“How long have you been like this?”
Amaris shrugged, leaning forward with face propped on her hands. She looked nothing like the girl he remembered. “A couple months.”
“What did this to you?”
“I would rather not discus the subject,” Amaris coughed to the side, and winced.
“Your head, still?”
Amaris’s bleak smile hurt SB more than seeing his friend’s failing health. “Do not waste your kindness,” Amaris said. “Someone else will need it more.”
“Let her be,” Amaris’s father said. “She has had a long travel, and needs rest.”
Amaris pushed against her knees to stand. “I always need rest now, father. What we talk about does not matter. I never feel awake.” Then she looked at SB. “I cannot answer your questions.”
SB made no response. He watched Amaris walk to her room, and tried to decide what disturbed him about her presence. The gold hair framing her washed out face — empty of emotion and color — would have discomforted him enough without her slow movements, droll tone, and unenthusiastic gestures. Whatever had altered her had damaged far deeper than the physical.
Three days later, SB pulled the hair back from Amaris’s pale face as entered. SB bit his lip, watching Amaris’s unconscious and expressionless face. “When will the doctor be here?”
“As soon as is possible. Anyone would come to help Amaris.”
“I know.” SB studied the woman’s cold face. “ Are you sure making her presence known is wise? Whatever haunted her this far . . .”
“I told one family friend. He is brother to Amaris’s mentor. I would endanger her by telling anyone else she of her homecoming.”
“I understand.” SB held his breathe, and then sighed. “I cannot watch her anymore. Stay with your daughter.”
SB tried to stay busy while waiting for the physician, but the doctor brought worse news. Upon examination of Amaris, he found a seven inch scar below her ribs. She had several similar marks, an irregular heart rate, and took shallow breaths.
AF examined the wound and SB watched, having no medicinal abilities to add. Her skin looked stretched and deformed, an ugly pink color coated the flesh.
“It looks like she has lost a section of her side,” AF said.
SB had to leave the room before he grew too angry at Amaris for not speaking up about her injury. AF joined him a short time later.
“She has been treating it.” AF said.
“If she did not, I would have choice words for her indeed.”
“She saved herself.”
SB nodded to quiet Amaris’s father. When Amaris came down with a fever the next day, SB thought the woman deserved to praise for saving herself. Waiting until the last moment of survival to show up the one place she could get help made no sense. SB knew she had left her forest home, but wherever she went from there must have been folly. She had none of the company who set out with her, and over half a year later managed to half-kill herself before venturing to her people.
The doctor bathed Amaris in herbs and ointments, leaving the wounds unwrapped so they could breathe. The woman looked like an undead beauty ready to depart. SB loathed looking at her, but could do little else. He forced the doctor and AF to make him work, but nothing kept him occupied long enough to ignore the ghastly sight of Amaris lying on the couch.
“I can hardly believe she has made it this long.” The doctor said over breakfast the next day.
SB set down his cup before taking a sip. “What does that mean?”
“She is a strong woman with an unnatural ability to survive these types of things, I know her reasons, but still . . . the gravity of her wounds, along with whatever she cannot tell us about this damage, could have killed a man twice her size.”
SB should have blurred out the conversation between physicians, but listened anyway while resting on his makeshift bed in the corner. His sleeping quarters in the shanty would make him useless in an emergency, so he slept with Amaris in sight. Right before he surrendered to sleep, SB heard AF announce his intention to call for another physician. The attending doctor gave no complaint; this ordeal seemed beyond him. The following three days, with the additional medical advice, seemed as hopeless as the previous two.
Amaris’s hands covered her face, but SB stared at her.
“How long?” Amaris asked. When no one answered, she clarified, “How many days was I asleep?”
“That is your concern?” SB huffed. “Too long.” He crossed his arms, and turned his gaze to the door post opposite of the one he leaned against.
“You are angry.” Amaris’s sounded flat.
AF answered before SB could answer. He explained how concerned Amaris made them. SB figured the conversation needed AF’s redirection; he could not have spoken honesty with Amaris right now. He would hold his tongue until Amaris had color back, and not just the gold covering most of her bed-ridden burgundy hair.
SB widened his eyes when Amaris responded -to him, not her father- “I understand.”
SB shook his head and mouthed, “No,” so AF could not put him in check. Working for this woman’s father had its limitations.
Amaris turned her gaze from SB and only glanced his way on occasion. SB watched the doctors working to convince Amaris of her need to rest longer, while she protested, claiming the two weeks she had been unconscious would more than suffice. She would give herself only a couple days.
“You will not convince her,” SB said. Amaris looked at him, and the doctors paused their efforts. “You are a fool, Amaris.”
“What?” SB waited, and then saw AF trying to react. SB wanted a chance to stop the stupid man from coddling his childish daughter. “You nearly died,” SB said. “But you know that.”
“I am right here. Alive.” Amaris said.
“I would debate that. You need to stay put until you have strength.”
Amaris swung her legs off the couch and stood. SP looked her down and up as she stepped closer to him. “You are not quite as weak as you appear.” SB glanced over Amaris to AF. “I think your father wants you resting. I will talk to you later.”
“You have no jurisdiction over me.”
“Indeed.” SB put his hand on the door latch. “Move back so you do not go cold again.”
Amaris set her jaw. SB watched her feet shuffle, re-balancing her weight. Her apparent strength seemed a ruse. “Rest until you heal enough to follow me out the door, then we can fight over your your life choices.”
“I will never heal.” Amaris insisted.
SB smirked, and stepped up to Amaris, who stumbled backward, caught by her father. Amaris glared. “Stay put,” SB said.
“You —!” Amaris coughed, unable to shout back. SB left the house, and the tiring woman.
The next two days, SB visited the house often, but slept in his lodgings beside the stable. Amaris gave him no courtesy, and tried to turn down any service he offered. He assured her he only followed AF’s instructions, and then on occasion she would accept a kindness. She still had a mild fever that worsened whenever she made moves toward activity. The two doctors did their best to keep the woman sedated, but that failed. Since her first waking, she seemed convinced of her own growing strength. SB wished she would regain her functions, and fast. He grew weary of her silly insistence of wellbeing while she struggled through the nights, and denied her aches through the day. SB saw Amaris’s grimaces; she lied poorly.
Several days dragged by, and SB began pushing Amaris to get well. She responded favorably to SB’s invitation to go outside and walk one day. Although her father fought the idea, the remaining physician did not deny that light exercise would help Amaris. SB promised to look after her, and Amaris agreed to be conscious of her limits.
SB lead her outside, and a short distance from the house. He stopped and looked at Amaris.
“What?” Amaris raised her eyebrows.
SB shook his head and continued walking.
“Fine,” Amaris responded. SB looked back, and saw Amaris trudging forward with arms crossed. “We do not need to talk.”
“You would not answer me if I did,” SB muttered.
Amaris snorted a little, and the two continued their slow walk. SB felt the tiniest pang when Amaris breathed heavy, trying to follow hisslow gate. He reduced his speed, and still had to wait for her. He did not go far, and convinced Amaris to rest on a log. SB refused his impulse to wrap the woman in his warmth, rock her, and promise she would heal. Instead, he stood several feet away, arms crossed, and denied eye contact. Several minutes passed, and SB lead them back. Before leaving the trees, and regaining sight of the cottage, SB steeled himself and tugged Amaris’s arm. She stopped, and eyed him.
“Will you forgive my cruelness to you these last weeks?”
Amaris’s brow scrunched. “What for?”
SB sighed. “My treatment has been unkind, especially to someone in your condition.”
Amaris pursed her lips. “So you want to join the ranks of those pitying me.”
“You have earned pity.”
Amaris smirked, but not with pleasure. “So now my self-inflicted harm deserves pity? I will take note.”
“What, you did this to yourself?” SB raised his voice.
Amaris’s expression widened to a smile. “Not exactly.”
“Does anyone know what the hell happened to you?”
Amaris rolled her eyes. “My father told me unless he understood what took place, I had limited time here.”
“Good.” SB said. “I will make him tell me.”
“Why would he do that?”
“Because I know what he does not of how this venture started, and I am sure he would prefer a fuller story than whatever you told him. I assume there would be no inconsistencies if I add a few notes?”
Amaris stared a moment, and then sighed. “I hate you sometimes.”
“Good to know.” SB started toward the house.
“I will tell you what happened.”
“I know,” SB stopped a moment. “Come on, now. If your father thinks you are absent too long, there will be no way to free you again from the couch.”
Amaris obeyed this time, and spent the rest of the afternoon resting.
The next two days, Amaris all but begged her father to stay close to her. She moaned when he started leaving, and then whined about her pain. She asked for water, warm food, the fire stoked, and the blankets adjusted. SB watched the display, and scorned her in his thoughts. When Amaris slept, AF left to rest. When she stirred, she turned over and kept her eyes closed until AF spoke. Then she sat up. The third day, Amaris failed at keeping her father at her bedside. He explained his necessary departure with the doctor, so the correct herbs would be procured before the physician departed. He turned down Amaris’s suggestion that SB run the errand. When the door closed behind AF, Amaris rolled toward the back of the couch.
“You have to be exhausted from lying there.” SB leaned forward in his chair. Amaris gave no response.
He stood up, and moved his chair close to the couch. Amaris only whined.
Amaris said nothing.
“Are you in pain?” When SB heard no reply, he asked “Are you just playing at this?”
Amaris threw half her blanket, which smacked SB in the face. He sat back in his seat, and saw Amaris making eye contact. He waited for her to speak, but the woman glared instead. SB said, “You do not look half as ill as last week.”
SB nodded. “What say you to a little conversation without your father in the room?”
“I hate you.”
“Yes, so you mentioned. Since I will not be regaining any affections from you, let us go for something a bit more honest? Your story, Miss Tempth.”
“I would rather die than tell you what happened.”
SB left his chair, and walked to the fireplace where he stoked the fire, and then leaned on the mantle. “Amaris, you scare me.” He bit his lip, thinking uncomfortable thoughts. This woman might kill herself, if not stopped. Should he intervene in her matters when her mind seemed so made? He did not know this mind.
“What makes you afraid?”
SB saw Amaris sitting, leaning on one arm, the fingers on that hand gripped the bedding, white knuckled. SB filled Amaris’s water cup, and offered it. Amaris drank the water, and handed SB the cup. Amaris reclined, and relaxed her arms. “What do you need to know?” She asked.
Need? If Amaris answered to need, then SB could falsify some. “You told your father what took place so you could remain here, am I correct?”
“You are staying awhile, then?” SB took the seat beside Amaris, and she scooted across the couch.
“I have no place lined up, so I will stay put until an alternative presents itself.”
Vague language. The woman would go nowhere.
“What, not home? You love that forest.”
“You know I do not.”
“Amaris, you loathe your father even more. Unless that has changed, too.”
Amaris shook her head, nose scrunched.
“Have you taken a sudden liking to the icy north?”
Amaris sighed. “You know better. I wish everyone would leave these lands.”
“I thought that.” SB shrugged. “Why no plans to leave?”
“I can find a way to go from here, just . . .”
Stupid girl. He did not want her gone. He wanted to understand. He knew she acted faster than she planned, and now he saw neither. “You are welcome to stay, Amaris. I just want to know why. After avoiding your father for the last decade, I see no reason for you to endure his presence on a regular basis.”
Amaris quieted her voice, and studied the blanket on her lap. “I sort of botched my last plans.”
Amaris huffed. “After doing all in your power to get me alone, and pry my sordid tale from me, I tell you I messed up things, and you say yes?”
SB nodded. “You will talk. Since you expressed a desire to die rather than explain your sorry self, I thought practicing patience the best course.”
“Where would you go, Amaris?” SB asked. “To whom will you go?” When Amaris turned, her tears did not surprise SB, dripping tracks down her face.
“Rest,” SB nodded. “Talk about them later.”
Amaris leaned her head against the other door post.
“Just say their names.”
“Briair.” Amaris’s exhaled. “Illuma,” her voice cracked. “Sion,” she began wailing. “Adreaga,” she had to shout through her tears now as she forced out one last name. “Waylen.”
SB steeled his reaction to the familiar names, and Amaris lost her grip on the post and fell onto him. He scooped up Amaris’s legs and walked her to the bed. Amaris did rest, but only physically. Her mind seemed always somewhere else, wanting to be away from the present. Perhaps she lingered over the past, because SB saw no hope in her for the future. The fever did not return, and the wounds appeared to have healed. Amaris dressed herself in regular dresses, avoiding the bed dress after the first day. She sat outside often, breathing in the crisp northern air, of which SB disapproved, but Aamris could not stand being stationary as long as she had. Months before, at SB’s last visit — the mandatory reports AF insisted upon yearly — Amaris seemed content to never leave her little hovel, so now he kept an eye on her antsy tendencies. She sat in a dull manor, only speaking when the spoken to. A few days after she woke up, SB heard her scream for the first time at night. He had to know what happened.
He watched Amaris the next day, hoping for a way to ease her into telling him something. Then she rose from her seat and began quitting the room. SB sighed in defeat; how could he expect it to be simple? “Amaris, you have told your father what happened to you?”
Amaris froze in her leaving, and SB wished he had not spoken. She nodded. “Last week father told me I had limited time here unless he understood what had taken place.”
SB ground his teeth together. “As long as someone knows.”
“I did not want to tell him.” SB had to listen close to hear Amaris’s quiet voice, and then she got louder and sounded tense. “It felt like drowning to death over and over and over. He suffocated me in more ways than I knew possible. And when I was weak, and completely used up—”
SB stepped close and touched Amaris’s shoulder. “Amaris, you do not have to relive this for anyone, ever.”
Amaris turned to SB, clenching a fist over her stomach, her eyes wild and numb. “He is too good at his job. I wonder he did not finish me when he took my mother.”
“He never will.” SB squeezed Amaris’s shoulder, and she grabbed his other hand and held it as if she would drop off a cliff if she let go.
“So easy to say.”
“No, it is not. That is just my hope.”
Amaris blinked out another tear. “My survival is your hope?”
SB stared into the golden brown with flecks of light dancing in Amaris’s eyes, and nodded.
“I am sorry, then.”
“Do not be so intent on dying.”
Amaris shrugged. “I have felt my life unraveling for decades. BG just pulled the thread faster.”
“I wish your mother were here so she could tell you otherwise—” Amairs bit her lip and turned her face away “—you are not dying, Amaris.” SB brushed a piece of burgundy hair over Amaris’s shoulder, which last week had been gold. “You are healing.”
Amaris squeezed her eyes shut.
“Why is that bad news to you?” SB asked.
“Living only means dying again. And I have perished so many times.”
SB sighed, he saw no reason to try and convince Amaris against her ill thinking, not yet.
“Amaris, do I understand you right that you did not know you would survive?” AF furrowed his brow as the conversation revealed to the old man what should have been obvious. Flawless, although worn, as he looked in his senior years, the man had such little connection with his daughter, the two might have been strangers and better understood one another. “Are you saying you did not intend to live?”
“What did you expect?” Amaris narrowed her eyes on her father. “Either I try, or I die trying, or I die without trying. This was bound to happen eventually,” Amaris gestured to her frail body as her voice rose. “You are just lucky that it only went this far.”
“Your mother and I never wanted this for you. We had plans to try and take care of this ourselves.”
“My mother could not have taken the beating that I just did!” Amaris knew nothing that she had suffered was on account of her mother, but the feeling of being abandoned to labor at her task alone was becoming too much to ponder. Amaris’s eyes shed frustrating tears as they closed. SB watched Amaris escalating herself into panicky frustration. She would never let herself breach past that limit. She could be pushed though . . . perhaps. Right now, she ignored him again, and staring at her father, continued.
“Someone else died in my stead this time, how much further can this go?”
“Not much longer at this rate.” Again, Amaris pretended not to hear SB. AF shot him a warning glance. But SB was through coddling Amaris. Amaris held her forehead, and her other hand slid to her side where her fingers rubbed the healed wound.
“I need to sleep.” She said.
SB shook his head. Now she wanted time alone; too close to admitting something true.
“Did only one person die, Amaris? Just curious.” SB waited, and Amaris did turn her attention this time. SB looked at AF. “A few moments alone with your daughter, please.”
“SB, you are upsetting her.”
“Father, give me a minute.” Amaris leaned her head against her palm again. AF walked to Amaris and kissed the crown of her head before exiting the house. Always so sweet; the man disgusted SB.
“Amaris, these people, those friends of yours, they did not have to die.” SB said.
”Clearly part of my frustration.” Her voice sounded bland.
“You miss my meaning. It is your fault that they are gone, and that did not have to happen.”
Amaris opened her mouth, but nothing came out.
“You need to hear it, or I would stay quiet.”
Amaris clamped her jaw shut, and grabbed Hayden’s arm with a grip more ferocious than the latter thought she could still manage. He looke at Amaris.
“Why would you say this to me?”
“I do not lie, Amaris. Silence about what you did threatens to deceive you into thinking you were right.”
“What should I have done?” Amaris asked.
“Anything but what you dragged them and yourself into.”
“I should be able to give up my own life, and they knew well what I was doing.”
SB stared into Amaris’s eyes. “Why would you kill yourself? A straight answer, if you please.”
Amaris huffed. “I forget, your memory does not go back into my life as far as mine.”
“Insulting me will not undo my words, Amaris.” He had more than witnessed Amaris struggle through her youth, always sparing with her mother’s sword — although it fit her poorly. Desperate to grow into a warrior, physician, and successful heir to the key. And she failed continuously.
“I am not trying to.”
“Lie again and I will stop taking you seriously. What I say is truth, and it has a strangle hold on you, as it well should. You had a hand in killing your closest friends.”
Amaris looked perplexed, and remained silent. Could she say nothing true of the situation that had passed?
“I am sorry.” SB’s said.
“Why?” Amaris’s voice warbled, and she started to cry, slow and pitiful. She wiped away the evidence of emotion on her cheek.
“Sorry that you took this plan so far. You survived, but she is—” Hayden sighed, his eyes dropped away from Amaris. “I know how much you and Waylen are connected.”
Amaris pushed SB back and walked out the door, slamming it so hard it opened up again. SB followed her with a heavy cloak and the broach Amaris had left on the mantle. He dropped the cloak onto her shoulders as soon as he caught up to her, but she shrugged it off. SB caught it, and followed her.
“Now that I know your opinions of me, I would rather you leave me be.” She said.
“Amaris Tempth,” SB stopped following, and Amaris hesitated. “You are acting a fool, and I thought you brilliant.”
“How is this going to help me?” Amaris shouted, and flung her arms out to the side. Looking much like an upset child.
“You have help.”
“No I do not. I tried to convince the lord of—”
“One city turned you down. From a hundred more you could have reaped men. And you should have seen the highlands rise up to save you when you came here sick. Your friends already died protecting you. How are you alone?”
Amaris did not respond.
“You need to decide what you are going to do. Before more lives adhere themselves to your mission.”
“I have told you and everyone else what I must do. The land suffers if I stand back.”
“Undebatable.” Amaris also suffered with the land, and the people.
“Then the question is answered.” Amaris said.
“Never has been.”
Amaris shook her head and stepped back.
“I almost watched you die, and you set up that situation. You half care who wins anymore, as long as you are removed from the picture, right?”
“Yes! If you must be so blunt,” Amaris chuckled with tears in her eyes, which put a pang in SB’s chest. “I would rather have perished before this choice settled on my shoulders.”
“Thank you!” SB threw up his hands.
“You want me dead?” Amaris cried.
“No, no. Of course not,” Hayden held Amaris’s shoulders; his hands weighed on her.
“Let me go.”
SB nodded and lifted his hands while he whispered, “let yourself go.”
“SB, you confuse me.”
He shook his head. “Nothing confusing, but you are a bit lost. I know you have a choice to make, so be honest. If you give up, then stop trying, because it is a wretched thing to lie to yourself, and it has all but eaten you whole. People die every day, but guilt will never set them free. So untie your hands, and either move forward with the passion you have been devoid of for over thirty years, or bury the broach and live your life as you please.”
Amaris gasped, and threw both hands over her mouth. She scanned the empty woods, looked at her father’s house, and back to SB. “I cannot do what you ask.”
“Because I am the last hope this land has.”
Hayden stepped back and examined Amaris, head to to and back again. “Then our hope is bound in chains. You are a slave. And you tried to kill yourself to get free.”
Amaris looked around again, and glanced at her father’s place once more. SB stepped forward and held Amaris still. “You make the decisions for your life, not them.”
Amaris shook her head.
“Yes, it has to be your choice.”
“No, I cannot do that to them.”
“Oh, but you can.”
Amaris locked her eyes with Hayden’s. He took her hand, and opened the balled up fist she had made, and slipped the broach into it. “Choose.”
After staring at SB for a few moments, Amaris opened her hand and the jewel dropped into the snow. “Who could think with that thing?”
SB lifted half his mouth in a smile.
“I choose life,” Amaris shook her head, and lowered her voice. “I am not sure what that means.” Then she turned toward the trees and began leaving. SB chased her a few steps to drop a cloak onto her shoulders. Amaris tucked her hands into the warmth and walked on.
SB watched Amaris through her pathetic display of distance and pensive agitation throughout the next day. Her birthday or not, that woman found a thousand ways to introvert and dip out the world . That night, SB caught the tail end of Amaris drinking herself into a stupor with all the wine left from the brief toast she had allowed her father to give. She did not even notice someone in the room as SB leaned against the wall and watched her by the fire. She cried some, yelled a little, and had thrown the broach across the room. SB denied his urge to pick up the frustrated woman and carry her to her room before she collapsed further. After wearing through her tears she stumbled to bed, leaving her broach on the floor. SB asked AF what herbs take for a headache, and then left it out for Amaris. He struggled past a dozen mental images of Amaris in bed suffering against her emotions and intoxication before he managed any sleep.
He did not bother to wrench himself from bed the next morning. His friend made no progress toward resolution, and another day to watch her struggle would be unjust punishment for waking. If only Amaris could act more like she had before Valmier. The man had romanced her, promised her faithfulness, and traveled with her wherever she went. Somewhere before she ended that relationship, Amaris decided she deserved nothing of love, and fashioned for herself an existence instead of a life. SB groaned, thinking of Amaris’s denying Valmier’s proposal, telling him he must leave and never be seen by her again. She sliced into that man with resolution harder than steel, and then she fled home, burying any thoughts of him with her departure. Fear, more than a valid thought process, had torn Amaris away from her support and aid.
Each year SB visited Amaris’s disposition had grown several degrees colder. She falsified contentment, but SB knew her condition could not be sustained. Illuma and he discussed the matter on occasion, and even Amaris’s new neighbor saw something amiss. Then the rare moment would arise when Amaris slipped up. She screamed, threw things, wept, and came as near a child’s tantrum as a grown woman could manage. SB ruminated these outbursts, because Amaris, in her youth, had almost too much fire for her own good. She doused most of her flame when sending Valmier away, whenever it resurfaced, for a fleeting moment, SB thought perhaps Amaris had not already died.
When SB’s thoughts of Amaris echoed the real woman too well, he sat up and rubbed his eyes. His head did not clear, so he dressed and left his room. But the woman sitting on the couch arm interrupted his muse.
“Amaris, I am surprised to see you awake so soon.” Shocked would have been a better word choice. His memories seemed dull when faced with this woman’s physique. Her rich burgundy waves settled over her chest where her arms crossed. She stared into the wall, but not with her the pale vacancy she had expressed in the days before.
“Of that I am sure.”
“Amaris, are you still angry with me?”
Amaris pierced SB with the sharpness in her hazel eyes. Drunk for one night and she woke up with a terrifying resolve. The broach glowed from beneath her chin, dancing in purples dormant just twelve hours before.
“What are you doing?” He assessed the boots and cape Amaris wore, and the bag at her feet.
SB huffed. “Where to?”
Amaris took several deep breaths while the moment froze over. “I failed to save them, so I will avenge my friends.”
This is not the result SB wanted his and Amaris’s conversations to have. “And you are leaving today.” SB nodded.
“I have to.” Amaris’s gaze slid to the floor. “You do not realize how fickle I am. Decisions do not last.”
SB walked to Amaris, stood in front of the woman, and lifted her chin. “Not alone, they do not.”
The passion started draining from Amaris’s eyes. “I wanted to say goodbye.”
SB looked into her eyes. They belonged to a little scared girl, brave enough to do what she knew would fail. And foolish enough. “Amaris, this is death . . . again. Why do you not try something else?”
Amaris opened her mouth and SB stopped her words with one finger against her lips. The touch resonated, and SB made himself pull his finger away from Amaris’s dry, beautiful lips before intrusive thoughts crept in. “Give me one week to prove the Alaquendi’s allegiance to you. If they fail to rise, I will replace your diminishing resolve and escort your as far as the forest. There . . .” SB averted his eyes. “You can leave then, I will not watch you die.” When he looked back, Amaris nodded.