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.”
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.”
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.
“Thought Illuma would understand better than I what is frustrating you.”
“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.”
“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.”