Amaris felt stuck in a tin can, rain plinking against the roof. This unusual weather might prove more than her low-lying home, surrounded by parched ground, could handle. The dell kept her secret, not safe from floods. But her thoughts drifted to Sion, outside in the deluge. Even his annoyance did not deserve a death sentence. She donned a thick, green cloak, while chiding herself for her decision. She stepped outside and stood beneath the eaves overhanging her porch, and called Nelica. Several times she shouted the mare’s name into the sheets of rain. With no sign of Nelica, Amaris sighed, pulled the cloak tight, and stepped into the onslaught of water, splashing through puddles toward the banks encircling her tiny plot. Then, she saw Nelica.
Amaris apologized to Nelica, then hoisted herself onto the waterlogged back, gripping the wet, stringy main. Amaris felt Nelica’s hooves slide and recover as she pulled Amaris from the dell. Flat ground offered small improvement. The grand horse did not handle rough weather well, and Amaris had to use stronger gestures in directing the mare. The rain soaked through to Amaris in minutes and then sloshed inside her boots. Every few minutes Fleecel tossed her head, and droplets splattered Amaris’s face. “Come on, you’re from the highlands,” Amaris muttered under her breath. The horse’s behavior only worsened.
Frigid and soaked, Amaris finally saw Sion’s horse hiding its head beneath a low tree branch. She dismounted and dragged Fleecel with her, so the mare would not escape to shelter and leave Amaris stranded with Sion. She stepped under the branches and waited for her sight to adjust. Sion stared, wide eyed.
“Come with me,” Amaris turned to leave. She heard a quick rustling behind her, and the man grabbed her arm.
“Are you offering me a place?” Sion’s brow creased.
“You do not have to perish because of our disagreements; so yes.”
“No thank you, yet. Remember, I live in a dell.”
“Arian, I am under a tree.” Sion stretched his arms in both directions.
“So you are. A very wet tree at that. We should go before conditions worsen.” She mounted Nelica, and hesitated. Illuma’s abode would be a stronger shelter. Sion watched her. Amaris spurred on Nelica, and the horse took her home; she did not need a lecture from Illuma. Soon they stood at the edge of the dell.
Amaris tried to force the mare forward, but the horse stumbled, and dug her hooves into the mud, tossing Amaris head over heels down the hill. Sion shouted to Amaris, as the latter rolled toward her home, ending face down in a puddle. She slapped the water, and pushed up from the wet earth.
“Arian!” Sion dismounted his horse and lead it down toward Amaris. The latter did not see her own ride anywhere behind the man; the mare had retreated. “Are you alright?”
Amaris ignored Sion’s extended hand, and stood without aid. She examined the saturated ground, pooling into a wetland around her small abode. She glanced at Sion with an arched brow; “we will see in an hour or so.” She kicked at the flooded grass, and tramped toward her home.
“What?!” Amaris turned, hands open, shoulders raised. Sion gestured to his horse. Ah yes, a tamed beast needed shelter.
Amaris sighed. “I have no stable.”
Sion bit his lip.
Amaris passed Sion, and scrambled up the slick dell, giving no regard to her already muddied dress. She waved for Sion to follow, which he did, as she began calling Nelica’s name into sheets of rain. Then she realized how burdened Sion kept his horse, and told him to remove saddle and bags to her porch. When he returned, Amaris took leave to adjust the horse’s reign so the would have no bit to choke him. Several minutes elapsed, Amaris repeating her mare’s name, before the doused white unicorn trudged through the storm toward her. Amaris roped the two together, and Sion panicked.
“What else should I do? Let him drown?”
“Alright,” Sion conceded, “but if I lose my horse-”
Amaris released the rope, “then find him later.” The unicorn pulled the brown gelding to shelter, and Amaris half-walked, half-slid down to her miniature marsh. Amaris ordered Sion into her shack-like house to change while Amaris stood outside, letting the rain rinse of the mud. Then Sion stood under the eaves outside while Amaris closed herself inside. She peeled off her drenched dress and cape from her chilled skin, wrapping herself in a thick, green cotton cloak. Once her soppy mess sat besides Sion’s on the porch, Amaris welcomed the man to her meager estate. Amaris added a log to the fire, and knelt before it, stoking the embers.
“Arian, I can do that, you are probably freezing.”
“Frozen.” Amaris corrected. “I can manage, thanks.” When the fire blazed, Amaris studied the flames while Sion sat somewhere near. Amaris wished anything but this man in her home. Charity had choked freewill and now Sion —son of her previous lover— would be sleeping on her floor. The sentiment turned Amaris’s stomach, so she found some food to nibble, and tossed some at Sion. Quiet settled in, Amaris’s kindness seeming to silence this man’s redundant questions. Amaris just sat, waiting for the silence to end, but it did not. Exhausted with the wordless tension, Amaris turned in, asking Sion to sleep anywhere but near her. The house had only ever needed one room.
Soreness from the unseating she had received as punishment for poor riding made sleep illusive for Amaris. Every couple hours she rolled over, chill and stiff. After multiple waking episodes, Amaris rolled the covers from her, and swung her feet onto the worn wood floor. Quiet to not wake Sion, Amaris studied the long shelves of spices and salves above her sink. She pulled a couple jars, and administered the remedy. She slept better, but only a couple hours later, dawn cracked through the small window by her bed. Rather than concede the day’s advantage to Sion, Amaris gave up on resting.
Amaris fed herself well, engrossed in the quiet. Then she sat. When the morning wained, Amaris gave up on Sion waking, and left the front door open when she braved the after math of yesterday’s storm. She stood under the drizzling remnants of rain, trying to decide… anything.
“Are you alright, Arian?”
Amaris looked at the groggy Sion and nodded, then turned back to her mess of a yard. Stagnant water everywhere. She walked back and forth through the puddles while her mind wandered through pathless confusion. Sion gave up watching, and retreated indoors. When Amaris went in to warm her chilled feet, a meal waited for her, from Sion’s trappings.
In front of the fire that evening, neither party acknowledged the other’s existence. At length, Amaris told Sion he should board with her until Nelica returned with his horse. Sion’s palpable concern for the horse unnerved Amaris.
“What should I have done instead, Sion?”
Sion made no response.
“Then do not trust me next time.” Amaris grabbed the fire poker and stirred embers under the steady burn.
“Next time?” Sion leaned over, his fingers threading into his hair. He breathed deep, then sat up, staring at Amaris. “Arian, my horse returns, and then you put me out. You try to forget I exist, and continue making my simple work a trying task.”
“There is nothing simple about looking for Amaris.”
Amaris set her jaw. Then she eased back into her chair, crossed her arms, and smirked. “You have no business in this region, anymore. Return to Vel, and tell Valmier you failed, that he ought to handle his own business.”
Sion narrowed his eyes, jaw hanging slack. “How, Arian, do you know where I live?”
Amaris pressed her tongue to her cheek, and bit it.
Sion huffed and shook his head. “What games are you playing?”
“None. Amaris told me of your father. I did not figure he would move on.”
Sion considered Amaris’s claim. “Right. I suppose they had more recent contact then I realized.” Sion sighed. “Figures; the man is not so honest.”
Amaris felt confused. Sion must have sussed the woman’s mood; he explained. “Amaris abandoned my before he even had a home.”
Amaris nodded. “I suppose he did.” Twenty years muddled details. “She must have assumed, since he had apprenticed in Vel.”
“You know some interesting details of my father,” Sion waited.
Amaris desired a defense, but Arian… why should she stand up for Amaris? “Listen, Amaris wined a lot in her heartbreak. Can we leave your father’s adolescent passions aside?”
“Adolescent.” Sion shrugged. “To fall for this wench? I suppose.”
Amaris steeled herself in silence.
“If you do not care about Amaris,” Sion said, “why hide secrets for her? Are you threatened by her?” Sion’s tone softened.
“No!” Amaris spat.
Sion’s head jerked back. “Well then she must pay you well.”
“Not a single coin. I am not a woman to be paid off.”
“Then what drives your obsessive conviction to hide her?”
“That is my business, and yours has to do with this woman. So say no more about my intentions, or I will toss you out, horse or no.”
“Well if you own Amaris’s information, and you will not concede, I will build a house near by, and we can be neighbors for years to come.” Sion smiled. “I have no current purpose aside from tracking down this woman.”
“Information.” How to satisfy this man’s curiosity, stroke his ego, but rid herself of him? Perhaps some misdirection. And when he returned from her lies? Her father. Amaris tried to keep the light from her eyes. “I will make some demands in return for a few details about Amaris.”
“Wait, three weeks of your tight-lipped nonsense, and suddenly you will sell her out.”
“You made yourself my problem. I see to my own business; unlike Amaris.”
“What do you need?” Sion asked.
“I will supply you with three answers each day, so long as the remainder of your time here is spent ignoring Amaris’s existence. You may find me an agreeable human being, and I might find you helpful with hunting and cleaning up the flood.”
Sion chuckled, and held out his hand to seal the deal. Amaris went to shake, but Sion pulled his back. “Will you lie, then?”
“Your insolence is—”
“Arian!” Sion lowered his voice. “You will never be an agreeable human” —he raised his brown— “being.”
Amaris swallowed a lump, and curled her fingers away from the man. “How long have you been playing me?”
Sion reached out for Amaris’s hand, and she flinched. “It was respect that kept me quiet on this matter,” Sion said. “You hide yourself well, Arian. I cannot pretend to know your cautions, but Arian,” Sion stared into her eyes, “I do not hunt . My father almost married one. I want to heal a family matter; nothing more.”
Amaris studied Sion. No fool sat before her. Could she enter even a flimsy deal with this man? Sion held out his hand again, and she gripped it hard. “Do not ever keep things like this from me, again?” She dropped the shake and threw the shook her fingers to clear them of the fallacies committed by both parties.
Sion looked at his hand, and then at Amaris. “How old are you?”
Amaris leaned forward. “That will count as one question.”
“Fine.” Sion said. “I still want to know.
Amaris chuckled, “Sixty-eight.”
“Why do you hide her?”
“Old family friend,” Amaris smirked. True enough.
“Truly?” Sion asked.
“Yes, Sion. I am not lying to you already. I lived with the Tempths for three years, and I think treatment of that woman is horrid in all circles.”
“That I do believe. I have heard her sour demeanor makes disliking her easy enough.”
“Your cunning is not sharp enough to get those types of details. Next question, I know you have them lined up.”
“Does she have a sister?”
“What?! Is Valmier actually your father? You know nothing.”
“Arian,” Sion’s tone remained even. “You look like her, I was worried for you.”
Amaris steeled her emotions. “Do not worry about that; Amaris is the last of her line.”
“So, no family?”
“Just her father.” Amaris stood, and nodded. “Good night, Sion.”
Illuma visited the next day, and Amaris hoped the previous evening’s questions would lack a follow through. However, when Illuma saw Sion, her expression soured toward Amaris.
“I thought you might have been flooded out.” Illuma embraced Amaris, and whispered in her ear. “Now I see you have other duties commanding your time.”
Amaris backed away, and ignored the rebuke. “I worried about the same.”
“Next time, for mercies sake, come to my place. I do not want to wake and find my young friend’s been swept away.”
Amaris tried to make light, but Illuma held to formality. Sion approached, and held his hand toward Illuma in greeting. She accepted.
“Arian is your young friend?” Sion released his grip.
Illuma slowed her breathing and pierced Amaris with her gaze.
“No,” Amaris insisted. “I would never. He sused my race from…” Amaris glared at Sion. “How?”
“The forest,” Sion replied, stepping a distance from the two women. “It is not dying like elsewhere.”
Amaris had no protest, because hide as she —and Illuma— might, they could not tie up the essence that slipped from their bodies like water from cracked vessels. They had too much stamina and longevity. At the middle age of sixty eight, Amaris could expect to outlive any Alaquendi half her age. Last in the Tempth line, the cursed blessing of the Alaquendi wrapped around Amaris twofold. She would bleed out slow, in a thousand unplanned ways. Life would spill out into her hair, the ground, other people, the air, even her own skin. All Alaquendi died thusly. Amaris’s wait for death seemed endless; the eldest in her family had reached one hundred and seventy years of age before a blissful departure.
The intelligent Alaquesndi hid; because a forced or fast death gave the drawn-out dirge of existence a certain allure. The majority of Amaris’s cowardly people lived in the highlands where a great permafrost and deep snow concealed any greenery their vitality produced. Those sick of their people fled to cities with packed and beaten earth, never idling in their duties long enough to heal the broken earth. Amaris concealed her gifts in a forest where she met Illuma, attempting the same. Learned people, like Sion, would always find them. Amaris pretended those types would fail in their searches, but the contrary kept her from resting. She pleaded the merciless earth to make her path to death a long and lonely one.
Amaris looked between Sion and Illuma. “He promised not to harm us, but,” Amaris clasped the sword she had not worn in years, “I have not abandoned my wits.”
Illuma raised her brow. “Fair, I suppose.”
“A proper introduction,” Amaris shifted topics from the uncomfortable blade. “This,” Amaris gestured to Sion, “is the latest pursuant to Amaris.” She eyed Illuma, but saw no change in expression.
“Well, he has come to the right place, dear.” Illuma stepped past Amaris and addressed Sion. “Amaris does not frequent this area much, you might try further North.” Amaris turned to see if the comment had any affect. Sion looked to Amari who shrugged one shoulder to support Illuma’s lie. Amaris hated the Highlands.
“Would you like to come in?” Sion asked Illuma.
Of course, why should he not invite the woman into Amaris’s house?
“I have been inside too much with the weather, but thank you,” Illuma replied.
“Sion, bring out some chairs,” Amaris said. The man obeyed, and Amaris took the moment to threaten Illuma against her speaking anything telling.
“Not a word, Arian.” Illuma’s eyes sparkled. “You do the same.”
Amaris chewed her finger and stared at her pond-like lawn while Illuma and Sion chatted. Eventually, she came up as the topic, and Illuma said she did not know Amaris as well as she would like. Amaris ignored the insinuation, and kept out of the conversation. She declined the invitation to sit, and then walked off. She left the dell, and wandered after Nelica, but returned empty handed. Sion offered to prepare dinner, which Amaris would allow as long as she had to put up with Sion. Illuma took the man’s absence as opportunity question her mentee, but the latter did not favor the attempt.
After the awkward supper, Illuma abandoned efforts at conversation and cordiality, leaving Amaris alone with her bad decisions. In little time, Amaris collapsed into bed, still clothed from the day. She loosened her bodice, and rolled to her side. She woke every morning before Sion, buried herself in pointless chores, and baked until she hated her oven. Her spices had never enjoyed such organization, and long walks consumed her time while her mind muddled over the social mess she had to survive. In a day or so, Nelica returned to rid herself of Sion’s horse, and the first reason for Sion’s stay evaporated. Then he helped Amaris remove the water which the ground would not take, and then hunted for Amaris in return for board.
Each day, Sion asked his five questions, and Amaris told wild stories —some bearing more veracity than others— or gave otherwise terse responses. Once this task ran out, Sion and Amaris spoke little. Amaris kept the young man near only to try and tease out news regarding Valmier. Without divulging her intentions, Amaris learned little.
Illuma provided additional complications by visiting too often. Amaris could not well turn away her friend, but much avoided her company. So Sion and Illuma discussed what things they wished, and Amaris found less amusing things to tax her time while the people taxed her patience. She wanted loneliness.
Amaris pounded on the door, and then tapped her fingers on the frame. The door swung open, and the two women stared. Then Amaris pushed passed Illuma. “Come in, please.” Illuma slammed closed her door.
Amaris turned to Illuma and crossed her arms over her chest. “Are you through pressuring me, yet?”
“You can handle irritation better than this.” Then she mumbled. “You used to, anyway.”
“You think now is a good time to test my patience?” Amaris’s voice raised. “Yesterday I found you fighting with Sion. Should I emulate your nerve for irritation?”
“Sion does nothing but prod me fo—”
“Then stop pestering my abode! Stew here over your disapprovals. You are making a plague for me.”
Amaris covered her face with her hand, and Illuma waited. Her mentor’s silence when she ought to speak unnerved Amaris. Eventually, Amaris’s quiet won out, and Illuma spoke. “How long can you withstand that man?”
Amaris made no answer.
“How long, Miss Tempth?”
“No one is here!” Illuma stretched her arms to both sides. “And you still cannot stand it. It is your name, Amaris.” Illuma waited again, but two could play at silence. She continued. “Either face him, or send him away. Your folly has not yet injured you, perhaps he should know why you are keeping him around like an errand boy?”
“Because I can.” Amaris gnashed her teeth.
Illuma huffed. “Owning a chunk of jewelry gives you no right to exploit!”
Amaris cursed at Illuma, and then looked away, trying to reword her outburst. “I am only making sure he does not wish to exploit me.”
“You are setting an example for him to follow, then?”
“You taught me how to teach.”
“I am there to keep you safe.”
“You never trust me. This is my burden. You cannot have it.”
“No one wants it, Amaris!”
Amaris bit her lip, and wiped a tear from her hot face, and Illuma continued.
“You have to keep it. Furthermore, you should stay alive to use it. Who the hell else will know if that boy kills you?”
“I can handle—”
“Shut up, you child!”
“But I suppose you can keep talking?”
“This is my house, and you are under my teaching — unless you no longer need it. Maybe listen to me?”
Amaris threw up her hands. “Will you then leave me to my own business?”
Illuma studied Amaris a moment. “Perhaps. Sit down, and I will make your tea.”
Amaris did sit. “But you think I have to obey you. And Illuma, I do not. Especially in this situation.”
Neither spoke while the tea steeped. Illuma handed Amaris the cup, steam bubbling out the top, and took the other seat. Amaris did sip the tea, but gave her mentor no greater attention, not even thanks for the drink.
“What are your intentions, Amaris?” Illuma asked again. “Do you have intentions?”
Amaris glanced into the dark brown spheres of Illuma’s eyes, and nodded.
Almost inaudible, Amaris answered. “Sion has claimed to be Valmier’s son.”
Illuma’s eyes widened, and she inhaled. “I am so sorry, Amaris. He made no mention.”
“Why would he?” Amaris drank her tea, and little else was spoken, so Amaris exploited Illuma’s shame, and sat at the hearth a couple hours more.
“Woah!” Amaris grasped Fleecel’s main, and squeezed her legs tight against her side, while the horse reared. A whistle caught Amaris off guard, but she could not find it, nor hardly stay on her mount which now flung around and started off in another direction. “Fleecel!” The horse slowed at Amaris’s scratching voice, and finally stopped her run. “What are you doing—” Amaris jumped from the beast “— you ridiculous horse.” Snickering snagged Amaris’s attention, and she remembered the whistle. She pulled her dagger and looked for the menace. He stood not far from her, holding his obedient horse, and laughing at Amaris. She threw the blade into the ground.
“Amaris Tempth, what are you doing?” The man’s dark brown hair swept his shoulder the same way it had a year ago, and no gold streaks, so his health maintained, but there was always gold in his amber eyes, which danced with merriment at watching his friend almost fall off her horse — again.
“Fraiton, is it that time already?” Amaris stepped forward, and embraced the reckless messenger from her father.
“I am a little early, I suppose.”
Amaris heard him breathe in deep before loosing his grip around her back. She looked up at him. His unfaded smile made her suspect. “Have you been to my house, already?”
“Yes.” The syllable wrapped up a thousand words filled with uncomfortable questions. Amaris leaned her arm against a tree, and buried her face in the crook of her elbow.
“Go on,” Amaris waved her hand at the man.
“Amaris, why is there a very young man staying at your house?”
Amaris moaned. “Because I am stupid.”
“Well, yes. But that usually does not invite house guests.”
Amaris rolled her eyes, but kept her gaze hidden in her arm. “He thinks he is the son of that ridiculous man I loved decades ago.”
“Valmier had a child?”
Amaris turned around and leaned back, and nodded. “He better, or this man is doomed when I broom him from my house.”
“Must you act with such impulse?”
“He thinks I am a friend of Amaris’s.”
“Terrific!” Fraiton clapped like a cheery schoolboy. “You’ve bound yourself up this time.”
“Shut up!” Amaris turned away.
“I am not trying to actually upset you.” Fraiton tapped Amaris’s shoulder when she did not answer, but she did not give him a shred more attention. “I need to apologize, though.”
“Never mind it.”
“The man asked if I was looking for you.”
“And . . .?”
“I said yes.”
“What!? How could you do that?”
Fraiton steadied Amaris. “What else should I have done? I was worried. As far as I could tell you had disappeared.He said Amaris used to live in your house.”
“Scum. I ought to have him out for this.”
Fraiton winced. “What do we tell him?”
“We? You have messed this up better than I could.” At Amaris’s demand, Fraiton relayed the horrific tale of how he had found Sion and asked if the woman owning the place had moved. He asked if he meant Amaris. From that point, Sion had explained an Arian now lived in the house, and he was staying there, also looking for Amaris. Then Fraiton decided against figuring the situation, and headed to Illuma’s for an explanation, whereupon he met Amaris instead. “I already told him Amaris used to live with me.”
“Amaris, do not get angry—” Fraiton set his hand on Amaris’s arm “— but these actions are harsh. Why toy with the man?”
“Why should I just give up my identity? I cannot do that.”
“You can. You should tell him, and ask him where his father is, and why he is sending his son to do what should have been done a dozen years ago.”
Amaris sighed. “Please, do not turn this around on Valmier.”
“Why not? The situation is his doing, Amaris, any way it is viewed.”
“Still, stop mentioning him.”
“You disregard your allies. What if Valmier could help you?”
Amaris tried to find reason in her friend’s words.
“It did not even occur to you.” Fraiton patted Amaris on the back. After a few moments, he asked if Amaris knew Sion’s identity to be true. She could not verify the fact, so Fraiton said he would not leave until at least that matter had solution. He offered to find out abut Sion, so Amaris went back with him, and properly introduced the men. Sion’s fury underwrote his expressions, voice, and every gesture, and would be unloaded on her once Fraiton had gone his way, so she invited her friend to stay the night. She then invited herself to board with Illuma while Fraiton stayed, saying she was doing her mentor a favor; they needed more time together. Amaris swallowed the lie, and Fraiton acquiesced with the motive of untangling part of Amaris’s most recent web. Once she started spinning them, she would get stuck. He claimed he loathed watching her squirm in the messes, and was early in his route for trading, anyway, so he had time to help.
Amaris surprised herself with how well she settled into Illuma’s spare room, and that the two women had civil conversations again added relief to relaxation. For the week, Amaris gathered and prepared her items for trade, which Fraiton offered to take for her, under the special circumstances which would keep her home during the year’s best opportunity for profit. Harvest was well over, and Amaris knew she and Illuma were both late to the market with their animal skins, herbs, and Illuma’s finery. But Amaris held back portions of every medicine and ointment in her stores, unsure of what other predicaments might meet her before springtime rolled round again. She looked forward to next growing season’s trek to gather more herbs, a sort of retreat to remedy the frustrations early spring was bringing this year.