"You cannot save everyone, Elena."
"But he was alone, and so cold." The little girl cradles the baby bird in her dirty hands. "Please, Father, can't you bring him back?"
Bishop Averius gives a heavy sigh as he kneels in front of his young charge. "Some things are simply too fragile to exist in this world, child. You must let it go."
"No!" Elena curls her fingers tightly around the slowly-breathing creature. "I won't let it!"
"Elena - "
"It's cruel and it's wrong!" Tears spill down the child's red face. "You can't just give up because it's weak!"
"The strong survive, Elena. The weak perish. This is the way of the world. There is nothing that can be done to change it."
Elena stomps her foot. She hasn't thrown a tantrum in many years, but fury is pulsing through her veins. "I'll change it, then! I'll save it! You'll see!"
"You may try if you must," says the bishop wearily.
"Good! I will!"
(The baby bird dies three days later.)
(So does the next one, and the next, and the one after that. So does the abandoned sickly kitten, and the fox cub with only three legs, and even the butterfly with the crushed wing.)
(But Elena never stops trying.)
---Twenty years later---
Elena always loved the view from up high.
She hums something tuneless to herself under her breath as she drags a cloth over the dusty chapel window, one leg swinging slightly from the sill where she sits. It's a beautiful morning, the birds twittering over the green meadows leading up to Palmeni Temple. Dust motes float through the sunlit air that hangs in shafts over the nearly-empty hall.
As Elena wrings out her rag over a bucket, movement catches her eye. She looks out the window again to see a row of soldiers tramping over the grass towards the temple. Her interest piqued, Elena leans forward and squints at the men as they trudge up the hill towards the shrine. They wear Daein black armor, the kind Elena is intimately familiar with - high ranking armor. A figure in white crosses across the lawn, and Elena recognizes the pointed hat of Head Bishop Averius walking out to meet them. They stop before him, and Averius bows low. Elena can't hear their conversation from where they sit, but Averius looks agitated, his hands flapping like curtains in a breeze. The head soldier is several heads taller than the bishop, huge and looming over Averius like a miniature mountain.
Then, the soldiers part, revealing a figure in their midst that isn't wearing armor. Elena can only barely see them among the sea of black metal, but they seem to be wrapped in a thick brown cape. Averius nods again, and then turns back to the temple. The men follow, but the figure doesn't. It lingers, turning its shadowed face out towards the trees surrounding the clearing. A soldier grabs it by the arm and the cloak-wrapped person recoils, pulling away. But it is futile, the soldier practically dragging them off their feet as he tugs them along. Averius leads the group through the temple's front doors, cloaked one and all, and Elena can feel the old building shake as they are slammed shut.
Definitely a strange sight. Soldiers come to the temple once in awhile, but never a large group, and Father Averius greeting them personally is quite unusual. And the figure in the middle...Elena ponders as she resumes her chores.
For the next several days, soldiers come and go from Palmeni Temple. It's unusual for so many to visit the shrine, and it's only two or three at a time, always at around noon. Every time, they seem to be meeting with Averius behind the temple, entering through the cellar doors, and then leaving a few minutes later. Elena knows, because she's been spying, handily assigning herself chores that give her a good view of the back. Nothing particularly interesting ever happens here, and while Elena doesn't mind a quiet life, she can't help being curious when a mystery presents itself.
Today, she's dusting the uppermost rafters in the main chapel, giving her an excellent view of several of the temple's large windows. There was another visit today, and the soldiers don't seem to have left yet - Elena has been carefully eying the cellar doors, dusting absentmindedly with one hand. Then, she is tugged from her thoughts by a voice.
Elena peers down at the speaker. "What is it?"
"There you are. What are you even doing up there?"
"Dusting." Elena quickly holds up her rag. "See?"
"All the way up there…? Well, anyway, Father Averius has sent for you." Brother Tomenami is worrying the hem of his sleeve between his fingers. "In his office. He says it's very urgent, and to put your other duties aside for now."
Elena frowns as she climbs down a wooden ladder. "What's going on?"
"I don't know. He didn't say."
"It is." Tomenami chews on his lip. "He seems really nervous, too. Maybe you're in trouble?"
"Well, I guess we'll find out. His office, you said?"
Elena hands Tomenami her bucket and rag and heads off down the familiar halls towards Averius's office. She mulls over possibilities in her mind as she goes. Perhaps he's seen her spying? Well, there's no crime for looking.
She reaches the office door and knocks, and a soft, quivering voice answers, "Enter."
Elena steps in. The office curtains are tightly drawn, making the whole room gloomy. Averius is seated at his desk, fidgeting with a scrap of paper. When he sees her, he smiles, but his face is pale. "Ah, Elena. Here you are."
"Is everything all right, Father?"
"Y-yes. Of course." Averius's eyes dart rapidly from Elena to the door to the window and back again. "Why would you think otherwise?"
Because you look like you're being held at the point of a crossbow, Elena thinks. Aloud, she says "I was just wondering why you called me here, sir."
"Oh, no, you're not in trouble or anything. Take a seat, take a seat." Averius waves hurriedly at the stiff wooden chair facing his desk. Elena obeys, folding her hands on her lap.
Averius takes a deep breath. "We…have had some visitors, Elena."
"The soldiers, Father?"
"Ah, so you saw them. Er…how much did you see?"
"Not much. Just a group of Daein soldiers speaking with you. Uh...and they've been meeting you in the backyard over the last few days. And going into the cellar." Elena ducks her head. She has never been much of a liar.
Averius starts. "You've been watching, then?"
"Er, a bit, sir."
"Did you see anything else?" Averius's squints at her. "Anything at all."
"Um...no. Should I have seen something more?"
"So you've been watching, but you didn't see anything," Averius mumbles, more to himself than to Elena. "Good, good…"
"Nothing. It's nothing." Averius huffs another massive breath. "You see, Elena, those...upstanding gentlemen...have left a guest with us."
"I don't understand, sir."
Averius quickly gets his feet, walks to the door behind Elena, and bolts it. He then returns to his seat, his shoulders shaking. "Elena, listen to me...what I tell you today, you must never tell another soul. Not a one. This is a matter of Daein national security."
Elena's stomach clenches. "Why…?
"I understand your young man is, ah, high-ranking in the Daein army. You are no stranger to such things. But you must understand, Elena…" For the first time, Averius looks up from his hands and meets Elena's eyes. "This order comes from much higher up than General Gawain. Nobody must be told. All of our lives may well be on the line."
Elena's heartbeat is like a rabbit's, her mouth dry. "A matter of Daein national security...here?"
"Yes. Elena, you must swear to me. I have taken you in, cared for you when you had nobody and nothing. You must...you must keep this secret. I am entrusting you with it."
"I…" It's true. Without Averius, Elena would have been left out on the street to die, like so many of Daein's children, the ones whose hungry eyes follow her home, the ones she can never have enough bread scraps for. She dimly remembers the days when that fear had lurked over her, as she'd kneeled outside the door to the church's ward where her father and then her mother had gasped out her final breaths…
...until Averius's hand had settled on her shoulder and vowed to train her, to put her to work, to keep her safe.
There isn't a choice, really.
Elena swallows hard. "I understand, sir. I will not tell anyone."
"Good. Good." Averius lowers his eyes back to where his scrap of paper is turning into a pile of long shreds in his trembling hands. "Then, as I say...those gentlemen have left a guest here. A...prisoner."
"A prisoner, in a temple?" Elena bursts out. "What - "
"Allow me to finish, Elena."
"I apologize, Father."
Averius draws a deep, shuddering breath. "There is a prisoner of the Daein Monarchy being held here, in the basement quarters of Palmeni Temple. The prisoner is…" Averius shifts his eyes about the room conspiritally, and leans forward as he lowers his eyes. "...a sub-human."
Elena blinks. "A laguz, sir? Here? In Daein?"
"Don't concern yourself with where it came from. The less you know, the better. Ignorance will keep you safe. I am only trying to protect you." Averius runs a hand over his white beard. "What matters is that it is here. This prisoner requires...special care. It is not dangerous. But it is...delicate, and needed alive."
"If it isn't dangerous, sir, why is it a prisoner?"
"That is not for you or I to question, Elena. Always, you ask questions." Averius shakes his head. "It is a troubling habit."
"As I say, someone must care for it. It is easily frightened, and terribly fragile. It nearly broke its wrist when it was taken by the arm a few days back, and now it seems to have taken ill. I think it is a task well suited for you, Elena. After all," and a smile crawls across Averius's face, "you always have been good with dying baby birds."
Coldness settles in Elena's stomach. "Sir - "
"I have told you the secret now, Elena. Again, you must tell no one. Not the others working here, not your young beau. Nobody. Do you understand?"
"I do, sir."
"Good." Averius leans back in his chair, looking relieved to have unloaded his burden onto Elena's shoulders. "Go and get acquainted with it, then."
Elena gets to her feet. "Yes, sir."
"You are expected to care for it every day. There will be a rotating guard standing watch, and they will ensure your safety and that the creature doesn't escape. Your job is to keep it alive. Bring it meals, clean it, heal it, whatever is needed. Your other duties will be reassigned. Oh, and Elena?"
Elena turns back from the door. "Sir?"
"Try not to get too attached."
Elena was frightened of the Palmeni Temple basement as a child. It is dark and dusty, a narrow hallway leading to a few small rooms. It's only ever used for storage these days, with only a handful of acolytes living at the temple full time - even Elena herself no longer among them. Elena has a bag of medicines over her back, her staff strapped to her side, and a tray in her hands - the simple rations given to acolytes, a bowl of broth and a lump of hard bread. Her stomach is churning and her heart pounding - she has never even seen a laguz before, and has no idea what lies ahead.
They are terribly dangerous, people say. Giant claws and bigger fangs. They live far to the east, in a barbaric country - dreadful creatures, pretending to be human. But Averius said this one wasn't dangerous. Elena has always found the rumors hard to believe, but then again she's never met one of the dreaded sub-humans for herself.
Elena's footsteps echo as she descends the staircase into the cellar and marches down the short hallway. The door to the back room is bolted shut from the outside, and two black-armored guards are standing on either side of it. They see her and one lifts his visor, peering at Elena's tray.
"You're the one that's supposed to take care of it?" he says, looking up and down.
"Yes," says Elena. "Um. Sir."
"Hm. Very well. Good luck." The man snickers.
The tone of his voice sends a crawling sensation down Elena's back, but she stands tall as the men unbolt the door and swing it open. Elena steps into the room, and the door slams shut behind her.
There are no torches or lanterns lit here, and it takes Elena's eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom. The room is square-shaped, and very small. There is a tiny bed, a rickety wooden chair, and a low table, which Elena sets her tray down on. And, against the far wall - something, or someone.
It's a woman, her back against the wall. She is so pale that she nearly glows in the darkness. She is wearing a somewhat tattered white dress, and has very long, very straight pale blonde hair - and massive white wings protruding from her back. One is bent at an odd angle.
"Hello," says Elena uncertainly. The woman makes a strangled chirping noise, pressing herself further into the wall, as if trying to sink through the stone.
"I don't understand you," says Elena slowly. "Are you all right?"
The bird-woman lets out another burst of sound, her feet scrabbling on the ground as she tries to back still further away. She flings an arm over herself in a gesture of protection, and her sleeve slides up her wrist, revealing a horrible ring of dark bruises.
"I can heal your wrist," says Elena. She steps forward and holds out a hand, a few inches away from being close enough to touch the woman. "Please - "
The woman's face goes even paler, and Elena realizes what is happening and springs forward as the bird-woman collapses in a dead faint. Elena manages to half-catch her, supporting her head and upper body. She is shockingly light.
"I'm sorry!" Elena hurriedly apologizes to the prone form. "I'm really, really sorry - oh, you can't even hear me. You're unconscious."
Elena crouches and picks the woman up. She only weighs as much as a full load of laundry, even with the wings - one of which is definitely broken. Elena carries the woman over to the bed and lays her down, careful of the broken wing. She sits in the rickety chair facing the woman, and waits.
After a few minutes, the woman's eyelids flutter, and she lets out a small moan. When her eyes open entirely, she freezes.
"It's okay. I won't hurt you, I promise. I'm sorry for startling you."
The woman looks at the bed under her, then at Elena. She is so tense her body is shaking slightly, but she doesn't try to run.
"You're hurt. I can try to help."
The woman lifts her head from the bed and says something in that odd, chirping tone.
"Is that...words? Do you speak the Tellius language? Can you understand me?"
The woman only stares.
Elena reaches behind her, and the woman tenses further. Elena pulls out her staff. "I can use this to make you feel better."
The woman relaxes only slightly, eyeing the staff warily.
Elena doesn't try to reach for the woman again. "Here - I can show you." Elena lifts her own hand, and slams the side of it into the sharp corner of the wooden table. The woman winces.
"Here, see?" Elena passes the staff over her hand, and holds it out to the woman as the red mark fades. "It's for healing."
The woman looks at Elena's hand, then the staff, then Elena's face. She seems to think for a moment, and then slowly holds out her bruised arm.
Elena carefully lifts the staff over the arm. Normally she'd touch the woman, but she doesn't want to scare her again. She concentrates, and the bruise fades somewhat, the woman's shoulders visibly relaxing as the pain leaves her.
"I can do more." Elena sets the staff down and picks up her bag. The woman still looks nervous, but she doesn't tense again, watching Elena take out a medicine pot and a roll of bandages. The woman seems to recognize those, and holds her wrist out again.
"Is it okay to touch you?" Elena slowly lowers her hand towards the woman's wrist, giving her time to change her mind, but the woman doesn't retreat. Carefully, touching the woman's small, cold hand as little as possible, she spreads salve over the injury and wraps it in bandages. "There. You should feel even better soon."
The woman sits up in the bed, drawing her wrist to her chest, looking at it carefully. She then looks at Elena, saying something in her odd-sounding language.
Elena smiles. "I hope that feels better."
The bird-woman studies her. She has vivid, bright green eyes.
"You're a laguz...a bird one...but what bird laguz has white wings?" The woman blinks. "I'll try to find out. I wish I could understand you." Elena waves a hand towards the food on the tray. "I brought you your meal."
The woman looks rather forlornly at the bowl.
"I know it isn't much. What do you normally eat? I should try and find out. I can try and bring you something better tomorrow. If you're getting sick, you need good food so you can get better."
The woman tilts her head and says something else. It sounds inquisitive.
Elena points at the woman's broken wing. "May I take a look at that?"
The woman looks warily at her wing, then at Elena. She then shifts, turning slightly on the bed so her wing is angled towards Elena.
Elena holds out a hand, hovering it over the wing, and gives the bird woman a questioning look. The woman still looks very nervous, but she nods.
Elena carefully touches the wing, examining it. The feathers are soft and gentle to the touch. Elena squints at the injury. "It looks like...this was healed wrong? Somebody used a staff without setting the bone properly." A dreadful suspicion settles in the pit of Elena's stomach. "Either way...I can't fix it for real without doing surgery, and I can't do that down here. I'll talk to the bishop. Is it hurting you? Oh, you can't answer…" Elena sighs, releasing the wing. "I need to learn more about you. I'm not even sure where to start."
The woman answers her, her tone somewhat forlorn.
"I'm sorry," Elena says again. She gets to her feet. "I'll talk to the bishop about getting you better food, and about your wing." She gathers up her things, gives a little curtsey, immediately feels foolish for doing so, and hurries out of the room.
The guards bolt the door behind her. Neither seems interested in conversation, so Elena leaves the cellar and makes her way back into the main temple. She knocks at Father Averius's office, and enters.
"Ah, Elena. I see the sub-human didn't disembowel you?" Averius gives a nervous chuckle.
"She seems harmless, Father. I treated the injury on her arm, but her wing appears to be broken, and it's healed wrong..."
Father Averius grows pale. "Ah. Yes. The wing…"
Averius twists his hands together. "Well, it was already broken when it got here, you see...and His High-the men, they had me use a staff on it the way it was. They, er...wanted to stop it from flying, you see. With a crippled wing, it can't escape. But I healed the bone. It shouldn't be hurting the creature. So you needn't fuss."
"That was deliberate?" Elena bursts out. "That's - "
"That's what, Elena? It's not a human. It may look like one, but it's an animal. It's for its own safety. If it got out on its own, it would die within days."
Elena lowers her head. "It just seems...wrong, Father."
"I warned you not to get attached." Averius shakes his head. "Don't bother yourself with the wing. Treat its other injuries and keep it alive. That's all you need to worry about."
"About that...could better food be provided for her?"
"You're free to feed it whatever you wish, but the acolyte rations are perfectly adequate. This isn't a guest, Elena. It's a prisoner, and a wild, untamed animal."
Elena swallows her words. "Yes, Father."
"Good, then." Averius tidies up some papers on his desk. "I will see you tomorrow morning. Travel safely. Don't be late."
"You seem distracted, Elena. Is everything okay?"
Elena looks up from her stew, blinking. "Sorry, what?"
"Exactly my point." Gawain frowns at her from across the small kitchen table. "I said that you seem distracted. Are you all right? Did something happen at work?"
Elena fidgets with her fork. "Er...yes, actually."
"What is it?"
Elena bites her lip. Averius's words roll through her mind, unbidden: This order comes from higher up than him. Nobody must be told. All of our lives may well be on the line.
"Well, er…" Elena thinks, choosing her next words carefully. "We're taking care of a patient at the temple. She's...in rough shape. I was just thinking about her."
"Oh…" Gawain still looks concerned. "Will she be okay?"
"Will you be okay? I know that kind of thing's hard on you…"
Elena hurriedly waves a hand. "I'll be fine. I was thinking I'd bring her some leftovers from dinner. The temple food's pretty lousy."
"Yeah, I ate there once." Gawain shudders. "I'm sure your patient'll be fine, though. She's got someone really great taking care of her, right?"
"Yes, Bishop Averius is quite talented."
Elena giggles. "Sorry, sorry. Thank you. I had a question for you, though...what do you know about laguz?"
Gawain looks up from his plate in surprise. "Where did this come from?"
Elena pushes her fork around her stew. "Er...the patient...was talking about it. She's…" Elena invents wildly, "...from Crimea. I was curious."
"Hm." Gawain furrows his brow. "I don't really know much about them, myself. Daein doesn't really associate itself with them. I can look in the royal library and see if I can find you anything…"
"That would be a huge help! To bond with the patient, I mean." Elena can feel sweat crawling down her back. Lying doesn't come naturally to her. But dragging Gawain into all this, and putting all their lives at risk...it's necessary, she tells herself. She owes Averius a debt, after all. This is the right thing to do.
"Good morning! I brought you some different food this time," Elena says brightly as she enters the cellar room. "I hope you like this better. It's beef stew. I think I heard somewhere that laguz really like meat? Or maybe they only eat raw meat...well, anyway, here it is." She unwraps the bowl and sets it down on the table.
The bird-woman had looked excited at the sight of the parcel, but when she sees its contents, she recoils, cringing.
"Oh. Maybe you don't like that?"
The woman looks at the bowl, then at Elena, and shakes her head. She looks apologetic.
"Sorry! You don't have to eat it," says Elena quickly, rewrapping the bowl and stowing it back in her bag. The woman looks relieved when the offending meal is taken away. "But...what do you eat? How am I supposed to find that out?"
The woman only looks puzzled.
Elena drums her fingers on her chin, and then an idea comes to her. "Just a moment! Wait here! Uh, I mean...never mind! I'll be right back!" She hurries out of the room again, ignoring the quizzical looks of the guards, and runs upstairs and into a supply room. Elena digs around in a crate, quickly finds her prizes, and then rushes back downstairs and back into the cellar room, the guards staring after her as the door bangs shut again.
"Here!" Elena triumphantly holds a sheaf of paper, some quills, and a few bottles of ink aloft. "This way you can tell me!"
The woman looks confused for a moment, but when Elena takes out a quill and dips it in the ink, she brightens with understanding, leaning over the table to watch.
Elena is no artist, but she draws a clumsy approximation of a bowl, and passes pen and paper to the woman. "Here. What can you eat?"
The woman thinks for a moment, then draws a few things above the bowl. She isn't really an artist either, but Elena can make out what looks like an apple, a clump of berries, and some acorns.
"Fruit and nuts…" Elena nods. "I can find those! Huh, I thought laguz only ate meat…but it doesn't matter. Now that I know, I can get you some real food. That'll help you feel better, for sure."
The woman is smiling faintly as she watches Elena, her head tilted. She says something in her strange tongue.
Elena taps the picture. "Food."
"...Food?" the woman echoes. She points to the picture, and says a word in her lilting tone.
Elena echoes the sound, and the woman beams, letting out a string of excited chatter as she clasps her hands together.
"It's a start," says Elena happily. She considers a moment, and then places a hand on her own chest. "Elena."
The woman points at her. "Elena?"
Elena nods rapidly, smiling, and the woman's smile grows still wider, lighting up the room. "Elena!"
The woman points to herself. "Lillia."
"You are...Lillia?" Elena points. "Lillia?"
The woman nods back.
"It's good to meet you, Lillia." Elena smiles. "I hope we can learn more about each other. I'll be back tomorrow. With food."
Elena nods. "Yes, Lillia food."
Lillia smiles, and reaches out a hand to place on Elena's wrist. "Elena...food...Lillia. Thank you. "
"Thank you? Thank you?"
Lillia nods. She holds up the bottle of ink and the quill, and then draws them to her chest. "Elena. Lillia... keep? "
Elena nods. "Yes. For Lillia."
"Thank you." Lillia looks happily down at her prizes.
Elena gets to her feet. "I'll bring the food tomorrow. You're welcome, Lillia. It's really nice to be able to talk to you. Let's teach each other more. Thank you. "
Elena smiles. "You're welcome." She leaves the room, the bolt sliding shut behind her. Lillia watches her go, listens to the sound of her retreating footsteps, and then looks down at the bottle of ink in her hands.
"She's kind. And she's...special, for a beorc. I don't know how, yet. Maybe…" Lillia muses aloud to herself as she sets the bottle down on the table. She then stands up and walks to the far wall, running her fingers over the stone.
"It might be too late for me, everyone. I'm sorry. But perhaps...perhaps there is still hope. Elena carries hope."
"It took my whole lunch break, but I found you something," Gawain calls as he enters the small Nevassa apartment, shaking mud off his boots. "There wasn't much, though. Daein really doesn't like talking about the laguz."
"Thank you," says Elena, coming to meet him and taking the thin volume he holds out. "It means a lot."
"Don't worry about it. I don't think the librarian even noticed me taking it." Gawain snorts. "I buried it in a pile of training manuals."
"That's not very becoming behavior for a general," Elena teases, nudging him with her shoulder. "Think of the example you're setting! For shame."
Gawain kisses her cheek. "Yeah, are you gonna report me for it?"
"Don't be silly. Can you give the soup a stir?"
"Sure, no problem. I'll leave you to your research." Gawain heads into the kitchen.
Elena sits down and looks at the book. "Identifying The Laguz Tribes Of Tellius" is etched on the cover in faded letters. It seems very old, and rather dusty, the spine creaking when Elena opens it.
Gawain's voice echoes from the kitchen. "What's with all the fruit? Making a pie?"
"I got it from the market today, it's for my patient! You can have a bit of it if you like," Elena calls, checking the index and flipping to the section on bird laguz. She pages past the hawks and ravens, dismissing them at only a quick glance, and then stops at the page entitled "Herons." There's a drawing of two tall creatures, one with white wings and the other black, dressed in flowing robes. They stand out from the other illustrations - in comparison to all the bulging muscles, they look thin, almost sickly.
Intrigued, Elena leans forward, squinting at the page.
"One of the rarest laguz species barring the dragons of Goldoa, little is known about the heron clan. Native to a forest in Begnion and rarely seen outside of it, the heron clan is notoriously fragile and delicate, unlike its cousins in the other bird tribes. According to lore, they can peer inside a person's heart - more specifically, they have a strong sense of empathy that allows them to sense the feelings of others, beorc and laguz alike. Their magic is expressed through songs, which have incredible healing and reinvigorating properties. It is said that they draw their power from nature itself."
Elena pauses, thinking of Lillia's injuries and her sickly, pale face. Perhaps she can't access her powers, trapped in that basement?
"While they are long-lived, herons cannot survive long outside of their native environments. Their digestive system cannot process meat or any sort of animal products, and they quickly fall prey to illness. Exposure to negative feelings, both their own and those of others, seems to aggravate this. Herons in captivity have never been known to live longer than a few months."
The page ends there. Elena stares at it, her stomach sinking.
So Lillia is a heron. A fragile creature that only lasts a few months in captivity.
Things aren't looking good.
Gawain appears in the door, a half-eaten apple in his mouth. "Dinner's ready. What's up?"
Elena stares down at the open book in her lap. "Gawain, what do you think of laguz?"
"I've never met any. Why?"
"Just...everyone's telling me that they're animals. That they aren't worth keeping alive. But they don't seem that way. They seem closer to people than animals."
"Have you met any?"
Elena averts her eyes. "...No. Just heard things."
Gawain sits down on the sofa beside her. "I agree with you, Elena. Like I said, I've never met any, so I can't say for sure. But Tauroneo and Lanvega both talk about them sometimes, and they feel the same way that you do. They're the ones that taught me to stop calling them 'sub-human.'"
Elena closes the book. "It seems so cruel. Why does Daein shun them?"
"Fear of the unknown, maybe. Fear of their power. Ignorance. Same reason anyone gets shunned." Gawain puts an arm around Elena's shoulders. "But you can't fix it yourself, Elena."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because I know you'll want to try. You're stubborn like that."
"You're one to talk."
"I guess." Gawain squeezes Elena's shoulders. "C'mon. Dinner will get cold."
Elena gets to her feet and follows him into the kitchen, leaving the book behind.
When Elena enters Lillia's room the next morning, the heron woman immediately perks up at the sight of her. Elena holds up a canvas sack and sets it on the table. "Good morning, Lillia! For you."
Lillia peers into the sack, and her face fills with excitement. "Food!"
"Yes!" Elena nods and indicates the bag. "Eat up."
Lillia rummages under her bed and holds up a somewhat rumpled stack of paper. "For...Elena."
Elena takes the papers. "Um...thank you."
"You learn really fast." Elena watches Lillia dig into the bag of fruit with gusto, and then directs her attention to the papers.
It's a series of drawings. The first is of a group of people, with wings and long hair, standing among trees. A few musical notes have been drawn over them. They are all smiling.
"Is this you? And your people?" Elena asks.
Lillia points to herself, and then to the woman in the middle.
"It is, then." Elena looks to the next drawing. The trees are aflame. Only Lillia is standing among them, looking sad. Elena's stomach sinks. "This is...this is how you got here? Your people were...set on fire…?"
Lillia doesn't answer.
"I'm so sorry."
Lillia shakes her head, turning a berry over in her fingers.
Elena turns to the next page. The woman's wing has been broken. A group of black-clad soldiers are holding her arms. A big soldier in black armor is standing in front of her, looking angry.
"Then you were...captured. By...Daein. And…" The next drawing, although crude, looks like the outside of Palmeni Temple. Elena can recognize the curve of the roof. And then, Lillia is sitting in a small room, with the big soldier towering over her, yelling.
Elena turns to the final page, and sees a drawing of herself and Lillia in the room, both smiling. "I...make you happy? Is that what you're saying?"
Lillia has abandoned the fruit. She pulls out another sheet of paper, and her brow is furrowed in concentration as she thinks. Finally, she draws a smiling face, and taps it. "Happy. Elena...happy...for Lillia."
"Right…" Elena looks down at the drawings. "I wish I could do more for you." She looks over at the bag. "Are you already done? You barely ate anything…"
Lillia shrugs. Her hand is trembling as she drags her pen over the paper once more. Elena looks up to see that Lillia is shivering.
"...Lillia?" Elena holds out a hand, and pauses before setting it over Lillia's own. It's ice cold. "You're freezing."
Lillia tilts her head.
"Cold." Elena unfastens her own cloak and passes it to her. "Here. For Lillia."
Lillia takes the cloak and wraps it around herself. Her smile is small, but relief is evident on her face. "Thank you, Elena."
"I'll bring more warm clothes for you tomorrow. You must be miserable in that dress."
"Uh, I don't really know how to draw that…"
Lillia's brow furrows as she finishes her drawing. She passes the paper over to Elena.
It's a circle, with a smaller circle in its center and an elaborate design drawn inside it.
"I don't know what this is."
Lillia taps it. "Important. Treasure. For...for Elena. I can't show it to you yet, but..."
"I'm sorry. I really don't understand."
Lillia is practically shoving the paper in Elena's face, with uncharacteristic aggression.
"I really am sorry."
Lillia lowers the paper, looking defeated.
"Don't look sad," says Elena gently, putting a hand on Lillia's shoulder. "I'm sure I'll get it eventually, if we keep trying."
Lillia smiles, but there is sorrow and fear in her eyes.
"Either way, this has been a start. If we learn more, maybe you can tell me your message later." Elena picks up another quill and reaches for the paper. "Let's try learning more. Here…"
"Elena? You home?"
"In the bedroom!"
Gawain comes into the bedroom to find Elena kneeling on the floor, surrounded by piles of clothes. "Uh. We doing spring cleaning, or…?"
Elena looks up from folding a dress. "Just trying to find stuff that might fit my patient."
"You're bringing her your clothes?"
"Well, er…" Elena shifts slightly. "Her things are too thin. You know, Crimea's a lot warmer than here. The coast, and all. So I thought I'd give her some things of mine."
"That's nice of you." Gawain carefully steps over a pile of robes. "You might've overdone it a little, though."
"Yeah, probably," Elena admits, setting the dress down in her lap. "She's taller and thinner than me, so I wanted to find the best possible options...you know how I get with a project."
"Believe me, I know."
"Hey, you didn't have to agree that easily!" Elena playfully nudges his kneecaps.
"Who is this patient, anyway?"
"I don't really know much about her…" Elena fidgets. "She's about our age, I think. Maybe a little younger? Seems really sweet. Pretty shy. Doesn't talk much."
Gawain's brow furrows.
"A-anyway, I'll just get this cleaned up." Elena is suddenly busying herself with stacking clothing again and shoving them back into her wardrobe. "Can you deal with dinner tonight?"
"...Yeah, sure." Gawain watches her a moment longer before going into the kitchen.
She's hiding something about that patient. Gawain knows her well enough to tell. But, for the life of him, he can't fathom why. Elena's never lied to him about anything. And it's not like he wouldn't be able to handle it if the girl is disfigured or dying or something - he's seen plenty of that kind of thing.
Still, Gawain muses as he rummages in the kitchen cupboards, it's probably not a big deal. Sometimes the temple takes in and cares for serious cases. She's done it before. Maybe the girl's the daughter or mistress of some high-ranking official, and they're trying to keep it quiet. Yeah, that would make sense. Probably better not to get involved in that kind of thing. Gawain gets paid plenty, but it's still not nearly enough to get dragged into noble business.
Besides, he reminds himself, Elena works at a temple. What kind of evil could happen in a temple? No matter what's going on, it can't be something bad enough to put Elena in any danger. And Elena's too smart to get dragged into anything really nasty.
He's worrying about nothing.
"I brought you clothes!" says Elena happily as she enters Lillia's room. "They might be a little short, but they should be warm."
Lillia is standing at the wall farthest from her bed, humming. She turns and smiles when she sees Elena. "Good...morning, Elena!"
"Good morning!" Elena blinks. "You learn fast. What are you doing?"
Lillia gestures to the wall. If Elena squints, she can see wet ink scrawled in a thin, looping pattern across the stone.
"Is that...writing?" Elena walks over to stand next to Lillia. Yes, if she looks closely, the symbols look slightly familiar. "It's...the ancient language? Like in tomes…"
"Is the ancient language the heron language, too? Huh...I thought laguz had their own language."
Lillia gestures to the stones. "Okay?"
"Yes, it's okay. Write all you like. Nobody comes down here, anyway." Elena walks over to set her things down on the table. "For Lillia, come see!"
Lillia walks over and picks up a wool dress. "Thank you. Um..." Lillia gestures to the back of the dress, and then to her wings.
"Oh, of course. You can't wear these...you have wings." Elena puts a hand to her face. "I completely forgot. Well, I brought a sewing kit to make adjustments...I can cut some slits. Here." She takes the dress back, pulls out the kit, and gets to work while Lillia eats her meal.
Lillia is humming something, the same melody as when Elena walked in the room.
"That's a pretty song," says Elena, struggling to hem the thick fabric.
Leanne draws a musical note on a sheet of paper and holds it up. "Galdrar!"
"Elena want... galdrar, too?"
"Galdrar with Lillia. Please."
Their voices fill the cramped room together, and it somehow makes the gloom a little brighter.
It's a long process, and a confusing one, but through the use of the drawings and some makeshift charades, Elena and Lillia begin to understand each other. Elena's certain she's butchering the heron-language, but she does her best, and Lillia in turn is picking up words rapidly. Perhaps her powers as a heron are aiding her, or perhaps it is natural talent, or necessity. Still, Elena is relieved that they are at least able to communicate.
Elena ends up bringing Lillia a fresh bottle of ink nearly every day. Lillia has been writing not only on paper, but the walls of the cell. Elena wonders if it's a sort of journal, growing longer every day, starting on the far side of the room from her bed. Regardless, she doubts Father Averius cares if the walls look scribbled-on - none of them can even read the strange, looping letters, but Elena is fairly certain they are words.
Lillia passes Elena a paper with nine herons drawn on it. "Family."
"Yes." Lillia taps the little heron heads in turn. "Mother, father, brothers, sisters. Elena...have?"
"Mmm…" Elena picks up the pen and draws herself, then a crude image of Gawain. "Not much. Elena parents...gone. Elena grew up here. Only...ah, husband? Almost husband?"
"Not husband yet. Soon."
Lillia smiles. "Congratulations!" She looks proud of herself for remembering the word that Elena had used a few days ago, when Lillia's wrist was fully healed.
"Yes. Special day for him. Um…" Elena tries to think of how to express the word for "birthday," and gives up. "Elena bringing him present later."
"Elena likes to bring presents. Elena does it lots for Lillia."
"It's all right. I don't remember them. I've only ever known Palmeni."
"...Don't get. Sorry."
Lillia fiddles with her pen, staring at the winged figures on the paper. Elena thinks back to one of the first drawings Lillia had given her, of the trees aflame. She doesn't know what's become of Lillia's family, and she suspects Lillia doesn't either.
Elena hastens to change the subject. "How Lillia feel?"
Lillia ducks her eyes. "Not...bad. Not hurt."
"Bring something warmer tomorrow." Even wearing Elena's cloak, a thick woolen dress, and a few pairs of socks, Lillia still shivers. Her thin white dress, though barely even wearable anymore, lies in the bed next to Lillia. A little bit of home, Elena supposes.
Even as she is learning the language, and greeting Elena with a smile every morning...Lillia is still sick. It had barely been noticeable at first, but the symptoms are worsening daily. A small cough, a slight fever...all of which Lillia is working diligently to hide, but Elena can tell. That shiver won't subside even on warm days, and even though Lillia never ate very much to start with, she is starting to eat less and less.
"Yes, yes," says Elena quickly. "No worry."
"Elena no worry too." Lillia tilts her head. "Lillia...all right. Okay?"
"I don't believe you," Elena whispers.
It doesn't seem to be a regular sickness. Elena doesn't know how to treat it. Nothing she's tried seems to have slowed it, only made Lillia slightly more comfortable.
But she won't give up. She won't.
After her visit with Lillia concludes, Elena leaves the temple early and heads for Nevassa. She doesn't go to her apartment, though, instead taking a detour towards the barracks near Nevassa Castle.
It's Gawain's birthday, after all. And like she said to Lillia, she's bringing him a gift.
"Halt, civilian." The guard peers down at her as she draws close to the entrance. He's a speckle-faced youth, probably ten years her junior. "State your business."
"I'm here to see General Gawain."
"Let me check the list…" The guard pulls out a massive pile of papers with a sigh. "Name?"
"Oh." The guard turns pale, and puts the papers away again. "U-um, never mind. Just head on in. Tell the General that there was no trouble. None at all."
Elena blinks. "Um..."
"I'm not going to make him mad at me, I've seen what he does when people make him mad…" The boy is practically trembling. "I'm not going to be the person that didn't let Elena in…"
"Uh...okay. I'll...just go in, then?"
"Yes! Please! And make sure you tell the General that Elliot did his job well, Sister!"
Elena stares at him a moment longer, then shrugs and walks through the gate into the group of buildings making up the Daein Army barracks.
Within about five minutes, she's lost.
She's been here before, but never alone. And all these buildings look the same. She can hear some kind of training going on in the distance, shouting and the sound of creaking armor echoing, but she has no idea how to actually get there. And, Elena thinks despairingly as she looks up at the sun, it's practically noon already. Gawain's lunch hour is right about to start. Maybe, Elena thinks, breaking into a jog as she rounds a corner, if she hurries -
She smacks headlong into what feels like a solid metal wall, and topples over backwards.
"Ugh, dammit…" Elena fumbles for her parcel and looks up at the wall.
Which isn't a wall, actually, but it's about as tall and wide as one - a massive man in black armor.
"I'm so sorry," says the man. "I should have looked where I was going. Are you all right?"
Elena shakes her head, rubbing her forehead. "Yes, I'm fine. It was my fault." The man extends a hand, and Elena takes it. He hauls her to her feet with seemingly no effort at all.
"I apologize, but who are you, Sister? What are you doing here?"
"Oh...I'm here to see General Gawain." Even standing, Elena has to crane her neck to see the man's face. He's wearing simple foot soldier armor, and has dark hair and bright green eyes. Young-looking too, probably only a teenager.
The man looks her up and down. "Pardon me for assuming, but are you Elena?"
"Yes. Why does everyone here know that?"
"General Gawain speaks of you rather a lot, Sister. Er, I'm sorry - "
"You've apologized four times in four sentences."
Elena decides to let the matter drop.
The soldier clears his throat. "Would you like me to take you to General Gawain? He's nearly done with a training exercise."
"That would be really great of you," says Elena. "I'm, er, rather lost."
"Follow me, then, Sister." The man sets off. He's walking slowly, but Elena has to take two strides for each of his.
They walk in quiet for a few moments. Elena is the first to speak. "Do you work under Gawain?"
"I have had that honor, yes. He has been training me personally. I have learned a great deal from him." A half-smile plays around the soldier's mouth. "He is a truly incredible man."
"He is, isn't he?"
"Very strict. I forgot my sword once, and..." The man shudders.
"Really?" Elena laughs. "I swear he'd forget his own if I didn't remind him some mornings!"
The man looks downright scandalized. "I - I don't - "
"He's just a man," says Elena, a bit more gently. "I'm sorry. It's rather funny to me that everyone seems so in awe of him. I've known him for several years, and he's only ever been as gentle as a lamb with me."
The soldier has turned bright red. "I, er, um…"
"I'll stop embarrassing you now," says Elena quickly. "I was wondering what he's like at work, is all. It seems rather different."
"I suppose." They round a corner. "I have learned a great deal from General Gawain. I hope one day I can be half the swordsman he is. I fear that day will never come."
"Don't be so hard on yourself! Work hard, and I'm sure you'll get there. You seem like a capable young man."
"You are too kind, Sister Elena."
"Well, don't say that yet. After all, when that day does come, you know who I'll be rooting for."
"Of course, Sister. Here we are." They come to a stop at an open yard. A group of soldiers are performing exercises with wooden swords, and while they're a bit far away, Elena can see Gawain facing away from them, standing at attention with a glare on his face. "He'll be done momentarily, I'm sure."
"Thank you so much for showing me the way, Sir...I'm sorry, I didn't ask your name?"
The soldier bows. "It is Zelgius, Sister."
"Sir Zelgius. I'll make sure to tell Gawain what you said."
Zelgius looks scandalized. "No, please don't - "
"I'm teasing!" Elena smiles and pats Zelgius's shoulder. It feels like petting a block of concrete. "Really though, thank you for your help."
"It was no trouble. I apologize, but I really must be going, Sister. I fear I am late for an appointment." The soldier bows one last time and hurries back the way they came. Elena stands and waits.
A bell sounds, and the practicing soldiers turn as a single mass, facing Gawain and saluting.
"Acceptable work," Gawain says. "Acceptable. Not good."
The soldiers, seemingly as one, lower their heads.
"I expect better this afternoon. You're dismissed."
The soldiers disperse across the grounds, grumbling. Gawain keeps glaring at their retreating backs.
Elena waits until they're mostly gone before she walks over to Gawain. "Hi, honey!"
Gawain's stern face changes to surprise. "Elena? What are you doing here?"
"Happy birthday!" Elena holds out her parcel. "I thought I'd come have lunch with you instead of making you eat in the barracks. Surprise!"
"That's kind of you. How'd you find me?"
"Uh, womanly intuition?"
Gawain raises an eyebrow.
"...Okay, I kind of got lost," Elena admits. "Sir Zelgius showed me here."
"Where did that kid run off to?" Gawain looks around the barracks. "I swear, he's been missing half the time lately. Ah, well. Maybe he's got a lover or something."
"I didn't ask. Where do you want to eat?"
"There's a few benches over to the east quarter. Nobody goes over there this time of day." Gawain offers Elena his arm, and she takes it.
They reach the aforementioned benches and seat themselves. "It seems like everyone's scared of you here," Elena comments as she unwraps their lunch. "I said your name and the guard just about wet himself. It's a little funny."
Gawain tenses. "They didn't give you a hard time or anything, did they?"
"Of course not. Oh, Elliot did a good job letting me in, by the way. He told me to tell you that."
"Did he? Hm."
"Don't be such a stick-in-the-mud." Elena passes him a sandwich.
"It's kind of my job, Elena." Gawain takes a bite of the sandwich, still looking a bit cranky. "Whipping these brats into shape, showing them who's boss...otherwise they'll never survive in Daein."
"...The strong survive." Elena shifts in her seat.
"Yep. It's brutal, especially in the army. If I'm not hard on them now, they won't last a day out in the real world."
"Nothing, nothing." Elena turns back to her basket. "There's dessert too! Don't fill up just yet!"
"Oh, I've always got room for dessert." Gawain tries to look over her shoulder.
"Don't! It's a surprise!" Elena puts a hand on his face and pushes him away. "Behave and eat."
They have a lovely lunch, and Elena continues teasing and joking, but a pit has opened in her stomach that won't seem to close.
The strong survive.
What does that mean for the weak?
Some days, Lillia coughs so hard her bed shakes, the wooden frame bumping against the stone wall. Elena's frightened she might break a rib - she seems so fragile.
"Drink this," Elena carefully tips a few drops from a bottle into a spoon and passes it to Lillia. "Safe, no animals in."
Lillia swallows the cough syrup and grimaces.
"Sorry. It's gross."
"Gross...yes." Lillia returns the spoon.
"But it'll help you feel better." Elena presses a hand to Lillia's forehead, then to her own. "You're too warm…"
"But...feel...cold." Even under the pile of blankets Elena's brought, even wrapped in Elena's warmest attire designed for the harshest Daein winter, Lillia still shivers.
"I know. I know." Elena twists the bottle in her hands. "Why won't the fever break? What am I doing wrong? You've taken all the medicine, and…"
"But - "
Lillia coughs, struggling to shift in the bed. "Heron...hard to...live...outside home. No... order . Get sick."
"Feelings...important for heron. This place…" Lillia gestures at the room. "Bad place. Am...am stuck. Here. Bad feeling. Sick."
"The basement is bad for you…"
"Yes, bad here. No...forest, nature, trees, sky…"
An idea sparks in Elena's mind, and with it, hope. "Maybe...if I took you outside...you might feel better?"
"I can try. I can try." Elena lowers her head. "I'll - I'll go to the head bishop, and explain. Maybe I can make him listen."
Lillia watches Elena leave before getting up and moving to her written account on the wall.
She'd wanted to tell Elena right away at first, as soon as she'd been able to sense the strange beorc woman's power. She'd tried to learn the words, as quickly as she could, so she could explain. But now she's scared to tell Elena, scared to involve her. It's a dreadful risk, for one thing. Despite the flow of order and balance in Elena's heart, it might not be sufficient. Giving it to her would be placing her in terrible danger.
Besides, Elena is happy here. Elena has a fiancé, and friends, Elena has done so much for her. It's so much, too much to ask…
Lillia doubles over as another coughing fit hits her. It might not matter, she thinks through the pain. If she doesn't tell Elena...the world will end. She has to do it. She has no other choice. She needs to learn the beorc words, so she can explain everything to her. Most importantly, to warn her. Elena will need to know what she's getting into. Lillia has no other options. She has to take this one, thin, lingering chance.
Besides, her time is running out.
Elena clasps her hands in front of her, beseeching. "But...the forest might make her better. Just a few feet outside. Her kind…"
Averius doesn't even look up from the paperwork on his desk. "I can't permit that, Elena."
"Please, sir...even an hour, or less. It would make all the difference...we can bring the soldiers. Or we could even just bring her upstairs to a window, so she could see sunlight? Anything might help..."
"This isn't my decision to make, Elena. I told you, our lives are on the line here. That thing is to stay in the basement."
Averius looks up at last, glaring at Elena. "Didn't I warn you not to get attached?"
Elena bows her head. "You did, sir, but…"
"It's an animal, and it's weak."
"But she'll die."
"That's how Daein is. The strong survive." Averius returns to his work. "Return to your duties. I don't want to hear of this again."
Elena tries everything.
Stronger medication reduces a few symptoms, but when it wears off Lillia is just as ill. Elena spends her whole paycheck (Gawain's is enough to support them, anyway) on a Recover staff, but the color doesn't come back to Lillia's face. Elena bathes Lillia, dragging buckets of water doggedly up and down the basement steps, trying to wash away the infection. Elena changes the bedding, the clothing, moves the bed to the other side of the room and then back again. She picks flowers and gathers leaves in handfuls and brings them into the basement, strings them along the walls and under Lillia's pillow. The heron smiles when she sees them, but the smiles are still faint and often don't quite reach her eyes. And every day, Lillia's skin is paler, her eyes more sunken, her fits more frequent, her forehead warmer, and she smiles less and less.
Elena sings to her, every day, from the heron tune Lillia so favors to children's lullabies to Daein folk songs. Maybe she'll develop heron powers, and the song will mean something. It would be a miracle.
It will take a miracle.
The awful knowledge is bumping at the edge of Elena's mind, clawing at her chest, but she refuses to let it in.
Elena starts, looking up from where she is plaiting Lillia's long hair. "No, no. Elena fine."
"No...not fine." Lillia looks at her with those sad, soft, gentle eyes. There are deep shadows beneath them. "Lillia not have all...powers...here. But Lillia still know Elena heart. Tell Lillia, Elena."
"It no matter." Elena carefully ties the end of the braid with a ribbon. "There. Out of Lillia face."
"Thank you." Lillia watches Elena lean back. "Elena…?"
Lillia drops her head. "No. Is nothing. No matter."
Elena looks around the room, trying to change the subject. "Walls look...pretty."
"Thank you. Work hard on."
Three of the four walls are now covered with Lillia's curly writing. Elena wonders what, exactly, she's writing. A sort of prison diary? A message? Elena has no hope of reading it herself, and Lillia hasn't said.
"Tired...rest now." Lillia's curling up under her covers. "Elena...may go, if want."
"Okay." Elena stands up and picks up her supplies. Her heart feels like a ball of lead. "Back tomorrow."
Lillia nods, her eyes sliding shut already. Elena waits a moment longer, until the heron's chest is rising and falling steadily, before she leaves, climbing the basement stairs and returning to the main temple.
As Elena walks past the door to Bishop Averius's office, a massive scream from within makes her jump a foot in the air.
"She STILL hasn't done it?" The voice is screeching, ear-piercing - unhinged. Elena's hair stands on end. She feels frozen to the spot just from the sound of it.
"N-no, sir. I ask her every day, but she never even looks at me."
"What's WRONG with that stupid bird? That weakling should submit to the strong...this isn't right. Not right at all. I could kill her with my little finger. Doesn't she care?"
"I - I don't know, Your - "
"I wasn't talking to you! Submission or death. Those are the options. Why would it choose the latter?"
"But, with all due respect, Your Highness - the bird - it won't live much longer. It's sick, and I don't think we can cure it - "
"Now, listen...the bird isn't the most important thing here If anything happens to that creature's precious treasure, then you know whose fault it will be, don't you?"
"I do - I do - "
"Maybe I could find another bird. Even if they're all gone, there's still another method...but one way or another, that thing is irreplaceable for my plans."
"Hee hee hee...good. I take no pleasure in breaking a pathetic twig like you. Your blood would scarcely moisten my blade. So let's keep it dry, shall we?"
"Yes...yes, of course…"
"Good. I'll visit in another week. There's other plans I must attend to. Heh...what a year this will be for the world."
The door crashes open and Elena jumps back, panic burning in her stomach. A massive, hulking figure of a man emerges from the office, wrapped in a long black cloak. Elena flattens herself against the wall, looking desperately for somewhere to hide - but even as the man's eyes pass over Elena, he seems to take absolutely no notice of her whatsoever, as if she is just part of the hall decor. He sweeps off down the hall, every footstep shaking the old building and echoing behind him.
Even when he is gone, Elena can't shake the cold, horrible air that seemed to flow from him in waves. His eyes had been...she doesn't want to think about it. They'd been opposite of the warmth that flows from Lillia, filled with a deep, dark emptiness that fills Elena's mind with the smell of blood.
Elena comes back to herself and hurries through the open office door. "Father?"
Averius has his head down on the desk. He starts upright at the sound of her voice, his face pale. "Elena!? Did you - did you hear - "
"Not all of it," says Elena. "Father, are you all right?"
"Well enough," Averius mumbles, staring at the open door. He's shaking like a leaf.
Elena closes the door, but Averius's shoulders fall only slightly. "Is that man the one who brought Lillia here?"
"You named it?"
"Er…" Elena sighs. "Never mind that, sir. Is he?"
"I can't answer that question, Elena."
"But, sir, he was threatening you…"
"They are threats that he has the weight to back up. I've warned you, Elena." Averius folds his hands on his desk and bows his head. "We must obey him. We've no choice. Given the opportunity, that man will raze Palmeni to the ground. He will slaughter every priest, every acolyte, everyone. He'll kill us all."
"I can tell Gawain," says Elena urgently. "He's one of the Four Riders. He can - "
Averius's head jerks up. "Why won't you listen to me, Elena!? This goes up further than the Four Riders. That man - he is stronger than anyone I've ever seen. Stronger by far than any who would be willing to oppose him. We have no choice."
"But - "
"Why should we let ourselves be slaughtered for the sake of a sub-human, Elena?" Averius gets to his feet, his fear replaced by anger. "Always, you are irrational and emotional. I took you in, I gave you a home, I kept food in your belly and clothes on your back, and this is how you repay me?"
"I - I didn't mean - "
"You don't think things through! You are a foolish child, speaking of things she does not understand! Now, you will listen, and you will obey!"
A hot, pulsing wave of anger, one that has been building since Elena first saw Lillia's wing all those weeks ago, crashes forth at last. Elena's hands curl into fists, her mouth opens -
"Elena. If you do not heed me, then I will need to find another caretaker for the bird."
"I know you are attached to it. I do not think any of the others I have in mind would be quite as...gentle as you in its treatment. Do I make myself clear, girl?"
It is painful, it is excruciating, it takes all the effort she has in her body, but Elena halts the wave, swallows it down, back to burning and festering in her belly. "Yes...sir."
"Good. Now, along with you. And remember, not a word to anyone. Including young Gawain."
Elena bows, bending like a board, and then turns on her heel and leaves the office, marching through the temple. Brother Tomemami walks up to her, but catches one sight of her face and turns around to quickly busy himself adjusting a perfectly straight candlestick.
Elena continues on her path, through the church doors, down the lawns, into the nearby woods, and punches a tree so hard her knuckles bleed.
"What happened to your hand?"
"Banged it on the wall," says Elena in a tone of false cheer. "I missed the door. Come on, dinner's getting cold."
Gawain takes his seat, but he's still eyeing her with suspicion. "Did you have a rough day at work? You look...frazzled."
"A little bit." Elena stirs her soup. "Just...Bishop Averius was being a jerk."
Gawain rolls his eyes. "That guy, of course."
"He did take me in. I feel like I owe him. But…"
"Want me to come over there?" Gawain gives an exaggerated flex. "I could help him see reason..."
"No! I mean, no, that's not necessary." Elena forces a giggle. It sounds weak even to her own ears.
"What's on your mind?" Gawain reaches across the table to put a hand over hers. "I'm here to listen."
Elena drops her eyes to her bowl. "...Do you think only the strong survive?"
"What do you mean?"
"In Daein...only the strong survive. That's what people say. They say that the citizens of Daein are strong because they have to be, because it's such a harsh and unforgiving land. But…doesn't that seem...cruel?" Elena watches the vegetables float through her soup, not daring to look up and meet Gawain's eyes. "Do you think...the weak, the defenseless, the sick...those who can't fight, who can't contribute...do they even have a place in this world…?"
For a long moment, the kitchen is quiet. Just as Elena is about to retract her words, Gawain speaks.
"...It's true that Daein values strength. And in some ways, I agree with them. I've been to Crimea and Begnion for work - there, it doesn't matter how strong a man is. It's all about titles, and nobility. Here, none of that matters much. If you're strong enough to impress the king, you're a general. Hell, I heard that a street rat somehow ended up as one of the Four Riders because he rose through the ranks so fast. Don't know what the king was thinking, there."
Elena glances up, a wry smile playing at her lips. "Really, now? Imagine that."
"Yeah, the Divine Knight, they call him. I heard he's a bit of a handsome devil, too." Gawain winks at her. "But, anyway...no matter how strong that Rider is, he wouldn't be much help if someone got hurt, or in an epidemic. Strength and power...they don't mean everything. There's value in other traits, too. Like kindness, or compassion. You don't have to be strong to deserve life."
Elena blinks. "That's...very wise of you, Gawain."
"Hey, I'm not a total meathead!"
"Are you sure? Divine Knight?"
"Elena...I'm trying to make you feel better over here."
"I know, I know. Sorry." Elena fidgets with her spoon. "But...thank you, Gawain."
No problem. It's what I'm here for." Gawain squeezes her hand. "Is...your patient doing all right?"
"...No," Elena says quietly. "She's not...and that's why...I was thinking about this. She isn't strong at all. But I think...I think she's a good person. She deserves to live, even if she's weak. So...I'm not going to give up. I'm going to keep trying to save her."
"That's my Elena," says Gawain proudly. "I'm sure you can do it."
Elena smiles, but she isn't sure. Not at all.
Lillia isn't singing today.
Elena lifts the wet cloth from Lillia's forehead. It's already warm, even though it's only been there five minutes.
Lillia's breathing is ragged and harsh, her fingers curling into the blankets when waves of pain hit her. Her hair and feathers are falling out in clumps when Elena touches them. Lillia hasn't moved from the bed in days, she hasn't touched food, and when she sleeps she moans and cries out in pain.
Elena finds herself fumbling for Lillia's pulse more days than not. But it's still there, somehow.
One day, it won't be.
One day, very soon.
Lillia's eyes flutter open. "E...lena…?"
"Right here," Elena whispers, clasping Lillia's hand in both of hers. "I'm right here."
Lillia turns her head towards Elena and manages a shaky smile.
"You're dying," Elena whispers. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry...why sorry? No need…"
Elena shakes her head. "Don't worry."
Elena re-wets the cloth to avoid answering.
Elena frowns and leans over, feeling under the bed. Indeed, her fingers brush against something, and she pulls out a very small wooden box, like one that would hold jewelry.
"No open. Give, please?"
"...Here." Elena hands her the box, and Lillia clasps it between shaking hands, holding it to her own chest. The thin braid of her hair, woven by Elena's fingers, is lying flung across the pillow Elena had brought from home.
"Need to tell...Elena...important, no time…" Lillia mumbles feverishly, her head turning to the side.
"You can tell me later," Elena whispers, and leans in close, pressing her own cool forehead against Lillia's burning one.
Elena sings, that gentle heron tune, until Lillia's breathing evens somewhat and she slips back into that feverish doze.
She knows it. Lillia knows it, too.
There's no more time.
Elena sinks to her knees as soon as she enters the darkened apartment, her bag falling from her hands and onto the floor. She hunches over, rocking slightly, letting out the desperate sobs that she'd been holding back for hours.
Lillia is dying. Lillia will die. Within days, she'll be gone, and there is nothing Elena can do to stop it. Even if she could somehow bring Lillia back to her home, it would be too late.
Elena had known, she'd known from the start that this would happen, but she'd thought she could fight it. If she just tried hard enough, was strong enough, worked hard enough, the baby bird would live.
This world belongs to the strong.
Only the strong can survive.
The door opens, and Gawain nearly falls over her. "Elena? Elena, what are you doing on the..." His sword falls to the ground with a crash. "Elena!"
Elena can't answer, just shakes her head, the violent sobs taking over her body, tearing her apart.
Gawain kneels in front of her. "Are you hurt? Answer me, please!"
Elena gasps, searching for her voice. "No…" She buries her face in Gawain's shoulder, clinging desperately to him, fingers curling into his tunic. His arms wrap around her. "It's...Lillia...she's dying. She's dying, she's dying, I couldn't save her, I can't…why? Why can't I save anyone? What good am I?"
Gawain rocks her back and forth, and Elena screams into his shoulder, begging for an answer he can't give, and they remain there for hours.
Elena awakens in bed the next morning with a throbbing headache, staring at the ceiling, still dressed in her day clothes. As she hauls herself upright, she dully remembers Gawain carrying her to bed the night before. And now it's morning.
Elena changes and packs for the morning with renewed determination. She can't save Lillia, but she can at least stay with her, until the very end. It can only be a matter of days. Gawain won't mind. Averius will roll his eyes, but it won't matter to him. She leaves a note for Gawain and heads out to Palmeni.
A part of her fears Lillia will already be gone before she gets there, but when Elena reaches the cellar, the guards are still flanking Lillia's chamber door as always. They open it, and Elena forces a smile onto her face before entering, letting the door fall closed behind her.
"Good morning, Lillia!" Elena can taste the false cheer in her own voice. Lillia will never fall for it.
Actually, Lillia looks a little bit better today. Still dreadfully pale and trembling as she lies in the bed, but her eyes are clear when they focus on Elena.
"Elena," Lillia's face is grave. "Please come. Sit."
Elena takes her usual seat. "What is it?"
"Lillia...must tell something. Important, very important. Lillia...learning words, so can tell. Lillia...scared to tell. Scared for Elena. Felt not ready to tell. But no more time. Words Lillia has must be enough. Elena must listen. Okay?"
"...Okay." Elena frowns, studying Lillia. She's still clasping that little wooden box in both her hands.
"...Help Lillia turn, so can see Elena face. Please? Make...easier."
Elena obligingly helps Lillia roll onto her side, so the two women are facing each other. This effort seems to take a lot out of Lillia, who takes several deep, shuddering breaths before speaking again.
"In place where herons live...is something. Word is…" Lillia struggles, thinking. "Not know word. But...special thing. Very special. Important. But...danger. Holds much danger."
"Yes. Dangerous. Not safe for beorc. Only safe for heron."
"So...Important, dangerous thing where herons live. Only safe for heron."
"Yes. But...not there anymore. Big bad man take, with Lillia. Now is...here." Lillia pats the box. "Lillia has."
Elena eyes the box. It could not possibly look less dangerous if it tried.
"Inside box," says Lillia hastily. "Not is box. Box fine. Open...will open now." And Lillia takes the lid off the box and lets the wooden container fall to the floor, clasping its contents within her hand. She uncurls her fingers and Elena leans forward to see a rather simple, old-looking bronze medallion. It's got fancy carvings, but it's not exactly what Elena was expecting to see.
"Not just...word is medallion? Not just...medallion. Important, important. And dangerous." Lillia takes deep breath. "Medallion can...end world. Whole world. All die."
"Sound strange, Lillia know. But true. Lillia and herons…guard medallion. Important job. But bad men come...burn home. Big, bad man...take Lillia, take medallion. Want Lillia to...use medallion. End world."
Elena stares. "The bad man wants Lillia to end world?"
"Yes. But Lillia no can, even if want." Lillia eyes the medallion, running her fingers over it. "Not have that power. No heron have. Only...only one person. Altina."
"Not know who. Not know where. Named Altina. All Lillia know. But not matter now. Listen, please, Elena."
"Medallion...special, danger. Only herons can touch, or terrible danger. But...Elena special. Elena like heron. Lillia think...Elena can touch." Lillia cups the medallion in both hands and holds it out.
"Not have to touch. But Lillia think...safe. Please trust."
Elena takes a deep breath. The medallion looks so innocent in Lillia's hands. And she trusts Lillia.
Elena extends one shaking hand, and presses her fingertips to the medallion.
Nothing happens at all, but a smile spreads across Lillia's face. "Good, good. Now...now hope."
Elena lowers her hand. "Hope?"
"Bad man...must not have medallion. Must not. Might...end world. So, medallion...must be taken away. Lillia...cannot do. Lillia know...is big ask. Is big mission. But Lillia...ask Elena...to do it. Take medallion. Run, far. Leave country. Go as far as can. Stay away, far away, from big bad man. And one day...return to heron home. Give medallion back to Lillia family." Lillia manages a shaking smile. "Lillia is sorry to ask. But Lillia must."
"Elena take medallion and run?"
"Yes." Lillia holds it up again, and this time puts it into Elena's palm.
Elena tries to hand the medallion back. "No. Instead, Lillia live, and go back to home."
Sadness and guilt line Lillia's young face, her sunken eyes, her hollow cheeks. "No, Elena. Elena know...Lillia dying. Very soon. Am sorry. But Elena can save medallion. Medallion...more important than Lillia."
"But what about you?" In her desperation, in her sadness, the ancient language slips away from Elena's mind and tongue. She grabs for Lillia's hand with her free one, clutches it tightly in her own. "I can't just leave you here to die! You have to live, and find your family - you can't - I don't want you to die!"
Lillia doesn't answer.
"This isn't fair. This isn't right! You were captured, and taken here, and you lost everything, and now you're going to die too, and I…" Tears well up in Elena's eyes. "I wasn't any help. I can't save you. What good am I?"
Slowly, painfully, Lillia reaches out and brushes a tear from Elena's cheek.
"I don't want you to die," Elena whispers. "I want you to live. You deserve to live."
"Please...don't cry, Elena," Lillia answers, her tone soft and broken. From Lillia's face, Elena can see that she understands, and that she hurts for Elena, even through her own pain, even through her own suffering. Only ever thinking of others.
"Maybe I could have saved you," Elena murmurs. "If I had been stronger…"
"Elena must go," says Lillia firmly. "Lillia will...buy time, as much as can. But not much life left. Elena must go as far as can before big man knows. Please, Elena."
Elena looks down at the medallion in her shaking hand.
"Only Elena touch, and herons. No others, no beorc, no laguz. Dangerous. Understand?"
"One more part to medallion," Lillia whispers. "Know song? Lillia singing, all along…"
"Of course," Elena says. "I'll never forget it."
"Sing to medallion...okay? And remember song. Important. Sing to medallion, so remember."
"If Elena find family…" A shaky smile crosses Lillia's face. "Tell family...tell family Lillia left message. Here. This place."
Elena looks from the medallion to Lillia's smile, to the curled writing on the wall, back to the medallion.
"Please, Elena. Know is hard. Know. But must. Is...last wish."
The women's eyes lock together. Lillia's vivid green eyes are burning, blazing, determined, and Elena realizes for the first time that under the fragile exterior, Lillia's heart is made of steel.
Elena's voice breaks as she clasps the medallion to her chest. "I...I will. I'll do it. For Lillia."
Lillia beams. It is the truest, deepest smile, possibly, that Elena has ever seen from her, and it breaks her heart. "Thank you...Elena."
There's a hook on top of the medallion, likely where a chain ran through in years past. Elena reaches for a bundle of herbs on the side table and unties the leather cord binding them. She strings the medallion along the thong and knots it tightly. She loops it over her neck, tucking it under her scarf and robes. It feels surprisingly warm against her chest.
Lillia watches carefully, and then looks satisfied. "Good. Keep...medallion, and song...safe."
"I will. I promise."
"Now, go," says Lillia, falling back against her bed. "Go, fast and far. Please."
"So this...is it?"
"Am sorry. Am sorry. But can do no more. Thank you...for trying to save Lillia. But is over now." Lillia lowers her eyes. "Sorry...for leaving Elena."
"You don't have to be sorry."
"For Lillia...go, and live. Okay? Go now. No more time. No more waiting."
Elena gets to her feet, eyes never breaking away from the pale, weak figure on the bed. Lillia gives one more encouraging smile.
Elena takes a deep breath. "...Goodbye, Lillia. Am sorry...could not do more."
"Goodbye...Elena. Thank you. For everything. Elena was...dear to Lillia. Dearest friend."
"Lillia was mine, too," Elena whispers. "Goodbye."
For the last time, Elena leaves Lillia's cell.
The heron waits until Elena's footsteps have faded down the corridor to cry.
On the walk back to Nevassa, clarity sets in, and then panic.
Elena has to leave Daein. There's no way that man, with all his power that so frightened Averius, wouldn't find her here. She'll have to go - to Crimea, probably. She's never been. And she'll have to leave everyone - her coworkers, her friends, everyone.
She'll have to leave Gawain.
The realization crashes onto her, so hard she nearly loses her breath. But she can't drag him into this. He's one of the Four Riders. He won't just leave Daein. And she shouldn't make him choose.
She doesn't want to leave. She doesn't want to hurt him.
But she has to, Elena thinks once more, feeling the pressure of the medallion resting against her chest. This is more important. He'll be sad, but he'll move on. It needs to be this way. This is her choice.
That knowledge doesn't stop her from crying, though.
Her mind is entirely made up by the time she enters their apartment. She rushes around the place, quickly throwing clothes, her staff, and rations into a sizeable bag. But even with certainty, it still hurts. She's leaving Gawain, and Lillia is dying, and those thoughts pierce her chest with every step she takes, and more tears fall.
But this is how it has to be, Elena thinks, scribbling a farewell note on a spare sheet of paper. Her tears make it hard to see what she's writing. Her heart is pounding, and her head's spinning, but at least she doesn't have to do it in person. Oh, Ashera, she'll need to find a horse too -
The door opens, and Gawain walks in. He stops dead when he spots her, sitting at the table writing a letter with a packed bag slung over her back and her face red from crying. For a long moment, they both just stare at each other.
"...I thought you were at work," Elena manages at last. "I didn't want you to see - "
"See what? Elena, what are you doing? Are you...going somewhere?" He looks confused, and then horrified as pieces click into place. "Are you...you're not...leaving - "
"It's not like I want to!" Elena bursts out, fresh tears spilling over at the sound of the grief in his voice. "But I have to! There's a medallion, and the world's going to end, and Lillia - "
"What? Slow down - "
" - and I made a promise, and I can't drag you into it too, and you'll be better off not getting involved - "
"Getting involved with what?"
" - and I have to leave Daein, and - " Elena chokes on a sob.
Gawain sits down in the chair next to her. "Please, Elena. Where are you going?"
"...Crimea. Maybe further." Elena gulps down a breath, even as her body shakes. "There's something I've got to keep safe, and it's not safe here, and they're going to come after me…"
"Someone's after you…"
"When they find out I have it."
Gawain stands up. "Okay. Let me pack a few things, and we'll go. We can take my horse, and if we take the back roads, we can cross the border in a few days."
"I'm coming with you."
"You can't! You'd have to give up your job, and everything! I can't ask that of you - "
"I promised, didn't I?" Gawain pulls another bag out of the hall closet and starts digging around for spare linens. "I don't know what's going on, but I'm not letting you face it alone."
"Do you want me to come?"
Elena can't even think of not answering honestly. "Yes. Of course."
"Then I'll come. You matter more than some job."
"Are you sure?" Hope wells up in Elena's chest. "I won't force you…"
"No forcing." Gawain kneels in front of her, clasping her hand in both of his. "I'll be by your side through this whole thing. We can even elope in Crimea, if you want."
"...that does sound nice."
"Then it's a deal." Gawain kisses her forehead as he stands back up. "You can explain the rest later, when we're safe."
Ten minutes later, General Gawain's signed letter of resignation is lying on the kitchen table alongside both their apartment keys, and Gawain's horse is tearing through the back streets of Nevassa and heading east.
"We might want to go even further than Crimea," Gawain mutters to Elena as she keeps a tight grip around his waist. "Have to see. Once we get there, I'll sell the horse. Maybe I'll change my name, too. Don't want things getting around."
"You've got this planned out."
"Kind of making it up as I go along. But it's nice to have a real challenge! First time in awhile."
"Just stay safe."
"Don't worry. I'm right here, and I'll protect both of us. I won't let anyone hurt you, Elena. Not ever. You'll carry out your mission, and we'll survive."
Elena nods into his back. Her free hand drifts up to rest on the spot where the medallion hangs. Her next words are whispered under her breath, so quiet even Gawain can't hear them.
The strong survive. There is no place for the weak in this world.
But I will make one. For you, I will.
With a shaking hand, Lillia finishes the last few letters. She'd saved the spot over her bed for last, knowing this moment would come.
The words complete, Lillia's pen slips from her trembling fingers. She falls back into the bed, gasping for breath with the exertion of sitting for those few minutes, and tries in vain to steady her breathing.
She must live a little longer. At least a few days, enough to buy Elena time to leave Daein, to get away, to get to safety. Elena has Lehran's Medallion. It will be safe. Elena will protect it. Elena will bring it home, one day. Lillia has to believe that. It is all she has left to believe in.
Her head turns to the side, her bleary eyes focusing on the last few words she has written, the last few words she will ever write.
As she clings to life, Lillia looks at her own final words, and smiles.
---Twenty years later---
If any of you one day find and read this message...Father, Mother, Rafiel, Leonore, Reina, Lucian, Reyson, Leanne...please know that I loved you all, until the very end. Please, for me, live on. Be strong. Be steadfast. Be safe.
A heron sits on the bed, legs folded, staring at the faded ink.
The door creaks open. "Reyson? Are you still in here?"
Reyson drags a sleeve over his eyes, quickly sitting up straighter. "Yes."
"I brought food. And a cloak. It's freezing down here." Mist lets the door fall shut behind her as she enters. The beorc girl stands with a tray balanced in her hands as the heron turns on the bed to face her. Blue eyes meet green, and they freeze for a moment, and the thought crosses both their minds, but neither gives voice to it.
Mist quickly breaks the silence, setting the tray down on the bed. "It's fruit! And some nuts. I hope I got it right. Janaff said as long as there weren't any animal products, it should be okay. And here's the cloak! It's Oscar's, but he said you could borrow it."
Reyson takes the wool cloak, leaning back as it is practically shoved into his arms. "Ah...thank you."
"Yep!" Mist brushes her hands over her skirt as she straightens, eyes darting around the room. "Um...Prince Reyson? Are you...okay?"
"I'm well enough."
"You know what I mean."
Reyson stares at the bundle of wool fabric in his arms a moment longer before slowly donning it. "...I do."
"You don't have to talk to me about it. It's okay. Um...can I stay in here, with you?"
Mist sits gingerly on the edge of the bed, looking at the script covering the walls around her. Reyson is staring at Lillia's message.
Mist looks down at her hands in her lap.
"Is there something you wish to say to me?"
"...Yes." Mist's voice is barely above a whisper. "I...I'm really, really sorry."
"You bear no fault for what happened here."
"Not that. About...about the medallion. I was supposed to protect it, like Mother did, and I...and I…"
"That wasn't your fault, either."
"But…" Mist's voice is shaking, though her eyes are dry. "But Lillia told Mother to…"
"You bear no responsibility for what happened. You kept that medallion safe for many years." Reyson tears his eyes from the wall to look at Mist. "You didn't even know what it was. I do not blame you, and Lillia certainly wouldn't either. She was...a far kinder person than I."
Mist manages a small smile. "...Thank you, Reyson. But I don't think you're unkind."
"That is a rare opinion to hold," says Reyson dryly. "But it is neither here nor there."
"Still, thank you." Mist fiddles with her sleeve. "It's nice of you to say."
"Should I go? If you want to be alone…"
"No, I do not mind your company. In fact...you are a very compassionate person. When I first told the story, you cried, and that was before I had even mentioned your mother…"
Mist ducks her head. "Everyone calls me a crybaby."
"I think that is oversimplifying it. You are quite a strange beorc, Mist. Truth be told, in some ways, you are rather like a heron. And...a great deal like your mother. You care very deeply for others, regardless of their race or their relation to you. From what Lillia wrote, Elena was the same way."
"It's...still hard to believe," says Mist, scooting forward on the bed to peer at the walls. "That my mother and your sister were friends…"
"Very dear friends," Reyson answers. "As I read it all again...it seems as though Elena was not only Lillia's hope for returning the medallion, but the very reason she lived as long as she did. That companionship, the brightness she brought...herons are sensitive to such things."
"Oh. I'm glad...that she at least had that."
"Are you crying again?"
"A little…" Mist sniffles, fumbling for a handkerchief. "I'm glad my mother...was such a nice person. I barely even remember her. Ike remembers even less, somehow, and Father never spoke of her much…Titania says she was very kind, and that she loved us more than anything. Um...could you tell me everything Lillia wrote about her? Not right now, but...if you can. I...really want to learn more about her."
"I am not sure I am up to reading it again," Reyson answers. "But I will do so when I am able."
"Thank you." They are sitting side by side on the bed now, looking at the walls together. "It means a lot. And...if you want to talk to me about Lillia, or anything...I'm here if you want to talk. I know I can't be of much help, but…"
"Lillia...the last thing that she wrote...the handwriting is dreadful. She mustn't have had long to live at that point. But she wrote that she loved us. She told us to be strong, and to live." Reyson touches his fingertips to the wobbling letters. Mist hesitantly reaches out for his other hand, finally settling hers over it. To her surprise, he takes it, gripping her fingers tightly. "Despite all her suffering, all her pain...all she wanted was for us to live, and to keep moving forward."
"She sounds like a wonderful person."
"She was. She truly was."
Mist rests her head against Reyson's shoulder, and the two stay there for a long while.
In the sky outside, the birds are singing.