Sion soon proved the legitimacy of his intent by going to Amaris’s house every day with a deeper and more detailed question than the last, until they settled on a tentative plan. First they had to reach . If any city had power enough to help, did. Having experienced three turn downs for all her proposals and plans, Amaris was less than thrilled about their choice, but since she and Sion could see no harm, she said they would at least try. Three weeks minimum would be absolved in reaching the city, in which time Sion and Amaris could conjure up secondary plans.
Amaris insisted on having one more week before they departed, to fully prepare and ready supplies. She claimed her resolve was such that even if they failed in finding aid, dozens of times even, she would see her goal through to the end. One week extra before leaving was the least she could demand. Sion wondered what she would require at the most. Her mention of her mission’s end grabbed Sion’s attention; did Amaris believe finishing would look the same as success? At any rate, Sion saw no point in arguing the seven days and conceded it to Amaris with little resistance.
He watched, though, as Amaris prepared. Although he did not live with her, Sion saw an unsettling change in Amaris’s mannerism. She stumbled more, not physically — there she was all sound — but mentally. She forgot things on a daily basis, causing needless backtracking through even a simple task. Her second guessing each detail seemed increased to the point where it could have passed as a full-time hobby. Ill at ease did not begin to describe her state.
The last of Amaris’s changes troubled Sion the most. Watching her jump at little noises, but just as often glaze over in a daze unnerved Sion, as if Amaris’s restless nature brushed onto him. He kept a closer eye on her. That is when he noticed the frequency with which she toyed with her broach. She rubbed her thumb across it past the point where her skin must have burned, and tapped it beyond irritating Sion. Her fingers probably ached, and Sion’s last ounce of patience was running low. He kept quiet, however, promising himself Amaris would calm when she found a rhythm in traveling each day, it would give her something else on which to focus.
Perhaps she was over preparing, pulling out the same herbs multiple days in a row and changing quantities, packing away things she decided to leave behind, and condensing her bags countless times. If she did that while Sion was with her, he couldn’t imagine how she occupied herself in his absence. He gave up seeing Amaris unless necessary. Then he noticed she spent decreasing time at home. He worried. What condition had Amaris slipped into? He would be traveling alone with her in less than a week, and she was coming unraveled.
Illuma chewed on the inside of her lip, and the knocking came again. Did that boy really come back, to accomplish what, added insult to accompany the wound he delivered by trading in her hospitality for the forest floor? She already had to soothe Amaris receiving an inquiry about what Sion meant by different intentions. If Sion so much as spoke a word to Amaris about Illuma’s slip up in trusting him with a couple concerns she would — the knock was louder, but footsteps began taking whomever was at the door away from Illuma’s house. She rushed to the door and threw it open.
“Amaris.”Not who Illuma expected. Who else should she have been looking for, though?
Amaris’s burgundy hair flounced to the side when she turned. “What were you waiting for?”
“I’m sorry,” Illuma waved Amaris toward the door, “come in.”
Amaris passed Illuma and settled herself into a chair, quicker than usual. She leaned over her knees, fingers tangled in her dark hair. Illuma left the door open, hoping for a breeze, and stared at her friend. What was wrong with her now? “Can you not keep composure for more than ten minutes in my absence?”
“Your being around me makes no difference,” Amaris did not look up, “I cannot figure out how to stay calm, regardless of company.” She paused while Illuma absorbed the insult. Her head sunk lower when she said she would not talk until she had had her tea. Illuma smirked and then lit the tinder in her stove.
“Forget that, Illuma, I need something more than tea, today.” She requested an herb meant for patients in extreme pain.
“No. You can remove that from your mind. I will give you no calmers unless you are bleeding, half-dead, and need surgery.”
Amaris huffed. “Thanks for heading to the worst possibility on that one.” Amaris pushed her hand through her hair, releasing it from the tangled grip, and threw back her head to get a breath of air.
Illuma set her hand on Amaris’s shoulder. The latter flinched. “Relax,” Illuma whispered, then kissed the top of Amaris’s head before ruffling the hair Amaris had been messing with. Illuma waited for the tea to steep and cool completely while Amaris entertained herself with everything short of biting her finger nails. Illuma added a slosh of liquor to Amaris’s cold tea before giving it to her young friend. Amaris took a obligatory sip, but then she sighed. “Thank you.”She eyed Illuma who nodded, uninterested.
“Now, are you going to explain why, exactly, you are out of sorts today?”
Amaris held up one finger and took another sip before setting down her already half-finished drink. “Yes.” Illuma waited while Amaris appeared to be collecting her thoughts. Then it came out in one long rush. “I do not think I can do this. Getting the broach to the basins has always been a mockery, with me, it is likely impossible.” Before Illuma could turn down Amaris’s self-insult, the latter hurried on. “I cannot wield a sword better than my enemy. I have no connections anymore. The land has probably changed drastically in my absence, and I am going to see a king who I hate, unless he is dead, and then I have to explain myself from scratch, something I am not good at.” As if Illuma did not already know all of that. “And Sion . . . Well, I am not even sure if he knows anything or can do anything to help me. I just said, yes! What was I thinking? What am I thinking now? Just because he is . . . Is . . . Never mind. My knowing him was a poor reason for deciding to go anywhere but back to my own house where I can continue rotting in regret and dying off with no chance of survival. Illuma, why did you not stop me before I threw myself into this mess?”
Illuma watched Amaris’s eyes widen as her breaths grew panicky. She almost got up to get more alcohol, except Amaris functioned even worse when drunk. “Where do you find this level of panic? You impress me with how much you can lose control when nothing is happening.” Illuma held up her hand to stop Amaris’s rebuttal. “But you are frustrating yourself over the wrong things. You are a deadly swordsman, and have grown some wild instincts, and under actual trials, you hold your own better than many. Additionally, you can persuade a person,” Illuma bit her lip, “when you are not busy unraveling in a tantrum or frenzy.” Amaris glared, but Illuma finished. “Truly, there are better things to concern yourself with.”
“How do you know anything about these apparent skills you mention? We have been at peace here since before I even arrived.”
Illuma swallowed and prepared for the temper. “Once I knew your lineage, I inquired about you.”
“How?” Amaris bit back.
“Mostly your father,” Illuma sighed, “and your aunt.”
“What?! Why would you do that?”
“If I wanted to keep an eye on you, I thought I should know what you can do when I am not around. Turns out you are well prepared.”
A glimmer flashed in Amaris’s eyes, taking with it a few worried wrinkles. “Have you met my father?”
“Now when would I have done that?”
“Perhaps when you go to trade.”
“You have come with me the last several times, and no, sadly I have never met your father. I sent him several messages by the young page.” The only visitor Amaris ever had intentionally. “Are you going to leave notice for him when you go?”
Amaris grimaced, but nodded yes.
“On your door I suppose?”
Amaris looked confused. “No. Of course I would leave it with you.”
“He will go to your place first.”
“Yes, then when I am not there, he will come here, and —”
“I won’t be here, Amaris.”
Amaris leaned toward Illuma with a wrinkled brow. The reaction pleased Illuma who needed some confirmation from Amaris that her decision made sense, that it would not be totally in vain. “I am leaving as well.”
“Where?” Amaris’s light brown eyes started to water.
Illuma smiled and reached her hand to Amaris’s. “With you.”
Amaris gasped and was silent for a moment, letting the words sit. Illuma needed a moment as well, she had yet to speak her decision out loud. And with Sion’s not being in even rough agreement with her, and Amaris in an unsettled state, Illuma felt foolish, yet she could not otherwise have peace with herself. She felt less guilty following Amaris into battle or other danger than staying safe. Amaris started crying, and Illuma insisted she have some more to drink. Then she realized more than liquor, Amaris needed a good long exhale of emotions. Illuma pulled Amaris over to the couch and wrapped her arms around her while Amaris started breathing in quick short gasps filled with tears. Illuma smiled and stroked Amaris’s hair. Tears would soak the shoulder of Illuma’s dress by the time Amaris ran out of steam. “I know you are afraid. But . . .”Illuma bit her lip before she fibbed. “You can do this, I know you can. Why else would Sion have been able to find you?” Amaris gripped Illuma’s sleeve tighter and wailed. Illuma pulled her legs onto the couch and held Amaris closer.
Illuma tried to hide her shock when Amaris consulted her about any changes which the current plan might need. Sion seemed insulted, but complied now with most of Amaris’s decisions. Illuma thought following his example might prove a good tactic. She could watch out for Amaris better if she did not concern herself too much with meaningless details. Within a couple days, Illuma seemed to have found a quiet niche in the small company. Mostly, she watched the two masterminds at their work, hoping they would not slip up and cause too big a mess for her to clean up. However, Sion and Amaris surprised Illuma with their finesse as the time before departure — extended a couple days to allow for their third party to prepare — waned and each person pulled their resources. Now, how would the individual components perform together, and was a unit even the right word?
Illuma provided knowledge and maturity, and more patience than her counterparts combined, and she also carried several potent herbs and the knowhow to utilize them, although she had never delved too deeply into the medicinal arts where Amaris thrived. Sion had brawn, hopefully decent swordplay, and an attitude which swung between peaceful persuasive to unloosed fire, which worried Illuma more. And Amaris had everything else. The broach, her canny ability to use the key, and a tenacity which none could stop after it got going. If only she would turn up her moxie and simmer down the nerves. Instead, the team prepared to leave while Amaris’s nerves soared near Sion’s irritation and Illuma wished they had not decided to depart from her house, where the door to retreat was too close at hand. Sion had reminded Illuma the day before of how many reasons the latter had to stay away from Amaris and her little mission.
“You know I will not tell Amaris what we have talked about, right?” Sion had sounded so casual. Illuma had to ask.
“What things have we discussed which she should not know?” Illuma held her breath when Sion’s words hit the center of what she had pushed aside so she could follow Amaris.
“Your doubt in her success.”
“Oh, that.” Illuma said. “Well, I would almost hope she has a little skepticism herself.”
“I am getting the impression more every day that Amaris does nothing in small quantities. She is either full of passionate fire or completely depressed, terrified, sorrowful, or the like. And then she tries to simmer down any emotion so the rest of us will not get scorched.” Sion paused, but what could Illuma say? He had typified Amaris with perfect accuracy. He spoke again and smashed Illuma’s foolish hope. “I would not expect any small doubts to creep in. I worry more that whatever massive insecurity she is harboring, it is there somewhere, will explode and engulf her. What will we do then?”
“Nothing at all. Without Amaris, we are not hopeless, we are dead.”
“Exactly, so let us not dampen her determination.”
“No, but perhaps we can borrow some of her fire for ourselves.”
Now, ready to ride away from home and safety, Illuma doubted she could siphon any usable emotions from Amaris. Besides, she wanted no share in her friend’s crazy nerves.
“I still cannot believe that is all you are brining.” Sion looked towards Amaris’s small satchel. Amaris’s eyes widened.
Illuma rebuked him, fearing Amaris would fly off just to load herself with unnecessities. Illuma fastened her small bag onto her horse’s saddle and pulled her heavy one around her torso, it settled on her back and tugged on her chest. Great.
“Well she only packed the stupid thing seventeen times.” Sion rolled his eyes. Illuma almost slapped the man who only had minimal supplies himself.
“Amaris knows what she needs.” Illuma insisted. “Besides, where would she put any more?” Illuma gestured to the naked-backed unicorn. “Sling it around Fleecel’s neck?”
Fleecel whinnied and Amaris smirked. Good. They better leave before anything else upset their departure. Amaris left, in the right direction, and Illuma followed Sion whose horse fell in behind their leader. From the back, Illuma could look behind at her cozy cabin, moss on the stone chimney, vines interlacing the thick logs which held her life together. It would all die without her there. Soon wind would fill the hearth with ash Illuma had neglected to clean out, and dust would accumulate on all her quiet belongings. Perhaps she did not take enough with her. She had thought only about what she would need ahead. But what she left behind . . . She raised her fingers to her lips and blew a quiet kiss to her home and comfort. Then she turned her attention to Amaris and Sion, hoping they had missed her small farewell. Neither of them had much to leave behind, so they could not think their tag-along would need a moment when departing. Illuma decided their ignorance benefited the entire company, including her personal comfort.
Illuma could not peel her eyes from Amaris. Her black cape made Fleecel’s white flanks beam against the muted forest browns. When Amaris had arrived that morning, Illuma had to force her jaw into submission so it would not drop. Her young friend’s burgundy hair laid on top of a black simple, weathered dress which hovered above the ankles of her boots. A same-colored bodice strapped around her torso and her brilliant broach held the last of dark fabric over her shoulders. Illuma grimaced, the procession could draw a lot of attention. Perhaps if they kept quiet, but no, Sion and Amaris destroyed that notion with bickering before they had put a mile between them and Illuma’s home. The pestering did not stop.
“Amaris, we are not going through this town!” Sion rubbed the skin above his eyes.
“We need a few supplies, things I simply did not have at my house.” Amaris’s arms crossed her chest, protecting her stubbornness.
“Fine. Agreed, we need food. I will get some, whatever you chose, and meet you on the other side of this village, but please, do not expose yourself already.”
Illuma interpreted Amaris’s smirk as purely devious. Sion had lost the argument. Illuma groaned internally. They went not only through the town, but riding on their mounts. Not a single person could resist the temptation to stare at the white unicorn which Amaris usually hid quite well. Sion and Illuma followed their faulty leader as she stopped by several shops and took more than adequate time in selecting the simplest items, adding seeming miles to the short little township. Illuma rolled her eyes often, but the others seemed not to notice. Still, they might get through without —
What was that girl doing? Amaris tried backing away from the young woman three times, shaking her head with a kind, plastered on smile. She even went so far as to cover the broach under guise of fidgeting. Illuma wanted to slap her, no one here knew what the broach meant, and drawing any attention to it would only damage their frail safety. Under a barrage of questions and silly looking pleas, Amaris clasped the young woman’s wrist and pushed her back with a stiff, inconspicuous movement. Illuma missed the discussion, but the young woman looked injured only in pride, and glared at Amaris when the latter turned away to rejoin her frustrated company. Illuma saw Sion’s eyes fixated the same as her own. Amaris almost ran into Fleecel who spooked. Sion spilled an unintelligable phrase beneath his breath while Amaris calmed the mare who walked about without reigns. Even in a populated area, Amaris would not so much as halter her horse, if she owned any such equipment, which Illuma doubted.
After the small altercation, Amaris did not doddle, and they were clear of the place soon. Sion jerked the purchases from Amaris and stuffed them into a near-empty bag hanging on his saddle. “Get on your horse.”
Amaris glared, but did not debate. They all wanted to put distance between them and the shanty town. Perhaps Illuma had been to rough on the small patch of population. Maybe Amaris should reap the grief this time. Illuma hoped only her own company could punish Amaris. As the people faded in the distance, Illuma exhaled in relief. No such emotion came from either Sion or Amaris. Although Amaris did ride abreast to Sion, apparently attempting conversation. She failed, and Sion flew ahead. Amaris gave a gentle kick and Fleecel cantered up behind Sion’s horse. Illuma waited further back. Perhaps these two could work through their disagreement without Illuma. Or not. This time Fleecel rushed ahead, and Illuma had to get her poor horse running to catch the insolent youths. Why did she have to watch after them? Could they not end one conversation on the right note?
Only when Illuma shouted did a complaint did the party slow to a reasonable walk. She took the lead and no one seemed upset with her about it. She could lead through empty grass land as well as Sion or Amaris, with less flair and stupidity, too. She would not needlessly tire the horses. With Fleecel’s intelligence, Illuma had no clue why she was listening to Amaris at all. She did drag them on until weariness set in. When Sion suggested a rest, Illuma kept the pace steady, after Amaris whined, they walked on. If Illuma could exhaust Amaris and Sion, as much as could be done while expending so little energy riding, then perhaps they would fall asleep without creating unnecessary drama.
Sion proved Illuma wrong the second he dismounted. Illuma unsaddled her horse and tried to ignore the fight, but she failed. Brushing her horse, unpacking her blanket, eating some bread, she still heard repercussions from the immature decision made hours before.
“Amaris, that was absurd! This is the last time I want to . . .”
“ . . . I never asked you for an opinion . . .”
“I do not think you are the right person to even be leading this —”
Illuma cringed when Sion suggested the elder of the Alaquendi should be in charge of their mission. She pretended not to hear. Then something pricked her ears. “Where are you going to go?” It was Sion’s voice. Illuma torqued her neck and saw him, arms outstretched in both directions. Amaris was not thinking of abandonment already, was she? Illuma made a quick note of Amaris’s expression. No. That shade of red signaled anger, not fearful retreat. Illuma then found a way to relax amid the yelling. After a while, she did suggest quieter tones unless they wanted to draw attention, the topic which started the current disagreement. Both opponents stopped, for a moment, and looked down at Illuma who probably seemed serene. At least maybe they would think so much. She turned away and several hushed volleys followed, after which they settled into an uneasy silence, and Illuma made sure to pay little attention to either, lest she fall on either side of these pointless arguments.
Ignoring Amaris failed. Her friend’s youth magnified when tempers flared. Much as she seemed attempting to hide her insecurity, Amaris looked a picture of anxiety. Illuma reminded herself of Amaris’s age. At 68 Amaris did not need a mediator between her and her own emotions, and she certainly did not need a nurse maid of any sort. But a friend? Illuma wanted to ensure nothing she did would cripple Amaris in any way. She needed strength, but if Amaris paced one more time in her direction . . .
Illuma managed to catch Amaris’s gaze, and then curled her finger twice, beckoning the latter toward her. Amaris squatted and Illuma patted the ground beside her. Amaris sat, but hardly breathed. A hand was set on Amaris’s back, and she sighed. “Sounds like you could use a few more of those.” Illuma whispered.
Amaris shook her head.
“What, you feel a need to be perfect, because we are not at home?”
“Clearly not perfect” Amaris mumbled.
Illuma chuckled. “True. I still wish you would relax a little. You are kinder, more patient, and wiser.”
“At least consider it.”
Amaris did not respond, but Illuma wrapped an arm around her stiff friend anyway. When Illuma heard Amaris stirring throughout the night, she realized relaxing had become a complex thing. Either Amaris still could not decide whether or not to calm down, or else she did not know how to release the pressure and rest. In the morning heavy steps and shadowed eyes from sleep lack clung to Amaris. Sion had better watch his temper or Amaris would fly off at him for something not worth their effort.
Even before Amaris woke, Sion busied himself irking Illuma. Far beneath his testy attitude, Sion seemed concerned. Amaris was getting to him. Illuma would have lied to say she was not also far beyond pestered by her friend.
“Is there no way you can find to calm her? Every time she loses it, I lose my calm.”
“That’s insinuating you have a measure of sane communication without her on edge.”
“Almost three weeks she has been like this,” Sion hushed his voice, trying to not wake Amaris. Illuma wanted her to sleep as well.
“Well, let us hope she sleeps off whatever is lingering of her nerves.”
“You think she is only suffering left over anxiety?” Sion looked unconvinced.
“No I do not. Trust me, she will come back to herself.”
“You told me she would be exhausted out of her little frenzies.”
Yes, Illuma had claimed such before they left. She thought it would be so simple. “Be patient.” Is all she said now. “For now we will let her sleep.” Sion seemed less than content with Illuma’s answers, and sat festering in frustration until Amaris awoke. Illuma waited to see if perhaps her friend would act more normal so they could get along a little easier. Then Illuma would only have Sion’s immaturity.
Amaris woke, late, and filled Illuma with disappointment. Amaris pushed to get camp picked up quick, and resisted food, insisting they move forward. Amaris whispered angrily to Illuma while the latter saddled her horse. “I do not expect you to allow me to sleep so late again until we are in the forest. Do you understand me?”
Illuma dropped the strap she held and stared at her friend and her dictatorial tone. “Excuse me?” The younger woman only glared. “How about you find gratitude for some extra rest. Calm yourself enough to sleep at night and you will not have to do so in the day, when you are being looked after, might I add.” Illuma mumbled. “Idiot. She is being watched over in daylight, but would prefer sleeping without guard at night.”
“It is not fair to take advantage of you and Sion so I can sleep too much. I have responsibilities to see to.” Amaris walked away before Illuma could even conjure a response.
The pace Amaris kept, leading the company, was near frenetic. Did she think someone followed them? Stupid woman would exhaust the poor horses, but Illuma gave Amaris her way, like a horse was given head to run as it pleased. Amaris managed another fidgety evening and restless night. She moved so much after dark, turning over, rolling into different positions —looking much like a sausage cooking in a pan— Illuma almost could not sleep herself.
“What has happened to you?” Illuma asked. Amaris seemed much to calm the next morning. Bizarre to say the least. Almost serene?
“Nothing.” Amaris resettled things into her small bag while she spoke with a smooth voice.
“Right.” Illuma said, disbelieving.
Amaris lifted her gaze and then dropped it, pausing. Then she fastened her satchel and slung it over her shoulder. “I am faking it, trying to fool myself into calm.”
Illuma smiled. “Any success?”
“We will see.”
Illuma smiled, trying to support Amaris’s feeble attempt. At least Amaris let off her pressure on Fleecel. They traveled at a walk which must have tortured Amaris. Frequent adjustments to her riding position and a constant resettling of her pack which had to be rubbing her shoulder raw with how many times it had been moved, exposed Amaris’s still-short fuse. But she was otherwise — outwardly at least — patient, sitting through the day with few words and less needless suggestions and complaints. She spent the evening in quiet, and slept in the same unhealthy pattern of the past nights. At least she had a new way of showing her anxiety, swallowing all she could, and mulling out the rest alone. Sion quieted down in response, spending more time resting, even taking to waiting to rise until Amaris or Illuma waked him in the morning. One queer result of Amaris’s solitude was Illuma and Sion’s increased time together, doing little, usually talking light about serious matters. Stating obvious hurdles as if they were hardly a problem steeped Illuma in a comforting sarcastic attitude. When she shared any intentional comic relief with Amaris though, the results were unpleasant. Almost bored, they trudged on. The forest would provide a nice change of scenery; several days on the plains was too much. Soon. Trees would appear, soon.