Sion watching over her, but she could trust the man. But as Waylen grew more restless — always convinced Illuma planned to lead a whole unit straight into the forest to finish what they had started— Amaris had to give increased attention. Sion would call her if she was not already by Waylen, and then Amaris had to talk her friend out of the insanity of travel. She did this dozens of times, but Waylen persisted. The tipping point came when Waylen tried to not only sit, but stand and fight Amaris so they would all leave.
Amaris saw Waylen’s hand gripped tightly onto the tree bark behind her. Amaris demanded Waylen sit back down and rest,
“I did not suffer this blow to still watch you die.” Waylen’s words broke into bits between her heavy breaths and near tears. When Amaris approached Waylen closer, the latter continued resisting. “Fight me, and I will shift . . .” She paused to breath, and Amaris waited. “And you will lose.”
She would lose Waylen, not the fight. Amaris reached out her hand to Waylen.
“Amaris, they will come for you and we will all be dead. Now risk me or condemn us all.”
Amaris had already been pondering a time when they could move farther from the road, and find some semblance of cover. If she said so now, Waylen could view it as having won the argument, and perhaps her wild behavior would stagnate. “This conversation is over. We will leave when you have rested from your folly.”
“Thank you, Amaris,” Waylen’s tone quieted. She was worn. Her hand lost hold of the bark, but Amaris caught her before she could fall. Still, by the time she had been laid down again, Waylen’s hushed squeals and cries of anguish almost changed Amaris’s mind. Sion grabbed Amaris’s arm with violence and ripped her away from Waylen, and pulled her half way across camp before he let her go. Amaris held her burning arm.
“What are you thinking, telling her that?” Sion shouted.
Amaris bit her lip before. “They might come back for me; Waylen is right to want to leave.”
“You would risk her to save yourself?” Sion cocked his head.
Amaris lowered her voice. “If we are attacked again, she will perish first.”
Sion blinked at Amaris. “So you are . . .”
“Not saving my own skin, Sion! I will thank you to remember I would die willingly if I had the chance.”
“What?” Sion leaned in.
“Never mind. Forget I said it.” Amaris stepped back, but Sion grabbed shoulder.
“I did not mean to harm you.”
“Give her your attention.” Amaris glanced to Waylen and back to Sion.
“Why always give someone else all worry and focus?”
“I have no need of it.” Amaris walked back to Waylen. The injured struggled against passing out again, and Amaris could waist no medicine on extra comforts. “Rest yourself, you stubborn fool.” Waylen started protesting, Amaris shook her head and interrupted. “I told you we are leaving, but not until you sleep off your rebellion.”
Waylen smiled, with irony, not true happiness. “Rebellion implies there is a governing authority here over me.” Waylen’s words made her cough, and not long after the woman slept. Amaris dropped her head into her palm. Maybe she should sleep before they moved on.
“I am still here to protect you.”
Amaris lifted her face toward Sion as he hovered over Waylen and her. Amaris attempted a chuckle. “No lies; we are passed that stage, you and I.” Amaris looked at Waylen and then smiled at the man watching both women. “She is as noble a cause as you will find. My applause if you win her.”
Sion sighed and squatted on the other side of Waylen, looking at Amaris. “Amaris, this is not—”
“Right. Let us settle that I do not believe you.”
Sion narrowed his eyes and gave a small nod. “I am not leaving you.”
“I have no need of a guardian.”
“Perhaps not, but you deserve one.” Sion’s eyes dropped to Waylen, “She knows so much. We are staying until you are finished and free.”
Sion looked harder at Amaris. “Because you matter, Amaris. And because you can finish what your people started. You have to, and with help, you will.”
“Thank you, Sion.” Amaris had no formatted replies for willing support and alliance. She decided Sion was no longer under her jurisdiction, neither was Waylen — although for safety’s sake, she would lie that woman into submission until she healed— perhaps they would help until the end. Hopefully soon.
A brief argument about Waylen’s not having weapons until she could lift them delayed their eventual loading of her onto Fleecel. Amaris tried to balance the load during the ride where only her vigilance kept Waylen from falling to the forest floor. They returned to Waylen’s hunting grounds to avoid the road, hiding in the thick trees. But traveling through the maze made Waylen tip back and forth often, until Amaris’s arms ached from holding her friend in place. Amaris’s mind wrapped around their vulnerability and almost seized up; their faithful guardian dragon could not follow them, and had left that morning. She knew Sion watched both her and Waylen, which comforted her; but she also felt his scrutiny and her vulnerability. Amaris felt thrilled to stop that night, far from the road where they would remain until Waylen healed.
Getting Waylen’s half-conscious form off Fleecel demanded a balancing act that might have been humorous under other circumstances. Amaris and Sion settled her onto a soft patch of ground and blankets, but the misery looked doubled from that morning. Amaris’s anxiety kept her awake through the night, and Sion did not sleep either. So both were present when Waylen roused at dawn.
“Good choice,” she mumbled.
Amaris scrunched her eyes and Sion asked for clarification. Waylen said she appreciated being home, or as close as she had. Amaris smiled and stroked Waylen’s face. Then Amaris and Sion argued about who would stay awake, and then settled back into their weird routine. Since Waylen had improved, Adreaga and Briair were enlisted to watch her as well, but only when she slept. They already had their weapons twenty four hours of the day, never turning them in for curfew, if they had trust, they might as well watch the wounded.
“You cannot do this to me, it is murder in disguise!”
“It is a bandage, not a death sentence.” Amaris said.
“I cannot fight.” Waylen started crying.
“You will have to manage without that ability for now.” The tourniquet-like bandaging Amaris had managed for Waylen’s shoulder immobilized entire right arm.
“Please, Amaris . . .”
“You are bleeding to death, and you want a damn sword.” The short journey, and all the jostling included, had torn Waylen’s wound again. “And forget shifting,” she mumbled.
Waylen’s eyes widened, “You cannot take that from me.”
“No,” Amaris locked eyes with Waylen. “But if you shift, I will probably never see you again. So spare me the death of another dear friend, and listen to me for once.”
Waylen could not argue while screaming in pain, and the latter won out. Amaris was too happy to be helping alleviate suffering instead of fighting with it. Amaris doubled Waylen’s grudge on her with a medicine which tasted almost too awful for the meat-eater to stand. After some time though, Waylen’s fire subsided and she began slipping off again. Amaris tried to keep her friend awake, feeling a sudden urgency to keep Waylen’s eyes open. But fatigue prevailed, and Amaris lost Waylen. If she did not wake again . . .
“Whatever happens, it is not your fault. I can see you killing yourself over this.” Sion said.
Amaris ignored him and buried her face in her hands as she started to weep. It was hours until she to fell asleep.
Amaris tried to forget the painful events as they happened. Waylen grew short of breath and developed a fever. After working the fever out of Waylen’s system, Amaris had to witness temporary muscle failures as Waylen’s body threw all its resources into healing her wound and left little for regular alertness. Without Sion, Waylen might never have mended, but slowly, she began improving. Although Amaris doubted whether or not Waylen would ever return to her normal condition, she would live, and they could move.
Amaris patted Fleecel’s neck as the unicorn trotted to a stop, her coat silver in the moonlight with Waylen’s black hair laying over it like a shadow. Amaris looked at the shambles of a guard tower and outpost with stones strewn around like crumbs fallen from a child’s plate. She spurred Fleecel to walk into their midst, and the silence of what had protected , now lying cold and quiet, deafened her senses. Waylen slipped, but Amaris caught her in instinct, and started scouting a place to lay her down, but Sion called her first; he had located an appropriate section where less stones littered the ground next to a half deteriorated wall which would provide shelter. With Waylen settled and resting, Amaris just stared at the ground.
“You need some sleep.” Sion observed.
Amaris shook her head, “No, that is not it. I . . .”
Sion stepped closer. “What?”
“This place, I did not expect so much destruction.”
Sion grimaced. “Nothing to cry over, Amaris.”
Amaris wiped the escaped tear.
“This,” Sion swept his hand toward more stonework cracked and crumbling. “Is only a sample of what he does.”
“I know, but—”
“Amaris,” Sion lowered his voice. “You know better than anyone how vicious he is. Why should this surprise you? I cannot believe you have never seen this post.”
Amaris bit her lip. Sion was right, she should have no shock over something so minor when compared with the loss of life she had experienced, even in the last month. Amaris apologized, but Sion ignored it.
The greater view of the breakage, as Amaris walked among the fallen structures, deepened her grief. Grey rocks blended into the ground as earth covered them and moss clung to the abandoned buildings, returning them to the dirt. Amaris sat on one such stone, and dropped her head to her hand. Only a few minutes passed before Sion joined her.
“Is it so hard to bear?” Sion asked. She nodded, and Sion said he could not understand.
“This was our defense,” Amaris lifted her hands and looked around. “It fell . . . and no one restored it–Our leaders have all fallen, sion. There are just remnants now, few faithful soldiers without a commander. And we want to take on an army—” Amaris’s voice broke.
“Who said we needed kings and commanders?”
“Sion, there is an army against us.”
“Sh, sh, sh. I know.” Sion bit his lip when Amaris got loud.
“Who are our allies? Have we still friends?”
“Of course. You know these things.”
“Do I?” Amaris grimaced at the irony. “I thought I knew who I had around me, but,” Amaris bit her lip, trying to prevent the surfacing of all the emotions tied to Illuma. Sion overlooked the subject, and picked up a unique thread.
“You know, Amaris, I watch the sky at night sometimes, waiting for the first star to rise.”
Amaris laughed with a harshness she should had kept private.
Sion did not heed Amaris’s mockery. “I know it is not going to rise, but I have to hold onto something.”
“Sion, you have less hope of a decent perspective than I.”
“I disagree. One time I found a star. The smallest light, hidden in great darkness, and barely able to shine.”
“What?” Amaris asked not in curiosity, but concern for Sion’s mental condition. Did she have no decent allies?
Sion stared at Amaris. “And you are worth every night I spent searching for you. Even though you were said to be a myth. Perhaps there will be others like you and me, those who will stand when everything has fallen.”
Amaris bit her lips together.
“You are a rare find, Amaris. But I think more stars are rising, so watch the sky, not the ground.” Sion lifted Amaris’s chin, removing her vision from the ruined stone she stared at. “You lived, and not to die among the ruins. Kings need not rise to rouse an army.”
Amaris swallowed. “You want me to rally forces?”
Sion smiled. “No. You fight well, but” — Amaris did not need Sion to explain her mediocre swordsmanship, and poor diplomatics— “There will be others to stand with you, as long as you get up.” Sion raised Amaris to her feet, and her head leaned against his shoulder.
“It does not only matter who you have, but who will have you, protect you, and watch your back. I believe an army would follow you alone, if you will let them.”
“I cannot lead—”
“I never said you had to.” Amaris could hear Sion’s chuckle. “I think Waylen and I could lead troupes if we had to, but I do not think we will have a need.”
“The king?” Amaris thought of the unwillingness she had met for decades of trying to convince kings to supply aid.
“Perhaps. Him. Or someone else. But there will be someone.”
“Why do you say that?”
Sion pushed Amaris a step back, “because we are not the only ones watching the stars.” Sion looked up. Though she knew it would be only void, Amaris also turned her eyes to the black sky, illuminated by an unusual light radiating from the pure, white moon.
“Hope, Amaris. It is what you taught me to do.”
Amaris could not peel her eyes from the black heavens awash in milky white. She rubbed her thumb over the smooth stone beneath her neck.
“Now you look better.”
Amaris dropped her gaze, and Sion nodded with approval. Amaris tipped her head in gratitude. It was not daytime in the world, but there was still light.
Amaris forced herself awake early; a sore night did not permit extraordinary amounts of sleep, but Waylen had risen first. Before Amaris had taken notice, though, Waylen asked her a question, startling the previous.
“What are you doing awake?” Amaris gripped her pounding chest.
“You did not sleep well last night, did you?” Waylen asked with great composure.
An angry thought assailed Amaris. “Did I wake you? Keep you awake at all?”
Waylen smiled, relaxing against the wall she had been laid next to. “No. Do not worry yourself, Amaris. You look tired is all, as if you have not yet slept.”
Amaris grimaced. She felt as if little sleep had passed. After she had calmed herself the night before, late already, she watched the sky and drifted slow. Amaris shrugged off her tiredness and discomfort trying to sleep, and then busied herself with gathering the others from the scattered places they had decide to sleep among the disheveled rocks. With their weakest member already awake, nothing should keep them from reaching the city before evening.
However, nothing filling the day’s remainder agreed with Amaris’s plan. Waylen fared well, with more than sufficient energy for the ride, but the horses did not manage as well. Briair’s horse, carrying Sion also, walked slower than usual. Under the double burden, Fleecel also lacked her usual stamina, so the company reached the city by late evening, fatigued from the long day under a grueling sun. Sion’s diplomacy finally pushed them through the city gate by dusk. Amaris had no option but settling her party at an inn for the night. Amaris thought perhaps the night’s rest would benefit her approaching acquaintance with his lordship, her eyes slid closed fast.
Amaris stretched her arms wide, sighing with contentment until she heard a small ruckus. She elbowed herself up so she could stare at her frustration, the company had not waked her. “I was allowed to sleep so late because?”
“You look like hell,” Briair said under his breath.
Amaris dropped her head back to her pillow. Fantastic. She would see the king in a couple hours, and her appearance was—
“What he meant is you did look a bit diminished. I am sure you will fare fine now.”
Amaris rolled her eyes at Waylen’s remark. “You sound better than I look, and you were dead — what, three days ago?”
“It has been longer than that.” Waylen said.
“It is not her fault,” Sion said. “Counting days is difficult when you look like that.” The group chuckled, and Amaris rolled from the bed and headed for the wash basin.
“While you all discuss my fatigue, I shall get dressed.” More like prepared for the slaughter. Her sore chances of success had been highlighted with the night of protected rest.
Riding through the thinly crowded streets discouraged Amaris further. A king who would live tucked away in his citadel while allowing his citizens to buckle under oppression would be little help. She hardened her desire to stop and help each one, to speak lively words among the dusty air and see what would happen. Or even stand still on the compressed dirt streets long enough for some green to take root amid the clay-like ground. Many stared, and Amaris tried to look at them with kindness and not pity, but felt her failure. Amaris’s mood dropped from anticipating defeat to disappointment when she reached the wall surrounding the citadel; she had forgotten about the device. No king should stand protected from his own people.
Through coy misdirection, Amaris gained admittance onto the grounds, ploying as a traveler curious to see the citadel’s grand structure. Once enclosed in the court, a light green spread of grass boasting a superior position, Amaris walked straight to the citadel’s doors which (in keeping with the city’s manner) were not only closed, but guarded. The men crossed their spears when Amaris approached.
“Is is unlawful to speak with the king?” Amaris asked.
“Of course not, with due reasons.”
“He is a busy man, then?” No answer. “I thought not.”
“With due respect maim—”
“Any respect to myself would cause admittance without question. I am a diplomat from the highlands and desire an immediate audience with his lordship.”
“I shall send him the message then, but then you must wait.” One of the guards lifted his spear and placed his hand on the large, brass doorknob, and then waited. Amaris narrowed her eyes, but stepped away from the door while the man entered. The man took so long that Amaris wanted to ask if she would see the king today, and then he emerged, with two more guard at his side — at least she expected it was he. Wearing garments interwoven and embroidered with designs in gold, a gold necklace and pendant, and a polished sword which Amaris guessed he was wearing for fashion, maybe getting it buckled on had even added to his delay.
“Madam,” he tipped his head. “You wished an audience.”
“With so many others around, you want to discuss discreet matters?” Amaris gazed at the plethora of guards. “I take my business not lightly.”
“I see.” The king rubbed his short beard, as he had been taught, no doubt. “Your name?”
“And your purpose for appearing so . . . armed?”
“My name is Amaris Tempth, sir.”
“Ah. I see.” The king nodded the guards, “let her pass.”
Amaris made the men promise to leave Fleecel, let her meander in the open court, and then followed the king. She walked through mahogany halls around the great court she had visited many times in her earlier years, and into a smaller chamber where a single man kept watch by the door. The king gestured to the seats around a plain table and took the one opposite her. “Are you coming here for help, Miss Tempth? I assume it is Miss.”
Amaris nodded, “and yes, I am come for aid.”
“I will help you where I can.”
“I am relieved that you know who I am, but would like to better introduce myself.”
“At your will.” The king ordered wine be brought, and Amaris noted to drink with a sparing hand so she could keep advantage. She lightly covered the more known details of her family line, disregarding the exacts of her mother’s death, and the length of her story, to keep the man’s attention and hopefully patience with her. He would know she was last in her line, and with no heirs. Depleted of resources beyond personal funds, and devoid of military aid. The king made little answer to her explanation, only sipping at his wine while she spoke.
“I have obvious need of armed forces. I want to help you, but cannot accomplish my task unassisted.”
The king examined Amaris. “I see. I thought you had come for such purposes.”
Amaris did not know whether or not she wished she had remained more involved with the city, as she had been in Valmier’s day.
“I will consider your request, Miss Tempth. Meanwhile, you can stay within the citadel and take shelter.”
“I have a company with me.”
“And they are where?”
“Staying at an inn.”
“Why did you not come here for accommodations?”
“We arrived late.”
“All the more reason for you to come hither. The guard have orders to direct you to the citadel upon entry.”
So all the guards knew her by name. “Do not take up my name so easily with your men.”Amairs said. “My family name has caused countless murders and assassinations.”
“All the more reason to take precautions for your safety.” The king ordered a servant to send for Amaris’s company.
“By making my presence known to an entire city’s guard?” Amaris rubbed her forehead. “I request none of your men know of my presence.”
“As you wish, Amaris.” The king’s eyes had a loathsome quality as he seceded to Amaris’s demand.
She lifted her cup to the king before drinking. “My thanks for your understanding. May I ask how you came to understand my position?”
“Indeed you may.” The king also tipped his chalice. “My father trained me in everything necessary for governing this city well.” Something unspoken underwrote his words, a duty without willingness.
“What have the Tempths to do with governing your city? I understand the importance of education on the fact of my family, but do not understand why you would place me in such a context.”
“This is not the first time you have come with the request of our resources.”
“Have you already decided to neglect my cause?” Amaris set down the cup and leaned her forehead into her hand. Why had she thought the son of such a thick-skinned, self-concerned man would give her anything but cause to leave.
“Amaris, we will give you supplies, finances, any help this city has to offer—”
“Except it’s men!”
“They are not mine to turn into service for a losing—” Amaris cocked her head with a glare “—for such a risky errand.”
“You would like me to take care of things myself, then?”
“You and your people have caused this strife between your family and our general enemy, not us.”
Amaris lost her words for a moment while she tried to lift her jaw. “Did you actually insult me for feuding with the being who has destroyed your land?”
“No. Understand me, Amaris, your strong opposition to that man—”
“He is not man.”
“Your fight against him, as I was saying, is the sole reason we welcome you here. With respect, most of your people have fled and left us weaker beings to live in the line of BG’s wrath. Every growing season struggles against burns and pillages from the last, and our citizens thin each year. It is task enough to keep their spirits from diminishing without dividing strength between ourselves and the elusive Alaquendi.”
Amaris snickered. “If your act is to keep your people lively, only in my people’s retreating can I see a greater failure.”
The king narrowed his eyes. “Did you come here to mock?”
“No,” Amaris’s smile sank from her lips. “I wanted help so I could help you. I alone have the obligation and ability to end this war before armies and opposition are useless.”
“So you want an army from a single city? My advisers are right about you.”
“How could I ask such a feat?” Amaris ignored the king’s reference to advisers, aging men whose opinions belonged in the grave. “I only need your help in securing a stance of defense to begin creating a resistance against our foes before they knock us down by the knees. Will you honestly sleep when a force to great to imagine is diminishing your people before smoothing them?”
“Unimaginable opposition is exactly why I cannot subject my people to your cause. Amaris, we would be dead by dawn.”
“Your lax and passivity encourage his every move against you. I would rather be dead than boiling unnoticed in the fire of something I fear to face.” Amaris stood and backed away from the table.
“At least join me for dinner, Amaris. Perhaps we can work out a means of supply for your venture.”
“My allies are on their way here, or I would be gone from your isolated palace this moment. They deserve to eat and rest. I take care of my people.”
“Allow me to take care of you,” the king struggled to keep his face straight, but the crease in his brow deepened. “A room for you and each of your people will be opened and available while you stay.”
“I will not stay long, I can assure you.”
“As you wish,” the king tipped his head.
Amaris tried to greet her company with joviality, but her spirits were wrecked, and she loathed artificial emotions. Still, these men and women deserved rest in their minds and their bodies while she regrouped her stamina and found a different plan to follow. If she could afford them even one night to be at ease, her effort would be well spent. Amaris found all too soon the need to stay longer.
“She is not well, Amaris.”
Amaris bit her lip, trying to avoid the inevitable extended stay. She blew out, and looked at Sion. “Has she complained much today?” Amaris knew Waylen had gone to rest as soon as they arrived, now she hardly glanced at Amaris,.
“We are talking about the same woman, right?”
Amaris rolled her eyes. Of course Waylen would say nothing. “Then how do you know she is hurting?”
“Dragging her feet, clinging so tight to Adreaga on the ride over that the girl mentioned it to me, drooping head, getting pale again—”
“Thank you. I really do not want to hear any more.” Amaris rubbed her forehead.
Amaris cringed from the touch of Sion’s hand on her arm.
“Things with the king did not go well, did they?”
“I lost any chance of diplomacy when he started spouting off things about this being my problem and not his.” Amaris struggled to get the broach off her neck, but it snagged. The king’s father had cautioned him about Amaris who, in her youth and hotter temperament had spoken unwisely against his style of ruling, and more than demanded support. Sion placed his hand over Amaris’s, and moved it aside. He unclasped the broach with ease. Amaris caught her cape and then held her hand out for the jewel which weighted her hand. She glanced at Waylen, receding down the hall, leaning on Adreaga as she walked. “Will she be alright for the time being?”
“I can stop by her room and see that she is well enough.”
Amaris nodded her thanks. “I will be in my room. Fetch me as soon as I am needed.” In her exhaustion, despite frustration at the god-forsaken place, Amaris fell asleep fully clothed and leaning against the metal framed glass of the riel window with a long soft cushioned seat. An increasingly loud knocking spiked irritation through Amaris. She stumbled to her feet and fumbled toward the door. Then she worried for Waylen and hurried for the latch. She might have straightened herself had she expected anyone but Sion, alas the young maiden’s curtsy did not conceal her shock when seeing Amaris, half awake and probably marked after laying with her cheek against a window for as long as she slept. The bashfulness made Amaris smile, kinder still when the young woman needed a cue from her before finding a tongue. Amaris was expected at dinner with her party in the lord’s presence. Amaris gnawed her lip, and tried to be polite in accepting the dress draped across the girl’s arms. After expressed gratitude, and shutting the door, Amaris started dropping her worn clothes.
Only then did Amaris notice the dirt caked on her black, worn dress. Small tares had gone unnoticed while doctoring Waylen. Smears of blood an odor reminiscent of sleeping on the ground, and more bends than straights in the now-dingy fabric. She considered the rubbish pile on the floor she had word for the last two weeks without taking the effort to change. Amaris needed help, not one more rejection. “I could burn this place more easily than dine in it.” Amaris kicked the mound of cloth, but attended to a wash basin before slipping into the maroon dress she had been lent. Anything of Amaris’s so nice as the soft useless fabric she now had on remained in her trunk at home, which, at this rate, she would never reach again. And Illuma’s house would never be settled. The woman had no other friends, so at least Amaris could avoid guilt concerning Illuma’s relations.
She looked at the clothes again, and smelled her dress. She sighed and dropped it back onto the heap. She had met with the king in those rags. No undoing her mistake now. Still, Amaris put forth her best facade for her friends, but did not know its effect, because fooling her companions meant she almost had to deceive herself. Even with Amaris’s attempt to comfort them, the others seemed ill at ease. Adreaga and Briair had never been in the company of a lord, Sion’s tension could have strangled someone, and meat lacked on their menu, so Waylen did not eat much. The king dismissed them, but Amaris lingered.
“You wish to speak with me, Miss Tempth?”
Amaris sighed, “Quite the opposite, still . . . I hate to partake of your,” Amaris eyed the man, “kindness” —she managed— “any longer, but one of my people is wounded.” Amaris could not ask.
“The darker woman, yes, she struggled even to eat. Stay until she is mended.”
“There is no need for false gratitude, Miss Tempth. I think I understand you.”