Season One, Episode Three
Luonn is tired.
Boone is tired.
The face of the full moon is low and well-reflects a light that makes the dusk extend forever and for always into the night, but the truth is, it’s late. What clouds there are above them have kept them perpetually cool in a mist and drizzle that fell with night. And they have been running for a very long time now.
They first encountered the men on the road between Pöeddae and the mountain city of Rasvii. Not that Boone has ever been to Rasvii, of course. His father never lets him leave the city. In fact, if the King has anything to say about it, Boone hardly leaves the castle. It seems, sometimes, that his father would rather he never leave the library, if only his mother didn’t make such a fuss that it was so. But Boone has travelled far and wide, confined to that library though he may be. For you see, he has discovered the great secret of that great room, the reason, he suspects, why his father loves it so and why his broad shouldered and large-handed monarch, who would no doubt be a fierce warrior if he wanted, prefers to wield a pen and a tome so many, many hours of the day… There are adventures in those books. There are other cities, near and far. There are strange peoples and alien customs. There is danger. There is heartbreak. There is fear. But there is also deep love, and heroes, and wisdom like flecks of gold hidden deep and haphazard in mountain stone. You have to dig, sometimes for hours, or for days, but it’s there.
So, you see, Boone has been to Rasvii, in a very real sense. And he knows it lies many miles down a dirt and wood road with many small villages dotted along its length… and many raiders, preying on the travelers and traders who have no choice but to take the only road that winds down from the steep mountain passes, all the way to the ocean shores of Pöeddae.
Boone had a choice though. In fact, Boone had spent long moments debating whether he should venture further into the woods or follow the obvious cart tracks back to the road. Even knowing what might lie on the road. Even knowing that the only thing driving him was spoilt curiosity. Boone had a choice.
Boone made the wrong one.
He supposes many might argue that he has made a number of poor decisions today. Some might say he has a habit of making them. He knows the King’s Guard consider him something of a nuisance. Oh, they wouldn’t say that, of course. Not on pain of death. He is the Heir. To his face, one is to bow formally to hide one’s frown. Behind his back though… He has only just turned seven; they mutter that he is not even a man, let alone a man who deserves the respect implicit in a bow. He is a ‘child’, they say. He is a ‘little fool’, they say. Boone has never told the King that he heard that second phrase. He has never told anybody, in fact. Except Luonn. The words strike a hot shame beneath his skin.
He does not want to be a ‘little fool’, even less than he wants to be a ‘child’. His father the men call ‘wise’ and when they bow to him it is as due their King, of course, but it is also an outward symbol of their very real admiration of the man. Pöeddae, and the kingdom that has passed down Boone’s family line for centuries, has known peace for a hundred years. But the capital ports, and all the many villages connected to it by roads and rivers, have only known the prosperity that comes from peace amongst a kingdom’s neighbors for the past two decades. Since King Abelard took the throne. Since he first emerged from his library, pale and thin and the kingdom had doubted him then, had quailed before the threat of a weak monarch to replace the staid soldier that had come before him… But the boy who was a strange, quiet Prince became a strange, quiet King. And the people watched with bated breath and wringing hands as he invited each of the neighboring monarchs to speak for long, dusty hours amongst his tomes. No ally did he favor as his father had before him. He did not genuflect before the powerful, nor play a game of subtle snubbing with the weak. Instead he took each, each into his room of tomes, and he spoke to them of what? No other men may know.
But what began to happen was much less a mystery as the changes manifested in fresh fruit suddenly coming in from the kingdoms from the east, finer quality wood making its way to market from the north, fish in such abundance from the island nations, even luxuries like furs coming out of the forested kingdom of Issmairre for the first time in centuries. The scholars began to whisper amongst themselves first, but their conclusions were so simple and so elegant that even the common man, as he heard them, could see the profound and crystalline truth: The surrounding kingdoms had been fighting over that very coveted fur of Issmairre – and the delicate the syrup made from the sap of the trees of Issmairre, and the exceptional down made from the geese that roosted, even through winter, in the deep wooded lakes of Issmairre… – for all those same centuries. And so Issmairre had been using all of its so precious resources in defense. And the kingdoms surrounding had used all of their resources fighting one another for what Issmairre hadn’t had the luxury, or the will, to export for so long some of their exports had become things of legend.
All it took was one strange, quiet, persistent King to speak them out of their follies.
All it took was one… wise… King, everyone realized.
Boone wants to be that King, that man, who could persuade the world to peace and prosperity. But he also wants to be Garrik, on his fine steed, in his fine armor. Garrik, charging against his opponent with his sword raised, as Boone has seen so many, many times in the practice yard. Garrik, charging, with that fierce light in his eyes, a look on his face Boone has only ever seen on the faces of men in battle, pitting their skill and strength against an opponent and letting fate and fierce heart determine the victor. Battle-joy, Boone calls it. That’s the look on their faces.
Boone wants to experience the feeling that puts that look on men’s faces. He wants to go on adventures. Real adventures. Not the adventures in books, or the ones he has when he’s staring off into space however long he can before his tutor catches him at it… No. Boone has always wanted adventures where your heart pounds so hard and fast it shakes your body and your stomach roils like you’re at sea and your sweat is cold and hot, cold and hot, dripping down your back and matting your hair to your forehead…
He supposes, when you think about it, he got exactly, exactly what he wished for, didn’t he?
Luonn snorts too, but his isn’t a noise of amusement, however dark. Luonn is tired. Luonn is scratched up and down his beautiful bay legs, rain has dampened his flanks and chest, and sweat has dampened his torso beneath Boone’s saddle, rubbing him raw no doubt, and it’s getting dark enough beneath the heavy leaves that even with the moon so full above them, it’s difficult to see. Twice now they have faltered; twice now Luonn has nearly fallen.
It has been many hours since the men on the road. It has been many hours since Boone realized that real adventures and real sweat and real fear are the result of the possibility of very real death. Raiders are not just men who drink too much at the taverns and tell bloody tales. They are real men too. And they look at you on the road with real lust and real rage in their eyes. They want what you have. And they hate you for what you have. And they will kill you for what you have and for the gall you had in having it. How dare you have things they have never had? How dare you have a life that has left your own eyes and your own body soft and unmarked by scars and black ink? It’s not fair. It’s not fair. It’s not fair. And theirs will be the hands of fate in taking these things from you. Their hands will be only life itself, dealing you that first blow that is so very, very overdue.
Boone had seen all of that in an instant. The instant only it took for the four tattooed and ragged men to get over their surprise and laugh at their lucky fate in finding a rich little boy, traveling all alone on the lonely road. They stirred their horses to a charge with battle-joy in their eyes. But Luonn is faster than any horse alive, Boone is certain. Luonn needed no stirring. Luonn is a battle horse and Boone’s best friend, his only friend, his most beloved little life of all the living creatures in this world… Luonn knew at instinct when to charge in battle and when to retreat. That moment on the road was a moment to retreat.
Faster than the wind, Luonn is. And fleet. And nimble. And with a rider two thirds lighter than any full grown man.
Luonn lead the men on quite the merry chase. Merry for the men at least, always hollering and hooting behind them. At least until Boone realized speed only lasts so long and afternoon would soon be night and the raiders no doubt have lanterns while all Boone brought with him from the castle in Pöeddae were his wits, what very little of them there may be, his clothes and heavy cloak, and only a small bag of coins he keeps always hidden in the hollowed out horn of his saddle. So Boone and Luonn jumped a hedge and started into the brush and deeper and deeper into the darker and darker woods. Night was falling, of course, but it was also dark here because men have never cleared here, never cut a tree, never burned a path, pulled a stump… This is deep, undisturbed woods. The canopy of trees blocks out the sky and any light that might be shining down.
Little now though. The moon, the twinkling stars –
Luonn falters. Luonn whinnies as he stumbles over thick roots, hidden in the unbroken black of the forest floor beneath them. Luonn falls to his knees and Boone’s heart lurches, squeezes, his stomach in knots…
This is not really how he imagined it would feel, to feel all those things he thought he’d feel on an adventure. Sick with fear just feels the same as sick. Shivering with sweat worked up from a chase is still just… cold. And tired. And… he feels like a child, right now. He wants his mother and her soft, fragrant skin and her hair like summer harvests and her blue eyes telling him that there is an ocean standing between him and anything, anything at all in the world, that would do him harm. He wants to crawl into her arms and he wants to stay there until manhood demands he leave.
And he feels… like a little fool. Or a big one, as the case may be.
He has risked not only his own life, but now he is risking Luonn.
What sort of friend is he that the has dragged his beloved Luonn on this adventure also?
And now he stumbles, and falls, and Boone just keeps pressing him further.
Maybe they’ve lost the raiders by now. Maybe they haven’t. But they have run hard for hours and they need a rest.
Boone dismounts and pulls the reins over Luonn’s head to lead him gently, and slowly, and carefully, towards where they have heard faintly rushing water for the past half hour. They were walking parallel to the unseen stream, actually, as best they could. Boone had thought he was being clever to lead them to a river, hopefully a tributary to the Waiikraii, and then all the way back to Pöeddae, where the Waiikraii meets the ocean.
Now they walk directly towards the stream, letting the sound of the water turn from a whisper, to a mutter, to a conversation called out in greeting. Luonn relaxes as his hooves hit the shale shore, able to see better, now that they are out from under the trees, assured he will not encounter any hidden roots here, no brambles to tear further at his bloodied legs. Poor beast. Poor beloved, Boone frets.
He leads Luonn to the water to drink and kneels right beside him to cup his own hands in the river. Luonn’s ears prick towards the trees behind them, but that’s all the warning Boone gets.
Then the darkness is more profound than night.
Night presses them close and tense. They cannot do without the torches, or they would. The flames are necessary so Garrik can scour the ground, squinting and doing his best to distinguish between shadows and imprints, doing his best to read in the scuffs and furrows the story of Boone’s… fleeing. There were four horses in addition to Luonn, five miles up the road. Four horses stirred to a chase. And Luonn’s hoofprints, keeping many strides ahead. But for how long? His son is riding for his life and all Abelard can do is hold his own torch steady and peer into the dark, wondering how long it takes before these very torches make his party victim to the same fate as Boone.
Abelard can read seven tongues, but he cannot read the subtleties a tracker might find in dirt and leaves and branches. He knows how to stop wars with careful words, and, less often, how to start them. But he does not know that he could defend his wife against even a small party of raiders if they catch them by surprise, now, in the dark. He does not even know, truly, how much help he will be if they find the raiders chasing after his son. He was once able with a sword, but he was never gifted with grace, or the killer’s instinct of a true knight. It has been many years now since he has had to do anything more than wear the length of steel in show. When was the last time he and Keagan sparred in the practice ring? When was the last time his sword needed sharpening?
Too long. Far too long. And far too late to realize that now. Being the ‘wise’ King, or the ‘quiet’ King, or the ‘nearsighted’ King does not bother him most of the time, because in truth he believes he is all of these things, though some may be said with more or less a sneer in the other man’s voice. But in this moment, right this very instant as Garrik reads the ground and Kaia looks fully more fierce than Abelard feels, perhaps more fierce than he has ever felt, in truth… He wishes he were the warrior King his father and his people had always wished him to be. He wishes he had ever read a book that addressed how to be brave when your heart is breaking, how to hold your torch steady when you are equally terrified by what is concealed by the dark, and what the light might reveal.
How do you go forward, as a father, as a man, knowing that, even as you searched for your son in earnest, there was a tiny kernel in you that whispered to put the torches out, that hinted at keeping your own life, even as your son’s was in danger?
It is a terrible thing, to face the whisperings of your own cowardice.
Abelard drowns out those dastardly whispers with the same calm, logic voice he has used to lull so many others into his confidence. He tells himself that they are only a dozen miles from the city gates. Far more dangerous are those parts of the road a day’s ride or better from any gate or Guard. He tells himself that Keagan is surely on his way back to the woods by now with a whole contingent of Abelard’s men at his back. He tells himself his most able knight is only a hand’s reach from him and that Garrik’s sword gets sharpened every evening, and sometimes twice between. The man often eats with a fine dusting of steel on his fingers. Perhaps his very teeth might cut as metal these days.
Garrik mutters something to the dark and the dirt at his feet, and then grunts back towards Abelard and Kaia, following so close to his steed and his steel.
Garrik gallops up the road, but Kaia, Abelard notices, is staring intently into the woods. She doesn’t move. As has been happening on and off all afternoon and into this rainy evening it seems like… she didn’t hear Garrik. She doesn’t hear Abelard calling out to her now.
Her head is tilted like she’s listening. Intently. But not to Abelard. Not to Garrik.
She shakes it like something might slosh free, tilts her head further as though to get her ear physically closer to the sound, peers deeper into the dark of the woods that as far as Abelard can tell is just dark. Just woods.
Abelard had written off her distraction earlier as the rightful terror of a mother with a son lost to the Road. But this is something else. This is Kaia listening to the waves and crashing of the ocean inside her. This is what she calls her ‘instincts’ or her ‘intuition’, though Abelard has often wondered, if only to himself, if it isn’t something more.
Kaia is gifted in Waterwei magic. These moments when she seems to listen to something no one else can hear… These are moments of magic.
Abelard hesitates. Long enough that the sound of Garrik’s hoofbeats is muffled by distance and dark as his torchlight fades off down the road. It is only Kaia’s perfect still and concentration that allows Abelard to hear it –
The voice seems to speak from the shadows themselves.
“Following him would be a mistake.”
A low voice. Gravel in the tone. It’s hard to tell if it’s a man or a woman. Or shadows speaking.
Kaia is still peering into those shadows as if she can see the figure, though there is no outline, no shape visible beneath the blanket of the trees.
“Garrik is my best knight. One of my best trackers.” Odd that it’s only as shadows voice doubts that Abelard can argue himself back to logic, and calm. He’s speaking to Kaia, not the shadows, when he says, “We should follow him. We may have already lost him.”
But what the shadows say next, it freezes Abelard in his saddle.
“You’ll lose the boy, if you follow that man.”
“The boy?” Abelard hears himself faintly echo. “What boy?”
How could the shadows know about the boy? Unless this stranger in the dark, unless this monster, took him!
“A blond boy?” the shadows ask.
“Where is he?” Abelard explodes. His hand is on the hilt of his sword and he suddenly feels fully capable of wielding it. His horse quivers beneath him, the war in his veins stirring. “Where is he?” Abelard growls.
“He’s this way,” the shadows soothe.
“Abelard…” …Kaia soothes. “This woman has done no wrong and means us no harm.”
How could she possibly know? Even that the shadows that speak are a woman. Let alone her intentions or her past.
But the shadows chuckle then. And the figure that steps forward is indeed very feminine, though the curves are concealed as well as possible beneath a man’s work shirt and loose pants, rolled up to the ankles and cinched at the waist with a length of rope.
“So much for my disguise,” the woman huffs wryly. Still in shadows. Her whole form only a shadow with feminine shape now. Her face a black hole beneath her hood. She is careful to avoid the torchlight and it makes Abelard wary, but Kaia only murmurs, “We can well understand that a woman may wish to be perceived as a man on this road.”
“How did you come to be on this road?” Abelard voices the obvious question. “And how do you know about our son? And where he might be?”
The woman hesitates, but Abelard can hear the truth in her tone when she says, “I have been following you for some time. I have heard you lamenting. I can read the signs in the dirt better than your knight. Your son jumped the hedge. Here. He did not continue up the road. He came into the wood.”
Abelard notices that she did not answer his first question, of course. But he can hardly press her on the matter when he had chosen so deliberately to leave his crown in his castle this morning, when he is travelling this road incognito himself. To each man, or to each woman, his or her own reasons. And secrets.
“Why did you wait to reveal yourself?” This, though, is a question which needs an answer.
“I only wonder why I am revealing myself now,” the woman volleys. “I had intended to retrieve the child myself, but…” She trails off. Abelard can’t see the face beneath the hood, but the black where a face would be is turned towards Kaia, and Abelard can sense that the woman so filled with shadows in every crease and crevasse of her clothing is staring at Kaia dressed in light blue and white, her pale skin and her pale hair giving off almost their own pale light beneath the solemn moon.
“I heard you,” Kaia answers that gaze.
“You were looking right at me, after all,” the woman whispers.
Garrik returns with noise and fanfare that seem suddenly boorish and crude against such truth, and magic, and whispers. Abelard feels like he’s only hearing one set of words, when there are many. He feels like he is seeing only shadows playing on a wall, when there are real people standing somewhere out of sight, playing hand puppets to distract him while they have a conversation with lips he can’t see moving in crude silhouette.
“What is the delay? We can afford no delay!” Garrik grouses. “Who are you?” He stops suddenly and stares at the woman in the shadows.
But she only agrees, “He’s right. What he just said. Not about the boy.”
“This tracker thinks Boone jumped the hedge here instead of continuing up the road,” Abelard explains.
Garrik straightens, though there is no time for pride, either. “He walked along the edge, in the pine needles. We will catch the prints again further up the road. If we ever continue.” He sighs as Abelard looks back and forth between Garrik and the stranger he has no reason to regard at all, except that Kaia is doing so, so intently. “Have I ever led you astray, my Lord?” Garrik asks.
No. No, he hasn’t.
So Abelard turns his horse to follow as Garrik’s prances its impatience a few feet up the road.
But Kaia sits unmoved in her saddle. Her horse snorts and leans forward as though the woman in the shadows were offering her a carrot or a cube of sugar.
“Kaia – ” Abelard tries to stave off the inevitable.
But Kaia doesn’t even let him finish the sentence. Doesn’t even let him have four words’ worth of logic.
“I’m following her.”
“My Queen – ”
Garrik looks almost… hurt… by Kaia’s dismissal. But Abelard knows it has nothing to do with Garrik. Nothing to do with sense. It is those damn ‘instincts’ again. That ‘intuition’. It drives him absolutely batty sometimes, but Kaia follows where her magic pulls her. Always.
The stranger nods and bows, though to show respect or to hide her face deeper in her hood is anybody’s guess. She doesn’t hesitate though. There’s a flash of steel and before either Abelard or Garrik can do anything at all to prevent it she –
Cuts a length of fabric from Kaia’s dress.
Abelard chokes against the knowledge that if she had intended any harm, Kaia would be dead.
He has had cause to question his worth as a father this night, and now his worth as a husband as well. And what good is his knight?
The stranger didn’t harm Kaia, he reminds himself, as the woman ties the bright white fabric she cut from Kaia to her own dark wrist. She turns and waves her wrist now so they can see the fabric, like a dove flapping white wings in the dark. A boon. Something to follow through the night.
Abelard feels a dreaded certainty settling.
A woman’s voice, growling from the shadows.
So careful to keep her face, her eyes, hidden.
The men’s clothing hanging off her form… Some of the darkness of the fabric is dried blood, not shadows.
“Try to keep up with me,” the stranger gruffs.
And then she turns.
No man should be able to run that fast.
Only beasts are so fleet.
She is already gone.
Kaia can’t explain what she heard. No one else would ever understand that all day she has heard the ocean calling to her. All day she has been peering through bushes and craning to see around thick, old trunks, expecting, any moment, to see the shores and the salty waters, stretching all the way to dusk on the horizon. When she’d finally stopped long enough for the ocean within herself to settle... Suddenly she’d realized it wasn’t a general sound. It wasn’t the sound of the ocean like it would sound if she was standing on the shore. Not a sound that was surrounding Kaia, faintly echoing in all the air…
A sound from a particular point.
That’s when she’d stopped, stopped everything to listen.
The woman who stepped from the shadows sounds like the closest thing Kaia has ever heard to a match to her own soul. Kaia always hears water when she looks on a man. With Abelard it is a deep and abiding still and silence. And yet that is still a sound, still holds weight. She can see in her mind when she looks at him a deep-dark pool. With Garrik it is a strong rushing river she hears, something wide and powerful and racing through canyons. With Boone it is white waters bubbling and frothing down a steep mountain stream.
She has never heard another soul that sounds like the ocean.
She has never felt so immediately kindred.
The tides surge and wane within this woman’s breast. Powerful waves scream against the cliffs and whisper against the sandy shores. There is the gentle lapping of a light breeze against deep waters. And there is the howling of hurricanes.
There are depths the woman herself cannot fathom and has not seen.
Kaia has learned the hard way in life – a screaming lesson, a fatal, heartbreaking lesson – to never ignore the pull of the tides within her.
So when the ocean in Kaia surged after the retreating figure of the shadowed woman…
Without hesitation, or thought to consequence, Kaia spurred her horse to her full gallop, and still she could barely keep up. It’s madness, to ride through the midnight woods with nothing but chance to guide the way. The moonlight through the tree cover is barely enough to keep the white ribbon in sight –
Kaia only spurs her mare faster! Faster! She knows as surely as she knows her own name that if she loses this woman, she loses her own life. She doesn’t know what form fate has taken, in twining this twin ocean to Kaia’s life. But she knows this woman is inexorable to her own happiness.
The obvious conclusion is:
This woman is fated to find Boone.
This woman will save Boone.
So Kaia leans further forward in her saddle and whispers to her mare, “Faster! Faster!”
The woman runs faster than a horse and Kaia’s heart leaps when the ribbon flies through the air – at this point it doesn’t seem at all out of the realm of possibilities that the woman can fly – but then the ribbon falls as quickly as it rose.
She leapt, Kaia realizes.
And by the time she pulls to a rearing stop where the white ribbon floats trembling…
The man is already dead.
One leap, and one motion so smooth that Kaia hadn’t seen the ribbon so much as twitch beyond the smooth arch…
And a man is dead.
A… ragged man, Kaia realizes, as she peers down through the dark. And his skin is… mottled. Tattooed! It takes a long moment for Kaia to recognize some of the symbols of a man who once stole on the seas. The distance between a pirate and a raider is only the length of the dock. Lose your sea legs and take to the Road.
Kaia can see what there is to see of the other woman now, her eyes adjusting from the blur of the gallop to the still dark. The other woman’s face is still hidden beneath the impenetrable shadow of her hood, but one of her hands disappears into that dark, and Kaia knows instinctively that she is pressing her fingers to her lips, holding back a noise she is afraid will tell too much.
Her other hand holds a knife. It’s short, and crude, and covered in fresh blood.
She gutted him like you gut a fish.
“It’s ok,” Kaia whispers into the still and dark.
The woman sucks in a deep and startled breath. She holds the air in her lungs as though to pull strength from it and when she exhales she bends to pat down the dead man’s pockets.
“He was keeping watch for someone,” she whispers. “You don’t stand alone in the dark, without a light, unless you’re hoping to see and not be seen. A sentry.”
A raider. A sentry. For other raiders.
Kaia would know the soft tinkling of those little bells anywhere.
“Oh, God,” the other woman voices Kaia’s thought.
When she holds her hand up into what moonlight has managed to filter down through the leaves and the rain… Boone’s tokre is wrapped tightly around her palm, the thick blue ribbon covering from her knuckles to her wrist, the brass bells spilling down her forearm amongst the hundred golden charms of an Heir…
The other woman whimpers her understanding of a mother’s fear. She tightens her fist and bows her head over Boone’s tokre and Kaia would think she was praying except she inhales deeply through her nose. Again. Again.
Scenting, Kaia realizes.
And it’s one more thing that doesn’t make sense in this night when nothing has made sense, but… Kaia feels a bubble of hope rising through the depths of her despair to – Pop! – on the surface waters of her heart. That this woman runs faster than a horse, that she leaps with the grace of a wolf and scents with his nose… The implications are terrifying.
Yet all Kaia feels… is hope.
The woman takes another deep sniff with her head to the right. Turns and takes another sniff to the left. Tilts her head and rotates slowly until she’s facing somewhere behind the tree the dead man was leaning against, pointed towards where Kaia can hear the faintest sounds of actual water, running over actual stones in an actual forest, rather than through a soul.
The woman stiffens, suddenly, as though she has heard something too.
And then the white ribbon flies again. She’s moving so fast this time that the ribbon blurs and Kaia is chasing a long, blurred line, pointing her way straight through the forest and straight towards her heart, straight to the stream she can hear trickling over real rocks in the real forest and also straight to where she can hear white waters tumbling down a steep mountain stream in the soul she holds most beloved in all the world.
They should wait for Garrik and Abelard to catch up, if the two men have managed to follow them at all. There were four horses chasing Boone. It stands to reason there were four men. Three now. Two women.
They should wait for the men to catch up.
But the other woman does not hesitate.
And Kaia follows.
Consequences be damned.
She heard the roar of the ocean as the other woman’s soul surged, a tsunami thundering forward in the night… And Kaia can’t deny it either, however much she’d like to.
The dread settling heavy in her chest, the certainty:
They’re out of time.
Despite what she’d said, the ferawicce showed herself on the road because she’d realized that she couldn’t simply retrieve the child herself. She had been following the King and his party most of the afternoon. She had heard them lamenting. And it had tugged at her heartstrings to know that the child she has seen die a thousand rusty deaths is the same seven-year-old son this King got on his knees to beg for this morning. But that wasn’t why she revealed herself. She has long since learned that it is always best to ignore one’s heartstrings, that they pull you towards that which might hurt you the most, that they tie you to people that will hurt you in ways that that make death look preferable…
So, no, it was not foolish sentiment that caused her to reveal herself. Just the opposite. Hard facts. Who cares that the beautiful Queen had been peering right at the ferawicce’s hiding spots all afternoon and even into night? Who cares that the woman had seemed to see her even when she was hidden, seemed to hear her even when she made no sound? Who cares a whit that the woman is beautiful and fierce and heartbroken and hunting for her son on a road likely to lead nowhere but her own death?
The ferawicce didn’t care. Let the whole party perish.
But not the boy.
And if the ferawicce is going to save the boy, if she’s going to change the outcome of this dream now that it has bled its way into reality… She needs help. Preferably the help of that idiot with the shining armor, though she’s loath to admit it. Of course, even swallowing her pride hasn’t done any good, even risking everything to reveal herself on the road, hidden only by the dead guard’s clothing she’d pilfered from his body before hunting the tracks of the well-shod horses and following her dream, screaming out to her across the woods…
The risk, the swallowing back of all the things she wanted to say to the man leading the King and the beautiful Queen directly away from the blond boy…
It has done no good.
Instead of a knight behind her, the ferawicce has only the Queen. Only the Queen could keep up. Only the Queen was brave enough to trust her horse to lead her on a blind charge through the dark forest. Only the Queen’s horse trusted her rider enough in return to let the woman loosen the reins, to race – Faster! Faster! – through the night not because she was commanded to do so, but because the woman whispered in her ear. The beast doesn’t understand why she’s pressing through the brambles and leaping over tangles of roots and stones, but she trusts that her rider knows. And she trusts that the woman wouldn’t whisper the request if it wasn’t important.
The King and the knight with the gleaming armor had fallen behind almost immediately. They treat their mounts as though the beasts have no heart, as though they are only bits of clay and dirt that can only be commanded through brute force. They do not trust their horses, and their horses do not trust them.
So the ferawicce races against her dream with only the Queen at her back.
The woman’s gaze is fierce, but does she carry a blade? Even if she does, does she know how to use it? Will she be any help at all when they –
Break into a clearing with two men starling up from where they were huddled and hunched over a small, damp fire and –
The third man struggling through the mud at the shoreline, a wriggling weight causing him to stagger. The ferawicce blinks through the rain to see her dream come to dreadful life. She never noticed the men by the sputtering fire in her dream though, and so she ignores them –
They do not ignore her. The Queen thunders up on her white mare and tries to bodily block both the men from reaching the ferawicce, but these are hardened raiders. They don’t frighten easily. Being a raider on the Road is hardly better than being a victim. At any given moment, any given night, you might become the next victim. You run into a raiding party larger than your own. Or a smaller party sneaks amongst you during the dead-sleep wee hours and assures themselves you will never wake to take revenge for their scavenging. Or else the man who sleeps beside you didn’t like the way you eyed his cut today. Decides to take a cut out of you…
The Queen manages to engage one of the raiders, and her horse gives her enough of an advantage that she is dancing with the man. It turns out she does have a blade, pulled from her left boot and flashing out occasionally amongst whinnying and kicking of hooves. Her horse is defending her rider. The Queen is fighting for her life and the life of the blond boy, wriggling, wriggling in the grasp of the third man –
But the second man, the second man by the fire manages to duck around the Queen’s horse and the ferawicce is so distracted by her frozen terror in this moment, so fixed on the lean, unshaven man staggering ever closer to the river that…
She never sees the second man coming.
A blow to the back of her head sets the world to ringing in strange symphony with the little brass bells that chime as the ferawicce falls to her hands and knees –
And then he’s on her in earnest.
They are evenly matched, each with a cheap, hard-worn knife. But the ferawicce had never killed a man before today. Her body count in hand-to-hand combat stands at… two. And both of those men were taken in a moment of shock, a sly slashing. That won’t work here. This man has his forearm pressed against her throat and his knife hand striking out –
White-hot pain sears through her gut. Not the same place as the sword earlier. But close enough to make the ferawicce scream out against fate’s insistence that she must die before she can rewrite her nightmare. Since the knight didn’t finish the job, the brigand can. Close enough. A knife to the gut, a sword to the gut. What’s a few inches off? Either way, the ferawicce is just as dead.
From the way the man twists the hilt of his knife and starts to pull it upward –
He has killed far more than two men.
In her panic the ferawicce can feel the golden magic trying to light the black edges of her vision, trying to flood into her from where it is running through a thousand intricate threads through the dirt and between all of them grunting and groaning by this small river shore…
But she resists.
The magic scares her even more than death, maybe.
She’d learned that this morning.
She’s not ready to die, and when she hears the high, reedy whimpers echoing from her dream and from the blond boy dragging his heels through the shale now as the third man picks up his pace, realizes his party is under attack, realizes he needs to drop the body and flee…
The ferawicce thinks she might almost be willing to rend a nation to save that child and silence those sounds…
But she is afraid that might well be what it takes.
If she pulls the magic into her form, she pulls with it the rage, the madness threaded throughout like homicidal ticks that might well cause her to kill not only the man pressing the blade deeper into her gut now, not only the man the Queen spars with and the bastard clattering through the shale but…
She might kill the boy.
She might kill his beautiful mother.
She might kill everyone else who lives on this entire continent.
So instead she takes advantage of the fact that the man on top of her is distracted. Near-certain victory over one’s foe will do that. And he has his knife in her. And he’s got her blood on his hands. And he’s got a sickening erection pressing into her hip as he prepares to angle his blade towards a vital organ, shudders in anticipation of hearing her scream again…
She’s struck by the same perverse urges as he, in this moment. To hear him suffer would be ecstasy.
But she’s no fool.
She puts her blade where he will feel no suffering.
But he will be just as dead.
He rolls off of her and their knives are exchanged between them, his in her gut, hers protruding from just below his left breast. He looks down and he looks surprised to see it there. He looks at the ferawicce. And then he looks to the ground. And then he falls to it.
The ferawicce woozes unsteadily to her feet, hardening those damn heartstrings that pull at the sounds of desperate struggle behind her. The Queen cries out and her horse is snuffling nervously and the ferawicce ignores it all. Instead of glancing behind her, she takes a step forward. And then another. And then she is stumbling to a run, leaving the raider’s knife in her gut so she doesn’t bleed out before she can get to the shore but –
The blade within her, it still cuts. It is the pain that causes her to stumble down the embankment into the mud and then she is crawling across the sharp shale closer to the water…
The third raider has the blonde boy on his knees before him. He spots the ferawicce and his lips curl over blackened teeth, cruel blue eyes twinkle their sadistic joy as black-nail fingers curl around the poorly patched hilt of his rusted sword, raising it high above the boy’s bent head and –
She knows she will not make it in time.
She cries out against fate, against this nightmare she has had a thousand times, and she reaches out her hand, the blue silk tokre wrapped around her hand, the gold charms spilling into the foreground of her vision and the brass bells clinking together mournfully and –
Something about this. Something about this boy. Something about this moment, this tokre, these little brass bells…
This is the closest thing she has felt to love, or life, or heartbreak in ten years.
Something about this moment, in fact, feels just exactly like ten years ago, feels just exactly like what it felt like to lose her last love. The ferawicce was the child on her knees then, the sword was a fishing knife, and the brass bells on a thick silk tokre were nowhere to be seen because the girl who wore that tokre, the girl to which the ferawicce had given those brass bells, had given her heart, was… gone. Gone because she’d never really cared, not deep down, not under the skin. Gone because the only possible explanation, the ferawicce had eventually understood, was that she had told the Waight brothers, she had sent them, she had wished the ferawicce dead…
So this moment is all a jumble, is nothing at all like that last moment, maybe…
But somehow it seems an echo.
The ferawicce screams now as she screamed then. In denial, and rage, and soul-sucking hopelessness…
And she feels –
The golden magic has been clawing at her, like a beast prowling at the edge of her desperation, ever since she broke into the clearing, but this is –
This is something different.
…Waterwei, the ferawicce realizes as the sword falls in slow motion, as the boy closes his eyes against death and tears…
The ferawicce can suddenly feel an ocean of Waterwei magic, like nothing she has ever felt before. Every man who walks the earth has within him his pool of magic, of course. Some pools wider or deeper than others. Some hardly a puddle. Others a lake.
But an ocean?
This magic she feels now feels as if it could command the very ocean itself.
The ferawicce doesn’t have time to think about it. All she has is the instinctive relief of feeling that cool, ocean magic, washing away the mad heat of the golden glow that’s been haunting her all day, parching her all day, like fleeing from a desert…
She doesn’t think about it.
She just whispers the only word that makes sense.
Her hand reaches out, and the bells tinkle, and the sword falls.
And the ferawicce whispers, “Wai.”
The water that was only a forest river before suddenly roars from its confines and reaches wrathful white fingers for the raider with his rusted sword. Kaia is terrified that the rapids will surely reach Boone first, will surely pull the small boy to his death before they can drag the hardened man behind him…
But the water leaves Boone untouched.
The water moves, truly, like a hand, like something with intention, reaching out and wrapping vicious eddies around the raider’s ankles and –
It jerks him from his feet.
It pulls him, screaming, downstream. Until even his screaming is silenced.
The rain that has been dogging them all night patters away to nothing and in the unbroken silence of three men dying, and the shock of one little boy living through it all, Kaia wails her relief.
Boone looks up at the sound, but he sees the other woman first, still with her hand reaching out towards him, still with Boone’s tokre, tied around her palm, the brass bells jangling now, softly, softly, as she lowers her hand to the ground, as she levers herself to standing, but then falls back to a knee before him.
“You…” Strange that it should be the child who speaks first in this moment, but Boone licks his lips, shakes his head, and wipes at his tears, somehow finds the words to ask, “How did you do that?”
Kaia feels like she’s walking towards them both in slow motion. Probably because she’s wading through ankle deep muck in a dress stained red and brown, dragging insistently behind her, making each step harder, every moment stretch out longer and longer with her longing. Even so, she makes it to the shale shore before the other woman answers.
It is the sight of Kaia, actually, that seems to shake the words loose.
“I don’t think I did,” she murmurs.
But the words don’t make sense. And as grateful as Kaia is to this stranger, this wonderful twin ocean soul, right now she only has eyes for…
“Boone,” she whispers.
And she opens her arms.
And her son runs into them.
The dread had been so certain in her. That there would be crying when they reached this scene. How grateful she is that these are tears of relief and not mourning. She pulls Boone’s tiny, bony body so close she worries their ribs are bruising one another, and still it is not close enough, not safe enough. He will never be as safe in the world as he was when she carried him cradled beneath her heart. She loathes that in order to be that man he so longs to be, Boone will have to roam far and wide from her arms. She can hold him now, but for how long? How long before he finds himself on another road?
Will there be another mysterious woman, then, to save him?
The thought brings Kaia’s gaze back to the woman, still kneeling, clutching at her stomach and breathing shallowly.
“Are you alright?”
Boone thinks she’s speaking to him, nods against her collarbone. But Kaia already knows he’s alright. She can hear the stream of his soul already skipping back to a steady trickle, already bubbling again over rocks and gently lapping with a sound that has always reminded Kaia, a little, of her son’s laughter. Oh, it will be a while before he laughs again, this pale, quiet boy in her arms, where only this morning there was a little prince demanding his freedom and his horse. He has had an adventure and he has learned they are as likely to be damning as enlightening. He has learned that defeat is ever lurking behind the promising glimmer of victory. He has learned this night what it is to kneel, and bow one’s head, and hold out one’s hand to death.
Kaia wishes she could have spared him that lesson, at least a little longer. Ironic, she supposes, that it is a lesson a boy must learn, if he wants to be a man. Boone snuck out of the castle this morning because he wants to a King and a knight and a man, right this very moment. This night has taught him fear and humility. Hard lessons, but a man’s lessons.
He got exactly what he wished for.
And all he paid for the lesson is a black eye, a deep purple swelling along his jaw.
Whereas his rescuer looks…
And she still hasn’t answered. Maybe she also thought Boone’s murmur was the answer Kaia was looking for.
So she asks again, calling out this time, loudly, clearly, across the sharp shale between them, “Are you alright?”
The sound startles the woman’s gaze up and –
Her hood falls from her head.
And their eyes meet.
Her eyes are golden!
Strangely, it is Boone who gasps, not Kaia.
She already knew.
And in place of the terror she should feel there is only…
White-hot blazing shame that burns away every thought in her mind except –
She doesn’t say the name, of course. It is her secret, sacred word. It is her darkest secret. It is her recurring nightmare. It is the moment that left her with only crumbling ruins for a heart, the memory that drives her to sit by the fountains or the streams in the castle gardens for hours, every single day, because it is only the gentle sounds of water that can drown out the horrible screaming she can still hear echoing.
She killed Elois.
She loved Elois.
She was so scared, so instantly terrified the first time she saw golden eyes staring out at her from her best friend’s face. She was only a child then, only just turned twelve. And her hate had been so very carefully taught. She and Elois had gone together to ferawicce cleansings. They had stood solemnly and stared straight ahead as the soldiers cut gaping mouths in the mother’s stomachs and fed the babes to the screaming, bloody monster they created. They heard the steady drumbeat of the dirge as the soldiers marched the mothers to the cliff’s edge. One woman tried to save herself, clawed at the soldiers and impaled herself on their lances, trying to keep her feet on solid ground. But the two others gathered their chains and carried their weights cradled against themselves like they had cradled their children so briefly. They threw themselves over the edge, staring down at the rocks and the water so far below like… relief.
They threw themselves to their deaths.
Kaia had been told it was their shame. It was knowing, deep in their gut, that neither their babes, nor themselves, had any place in this world. Their babes were monsters of lore. And their mothers might well be worse. Women who lay with beasts, the people said. Woman who lay down and bellowed their pleasure with beasts.
Kaia’s reaction to golden eyes as a child was knee-jerk, automatic, ingrained. She hadn’t even thought about it. That morning in the woods, she’d woken, so warm and safe in Elois’ arms. She’d laid there many long moments that morning, as the sun rose and the earth warmed and, truly, she no longer needed Elois to cuddle her close, to hold Kaia against her heat. But Kaia hadn’t moved. Or at least not away. She’d pulled Elois’ arms tighter about her waist, brought one of those hands up between the beginning swells of her breasts, kissed that palm, and placed it over her heart, realizing, that very moment, “This is yours,” she’d whispered.
The way Elois’ body had stiffened behind her, Kaia knew the other girl was awake, knew she’d heard, knew…
“A fair trade,” Elois had finally whispered back. “As I gave you mine long ago.”
A fair trade. A heart for a heart.
How strange that the memory, the dream Kaia still dreams even a decade later, it has such soaring joy… before her bitterest sorrow…
Kaia had rolled over then, that morning in the woods. She’d rolled Elois onto her back, and hovered over her, grinning, and she was going to take from that girl she so loved her very first kiss. And Elois blinked up at her –
With golden eyes.
Kaia threw herself off the other girl like she’d suddenly caught fire.
She hadn’t missed a step when Elois cried out her name.
She’d run straight to the Waight brothers, told them what she saw, watched them gather their knives and watched them stalk off towards the woods with… relief.
She’d felt relief then.
She’d been taught to fear golden eyes so wholeheartedly since birth that all she’d felt was relief, like those eyes weren’t Elois’, like the girl she’d been hovering over, about to kiss, like that girl suddenly wasn’t Elois; like as soon as Kaia saw her eyes, it was a stranger she’d left, sleep-mussed in the woods.
And then she’d heard the screaming.
And suddenly she’d remembered –
It was still Elois.
The girl who always snuck up behind Kaia in the tall wheat and startled her, because she must have known Kaia reveled in her embrace in those moments, even if she pretended censure. The girl who taught Kaia that you don’t need a saddle to ride a horse and that your horse may well know better than you where the best apple trees are, or how to navigate the steep narrow path to those wildflower fields you’d always longed to visit on the cliff’s edges. The girl Kaia wanted to kiss. And the girl who would have let her, would have tucked Kaia’s hair behind her ear after and those eyes, no matter their shade, wouldn’t they have told Kaia, as they always did, that what the girl saw when she looked at Kaia was… everything?
Kaia had always felt invincible under that gaze. That gaze made her brave and beautiful and kind and a hundred other qualities she wasn’t at all sure she possessed when those sparkling eyes didn’t tell her so.
Elois’ screaming abruptly cut short.
Kaia’s heart crumbled, and it was as though the ocean within her leaked out then, spilled out of whatever container had been. In the silent wake of Elois screaming, that’s when Kaia had first started to hear the water in men’s souls. That’s when she had first understood that her own soul was vast, and raging, and empty.
Without Elois, Kaia was suddenly just… Kaia.
All anyone else saw when they looked at her was the ‘beautiful’ part. They all said it, they all fawned over her for it, and then they sold her hand in marriage to a King who valued just that one thing just as much.
The last ferawicce Kaia knew gave her ten years of happiness and her heart.
This ferawicce before her now has given Kaia back her son.
She refuses to let the shade of the other woman’s eyes dictate her actions this time. She doesn’t care if the ferawicce was the one who shook Pöeddae this morning. She doesn’t care if she killed a Guard. Frankly, Kaia doesn’t care about anything except –
This woman has an ocean for a soul.
And she saved Kaia’s son.
At least as far as Kaia is concerned, this woman has shown nothing but kindness.
It is the least Kaia can do to return the favor, even if in only this very small way.
The woman still has her arm banded across her stomach, is still hunched over some wound there, is still breathing a little too fast and a little too shallow and her lovely coffee-shade skin is clearly paled by more than moonlight, but –
They can both hear it now.
The clang of metal armor and Abelard calling out through the trees.
“Run!” Kaia tells the ferawicce. “Run!”
But it’s too late.
The man in the shining armor bursts through the trees with the King only a horse-length behind. The knight’s sword is outstretched before him, his mouth is open in a battle cry, his vain curls streaming out behind him, almost as long as his horse’s mane…
To encounter no battle.
Unlike the knight in the clearing this morning, this one falters. He is younger than the first. Bloodthirsty, the way so many warriors are, for why else does a man choose to kill as a profession? But not as brave as the first knight. He has not truly been tested. She believes that he has fought many battles – she can feel the surety in him and the stoic nature of his steed that speaks to many charges such as this – but he has never truly met his mettle. He has never faced the doubt of defeat. Always he has bested his enemies. Always he has been able to see ahead of time that he will best them. He has sat across a field from many men, but he has always seen before his charge that his opponent is his lesser. And so he has always been able to charge forward with confidence.
It does not take bravery to face an opponent you are sure you will best.
You do not learn courage in those moments, no matter how much blood you shed.
And so this knight with his gleaming armor, and his long, braided hair… He hesitates at the sight of her, and the one small detail of her golden eyes, even as she is quite literally kneeling before him, even as she cannot make even the shallow gesture to stand, to puff up her chest and pretend she is frightening, and not frightened.
She is so tired. Months of nightmares instead of sleep. She hiked down half a continent to get here. She has taken two lives this day. And her own has nearly been taken twice. And now she kneels before this arrogant young knight with a raider’s knife still buried in her gut…
And yet it is, strangely, her emotions tearing at her, more than the blade. Such sharp relief in this moment. She has saved the boy! She has altered her nightmare, and she can feel deep within her that she has altered fate in that same moment, set it back to rights for he was not meant to die this night.
And also… surprise. Gratitude. That the beautiful Queen would say to her, “Run!”
No one has ever tried to save her before.
No one has ever met her gaze squarely and assessed her only for her own actions, and not those some of her kind may have perpetuated, more than a hundred years ago…
And then… anger. Such anger that she can feel the golden magic shivering in anticipation, just waiting for her to lose her grip and reach out again. This day has taught her, perhaps, why her father was so scared of her golden magic, her ferawicce gifts. She has never felt that lust, that rage, when she’s used her gift for small things, when she’s spoken with plants, or bent small bits of element to her will… But when she shook the city this morning, and ever since… It’s a dark craving so elemental to her very being that the ferawicce can’t be sure if it’s her own desires or something somehow ‘other’, hiding in every thread of golden magic, weaving its way through every living thing that walks, or grows, or swims on this earth.
Anger and fear and gratitude and relief and a knife wound.
The world is blurry and weaving in her sight.
The knight has finally gathered himself, recognizing, probably, that this is again a lesser opponent, that despite her eyes, this ferawicce is in no shape to fight him now. She will fall to him as easily as all those foolish men before. She is already kneeling. Only a moment’s work to urge his steed forward, to bring up his sword…
How strange, that she should die the Prince’s death, in his place…
Kneeling before a cruel man with a sword…
“I command you to stop!”
The words are spoken in a King’s tone, but they are not spoken in Abelard’s voice.
“Knight Garrik,” he commands, “stand down.”
This is not a boy speaking. This is a Prince.
Knight Garrik hesitates, looks to the King, but the King is looking at his son.
“Boone?” Not a reprimand, nor a challenge, but only a question.
Boone speaks in a tone that holds strength, even as his tears have left the notes scratchy and wet as this night. “If you harm this woman,” he tells his father, “you will shame our house, and our kingdom.”
“My King!” the knight objects, still turned to the King, though the King is still turned to his son.
“She saved my life,” Boone murmurs.
But, “She also took dozens of lives this day!”
It is the knight who speaks again, out of turn. The King only looks thoughtful. He lets his son look at the ferawicce a long moment, look into her eyes as bravely as his mother did, and then answer the knight’s angry words with a question: “Did she have cause?”
The knight turns back to the King, imploring. “My King…”
The King answers his son. “Yes. We attacked first.”
“As we have for the last century,” the Queen finally mutters her own comment.
“We cannot let this creature free!” the knight argues. “We cannot let her live!”
It is more to sate his own bloodlust and to buoy his own pride that the knight speaks – To kill a full-grown ferawicce! What a tale for the taverns! – but the ferawicce fears it is an argument many others will back with practical reasons and honest fears. There are apparently dozens in the city who have the right to claim her life in recompense for lives she has taken. That she didn’t mean to, that she feels the guilt of that now… No one will believe her. And she supposes it really makes no difference anyway.
The torches have been slowly growing from pinpricks to a dawn-like glow for twenty minutes now. At least thirty men. On horseback, from the height of the torches the ferawicce can make out as little individual suns now, lazy shining through the trees…
Surely the King’s Guard will not let her live.
Regardless of how the Prince argues, regardless of what the King decides, regardless of the Queen muttering, someone will shoot an arrow out of instinct, instead of waiting for a command.
The ferawicce wonders if her emotions have abandoned her in this moment simply because they are too many and too strong. Because all of a sudden she feels… calm. Vast and calm and still inside of her.
The Queen, the Queen who didn’t gasp at her eyes, gasps now. She even whispers, “No!” But the ferawicce cannot figure out for the life of her to what the Queen could be objecting.
The ferawicce has the distant thought that she should be objecting to something. She thinks she should feel… angry… But the feeling, and the thoughts, are suddenly very far away. It’s hard to care about anything, it’s hard to think about anything, when you are marveling up at the vast and starry sky…
The sky is still vaster than the oceans even, the ferawicce thinks, a whisper even in her own mind.
So many stars.
The Queen’s face suddenly fills the ferawicce’s entire sky and she gets her first look at the woman up close.
From an ocean of calm and whispers, something deep in the ferawicce cries loudly and insistently that she knows those eyes!
But she cannot seem to care about even that.
She simply looks at the Queen now, marvels up at her beauty as she marveled at the very heavens above.
And then she lets her own eyes fall closed.
Just a moment.