Chapter 9

The forest was too cold for Amaris. She did not expect sleep in such dark, damp conditions. Sion seemed to have no trouble passing out, and Adreaga and Briair slept, too. Amaris rolled onto her side, pulling her cape tighter. Without the scrap of fabric between her and the ground, Amaris would be as wet as moss in this part of the forest. Amaris told herself it was the threat of rain that kept her awake. Thick clouds had brewed all day, and now they blocked the moon in the starless sky. Her mind wandered to the absent stars; could a few of those — whatever they looked like— illuminate even through this dim night? They would be small, a mere fraction of the moon, and so perhaps their presence would alter things little. What the stars might have looked like before their demise kept Amaris following curiosity for several minutes. She blinked at the dark sky, feeling a little more calm and drowsy, and thought any light in such a mass of shadows would fail in its purpose.
A light wind picked up, and Amaris decided she would rather be woken by the storm than kept from sleep. She pulled her hood over her face but the frigid air struck her face time and again. She backed against the tree nearest her, and pulled the blanket over her head, tucking her feet close to her body. Ridiculous. Rain avoided this land, sending plagues in its stead, but now that Amaris took two steps from her house she was going to get drenched. Sion had weeks since left Amaris to her own devices at night. He slept near her, but further than previous nights. Amaris did not need supervision, but she missed the company now. Sion was accustomed to sleeping under an open, dark sky, Amaris reminded herself. He had traveled long months looking for her, years even. In time, she could get used to lack of shelter as he had. But she left home almost a month ago; perhaps she would not adapt. Finally, Amaris felt herself drifting. The cape caught hot breath from her sighs and warmed her face, and her eyes stayed closed at last, but not for long.
A frigid knock in the face woke Amaris, blowing off blanket and hood. Amaris sat quick and threw her fist into the ground. Could she not get five minutes — then she froze. The moon shone where clouds had been, and Amaris saw a dark shadow in camp. It crouched not even ten feet away, and her own sword was not in reach. The panther stared at her. Amaris drew her knife and threw it. She tore off her cape while lunging the few feet to her sword. Her throw made the beast scurry, just long enough to draw her sword, at which she almost failed. Blast the too-long blade! Amaris swung the hilt and scratched the panther with the tip. It leapt back but turned to face Amaris again. It poured out an earthy roar, and Amaris saw the others stirring. Her heart pounded in her throat, almost choking her when the panther rushed her. She tracked its movements with difficulty, and lunged aside before it hit. Her own shrill cry told Amaris she had not avoided the blow entirely. She spun, without watching for the enemy, sword raised,, hoping to nail the final blow. The animal was too close; Amaris would be down before her sword could fall. The creature wheeled back instead of attacking, far from Amaris, and collapsed. Amaris ignored her surprise and charged before the beast changed its mind. With almost slow motions, the panther looked at Amaris and crouched into a ball —as if in premonition of a strike, bowing to the alaquendi’s tactics — and shifted into a human.
Amaris dropped her sword the instant she understood what had happened. She won, but by surrender, not valor. “No!” Amaris ran the small distance between her and the woman she knew lay beneath the cape. Another force jarred Amaris’s course and sent her flying aside where she hit the ground. Sion. He will kill her! “Leave her!” Amaris jumped up and saw her allies freeze at her command. Sion seemed reluctant to stop his assault, sword drawn. “Do not touch her.” Amaris yanked Sion’s arm.
He dropped his sword, and drew his dagger. He jerked the assailant around by her cape. “Who sent you?” The venom in Sion’s voice startled Amaris, and she feared interfering. Then she heard the other’s voice.
“No one.”
Amaris gasped. “Sion, you scratch her and we are finished here. I will leave you so fast you—”
“You will what?” Sion knelt closer to the assailant and pressed his knife against her. The woman’s back arched away from the blade, and she gasped. Was she hurt? Then Amaris remembered cutting the panther. “Amaris, did you hit your head on something? This woman is trying to kill you.” Sion’s threadbare patience thinned in his tone.
Amaris ignored Sion. “Waylen!” The name tasted odd after years of disuse.
“I am fine, Amaris.” The woman sounded put out, but it certainly sounded like the right voice.
Amaris rushed to the woman’s side and tried to turn her over. Sion did not intervene. The woman resisted Amaris, and then Sion kicked the woman out of Amaris’s grip. “Move, Amaris.” Sion leaned over the woman, enmeshing his blade with her black hair, steel against her neck.
Amaris searched for the woman’s belt, and saw a knife. She gripped the hilt, but a dark hand grabbed Amaris’s wrist, and she felt the woman stirring. The woman looked at Amaris, and for a moment they studied each other. “Do not harm him.” Her face, so much darker, and yet so was everything in the dim light, but she had no doubt about this woman. “He is only protecting you.” The woman — indeed Waylen— wiped Amaris’s hand from her knife while twisting away from Sion who did not pursue her further with the blade, and pushed herself up as far as she could with Amaris kneeling on her cape. The latter adjusted her weight and remedied the twisted clothing. Waylen stood and faced Sion. Amaris followed, and stood near her friend. In the dark light, Amaris could see only Sion’s calculating expression, not Waylen’s face. Sion’s eyes narrowed, and he flipped the blade in his hand so he could throw it, the other hand balled into a fist. Waylen spoke again to Amaris. “You need people to protect you.”
Amaris pulled at Waylen’s arm, thicker than she remembered. “Leave him.”
“Excuse me!” Briair interrupted.
Waylen tensed and backed away from Sion. Amaris reiterated her instructions that Waylen be unharmed, and threatened punishment if anyone disobeyed. She noticed Waylen’s slow retreat and grabbed the woman by the arm. Waylen seemed nervous, like an animal trying to escape trappers. “Please,” Amaris turned fully to her old friend. “Do not leave me.”
Waylen bit her lip and closed her eyes. Was she afraid? Why upset? She ignored these questions and embraced Waylen who wrapped her own arms around Amaris. Amaris heard commotion from the others, but would choose her old friend over almost all of them. Waylen inhaled strong and moved her fingers through Amaris’s hair.
“It is you,” she whispered.
Their embrace tightened, and Amaris’s eyes closed against the dark sky. After a suspended moment, Waylen dropped her voice lower still, just audible where her lips hovered near Amaris’s ear. “Your friends need a better explanation.”
So did Amaris. Waylen had no reason to attack her. Amaris nodded, though, and stepped back. What did Waylen want her to do? Amaris had her mouth open, some story she planned to concoct as she spoke, poised on her lips. A hand gripped her shoulder. Waylen spoke into Amaris’s ear. “What are you doing?”
Amaris turned around. “Trying to get us out of trouble.”
“No, I mean what is the business you are about?”
That. Amaris swallowed and stared at Waylen whose expression grew more serious.
“Are you doing what I think?”
Amaris did not respond.
“Do you want me to stay?” Waylen asked.
“I am so lonely.” Amaris’s voice was too quiet for even her own ears to hear, but Waylen seemed to understand. Waylen’s eyebrows came together, and she brushed the tear that had fallen on Amaris’s cheek. Then she watched Amaris for a long moment, studying her with slitted eyes.
“You have me.” Waylen patted Amaris on the arm and then stepped past her. “Sion, I am coming with Amaris.”
Amaris groaned, waiting for the fallout. She saw Illuma whispering wildly to Sion, but could not make out the words.
“No you will not.” Sion told Waylen, and then looked at Amaris. “Not this time.”
Illuma said something beneath her breath and left Sion. Sion approached Amaris. His lips moved as he passed Waylen, but Amaris did not hear his words. She did, however, hear Waylen’s growl. Then Sion turned to Waylen instead of Amaris. Rasps, mumbles, and cruel words started passing between the two until Amaris inserted herself into the conversation. Then silence.
“Find some common ground, unless someone wants to leave.” Amaris looked at Sion.
Both Sion and Waylen stared at Amaris. She was the common interest.
“I said I will stay.”
“Amaris, you need to look out for yourself.” Sion said. “This,” he gestured to Waylen, “is not taking care of yourself.”
Waylen crossed her arms across her chest, and now Amaris could see her glare. Her expression looked more like a threat than irritation.
“I trust Waylen.” Amaris told Sion. “And I trust you.” Amaris sighed. She was the one not receiving any trust right now. Amaris looked between the two. Unmoved. Amaris walked away, after a moment, she heard Waylen behind her. “You can get to know him later.”
“Can she?” Sion’s voice rubbed Amaris like sand paper. Amaris opted to ignore it.
“Can I speak with you?”
Amaris turned to Sion and opened up her arms.
Sion’s stepped close, but did not drop his voice. “I do not care who this wench is, she endangers us again, and you and I will both have hell to pay.”
Amaris knew the thing Sion feared would never happen. Amaris dreaded Sion’s creating disturbances again and groaned inwardly, but held her peace.
“And if you ever touch her—” Sion pointed at Waylen.
“It was an accident!”
“Accident?” He turned his attention. “Amaris, why?” he whined.
“My life is in my hands, not yours. You are here of your own free will. Everyone is.”
Illuma mumbled something which only Sion appeared to catch. Sion whispered so he could deliver his cutting comments in some semblance of privacy. “You risk your death, and you bring it on everyone else.”
“Maybe you can leave, and not have to watch.” Amaris said.
Sion turned on his heel and faced Amaris.
“We tried that before, Amaris. Remember. I am still here. And you let Adreaga and Briair follow. I am staying with you to make sure you do your job,” Sion looked away. “And because I cannot let you get hurt.”
“I am not your charge to guard.”
Sion did not answer.
Amaris turned away from Sion, digesting the insult.
“Can you wait to risk your life until after you have fulfilled your position?”
“I wish I could take your life right now.”
“Do it.”
Amaris bit her tongue and walked away. She had almost left when Adreaga’s voice halted her.
“Amaris, forgetting anything?”
Amaris fingered her naked collar bone and went back. Adreaga held Amaris’s cape, still attached on one half to her broach. She separated broach from fabric, tossing the latter on the ground. Waylen stopped her this time. “Take the cape.”
The sky showed no difference in appearance, and Amaris noticed the sharp wind gusts she had forgotten in the excitement. Waylen reached down and scooped up the cape. Amaris could not find words yet, so she left camp.
“Do not leave your sword.” Sion instructed.
“I cannot leave without it; this way I have to come back in the morning.” Amaris ignored anything else called out and continued walking. She heard faint steps following and looked over her shoulder. Waylen. Amaris kept walking, and she would have continued her retreat had Waylen not stopped her.
“Sit down, love.” Waylen’s gentle tone, almost silent, coaxed Amaris. She shifted her weight with a wince, the pain which had grown in her damaged leg punctuated by her storming off. Waylen intervened and supported Amaris while she found a seat on the ground. Amaris watched Waylen open a black satchel and rifle through it; it was Amaris’s bag. Waylen pulled out bandage and then looked some more before finding a rag. Then the bag was passed to Amaris. “I hate it all, find something you like, and I will dress this wound.”
Amaris closed her eyes, bag in hand, and wished she would have been stronger, less obvious about her injury. “Waylen,” Amaris reached forward and stayed her friend’s hand before any mending could be done. Amaris wanted to console Waylen, but could think of nothing.
“Forgive me.” Waylen stopped her action and dropped her head into her hand.
Again, Amaris had no response. She scooted closer to Waylen, draped her arm around her, and pulled her close. Waylen slumped a little, and Amaris took the opportunity to try and find some fitting words to say. But what could be spoken between two people separated by over a decade and brought back together through a quarrel?
“I am sorry.” Waylen said.
“Waylen, last time I saw you . . .” Amaris choked on her words and knew they had been the wrong choice, but she finished the frayed sentence. “I would take a dozen hits for you.”
“Not from me.” Waylen sat up, away from Amaris. “And no, never will you take any damage for me. You should have people standing between you and the enemy by the hundreds. After a moment’s silence, Waylen changed her tone. “Sit still and let me take care of this mess.”
Amaris obeyed. “What about you?” Amaris did not recall which part of the panther her sword had scraped.
“I have been through worse.”
Waylen squeezed Amaris’s shoulder, “do not worry about it. You inflicted minimal pain, I promise.” By now, Waylen had Amaris’s calf muscle clean and was applying a balm from Amaris before wrapping it in bandage.
“Now let me help with yours,” Amaris said as Waylen cut the bandage and tucked in the loose end.
“There.” Waylen sounded satisfied, and also unwilling to answer Amaris’s comment.
“I will find out what I did and remedy it.”
“You will do nothing of the sort.”
“Let me help.”
“Trust me,” Waylen tossed the bandage roll to Amaris, who almost missed it in the dim light. Waylen lightened her voice. “I will be fine, and you cannot see right now, anyway.”
Right. And Waylen could. Neither spoke for several minutes. Amaris looked at the ground to avoid the frustration of looking at Waylen, but seeing so little in the dim light.
“How long have you been on the road?” Waylen asked.
“Almost a month.”
“I am a little confused about your companions. None of them seem to want to be here. Perhaps the other Alaquendi, she did a good deal of talk in your favor tonight.”
“The twins, Adreaga and Briair that is —”
“Who else would they be?”
Amaris nodded. “Well, they tracked me and I decided to keep them along. They have caused no trouble thus far and the girl will be useful in skirmishes.”
“You trust too easily.”
“I did not say I trusted them. I rather see them as on trial.”
Waylen huffed. “Sion is not a trial, is he.”
“I am afraid not.” Amaris wondered whether she and Sion would ever get back to agreeing on things. “He is the most permanent aid I have at the time.”
Amaris mumbled, “Because he will not leave.” Then she lifted her voice. “He searched me out, which cost him a few years of looking. And then all but insisted I take his help, and any more I could find, and leave for the basins.”
“I do not understand. Your father? The Alaquendi? You should have better connections than these.”
“I will not work with them, they would help out of obligation, if at all.”
“Did you ask?”
“No, and I will thank you to leave that thread alone.”
Waylen moaned. “Amaris, you are acting such a fool. You will take help from a silly boy and not even turn to your own people, who care for and need you.”
“What about SB—”
“He is bound to my father.”
“Yes! What about your father?”
Amaris narrowed her eyes.
Waylen’s warm palm covered Amaris’s cold hand. “Is he alright?”
“Yes.” Amaris could see Waylen was not going to stop questioning without Amaris giving her some answers. Perhaps, if she joined the expedition, she deserved some explanations.
“Amaris, rethink the way you are going about this.”
“We are going to to try and get extra aid.”
“But not the Alaquendi.”
“Then I will guard you as you die.”
“You know it is true.”
“But you cannot talk like that —”
“I am not going to lie to you, Amaris. You are not going to survive and succeed with this disaster of a plan.”
Surviving was not Amaris’s concern. “I will do my best, like so many others have done. If I fail, so be it.”
“Amaris,” Waylen softened her voice again, but still sounded irritated. “I never doubt your effort . . . Just your judgment. And, I do not trust Sion.”
“He will not harm you.”
Waylen chuckled. “I have no doubt of that..”
Amaris shook off Waylen’s hand. “ He is one of my friend’s son.”
“Good friend? Where is your friend, now.”
Waylen nodded.
Amaris shook her head, and went into a patchy explanation of her past relationship with Valmier, about Sion, and all that had made her leave and accompany the young man. Waylen grew quiet and asked few questions as Amaris finished. Amaris doubted this meant contentment, more submission she guessed.
“Just because I want you to come, does not mean you have to.” Amaris said at last.
Waylen protested and scooted closer to Amaris. “I am thinking through things, not regretting my choice to come with you. My offer, remember?”
Amaris nodded; drained from the drawn out night. More quiet followed, and lengthening blinks before Waylen suggested Amaris lie down. The latter took the suggestion, but looked at Waylen. “You are not tired?”
“Not in particular.”
“Do you always wander at night?”
Waylen nodded.
Amaris thought it odd but said nothing. Then Waylen offered the explanation of hunting. Of course. What else would shape shifters do for food? “In my camp?” Amaris did not know whether to regret her question or push it further.
“Yes. An accident, I assure you.” Waylen hurried her words. “The wind was doing odd things; I lost my bearings trying to get out of it. —No good hunting when you are upwind.— Especially when you were downwind.” Waylen’s scolded herself.
“I understand.”
“Do you?” Waylen sounded disbelieving.
Amaris shrugged “I threw the knife.”
Waylen chuckled. “ At least you fight well in the dark.”
“Your fighting has changed a lot.” Amaris remembered the small woman who slashed her sword pointlessly to and fro against a small band of raiders.
“Practice. I was not trying to kill you tonight, I try to avoid that.”
Waylen had changed more than Amaris had given credit for. “What?”
Amaris made herself smile. “I am grateful for your little mistake.”
“We shall see.”

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