waited, and then spoke with discretion.
“I just want to help your cousin. There is something she needs to know.”
Amaris’s heart pattered on faster. She pushed herself away from the bed and made herself sit up. “What?”
He smiled. “It is for her, not you.” He narrowed his eyes. “Although you might want to know as well. So tell me where she is and I will tell you, too.”
“What could I want to know about Amaris?”
Sion raised his eyebrows. Yes. She wanted to know everything.
“Promise,” Amaris held up her hand. “That Valmier will not find her.” She wept again. Sion said nothing for a long time.
“I have been so blinded by you.”
Amaris looked up. “Why?”
“Amaris Tempth.”
Amaris gasped, and then bit her lip until it almost bled. No, not like this.
“You lied to me the moment we met. Am I wrong?”
Amaris dropped her eyes and shook her head.
“You have no cousins. You have no other reason than yourself to be hiding. You are completely terrified” — Amaris acknowledged answers with head movements, feeling the shame heaped upon her with each phrase as her garment of lies she’d hid under unraveled — “Illuma and Fraiton both know who you are. And you are the only one who has the right to divulge your identity.”
Amaris stared at Sion. “All true.”
“Is it?” Sion huffed.
“I hope so.” Amaris’s lip trembled as she spoke.
“How am I supposed to trust you, now? How can I tell you why I am even here?”
Amaris had no answers, but the ball of guilt in her gut melted some with each rebuke. Sion floundered with words for sometime, trying to sort out lie from truth. Amaris sat still, and answered his minimal questions. It became clear in minutes why Valmier had neglected any mention of Arian, the nonexistent woman. And Amaris grew weary as the man went on and on over what he had believed as truth. She slumped back across the bed, leaning on the wall like a sick child without a mother. She mentioned her fatigue, and Sion stared at her, taking in all her pathetic lack of stamina. He said they would finish the conversation tomorrow, and then went to find his horse. Before he returned, Amaris had fallen asleep, still wearing her clothes and boots.