“Amaris!” Adreaga shouted, adding to the numerous greetings and praises Amaris received. Amaris could hardly accept the praise though, while Adreaga cried in pain from her damaged arm. The unhealed break had received greater ill during the battle, and perhaps would never heal. Yet Amaris did not allow the time to attempt further mending to the girl beyond re-fracturing and setting the bone in hopes of some future use. Too many broken people demanded attention, and Amaris wanted nothing but distractions, so she answered the constant plea for healers. Heal. Could she still do this?
The Alaquendi came back in fractions of their original number, and the Manori had more deceased and dying than whole soldiers. A relative few people had the means to save or mend, and Amaris became one of the few overwhelmed physicians. Stained with blood and still fuming remnants of the Basins’ release, Amaris buried herself in work, dreading the thought of finding Waylen among the dead. What else could account for the woman’s continued absence? Amaris had taken two full weeks making her way back to the forest, and most of the survivors greeted her then. Not many groups returned after that point. Waylen had been captured. Amaris wondered if her friend had even lived to see the battle.
She worked day in and out, as Sion tried without success to force the energized Alaquendi to rest more than a few hours. Amaris knew each life she saved represented what Waylen meant to her, so she ignored Sion, who would miss Waylen most if she remained missing. The Lunamaya sap ran out, as did every other herb, and the week dwindled to an end. Most injuries had begun healing or claimed their victim. Amaris did not bother to count who survived or succumbed to a deathly fate. And then Waylen found her.
Waylen could not understand Amaris’s apearence. Waylen expected the Alaquendi to look pristine after winning her battle. Waylen had lost her fight, but in the midst of defeat, she had felt the surge Amaris set loose rush through her as she fought. Her friend looked trashed, and it confused Waylen.
“Waylen,” Amaris threw her hand over her mouth, but did not reach out to embrace her.
Waylen sighed at the frozen victor’s face. Unlocking the basin did not finish the battle; Waylen had spent a week tying up loose ends, and the work did not suit. “Do not fret for me,” Waylen said to assuage any concern. The guilt she would receive. Waylen could smell the foul odor of rotting blood, soaked into her sleeves; what remained after she had scrubbed her hands and face viciously before leaving the South. “It is not my blood.”
Amaris averted her eyes.
Waylen snickered at the awkwardness. “Well done, my friend.”
Amaris covered her face and hung her head.
“I meant that, Amaris. You deserve a moment of rest, though,” she stepped closer, and shook her head. “Still you do not ease yourself and relax. Even after your whole part is finished. Beyond finished.”
Amaris shook her head, and went to a pile of disheveled bandages. She started organizing them, sorting and resorting, but made no progress in her made up chore. She wiped her sleeve over her face a couple times, and Waylen could hear her stifling small sobs. “Amaris Tempth, why are you doing this to yourself again?”
“I am not.”
“Slamming yourself into a frenetic mess. Stop and enjoy this.” Waylen waited for a response.
Amaris surveyed the desolated heaps of people. “Enjoy this?”
“Give me the broach,” Waylen held out her hand.
Amaris glared, but pulled a dull piece of rock set in charred metal in Waylen’s hand.
“Enjoy this,” Waylen held the drained key an inch from Amaris’s face. Then she tossed it aside. “Enjoy that.” She stood, crossed her arms, and waited for Amaris to do anything.
Amaris glared at Waylen, eyes glazed with tears. “Let me be.”
“Be? In this state you want solitude. Have you no peace for this moment?”
“Have you?” Amaris went back to her task. Waylen sat down in front of Amaris and grabbed one of her hands. When she saw the stains on her own skin she withdrew the gesture, and Amaris locked eyes with her. The piercing golden brown ashamed Waylen for touching this woman. Pure burgundy locks encased Amaris’s perfect white face, red lips, and gentle expressions. Rage lived behind the calm eyes, but Amaris had controlled that part of herself years before.
“Forgive me,” Waylen turned her gaze aside. When Amaris did not react, Waylen lifted her eyes. Amaris’s brow scrunched together.
“Why do I need to forgive you? I outlived the South because of your plan and training of that man, Sharadin. Never mind he did not make it — from what I have been told.” Amaris choked on a concealed sob and continued. “And twice before you have saved me. In fact, I give you more credit then myself for this victory—”
Waylen touched Amaris’s lips to stop them from moving, and tore her hand back; the claw which had slayed many.
“Waylen, I am sorry. I did not think of your connections with Sharadin, I will not mention him again.”
Why did Amaris have to make this minor confession too difficult to word? Amaris’s gentleness outdid anything Waylen could conjure for an apology. “Bless the man for saving you like he did — I assume — I am glad he traveled with you.”
Amaris nodded. “You chose him well.”
Waylen tried to guess the thousand things behind Amaris’s meager words.
Amaris told Waylen to sleep, and thanked the stars for her friend’s return.
Waylen shook her head. “I cannot rest.”
“You must. Besides your fighting, you must have been searching for days to find me.”
“I wish.” Waylen paused. “I only just arrived from the South.
Amaris’s forehead wrinkled.
“You need to know what I have done to her.”
“I give you full pardon. Do not tell what you want to keep from me.”
“No.” Waylen shook her head. “Stop! It is too tempting to protect you, Amaris.”
Amaris’s softness vanished. “Then do not. Let me take the blow for whatever happened, this time.”
“You do not deserve it.” Waylen stood and tried to leave, but Amaris grabbed hold of her cape. Amaris found her feet, and held Waylen at arms’ length. Tears filled Waylen’s eyes before she found words. Regret twisted her chest; Amaris should be able to enjoy one victory. “Half my troop is dead, and we did minimal damages. So I am sorry I failed you.” She could live with the regret of murder if Amaris did not know the victim’s name.
“I am so sorry.” Amaris looked at the ground, and when her eyes rose to meet Waylen’s again, the softness had died away. “Now tell me what you did.”
Waylen struggled with her words, they came out filtered through blubbering. “I killed a friend.” She wiped her cheek. “More yours than mine.”
“You must think she died months ago, but she survived.”
The color drained from Amaris’s cheeks. “Keep your secret.” She turned her back on Waylen.
“Forgive me for not saving her.”
“Make that your last word about her.”
Waylen cried while Amaris paced to an open area, surrounded by people who started to watch the scene. Waylen followed with a quiet step. Amaris mumbled, promising herself the death had been well spent, and then assuring herself her last trapped friend had not died. She sat and pushed her fingers into her hair, face near shaking, eyes wide. Waylen set her hand on Amaris shoulder, and whispered, “I am sorry for taking Illuma from you.”
“No, no, no.” Amaris muttered. Amaris shrugged off Waylen’s hand. The woman tried to touch her again, but Amaris screamed as if assaulted, silencing all clamor around her. The violence in Amaris’s grief exploded with sobs and curses that flew off her tongue. But not against Waylen. Amaris swore at some void, murmuring about servitude, murder, her mother’s death, even crying Valmier’s name.
Sion appeared among the crowd, but Amaris did not seem to recognize his presence when he came nearer. She pounded the ground and screamed into the air. Nothing assuaged the menace that poured from her. She took no water, heard no words, and shrugged off every touch for an hour. Then Waylen realized Amaris had not just been venting her pains, but processing an escape. “Killing myself will satisfy him.” She stood and stumbled past Sion and Waylen, she ran through camp with the previous following close, slamming into things along the way, until she broke out of the crowded war recovery. With some space for Amaris to clear her mind, Waylen eased a little, recognizing her own pains from hunger, thirst, and fatigue. She thought to leave Amaris, allowing some space alone, but then her friend screamed for Fleecel.
Waylen chased her friend, and grabbed her. “Amaris, what are you doing?”
“I am finished.”
“I know, so rest.”
“Not here. Never!” She called her horse again. Waylen begged Sion to help, but the man watched Amaris with a solemn expression.
Sion touched Amaris’s arm. “You can always come back to us if you need.” Amaris acknowledged Sion with a moment of attention before returning to her call, whistling and shrieking for Fleecel. Waylen cried as Amaris mounted and left.
Amaris did not want forgiveness, she owed no penance for her absence. Yet certain persons wanted an explanation. After a month wandering the healed lands, Amaris decided to bid farewell to her allies. She first found the twins returned to their village, albeit somewhat rejected by their family for their fleeing the year before. The town had erected a memorial in their memory, assuming the worst. Adreaga and Briair dismantled it at their parents’ demand. Adreaga nursed an injury and a grudge, but a few days smoothed the hurt between them and Amaris. They even offered her welcome should she visit in the future. Strangled by the emotions of leaving the youngest lives she had affected, Amaris sought out her closer friends.
Waylen and Sion waited for her at the scar of the Manori encampment. Waylen embraced Amaris without an explanation or rebuke. Amaris found her tongue and unfolded a little of what she could not understand. Sion had words, and Waylen had ears to listen as she held Amaris, and remained near when the latter needed space. Besides her brief visit to the twins, Amaris not not spoken to or touched a soul in over thirty days.
Amaris sniffled the tears which never stopped in this new trap people called life. Waylen shook her head, and Sion studied Amaris. “I do not have plans for this.” She complained. “I never thought of surviving.” Perhaps she should have thrown herself over the southern cliffs into the beautiful waves, and crashed against the ferocious rocks. It seemed too cheap to make that move, now. Amaris had missed her moment.
“Rest.” Sion began, pulling Amaris from her ruminations. “Wail as long as you can, over everything you lost. Then find something, anything that pleases you, and throw yourself wholehearted into that.”
Amaris laughed at the suggestion, the sound devoid of joy.
“The life you wanted, but could not have because of the broach. You must know what those things are.” Sion continue. “Wherever you could not go without hiding. Saying your name without regretting the words. Amaris Tempth, what do you want?”
“I am used up. My appearance is deceiving – this stupid land-healing tide I have become.” Amaris looked at the puddle of grass growing round her with disdain. “My soul does not match. I think it died with the broach.”
“No. Amaris, you cannot believe that rock was tied that tightly to your life.”
“I do not know what to do without that broach.”
Waylen pulled out the broken, old key.
Amaris scowled. “I do not want it,” she said. She wondered why Waylen would keep it. Then Waylen tossed it.
“Good,” Sion said.
Amaris felt sick, but refused to recover the broken bits of metal and stone that she started craving as soon as Waylen discarded it.
The following day, Waylen and Sion revealed their intentions to marry, and displacement flooded Amaris. She had nothing waiting for her, and her allies had such beautiful potential. She bid them farewell, and dismissed herself. She wandered North, hoping to discover one more person who deserved at least a farewell.
Amaris found her father, but stayed only two days to refresh herself before leaving. She thought SB must loath her for her brash departure after the war, but could no nothing to settle accounts with him. The man had left his employment with Amaris’s father. The decision made sense. What benefit had he received from such work for three decades?
Amaris spent her time in the highlands after that point. She spent a deal of time in Lunamaya orchards, or visiting old streams, forests, towns, and favorite haunts of her younger years. Nothing quite sparked to life whatever Sion meant her to find, but she feigned purpose, hoping it would become reality. She returned often to her father’s house, accepting the small room as an apartment of sorts. He spoke to her little, and the new hired hand hardly acknowledged her presence. On a bad day, Amaris decided to visit a sad memory, as the happy ones seemed false at best. Nelica -who had graced Amaris with continued companionship- followed Amaris’s direction to the home of her family’s older home. In this place Waylen had come to be a friend, and also been torn from her side. Amaris had not returned since her family’s quick escape almost twenty years ago. Others had returned to collect their things, but Amaris chose never to bare the place again.
Nearly two decades had changed the forest around her old home. She had laughed here with Waylen, and wished her friend could have stunted her life as Amaris, so they could be sisters again. Smoke billowed out of the chimney, and firewood took up space between two trees, piled several feet high. The building did not belong to her anymore. She dismounted, and sat in the snow by the small stable, watching the light in the windows. Amaris studied the Lunamaya trees she used to harvest, the well that had new stones replacing what must have broken in the recent past. Amaris closed her eyes, and reached back to those last moments of real comfort.
“Are you finished siting in the snow?”
Amaris squealed, and scrambled to her feet, searching for the man who spoke.
“SB?!” Amaris gripped her chest, heart pounding.
SB raised his eyebrows, and tossed a thick cloak at the woman. “Come in, Amaris,” he turned and entered the house. Amaris hesitated before following him. She wrapped herself in the burgundy wool of SB’s cloak, breathing in the nostalgic smell. How long had she been cold? She huddled in front of the fire, sitting on the floor. SB offered her one of the couple chairs he had, but accepting hospitality felt odd. She allowed herself a thorough glance around the now-foreign house. She knew what lay behind the doors, and how the rooms used to look. SB had only given himself a few furnishing in the time he had lived here, and nothing seemed quite right.
“Why here?” Amaris shook her head, and berried it in her arms which laid on her pulled-up legs.
SB sighed. “Why are you here?”
Amaris thought about the answer.
“I suppose the old man told you where to find me? Took you some time to come home.” SB pushed the kettle over the fire.
“My father knows you live here?” Amaris looked up, feeling more displaced.
“Of course. I asked for this place as my last wages.” SB shrugged. “He seemed unconcerned with the idea.”
“I have been home for more than two months.” Why should she feel ashamed to just now be visiting someone, when the entire thing had to happen by mistake? “He never said a word.”
“That fits. I asked him so much.”
Amaris bit her lip, and stood, taking off SB’s cloak. “I will be leaving now.”
SB narrowed his gaze. “Now that you know I am here, you may as well have your room for the night.”
Amaris let her mouth open, hoping the words would find her tongue.
“Shut up, Amaris. You are staying the night, now make yourself warm,” he set the cloak on a chair, and pushed it up behind her. She almost tripped into it. “Take care of yourself for a few moments, please. I do not have any desire to keep you from harm tonight, so stop me worrying and let me feed you some dinner.” He made little noise at the counter, but Amaris heard him mumbling that she probably had not eaten all day. Amaris bit her lip, resenting his guessing that. SB brought over too much bread and salted meat for just one meal, and an apple as well. Amaris knew she would eat it fully.
“You look different,” SB said after waiting some time for Amaris to speak. Amaris nodded. Many people had told Amaris of her lighter burgundy hair, almost red, brighter skin, and taller stature. “Not yourself.” SB finished.
“I could not have stayed the same.”
“Of course.” He studied her. “Have you actually changed?”
Amaris chuckled, “a frequent question these last months.”
“I suppose you have no answer.”
Amaris watched the fire, comforted by the flames, and wondered where the conversation could lead. At length she asked for a drink, and SB produced wine for them. He sipped, and she drank. After a few glasses, Amaris’s hands started trembling, and she shook her head, feeling emotions unstringing inside her. “I am sorry. I should not have come here.” She wiped a tear and turned away.
“Why did you, then?”
Amaris looked at him. He just stared at her, and they said nothing else. His dark green eyes waited for her to speak. Amaris stayed silent, and they sat and listened to the firewood crackle. When SB got up to stoke the fire, he smirked.
What? Amaris wondered, could be this man’s amusement.
He poured her another drink, and then another, and then she cried. Her tears turned to wailing, and SB moved his chair next to hers, and set his arm around her. She leaned on his shoulder, and set down the wine glass as her stomach began turning. SB handed her water, and she thanked him. She dozed off, and then the wait of her head dropping woke her. Amaris sat up straight, and SB squeezed her shoulder before standing up and picking up the wine glass. “You must hate me,” she mused. Then she realized she said it aloud.
“Like this?” SB said from the kitchen area. He returned, and sat on the floor by the hearth, prodding the fire. He shook his head. SB turned to Amaris over his shoulder. “I have hated you before, but not right now.”
“I have tried to stop doing this.” Amaris wiped her cheeks, but knew her eyes could produce tears for hours; they did so often.
“Because nothing happens after it ends.”
“What are you wanting to happen?”
“What can?” Amaris whined into more weeping. “I never want to see my father again—”
“Neither do I.”
Amaris huffed with a smile which surprised her and then continued. “You know Valmier is dead-”
“Yes.” SB turned back to the fire.
“Waylen is entirely tied up now-”
SB turned around, crossed his legs, and raised his eyebrows. “Really?”
Amaris gave a light laugh and a sigh. “Sion.”
SB stared at the ceiling for a few moments. “That is an odd fit.”
“Eh, they have been fond for some time. Anyway, with her moving on, my father needs no explanation, and my younger friends have other prospects, and…” Amaris bit her lip, “Illuma is dead.”
“The wench that betrayed you is dead, and this is troubling to you?”
Amaris wanted to feel more angry at the insult, but she tired of making excuses for her previous mentor’s missteps and treasons. She just sighed without answering SB’s inquiry. “Well, all that does not leave me much to do.”
“You know that is only a short list of a few people?” SB’s brow furrowed. “Amaris. You should have found something to do. People are company, not a life.”
“I kind of lost my biggest hobby.”
“So did I.”
Amaris dared not ask what his great task had been. She thought not knowing seemed inconsiderate. SB shook his head. “Your whining is getting a bit childish, my friend.”
“What?” Amaris’s mouth fell open. “How can you say that to me. Others understand.”
“No. Amaris, no one else knows what to tell you, so they listen, they support, they love you. I care. Your ruts are perpetual, and honestly I tire of watching fall into them.”
“I did not chose the paths I have walked.”
“Which is why you hate every one of them.”
“I do not want criticisms.”
“What do you want? I will not coddle you.”
Amaris breathed slow. SB did not understand.
SB huffed. “Do you realize how long you have lived, and still give yourself nothing?”
Amaris felt her chin quiver, and she averted her gaze.
“Figure out something, please, Amaris.”
Amaris saw SB throw up his hands. “What am I supposed to be figuring out?”
SB’s annoyance became palpable. “Do you want anything?”
Amaris shrugged. She had only a desire to want something.
“Because I know you did not care about that mess. Just wanted to get out. You are free and now?” SB cocked his head. “Exactly. You realize nothing is left because you just waisted thirty years giving yourself up when I wanted you to stay whole.”
“Wait,” Amaris got off her chair and sat in the firelight on the floor. “You have said things like this before. Now please explain yourself, I am thick as a stone, and do not understand what you mean by that.”
SB cocked his head. “What do you think I mean?”
“I think I will take my leave.”
SB’s loud laugh startled Amaris, and he wiped a tear from his eye. “Thank you for the humor, my friend.” She scooted closer, and pulled Amaris beside him, and wrapped his arm around her side. She started dozing, but fought the sleep. “Rest here, tonight. And we can talk in the morning. But Amaris, it is nearly dawn, and you are not traveling like this.” SB helped Amaris to the small bed in the room nearest the fire, and she slept well.
The morning made Amaris want more sleep, so she turned over and snuggled into what she assumed to be SB’s bed. Only when a great need to relieve herself could not be suppressed did Amaris get up and excuse herself for a few minutes. She returned to the house, where SB had a cold breakfast and hot tea. She drank and ate, and then asked the time. SB smiled.
“You have slept half the day.”
Amaris sighed. “I was tired.”
SB snickered and nodded. “Always.”
Amaris felt the insult, and drooped.
“Just fix it, Amaris. Sleep more,” SB shrugged. “Not a difficult solution.”
Amaris nodded. “I should leave shortly, I think I have imposed enough.”
“I invited you in, Miss Tempth.”
“All the same, I am living with my father, and that is several hours ride from here.”
“I understand.” SB put the dishes in the sink, and Amaris sat a moment, contemplating her next goodbye. She jumped when SB touched her hair. “Relax,” he said. “I am just righting this mess before you leave. Or your father will think you have been up to no good.”
Amaris snickered, and SB combed his fingers through her tangled locks. Once Amaris felt no snagging, SB braided the tresses, sweeping hair off her face, and tucking it into what felt like a rather neat knot. He held the braid for just a few moments when he finished, and then tossed it over Amaris’s shoulder. “It makes me happy to see you healthier.”
Amaris looked at the burgundy braid, the first she had worn in years. “Now my father will know I have been to see you.”
SB sat adjacent to Amaris and rolled his eyes. “Do not send my greetings.”
“I will not.”
SB looked at Amaris’s hair, and then at her. “I cannot fathom why you are living with him again. His treatment of you is poor.”
“His treatment of me does not exist anymore. I only keep a room there, and eat his food.”
SB nodded. Then Amaris rose, thanked SB for taking such gracious care of her, and opened the familiar front door. The cold winter air made Amaris hesitate a moment, but she did not want to ruin SB’s warm house, so she stepped forward. Then warmth closed in behind her, and SB’s hands settled onto Amaris’s hip. His face moved beside hers. “Amaris,” he said in a soft voice. “Do let me know if you ever decide what you want.”
Amaris smiled, and felt calm.