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|flames scathe only the unpurposeful|

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When Orman sent him to find Lady Alyss Mainwaring, Xander had been told it’d be an easy job. Intersect her as she’s travelling home, you should make it right around Anselm Fief, Orman had said. Take her back here, I don’t trust any other ears than yours and mine. She’s a just young woman, she won’t refuse to help – just make sure she has a chance to inform her family that she’ll be late to return, or pass by Redmont while you travel so she can see them. If you let Will Treaty think we’ve kidnapped his wife, Macindaw will be wiped off the maps within a fortnight. But don’t let her rest too long. I want this figured out by the end of the month. Such were the many rules Xander had to follow on the assignment.

He was told it’d be an easy job. After all, they weren’t going to ask much from Lady Alyss; just to ride a little past her destination and answer a few questions.  Truthfully, the questions were so secretive even Xander knew only the basis of it, but bottom line was that Orman had been rather kind in not badgering Alyss or her teacher about the hours she spent being interrogated by Keren – obviously because that must not have been a pleasant memory, but recently more and more voices from the past had been surfacing, demanding change. Violent voices, brutal people.

In short, Orman wanted names. Lady Alyss could very well have those names. Maybe Keren slipped or bragged or had the nerve to show off as he loved to do. If Alyss knew – or at least had heard of - anyone that was responsible for the recent massacres in both tact and Norgate’s population, all would be well. If she didn’t, well, there was nothing else that could be done with her, and it’d probably be the shortest mission she’d ever go on. Orman was prepared to simply thank her for her time and send her on her merry way home, but he did want to take a chance that maybe she knew about something that could very well help them.

It was a complicated situation, but, all in all, it was supposed to be an easy job. At least Xander had been told that.

Well, they either had the worst luck in the world, the universe bent over backwards in an effort to provide every sentence out of Orman’s mouth with appropriate amounts of irony, or all the gods that ever were just bloody hated Xander.

Go to Anselm, Xander, he thought, the voice in his head taking on a mocking tone as the white-tinted flames in front of him were consuming what was left of a rather sizeable inn. It’ll be an easy job, Xander. My life is straight torture.

He was in an unfairly scarce crowd of people – barely could be called a crowd, honestly - all gathered to marvel at the fire. He picked up on whispers of horror from accidental bystanders and cries of confusion from the people searching for their acquaintances that might’ve been in the inn. Every once in a while, there was a yelp of joy upon finding a familiar head in the group.

Xander bit down on his lip, hard. He wasn’t sure if he was terrified or nervous – equal parts of both, he supposed. On one hand, what was happening was horrible and all, and on the other one... He really, really genuinely hoped Lady Alyss wasn’t in that inn.

See, Xander liked to think of himself as a courageous man, and he was, when a sense of duty gripped him. He could very well stand up to a mock magician if it came to protecting his lord, or aid a Ranger in a plot to save his obvious (and oblivious) girlfriend.

He did not, however, have the kind of courage required to run into a fiery death based on the off-chance that the person he was looking for was in there. Though, as he reassured himself, that was less an act of courage than it was an act of utter madness, and he was absolutely not thinking of putting himself through that. In the end, it was simple; he was just sort of against dying, in general.

The crowd he was in was also, from what he could hear, not interested in any death wish either.

That was until the woman came along, running from the free houses up to the inn.

Xander stood near when she crashed into the mass of people, the despair in her body painting her deranged. Xander was subconsciously trying to move away from her eye, but to no avail.

She came barrelling into the crowd, diving around, pushing people to the sides, crying out for someone – Xander couldn’t make out the name, but he saw from the way the woman’s eyes widened at the sight of the inn that it must’ve been something important to her. Reluctantly, unable to stop himself, he pushed closer to her.

“Who are you looking for?” he asked as loudly as he could, and she latched onto his arm in order not to lose him in the mess.

“Evie!” she shouted, dropping her hand to her waist, indicating height. Xander’s heart sank – she was looking for a child. “My daughter! She’s five! Redheaded, with a scar across her lip!”

Xander nodded and tiptoed, looking around. He couldn’t see any other spot of red other than the woman’s own hair. It was difficult, as the crowd shoved him around in merciless waves. He’d momentarily forgotten Alyss.

He feared the worst.

A minute passed in a single moment, and he saw something in the woman break, shatter to pieces as she came to realize her daughter was nowhere to be found – she let out a screech of frustration, then tore herself away from the group and stumbled toward the inn.

Xander didn’t even feel himself following, elbowing people left and right, terrified out of his mind.

“What in God’s name are you doing!?” he yelled, but she only glanced over her shoulder and sped up.

“I’ll find her myself!”

Xander felt like he was going to pass out – why was he following a madwoman?

Yet he did not stop.

“You’ll die sooner than that!”

Instead of slowing down, her steps grew even faster. Wide eyes focused on what used to be the windows, the roofs, the walls, breaking down, falling. As they ran farther from the voices, Xander began hearing the pitiful wailing of wood crumbling to ashes and the unexpectedly deafening roar of fire. He didn’t know flames screamed so, collapsing into themselves and resurfacing bigger, hungrier, bloodthirsty to feed the red beast at the core.

He didn’t know why he was getting poetic either. Maybe because the woman was clearly adamant on feeding the aforementioned beast. Rushing after her, Xander was trying to talk her down – though there wasn’t much he could do as the woman couldn’t even hear him over the fire anymore.

He caught up to her on the other side of the inn, where a few windows – or at least the bases where windows used to be – were still standing,  and, unconcerned with any matters like personal space or being polite, grabbed the woman by the arm. She ripped it out effortlessly.

“You go in, that ceiling collapses and your daughter loses a mother if she’s not there,” he told her in his most diplomatic, most stern tone he could manage while keeping a volume at which his throat was going sore. She merely scoffed at him, eyes wandering across the building for the most convenient entrance.

“Or, if she’s in there and I don’t go in, I lose my child!” She rushed for a sizeable hole in the wall that seemed like it could fit her with no hesitation.

Xander watched her helplessly, picking at his hands – he couldn’t go after her, he simply couldn’t. His legs were frozen in place, and he could only watch helplessly as the woman pursued obvious death. He wanted to call out again, but he wouldn’t have known what to say – ‘You won’t make it’? ‘There’s no getting out of there alive even if you find your daughter’? She didn’t seem to care. To be quite honest, Xander didn’t think there was anything he could say to squeeze any sense into her.

The house gave another terrible groan, and Xander averted his eyes, looking up, unwilling to watch her perform her own execution. His eyes wandered toward the second floor.

And, like a goddess from the heavens, a red head poked over the windowsill, and, as tiny as it was, it punched Xander in the gut so hard he almost buckled down to his knees.

Suddenly out of breath, he cried, “Look!”

The woman stopped for a brief moment, and he pointed.

She was absolutely still for a moment, then bolted for the wall under the window. “Evie!” she was calling, “Evie!”

“Jump!” Xander added, hurrying toward them, and the woman nodded, clawing in desperation, reaching for her daughter a couple of meters above her.

“Jump, Evie!” she seconded, but the girl didn’t.

She looked afraid.

Xander’s heart felt like it was going to stop at any moment. He couldn’t imagine what it was like for the woman, but her daughter was right there, and she was too afraid to jump down a story to avoid a horrible demise.

“Jump!” Jump , Xander shouted after her, and it was this chorus of encouragement that pushed the little girl farther back, mad with terror, grasping for something behind her. She was walking closer and closer under the creaking roof, burning roof, the roof that was definitely about to crush her.

“Jump!” wailed the woman one last time, and Xander saw the tears running down her cheeks. It was hopeless.

Then came the push. It was a strange sight – the little girl was picked up suddenly and dragged to the window, fighting against the force.

The five-year-old Evie was then held up even higher and tossed out the hole in the wall, crying out in surprise and desperately trying to hold onto something, straight into her mother’s arms. As the two fell backwards with a thump, Xander threw his head up to see what had happened.

He had one measly second to see a patch of yellow amidst the red. Long tied golden hair and a wide-eyed expression, and another woman that was making her way to the window. Even from the distance, Xander could see her burns, and, suddenly, in a flash of a silver laurel wreath on her torn cloak piece, he recognized her.

“Lady—!”

In an instant, the ceiling came crumbling down in one solid piece, crushing the wall and the second floor, along with Alyss Mainwaring.

Xander’s hand instinctively shot up to cover his mouth. The mother was already dragging her daughter a safe distance away from the ruins, but he couldn’t bring himself to move, again. He stood there, in equal parts of disbelief and horror, and he felt like he was going to vomit.

He couldn’t fully comprehend what just happened, but the impact raised some wind, and he was pushed back a few feet, landing on his back. He barely felt himself sitting up and staring at the still-burning mess of wood and whitening stone, and he found his mind strangely hollow.

Xander hadn’t known Alyss very well.

He knew she was the best damn diplomat the land had seen, maybe second only to her teacher, Lady Pauline duLacy, if that. This was the hopes and treaties and pacts of the future destroyed, and, as much as he might’ve hated to admit it, Xander was a practical person. This was a loss to Araluen, not only to—

Oh, dear.

He knew she was Will’s wife; and Will Treaty, whom Xander did know, somewhat, was going to grieve for years. Possibly for as long as he lives. Xander knew she was brave, she was determined, she was hard-working.

He knew she had been kind enough to save a child before saving herself, and that said a lot about a person.

Emphasis on ‘said’.

His hands went up to rake through his own hair as he planted his eyes firmly on the blackened grass in front of him and sat there, shaking his head incredulously, at a monotonous pace.

It was the woman who grabbed his wrist and yanked him back to take him away. In her other hand was Evie’s tiny palm – the girl looked alright, save for the pale, horrified face and a couple of blisters here and there. She wasn’t even crying, but she was trying to get some attention.

“Don’t be a madman, come on, before the fields catch the flame,” her mother told him grimly, and he had to do a double-take. Me? I’m the madman?

“Mama,” whispered Evie, tugging on her sleeve.

“A moment, Evie. Come.” She pulled on Xander’s hand again. “There’s no point in sitting here anymore. Please, you’re only going to get hurt.”

“Mama!” Evie insisted, and now the woman turned to her. “We ought to help her!”

Xander slowly turned to Evie. She hadn’t noticed. Neither had her mother.

“Who?” she asked, and, surely enough, the girl’s hand rose to the remains of the inn. Xander’s nausea worsened at the sight.

“The girl!” she insisted in a high tone, jumping in place. “She pushed me out the window!”

“What?” the woman didn’t understand at once, so Evie let go of her and jumped to Xander, latching onto him instead.

“Sir, please!” she grabbed onto his arm, pulling him forward with whatever strength she had. It was not a lot, admittedly, but Xander was so shaken by the view that he stumbled forward with her and she took that as encouragement, dragging him along. “Please! She’s still in there, you must help her!”

“Evie!” the woman scolded, grabbing her wrist to free Xander. “Whatever do you mean, it’s not—“

He saw the realization click.

Xander watched the woman’s movements – she looked back at the inn, then at Evie and the inn again, the face of relief slowly being overshadowed by a shadow of terror. She turned back to Evie and gripped her softly by the shoulders.

“There was another girl with you, baby?” she asked, and Evie nodded firmly. She cursed under her breath, words her little girl wouldn’t understand, and stood up, followed by Xander, still numb.  “Did you know her?”

“No,” Evie answered. “She came to help me climb out, but then I fell and the roof fell. And then I was here.”

Xander only watched again as the woman debated something within herself – her eyes darted as she licked her lips, unwilling to let go of her child. He understood, after looking her up and down properly for the first time – she was a healer, herbs and a few vial bags on her belt. It was a hard choice, leave her daughter at a safe distance but still out of eyesight, or not check if ‘the other girl’ - Alyss – was alive or not.

But no human could survive that much fiery weight.

Still, the woman ultimately turned to Xander.

“What’s your name?” she asked, and Xander gaped, having not expected the question. “Where are you from? Quick, quick!”

“Xander,” he said, and immediately bit his tongue, but the haste had already gotten the better of him. Seeing no more harm to come of it, he ended, “Macindaw.” The woman studied him for a moment before nodding, seemingly satisfied, and pushing Evie a little closer to him.

“Keep watch on her for a minute or two, then, and keep in mind that I know who you are now.” She bent down to kiss Evie on the forehead, told her, “Be good,” and held out a hand for Xander briefly. “Helena.”

“Pleasure,” Xander wanted to say, but he didn’t even manage to take her hand before she was off, sprinting like a life depended on it. It could have.

They settled as she went. Xander crouched down to Evie’s level, trying not to think about the body Helena might find. Evie paid him little mind, too, staring at her mother.

“I hope she finds her,” she told him, hands clasped together.

Xander paused for a second. “...Yeah.”

Children were strange, uncaring that the adult next to them could very well be dangerous. They were friendly, they were accepting. Again, Xander thought, strange. But not unwelcome.

Gods knew he didn’t need any more burdens. Even if Helena found Alyss, there was hardly a chance she’d still be alive. And the rest of the inn could collapse any second – she had to make it out of there if she wanted to see her daughter again.

The entire day was strange, Xander thought, his mind oddly numb. First, he discovered a burning building, then found out he was looking for a dead woman and ended up with a child to look after while her mother scoured the remnants of a burnt inn for what Xander fully expected to be a mangled body of one of the most capable woman in Araluen.

And for what?

He didn’t think that. There was no way in hell he’d think that.

Xander, again, might’ve been a practical man, but he was not going to put capability above life. She saved a child. That was an act of far more capability than what most would ever achieve.

“She looked older than my mama,” Evie added quietly, watching Helena’s figure disappear amidst the smoking rubble anxiously. She glanced to the side, to Xavier. “But younger than you.”

“I see.” Xander knew for a fact she’d been younger than him, but there was something preventing him from telling Evie that he knew who threw her out the window and who saved her life. Frankly, he just didn’t think it would help her, knowing that the one who saved her life by sacrificing her own had a family, had friends, a job, a life.

It’d just make all of them even more miserable, and it’d wreck the poor kid. Instead, he tried to distract her from Alyss specifically. Himself too.

“What were you doing in that inn, Evie?” he asked, and she shrugged, keeping her eye on the rubble.

“I have a friend in the kitchen,” she answered, cocking her head to the side. “He was sick and I wanted to see how I could help.”

“Did you?” Xander asked. He didn’t particularly pay attention to her answer (which was negative because the boy wasn’t even there to begin with, so she decided to have some fun and managed to lock herself in a room with no other exits), he was too focused on where Helena had last been.

“I didn’t know how that was,” Evie was explaining to him. “I was inside, and I couldn’t get out. I was yelling, then she came in and pushed me out the window. I hope she’s alright, really...”

Xander was nodding along absentmindedly until he perked up when Helena’s pale face emerged from underneath the rubble. There was something wild in her eyes.

The voice, filled with desperation, reached them with a gust of wind.

“Help me!” she called, waving them over. “Come here, come, quick!”

Heart pounding, Xander jumped up, glancing to his side. “What about her?!”

“Take her, come on, hurry up!” Helena flicked her wrist, urging them on with a note of frustration in her voice now. “Don’t waste time, come here!”

Xander took Evie by the hand and rushed across the field to where Helena was waiting. The little footsteps behind him followed as the small hand gripped his for life. The closer they went, the more the air around felt like it was being heated by the inn itself.

Helena waved them closer, ever closer. She ducked under a plank, then, beckoning Xander to come with, but gesturing to leave Evie, understandably.

“Sit here,” she instructed her daughter, and Evie, whether she was just obedient or scared, sat down on the grass by the hole they now had as the entrance. That way, if the inn collapsed further, no debris would fall on the child – clever, Xander thought, and got a little nervous about following Helena. “Don’t move a muscle, and don’t get too cold.”

“Don’t worry, mama,” Evie told her sheepishly. “I’ll be here.”

Helena nodded and crawled down further, Xander in tow. As they went, it got warmer – then hotter. Smoke was making his eyes tearful and his throat itchy, but he pushed on. After all, Helena was getting the worst of it. He felt a sting of guilt at that, but he had to admit his bravery was anything but unconditional.

They stumbled upon the main room almost too suddenly, Helena reaching out backward to stop him in his tracks.

“Circle me, but be careful not to break anything else,” she said, and her voice was raspy – from the smoke or the emotion, he couldn’t tell. So he rounded her.

Immediately, he wanted to vomit again. His hands went up to his mouth involuntarily.

In the very middle of the room, having fallen down from the second floor, laid Alyss Mainwaring, half-covered by the large log that was pressing her to the ground. Flames ravaged the ground around her.

“Oh, Lord,” Xander heard himself repeating. Now, admittedly, he was beginning to sound like a madman. “Oh, Lord...”

Helena fell to her knees by Alyss, trying to reach under the log and failing. She turned to Xander, then, not taken aback in the slightest.

“Come on.” The determination in her voice was unreal. “I can’t get her pulse with that damn thing on her. We’ll take it off.”

“Lady Helena, that is a tree,” Xander pointed out. She looked briefly like she was considering manslaughter.

“Yes,” she agreed, and, firmly: “And we are going to move it.”

He caved with little protest, standing on the other side of the plank and then bending down to test the waters. The wood wasn’t burning to the touch – he guessed this was a piece of the ceiling, not the wall. Helena stood up and crouched down again, grabbing the side of the plank with no hesitation.

“Okay,” she said, and Xander took his place. “We just need to throw it off. I’ll count.” He braced himself, tensing up. “Two, three, now!”

They groaned in unison, but, slowly yet surely, they managed to lift the damn thing, and then sway it to the side just enough to keep it off Alyss. They let go of it after Helena’s cue, and the plank hit the ground with a weighty thump, now safely away from Alyss’ body.

She was showing no signs of life still.

Helena, however, did not seem discouraged, kneeling by her again and pulling her limp frame closer to her chest to gently press two fingers on her neck.

The world stilled in anticipation.

“She’s in there,” she breathed.

Xander felt like falling to his knees as well. Helena lifted her off the ground a little carefully, cradling her like a child.

“It’s not much, but she’s alive. We now only need to keep her that way,” she was muttering while leaning over to check her other side, obscuring Xander’s view of the two.

So, instead, he looked up, and saw that they were in a pitifully-constructed death trap – the roof may have collapsed, but the walls and part of the top of the first floor were still standing, still burning , and still a threat.

“Helena,” he croaked. “We should go.”

She didn’t reply.

He turned to her, and saw her frozen in place. Helena was tilting Alyss’ head up, eyes wide and jaw on the ground. Something glimmered in her eyes.

“Oh gods,” she was the one repeating things now. “Oh dear. Oh gods.”

“We need to go, now!” Xander put a hand on her shoulder, not even looking at Alyss in fear of freezing up like her, whatever had happened. “You’ll tend to her outside!”

“I can’t—“ she managed. “How am I supposed to... Her entire—“

Xander dropped down and grabbed Helena by the shoulders.

“If we stay here, we’re going to die, all three of us. Do you not want to see your daughter again?” he demanded, and that snapped her out of her horror into a somewhat more sensible state. “Then let’s go. Come on. The place will go to the ground any second. Come on, let’s go!”

“Right,” she whispered, but didn’t let Xander take Alyss. Instead, she picked her up herself, holding her close to her chest, and stood up. Although she was swaying under the weight slightly, Xander decided against trying to take her now-patient away and settled with looking for the exit once more. Alyss in Helena’s arms, as tall as she was compared to her, looked light and tiny.

It was a rather straight-forward walk, and Xander managed to overcome his anxiety in order to let the girls through first. He feared Alyss wouldn’t make it, and it sure looked like she wouldn’t, he thought, hurrying along after Helena. But as much time as she had, maybe Helena could at least extend it. Or reduce it , a grim thought settled, depending on which turns out to be the more merciful option .

It took them longer to find the exit with Alyss in Helena's arms obstructing her view, and the bells of fear started ringing in Xander’s ears again for a minute, especially when he started hearing the boards crying their last wails before falling to the ground behind him.

Ultimately, however, he saw a shine from the hole they’d come through, and he gently guided the hunching Helena toward it. She looked like she’d just awoken after a horrible dream, and, unbeknownst to him, Xander’s face was doing exactly the same thing.

“Go first,” Helena told him, pressing herself to the wall as hard as she could. “You’ll help me pull her out.”

Xander circled her and went on, climbing out under the sun. Despite the smoke still being prevalent in the air, he took a breath in what seemed like hours without it. It was wonderful. He turned on his heel and peering down back into the hole.

Evie had jumped up from the ground and run toward him, shouting in anticipation.

“Where’s mama?” she demanded, grabbing him by the belt, and Xander pointed down, mouthing ‘ okay’ before he shook her gently to the side.

Helena was, in fact, okay. So far. Alyss in her arms, however – oh, she didn’t even want to think about it, still knowing that it’d be one of the only things on her mind for the next few days, weeks, even. If she was to make a summary, however, Helena’s thoughts were simple; the woman she was holding had saved her only daughter and dearest friend, and she was not about to forget the kindness.

“Hold her,” she told Xander, raising Alyss as far up as she could. He obliged, though his arms trembled, hoisting her out of the house. Helena turned to Evie, who was watching the ordeal with a gaping mouth and a childish lack of disgust at the situation. “Did you see anyone else inside, baby?”

“No, mama,” Evie replied, balling fists in her little burnt skirts subconsciously, eyes wide like a fish’s. “It was only her.”

“Okay.” In a few lively swings, she’d put her hands on the ground above where she was standing, lifted herself over the edge and was up from her knees at once. She took Evie by the hand and raised her chin to point further away from the inn, directing them. Wordlessly, Xander understood, carrying Alyss along, followed by the girls.

Just when they were a few steps away, a great and terrible thump echoed behind them. Evie turned to look, while the adults didn’t need to in order to understand that what remained of the inn had been swiftly brought down by the flame. Must've been quite the sight, but they refused to turn.

Xander shivered in the warm air. He didn’t want to think about what would’ve happened if they hadn’t pulled Alyss out – or if they hadn’t left in time themselves, too. He didn’t even get the chance to look at how badly the diplomat was hurt until Helena motioned for him to put her down, to which he obliged, lowering her on a softer patch of grass.

Helena immediately fell to her knees again, this time by Alyss, tilting her head back again. She’d had her moment of shock back in the inn, and that seemed to have been all she would allow herself – now, there was a patient and she was going to make her feel all better. If she could. One way or another.

She caressed Alyss’ forehead absent-mindedly, as if she was petting a child’s hair, while rolling her to one side to see her neck, then shoulder. She lingered on her face, something about Alyss’ eye causing her to click her tongue in displeasure and distaste, then pick at something carefully before moving down.

Xander was stepping in place a meter or so to the side, watched by the lenient eyes of Evie. He wasn’t sure what to do – better to stand back and let Helena work, his common sense told him. But he wasn’t used to being unable to offer any kind of help at all (well, he was, technically, but it didn’t make this any better). So, he stepped up, about to ask if there was anything he should do.

Then, he gazed up to her body, and froze.

That was when Xander first got a decent look at what Alyss looked like, and the bile that was piling up in his stomach climbed all the way up to his throat. He almost started gagging.

The left side of her face didn’t even resemble a face anymore – even looking at it made Xander’s own cheek itch; it looked molten, almost, like mash with a few strips of skin sticking out. Alyss was fair-skinned and bright-haired, so the angry red burns immediately stuck out. Her skin was blotchy and wrinkled, her lip looked like it had been pulled down and her eye—

Xander turned away and raised a hand to his mouth, retching. Helena didn’t even look at him, carefully tilting Alyss’ head to the side by the unharmed half – well, "unharmed" was a situational description. She had burns all over, some just couldn’t be compared to others.

Xander tried hard not to look at her face in fear of actually throwing up now, but the rest of it was just as bad – her legs were all mangled, her arm looked to be bent strangely and a shoulder displaced by the falling debris, not to mention all the burns. She did not look like a person anymore, rather like a terrible image of bruises, burns and torn flesh that he knew would stay ingrained in his head forever.

“She is dead,” he whispered, but Helena turned to him with a scorching look on her face.

“She is not, not yet,” she said dryly, turning back to the lady. “And she won’t be, if I can help it.”

 Xander’s heart jumped. “Does that mean she’ll—...“

“Live?” Xander nodded, and Helena shook her head. “Far too early to tell. But it’ll be faster if you carry her to my home. I’ll wash the burns and we’ll see then.”

“I—“ Xander cut himself off, swallowing hard. He was almost afraid of touching Alyss now, after seeing her for what she was, in concern of her crumbling to dust in his very arms. “I don’t know if...”

“This is hardly the time,” Helena scolded firmly, gesturing toward Alyss whilst standing up, then pointing to Evie. “Pick her up. Evie will tell you were to go, and I’ll run straight to the water well. You’ll show him, Evie?”

“Yeah,” she said, tall – as tall as she was, really – and proud. Helena nodded to her, then to Xander, who was still staring hopelessly at the ground, and sped across the grass.

When the last corner of her green dress disappeared behind the corner, Evie stomped on her foot lightly.

“Come on,” she ordered, momentarily resembling a grown woman instead of a child. Mimicking her mother, she demanded, “Pick her up!”

Xander swallowed down all of his anxiety again and took a step forward to kneel by Alyss. If she was breathing, he couldn’t see it. Gently, as gently as he could, he slid his arms underneath her, every breath a strained sigh, and hoisted into the air.

He almost toppled back, then, but not because she was heavy – she wasn’t, not really, she was scarily light, actually. It simply surprised him how limp she really was – that should’ve been obvious, of course, but he’d subconsciously expected some kind of stiffness one feels while picking up another person as they tense up, maybe raise their arms to wrap them around their shoulders.

Alyss did no such thing. She fell back against his chest, legs dangling over his arms freely, and he was grateful to all the gods he could name that her head didn’t fall back, that he didn’t see her face again. He might just have dropped her, in that case. But she was breathing, anyhow – he could feel it now, her chest rising and falling against his, proof of life and the possibility of it continued. The pressure was faint, though, and he swore he could hear breath hitching in her throat, whistling, wheezing. It was eerie, it almost sounded inhuman.

Evie stepped in place impatiently until he got himself back together, then waved him over with her small hands.

“Come, come!” she beckoned, turning on her heel and scurrying away, to the other side from where her mother had gone.

Xander followed once more, and, along the commendably complex path the five-year-old led him through (he supposed she was taking shortcuts), he thought again about how he managed to get himself into the situation. Grimly, he debated sending Orman a sternly-worded letter at the earliest possible occasion, though, of course, how was his poor Lord supposed to know? Housefires happened. It just so was that Alyss Mainwaring, whom he was looking for, happened to be in one, too. And now he was carrying her, her face far too unfamiliar and her skin far too hot, burning, almost.

She had deserved none of this.

 They finished their trip on the steps to a neat little house with what seemed to only be one room and two windows, and this is where Evie turned back to him.

“When do you think Mama will get here?” she asked him, suddenly looking a little anxious.

“In a few minutes, I’m sure,” Xander replied. The muscles in his arms were beginning to tire, but he felt like the lowest of bastards to even give such a thing any thought. “Can we bring her in? This girl, I mean.”

“Oh,” Evie said, blinking, then looked up to the door and stepped up. “Yeah.”

Hurriedly, she threw up her hands to push the heavy door open – it only took a few dozen inches, and it swung back on its own, hitting the wall behind it with a thump. Evie jumped over the doorstep, beckoning him in.

“Mama says not to leave a mess when I’m alone,” she told him as he scrambled up the stairs. “But I think you can put her on the bench.”

Xander nodded absent-mindedly until something pulled him back; what was left of Alyss’ hair, a few strands at most, still managed to hook onto the hinges, and Xander cursed under his breath, too preoccupied to care about the presence of a child. He leaned closer – untangling it would have been an aimless cause, but he didn’t want to tear at the already-reddening skin on her head, either.

“Get a knife,” he said, and Evie almost swallowed her tongue.

“I can’t take knives.”

I’m sure there’s a story there , Xander bit his tongue right before the words tumbled out. This was no such occasion.

“I’ll tell your mother I told you to get it,” he said in a stern tone. When she didn’t move, he urged, “Hurry! Do you not want to save her?”

She squeaked something incomprehensible and scuttled away toward the counters as he watched over Alyss, trying to painlessly tug the hair away, but to no avail. After Evie handed him a knife, he carefully laid Alyss on one hand and put the blade on the very end of her hair, just before the spot where it hooked onto the protrusions in the door hinges.

Then, with a single quick slash, Alyss’ head was free – not only of the bound, but of a few more hair strands, too. Xander doubted strongly that she’d mind.

Sensing that he’d already lost enough time, he hurried over the doorstep and looked around for the bench Evie had mentioned a second ago. Secretly, Evie pulled the knife out of his hand to slip it back into the counter, never to be seen by her still-gone mother.

Xander stumbled forward to lay her down on the bench by one of the walls, careful not to get any part of her stuck to anything else – easier said than done, however, as the healer’s home was stuffed to the brim with counters and tables with bottles and vials and books and journals, and...

Xander felt like he could barely take a step without knocking something down, so when he eased Alyss, still unmoving, onto the bench safely, a sigh of relief escaped him.

“Now what?” Evie asked as Xander carefully put both her hands on her stomach and shrugged.

“We wait for your mother,” he answered simply, and scratched the top of his head, unsettled. Alyss looked an uncomfortable lot like a body during a wake. He put her hands back down by her sides and turned to Eve again. “Do you have a rag I can put under her head anywhere near? It would soften the surface.”

If Evie hadn’t understood the purpose, she didn’t show it, nodding and spinning on her heel to go rummage through one of the wardrobes. She pulled out a dirtied cloth triumphantly and stuck it out to Xander, who promptly decided this was no time for getting icky and lifted Alyss’ head to slide the rolled-up rag under.

Her neck was pulsing and hot and wet, and when his hand was returned to him, it was red. Xander grit his teeth and wiped it off, Evie watching curiously.

“What was that?” she asked, gesturing. “On your fingers?”

He opened his mouth. She was still a child, morbidly curious and yet too young to be told about the damage fire did to a person. How it picked them apart worse than any blade could. That the suffering Alyss would be put through if she did survive the next few weeks would be, to some, worse than death. And that the very same thing would’ve happened to her , had the brave woman not put her life before her own.

Luckily, he didn’t have to answer. Skillfully manoeuvring through the room with two buckets came Helena, easily avoiding every obstacle while hardly even turning to look at it until she was right by them. She took one look at Alyss and at them and shooed them away from her hurriedly, dropping the buckets down by her feet and crouching down to check Alyss’ heartbeat once more.

“Will she be okay, Mama?” Evie asked. Helena scrunched up her nose and didn’t answer, taking Alyss by one shoulder and turning her to the side while adjusting the support under her head.

“Go rest for a minute, baby,” she said to Evie, then gesturing to Xander. “And net him a spot, too.”

Given something to do, Evie jumped to action, scuttling over to the same wardrobe – this time she pulled out a fur blanket from the bottom of the closet and spread it out on the ground. Xander swallowed.

“Will this take so long?” he asked, anxiety evident. Helena glared over her shoulder.

“I don’t know yet,” she snapped at him, stressing every word. “But it’s more comfortable once you’ve got a place to sit, I reckon.”

Unable to disagree with that, Xander made a wide, meaningless gesture with his arms and followed Evie. She had kicked off her shoes and collapsed into the lay, digging under a blanket, still fully clothed. She turned over and threw the blanket over her head so only her face peeked out from underneath. It was endearing.

“It takes very long, sometimes,” Evie informed Xander, nodding for emphasis. “But Mama always does it. She’ll be okay and well.”

Xander highly doubted that, but opted out of saying anything – although a perfect healer was only a dream of every land, there was no such thing, but it wasn’t like a mother was going to tell her five-year-old about death or such serious failure in-depth.

“I’m gonna sleep,” Evie told him and dropped on her side. “You should sleep, too. That way morning will come faster.”

Xander nodded to her, as pleasantly as he could. He would not sleep now or today or tomorrow, probably. It was all still too fresh, too livid, running through his veins, the fire and the memory.

In front of him, Helena was incessantly shoving her hands into the water and gently washing Alyss’ burns. Xander failed to see how a wash would help an injury, but he was no expert in healing and he didn’t pretend to be one. Helena, on the other hand, was – so he merely raised an eyebrow when she lifted the bucket and a stream of water spilled over Alyss’ neck and shoulders. Those were the places where the dead black skin seemed to spread like an infection.

“How is she?” he asked after a little while as she was constantly checking the temperature of Alyss’ skin.

“Doesn’t seem to be flaring up after the cooling, but you never know.” She ran her dripping fingers through what was left of Alyss’ hair. “I’ll see how she reacts to the bandages and the herbs, and I’ll tell you what else I know.”

Xander nodded, then, realizing she couldn’t see him, voiced his agreement in a small voice. She leaned over Alyss again, bandaging and re-bandaging, wrapping and unwrapping, always finding something imperfect, something to fix. Unbothered by her mutterings, Evie was now blinking next to Xander, still very much awake unlike she had claimed, bundled up in the little beast cave she’d made herself out of the blanket.

After a while, Alyss stopped moving – or, at least, Xander couldn’t see her fingers twitching anymore. Then, he realized it was the healer that had bandaged her down to the fingertips.

She’d been sitting over the diplomat for hours at this point. Xander cleared his throat, about to ask about her state again, but was beaten to it this time.

Helena drew back, slowly, dropping her hands on her thighs, and opened her mouth. Closed it, then dug around in the bag some more, but ultimately fished out nothing and straightened herself back up before visibly deflating.

She looked up at Xander and Evie, both watching with expressions of different hoping on their faces – Evie childishly, with naive certainty that her mother could do anything, and Xander with the sort that alluded to his temporarily surfacing belief in miracles.

“I, well, I have enough to keep her alive,” she said, and there was silence in the room.

“Good,” Evie said with no shift in tone. Xander stammered for a second before adding:

“...But?”

“But the fact that I can keep her heart beating for now doesn’t mean I can prolong her life by much.”

Xander’s voice took a minute to climb back up his throat.

“So are you saying she’ll...” she waited for him to finish, unwilling to do it herself. “She’ll... die anyway?”

“I don’t know.” Helena pressed her lips together. “But I have a few ideas.”

There was a pause, and Xander raised his eyebrows.

“Well?” he urged. She blinked a couple of times.

“We’ll go over them in a minute. Come here, child,” she called, reaching out for Evie, who obediently jumped up from her little nest on the ground and trotted over to her mother.

“How’s your cheek?” Helena asked her, taking her softly by the chin and turning her head to the side.

“Eh, ‘s okay,” Evie replied, opening her mouth widely so the blister stretched. “Ow!” she giggled.

“Don’t do that, baby.” Helena slapped her on the wrist painlessly and tilted her head. “Is there anywhere you feel numb?”

“No, Mama.”

“And does anything hurt?”

Evie nodded earnestly. “My shoulder.”

Helena nodded and untied the string by Evie’s neck to pull down her sleeve. Xander, in the meantime, sat, staring at nothing in particular.

“Oh, you poor thing,” he heard Helena say. “Here?”

That was followed by a whimper and a tearful noise of affirmation. Xander shook his head as his eyes found the ceiling. Evie didn’t complain a single time – did she not feel it in her enthusiasm, as most children do, or did she know Alyss was in more serious peril?

It should’ve occurred to him that he didn’t know much about children.

“Here we go, darling.” Helena pulled Evie’s sleeve back up and pinched her untouched cheek lightly. “Have I forgotten anything?”

Evie nodded with a grim and serious face. “The healing magic!”

Xander furrowed his brows, infinitely confused, and glanced down at the two.

“That’s right!” Helena smiled and leaned down to plant a kiss on her daughter’s shoulder. “There we go.”

“Oh,” Xander said out loud. The two turned to him.

“What?” Helena questioned. It was a warning not to betray the fellow adult in the face of a child.

“Nothing, I just—“ he bit his tongue before confessing that, for a second, he was convinced he was about to see a witch in action. “Nothing at all.”

“It’s magic,” Evie explained to him like he was the child here. “It helps me get healthy faster.”

“That it does,” Helena said with a note in her voice that didn’t let Xander argue with it – not that he would’ve anyways. She nudged Evie to the bed again. “Off you go. Me and— err, we have to talk about some things.”

“Xander,” he reminded her when Evie shrugged and wandered back. “My name’s Xander.”

“Sorry,” she muttered, turning back to where Alyss was and kneeling down again to check the bandages. “It’s been a while since it’s been this hectic, even with multiple patients in. I suppose some things escape me.”

“I understand, Helena.” He wasn’t trying to stress that he remembered her name, he truly wasn’t. It sounded like it, though, so, hurriedly, he added, “Well, what shall we do?”

She pulled her lip in thought. “See, it’s all very... Well, she’s dependent on the herbs I’m wrapping her in. They’re applied to heal the burns, which they’re doing a good-enough job of. On the other hand, though, that’s not all that is the concern right now. Her temperature is too high.” She made a helpless gesture. “Which, of course it is, but the ridiculous thing is, the only plant that can draw this much heat out doesn’t grow here in Anselm, and you can’t just dry it up or keep a reserve. It’s only worth a dime when fresh.”

Xander was shaking his head, since much of what Helena was saying went over it anyway. “So, what you’re saying is...”

“I don’t have a way to lower her body heat other than water which will gradually stop having an effect, and without any remedy she will, in the true sense of the word, be boiled alive by her own insides,” Helena stated. Xander suddenly felt like he shouldn’t have eaten – today or ever. He must’ve looked green with nausea as well, as she added, “That’s why we ought to find a healer that has access to such a plant.”

“Well,” Xander muttered, the image of Malcolm immediately surfacing in his head. He was a smart man, if a little bristly, Xander thought. “Where does the plant grow?”

“The north,” she answered, and a little sting of hope took to him. She noticed the sparkle in his eye and gave a dim smile. “You’re from Macindaw, yes?”

“That’s right.” She remembered where he was from, but not his name. He wasn’t sure if he was to be offended or flattered.

Helena put her hands together. “Alright. Good. Malcolm should not refuse to help an acquaintance.”

Xander blinked through his surprise. “You know Malcolm?”

“I’ve written the occasional letter. Sent a damaged kid or two over when I heard he was sheltering the poor things.” She shrugged, brushing her palm against Alyss’ face, checking over and over. “As I’m sure many others have, too.  Healers talk to each other despite feudal skirmishes.” She fixed him in place, probably having sensed long-before that even if he wasn’t a noble, he didn’t seem exactly much for a commoner, either. “Joint knowledge saves lives. I know their cards, they know mine.”

“You think he’ll help?” Xander wondered out loud, and she sighed.

“He must. It’d be against his moral code not to.”

“You’re so sure all of you healers have your heads screwed on right?” he asked, not trying to be rude per se, merely just inquiring. She took it wrong, looking up to glare.

“I would hope so,” she answered quietly. “What’ll the world come to if the healers start to hurt?”

Xander had no answer to that – instead, he opted to simply watch as Helena, having unwillingly left Alyss be for the bit, brought out a few lids with ground herbs inside and got a cup of water. She was making some sort of salve, at least that was Xander’s guess.

“So—We’re travelling up north?” Xander asked. She hummed in response, focused. “Well, back up north, for me.”

“Why were you down here in Anselm, even?” She poured some more water in and circled the contents of the container for it all to mix. “Doesn’t look like you’re the type of folk to go around and look at nature, if you don’t mind me saying.”

“Not at all.” A little bit, although he didn’t tell her. “I was out with a mission.”

“Well, I’m assuming you completed your mission, then, o adventurer.” Helena stuck her hand into the substance, frowned and started concocting a new one. “Since you’re so eager to accompany us to Norgate.”

“I—“ He thought for a minute. Find Alyss Mainwaring . “In a... way, I suppose.”

“Oh?”

“I’m afraid that’s all I’ll say.”

Helena snorted. “Again, take this not as malice, but the rumours that you righteous lads in taller chairs spread around about commonfolk are shameful. We don’t all gossip at the first opportunity. I, for one, just want to know who I’m on the road with.”

“Are we going somewhere, Mama?” A sleepy voice reached them from under the blanket.

Evie peeked from underneath, eyes big and teary from the lack of proper rest. Helena opened her mouth, closed it.

“Give me a moment, sweetheart, then we’ll talk,” she said, the density and colour of the creamy substance in the container finally to her liking. While Evie crawled out of bed after her short-lived nap, Helena knelt by Alyss one last time, this time to unwrap and re-do her bandages with the new salve.

“What is that?” Xander asked, but Helena was too focused to answer. Evie tiptoed to see what was on the table and let out a knowing hum.

“It’s the healing foam,” she let him know.

He blinked, wondering if it was another inside joke the two shared. “Oh?”

She looked at him like he was the five-year-old, and added: “It heals you.”

“Ah. Of course.” He nodded, deciding to just leave the professional to do her thing.

It was done rather fast, too – it seemed like applying the salve was easier than sticking the bandages on cracking skin and particularly visible veins.  When she finished up, dropping the empty container on the bottle, she leaned back and gave an exhausted sigh.

“Right,” she muttered. “That should be good until morning. I still need to find us a ride. I have a cart, but no horse.”

“I have a horse,” Xander told her without really thinking.

“Good for you.” She looked at him with the same look Evie had – except hers was one of dismissal other than a subtle sense of superiority that children harboured. “You got a harness? Thought so,” she noted when he shook his head. “So, I’ll have to find us a horse. And maybe a rider, if I’m lucky. I’m not taking the reins when I can barely stand.”

“Wise,” Xander agreed. Evie then cut in:

“Where are we going?” She seemed to have had caught up.

“Xander and I are going to get the girl to a different healer. I’ll come back after we have,” Helena explained, creeping slowly to her daughter.

“Oh. Okay. Do we leave now?” She looked around as if searching for what to bring already, a note of excitement in her voice.

Helena visibly tensed a little and crouched down to take Evie by the hands.

“I’m not bringing you with us, Evie,” she said, as softly as she could. “I don’t want to risk putting you out there too.”

“But I can’t stay here alone for so long.” Evie didn’t seem to understand the implications, and Xander, sensing a family dispute, swiftly moved just far away to be within earshot, but not to get involved.

“You won’t be alone, child,” she told Evie, who frowned in confusion.

“You’re not going either?”

“I am,” Helena corrected, cupping her cheeks gently. “I’ll ask your aunts to watch you.”

“But you told me you’d bring me with you when you were going to go anywhere,” Evie insisted, pulling her lip. Her voice quivered, and now Xander stepped out of earshot completely, almost halfway out the door. “You told me I could go.”

“Not with a patient,” Helena told her patiently as Evie shook her hands off her face. “Any other time, I’d bring you with.”

There was a moment of silence. A calm before the storm, if you will.

As all hell broke loose, Xander reminded himself never to even consider having children.

“You promised, though!” Evie stomped down with her foot, boiling over a tantrum. “You promised that if you would travel again, you’d take me!”

“Evie, I’m talking to you like to a grown woman,” Helena said, leaning forward, still on her level, and gently brushing her fingers against Evie’s neck. She was most definitely talking to her as a child, but there was something about telling children you’re regarding them as adults that made them settle down, if only a little bit. “It’s going to be a long and difficult journey, and you are not going to help.”

No, nevermind, his assumption had been wrong, Xander thought, Helena was talking to her as bluntly as she could.

“I am!” Evie insisted, and Helena gestured broadly.

“How?”

Faced by a pause and a defiant glare, she cocked her head to the side. “Baby, I know you want to go. But you can’t. Not this time.”

“You won’t go again,” Evie stated. Helena winced back involuntarily.

“What?”

“This is the only time you’re going anywhere,” she continued with an untimely bitterness in her voice. “You told me you liked it here better than anywhere else.”

“That’s because I do, Evie,” Helena said softly. “But we can go somewhere another time, if you really want that.”

“I want to go now,” she pressed on. “And I don’t want to stay with the aunts anymore. I’m old enough already!”

Coming from a five-year-old, the statement would’ve made Xander wheeze in any other situation.

“No, you’re not. That’s enough. Let’s go.” Helena stood up, towering over her child. She took Evie by the hand, and, although she was pulling and thrashing and trying her best to fall to the ground, Helena had strong hands. “If you keep this up, I’ll pick you up and throw you over my shoulder.”

Evie stopped, stayed still for a second and freed herself, then raised her hands.

“I wanna,” she said, defeated. Helena gave her a sad little smile and picked her up, holding her close to her chest. Then turned to Xander.

“Please watch her for a bit,” she asked, nodding toward Alyss. Xander closed his eyes, no need for an answer. “I’ll take her to the neighbours and be back in a couple of minutes at the longest.”

“Right.” Xander took a step to Alyss’ side, settling on a chair by the bed. “I’ll— Yeah.”

Helena lingered for a moment before pushing the door open with her hip. “She won’t die while I’m gone,” she reassured him, but it wasn’t exactly very convincing. “At least,” she muttered, “she shouldn’t.”

As the door snapped shut, Xander swallowed, then, turning to Alyss, took a breath. Her face did not look any better, and he was afraid to look down, so he did not. He may have been courageous when the time called it, he repeated to himself, but this was not quite the time he had in mind. And now, the limit of his bravery seemed to be the suffering the woman in front of him was enduring, unconscious or not.

Her chest, however, was still rising and falling – slowly, barely, but it persevered, she persevered. He hoped she would keep on doing so.

The room was eerily quiet, devoid of all noise except the occasional whistle from Alyss’ throat. Subconsciously, Xander started humming to himself, looking over her.

“Keep on,” he said quietly, unable to decide whether the tip was meant for himself or Alyss. “You’re strong.”

He swore Alyss’ fingers twitched – he planted his eyes firmly on her hand, but there was no other movement. “You’re strong,” he repeated, even quieter.

Honestly, Xander was well-acquainted with the art of words. He knew very well that diplomacy wouldn’t solve every problem there was, but, looking at the woman in front of him, a few remaining strands of hair obscuring her face again and eyes floating under shut eyelids, he hoped there would be no need for debates with the gods of luck. There was no way someone so bright could just— disappear in a snap of a finger, no chance of salvation.

Slowly, he leaned forward, resting his head in his hands. He was tired; it was a long day and it seemed like it was going to be an even longer night.

He wasn’t sure if he’d slipped under while he was sitting, so frozen, in time and in place; the room started floating around in front of him, and things suddenly became other things or mixes of various ones. He blinked through it, he blinked and he blinked – but it was too strong.

When he opened his eyes again, leaning forward to sit straighter and look less like he’d knocked himself out, it was because the door was shoved open again and Helena stormed in. The first thing Xander noticed was the fact that Evie was rather clearly still there.

“I have good and bad news,” Helena announced grimly, holding her smiling daughter by the hand. “You know the drill. Which one to go first?

“The worse ones, I suppose,” Xander said, eyeing Evie who was still by Helena’s side. He had an idea of what their problems were. Helena pressed her lips together.

“They have no beds,” she informed him as Evie straight-up shone next to her. “And I can’t leave her alone.”

“I’ll go, then?” Evie demanded, and Helena masterfully ignored her.

“She must,” Xander agreed, shrugging pitifully. “If there is no other way. We can’t wait another hour.”

Helena’s eyes shut him up. “The good news, however, is that if I look over their kids for a few weeks when we come back, her uncle will take us right where we need to go. He’s got a cart too, one of his own, not the most comfortable or concealed, but they’ve got a horse on top of that, we could just lay some hay on the bottom and—“

“Lovely,” Xander cut her off. “But what about my horse? I left her by the stables.”

“Well,” Helena said, tapping a finger on her temple. “Go take her back – we’ll tie her to the cart. Not only will we get some rest, but we’ll also be able to direct our full attention to it.”

She sighed. Every patient was always different, somehow.

The last sentence was meant for Evie, who clearly didn’t understand that her mother was urging her to get to bed, if only for a little while, so Helena simply swept her into her arms again and brought her to the pile of blankets, and let her go. Evie sat for a while, stretching, before collapsing and hugging the pillow, soon to be snoozing as peacefully as only a child could in a situation like such. Whether she didn’t understand it or was simply used to it was anyone’s guess.

“We’ll need to take turns looking after her,” Helena said, watching her daughter sleep for a minute but referring to Alyss, then turning to Xander. “I suggest you take the first watch. It’s less likely something goes awry with her.”

“Alright, define ‘awry’.” He settled on the chair up straight so he doesn’t get any napping ideas at any time.

“If she starts thrashing or if she freezes in place completely, or if she starts shaking, wake me up.” She gave a dry, humourless chuckle. “She stops breathing, definitely wake me up.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Xander said in a similar tone as she nodded to him and went to drop next to Evie, pushing her toward the wall their bed was against. She wrapped an arm around her, shielding her from all and any. Evie sniffled something, curled up in a ball, and nuzzled up against her mother. Inadvertently, Xander smiled as they nodded off together.

Then, alone with his thoughts again, he turned to Alyss.

He didn’t know what else to tell her. If he should talk to her. He didn’t think she could hear him, but he had heard stories of poor souls waking from a living death and remembering the exact words people had spoken to them while they were under.

“Keep on,” he told her once more, this time adding, quietly: “So many people need you. And so many people love you.”

Cursing himself for such sentiment under his breath, he went quiet, and so he was for the rest of the night.

Morning passed with no incident, Xander waking Helena before dawn so he himself had a few hours to waste on sleep. It came to him scarily easily, despite the sudden change of location and the uncomfortable blanket he was sleeping on. Not too far away from him, Evie was still snoozing. Helena kept an eye on her non-stop, and in his last few seconds of awareness Xander thought to himself how fiercely the little girl was going to be protected from now on. Especially during their journey.

The morning was red, and Xander thought it to be somewhat insulting as Alyss’ skin was pretty much the same colour.

With mild curiosity, he watched as Helena stuffed into a bag food and herb alike, and when Evie rolled out of her little lair, she grabbed a tiny leather purse her mother had left her on the table. Xander smiled subconsciously once more -  it was a replica of the same bigger bag Helena carried, except he doubted the contents were anywhere as important. Not for Alyss, anyway. Evie seemed to be under the impression hers was just as vital as Helena’s, and Xander was not about to disagree.

Once the two had finished and Xander had left briefly for his horse, it was Helena’s turn – she nodded toward Alyss, looking at Xander, watch over her , and rushed out to get the man that had promised to bring them to Norgate.

Xander slowly made his way to Alyss, crouching beside Evie. He studied her face – not much had changed. Her breathing seemed to be a little less shallow. Not by much, but he felt his chest get a little lighter.

“I’m happy,” Evie told him, also looking at Alyss. He wondered if she even saw the horrific burns, the exposed muscle, almost. She didn’t seem to. “I’ve never been outside Anselm. How many times have you been away from home?”

“A few,” he replied shortly, and stood up. “What’s in your purse?”

She hid it behind her back, grinning up at him. “Secrets.”

“Many secrets?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes,” she replied. “I can’t tell you how many. Lots.”

“Alright,” he muttered. He didn’t feel like questioning her further.

It didn’t take Helena too long to stick her head through the door and wave them over.

“Take her, but be careful,” she instructed with a stern look, and Xander complied. “Like the apple of your eye.  You—Hey, you’re gonna knock her against the wall! Be careful, I said!”

Xander did his best, navigating out of the home with a limp body in his arms, again. Evie followed closely, clutching onto her purse for dear life. Xander noticed an anxious look as she went past Helena. The mother really seemed to worry.

The cart was waiting for them just outside the house; Helena waved at the man, the Uncle, apparently, who leapt down from the seat to pull her into a crushing hug. Once they’d pulled back, she led him to Xander, where he had a chance to look over him.

The man was of medium height and stocky, and had a surprisingly lenient smile on his face most of the time, it seemed. He took Alyss from them effortlessly but gently, laying her down in the carpet of hay he’d stacked in the cart. Helena beckoned Xander over, raising Evie to be picked up and dropped into the cart as well. This was followed by the Uncle offering Helena a hand to get in. She smiled, grateful, and jumped up, Xander keeping up just behind her.

Once they’d all settled, horses tied and people secured, the cart shuddered greatly and moved forward. The horse in front seemed small, but turned out to be rather sturdy. Xander pressed his lips together, approving, and looked down.

This was a beginning of an exhausting week.

Minutes after their journey started, Helena had already begun rewrapping Alyss’ wounds. She had a vial on her belt – a vial of the same substance she’d put on her wounds earlier.

“For the pain?” Xander asked, and she nodded. “She... She just, doesn’t seem to be in much pain right now.”

“Just because she can’t tell you that doesn’t mean she isn’t,” Helena snapped back, tying the bandages together. “I don’t intent to let her suffer.”

“Poor gal,” the Uncle commented, glancing at them over his shoulder, smile still on his face, if a little dimmed. “Whatever happened? The blasted inn from yesterday?”

“Yes,” Helena confirmed, so loud that Xander flinched and Alyss’ fingers twitched, more noticeable this time. She looked back at them, a little sheepish. “Sorry. Uncle Thomas’ ears aren’t the same as they used to be.”

“That, they aren’t,” Thomas agreed and averted his eyes back to the road. “Won’t bother you too much. Just wanted to ask if you think there’s any hope.”

“There’s always hope,” Helena answered, exasperated. Next to her, Evie nodded enthusiastically.

Thomas shrugged and sped the horses up a little bit. As the rocky road shook the cart, Xander remembered something.

“She’s been moving, hasn’t she?” he asked. Helena nodded slowly.

“Is that—“ he hesitated. “Is that... progress?”

“Of a sort,” Helena confirmed, biting down on her lip and gesturing widely. “I can’t give her back all her consciousness with what I’ve got in my purse, but you can expect her to come through every once in a while. She’s in pain, I told you. Pain wakes people.”

“Oh,” he muttered. He still didn’t want to think about it. Alyss was almost completely covered in bandages next to him. “I was thinking, maybe...”

“There are no definite answers, and there won’t be any until we either get to Malcolm or she dies on the road,” Helena cut him off, wrapping an arm around Evie who was sniffling quietly at their conversation. “I just,” she muttered, brushing a hand against her daughter’s cheek, “I hope she won’t have lost her mind because of it. She’s not from here, I can tell. Looks like a messenger, the poor thing. It’ll be impossible to find her family if she’s alone and doesn’t know who she is.”

Xander gave an awkward cough. He only now realized they didn’t know he had seen Alyss before and he was one of those that knew where to find her family.

Helena glanced up at him, suspicion reflected in her eye. Xander took a breath and relented.

“I haven’t been entirely truthful with you,” he said, fumbling with his fingers. Helena raised an eyebrow at him again.

“I’m sorry?”

“I know who she is,” Xander confessed, burying his face in his collar. “My, err, what’d you call it – goal? Was to find her.”

Helena’s eye twitched.

“And you couldn’t have said it before.”

“I—“ Xander opened his arms, genuinely defensive. “I forgot! Look, it’s not like the past few hours were uneventful.”

“Yes, but if I knew that you wanted her to get better, then I would’ve known you meant no harm to us,” Helena said impatiently. “Would’ve had far less to worry about. But, oh well. At least I can sleep easy now.”

“What’s her name?” Evie asked, and her eyes had a shine to them. “Do you know it?”

Xander considered it for a moment, but found no harm in it. “Alyss,” he said. “Her name is Alyss. She’s a Diplomat for—”

“Pretty,” Evie noted. At the same time Helena leaned back from Alyss as to not hit her on accident as she flinched.

“Alyss Mainwaring?” Helena asked in disbelief. Xander nodded, a little puzzled.

“Yes,” he said. “Mainwaring.”

Helena gave a short whistle, to which Alyss’ eyes moved underneath shut eyelids.

“Lankier than I thought she’d be,” she noted, looking over Alyss with newfound curiosity. “Don’t they run around a whole bunch?”

“Yes, well, she’s not weak,” Xander defended her, almost offended on her behalf.

“No, I know that,” Helena said, quiet. “If she was weak, she would be dead.”

She bent down to fix a few tears in the wrappings, and Xander sighed. It was going to be a long journey.

 


 

It was barely dawn of the second day when Alyss started muttering things with half her mouth, rousing Evie that was sleeping by her side. She sat up and watched, startled, before stumbling on her knees to poke Helena in the ribs. Xander, hearing the commotion, turned from where he was sitting in front, alongside Thomas. Helena blinked through uneasy sleep to find her daughter nodding toward Alyss with wide eyes, and shot up straight, half-stumbling to see if she’d worsened.

She hadn’t. Not physically, at least, which was worth something, but then—

She was talking. Not completely conscious, she couldn’t be, not yet, but she had a voice and a ragged breath hitching in her throat. Her eyes were closed, but her hands were moving with great effort, reaching for something – barely rising an inch off the bottom of the cart.

Her lips were moving in something that sounded like a voiceless prayer, but, when Helena leaned over her, she realized the woman was repeating names – one, then two, then another, before settling on the first one. She had to strain to hear it.

“Pauline,” she was saying, tearfully, almost. Calling, with sizeable pauses between each word, forced out. “Where’s— Where’s Pauline?”

“I don’t know who that is, dear,” Helena said quietly, her own voice quivering slightly as she gently brushed her hand against Alyss’s unburnt shoulder.

“Head Diplomat,” came from Xander, who had turned around to watch through squinted eyes. Helena raised her eyebrows, and he continued in a low tone lest he startles either of them, “Pauline duLacy, she’s— ah, poor thing was apprenticed to her.”

“Oh, so I’ve heard,” Helena breathed, turning back to Alyss and leaving her warm hand on her neck, halfway down to the collarbone. “She’s not here, Alyss. But it’ll be okay. You’ll see her in a bit, okay? Get some rest, why don’t you?”

But she wasn’t easily calmed, and, after a few minutes, Helena gave up, choosing instead to rebandage her arm that was desperately trying to reach her face, held down by Evie who was by now used to this sort of chore.

And, even after hours, the name stayed on her lips.

“Pauline,” she kept whispering. “Pauline. Please.”

That was, unbeknownst to them, the beginning of her wake.

 


 

Cold.

She was not supposed to feel cold – her last moments were heated, for all she could remember. Yet now she felt cold. Colder than she’d ever been. She was shaking, although wrapped in something. Shaking, although she could feel weighty blisters on her skin. Shaking.

She had been calling for someone. She couldn’t recall who it was. She could hardly recall her own name, in fact; she was aware, now, that it was Alyss, and that the other was quite long. She was aware that she, in her last moments, had been terrified; she did not know whether the fear had translated itself over to the present day, or she was just scared of how much it hurt.

Because Alyss was sure that it hurt. It had to. It had to hurt like hell – but she felt nothing except exhaustion. The need to go back under, but being unable to. The desire never to leave a good, purposeless dream again.

The ground was swaying underneath her, she was sure.

She wondered where they were bringing her. Torture or execution? Or a healer, if people were kind enough? She had been breathing courage in her last minutes, though. She was so sure of herself and of..

Will wouldn’t let them do this, she thought with bitter certainty. Will would be different.

She called out to him.

Again, and again, and again; told him he needed him here, screamed his name until her throat was dry and her tongue in knots, but nobody came.

 


 

 

“Will,” she was calling now. Less calling, more crying – shouting, in fact. The uncle at the front seat kept glancing down, a little nervous. Xander didn’t blame him. “Will!”

“And Will is?” Helena asked Xander, trying to soothe Alyss by gently running her hand down her head.

“Her husband,” he answered, watching the two anxiously. “Will Treaty.”

Uncle Thomas whistled approvingly from the front, and Helena formed an ‘o’ shape with her mouth.

“She’s married to, by the gods, to Will Treaty?” she asked, and Xander nodded.

“Been for over a decade, now,” he clarified. Another whistle from Thomas and a quiet ‘ Bloody hell’ from Helena.

Xander was, at the same time, holding a travel map he’d taken from his bag, trying to pinpoint their location. Once Helena, who was holding the other sides of it, was gone to tend to Alyss, the wind swiftly rolled the map over his head, much to the joy of Evie, who giggled and giggled, happy to ignore her mother and Alyss wrestling on the hay.

“Come, Devil’s child,” Xander hissed. “Help an old man.”

“Oi!” Helena called to him, voice low. She’d finally managed to hold Alyss on the ground and calm her, somewhat. “You might be old, but keep the names to yourself.”

Evie, still laughing heartily at this exchange, grabbed the corners of the map and dragged them back down.

Redmont stood before Xander, unexpectedly, and he soon realized they’d have to make an unpleasant choice.

“Speaking of Will Treaty, Helena,” he muttered. Not only the healer, but Alyss too subconsciously tensed up at the mention. Will , Alyss’ lips said again, albeit voicelessly.

“We’ll be passing Redmont tomorrow, it seems,” Xander said once Helena settled by his side, watching the map intently. “That’s where her family is.”

“Well, good for them,” she said, deflating a little. “We can’t stop, though. She’s not getting any better.”

“Doesn’t seem that way to me,” Xander argued, but, after seeing the way Helena was looking at him, he briefly regretted being born.

“Which one of us is the healer?” she asked sweetly.

“You are.” Xander didn’t fight it. “But— her husband must be standing on his eyelashes looking for her.”

“And he’ll be a little disappointed if we make a detour to present him a corpse, I reckon,” she answered, getting a little miffed. “We can send him a raven once we get to Norgate, if you like. But we can’t risk her life just to tell him we’re doing it.”

“Will,” called Alyss, and Helena rushed over again, leaning down to touch her face. “Will, Will, please...”

“He’s not here, my dear lady,” Helena muttered to her, petting her hair again to provide at least some sort of comfort. “He’s not here just yet.”

“Do you want to see him?” Evie asked, presuming Alyss can hear her.

“Evie,” Helena scolded, but Alyss’ hand twitched. She turned her head, hardy, letting out a low groan.

Her mouth fell open, but it took a minute or two for her to find her voice, dry and choppy and unnatural.

“Don’t,” she said, cried, and Evie crawled a feet or so backward. The gray eye was pleading, to Evie, to Helena, Xander even. “Don’t... Don’t let him...” She looked like she was going to throw up. “See, don’t let... him... I... See—”

“Don’t let him see?” Xander pieced it together. She looked up at him, said nothing. Xander urged, “Don’t let him see— what?”

“If I’ll die,” she said in a single breath, and her eyes fell closed again.

Helena checked the pulse quickly, then breathed a sigh of relief. Evie, in the meantime, glanced curiously at Xander.

“What does that mean?” she asked. “What doesn’t she want to see?”

“Nothing,” Helena told her instead, trying to breathe as deeply as she could. She looked up at Xander. “We’re not bringing her to Redmont. There’s too little time. She’s not looking good.”

“We’re not bringing her to Redmont,” Xander agreed, the words coming more to him than to Helena due to him being so quiet.

In his head, thoughts spun into one in devilish haze – to him, it was clear. Alyss felt like she was going to die, and she did not want Will to see it. He found it logical, despite her state. She didn’t wish for her husband to watch his wife die.

Gods , he thought. Save her.

Beside him, Helena was having the very same thoughts.

And, between them, Evie slowly cuddled up to Alyss and linked their arms together for warmth.

They stayed so for a long time. Alyss seemed to be asleep – seemed to be – and Xander watched the sunrise on the rocky road. Save her, for the love of all.

Helena, albeit no god, was still working on it. She just wasn’t sure of the result – the further the days went, the less sure she was, in fact.

When they rode past Redmont what seemed like a hundred years later, Alyss cried out for Will again. Helena went to shush her, lest someone on the roadside hears.

They didn’t turn at any road. They didn’t visit Redmont, and Alyss’ eyes fell closed. And stayed so for four more days as the pebbles blurred underneath them and in the sky.

Evie was surprisingly quiet for a child. She didn’t cry much. Only sometimes, and only when she really felt like it was important enough. She was easily calmed, too. Helena didn’t have much trouble.

As they were approaching the fifth day’s close, Evie got real close to Alyss and reached out with a quivering hand to run her tiny fingers over Alyss’ unbandaged shoulder. Helena had taken them off to reapply her salve, having to dig into the very bottom of her bag to find.

She overturned the jar with a sunken face.

“That’s it,” she said to nobody in particular, but Xander listened anyway. “I don’t have any more.”

“Why didn’t you bring more?” Xander prompted, no accusing tone anywhere in his voice.

“I couldn’t have made any more,” Helena told him, shrugging. Her fingertips in the salve felt numb when she brought them to Alyss’ skin. A few days in contact with the substance, and one was expected to feel some chill in their bones, but at least it brought some comfort to the wounded. “Keeping as much as I did could already have been considered a waste to some, but look at all this.” She looked up at him, searching around for new bandages. “If I hadn’t been a keeper, her chances wouldn’t be so high.”

“Her chances are high?” Xander asked, trying not to get his own hopes up. She gave him a dim smile.

“She’s not dead yet,” she said, gently lifting Alyss’ arm to wrap it in damp cloth. Alyss gritted her teeth, but there was no other noise. Or a sign that she understood what was happening. “That’s as good of a chance as we could’ve hoped for.”

“Mama,” Evie called silently. Helena turned to her, moving away from a freshly-wrapped Alyss. Xander felt horrible for wanting to snicker at such a description. All of them had had a pitiful amount of sleep the past few days.

“Yes, baby?” Helena opened her arms, and Evie stumbled to her, sitting in her lap and wrapping her own hands around her mother’s waist.

“Is she gonna die?” she asked, and both Helena and Xander realized she hardly must’ve known herself the meaning of her words. Yet for a long time they were talking about death and low chances in front of her, and she must’ve been listening very well. She looked up with tear-filled childish eyes, and Xander’s natural human desire to lie to make others feel better surfaced.

“I don’t know, child,” Helena answered instead, most likely feeling like it was better to be truthful than gentle. After all, if Alyss did die here, they’d have to explain it.

Now, though, even the idea of her dying felt surreal to Xander. They’d brought her so far – they’d gone so far.

She couldn’t die.

Grimsdell Forest slowly swallowed the tiny cart up the very next day, and she couldn’t die anymore, Xander thought.

She couldn’t.

He gave directions – the air felt damp and uncomfortable, and it clung to his nose and his throat. Behind him, Helena rushed to a coughing Alyss – every cough was followed by a groan of pain, and Xander spoke louder to drown it out.

There were no voices or sorcerers to stop them. They were within an inch – within an inch of one more chance. The entire cart seemed to shudder. Four people were looking around at the woods, looking for signs of life, and the one left was looking at blurred shapes underneath her eyelids.

Alyss awoke and immediately wished to go back under. Her sleep had been comfortable. If she slipped under and didn’t awake again, she thought, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

As the horse slowed, with it bringing the cart to a halt, Helena squeezed Alyss’s hand gently, gesturing towards the clearing.

“That’s it,” Helena whispered to her, trying to get through to her deafened ears and half-opened eyelids. “We’re here. We’re here.” She felt like Alyss’s fingers twitched in her grip – or, at least, she wanted to feel it. “You’re going to be okay.”

She could clearly see that Alyss wasn’t lucid anymore, not by a long shot, but she felt like the poor woman needed to understand – after all, hope was a last resort, but, at times, it would give even a dying man another breath of life.

In her last conscious moments, Alyss thought to herself, with strange disinterest to her current situation, that healers weren’t the best liars.