Chapter 19

“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.”
“My friend?”
“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.”
Amaris shrugged.
“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.”
“Hmm. Pity.”
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.

Chapter 18

“Sharadin, watch the way you use my name! Actually, do not say it at all. Next time it slips, I will have your tongue.” Amaris brushed her fingers through her hair. Almost a week of travel had brought her and this shape shifter just a few miles from the first known guard post of the southern army. Three days, and this man still called her by name. “Arian. Do you understand me? I am to be known by you only as Arian. This is not a pretend title, this is my identity to you from this day forward. I did not come all this way to die by a slip up.”
“Are you finished, Arian?”
Amaris exhaled, shaking her head. She swug out of the water skin. At length, they continued their journey South. Riding this shape shifter, Amaris felt alone, exposed, and unready. The glow of the broach under her shirt where it hid burned gentle against her chest. Hours passed before they approached their first challenge. She gripped the brown main between her fingers, and sighed, then dismounted. As her feet touched the ground, Sharadin took his human form. Amaris tried to find her tongue, but just breathed heavy, trying to focus on one disgusting man who she felt she could take out, instead of the group all around him to whom she would surely fall if a fight broke out.
“Arian,” Sharadin patted Amaris’s back, “come on, just like last time.” Sharadin shook his head, and then addressed the front most guard who gripped his hilt while eyeing the strangers.
“We need passage south. We are carrying messages to Dunharrow officer Grange.” Sharadin addressed the gruff man.
Amaris swallowed, trying to dislodge the build up in her throat.
A dark woman stepped forward, arms crossed, and examined Amaris. The woman flicked her like a bug. “No. This is not a prisoner, what is her story?” She kicked Amaris’s calf, and the latter stumbled a couple steps away from the grass growing underfoot.
“This is our best type of spy. Arian is able to maintain Alaquendi properties, and infiltrates our greatest enemy.”
Several people stepped closer, looking like hungry wolves at a feast. Amaris tried to make her smile cruel, and shook her head, crossing her arms. It was not enough. The woman who had addressed them grabbed Amaris’s arm, and squeezed it tight. A minuscule amount of energy drained into the woman, Amaris yanked her arm free. “Damn it! I need that to get South. How should I deliver my message if you all leech off me?” But the starving woman gripped both Amaris’s arms. She stared like a hungry child, and compassion swelled inside Amaris who knew a little life given would not damage her any. Yet for the greater task she pulled away again, and gripped the woman’s collar, looking down into her eyes with hatred she could only conjure by recalling her last fight with these people. “Take it off the new recruits! Seventeen years, unfaltering, has earned me this painful position, and only three others dare join me. Your actions might delay for weeks my return to the midlands, where I have to pose as an Alaquendi.” Amaris pushed the dying woman away, and watched the earth shrivel beneath her step. Silver laced this woman’s hair, and Amaris felt glad to have at least a little gold in her own to match. She looked at Sharadin. “We need to move on. I am not dealing with these people.”
The guard with whom Sharadin had spoken gave them leave. As they left, Amaris watched a minor beating taking place on the desperate woman who had reached out. Amaris struggled to keep her composure until out of sight. “I never want to do that again.” Amaris knew Sharadin could not answer, as she sat astride the brown horse.
They made progress, but the ease with which they passed checkpoint groups the first day diminished with the second and third, as they changed their story to avoid detection. Amaris became Arian the prisoner, or Arian the woman going to punishment (and here she received more than a couple blows.) After six days, Amaris and Sharadin came to a small town. Amaris suppressed her fatigue and dismounted before the blurs of people resolved into a small depressing mass. She loathed to think of this trip with Fleecel alone, she needed the man beside her to be strength now and then when hers gave out.
Amaris tried to ignore the onlookers as she walked passed with false confidence. Then Sharadin gave her a firm shove between the shoulders, and Amaris stumbled a few steps.
“Walk straight!”
Amaris blinked, and erected her back, and Sharadin pushed her again. This time she stayed slumped over, and tried to drag her feet a little. “Better. Now listen to me next time, and maybe I will spare you worse.”
Amaris fought the urge to wail on Sharadin, but she obeyed. They had to make their current ruse of Arian the prisoner convincing. No one around her looked confident or strong, why should she? Sharadin grabbed Amaris’s arm and she stumbled. “That is plenty, Sharadin.” Amaris yanked against the man, but his grip tightened.
“I am handling this.” Sharadin responded. Amaris turned on the man and saw someone else holding her back while Sharadin argued with the hulking man holding Amaris. Another man approached, and then a woman whose sudden scrutiny scared Amaris more than the two men with their brute. “She is my charge, and I will not be seen to fail with her.”
“Exactly.” The woman’s sounded cunning. Amaris’s heart beat raged at the sound.
“We can help you,” the second man said to Sharadin.
“I have her handled.” Sharadin insisted.
“Damn Manori. Too proud to do things properly for the poor wench.” Then they thrust Sharadin aside, and pulled Amaris from the street. Sharadin followed, as did others. A man ripped off Amaris’s boot and she fell, her back smacking against the hard-packed earth.
“Do not hurt her.” The rough man still had Amaris’s arm in his hand.
“Sorry. Her balance is poor.”
Amaris began to rise, but the man pressed his knee against her stomach. She gasped, and he lessened the force. Her stocking was removed and the man grabbed her bare ankle. At once, Amaris felt a small surge of herself flying into the man’s form.
“That will not help!” Amaris screamed.
“It needs to hurt,” the woman pushed hair off Amaris’s face. “Relax, because this is the only way for you to join the Arkainda.” Both the woman’s dry hands took hold of Amaris, marring her skin with their touch. In finality of her fate, the man’s fingers laid over her bare throat, inches above the concealed broach, and Amaris felt steady leaks of strength vanishing from her. So gradual, and uncomfortable that every minute seemed less than a week of vigor. More people — traitors of her race — piled their hands onto her skin, puncturing holes in the barrier that held Amaris together. Her head started to ache, and her parched mouth did not bother objecting her fate. She only hoped when they finished she would have enough life in her blood to finish her job.
“We will not even finish her!” Once of the men shouted, then chuckled. “She takes forever.” Amaris smirked at her own strength, and then passed out.
Amaris opened her eyes, but did not see light. Brown and grey shades in abstract forms filled her vision. Then she heard his voice. “Sharadin, I am going to kill you.”
“You are too weak for that.” He sounded snide. Amaris promised herself he was acting.
“Because of you.” Her voice sounded sallow, empty, quiet, and parched.
“Maybe you will forget that when you come round. Actually, remember it, next time you will be on the other side. At the rate of our new recruits, that time will come fast for you. I want to finish your conversion alone.” Sharadin scooped his arm under Amaris’s shoulder and lifted her to her feet. She could only just stand. “Your strength surprises, maybe I need to wait until you diminish further.” Amaris let her legs go out, and Sharadin lifted her off the ground while the surrounding crowd laughed. She dropped her arm away from Sharadin, losing grip and making it harder for him to carry her. “Perhaps you are ready.” Amaris flickered her eyes shut and dropped her head, hanging limp. She tried to block out the rasping voices cheering Sharadin toward terrible acts that would rip out the rest of Amaris’s person until a shell remained. He would never listen. “Alright then, to the swamp with you,” is all Sharadin replied.
After a vague recognition of being laid onto straw-like grass, Amaris’s stamina disolved. She had no conscious understanding. No time. No light or dark. No hunger or strife. She missed any sunrise or set. And with the darkness when she opened her eyes, Amaris feared discovering where she laid, what had happened to her body, and if she was even Alaquendi anymore. Then a minuscule prick of white appeared overhead. Maybe it had already been there, and Amaris had not seen its weak radiance. She felt in sync with the struggling star. Where am I? She tried to say, but no sound escaped her lips. A hand brushed against her cheek. It did not take or give any form of strength, but she could feel the touch. Sharadin spoke, but Amaris only saw his lips move, no sound, no connection. At least she would perish beneath the star.

Amaris struggled to open her eyes, but the smoggy shadows had more strength than she. Amaris. Her chest heaved, and she spluttered for air. Amaris. Her hand smacked whatever made the noise and grabbed someone’s shirt, and then she could see. Sharadin leaned over her, pensive control marked his face; how long had she lain unconscious in the dusty South? Several minutes of steady breathing enabled her to talk.
“Watch your tongue down here.”
Sharadin nodded with something near a smile. “Absolutely, Arian.” Sharadin sat up tall and looked in all directions. “Thank the king of that star you stare at that the Arkainda did not succeed.” He sighed. “I did not know if you would wake as one of them.”
“If that is what they did to my friend—” Amaris tried to push away from the ground. Sharadin helped her sit. He scooted behind her, and she leaned back against his. Sharadin passed her a water skin, and Amaris took a swig. The thin water tasted off. “That is from the swamp, right?”
Amaris took another long drink. At least they had a water source.
“You will not stand out. Just watch where you step. You rehabilitated better than I thought possible, after what they—”
“I have survived worse than that stunt..”
“You amaze me, Arian.”
“I need this strength, but I can act weak.” Amaris examined a chunk of thick, golden hair. Remnants from her previous encounter, mixed with damages from the most recent attack. Amaris looked over her shoulder at Sharadin. “Ready to act as my slaver?” Amaris felt Sharadin’s heavy sigh. She waited for him to gather his constitution, and then he leaned away from her. Sharadin pulled Amaris to her feet, and she surveyed the bland landscape. No fainting or weakness remained, but she felt only a shadow of her former self. “Is this what humans feel?” She looked at the grey water and beige reeds, stagnant in the stale air.
“I hope not.”
They locked gazes, and Amaris hoped between them they could find their destination. The Manori had acquired only the direction to the chest Amaris loathed and longed for, but not the location.The two struggled South for several miles, until Amaris felt certain they had missed their mark. The land leveled into a blank, brown slate of dead grass and cold breezes which caught up and swirled dirt and dust. Amaris dismounted and waited for Sharadin to shift. “Something is wrong.” Amaris crossed her arms, unhappy to be having this conversation again.
“Everything is wrong. So we continue in the direction of that wrong until we can fix this mess.” Amaris made no response, so Sharadin continued. “South, Amaris. Where else would he put this device?”
“But we have seen no guards for days. If we reach the cliffs, and have not found it still, our supplies may not bring us North again.”
“True.” Sharadin paused. “So your suggestion?”
Amaris heaved her shoulders, and then sat down. “Wish our contacts had found more information.”
Sharadin huffed. “I meant a helpful idea.”
Amaris brushed her fingers through her hair. “Split up? Cover twice the ground.”
“Bad idea. You would be exposed, and alone. If damage came to you—”
“I do hope you are not going to tell me I can be safer in the South if we stay together. Because, clearly, I have thought of that already.”
Sharadin glared.
“Good.” Amaris continued. “I go South-East, and you South-West, where we know for certain BG has forces lined up. Perhaps they are there for a reason.” She raised her eyebrows. “I will avoid people, and you will have speed and strength. If we find nothing, we meet in the true South, and perish at the cliffs, where we are headed already.”
“So you want me to fetch you if I come upon anything? And if you discover the basin?”
“You will know.” Amaris stood and grasped Sharadin’s shoulders. “I hope to see you again.”
“Be wary, Amaris.”
She smirked. What else would she do?

Amaris plodded on for five days, and saw nothing new. Her hair had less burgundy, and the flora marking her path increased. Soon she would not have much left. Either Sharadin or she would find the Basin soon, or someone would spot Amaris. Never had she been so overt as an Alaquendi. Nothing bloomed anywhere between her and the horizon, in any direction, and here she walked in front of vibrant greenery. She slept, and woke up in a puddle of grass. If the land was killing her, it did so with a pleasantness Amaris could not have expected in the South. Wide open plains, large vast sky holding one little star, and miles without a soul but herself. Soon her failure would bring a sea breeze, and cliffs to jump from. She understood her ancestor’s draw toward this land. She tried to picture this slice of earth as rolling plains. If only she did not have the damnation of fighting or dieing on this now-desecrated open space.
Amaris stopped counting days, and regretted sending away Sharadin. Her rations thinned, and hope of seeing any person again wained. So she veered her course toward the cliffs. Once the ocean opened up before her, she sat at the edge, and dangled her legs off the rim of her world. She stared into the waves that rippled before crashing into the rocks. Hundreds of years before, an Alaquendi woman held the same broach Amaris had in her hand now, standing over this cliff. What if they had fallen then? Would the Alaquendi, the Humans, the Manori, been able to overturn BG if a legend did not promise they could defeat him only one way? If no one knew about a key, or the locked chamber to life, would the last seven generations have lived better? Amaris thought to thrust herself over the cliff side. For the sake of everyone else, she decided against the leap. Leaving behind a ghost story would give this cursed continent nothing. Perhaps the broach just needed the right carrier. No one else had made it so far.. She owed to Manori, and to Sharadin the chance they had given her. She wandered East, hoping to encounter either Sharadin or the Basin.
For the good of her sanity, she did not have to wait long. Sharadin found her, with ease she assumed from the trail she left, and told her of his failure in discovering anything but an army readying for battle. The Alaquendi were forming ranks against the South while Amaris and Sharadin sought out the Basin. War would begin soon. They had the best distraction, and still no results. But Sharadin had managed a double portion of supplies, so they had more time. Time for more wandering. But Amaris obliged. They continued to separate and rejoin once every other day. Sharadin never struggled to find Amaris with the greenery following her, but assured the woman that the path only remained for half a day before dying again. This continued for another five days, and Amaris’s efforts tapered to a minimum. She started to admire the macabre land for its consistency. In all her long years, she had never found something dead last so long. The deciseviness unnerved her.
Sharadin galloped at a great speed toward Amaris, interupting her contemplation. He returned a day early, or Amaris had lost a day of memory. He shifted, and his speed began carrying him beyond Amaris, who stepped aside.
“Easy!” She shouted.
Amaris lurched toward the man, and smothered his mouth. He stood still while she scolded about the use of her name. When she finished, and released her grip. The man just smiled. Great! Sharadin had snapped. She rubbed her forehead, studying the ground. She always had the cliffs. Sharadin spoke.
“Maybe we should give this up,” Amaris sat down, and dropped to her back. The dusty ground seemed as good a place to die as any.
Sharadin leaned over her, grinning. “The Basin has a leak.”
“Yes, I know that.” Amaris closed her eyes, and covered her face. She heard the man sit beside her.
“I did not know that.”
Amaris pulled lowered her hands, and stared. “Wait…”
Sharadin pulled Amaris up by the back of her dress. “Are you ready?”

Sharadin carried Amaris to where fingers of light green spread out in a long, thin web among the dead grass. As Sharadin continued, the space between the bands diminished, filling in with clumps of dark green. They followed the growth until a meadow replaced the dusty ground, and Amaris’s eyes trained on the plant life that varied from flowers to small tree stumps and sprouts that had yet to be cut. When Amaris lifted her gaze, she saw a sea of emerald rippling in the breeze. When Sharadin stopped, Amaris dismounted and hunched into the thick field.
Sharadin pointed out a small structure, almost hidden by the vines wrapping over it. The two sought out a plan, while Amaris sank her fingertips into the deep brown soil. Together, they found their best option, but Amaris requested several moments to get into character as the wilting recruit. She did not feel weak enough to play her part until some degree of meditation on BG, which pulled her mind into a dismal state. Sharading shifted, and Amaris climbed on his back. She blinked slow, laying against the horse’s thick neck, her fingers just holding his main. Amaris tried to feel pain with each step he took. Twice she let herself slide, and almost fall. She mimicked the motions needed to get to the city on Fleecel after the ambush, and hoped to look filled with wounds and sucked dry of strength. Sharadin began shifting, and Amaris slid from his back, smacking the ground. No acting necessary to wince at that pain. Sharadin ignored Amaris’s fall and walked straight past her. She stopped her play of pretend, and smelled the fresh soil, eyes closed against the noonday sun. The mumbles Sharadin made grew louder as some creature disturbed the gentle wind through the reeds, and then she heard him speak.
“She is mostly dead already. But my captain seems to think this silly place might get her through the transition. I’m waiting for her to fade off so I can toss her off the cliff.”
Fingers grabbed Amaris by the jaw, jerked her head around. She felt strength flow from her face into the hand, and moaned. “She is dying, but still has her own life inside her.” Amaris did not recognize the voice. “How did she do that?”
“How the devil should I know? I am just the messenger. She was someone else’s charge, and they dumped her on me to fly to the glamorous battle.” Sharadin said.
“Where you should be.”
Amaris’s heart lodged in her throat.
“You two will keep an eye on her, then?” Sharadin asked.
“Bring her closer, first. She needs more help; needs to be closer to the core..”
Amaris caught on every bit of earth between where she fell and the place to which Sharadin dragged her. He squeezed Amaris’s shoulder before leaving her. She tried not to move as Sharadin left, and felt paralyzed for the following hours. Amaris had no thoughts of how to do any good from her current position. She had a sword, and would have to face two guards. Why Sharadin did not stay and fight them off with her, she could not decide. But something made him leave. Something Amaris could not see with her eyes shut in false unconsciousness. Since they would let her rest, she could think. Light beyond her eyelids disappeared, and Amaris flickered her eyes open. The star was overhead. Over the Basin. Of course. Amaris fluttered her eyes at a disturbance approaching, and tossed her head to the side. She groaned, and then slept.
In the morning, she refused the urge to sit. Instead, Amaris waited until midday to open her eyes, and faked a failed attempt at getting off the ground where she lay for hours. Only two guards. A small stone building with a wooden door, and life seeped everywhere. Amaris allowed herself to prop onto her elbows a few hours later, trying to show gradual progress, while beyond that, she had no ideas. Meanwhile, she felt renewed with strength to take down the door herself. Her impatience emboldened a single attempt that evening. “Can you help me at all?” She asked the guards.
“How?” The tan man asked. “You failed the simple part. Die.”
Amaris wiped her hand over her face.
“I can try, but you might be beyond our fixing.” The second man said. He had more silver than black in his hair. Amaris realized why Sharadin left her instead of fighting. Only one of the guards was Arkainda, the second might be Manori. She could not see what Sharadin knew about this man by scent. His second form.
“Do anything, please. I must avenge my mother, and nothing anyone has done worked for me.”
The tan man’s smile did not encourage Amaris as he spoke. “That is because Arkainda try only one way of weakening you Alaquendi.”
“Oh, do not do that to her. You will only kill the woman before we convert . . .” The Arkainda looked at Amaris. “What is your name?”
“Arian Shrieder.” Amaris answered.
“Leave it to Arain.” The Manori turned to her. “I can knock some of that strength out of you and let Darshel finish you off.”
Amaris narrowed her eyes. “You Manori work too hard to show your strength. Let Darshel do his worst and see what happens.”
As the Arkainda held both Amaris’s wrists, she pretended to weaken little bits at a time. Then he would leave her be, and repeat the same. The whole night, Amaris thought the only progress made to her detriment had been Darshel’s strengthening. She slept again, but they made her leave the green grass so she could fade a little overnight. In the morning, Amaris gasped for air and pleaded for help, pretending desperation to get closer to the Basin again. They made her crawl back, and watched, Darshel with hopeful eyes, the other with amusement. She made it back onto the lush green lawn, sore elbows being the only real damage, and inhaled like she had been drown. Darshel touched her at once, trying to draw anything out of her he could. She saw him smile with pleasure. Then he went back to his post. “She has no hope, there is too much inside this one. Would make a better guard than soldier, since she dies when away from this this little plot.”
“More a captive than asset, then.” The Manori said.
“I wish,” Amaris made her voice quiver. “That I could help . . . Anything.” She burred her face in her arm, and went silent. Nothing happened after that, Darshel even abandoned trying to convert Amaris. Then, as she falsified sleep, one of the men shook her without any consideration for the facade of her weak body.
“Can you at stand?” The Manori asked, biting his lip, and glaring.
Amaris nodded, and then clawed up the man until he yanked her. She tottered for a second and then stood fast.
“Good.” The man patted Amaris’s shoulders. “Take my post, you wench.” He nodded to the other guard who stood, arms crossed over his chest, a snarl on his face.
Amaris nodded. “Why?”
“Because it is all we can use you for. We had report last night of them killing the Tempth. I need to see this battle before it is ended. The pathetic Arkainda can watch this mess you all made.””
Amaris felt her eyes light up. Everything she needed, she glanced at the locked door, almost everything. “Go then,” she tried to sound sad. “You deserve that sight, not me,” she averted her eyes.
“No you do not.” The Manori ran and hit the sky with long dark wings. Amaris gasped and stepped back, and then she remembered the other guard.
“They terrify and disgust me,” she said. The guard nodded, and Amaris hobbled to the small building. Little more than a stone shed with a large wooden door against which she leaned, feigning exhaustion. She tried to plan an entrance. The one guard should pose a small problem, Amaris feared only her poor swordsmanship, and that with a month devoid of practice. Her stomach grew sour as procrastination stained her resolve. She knew her allies died in battle every minute that passed. Still, she let the moments slide away, and her palms grew sweaty as the day waxed into a heated noon.
“Coward.” She murmured the insult to herself.
“What did you say?”
Amaris nodded, crossed her arms, and locked her eyes with Darshel’s confused gaze. She had broke silence, she could break more. “That man, what is his name? Nevermind” —she cut off the guard’s answer— “he is a coward.”
“How? He is probably fighting the war—”
“Let him.” She laughed, listening to the strength in her voice. “He will die battling a decoy.” Amaris aleady had her dagger at her side, twirling it in her hand, behind her thigh so the man would not notice. She should have struck him then.
“What decoy? Arian, the war is over.” Darshel walked toward her.
She stabbed her blade into his shoulder, but did not know how to kill without provocation. “Almost.” She threw him aside, and watched as he struggled. Amaris bit her lip, walked to the man, and knelt on his chest. She bit her lip until a metallic flavor met her tongue. “You killed my mother,” she told herself. This whole people had killed her mother. She slit the man’s throat when he began to let out a scream. Amaris dropped her dagger, and walked toward the door, swallowing the blood in her mouth. The thick boarded door she knew would not break at her hand, so she gathered the plants and stacked them against the door for kindling, clearing the ground before it to contain any spread. Within a few minutes with the right stones, she had a small fire at the base of the door. She fed the flames, focusing on the red tongues eating the wood, willing them to consume. The glow sustained, and she watched, feeling a grin on her face. She drew her sword, and tried to pierce the entrance, then waited when it failed. The smoke started choking her, so she stepped back and turned away. Her vision blurred from staring into the heat, she drew in fresh air, and tried to calm her haste. The entrance would break down soon.
She winced at the bloodied guard, so looked instead at the dull sky. A few black specks moved around; odd since she had seen no birds this far south besides — She gasped and turned back to the small shed, and the pillar of smoke rising from it. Amaris threw her body against the door, and kicked with enough strength she stumbled time and again, but the wood splintered. When the the door started breaking apart, Amaris saw a bird come into view. No! She kicked again, and a board gave way. Once more only half a plank snapped. She grabbed the small opening, and thrust pulled herself into the small space. Her dress caught and her hands tore. She saw the chest inside, as large as a small wagon, emitting luminous waves which lit the interior. Amaris pulled through the hole and tumbled toward the stone locker.
Amaris ripped the key from the inside of her blouse, and scrambled when it flew to the ground. She looked up at the huge rock she had to open. She rushed around it, and sliced her burned hands on the sharp edge looking for any place to find purchase. Then the broach clamped into place. A bird screeched and the wood behind her crumbled. She pushed the lid, and a crack of light exploded, blinding Amaris, and hopefully the man behind her. She felt her flesh burning and with no sight of anything but bright white, she threw herself against the dislodged lid. She screamed so she could hear herself, Then it flew and smashed against the building. The structure cracked, and a chunk of stone fell into the open chest. The stone slab slipped, and Amaris heard it crash into the building. She screamed as the room blew up with vibrant colors and a thrumming pulse. She stumbled back in the wave of rushing windless air. She flew against the stones, which burned like a furnace against Amaris’s exposed shoulder, while flames poured down her dress. She pushed into the force, and turned to the door, where multiple soldiers stared in horror at the sight before them. They started shouting, and barking as they shifted into various beasts. Amaris turned back to the emptying chest. She slipped, and the next pulse from the basin threw her against the stones once more.
Amaris crumpled to the ground, and gave in to the basin as it killed and revived her. The structure came apart. Boulders smashed Amaris, and then she felt truest death right before the heap flew off her, and she gasped into consciousness again. Debris and energy smashed into and rolled over her one after the other. Amaris wept and screamed, praying for death or life to steal her away from the breaking and mending of her body.
Amaris felt every fiber of her being on fire, and closed her eyes tighter, but nothing pulled at her anymore.

Chapter 17

The blue-white spark burned her eye. Amaris just stared. She rubbed her aching neck, and then leaned back onto her elbows, lounging in the snow. Worries evaporated in the icy air. After twenty minutes, no aches or pains remained to distract Amaris. She laid her head onto the stiff snow pack, and breathed a sigh as her eyes lost focus. The small skylight blurred, and the frigged air seeped into her tired bones.
You are a silly woman. Amaris hated this voice, so she ignored the thought, and focused on her freezing frame. Something warm scrapped her face, then softened into a repeated burn. Amaris slapped the hand off her face and turned her body from the heat. She patted the ground, but did not feel the ice anymore. She huffed and mumbled. “Why must you bother me?”
The loathsome man chuckled. “Mostly, I do not wish to lose my employment. If you freeze, I am fired.”
“I will not die. Now leave.”
“Not dead yet.” The man said nothing, then rubbed Amaris’s back. Heat pulled Amaris closer to her life, and she made a fist around the blanket SB had put under her.
“You fail me as a friend.” Amaris tried to ignore her father’s hired hand, but slumber’s call had already left. Still, she lay without movement on the refreshing and icy ground.
“You know what that is.”
Amaris huffed, and closed her eyes. She felt SB’s gaze, not on the new star in the sky. Stupid boy. He ought to stare at the pretty spectacle like she did. It transfixed Amaris, so she looked up again. Aside from the moon, nothing had broken the solid black night for centuries.
“That is your ally, Amaris.”
She rolled her eyes at her friend’s statement. “What, something else is fighting now, too?” The last thing to fight for Amaris died. “It should find a better compatriot. I have good odds of getting it killed.” Sion should have seen this. He stared at the sky every night like a fool. Amaris wanted to hear him chide her about it showing through at last. The warm feeling of energy and confidence surging around and through Amaris fed an unknown craving. Her being resonated with the infant star’s illumination, and it had drug her out here each night for three weeks. She wanted to ruminate on the pain of her actions, not this fickle light that hid until the wort had passed. Soon, Amaris could prove this celestial spectator wrong. She would take its reason for appearing. Amaris sat up, focusing on her wet dress as the breeze licked through it.
SB settled a cloak over Amaris’s shoulders, heat soaking through her damp clothes. “Life knows its allies.” He said.
Amaris smirked. “Maybe I am not one of them.” She found her fingers curled around the broach, the pain of her grasp spreading up her arm. Her feet caught in her skirts when she tried to stand, and SB helped her through the tangle, supporting until she had her footing and could shake off his hold. Then she gripped tighter to the jewel until blood began dripping down her wrist.
“Really?” SB asked.
“What?” Amaris looked back at the star, glaring at the cold light. “We both know I cannot do this.” Her wet tear froze to her cheek. “That star will disappear with me.”
“Amaris this will not help you.” SB’s hand smeared the chilled blood on Amaris’s fingers while he fought her grasp. Her knuckles gave way, and SB held her hand aside, unfastening the broach with his other. The star distracted Amaris until the thing was off, then the scene snapped back into sharp focus.
“Wait!” Amaris turned on SB who hasted back a few steps.
“What is wrong with you?” SB asked.
Amaris bit her lip, but not hard, and shrugged. She touched her cheeks, and found her face wetter than she thought. Then she looked at the blood on her hands.
Amaris looked up at the star. Too pure a light to watch for more than a few seconds, but she did. The white shine cut and judged, and she stared. How unfair for this fair, untouchable light to pierce something so dark on her behalf. “Is it too late for them?”
“Who, Amaris?”
“The people who died . . . For me.” Silence, and then . . .
“I know there is more darkness, but please, for my sake” -SB’s fingers sank into Amaris’s cold forearm until she dropped her gaze- “focus on the light.”
“For your sake?”
SB’s hand slid down the red mess of Amaris’s skin until his fingers traced hers. “Please —”
His pleading unnerved Amaris, and she dropped the man’s hand from her, and began walking away. She looked over her shoulder, pausing her gait. “I need that back.” She waited. SB shook his head and knelt, cleaning the bloodied broach in the snow, wiping it with his shirt sleeve. He lingered, rubbing his thumb over the scarlet stain on his shirt.
Amaris tightened her lips. The man approached, and Amaris held out her clean hand. SB eyed the bloodied one she withheld. “Leave it,” Amaris pulled SB’s chin, directing his gaze away from the sliced up hand. He did not fight. Their eyes met, and Amaris steeled herself against his scrunched brow and questioning eyes. He pulled her hand from his chin and dropped the broach into it. Amaris left. She had one more night in her room before descending the hills into the South, where she could try to find her felled friends.
The support SB had guessed at had resulted in three thousand horsemen and a two week delay. Some seven thousand foot soldiers planned to follow, while the first mustering made camp north of City and arranged the attack. They would push through to BG’s hidden treasure, and thrust Amaris into the Basins. Amaris thought her suicide only prettied up, but she allowed the “support.” She nestled into her bed, and awaited dawn, but the darkness put her to sleep.
Amaris woke to her father’s nudges, and set her jaw, fighting embarrassment from oversleeping. Fraiton repeated calm phrases to his daughter as she rushed from task to task, throwing the last of the necessary items into her pack. She set her jaw as she closed the door to her room, locking herself from all remnants of her simpler life. After a pause she spun away from the sad scene, and SB stepped back to avoid a colission with her.
“I take it you are ready?” SB raised his eyebrows.
Amaris nodded. “Forgive my tardiness.”
“Of course.” He gestured to the front door, and followed Amaris when she left. It would take weeks to descend the craggy highlands without separating the company which had gathered for their ominous task. During the journey south, Amaris kept to herself, sandwiched between thousands of other horsemen. Those in command had agreed that Amaris should ride as any other soldier, in order to obscure her, although her exact position never escaped them. Fraiton had direct command over Amaris, but while he also agreed to oversee the final mustering of the foot soldiers, SB escorted her in the midst of the mounted forces.
Nelica needed no guidance, so Amaris let her mind wander as the mare mingled with the other beasts for thirteen days of bumping and jostling. For all the Alaquendi grace in horsemanship, Amaris found little serenity among the tiny army making their way south. Even with the icy peaks behind her, Amaris felt her fiery insides freezing over from the silent and cold atmosphere. Nothing but clattering rocks beneath hooves, the occasional whinny of an agitated mount, and short gusts of wind interrupted the still air of the seldom traversed valley. The cliffs on either side mocked Amaris, echoing memories of her slow climb with Nelica up this pass months before, with the memory of deceased companions fresh in her thoughts. Amaris ruminated upon those deaths until the small force of Alaquendi departed the highlands and made camp several dozen leagues north of City.
Amaris sat with knees gathered to her chest in front of her tent, wishing the night would flee so she could depart. At dawn, she would be allowed to seek out her lost allies; to honor their deaths before finishing her task in gory war. SB’s voice crept into her unhappy thoughts, and continued speaking, although Amaris denied him reply. She gazed at the patch of dirt in front of her as the man’s boots stepped there and a small crop of grass began growing around them. Amaris sank her fingers into the lush ground where she sat.
Amaris huffed and glared at SB, his jaw set, arms crossed.
“I can sleep when this is finished — maybe.”
“You do not want to find them, or whatever that ambush left behind, without a little rest.”
Amaris began musing over what she might find; the macabre thoughts a fitting punishment for one such as her. “As long as I am not alone, I will return from this errand alive. That is all we care about, right?”
“Does that mean I have to take your sword and knife before we look for your friends?”
Amaris patted the wet area beneath her left eye which always leaked first; a regular occurrence. “Maybe you should.”
SB did not reply.
Amaris huffed. “Killing myself accomplishes nothing. Do not fret so much.” Amaris smirked to sell her point.
“Do not test me, Amaris.”
SB left the woman, and with the guilt he left her, Amaris went to sleep.

“Stop following me!” Amaris turned and came up against SB. She did not bother with the tears covering both cheeks, and ignored the pounding headache. “And do not follow me so close.” SB held her arm when she tried to leave again. She pulled away until it hurt. “Let me go!” Amaris slammed SB’s hand, but only hurt her arm.
“They were not where you fought last, and looking in the forest will do nothing for your case.”
Amaris pulled back, to no avail. She fought with SB’s firm grip but felt more stuck every second, until the anxiety balled up in her chest. She started gasping for air until she started falling, and would have hit the ground had SB not caught her. He lowered Amaris and kept her from lying down where her air supply would collapse further. “They cannot be gone,” Amaris wailed.
“Amaris, you knew they died.”
Yes, but not finding any traces of their death had not been her plan. Amaris wheezed until SB calmed her enough for tears to take over again. When he kept her from standing and searching again, Amaris beat SB the best her weaponless and weak state allowed. Then she passed out. She woke in the dark to find SB watching over her. Emotions soaked in the groggy haze of night seized Amaris, and she did not sleep again, but slowly recovered some sanity. She stayed silent through sunrise and past dawn. When she woke properly, she stayed sitting like a child until SB conceded to walking deeper into the forest where Amaris hoped to find some reminder of those she had lost. Something to hold onto, to use as kindling for the dying fire inside. But the woods disappointed, and Amaris agreed to turn back, but only after they went a few leagues further south. Nothing availed, so they began their return.
Their return journey took twice the time as their journey south — as Amaris stumbled and needed much rest. During one of the many breaks, Amaris began questioning whether she could recover from losing her allies. She struggled against false sounds of a familiar voice. The voice of one lost to her. Although she knew him only a year — give or take — she recognized the inflections in Sion’s voice. He seemed to be whining of too much work and stress. An unknown being replied within the verbal hallucination, and then Sion continued.
Amaris left her spot and walked until SB stopped her. “What is your issue?” She asked. “I am only continuing our terrible trek back.” But SB did not allow her passage. She started complaining again, when SB’s hand smothered the words from her mouth. She tried to shove him off, and he shook his head, lifting his eyebrows until the woman ceased. Amaris hesitated and looked about her. Multiple of the Alaquendi in her small troop had bows strung and arrows at the ready. SB pulled Amaris behind him, and she obeyed the gesture. The high alert did not abate the voices she heard.
I do not want to deal with anymore of them today, Amaris heard Sion’s voice as if he would appear before her. She sheltered further behind SB, but the sounds continued. She saw a movement beyond her party, obscured for the most part by branches. Amaris closed her eyes and breathed deep, forcing a slow exhale. Real or insanity, she felt too discomfited to aid those surrounding her. In case the assumed assailant lived only in her mind, she wanted to keep herself from reacting. Closing her eyes only paused the vision though. When she looked into the trees again, the disturbance resumed.
Metal. A glint of metal. She focused and saw a blade emerge into full sight, followed by none other than the living body of her recent failure. Amaris screeched, the reaction stinging her senses. This vision — Sion, wielding Amaris’s sword — did not dissipate, although Amaris rubbed her eyes, and blinked over and over. Her own steel, lost in battle, and the man of her dead lover, come to haunt her. She screamed again, and tried to run to the woods, but felt fingers gripped tight around her wrist, sinking into her skin, bruising her intention to flee. SB shouted, face so close she felt his breath, but she did not discern the words. Amaris fought until she fainted.
When she woke, Amaris felt pressed on all sides, she struggled free and realized only a blanket wrapped around her. Then she remembered the thoughts preceding her collapse, and curled up in the thin covering, closing her eyes to reality. She heard SB sigh, and set her jaw against the reproach. “I will not discuss this matter with you, SB,” she muttered into the scratchy cotton. No rebuke returned. Amaris almost sighed with relief, until she felt a hand rest on her back. She sat up quick, and glared at him, then she saw beyond SB. She gasped. There Sion sat, eyebrows raised. Amaris smacked her hands against her ears and shut her eyes.
SB called to Amaris multiple times, and she ignored him. At length, he offered to explain the situation to her. Amaris huffed, laughing at her predicament. “Try.” She replied, but did not expect his response.
“Sion did not die.”
Amaris stared at SB— his face a blank— and grabbed both his shoulders. “What?”
He told Amaris multiple times of Sion’s escape from the peril she had so long assumed to have claimed her fallen allies. Their living did not fit into her mental space. No. Grief had taken place, and surrender filled the gap left by friends. After several minutes, Amaris allowed herself to examine the man’s appearance, and he did resemble Sion. An exact replica. Amaris wondered how long these men took convincing her this double was Sion. She allowed him to sit by her. Guilt from shunning him mixed with unease, sickened her gut. “You are changed,” she commented.
Sion nodded slow, “You as well.” He reached toward Amaris, she flinched, and he paused while she calmed. He then pulled a lock of her hair onto her shoulder, Amaris saw a chunk of the gold that streaked her hair. She continued to forget that tell. She shrugged and pushed it behind her ear, and evaded eye contact.
“Amaris, I know what happened.” Sion said.
Amaris’s gaze flickered to and away from him.
“I would like to hear that,” SB’s voice broke the nostalgic sorrow, and Amaris stared at Sion, shaking her head. Then considered a moment.
“How do you know anything of my condition?” She asked.
Sion breathed deep; preparing himself? Then answered. “Adreaga told the wretched tale.”
Amaris felt herself spin, and then blacked out. In a short time, she recovered from the swoon, and SB insisted she eat and drink, even allowing something to lift her spirits. In time she felt well again — better, in fact, then she had in days. Some semblance of her old existence existed, and when she accepted that, her mind seemed more right.
“Adreaga fought with you,” Sion explained, “but Waylen, Briair and I, we had to run. I still begrudge you for chasing down that girl” — he shrugged — “at least you made it. I did not think I would see you again, though. Not this side of death. Dare I ask how you did it?”
“Did what?” Amaris asked, nibbling the last of her meal.
“Truly, Amaris? Do not play at stupidity, it never suited you.”Sion replied. SB grunted. Amaris rolled her eyes.
She bit her lip and sorted through the ways to tell these men, even a shortened version, of what had befallen her. She decided against answering, pondering instead Adreaga’s survival. When she denied reply, Sion continued filling the gaps in Amaris’s understanding of the last year.
Adreaga had escaped slaughter by faking death while the enemy —quite angered by Amaris’s fleeing — retreated. Adreaga recovered with a friend in the Westlands. Amaris found the youth having any allies in the world beyond her village a quiz, but accepted the claim nonetheless. After regrouping in CITY, Sion, Briair and Waylen had taken up a task of vengeance, completion, or whatever else they opted to call it. By some strange turn in events, Waylen had gathered the Manori troops, and planned to storm the Basins.
Amaris knew enough of Waylen’s testimony to find such a story unlikely. An exiled Manori able to muster her own frustrating people? She might believe the spectacle if she laid eyes on the situation of troops Sion claimed lay encamped several leagues northwest in the forest. Amaris gave no voice to her doubts. SB had agreed to meet the commander that might aid the Alaquendi, so Amaris and her small guard followed Sion toward the Manori forces.
During the ride, Amaris rubbed the hilt of her mother’s sword, returned by Sion. He had picked it off the battle field while searching for Amaris. She planned what she would say to Waylen. To Briair. To Adreaga. At the latter all thoughts eluded her. This girl Amaris rejected had born multiple hits in her stead. Amaris found no answers for the blank slate of speech with which she could greet the youth. She prayed some inspiration might find her.

The surprise that met Amaris stopped all thoughts about Adreaga for the time. Men stepped out of the foliage to greet Sion, and one disappeared at once. The other whispered a short discourse with Sion before leaving him. As they rode on, Amaris saw small groups of people who stared at the small entourage, and then the beings began to shift. Beast took over human form as the sparse gatherings morphed into crowds which deepened into steady streams going here and there among displays of supplies, including a scant sprinkling of tents. The frequency of animals turning to humans and the reverse chilled Amaris, but Sion continued on in apparent ease. Perhaps his story had some truth in it.
When Sion stopped, Amaris looked about, but saw no one familiar. Piercing eyes watched her. When Sion dismounted, she did the same, keeping Nelica in full contact, lest she scare among these weird people.
“Where is Captain Terpain?” Amaris heard Sion ask. The man gave brief instructions, and Sion turned back to his horse.
Amaris grabbed his arm.“She is using her full name?” She asked.
Sion nodded. “It seems a good time to speak your names out loud again.”
“Wait, Captian?” SB asked. He inquired about titles, which seemed insignificant to Amaris, until Sion nodded his understanding and answered that Waylen did not have charge over more than one troop. Her brother, he answered, was the man in sole responsibility of this mess. Amaris loathed any encounter with Waylen’s brother Rayden. How could a man against his — at the time— young sister’s return home ever conspire with her on such a scale?
Sion mounted, and waited for the others to follow. They rode through the large camp until the mass thinned into groups here and there, and then became sparse. They got down and walked beside their horses for a few minutes that stretched out like taffy in Amaris’s mind. Then she saw them, and her heart leapt. Adreaga and Briair, sitting on logs around a fire, and Waylen sleeping in panther form a few feet beyond. Amaris ran to them, and shocked them both, but euphoria ensued. Then Adreaga sobbed into Amaris’s shoulder, apologizing over and over before Amaris could make her stop and explain. Adreaga claimed responsibility for the beating Amaris had taken, saying the latter saved her and almost died because of that action.
“I am sorry you had to watch.” Amaris said. Then she lifted Adreaga’s chin and locked eyes. “My death was stayed by your hand. I thought he took you with that stroke. Never apologize to me again, ever, for anything. Do you understand?” Adreaga nodded, but wept louder, so Amaris cradled her. Then whispered to her. “Do not tell them the full of it, please.”
“I already did.”
“Well, say nothing more about that day.”
“With pleasure I will not recall those details.”
Amaris felt she was protecting not only herself, but the child.
“Now, I think we need to wake her.” Sion said. “Do you mind if I do?”
Amaris nodded. She did not want to startle her old friend as she had the previous year when the woman had discovered her. Sion went and sat beside the black panther laying on a small hill. He touched her head and whispered something. Waylen shifted and buried her face under her arms. Amaris waited, but her patience thinned, and she took a couple steps closer. Waylen jerked, and then sat, staring straight at Amaris. She gasped, and slapped Sion before standing. “It is poor enough of you to wear her sword” —Waylen started rushing forward— “You cannot smell like—” Waylen’s arms wrapped tight around the Alaquendi woman. “Amaris.” Amaris closed her eyes and let herself slip into the reality where her friends survived.
Amaris insisted on staying the week in the Manori camp, and SB agreed, with the caveat of anonymity. As if Amaris wanted to announce her identity in to a sea of human beasts. Waylen’s brother also agreed to conceal Amaris’s import for the time being, in order to reduce gossip and benefit both forces which must now ally. Shape shifters besides Waylen and Rayden stayed a distance from Amaris, and her surname remained absent in conversations. Amaris stayed confined with her friends on the outskirts of camp.
Briair informed Amaris of a continued injury his sister bore in shape of a sore arm, which Amaris learned had not been set before allowed to heal. The entire bone from wrist to elbow hurt without agitation, so Amaris suggested it be immobilized and splinted. Instead, Adreaga practiced archery. The girl’s boldness had grown uncontrollable, and her obedience minimal. Although she sometimes listened to Waylen. Briair seemed unchanged. Either quiet and respectful, or else sarcastic.
Amaris found Waylen difficult to understand sometimes. Her quiet did not bring serenity. Her voice did not sound pleased or engaged. She asked Amaris hundreds of questions, but kept her own answers brief. Amaris’s worry for her might have become a burden, except she realized Sion already had himself employed as Waylen’s safeguard and test audience for anything Waylen needed. When Waylen switched into her authoritative position with the army, the change was jarring and complete. Sion also had some influence with the Manori, but Amaris soon learned that besides Rayden Terpain, Waylen had charge over the army. In fact, Sion said Waylen had instigated the entire movement when Amaris was thought to have died. This entire group wanted to dent the enemy on her behalf. Sion tried to keep Amaris balanced, but the thought of such great forces of Manori and Alaquendi all to defend one person made her sick with anxiety. SB quieted Amaris every day. You are worth the risk. He would tell her. Waylen would watch closely, as if analyzing Amaris’s reactions, her movements, but said little.
At week’s end, Amaris traveled to meet her own army. When she arrived, her father congratulated her on finding her friends, but his real ecstasy came when he talked about the Manori army joining the Alaquendi. Military talks erupted at once, and soon the decision had been made to combine forces for a more sure blow. The soldiers filled with expectation, and when Amaris walked among the Alaquendi,, reverence seemed to flow about her. The discomfort grew until Amaris left the whole lot one night, riding far and wide without a guard, or even permission to leave. Her father was none too happy when she returned. Waylen — there to discuss matters that had already been decided and inform Amaris of their conclusions— did not seem at all disturbed. When plans tangled with her, Amaris worried and steeled her outer self, because the whole war seemed spinning on to which she was the axle. They all knew she had the least battle experience or militaristic potential, and so they schooled her delicately. Tonight, though, Waylen offered Amaris a glass of wine and some company, and suggested they discuss plans on the morrow. Amaris wanted to throw the whole bottle and tell Waylen to be up front with her, instead she accepted.
“I hate all this hush when talking to you.” Waylen settled into a chair once the two women had retired to Amaris tent. The makeshift room had a small table, a cot, and a few chairs. Several small meetings had been held there to bring Amaris more comfort when faced with battle plans. Amaris stayed standing and watched Waylen, who continued. “I cannot say two words around the Manori without half the army hearing my thoughts on a subject. And when I am here, it is understood that some militaristic duty is at hand,” Waylen swept her fingers through her black hair, “Which leaves little, well” — Waylen huffed— “no time to come up with anything more than a quick embrace for you. I am pushing the limits even with that, or my talking with Sion. I am not giving that up, though, the man makes sure I stay sane.” Waylen took a small sip of wine, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes.
“You should sleep.” Amaris had her arms crossed over her chest. Maybe there was not time for anything to pass between her and her old friend before the battle. If there was an afterward, perhaps Waylen and she could connect on a more mutual level.
“No.” Waylen stood up, and leaned forward onto the table. “You misunderstand me. I want you to know why I have been so distant. It is mandatory, and my brother is coughing it down my back every other day. I love you so madly I almost lost myself when I thought you died. I told Adreaga for months that she was lying about your living so I would not build false hopes of seeing you again.” Waylen looked away. “And now you are back and I have to behave myself with such perfection I cannot get within two feet of you most days.”
Amaris walked half way around the table. “The others seem to have no problem. Even Rayden speaks more easily to me.”
“My name is not cleared.” Waylen looked exhausted when she spoke. “The threats on my life would worry you, so you do not hear about them. Half the people in that army wanted me dead from day one, and little has changed their minds about me. What comes out of my mouth is repeated across camp. You cannot afford me to speak about or to you. They care little what Adreaga and Briair say. Sion is an afterthought. And Rayden has too much leeway. To them, I am still the girl in exile.”
Speechless, Amaris watched Waylen who said and expressed nothing more. “You are serious about this.”
Amaris covered her mouth, and tried to firm her emotions about Waylen which would not separate from her thoughts for everything else. “Forgive my actions to you, now, I have little of my authentic self to give. Maybe later . . .” Amaris bit her lip, feeling strings around her heart loosen, letting it go. She grabbed her chest to stop it. But when Waylen put Amaris in her full hug, the latter lost her composure. She tucked her chin over Waylen’s shoulder, and kept her sister from leaving her. The crying was inevitable, and the rush of emotions released in waves; Amaris knew there was more she had inside. She and Waylen had not been so close since Amaris first saw her upon return.
When they calmed, Amaris pulled a chair close and the two laughed, and then they cried, full of the deep sorrows that often held them down. They discussed developments of Sion’s intentions with Waylen, which the latter claimed no time to invest and figure out the validity. And then they sat, still and quiet, removed from the war. Amaris unloaded much of what happened with her after the horrible ambush, although she could not recount the actual barraging. Waylen returned with brief explanation of finding her brother and Adreaga’s return. Things which had happened too fast to understand began pouring out in easy speech. Amaris felt more empty after a few hours, almost ready to receive.
“Now, do not take offense to this, but I do not approve your father’s treatment of you.”
Amaris shrugged. “I can do nothing about him.”
“Understood.” Waylen took a deep breath and exhaled. “So what I am going to tell you is supposed to be in his hearing as well, because decisions about you need to have his approval. But I say damn that idea, you deserve the right to make a choice now and then. You should have been dead last year, and you are not. Anything you do now is like an extra chapter to your life, and you should say what happens in those moments, not him. Do you agree?”
Amaris narrowed her eyes. What decision needed making? She nodded.
“Good,” Waylen studied Amaris. “Allow me to bend the rules a bit further.” She bit her lip. “How awake are you? Maybe I have allowed us to talk too late.”
“Speak. I need to hear what now what you are going to say tomorrow.”
“Fine. I will tell yol.”
Amaris poured herself a full glass of wine and listened.
“First, you will need to come up to speed with what we Manori have been accomplishing in the previous weeks and months.”
Amaris nodded, and prepped for a lecture, but Waylen was to the point and left out any externals.
“Instead of attacking the enemy head on, we want to surround him, take the element of surprise, but our forces cannot get behind his lines. We have improvised, and sent hundreds of men and women as prisoners—” Amrais’s stomach felt sick, but Waylen continued— “Mostly, we have had success. Simple strategy, allow Manori to be captured — and since the ambush earlier this year upon you, BG has deployed dozens of troops each month, so they will believe they are winning a great new crop of soldiers — after their apparent abduction, our men and women are joining forces with the enemy. Now when the battle takes place, they will turn against the enemy, and we will have punctured holes into the entire army.”
“That is fantastic. And horrible.”
Waylen nodded her agreement. “I know. I planned it. They all have paint to apply before war so we do not destroy them in battle.”
Amaris stared at Waylen. “I underestimated you, Waylen.”
“I will not send them where I will not go.”
Amaris felt dizzy. “Please tell me you mean not what I think.”
“Besides the point.” Waylen took a sip of her wine, Amaris could not manage lifting her glass. Her friend was going to turn herself over to the enemy. This is what Amaris had tried to prevent twice, and now Waylen would abandon herself.
“Why did you not tell me this earlier?” Amaris shook her head.
“Do not look sorry for me.” Waylen’s stern eyes were trained on Amaris. “I did not come here to tell you about my challenging position.”
Amaris swallowed and took a great swig of wine. “Alright. What am I to do?”
Waylen sighed. “You are going to have to be very firm in your resolve.”
“Just tell me.”
“This is your choice.”
Amaris cocked her head toward Waylen.
Waylen placed her hand over Amaris’s. “We have established communication with our Manori in the South. We have inquired the most we could without endangering them about how to escort you to the basins, and have come up with only one solution.” Waylen hesitated, and bit her lip. “We are asking you to take the facade of a spy and go to the South in plain sight. We are devising ways to make your stories convincing, and hide your identity.”
“Not the first time.”
Waylen smirked. “I know.”
“Was this your idea?” Amaris could possibly trust her sister. But Waylen shook her head.
“My brother suggested it. I agree with him, though.”
Amaris removed her hand from Waylen’s, and turned away.
“You can think about it. That is why I wanted to tell you before I address your father tomorrow.”
Amaris nodded, still watching the dust on the ground.
“I am sorry we have no alternatives for you.” Waylen walked behind Amaris and squeezed her shoulder before leaving the tent.
Amaris gazed at the ground until her thoughts muddled into haze. She had no decision, and loathed her choice for a second option. Everything in her life would culminate in this gesture, and the wisdom or folly in obeying the Manori suggestion upset her terribly. She might have slept, but did not recall lying down, or dreaming. The night seemed to pass in one continuous question, devoid of answer. Somehow, Amaris found herself sitting across from her father and adjacent to Waylen as her friend unveiled the plan she had spoken to Amaris the night before, with a few details added. Such as a Manori with horse as a second form who would accompany and guide Amaris, protect her if needed, and play part to their scheme. He and Amaris would both receive training, although Waylen mentioned Amaris needing little informing on the enemy in order to blend in.
AF shook his head. “This is too risky. I appreciate your initiative Waylen—”
“This is suggestion of every commander from our army, in addition, Sion wanted you both to know he supports this plan.”
AF nodded with tact, and then continued. “My daughter may not survive down there.”
“With due respect, Amaris has been planning her travel to the basins for decades, has she not?”
“Not in a fashion which exposes her so readily. She must hide.”
Waylen smiled without joviality. “You misunderstand this situation. They are preparing for war. Amaris should have been underway months ago, before everyone in the South began stirring for battle. This is not a suggestion, but a demand from the Manori. We are playing the front lines of this battle, the Alaquendi are supplying the force. Amaris sits between these two armies, because she is the only one providing for both. If Amaris goes alone—” Waylen paused and turned her face so Amaris could not see her expression. “I care for this woman enough to have laid my life down twice already. Her safety keeps me up at night. And I have wracked my brain, searching for a way to slip her past enemy lines. You cannot selfishly deny this solution, because you fear her survival. Amaris must slip out of our hands, or we will fail.”
AF locked eyes with Amaris. “My daughter, I am sorry your life has come to this.”
“Are you planning for me to die?” Amaris pushed back from the table and stood, leaning forward. “I need the Manori’s help, I have the Alaquendi life force. We are out of options, and time is dwindling.” Amaris swallowed, and looked at Waylen, “When do we have to leave?”
Waylen tried to look pleased, but Amaris saw her fight to keep tears at bay. “We leave the same day. Three weeks—”
“Too late.”
“Was Sion’s request.” Waylen finished. “I suggested the first of next week.”
Amaris swallowed hard, and nodded. She turned to her father. “Father, give your approval. I do not need it, they do. Keep peace between these armies.”
AF nodded without word.
“Thank you.” Then she looked at Waylen, waiting for orders. Instruction. Something to do now that she had thrown in her lot.
“We return to the Manori camp as soon as your things are ready.”
Amaris lost grip on her words, so she exited the tent. At her tent, she thrust her things into a bag, but they did not fit where they had before. Her hands trembled, and she stuffed them in tighter. A hand settled on her shoulder, and Amaris jumped. Waylen. The woman pointed her head to the bed. Amaris sat and watched Waylen repack the bags with a steady hand. “With your calm, why do you not have the key?”
Waylen shook her head. “What good would I be then? I am a fighter. I draw blood, I do not save it. You are the healer. You mend the kind of damage I intend to inflict.”
“Begging you to come with me would be selfish, or I would ask it.”
Waylen smiled at Amaris. “I knew you would. I want to go with you. It makes too little sense. Only a horse can carry you, a panther would appear frivolous and out of place to the enemy.” She locked eyes with Amaris. “I would be distracted, and our immersion troops would be at a loss without my signals. I suppose we will both have to live to the end of this war, so we can see one another again.”
Amaris had no response, she just watched Waylen. When her friend looked at the half full bottle of wine, next to the empty one, Amaris felt her heart sink. “Had a few rough days?”
“Just a few.”

Pressure seized Amaris instead of relief when she saw her friends at the Manori camp. They all knew why she had come. Knew and expected things. Still, Sion’s embrace eased the suffering a little. But the waiting, sprinkled with whatever training they could think to give Amaris, poisoned her resolve. She met the man who would lead her down. He seemed kind for a shape shifter, and the brown horse he shifted into soothed Amaris enough for her to prepare bidding Nelica farewell. He observed her with vigilance, and soon the wait was through. Sharadin and Amaris would leave on the morrow.

Chapter 16

“How long have you been like this?”
Amaris shrugged, leaning forward with face propped on her hands. She looked nothing like the girl he remembered. “A couple months.”
“What did this to you?”
“I would rather not discus the subject,” Amaris coughed to the side, and winced.
“Your head, still?”
Amaris’s bleak smile hurt SB more than seeing his friend’s failing health. “Do not waste your kindness,” Amaris said. “Someone else will need it more.”
“Let her be,” Amaris’s father said. “She has had a long travel, and needs rest.”
Amaris pushed against her knees to stand. “I always need rest now, father. What we talk about does not matter. I never feel awake.” Then she looked at SB. “I cannot answer your questions.”
SB made no response. He watched Amaris walk to her room, and tried to decide what disturbed him about her presence. The gold hair framing her washed out face — empty of emotion and color — would have discomforted him enough without her slow movements, droll tone, and unenthusiastic gestures. Whatever had altered her had damaged far deeper than the physical.

Three days later, SB pulled the hair back from Amaris’s pale face as entered. SB bit his lip, watching Amaris’s unconscious and expressionless face. “When will the doctor be here?”
“As soon as is possible. Anyone would come to help Amaris.”
“I know.” SB studied the woman’s cold face. “ Are you sure making her presence known is wise? Whatever haunted her this far . . .”
“I told one family friend. He is brother to Amaris’s mentor. I would endanger her by telling anyone else she of her homecoming.”
“I understand.” SB held his breathe, and then sighed. “I cannot watch her anymore. Stay with your daughter.”
SB tried to stay busy while waiting for the physician, but the doctor brought worse news. Upon examination of Amaris, he found a seven inch scar below her ribs. She had several similar marks, an irregular heart rate, and took shallow breaths.
AF examined the wound and SB watched, having no medicinal abilities to add. Her skin looked stretched and deformed, an ugly pink color coated the flesh.
“It looks like she has lost a section of her side,” AF said.
SB had to leave the room before he grew too angry at Amaris for not speaking up about her injury. AF joined him a short time later.
“She has been treating it.” AF said.
“If she did not, I would have choice words for her indeed.”
“She saved herself.”
SB nodded to quiet Amaris’s father. When Amaris came down with a fever the next day, SB thought the woman deserved to praise for saving herself. Waiting until the last moment of survival to show up the one place she could get help made no sense. SB knew she had left her forest home, but wherever she went from there must have been folly. She had none of the company who set out with her, and over half a year later managed to half-kill herself before venturing to her people.
The doctor bathed Amaris in herbs and ointments, leaving the wounds unwrapped so they could breathe. The woman looked like an undead beauty ready to depart. SB loathed looking at her, but could do little else. He forced the doctor and AF to make him work, but nothing kept him occupied long enough to ignore the ghastly sight of Amaris lying on the couch.
“I can hardly believe she has made it this long.” The doctor said over breakfast the next day.
SB set down his cup before taking a sip. “What does that mean?”
“She is a strong woman with an unnatural ability to survive these types of things, I know her reasons, but still . . . the gravity of her wounds, along with whatever she cannot tell us about this damage, could have killed a man twice her size.”
SB should have blurred out the conversation between physicians, but listened anyway while resting on his makeshift bed in the corner. His sleeping quarters in the shanty would make him useless in an emergency, so he slept with Amaris in sight. Right before he surrendered to sleep, SB heard AF announce his intention to call for another physician. The attending doctor gave no complaint; this ordeal seemed beyond him. The following three days, with the additional medical advice, seemed as hopeless as the previous two.

Amaris’s hands covered her face, but SB stared at her.
“How long?” Amaris asked. When no one answered, she clarified, “How many days was I asleep?”
“That is your concern?” SB huffed. “Too long.” He crossed his arms, and turned his gaze to the door post opposite of the one he leaned against.
“You are angry.” Amaris’s sounded flat.
AF answered before SB could answer. He explained how concerned Amaris made them. SB figured the conversation needed AF’s redirection; he could not have spoken honesty with Amaris right now. He would hold his tongue until Amaris had color back, and not just the gold covering most of her bed-ridden burgundy hair.
SB widened his eyes when Amaris responded -to him, not her father- “I understand.”
SB shook his head and mouthed, “No,” so AF could not put him in check. Working for this woman’s father had its limitations.
Amaris turned her gaze from SB and only glanced his way on occasion. SB watched the doctors working to convince Amaris of her need to rest longer, while she protested, claiming the two weeks she had been unconscious would more than suffice. She would give herself only a couple days.
“You will not convince her,” SB said. Amaris looked at him, and the doctors paused their efforts. “You are a fool, Amaris.”
Amaris huffed.
“What?” SB waited, and then saw AF trying to react. SB wanted a chance to stop the stupid man from coddling his childish daughter. “You nearly died,” SB said. “But you know that.”
“I am right here. Alive.” Amaris said.
“I would debate that. You need to stay put until you have strength.”
Amaris swung her legs off the couch and stood. SP looked her down and up as she stepped closer to him. “You are not quite as weak as you appear.” SB glanced over Amaris to AF. “I think your father wants you resting. I will talk to you later.”
“You have no jurisdiction over me.”
“Indeed.” SB put his hand on the door latch. “Move back so you do not go cold again.”
Amaris set her jaw. SB watched her feet shuffle, re-balancing her weight. Her apparent strength seemed a ruse. “Rest until you heal enough to follow me out the door, then we can fight over your your life choices.”
“I will never heal.” Amaris insisted.
SB smirked, and stepped up to Amaris, who stumbled backward, caught by her father. Amaris glared. “Stay put,” SB said.
“You —!” Amaris coughed, unable to shout back. SB left the house, and the tiring woman.

The next two days, SB visited the house often, but slept in his lodgings beside the stable. Amaris gave him no courtesy, and tried to turn down any service he offered. He assured her he only followed AF’s instructions, and then on occasion she would accept a kindness. She still had a mild fever that worsened whenever she made moves toward activity. The two doctors did their best to keep the woman sedated, but that failed. Since her first waking, she seemed convinced of her own growing strength. SB wished she would regain her functions, and fast. He grew weary of her silly insistence of wellbeing while she struggled through the nights, and denied her aches through the day. SB saw Amaris’s grimaces; she lied poorly.
Several days dragged by, and SB began pushing Amaris to get well. She responded favorably to SB’s invitation to go outside and walk one day. Although her father fought the idea, the remaining physician did not deny that light exercise would help Amaris. SB promised to look after her, and Amaris agreed to be conscious of her limits.
SB lead her outside, and a short distance from the house. He stopped and looked at Amaris.
“What?” Amaris raised her eyebrows.
SB shook his head and continued walking.
“Fine,” Amaris responded. SB looked back, and saw Amaris trudging forward with arms crossed. “We do not need to talk.”
“You would not answer me if I did,” SB muttered.
Amaris snorted a little, and the two continued their slow walk. SB felt the tiniest pang when Amaris breathed heavy, trying to follow hisslow gate. He reduced his speed, and still had to wait for her. He did not go far, and convinced Amaris to rest on a log. SB refused his impulse to wrap the woman in his warmth, rock her, and promise she would heal. Instead, he stood several feet away, arms crossed, and denied eye contact. Several minutes passed, and SB lead them back. Before leaving the trees, and regaining sight of the cottage, SB steeled himself and tugged Amaris’s arm. She stopped, and eyed him.
“Will you forgive my cruelness to you these last weeks?”
Amaris’s brow scrunched. “What for?”
SB sighed. “My treatment has been unkind, especially to someone in your condition.”
Amaris pursed her lips. “So you want to join the ranks of those pitying me.”
“You have earned pity.”
Amaris smirked, but not with pleasure. “So now my self-inflicted harm deserves pity? I will take note.”
“What, you did this to yourself?” SB raised his voice.
Amaris’s expression widened to a smile. “Not exactly.”
“Does anyone know what the hell happened to you?”
Amaris rolled her eyes. “My father told me unless he understood what took place, I had limited time here.”
“Good.” SB said. “I will make him tell me.”
“Why would he do that?”
“Because I know what he does not of how this venture started, and I am sure he would prefer a fuller story than whatever you told him. I assume there would be no inconsistencies if I add a few notes?”
Amaris stared a moment, and then sighed. “I hate you sometimes.”
“Good to know.” SB started toward the house.
“I will tell you what happened.”
“I know,” SB stopped a moment. “Come on, now. If your father thinks you are absent too long, there will be no way to free you again from the couch.”
Amaris obeyed this time, and spent the rest of the afternoon resting.

The next two days, Amaris all but begged her father to stay close to her. She moaned when he started leaving, and then whined about her pain. She asked for water, warm food, the fire stoked, and the blankets adjusted. SB watched the display, and scorned her in his thoughts. When Amaris slept, AF left to rest. When she stirred, she turned over and kept her eyes closed until AF spoke. Then she sat up. The third day, Amaris failed at keeping her father at her bedside. He explained his necessary departure with the doctor, so the correct herbs would be procured before the physician departed. He turned down Amaris’s suggestion that SB run the errand. When the door closed behind AF, Amaris rolled toward the back of the couch.
“You have to be exhausted from lying there.” SB leaned forward in his chair. Amaris gave no response.
He stood up, and moved his chair close to the couch. Amaris only whined.
“What hurts?”
Amaris said nothing.
“Are you in pain?” When SB heard no reply, he asked “Are you just playing at this?”
Amaris threw half her blanket, which smacked SB in the face. He sat back in his seat, and saw Amaris making eye contact. He waited for her to speak, but the woman glared instead. SB said, “You do not look half as ill as last week.”
“I know.”
SB nodded. “What say you to a little conversation without your father in the room?”
“I hate you.”
“Yes, so you mentioned. Since I will not be regaining any affections from you, let us go for something a bit more honest? Your story, Miss Tempth.”
“I would rather die than tell you what happened.”
SB left his chair, and walked to the fireplace where he stoked the fire, and then leaned on the mantle. “Amaris, you scare me.” He bit his lip, thinking uncomfortable thoughts. This woman might kill herself, if not stopped. Should he intervene in her matters when her mind seemed so made? He did not know this mind.
“What makes you afraid?”
SB saw Amaris sitting, leaning on one arm, the fingers on that hand gripped the bedding, white knuckled. SB filled Amaris’s water cup, and offered it. Amaris drank the water, and handed SB the cup. Amaris reclined, and relaxed her arms. “What do you need to know?” She asked.
Need? If Amaris answered to need, then SB could falsify some. “You told your father what took place so you could remain here, am I correct?”
Amaris nodded.
“You are staying awhile, then?” SB took the seat beside Amaris, and she scooted across the couch.
“I have no place lined up, so I will stay put until an alternative presents itself.”
Vague language. The woman would go nowhere.
“What, not home? You love that forest.”
“You know I do not.”
“Amaris, you loathe your father even more. Unless that has changed, too.”
Amaris shook her head, nose scrunched.
“Have you taken a sudden liking to the icy north?”
Amaris sighed. “You know better. I wish everyone would leave these lands.”
“I thought that.” SB shrugged. “Why no plans to leave?”
“I can find a way to go from here, just . . .”
Stupid girl. He did not want her gone. He wanted to understand. He knew she acted faster than she planned, and now he saw neither. “You are welcome to stay, Amaris. I just want to know why. After avoiding your father for the last decade, I see no reason for you to endure his presence on a regular basis.”
Amaris quieted her voice, and studied the blanket on her lap. “I sort of botched my last plans.”
Amaris huffed. “After doing all in your power to get me alone, and pry my sordid tale from me, I tell you I messed up things, and you say yes?”
SB nodded. “You will talk. Since you expressed a desire to die rather than explain your sorry self, I thought practicing patience the best course.”
“SB, I

“Where would you go, Amaris?” SB asked. “To whom will you go?” When Amaris turned, her tears did not surprise SB, dripping tracks down her face.
“Rest,” SB nodded. “Talk about them later.”
Amaris leaned her head against the other door post.
“Just say their names.”
“Briair.” Amaris’s exhaled. “Illuma,” her voice cracked. “Sion,” she began wailing. “Adreaga,” she had to shout through her tears now as she forced out one last name. “Waylen.”
SB steeled his reaction to the familiar names, and Amaris lost her grip on the post and fell onto him. He scooped up Amaris’s legs and walked her to the bed. Amaris did rest, but only physically. Her mind seemed always somewhere else, wanting to be away from the present. Perhaps she lingered over the past, because SB saw no hope in her for the future. The fever did not return, and the wounds appeared to have healed. Amaris dressed herself in regular dresses, avoiding the bed dress after the first day. She sat outside often, breathing in the crisp northern air, of which SB disapproved, but Aamris could not stand being stationary as long as she had. Months before, at SB’s last visit — the mandatory reports AF insisted upon yearly — Amaris seemed content to never leave her little hovel, so now he kept an eye on her antsy tendencies. She sat in a dull manor, only speaking when the spoken to. A few days after she woke up, SB heard her scream for the first time at night. He had to know what happened.

He watched Amaris the next day, hoping for a way to ease her into telling him something. Then she rose from her seat and began quitting the room. SB sighed in defeat; how could he expect it to be simple? “Amaris, you have told your father what happened to you?”
Amaris froze in her leaving, and SB wished he had not spoken. She nodded. “Last week father told me I had limited time here unless he understood what had taken place.”
SB ground his teeth together. “As long as someone knows.”
“I did not want to tell him.” SB had to listen close to hear Amaris’s quiet voice, and then she got louder and sounded tense. “It felt like drowning to death over and over and over. He suffocated me in more ways than I knew possible. And when I was weak, and completely used up—”
SB stepped close and touched Amaris’s shoulder. “Amaris, you do not have to relive this for anyone, ever.”
Amaris turned to SB, clenching a fist over her stomach, her eyes wild and numb. “He is too good at his job. I wonder he did not finish me when he took my mother.”
“He never will.” SB squeezed Amaris’s shoulder, and she grabbed his other hand and held it as if she would drop off a cliff if she let go.
“So easy to say.”
“No, it is not. That is just my hope.”
Amaris blinked out another tear. “My survival is your hope?”
SB stared into the golden brown with flecks of light dancing in Amaris’s eyes, and nodded.
“I am sorry, then.”
“Do not be so intent on dying.”
Amaris shrugged. “I have felt my life unraveling for decades. BG just pulled the thread faster.”
“I wish your mother were here so she could tell you otherwise—” Amairs bit her lip and turned her face away “—you are not dying, Amaris.” SB brushed a piece of burgundy hair over Amaris’s shoulder, which last week had been gold. “You are healing.”
Amaris squeezed her eyes shut.
“Why is that bad news to you?” SB asked.
“Living only means dying again. And I have perished so many times.”
SB sighed, he saw no reason to try and convince Amaris against her ill thinking, not yet.

“Amaris, do I understand you right that you did not know you would survive?” AF furrowed his brow as the conversation revealed to the old man what should have been obvious. Flawless, although worn, as he looked in his senior years, the man had such little connection with his daughter, the two might have been strangers and better understood one another. “Are you saying you did not intend to live?”
“What did you expect?” Amaris narrowed her eyes on her father. “Either I try, or I die trying, or I die without trying. This was bound to happen eventually,” Amaris gestured to her frail body as her voice rose. “You are just lucky that it only went this far.”
“Your mother and I never wanted this for you. We had plans to try and take care of this ourselves.”
“My mother could not have taken the beating that I just did!” Amaris knew nothing that she had suffered was on account of her mother, but the feeling of being abandoned to labor at her task alone was becoming too much to ponder. Amaris’s eyes shed frustrating tears as they closed. SB watched Amaris escalating herself into panicky frustration. She would never let herself breach past that limit. She could be pushed though . . . perhaps. Right now, she ignored him again, and staring at her father, continued.
“Someone else died in my stead this time, how much further can this go?”
“Not much longer at this rate.” Again, Amaris pretended not to hear SB. AF shot him a warning glance. But SB was through coddling Amaris. Amaris held her forehead, and her other hand slid to her side where her fingers rubbed the healed wound.
“I need to sleep.” She said.
SB shook his head. Now she wanted time alone; too close to admitting something true.
“Did only one person die, Amaris? Just curious.” SB waited, and Amaris did turn her attention this time. SB looked at AF. “A few moments alone with your daughter, please.”
“SB, you are upsetting her.”
“Father, give me a minute.” Amaris leaned her head against her palm again. AF walked to Amaris and kissed the crown of her head before exiting the house. Always so sweet; the man disgusted SB.
“Amaris, these people, those friends of yours, they did not have to die.” SB said.
”Clearly part of my frustration.” Her voice sounded bland.
“You miss my meaning. It is your fault that they are gone, and that did not have to happen.”
Amaris opened her mouth, but nothing came out.
“You need to hear it, or I would stay quiet.”
Amaris clamped her jaw shut, and grabbed Hayden’s arm with a grip more ferocious than the latter thought she could still manage. He looke at Amaris.
“Why would you say this to me?”
“I do not lie, Amaris. Silence about what you did threatens to deceive you into thinking you were right.”
“What should I have done?” Amaris asked.
“Anything but what you dragged them and yourself into.”
“I should be able to give up my own life, and they knew well what I was doing.”
SB stared into Amaris’s eyes. “Why would you kill yourself? A straight answer, if you please.”
Amaris huffed. “I forget, your memory does not go back into my life as far as mine.”
“Insulting me will not undo my words, Amaris.” He had more than witnessed Amaris struggle through her youth, always sparing with her mother’s sword — although it fit her poorly. Desperate to grow into a warrior, physician, and successful heir to the key. And she failed continuously.
“I am not trying to.”
“Lie again and I will stop taking you seriously. What I say is truth, and it has a strangle hold on you, as it well should. You had a hand in killing your closest friends.”
Amaris looked perplexed, and remained silent. Could she say nothing true of the situation that had passed?
“I am sorry.” SB’s said.
“Why?” Amaris’s voice warbled, and she started to cry, slow and pitiful. She wiped away the evidence of emotion on her cheek.
“Sorry that you took this plan so far. You survived, but she is—” Hayden sighed, his eyes dropped away from Amaris. “I know how much you and Waylen are connected.”
Amaris pushed SB back and walked out the door, slamming it so hard it opened up again. SB followed her with a heavy cloak and the broach Amaris had left on the mantle. He dropped the cloak onto her shoulders as soon as he caught up to her, but she shrugged it off. SB caught it, and followed her.
“Now that I know your opinions of me, I would rather you leave me be.” She said.
“Amaris Tempth,” SB stopped following, and Amaris hesitated. “You are acting a fool, and I thought you brilliant.”
“How is this going to help me?” Amaris shouted, and flung her arms out to the side. Looking much like an upset child.
“You have help.”
“No I do not. I tried to convince the lord of—”
“One city turned you down. From a hundred more you could have reaped men. And you should have seen the highlands rise up to save you when you came here sick. Your friends already died protecting you. How are you alone?”
Amaris did not respond.
“You need to decide what you are going to do. Before more lives adhere themselves to your mission.”
“I have told you and everyone else what I must do. The land suffers if I stand back.”
“Undebatable.” Amaris also suffered with the land, and the people.
“Then the question is answered.” Amaris said.
“Never has been.”
Amaris shook her head and stepped back.
“I almost watched you die, and you set up that situation. You half care who wins anymore, as long as you are removed from the picture, right?”
“Yes! If you must be so blunt,” Amaris chuckled with tears in her eyes, which put a pang in SB’s chest. “I would rather have perished before this choice settled on my shoulders.”
“Thank you!” SB threw up his hands.
“You want me dead?” Amaris cried.
“No, no. Of course not,” Hayden held Amaris’s shoulders; his hands weighed on her.
“Let me go.”
SB nodded and lifted his hands while he whispered, “let yourself go.”
“SB, you confuse me.”
He shook his head. “Nothing confusing, but you are a bit lost. I know you have a choice to make, so be honest. If you give up, then stop trying, because it is a wretched thing to lie to yourself, and it has all but eaten you whole. People die every day, but guilt will never set them free. So untie your hands, and either move forward with the passion you have been devoid of for over thirty years, or bury the broach and live your life as you please.”
Amaris gasped, and threw both hands over her mouth. She scanned the empty woods, looked at her father’s house, and back to SB. “I cannot do what you ask.”
“Because I am the last hope this land has.”
Hayden stepped back and examined Amaris, head to to and back again. “Then our hope is bound in chains. You are a slave. And you tried to kill yourself to get free.”
Amaris looked around again, and glanced at her father’s place once more. SB stepped forward and held Amaris still. “You make the decisions for your life, not them.”
Amaris shook her head.
“Yes, it has to be your choice.”
“No, I cannot do that to them.”
“Oh, but you can.”
Amaris locked her eyes with Hayden’s. He took her hand, and opened the balled up fist she had made, and slipped the broach into it. “Choose.”
After staring at SB for a few moments, Amaris opened her hand and the jewel dropped into the snow. “Who could think with that thing?”
SB lifted half his mouth in a smile.
“I choose life,” Amaris shook her head, and lowered her voice. “I am not sure what that means.” Then she turned toward the trees and began leaving. SB chased her a few steps to drop a cloak onto her shoulders. Amaris tucked her hands into the warmth and walked on.

SB watched Amaris through her pathetic display of distance and pensive agitation throughout the next day. Her birthday or not, that woman found a thousand ways to introvert and dip out the world . That night, SB caught the tail end of Amaris drinking herself into a stupor with all the wine left from the brief toast she had allowed her father to give. She did not even notice someone in the room as SB leaned against the wall and watched her by the fire. She cried some, yelled a little, and had thrown the broach across the room. SB denied his urge to pick up the frustrated woman and carry her to her room before she collapsed further. After wearing through her tears she stumbled to bed, leaving her broach on the floor. SB asked AF what herbs take for a headache, and then left it out for Amaris. He struggled past a dozen mental images of Amaris in bed suffering against her emotions and intoxication before he managed any sleep.
He did not bother to wrench himself from bed the next morning. His friend made no progress toward resolution, and another day to watch her struggle would be unjust punishment for waking. If only Amaris could act more like she had before Valmier. The man had romanced her, promised her faithfulness, and traveled with her wherever she went. Somewhere before she ended that relationship, Amaris decided she deserved nothing of love, and fashioned for herself an existence instead of a life. SB groaned, thinking of Amaris’s denying Valmier’s proposal, telling him he must leave and never be seen by her again. She sliced into that man with resolution harder than steel, and then she fled home, burying any thoughts of him with her departure. Fear, more than a valid thought process, had torn Amaris away from her support and aid.
Each year SB visited Amaris’s disposition had grown several degrees colder. She falsified contentment, but SB knew her condition could not be sustained. Illuma and he discussed the matter on occasion, and even Amaris’s new neighbor saw something amiss. Then the rare moment would arise when Amaris slipped up. She screamed, threw things, wept, and came as near a child’s tantrum as a grown woman could manage. SB ruminated these outbursts, because Amaris, in her youth, had almost too much fire for her own good. She doused most of her flame when sending Valmier away, whenever it resurfaced, for a fleeting moment, SB thought perhaps Amaris had not already died.
When SB’s thoughts of Amaris echoed the real woman too well, he sat up and rubbed his eyes. His head did not clear, so he dressed and left his room. But the woman sitting on the couch arm interrupted his muse.
“Amaris, I am surprised to see you awake so soon.” Shocked would have been a better word choice. His memories seemed dull when faced with this woman’s physique. Her rich burgundy waves settled over her chest where her arms crossed. She stared into the wall, but not with her the pale vacancy she had expressed in the days before.
“Of that I am sure.”
“Amaris, are you still angry with me?”
Amaris pierced SB with the sharpness in her hazel eyes. Drunk for one night and she woke up with a terrifying resolve. The broach glowed from beneath her chin, dancing in purples dormant just twelve hours before.
“What are you doing?” He assessed the boots and cape Amaris wore, and the bag at her feet.
SB huffed. “Where to?”
Amaris took several deep breaths while the moment froze over. “I failed to save them, so I will avenge my friends.”
This is not the result SB wanted his and Amaris’s conversations to have. “And you are leaving today.” SB nodded.
“I have to.” Amaris’s gaze slid to the floor. “You do not realize how fickle I am. Decisions do not last.”
SB walked to Amaris, stood in front of the woman, and lifted her chin. “Not alone, they do not.”
The passion started draining from Amaris’s eyes. “I wanted to say goodbye.”
SB looked into her eyes. They belonged to a little scared girl, brave enough to do what she knew would fail. And foolish enough. “Amaris, this is death . . . again. Why do you not try something else?”
Amaris opened her mouth and SB stopped her words with one finger against her lips. The touch resonated, and SB made himself pull his finger away from Amaris’s dry, beautiful lips before intrusive thoughts crept in. “Give me one week to prove the Alaquendi’s allegiance to you. If they fail to rise, I will replace your diminishing resolve and escort your as far as the forest. There . . .” SB averted his eyes. “You can leave then, I will not watch you die.” When he looked back, Amaris nodded.


Chapter 15.5

Blurry half reality is what Amaris now knew. Pulled between awake and unconscious, she lost distinction for which came closer to waking. In opening her eyes and feeling the pain bleed through the burning sensations in her flesh, she only collapsed or screamed violently. She didn’t want healing, only death. But she could not allot that reward, not after destroying so many. She owed life more than this; she could do better.

“She is not recovering. How long will you keep a dying woman in your house, diffusing your resources, and breaking your child’s heart in watching her slip? When I get the slightest stability into her health a fever spikes, she swoons, she screams, or she . . .”

“Stop!” Amaris shouted into the dim room. “Please,” tears filled with fear at hearing the heartless tones in the woman’s words. “I do not want to die.” Amaris’s eyes focused just enough to see a figure step slowly closer. “I cannot die. Not because of . . .” Amaris gasped, unable to sit up, air left her lungs each time she inhaled. And then more darkness took her.

In and out of surreal pain, new feelings of tight skin over her wounds, Amaris thought this must be the process of healing. Her body regrew what had been taken, restoring resources as slow as a fresh sapling tree. Whether days, months, or weeks passed she could not tell. Time ceased to matter, only surviving momentary misery to pass forward into multiplied agony occupied Amaris’s attention. She could feel hands at work on her messy body, pulling together parts of flesh, and sometimes ripping them open again. Queer tastes, none of her medicines, pouring into her mouth. Her fingers lost strength after scraping and pulling at the bedding. Her face numbed from wincing, gritting her teeth made her mouth capable of little, and her chest hurt from having to breathe. The dim light punished her eyes. And she stopped fighting. Fate had outmatched her. The little life in a dying Alaquendi had nothing with which to compete against the vast void stretching around her. It would swallow her, of this one thing she felt certain.

By some miracle, or curse, Amaris resurfaced from the ocean of illness, just to the point of conversation. And little time passed before her benevolent hosts wanted answers. The questions Amaris had forgotten during her injuries and withstanding their affect on her. She rubbed head, or she tried. The resulting gentle slide of her fingers did not satisfy the irritation. She could not think well enough to concoct a facade, but she needed one. Fast, because these people wanted an explanation.
The story as told to Amaris, progressed from this family finding her collapsed unconscious and bloodied near their home. No resources, and no clue as to how long she had laid there. They drug her inside, cleaned her wounds, and sent for the physician who had been to the house several times a day for the last seventeen days. The doctor, the woman whom Amaris recalled pleading permission to abandon the cause of saving a dying woman, listened with arms crossed as the father of the house relayed the story. Amaris felt sure she had exhausted this family’s resources, and likely their patience also. She had to produce a story of her own. But the truth burning pain in her heart, the loss of her life, her friends, her destiny. . . Ached too deep to recall even for her own purposes. Those words of truth would get her exiled from these people’s good graces anyway. She could not survive, and for the first time in decades, Amaris did not want to die.
“I cannot tell you.”
Amaris received no silence before multiple voices rose in the firelight, and she passed out. By the time she waked, the family had cleared the room, leaving only the unwilling but faithful doctor alone with her. Amaris’s eyes fluttered open and closed several times before she sustained vision. The long blond hair falling out of the wrap around the face that looked down at Amaris caught the firelight, turning it almost gold. Almost. Amaris tried to grasp her own hair to view it, and failed, her hand dropping off the bed. The woman leaned down and lifted the fallen hand onto Amaris’s chest. Her eyes had enough green to fill a pasture, or for the bold color to frighten Amaris. The woman crossed her arms and pulled back from Amaris and looked her over. “You owe these good people more than an explanation.”
Amaris swallowed, and parted her lips, but nothing followed.
“Now, lady.”
Amaris tilted her head from side to side. Then the woman grabbed Amaris’s arm and leaned close. “I have been a physician and seen horrendous wounds before. You do them a disservice to pretend you received a beating and abandonment. You came to seek shelter in this city. What you run from, does it chase you?”
Amaris saw the black soldiers before her, their presence in her mind swallowed her calm, and tears broke loose.
“That fear,” the woman released Amaris and shook her head. “You cannot be trusted.”
“I am not the one to fear,” Amaris heard her voice quiver, and felt unconvincing.
“Your feud though, if it comes here these people will perish for your sake. For that I will turn you out on the streets.”
“Please do not do this.” Amaris wailed.
“Shhhh,” the woman covered Amaris’s mouth, and the latter choked, spluttering, but did not lift a hand against the woman. She nodded, and the fingers loosed their grip on her.
“What can I do?” Amaris asked.
“Leave as soon as you are well enough. And come up with a good lie to tell them if you will refuse them the dignity of what happened to you. What you did.”
Amaris sighed. She could do this. Maybe.

Amaris explained to the family that she, Femina, had been robbed outside the city while returning to her home in the North. She had been to the city for trade, but had all her profits taken. The family seemed to believe the story, but a man and woman whispered behind the other five people who listened to Amaris’s claim — Amaris had yet to see the child of whom the doctor claimed to be defending by deposing of her. With words of sympathy spoken to Amaris, the room emptied again, but the people Amaris now understood to be the house’s mother and eldest son, remained with the doctor.
“What of this?”
The woman held out a glowing flat orb, alive with crimson shades. Amaris gasped. Her hand flew over her collar bone, but nothing sat where the broach should be.
“Anyone worth their name as a thief would have taken that.” The man crossed his arms across his chest. “It looks as though someone did not care for your jewelry.”
“The most costly item you had on your person, unless you are a rich woman indeed,” the woman stepped in front of her son, shaking the broach at Amaris. “Now you tell your story again, and speak truth, or I will keep this as payment for your silence.”
Amaris smothered a defiant wail before it could escape her lips. She closed her eyes. Helpless against a child in her diminished state, Amaris had to face three adults who held her life and hope in their hands.
“Please, I do not want you to get hurt,” Amaris’s fatigued eyes opened, but her vision blurred. She blinked free of a tear, and saw the disgust against her. “Trust me, I —”
“Why? You trust us, not the reverse. For saving your life,” the doctor’s eyes glinted in the firelight, “you owe more than half truths. Which is not befitting any Alaquendi warrior.”
Amaris’s lip quivered. “How would you know that?”
“None of us have the capacity to shed our dying energy into shimmering hair.”
Amaris lifted her hair before her eyes, and could not help but stare. Only a few burgundy streaks remained. What was keeping her alive? Her voice dimmed to a whisper. “How long did you say I have been here?”
“Eighteen days.”
“I am dying.” Amaris’s hand felt like it held iron, so she dropped the golden hair and rested her arm.
“Then do not let your tale die with you.” The mother stepped close and sat on the side of Amaris’s bed.
“Everything will be safer for you if you believe what I said.”
“All lies though,” the man’s voice rose.
“Shhh,” the quiet sound trickled from Amaris’s lips. “I can tell you,” Amaris sighed, she thought of where she could start, what could be left out, what necessary details she would divulge. And then nothing.

Nothing hurt . . . For a moment. Piece by piece the puzzle of pain rebuilt itself in Amaris’s conscious. Blood pounded in her head like surf against the Southern land crags. Arms too stiff to move. She recalled telling Waylen such side effects would ware off, and so relaxed about her inability to move anything besides fingers from shoulders down. The flesh on her side seemed peeling apart while pulling at her internal organs, and her underutilized legs felt board stiff. The physician inside her told her healing hurt, and had begun to flush through her.

“Do not bother talking,” the doctor set a cold rag on Amaris’s forehead as she spoke. “I am tiring of recovering you from swoons into deep fits of unconscious.
“I apologize.” Amaris’s voice sounded like it belonged to her, a familiarity so long in coming that it discomforted her. “I know the weariness you feel.”
The doctor smirked, the first such expression Amaris had seen from the woman. “Loathing your lies, for which I am sure there is a reason, does nothing to alleviate my concerns for your recovery. I pity your state, dear.”
Amaris sighed, “I am sorry for withholding the cause of my condition.”
The doctor nodded, patting Amaris’s hand. “We will keep the militant reasons you are so sick between us until you are well enough to speak with the family about it. And, in honesty, you need never tell them, but I will require an explanation to settle my concerns for their, and my, safety.”
Amaris bit her lip, unsettled by the green eyes set on her.
“Later.” The woman’s silence burdened Amaris, but the doctor broke it after a few long moments. “For now,” her tone rose out of its former depths as she continued. “Tell me how you are doing.”
Amaris huffed. “You are treating me, you must know better than I.”
“Fair point.” The doctor nodded. “Who helped you bind the wound before you arrived? I cannot understand why they would leave you in such unfit condition . . .” The woman shook her head, “but they did. Still, I am curious.”
Amaris shut her eyes before rolling them. “You seem already to know of my self-administering aid.” She looked at the woman. “I did a botched job at best.”
“Yes,” the woman admitted, “but with superior medicine to be sure.”
“That I will grant you.”
“Then, from one physician to another, tell me how you are faring, because I am missing something to turning your health.”
The two women then spoke of Amaris’s bodily harms, what might expedite her healing, and what could be restraining it. Although Amaris could do nothing for the ailing soul within her, burdened by guilt from condemning her company. She touched vulnerability enough to give out her first name, and the doctor, Tracy, did the same. Amaris learned that she had slipped in and out of fevered states, and that her wound had sprung open three times, revealing an inability to maintain a blood clot. Unless she had been poisoned by BG, Amaris did not understand this dilemma. She had for years been dependent on LunaMaya sap to congeal her blood, and perhaps did not notice a condition causing failure for her body to do so on its own. She had little advice to give Tracy, but explained the —hopefully temporary— paralysis, the headache (which had already been assumed,) and other minor aches and pains. When at last Amaris and Tracy had helped each other as much as they could, Amaris began to feel herself fading again.
Her hand felt cold though, and she tried to move it beneath the covers, then realized something almost sharp, and bulbous in her grip. She slid her thumb over it, and her heart leapt, then calm washed over her. They had returned the broach. Perhaps these people could be trusted more than she had hoped. A good person made Amaris wonder about motives for helping. She kept her unsureness to herself, and held the broach as tight as her sore fingers could manage. Tracy provided food for Amaris to eat, with a few herbal mixtures on the side. Amaris made herself consume the portion before falling asleep. After that Amaris began waking on a more regular schedule. Even getting to converse with different family members in her moments of functioning. Tracy limited these interactions so Amaris could rest. The more she rested, the less she needed excess sleep, and within a week she could sit for short periods of time. By two weeks time, Amaris wanted nothing but to leave.
She promised the family a generous funding for their difficulties after she secured her resources. She had learned days before of Fleecel’s being taken by the citadel guard when they found the mare watching over Amaris. They left the woman to her demise, and captured the prized beast. When Amaris reached the citadel, she found Fleecel’s docility had earned her a pleasant enough stay. The animal’s excitement at seeing her mistress disturbed the stable hand who had intended only to let Amaris see the beast, and did not want to lose the mare. The excitement drew the king to the stables, being absorbed with no matters of state. Amaris wasted few words in her rebuke of his majesty’s mistreatment of her, and his endorsing her near demise. In a few short statements the king knew of Amaris’s near death, and then the guards leaving her to rot on the streets while saving the animal, esteemed at a higher worth than her.
Desperation to leave allowed Amaris to demand a purse for her departure. Then she left behind the city which had housed her ailing form. Hoping to find a more secure shelter in the north. She may as well face her people; she had scorched every other path with danger bought with failure. At least she could live a while in the highlands, even if it meant only further surrender of her cause.

Chapter 15

“Three weeks have passed, Sion.”
“I know,” Sion scratched Amaris’s back. Amaris vented to Sion almost every day since she realized she had to stay longer than anticipated, because the entire musculature in Waylen’s arm was mending.
“I hate to say your comfort is doing nothing.”
Sion dropped his hand. “Neither is your pessimism. Until you come up with another idea for carrying out your assignment, one that does not end in your imminent death, we have no need to hurry away.”
“There is no other plan. It is now or never, because I am sick of trying to work with diplomats who care only about their own safety.”
“Well, Amaris, you have to give them credit for at least considering their well being. You have swung to the pendulum’s other side, and have not a scrap of sane interest in saving your own skin.”
“Why should I?!”
Sion dropped his jaw. “I am not having this conversation again.” Sion had explained several times that Amaris needed to live through her ordeal, because loosing her would be the greatest death for the land. “Beyond our needing you for practicalities, like,” Sion shrugged, “unleashing a healing life force over the land, I do not help friends surrender to the enemy. Your death is not going to be on my hands.”
“Leave, then.” Amaris walked, but Sion caught her arm.
“Why do you listen only to yourself now? You have the least sound mind I have ever witnessed. And until you grieve—”
“No. She is not going to be discussed again. Not with you.”
“Why, because I will not let you kill yourself because of her actions?”
“Sion, she had more strength than I, and look at what she did. I am the fool if I continue on, thinking I will accomplish anything right or just. I should have died decades ago, and Waylen should not be penalized to keep me from the destiny for which I was wrought.”
“Amaris Tempth! Will you stop this.”
Amaris leaned forward, “no.”
“Waylen has more sense than you.”
“Obviously not, she almost died already.”
“To keep you from the same. Shame her and do what you please.”
“No guilt from you, Sion, it will do nothing. Go help your love, she is in more of a listening mood.” Amaris chuckled. Waylen had grown more ornery in healing than she had been in illness.
“Love has to go two ways, Amaris.”
“Cannot help you there.”
“Do not turn this on me. You need to listen to me about Illuma.”
Amaris glared, and threw Sion’s hand off her arm.
“Illuma was dying inside before we even took a step toward the road.”
Amaris heard the words over her shoulder as she walked away, but she looked back. “Sion, Waylen is doing well enough now, tell her what our plans are.”
“I am not following that plan.”
Amaris shrugged, “I will tell her, then.” Waylen reacted even worse to Amaris’s idea than did Sion. If luck went in her favor, Amaris would be abandoned by each of her friends before her final venture. No one else should die on account of a lost war. They could flee and live well enough, BG would not overthrow all the lands before their generation perished, just the one in which Amaris lived. The highlands would be lost though, but the Alaquendi all deserved death. Planning her death would finish the war. With a small chance of success, the only vindication she saw possible would be to look BG in the face and wound him a little for the life and joy he had stripped from her. She knew her heart would be ripped out and her broach lost forever, but everyone else had failed, prolonging their own misery for not a single success story along her entire family line. Destiny was defeat, and Amaris would finish her task, only it looked different now than she had thought before. Amaris’s emotion-filled struggle kept her awake all night, preparing for death taxed her more than she had forethought. She clasped the broach, because if she lost that now, everything would be finished without her catching freedom at its end.

“You two have gone mad.”
“Blame it on your influence.” Adreaga’s smug tone took Amaris off guard.
“Did Sion put you up to this?” Amaris asked.
“Do not be ridiculous, Amaris. He would have our skins for our asking.” Briair said.
“I thought you would assume our coming with you.” Adreaga crossed her arms and raised her eyebrows.
“Why would I think such a thing. You will both be killed—”
“Then why are you going?” Briair asked.
Amaris answered with as natural an expression as she could conjure. “I can fight, you cannot.”
“That is not why you do not want us to follow you further.” Briair said. “Tell us, Amaris, why we should stay put while your risk your life for us.”
“Having you with me would risk the rest of our safety.”
“Not if you let us die in the same way you are allowing yourself to perish.” The girl gave no attempt to conceal her contempt for Amaris’s plan.
“Who told you what I am going to do?” Amaris received no answer. “Who told you?”
“No one, Amaris.” Briair’s voice grew soft. “We do not have an idea about what your next move is, only that you plan to leave us behind to accomplish it, and that is unjust treatment.”
“You hardly ever tell us your intentions, but we are still here.” Adreaga said.
Amaris could not digest the twins’ action. What could she decide when she had prepared for nothing but unanimous support from Sion and Waylen to back her sending the youths home? Now she had to decline them without the others present. “I will never lack in gratitude for what —”
“Then let us come, and we will continue to support you.” Briair interrupted.
“I have been working with a sword for three weeks, but if you give me training I will do better. Keep me behind you on the road, and I may save your life.” Adreaga added.
“Waylen is weak, and yet you take her willingly.” Briair continued.
“She has fought since she was younger than you,” Amaris protested.
“We have strengths to offer as well. You need not trust our swordsmanship, just our will to defend you. Even a child is protection as a shield.”
“No! I cannot let you do this.”
“Why, Amaris?” Adreaga seemed unaffected by Amaris’s denial. “Let us die if the time comes, and we will cause you no harm.”
Briair shrugged. “We die now, or we perish later. Is there a difference in a life’s worth if it is cut short? I think not. Only . . .”
“Only, what, Briair?” Amaris listened.
“If you win or die when we are with you, we succeed in valor. If not with you, we perish with a dying land, or live as regretful cowards.”
“So, you care not about your own lives?” Amaris had not anticipated such bravery from the two in her company who had been treated with uniform suppression.
Adreaga was almost smiling. “No. Just yours. We cannot replace the army you have failed in acquiring, but we will be as good as two soldiers who follow your every word.”
“Except surrender.” Briair said.
Amaris threw up her hands. “I am done with you two. . .” She rubbed her forehead and pondered while the twins let the silence drag. “Fine.” She put up her hand to stop any possible cheers of ecstasy. “But if you are not trained, you do not go with us. If you turn back once, you cannot follow again. And I cannot protect you against worse that Waylen is suffering.”
“Done.” Briair said.
“But Waylen is not suffering,” Adreaga said. “She is outside practicing with her sword.”
Amaris’s brows raised. She thought at least she could leave behind Waylen in thanks for what the woman had already paid on her behalf.
“Always surprised by anyone’s dedication but your own,” Briair shook his head.
Amaris was not surprised with their persistence, just their lack of common sense. She fought the urge to find Waylen and force her back into resting. If she resisted help any further, she would seem the foolish one. Still, a Manori, Alaquendi, and three humans would falter and fail; she hoped it would be quick and with minimal suffering. After over a week of Adreaga and Brair’s training and Waylen’s growing stronger, Amaris arranged a private meal with the lord where she explained her plan. Simple, head to the basins and hope for the best. She took any supplies and horses the lord offered, ignored his well wishes, and brushed aside Sion’s last suggestion to apply to the Alaquendi for help. Then they left.

“Is rest for these poor beasts in your plan, Amaris?”
Amaris glared inwardly at Waylen’s crude tone. “Of course,” she had a hard time not spitting words. These people should not be with her, her plan did not include their deaths. She had a hard time, though, finding a way to rid herself of them now that her entire company had followed her South. They had passed the ruins already, and then the forest road they had traveled on to the east, and would abandon sight of the forest in a couple days. Amaris felt the suicide strengthening every step, and her friends grew more unnerved by the hour. Amaris let their break wax into a campsite, and the younger two soon slept. Sion went to sleep more irritated and irrational toward Amaris than he had yet been, and Waylen seemed against resting. Amaris faked unconsciousness to avoid more resistance from her friends, but found herself struggling to stay still enough.
Sion preceded Amaris’s waking, destroying her last hope of loosing her companions before entering the Basins, which would happen tomorrow with or without them. Fleecel had more speed than any other horse, even the swift one which Waylen had acquired for passing the plains, but Amaris knew the plan to leave her friends would not succeed. They each saddled their mounts with sluggish procrastination, reducing Amaris’s slight edge. Everything they did siphoned Amaris’s patience and persistence. When she mounted Fleecel, and saw the sad expressions of her few living friends, the guilt piercing Amaris tore through her gut. She found the dedication to spur on her mare, another soul she would condemn to dispose of herself.
Fleecel started resisting Amaris’s direction, and before noon, her constant disobedience frustrated Amaris into rebuking the thing. Amaris received the mare’s stubbornness as a stern warning, even a test, and pressed further south, forcing Fleecel to quicken her pace, against the will of her companions who insisted on letting the poor thing rest longer. They just wanted her to stop again, to defer her course longer, and then decide against her own will. Fleecel stopped and turned back and forth in a jerky pace.
“Come on, enough of this!”
Fleecel more than ignored her mistress. Everyone’s attention settled on the mare, and Waylen dismounted to try and sooth her. Fleecel grew more irritating, and less obedient. Amaris yelled at Waylen to leave the horse. The horse hated Waylen, how did that woman think she was going to help? Waylen’s narrowed eyes pierced Amaris after the latter shouted. Fleecel calmed herself as Waylen started to speak. Amaris spiked her heels into Fleecel’s sides, and the mare fled toward the South. Her company followed, responding quickly to Amaris’s last ditch effort to lose them all before they all lost each other. Then Amaris saw her error, and her heart caught in her throat which felt swollen with terror. They had company.
Soldiers peeled out of the forest to her left, and swarmed everywhere. They had laid in wait the bend in the forest’s edge, and in Amaris’s frustration, she lead her company into ambush. Again. Amaris pulled Fleecel’s main to yank her head around. Waylen, Sion, and both twins looked at Amaris, not the force behind her. Amaris screamed at her friends to flee, and spurred Fleecel through their line of horses, all trying for a fast escape. Fleecel and Amaris jostled Adreaga’s horse, and as she passed, she heard a whinny and a loud plop. Amaris looked over her shoulder and saw Adreaga on her back, kicking her foot free of her stirrup. Amaris tried to return Fleecel, but the horse rebelled, so Amaris leapt off, recovered from the fall, and ran to Adreaga. She reached the girl the exact moment the soldiers did. She drew her sword, and stopped a blow which would have ended Adreaga.
A loud and familiar roar rang out. Amaris screamed in opposition; Waylen could not sacrifice herself. Fatality had been Amaris’s goal, but not for Waylen, and not for Adreaga; too young a girl to die. Amaris wanted to pinch her eyes shut and pretend against the assault, against her foolish murder and suicide, but she started swinging her sword, stepping in front of Adreaga. She set her teeth and dug into the men and women as they came. Each met their death or wound at Amaris’s hand. The fighters closed in on Adreaga and Amaris like water soaking into a sponge. In the midst of the rush, Amaris lost Adreaga.
She turned around, and saw nothing but dark hewn men and women whose lack of combat competence concerned Amaris. With more ease than sparing, Amaris knocked people down, it was like fighting through a crowd of sleepers, but buried deep enough to elude Adreaga, or any other familiar form. Waylen’s voice screamed, not in command, but in retreat; perhaps the others did not have to perish. Amairs could stay her sword, close her eyes, and finish her plan without further hindrance. A splash of burgundy fabric among the dark crowds caught Amaris’s eye. Maybe Amaris had not killed Adreaga. She pushed toward the girl, and the fighters started to thin, without reason, almost retreating. But Amaris was still surrounded, and had not yet reached Adreaga.
The soldiers stepped back from her, and Amaris froze. She studied the faces that watched her with dirty pleasure as her pants for breath began calming her crazed heart. Adreaga, who now stood, clearly not dead, ran for Amaris, and then one of the men slammed her back to the ground, but did not finish her. Amaris screamed, and before she could try to calculate the situation’s logic, she sprinted toward Adreaga. She only managed a couple strides before someone yanked to the ground from behind. She stared up, re-grasping her sword which had slipped, and waited for breath to return. The man who stood over her confirmed Amaris’s death, not the end she had planned. She had no advantage here.
“You are no better than your mother.” He looked down at her with the same proud hatred Amaris had seen at her mother’s murder. Amaris tried to steel herself, but the ambush made perverse sense now. Custom designed for the pain and memorable end to the enemy’s foe, Amaris. Adreaga’s scream was easy to hear in the quiet, a hard background against which to die. He could have Amaris, but not the key. She grabbed the broach, but BG had her wrist before she could wrench it off her cape. He knelt down and leaned close enough for Amaris to smell the acrid death this damned Alaquendi abused to stay alive past his time. Amaris felt her own supply of life seeping out. The grass which grew where she fell shriveled in a ripple toward her. Could he actually withdraw life from her? Is that how he stayed alive? The reason everything else must eventually die for him to remain. Her life would serve as food for this beast, and Amaris knew she had plenty to be taken before she would be sucked dry. Squeezing the life from her would be a long process if that is how this thing designed her demise. Amaris tried to stay strong at the thought, but her insides quivered already.
BG’s hand grabbed the broach, and for a moment Amaris felt relief with the broach buffering BG’s strength. With the moment of advantage, Amaris drew her dagger and tore it across her opponent’s wrist. BG let go and leaned away while Amaris stumbled back. Before she could trip, BG grabbed her by the collar, and swung a fist into her cheek. Amaris felt the broach press hard into her throat beneath BG’s hand, and then she flew several feet through the air before hitting the ground with a thud. She panted, and spit out blood, away from the darkness for a moment. Too short. BG slammed into Amaris’s back, smashing her chest into the ground. She choked for a breath, and her extremities started numbing. A shadow filled her, tangibly suffocating her from the inside. Then the pressure released. “You are too easy, Amaris.” The sound of her name when he said it injured the last untouched part of Amaris. She dared not look at BG while he killed her, but she knew he no longer crouched over his victim. “Get up!”
“No. I . . . .” Amaris’s throat had more rasp than voice. She rested her throbbing cheek on the dead grass, and it turned green and softened. BG ended her pause in suffering and dug his boot into her stomach, and then flipped her onto her back.
“I told you to get up.” He pulled Amaris to her feet like a rag doll. “The Tempths have more strength than this.”
Amaris felt bruises forming on the ribs that protected her weakly pounding heart. Slow, painful. She wished to faint and forget the scene.
“Maybe I was wrong about you.” BG breathed with ease after drinking Amaris’s life. Amaris wanted to give BG defiance, not satisfaction. After a few seconds on her feet, Amaris could taste the air flowing into her lungs. The arm BG squeezed felt the drain, the rest of her began to revive, but not to her usual strength. BG’s smile poisoned the moment. He pulled her by her hair, and then wrapped her arm, still in his hand, behind her back so she could not fall. Amaris screamed, because beyond the natural pain, it seemed like all her blood rushed to her head and out into BG’s hand. “Thank you,” BG said. “I did not spend sixty years looking for you to get a limp Alaquendi prop! Always hints, never the whole. And then you came straight to me.” BG lifted Amaris’s hair and dropped it over her face, shimmering gold of a dying Alaquendi. “Much better.” Amaris fell and hit the ground, but there was no air to knock out of her. A few minutes she laid still, blurry images softening the gray sky. She blacked out. . . and woke herself screaming. . .
She remembered this. Smashed, suffering unconscious, sleeping, and waking to the shouts of her own pain as BG prodded her to life, just to steal it back again. Each time the cycle happened, Amaris had less chance to find her bearings, and BG had less to take. Amaris drowned to death in misery over and over again, deepening in agony and all her senses weakening. And then she recognized the dull glint of BG’s blade.
Something had to end this, but not him. She groped for a blade, a knife, anything to end the repetitive life-sucking process. She had come to enough to notice the men and women that still watched her demise as some sort of show. Some obviously enjoyed the scene, but others looked bored or numb, while a few tried to avert their eyes. Amaris’s gaze rested on one face which regret and pity filled, but she watched closely, rather than looking away. The woman’s black hair could not conceal the pain on her pale face. Illuma must still care for Amaris.
“No!” This cry did not come from Amaris, and she could not see from where it came. The sound of rushing feet stopped in front of Amaris, and a burgundy dress blocked her from BG. A slight resounding twang filled the air for only a second before a bow fell and she the person was thrown to the side. Amaris could not place the person for a moment, and then Amaris realized Adreaga had not yet perished. As Adreaga fell, someone lifted Amaris from behind, holding her from under her bruised arms. BG’s blade had blood smeared over it, and Aamris stomach curled when she saw Adreaga lying face down a few feet from her. Then he slashed at her, and pain clouded Amaris’s lingering clarity as her side began gushing blood. She did not have enough strength to cry out, and the person behind her smashed their hand into the wound and slammed into the crowd of soldiers behind them, pulling Amaris along.
Amaris soon had a sword that she swung back and forth with her best limp effort. Then others started helping, just a few, and they were leveled fast, but it allowed enough of a path for Amaris to exit the fray, wondering at how BG had not followed, or if he had, when he would strike her. The small revolts spread until most the troop was fully in arms against itself. Then the person holding Amaris yelled over the rising clamor. Amaris could only make out “forgive me.” She could not forgotten her mentor’s voice, and the words sank into the burning pit in Amaris’s stomach. With a firm push from behind, Amaris lay on the ground outside the mass of soldiers, and a shrill whistle went over her. Fleecel materialized. Amaris somehow managed to mount, and the horse walked into a cantor, but before she started to run, Amaris tried to look back. She could not make out much more than a failing effort by few to protect Illuma who took continual blows the flat blunt sides of swords. Amaris closed her eyes against the scene, but almost swooned, and looked ahead instead.
She blinked in rapid uncontrolled as her side bled, a throb coursed through her head, and she struggled as sweat poured into cuts and across bruises. She held on to Fleecel, leaning forward against the white neck that began staining with blood. And then she remembered nothing, just shadows as her mind told her she had to hand on because everyone had perished so she could survive. She owed them nothing less than vengeance, and could give nothing more than her thinning form escaping into the distance as they screamed in agony, dying beneath the sword.

Amaris eyes fluttered open several times before she could make out the fuzzy dawn. She knew nothing touched her, but felt the weight and searing heat of iron rods beating her body. She cried, almost grateful to have tears. Her injuries reminded her of what had caused them, and she realized her memory of the event had much faded to little clarity of her near fatal hours. She now laid back against Fleecel, against whom she sat, blood soaked and cold. She had weak bandages around her torso, and her vile of sap close by, bloodied from Amaris applying it. Without help she would bleed out. She groaned, reaching for what remained of her satchel. A small amount of rummaging produced no bandages, and she had to rip the satchel into strips with her surgeon’s knife, the only blade BG had not taken. Amaris could barely recall what she ought to do next.
Fleecel bumped Amaris with no response. The woman received numerous jolts before any real reaction. Then she began methodically wrapping her midsection with the satchel and almost tied them when she realized she had neglected the medicine she still had. She had to protect the little blood that remained. She unraveled the red-stained cloth wrapped around her and fumbled with the wood vile. Her strength started giving out and her head slipped to the side. A loud whinny aroused Amaris and she pulled vigorously at the container’s top. With a pop, the teardrop bottle’s seal came undone and the vile fell. Amaris scooped it up, and half dabbed, half spilled the stuff onto the gash which took up most of the area between her legs and bust. Then Amaris pulled the strips back around herself before tying them off. She checked for her broach — still beneath her neck — and climbed with pain and numbness onto Fleecel’s back, lest she doze off again, it would be too dangerous a second time. The horse rose and began traveling away from the destruction behind.
Amaris shouted for a slower pace, but her friend listened only long enough for the previous to wrap her hands in the white mane. If Amaris did not pay attention, she would be unseated. Rigorous strides made her nervous. “Please, slow down.” Amaris clenched her teeth and a tear spilled over. Achy arms stole energy from her burning midsection, and every other wound she hardly remembered receiving. Her knuckles paled almost as white as the mane they squeezed. “I cannot go this fast, girl.” Fleecel ignored all pleas. Midway through the day, Amaris begged Fleecel stop for a rest, but the beast did nothing to obey. She just rode on and on until everything blurred.

Chapter 14

Sion watching over her, but she could trust the man. But as Waylen grew more restless — always convinced Illuma planned to lead a whole unit straight into the forest to finish what they had started— Amaris had to give increased attention. Sion would call her if she was not already by Waylen, and then Amaris had to talk her friend out of the insanity of travel. She did this dozens of times, but Waylen persisted. The tipping point came when Waylen tried to not only sit, but stand and fight Amaris so they would all leave.
Amaris saw Waylen’s hand gripped tightly onto the tree bark behind her. Amaris demanded Waylen sit back down and rest,
“I did not suffer this blow to still watch you die.” Waylen’s words broke into bits between her heavy breaths and near tears. When Amaris approached Waylen closer, the latter continued resisting. “Fight me, and I will shift . . .” She paused to breath, and Amaris waited. “And you will lose.”
She would lose Waylen, not the fight. Amaris reached out her hand to Waylen.
“Amaris, they will come for you and we will all be dead. Now risk me or condemn us all.”
Amaris had already been pondering a time when they could move farther from the road, and find some semblance of cover. If she said so now, Waylen could view it as having won the argument, and perhaps her wild behavior would stagnate. “This conversation is over. We will leave when you have rested from your folly.”
“Thank you, Amaris,” Waylen’s tone quieted. She was worn. Her hand lost hold of the bark, but Amaris caught her before she could fall. Still, by the time she had been laid down again, Waylen’s hushed squeals and cries of anguish almost changed Amaris’s mind. Sion grabbed Amaris’s arm with violence and ripped her away from Waylen, and pulled her half way across camp before he let her go. Amaris held her burning arm.
“What are you thinking, telling her that?” Sion shouted.
Amaris bit her lip before. “They might come back for me; Waylen is right to want to leave.”
“You would risk her to save yourself?” Sion cocked his head.
Amaris lowered her voice. “If we are attacked again, she will perish first.”
Sion blinked at Amaris. “So you are . . .”
“Not saving my own skin, Sion! I will thank you to remember I would die willingly if I had the chance.”
“What?” Sion leaned in.
“Never mind. Forget I said it.” Amaris stepped back, but Sion grabbed shoulder.
“I did not mean to harm you.”
“Give her your attention.” Amaris glanced to Waylen and back to Sion.
“Why always give someone else all worry and focus?”
“I have no need of it.” Amaris walked back to Waylen. The injured struggled against passing out again, and Amaris could waist no medicine on extra comforts. “Rest yourself, you stubborn fool.” Waylen started protesting, Amaris shook her head and interrupted. “I told you we are leaving, but not until you sleep off your rebellion.”
Waylen smiled, with irony, not true happiness. “Rebellion implies there is a governing authority here over me.” Waylen’s words made her cough, and not long after the woman slept. Amaris dropped her head into her palm. Maybe she should sleep before they moved on.
“I am still here to protect you.”
Amaris lifted her face toward Sion as he hovered over Waylen and her. Amaris attempted a chuckle. “No lies; we are passed that stage, you and I.” Amaris looked at Waylen and then smiled at the man watching both women. “She is as noble a cause as you will find. My applause if you win her.”
Sion sighed and squatted on the other side of Waylen, looking at Amaris. “Amaris, this is not—”
“Right. Let us settle that I do not believe you.”
Sion narrowed his eyes and gave a small nod. “I am not leaving you.”
“I have no need of a guardian.”
“Perhaps not, but you deserve one.” Sion’s eyes dropped to Waylen, “She knows so much. We are staying until you are finished and free.”
Sion looked harder at Amaris. “Because you matter, Amaris. And because you can finish what your people started. You have to, and with help, you will.”
“Thank you, Sion.” Amaris had no formatted replies for willing support and alliance. She decided Sion was no longer under her jurisdiction, neither was Waylen — although for safety’s sake, she would lie that woman into submission until she healed— perhaps they would help until the end. Hopefully soon.

A brief argument about Waylen’s not having weapons until she could lift them delayed their eventual loading of her onto Fleecel. Amaris tried to balance the load during the ride where only her vigilance kept Waylen from falling to the forest floor. They returned to Waylen’s hunting grounds to avoid the road, hiding in the thick trees. But traveling through the maze made Waylen tip back and forth often, until Amaris’s arms ached from holding her friend in place. Amaris’s mind wrapped around their vulnerability and almost seized up; their faithful guardian dragon could not follow them, and had left that morning. She knew Sion watched both her and Waylen, which comforted her; but she also felt his scrutiny and her vulnerability. Amaris felt thrilled to stop that night, far from the road where they would remain until Waylen healed.
Getting Waylen’s half-conscious form off Fleecel demanded a balancing act that might have been humorous under other circumstances. Amaris and Sion settled her onto a soft patch of ground and blankets, but the misery looked doubled from that morning. Amaris’s anxiety kept her awake through the night, and Sion did not sleep either. So both were present when Waylen roused at dawn.
“Good choice,” she mumbled.
Amaris scrunched her eyes and Sion asked for clarification. Waylen said she appreciated being home, or as close as she had. Amaris smiled and stroked Waylen’s face. Then Amaris and Sion argued about who would stay awake, and then settled back into their weird routine. Since Waylen had improved, Adreaga and Briair were enlisted to watch her as well, but only when she slept. They already had their weapons twenty four hours of the day, never turning them in for curfew, if they had trust, they might as well watch the wounded.

“You cannot do this to me, it is murder in disguise!”
“It is a bandage, not a death sentence.” Amaris said.
“I cannot fight.” Waylen started crying.
“You will have to manage without that ability for now.” The tourniquet-like bandaging Amaris had managed for Waylen’s shoulder immobilized entire right arm.
“Please, Amaris . . .”
“You are bleeding to death, and you want a damn sword.” The short journey, and all the jostling included, had torn Waylen’s wound again. “And forget shifting,” she mumbled.
Waylen’s eyes widened, “You cannot take that from me.”
“No,” Amaris locked eyes with Waylen. “But if you shift, I will probably never see you again. So spare me the death of another dear friend, and listen to me for once.”
Waylen could not argue while screaming in pain, and the latter won out. Amaris was too happy to be helping alleviate suffering instead of fighting with it. Amaris doubled Waylen’s grudge on her with a medicine which tasted almost too awful for the meat-eater to stand. After some time though, Waylen’s fire subsided and she began slipping off again. Amaris tried to keep her friend awake, feeling a sudden urgency to keep Waylen’s eyes open. But fatigue prevailed, and Amaris lost Waylen. If she did not wake again . . .
“Whatever happens, it is not your fault. I can see you killing yourself over this.” Sion said.
Amaris ignored him and buried her face in her hands as she started to weep. It was hours until she to fell asleep.

Amaris tried to forget the painful events as they happened. Waylen grew short of breath and developed a fever. After working the fever out of Waylen’s system, Amaris had to witness temporary muscle failures as Waylen’s body threw all its resources into healing her wound and left little for regular alertness. Without Sion, Waylen might never have mended, but slowly, she began improving. Although Amaris doubted whether or not Waylen would ever return to her normal condition, she would live, and they could move.

Amaris patted Fleecel’s neck as the unicorn trotted to a stop, her coat silver in the moonlight with Waylen’s black hair laying over it like a shadow. Amaris looked at the shambles of a guard tower and outpost with stones strewn around like crumbs fallen from a child’s plate. She spurred Fleecel to walk into their midst, and the silence of what had protected , now lying cold and quiet, deafened her senses. Waylen slipped, but Amaris caught her in instinct, and started scouting a place to lay her down, but Sion called her first; he had located an appropriate section where less stones littered the ground next to a half deteriorated wall which would provide shelter. With Waylen settled and resting, Amaris just stared at the ground.
“You need some sleep.” Sion observed.
Amaris shook her head, “No, that is not it. I . . .”
Sion stepped closer. “What?”
“This place, I did not expect so much destruction.”
Sion grimaced. “Nothing to cry over, Amaris.”
Amaris wiped the escaped tear.
“This,” Sion swept his hand toward more stonework cracked and crumbling. “Is only a sample of what he does.”
“I know, but—”
“Amaris,” Sion lowered his voice. “You know better than anyone how vicious he is. Why should this surprise you? I cannot believe you have never seen this post.”
Amaris bit her lip. Sion was right, she should have no shock over something so minor when compared with the loss of life she had experienced, even in the last month. Amaris apologized, but Sion ignored it.
The greater view of the breakage, as Amaris walked among the fallen structures, deepened her grief. Grey rocks blended into the ground as earth covered them and moss clung to the abandoned buildings, returning them to the dirt. Amaris sat on one such stone, and dropped her head to her hand. Only a few minutes passed before Sion joined her.
“Is it so hard to bear?” Sion asked. She nodded, and Sion said he could not understand.
“This was our defense,” Amaris lifted her hands and looked around. “It fell . . . and no one restored it–Our leaders have all fallen, sion. There are just remnants now, few faithful soldiers without a commander. And we want to take on an army—” Amaris’s voice broke.
“Who said we needed kings and commanders?”
“Sion, there is an army against us.”
“Sh, sh, sh. I know.” Sion bit his lip when Amaris got loud.
“Who are our allies? Have we still friends?”
“Of course. You know these things.”
“Do I?” Amaris grimaced at the irony. “I thought I knew who I had around me, but,” Amaris bit her lip, trying to prevent the surfacing of all the emotions tied to Illuma. Sion overlooked the subject, and picked up a unique thread.
“You know, Amaris, I watch the sky at night sometimes, waiting for the first star to rise.”
Amaris laughed with a harshness she should had kept private.
Sion did not heed Amaris’s mockery. “I know it is not going to rise, but I have to hold onto something.”
“Sion, you have less hope of a decent perspective than I.”
“I disagree. One time I found a star. The smallest light, hidden in great darkness, and barely able to shine.”
“What?” Amaris asked not in curiosity, but concern for Sion’s mental condition. Did she have no decent allies?
Sion stared at Amaris. “And you are worth every night I spent searching for you. Even though you were said to be a myth. Perhaps there will be others like you and me, those who will stand when everything has fallen.”
Amaris bit her lips together.
“You are a rare find, Amaris. But I think more stars are rising, so watch the sky, not the ground.” Sion lifted Amaris’s chin, removing her vision from the ruined stone she stared at. “You lived, and not to die among the ruins. Kings need not rise to rouse an army.”
Amaris swallowed. “You want me to rally forces?”
Sion smiled. “No. You fight well, but” — Amaris did not need Sion to explain her mediocre swordsmanship, and poor diplomatics— “There will be others to stand with you, as long as you get up.” Sion raised Amaris to her feet, and her head leaned against his shoulder.
“It does not only matter who you have, but who will have you, protect you, and watch your back. I believe an army would follow you alone, if you will let them.”
“I cannot lead—”
“I never said you had to.” Amaris could hear Sion’s chuckle. “I think Waylen and I could lead troupes if we had to, but I do not think we will have a need.”
“The king?” Amaris thought of the unwillingness she had met for decades of trying to convince kings to supply aid.
“Perhaps. Him. Or someone else. But there will be someone.”
“Why do you say that?”
Sion pushed Amaris a step back, “because we are not the only ones watching the stars.” Sion looked up. Though she knew it would be only void, Amaris also turned her eyes to the black sky, illuminated by an unusual light radiating from the pure, white moon.
“Hope, Amaris. It is what you taught me to do.”
Amaris could not peel her eyes from the black heavens awash in milky white. She rubbed her thumb over the smooth stone beneath her neck.
“Now you look better.”
Amaris dropped her gaze, and Sion nodded with approval. Amaris tipped her head in gratitude. It was not daytime in the world, but there was still light.

Amaris forced herself awake early; a sore night did not permit extraordinary amounts of sleep, but Waylen had risen first. Before Amaris had taken notice, though, Waylen asked her a question, startling the previous.
“What are you doing awake?” Amaris gripped her pounding chest.
“You did not sleep well last night, did you?” Waylen asked with great composure.
An angry thought assailed Amaris. “Did I wake you? Keep you awake at all?”
Waylen smiled, relaxing against the wall she had been laid next to. “No. Do not worry yourself, Amaris. You look tired is all, as if you have not yet slept.”
Amaris grimaced. She felt as if little sleep had passed. After she had calmed herself the night before, late already, she watched the sky and drifted slow. Amaris shrugged off her tiredness and discomfort trying to sleep, and then busied herself with gathering the others from the scattered places they had decide to sleep among the disheveled rocks. With their weakest member already awake, nothing should keep them from reaching the city before evening.
However, nothing filling the day’s remainder agreed with Amaris’s plan. Waylen fared well, with more than sufficient energy for the ride, but the horses did not manage as well. Briair’s horse, carrying Sion also, walked slower than usual. Under the double burden, Fleecel also lacked her usual stamina, so the company reached the city by late evening, fatigued from the long day under a grueling sun. Sion’s diplomacy finally pushed them through the city gate by dusk. Amaris had no option but settling her party at an inn for the night. Amaris thought perhaps the night’s rest would benefit her approaching acquaintance with his lordship, her eyes slid closed fast.

Amaris stretched her arms wide, sighing with contentment until she heard a small ruckus. She elbowed herself up so she could stare at her frustration, the company had not waked her. “I was allowed to sleep so late because?”
“You look like hell,” Briair said under his breath.
Amaris dropped her head back to her pillow. Fantastic. She would see the king in a couple hours, and her appearance was—
“What he meant is you did look a bit diminished. I am sure you will fare fine now.”
Amaris rolled her eyes at Waylen’s remark. “You sound better than I look, and you were dead — what, three days ago?”
“It has been longer than that.” Waylen said.
“It is not her fault,” Sion said. “Counting days is difficult when you look like that.” The group chuckled, and Amaris rolled from the bed and headed for the wash basin.
“While you all discuss my fatigue, I shall get dressed.” More like prepared for the slaughter. Her sore chances of success had been highlighted with the night of protected rest.
Riding through the thinly crowded streets discouraged Amaris further. A king who would live tucked away in his citadel while allowing his citizens to buckle under oppression would be little help. She hardened her desire to stop and help each one, to speak lively words among the dusty air and see what would happen. Or even stand still on the compressed dirt streets long enough for some green to take root amid the clay-like ground. Many stared, and Amaris tried to look at them with kindness and not pity, but felt her failure. Amaris’s mood dropped from anticipating defeat to disappointment when she reached the wall surrounding the citadel; she had forgotten about the device. No king should stand protected from his own people.
Through coy misdirection, Amaris gained admittance onto the grounds, ploying as a traveler curious to see the citadel’s grand structure. Once enclosed in the court, a light green spread of grass boasting a superior position, Amaris walked straight to the citadel’s doors which (in keeping with the city’s manner) were not only closed, but guarded. The men crossed their spears when Amaris approached.
“Is is unlawful to speak with the king?” Amaris asked.
“Of course not, with due reasons.”
“He is a busy man, then?” No answer. “I thought not.”
“With due respect maim—”
“Any respect to myself would cause admittance without question. I am a diplomat from the highlands and desire an immediate audience with his lordship.”
“I shall send him the message then, but then you must wait.” One of the guards lifted his spear and placed his hand on the large, brass doorknob, and then waited. Amaris narrowed her eyes, but stepped away from the door while the man entered. The man took so long that Amaris wanted to ask if she would see the king today, and then he emerged, with two more guard at his side — at least she expected it was he. Wearing garments interwoven and embroidered with designs in gold, a gold necklace and pendant, and a polished sword which Amaris guessed he was wearing for fashion, maybe getting it buckled on had even added to his delay.
“Madam,” he tipped his head. “You wished an audience.”
“With so many others around, you want to discuss discreet matters?” Amaris gazed at the plethora of guards. “I take my business not lightly.”
“I see.” The king rubbed his short beard, as he had been taught, no doubt. “Your name?”
“And your purpose for appearing so . . . armed?”
“My name is Amaris Tempth, sir.”
“Ah. I see.” The king nodded the guards, “let her pass.”
Amaris made the men promise to leave Fleecel, let her meander in the open court, and then followed the king. She walked through mahogany halls around the great court she had visited many times in her earlier years, and into a smaller chamber where a single man kept watch by the door. The king gestured to the seats around a plain table and took the one opposite her. “Are you coming here for help, Miss Tempth? I assume it is Miss.”
Amaris nodded, “and yes, I am come for aid.”
“I will help you where I can.”
“I am relieved that you know who I am, but would like to better introduce myself.”
“At your will.” The king ordered wine be brought, and Amaris noted to drink with a sparing hand so she could keep advantage. She lightly covered the more known details of her family line, disregarding the exacts of her mother’s death, and the length of her story, to keep the man’s attention and hopefully patience with her. He would know she was last in her line, and with no heirs. Depleted of resources beyond personal funds, and devoid of military aid. The king made little answer to her explanation, only sipping at his wine while she spoke.
“I have obvious need of armed forces. I want to help you, but cannot accomplish my task unassisted.”
The king examined Amaris. “I see. I thought you had come for such purposes.”
Amaris did not know whether or not she wished she had remained more involved with the city, as she had been in Valmier’s day.
“I will consider your request, Miss Tempth. Meanwhile, you can stay within the citadel and take shelter.”
“I have a company with me.”
“And they are where?”
“Staying at an inn.”
“Why did you not come here for accommodations?”
“We arrived late.”
“All the more reason for you to come hither. The guard have orders to direct you to the citadel upon entry.”
So all the guards knew her by name. “Do not take up my name so easily with your men.”Amairs said. “My family name has caused countless murders and assassinations.”
“All the more reason to take precautions for your safety.” The king ordered a servant to send for Amaris’s company.
“By making my presence known to an entire city’s guard?” Amaris rubbed her forehead. “I request none of your men know of my presence.”
“As you wish, Amaris.” The king’s eyes had a loathsome quality as he seceded to Amaris’s demand.
She lifted her cup to the king before drinking. “My thanks for your understanding. May I ask how you came to understand my position?”
“Indeed you may.” The king also tipped his chalice. “My father trained me in everything necessary for governing this city well.” Something unspoken underwrote his words, a duty without willingness.
“What have the Tempths to do with governing your city? I understand the importance of education on the fact of my family, but do not understand why you would place me in such a context.”
“This is not the first time you have come with the request of our resources.”
“Have you already decided to neglect my cause?” Amaris set down the cup and leaned her forehead into her hand. Why had she thought the son of such a thick-skinned, self-concerned man would give her anything but cause to leave.
“Amaris, we will give you supplies, finances, any help this city has to offer—”
“Except it’s men!”
“They are not mine to turn into service for a losing—” Amaris cocked her head with a glare “—for such a risky errand.”
“You would like me to take care of things myself, then?”
“You and your people have caused this strife between your family and our general enemy, not us.”
Amaris lost her words for a moment while she tried to lift her jaw. “Did you actually insult me for feuding with the being who has destroyed your land?”
“No. Understand me, Amaris, your strong opposition to that man—”
“He is not man.”
“Your fight against him, as I was saying, is the sole reason we welcome you here. With respect, most of your people have fled and left us weaker beings to live in the line of BG’s wrath. Every growing season struggles against burns and pillages from the last, and our citizens thin each year. It is task enough to keep their spirits from diminishing without dividing strength between ourselves and the elusive Alaquendi.”
Amaris snickered. “If your act is to keep your people lively, only in my people’s retreating can I see a greater failure.”
The king narrowed his eyes. “Did you come here to mock?”
“No,” Amaris’s smile sank from her lips. “I wanted help so I could help you. I alone have the obligation and ability to end this war before armies and opposition are useless.”
“So you want an army from a single city? My advisers are right about you.”
“How could I ask such a feat?” Amaris ignored the king’s reference to advisers, aging men whose opinions belonged in the grave. “I only need your help in securing a stance of defense to begin creating a resistance against our foes before they knock us down by the knees. Will you honestly sleep when a force to great to imagine is diminishing your people before smoothing them?”
“Unimaginable opposition is exactly why I cannot subject my people to your cause. Amaris, we would be dead by dawn.”
“Your lax and passivity encourage his every move against you. I would rather be dead than boiling unnoticed in the fire of something I fear to face.” Amaris stood and backed away from the table.
“At least join me for dinner, Amaris. Perhaps we can work out a means of supply for your venture.”
“My allies are on their way here, or I would be gone from your isolated palace this moment. They deserve to eat and rest. I take care of my people.”
“Allow me to take care of you,” the king struggled to keep his face straight, but the crease in his brow deepened. “A room for you and each of your people will be opened and available while you stay.”
“I will not stay long, I can assure you.”
“As you wish,” the king tipped his head.

Amaris tried to greet her company with joviality, but her spirits were wrecked, and she loathed artificial emotions. Still, these men and women deserved rest in their minds and their bodies while she regrouped her stamina and found a different plan to follow. If she could afford them even one night to be at ease, her effort would be well spent. Amaris found all too soon the need to stay longer.
“She is not well, Amaris.”
Amaris bit her lip, trying to avoid the inevitable extended stay. She blew out, and looked at Sion. “Has she complained much today?” Amaris knew Waylen had gone to rest as soon as they arrived, now she hardly glanced at Amaris,.
“We are talking about the same woman, right?”
Amaris rolled her eyes. Of course Waylen would say nothing. “Then how do you know she is hurting?”
“Dragging her feet, clinging so tight to Adreaga on the ride over that the girl mentioned it to me, drooping head, getting pale again—”
“Thank you. I really do not want to hear any more.” Amaris rubbed her forehead.
Amaris cringed from the touch of Sion’s hand on her arm.
“Things with the king did not go well, did they?”
“I lost any chance of diplomacy when he started spouting off things about this being my problem and not his.” Amaris struggled to get the broach off her neck, but it snagged. The king’s father had cautioned him about Amaris who, in her youth and hotter temperament had spoken unwisely against his style of ruling, and more than demanded support. Sion placed his hand over Amaris’s, and moved it aside. He unclasped the broach with ease. Amaris caught her cape and then held her hand out for the jewel which weighted her hand. She glanced at Waylen, receding down the hall, leaning on Adreaga as she walked. “Will she be alright for the time being?”
“I can stop by her room and see that she is well enough.”
Amaris nodded her thanks. “I will be in my room. Fetch me as soon as I am needed.” In her exhaustion, despite frustration at the god-forsaken place, Amaris fell asleep fully clothed and leaning against the metal framed glass of the riel window with a long soft cushioned seat. An increasingly loud knocking spiked irritation through Amaris. She stumbled to her feet and fumbled toward the door. Then she worried for Waylen and hurried for the latch. She might have straightened herself had she expected anyone but Sion, alas the young maiden’s curtsy did not conceal her shock when seeing Amaris, half awake and probably marked after laying with her cheek against a window for as long as she slept. The bashfulness made Amaris smile, kinder still when the young woman needed a cue from her before finding a tongue. Amaris was expected at dinner with her party in the lord’s presence. Amaris gnawed her lip, and tried to be polite in accepting the dress draped across the girl’s arms. After expressed gratitude, and shutting the door, Amaris started dropping her worn clothes.
Only then did Amaris notice the dirt caked on her black, worn dress. Small tares had gone unnoticed while doctoring Waylen. Smears of blood an odor reminiscent of sleeping on the ground, and more bends than straights in the now-dingy fabric. She considered the rubbish pile on the floor she had word for the last two weeks without taking the effort to change. Amaris needed help, not one more rejection. “I could burn this place more easily than dine in it.” Amaris kicked the mound of cloth, but attended to a wash basin before slipping into the maroon dress she had been lent. Anything of Amaris’s so nice as the soft useless fabric she now had on remained in her trunk at home, which, at this rate, she would never reach again. And Illuma’s house would never be settled. The woman had no other friends, so at least Amaris could avoid guilt concerning Illuma’s relations.
She looked at the clothes again, and smelled her dress. She sighed and dropped it back onto the heap. She had met with the king in those rags. No undoing her mistake now. Still, Amaris put forth her best facade for her friends, but did not know its effect, because fooling her companions meant she almost had to deceive herself. Even with Amaris’s attempt to comfort them, the others seemed ill at ease. Adreaga and Briair had never been in the company of a lord, Sion’s tension could have strangled someone, and meat lacked on their menu, so Waylen did not eat much. The king dismissed them, but Amaris lingered.
“You wish to speak with me, Miss Tempth?”
Amaris sighed, “Quite the opposite, still . . . I hate to partake of your,” Amaris eyed the man, “kindness” —she managed— “any longer, but one of my people is wounded.” Amaris could not ask.
“The darker woman, yes, she struggled even to eat. Stay until she is mended.”
“Thank you.”
“There is no need for false gratitude, Miss Tempth. I think I understand you.”

Chapter 13

(Amaris and Sion working together. Tag teaming. Finding and learning to trust new friends.)
“Slow.” Amaris shuffled her feet with such caution she hardly moved.
“I know, alright.” Sion’s voice bordered a shout.
Amaris rolled her eyes. She had warned Sion to walk at a child’s pace at least five times, that she remembere. But no hesitance would be wasted, they needed steady, well-placed steps, or Waylen would be in a worse state. They neared the tree line which had seemed closer before half Waylen’s body weight, at least if not more, bore down on Amaris’s arms. Sion did well supporting his share of Waylen’s heavy form. Amaris hugged Waylen to her chest, keeping as even a balance as she could. Sion had placed his grip around Waylen’s hips and let her feet dangle, this way he could better carry the weight, since Amaris insisted on cradling her friend’s head while they moved her.
Aside from her one dramatic episode, Waylen showed no signs of consciousness, so Sion convinced Amaris they should move away from the battle scene. And the open road. Amaris had to agree, of course, but moving Waylen was delicate work. Amaris could not have comprehended Waylen’s healthy, firm physique being as heavy as she now found it to be.
“How far are we going?” Sion asked as he and Amaris began maneuvering sticks and forest rubble.
“I don’t know,” Amaris curled in her lips and scanned for a level space. “I don’t want her to wake while we have her in our arms. If she jumps, or startles at all . . .”
“I understand. So?”
“Let’s set her under there,” Amaris tossed up her head, hoping Sion would understand her instructions. If they both started off in different directions, it would set Waylen’s possible healing back the two full days she had been tended to. “The one with the one low branch around back, but none in front.” Amaris did not care where they settled Waylen so long as there was shelter.
“I see it.”
They dodged bumps for a few more yards and then both knelt down together. Amaris slid her hand out from under Waylen’s head. She sighed, “putting down a blanket first would have been a good thought.”
“We are not thinking, just managing.”
Sion retreated to camp and came back with Waylen’s cape, which he rolled up and set under her head, and the blankets she’d been given which were laid over her again.
“I need my things.” Amaris looked at Sion with the charge she did not want to repeat anymore.
“Then go and get them.” Sion crossed his arms across his chest. Amaris moaned, and obeyed. She shoved her medicines, knife, and scattered possessions into her satchel, though they overflowed the top like dough which had risen too much. She scooped up her sword, swung her quiver over her shoulder, her cape over her arm, and grabbed her bow. If anything else remained, it wasn’t important enough to remember. She balanced her spilling bag with the top of her hand which held her bow she almost wanted to drop and be done with it. She could drop it all in just a second. She looked up from her pile and saw Sion leaning over Waylen. He sat close to her, and slid his hand out of hers when Amaris’s racket distracted him. What was this?
“Is something wrong?” Sion asked.
Everything. Amaris shook her head and found a spot near Waylen to drop her possessions. Sion looked at her over his shoulder. “Please, tell me you cleaned your sword.”
“Of course.” Amaris pushed the hair out of her face. “I do not appreciate your insults.”
Sion shrugged. “Just wondering. What with your overseeing Waylen’s every breath, hardly sleeping, touching food your food like it would give you the plague, how am I to know you took the precious time to clean the gore from your blade.”
Amaris covered her mouth at the reminder of the battle.
“Sorry. My intention was not to make you sick.”
Amaris swallowed and removed her hand. “No, no it was not.”
Sion mumbled and shook his head.
“You have things you need, as well. Go get them.”
Sion smiled smugly. “As you wish.” Amaris did not miss Sion’s fingers brushing against Waylen’s as he stood.
“And Sion, would you please locate Adreaga and Briair?”
Sion did not turn to look at Amaris. “You could not have done that, right?”
Amaris slipped back into her position beside Waylen. When Sion came back, the twins trailing behind him, she told Sion his assistance was not needed.
“Well yours is, with all due respect. None of us are on speaking terms with the dragon.”
“Emirrol,” Amaris corrected.
“Exactly my point. If he is going to continue guarding our injured, oughtn’t you discuss it with him first?”
Amaris glared. “One does not simply have a conversation with a dragon. Come, let me show you.” Amaris brushed past Sion.
“Now Amaris, use your senses.”
“Fine, stay with her.”
“That’s what I had planned.” Sion mumbled.

Amaris did find a way to not only request but also secure the continued guard from Emirrol. He seemed willing, and she felt obligated to spend certain time with the creature each day in gratitude for his help. Indeed, she and her company could not have stayed anywhere near the ambush site without such vigilant protection. It was especially important to stay put because even if Fleecel could ride fast with two riders — as she may well have need should pursuit break out with both Amaris and Waylen on her back — Briair’s horse would likely be slowed. Sion’s horse had perished in the fight, leaving Briair’s stallion their best horse aside from Amaris’s. Illuma’s horse they had found fallen, with slashed legs, answering why she had fallen behind when the company fled.
Amaris gave a small effort to appear happy for Emirrol’s sake, but could sense he knew she was ill at ease. All she wanted was to return to Waylen, but instead she tried to trust Sion while she entertained their most important guest. Sion would at least fetch her, she hoped, if the need arose, if Waylen stirred. Amaris directed her attention to the dragon once more. She wished he could come closer to where they had moved Waylen, but Emirrol could not get his large torso and broad back between the trees without tearing one out. Instead, he seemed in agreement to stay watch as well as he could through three layers of trees. Amaris hoped he would take drastic measures to reach them if necessary. When they did continue toward the city, Amaris planned to ask Emirrol to watch them from the sky, because they had no choice but staying within sight of the road; Waylen could guide them no further.
Sion did not surrender his spot to Amaris when she returned. She crossed her arms and loathed his using Emirrol to try and separate her from Waylen. It would not work. Amaris sat on the other side of Waylen.
“You are not needed here.”
“What did you say?”
“You need sleep,” Sion said. “I am not sure how you have not fallen down already.”
“I slept after the battle.”
“You were passed out from smoke!”
Amaris glared. “She needs me.”
“I can keep watch over a sleeping woman as well as you.”
Amaris did not like the sound of Sion watching Waylen, and almost said so. “Sleeping? If only she could claim such a tranquil state.”
“I can check for fever, keep her comfortable, and should anything beyond my knowledge arise, I will fetch you.”
“No.” Amaris felt hot tears stinging her eyes. “I am not leaving her.”
“And if I think she is ready to pass,” Sion’s voice softened. “You will know.”
Amaris denied herself the ability to cry, and choked on the effort, before she started blubbering.
“Come here.” Sion held out his hand.
“I cannot.”
“Why? She is the nearest to family you have. I know that.”
Amaris bit her finger, convinced she needed no comfort. She could not afford it. But before she could solidify her resolve, Sion moved to where she sat and pulled her toward himself. Her weak frame collapsed against Sion. She pounded his chest and screamed into him. “This is my fault!” Sion did not deny her claim, and she recanted her decision to fight to stay strong. Sion kept Amaris upright while she sobbed. Since when could this boy handle her sorrow? Yet when she finished crying, each part of her quivering, her eyes burned, and her throat sore— surely she had attracted Adreaga and Briair’s attention as well— Sion seemed calm, well composed, and ready to keep going. Amaris had to push against Sion’s frame to even sit up. Sion placed his hand behind her back, but Amaris pushed it down.
She leaned over and kissed Waylen on the cheek, Sion’s hand grasped her arm, probably afraid she would fall on the injured. Amaris pulled back and turned to Sion. “Anything happens, I have to know.”
“You have my word on it, Amaris.”
After a shaky breath, she exhaled and forced herself to leave. Using Sion’s shoulder as a crutch, Amaris managed to stand. She situated herself far from Waylen and rolled into her cape, and then everything faded.

“Now she is mine, Sion.” Enough sleep is enough.
“It may be your time to watch over her, but I do not think Waylen belongs to anyone.” Sion did not move.
Amaris settled beside Sion. “You can leave us; go rest or something.”
“Yes, I can.” Sion put his hands over his knees, but did not otherwise move.
What, now he wanted to help Waylen? Or was he only helping himself. Sion’s sudden change in behavior toward Amaris’s friend unnerved her. “If she were awake, you would be as far away as possible.”
Sion chuckled. “If only . . . perhaps. Would that not be a wonderful challenge to face, finding a way to get along?”
“It took her sacrifice for you to see what I have told you of her all this time?”
Sion bit his lip, Amaris felt sure she wanted to hear his thoughts on this topic.
“Sorry, is your tongue stuck on something?”
“Same thing that has your manners in a cage.” Sion stood.
“You hated her last week.”
“Amaris, I never hated that woman, but she deserves to live.”
“Of course, but—”
“And I owe you no explanations.” Sion’s eyes dropped to Waylen’s pale face before he left Amaris alone.

Amaris could have woken Sion. He would have watched Waylen and Amaris could have slept. But she already struggled to keep her sobs quiet. She didn’t want Sion seeing her in a teary mess. Amaris needed solitude. Each time she looked at Waylen, she felt the sharp pain in her chest which had become habitual overnight, and had to bite her lip to stay silent. Amaris cupped her hands around over her mouth, trembling in the chilly night. Her eyes drooped, but she knew they would never close, not until someone else sat beside Waylen. Sion was awake, and giving Amarisher space. Eventually though Amaris felt his hand on her shoulder, such a warm palm. Her eyelids dropped, and she forced them open, before they started sliding closed again.
“Are you ready to sleep now?”
“Not really, but I will.” Amaris laid down beside Waylen.
“Leave to somewhere you will not be waked.”
Amaris closed her eyes.
“At least move to her good side in case—”
“You would have to wake me anyway.” Amaris said, eyes still closed.
Sion sighed, but Amaris felt a warm blanket drop over her. “You trying to burn her? You were cold, she was not. Maybe you would do better to tend to yourself next time.”
Amaris did not answer. After some time, she scooted farther from Waylen. At the rate of her tossing to even try and rest, she might hurt Waylen while sleeping. She looked up and stared at the towering trees under a hazy sky. Grey, damp, and quiet.
“You look sick.”
Amaris ignored Sion.
“Try for real sleep, or we will be taking care of you.”
“She looks sick.” Amaris glanced at Waylen.
Nothing should be about her anymore. Could protecting the last valuable Tempth wait, fade for a while so Waylen could take precedence?
“If you could look at yourself . . .”
Amaris fixated on Sion. “I would what?”
Sion moaned. “Not listen to me.”
“Exactly.” No one besides Amaris had the medicinal knowledge necessary to sustain Waylen. She told herself so every time she considered leaving Waylen’s side, and such thoughts complicated simple sleep, but she did lose consciousness. She stirred once and rolled onto her elbows, ready to wake, although her head felt heavy, and her eyes still blurred. Then she slid down again, and slept sounder than before. Evening arrived before Amaris felt rested enough to remain awake. She teetered to sitting position. She blinked for several minutes, until Sion handed her tea. She mumbled thanks and took a sip. She did not recognize the flavor.
Sion nodded, and Amaris noticed he watched her close.
“If you drugged me, there will be hell to pay.”
Sion smirked. “If only I had the means.” He put the back of his palm to Amaris’s forehead. She slapped his hand.
“Making sure you are not burning out our best resource.”
“Not my intention.” Sion sounded flat. He fetched food for Amaris and asked if she could take any of her own medicines. Amaris ignored Sion’s fretting and began examining Waylen, trying to think of a change she could make to the woman’s care. Nothing improved. Amaris decided she would start applying any combination of medicines she could, and found her satchel dropped beside her before she could fetch it. She thanked Sion, and started her new method. With Sion’s assistance, Amaris changed Waylen’s bandages, leaving a cleaner wound packed with three different medicines. She even crumbled some small yellow petals into Waylen’s mouth to dissolve.
“Now what should I put in your food when you are not looking?” Sion asked.
Amaris smiled as she finished putting things away. “I know every taste, you would fail. Besides, I assure you I am in perfect health.”
Sion seemed dissatisfied. “I told you, you look sick.”
“Let that alone.” Amaris would know if she had fallen ill. Sion did not appear himself, either, and Amaris had not even set eyes on Adreaga and Briair all day. If they went home without her knowing, she would wish them well. Doubtful.
Sion stayed near Waylen, and said nothing more. At length Amaris assured Sion of her full consciousness, but had no response. “You don’t have to stand guard over her.”
“And you don’t have to watch her die alone.” Sion said.
“Who told you she is dying? I am the only doctor here, and I have declared nothing of the like.”
“You never would, even if you knew it to be true.”
Amaris glared.
“If this is not death, how can she be so tortured? She can barely breathe, Amaris.”
“There is no good in debating her health.”
“She has none.”
“If I believe that is true, I cannot take care of her.”
“Do not lie to yourself, her passing will only be worsened.”
“Touching that you care about my emotional state. But I will live.”
“Sure you will. The rest of us,” he shrugged, “we will find a way to manage without her.”
Amaris opened her mouth, ready to yell, but Sion’s eyes were glassed over. “Wait.” Amaris dropped her head into her palm. She had tried ignoring this. “How long have you . . .” Amaris found no speech to finish her question, and Sion turned his face aside. “Sion, do you care about Waylen . . . more than I—”
“Realized? Would allow? Every wanted to notice?” Sion did not look at Amaris.
Amaris sighed. “I cannot have been so horrid as that.”
“No. I was. She is your friend, I know you want her protected.”
“Is that the reason for your vigilance?”
Sion set his jaw, and turned farther from Amaris. “I care more deeply than I thought. Be content with that.”
Sion had said more to Amaris in the one phrase than she thought a paragraph of explanation would have supplied. Amaris narrowed her eyes. “Tell me if she needs me.” She stood.
“Wait! I do not think I can stay awake . . .” Sion fumbled for more words, but said nothing else.
Amaris nodded. “Rest, then.”
Sion nodded. He seemed stiff, insistent perhaps on holding in tears Amaris had never noticed before. She wondered if their absence or her ignorance had concealed them.
“If she does wake up,” doubt surfaced in Sion’s tone.
“Adreaga or Briair will get you if I can find them.”
“I will give you better help.”
“I know you will.”
“And . . .” Now the red veins in Sion’s eyes seemed obvious. “I can say nothing else.” Sion made himself obscure. A while later he returned to where Amaris could see him, and laid down. Perhaps Amaris had not been the only one to lay down and fight off sleep. After a full week of sleepless shifts watching the sick woman, Amaris and Sion needed more than basic rest, and got less than that. She shook the tired out of her head and turned to Waylen. Perhaps if she did not recover, Sion and Amaris still could.

Waylen’s knuckles turned white, and Amaris felt nervous about the woman’s strain. Waylen had scrunched her eyes shut and clamped her teeth for twenty minutes while Amaris tried to subdue the pain. She watched Waylen squirm, and press her head against the ground until her shoulder hovered inches above the earth which Amaris knew irritated the wound. Waylen complained every minute of the burning, and begged Amaris to make it stop. Amaris could do nothing but press a small pile of herbs into the regrowing skin where Waylen’s shoulder had gaped open the week before, so she bandaged the wound again and tried to settle Waylen.
“Struggling will not help,” Amaris set her hand on Waylen’s perspiring face. Waylen’s eyes shot open and she grabbed Amaris’s arm. Her loose strength worried Amaris.
“Get me out of this place!”
Why did she ask, demand, removal every time she woke in an agonizing spell? “We are safe. We will protect you, dear. Please rest.”
Waylen’s scream would have attracted everyone in camp had she not already captured their attention. Everyone wanted to help Amaris, but after Waylen’s third episode, only Sion hovered, and he said nothing. Amaris attempted to sooth Waylen until the woman passed out again.
“At least she drank something this time.”
Amaris nodded. “This is draining, Sion.”
“I know.” Sion rubbed his hand over Amaris’s back.
“I cannot tell if she is delirious, recovering, or getting worse.”
“Perhaps she has found a way to do all those things.”
Amaris sighed. “For now, she is not dead. That is all I know.”
“Let us hope it lasts.”
Amaris knew in her gut that nothing was ending soon. She could try and sleep off each episode before the next occurred. If Waylen’s waking continued to increase, Amaris felt sure her own strength would fail to keep up with the Manori.

“Amaris, please, she needs you.”
Amaris struggled to pull herself into full consciousness. “I know.” But her muscles felk limp with exhaustion, and her eyes slipped closed again. Adreaga shook her into consciousness again. “Get Sion,” Amaris shoved the girl away.
“He is with her already,” Adreaga cried. The girl only reacted well to stress when she kept her mouth closed.
“Fine.” Amaris pushed herself up and forced her vision into focus, and meandered toward Waylen.“What is it, Sion?” Amaris asked while rubbing her eyes of sleep that had not settled.
“Amaris!” Waylen screamed.
Amaris dropped to her knees and grabbed Waylen’s hand, jolting into alertness. “I am here.” Amaris tried to not scold herself for hesitating in going to Waylen. Sion sighed the moment Amaris took his place.
“How long has she been like this?”
“I tried to calm her.”
“Come here,” Waylen’s feeble voice silenced the others as she reached for Amaris’s face.
Amaris bowed a little closer. Waylen pulled at Amaris’s hair until the latter laid beside her. Waylen’s eyes searched Amaris. “Do not leave me.” Waylen tried to wrap her arm around Amaris, but failed. Amaris held Waylen’s face to her own. “Be safe, Amaris. Please.” Then Waylen’s eyes closed, and she breathed lighter. Amaris laid for a minute next to Waylen, and then tried to sit up as the blood slowed in her veins. Sion lifted her, and Amaris leaned against him, silent for a few minutes until she could find her tongue.
“She is worried about me.” Amaris almost laughed. “Ridiculous.”
“It is her nature, Amaris. That is what she does; protect. She almost died doing so, and I doubt she can get back to living without the same.”
“Well that had better change, because she needs our watchful eyes, not the other way around.”
“I agree.” Sion nodded, quiet for a moment. “Go back to sleep.”
Amaris could not argue. Sion fetched a blanket and set a place for Amaris near enough Waylen that the one could watch the other sleep. Amaris recovered enough strength this way to pay attention to Waylen again. She lost count of how many times her friend awoke disoriented or in a painful rage. As Waylen grew stronger Amaris found herself always arguing the neurotic woman into a semblance of sanity. Waylen wanted to leave, she wanted her sword, she wanted safety she already had. She wanted control that Amaris would never give her. Waylen struggled to lift her head, but she wanted a weapon, and even said she would ride a horse if they could move on, as if she walking or shifting were a viable alternative. Amaris wanted to tie her friend’s hands down and drug her to sleep. If only she had the resources and heart to do such.

“Sion!” Amaris waited with impatience. She ignored Waylen’s claims and pleas. Never before could she have thought to harm Waylen in such a state. Anyone would be safe from her fury behind such sickness. Not now. Amaris held Waylen’s arm and looked at the eyes cried dry and still tearing. “I am sorry,” Amaris said, her soft voice spurring the breakdown she fought against. Waylen, even sad and hurting as she was, seemed to understand. Amaris met Sion half way to his reaching Waylen.
“Watch Waylen.”. Amaris left camp and hid behind the trees where she slid to the forest floor and watched as greens and browns blurred together into a dark puddle. She prayed in silence that Waylen might be wrong. But the woman spoke with clarity this time, without painful screams and sobs. Waylen had worded her explanation with precision, so Amaris believe her.
He story? Illuma, after being trapped and left behind, had, in the short time Amaris took returning, thrown in her lot with the enemy. She fought against Waylen and then stabbed her when the latter refused to fight the Alaquendi. Then she fled, leaving Waylen to bleed unconscious.
Amaris tried to imagine her mentor, her friend, her very motivation for waking up in the mornings over a decade’s time, turning her over to the enemy. She could not fathom Illuma doing this thing, and nor could she picture her friend thrusting a sword through Waylen. The image sent a stab of pain through Amaris. She grabbed her stomach and started sobbing. Waylen’s fits of fear made sense now, because the enemy might return, and with more damaging effects, since they had located Amaris Tempth, the most vital target. Amaris sobbed herself to a headache and lay shivering on the ground while she waited for death to wash over her. Meanwhile, her few remaining allies sat vulnerable, waiting for their injured to heal with a dragon keeping watch for a devastating blow which might destroy him and annihilate Amaris’s small band of brave misfortunes.
Sion, who always seemed to remember Amaris, visited her for a brief enough moment to return with a blanket. After laying it over her, he sat beside Amaris and rubbed her arm. The tender touch squeezed out emotion Amaris wanted to stop. “I cannot justify grieving her after her actions.” But Amaris wept still.
“I can think of nothing more fitting than your tears for that woman.”
Sion’s soft tone butchered Amaris’s pathetic defense and she cried again. Illuma gone, destroyed by wrath or betrayal, Amaris could see no hope in her venture, no reason to save Waylen, no purpose to do anything but disband the others and walk alone into the South where she could be slaughtered properly, without dragging others down with her.
“I know she did not deserve that.” Sion said.
“Which one?” Amaris tried to not laugh in pain at the irony.
Amaris closed her eyes tight and cried until she passed out. She awoke alone, and began worrying for Waylen. Sion had to have left her for a reason. She had no more time to grieve her loss.

Chapter 12

“Wake up!”
Amaris was rolled back and forth like dough being worked, while she slung into consciousness. She slapped the unseen speaker, and the noise and nauseating movement stopped, but only for a moment.
“Amaris, we need you. Get yourself up.” It was Sion.
Amaris dared to peek into reality, when her eyes focused she remembered the destruction. Ashy gray air penetrated her weakened lungs, sickening her stomach and reminding her of the compressed feeling in her head. Dead soldiers with singed flesh laid around Amaris. She closed her eyes, but could not block out the image of charred faces with half-burned off painful expressions. Any medicinal aid she could offer would be worthless in this refuse. She laid still and watched the smoldering scene. Sion’s hand rested on Amaris’s arm. His voice just a whisper, “I am glad you are sound.” Amaris started nodding, but then turned away and wretched her stomach which felt full of ash. She stopped and blinked the tears from smoke and the force of her vomit. She wiped her mouth and sat turning her face from the mess toward Sion. “Who is left?” Her voice had no emotion.
Sion shook his head. “I have not counted those who survived. I needed to see if you were alive.”
Amaris just nodded.
Sion lowered his voice, and grasped Amaris’s arm, his voice lower than before. “We are not yet safe.”
Amaris’s eyes widened. The dragon, was it still there? She glanced from one destroyed scene to another, until a massive, dark beast obscured her view; it sat right behind her and Sion. It leaned down, and Amaris shied away, planting one hand in her puke as she slid back. The dragon’s head moved closer, and then knocked her onto her back, blocking her from Sion. She heard a smack of steel on something hard. The dragon jerked to the side, and snapped its jaw. “Sion, stop!” Then the dragon’s head swung back to hovering over Amaris. “He will kill us if he wants . . . he already could have.” Amaris narrowed her eyes. The dragon’s large nostrils sniffed Amaris several times, and then exhaled a small, hot breath over her. Amaris closed her eyes and froze. When she heard nothing, she turned her gaze back to the beast above her. He did not move. No. She could not trust her mental fitness after such horror as had just happened, especially not to discern deadly dragons from an odd domesticated hybrid. The thing’s interest in Amaris did not waiver though, so she considered . . . considered what. “I know one dragon,” Amaris whispered. “You cannot be him.” When last she saw the dragon she knew, Emirrol, it still crawled about like an overgrown reptile with blazing red, soft scales and a long, wiry tail. This beast did not resemble her mercenary friend’s little pet in the least. “How would you recognize me?” She asked louder. No answer. If there was such a thing as a dumb dragon, perhaps Amaris had found him.
Amaris heard an arrow’s twain and then a quiet thump. The dragon backed its head and roared. “Emirrol! Please listen—” Amaris froze because the dragon stopped the instant the name left Amaris’s lips. “Do not shoot him.” Adreaga, who walked into view, lowered her bow, looking scared still from the fighting, and the terror now before her. Amaris exhaled and laid still, till the dragon drew close again. Amaris moaned. She lifted her hand and laid it on the massive cheek beyond the monster’s closed mouth. “You are Emirrol, right? Tell me I am not losing my senses. . . or dead.”
“You are not dead, Amaris.” Sion answered.
“If you are Emirrol, move back.” The dragon obeyed, and Amaris stood, and walked toward the body of the large dragon. She touched it’s massive flank.
“Tell me you actually know this dragon?” Sion threw up his hands.
“I might know this dragon.” Just then the dragon swung his head toward Amaris, and now she could see his face, his dark green eyes, and bright red scales. “Thank you.” Amaris looked around, and recognized how much this creature had done to save her and what remained of her company. The dragon — perhaps Emerrol after all — nudged Amaris. “Debt repaid, Emirrol, plenty.” Amaris leaned her cheek against the grown dragon, so strong and intelligent to have distinguish Amaris from such a mass of chaos. The dragon bumped lightly against Amaris’s chest. “Ow!” She touched the spot and realized the broach had gone missing — she threw it! She scurried around, hand over her mouth, holding in vomit as she — and the others after they realized what she was at — searched for the broach. Sion called her name. Amaris looked up, and Sion held the piece of jewelry. Amaris sighed, stood and held out her hand. Sion tossed the broach, and Amaris untied her cape and clipped it back in place.
“Did you call it by a name?” Sion asked.
Amaris walked around the dragon to where Adreaga’s shot had landed. She winced, the arrow stuck, just pinched beneath a scale. “His name’s Emirrol. I think.” Before telling Emirrol to stay still. She climbed up the scaly leg, but then was tipped off when the dragon figured out her purpose. Amaris sat on her bottom, and looked up. “Fine. Keep it there.” But Emirrol laid on his arm and rolled back a little, and Amaris could reach the arrow with ease. She sat one hand on his back, and with the other she pulled loose the arrow, and then patted him. She tossed Adreaga’s arrow toward the girl.
“Sorry, Amaris.” Adreaga said.
“Forget it. You had no idea it was safe.” Amaris rubbed her head. “I would be frustrated if you did not react,” she finished under her breath.
“I would not have.” Sion sounded displeased.
Amaris nodded, and looked at Sion. Scraps made up the last bits of shirt clinging to burnt flesh.“Oh, no, your shoulder . . .” and his back, and arm. She walked behind him, but he turned so she could not see the damage. “Sion, please, you can trust me with healing matters.”
“Of that I am sure. But not now.” He sounded more serious than Amaris could understand.
“Where are they?” Amaris could not blame smoke for her watery eyes now.
“I think they have her.”
“Which one?” Amaris panicked, unsure who to worry for more.
Amaris bit her lip until the pain detracted from the tears she held in. “What about Waylen?”
Sion looked frustrated. “I know nothing of Waylen’s condition.”
Amaris already knew Illuma’s fate had slipped out of her reach. But Waylen . . . Amaris saw Briair standing near Adreaga, no others endangered, and Waylen had the greatest strength of the company. “Maybe she passed out from smoke.” Amaris started walking around, eyes on the ground where body after body lay damaged from blade or flame.
“Doubtful.” Sion said as he began searching the ground, and Adreaga and Briair joined him. Amaris wanted Waylen back, but not among the dead, and if her friend had been captured because of Amaris’s foolish attack . . . no, anything but that. She flipped over corpses, half-hoping, and dreading Waylen could be lying beneath one such victim, and yet —
Amaris turned to answer the call. Briair stood with his arm around his sister. Adreaga’s hand covered her mouth, eyes staring down, near losing her breath from shock of whatever held her gaze. Amaris rushed to the two siblings, stumbling as she ran, but Sion reached them first; even though he seemed more concerned than she about whose body was stepped on. Then Amaris saw Waylen, lying on the ground, face down. Adreaga grew pale, and Amaris told Briair to remove her. Amaris stood and stared for a moment, fearing what she would discover when she touched Waylen. Amaris knelt down and set her hand on Waylen’s back, pinching her eyes shut against the impending despair. “Please, no.” When Waylen’s back rose and fell the slightest bit, Amaris breathed again, but only until she slid her hand across her friend’s back. She gasped, and her mind lagged.
“Amaris, is she alright?”
Amaris could not answer. She raised her right hand from Waylen’s shoulder, soaked in blood.
“What do we do?” Sion asked, sounding as panicked as Adreaga.
Amaris pulled off her satchel, so tight it had stayed through the fighting, and slung it at Sion. “Bandages, get all of them.” Amaris pressed her hand against the gash and slid her other beneath Waylen and then squeezed the shoulder between. Amaris’s hands filled with blood, and she fought going numb, realizing a blade had pierced all the way through. So much blood had already drained. Amaris pushed Waylen onto her sound shoulder and pressed hard against both gashes, hoping the fluids would flow back to Waylen’s heart, but Amaris saw the red stain on the grass which began soaking into the knee of her skirt, and feared Waylen might be a casualty already. Sion held out the bandages, but Amaris shook her head. It would do nothing for this mess. “Get over here,” Amaris instructed. Sion obeyed. “I need you to hold her . . .” Amaris let go a second before Sion had his strong hands clamping Waylen from either side. Amaris started rummaging through her medical supplies, and ended up dumping the whole bag.
Amaris tore a knife through Waylen’s sleeve and tried to undo the cape, but Waylen wore her sword on her back, and it fit through a slit in the cape. Amaris struggled with the aparatas, but managed to release it, and then spilled water over Sion’s hands and the wound. Clean enough. If only she could see a little better, but the blood spilled too fast to keep up with. She yanked a cork, almost smacking it into her face with the force, from a brown vile and moved Sion’s hands one at a time and poured liquid sap onto Waylen’s shoulder, soaking Sion’s hands and Waylen’s dress. If Waylen survived the next hour, the medicine might be the only thing between her and a death sentence. Amaris willed her hands to stop shaking, while she threaded a needle, and then pushed and pulled the thick, black thread through Waylen’s skin. She laced up Waylen’s flesh as much as possible, stitching more than the normal amount to compensate for the red liquid now covering her own hands. She wiped her fingers on her skirt repeatedly and started on Waylen’s back. She finished soon, but scorned herself for not moving faster.
She scooted back to see Waylen better. The maroon stain had spread over Waylen’s chest and back and splattered onto Sion who still had the woman’s wound smashed between his hands. “This might be over.” Amaris covered her eyes with the back of her palm, and blocked out the scene.
“Amaris. You need to pay attention. I do not know what to do.” Sion said.
Amaris removed her hands, revealing the tears riding down her cheeks. She scooted closer to Waylen and shifted the woman’s weight from Sioin to herself. Waylen’s dark hair laid across her face, and every limb lay limp. Amaris touched Waylen’s cheek, still warm. “Get me the bandages.”
When the wound had been wrapped tight, and the injured propped up on packs and blankets, Amaris washed some of the blood from Waylen. She had sticks piled beside Waylen, and made Emirrol understand he should start a fire. She scrubbed her hands of the scarlet that stained every crease in her skin; the ruby color even found its way beneath her finger nails. Amaris dried her half clean hands and then watched Waylen. A grey pallor dulled Waylen’s dark skin. Shallow breaths gave no movement to the fallen woman whose, eyes, closed and serene, unnerved Amaris. Amaris moved the black hair off Waylen’s face. Amaris’s hand trembled before she laid it on the cold cheek. Sion’s hand gripped Amaris’s shoulder.
“Now what do we do?”
Amaris shook her head.
“Amaris, what do we do?”
She sighed. He sounded as anxious as a child. “Nothing. We cannot do anything more for her.”
Sion’s fingers uncurled from Amaris’s arm. Amaris leaned over and kissed Waylen’s cheek, then whispered an apology. Sion dragged the dead soldiers away from the wounded victim, and then watched over the fire. And Amaris, exhausted, laid beside Waylen, praying she might make it to the dawn. But before she let herself rest, Amaris realized she had not seen to any other but Waylen, and now Sion stared at her from behind the small fire Emirrol had lit. She sighed and sat up. She gestured for Sion to come near, but he shook his head. Then she demanded such, and he listened. She picked though the contents of her satchel she left strewn about.
“What?” Sion had his arms crossed.
“Sit down.”
Sion squatted instead.
“Just listen.”
Sion obeyed without emotion.
“Turn around and let me see what’s become of your back.”
“Amaris, I will be fine, but thank you.”
Amaris grabbed the man’s sleeve before he could escape. She could not very well leave Waylen. “Please, give me permission to help make amends where I can.”
“I doubt you can amend what you have done this time.”
Amaris turned her eyes to the ground before glaring. “Just, come here. What else am I going to accomplish for us right now?” Amaris swept her hand across the small plot of dead bodies where her company had done their best to make camp.
Sion said nothing, but removed his jacket and pulled off his shirt — what remained of it after Emirrol’s flame had burnt holes around Sion’s shoulder — and sat in front of Amaris with his back to her. Amaris examined the burned flesh and sifted through a mental list of medicinal aides she had on hand. She made an ointment from yellow pollen and oil, limiting her use so she could ration the supplies which had begun to dwindle. She had applied more medicines in two hours than all the rest of their trip to the present.
“If you put anything on me that Waylen needs, I will not forgive your kindness.” Sion protested as Amaris opened the vial of medicine she had just closed from treating Waylen.
“These are just to ease the burn.”
“She will need your help managing the pain.”
“I am uncertain if she will ever wake to want these medicines.”
“We cannot afford your speaking like that, Amaris. Do you understand me.”
“Scolding me does nothing.”
“If you lack confidence you cannot treat her.” Sion glanced over his shoulder.
“I only need skill, not hope, which for some is a luxury already over used. I want her to live, Sion, much more than you do. I cannot lose her.” Amaris clamped her jaw to slow emotion, “but I should not harbor the idea of my being able to keep a hold of her. I could die inside, fail completely, and then,” Amaris’s voice grew almost too quiet to hear, “her death would have purchased nothing worth saving.” Amaris pulled the cork from the vile of sap, most of which she had poured onto Waylen’s injuries. She poured a small dosage onto the cloth Sion’s skin had dirtied with puss while she cleaned his back — she would have to beg someone to wash her used rags, nothing clean remained— and smoothed it over the burned surface covering near half Sion’s torso. Only seconds after application, Sion twisted his back away from Amaris; most people reacted such to the medicine they needed most. Amaris had long since developed a sturdy constitution against pain she inflicted to bring healing. She would have informed Sion of how much improved he would be from the sap, but he would then call her out on her word given to only use what Waylen did not need. She corked the vile and placed it behind herself before Sion could see.
“Are you finished?” Sion asked.
“I am through.”
Sion picked up his shirt and started working it back over his wound. “Am I supposed to thank you for that?”
“Later, if ever. I never expect gratitude from my medicinal help. I know it creates great pain, but it is necessary. Trust me.”
Sion nodded to Amaris. “Thank you then.”

Amaris’s stiff joints made movement difficult. She slid out from under the blanket and sat on her knees. Under the light of dawn Waylen seemed sicker still. Amaris hoped her condition would better with the sunlight. She held her breath and set her hand on Waylen’s chilled cheek; a little warmth remained. She held her breath and slid her fingers to Waylen’s neck to feel for real signs of life. Amaris exhaled; Waylen’s heart beat on, for now. She pulled the blanket up to Waylen’s chin. Waylen seemed warm, but not feverish, and she remained so for two days before Amaris decided to redress the wound, and see if she might do anything else.
Amaris bit her lip and deliberated between the two small jars in her hands, the vile from the previous night, and a different medicine. She peered over her options at Waylen; Amaris doubted either choice would bring much benefit. She set down the new medicine and went with repetition, which felt foolish. But Amairs would risk it. Amaris set up her supplies according to need, and then made herself take a deep breath. Her hands seemed steady, so she began peeling back the white and splotchy red strips covering Waylen. Each unravel uncovered thicker layers of blood. Were the stitches making any difference? The closer Amaris’s hands came to Waylen’s actual skin, the more warmth she felt. The last bandage fell on the linen Amaris had spread beneath the gashed shoulder. Black, thick threads mingled with both congealed and running scarlet puddles on the swollen skin. Amaris picked up her cleaned rag, thanks to Sion, and dabbed a glob of sap onto its surface. Amaris smeared the medicinal ointment across Waylen’s injury. She lifted her hand, leaving a sheen over the injury. Waylen’s arms twitched. Amaris scrunched her eyes and watched, but no movement followed. Amaris poured more medicine onto her rag and let it rest on the wound, but she removed her hand when Waylen started jerking.
Waylen jolted into her black panther form and began a roar cut short by a rapid relapse into human. “Waylen, stop!” Amaris screamed.Waylen cried out and squeezed her own arm until the skin around her fingers turned white. Tears slid down her face, as she braced against the pain, arching her back away from the earth. Amaris pushed Waylen down. “Waylen, listen to me. You’ll tear out the stitches. Lie still!” Waylen’s back slammed on the ground, smashing Amaris’s hand which stopped the injury from hitting. Waylen looked at Amaris, and managed a small nod, and then her eyes rolled back into her head before closing. “No!”
Blood seeped out from under Waylen’s right arm. The top stitches were visibly damaged. Amaris did a quick pack of sap on Waylen’s cuts, then turned her efforts to tourniquet the bleeding with tight bandages. She pushed Waylen onto her other shoulder to drain the blood toward her heart. Waylen’s reflexes undid the little Amaris had done to help.
“At we know she can react.”
Amaris glared at Sion. “She better not do it again.” Amaris put gentle pressure on Waylen’s two wounds, hoping she would neither bleed out or wake up again.

The sun heated Amaris like an oven, but she tried to ignore its rising higher, arching over her like a predator over its helpless prey. Since Waylen’s quick reaction to Lunamaya sap, only small noises or movements eeked out, and those winces, flinches, or twitches were not regular. Most of the time was filled with hard to notice breathing and motionless moments that kept Amaris holding her breath. Amaris vaguely registered Sion’s attempt at coaxing her to eat. He set a plate beside her. She nibbled a couple bites, and turned back to Waylen, buried under threatening wounds. When a large shadow fell over her and Waylen, blocking the sun, Amaris didn’t question the source. She craned her neck and saw a massive scarlet form covered in scales and decorated at the top with metallic spikes. Amaris turned back to Waylen and slid her thumb back and forth over her cheek.
Amaris almost fell atop Waylen as the ground jolted. She grabbed the ground and waited for the pounding to stop. When the tremor subsided, Amaris yanked her head around and screamed. What a heartless gesture, bringing pain to a dying woman. A red foot slammed the ground in reply.
“Don’t you see I am losing her? How can you act like that!? My friend could die before I turn around, and you want to make a racket?” Then she mumbled. “You are not a child anymore.” Hot breath swept her skin; she could feel the dragon near her. He lifted her arm with his snout. Amaris didn’t know why, but she clung to the beast. Her shaky hands almost slipped from the horns, and then the dragon lowered his head while Amaris’s tears turned to steam on Emirrol’s hot scales. Amaris’s body shuttered and her arms grew numb from the hands down. She lost her hold on the horns, but the dragon laid down his head, and on it she rested. Her eyes shut to the travesty behind her back. Why watch Waylen die? Her face tingled from crying and her breaths eased in the lengthening distance between sobs. “Thank you.”
She rested for some time, her heartbeat eased into rhythm with Emirro’s breathing. When Emirrol left — not from camp, but from Amaris — the latter felt more at ease. She neglected her physical need for nourishment, and sat emotionless in the middle of the deteriorating battle field.
Sion took a seat beside Amaris. “How do you know the dragon?”
Amaris felt Sion’s eyes on her. “What?”
“I thought I had started to understand you, but . . .” He lowered his voice, “a dragon?”
“I am so sorry you do not understand me. Perhaps if you had perceived my demons sooner, you would have left me in that shack in the woods.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Sion sat next to Amaris.
Amaris huffed and scanned the carnage around her, “this is what happens when I am around.”
“I think that dragon would have blown these people to ashes regardless. Your being with us is the only reason he stopped.”
“Not true, Sion.”
“I . . .” Amaris rolled her eyes. “Fine. I will let you have that one.” That should please. “I had not planned to see him again.”
“You did something for him, I know it. He acts like you are bosom friends.”
Amaris huffed. A little fire lizard running around a room at an in, that is what Amaris remembered. The last she had been with Emirrrol, he had been draped about his owner’s neck, an over sized pet of sorts. “Just a favor he does not remember. He will recall my traveling with his mother, that is all.”
Sion’s eyes widened. “You know more dragons, do you?”
“Oh, no. He was adopted by an unworthy friend, but she did good by him.”
“He is domesticated?”
Amaris shrugged. “There is a reason we are not all dead. Years ago he was being peddled, a caged infant. This woman . . .” Amaris considered her words, “stole him, and I, in my unwise, youthful thinking, fought off opposition so she could flee.”
“Is that a joke?”
Amaris did not have a disposition for making fun right now.
“You are serious, then?”
“Absolutely.” Amaris smiled, thinking of her stupid blunders decades ago. “And then the pirate, your father, and I, plus a couple lesser known companions, trooped around together on a great and simple scheme which secured each of us enough financial means to go our own ways.”
Sion’s jaw dropped.
“Do not wear that stupid expression. It is all true, and I do not care if you believe me.”
Sion patted Amaris’s hand, “I believe you.” He still looked shocked.
Amaris shrugged. It was all over now anyway. Amaris’s companions dwindled daily; with luck, she would soon follow. Sion left Amaris alone after that, and she slept.

Chapter 11

Amaris slept. Three nights consistently she rested, and her thoughts remained clear during the day. She began resembling her sane self again. She had so much sleep that she woke before the others. In the still morning, misty and gray shielded from sunlight, she sat and listened. Quiet.
“I am glad to see you rested.”
Amaris startled.
“I apologize,” Waylen whispered. A shimmer came from Waylen’s hand amid the dim light of morning rising from dawn. Amaris scrunched her eyes. Waylen uncurled her fingers, and Amaris’s stone lay in her palm. Unclothed from the silver-metal encasement in which Amaris kept the heirloom, Waylen held the stone naked in her hand. Amaris had not laid eyes on the gem without the metalwork for months . . . no years. She held out her hand to Waylen who let the stone slip off her palm and onto Amaris’s. She closed her eyes and inhaled the crisp air before watching the light show between her fingers. Blue and red danced around purple with shoots of maize. It romanced her, flooding her heart that had been stripped clean for three days, filling her now with energy.
“I never understand this thing.” Amaris said to herself.
“Nor I,” Waylen waited for Amaris’s attention and then tossed her the silver encasement. “Have it back.”
Amaris narrowed her gaze on Waylen crossed her arms and walked away. Amaris huffed. How could the stone frustrate her friend? She fingered the smoothness of the stone until the twins began rousing, at which point she secured the stone in its case and clipped it to the inside of her bodice.

That day they exited Waylen’s hunting ground, leaving the overgrowth behind, and headed through thinner forest toward the main, well-traveled road. Amaris expected to see the pounded down earth, dirt covered path soon, but it was almost night when Waylen called a halt.
“I guide you only this far.” Waylen said. “Tomorrow morning we will be on the road, and more than a few of you, I hope, know where it leads.”
“Then you are leaving?” Sion asked, his voice rising in expectation. Amaris’s heart leapt to her throat.
“Try not to flatter yourself, Sion,” Waylen answered. “I told Amaris I would go with her. Do you think I meant to abandon her as soon as the woods thinned?” Waylen smiled with satisfaction. “What good would that achieve?”
The following day proved long and boring. Dirt and dust made its unwelcome entrance as the company made their way onto the road. Thinner forest, brighter sunlight, and lighter colors did not bless Amaris as she had hoped. She felt hot, weary, and through with horseback riding. Sion appeared groggy, the twins hardly spoke to each other, and Illuma seemed removed. Waylen had long since quited the party to scout ahead. Amaris patted Fleecel and urged her to keep moving, when Waylen’s black feline form rushed toward the quiet procession. Fleecel snorted and back stepped. Amaris tried to quiet her horse and looked at Waylen, ready to hush her before the white horse dumped Amaris, but she did not speak. Waylen stood in her right form, panting and trying to slip words through her breathless state.
“Amaris,” she had to take three deep breaths before continuing, “there is a unit ahead of us.”
Amaris gripped Fleecel’s main and peered above the other riders, but she saw only the empty road. “Where?” She whispered.
Waylen put her hand up and cocked her head. Sion started protesting, but Waylen shushed him, and Sion’s jaw dropped. Waylen glared at Amaris . . . no, to something behind her. Amaris turned in her seat, but the road was quiet. It had been quiet all day. “You are all deaf,” Waylen spat out. “Listen,” she paused, and everyone grew quiet, and Fleecel’s counting grew louder. “I hear them behind us.”
Amaris shook her head, “then get us out of here. Where are they not?’
“South. Off the road, all of you.”
Horse hooves scratched the ground and dirt kicked up a small cloud as the horses turned abreast into the forest. Waylen cursed under her breath, telling them to keep quiet. A whizzing noise caught Amaris’s attention, and she looked back, catching the end of Waylen’s shift as she jumped aside. She still did not see any reason to flee, but the sound unnerved her. “Come on Waylen, with us.” Amaris halted Fleecel. Then the sound came again, and an arrow stuck in the ground near Waylen. Waylen rushed Amaris and smacked Fleecel. The horse jerked into a run, and Amaris gripped the main. The other horses flew alongside her. She hoped Waylen was dodging hooves well. After several minutes of flight, Amaris started looking for Waylen; she owed the woman more than thanks this time. When she couldn’t locate the black cat, she pulled Fleecel’s main several times until the mare stopped. Amaris panted while the others shouted at her, yanking their horses to a halt. Fleecel turned herself in circles as Sion’t horse, and then that of the twins stopped, Adreaga just avoiding a collision with Briair. Amaris panicked, and then black fur raced into view. She exhaled as Waylen materialized from the panther form. She braced her hands on her knees.
“Are you alright?” Sion asked, starting to dismount.
“Stay on your horse!” Waylen took a deep breath, “and keep moving.”
Amaris nodded, and looked at the others for a moment before continuing, but stopped herself. “Illuma,” her heart beat fast and she looked back through the woods.
“I am sorry.” Waylen panted. “I am so sorry.” No one spoke, until Waylen talked again. “They have her now.”
“Wait,is she alive?”
“When I left . . . but her position was already beyond me.”
Amaris nodded, considering how protective her remaining companions were of her survival. She locked eyes with Waylen. “We have to go,” Waylen pleaded.
“I know.” Amaris nodded again, this time with more vigor. She leaned closer to Fleecel, and asked the creature to stop, and then apologized quietly. She stroked the mare’s neck. Then looked at Waylen, and then Sion. “Forgive me.” She ignored his confusion, and kicked her heels into Fleecel’s sides, toward the road from which they had fled.
Amaris closed her eyes, and then forced them open to face whatever force she headed to attack, with one unicorn horn and a sword. The distance seemed twice the space to cover in returning than in escape. A clamor rose before her, and the sound of hooves behind her. Then she saw the road, and rushed onto the black and brown muddle of swords and knives. At least thirty, and somewhere inside this crowd Illuma struggled to survive. Fleecel gored a man and tossed him aside, and Amaris cut down another. A loud feline scowl startled Amaris, until she saw Waylen diving in amongst the enemy. Amaris ached to see the collision of her friends and enemies, but searched the crowd for Illuma. Like a slow disease, people fell, but she could not see Illuma inside the vast mass of bodies and blades, nor could she remove her eyes long enough from the mayhem to search her out. Amaris’s arm grew weary, and her sword heavy with blood. She recognized Sion well enough on foot for her to ward off any blows near him, but took his being unseated as a warning.
Waylen had been engulfed in the mass, and Adreaga and Briair . . . perhaps they had not followed. Amaris and Sion no longer fought on the outskirts of the group, men and women slashed at them from all sides. Occasional taunts caught Amaris’s attention, offers for life in exchange for surrender. Promises of protection, as they jabbed at her horse. Amaris became more confused as those she killed dangled a dark partnership in front of her. Meanwhile, soldiers had separated her from Sion. She tried to fight through to him, lest he fall as Amaris felt sure Illuma had already done. The distance grew instead of shrank. Amaris realized her only chance for survival, escape of any kind, was closing fast. Fleecel would not be able to direct herself through the mess to open ground; if the mare lasted long enough to do such. Amaris, and the broach she wore inside her bodice, should not have been subjected to the foolish risk.
She pushed in, rather than out, of the battle. She tried nearing Sion, but still failed. Then a hiss screeched over the battle, too loud for an arrow, then a deep throated groan shook Amaris’s insides. Flames licked across the population of soldiers, chasing them like a serpent. They dove and scurried, but the fiery assault followed again, and then a third time. Amaris started searching the sky for a dragon, but it revealed itself in moments, surveying the charred bodies screaming in flight. It picked them off, first destroying those who fled. The foul thing swooped low, and came near scraping it’s weathered yellow belly on Fleecel’s horn. Amaris leaned close to the horse, but as soon as the dragon lifted away from her, the mare reared. Amaris tried to grip Fleecel’s main, and tightened the the hold her legs had, but she slid backward from her mount. Amaris gasped as the air went out of her, while Fleecel galloped from the scene. An unfortunate man stripped over Amaris and received a knife in the back. When Amaris stood, she realized not everyone had run.
A fresh opponent followed every small victory, it was like fighting against a brick wall. Without Fleecel, Amaris struggled. She forced her way through small gaps and used kicks as much as her blade. She turned and smashed her sword into another, and froze. Sion. They turned backs against each other, and Amaris learned fast that Sion had a good fight. The sensational screams preceding death or following injury deafened her senses, though, and she her hearing started numbing, more each time the dragon passed. The assailants disappeared, and Amaris’s sword tip drooped from exhaustion. How had she escaped? And she could still feel Sion behind her, and glanced to confirm. He stared back at her.
Amaris saw a red flicker in Sion’s eyes, and a hot blast, warm enough to feel through her own sweat, staggered Amaris from behind. She turned and saw flames pouring through the corpses, and froze. She gripped her sword tighter as a few soldiers ran past instead of at her. Her eyes widened. The screams grew louder, and Amaris thought she heard her name, but it blurred. Someone thrust into her from behind, and knocked her blade. The person smashed her into the ground after she had fallen, covering her entire body.
“Stay down!” Sion screamed into her ear.
Amaris pulled her arms over her head and pressed her face into the ground. Sion pressed harder on top of Amaris. Then she heard him stifle cries of pain and imagined his body in flames on top of hers. No! Amaris could not manage the thought or responsibility for Sion’s charred body. She pushed up against the ground, but Sion thrust her down again. “Sion, you’ll die!” She screeched. He had to listen. She could help if he would get off her back.
Amaris felt a weight fall on her shoulder, she thought it was Sion’s head. She threw him off her back, and saw the flames, as tall as standing men surrounded her. She screamed, but in anger, as if by her shrill cries the fire would recede. Then Amaris saw the orange-red blaze peeling bits of black clothing from Sion, and the hood he had managed to pull over his head. She slapped hard at the small blaze on his back, and then pulled the coat off him, rolling him over and stamping out cinders. He had burns, but he would live. She ducked as the black shadow flickered over head, then again, and again. When the beast landed, Amaris laid over Sion, protecting her unconscious friend, probably all she had left of the company from that morning.
The dragon looked straight at her, and Amaris shouted at it. She stood and cursed the wicked thing, threatening empty words against the giant demon. With eyes unmoving from Amaris, his prey, the dragon swooped its tail above it’s head and slammed it into the flames. He did this repeatedly until Amaris only screamed in return. She burried her face into Sion’s back as the ground shook and her body trembled. Stomping, pounding, and slamming continued for minutes until the throbbing inside Amaris thrummed so hard she did not notice when the thrashing of the ground had finished. Then, when her body stopped shaking, she noticed silence.
Amaris lifted her head. The dragon stared. Why had it not blasted her? Dragons needed to eat, and Amaris was game, fair or not. It watched the two weak beings lying helpless on the ground; all other soldiers had gone, and the flames around Amaris had burned out, but the ground under them still had grass to be eaten up. Why had the fire stopped? The dragon’s tail. His infernal thumping and swatting must have extinguished the blaze. Amaris focused on the giant creature. Dark maroon scales shielded the muscled form towering above her. Amaris saw burned bodies littering the ground and wondered how many of her company were among them, or if they had managed to flee. She could not move to search them out, the smoke suffocated her, and she stayed slumped over Sion, still looking at the dragon. Large eyes, dark like water at night, but with a glint of light reflecting from inside. They were green. Amaris lost sight and her head fell.
A moment later, a rough, bark-like force pried her from Sion. She grabbed it, slitting her eyes enough to make out the dragon’s nostrils as they rolled her from Sion. Amaris clawed the ground, trying to move back to her companion. The dragon leaned over Amaris. She did not move. She had no defense against his force. She pried the broach from beneath her bodice and threw it aside. Now it could have her. The beast kept its mouth closed, though. “Do what you will, but stop playing with me,” Amaris said between her teeth. The dragon yanked its head back and jerked it to the side before leaning over Amaris again. It just stared at her. Why her, because she yelled at it? If it cared, it should eat her, not watch her possibly regain strength amid the diminishing smoke. There was no reason this thing did not — “Emirrol?” The dragon’s reaction to Amaris’s strange remark shocked her. His head jerked up and then lowered toward Amaris. “No, I do not believe this is you.” The large green eyes seemed unfamiliar. Amaris broke into a coughing fit, and wheezed herself to sleep.