“Three weeks have passed, Sion.”
“I know,” Sion scratched Amaris’s back. Amaris vented to Sion almost every day since she realized she had to stay longer than anticipated, because the entire musculature in Waylen’s arm was mending.
“I hate to say your comfort is doing nothing.”
Sion dropped his hand. “Neither is your pessimism. Until you come up with another idea for carrying out your assignment, one that does not end in your imminent death, we have no need to hurry away.”
“There is no other plan. It is now or never, because I am sick of trying to work with diplomats who care only about their own safety.”
“Well, Amaris, you have to give them credit for at least considering their well being. You have swung to the pendulum’s other side, and have not a scrap of sane interest in saving your own skin.”
“Why should I?!”
Sion dropped his jaw. “I am not having this conversation again.” Sion had explained several times that Amaris needed to live through her ordeal, because loosing her would be the greatest death for the land. “Beyond our needing you for practicalities, like,” Sion shrugged, “unleashing a healing life force over the land, I do not help friends surrender to the enemy. Your death is not going to be on my hands.”
“Leave, then.” Amaris walked, but Sion caught her arm.
“Why do you listen only to yourself now? You have the least sound mind I have ever witnessed. And until you grieve—”
“No. She is not going to be discussed again. Not with you.”
“Why, because I will not let you kill yourself because of her actions?”
“Sion, she had more strength than I, and look at what she did. I am the fool if I continue on, thinking I will accomplish anything right or just. I should have died decades ago, and Waylen should not be penalized to keep me from the destiny for which I was wrought.”
“Amaris Tempth! Will you stop this.”
Amaris leaned forward, “no.”
“Waylen has more sense than you.”
“Obviously not, she almost died already.”
“To keep you from the same. Shame her and do what you please.”
“No guilt from you, Sion, it will do nothing. Go help your love, she is in more of a listening mood.” Amaris chuckled. Waylen had grown more ornery in healing than she had been in illness.
“Love has to go two ways, Amaris.”
“Cannot help you there.”
“Do not turn this on me. You need to listen to me about Illuma.”
Amaris glared, and threw Sion’s hand off her arm.
“Illuma was dying inside before we even took a step toward the road.”
Amaris heard the words over her shoulder as she walked away, but she looked back. “Sion, Waylen is doing well enough now, tell her what our plans are.”
“I am not following that plan.”
Amaris shrugged, “I will tell her, then.” Waylen reacted even worse to Amaris’s idea than did Sion. If luck went in her favor, Amaris would be abandoned by each of her friends before her final venture. No one else should die on account of a lost war. They could flee and live well enough, BG would not overthrow all the lands before their generation perished, just the one in which Amaris lived. The highlands would be lost though, but the Alaquendi all deserved death. Planning her death would finish the war. With a small chance of success, the only vindication she saw possible would be to look BG in the face and wound him a little for the life and joy he had stripped from her. She knew her heart would be ripped out and her broach lost forever, but everyone else had failed, prolonging their own misery for not a single success story along her entire family line. Destiny was defeat, and Amaris would finish her task, only it looked different now than she had thought before. Amaris’s emotion-filled struggle kept her awake all night, preparing for death taxed her more than she had forethought. She clasped the broach, because if she lost that now, everything would be finished without her catching freedom at its end.
“You two have gone mad.”
“Blame it on your influence.” Adreaga’s smug tone took Amaris off guard.
“Did Sion put you up to this?” Amaris asked.
“Do not be ridiculous, Amaris. He would have our skins for our asking.” Briair said.
“I thought you would assume our coming with you.” Adreaga crossed her arms and raised her eyebrows.
“Why would I think such a thing. You will both be killed—”
“Then why are you going?” Briair asked.
Amaris answered with as natural an expression as she could conjure. “I can fight, you cannot.”
“That is not why you do not want us to follow you further.” Briair said. “Tell us, Amaris, why we should stay put while your risk your life for us.”
“Having you with me would risk the rest of our safety.”
“Not if you let us die in the same way you are allowing yourself to perish.” The girl gave no attempt to conceal her contempt for Amaris’s plan.
“Who told you what I am going to do?” Amaris received no answer. “Who told you?”
“No one, Amaris.” Briair’s voice grew soft. “We do not have an idea about what your next move is, only that you plan to leave us behind to accomplish it, and that is unjust treatment.”
“You hardly ever tell us your intentions, but we are still here.” Adreaga said.
Amaris could not digest the twins’ action. What could she decide when she had prepared for nothing but unanimous support from Sion and Waylen to back her sending the youths home? Now she had to decline them without the others present. “I will never lack in gratitude for what —”
“Then let us come, and we will continue to support you.” Briair interrupted.
“I have been working with a sword for three weeks, but if you give me training I will do better. Keep me behind you on the road, and I may save your life.” Adreaga added.
“Waylen is weak, and yet you take her willingly.” Briair continued.
“She has fought since she was younger than you,” Amaris protested.
“We have strengths to offer as well. You need not trust our swordsmanship, just our will to defend you. Even a child is protection as a shield.”
“No! I cannot let you do this.”
“Why, Amaris?” Adreaga seemed unaffected by Amaris’s denial. “Let us die if the time comes, and we will cause you no harm.”
Briair shrugged. “We die now, or we perish later. Is there a difference in a life’s worth if it is cut short? I think not. Only . . .”
“Only, what, Briair?” Amaris listened.
“If you win or die when we are with you, we succeed in valor. If not with you, we perish with a dying land, or live as regretful cowards.”
“So, you care not about your own lives?” Amaris had not anticipated such bravery from the two in her company who had been treated with uniform suppression.
Adreaga was almost smiling. “No. Just yours. We cannot replace the army you have failed in acquiring, but we will be as good as two soldiers who follow your every word.”
“Except surrender.” Briair said.
Amaris threw up her hands. “I am done with you two. . .” She rubbed her forehead and pondered while the twins let the silence drag. “Fine.” She put up her hand to stop any possible cheers of ecstasy. “But if you are not trained, you do not go with us. If you turn back once, you cannot follow again. And I cannot protect you against worse that Waylen is suffering.”
“Done.” Briair said.
“But Waylen is not suffering,” Adreaga said. “She is outside practicing with her sword.”
Amaris’s brows raised. She thought at least she could leave behind Waylen in thanks for what the woman had already paid on her behalf.
“Always surprised by anyone’s dedication but your own,” Briair shook his head.
Amaris was not surprised with their persistence, just their lack of common sense. She fought the urge to find Waylen and force her back into resting. If she resisted help any further, she would seem the foolish one. Still, a Manori, Alaquendi, and three humans would falter and fail; she hoped it would be quick and with minimal suffering. After over a week of Adreaga and Brair’s training and Waylen’s growing stronger, Amaris arranged a private meal with the lord where she explained her plan. Simple, head to the basins and hope for the best. She took any supplies and horses the lord offered, ignored his well wishes, and brushed aside Sion’s last suggestion to apply to the Alaquendi for help. Then they left.
“Is rest for these poor beasts in your plan, Amaris?”
Amaris glared inwardly at Waylen’s crude tone. “Of course,” she had a hard time not spitting words. These people should not be with her, her plan did not include their deaths. She had a hard time, though, finding a way to rid herself of them now that her entire company had followed her South. They had passed the ruins already, and then the forest road they had traveled on to the east, and would abandon sight of the forest in a couple days. Amaris felt the suicide strengthening every step, and her friends grew more unnerved by the hour. Amaris let their break wax into a campsite, and the younger two soon slept. Sion went to sleep more irritated and irrational toward Amaris than he had yet been, and Waylen seemed against resting. Amaris faked unconsciousness to avoid more resistance from her friends, but found herself struggling to stay still enough.
Sion preceded Amaris’s waking, destroying her last hope of loosing her companions before entering the Basins, which would happen tomorrow with or without them. Fleecel had more speed than any other horse, even the swift one which Waylen had acquired for passing the plains, but Amaris knew the plan to leave her friends would not succeed. They each saddled their mounts with sluggish procrastination, reducing Amaris’s slight edge. Everything they did siphoned Amaris’s patience and persistence. When she mounted Fleecel, and saw the sad expressions of her few living friends, the guilt piercing Amaris tore through her gut. She found the dedication to spur on her mare, another soul she would condemn to dispose of herself.
Fleecel started resisting Amaris’s direction, and before noon, her constant disobedience frustrated Amaris into rebuking the thing. Amaris received the mare’s stubbornness as a stern warning, even a test, and pressed further south, forcing Fleecel to quicken her pace, against the will of her companions who insisted on letting the poor thing rest longer. They just wanted her to stop again, to defer her course longer, and then decide against her own will. Fleecel stopped and turned back and forth in a jerky pace.
“Come on, enough of this!”
Fleecel more than ignored her mistress. Everyone’s attention settled on the mare, and Waylen dismounted to try and sooth her. Fleecel grew more irritating, and less obedient. Amaris yelled at Waylen to leave the horse. The horse hated Waylen, how did that woman think she was going to help? Waylen’s narrowed eyes pierced Amaris after the latter shouted. Fleecel calmed herself as Waylen started to speak. Amaris spiked her heels into Fleecel’s sides, and the mare fled toward the South. Her company followed, responding quickly to Amaris’s last ditch effort to lose them all before they all lost each other. Then Amaris saw her error, and her heart caught in her throat which felt swollen with terror. They had company.
Soldiers peeled out of the forest to her left, and swarmed everywhere. They had laid in wait the bend in the forest’s edge, and in Amaris’s frustration, she lead her company into ambush. Again. Amaris pulled Fleecel’s main to yank her head around. Waylen, Sion, and both twins looked at Amaris, not the force behind her. Amaris screamed at her friends to flee, and spurred Fleecel through their line of horses, all trying for a fast escape. Fleecel and Amaris jostled Adreaga’s horse, and as she passed, she heard a whinny and a loud plop. Amaris looked over her shoulder and saw Adreaga on her back, kicking her foot free of her stirrup. Amaris tried to return Fleecel, but the horse rebelled, so Amaris leapt off, recovered from the fall, and ran to Adreaga. She reached the girl the exact moment the soldiers did. She drew her sword, and stopped a blow which would have ended Adreaga.
A loud and familiar roar rang out. Amaris screamed in opposition; Waylen could not sacrifice herself. Fatality had been Amaris’s goal, but not for Waylen, and not for Adreaga; too young a girl to die. Amaris wanted to pinch her eyes shut and pretend against the assault, against her foolish murder and suicide, but she started swinging her sword, stepping in front of Adreaga. She set her teeth and dug into the men and women as they came. Each met their death or wound at Amaris’s hand. The fighters closed in on Adreaga and Amaris like water soaking into a sponge. In the midst of the rush, Amaris lost Adreaga.
She turned around, and saw nothing but dark hewn men and women whose lack of combat competence concerned Amaris. With more ease than sparing, Amaris knocked people down, it was like fighting through a crowd of sleepers, but buried deep enough to elude Adreaga, or any other familiar form. Waylen’s voice screamed, not in command, but in retreat; perhaps the others did not have to perish. Amairs could stay her sword, close her eyes, and finish her plan without further hindrance. A splash of burgundy fabric among the dark crowds caught Amaris’s eye. Maybe Amaris had not killed Adreaga. She pushed toward the girl, and the fighters started to thin, without reason, almost retreating. But Amaris was still surrounded, and had not yet reached Adreaga.
The soldiers stepped back from her, and Amaris froze. She studied the faces that watched her with dirty pleasure as her pants for breath began calming her crazed heart. Adreaga, who now stood, clearly not dead, ran for Amaris, and then one of the men slammed her back to the ground, but did not finish her. Amaris screamed, and before she could try to calculate the situation’s logic, she sprinted toward Adreaga. She only managed a couple strides before someone yanked to the ground from behind. She stared up, re-grasping her sword which had slipped, and waited for breath to return. The man who stood over her confirmed Amaris’s death, not the end she had planned. She had no advantage here.
“You are no better than your mother.” He looked down at her with the same proud hatred Amaris had seen at her mother’s murder. Amaris tried to steel herself, but the ambush made perverse sense now. Custom designed for the pain and memorable end to the enemy’s foe, Amaris. Adreaga’s scream was easy to hear in the quiet, a hard background against which to die. He could have Amaris, but not the key. She grabbed the broach, but BG had her wrist before she could wrench it off her cape. He knelt down and leaned close enough for Amaris to smell the acrid death this damned Alaquendi abused to stay alive past his time. Amaris felt her own supply of life seeping out. The grass which grew where she fell shriveled in a ripple toward her. Could he actually withdraw life from her? Is that how he stayed alive? The reason everything else must eventually die for him to remain. Her life would serve as food for this beast, and Amaris knew she had plenty to be taken before she would be sucked dry. Squeezing the life from her would be a long process if that is how this thing designed her demise. Amaris tried to stay strong at the thought, but her insides quivered already.
BG’s hand grabbed the broach, and for a moment Amaris felt relief with the broach buffering BG’s strength. With the moment of advantage, Amaris drew her dagger and tore it across her opponent’s wrist. BG let go and leaned away while Amaris stumbled back. Before she could trip, BG grabbed her by the collar, and swung a fist into her cheek. Amaris felt the broach press hard into her throat beneath BG’s hand, and then she flew several feet through the air before hitting the ground with a thud. She panted, and spit out blood, away from the darkness for a moment. Too short. BG slammed into Amaris’s back, smashing her chest into the ground. She choked for a breath, and her extremities started numbing. A shadow filled her, tangibly suffocating her from the inside. Then the pressure released. “You are too easy, Amaris.” The sound of her name when he said it injured the last untouched part of Amaris. She dared not look at BG while he killed her, but she knew he no longer crouched over his victim. “Get up!”
“No. I . . . .” Amaris’s throat had more rasp than voice. She rested her throbbing cheek on the dead grass, and it turned green and softened. BG ended her pause in suffering and dug his boot into her stomach, and then flipped her onto her back.
“I told you to get up.” He pulled Amaris to her feet like a rag doll. “The Tempths have more strength than this.”
Amaris felt bruises forming on the ribs that protected her weakly pounding heart. Slow, painful. She wished to faint and forget the scene.
“Maybe I was wrong about you.” BG breathed with ease after drinking Amaris’s life. Amaris wanted to give BG defiance, not satisfaction. After a few seconds on her feet, Amaris could taste the air flowing into her lungs. The arm BG squeezed felt the drain, the rest of her began to revive, but not to her usual strength. BG’s smile poisoned the moment. He pulled her by her hair, and then wrapped her arm, still in his hand, behind her back so she could not fall. Amaris screamed, because beyond the natural pain, it seemed like all her blood rushed to her head and out into BG’s hand. “Thank you,” BG said. “I did not spend sixty years looking for you to get a limp Alaquendi prop! Always hints, never the whole. And then you came straight to me.” BG lifted Amaris’s hair and dropped it over her face, shimmering gold of a dying Alaquendi. “Much better.” Amaris fell and hit the ground, but there was no air to knock out of her. A few minutes she laid still, blurry images softening the gray sky. She blacked out. . . and woke herself screaming. . .
She remembered this. Smashed, suffering unconscious, sleeping, and waking to the shouts of her own pain as BG prodded her to life, just to steal it back again. Each time the cycle happened, Amaris had less chance to find her bearings, and BG had less to take. Amaris drowned to death in misery over and over again, deepening in agony and all her senses weakening. And then she recognized the dull glint of BG’s blade.
Something had to end this, but not him. She groped for a blade, a knife, anything to end the repetitive life-sucking process. She had come to enough to notice the men and women that still watched her demise as some sort of show. Some obviously enjoyed the scene, but others looked bored or numb, while a few tried to avert their eyes. Amaris’s gaze rested on one face which regret and pity filled, but she watched closely, rather than looking away. The woman’s black hair could not conceal the pain on her pale face. Illuma must still care for Amaris.
“No!” This cry did not come from Amaris, and she could not see from where it came. The sound of rushing feet stopped in front of Amaris, and a burgundy dress blocked her from BG. A slight resounding twang filled the air for only a second before a bow fell and she the person was thrown to the side. Amaris could not place the person for a moment, and then Amaris realized Adreaga had not yet perished. As Adreaga fell, someone lifted Amaris from behind, holding her from under her bruised arms. BG’s blade had blood smeared over it, and Aamris stomach curled when she saw Adreaga lying face down a few feet from her. Then he slashed at her, and pain clouded Amaris’s lingering clarity as her side began gushing blood. She did not have enough strength to cry out, and the person behind her smashed their hand into the wound and slammed into the crowd of soldiers behind them, pulling Amaris along.
Amaris soon had a sword that she swung back and forth with her best limp effort. Then others started helping, just a few, and they were leveled fast, but it allowed enough of a path for Amaris to exit the fray, wondering at how BG had not followed, or if he had, when he would strike her. The small revolts spread until most the troop was fully in arms against itself. Then the person holding Amaris yelled over the rising clamor. Amaris could only make out “forgive me.” She could not forgotten her mentor’s voice, and the words sank into the burning pit in Amaris’s stomach. With a firm push from behind, Amaris lay on the ground outside the mass of soldiers, and a shrill whistle went over her. Fleecel materialized. Amaris somehow managed to mount, and the horse walked into a cantor, but before she started to run, Amaris tried to look back. She could not make out much more than a failing effort by few to protect Illuma who took continual blows the flat blunt sides of swords. Amaris closed her eyes against the scene, but almost swooned, and looked ahead instead.
She blinked in rapid uncontrolled as her side bled, a throb coursed through her head, and she struggled as sweat poured into cuts and across bruises. She held on to Fleecel, leaning forward against the white neck that began staining with blood. And then she remembered nothing, just shadows as her mind told her she had to hand on because everyone had perished so she could survive. She owed them nothing less than vengeance, and could give nothing more than her thinning form escaping into the distance as they screamed in agony, dying beneath the sword.
Amaris eyes fluttered open several times before she could make out the fuzzy dawn. She knew nothing touched her, but felt the weight and searing heat of iron rods beating her body. She cried, almost grateful to have tears. Her injuries reminded her of what had caused them, and she realized her memory of the event had much faded to little clarity of her near fatal hours. She now laid back against Fleecel, against whom she sat, blood soaked and cold. She had weak bandages around her torso, and her vile of sap close by, bloodied from Amaris applying it. Without help she would bleed out. She groaned, reaching for what remained of her satchel. A small amount of rummaging produced no bandages, and she had to rip the satchel into strips with her surgeon’s knife, the only blade BG had not taken. Amaris could barely recall what she ought to do next.
Fleecel bumped Amaris with no response. The woman received numerous jolts before any real reaction. Then she began methodically wrapping her midsection with the satchel and almost tied them when she realized she had neglected the medicine she still had. She had to protect the little blood that remained. She unraveled the red-stained cloth wrapped around her and fumbled with the wood vile. Her strength started giving out and her head slipped to the side. A loud whinny aroused Amaris and she pulled vigorously at the container’s top. With a pop, the teardrop bottle’s seal came undone and the vile fell. Amaris scooped it up, and half dabbed, half spilled the stuff onto the gash which took up most of the area between her legs and bust. Then Amaris pulled the strips back around herself before tying them off. She checked for her broach — still beneath her neck — and climbed with pain and numbness onto Fleecel’s back, lest she doze off again, it would be too dangerous a second time. The horse rose and began traveling away from the destruction behind.
Amaris shouted for a slower pace, but her friend listened only long enough for the previous to wrap her hands in the white mane. If Amaris did not pay attention, she would be unseated. Rigorous strides made her nervous. “Please, slow down.” Amaris clenched her teeth and a tear spilled over. Achy arms stole energy from her burning midsection, and every other wound she hardly remembered receiving. Her knuckles paled almost as white as the mane they squeezed. “I cannot go this fast, girl.” Fleecel ignored all pleas. Midway through the day, Amaris begged Fleecel stop for a rest, but the beast did nothing to obey. She just rode on and on until everything blurred.