Actions

Work Header

|flames scathe only the unpurposeful|

Chapter Text

He stood before the barren field, and his heart was in ashes – and so was the inn that once stood here, red and living and proud, and as soon as he saw its ruins his chest got tight. He didn’t have the slightest idea how he knew this was the place, this was it, but he did, and what was left of the building was still warm, pulsing with life snuffed out mere weeks ago, no more, no more.

She was here, he thought distantly, and the thought dragged closer, and closer, and closer, then crossing his chest like flaming iron, like the slice of a Seax, he might find, if he was ever swung at with one. She was here, he told himself, sliding off the horse with the most intelligent eyes many would ever see, and the horse’s expression – or at least so it seemed to him, was kind – and a little saddened. He hated it. He was wrong. The horse was wrong. She was here.

He walked – half stumbled, half ran – to the wasted wood and the chipped stone, and he dove around in the abandoned rooms that barely stood as they were, and once a loose plank slid out of place and a half-melted nail buried itself in the ground, falling mere inches from his head. He looked at it with copious disgust written cleanly on his face, and merely moved forward, turning over every stone, kicking every rotten log to the sky.

“She was here,” Will Treaty muttered feverishly, looking up to the ceiling and realizing there was none; he was standing on what used to be the ceiling, he was watching the sky. Rainclouds gathered over his head, angry and full, and they sank down all the way to his heart. He put his head in his hands so nobody would see his face, not the wind, not the grass, not Tug behind him, not the ashes of which every dust could’ve been his Alyss, and he said, once more, for what must’ve been the hundredth time, “Oh, gods. She must’ve been here.”

 


 

 

Halt had never felt like rain could make life so miserable before. Rain usually meant poor visibility and a hell of a day for tracking, but it also meant better cover and ease in confusing foes. Now, rain meant—

Well, he wasn’t even sure of what rain meant. He was no philosopher. It was dark, it was bleak, it was empty, and despite the fact that he felt like by not lighting any candles he was deliberately putting himself through more turmoil, he couldn’t bring himself to light even the smallest one. He could hardly make himself move, even, only occasionally standing up to march back and forth across the cabin before sitting back down and staring at the wall for another hour.

He wasn’t sure when he had last eaten, but he couldn’t say that he was hungry. There was a cup of cold coffee on the table, and, although he didn’t know when he’d made it, he couldn’t say he cared, either. Most often, he’d stand up to look through the window, overtaken by this dreadful sense of déjà vu.

Alyss had left right about three months ago, and she was supposed to return around a month back. It’s just a small trip to Gallica, she had said, smiling bright and easy, I’ll be back in no time.

Well, she was not back in no time. In fact, she was not back at all, and Will had not taken that well at all either. In fact, he’d taken it horribly. There were only a few constants in life – you will only remember the coffee that was too hot to drink when it’s already too cold, one’s best friend would always remember every single one of your shortcomings for optimal comedic value, and the final and most certain one was that, if Lady Alyss bloody Mainwaring said she’d be back in two months, she would be back in two months and not a day more. Breaking this cycle of continuous punctuality was unnerving to say the least, and it turned to absolutely terrifying with the passing of the days – then weeks. Nobody had a clue on where she was. No letters, no ravens, not a single sign that she was even out there somewhere. They wouldn’t let the waiting turn into months.

Naturally, they started asking around, and it was, of course, Lady Pauline’s close-knit web of ears everywhere that reported Alyss last being seen in Anselm fief. So Will, who’d spent most of his life hardly believing the fortune that helped him marry someone like Alyss and obviously extremely lucky to not need any direct permission to travel from the Commandant as there was a retired Ranger living right next to his home, rode right out. The retired Ranger was Halt, obviously, and he had been quite willing to take over Redmont for a bit – see, he didn’t particularly enjoy the idea of Alyss being missing either. He cared for her. Loved her like his own daughter.

His other reason, as if the first one hadn’t been enough, was what it did to his own wife – Pauline had been all but sleepless most nights, pacing around, waiting for a raven, if not from Alyss herself, then from one of her informants, one of her diplomats, they would’ve recognized Alyss Mainwaring anywhere. She was constantly irritated, snapping at nearly anything he did, and, well, he couldn’t say he didn’t understand her. Halt could still foggily remember the few months before his banishment, when everything seemed desperate and obscured and he was trying to paddle through it alone, no hope, no certainty.

When a Courier apprentice barrelled straight through the door, holding a letter from his mentor, the one that told of Alyss’s location, Will was off the very next day. Hardly the next day, even – the letter was delivered somewhere after midnight, and he waited right around until dawn before jumping on Tug and disappearing in the dust of the roads, barely even stopping in his tracks to make sure his teacher would take over for him.

After he’d left, promising to turn the earths itself inside out if it meant finding Alyss, Pauline, exhausted, anxious and, frankly, far too worn out for this, finally sat down next to Halt, having found some sort of kicking point. And, as was expected, she was almost immediately claimed by sleep, falling right into his arms. Halt then decided the cabin could wait one morning.

He was tracing the white strands in his lap as the sun came up outside the window, and he thought – what insufferable weather for an occasion like this. He saw her chest rising and falling and her hands twitching slightly once in a while, and he knew this would make him feel at peace like few other things could, did he not know about Alyss.

Halt listened to her breathing slowing, and, for the first time in years, possibly, he prayed. Wasn’t even sure to who. Or from where. The Hibernian gods or the Araluenian one, or just anyone who was willing to listen. He prayed that Will would find Alyss there, somewhere, safe and sound, led off the track or helping someone out on the road as she was known to do, and they’d come back together, hand in hand like on their wedding day. They’d sit like Halt and Pauline were now, and Will could brush his fingers against the gold in her hair and hear her laugh, and that all would be alright.

Around noon, he decided praying was rather stupid and settled on something else, something that had gotten him through the Kalkara and banishment and even the goddamn Genovesans – this was Will he was thinking of, this was Will searching.

If Alyss was to be found, he’d find her one way or another.

Pauline woke up right around this time, too. She shot up straight, looked at him and went bright pink for a moment before a shadow set over her face again. After that, it was a blur – he found himself standing in his old cabin, and there was only Abelard in the stable and, if he could feel as lonely as the few years between Gilan and Will made him feel again, this would’ve been it.

Blurring, blurring, then screeching to a halt, the days. He slowly became aware of every second, because every second was another second of Will’s search somewhere out there, and another second in which he wasn’t back.

Now, here was when he ran into a dilemma: Will was gone for longer than he had promised.

He had left right around a fortnight ago, and he was supposed to return a few days back. If Halt knew anything about him, then he’d either return with Alyss or return having turned the entire fief inside out and concluded that she was either not there, or in the earth – which neither of them talked about, simply because, even to Rangers that were used to even the wildest theories in practice, this was too unreal to even consider. And still, even knowing that his prolonged stay at Anselm didn’t inherently mean anything good or bad, Halt’s mind had made up many horrible things. It had done far worse at other times in his life, but waiting for another person that he treasured like his own child and them not showing up again did things to his brain.

Here he was, sitting and watching nothing, thinking about nothing and, at the same time, everything. Again. Somewhere in the back of his head, he wondered when he’d gotten so antsy – and the little voice there reminded him that he’d always been that way, whether it was with his siblings or friends or apprentices. He sighed, beat the little voice to death with a visualized broom, and picked up his cold cup of coffee.

And that was, precisely, when Will barged in. It took Halt a second to even recognize him, despite not feeling even a sting of unfamiliarity – Abelard didn’t warn him, and that was reason enough.

Will, however, didn’t seem to give half a crap about Halt’s horse, or any horse in general. Or anything, to be quite honest, judging from the look of total misery on his face. The rain had absolutely done him in. There were droplets he didn’t bother to wipe off, his hair was a mess of dust and water, and he generally looked like something between a kicked puppy and a soaked feral hound.

He opened the door widely, and Halt immediately noticed Alyss’s absence. And his heart sank again.

Will stumbled in, looking like hell on wheels, and, with not even a word of greeting, collapsed into a chair by the door, and buried his face in his hands.

He stayed like that for a minute, mute, deaf and blind to everything.

“Will,” Halt finally said, and his voice, albeit composed, rang eerily loud in the silent cabin. Unsure of what to say, he simply stated, “No luck.”

“Astute observation,” Will muttered from underneath his palms.  He even sounded miserable. “Not a hint. I looked everywhere. I questioned everyone. I...”

He shook his head. Halt nodded.

“Did you look for her—“ He paused before finishing, quietly, “Did you look for her body?”

Will winced, drawing in a stuttering breath. It was a fair question, but Halt didn’t even want to think about it, really – Will, walking in ruins, looking for his wife’s body. Did he pray? Did he curse whoever was responsible?

“I did,” Will confirmed, dropping his arms. “She wasn’t there.”

Halt hummed in response, deep in thought. There were many possibilities to explore – only one of which was that Will was correct and she really wasn’t there.

“You said you asked around,” he said. Will closed his eyes. “You’re sure they weren’t crooked?”

“They just wanted me off of them, nothing to hide,” he responded. “If they’d kept her away, I would’ve found out.”

Something in the way his posture stiffened made Halt realize that he would, in fact, have found it out. And the culprits would not have a great time afterwards.

“And were there any parts you found difficult?” Halt asked, watching him open his eyes and furrow his brows. “Debris, I mean. Or, if the weather was—“

Gods, the decay—

“Halt,” Will cut him off, damn near tears, and Halt figured he hadn’t seen him look so sixteen and so terrified since he was— well, sixteen and terrified, fire in his eye and hands that shook in a mix of anger and surprise. He looked like a boy. Leaning forward, he said, “I checked everything. All of it. I considered everything.”

“Okay,” Halt said, leaning back simultaneously. “And you found nothing. That means she isn’t there.”

“Then where is she?” Will snapped, raising his hands, finding nothing to do with them and dropping them on the table again.

“Somewhere else,” he answered, simply. Will sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“Real encouraging, Halt.”

“No news is better than bad news,” Halt told him, and Will snorted.

“No news is a bad news in this situation.”

Halt looked at him, really looked at him, and realized he seemed wrong, somehow. Slumped over, hands in his hair now, reddened eyes staring a hole through the table.

“I don’t know what to do,” Will said, tone hollow and face even more so. “I—I don’t know.”

Halt paused for a moment. He couldn’t help him, and all was awful.

He reached out and ran his hand over his hair, disentangling a few knots along the way, a mirror of the few times years ago when Will was a scared kid and Halt was a man who couldn’t quite find the words to let him know he wasn’t alone in it.

“Considered everything, did you?” he asked, softly. “And did you consider sleep?”

Now there was a reaction – Will glaring. “Harmless question,” he said. “I think I’d prefer to keep it that way.”

It was Halt’s turn to sigh, dropping his hand and intertwining his fingers on the table.

“I can tell you what to do,” he said. Will let out a pitiful chuckle, wiping his nose with his sleeve.

“I’m sure you can.”

“We ride to Castle Redmont.” Halt ignored his comment. “And you go and get some sleep—You’re doing it either way, don’t look at me like that. You sleep a little, Pauline and I can send some letters to the neighbouring fiefs so they know what to look for. As soon as we get news, you can ride out again.”

“Don’t see why I should go to Castle Redmont, then,” Will said, not defensive just yet but something in his tone that suggested he didn’t like where this was going. “I can stay here for the bit.”

“You’ll want to be there for the bit,” Halt said. “You’ll find out faster.”

That wasn’t what he had in mind, truly. But the very idea of Will alone in the cabin, sitting around and waiting for a letter, doing nothing but thinking about it, about her, worrying, again – it made him sick.

“I’m riding out anyway,” Will said, then, suddenly up taller and determined. “I’m gonna circle the areas close to where she was. One of those is bound to have noticed something. Just had to come back so you didn’t think I— That I went missing too.”

The phrase didn’t go well on his tongue, Halt saw it, and said, “I appreciate that.”

Will nodded blankly, making a meaningless gesture with his hands and looking up at him. There was no usual twinkle in his eye, no head that was playfully tilted, always, just a crinkle in his forehead and a stiff jaw. He didn’t look like anything in particular. Like an empty slate with nothing to add and everything to lose. Halt said nothing.

They’d gone in a few measly minutes, without waiting for even the coffee to brew - Halt watched that Will doesn’t slide off Tug in his trot; meanwhile brown eyes stared at the road with disinterest. Halt wasn’t sure why Will even went with his plan. Had this not been this hopeless, he probably would’ve resisted, worked until he fell from exhaustion because that’s how he dealt with his problems, but this was, indeed, that hopeless. Halt didn’t yet have the heart to point out that by the time Will uncovers any amount of information about Alyss, her traces will be lost already, but somewhere inside Will must’ve already known it too. He was too clever not to.

Abelard huffed under him.

Say something, you bloody moron.

Say what? Halt thought. What would you say to someone like this?

I don’t know, but the lad looks like he’s about to throw Tug in a gallop and fling himself off a cliff.

Halt nudged him in the side harshly.

Will spoke up instead, so quiet that Halt barely heard him from behind the already weakening drizzle.

“Sorry about the,” he stopped for a moment, shrugging. “The chill, I suppose. I—, I just really, really don’t know what to do.”

Halt regarded him for a moment before reassuring, “There’s nothing you can do about it today. Better to just not think about it.”

“Easy for you to say,” Will muttered. His knuckles were going white from holding onto the reins.

“It’s not,” Halt said. “Even harder for you, I’m sure, but there’s really nothing else to it right now.”

Will opened his mouth, then closed it, nodded and sped Tug up a little. Abelard followed on his own accord.

Before they sink into silence again, Halt caught up with him.

“If it were up to me,” he said simply, “I’d come with you. And if it was up to her, Pauline would come with you too. So would Horace and Cassandra, if it were up to them. Just because it isn’t doesn’t mean you’re alone in this, Will.”

Will glanced up at him, and a ghost of a smile touched his face before he stuck his gaze into the dirt again.

“I know,” he said, and, for the first time in weeks, there was something that sounded a little bit like a higher note. “Thank you.”

The rest of it was quiet.

The rest of it was quiet, save for the even constant of the rain. Neither of them really wanted to say anything. Even if they did, they wouldn’t have known what that’d be.

The rest of it was quiet. So was clambering through the dirt to get inside of the castle, and crossing the halls, and climbing the stairs to Pauline’s office. The guards kept their silence upon seeing the silver oakleaves they left open to air on their vests.

Once Halt actually raised a hand to knock, however, the door opened on its own – or, rather, Pauline was quicker to get to it. She’d begun recognizing Halt’s footsteps somewhere down the line when he wasn’t making an effort to be quiet. He wasn’t sure when she started. Maybe she always had known.

“You’re soaked,” were the first words to come out of her mouth, more sympathetic than annoyed.

“Yeah, ‘s raining,” Halt muttered, stepping inside, dragging Will along. “But look who came home.”

Pauline’s eyes darted to Will, then softened. She, too, took note of their grim demeanour and pressed her lips together, masking disappointment.

“Not a trace,” she said to Halt, quietly, a question in mind.

“No,” he replied in a hushed whisper.

Pauline looked down, shook her head, and settled down with it. Then she stepped closer to Will, outstretching her arms.

“Oh, Will, I’m delighted to see you,” she chimed with a little sad smile as he wrapped his arms around her obediently, resting his head against her shoulder. Kindly, she commented into his hair, “Poor pet. You look exhausted.”

“It’s alright, Lady Pauline,” Will replied in monotone. “I’m not that tired.”

“He’s about to drop,” Halt clarified, no doubt being hanged by Will in his head at the very moment.

“Thanks for that,” he muttered, drawing back from Pauline and tilting his head back so he could look her in the eye. “Halt said you’d send letters to the neighbouring fiefs?”

He saw her consider it, think it through, then nod.

“I don’t know why we should stop there,” she said, crossing her arms and turning around to return to her table. “Alyss is one of the best diplomats this country has ever seen. If that doesn’t authorize at least one letter to each fief, I don’t know what would. She’s of considerable importance to foreign affairs too, considering her recent progress in Ni—“

“That’s not why we’re looking for her, though,” Will cut her off, brows furrowed. “Who cares about foreign affairs right now?”

“Of course that’s not why we’re looking for her, Will.” Pauline sat down in her chair, intertwining her fingers over a pile of papers she was working on. There was a glimmer in her eye – Halt recognized it as a mask, a fabrication to conceal her now constantly-present worry. “But hundreds of people go missing. If you want the Barons – the country – to search for her, you have to find a way to make her valuable to each and every single one of them.”

Will paused, thinking it through, then, hesitantly: “Alright.”

Halt looked at him, barely standing on basis on outrage and anxiety, then at Pauline, who was opening her mouth to speak again, and stepped between them.

“Will, you should take a bed,” he told him. “Pauline and I will have the letters sent by morning.”

“I could help you write,” Will offered, but Pauline, having caught on with ease, held up her hand.

“You could not,” she told him calmly. “You could help yourself by getting some rest. And it’d put us far more at ease.”

Will stuttered something incomprehensible in response, looking at Halt for help, forgetting that Halt was firmly with Pauline on the matter. He parted his lips, said nothing, and then shrugged off his cloak in a pitiful display of displeasure.

“I’ll see you in a few hours,” he said, and it almost sounded like a mock threat. Spinning on his heel, he closed to door behind him with a little more force than he intended.

Without really realizing he’d frozen in place, Halt listened to the footsteps echoing down the hallway – quiet, but not soundless. Just loud enough to draw attention, Pauline cleared her throat next to him, snapping him out of it. She slid back into her chair, leaning down to pull out some parchment.

“Will you take a quill or will you stand there for the rest of the night?” she asked, not unkindly.  Halt said nothing, turning to drag a chair to the other side of the table. “Deal with Steadlow, please. I don’t want to even think about the man.”

Halt gave a thin smile. It didn’t help much. “Again?”

“He writes regularly.”

He shook his head incredulously, taking a piece of paper from her and reaching to pass a quill. “I’ll ride down to Steadlow one day, if you’d like.”

“It’s alright,” she said, quill already dancing over the table as she smiled distantly. “I’d like to do that myself, you wouldn’t mind terribly. I’d gladly shiv him in his sleep.”

They had a chuckle before it died down as abruptly as it surfaced. Halt had always admired her ability to write and speak at the same time. It was a talent. Crowley, of all people, as restless as he was, could manage it too – and that reminded him.

“I’ll write to Steadlow if you want, but I’ve got to send a letter to Araluen first,” he told her. She furrowed her brows.

“Araluen is so far, though.” She leaned forward a little, dipping her quill. “Wouldn’t you start with a fief a bit closer?”

“I’m not writing to Duncan, I’m writing to Crowley.” He pushed the inkhorn closer and put the quill to the parchment, drawing out a familiar greeting. “I can’t keep Will’s post covered unofficially for longer than a few days, and I’m technically already behind on it.”

Crowley had been informed of Alyss’s disappearance, of course, and what that meant for the Redmont Rangers, and he’d agreed to let Halt deal with the intricacies of the law after the initial shockwave had subsided. Halt supposed now would be as good a time as ever.

“Do as you see fit. I’ll pick off the fiefs around Anselm.” Pauline stopped momentarily to look up at him, tapping her quill on the paper. “Oh - did you give Will the letter?”

“Which one?” he asked, a little too concentrated on his message to hear himself. With the permission of Ranger Will of Redmont Fief, I am available to temporarily fill in on his duties to the Baron and fief. The period of change requested...

“Love,” Pauline called. “The one from Norgate.”

He perked up suddenly, her words just now registering in his head. “Oh. No, not yet.” He fixed a crooked letter and shrugged his shoulders. “Thought he should sleep a bit first before we drop anything else on him.”

Somewhere inbetween the blurry days and the constant dreadful wait, there had been one more letter, directed to Will, straight from Norgate fief. Halt debated opening it before deciding to leave it up to Will. After all, whatever information it might carry, it was only addressed to him, not anyone else. Halt could’ve recognized Malcolm’s handwriting from a hundred forgeries, it was that bad – most healers shared the trait, for some reason. And, since it was from the north, the letter most likely had nothing to do with Alyss.

Either way, he preferred not to stall any longer. Or, well, no, that was a lie—he preferred to stall, but only until Will woke up.

“You think he’s gonna fall asleep in there?” Pauline leaned back down to her work. “If only for a few hours?”

“Even a few hours would do him well,” Halt muttered. “Though I’m doubtful.”

“Doubtful, but willing to stuff him back into bed if he shows up before dawn?” Another faint smile lingered briefly on Pauline’s face. Halt mirrored it.

“You know me rather well.”

“I should think so.” She pressed her lips together firmly, finishing the letter, adding an additional mark here and there, and then placing the paper in front of Halt. “As soon as you’re done, you can copy mine. No need to vary them. I made sure they understand that this is no joking matter either way.”

“Thank you,” he said, brushing a farewell to Crowley at the end of the letter and pushing it away to dry.

When he picked up another piece of parchment from Pauline’s pile, she already had another, but had seemingly run out of thought – the ink dripped from her quill onto the words, drowning the message. Dark, black, almost seeping into the table underneath, but Pauline didn’t even seem to notice it. Finally, after a minute, she dropped the quill on the paper with a noise of frustration and pushed herself away from the table, staring hollow-eyed into the wooden surface. There was something coming off of her in vicious waves – anxiety, flooding, pent-up.

He froze, unblinking, then reached out to brush his fingers against her cheek gently. “Hey.”

Pauline shook her head and his hand slipped off, but she didn’t notice that, either. She leaned back onto the table, propping her head up on her elbow, rubbing her temples.

“This is a mess,” she said, so quiet that Halt had to strain to hear her. “Why can’t I—Why can’t I just go and search for her, too? Instead I’m stuck here writing letters. Bloody letters, when I could be out there, with Will, looking for her.”

Halt drew back, settling in the chair, looking at her with his head in a thoughtful tilt. She went on, a little red.

“Gods know where she might be, or if she’s still alive, I—I don’t want to think about it, but she would’ve sent news if she was unharmed by now. She would’ve found a way.” Her hands traced a path into her hair, fingers tangled in the dark curls, pulling in desperation. “The only thing we can do is find her, and no letter will help that. And here I am, writing my way out of a situation when you need people, not words.”

She closed her eyes. After a pause, she made another frustrated noise and looked down, settling herself.

“You’re a Diplomat, not a tracker,” Halt said, as softly as he could manage. “Will’s better suited for this one.”

“I know, I know,” she responded, voice a little strangled. “But I still—“ she finally dropped her arms, opening her eyes to stare at the paper again. “She’s the best we’ve ever had,” she muttered.

Halt knew it to be more than just that; Pauline treasured Alyss like her own child, similar to him and Will. Halt remembered being much the same way decades ago, sitting back in his cabin with hands in his hair and a deranged look in his eye, willing to do quite literally anything to bring Will back home and away from danger.

But at the very least he had a lead. Alyss, however, just evaporated into thin air. Just any tracker wouldn’t do.

He reached out to take her hand. She didn’t protest, but kept her eyes on the table still.  

“If she’s out there, Will won’t miss her,” Halt reassured her. “When’s he failed before? Besides, I can’t leave Redmont now. If a letter comes saying they’ve seen her, you’ll be the only one available to ride out.”

She sighed, squeezing his hand before giving him a brief smile.

“You’re right,” she said. “But it doesn’t help my worry.”

"I understand that." His thumb began drawing gentle circles into her palm. "But maybe it'll help the guilt."

Pauline gave a tearful chuckle. "How would you tell I feel guilty?"

"Because that's how you feel when you can't directly help someone," Halt said. "And that's how I felt when Will was off in Skandia. I thought if only I'd been a little quicker, or if I'd known better, or if I'd just wasted less time, I would've gotten to him first. But that wasn't going to happen. I didn't know where he was or what was happening, and now you don't, either."

"Hah." She pressed her lips together, nudging at him knowingly. "I can't really imagine drinking at a time like this, though."

Halt raised his hands, letting her go.

"You're handling it better," he confessed, bringing the now-dry letter for Crowley back to himself and rolling it up, then pressing it down flat on the table. "I'm glad."

"I'm sure you are." She snorted. "We couldn't even mention Will back then, much less…"

She cut herself off with a sudden half-sob, made a helpless gesture and went quiet.

Halt stood up, helped her up and pulled her into a hug.

They stood so for a moment, her nails in his arms, and neither wanted even to take a single breath.

“I never wanted her to face something like this,” she muttered into his hair. He kissed her on the shoulder.

“Neither did any of us.”

A minute or so passed, and her heartbeat was slowing. Halt waited for her to draw back herself, and, when she did, a little reluctant, they sat back down. Then, already missing the warmth, Halt wordlessly pushed the inkhorn to her and switched her completed letter with a new piece of paper.

"He'll find her if she can be found," he told her again, firm and careful at the same time. "If it can be done, he'll bring her back home, no matter what it takes. You know that."

"I know." She sniffled, her voice barely audible. "Well, I've-- I've wasted enough time. Let's get back to it."

So they did, and all fell quiet once again. 

The chilly air of the night warmed up as they breathed, and, hours later, the rising sun found a stack of completed letters on the table. It also found a silver-headed couple frozen by the table; a Courier that had propped her head on her elbow and was staring blankly out the window, watching the sunrise as her free fingers tapped soundlessly on the boards, and a Ranger resting on his arms, eyelids half-open, not asleep but not quite awake either, listening to the chirping of the birds.

Above them loomed hollow silence, and below them - a couple of meters below them, to be precise - Will Treaty had surprised not only everyone else but even himself by falling asleep almost immediately. He had planned on staying up - mapping up a route, perhaps, plotting a letter or two. But that was only as he descended the stairs and found the guest room; all what came after closing the door was a blur. 

And now, he wasn't even dreaming.

 


 

 

It was right before noon that Will barged in through the door, and Halt had no previous knowledge of him managing to look this furious and this sleepy at the same time. His hair was a mess, the cloak was pinned on wrong and there was a bright red mark on one half of his face, the one he'd slept on. It didn't do much for being intimidating, but it sure did make both Halt and Pauline jump at the sudden sound.

"Why didn't you wake me?" Will demanded, leaning onto the table - he didn't slam his hands on it, but it was a blurry line. "You-- I-- I spent so much time in there!"

Halt almost winced physically. It was so close to what Pauline had said that it pained to listen. They were repeating each other, and Halt felt like he'd definitely thought something similar through the days in the cabin.

"Because you woke up when you needed to wake up," Halt answered him, masking in calm. "We would have checked on you at noon."

Will turned to him, eyes burning, and Halt instinctively leaned back the tiniest bit.

"Halt, I could be off by now," he said, the quiet tone slowly rising. "I could be out there right now, searching, instead of having-- slept through it. I could be doing something useful! No, instead I'm wasting time here, in a bed of all places! Was it really so hard to understand that I need to go as soon as I can? Was it really that hard to understand that I'm only here because I wanted to let you know I'm alive and still looking for her?"

Pauline went about pointedly fixing the pile of letters Will had sent flying with a shaper move, very subtly leaving him to Halt. And Halt settled back, one hand on the arm crest, staring right back at Will.

"Are you done?" he asked.

"No!" Will snapped, leaning forward. Halt didn't back down this time. "Honestly! Should I have just stayed there? Maybe I could've found her by now, instead of doing gods-know-what here! Maybe I could've--"

"I doubt it," Halt said, cutting him off. Will opened his mouth to say something again, but he was faster. "Maybe. And maybe you would be lying down in a lowly ditch somewhere because you neglected yourself so much that you lost your guard or concentration and became an easy target. Maybe you would have just fallen off Tug and snapped your neck because you hadn't gotten any rest in days. Maybe Tug would've tripped and broke something because you'd forgotten to let him rest." Horror flashed in Will's eye at the mere thought of his horse harmed, but Halt didn't stop. "You wouldn't have found anyone because you wouldn't have made it here in one piece if you'd gone around any longer." He leaned forward himself, close enough to feel the huff of anger on his nose. "I know you're not that senseless. Tell me you're still thinking straight, Will. Tell me you're not that stupid."

A beat passed with not one of them even drawing in a breath. Pauline’s hands were moving just out of sight, her eyebrows raised – she evened out the letters, making a point not to look at either one of them.

Will parted his lips again. Closed them. Looked mad for a moment, then snapped his eyes shut and took a breath, painfully slow. Halt watched him, head tilted slightly, wondering if he’d overstepped it, he’d never had a feel for that sort of thing, but— no, he needed to hear it. Nothing good ever comes out of overexhausting oneself. He’d know.

“I could’ve made time—“ he tried.

“You did.” Halt held his eye, unblinking. “Six hours or so. This doesn’t ruin your plans at all.”

"Still, you should have woken me," he muttered, defeat evident.

"No, I should have not." Halt's tone carried a note of finality. "End of discussion."

That’s when Pauline cleared her throat loudly, picking up the letter pile.  There was a sparkle in her eye and Halt didn’t like it. Though that was, of course, her intention.

“That’s enough,” she managed through grit teeth. “I can’t believe you two are at each other’s throats at a time like this.”

“We’re not,” they said in surprisingly clean unison, giving each other a glance.

“We’re not,” Halt repeated calmly.

“He’s right,” Will added, voice still a little too quiet.

“Alright.” She rose from her seat. “Then manage yourselves without passive aggression.” Turning sharply on her heel, she gave them one last look. “You’re Rangers, for pity’s sake.”

They said nothing. Pauline frowned, pushing the door open with her hip.

“Right, then—I’ll get those on the pigeons. Halt, maybe you should give him the letter now.” And, with that, she was gone, whether to truly get the letters out or as an excuse to leave the room with tact.

Will turned to Halt.

“What letter didn’t you give me?” he asked, incredulous.

Halt stuttered an incoherent would-be-word out and stood to walk to the cupboards to search for it, lifting a few papers and decorations while he was at it.

“It’s from Norgate,” he said, finally locating it under a large book. He didn’t remember putting it there. “Malcolm, if my memory serves right.”

Will perked up. “What’s in it?”

“It’s addressed to you, not just any one of us. We didn’t open it.” He pulled it out triumphantly, walking back to the chair to hand it to Will. “Figured we could wait.”

“Oh, that’s,” Will stumbled over his words, looking away as the untouched wax on the letter split. “Thank you.”

“Read it,” Halt urged him, and Will did.

His eyes darted for a second, then jumped back up to the name on top and froze there. As confusion surfaced on his face, he skimmed over it a few more times.

“Well?” Halt asked. Will passed the letter to him wordlessly.

He took the paper with two fingers and squinted to read it. It was barely legible. Healers, he thought. What’s with them and horrible handwriting? Halt had chicken scratch on the regular, but this was a whole another deal.

Will, it said, It’ll do you good to visit me with utmost urgency. You must come at your earliest convenience and, if possible, by yourself. There is something you ought to see in my home. It ended with a simple, Yours, Malcolm.

Halt squinted at the paper even harder. He’d read quite a few vague requests in his life – the paperwork of a Ranger really made one well-versed in subtle insults, but this one took the cake.

“Then,” Halt said, looking up at Will, who was standing in place, fists still clutched. “When are you—“

“I’m not,” Will said, plain and simple and decisive all in one. “I’m not going.”

A little taken aback, Halt raised an eyebrow, swallowing his statement. He sat back, tapping his fingers on the table like Pauline for a moment.

“No?” he prompted. ”Sounds like it’s something important.”

Will turned to him with pleading eyes, holding his hands up, palms out.

“Please, Halt, I don’t want to get into this again,” he said. “It can wait. Whatever it is, Alyss is more important. I’ll find her and then I’ll see what Malcolm wants with me.”

“Alyss is more important,” Halt agreed easily, and, to Will’s disappointment, continued, “But you’ve got no path to her, you don’t even know which direction she went in.”

“I’ll go over all the paths if that’s what it takes,” Will told him.

“And you will miss her a hundred times if you do.” Halt crossed his arms, looking up at him, but there was no reprimand in his eye now – something closer resembling sympathy, more like. “You can’t go chasing the wind, Will. You ought to wait for a new lead to arise.”

“And waste time doing nothing?” Will inquired. There was no more colour to his voice, just cold formality.

“He didn’t say that.”

Lady Pauline’s voice startled them both: Halt jolted and Will whipped his head to the door. In their focus on each other and Alyss, they missed her coming back in. In their defense, she had been quiet. Rangers and Couriers were often so similar to each other in occupations that, when one put two together, rubbing off on each other was fairly common.

Of course, there was also plenty dividing the two, and one of those qualities was a diplomat’s unconditional refusal to become emotional while in distress, at least when not alone. Pauline embodied this – she stood with her arms crossed, like Halt, but she was leaning back onto the door and watching them with mild interest and plenty of frustration.

“Say, Will.” She moved to take her seat back at her table, nodding toward a chair next to Halt. Will took it, albeit unwillingly. “What if you’re away in the middle of nowhere, searching for Alyss, and news come that she’s been spotted in... Well, for the sake of example, Eastern Araluen. How do we get a message to you if we don’t know where you are?”

Will opened his mouth, thought for a second. “That’s if you get news.”

“You stumbling upon Alyss in a plain field or something is far less likely than us getting a letter,” Pauline told him matter-of-factly. Will huffed, and she raised a hand. “It’s true. Scouting the neighbouring fiefs is not a walk in the garden, wouldn’t you know?”

“Of course it’s not,” Will agreed, though clearly hesitant.

“Then go to Norgate,” she said. “Find out what’s on Malcolm’s mind. We’ll know where to find you when the time comes.”

“And what if he just wants me to finish off a merry band of cut-throats by the border?” he asked, words coated in sickly sweet acid.

Halt cleared his throat.

“I doubt that’s the case.” He shrugged when Will turned to him. “Why’d he be so secretive about it? It’s not that mysterious of a matter. And he definitely wouldn’t be asking you to come alone.”

“He wants you for something important, maybe vital for you, I’m sure,” Pauline added.

“Besides,” Halt said, softly, “maybe whatever he’s got to say will aid you in finding Alyss.”

Will was staring at the table for a while. Halt could sense his old apprentice’s many thoughts swirling into a mess that was only truly coherent for him alone. There were many options to be considered when searching for a missing woman, as many as there were when one disappeared without a trace. And it was hard on all of them, they could all see it, but Will was, like Pauline, torturing himself with guilt and the now-undying wish for their mistakes, if one could call them that, to be fixed.

It was a hopeless situation.

“It’s the only lead we’ve got,” Halt said quietly, bowing his head to catch Will’s glance.

Will took a tiny shaky breath, and pushed himself away from the table, looking up at Halt and Pauline.

“It better be a good one, then,” he said. “Because if I find myself cutting bandits left and right, I will not be happy.”

Pauline gave him a faint smile over the table, and Halt nodded.

“That’s fair.”

Will stood up, flexing his hand, doubting himself.

“Go,” Halt told him, as kindly as he could. “Gather your things. The sooner you’re out, the sooner you’re back.”

“That’s my line.” Will returned the weak smile to Pauline, heading for the door. Just before it swung, he added over his shoulder, “I still don’t like this.”

 “Neither do we, Will,” Pauline said, deceptively calm. “Trust my word. Neither do we.”

When the door closed, she glanced at Halt, and when Halt saw her eyes, he thought he might just start crying, too.

Chapter Text

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 stands 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. 

 

Chapter Text

The road stretched in front of him and Redmont faded behind him, and he was alone again.

Will tried his very best not to be angry with Halt when they parted – or to be upset with Pauline, as much as he wanted to. He found it exceedingly difficult to be displeased with either of them; he knew Pauline wanted only the best for him just as much as she wanted the same for Alyss, and Halt, well, Halt was pretty much one of the dearest people in his life since he became his apprentice all those years ago.

Either way, in some sense of the word, he liked his anger having flared up, as much as he hated himself for admitting it. He liked being able to get up in Halt’s face about it, and he liked Halt telling him exactly where to shove his anger just as much. He liked Pauline telling both of them to sort themselves out before they said another word, and he liked the sting of humiliation when she made him sit down and talk to her like a boy.

He had to tell himself the truth at some point, and the truth was simple and extremely upsetting: he wanted to latch onto just about anything that would make him feel something other than what he was stuck in right now. All was a perpetual cycle of gray and nothingness, numb and cold and biting. Halt and Pauline didn’t exactly deserve to be the targets of his attempts to colour the void however he could, at least in anger.

Whichever way it was, he thought to himself, unable to hide the bitter note in the voice his mind took, still, I really could’ve used those few hours.

No, you couldn’t have, Pauline and Halt’s voices berated him in unison in his own head, and he decided to give up the argument.

The rain had crept up on him again, and he pressed on Tug with his heels. The horse sped up with a soft nicker of concern, and Will only shook his head, unsure if Tug could even feel something like that.  He seemed to, though. He didn’t say anything. And neither did Will.

As the rain droplets rolled down his cloak and his hands, and the reins, and Tug’s mane, Will thought back to the still-smouldering remains of the inn he’d seen in Anselm. The ashes still felt warm in his hands. The gray sands spilling through his fingers, disappearing in thin air, and all of it could’ve been Alyss. Her bright eyes, her lovely smile, her pointed look, her raised chin. Her obvious feigned anger with hands on her hips whenever he was a minute late home, the halo of golden hair around her head, her gentle palms, her head tilted in question, soft, soft touch, soft kisses. The laughter that Will would’ve killed, died and lived for. The ring she carried on her finger, the ring Will had put there and brushed his lips over so many times.

All of it. To ash.

He was crying again. Raised a hand to wipe it off, ultimately decided to let the wind to the job and leaned forward as the road blurred underneath him. Slowly, his eyes dried.

Will , Tug called, then, still just as softly.

Realizing he’d been sending him galloping, Will slowed, muttering a half-assed apology.

We’ll get there when we get there, Tug comforted him, stepping in a far more appealing trot. There’s no point in wallowing in despair while we’re on the road.

“I’m not wallowing in despair,” Will said, wallowing in despair.

Whatever you say. Think about it, though.

Then there was silence.

Furious that his horse was always right, Will clicked his tongue. The frustration did, after all, provide him with a moment away from what might or might not have happened to Alyss.

Bones don’t burn, Pauline told him just before he went for the first time, with her voice quivering and her hand in Halt’s. Bones don’t burn , she said. So if you find her bones, you will have found her. If you do not find bones, you will have found hope.

He did not find any bones. He looked as hard as he could, despite wanting to find them the least, but he knew best of all that futile hope hurt more than the hard answer.

But, even after every stone was upturned and every blade of grass searched over, he did not find hope.

Instead, he found wretched fear.

What if he never finds her, he thought. What if she stays a gray little woman – her place unknown by the world, between life and death, between two worlds? It was better to know of death, Will thought, and knowing that he’d only feel her hands in his dreams, he’d only touch her with his eyes closed again. It was better than knowing that every time he lay to rest, she’d hover over him, calling, reaching for him.

Will, Will, Will , she cried every time he fell asleep.

I’m sorry , he would say, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry . He had nothing else to offer.

He could never touch her. She was always just out of his reach, the corners of her bright blue cloak slipping through his fingertips at the last second, reflecting light, blinding him. She looked like she wanted to come to him just as much as he wanted to catch her, but it never worked out, and Will would wake up, and there would be tracks on his cheeks again, and the sky would blur not because of the blue cloak.

One would think you’d run out of tears at some point. Will was the expert here, and there really was no end. It just kept on hurting – the emptiness did not make him numb. It pained him all the way through.

He just wanted it all to end – he wanted to find Alyss, alive, and that was it. He would’ve done just about anything for it.

And, instead, he was riding to Norgate. A bitter branch of his heart surfaced again, poking around in his chest.

He was actively driving himself away from any hope of finding his Alyss, just because he’d been convinced there was absolutely nothing he could do to help. And now he was having doubts again; what if a letter comes in while he’s on the road? What if the raven doesn’t make it in time? What if by the time he’s there, it will be too late?

There had been a pit in his stomach the past fortnight, and it only kept on growing like an eternally ravenous beast, consuming him from the inside bit by bit, thought by thought. He kept feeding it – it’s alright, he’ll find her, she’s far too clever to get herself killed under such circumstances, returning from a mission of all things, she’s been through far worse things, maybe she was sidetracked, maybe she was lost.

But she’s far too clever to get lost as well, isn’t she, the pit would respond with its growling hunger, ever-growing, ever-biting. She’s far too clever not to send a message, far too clever not to figure out a way to let him know she was alive, she was okay, she was there, he’d see her again. The lack of such a message could only mean one thing, one single thing.

He physically doubled over in the saddle. It hurt, gods, it hurt, so much. He never thought his own speculation could punch him in the gut so hard. He simply felt sick at even the notion Alyss could be...

Tug’s step stuttered for a beat.

Cut it out.

Will didn’t even know whether it was Tug or his own common sense at that point. He decided to abandon the question for now. Trying desperately to come up with something else to think about, he realized he’d nearly forgotten where he was going.

“What do you think Malcolm wants from me?” he asked nobody in particular, waiting, of course, for Tug to respond. And he did.

I don’t know , he said simply. We’ll see.

“Yeah, but, humour me.” He made a gesture, the reins still in his hands. He began wrapping the loose ends around the front of the saddle, searching for just about any mindless task. “Bandits? Wolves? Feral squirrels?”

He wouldn’t be asking you to come alone for bandits, you haven’t got the greatest record with wolves and we both know Malcolm can clear out a vermin infestation far better than any Ranger.

“Gee,” Will muttered. “Thanks for that. The wolf, I mean.”

Oh, Will.   Tug raised his head a little bit, as if he wanted to turn and look at Will. Will knew the wise brown eyes all too well anyway, without even having to see them. There’s really no need for you to beat yourself up over it anymore. Last I heard, Bellerophon was doing quite well.

“How on earth did you hear that?” Will, with a tiny semblance of a smile on his face, leaned closer. When there was a moment of silence, he clicked his tongue. ”Come, now. You know I keep secrets better than anyone else.”

And so do I, Tug ended. Will cocked his head to the side mockingly, but didn’t press any further.

And, the moment they stopped talking about Will’s first horse, the pit reopened again. The smile faded from his face. Tug felt it, most likely.

This felt so eerily different from all the missions the two had gone on before. They were always uncertain, unsure, but ultimately confident that they had the necessary preparations to turn the tide, whatever the risk. Sure, they planned and plotted and tried to cover every single possibility up until they dropped from exhaustion (that was mostly Will – good for Tug to have four legs, the bastard), but they never really stopped to consider what would happen if they one day simply didn’t return. Just like that. If things went go horribly wrong, the tide rose out of control and drowned them in retaliation, and if there was no changing course.

They did not consider it, no. And Alyss most likely didn’t either.

Now, Will was determined to trace every single step she took – if that meant growing wings to fly over the land and spot her with a bird’s eye, by the gods, he would, with no hesitation. If that meant wandering Araluen for the rest of his life, eating whatever he found on the road, he would, with no hesitation. If that meant dying for closure, with no hesitation... he would.

He just wanted to find her.

There were many plans spinning in his head already, with no true borders – at least not yet. Every waking moment he would count them, sort them, throw the rotten ones out, keep the plausibilities. Hours mashed into a thick, concrete mass, Tug’s hooves melted into a constant underneath him, and the road was eternal. But he would find her, despite going the wrong way – despite wandering around aimlessly, when he was supposed to be looking for her.

The dawn of the second morning crept upon him suddenly – he hadn’t meant to ride all night. He’d been thinking again, mapping out roads in his head: what’s the fastest way, he asked himself, to get from Anselm to Redmont? The roads, obviously, what about the sidetracks? The Couriers knew many of them, he was sure. He should’ve asked Pauline. Maybe she didn’t go for Redmont – it’s almost a week’s travel on horseback, anyway. Maybe she went back to the Gallican border, maybe she was friendly with someone there.

Overtaken by guesswork, he didn’t even notice the stars start to fade – and when the first beams of sunlight kissed his face, he was hit with genuine surprise.

Oh well, he thought – if he went this far, might as well keep going. He could rest the next night.

Will had a single stupidly obvious flaw and never got truly rid of it, despite his wife’s many efforts and his teacher’s many warnings: he didn’t know when to stop. Not just in any situation. Whenever he was doing something he deemed important, he went above and beyond, and it was a definite advantage – just not in every case. He liked working, he liked knowing he was doing something and he felt utterly terrified of being anything less than useful – in this particular situation, however, this meant that he wouldn’t stop going until he fell out of the saddle, rest be damned.

And, as unfortunate of a flaw as this was, it pushed him on, hands trembling while holding the reins and legs stiff and uncomfortable, but by the gods he had to go on. In some way, it was, again, Alyss who was always on his mind, urging him on, forcing him to hurry. The sooner I see Malcolm , the tiny little voice in Will’s head muttered, the sooner I can find her .

The day passed as it did, with short breaks and short flashes of emptiness in his head, and he prayed for more of them – he found he rather liked feeling nothing, when feeling too much sorrow couldn’t be replaced with feeling too much of anything else. A strange sixth sense would drown his mind out, and then, after a while of blissful unawareness, he’d think – Wait, what was making me feel so horrible after all? And although he knew he didn’t want to remember, he forced himself to anyway. And the golden hair and the soft smile and the eyes that could so easily turn mischievous would stand vivid in his head again, and he’d push his heels against Tug’s sides a little harder, desperately trying to return to the comfortable numbness and finding himself unable to.

Well, he might’ve handled himself until exhaustion physically forced him on the ground. His companion was not as keen on it.

It was the third evening of his travel. Halfway point to Norgate – maybe a little more, even. Will hadn’t noticed. He only saw the sun go down.

The ground – or Tug, more like – suddenly shuddered underneath him.

You know, Will, I really don’t mind most of the time, Tug said, throwing up his head a little bit, and Will noticed how hard he was panting before he could say anything else. But you really ought to take a moment for both of us every once in a while.

A pause until everything clicked into place, and:

“Fuck,” Will swore. Tug graciously refrained from commenting.

Will had underestimated himself. His stupidity, rather, he thought, blood boiling at the thought of being so careless. Halt had warned him, even - Maybe Tug would trip and break something because you'd forgotten to let him rest, he said, drilling him with clever eyes, clever dark eyes, and Will closed his, furious once again that his teacher was right. He’d forgotten. He’d bloody forgotten .

He let go of the reins and relaxed his legs a little, letting Tug stop at his own pace, which he did, carrying him the last few meters and coming to a gradual halt, huffing in appreciation.

Will knew, after all, that Tug would run for him until all the blood in his veins turned to flame. He was tired, sure – but he’d never before told Will to stop because of it. He should’ve, Will always told him so, but it seemed like gritting their teeth and bearing it was a whole separate skill the Ranger horses possessed.

No, the bigger reason Tug suggested a break was because of Will himself, and by the time he realized it, he was already out of the saddle. Tug trotted lightly to where they’d stay for the night, no previous exhaustion in his step, and Will sighed.

“If you’re not tired, Tug, then we can go on,” he said, and weariness immediately found itself a way back into the little horse.

Oh, no, trust me. I’m crippled. Can barely walk.

“Tug,” Will tried again, biting back a smile at the display. “Look, I—I really do want to make it to Malcolm as soon as possible.”

You will . Tug stopped in front of him, swaying ever-so-slightly. We’ll be on the road again first thing tomorrow morning.

“You don’t understand, my friend.” Will threw up his arms in a helpless gesture. “As soon as I can means I’d like to be on the road, right now. Up until I can’t see straight anymore. Think of it as breaking some sort of a standard. You liked standing out, didn’t you?” He summons a little simper onto his face. “Fastest horse in Araluen, mm?”

I’m not denying it. Tug’s posture looked a little smug. Then, he looked down at Will, and lost all his glamour. But there’s a little detail you’re not catching on to.

“And what would that be?” Will asked, approaching him and putting a hand on his neck, ready to jump back on if he confirms not to truly be tired.

I’m not going anywhere until dawn.

Will blinked. His hand slipped off.

“Sorry?”

Tug said nothing, merely freezing in place, his eyes drooping.

Apology accepted. Goodnight.

“What— Wait, are you—Hey, Tug, c’mon, you can’t do this to me.” Will felt like he was about to either laugh or start crying. He pat him gently on the nose, poking with the bottom of his palm lightly. “You’re not sleeping. Hey.”

Tug imitated a comically loud human snore in Will’s head, making him flinch away.

“Tug,” Will called again, but there was no answer this time. “Don’t you understand? I have to get there as soon as I can. I have to find Alyss, come on, this isn’t a good time for jokes. You don’t wake up, I’ll walk.”

Tug sighed and shook his head, eyes wide open again.

Don’t be stupid and listen to me . He brushed his head softly against Will’s shoulder. Halt was right, you need to understand when your ideas are crossing the line.

“You didn’t hear—“

You were thinking about it when you weren’t making up plans on how to get to Alyss, whose location you, might I remind you, still have no idea about. And he’s right. A few more hours, and you’ll drop dead from overexhausting yourself. I know you can’t feel it, but trust me, that’ll happen, and, if you haven’t noticed, I can’t talk! How am I supposed to communicate to some poor sod in Coledale that there’s a fallen moron a dozen miles down the road?

“I’m sure you’d figure something out.”

Yes, and you’d waste another good fortnight. Tug’s eyes were smarter than he remembered. Please, Will. Don’t do this to yourself.

A moment of silence, and Will finally caved in.

“Now you just sound like Alyss,” he muttered. His hands slowly fell to his sides. Painfully hesitant, he turned away from Tug, whose voice was finally mixed in with something resembling a smile.

That’s no insult. She’s terribly clever.

“That, she is,” Will agreed, glad to be using present tense, collapsing into his own cloak as a makeshift seat on the dewy grass. “That, she is.”

He should try to get some sleep, then, he thought as Tug lowered himself by his head, allowing him to use his side as a sort of pillow. He was stuck for the night anyway, might’ve as well made himself comfortable. Throwing his hood on, he hugged his own bag, turning to the side.

Surely enough, within a few minutes, he already felt like he was sinking – and, then, everything became so uncomfortable he thought he might just cry out.

He tore his eyes open to find his legs looking just the way they were before – but they were sore to hell and back. He could only feel it better now, as there was no horse to hunch over.

Will cussed under his breath again and sat up straight, reaching to touch the back of his thighs, then the sides. Even through the cloth of the pants, he could feel the coarse skin – dry, uncomfortable, possibly bleeding and so, so inconvenient. He muttered a few curses to nobody in particular and stood to search the satchel attached to Tug – there had to be something in his supplies to put against the pants to soften the friction. Anything, really. Even a bit of bandaging would do.

See what happens when you don’t listen to me , Tug said, a little pity and equal amount of I-told-you-so in his tone. When’s the last time you had marks from riding?

“I won’t answer that,” Will told him, jaw clenched.

I can. You were a third-year. Nineteen, if I can recall correctly.  Rode all night. Two nights.

“Shut up.” Tug did. Most likely because Will didn’t tell him that often.

Fumbling with the strings, he only got a better look at the state of his skin in a minute or two. The sides of his thighs had reddened, turned rough to touch, and Will sighed – Tug was right, of course, as always.

The last time he had marks was, in fact, when he was nineteen and a half, just before he finished the third year of his late apprenticeship. Halt had scowled at him, unfairly, in Will’s honest opinion, upset at his efforts. He, in hindsight, was right about it as well.

“Pain will limit your movement,” he said, only adding the figurative salt to the physical wound as Will was already not in his most joyous mood of the day. “You cause yourself pain, you make it easier for others to do the same. And you don’t always rise stronger, you know. I, for one, know no benefit of aching legs.”

“Well,” Will muttered, holding onto the bruises with grit teeth. “At least I made it in time.”

Halt’s expression softened.

“Here.” The tightly-sealed container flew from his hand, and Will caught it with little effort. “You should put some salve on it.”

You should put some salve on it, Tug advised.

“Yeah,” Will muttered, not really listening. Tug kept his silence, and Will perked up, words registering late. “Oh? You mean the—“

The only one you carry, yes. He came off as a little annoyed. The warmweed.

“No, that’s alright.” Will shook his head absentmindedly. “They’re not that bad. Might as well save it.”

Tug gave him a knowing look. Will shrugged. “It’s true. They’re not that painful.”

They will be if they don’t heal before you ride again, Tug told him.

“Eh. I can handle it.” He grew quieter and quieter. “I’ll sleep on it. Won’t feel anything by the time dawn comes.” Tug should’ve caught on – he probably did.

Just say you don’t want to use the warmweed and go.

Will pressed his lips together in distaste. “Alright – I don’t want to use the warmweed. Happy?”

A pause, and Tug gave another soft nicker. Not exactly the word I’d use, Will.

“Well, sorry about your sorrow. Might as well sleep it off, since you’re so adamant about staying here for the night.” The same complaint crept into his speech as he leaned back, and Tug went quiet again. Disagreeable silence.

Will turned on his side, then to another. A frown spread over his face as he wrapped his arms around himself. He found himself being wrong on things more and more often these days. “Say something, then,” he muttered, and Tug stirred.

Like what?

“I dunno. You want to say something, say it.”

I don’t. I’m not the problem here. Tug’s breaths were deep. Calming, almost, or they would’ve been if Will hadn’t been so upset at something. Look, just put some salve on it. It’ll feel better. They won’t get worse. Faced with Will’s silence, Tug nudged his side softly. You won’t get addicted to it from the salve.

“I know, that’s not what I’m worried about.” Will turned to the other side again. If the claim of liars’ noses being long were to be correct, Will would probably have the longest one in Araluen.

Then do it.

He huffed and sat up, finally willing to give it a shot. “Only if you be quiet.”

 If that helps you sleep at night.

“It’s supposed to,” Will said, jokingly, trying to swallow the mass that was slowly rising in his throat as he reached for the container. As many times as he’d taken the lid off, he couldn’t still his fingers, even after all this time. The top slipped out of his grasp – he attributed, or at least tried to attribute the quiver of his fingers to the evening’s chill.

Touching the salve itself was even worse, but it was not truly pure warmweed; it was a product, including other herbs and other contents, and Will had learned to scoop out as tiny of a bit as he could, just enough for the wound. Or, well – wounds, in this case.

It cooled the skin, then it warmed it up, and Will pressed his lips together, feeling like he suddenly wanted to kick something. He put the lid back on and stuffed it as far back into his bag as he could, angry for no particular reason.

He leaned back again, then, wrapped his arms around himself once more, dragging his knees to his chest, and squeezed his eyes tightly shut.

The sleep he fell into was quiet, dreamless and, unlike he claimed, absolutely well-deserved. It made sense to Tug to let him have his peace for as long as he could.

That’s why, when Will woke, the sun was high in the sky and Tug did not look as smug as he’d like to, most likely.

“You traitor,” Will threw at him. “You vile creature. To think I trusted you.”

I’ll kick you in the face next time, if that’s a preferable alternative , Tug spoke in a tone that made him sound sleepy as well.

“You’re so loud all the time anyway.” Will stood up, stretching unenthusiastically. “Might as well make it useful.”

Tug didn’t answer him, and he immediately felt like the scum of the earth. Gods, at least he wasn’t the one doing the legwork, and he was being horrible about it, too. Tug made him get a few hours of darkness, and he was berating him for the kindness.

“I’m sorry,” Will said, as genuine as one could. “I really am. About all of that. And about yesterday, too.”

Tug let out a quiet snort. No worries. I’ll get back at you sometime anyway.

“I’m sure you will,” Will muttered, picking up his cloak and slinging it over his shoulders. Throwing his hood up, he added, absentmindedly, “Dunno what’s up with me these days.”

Well, I do , Tug said. And I’m sure you do too.

“Refrain from enlightening me, then,” he grumbled, stuffing his things back into his bag, taking a bite out of an apple and gifting the rest of it to Tug before jumping into the saddle.  “I can take a few days without thinking about it again.”

It , Tug snorted again.

Will closed his eyes. I’m calm. I’m calm , he told himself.

“Her,” he said. “And whatever might’ve happened to her.”

Well, at least you slept.

Will didn’t grace that with an answer, only pressed his heels a little bit. Tug didn’t hurry.

Inside, Will knew Tug was right to suggest he stay the night on the ground, but he was absolutely not about to admit it. He was absolutely not about to give Tug the pleasure of always being right, no matter the cost. And still, everything was a little brighter after his little nap, and so, a day or so later, he agreed to another stop, kicking around just for the show.

This time, however, things were a little different. They were going to reach the outskirts of Norgate the very next day, and Will was aiming to see Malcolm by the evening – praying to all that were that the job he had would be quick and easy. Or, well, as quick and easy as a job for a Ranger could be – to most people, not quick nor easy.

Because of this, before laying his head down on the cowl of his hood, he turned to his horse and wholeheartedly promised to pick out the song Tug liked the most of all he knew and hum it under his breath for as long as he was around him, up until Tug started to develop a distaste and eventually a hatred toward it if he did not wake him up properly. Tug snorted and gave no promises, but it only took Will a few quiet notes to get him to comply, in the end.

He closed his eyes, and, for a few hours, he felt less alone.

Will dreamt of Alyss again. He woke up with cold sweat like a shallow lake on his back, and his chest was tight, caging his wildly beating heart. He didn’t remember much – her face, the two little moles just above her lip, her hands cupping his cheeks, and she leaned close to his ear and whispered something to him, something so quiet and joyful, something so wonderful it could only be shared through silence, and he took her into his arms and lifted her up and spun her around until neither could breathe, from laughter and the quick kisses amidst the wild dance.

When Will woke up, his heart sank, because he’d truly believed the dream was real for a moment. It took him a minute to come back to reality, to remember what was going on – and that the warm streaks on his cheeks were not Alyss’s hands, but tear tracks once more.

He wiped them off, almost angry now. How long could he cry for?

He threw his head up to look at the sky. Thankfully, the stars had begun to dim and sun was seeping through the far reaches of the horizon. Content with the sight, Will turned to poke Tug in the stomach.

“Wake up, boy,” he called.

I wasn’t sleeping.

“No, no, of course you weren’t.” Will gave him the weariest of smiles and stood, stretching his arms, then legs. In feigned cheer, he added, “And now you won’t get the chance to for a while, as we’re riding out again!”

 Tug muttered something and stood up, Will gathering his things and stuffing them back into his bag again. He reached up to pull himself into the saddle with no effort, and back on the road they were.

This time, it was taking them to the lands before Norgate: Drayden Fief, the lands many merry bands of objectively awful people now roamed as their own territory. No Ranger had been sent to even out the many little instances of ripples going through the fief outside of Rowan, the only poor fellow with a silver leaf stationed here, and, to be fair, taking into account the circumstances, he was doing a damn good job keeping the mess contained.

Will hoped it was contained enough not to bother him on his way, but knowing his luck, he’d probably stumble into a camp of cut-throats headfirst. Problems seemed to find him. Now, though, he wished for anything but.

It was not meant to be, after all.

He got right about three or four hours of calm, listening only to Tug’s hooves on the ground and his own damned thoughts (one of those he could do without) before he took an unfortunate turn to the woods. Well, he had reasoned, he was not a child, he wasn’t afraid of a few squirrels, and going through a forest instead of around it would save him an hour or two, even if he would turn up on the other side with a scratch or another on his face. It was no big deal to him.

Unfortunately, he was not the first traveller to think so. And people who preferred to acquire their earnings through rather violent means tended to pick up on those things.

He noticed them just before he entered the forest, in a serene clearing. It’d be a nice place to sit down and relax, not that Will had any intention to do so. He’d felt them. To his sides.

A presence. He was being watched.

Immediately, his whole body was on full alert. He switched Tug’s gait a few times, listening – there were no horses, but someone was clearly following him. They weren’t trying to make it discreet, either. So they were planning to jump on him sooner or later then, anyway.

Will sped Tug up a little, and whoever it was started catching up. Will, in no mood for games, then, simply brought Tug to a halt and leapt out of the saddle. His main desire was now speed – the faster he gets this over with, the better.

“Alright, get out,” he commanded, pulling out his seax. “Come on. Get out here.”

Sometimes, merely letting them know he was not going to be crept up on deterred them – sometimes they’d turn around and Will would never see them again. He’d gladly chase them, though, unless he needed to be somewhere else.

Well, he wouldn’t have chased them today.

The men, as they turned out to be, were not smart enough to realize that, apparently.

Will drew out what was possibly the longest groan of his life as four men blocked his road. “Oh, you’ve got to be goddamn...”  

They were armed, Will’s trained eye noticed. One of them – the leader, most likely – stood up a little taller and cleared his throat, leisurely pointing his sword right between Will’s eyes.

“These woods belong to Lord Clerbald, traveller,” he said in a voice that deliberately showcased authority. Will was nearly tired of hearing it already. “It is not to be crossed without official permission.”

“These woods belong to nobody except perhaps Ranger Rowan of Drayden Fief,” Will shot back, twisting it a little – the woods belonged technically to Baron Thorn, but not much except Ranger business went on in the woodlands anyway. “And you made the Lord up just now. Let me through.”

“You claim to know the ruler of the land better than us, common rat?” One of the others spoke up, clearly less composed than the first one.

“I don’t claim to, I do.” Will squinted at them, his hand still steady on the seax. “Now, I’d strongly advise you to leave these woods as fast as your legs can carry you, because from what I know of Ranger Rowan, he’s not too fond of bloodsuckers in his fief.” What you know of me , he knew young Rowan would mock, rolling his eyes far into his skull. Bloody hell, you’re pretentious, Will Treaty . Will smiled a thin little smile at the image.

“You dare insult us?” A third cut in. Will watched with mild disinterest as the first one raised a hand to silence him.

“You have been disrespectful to the keepers of the law, traveller,” he told him in a sickly sweet voice. “That does not go unpunished.”

“Keepers of the law,” Will repeated in a high, mocking tone. He had to admit to himself, he didn’t act like this often, but there was something about them keeping him from the most important goal in his life that made him bristle. “Quit tricking honest people and figure out a way to make a coin in life without yapping at every poor bastard that comes through the woods. I’m done wasting my time with you.”

He turned to go back to Tug, heard rustling behind him and snapped back on his heel, one hand with the seax in front of him and the other holding out his oakleaf he ripped from underneath his vest in a single moment.

“Queen’s Ranger,” he said, and they froze for just a second, the first one mere inches away, the very tip of Will’s knife almost touching his chin. Will may not have identified himself with a name, but he didn’t exactly need to. A Ranger’s reputation carried weight in Araluen, blessed be the Corps that made it that way once again.

The pause lasted only a moment, though.

“Ranger.” The first one crossed his arms, a cheeky smile still on his face. His men still held their weapons, and Will gave a sigh, realizing he was in for a little tumble anyway. “Guess you’ve tricked us, eh? Think you’re so smart, don’t you?”

“Rather, yes,” Will agreed, frowning and dropping the leaf back under his vest before sheathing his knife and slinging the bow off his shoulder. The bandits didn’t seem very bright, not picking up that they should’ve probably attacked while he was nocking the arrow. Will wouldn’t complain, though.

“Well, we outnumber you by quite a few, don’t you think?” The first man, the leading bandit, if Will had to guess, grinned again, showing shiny teeth. “I don’t understand how you hope to pin us down all on your own, short stuff.”

Will didn’t feel like he exactly needed to humour that with an answer. He raised his bow, the head of the arrow pointed straight at the man. It wasn’t drawn just yet – there was no need to waste his strength. Tug had already stilled completely behind him, waiting for him to take a shot or tell him to bolt.

“You saw my oakleaf, yes?” Will said with uncharacteristically charitable patience. “You see my arrows? I have twenty four. I’ll stick six in each of you if you waste more of my time. Let me through, and we’ll have no problems.”

One or two of them, if he saw correctly, actually seemed at least mildly swayed by his suggestion, which he would’ve been glad for if the leader hadn’t immediately started berating them. Something around the lines of “You fools” and “Subdue him”. Nothing he hadn’t heard before.

“Rangers don’t take to offense lightly this and Rangers don’t let attackers go that,” Will repeated his own words back to him, disgusted at what he was going to say. “But if you let me through right now, with no hassle, I will genuinely forget you ever existed. I’ve got better things to do than solve skirmishes in the middle of nowhere.”

One of them let out a low laugh. It was a predator’s laugh, but not quite enough to make someone like Will quake in his boots. “Oh, you’ll forget, alright,” the man huffed, raising his sword to the evening sun. “You’ll forget. You should know that corpses remember nothing.”

Will sighed again, absolutely and utterly unimpressed. People liked to act tough around him, bad people especially – he had no idea why. Well, no, that wasn’t the case, he knew how influential a scene in front of a Ranger could be, but he did truly not know why people wouldn’t cave in under a direct threat to their life.

Oh well. If they wanted a fight, Will decided, they’d get it.

If I find myself cutting bandits left and right, I will not be happy, the voice in his head mocked in a dramatically heightened tone. Way to call on it, you right bastard.

And here they were, the idiots, standing like they were already sure of the victory, standing so disgustingly tall and proud as if they weren’t blocking Will’s way to the continued search of his wife. As if they weren’t blocking his way to Alyss.

“A’right,” he said quietly, assessing them as his bow fell to the ground – he couldn’t use it anyway, one of them was too close. Instead, the seax was back in his hand, and, a millisecond before the point of no return, he repeated, in a whisper, “A’right.”

They weren’t officially trained, not rogue knights or anything, it made Will wonder absentmindedly what made them believe they could take down a Ranger. The first one, albeit one of the two armed with a sword, didn’t stand a chance. Will grabbed him by his free wrist and pulled him past him, then raised a knee to kick him in the back. The man hit the ground with a dull thump, and would soon be joined by his comrades, if it was up to Will.

The next two attacked together, somewhat souring the situation, but Will just let himself be grabbed by one and, while the other swung with his knife, he rocked to the side hard, throwing the one that had captured him, letting the poor fellow take a knife between his eyes, and while his companion dealt with the moral horror of having stabbed a teammate, Will pulled on his arm and slashed his throat with his own knife.

It stayed in his hand. He now had two knives before the last one, the leader, who held a sword.

“Ah, damn you to hell,” to his mild curiosity, the man chuckled. “Well, at least I won’t have to share you with anyone.”

As he charged, Will leapt to the side wordlessly. The man was ready for that, however, turning with him, and Will ducked to the ground to avoid the blow, getting kicked to the side. He was up on his feet in an instant, and here was where the leader made his mistake of the day – and life – he raised his sword over his head instead of cutting cleanly.

Will surged forward, grabbing him by the lapels with one hand and wrestling the sword out, dropping it by their feet along with the excess knife he held himself and pushing the man forward. The bandit stumbled over the handle, and now Will grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, holding his seax up to his throat.

“You morons,” Will muttered right by his ear. Cold fury held his hand, the anger he felt at the loss of the strength the men caused him, strength that could be used to get to Norgate faster – and then, to Alyss faster. The precious minutes they stole from him, the minutes he could’ve spent with his wife. “You despicable, worthless morons.”

He took a tiny breath, and, before the man could say anything – he wasn’t interested nor could he be swayed - tilted his head back for the slash.

“You better think hard before you go on.” A voice from the side made Will snap his head toward the source.

The first man was standing right by Tug with his long sword at his stomach. Will’s heart jumped for the first time in the encounter, but he noted Tug’s eyes. He didn’t look nervous. Exasperated, more like, and Will also saw what was going on.

Anger rose in his throat. They were no threat to him or his horse, but they were wasting time . They should be, Will thought, searching for Alyss. And they’re wasting their time.

“I better,” he agreed, waited a moment, and, calmly: “Okay. I’m done thinking.”

As he dragged the knife across the man’s throat in one swift move, the other turned to the horse. Tug, in his mind probably imitating the most accurate horse expression of “oh well, screw it,” made peace with the situation.

The bandit flew backwards, sword abandoned on the ground, having slipped out of his grasp as Tug’s kick definitely shattered something – his head, most likely, judging by the way he didn’t even make an attempt to twitch anymore.

Nevertheless, Will approached, having let the body of the leader drop to the ground. Kneeling by the unconscious dying man, he finished the job with his seax and stood up, paying little attention to the blood on the blade.

He turned to Tug, anxiety shining through his expression. “You alright, Tug?”

Getting kicked around now, Will? Tug, uninjured, looked himself like a mix of concern and mockery. Next thing you know, he’ll have crushed your head with the handle of his sword.

“Yes, yes, like you crushed his with your hoof,” Will answered, pulling himself up into the saddle and touching the bruise that was swelling up under his vest, just on his side. It would hurt, but nothing Will hadn’t felt before. He turned to look at the pile of bodies he’d left behind. Normally, there’d be some sort of regret looming above him for loss of life, no matter how wretched. Now, though, he felt awfully practical. His eyes were cold.

“Do you say we ought to tell Rowan what happened?” Will asked Tug. Tug snorted in affirmation, and Will managed a silent groan. “Gods. I really don’t want to make a side-trip.”

Get close, but don’t change course, Tug suggested. You know he’ll see you anyways.

“Yeah,” Will muttered, looking up at the sky to adjust for direction. “I suppose you’re right. Wouldn’t be right to just leave those bodies lying around here.”

In agreement and with no further conversation, they rode forth. Will wondered momentarily whether they’d even find Rowan – but daylight was seeping into the ground and dyeing it red for the evening. If he wasn’t out on some larger-scaled escapade, he would probably be home. Then it was a question of whether he’d recognize Will, or know he was there, or even if he’s left the cabin.

Will shook his head, pushing the thoughts away. He remembered fondly his own suspicion whenever someone entered his woods – it was some kind of sixth sense, he assumed, stemming from the relationship he had with the place; it was where he first started sticking arrows into the trees and where he sat in the evenings, sewing holes in his cloak, and where was now his home – and home of Alyss, and he’d bring her back there once he found her.

It all went back to Alyss again, and as he rode over the roots and the high grass, he wondered how long he’d have to search for her. How well had she had been hidden from him, how far he’d have to go to catch even a glimpse of her, be able to put a flower crown on her head again, be able to wrap his arm around her shoulders, tell an anecdote from a screwed-up mission that’d make her laugh.

He’d search forever if it came to that, this he knew.

Lost in thought, he failed to recognize Tug’s greeting, mistaking it for an idle noise. He recognized a Ranger himself instead, more so felt than heard the ruffle of the leaves and an arrow scraping against the bow as it was drawn back.

“Identify yourself,” a soft voice called, and Will could sense both a pair of keen eyes and a sharp head of an arrow staring right into his soul. Or in his general direction, considering he was still wearing his cloak, some of which draped over Tug’s back, blending into the green of the forest once more.

At the very least, it was Rowan’s voice.

“Will Treaty,” Will reported dutifully, raising his oakleaf off his chest and into the air. “I wanted to tell you about the unfortunate gathering I stumbled upon east of the woods.” He dropped his oakleaf and crossed his arms, staring the way he thought the speaker was standing. “You got anything to tell me about that, Rowan?”

Rowan emerged only a little away from where Will imagined him to stand, the good Ranger. He was in the process of sliding an arrow back into his quiver, and a little smile surfaced on his face.

“Will,” he called, and his voice was far smaller. It was in all of them to be as quiet as they could when they were not intimidating anyone. “Oh, what a pleasure to see you again.” He cocked his head to the side. “Whatever happened?”

“I encountered a group of commonfolk,” Will answered him, leaping down to the ground as Rowan approached him. It was nice to hear a friendly voice outside his head – Tug huffed at the thought, though. “Must’ve been a dull afternoon – the fellows seemed rather enthusiastic in practising swordplay on a living dummy and his horse.”

Rowan clicked his tongue in annoyance before pulling Will into a hug, which he gladly took part in, wrapping his arms around his waist – Rowan was, just like most, taller than Will.

“Here I am, scouring the streets, hoping Drayden is kind to travellers, and a damn Ranger gets attacked in my own woods,” Rowan muttered as they drew back, giving him a guilty smile. “Thank you for the notice, friend. I’ll make sure to come back to the trees more often.”

Will chuckled, slapping him on the shoulder.

“You’ll have no complaints from me,” he agreed. “I could’ve used a distraction.”

Rowan nodded mindlessly, remembering something only after a moment. He grabbed Will’s upper arm with an apologetic face.

“Oh, Will, I’m very sorry about your wife,” he said, voice coated thickly in compassion. “Haven’t kept up with the news the past few - has she been found yet?”

Will’s slightly brightened mood turned sour again.

“Not quite,” he answered bitterly. “I’m still searching.”

Rowan put a hand on his shoulder in comfort.

“If anyone can find her, it’s you, my friend,” he assured him. Will smiled a sad little smile.

“Thank you, Rowan. I hope so.”

Before Will could step away and jump back into the saddle, Rowan cleared his throat with something to add.

“Ah, but – wasn’t she in Gallica? What brings you all the way to my humble homestead?” He cocked his head to the side. Will waved his hand, clearly dismissing the question.

“Long story,” he replied shortly, and Rowan shrugged.

“Well then, I won’t ask,” he relented and perked up again. “One last thing, before you go on your merry way.”

“Yes?” One foot in the stirrup, Will turned his head to Rowan. The Ranger looked a little confused.

“I’m guessing they were on the outskirts, waiting for you. Did you just, tie them up and leave them there?” He inquired, making a wide gesture with his hands, implying the bandits. “No chance they’ll have escaped by the time I get there?”

It was Will’s time to go a bit red.

“No, I don’t believe so,” he answered. “I... made very sure.”

“You mean as in—“ Recognition flashed in Rowan’s eyes. He gave Will an impressed nod. “Well. I see. At least they won’t kick as I’m dragging them back.” He sighed. “Still could’ve left at least one. Would’ve told me right where the rest of them are hiding.”

“Sorry, friend.” Will shrugged, dragging himself back up into the saddle. “They didn’t seem much for conversation, anyway.”

“Oh, I would change that in an hour or two,” Rowan chuckled. “Weren’t you an apprentice under Halt? Old man’s the go-to for interrogation.”

“I’m aware. Think of it as me saving you from a messy ordeal.” Will gifted him with a fleeting smile, rather quick to end their meeting. “Godspeed, Rowan.”

“Right. All the best to you in your search, Will – and, again, thank you.” Rowan bowed his head before turning on his heel and disappearing between the tree trunks, the cloak blurring the lines between him and the forest, as any good Ranger cloak did. Will watched for a minute, up until he couldn’t tell where he was anymore.

What now? Tug asked quietly.

“Now,” Will replied, “we ride like hell.”

 


 

Grimsdell appeared suddenly and unexpectedly, just as it always seemed to, tall and looming and darker than its surroundings. The roots of the trees had gone so dark they seemed black, the trunks thick and the leaves formed a crown far above Will’s head. It had always been difficult to enter such a place – he felt like he was defiling a secret. He still held quiet, respectful fear for the forest, albeit now controlled – and that was probably how it was going to be for the rest of his years.

It would always get easier once he was amidst the trees, not just watching from the side. He’d recall walking here with Shadow, Horace, Trobar, and then Alyss. Her footsteps had been silent on the forest floor, but his trained ear still listened – her voice echoed in the clearings and sounded muffled and soft in the confined spaces between four trees and not much else.

Once, when they were passing the place after a joint mission and decided to pay a visit to Malcolm, they had held hands as they stumbled over the roots and bushes. The woods had not heard much laughter in their age – something new was always exciting. They welcomed them, and Will hoped they would again, once he found Alyss and they could walk wherever, and he can feel her warmth beside him.

He pressed his lips together and rode forth. He didn’t have to remember where to go, exactly – what had not been in his instincts, Tug compensated for. A few branches scratched his face, but he barely reacted, squinting, trying to get as much of the light dripping down from the blankets of leaves above as he could.

It didn’t take long to pass the warnings and the signs – useless now, he thought, except maybe as direction to where to find Malcolm.

Then, he stumbled into the clearing, finally – and jumped off Tug. It wasn’t quite noon just yet, but he hoped at least someone would be awake.

They were.

Malcolm’s home was bustling with activity, in fact – just from a glance, he recognized Luka, sitting by the steps of the house, who raised a hand to him, gifting him a smile. More people were rushing around – he noticed a few kids he didn’t know playing, all with the usual deformities of their own. A few chuckled upon seeing him – a few said a word or two in greeting. He nodded and turned to approach the door when a black and white form erupted from nowhere and tackled him.

It didn’t do much harm considering the form was just taller than the distance from the ground to his knees, but momentarily Will forgot why he was there and crouched down to greet Shadow.

“My my, girl,” he told her softly, making an attempt to give her a pat on the head – she threw her head back, trying to lick his fingers. “You don’t plan on stopping, do you? Not letting time get the best of you?”

Yes, it certainly seemed so. Her clever eyes hadn’t lost their shine and her body, although now decorated by graying fur, still seemed youthful. Trobar must be treating her well, came a thought to Will, and he smiled at himself – of course he was. Trobar loved the dog.

Speaking of which.

A shadow appeared over Will, who jumped up with ease to greet his friend.

“Trobar,” he said, and whatever happiness of reunion would usually shine in his voice at this time was mixed with melancholy. “I trust you’re doing well?”

“Will,” he replied with a smile of his own, seemingly empathetic. He’d been saying Will’s name with ease the past few times they’d met – Will wondered whether his name was just simple enough or if he’d gotten used to it. “Go’dh he’e qui’h’ly.”

“I was in a bit of a hurry,” Will agreed, giving him a little sad simper. “Is Malcolm—“

A loud wave of laughter interrupted him, unnaturally loud and clear and echoing. Will snapped his head back to look at the house, only to see a boy not older than him in his first year of apprenticeship – he held two misshapen canes  and, when standing straight, his back looked bent to one side. He was the one laughing, and he was looking right back at Will, and nobody else seemed to have noticed Will’s surprise or the deafening screech of the laughter; so it must’ve been normal.

Will hadn’t heard much of that sort of laughter directed at him. It wasn’t mocking – it was purely joyful, enthusiastic, excited for him, almost. The boy rested one of the canes against the railing and covered his mouth, trying to stifle the uncontrollable giggling. He sat down on the stairs and pressed his forehead to the side of the foundation for the house, trying to catch his breath.

“Go,” Trobar urged Will on, giving him a gentle push toward the boy. Tug, who was standing not too far away, had an aura of incredulity around him – his eyes were stuck to the door.

Will swallowed and rushed to the door, stopping by the stairs to check on the boy.

“You alright?” he asked. The boy nodded, coming down from the momentary hysteria – Will still didn’t know what he’d done to cause it, but he gave the boy a light pat on the head anyway. “Is Malcolm inside?”

The boy stilled and looked up at him. Slowly, his smile grew wider. He closed his eyes and, without answering, turned his gaze into the clearing, a distant rumble in his throat suggesting another surfacing chuckle.

Will raised an eyebrow and climbed up the stairs. He wondered for a moment whether he should knock, decided that’d be the polite option, and opened the door.

It was quiet inside. It didn’t seem like many people were there – only a few, and all eyes were immediately on him. Many smiled at him. Will only raised his eyebrows higher.

“Sorry,” he stopped a passing woman. “I was looking for—“

A quiet voice stopped him, coming from a room close by.

“No, not yet, I don’t think so. It takes at least a week to get here from Redmont. It’s just Malcolm, I’m sure.” A soft chuckle. “Oh, and I—I forgot how to sign Redmont, can you do it again, please?”

Will barely heard what the voice was saying. He was frozen – in time, in space and in place. Everything around him stretched. He felt like he was going to fall to his knees, and not without good reason.

Will’s breath hitched in his throat.

The silent voice, unmistakeable in its lilted tone and melody, belonged to Alyss.

Chapter Text

Initially, the heat was unbearable. It seeped through her skin, scorched her to the bone, and she couldn’t breathe.

Then, all of a sudden, it was very cold, unpleasant, she felt as if she’d been soaked by rain, and she still couldn’t breathe.

She distantly remembered a squirming little form in her arms, how she threw it as hard as she could, and she felt guilty for a moment – she was almost sure the creature hadn’t deserved the rough treatment she gave it. But it was not like her to dash out punishments undeserved, so she simply trusted herself.

Or maybe this was her punishment. Maybe as she was thrashing and turning on cold ground, the hands on her (at least she thought they were hands, but wherever they touched her, it hurt) were her justiciars.  Sometimes, parts of her body would go numb and cold after the hands had been on her, and she felt grateful for it – the less she could feel, the better, if all she could feel was pain.

She did not think about the other parts of her body, because she didn’t want to and her mind couldn’t quite comprehend it. She was pretty sure her brain itself had numbed down the sensations on her side so she wouldn’t go mad with it – and she would go mad, she was sure.

She had been so strong, she’d taken pride in it, she had been so sure of herself. The inside of her head had always been cool, steel-bound, and she’d learned early in her life never to doubt an instinct. There were no good endings for those who disobeyed themselves.

That’s why she felt so wrong, she figured. She’d gone against all odds and lost, as was expected. When she couldn’t even remember what she did or why she did it, her trust in herself faltered slightly. Hell, she could barely remember who she was. Different names were circling in her head. She’d have to relearn them all in time.

Alyss had been thinking. All this time, she’d been thinking. As disorganized and doubtful as those thoughts may have been, they helped her stay alive, unbeknownst to everyone scuttling about around her.

Pauline’s name came to her first, as she was lying on the fur-clad bench in a young healer’s home, and it took her the longest to remember why and what the name meant to her. Slowly, over the course of a few hours – felt like years to her, everything was burning around her, her blood was boiling, not of anger but of fear – it came to her.

An arm linked in hers, a civil walk, considering her options, trying to impress for the first and last time in her life, and the woman she so admired giving a chuckle, promising something that made her heart soar, and: Pauline. A hand gently placing a silver laurel branch on top of her head, a smile of pride, whispering Welcome to the Service, and: Pauline. The quiet knocking on her door, hands on her face wiping tears, speaking softly, You’re okay, he’s okay, and her leaning on her, wrapping her arms around her and crying, crying, and: Pauline. Bitterness; hands now on her shoulders, rubbing gentle circles over her shirt, Be safe, be safe, be safe: Pauline.

Her teacher, her most loyal friend. It brought her own name back to her – Alyss – and she knew she’d done wrong.

Be safe, be safe, be safe. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.

She tried to reach out and touch her, hug her, tell her it was okay, she was safe and sound, but even she knew she was wrong – she couldn’t lift her arm. That was when her fingers twitched, and, disappointed with her pitiful efforts, she floated away into the Nothing for a little while.

Sometime after that, having rested in the blissful unawareness for a while, she felt something else surfacing. Maybe it was her; she felt limp, defenseless like a stuffed doll, being carried around, then down on the ground again.

The ground was shaking slightly, quivering every once in a while. The ground, Alyss thought to herself, was not usually shaking. So she must’ve been on something else than the ground. Content with this conclusion, she let herself remember.

Five children, there were five children. Or four? Was it four? It was four without her.

Curiously, Alyss wondered if there would soon only be four left.

Three names came to her easily, one after the other. A roaring laughter, a boy elbowing her with a joke to tell, an unbridled kindness in his eye, and: Horace. Another boy with permanent confusion turned into permanent curiosity, a jab at her work after she’d taken one at his, a knowing smile as they brushed shoulders in the marketplace, and: George. Finally, a happy, bouncing girl with the biggest eyes and the widest smile, and dancing in the evenings in a closed inn, laughing, talking about the other girls and the other boys, and Alyss telling secrets because she knew that, as chatty as she was, she would never tell, and: Jenny.

The last name didn’t come to her until a little later, but when it did, it flooded her. Like a tidal wave, it ripped the ground from underneath her, and Alyss sank, and every little ripple around her said Will; at first there were whispers, then cries, then screams – Will, Will, Will.

She called for him. She could remember so many things, so many things. In the winter, warmth; them together, out in the forest in spring. She’d pick mushrooms in autumn.  She remembered the best his head on her stomach as they lied together out on a hill just outside Redmont after coming back from a trip, a mission, maybe. Yes, Redmont, it occurred to her – her home. Her place. Will’s place. Their home.

You ever think about kids? she’d asked him once on that hill. He had turned over to kiss her on the stomach lazily and look up at the clear skies.

Delightful little goblins, Will had answered, smiling. He knew that wasn’t what she meant, but she was content. When we were in Santa Sebilla, one of them pulled Tug on the tail. Who pulls a horse by the tail? Barely managed to tell him to relax before he kicked the poor sod all the way to Teutland.

She had laughed, then. She wanted to laugh now, too, but she couldn’t – everything hurt too much, and Will was not there.

She wondered if her ring was still there. She prayed that it was. It was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen – not that it was itself a very special ring or anything, but Will’s face when she put it on – Will’s face! She could see it every time she looked at the little circlet.

Alyss had opened her eyes once – to tell them, whoever they were, not to let Will know she was there. She knew somewhere inside she wasn’t thinking straight, that maybe this wasn’t the right choice, but the words she forced out of her throat were true – under no circumstances could Will see her like this.

She was withering away, and she would not curse Will with that image. Let him know, she thought, when it’s all done. When I’m dead, let him bury his wife. He doesn’t need to be there any sooner than that.

Alyss had said that before terror set in, along with the realization that she couldn’t see. Well, she could, but barely – her right eye was clouded and hurt like hell to focus on anything, and her left eye...

If she was going blind, she didn’t want to know it.

She spent the rest of her hours of awareness desperately trying to think about nothing. Every once in a while, though, something would surface – a memory, a voice, a name. After a while, she had constructed a rather accurate picture of herself – Alyss, a Diplomat, of Redmont, friend of many, enemy of some, there were still the remnants of a silver pin on her shoulder, and sometimes, only sometimes, she’d make Will weaker coffee than he asked to, just to see if he’d notice. He wouldn’t, and she would be glad it wasn’t so heavy on his stomach.

At some point, she felt like she was flying. At some point, she felt like she could've looked down and seen the entire world underneath her feet, but, of course, she couldn't turn, or look, or open her eyes anymore, even. She heard voices during that time - pointed, sharp voices, picking at her ears. Then softer ones, shocked ones, nervous ones. A calm one. Another, and another.

She heard children muttering about and, instinctively, she smiled. You ever think about kids?

In the end, her flight was quite short. She was hoisted into the air and laid down into something soft, almost liquid. Losing all stable ground underneath her, she sank into it, head falling back. There was suddenly a desire to stretch somewhere within her - but, amidst the temporary comfort, pain slowly took over again and she realized she could barely breathe, much less move.

She wondered what was going on. Somewhere she knew what she was like - she knew she disliked being kept in the dark, disliked not knowing more than any other person in the room. She felt wrong. She felt unsafe.

But, in the end, what's the worst that could happen to her now? She merely hoped that, if this was to be her end, it would be swift, painless and relieving.

There was one simple obstacle keeping her from freedom - the final breath just wouldn't come.

She breathed in, then out. Then in again, and out. Once more, again, repeat. It wouldn't stop. Alyss didn't know if she wanted it to stop or to continue – and she was supposed to know, she was sure of it. But, seeing as she didn't have much of a choice, she simply kept on going. In again, and out.

Breaths meshed together slowly, along with seconds, and hours, and soon she couldn’t tell whether she’d taken thirty breaths or thirty thousand.

Somewhere in the middle of it, the pain worsened. She felt delirious and upset, stuck between two equally compelling outcomes – death and recovery. So why was it still hurting? Couldn’t something just, magically appear, couldn’t something happen that pushed her to one side or the other?

Couldn’t she have avoided this, she bit at herself. Couldn’t she have changed just one little thing so she never started burning? Couldn’t things have been different in any way?

She didn’t even know what she was regretting. If she did, she feared that, had she been given the chance to go back, she still would’ve done the same.

The push came as the thought was circling in her head. She didn’t notice it at first, the shape of a mere shadow over her body. But it didn’t move, depriving her eyes of any light that could’ve been squeezing through her eyelids, and she understood. Someone was breathing next to her – someone was right there, and she was defenseless. She felt, distantly, that she knew the man – he smelled of the pine trees and of herbal tea, but all was blinded by the fact that she couldn’t even move. In a way, her own body had restrained her.

As the someone stood over her, she braced herself, but nothing could prepare her for the pressure.

The hand brushed across her face, across her lip and cheek, examining her burns, it moved as softly as it could, she would’ve barely felt it if things had been different. But they weren’t, and it all was burning. She didn’t want it to rise any further, not to her eye, not to what was left of it, but—

“Ah!” Alyss drew back, one hand shooting up to her touch her lip. Will stared at her with an expression that was somewhat between guilt and horror. She regarded him incredulously. “Did you just—Did you just bite me?”

“I’m sorry!” he exclaimed, sort of putting his arms up like he wanted to either hug her or pray. “It, it just happened. Didn’t mean it. I swear.”

Alyss squinted at him, then started laughing. Slowly, a sheepish smile grew on his face. He dropped his arms to cup her face with one hand, his thumb brushing across her lip.

“Will Treaty, you are a terrible kisser, and I aim to change that,” she muttered. Will tried to look offended, but ended up just kind of smiling awkwardly again.

“Well, in my defense, it’s not like I’ve kissed many girls out there,” he objected. She chuckled into his hand, escaped his grasp and planted a single soft kiss on his cheek.

“Neither have I,” she confessed, and pinched the spot she’d just kissed playfully. “But at least I’m not trying to bite off a chunk of my darling’s face.”

The hands had begun cooling her face with something, something familiar, making it feel numb – she welcomed it, until it started going cold. Excessive cold brought heat, she knew that much. Alyss didn’t want to burn again.

She tried her damn hardest to get away – and, to her own surprise and the surprise of the man next to her bed, she turned her head. She immediately regretted it – her neck felt like it’d been sliced with a dagger.

“That bad, huh,” a voice said, almost sorrowful – she recognized it from before. Before – she didn’t know when the Before was, but she knew she was safe, somehow. Once she tried to look at him, he hurried: “No, that’s alright, you needn’t strain yourself. You’ll wake up when you can.” She would’ve protested, and he seemed to understand it. “Don’t worry. I won’t use that much of it next time.”

Then, he was gone.

It was over, finally, but not peacefully; her face felt cold all over, and the cold tore at her skin. She would’ve tried reaching up to warm it with her hand, but she couldn’t move. Exhausted, she simply opted for the next best thing – going under once more.

Unbeknownst to her, the worst week of her life had passed.

 


 

Alyss felt dreadful when she woke up - but she felt, at least. Something outside of the searing pain was crawling up her side, and felt like she was being squeezed in her own body, her own skin tightening around her, strangling her, restricting. 

She could somewhat recall the salve on her skin. She knew it was a salve because the man she knew had called it that when he was putting it on Alyss earlier – not the first time, not the second…

How many times had she been awake? How much time had passed?

It nagged her.

It took her a moment to remember all the things she'd come up with before - her name, other names. Pauline, Will. Other such memories. Good things. Many good things had happened to her over her life. Maybe it was only fair a horrible occurrence would follow in tow.

No, she thought. What had she done to deserve this? What had she done to deserve such a terrible, draining death?

Something in her twisted uncomfortably. She was aching again, heated but freezing at the same time and it was because of it that she decided to abandon the thought of death at last; after all, if she were to die, no philosophies of life could save her.

Instead, she focused her grip onto what was around her. Maybe if she found out a little more about what she was resting on and why the smell of pine trees seemed so thick and familiar in the air, she reasoned, she'd feel a little better for herself.

She ignored the fact that, once she tried to actually open her eyes, she could barely see. Tears surfaced for whatever reason - she didn't want to go blind - but she swallowed them down and blinked through it.

Well, she was in a bed. That was an improvement, but she could've told that without opening her eyes. She couldn't see much - it took her some time to realize that it wasn't only because of her weary eyesight but also because there wasn't much light in the room. The only source was the lazy rays of sun poking through the closed blinds. The pine trees, she figured, were outside. She was not. She was inside. And, once she cared to listen, she could hear people talking, laughing, yelling outside the window; men, women, children. Any other time it would've taken her by surprise. Now, though, she only felt a budding dim curiosity.

She tried to summarize this to herself - she was in a bed, in a house, wrapped up in a thousand bandages and everything smelled vaguely of pine trees, just like the man. There were people outside, she could hear them talking and she could hear the birds, and she could--

She could hear a voice cut clearer than the rest, and now she felt appalled - she finally recognized it.

For a moment, she thought she was hallucinating again; Orman did not live close by, but she could swear up and down that it was his voice she was hearing. It took her a second to remember that he was, after all, stationed at Macindaw, and Macindaw was not far from Malcolm.

She was with Malcolm.

Oh, thank the gods. Thank the gods.

A little light shone through the gap under the door, and it felt Alyss's heart mirrored it. Maybe Malcolm could solve her. Maybe Malcolm wouldn't let her die.

Then, she wondered for a moment what they were talking about before also remembering that human speech was one of the many things she could understand. With this newly re-discovered knowledge, she swallowed her thoughts down and listened at last.

One of the phrases she heard was Malcolm’s rather annoyed jab at Orman:

“With all due respect, my Lord, you can stand there for a week without food or shelter and I will still not let you see her. She’s not in a state to be questioned.”

Orman’s voice was too distant to comprehend, but Malcolm clicked his tongue in frustration.

“No, absolutely not, I don’t care how important your secret matters are, she’s under my care!” She heard a dull little thump. An opening door. “You can ask her anything for all I care, but that’s for when I’m sure she’s even going to last a month in her bed. Good day, sir!” The same noise, a closing door. Orman said nothing else.

It took her another minute to grasp that the conversation had been about her. The thought that she could be dying came to almost be dull to her, like a statement about the weather. It’s warm and sunny today, and I’m dying, step by step.

If Alyss could’ve shrugged, she would’ve. She hurt all over, anyway. She didn’t feel like it would’ve been too much of a loss to cease feeling at all.

Another door creaked – Malcolm came back to reapply his medicines. Alyss finally had a face to put to the voice, and a person, too. She somewhat remembered him telling her not to open her eyes until it came naturally – but she just wanted to see a friendly face. Once he was done with the wrapping, humming quiet, calming tunes most of the time, she tore her eyes open.

Everything was still clouded, but she saw him indeed.

And smiled – this time the smile touched her lips, not only her mind.

“Malcolm,” she said – or, well, she thought she said it. What she said was more like a hoarse groan that maybe could’ve sounded like his name if she hadn’t felt an unexpected fit of coughing coming up.

He rushed to put her back down – she had just barely raised her head, but it seemed like it had genuinely terrified him.

“It’s good that you hear me, Lady Alyss, but please don’t get any ideas just yet,” he hissed, and she managed to press her lips together. He took it as affirmation and leaned back with a sigh. “Whatever shall I do with… Oh, but you—You hear me?” A sparkle was suddenly bright in his eye, even Alyss could see it. “That’s good. That’s good! It’s progress. Not… much for progress, but you can’t expect everything at once.”

She wanted very hard to expect everything at once though, to be honest.

Suddenly, Malcolm was much closer. He crouched by her bed, looking at her intently.

“Alyss,” he said, and she knew his question would be important. “What can you remember?” Realizing she couldn’t answer him extensively, he rephrased: “Can you tell me if you remember… Say, do you remember who you are?” He took her healthy hand. “Squeeze a little if you do. You don’t need to put much effort into it. Just so I can feel it. Do it twice if you don’t.”

It took her a minute. She focused all the strength she had to her hand – and squeezed as hard as she could. She could barely feel any muscle moving, though.

“Alright,” Malcolm said, something stuck in his throat. “What about your family? Will?”

Another squeeze. A little smile came to be on his face. “Fantastic. And— Last question, if I may. “

She squeezed again before he could ask, just to mess with him, and the smile grew a little wider.

“Okay, okay. Now, Helena—the woman you were with, the one who brought you here – said you told her not to alert Will to your location. Is this true?”

It took her a moment to remember. Yes, she had tried. She had tried with all her might to tell them that, yet she could sense that they couldn’t hear her. By the time her head was screaming and her throat was sore, they heard her whispering. They heard her, at last. She hardly recalled any woman, or any vaguely human-shaped figure in there, but it must’ve been simply her pitiful state of eyesight; the blob of red was probably the one named Helena.

It took her longer to remember why she didn’t want Will there, why she didn’t want him when she needed him, truly, and when she did remember, a great sadness took over her again.

That’s when she decided she knew what she was supposed to want - no, what she wanted. She wanted to live, fiercely, so her world didn’t have to go on without her. She supposed her death would make all those she loved terribly upset. Who was she, then, to cause them grief? The fact that it wasn’t up to her made her feel both empty and furious.

She squeezed his hand, and this time he felt it without needing to anticipate it.

“Why?” It escaped his lips with no thought, accompanied by a puzzled look on his face, though he immediately wiped it off. “No, that’s okay; you don’t have to answer it.”

She parted her lips – they were impossibly dry, she could barely stick her tongue out to wet them before trying to speak again. Malcolm watched in equal parts of admiration and concern.

“If I die,” she repeated, and it sounded more like human speech now. She realized that wasn’t what she wanted to tell him, and cursed in her head for wasting such energy. Then, after a pause, she managed to ask: “Will I?”

“Will you die?” Malcolm clarified. A squeeze on his palm, and he sighed, trying his best not to look too unsure. “I can’t promise you anything, Alyss, but you’ve been holding out for two weeks now, even without proper materials. If you just carry on a little longer, I’ll start drawing conclusions, okay?” Now it was his turn – he squeezed her hand gently, softer than she had. “Though I doubt it’s a good idea to keep Will in the dark about this. He must be chasing his own tail out there.”

Slightly miffed, Alyss thought she’d already heard that somewhere. But, in a way, he was right – and Alyss didn’t want to cause pain for her husband, gods no. She just couldn’t imagine how watching her die would be better than simply getting news of her death, being able to skip over the uncomfortable last days.

But she wanted to see him so, so bad. Therefore there was only one option – to survive.

“When you…” she gave a cough. “When you’re sure, that—… Of my life. Write him.”

It took Malcolm a second to put it together. “I’ll let him know once I’m convinced you’ll be alright, okay?”

Instead of pressing her hand into his again, this time she nodded. Malcolm pressed his lips into a thin smile and stood up, brushing a hand over her head like he would to a child and made his way over to the door.

She could’ve said many things. Give my thanks to whoever brought me here, or How did I end up like this? or Do you think Will would believe I’m doing right by him if I explained why I don’t want him to know, but, in the end, she said nothing.

Malcolm smiled at her once more, as if trying to let her know all would be alright – one way or another.

“Well then, Alyss,” he said, looking over his shoulder before closing the door. “You best get some rest. It’ll help you heal, and I really want to send that letter soon.”

He didn’t see her smile again – but she did, and as small and mindless as it was, it must’ve been the first truly conscious one over the fortnight.

 


 

She was determined.

She was determined.

Not once in her life had she tried this hard to achieve something – and not once in her life had she felt so despicable about it being kept just out of her reach as she writhed and squirmed and swore up and down she’d get it, take it and own it. Not once had she been so devoted to something, so loyal to her cause and so painful of a realist. But, to be fair – not once had she had such a cause to be fighting for.

Slowly, her anxiety and her self-pity turned into frustration. Then, into anger. Not at herself, not at Malcolm or anyone who’d been kind to her so far, but at the situation she was stuck in and at the fire that tried to bite off the string of her life. She would remember more and more about herself and who she was, what she cared about, and she felt a deep disgust for whoever started the fire back at the inn. Yes, she told Malcolm triumphantly in her steadily improving voice, I can recall it was an inn. And I remember why I went there.

And, she thought once he’d left with a nod and a hopeful glint in his eye and she fell back onto the pillows, nothing short of exhausted, if I had to make the choice, I would indeed do the exact same thing again.

But she couldn’t direct her attention to it. Her focus was all on herself.

She was not going to let some pitiful flame end her life just like that. She’d seen tamed fire; in fireplaces and on torches and campfires, and she could bring her hand over a candle and have it leave not even a scratch on her palm. It bent to man; it’d bend to her in her own body.

Between the frequent wrappings of her burns and the short talks she had with Malcolm and Helena, who turned out to be a rather pleasant figure after all, she’d always tire senselessly, but she couldn’t let it win. She’d never let it win.

In the corners of her mind, Alyss knew why it was so important – she dies, she figured, and she never talks to Will and Pauline, Horace and Evanlyn, George and Jenny and Halt again. And she missed them terribly, so terribly that she would simply refuse death once it came to her, if it ever did.

Two more weeks at Norgate, and Alyss sat upright.

It hurt like hell, for sure, but she was sitting, certainly. After seeing it, Helena had gotten Malcolm and the two women had smiled at each other as Malcolm’s eyes went wide, the wrinkles in his face smoothing out. He then turned on his heel and was out the door in a second – presumably to draw those conclusions he promised. At least Alyss hoped so. She didn’t have much to live on now other than hope and courage, as old and worn as it sounded.

Before leaving, Helena leaned to her ear and told her, You’re looking rather good. I don’t want to say anything definitive, but you’re certainly not looking too bad.

They’d both given a chuckle at that. After Helena went away as well, something finally settled within Alyss.

Nothing definitive, rang in her mind. But you’re certainly not looking too bad, she thought, and slid down onto the pillows. Her back gave her hell, what with the burns and whatnot, but she was smiling once more – and took a moment to just close her eyes and think of what she’d do if she lived through this.

She hadn’t allowed herself to think about it before simply because she didn’t want to break her own heart – or, well, break it any more than it was already broken. Now, though, timidly, cautiously, it was beginning to mend itself back together, and her thoughts loomed over Redmont – over home.

It was around that time that Evie poked her head in through the door. Alyss looked up at the girl she remembered first meeting when the child snuck in at odd hours of the morning to ask her about something trivial. She vaguely recalled it being something about her service, but it escaped her now. It was one of her first conversations that didn’t include Malcolm constantly by her side – or Helena, to be frank, as she seemed equally concerned with Alyss’s wellbeing.

She awoke one morning to the two comparing notes by her bed, and, once Malcolm had left for something, Alyss mustered up enough strength to ask if Helena didn’t think documenting her like a hurt animal didn’t seem a little cruel. The woman answered easily and with confidence even Alyss’s foggy mind had to admire – “Well,” she’d said, “if we don’t write down what we see, eventually someone’s gonna come to our homes with the exact same problem an earlier patient had, and we’ll be grabbing around in the dark instead of just helping the poor soul.” Alyss didn’t have any arguments to offer her.

Little Evie seemed to have taken after her mother. She had no rules except her own, and, after that late conversation, she’d come by often – she seemed genuinely fascinated with her instead of concerned, and Alyss guessed that would be the childish lack of empathy at play.

Not that Evie was unfeeling or cold; she simply didn’t understand some things.

Such as, when she snuck in those three weeks since her arrival, already having her hair done in a similar way as most of the girls at Malcolm seemed to prefer it, Alyss must’ve looked surprised to her. She chuckled lightly and hopped on top of a stool Malcolm usually used – it was more than comfortable to her, despite him being that much older.

“Did your mom allow you to come, Evie?” she asked. She was still in disbelief at how quickly her voice was recovering, only left with some unnoticeable lisp because of the burnt corner of her mouth, and her tone had retained some raspiness, but other than that she was more than fine.

“I’ve got you a secret,” Evie told her, looking incredibly proud of herself.

“Oh, do you?” Alyss asked, not particularly enamored, but Evie’s next words made her heart jolt in her chest.

“Malcolm is writing a letter,” she said in a sing-song tone, and Alyss leaned forward suddenly, a sliver of hope she tried to extinguish in her chest before it could disappoint her. “I saw him hunched over it on the table.”

“What—What kind of letter?” Alyss asked with heartfelt desperation, and Evie chuckled.

“I dunno! He said it’s for your husband, though. Said he’s bringing him here.”

Alyss’s entire world was spinning. No, she told herself – don’t hope just yet. Evie might just be mistaken. Evie might be very wrong.

“Evie, could you—Could you get me Malcolm, please?” Alyss asked, and Evie pulled her lip.

“You might be a Courier, I’m not – I don’t even like carrying boring messages.”

Alyss sighed.

“Fine. Let’s make it a deal, then.” Evie quirked up at the notion. “I’ll talk your mom into not putting you to bed along with the other kids, okay?”

“Okay!” Evie’s eyes lit up and she scuttled out immediately. Alyss smiled to herself – Evie had been complaining about early bed time. Alyss supposed she’d never lose a Diplomat’s ability to listen, and she was all the more glad for it. She wasn’t particularly inclined to talk Helena into anything, especially considering she’d told her how Evie didn’t sleep much in the cart they apparently brought Alyss to Norgate with. She was still in awe over it; didn’t even have the strength to thank Xander before he left. Actually, she doubted she was even fully conscious once before he left.

Promises were promises, though, and if Will really was coming, which meant she’d be alright, she’d be alright, then damn her to hell if she wouldn’t at least try to repay Evie the favour.

It only took Malcolm a few minutes to emerge with a cautious little smile on his face. There was a sparkle in his eye and Alyss almost dared to allow herself hope.

“Malcolm,” she said. Her voice had come back to her since the last time she greeted him so. “I don’t want to pry, but have you got any developments to fill me in on?”

Malcolm watched her for a moment before giving her the subtlest exasperated eye roll she’d ever seen – and she spent the better part of her life watching Pauline work.

“Evie told you, didn’t she.” It wasn’t much for a question.

“Not without being granted leverage.”

 Malcolm gave a low whistle. “Smart kid.”

“And yet?” she asked him. He sat down by her bed, propping his head on his elbow, and gave it a moment. “We had an agreement – you’d let him know I was here if you thought I was going to be alright.”

“Alyss, I can’t tell you with no doubt that you’ll be alright,” he cut her off, and Alyss’s heart dropped for a moment before he sighed deeply and continued: “But I can tell you that after you’ve made this much progress in such a short amount of time, I’m convinced your life isn’t in immediate danger. So while I’m not sure exactly how alright you will be once Will gets here, you certainly will be alive.”

Alyss didn’t know what the feeling that took over her was called, and if someone asked her, she wouldn’t have been able to describe it. It was maddening; it was so overwhelming and so gentle at the same time, like a feather lightly brushing over her skin, over the wounds that would hardly stop aching  any time soon, but it was so soft, so pleasantly warm. Her head spun, and she had to lean back as to not fall to the side. Lightheaded, she figured, she was lightheaded. Because of joy.

Because she’d get to see Will again, see the trust and the love in his eyes when he looked at her. And Pauline – she’d get to sit with her again and compete in who could name more historical Barons (it was Pauline, but Alyss has been trying to best her for well-over twenty years and she was going to get there any one of these days). She thought she could get used to warmth again if it all was as lovely as this. She could walk with Jenny, laugh before they met Horace and George, before the five of them sat down together as wardmates and the oldest of friends. She’d see Cassandra’s cold composure in her court fade into eager enthusiasm reserved for those she loved. She’d snicker to Halt about how Will never outgrew his morbid curiosity, and Halt would sigh and tell her, always, Shut him up after his third question, because there’s no stopping him after the fourth one.

Before she could even give it any more thought, her healthy hand rose instinctively to wipe off the tear on her cheek. Malcolm watched her as if he wasn’t quite sure what to do or what to tell her. Alyss didn’t need to be told anything. She leaned forward – albeit with great effort and anguish – took his hands, and bowed her head to them.

“Thank you,” she said. The salty drop fell from her nose onto the blanket, then another.  “Thank you. For—telling me this. And for taking care of me. Thank you.”

Now Malcolm really looked awkward, frozen still – she figured he didn’t get many patients nowadays, and those he did weren’t exactly extremely thankful afterwards.

“Have you sent it yet?” she asked, and he helped her back into her previous position, back resting against the pillows and the wall. Malcolm gave a chuckle.

“No, the moment I went to, a feral fox jumped on me, armed to the teeth with your sworn aforementioned leverage,” he complained, and she gave an apologetic shrug. Gods, it hurt. She might not die, but damn if everything wasn’t going to hurt.

“Can I read it?” she asked again, cocking her head to the side. Malcolm snorted.

“How old are you, Lady Alyss?”

She went a little red. Or, well, redder. “Impolite to ask a person their age.”

Malcolm nodded toward the door. “Left it on the table, pray to whatever gods you prefer none of the little ones decided to make a paper steed out of it.” When she gave a polite chuckle, he added, “More or less, I just told him to come because there’s something he will want to see, and to come alone and as fast as he can.”

“Oh?” She furrowed her brows, confused. “Just that?”

“I didn’t tell him directly you were here, no.”

“I should’ve written the letter, then,” Alyss muttered, looking down at her bandaged hand. Her mood had gone a little duller. “He would’ve known. Gods know if he’ll even understand why you’re beckoning him over.”

“He’ll come eventually,” Malcolm reassured her, following her glance. “And, Alyss, you can’t tell me you could’ve written a note, much less a letter right now. I doubt you can hold a pen, if you don’t mind me saying.”

“Then you should’ve at least told him that I’m here.” She had begun fidgeting at some point – Malcolm saw it as a definitive win though, telling her it meant some of her natural movement was resurfacing. She looked up at him with a woeful face. For the first time in a long while, she felt like she could start crying and her tears wouldn’t evaporate into the air. “I don’t want him to fear for me. I don’t want him to fear at all.”

Malcolm gently touched her shoulder, nodding with compassion.

“I know, I know that,” he promised her. She swallowed and settled down, meeting his clever eye. “But neither Helena nor Xander were able to tell me how the fire in the inn came to be. You have to understand: if the message falls into the wrong hands, and the fire was deliberate, whoever started it will know where you are. And, well, you understand why I can’t allow that.” He glanced to the side, and Alyss followed – her blinds had been pulled a little more open the past few days, and there was already much more natural light in the room. Outside, she could hear people – anyone from a child to people older than her, and of course she understood.

“I see,” she said, barely audible. As much as he liked Will, his prolonged anxiety was the option Malcolm would pick over the off chance that someone bad finds out where they’re residing. And, well, logically, it was the better choice. Alyss still didn’t like it, but part of being a good Diplomat was knowing when someone else was right – and accepting it.

“Besides,” Malcolm said, a little smile on his face, “I’m sure Will would prefer being a little miffed for a bit over us revealing to people who might want you dead exactly where to find you.”

“I know,” she sighed. She looked down and took a little breath, thinking about what she wanted to ask him.

There were many things, really. Will was the first, of course – but she wanted to know more. More about herself, too.

“Malcolm,” she started carefully, and he hummed an inquiry. “Just—I know it’s been just a little while, but… How am I doing? In general. What’s life going to be like, if I’ve gotten it back?”

“You,” Malcolm said, and paused to think. “You have done great so far. But I can’t tell you that your life is just going to come back to how it was just like that.”

“But—Walking, running, taking care of myself, all that?” She raised her eyebrows, infinitely relieved when he nodded almost immediately.

“Yes, I believe you’ll be able to do so quite soon if you start working on it,” he reassured her. “Walking and dressing yourself and eating by yourself, at least. Running will take far longer, but outside of discomfort every once in a while, in time, the drawbacks should fade significantly.”

“Am I looking at any limitations that will prevent me from being able to do my job right?” she asked. Her heart was slowly climbing up into her throat. Surely there were more important things than her work, but the Diplomatic Service were her second family; she couldn’t bear the thought of losing them, even for a little while.

Malcolm pressed his lips into a thin line and scratched at his shoulder in thought.

“Firstly, I’m not a Diplomat and I don’t know much of what your job entails, but…” He hesitated, and, with Alyss’s nod, continued, “None of your limbs suffered… Well, catastrophical damage, which is very very lucky for you – I didn’t need to cut anything off and your extremities didn’t crumble into ashes, but you shouldn’t expect to be up and running around with no consequence in a fortnight.”

“No, no. I understand.” She nodded, swallowing down the lump in her throat. “But eventually, I will be able to… Say, do physical sparring?”

Malcolm clicked his tongue.

“I wouldn’t encourage you to start in the near future,” he said before adding – with great hesitance, she noticed – “But, like you said, eventually… That’s a possibility. You’ll have to begin exercise soon if you want to reach the level of capability you had previously, though.”

“I see. I will.” A smile stretched over her face as a sudden lightness took to her chest. Her thoughts rushed over to Pauline once more – she had promised to devote her potential to diplomacy those two decades ago, and she was not going to drop her promise now, either. It reminded her of something, though. “And, Malcolm, about the, the bandages…”

She meant to ask about the ones on her lower body, but Malcolm looked up to her head instead, looking nearly mournful.

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about your eye,” he said quietly. She tensed a little. Her eye was shrouded in darkness for as long as she’d been there. The bandages must’ve been thick as she couldn’t see anything at all. She couldn’t feel the side of her face, either, except for constant twinges of ache.

“What about it?” she asked, and her worry must’ve gotten through to him.

“I’m sure you’ve noticed you can’t see out of it.”

“No, I—“ She blinked, and reached up – then, to her surprise, she realized there were no bandages over her eye. A numbing pit suddenly opened in her stomach. “Wait, is my eye…”

Her voice broke. Malcolm bowed his head in apology.

“I’m sorry, Alyss.” His voice was even quieter than before, and Alyss wanted to shake her head, get confirmation that this was wrong, but he just kept looking down. “Your eye is—I’m afraid there’s nothing that can be done about that.”

“But, but how will I—“ she trailed off again, only now fully realizing the consequence. “I—I actually lost my eye?”

“Yes. You’re blind in one.” At least he wasn’t sugar-coating, wasn’t trying to make her feel better. He was just telling the truth, not that it devastated Alyss any less. “It was destroyed, physically, like the burnt side of your face. But your other eye was not affected, luckily – you shouldn’t have any problems with it any time soon.”

Oh, but she had enough problems with this already, she thought, and tears welled up in her eyes– her eye, she corrected herself, already getting angry at herself for seemingly no reason. This was knife throwing gone; and so many times had the skill saved her life. This was accuracy and precision and possibly some parts of spying gone. This was all the time she spent with Will once he’d jokingly let her draw the bow he used for his apprenticeship – gone.

But Alyss was not one to wallow in self-pity, especially considering she’d just gotten confirmation that she’d live. She was no Ranger, so the inability to aim accurately would not disqualify her from the Service, and the thought made her feel the tiniest bit better.

“You did what you could,” she said, and her voice quivered only slightly. “And I can’t thank you enough for that.”

He shushed her, standing up, letting her take her time, be alone for a bit. “Don’t let this make you forget about what’s waiting for you.”

She nodded to him, truly grateful, and then he was gone.

Alyss let out a breath. She took a moment to just think about everything – about the fact that she was alive and most likely was going to stay that way for quite a while, now. About the fact that Will was coming. About the fact that, albeit she lost an eye, she could still see out the other one, and about the fact that she was okay. Mostly about her being okay. She could afford to be selfish for a little, she thought. She deserved it. She did.

It would take her a while to get used to it again. Being able to feel the earth beneath her and know she’s not going under anytime soon. She was sure it’d be a great feeling once she finally did.

The next few days would be filled with quiet joy. The one that shone through Alyss’s face, the one only the very experienced could sense, but when they did, it’d infect them. There’d be grief on her part, yes – but Alyss was used to grief. Her own peril wasn’t quite the worst feeling she’d ever experienced, although she’d never felt that much pain before. Still, there had been times she’d heard about the death or a crippling injury of one of her comrades, and she couldn’t quite get a grasp on herself. Her own injury was something close and personal, and she had an understanding of it that nobody else quite could have; it was why, she supposed, the wounded would sometimes comfort their caretakers and not the other way around.

She’d seen people die; she’d seen her own friends die. Being a Courier was not widely accepted to be the riskiest job of all. Some aspects could give a shiver or two even to the Ranger Corps, though – and they had become almost sister-like organisations, although the latter was notorious for putting its members in mind-boggling danger for the littlest of reasons.

And yet there were only names of dead Diplomats out there. Some were young: Alyss recalled having aided a pair of apprentice twins with mischief in their eyes in Gallican writing – only to hear after a few months that one of them, in ever-flowing tears, had dragged her sister’s body back to Redmont after their first mission post-graduation. She vaguely remembered that the living sister asked for another mission far too soon, on a seemingly harmless whim, but Pauline, perceptive as ever Pauline didn’t allow it. And thank the gods: Alyss doubted that, if she’d left, she would’ve returned.

She tried to think about something else, but then, there were also the older Diplomats that perished in the line of fire. They hurt just as much as the younglings, especially if they had students of their own. One of them was a particularly better-known case; once a traitorous Baron hired assassins on his own Head Courier. The Diplomat could tell something was up and sent his apprentice to Pauline for ‘practice’ – the very next day, they put him down into the earth. Alyss herself was a fully-fledged wreath bearer at that point, and as Pauline scribbled letters day and night to Duncan and Crowley alike, demanding for the Baron to be judged in the King’s court, it was up to Alyss to hold the poor boy in her arms and whisper useless comforts into his ear following his mentor’s senseless murder.

What would Pauline think if she died, Alyss wondered briefly; not that she needed to. Unbeknownst to her, Pauline would break. Never truly mend herself together again, and nothing could help it. Alyss shook her head, perishing the thought – she was alive. Who cares what would’ve happened if things would have been different? They weren’t.

Once she remembered the few deceased she’d taken part in carrying, the thoughts never really stopped coming. She remembered more of them – those that barely made it out, too, and those who came out alive, but never the same again. She supposed she was not the same either, but what had truly happened to her?

She was granted the answer like a lightning strike one cloudy day, once she’d been well-acquainted with the fact that she wasn’t going to die. Her windows were open – sometimes she’d ask someone to carry her to them so she could watch what was going on outside. Malcolm didn’t quite approve of her actually going outside the room – though she had been there a few times, striking a rather nice deal with Trobar – she tells him of her stories she’d gathered in her adventures, and he brings her out to sit on the stairs briefly. He was quite a funny man, when one could reach him.

All of it had distracted her from her new surfacing anxiety – couldn’t ever really relax, could she?

Malcolm had taken off some of her bandages, and once she’d checked herself out in a window or a puddle she could lean over outside, she had been… Well, shaken was an understatement.

She was not used to seeing herself so different. Her skin was, of course, horrific to look at, she knew that much by simply looking down. It did feel disgusting at first. But, over time, she slowly stopped hoping to see the even, soft skin down under, getting used to the patches of red that would sicken her before, and almost drawing strength from it – some sort of pride. If this didn’t kill me, she told herself firmly, then little else will.

She was taken by surprise when she first saw her face, though. One side was completely covered in blotches of orange and brown, creating the illusion of melting skin, even. With caution, Helena had informed her that part of her head would most likely never grow hair again, and she could forget about the eyebrow above her blind eye. Alyss had snorted, trying not to let this affect her, and put her hand over whatever short-cut hair she had left on the healthier side of her head. As long as I’ve got one, I’m not completely in the dark, she joked, and Helena forced a chuckle, still unsure whether she was talking about the eyebrow, the eye, or her head.

As hard as she tried not to let it affect her, Alyss was not at peace with it just yet. Sometimes she would get so upset she’d reach to tear at her skin, stopping herself at the last moment, reminding herself she’d only ruin it more. Sometimes she was so angry over her eye she felt like she could’ve pricked out the other one just to feel one way instead of halfway there, incomplete, damaged somehow. She hated the feeling.

She’d settle with it, she knew – she’d learn to live with it, and there was no shame in mourning some things for a while. In the meantime, at least there were distractions – thank the gods.

Evie, whose mother had been talking of leaving the past few days, having left their house with little to no care, had somehow managed to half-crawl through the window, a meter or so above ground.

“Close your windows!” she told Alyss. “It’ll rain in a minute, Mama said so!”

Alyss gave her a graceful smile. Evie simply couldn’t understand that she couldn’t walk, couldn’t even stand – or support herself at all, to be frank. Sitting upright had been taking less and less effort, though. She’d start being able to do more soon, Malcolm had told her, and she was eagerly awaiting the cue of her body.

“So it will,” Alyss agreed, glancing at the darkening sky. “Leave them, though. I rather like the sound of rain.”

“That’s weird,” Evie announced boldly, and Alyss couldn’t stifle a chuckle. “You’re weird! Rain’s so loud, and so annoying.”

“Maybe,” Alyss nodded again, beckoning her in. “Come here, then, so it doesn’t creep up on you, Evie.”

The girl muttered something, looked around, and crawled in through the window fully, rolling off the windowsill. She didn’t close the windows, though, just like Alyss had asked. She came to sit on Alyss’s bed, on the blanket by her legs.

“Mama says we ought to go home soon,” she said with a note of childish frustration in her voice. “I don’t really want to go. I like it here.”

“You wanted to travel, yes?”

“Uh-huh. It’s nice. I’ve traveled now.” She put out her chest, full of pride. Alyss nodded seriously.

“Quite the traveler indeed, you are.” She gave her an affirming nod. “A true adventurer.”

“Uh-huh. I know,” Evie repeated, looking up to her. Slowly, a smile spread over her face. Alyss squinted.

“Is something the matter?”

“We’re matching,” she said, fleeting joy in her voice. Alyss raised her head with a hum of inquiry, and the girl tapped a finger on her lower lip, right across the wide tear in the skin. It wasn’t that noticeable, not really. “I was licking a knife off the table and tripped. My mum got me, but it was already there.”

Despite her sinking heart, Alyss smiled at her naivety – how could one compare the little patch of lighter skin to the burns that spanned across her entire body? Her own body felt foreign at first. Evie must’ve cried at the cut – Alyss couldn’t. She felt like, if she began, she wouldn’t stop for a long time.

“It’s a very interesting story to tell,” Alyss told her. “You won’t need to think much to make a conversation out of it, will you?”

“I don’t need to think to make a conversation,” Evie claimed, drawing a chuckle out of her.

“That’s only an advantage,” she admitted, shrugging her shoulders. She leaned closer, then, remembering what she’d been thinking of. “My husband has one just like yours.”

“What?”

“He has a scar across his lip.” She’d always been patient.

“No, I mean—“ Evie pulled a face. “You really do have a husband after all?”

“Yes.” The little face twisted in confusion and then wide-eyed glee, and Alyss couldn’t help but think it indisputably adorable. “Why, is that hard to believe? He’s rather lovely.”

“No, no, it’s just that, eh...” Evie was visibly racking her brain. “Why wasn’t he with you in the red house? Why were you riding alone?”

Alyss’ smile grew wider. She liked how blunt kids were, and how simple-minded they could be. It drove Will insane, but, oh, he only claimed so for the show.

“I was going home to him after an adventure,” she said, and Evie lit up instantly. “I travel alone a lot. It’s for my work.”

“Does he travel alone too?” she asked.

“He does.”

“Have you ever travelled together?” She leaned forward in interest.

Alyss thought for a moment, recalling the first time she’d been in Norgate.

“...Sometimes.”

Evie nodded, and the happy face suddenly dimmed. “Oh... He must be so worried that you’re still not home!”

“I don’t doubt it.” Alyss flashed her teeth, but it was a little less genuine this time. “But we sent him a letter, so he knows where I am. He’ll come visit me soon.”

Her words brought an uncomfortable chill to her chest. Will had been alone for weeks with no news of her, not to mention Pauline, and she was so concerned with herself she couldn’t send them a message earlier?

No, she told herself, I promised I wouldn’t berate myself for it. Better to live or to die than to be stuck inbetween and be slipping toward the latter as one’s loved ones gathered around them.

“I hope I get to meet him.” Evie was shining like the sun again. “Is he like me?”

Alyss bit back a snort. Will was absolutely not like her. “A little bit.”

“Where’d he get the scar?”

Slowly, Alyss began to understand Halt. She remembered how once Will had brought in one of his more vague reports, crashed down next to his teacher and asked him fifteen questions in a row – Alyss counted, so did Pauline, most likely. It took a while until Will noticed that Halt was all the while returning Pauline’s glance with an absolutely miserable one of his own. Upon the realization, Will burst into laughter, and Halt may or may have not muttered something about children always staying children.

And Evie was still waiting for her answer with morbid curiosity written out all over her forehead, not unlike Will.

“Err...” It had been an unfortunate little accident, one that Will laughed off almost immediately, and one that Alyss was lucky – or unlucky, depending on how one looked at it – to see. They’d gotten cornered by bandits, Will played bait while Alyss picked them off with nothing other than a hairpin (she was still proud of it), and, as he struggled to escape, the man holding him slashed his face, leaving nothing but a bit of a bloody lip that stayed a little crooked after healing. In Alyss’ honest opinion, as much as it must’ve stung, it was a cute little thing, but she couldn’t just tell that to a child. “He was... Also eating off a knife.”

Five years, she thought to herself, five years of the highest diplomatic training and that’s the best she could come up with?

But Evie was now brighter than all the stars Alyss had ever seen combined, despite the slowly gathering stormclouds outside.

“I told Mama I wasn’t the only one who did it!” she exclaimed. “She’s a huge liar when she wants to be, my mom.”

“She merely doesn’t want you to get hurt,” Alyss told her sweetly, reaching out to ruffle her hair. The ease of her movement surprised her. “Don’t hold it against her.”

“Okay.” Evie cocked her head to the side, unsure if she understood – and rolled out of the bed. “Well, I’m going. Get well!”

“Be well,” Alyss wished, and followed her with her gaze until she left.

Except she didn’t. Instead, as if ashamed, she turned around right before closing the door, and chirped to Alyss:

“Um, yes, well—Mama told me to tell you something.”

“Yeah?” Alyss nodded in encouragement.

“I, um, thank you,” Evie said, fidgeting with her hands. “For the, uh… For the, for my life. For saving my life. In the red house.”

“Oh, I—“ Alyss gave another chuckle, grinning at her. “That’s alright. I’m glad you’re okay, my friend.”

Evie went bright red at her title as Alyss’s friend, mouthed something incomprehensible and shut the door as fast as she could, accidentally slamming it in the process. Alyss leaned back, laughing to herself – but something felt out of place.

She didn’t remember how she got into the inn before, only that she found Evie and tossed her out the window. Now, though, something was surfacing. She hummed to herself as she tried to recall what she was so miffed over –

And then came the lightning strike.

Alyss parted her lips, giving herself one second to take a breath before erupting into shouting.

“Malcolm!” she called, throwing the blanket off and climbing out of the bed. She’d completely forgotten about her legs, driven only to bring good news to Malcolm, having figured out her own story in those few crucial minutes, finding those few vital details that would steer the situation toward the better.

Unfortunately, forgetting about her legs was her mistake, and, albeit she heard Malcolm shuffling about outside the door, rushing to see her, she was already standing – not for long, though.

As soon as she let go of the corner of the bed, her knees buckled, and she fell down onto the ground. The impact wasn’t hard, but it did send a sharp sting shooting all the way up to her chest. Her yelp of pain must’ve alerted someone else, because she heard other people outside muttering nervously.

Only then did she realize how physically weak the fire had made her: once she tried to support herself with her arms, just to sit up, they were shaking. She rested her head against the side of the bed, breathing heavily until Malcolm barged in, nearly taking the door down with him in his haste.

“Alyss Mainwaring, you are a reckless fool and I see why someone like Will Treaty was made for you,” were the first hurried words to come out of his mouth, and they made even her chuckle through the ache. He rushed to hoist her up and put her back into bed, and ran back out to get a salve once more. Alyss felt a little stupid – she hadn’t needed the salve for a while now, but her knees and elbows did hurt like hell after the fall, not to mention the rest of her. Everywhere she’d touched the ground she felt unpleasant friction, tingling.

Nevertheless, when he did come back, she wasted no time in getting his attention as he was patching her up.

“I remember now,” she told him, staring right through his eye. “The fire didn’t start when I was in there – I came in when everything was already burning. I wanted to check for survivors, didn’t plan ahead. Nobody would’ve known I’d be there.”

 Malcolm froze in the middle of knot-tying.

“So there was no plot,” he said, some great emotion rising in his voice – she just couldn’t tell whether it was enthusiasm or worry. “At least not towards you.”

“No, no.” She gave a pained smile as he finished tying the bandage on her shoulder. “That makes things better.”

“Indeed.”

She stopped him before he left by reaching out to take him gently by the wrist, and:

“I still can’t write letters,” she told him, and he nodded with caution, urging her to go on. “But—Is it too much to ask that you write another one for me? As soon as you can. Since we know there are no wrong hands for it to reach, I want to tell my husband and my teacher that I’m here. Or at least my teacher, if Will’s already left. That way she can let him know where I am if he’s gone somewhere else, too.”

Malcolm regarded hers for a moment.

“If you can’t do it right now—“

“I’ll ask one of my friends to,” Malcolm said, and she recognized the fleeting note of respect in his voice. “It’s just so strange to think you were so close to getting your life smoked out of your body mere weeks ago. You’re extraordinary, Lady Alyss, I don’t think people tell you that enough.”

“It’s the diplomatic common sense,” she said jokingly, and he snorted.

“You know, if you just make yourself laugh more, you’ll heal faster, too.” Before leaving, he gave her another smile. “I’m not superstitious, you should be sure of it by now, but laughter is, hm, something else altogether. Uncanny’s what it is. Don’t deprive yourself of it.”

 A flashing grin from her, and she was alone again, this time oddly at peace. She pressed her lips together and relaxed, falling into a sort of dream-like state. She wasn’t uncreative, good Alyss, but she preferred to base her fantasies on reality, on her current thoughts and the near future.

Will and Redmont came back to her in a moment. She wondered if she’d be able to leave once Will gets here, or if she’ll have to stay – stay, most likely, she decided. She could barely walk, she couldn’t imagine sitting on a horse just yet. Even if they walked, which was a rather stupid idea to begin with, she’d get too tired too quickly.

 She was hoping she wouldn’t be too much of a drag once her husband actually got there. And if she couldn’t manage it by herself, someone was bound to help her eventually. Malcolm harboured kind people, after all.

 


 

“His name is Sigesar,” Malcolm told her, gesturing at the boy he’d gently ushered into the room she resided in, sitting with her legs off the bed. Two unusually long canes were pressed against his armpits, the tops of which were longer than normal. Alyss cocked her head at it, but didn’t ask. Otherwise, the boy was tall and lanky, but that still put him half a head below Alyss. Besides, he looked to be no more than fifteen and had a charming smile on his face that faded slightly once Malcolm spoke.

“Sig,” he corrected with a huff. “My name is Sig.”

Alyss nodded to him, unsure whether she was supposed to lean over and give him her hand – would’ve been difficult considering the two canes under the boy’s arms – he seemed to notice her dilemma and let out a hearty laugh - his voice sounded average in volume, but the laughter just about floored Alyss’s eardrums. He walked on over, sat down on her bed, rested his canes against the headboard and stuck out his hand to take hers.

“Again – I’m Sig,” he said, and, once she did give him her hand, he jokingly raised it to his lips. She drew it back before he could touch it, and he seemed to want to laugh again, and only hesitated because of her visible flinch backward. A wide smile stayed on his face, though. He bowed his head. “May I hear yours, fair maiden?”

Alyss chuckled. “Neither much of a maiden nor quite fair anymore,” she muttered under her breath before speaking up: “You may call me Alyss, Sig. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“I see. I’d stand to greet you, but I suppose you see why I’d rather not,” he said, and Malcolm sighed by the door.

“Tell me when you tire of his jokes and I’ll take him out for a walk,” he told Alyss and promptly made himself scarce, shutting the door on his way out.

She blinked at his sudden disappearance, and Sig just watched the door for a moment before shrugging and turning back to her, smiling again.

“Well, good that he’s gone,” he noted with a smug look on his face. “Now I can make as many jokes as I want, and you won’t snitch on me, yes?”

“Keeping secrets is my job,” Alyss agreed. “But why—“

“Oh! You’re a, what do they call them, Courier?”

“Yes,” she answered impatiently. “But, Sig, I have a question—“

“Sorry, one last of mine – what on earth happened to you?” He watched her with a fascinated face, as if he hadn’t just asked a question that made her bones feel cold. She pressed her lips together. “And... should I address you as ‘Lady’?”

“Why’d he bring you here, Sig, really?” Alyss asked, unable to hide the note of bitterness in her voice. “Aren’t there any more fun things to do than sit with a bedridden weakling?”

Sig finally seemed to look at her without the spark of humour in his eye. For a boy, she thought, he seemed rather quick-witted, but not unkind. Reminded her of the way Will was many years ago.

“Well, I can tell you’re no weakling, since Malcolm tells me you got here all the way from the south of Araluen like this,” he said firmly, pointing a finger at her chest, and the light shine returned to his face. “And I’m here to make sure we rid you of the ‘bedridden’ part!”

Alyss furrowed her brows, taken by surprise. “Sorry?”

His smile grew wider. “I’m here to get you back on your feet, Alyss.”

She leaned back against the pillow, tilting her head. Silence settled for a moment before Sig figured she still hadn’t understood.

“Although not severely damaged, your legs were burnt,” he said, almost apologetic. “It’s no surprise you fell when you first tried to walk. And Malcolm asked me to help you so that doesn’t happen again.”

“I, I understand that,” Alyss nodded, unsure how to go about this. “I just... I, um. How will you—“

“Help you when I myself am like this?” he asked, and his smile shrank a little bit. “That’s a fair question, don’t worry about asking. Well, Malcolm himself might be all smart and mighty, and so is that lady friend of his – Helena? – that brought you here, but they have no problems walking. I’d say they can run with no trouble. Me, on the other hand, I’d never truly started running, and I stopped being able to walk on my own right about a few years ago.” He shrugged. “It’s been getting worse. I just hope the canes help so I’m not confined to a bed for the rest of my life.”

Alyss felt a twinge of sorrow in her chest. At least she’d get better. “I’m sorry.”

Sig paid her no mind though, and his bleak expression shifted back into charming enthusiasm.

“Don’t be,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do about it. So, because of my arms and legs, Malcolm thought I’d be the best fit; you know, since I ‘get it’ or something. I’m not denying it, but, you know.”

“I know.” She nods. “You don’t have to assist me.”

“Oh, please.” He reached for his canes, unceremoniously shoving them back under his arms and lifting himself off her bed. “You seem like a fine lady. I’d like to see you up and running, literally, as soon as possible.”

She chuckled lamely. “That’s very kind of you.”

“Yeah, totally. I’m very kind, actually.” He winked at her. “The kindest. Now let’s go.”

Alyss blinked, looking down at her legs. “Um, I—I’m not sure I can stand.”

“Yes, I know!” He urged her on. “It’s because you’ve been in bed for almost a month. You’re gonna have to actually try and stand up if you want to be able to again.”

Being bossed around by a kid wasn’t her cup of tea most of the time, but Sig was playful about it, lenient, smiling and offering her his hand. A cane fell to  the floor, and she figured he’d done that on purpose to make her laugh – and it succeeded, while he could easily still stand leaning on the cane that was left, hand still in the air in front of Alyss. Thinking it impolite to ignore, she took it and slowly eased herself up.

It was not a stroll through a neat forest path. In fact, it was no stroll at all, considering she was just standing in place, and even that barely; she had to hold on to Sig for balance, who was slowly going through all the colours of the rainbow in an effort to keep her upright.

“Bit heavy, aren’t you,” he muttered. Alyss chuckled at that.

“Well, I am older.” She tried to shrug, but only ended up pulling one shoulder up awkwardly. “And taller.”

“Yeah, I should’ve, um.” He gave a low groan. “...Considered that.”

“Would’ve been fantastic.”

“Well, let’s not dwell on it,” he decided. “You’re gonna walk today. Malcolm told me your legs were weak, but not impossible to fix.”

“Would’ve also been fantastic if you had considered that sometimes Malcolm,” she exhaled away from him, keeping herself up and feeling how she was slowly dragging him down, “isn’t right.”

“Okay. Okay, sit down.” Sig lowered her back down and leaned up, going to pick up his cane. “I see your problem. Instead of trying to stand, you collapsed on me.”

“You are better than the floor.” Alyss shrugged.

Sig laughed heartily. She pressed her lips together at the noise, and he gave an apologetic shrug. “See, Alyss, you... I won’t let you just fall. But you gotta try and stand on your own. Let’s try again, okay?”

So they did.

It was better this time; Alyss only held onto his arm, and he told her to keep her feet wide apart to line up with her shoulders above, and she did – falling backwards. He pulled her back up and she did it again, and it was not a pleasant activity at all.

But, by later evening, she was standing.

Sig was red in the face, tired from standing all the time – she’d told him multiple times they should take a break, but he kept insisting. So she tried even harder, and, finally, kept herself up for approximately two and a half deep breaths before leaning back on him.

Her eyes were stars.

“I stood,” she sang to him. He seemed amused.

“Right,” he said, dropping her back onto the bed. “You did. And who knows? You might walk tomorrow. I hope you don’t mind if I don’t stay the night, fair maiden?”

He’d taken to calling her that as a joke, and she’d taken to slowly accepting it. He was a mischievous bastard, the boy, but loveable. As the best were.

“Please do get some rest,” she told him, and he smiled.

“Not too much, hopefully.” He bowed his head to her and slowly made his way over to the doorstep. “We want you to be able to walk up to your husband once he gets here, yeah?”

She cocked her head to the side, mildly annoyed. “Do all you people know about Will and me?”

He shrugged, opening the door. “Most of us, yeah. It’s Will Treaty, for god’s sake. And you’re Alyss Mainwaring. I couldn’t even imagine ever seeing you a few weeks ago. Alyss bloody Mainwaring.”

 “Less blood, more burns,” she muttered, and he stared her down in compassion.

“Hey, ‘s not the end of the world. Better burns than death.”

“S’pose so.”

“Yeah. Oh, and— Before I leave, one last thing,” he said. Alyss raised an eyebrow in an inquiry. “You never answered – should I call you ‘Lady Alyss’? You know, because you’re a Courier?”

Alyss was suddenly taken by laughter. “No,” she told him, trying to catch her breath. “No, please don’t.”

 


 

 The reason why Alyss managed to walk all the way to the kitchen in under three days was simple. In fact, the reason was also tiny, black-haired and had the biggest eyes, the darkness in them to rival Halt’s. The reason was also mute, yelled happily at Alyss in sign language once she’d figured out she could, and was named Ollie.

Even Sig was surprised at Alyss’s sudden progress. Would you look at that, he’d said once she’d made it all the way to the door in unsure, stuttering steps, my most promising protégée! She’d laughed at the description, but had secretly felt proud. There were burns on her legs and her muscles had become unused to the strain, and she still made it – and the very next day, she was sitting in the kitchen with Ollie.

She’d come to watch her make her way across the rooms, eye darting slowly from thing to thing to grab if her legs were to suddenly betray her. Alyss had noticed herself growing more careful as time passed and she only had the two of her legs to manage. She took more notice of her surroundings. So, she noticed Ollie far sooner than she would’ve had normally. The girl looked far younger than Sig but older than Evie and had taken to peeking at Alyss over the top of the table curiously.

“Hi,” Alyss said, and Ollie waved at her. Unsure why she was there, Alyss asked, “Want something to eat?”

Ollie shook her head, smiling widely.

“Anything I can...” Alyss blinked, smiling back politely. “...Help you with, maybe?”

Here was where, when Ollie shook her head, her hand rose in a very familiar gesture – she put a hand in a fist with her forefinger and thumb sticking out, and twisted it on her neck, lips pursed – I’m mute.

“Oh,” Alyss muttered, a little embarrassed. She knew sign language most Araluenians used, so she could answer Ollie, but she hadn’t had much practice in a while, and things were beginning to get rusty. She just shrugged. “I see. But you can hear me, right?”

Ollie pulled a face and repeated the gesture, adding one by brushing her pinkie on her cheek. I’m mute, not deaf.

“Is that why you’re with Malcolm?” she asked, and immediately regretted it. “I’m sorry, difficult question.”

Ollie waved dismissively and said, It’s no big deal. My parents and neighbours thought I was...

Alyss lost the last sign and squinted. “Sorry, the—the last one, I didn’t quite catch it.” When Ollie repeated it and it turned out Alyss just didn’t know it, she spelled it out.

They thought I was part f-a-e.

“Oh,” Alyss said, shifting in place. “That’s unfortunate. They had a lovely daughter.”

Ollie went a little red, gave her a thumbs up and urged her, Carry on.

After the encounter, Alyss found herself coming to the kitchen more and more often, hoping to find conversation. Ollie seemed fun; a creative little girl, she’d crawl up from under tables and come scare her from behind corners, laughing voicelessly as Alyss put on terrified face after terrified face. It was probably one of the more fun times for her, considering most of Malcolm’s kids were most likely already used to those antics of hers.

Alyss liked kids, though, as if that wasn’t clear by then, and Ollie was a good kid.

She also had the idea of taking up Alyss’s day by teaching her some more sign language, to which the Diplomat eagerly agreed – signs were tragically underappreciated, she figured, and if she had more knowledge upon coming back to Redmont, maybe she herself could give a lesson or two to the apprentices.

Been standing for a few days and already wants to learn more, Pauline would tell her – Pauline will tell her, undoubtedly. You are something else. Something wonderful, maybe, but also something very very foolish.

And yet, Alyss rather enjoyed being foolish if it meant she could simply sit with Ollie at the table or on the ground (which was, surprisingly, softer than the hard wooden chairs). Sometimes she’d pull a blanket along and they could both sit down, talking to each other entirely in signs. That is, until Alyss failed to recognize one and had to ask.

So went the hours, days, blurring and yet stretched out, every second in front of her, every second of waiting slowly passing by, agonizing. Every time the door opened, she reminded herself it wasn’t humanly possible for Will to have gotten here that fast, so eventually she just forced herself to stop glancing over her shoulder.

Such was the uncharacteristically sunny morning when she was just out of bed, learning common signs for fiefs. Ollie was rather knowledgeable – she would’ve made for a good Diplomat, the thought came to Alyss, if she wasn’t so interested in climbing on roofs and crawling on the floor, concealing herself. A good Ranger, then, she thought jokingly with no real intent of speculating about a child – a child who was helping her, no less.

When she heard the door creak, she was sitting in a chair, facing forward, having just named Anselm and tried not to think too hard about it.

You think that’s him? Ollie questioned with a sly smile on her face. You’ve been missing him terribly, I can tell. There were some signs she didn’t quite catch, but the meaning was clear.

“No, not yet, I don’t think so. It takes at least a week to get here from Redmont. It’s just Malcolm, I’m sure.” Alyss chuckled, shrugging. Her heart did jump at the footsteps, albeit she knew it was far too early.  She would’ve signed her words, but there were a few she didn’t know, and speaking of that - “Oh, and I—I forgot how to sign Redmont, can you do it again, please?”

 Ollie sighed, smiled at her leniently and raised her hands – and stilled in place, staring somewhere over her shoulder with her lips slightly parted.

“Is something—“ Alyss turned around. “—wrong?...”

Her heart dropped to her stomach and jumped up into her throat in a single moment. His face mirrored total surprise – hands in white fists, eyes wide and it was pretty obvious that if his jaw wasn’t attached to his head, it would’ve been on the ground.

“Oh, by the heavens,” Alyss whispered, so quiet she wasn’t sure anyone could hear her, but she couldn’t help it. Tears welled up in her eye as she could do nothing except open her arms in a greeting. “How I’ve missed you, love.”

Will stood on the doorstep, frozen.

 

 

Chapter Text

“A letter,” He told her, quietly, as she folded it open.

“I can see that,” she answered softly, skimming through the first lines. “From Malcolm again?”

“Yes.”

“I suppose we’ve no choice than to read it, now.”

Then, as soon as she comprehended what she’d read, she froze.

To the Ranger of Redmont;
As a follow-up to my last letter, I’d like to share news of the whereabouts of Diplomat Alyss Mainwaring; specifically, my home in Norgate. She is safe here and hopes that, if Ranger Treaty is still running his fief, it’ll put him a little more at ease on his journey north.
Yours,
Malcolm

“Pauline?” Halt’s voice was uneasy. He watched her hand rise slowly to cover her mouth. “What is it?”

She handed him the letter and barely managed to stagger to her chair, collapsing on it just as tears overflowed her eyes.

 


 

Will was sure his face must’ve been terrifying, what with the open lips and wide eyes and balled fists underneath, but he wasn’t quite convinced it mattered. His head was spinning, and he felt like he was going to faint, but all of it also didn’t matter.

All he saw was her.

Alyss had turned to look at him and frozen, with only the corners of her lips slowly stretching up to a smile. He almost fell right then and there, the way she was smiling at him.

Her parted lips – Speak , he almost begged out loud, say something. Tell me I didn’t mishear. Tell me it’s you.

“Oh, by the heavens,” she said, and Will remembered how willing he was to die for her; so she never had to hurt again. “How I’ve missed you, love.”

The little girl behind her had scuttled away just in time, because Will shot forward, step after step, until they were just an arm’s distance apart. He looked her up and down, almost terrified to reach out – what if, once he did, she’d disappear, shatter into nothing, just like in his dreams?

She was waiting, patiently, saying nothing, simply looking at him, and Will wondered how many things he was not understanding right now. She looked nothing like herself – she barely had any hair on her head, one of her eyes was mangled and that side of her face burnt along with the side of her body. But her smile, the look in her other eye – he wouldn’t have mistaken it. It was Alyss.

He took a cautious step toward her, then another, and fell to his knees in front of her.

“Will,” she chuckled, but he didn’t hear her anymore. One of his hands rose to grip the side of her dress, knuckles going white with tension, as the other one went higher, shaking, to touch her face. Fingers brushed against her cheek slowly, almost as if he was scared of touching her. She leaned into it, closing her eyes. Will never really managed to close his mouth, but now he could taste something salty.

You can cry , his mind told him now, instead of scolding. It’s an occasion.

It took him a while to be able to talk. To even remember how to breathe, if he was being honest.

“Alyss,” he whispered, and she opened her eyes, looking down to him. He felt small and insignificant in front of her (he wouldn’t have known that was exactly what she was feeling as well), but he saw such love – part of it was his own, reflecting in her eye. “Alyss, Alyss.”

“Hi there,” she said quietly, leaning down. Before she could reach him, though, his head fell to her lap, face buried in her dress. His shoulders were quivering slightly, and she chuckled again, burying her hands in his hair, combing through gently.

Oh , she thought, to think I’d have lost this . It wouldn’t have been difficult, giving up. In fact, it might’ve just been easier than persevering, but gods, she was glad she did. With Will in her arms, she felt warmer – and it was the sort of warm she wondered whether she’d ever readjust to. And as she felt tears stain her dress, she came to an answer – she would.

“Come up, please,” she said, whispered, tugging at him soothingly. “Come, now. It’s okay, I promise. It’s okay.”

He drew in a stuttering breath and followed her hand, all the time feeling like his world was crumbling, but not in the bad way it had the past months. It only took him the thought that she was there, and she’d always be there, for tears to sting his eyes again.

Honestly, Will had cried so much at this point that he wondered whether he’d ever be able to cry again.

He was settled upright, between Alyss’s legs, and slowly, he stood up. He was barely any taller than her when she was sitting, so he gladly wrapped his arms around her neck, cradling her head to his chest, kissing the top of it as she laughed, now fully, into his vest.

Her arms rose to gently wrap around his waist. Will heard her mutter something. He withdrew as little as he could to look down at her, and she gave him the brightest smile he’d ever seen.

“You smell like you’re back from work,” she told him, and he crouched back down to pull her into a strange hug. He put his head against her cheek and leaned into her, and her arms were still wrapped around him, patient.

“Never leave me again,” Will murmured into her ear. “Don’t ever leave me. Please don’t do this to me again, love. My sun, my moon, my everything, don’t scare me like that again.”

She stilled, leaning on him. “Sit, Will,” she beckoned gently, and he obeyed, never letting her go. “I’m okay now. There’s nothing for you to worry about.”

“I’m worried you can say that,” Will said, his head against her chin. “Gods, Alyss, what if I—What if I’d taken the wrong lead? What if I hadn’t gone to Malcolm?”

“You would’ve, eventually,” she told him, and her tone was forgiving. Will hated it. “I’ll probably have to stay here for quite a while still, too.”

Slowly, Will looked up at her. After the initial shock, he could finally see what had happened to her, why he didn’t immediately pick up on her figure the second he came in the door. She was burnt, the skin on her shoulders and face red and black, and one of her eyes looked like it’d been heated so that it’d melt, and one corner of her lips was drooping down, and in a few places yellow spots peeked.

He wondered how much pain that would cause a person. Unbelievable, he thought. Unbelievable, inhuman amounts of pain, and he felt anger surging. Not at her, gods, never at her. At the people, rather, who made her go through it, whoever they were, whether they did it on accident or otherwise, people that made her hurt and people that didn’t help her. He was seeing red, and it wasn’t her, though she took his face into her hands.

“Will,” she called anxiously. She was looking at him with a sort of nervous expression, and he almost lost it. How dare they? How dare they make her feel so? How dare they make her doubt herself, anything about herself, and how dare they make her doubt what his reply would be? It’d be always, always, in springtime and in winter, in illness and in health, and never, never to let go of any of this, never to let go of her.

“Who did this to you?” he asked, taking one of her hands and kissing every finger and three times the palm. The tension visibly left her shoulders, but he only leaned closer. “Who did this to you, Alyss?”

“What does it matter?” she muttered, looking at him, taking him in. She wouldn’t tell him now, but the same words were in her throat – never leave me again, never leave me. “Their tracks have gone cold, if there ever were tracks. You mustn’t focus on them.”

“I won’t focus on them,” Will told her, kissing the corner of her lips carefully, as if he’d developed a newfound realization of how much she must’ve been hurting the past few weeks. “But I do want to find them. Ask them what made them gamble with your life. With the lives of the people in that inn.”

“If you want to find them, if there’s anything to find and it wasn’t a simple accident, you will,” Alyss told him, pleading with her eye. “But can’t you cease the vengeance talk right now? I’m so terribly glad to have you here. Let’s not sour everything.”

He looked at her, regarded her, and relented, bowing his head down. She relaxed into his arms, touching his chin with one finger.

“Old man,” she joked, poking at his stubble. “I’m gone for two months, and you grow a beard? Honestly, Will.”

Will raised his head so she couldn’t reach it with a little plaintive smile. “Shaving was the last thing on my mind.”

“And for shame,” she chuckled. “Now I can’t kiss you without bruising.”

Any other time Will would’ve laughed at her words – now he furrowed his brows, wondering if the scrape of the stubble against her mouth would hurt after all. She noticed his expression and clicked his tongue, leaning down to kiss him herself.

“I’m joking, Will.” Her eyes were closed, her forehead against his. “I’m only joking.”

He nodded. His hand twirled one of the remaining strands of hair on her head, and a strange thought came to him – he’d crown her, if it were up to him. She’d rule the world, if it were up to him. She’d always have gold on her head, whether it’d be her own hair or a circlet, if it were up to him. Alyss opened her eyes to look at him, and for the tenth time he wondered how much one could love another person. He felt like he could go mad, but would going mad with love really be such a terrible thing?

Suddenly, he remembered something else – tears at another time, another place. Another person – two people, and all of them were looking for her.

Will snapped back so suddenly he startled her, and she blinked at him, unsure of what had happened.

“You must tell Pauline.” His eyes were wide. “She’s damn near out of her mind back in Redmont, trying to find you!”

Alyss nodded as warmth filled her chest. She knew Pauline would search for her, but hearing it was still made her feel a mix of both guilt and happiness. “I sent her a letter. Well, Malcolm did. I wasn’t quite as in shape yet.”

Infinitely calmed by his wife’s demeanour, he took a breath. “I’m glad. She doesn’t deserve the turmoil.”

“And neither did you,” Alyss said, kissing him kindly. “I’m sorry, Will.”

“Don’t say that,” he muttered, resting his head against her shoulders. “Tell me what happened instead, why don’t you? Everything right from the start.”

Alyss took a breath, wondering where the start really was.

“Well, I’m riding home, and I just see a column of smoke—“ she started, but Will held up a hand to stop her. She tilted her head in inquiry.

“What about your mission?” he asked softly, and her heart skipped a beat in joy. “How did it go? Anyone give you any trouble?”

She felt like she could start either laughing or crying, or maybe both at the same time. He was so familiar, he was the same, maybe she looked nothing like herself anymore but he was there and he was with her. Asking her about her work was so like him, curious about how everything went, taking an interest in everything she did, not just what was important. Everything about her was important to him, as it was to her when it came to his work.

They’d spent many an eve complaining to each other and poking fun at their respective jobs, assignments, paperwork. She knew how many Rangers had to replace their cloaks because they’d just get tangled in something while they were sneaking around and they’d have to opt for leaving them hanging there as to not compromise the mission. Will knew how many excess hairpins the Couriers carried because the old ones would break once you shoved it into someone’s eye. And to think she’d come right back to it...

“Oh, Will, what did I do to deserve you,” she whispered warmly, and he raised an eyebrow.

“Alyss, that’s my—that’s what I’m supposed to be saying.”

“That’s what both of us are supposed to be saying, I reckon,” she said, and he chuckled. “That’s how love works, no?”

“And you still surprise me,” Will lamented jokingly. She had a mischievous smile on his face.

“Surprising a Ranger is a skill all Couriers with Rangers for spouses are taught.”

“Pauline must be well-versed.”

“Pauline is a master.”

They looked at each other wordlessly for a little before bursting into quiet laughter, and while Will wasn’t sure what had even caused it, he was sure that he was glad. There was a certain lightness in his chest that he doubted would ever be there again mere hours prior, and yet here he was – laughing, and with her.

All the promises he made to himself, to find her, to bring her home, all of them would be fulfilled, and Will honestly could’ve just tied himself to her right there and right then and followed her around for the rest of their lives.

He smiled into her shoulder.

“When do you think we’ll be going home?”

She punched him in the upper arm lightly. “You just got here!”

“I know, I know, and I’m not ushering you out. I just—Need an estimate?” He shrugged, pressing his lips together. “I am in charge of Redmont, after all.”

Alyss nodded, pondering her recovery. It’d take at least a month, more, until she could mount a horse, she was sure. A twinge of guilt pricked at her chest once more.

“You know,” she said, slowly. “You can always just—“

“I’m not leaving here without you,” he cut her off. Before she could protest, he shook his head. “No way. I can sleep on the ground if Malcolm has no beds.”

Alyss made an offended noise. “You can sleep in my bed, too, you know.” Dropping the playful face, she added, “I don’t want to keep you from doing what you have to do.”

“I’m not leaving you anytime soon, no matter how hard you’d want to get rid of me,” Will told her in a soft tone. “I’m just, well. I left Redmont under Halt.”

“Oh.” She’d expected something similar. It would’ve been unlike Will to have left his post so carelessly as to not appoint another Ranger. “Redmont will have no trouble, then.”

“Yeah, I’m not worried about that.” He fidgeted, eyes darting across the room. He looked guilty, Alyss found, squinting. “I... Well, let’s say we didn’t part on the best of terms, in a way?”

Alyss clicked her tongue, sympathetic. “Oh, dear,” she muttered. “What did you two do?”

“Look, it’s not like we’re— You know, we’re not kids.” Will looked away, going a little redder at the ears. “It’s just that, once I got back from Anselm, I wasn’t doing so well, and, well, he noticed.”

“You were in Anselm?” Alyss cut him off, leaning closer to him. “For how long?”

“A week or so,” he answered. “I was looking for you. Asking around, investigating the inn, the general stuff. Got back a little later than I was supposed to, and I think he was worried—“

“Will, you shouldn’t have done it,” she told him, taking him by the hands. “You could’ve gotten hurt, draining yourself like that. You could’ve gotten yourself killed.”

“You think I cared?” His eyes turned strangely hollow, and Alyss found herself resisting a flinch. “You honestly think— Alyss, I was looking for you . Could’ve run into some cut-throats by the woods – so? I only wanted to find you.”

“Well, I’m here,” she said quietly. “And you could’ve not been. What do you think that would’ve made me feel like, knowing my husband got himself killed looking for me while I was safe and sound on the other side of the country?”

Will’s knuckles went white in her hands. “And what if you weren’t? What if you were—“

“Okay.” She pressed her lips together, swallowing with a nod. “I think we shouldn’t be talking about this.”

A pause, and he mirrored her. “Yeah,” he said, planting a tiny kiss on her shoulder. “We’re both here either way.”

She smiled. “We sure are. I’m glad. Aren’t you?”

“Alyss,” Will chuckled. “If I had to name every single thing I was glad about right now, you would never have a minute of silence.”

She quirked up, looking down at him. He only now seemed to realize the hole he’d dug himself.

“Alright,” she said cheerfully. “Tell me, then. But just a few. Not a thousand. Because I know you could come up with a thousand.”

“Gods,” Will groaned, leaning back on her, and she laughed, pushing him off. He threw his head back, humming in thought. “Oh, where to start. Alright, here goes the obvious – I’m glad you’re here and I’m here. Then, I’m glad Malcolm could help you. I’m glad we’ll be going home at a point, but I’m glad you seem to be getting along with everyone here just fine. I’m glad you were brought here.”

“Oh, yes, Xander,” Alyss remembered fondly, a little smile gracing her face. Will squinted at her, infinitely confused.

“Xander? What’s he got to do with anything?”

“He found me,” she answered easily, and chuckled, watching as his eyes turned into two disks. “And brought me here, along with Helena and Evie. Oh, I ought to introduce you to them.”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Will raised a hand, shaking his head in disbelief. “You’re telling me Xander—And we are talking about the same Xander, aren’t we—brought you here? The same one who was too scared to get you out of the castle he knew like the back of his hand and whined all the way to Grimsdell about warnings and omens and whatnot?”

“Will, you know that’s not how it happened,” she laughed, slapping him lightly on the wrist. “It wasn’t his fault. He and Helena dragged me out of the inn and then brought me here. Had it not been for him, you might’ve found me back in Anselm.”

Will shook off the feeling. “Don’t even wanna think about it.”

“You don’t have to, thanks to them.” She chuckled, putting her hand on his shoulder. It was a bit of a strange position considering she was that much taller than him and her neck and shoulders still didn’t like the amount of strain she was putting on them. However, she was either going to lie down on her husband’s shoulder or she was going to rearrange her own bones, and one of those options sounded considerably more pleasant than the other. “I, for one, am also glad you don’t.”

“Yeah, well, just about the only thing I’m not glad about right now is the situation back in Redmont,” Will grumbled, slinging a hand over her shoulders. “I trust Halt fully to handle it, but I still feel, well, unsure when I’m away, if that makes sense.”

“You worry because you two got snappy at each other?” Alyss intertwined the fingers of one of their hands, raising her eyebrows. “I’ve noticed it. When you part ways with someone while you’re angry with them, you start regretting it as soon as you’ve rounded the first corner.”

“I’m not angry at him, nor is he at me. Besides, as you said. I just got here. No need to start lecturing me about Halt right off the bat.” He chuckled as she rolled her eye. “We’re grown men. We can handle ourselves no problem.”

Alyss took a breath, closing her eyes. “How far you’ve come,” she said, “from merely an apprentice tailing him.”

“And you, love,” Will told her, kissing the top of her head. “It’s a wonder Pauline didn’t ride out for you herself. She sent a letter to each fief, you know. I thought she’d go mad, but then again, so would I. Best I do was go search.”

“Yes,” Alyss replied, eyes still closed, an involuntary smile stretching over her lips. “We Diplomats have this pesky thing called self-control all you Rangers clearly lack.”

Offended, Will put a hand on his chest. “And we,” he sputtered with no hesitation, “at least have weapons instead of concealing needles in our hair!”

“You try to conceal anything in, say, Halt’s hair, and he’ll make sure you have no limbs to do it with,” Alyss chuckled. “And, haven’t I told you of Blade-Sleeved Mary? Or how Pauline once smuggled a sword hidden in her skirts into a meeting?”

“A—A what?” Will looked like he was about to cry. “Sorry, ‘Blade-Sleeved’?”

“Oh, yes.” Alyss raised her hands to point at her wrists. “She’d stuff small throwing knives into her sleeves, strapped into loose bindings. Instead of taking what was clearly a defensive position, she’d simply put her hands together so she could reach her knives whenever she needed to. Then, when the time called for it, she’d pull them out and take out two men at once. Sometimes she’d shove as many as three rows of knives in there, right within her reach. Nobody outside of the Diplomatic Service knew why she never failed a mission that would’ve occupied a pair of people at least when she’d go in all alone.” As she got talking, especially about knives, the burn on her eye itched, but she pretended it was her imagination.

Still, it felt awful. Alyss was good at knife throwing once, one of the best. Now, she was afraid to even try to throw anything, let alone something like a knife, in fear of missing. In fear of the realization that she likely will never be able to do something like it again setting in.

“She’s got a golden branch now,” she said, and, tears be damned, her voice broke. “Teaches younger apprentices how to handle blades. She was short-haired for the entirety of her service, so pins weren’t her forte.”

“Alyss,” Will interrupted, reaching out to touch her cheek. He didn’t add anything else, but she was sure he’d felt she had a lump in her throat. She leaned into his touch, sighing.

“I’m blind in one eye,” she told him firmly, like there was no going back, like he couldn’t see it. She wanted him to see it. “I’ll never be able to...”

“You don’t have to talk about it,” Will muttered, wrapping his arms fully around her. “There’s plenty of things you will be able to do, love. But I’ll listen, if you like.”

“No, I...” She shook her head. “I just wanted you to see it.”

“I see it,” he told her softly. “It doesn’t make you any less of the woman I was searching for.”

Before she could answer, someone cleared their throat by the door, and they flinched back from one another as if they were still teenagers caught sitting in a tree rather than a husband and wife.

Malcolm stood as tall as one could in his entire shorter-than-Will glory, glaring at them with hands on his hips.

“Ranger Will Treaty,” he said in a high tone, frowning. “Does your lot always forget not to leave their horses wandering around wherever they want, or do you just want them to split as many skulls as possible?”

“Malcolm,” Will grinned, standing up to greet him, but froze midway. “Wait, he—Tug didn’t. Tug doesn’t.”

“Tug hasn’t,” Malcolm corrected, “but will we stand around until he does?”

Will rolled his eyes all the way into his skull. “He’s not a horse, he’s a Ranger horse,” he told him, and Malcolm raised his eyebrows.

“Horrible Ranger, then, missing half his ensemble. The bow, the oakleaf, the cloak, the entire grim demeanour, to be frank.” If his voice got any more sarcastic, Will would’ve physically seen salt steaming from his nostrils.

“Okay, alright, I got it,” Will chuckled, going past him. Glancing over his shoulder, he smiled to Alyss, and she raised a hand as a goodbye. Will noticed the same little girl sneaking up behind her, curiously looking him up and down, and figured he’d give them time for conversation while he led Tug inside. Before leaving through the door, though, he tugged lightly on Malcolm’s sleeve.

“Come walk with me,” he told him simply, “I only wanted to ask you something.”

Noticing his low tone, Malcolm shrugged and followed after him, closing the door on his way out.

As soon as they were out of their earshot, Will turned to Malcolm. “Why didn’t you tell me she was here?” he questioned, brows almost knitted together. “Could’ve told me I was going to see my wife instead of some cryptic nonsense.”

“I thought Alyss would’ve told you,” Malcolm said, and sighed, looking away into the forest once they were outside. “I don’t think it’s my place to say it, but it’s by her request.”

“She wanted me not to know?” Will clarified, raising an eyebrow in disbelief. “Why?”

“It isn’t like she wanted you to worry, Will, and as soon as it was clear that nobody was likely trying to kill her directly, she sent a message back to Redmont.” Malcolm made a wide gesture, shrugging apologetically. “We didn’t want it in the wrong hands. That’d only have created more problems.”

“She told me that,” he muttered. “I understand. But couldn’t you have—at least let us know somehow? Earlier, maybe, in code, or just... Just a hint, Malcolm. Just a hint would’ve saved all of us so much grief.”

“I understand,” Malcolm said, looking away from him. “That’s not the only reason.”

He stepped in place, leaning closer in confusion. “What?”

“There’s no objective ‘right’ that we could’ve acted by, Will, I want you to know that,” he told him, intertwining his fingers. “But the fact that someone could’ve caught on to us holding a Diplomat was only one of the concerns. The other one—” he glanced back to where Alyss would be, were the door not present. “Well, I suppose she’d told you anyway. We didn’t know she was going to live when she got here.”

Will staggered to lean on the wall. His vision stretched again. “What?” he repeated lamely. His voice echoed in his head.

Malcolm shrugged. “She was on the brink of death, if I’m being frank. I genuinely thought they brought her here to die at first, but Helena – the woman who’d gotten her here – had pulled a rather impressive stunt with herbs to keep her alive until I could wrap her in my own ones. Thanks to the medicine and absolutely ridiculous amounts of luck, she was lucid for a little while before getting here. They almost brought her over to you, did she tell you?”

Will shook his head, feeling mute.

“Well, they decided against it mostly because by the time they brought her over to me with the stop, all I’d have to do was ask you where to bury her. But,” he added, “she also voiced her wish not to see you.”

He blinked, leaned back on the wall, and tried to level his breathing. No way, his entire body and mind complained. This was Alyss. She’d want to see him, no matter what. Whatever had he done for that to change?

“She didn’t consider you guilty in any way,” Malcolm interrupted his train of thought, thankfully, but what he said next was even worse. “She simply didn’t want you to know she was there while there was still a high chance of her not making it through each night.”

“My wife didn’t want me there while she thought she was dying?” Will clarified, voice quivering.

“Your wife didn’t want you there precisely because she didn’t want you to see her die,” Malcolm cut him off firmly. “She wanted to spare you the grief.”

“What kind of—“ Will’s hands went up to his hair, tugging at the curls. “No. No. No, she didn’t—“

“Will.” Malcolm stepped up and rested his palm on his shoulder, forcing him to bring his hands down. “Try and understand her. It was the only way she knew to reduce your suffering. She was calmer, knowing that you were merely anxious instead of grieving, and I could only consider her feelings. If you don’t mind me saying, the only important goal was her survival, not you knowing the whole situation.”

Will closed his eyes. Yes, he figured, it was reasonable, even if it hurt.

But, again, Malcolm was right. His feelings on the subject didn’t matter.

Yet thinking of Alyss stuck alone with only a healer or two to keep her updated on her own life, on her own chances, on her rights to her goddamn future and Will, to their love and her friendships and everything she had, to have her doubt her own heartbeat. To think Will wouldn’t have dropped everything and ran to her, to see her, kiss her, even if she was dying, even if she wouldn’t be there for long anymore…

Or, Will thought bitterly, that was exactly why she did it. Because, gods know, Will would’ve dropped everything. Will would’ve run. And Will would’ve never, ever, ever made peace with it.

“I see,” he said, finally. His voice was quiet, deprived of all emotion, almost. “Thank you. For telling me.”

“Now, then” Malcolm said, and a tired smile shone on his face. He saw Will almost turn around to go back to Alyss and grabbed his arm before he could forget why he went out there. “Go get your pony sorted.”

Will remembered, going a little red and jumping down the stairs. Tug said nothing all the way to the enclosure, only nudging him on his shoulder with a smile in his eye. Will gave a little chuckle, patting him on the nose before leaving.

As soon as he stood at the base of the stairs, a figure cleared his throat.

“Found her?” a voice from his side asked. Will snapped his head at the sound to see the same boy he’d seen hours ago leaning onto his canes in the exact same position, smiling at him with a slightly dreamy look on his face.

Unsure of what he was asking, he confirmed, “I did.”

“Well!” The boy winked at him. “Don’t expect to be the only one spending time with her. We all rather like a new friend as well.”

Then came the deafening laughter again. Will flinched again, but this time, instead of annoying him, it made him feel warmer for some reason. A little snort escaped his lips, drowning in the great deal of laughter behind him as he clambered up the stairs.

He was back in the room in seconds, and Alyss looked up just as she’d done a little earlier, except this time she wasn’t surprised. She looked like she was used to it already, and greeting him back was the norm again.

“Back already?” Alyss asked, smiling. The girl next to her waved.

He stared at Alyss for a moment as she blinked at him, unsure of why he was frozen.

Suddenly surging forward, he rushed to her and pulled her into his arms, kissing her forehead as the child over them laughed voicelessly.

Never, he thought. Never would he leave her again.

 


 

Will’s lips were pressed into a fine line as he watched Alyss slowly turn in place, eyelids fluttering closed for a moment. She was frozen in space, one foot raised slightly above the other ankle, between two stances. He’d made his way over from their room a few minutes ago and his eyes had been mediating between staring at her and the ground, many thoughts in his head. A letter was pressed inbetween his crossed arms.

All in all, he figured, it’d been a good week. More than that, really – he had forced himself to stop counting the days. It’d get him nowhere except cause them all more anxiety. He’d been horrified, at first, once he’d realized how difficult it was for Alyss to move, even in the slightest. He’d insisted on changing her bandages when Malcolm tried, and there was no changing his mind. Only when Alyss wanted to try it herself would he relent, and when she’d tell him to look away, he’d obey. She’d been asking it of him more and more often, and somewhere inside he was glad – he hoped it meant she was finding it easier to take care of herself, it meant she was making progress.

He’d blended into the wall, almost, even without the cloak he’d left on a chair by the bed. Alyss was moving again, turning around, spinning. She’d regained her grace almost as soon as she had decided she’d remember some of the earlier court dancing she’d learned during her apprenticeship.

As soon as her eye met Will’s, she jolted back, startled.

“Gods,” she yelped, scaring Sig, who’d been so focused on her movement he’d failed to notice Will as well. One of his canes fell to the floor. “How do you do that?”

“I thought you’d have gotten used to it by now.” Will smiled. She ran a hand over her head, chuckling sheepishly.

“I thought so, too. Warn us next time,” she asked, and he shrugged, apologetic, stepping up to pick up Sig’s cane, but the boy grabbed it before he could and jabbed it to Will’s chest, careful not to push hard enough to hurt.

“Come no closer, Ranger,” he warned jokingly. “Stealth like that must have sour intentions.”

“Stealth ‘like that’ is a habit for us, not a choice,” Will claimed, crossing his arms below the tip of the cane, and adding playfully, “Coward.”

Sig gasped, overexaggerating his offense at the statement, and smacked Will over the arm with the cane, which Will grabbed before he brought it down and held his eye for a moment, shaking his finger in disapproval.

“Oh, ladies,” Alyss huffed, having already frozen in a different position, stretching her arms above her head. “You’re both so very pretty. I’m obligated to say my husband is prettier, but that’s only my undying love speaking.”

Laughing, Will and Sig disentangled body and cane and both turned to Alyss again. She dropped her arms to go give Will a kiss on the cheek.

“Where are you off to?” she asked, and Will shrugged, holding up the letter.

“Pauline and Halt,” he told her, and her eyes lit up.

“How long?”

They’d waited a little before writing another letter to Redmont considering the date of their return. There were many things to consider – Alyss, of course, was the first one, and the most difficult to sort. She was improving steadily, of course, but what amount of time would have to pass until Malcolm deems her fit for the journey was anyone’s guess.

Obviously they’d gotten no response from Redmont other than the raven that’d come back since they had no pigeons flying over directly to Grimsdell Forest (Alyss really ought to get on that once she gets home, she decided), and the things in a letter they’d write would probably be too personal to allow to go through Macindaw first.

Will shrugged, apologetic again. “A month or so is the best case, but I gave them a window of two or three.”

Alyss deflated slightly as he gave her a sympathetic pat on the arm. “Oh well,” she concluded, “At least I’ll get to spend my spring with you. How long has it been, anyway?”

“Too long,” Will noted, leaning in to leave a tiny kiss on the side corner of her lip. She smiled, pulling him closer.

“Okay then,” the piercing voice muttered on the other side of the room, and while Will didn’t react at all, Alyss looked up as if she’d just awakened, only to see Sig with his lips comically pressed into a line and his eyes wide like he’d just seen the most traumatizing thing. Alyss laughed out loud – he muttered something about getting some fresh air before he and Alyss continued on their merry journey to have her turn her walk into a jog, and was now stumbling as fast as he could to the door like whatever he’d listened in on was the worst experience of his life.

“Wonderful,” Will commented, lightly touching her nose. “Now we’re all alone.”

Alyss chuckled, squirming out of his grasp. He was barely holding her, but a shiver of happiness crawled up his back when he felt how easily she slipped out.

“Where were you planning to find a raven, anyway?” She wore a loose long skirt that twirled in waves when she spun. Will watched it, hypnotized. “Malcolm’s out, and I thought you wanted to stay in bed a little longer. Got bored?”

“I feel useless doing nothing.” He held the letter up again, smiling. “And the entirety of Grimsdell is awake either way. Evie found me a raven in exchange for my cloak.”

Alyss choked on her own spit. “You’re giving her your cloak ?”

He raised his arms, laughing. “Gods, no! Only for a day. Can you imagine how many stitches I’d need if Halt found out I’d given my cloak away?”

“He’d make you knit yourself a new one,” Alyss agreed, hand on her chest. “I‘d assumed Evie was a born trader to take that off your hands. How’d she find a raven of all people, though?”

“Children.” Will shrugged. “Delightful little spies.”

She grinned. The conversation seemed familiar to her, somehow.

“Ollie must’ve told her, somehow, then,” she recalled. The little girl appeared out of nowhere and almost as silently as Will, you’d think her entire body was mute instead of just her throat. “She’ll tell you anything if you know how to ask.”

“Ollie,” Will tried, furrowing his brows. “Have I met her?”

“You have,” she confirmed, gesturing toward the couch. “She’s the one that teaches me sign language.”

Alyss looked down, going a little red. She knew Will knew how to sign better than she did, and it was quite a surprise the first time they talked about it. The Rangers apparently used quite a wide variety of hand signals since they were founded, and in recent years have moved on to just full-on signing during missions where noise wasn’t an option. The Diplomats, on the other hand, while encouraged to learn it for ease of all communication, didn’t use it for many occasions, and, in Alyss’s opinion, it was a high shame.

“Ah, then,” Will chuckled. “I suppose, with them both being so small, they could make a forest fort out of it and a few blankets. A nice tent, maybe.”

“Don’t flatter yourself.” She shook her finger at him. “I doubt it’ll go all the way down to the ground if they hang it inbetween two chairs, even.”

“You wound me,” Will groaned.

She nodded to him, feigning pity from her height.

“I still wonder how they devised such a plan,” she muttered dreamily, then decided not to think too hard and shrugged. “It’s probably as you said – children. They find a way.”

“Sure they do,” Will agreed. “I should go get this letter sent, now.”

“One last thing before you go,” Alyss said, waving him over. Once he raised his eyebrow at her, she clasped her hands together. “Speaking of Ollie – she taught me something the other day.”

“Yeah?” He turned back to her, interested.

She jabbed her finger to the middle of her chest and drew it back, holding it in front of her with the palm facing Will.

“It means ‘Ranger’,” she said, watching his eyes widen. Like a little kid, she thought warmly. “Guess why.”

“No idea.”

The widest grin spread over Alyss’s face. “Try it, then.”

She saw as he reasoned with himself, then repeated the gesture – and he would’ve done it just right, if the string of his oakleaf hadn’t hooked onto his thumb and pretty much strapped his hand to his chest. “Hey!”

“That’s why,” she said, bursting into giggling. “It’s what you do to identify yourselves to the rest of us non-Ranger folk.”

“She better have told you something similar for a Diplomat,” he grumbled, freeing his fingers from the merciless grasp of the leather. Alyss shone.

“She did, actually.” She nodded, bringing her thumb and forefinger pressed together to her shoulder and sharply drew it forward a little bit. “For the wreaths on our cloaks. I’d known that one already.”

“That at least,” Will muttered, shrugging. “Good thing nobody knows I can sign, yeah? If they did, I’d probably be helping with the fort anyway.”

She looked at him like he was the sun.

“That’s adorable, Will,” she told him. “I don’t understand how, but it is. You are.”

“Hilarious. I’ll wait until someone asks you what the weather is like up there,” Will threatened.

“Why wait for someone else to do it tomorrow when you can do it today,” she told him, jolly. He didn’t fall for it, though – the skit had been pulled multiple times, and even he’d discovered some jokes he didn’t wish to use on her.

“Right, then. I’ll decide on the rendezvous with the local cloak wrangler.” Flashing the letter before her eyes again, he disappeared behind the doorway.

Alyss chuckled, arms wrapped around herself – then sighed, turning around and wandering aimlessly for a minute.

She was glad she could do so now. She had many thoughts – to be fair, all she had the past months were many thoughts. At the very least she could calm a few of them by stepping around as if she was about to go into her first meeting.

Only a few of those thoughts concerned her own healing, now. She was working on it. She was improving. It was plain to see: whereas earlier she couldn’t make the trip to the kitchen without having to stop three times and hold onto a wall or whatever was closest, now she could just walk wherever, whenever she pleased. It was exhilarating. She never thought she’d appreciate simple walking so much.

No, the matters she worried about were mostly in line with Will and her. She didn’t want to think that way – it was entirely unreasonable, she told herself so enough times to have the thought memorized.

But she was not the same, she had to admit. She was a dragging weight more than a recovering Diplomat – because how quickly, or fully, could someone recover from wounds like hers?

She was making progress every day, but it was pitiful. It’d been nearly two months since she was brought here, and she’d barely been able to move for the most part of it. Now that she’d regained some semblance of skill, she was determined to return to her former self as fast as she could, but so far she wasn’t satisfied.

Have patience , Sig had told her, over and over. You’re doing well. You can’t expect everything to happen in the blink of an eye.

Alyss had always thought herself a patient lady. And she was, mostly, but towards everyone else, not herself. It wasn’t a great quality, but if it pushed her to be her best, then so be it.

But she knew that was also not the only thing she feared.

Alyss was, after all, a woman. She’d long-lost count of how many times her skills had been doubted and her position attributed to her beauty. How many times she’d been accused of charming people by batting her eyelashes, twirling the strands of her hair... It was shameful. Pauline had told her it’d never be easy – and it wasn’t, but she hoped that maybe at least it’d subside like it did for her teacher, once it was well-known that Lady Pauline was neither a name to just throw around nor a person to joke about.

Now, though, it was going to be harder. She’d be looked down upon for the scars on her body and for being a woman – and she’d both made peace with it and knew she would fight it at the same time. She was the Steel Lady’s apprentice, and if the Steel Lady’s apprentice couldn’t take after her teacher, then Araluen might as well have gone to the dogs; Alyss would get her respect, she knew it, just like she would before.

Lastly, there was Will, at the thought of which her arms gripped her sides ever tighter. She longed for nothing else the past few months than to be close to him, ever since she’d left for the cursed mission – and now she got her wish granted, and things were just as they should be. Except for one thing.

Alyss watched him smile endlessly at her. She felt him kiss her head and her hands, and wrap and unwrap her bandages. She’d taken to doing it herself so he wouldn’t have to look at her for longer than he had to. She knew it was no problem for him, and it almost made her angry. How could one have such unyielding patience? Unconditional love, he’d told her many times how much he loved her and she was sure to love him back just as much. But she simply couldn’t understand most things anymore. He stood by her and made her laugh, and they slept together and he’d wrap himself entirely around her with no disgust and keep her warm, wake her up with a poke to the cheek and a question, just like before, just like nothing had happened.

How could a person so clearly see past injury? Give no pity, only warmth?

Of course, Alyss failed to think that, if Will had been in such a predicament, she wouldn’t have needed to blink once before doing exactly the same thing. For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health , it’d been said. And, truly, Will hadn’t thought of ever doing anything differently.

When he found her, Alyss was sitting down by the couch, just on the ground, staring at nothing in particular. Will held nothing but a black feather in his hand that he promptly let flutter down onto her head when he crouched. Slipping it gently under a few strands, braiding it in, he muttered, “Alyss?”

She didn’t answer, continuing to stare at the wall and not see it at all.

“You worry about something,” Will said, having realized what’s going on and gently brushing his hand over hers. “What is it?”

“Oh, no, I’m not, I...” Alyss looked up and away, shaking her head as she was looking for words. “I was just thinking.”

“Well, don’t overdo it,” He said with a tiny smile. “I’ll make sure you don’t have to worry about anything. Ever again, actually.”

She chuckled, knelt up and leaned down to kiss the top of his head. The curls tickled her face. She’d missed it. “Thank you. It’s not that I worry about something important.”

“I’ll gladly hear everything, if you feel like telling me.”

“I’d tell you everything, if I knew how to,” she told him quietly, holding him close. “But I’m not sure. I’m not sure you’ll like what I tell you, either.”

Will perked up, looking at her with big eyes. Curiosity, somewhat dimmed by offense.

“Think of the worst thing you can tell me. The most vile, most untrue, most sickening thought, and tell me.” He sat up, legs tangled with hers, and cupped her face, their foreheads together. “Tell me a horrible lie.”

“That I don’t love you,” she muttered. “That’d be the most unfair statement. And untrue.”

He smiled and leaned closer to her to put a soft kiss on the corner of her lips and drew back, hands still on her face.

“You’re right. I’d rather die than hear that.” He shrugged. “Now tell me what you worry about, and I promise to love you in spite of it.”

“That’s what I worried about,” Alyss told him softly, taking his wrists with her hands and leaving them there. “About the... Well.”

He was looking at her, unblinking, saying nothing, with his head slightly to the side. He looked like a confused foal, all in all. It almost made her laugh; she would’ve, if she didn’t think about how foreign what she was going to say felt, spinning on her tongue.

“My burns,” she finally managed, gesturing toward, well, the entirety of herself. “They’re everywhere. Barely any hair grows on my head. My eye’s—like that.” Her breath hitched in her throat for a moment. “My whole body is... It’s unsightly. Nothing like it was before.” There were no tears at all. Even her voice felt dry, and it was quivering. “And yet you sit with me like nothing’s happened, like I’m not covered in—“ Desperately, she made another wide gesture and her voice broke. Will leaned in, dropping his hands and bringing them around her waist, shushing her gently. She put her head against his shoulder and took deep breaths. “See? See? I worry.”

“Because you think I won’t love you because you’ve been burned?” No, not quite so drastic , she would’ve said. But...

Will put a hand on her head, rocking her back, soothing. There was something strange about the way he’d spoken, almost like he was angry at something – but not at her. Never at her.

“Alyss, you—No, nevermind, this is the most vile statement. This is a worse lie. Don’t even think about it. Perish the thought.” He put soft little kisses on the burnt side of her neck, and she thought she’d felt something. “Don’t say that. You know it can’t be true.”

“I know,” she muttered. “I told you you weren’t going to like it.”

Will took a breath and drew back from her, kissed the tip of her nose and took her hand.

“Beautiful, you are,” he whispered, kissing every single one of her knuckles, then getting up to kiss her forehead. In her - his life, love and the stars and all the warmth of the earth. “Beautiful,” he repeated. “Beautiful, beautiful.”

Alyss gave a weak laugh, putting a hand on Will’s shoulder and pushing him back down. “Alright, alright.” She leaned down to rest her head against his chest – it was a strange position, once again, considering she almost had to bend herself trifold, but there was nothing in the world quite like it. “I’m so glad you’re here. You have no idea.”

“I’d like to think I do,” he muttered into her hair. “I’d like to think I do.”

Then, wrapped in comfortable peace, all was silent for a while.

 


 

Spring had only now come to Grimsdell, nearly a month too late. Norgate’s prolonged winter didn’t do much for Alyss’s recovery, but spring had brought faster progress and her worries were slowly drawing back. She was still not about to jump off any roofs, but she would get there in a few, she’d joke with Will.

Now, she stood on the stairs leading to Malcolm’s house with a few flowers she’d picked (‘Good exercise,’ Sig had told her, but she knew very well he just wanted a flowercrown to put on his head, and Will seemingly couldn’t resist the urge to make one after another). The air was light, and she’d almost stopped coughing. Malcolm and Helena hardly wanted to let her outside in fear of her catching a cold that would rather complicate matters. Later, seeing how unhappy she’d become spending all her time inbetween four walls, Will told the two healers in no uncertain terms that they were not the Ranger Commandant nor the King, therefore having no control over him, and brought his wife out to fresh air.

In spite of everything, she found some solace sitting with Will, talking as the birds’ voices, previously so loud to her, grew into harmonious melodies instead of just incessant shrieking. It was rather nice.

Now, though, Will was not with her, and instead of bringing her down, it made her glow with pride – she could jog around now, spin quickly, fall to her knees, even, upon seeing something on the ground that piqued her interest, and all of those things she could do alone. Again, she surprised herself with how appreciative one could be after losing something.

She sat down, legs hanging off the foundation of the house, and closed her eyes for a moment, taking her time. It still brought her some fatigue, but she’d get over it soon enough. The sun would peek through the treetops every once in a while, and it was incredibly soothing, all of this. A suitable place to heal, and a suitable home for those that had been hated for things they had no control over.

The neighing of a horse was what roused her from her short-lived rest. She raised her head to see a rather wide man in a horse cart approaching the house. She couldn’t recall ever seeing him inside, and she couldn’t exactly tell whether he meant trouble or not.

She’d taken to carrying a small knife in her shoe again – it felt freeing, despite bringing Sig many fits of booming laughter. Now, she slowly brought her leg up, still sitting, to feel the handle.

There came to be no need for it, though. The man looked up to her and nearly stumbled back. A wide smile spread across his face as he raised a hand to wave at her.

“Bloody hell!” he called. “Nobody told me a ghost would greet me on the doorstep!”

Alyss, now realizing who this must be, snickered, jumping off the stairs. Unsurprisingly, once the man was out of the cart, he was shorter than her.

“You must be Thomas, then,” she said, holding up her hand. “It’s a pleasure to see the man responsible for saving my life.”

Thomas went bright red at the praise. “Pleasure to, well, actually meet you.” He grabbed her hand and shook it, then froze. “Wait. Darn, I’m supposed’ta kiss a lady’s hand, aren’t I?”

“No, not necessarily,” she chuckled, letting go. “It’s not an obligation.”

He nodded, circling her. “Wouldn’t ya look at you.” The grin on his face grew larger. “Never thought you’d stand up still again, and here you are, hopping around like a wee stag.” He whistled. “Weren’t in that great of a shape before, if you don’t mind me saying. Can hardly recognize you.”

Alyss’s face scrunched up at it slightly, not in a way he’d notice it. She couldn’t blame him – it wasn’t like commonfolk went to etiquette lessons in their free time, and he was only telling her the truth, anyway.

“What brings you here, Thomas?” she asked, nodding toward the house. “Because Malcolm – he runs the place, you see – isn’t here right now.”

“Not a great head of the house, is he.” Thomas tilted his head. Alyss shook hers, laughing.

“No, no, he’s stellar.” She motioned toward the field surrounding the clearing. “It’s simply that the area needs a lot of upkeep.”

“Right, then. I’m here for my sister ‘n niece, that’s all,” he said, shrugging. “They told me to be here this week, so I’m here.”

“Sister and—“ Alyss furrowed her brows. “Helena and Evie?”

“Yeah, the two of ‘em.” Thomas nodded. Seeing the confusion in her face, he explained, “No, it isn’t like Helena’s my blood sister. My brother, though, had wed her once, so that’s that.” He chuckled. “The entire family pitied her. What an innocent girl, we all thought, with my feral cat of a brother. He wasn’t a good man.” Shrugging at her horror, he finished, “And, once my brother finally got his neck snapped in a bar fight, she got to raising that kid alone. Didn’t want any help from us. I think she wanted to forget us for a while before bringing her daughter into the family. Probably why she doesn’t tell anyone she’s got ties with us. Right thing to do, in my mind.”

“Got it,” Alyss said, although the truth was far from that. Thomas had just dumped a tale of abuse, death and trauma on her in the most casual tone she’d ever heard from a man. Somehow she had the suspicion that, if it was Helena telling the story, she’d do it exactly the same way. “So they’re—They’re going home with you?”

“I mean, what else do they got for calling me here?” He shrugged again. “I reckon you’re doing just fine on your own, too, Lady—... Gods, I’m sorry about that. Your name escapes me.”

“Alyss,” she told him with a smile. “And it’s quite alright. It’s not unusual.”

“Sure it isn’t,” Thomas shrugged, and, before he could say anything, Helena physically materialized behind Alyss, so quiet she might as well have been a Ranger. “Why, speak of the devil!”

“Thomas, how glad am I to see you!” She smiled at him, then turned her eyes to Alyss. “Whatever are you doing outside, my friend? You’ll get cold.”

“That’s what Malcolm keeps saying, yet it’s never become a problem,” Alyss replied impatiently, leaning closer to her. Her eye stung a little suddenly as she asked, “Is it true you and Evie are leaving?”

Helena visibly deflated. “I s’pose so,” she said. “We should have gone a long time ago. Our home will most likely be overgrown with vines and divided by spider webs at this time.” She chuckled. “And Malcolm doesn’t need my help anymore, but my people do, in the meantime, back in Anselm. I left them with some sort of charlatan on the other side of town, it simply isn’t fair. Besides,” Helena turned to her, gesturing vaguely at the house. “While Evie is an adventurer at heart, I think it’s about to end this one for her. Once she’s older, she can decide whatever she wants to do, but I won’t put my daughter in a predicament at five.”

“I understand,” Alyss assured. “So, when’s the day?”

“Tomorrow,” Helena replied, and Alyss tilted her head.

“So soon?”

It was now that she realized the probable truth – when they leave, she most likely isn’t going to see them again, at least not in the near future. Helena was a vital part of her village, every healer was, and for her to just leave on a visit was extremely unlikely, so demanding was her work. And Alyss poking in to Anselm was also almost impossible – once she’s come back home to Redmont, she’ll have so much work she’ll hardly leave the castle to get to Will’s cabin, much less ride around on missions. Even if she did, how likely was it that she’d get one assigned to lead her through Anselm? If anything, Pauline would avoid giving her any mission that’d bring her even close to the fief. So, a little sourly, Alyss figured that her best bet would be to wait for Evie to come of age when she actually can travel and get to Redmont on her own, which would, of course, take more than a decade. And by then, she might not even remember Alyss.

“Well,” Helena said, shrugging, a little note of sadness in her voice, “I reckon it’s not that fair keeping Thomas away from his family for long, since he got here. I’d leave today if I could, but...” she chuckled. “I do like this place, you know. Everyone’s family. Gotta say my goodbyes, and I’m sure Evie does as well.” She probably had the same thoughts in her head, adding just to Alyss quietly, “I’m likely not gonna see any of those people again, you know. You castle folk,” she smiled at Alyss, nodding to the door, indicating Will, “The entire world is beneath your feet. Not so much, for us. I’m not quite sure what I’m gonna feed my baby once I’m back home, but I’ll figure out a way.”

She took Alyss’s hand. The unburnt one. Except for Will, everyone seemed to subconsciously reach out for her healthy parts.

“But it was worth it,” she claimed, softly. Momentarily, Alyss was looking at a mother instead of a healer. “To see you walking, running, speaking. There’s nothing quite like it, as a healer and as a person. I’m so very glad you’re on your feet.”

“It’s thanks to you,” Alyss replied.

Helena waved a hand. “Mostly to Malcolm,” she chuckled. “I sure am glad to see he’s not so high and mighty as the legends surrounding this forest make him out to be. Feels reassuring to know we’re all only human.” She reached out to brush a finger just under Alyss’s eye. “And that applies to you, too,” she told her quietly. “You’re only human. I know you want everything at once, I know it. But you can’t have that. Take your time, please. I’m well-aware straining yourself for progress feels liberating and productive, but it’s not. Take my word for it, it’s not.”

Having run out of words, Alyss simply nodded, and Helena smiled at her again.

“Now, then. Won’t you go inside? Along with Thomas. There are some things we need to talk about.” She opened her arms, beckoning Alyss in and nodding to Thomas at the same time. “It’ll get dark if you stand here for as long as you like, I’m sure.”

Alyss pulled a face and followed her in. She had flowers to gift, flower crowns to give and certain children to appease with them, and a Will to compliment on his work. Her many tasks didn’t allow her to go back outside until the next day, when the bright spring sun was already high in the sky.

Thomas helped load in the little bag of food Malcolm had given them, and a few coins to get by on once they’re back until Helena can take patients again. She tried to refuse the latter, but Malcolm had been insistent – What good is a preserver of life, he said, if he lets a mother and her child starve in their own home . She’d taken it then, albeit reluctant, but infinitely thankful.

Alyss stood with Ollie when Helena stepped up to pull her into a hug. It was probably the tightest one she’d ever received, and she was unashamed to admit it probably broke a few bones somewhere in there, and some of her skin returned to the mushy state it was in a few weeks ago.

“Sorry, sorry,” came an answer to her whimper, and Helena chuckled once she’d pulled away. “I meant what I said yesterday, remember, Alyss?” Alyss nodded in earnest. “And you’re a young lady, if you ever find yourself near Anselm, know that you’ll always be welcome.”

“Thank you,” Alyss said. If she did, which, sadly, was unlikely, she knew she’d come see them.

“But!” Helena raised a finger. “If you find yourself in another burning house instead, just go straight to Malcolm.”

The two of them laughed, while most others stared in slight horror.

“Right, then,” Helena called out to Thomas. “We got everything?”

“Define everythin’,” Thomas mumbled. “You’ve barely got more than the clothes you’re wearing.”

Helena pressed her lips into a fine line. “I’ll take that as a yes, then. Evie, come!”

“A minute, Mama!” came an answer from Alyss’s side. She turned to look – and there they were. Ollie had wrapped her arms around Evie’s waist with a sour expression, and Evie was very clearly trying to hide something in her hands. Alyss couldn’t help a chuckle.

“We’ve got to go, baby!” Helena repeated, but Evie only shook her head.

“Only a minute!”

“Alright, alright. What do you got?”

“It’s not for you!” Evie claimed, and Helena laughed. The girl finally disentangled herself from Ollie, who sat down on the ground, looking defeated. “It’s for Alyss!”

Alyss snapped her head at her again as something tugged down in her stomach. “Me?” she asked, as if there was any other Alyss there.

“Yeah, I—“ She stumbled forward, still trying her best to hide whatever object she was holding, “Well, me ‘n Ollie, actually, we—We made you, a... thing!”

Alyss crouched down to her height, not even trying to conceal the grin on her face. “What thing?”

“I’ll show you.” Evie commanded, “Close your eyes!”

Alyss obeyed, holding out her hand. Softly, with a chuckle from the girl, something soft fell into it. She closed her palm around it.

“Can I look now?”

“Yep!”

Alyss opened her eyes, and it took her a moment to understand what she was holding. The Thing was made from black leather, and had a rather crudely-tied knot on top. there was a piece attached that was quite clearly supposed to be a half-disk, but ended up just looking like a misshapen square. The whole piece screamed a child’s art, and Alyss loved it even before she realized what it was.

“You made me an eyepatch?” she asked, with the widest smile so there was not a chance they’d think she didn’t like it. “And can I keep it?”

“Yes! And yes!” Evie threw her hands up, beaming. Alyss turned to look at Ollie, but she was no longer there – instead, she was halfway inside a house. Before disappearing, she only signed, So you can be a sea wolf! and stepped through the door. Alyss turned back to Evie.

“Thank you,” she said. “It’s wonderful. I’ll put it on.”

Evie didn’t wait for it, though, following in the footsteps of her mother, squeezing her in a hug, albeit far less crippling. Afterwards, she just turned on her heel and sped back to her mother, jumping into the cart. Alyss followed her with her eye, slipping on the eyepatch, as promised. There was no difference in her vision, not like she’d expected it, but it did feel safer, somehow. Like her eye’s concealment gave her a little more privacy than she had previously. It was then that she decided she really liked it.

“Well,” Helena said, taking her daughter’s hand. “Thank you for everything,” she nodded to Malcolm. “I suppose this is it.”

“Safe travels,” wished Malcolm. From all around him came farewells and godspeeds, including from Alyss, who raised a hand to answer the frantic waving of Evie.

Then, something surprised her. She saw Will – on Tug – following the cart. Before they could leave, she jumped down the stairs.

“Hey!” she called, putting her hands on her hips in feigned anger. “Running from me already, Will Treaty?”

Will jumped off his horse, motioning for the cart that he’d catch up with them, and came to wrap his arms around Alyss.

“Sorry if I startled you,” he said, shrugging apologetically. “I mentioned I was going to accompany them to the outskirts of Grimsdell and a little further. You were reading, probably didn’t hear me.”

“Oh, yes, could be,” she agreed. “Why, though?”

“I just want to make sure they get on the best possible track home,” he said. “They don’t know these lands. Well—“ He shrugged, “neither do I, but I am a Ranger, after all. We wouldn’t want them to wander for longer than they must, would we?” Alyss nodded, and he cupped her face to kiss her. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back before sunset.”

“You better,” she told him, and, with a chuckle, he was up on Tug and leaving.

Once she came back to her spot by the door, she realized there was something nagging her. It wasn’t that Will was leaving, she came to understand, he’d be back soon anyway. What was it, she wondered, watching him straighten his back in the saddle, bouncing happily to Tug’s step.

The answer hit her on the back of her head, as if she’d been kicked. She’d have to be there with him in a bit – a month or so, in fact. And she wasn’t even close to it yet. Tug’s calm gait was effortless for Will to handle – as would his canter and galloping be.

And Alyss hadn’t even mounted a horse yet.

Pressing her lips together, she spun on her heel and walked back into the horse, frustrated with the lack of progress, Helena’s recent words ringing in her head - I know you want everything at once, I know it. But you can’t have that. Oh, but she wanted it, truly. So bad.

Once she was inside, though, the thoughts were wiped from her head at the sight of Sig and Ollie sitting together. She’d wrapped her arms around him instead, now, tears glimmering on her cheeks, eyes closed. Sig looked up at her quietly, and shrugged. His canes were rested against the chair, and he had one arm wrapped around Ollie’s shoulders.

“Ollie,” Alyss called quietly. Ollie opened her eyes to look at her, but didn’t move, pouting. “What’s wrong?”

She’s gone , answered Ollie, hands quivering a little. I liked her.

“Oh, dear,” Alyss muttered, kneeling down in front of her. “I understand.”

Truly, she did – Ollie was in more of a predicament than she was. It would’ve been difficult for her to travel in this world – not everyone knew sign language, Alyss was a great example: even if she’d learned it before, she could barely recall it once she’d met Ollie. So, she’d likely also never see her friend again, unless Evie decided to check in once she was older, which was, in all honesty, far more likely – but it’d also take years.

Then, Alyss came up with the idea.

“Have you thought of writing letters to her?” She asked. Ollie snapped her fingers No. “Well, it could solve this. You could talk without actually having to see each other, and then, when she’s older, she could come visit you.”

Ollie hung her head. I can’t read.

“That’s alright, Ollie,” Sig said, catching on to Alyss’s idea fairly quickly. He tugged on her shoulder reassuringly. “There’s no shame in that. I can write – I’ll teach you. You’re a kid, bound to get with it real fast.”

You’re a kid yourself , Alyss thought, with a smile spreading across her face.

“Would you like that?” Alyss asked. Ollie raised a hand – not to sign, just to wipe off her tears – and nodded furiously.

“It’s settled, then!” Alyss clapped her hands together – one palm still stung a little. “While I’m here, maybe I could help you two out a little.” She was well-aware how easily mistakes grew into one’s blood, and she was more or less the authority here.

“Thank you,” Sig said, and Ollie repeated the same thing. Alyss waved a hand.

“Don’t mention it,” she said, patting Ollie on the head. “I’m glad you made a friend.”

Ollie jumped from her seat, dragging poor unsuspecting Sig onto the ground, and pulled Alyss into a hug. She returned it gladly before leaning down to check on Sig, who was already getting up, muttering.

“Just you wait!” he called to Ollie, and it was clear to Alyss his anger was faked. He reached for his canes while Ollie, laughing, bounced out of the room. “Just you wait until I get there! Vile traitor! Rotten apple of a sister!”

Alyss chuckled, watching him make his way to Ollie as fast as he could.

Then, she was alone again – or so she thought.

“Alyss?” a voice asked from behind her. She turned around to see Malcolm, who seemed to have been standing here a minute already.

“Hello,” she said, a little unsure. What did he want? “Is anything wrong?”

“No, that’s—“ he shrugged. “That’s what I came to ask you, actually. You seemed a little off during our little goodbye ceremony. Once Will left, I gather.”

“Oh,” she said, remembering how quickly she’d disappeared. “Right, no, nothing – just, I had some thoughts.”

Malcolm opened his arms in an invitation. “Anything you’d care to share?”

Alyss thought for a moment on how to better phrase it, and soon realized there was no need for sugar-coating.

“Say, Malcolm,” she began carefully, “how likely is it that you could make a little space for me in the backyard tomorrow?”

“I could probably do that,” he agreed, brows furrowed. “But it depends. What would you want to do?”

A smile spread across her face. “I’d like to ride a horse.”

 


 

Alyss Mainwaring could do many things. Many wonderful, wonderful things, according to pretty much whoever met her, but especially her husband. She was as intelligent as she was creative, and she was proud, just like every Diplomat, that she could prick a person’s eye out with a concealed tool, be it a knife, needle or hairpin (the hairpin was the favourite of many – including Pauline, but Alyss herself had always been a master of blades). She was proud of being able to recite both her Service oaths and wedding vows roused in the middle of the night, and she could name well-over one hundred historically important figures of Araluen, gods know how many minor ones. She was proud because she knew four languages and could blend into a crowd, she could become someone else entirely in seconds.

Alyss was never particularly proud of the distances she could run or the amount of opponents she could throw down – the numbers weren’t bad by any means, but she always seemed to value her mind over her body.

Perhaps that hadn’t exactly changed, but Alyss could tell things were different. She was proud now, fiercely.

She could walk, she could run, she could even leap some distances again; it was quite something to be proud of, Malcolm told her, considering her wounds. She was sitting on the stairs outside the house, her legs crossed one over the other. It was the position she’d mindlessly revert back to before the incident; and she seemed to now be doing the same thing, and she was proud of it. It felt like exploring a new body and discovering all the things that made you – well, you. She was proud of being able to even take a step without her head spinning, so once she could take care of herself with relative ease and transition into a jog, it felt like everything around her was just a little brighter. Better, somehow.

The past month, ever since Will’s arrival, had been marked by sweat and exhaustion, but by dim happiness at the same time. He’d been there for most of the time she was doing anything to be considered. She’d gone climbing with him (didn’t end well, but now she knew her hands still had enough strength to hold onto a branch falling down, and that Will still had a high screaming voice), she’d gone running with him (he insisted on carrying her back; not that she was that tired or anything, they both just liked the process), things like that.

The only thing she hadn’t done yet was gone riding with him – she hadn’t sat on a horse, period, and that was about to change.

Sig, who was sitting next to her, noticed she wasn’t listening to yet another one of his jokes, and pouted.

“You know, if I’m that bad, you can just tell me,” he said, feigning offense. “Malcolm does all the time. I can take criticism.”

“Malcolm tells you to shut up because when you’re not showering yourself in over-exaggerated praises, you’re deprecating every feature of yourself you can name,” Alyss answered absent-mindedly.

“I know, I have a great sense of humour! The world just doesn’t recognize my genius.” He winked at her, but she wasn’t looking at him. “That explains why you’re not listening to me, you know.”

“See? Over-exaggerated praise.” She gave him a smile, reaching out to ruffle his hair. It was easy to forget he was a child. “Next you’re gonna tell me you’d kick me, but your legs just aren’t ready for the commitment.”

He doubled over laughing. “I’m taking that! I’m taking it!”

“I didn’t mean it like that!” Alyss snorted, dragging him to sit upright. “I’m sorry, I was a little distracted. I wasn’t ignoring you on purpose.”

“I know, I was joking.” Sig leaned back, supporting himself on his arms, looking over her. “What’s on your mind?”

She shifted in her seat. “Oh, you know,” she muttered. “Not that Will’s bringing me Tug for a ride or anything.”

He was indeed, which was why she was in so much thought. She hadn’t exactly ridden Tug before – Ranger horses technically weren’t meant to be ridden by anyone except Rangers, and Alyss was quite clearly not one of them. It wasn’t like Malcolm had horses for days, though, so Tug had to do, and Will promised he was a calm fellow. She trusted his word. She wasn’t sure, though, how Tug was going to handle bringing them both back to Redmont alone – Will had assured her, again, that he had a plan.

She smiled involuntarily, while Sig next to her slapped his hand to his forehead, hunching in his seat again.

“Ah! ... I’m an idiot. I forgot. I don’t deserve to live.”

“Self-deprecation,” Alyss scolded.

“Writing me a biography?”

Sig squeaked and jolted forward, sliding down the stairs, while Alyss merely turned her head at the voice of her husband.

“Sure, dear,” she replied, standing up to hug him. Apologizing, he helped Sig up, while the poor boy was muttering obscure threats under his breath. “Find Tug yet?”

“Wasn’t that hard to locate, considering I told him to stay put,” Will told her, letting Sig go. He slipped back into the house so quickly Alyss almost forgot he’d taken his canes – she had the suspicion that, as confident as Sig was, in the end, Rangers still somehow rubbed him the wrong way. She wouldn’t blame him for it – the Corps did, after all, build up quite the reputation for themselves over the years.

Tug, who’d trotted serenely from behind the corner, pressed his nose against Will’s back. The words Alyss didn’t hear were Next time, I’ll gladly run away, just to spite you.

Will snorted, turning to push him away. “As if!”

Tug looked at him with his wise eyes.

I’m telling you, this is not a good idea.

Will rolled his eyes.

“What’s going on?” asked Alyss, stepping forward. “Can I get on him yet?”

“We’re in no rush, Alyss,” he said, taking Tug by the reins to lead him away from the house, further into the clearing. “You’re gonna break something if you hurry.”

Once they stood farther away from the people, Alyss looked at Will expectantly. She did know how to ride a horse, of course, but he’d been incredibly insistent on being there – and, seeing as Tug was, after all, his horse, and falling was inevitable at some points, she understood.

“Now, then,” Will breathed out, halting Tug, who froze in place in anticipation, his tail lazily swishing to the sides. “Give me your arm.” Once she complied, he pressed her palm gently to the saddle. “Keep it there.” Grabbing the stirrup, he measured it across her entire arm and let it go. He took her hand again, allowing her to drop it. Something jumped in her – she hadn’t ridden for a considerable time at this point, and she felt a little bit like a young girl on her first horse again.

“Okay.” He nodded to her, handing her the reins. “Try and get up there, now.”

He stepped back a little, watching her put one foot in the stirrup and brace herself for the jump when he looked at Tug and fell back forward, throwing his hands up in horror.

“Wait, wait, wait!” he called desperately, and Alyss froze, then stepped back down in confusion. “Wait, wait... Oh, gods. Oh, gods. I can’t believe I’m so goddamn dense, Alyss. I can’t believe you married me.”

Alyss burst out laughing from sheer surprise, raising a hand to run it through his hair. “What is it?”

“He needs a password. Try to ride him without one and he’ll throw you off,” he recounted. “It’s why Ranger horses never get stolen.”

Understanding flashed in Alyss’s eye, but she just chuckled some more, turning to pat Tug on the back. “You almost broke all my bones, boy?”

Don’t be ridiculous , Tug snorted in Will’s head, obviously to Alyss, despite the fact she couldn’t hear it. I might not let horse thieves near me, but I’m not about to assassinate people I know with no sensibility or reason.

Will bowed his head into his cloak, and Alyss’s eyes darted towards him.

“What’s he saying?” she asked, well-aware of the conversations.

“He’s a clever man,” Will said, glaring at him. “Or, well, a clever horse.”

A Ranger horse, didn’t you say?

“Yeah, yeah.” Will pulled Alyss closer, muttering, “Tell him, ‘Do you mind?’”

“Do you mind?” Alyss repeated.

Tug snorted at him again. Don’t you say it.

“Not to me,” Will said, a huge grin on his face. “To the horse.”

I swear, Will. Turning to look at Alyss once she leaned closer to his ear, Tug looked incredibly pleased with himself . No, I don’t mind.

Will was pretty sure he could see his own insides by then, so he decided to cut down on the eye rolling – he wasn’t Halt, after all. “Okay. You can get up there now.”

Cautious in case he remembers something else he’d forgotten, Alyss gave Tug a pat on the side before hoisting herself up on the stirrup and throwing her leg over the horse. That wasn’t the difficult part, Will reasoned. It was the riding itself that was supposed to be a challenge. She seemed to know it, too, although she did lean down slightly in case Tug got any ideas while they were still supposed to be standing in place.

“Can I?” Alyss asked, unsure herself if she was addressing Tug or Will.

Will smiled. She barely touched Tug’s sides with her heels, and he gladly went on forward, probably having been waiting to stretch his legs. Alyss was used to riding taller horses, but Tug was obedient and safe, and seemed to sense what she was thinking, too. She felt familiar with him, even more so than she did with some other horses she’d ridden for a while – maybe because he was a Ranger horse, or maybe because he was Will’s.

She didn’t need to walk for long before Tug sped up to a relatively lazy trot, going in wide circles around Will so he wouldn’t lose them in the grasses but Alyss’s head wouldn’t start spinning either. Her hands were warm on the reins as she fell back onto what she knew, onto years of experience that were simply impossible to just forget in a few months. Sure, she felt like she had a new coat of skin on at times, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t handle a horse.

She’s lighter than you, you know, Tug told Will after they’d been at it for a while.

“Well, maybe I like carrying her!” Will called after Tug, who snorted and threw his head to the side, making Alyss settle him just like she would have to a less, well, self-aware horse.

“You what?” Alyss shouted back, barely able to hear him over the distance separating them.

“I like carrying you!” Will gladly owned up to it, and she laughed so hard she almost threw herself out of the saddle.

“Likewise!” Bit by bit, she neared him, and Tug carried himself a little straighter.

Once they were within arm’s reach, Will called to her, “Maybe you should hold off a canter until tomorrow?”

She sped Tug up to a canter. Tug seemed pleased with the decision. Will clicked his tongue, though, equally disapproving.

“Your thighs will give you hell,” he warned, but she only shrugged. If she was on this horse, the least she could do was get the most of it. Before she could get farther, though, Will shouted again, “Alyss!”

“Hm?”

“Don’t gallop.” He sounded serious. “You’ll have more days to ride him. Don’t gallop yet. Trust me.”

She stared at him for a moment, and nodded. Will was right, after all, she’d have more days.

In the meantime, she turned to Tug, enjoying the canter.

The wind was free on her face, ruffling her clothes and whatever hair she had left on her head, and Alyss thought to herself – this was true happiness. Will was right behind her, it was warm, it was spring, and although her legs were already getting sore, she was not about to get down anytime soon.

She lost track of time rather quickly, going back and forth and around. Tug under her didn’t seem to get tired, listened to her every touch and silent command – he carried her through the field and the woods, briefly, until he heard Will calling her back.

It took her a long time to settle the smile that had surfaced on her face. The sun was kissing her cheeks, and it felt so good not to be limited – she’d expected horse riding to be one of the skills that would be affected by her only having one eye, but she found it didn’t matter much. She flew. She was flying.

When her time came to an end, she felt like she could’ve ridden for hours more.

“Alyss, love,” Will called, finally, reaching out. Tug obediently slowed down to a trot and then a walk, stopping completely by the time he was standing by Will. Alyss supposed that, even if she was the one riding, Tug was Will’s horse to heart either way. Will looked up at her, smiling. “It’s about time to go, I'd say.”

Alyss furrowed her brows and turned to look at the sun – surely enough, the sky was dyed red of the evening, and the rising tips of the forest were beginning to darken. She did not know how the day managed to pass so quickly. It felt like she’d barely done anything – a walk, a trot, a canter, not even a gallop yet, and the sun was already setting?

“Felt like minutes, didn’t it?” Will asked with a knowing look in his eyes. She turned to him, reluctantly throwing her leg over the saddle.

“It did,” she agreed, jumping down.

She didn’t expect how hard the impact would be on her legs, and ended up on her knees. The hit wasn’t that bad – the grass was soft, after all. Will yelped louder than she did and scrambled to help her up.

“You should’ve told me you were tired,” he muttered to her, holding her by the arm. She escaped his grasp to hand him Tug’s reins, pressing her lips together in a passive, but not unhappy face.

“Come, now. It’s as you said – minutes.” She slipped her free hand into his, hiding the fact she was leaning on him the slightest bit. She didn’t remember riding being so exhausting, but then again, she’d never ridden with her full-body burns before. “Let’s go back inside.”

Once Tug was free of bounds and possibly napping, the couple stumbled into the house, where Will received a stern word or two from Malcolm about healing and recovery – as hard as Alyss tried to defend him, Malcolm didn’t relent, instead turned to her. She should’ve known better than to push herself, he claimed gesturing in her general direction wildly.

It was easy to tell he wasn’t exactly being serious. Or, at the very least, he was being lenient about it. Alyss got away with being told she should've considered the fact that she was going to work herself back into a half-buriable state.

“It’s as if we’re kids again,” Will told her when they were in bed, facing each other, and she couldn’t tell whether he was content with it or not. He had a strand of her hair in his hands, messing it up and combing through it with his fingers again, over and over, not looking at her. Alyss gently pulled her hair out of his grasp. “Except instead of Mistress Aggie, we’ve got Mister Malcolm.”

“Let it go,” she said, meaning both the strand and Malcolm. “Mistress Aggie isn’t that bad. It’s not her fault you and Horace were constantly at each other’s throats and she had to dash out punishments left and right all the time. She was only trying to keep you away from early murder.”

“Perhaps,” Will agreed, closing his eyes and snuggling closer to her. He was always warm, and she was mostly too cold the past few months. “But at least Mistress Aggie told stories.”

“That, she did,” Alyss nodded, putting their foreheads together. Will was about to doze off, so she offered, quietly, “I can tell you a story, if you’d like. From when we were kids.”

“Oh.” He opened his eyes to look at her. He seemed excited. “Yeah. Any one. They’re all good. Please.”

“Okay.”

She would hardly remember what she said then, and Will soon fell under anyway. It took her far longer to fall asleep, though, especially once Will turned over in his sleep and she took a moment to wrap her hands around his shoulders for a while.

Tracing the long, deep lines in Will’s back with her fingertips, Alyss got to thinking – it took him a long time to be able to show anyone his back, or to be able to stretch normally, since his hands would inevitably feel the reminders of his slavery. As well as he’d done in battle, it wasn’t unusual for him to waste his energy quicker and be more sore after training, and then there was his shame.

She was well-familiar with his shame. At first he got it ingrained into his brain that, somehow, he could’ve prevented his use of warmweed. A marvellously stupid thought, everyone around him told him, but there was no changing his mind, at least for some time. If only , he’d say, if only I’d been this way or done this very specific thing I never would’ve thought of at the time, maybe, maybe ...

It took him an even longer time to get over his shame, to realize that it was fruitless and illogical, and to overcome it. It wasn’t as easy as stating that there was nothing to be ashamed of, it was a process. At the end of which, finally, Alyss could surprise him by kissing his back before bed, making him laugh rather than recoil.

After his shame came the worry that he never fully buried. She saw how hard his hands would shake when he held the warmweed salve all Rangers were equipped with, or how defensively he’d wrap his arms around himself once anyone even mentioned warmweed or addiction. It wasn’t yet time, as many years as it’d been, to live it down.

Alyss wondered if it’d be the same for her. Of course, she had no luxury of putting on a shirt that’d fully hide her burns, but she also didn’t feel ashamed – she was at peace with the fact that, if she could go back and change something, she wouldn’t (apart from, of course, jumping out the window along with Evie, but that was beside the point).

So she’s skipped the shame part, what else was left? Will loved her as she was. She was sure Pauline would be proud of her, but her own heart was uneasy, and she couldn’t pinpoint the reason.

Must’ve been the worry, she decided, and moved closer to wrap her arms around Will. She held him close until early in the morning, which was when she fell asleep.

 


 

Alyss got off Tug so quickly he barely managed to slow down from his gallop, and her feet drew two deep lines in the ground, scattering pebbles, but she barely felt anything. Tug turned to poke at her back, clearly disapproving, but she spun around to pet him on the nose before whipping her head to the side to look at Will, who was approaching from the house.

“You’ll wear yourself out,” he called, reaching out to her. “And you’ll scare Tug while you’re at it.”

She chuckled, taking him by the hand. It was a nice morning, and she had plans – well, she and Will had plans, more like. Plans that needed to be shared with Malcolm, which was what Will, presumably, went out here to beckon her to.

The healing of her burns took her by surprise, almost, when Will kissed her shoulder. It felt nice – soft, no sensation of scraping or anything like it. She knew she’d recover, slowly, albeit some parts of her would never look or feel the same, but Malcolm and Sig and everyone had helped her a tremendous amount.

It was then that she understood the full extent of the fact that she just jumped from Tug’s saddle and didn’t even hurt herself.

“You’re smiling like a madwoman,” Will noted, and she snorted, hitting him lightly on the shoulder.

“Am I not allowed to be happy?”

“At least share what you’re happy because of so I can be happy with you, then,” he told her, crossing his arms.

She linked hers with his, leaning on him as they walked back to the house, Tug trotting lazily behind them. “Oh, come now. I was only thinking of how I feel a little bit like I did before.”

Will’s face dropped and he turned to put his hands on her upper arms, bowing his head to look at her in concern. “Does something hurt?”

“No!” Alyss swatted his hands away, laughing. “I mean before the... Before I left for Gallica, I mean.”

“Oh. That’s good, then?” he asked.

“Great.”

“Great. That’s great.” A smile stretched over his lips too, then. “You should tell that to Malcolm. Maybe he’ll feel more compelled to let you go then.”

They had hatched a plan, him and Alyss. Once she’d feel good enough on Tug to ride for a bigger journey, Will would send her off to Castle Macindaw – Orman, as they’d heard, had been seeking her out for quite some time. It was a rather good choice, they both agreed; not only would Alyss prove to herself she could handle travel again, but she’d also ease herself into Diplomat business once more, and she’d have the chance to catch Xander, hopefully. She was hellbent on speaking to him ever after she first woke up at Malcolm’s. It was unfair, in her honest opinion, to leave a good deed unacknowledged.

“Malcolm can’t stop me from going anywhere,” she huffed, and Will clicked his tongue.

“See, Alyss, you may think so, but some people are just like that.” He shrugged gesturing at himself. “You can disobey Malcolm’s advice the same way I can disobey Halt’s. I can’t. And if I do, it doesn’t end well.”

“I reckon if you hadn’t ignored Halt’s advice when you lot were in Picta, he would’ve found his rest somewhere in a ditch along the way,” she muttered, remembering her then to-be-husband’s quivering voice from years ago as he told the story – He said we should’ve left him, Alyss, where he’d collapsed. Just, up and left him. I couldn’t understand. I still can’t understand .

Feeling a little under the weather all of a sudden, Alyss sighed and stopped just before the door to pull Will into a hug. Tug watched them from behind for a while before shaking his head and turning to go on a walk before the trip. Will, in the meantime, was warm, Alyss found, as always.

“Has he written a letter?” Alyss asked, kissing his nose. “Back, I mean. He and Pauline.”

“They have, a few days ago,” he recalled, raising a hand to his chin. “They wanted to ask about your arrival again.” Will brushed a strand of hair off his face. “Real impatient, aren’t they?”

“You’d be writing me every day were you in their place,” she teased him, shaking her head when he opened his mouth. “Don’t lie to me.”

“I can assure you, Halt is probably the only one daring enough to hold Pauline back from doing just that,” he chuckled. “I told them we’d come as soon as Malcolm said you could.”

“Didn’t you say there were exceptions in taking advice?” Alyss sighed, putting her head against his shoulder – she had to bow down significantly for it.

“There are exceptions with Halt,” he muttered into her hair. “But I can’t promise the same thing with Malcolm.”

“He knows everything,” Alyss said, drawing back to smile down at him. “We see eye to eye on this, no?”

“He knows everything,” Will agreed gladly.

Before they could let go of each other, the door creaked and opened, and – speak of the devil , Alyss almost exclaimed.

“Hello there, sticks of a stem,” Malcolm greeted dryly, probably referring to the fact that they were still in each other’s arms, but the tone soon livened up. “Sig tells me you’ve been whispering about me behind the corner? He claims you’re plotting to flay me and make me into a Ranger cloak, but I’m sceptical.”

“The flaying is optional,” Will replied without missing a beat, deliberately refraining from letting Alyss go. “I could sew you into a rather decent cloak as you are.”

Malcolm raised his eyebrows, shaking his finger at him. “I have a dozen poisons for every year you’ve lived to choose from, boy. Be careful with the soup you eat today.”

Alyss disentangled herself from Will, laughing in her crystal clear voice meant for defusing every situation – not that it was anything more than a joke in the first place – and came to take Malcolm by the arm.

“We’ve been meaning to talk to you indeed, actually,” she confessed, leading him inside as Will followed suit. “Ollie told me Orman had been around, wanted something to do with me – Sig confirmed it, so I wanted to ask you.”

Malcolm nodded, pressing his lips together as they took their seats around a table. Ollie herself had been sitting on a chair already, and she straightened her back, resting her head on her elbows so she could see what was going on. Interested, she stared each of them up and down with big eyes.

“They weren’t lying,” Malcolm admitted. “I didn’t let him because you were— Hm. You weren’t well enough just yet. You were barely even...” he gestured expressively, and Alyss gave a sour nod.

“Barely alive.”

He nodded and went on, “But he said you might have some information that would’ve been useful to him. Something about that cousin of his or something.”

“Keren?” Will and Alyss shared a curious look over the table. “What does he think Alyss knows of Keren?”

“I wasn’t willing to concern myself with that just yet,” Malcolm told them, firm in tone. “I did send him a letter saying you would be fine, though. I figured the fact that he hasn’t shown up yet means that he’s either found what he needed or he’s just letting you decide when to reach out to him.”

“That’s rather polite of him,” Alyss said, and Will cocked his head to the side, doubtful.

“That’s what we wanted to talk about,” he reminded her.

“Oh! Yes, that’s it.” She nodded, focusing her full attention to Malcolm. “Malcolm, what do you say I ride to Macindaw tomorrow, to see what Orman really wants with me?”

Malcolm looked up, in thought, a little taken aback by the proposition. Ollie jumped from her chair, looking at him expectantly, lips slightly parted. Alyss motioned for her to sit back down, which she obliged to.

“You have been riding for over two weeks, right?” he questioned.

Alyss grinned. “Upwards of three, more like.”

“And how is she doing?” he asked Will.

He shrugged. “As good as new. Only a little more sore afterwards.” Alyss kicked him under the table, but he ignored it. He wouldn’t sugar-coat her condition, of course, not that Alyss particularly wanted him to.

“Well, then,” Malcolm said, clasping his hands together and leaning back. “I don’t see why not. I’m assuming that’s not the only thing you want out of the trip? Besides the further training?”

“I was going to ask him to lend me a horse,” Alyss said. Will nodded – it had been his idea.  Tug was good, he’d told Alyss, but not so good as to carry the both of them across half the country and still be able to walk afterward.

“Hm. That’s not unreasonable, especially if he wants a favour from you,” Malcolm agreed. After a pause, he added, a little quieter, “I take it that you’re thinking of coming back home soon, then?”

“Yes,” they replied in unison, and Ollie stirred next to her.

You’re leaving? she asked, lightning fast. Alyss froze for a moment before replying.

We are, she signed rather than said it out loud. It felt right. Ollie pressed her lips together, eyebrows high in dismay. I’m sorry .

Ollie nodded, looking down, and scuttled under the table and away. Alyss turned to her, debating whether to call her back, but figured it’d be alright. They did have some more things to discuss with Malcolm, too.

“What’s with her?” Will asked, following her with his eyes until she disappeared outside, too.

“She’s my friend,” Alyss replied simply and turned back to Malcolm. “Do you think that’s possible? For me to leave soon, that is.”

He hummed. “When were you thinking?”

Alyss looked at Will. Will looked at Alyss. “A few days,” he suggested. She nodded.

Malcolm took a breath, considered it, and: “It’s entirely possible, if you so decide.”

“That’s fortunate,” Alyss breathed a sigh of relief, Will taking her hand under the table. “Thank you, Malcolm, for all you’ve done for us.”

“You don’t need to thank me, much less twice,” Malcolm bristled. Will chuckled at it – the man really was the very definition of humility. “But, if you are leaving in a few, I’ll have to excuse myself now. We can’t send you out empty-handed.”

“Oh, please,” Will called after him as the little man scrambled away from the table.

“Yes, you’ve already helped so much,” Alyss seconded. Malcolm waved a hand, dismissing them, and disappeared.

The couple stared at each other for a moment, and a wide smile spread over Alyss’s face.

“So, we’re going home,” she said softly. “We really are going home.”

“I don’t think you’re prepared for Pauline,” Will joked. “Don’t expect to be going on any mission for right about a decade is my advice.”

“Oh, come on.” Alyss chuckled. “Diplomats disappear all the time, it’s hardly an odd occurrence. As smart and witty and perfect as we are,” she tried to swallow down more laughter as Will nodded to every hyperbolized quality with no trace of humour anywhere in his face, “We like to get distracted more often than not.”

“And what distractions you find,” he muttered, squeezing her hand. “But, Alyss, this isn’t... You know. You didn’t come home for weeks. You nearly died. This was real. This was...” He let her go and gestured widely. “This was far too real.”

Alyss stood up to lean down and kiss both his eyelids gently. He remained shut-eyed, and she messed his hair up with her hands. “It’s alright now, though,” she told him, and he wrapped his arms around her waist. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Except tomorrow,” he pointed out bleakly. She laughed.

“Only for a bit. I doubt I’ll find another conveniently burning inn with another conveniently trapped little girl in the few hours it’ll take me to get to Orman.”

“Spit thrice over your shoulder,” he told her, a smile in his voice. She mimicked the words, mocking, and he only held her closer. “Now it’s okay.”

“You’re a walking superstition and you’ve got your superstitions.” Alyss drew back and beckoned him to come with her. “I’m the ‘reasonable’ of this relationship, I suppose. That’s why you took me to Grimsdell the first time, huh?”

“That’s why I married you,” he grumbled behind her, and she turned around to smack him lightly on the shoulder. “Hah.”

They linked their arms together and didn’t let go until the next morning, when the sun was hanging up high. Although the spring days were warm, as soon as she was on Tug and in the forest, away from Malcolm’s home, having waved him away, her side felt unnaturally chilly.

 


 

Her memory of Castle Macindaw had been foggy – of course, the large square-like structure had clung to her mind, as did the more significant inhabitants, but the smaller details – like the peculiar smell of molten iron mixing with pinetrees, or how the entire castle loomed menacingly with its grim atmosphere instead of merely standing there. Despite all that plus the two fully-armed guards at the gates, Alyss didn’t feel even the smidge of intimidation that she had when she was younger.

As soon as she approached, one of the guards stepped forward to receive her, spear pointed forward.

“Who goes there?” he called, and Alyss would’ve gladly stepped down from her horse at that point, but a little bit of an impression usually went a long way.

“Lady Alyss Mainwaring, Diplomatic Service of Redmont,” she said. “I am under the assumption Lord Orman is expecting me.”

“May I see your laurel branch, Lady Alyss?” he requested, which was entirely expected of him. Alyss grit her teeth, though.

“It was ruined on my way here,” she said – and it was not a lie. “I do not have it at the moment.”

“I see,” the guard nodded, unfazed. “I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to step out of the saddle and wait with me until my comrade checks in with Lord Orman, then. If the fact that he’s expecting you is correct, you will be hosted.” He stepped back and muttered a command to his fellow guard, who nodded and turned around, rushing toward the castle.

The first guard then turned to her. She jumped down and led Tug forward, hands clear to see.

“Are you armed, Lady Alyss?” he questioned.

She smiled at him. “Naturally.” A glimmer shone in his eyes.

“Naturally.” He put his spear down slightly, as to indicate she could come closer. She stood where she was, though. “That is an awfully small horse for someone of your stature, if you do not mind me saying, my Lady.”

“I don’t mind,” she answered cheerfully. “It’s not my horse.”

The man furrowed his brows, unsure of how to take that. “Did you... Take this horse from anyone, then?”

“Oh, but of course.” She continued to beam at him. Alyss rather liked making conversation, especially when she could make the person doubt everything she was saying. “I took it off my husband.”

“I... see.”

“My real horse is grazing away at the fields in the south of Araluen now, most likely,” she said, a dreamy note in her voice. The guard didn’t even answer this time. She kept on smiling at him. Only now that she’d come closer could he see her scars, still-healing burns. Alyss’s smile faltered when he turned his head away.

“Lady Alyss!” came a familiar voice, and she turned to see a rather small man scuttling over to her with the other guard in tow. “At last! We thought you’d left already.”

“Xander,” she said, and her voice sounded so incredibly soft, even to her. “Hello, Xander.”

Once he stood in front of her, to his surprise, she stepped forward and hugged him, if only for a moment.

“I never got the chance to thank you,” she said. “You left before I was up and running.”

He shook his head in disbelief, staring her up and down. “I cannot say it was intentional. I have many things to do these days.”

“You were out there to find me, I heard,” she prompted, and he nodded.

“How about I bring you inside and Lord Orman can tell you all you need to know,” he offered, and Alyss graciously accepted his arm.

“A moment,” she asked and turned to the guards that were fiddling with Tug’s reins, unsure of where to take him. “Thank you, sirs. I’ll be back in no time – would you please be so kind as to take good care of him while I’m gone?”

“We’ll bring him to the stables,” the second guard promised, and Alyss nodded.

“Please.”

And they were off – all the way to the castle itself, Xander made sure to tell her loads of how much better she looked than when he last saw her, up until she got fed up with it and told him, calmly:

“Well, I sure hope I look better – I was about to die when you last saw me, Xander.” That silenced him rather well. Using the pause, she asked further, “Do you have any idea what Orman wants with me?”

“Not the foggiest,” he answered, gesturing for the guards to open the doors leading into the castle itself. Alyss smiled, following after him, easily able to tell when someone was lying to her.

“Oh, please,” she chuckled. “Are you really going to leave me in the dark like this? At least give me the gist of it. I’ve heard it concerns his late cousin, is that much correct?”

Xander regarded her for a moment as they climbed stairwell after stairwell. “Well, yes,” he finally answered, “But I believe Lord Orman would prefer to tell you himself.”

She nodded. “You haven’t changed much at all,” she told him, not unkindly. “He’s lucky to have you, Xander.”

Xander, who was probably not that used to praise, went red in the ears and hurried on, making casual conversation for the rest of the way there. Once they were finally in front of Orman’s door, he knocked shortly before letting her in.

Orman was sitting at the table, neck-deep in paperwork, as were most Lords these days, Alyss found. Not unlike the Diplomats, too, she thought sourly. When he raised his head to look at his guest though, his eyes brightened slightly, glance barely darting over Alyss’s burns. He stood up to greet her, opening his arms – he was, as expected, shorter than her, but that didn’t seem to discomfort him at all.

“Lady Alyss,” he said, motioning for her to take the chair in front of the table. She picked up her skirts and nestled gracefully against the back of the soft chair, nodding to him. “It’s delightful to see you in recovery.” He dismissed Xander with a glance, and the man bowed his head before slipping out the door, leaving the two in solitude.

“Likewise, Lord Orman,” Alyss answered easily, clasping her hands together over her crossed legs. “I’ve come across the odd news of you wishing to see me about Sir Keren, after all this time?”

Orman pushed away his paper and quill, shrugging apologetically. At least, Alyss thought, he paid attention to his Couriers – many other Barons would not even concern themselves with the thought.

“Indeed I do, after all this time,” he confirmed. “My apologies. I hadn’t meant to disturb the assignment your Service gave you, but I was running out of time to take care of my little problem.”

“I suppose it won’t be too forward to ask what exactly your problem is, my Lord?”

He gave her a weary smile. “And I suppose you wish to get some rest and go home as soon as possible, so it is not too forward at all.” He plucked a piece of paper out of the pile, lips pressed together into a firm line. “There have been reports of—Well. They’re not exactly reports as they are actual facts concerning the state of Macindaw. Rebels have been setting up camps - nothing we cannot handle, but I'd like to avoid bloodshed as much as possible.”

“Only Macindaw, my Lord?” she clarified, and he glanced up in thought. “Norgate is not in any direct peril then, I take it?”

“For as long as I’m in this castle, it isn’t,” Orman promised. “But the hard part is keeping myself here. My darling cousin’s,” and his voice clearly told of this cousin not being that dear after all, “sympathizers, let’s say, have been trying to take the reins in running the fief. My goal right now is to find out who they are, where their main gathering points are and how to make sure they don’t succeed.”

“And how do I come into this?” Alyss questioned. He raised a hand.

“I am sorry, truly, to have to bring some undoubtedly unpleasant memories into this conversation,” he apologized, and she nodded. “But when Keren was interrogating you, did he mention anything himself? Any names, any places, anything, really, that comes to mind. We would use that to… discourage, let's say, the men that think themselves to be vigilantes.”

“Hm.”

Alyss remembered the flash of the stone in her eye. The numbing feeling all the way down to her fingertips, her mind under the influence of near-supernatural tricks. She remembered how cold everything felt afterwards, how she’d lost her senses for a while, having been rendered unable to control her own body and thought – it had been worse, perhaps, than the state her burns had put her in.

“If you need time to think,” Orman told her quietly, “I’d be happy to—“

“It’s alright, Lord Orman,” she replied, and her voice didn’t shake. After all, it had been years. She wasn’t a Diplomat barely out of apprenticeship anymore. She’d healed. “I’m afraid I—Can’t really help you much. You are aware he used hypnosis as an interrogation tool, correct?”

“I am.” Orman nodded. “Must’ve been incredibly straining.”

Alyss didn’t comment on it. “Well, after the hypnosis, I could hardly recall anything I’d said, much less what he did.”

Orman sighed, probably having, to some degree, expected such an answer. “I figured you would’ve told me all those years before, but it wouldn’t have hurt to check.”

“It certainly wouldn't have.” She gave him an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry to disappoint.”

“Not at all, Lady Alyss.” He shook his head, standing up. “Are you planning to spend the day in Castle Macindaw? We’ve got rooms to spare, naturally.”

“Not quite, but, if you don’t mind,” she followed him, giving him her hand, which he took to squeeze gently, “I do have a request.”

Orman raised his eyebrows, standing to see her out, seemingly a little disappointed that she was leaving so soon. “Name it. I’ll do all in my power to help.”

“Would it be possible for you to lend me a horse?” she asked him, and he stopped in his tracks, a little lost.

“A horse, Lady Alyss?”

“Yes.” Alyss chuckled at his face. “Nobody caught mine when I was crossing Anselm. I was forced to do without for a while.”

“Did you not come here on a horse?” he asked, and she nodded.

“My husband’s.”

“Oh,” Orman muttered, quietly impressed. “I didn’t think people other than Rangers could ride them.”

Pressing a finger to her lips, Alyss confirmed, “They can’t.”

Orman, who was more than used to the secrecy surrounding Rangers and their peculiar ways ever since Meralon was reappointed, decided to only shrug and take it at face value.

“Then I will make sure you have a spare horse with you,” he promised, and Alyss smiled, thanking him politely before they stepped out into the corridors.

Xander sat on the bench by the door, but jumped back on his feet immediately upon seeing them coming outside.

“Quite a short amount of time for a conversation,” he noted, also looking a little disappointed. “Lady Alyss, you remember nothing, then?”

“I remember you telling me you didn’t know what Lord Orman here wanted with me,” she took a jab, and he chuckled lamely, looking down. Orman followed, except his laughter was genuine.

“That’s hardly an insult, Xander,” he reassured, staring pointedly at Alyss. “A secretary that can keep his mouth shut is a rarity these days, no?”

“I don’t deny that,” Alyss agreed, her eye widening expressively. “Now, if only I could see that horse we were talking about...”

“You’re leaving already, Lady Alyss?” Xander grimaced.

Alyss sighed. She’d gotten tired of repeating it.

“Imagine, sirs, being in my shoes,” she said, exasperated. “I haven’t been to Redmont for half a year, counting the time spent on the mission. Think about how much paperwork I’ll have accumulated. And, the very worst part,” she added jokingly, “is that I’m two months late on my mission report!”

That drew a laugh from the two of them and Orman gently put a hand on her shoulder.

“Xander will show you to the stables, then. I hope you and Ranger Will reach home safely.” Turning to Xander, he instructed, “Let her take another horse and make sure to see her off with it.” After Alyss let go of his hand, he disappeared in his room again.

Xander raised an eyebrow at Alyss. “A horse, Lady Alyss?” he echoed, repeating Orman’s exact words.

“A horse.” She nodded. “Lord Orman agreed to do me a favour.”

“Ah, I suppose the best I can do is lend you over to the stableboy, then.”

That’s just what he did, before once again telling her how glad he was to see she was alright – and, in a way, Alyss figured he had become more pleasant of a presence to her. Maybe age brought wisdom, maybe he was just shaken after seeing her with her scalp half off. After leading her to the stables, he bid her goodbye and made his way back into the castle. Alyss followed his step with her eye for a while, turning to enter the enclosure once she’d seen the door close behind his back.

Inside, she was received by a kind-looking man who, after hearing what she was there for from Xander beforehand, gave it a bit of thought and took her to one of the horses. The mare was mostly black but dotted with grayer patches, staring at Alyss curiously as she swung herself into the saddle the man had helpfully fastened on top.

“She hasn’t gotta name, really,” the man said, gently stroking the horse’s crest, “but we like to call ‘er Cappie here. Trustworthy fellow, level-headed. Wouldn’t buck ye off if yer digging into her back with a spear, that Cappie.”

“Hasn’t she got a rider yet?” Alyss questioned, jumping back down. The horse was incredibly calm indeed, barely moving when unprompted. “She seems rather good.”

“You’re underestimatin’ her, lass,” the man replied with a smile. “’Rather good’ isn’t gonna cut it for dear Cappie. She’ll surprise ye, just ya wait. And no, no rider – only my apprentice takes her out for a stroll some days, when he’s run outta things to knock over.”

“Ah.” Alyss chuckled lightly. “Well, I’m sorry to take the pleasure away from him, then.”

He waved his hand dismissively. “Oh, he’s got a dozen more horses to torment. Maybe he’ll learn something from it one day.”

Alyss smiled, taking Cappie by the reins. The mare followed obediently out of her enclosure, and Alyss let her go to look at the stableman again.

“And, sir, one of the guards must’ve brought another horse in here a few hours ago, no?”

Surely enough, he nodded toward one of the shut gates. The rest were open, horses tied – Alyss raised an eyebrow. Tug wasn’t the kind of horse to run away, of course. She’d probably ride Cappie back to Malcolm’s, and Tug would follow without being pulled.

“Closed him off, poor lad,” the man said, cocking his head to the side as he opened the gates, letting Tug through. He trotted cheerfully to Alyss, greeting her with a low nicker. “Wouldn’t let me tie him, n’ I didn’t wanna upset a horse I didn’t know the rider of, so I had t’let him stay like that.”

“Yes, I’d imagine,” she laughed, petting Tug on the neck. “He’s not used to being tied to anything.”

“I could tell,” he nodded as she climbed into Cappie’s saddle. “Well, I s’pose you’ll be off now?”

“I will, thank you.” Cappie was an easy horse, overall, she could sense it immediately, but it was even better to actually ride her. Tug followed within a step’s reach, much to the surprise of the stableman, as Alyss hadn’t called him or made any implication that she wanted him to follow along.

“Swift travels, lass,” he said, disregarding the title he didn’t know of, anyway.

Alyss smiled. She feared the travels weren’t exactly going to be swift, but she knew they’d be worth it in the end.

She stayed in the saddle with ease, and her legs barely even strained.

 


 

“How’d you sleep, love?” Will asked quietly, leading Cappie just behind him. She’d offered to readjust Tug’s stirrups this time, and Will had saddled the mare for her.

 Alyss gave it a bit of thought before answering. She watched Will’s chest rising and falling for most of the later hours of the night, if she was being honest with herself, but it wasn’t like she hadn’t rested. Feeling both excited and the slightest bit saddened, she had woken up far too early and stayed in bed for a few hours before the sun would start peeking over the horizon and it’d be a justifiable time to start rousing her husband.

She’d looked down at her hands at some point, comparing the gradually healing, scarred white patches to the memory she had of her completely salve-covered, angry, red fingers and the wrapped, leaking palms. How quickly had they recovered, relative to how bad it all could’ve been instead.

After all, she could’ve never made it here at all. She could’ve...

“Fine,” she answered with a smile. “I slept fine. What about you?”

He shrugged. “Like a deadman. Here.” He handed her Cappie’s rains, and she gave him Tug’s. “Okay, that’s... about it, I think.”

“Forgetting something?” Malcolm called from the house. Alyss snorted at the two bags of food he was holding up – they’d managed to leave both.

“Please, Malcolm,” Sig said, standing next to him, Ollie holding onto one of his legs. It didn’t seem to be very comfortable, but he wasn’t complaining. “Haven’t you heard? Rangers can survive solely on chewing on their arrows.”

“Rangers, maybe,” Malcolm told him unenthusiastically.

“The alternative for Diplomats is rolls of documents,” he kept on with a smile, staring at Alyss who’d come to take the bags. “Oh, dear me, am I wrong?”

“Not at all,” Alyss replied, mimicking his expression as Malcolm handed her the food. “We don’t have much need for breathing, either.”

“I knew it!”

“Yes, yes, of course you did,” Malcolm said, sounding exhausted.

Alyss chuckled, reaching out to take his hand and kiss it. “Thank you, once more.” Once he rolled his eyes, she shook her finger at him. “Third time’s the charm.”

Turning to Will to tell him she’d like to say goodbye before they went, she found such a thing unnecessary – Will was having what looked to be a light-hearted conversation with Trobar, almost down on his knees, scratching behind Shadow’s ears. She smiled – it seemed like she was not the only one who wished to bid her friends goodbye.

She shared a short hug with Sig, promising to see him again, as one did, and he seemed pretty pleased with her. Then, once Alyss looked down to speak to Ollie, Sig swore under his breath.

Ollie wasn’t there anymore – she’d scuttled back into the house again, probably upset with the situation once more.

“I didn’t even feel it,” Sig apologized. “My leg’s been asleep for a while.”

“It’s alright,” Alyss replied, slipping through the door with ease. “I’ll find her.”

This proved to be no easy task, however, as Ollie was rather good at hide-‘n-seek. Once Alyss did finally find her, she saw her sitting by the table, nearly pressed into the wall, staring straight ahead.

“Ollie?” Alyss asked. Ollie looked at her strangely – she hadn’t expected Alyss to follow her, most likely. “Is something wrong?”

I don’t want you to leave . She looked away, only her hands danced over the table. Nobody else signs as well here.

“Oh, Ollie,” she whispered, crouching down so they were at eye level. “That’s no reason to be upset. Sig has started teaching you to read, yes?”

Yes.

“Then teach him how to sign better in turn, why don’t you?” Alyss wiped the tears that were beginning to form in Ollie’s eyes off. The girl perked up at the idea. “Sure, he may not be good as you, but you’re friends, right? He’ll try his best to improve. He already understands you rather well, doesn't he?”

Yeah , Ollie said, escaping her grasp. But you’re my friend, too.

Alyss understood, then. It wasn’t just about sign language. It was about them as well

She paused to think, and it all came easy to her all of a sudden.

“Ollie, you remember how I told you that you should write letters to Evie?” she asked, softly, taking Ollie’s hands into her own. Ollie nodded sheepishly, turning away again. “Well,” Alyss said, trying to catch her eye. “That applies to us too. You can write me letters. You can write me as many as you like, okay?”

Ollie’s eyes lit up at the words, and she cocked her head to the side like a curious little bird.

“And,” Sig’s voice came suddenly, startling the both of them. He was leaning on the door, canes under his arms that were crossed over his chest, “If you accidentally find yourself going past Norgate, you will check in, correct?” The raised eyebrow and firm tone left no room for objections – not that Alyss was about to make any, anyway.

“Of course,” she promised to the both of them. Ollie jumped, beaming.

I’ll wait!

“I’m glad you will,” Alyss said, turning deliberately to Sig, who went a little red.

“What? I’ll, I’ll wait too,” he muttered. “Of course. You’re my friend too, you know.”

“I know,” she said cheerfully, standing up, hugging Ollie. She came for Sig afterward, and he was too slow to avoid her embrace – she had the idea that he didn’t want to in the first place. “And you,” she said to them both again, ruffling the boy’s hair. He grimaced at her. “Take care of yourselves, yeah?”

“You too,” Sig said, and, at the same time, Ollie seconded, You too.

“I’ll do my best,” Alyss promised, and her voice suddenly died down in her throat. Trying to prevent a sniffle, she spun on her heel and rushed back outside.

Will looked at her over Malcolm’s shoulder and caught her glance, gave her a knowing nod. She returned it, dabbing secretly at her eye with her sleeve.

“Have you two got everything done?” Malcolm asked without even having to turn to her. She nodded, realized he couldn’t see it, and dashed to join Will at the horses.

“Well, I have,” she said, and Will murmured in agreement, already getting into the saddle. “I suppose we’ll be up and away now, then.”

“Right.” Malcolm stepped back, giving her room to mount Cappie. Once she did, he took each of their hands for a moment again. “Godspeed, my friends.”

“Take care, Malcolm,” Will replied, bowing his head.

“We’ll write you,” Alyss promised.

“You’d better.”

And, with that, they were off.

It felt odd for a little while, Alyss found. She wasn't a stranger to going on missions with Will, travelling with Will, but this felt different. Special, somehow, more appreciative. She was more appreciative, maybe, less willing to take the paths and the reins and herself for granted. Will was talking about something next to her, keeping a gentle conversation she hardly needed to participate in to be a part of, and it all felt the same and then different.

She was more than used to it by the time they lost Norgate from their sights, though.

 


 

There was an Araluenian saying that the journey back takes far less time than the one forward. Alyss couldn’t confirm nor deny it – she hardly remembered her trip forward, but the road back was definitely shorter, in her opinion, with no pain to prolong it. Hours flew, days flew, they’d be home soon, and Will kept acting concerned – it was genuine, of course, and, somewhere down the line, it became annoying.

“We can rest whenever you need, you know,” he told her no more than fifty times by the second day on the roads.

“Will, I’m fine ,” had always been her patient answer. She appreciated that he cared for her so, too, but there had to be a limit somewhere – although, of course, this was Will. It kept going on, and on, although they were resting enough. More than enough, even. She’d arise with Will by her side, Will, who probably slept less than her because of the nasty Ranger habit of having one’s companions constantly surveilling their whereabouts, and at least one person staying up just in case, always. And the same Will would go on, day and night:

“If you feel tired—“

By the end of the week, she turned to him and said, absolutely serious:

“Love, if you suggest I rest one more time, I’ll make this a race.”

“Okay, okay.” He put his hands up in a gesture of peace. “Got it. I won’t.”

She smiled at him and sped up a little. He would. He certainly would. That was the way he was.

The rest of the journey was spent, as she expected, between short periods of companionable silence, heartfelt conversation and a thousand more reassurances that no, her legs didn’t hurt, and no, she wasn’t feeling sleepy or weak, and no, her head wasn’t spinning.

Of course, that was more than she could’ve said about herself for weeks after the incident at Anselm, so it did feel rather good. Overall, it wasn’t an unpleasant journey. She didn’t truly believe it was the same way when Will was going to Malcolm almost three months ago.

Redmont came about just as unexpectedly as Grimsdell had, travelling forward. One moment there were only woods that seemed vaguely familiar to Will, and then he saw the lone tree by the river, and the crumbling rocks, and, without a warning, everything was familiar. He turned to watch Alyss’s expression change from passive content to surprise, then to quiet but overwhelming joy. She raised her eye to him, grinning from ear to ear. Together, they looked up to see the red light dancing on the roofs.

“Is this it?” Alyss asked, her voice quivering slightly. Will snorted.

“You recognize it, love.”

“I do.” Even Will felt how hard she pressed her heels to Cappie’s sides. The horse bolted forward and Will rushed to follow in tow, Tug’s pointed laughter echoing quietly in his ears.

They made it to the cabin in a few hours’ time, and Will saw the door open very slightly – it was being lived in, but, since it wasn’t fully open, Halt must’ve been somewhere else. It was nice, Will thought, recalling his apprenticeship so long ago, how some things never changed. Halt never stopped leaving a little crack in the door when he wasn’t there for a bit. The forest air was the same, the birds were the same, the sun was the same, the summer was going to be the same. Well, the same, and also so very different. Alyss chuckled by his side, happy to see their little haven unspoilt and safe.

“You gonna go in?” she asked, and Will shook his head.

“Nobody’s home,” he answered, sure of himself, pointing at the door. “Didn’t you want to go to the castle first?”

“I did,” she agreed, turning Cappie around. “I just figured seeing that the place wasn’t trashed would give you a little peace of mind.”

“It does,” Will confirmed, laughing and following after her again. They followed along the forest path, keeping casual conversation, too busy thinking about what they were going to see to care about what they were saying. It didn’t take long to reach the castle on horseback, after all.

By the time they were about to cross through the unguarded gates, Will thought out loud, “I wonder where Halt is. Rangers don’t have much business outside their homes this time of the week.” Alyss, of course, knew that rather well.

Halt turned out to be standing just outside the door to the castle, handing the captain of the guard a report and muttering something in a low voice. He heard Cappie’s hooves against the ground despite the relative lack of sound they made and raised his head to see who was passing through.

If the guard hadn’t already been half-holding the report, it would’ve fallen into the mud, because Halt immediately forgot about it. Dropping his hand, he spun on his heel to jump off the stairs leading up to the door and cover the distance to them in less than most would consider humanly possible. Alyss leapt off Cappie first, almost cleanly into Halt’s arms. She wrapped her own around his shoulders with a chuckle, wondering if he saw her face – if he’d seen what she looked like.

He did, he saw her once they drew back. Dark eyes examined her short hair, her eyepatch, the few bandages still on her body where the ride had tired her most – calm, nonintrusive. Halt didn’t say anything at all except a soft “Welcome back”. She smiled.

“It’s good to be back,” she agreed, and he nodded. Then, his face lit up.

“Pauline,” Halt said, staring right through her soul. “You have to see her.”

“I’d like that,” Alyss said, feeling like the world was spinning around her.

Halt turned around once more, looked at the door, muttered something about not climbing all those stairs again and found the window to Pauline’s office with his eyes. Then, as if it was no big deal, he leaned down, picked up a pebble, aimed and flung it up, all in a matter of seconds. It made a considerable pang against the shutter, undoubtedly getting the attention of whoever was inside. This was about the time the captain of the guard decided to book it right out of the courtyard, knowing very well how dangerous a Ranger’s antics could prove to be to simple bystanders.

The shutters slid to the sides, and Pauline’s face appeared in the window. At first, she looked mildly amused – then, once her eyes landed on the three figures on the ground, she froze. Then disappeared. All the way down, the entire trio heard the door slamming shut as Pauline hurried out of the room.

Alyss sucked in a breath and went to greet her by the stairs as she descended.

Will, who had dismounted Tug and stood by to watch the commotion, whistled at Halt in equal parts of mockery and admiration. “There is not a chance in hell that that’s the first time you’ve done that.”

Halt snorted, turning to Will to jab back at him, but, as if he’d remembered something, stopped in his tracks. Will also recalled the little heart-to-heart they had before he left – it had been on the harsher side, no doubt.

“Hi,” Will said, sheepishly. Anticlimactic as it may have been.

Halt sighed at his masterful choice of words, grabbed his arm and pulled him into a hug. Will made a choked-up noise and wrapped his arms around him as well, hiding his face in his cloak. Most of the times he’d been frustrated the past half a year had been related to Alyss – now that she was safe and home, most of all of it was lifted off his shoulders, and he felt even worse for losing his composure so many times.

Halt didn’t seem to mind, holding him up for as long as he needed him to.

“Hullo,” he replied quietly, into his hair.

They stood, then, having let each other go, and watched as the doors opened. They watched as Pauline rushed through and Alyss opened her mouth to say something but couldn’t get the words out. They watched as Pauline nearly lifted her off the ground once they reached each other (or, maybe, it was the other way around), as they sank down, whispering quietly to each other, as Pauline’s hand carefully stroked her hair, tilted her head back to look at her, as she kissed her on the forehead and cradled her close almost like a child. They were talking among themselves, and, despite not hearing it, Will knew what it was about.

Oh, he thought, his vision blurring a little.

This was home.

Chapter Text

For a while after their return, all blended together into one. Hours, days, weeks, then. Alyss briefly remembered herself at that time as the happiest woman on Earth during the days, there was no denying it, but she dearly wished time would slow down for her, at least a little bit. The only windows of peace she got was going to sleep with Will, cozying up by his side and, after he’d unavoidably draped his arm over her, breathe out the worry of the day into the welcoming cool of the night, after all the struggle. And, obviously, the time she got to spend with Pauline, all the times she’d put her head on her teacher’s shoulder and closed her eye, all the time Pauline would stroke her hair like she was a child again and let her skip an assignment for today; a goal for tomorrow; strength for the right now. Only for a while, of course. Only for a while.

When they first got back, once Pauline had managed to tear herself from her lost apprentice and masterfully hide her tears, Alyss’s life became well-more than a few times busier. After she’d slept the travel off, of course – she was given a week to rest before she had to get to Castle Redmont and figure herself out. She wasn’t getting any missions soon, obviously, but Pauline wasn’t about to keep her away from service in other ways – not that Alyss was going to protest that, either.

It was going to be weeks, if not months, of paperwork, and, unlike Will, whose eyes widened in horror at her casual tone when she told him so, Alyss had no issues with documents. She never understood what was so horrible about it when Will complained, too. It was monotonous work, maybe, but, as she watched her hand dance over the message, it was hardly boring. She’d tune out the scratching of the quill on paper, and she’d rest her mind.

Alyss was undoubtedly elated to be home with the people she’d missed for upwards of half a year. The best thing about it was the fact that she could easily see they’d missed her just as much. She hardly saw Will without a smile these days, and Halt could barely get him to do any work because of how light he was being about everything.

“Grin any brighter and you’ll turn into the blasted sun,” Halt told him when Will was bringing him a letter from Crowley that had come to the cabin. Raising a finger to silence his argument, Halt raised an eyebrow in feigned disapproval. “Yes, yes, I know. Just tell me what the old fox wants from me. Gods know you’re birds of a feather, Crowley and you.” Will only smiled wider at that.

Once Will had left to run an errand or another, Alyss stared at the door for a while, grinning from ear to ear.

“It’s because of you, you know,” Halt muttered. She turned to him, eyebrows up. “He’s overjoyed. Gonna get himself knocked into a puddle with his head in the sky if he keeps on like this.”

“Sorry,” Alyss answered, chuckling, but Halt shook his head, closing his eyes and raising a hand to pinch his nose. He looked tired. Well, Alyss could accept that. There was a lot of work that came with losing and finding a Diplomat.

“Don’t, don’t.” He sighed, picking up a paper, staring at it blankly for a moment and dropping it again. He looked up at Alyss. “Been years since I saw him that happy about something.  Better keep it that way.” He glanced to the side, only half-serious. “Hear me, Lady Alyss?”

She perked up dramatically, bowing her head. “Whatever you say, sir.”

Halt closed his eyes again. “And please don’t ever, never ever call me that again.” She smiled, and the conversation was through. Such were the majority of her days – busy, but Alyss was a busy woman to heart. She could take it with ease.

Of course, it wasn’t all exactly sugar and roses.

Some things were, in general, just the way she predicted – some found it difficult to deal with the fact that the second-in-charge in Redmont was a scarred woman, and it added some weight to the previous prejudice of her being… well, just a woman. Ridiculous weight as it might’ve been, it sure didn’t make her life any easier.

Alyss took on some assignments to different fiefs – not quite missions, she made it clear to Pauline, who was still hesitant.

“Come, now,” she said quietly to her once they were seated comfortably in Pauline’s office. Pauline was - oh, the world must be ending - fidgeting with her hands. Alyss leaned closer to her. “You’re paranoid.”

“I’m not paranoid,” Pauline told her. To her credit, there were very few times in her life Alyss had seen her exhibit any nervousness at all, but, contrary-wise, this made it harder to believe her now. “I’m just—Well, I’m not sure, actually.”

“You don’t think I can do it?” Alyss cocked her head to side, and Pauline shook hers furiously.

“Of course not!” She looked nearly offended by the suggestion. “I’m confident you can do it, it’s no difficult task.”

“Then why keep me from it?” Alyss pressed. “If it’s nothing complicated, let me go.”

“There’s quite some work left to be done here,” Pauline insisted. “Must you go now?”

Alyss sighed. “Pauline, if I don’t go now, I might never. I need to get back to all aspects of my work, regardless of whether they keep me in my comfort zone or not.” She glanced to the side, sighing. “I know what it feels like. I feel that way every time Will has to go away. But I’m paranoid, too. And I can’t be a Courier if I’m paranoid.”

Pauline took a breath and pulled up some paper to start writing something or the other. Alyss didn’t press very hard.

“I have to get over it,” she said. “So please, let me try.”

It’d been nearly an hour of their discussion before Pauline finally relented, signing her onto a trip to Araluen, bringing a confidential letter or another to the Ranger Commandant. Again, it seemed funny to Alyss how closely the Corps and the Service were knit together that they needed Diplomat Couriers to bring letters to Rangers and Rangers to accompany Diplomats on longer missions.

She wondered if anything would’ve been different if Will had accompanied her to Gallica that one time, but decided it wasn’t worth losing any sleep over and shook it off.

Standing up to go, she thanked her teacher and turned back just before she reached the door.

“Oh, Pauline. I thought when I was a silver-branch Diplomat, you wouldn’t be able to tell me what to do anymore,” she said, grinning. It was true – Pauline was the head of diplomacy in Redmont, so the statement was both literate and figurative. Pauline returned the smile, albeit weary.

“You’re going to have to wait for someone to nail me to this table for that,” she said.

“As if that’ll ever happen,” Alyss snorted, wished her goodbye and closed the door.

Afterwards, Alyss felt like she truly was being ushered out by her mother. Pauline was, in fact, rather nervous about every little thing. It was reminiscent of the first time Alyss went out alone, except now Alyss knew Pauline better – it’s been years, after all – and noticed all her worries.

When she left, however, she found there were, in fact, some troubles she hadn’t anticipated. Suddenly, just the pin on her cloak and the branch on her head wasn’t enough. People were squinting at her suspiciously – was she a cloaked criminal punished for her deeds by purge of fire, was she a fraud with a disease trying to enter whatever they were guarding?

Alyss, however, made it extremely clear just how wrong they were. Her head was high and her voice was cold, she was a Diplomat to heart and there was no guard in Araluen she couldn’t convince. Or a Baron, most likely. That brought her quite some pride indeed. She was constantly put on display and doubted, well, she’d just doubt them back – were they willing to disobey and, consequently, cut off the Service? Did they not respect a Courier?

It felt petty at times, but, most other times, it felt good. She still had what it took and far more, apparently, and once they’d made her sufficiently annoyed, she’d jab back. That was all that was to it.

Coming back from such a journey, she’d breathe a sigh of relief, and her report to Pauline would be a quarter shorter than what she was used to. Pauline took notice of it, and gave up. She finally figured the only way to get her back into practice was to let her actually take on the practice. Alyss went on more assignments, more trips, and although she did feel like it was all returning to normal, the added pressure of constantly refusing to explain herself for her wounds truly wasn’t doing much for her or her health.

Naturally, many things were stressing her out and she felt as if she was hurrying along to a destination with an urgent mission, but she’d never reach either.

The first journey she took, the one to the Ranger Commandant in Araluen, was by far the hardest one. She learnt a fair deal of new things about herself, such as that she was no worse than Will at snarky replies to people who seemed hellbent on putting unnecessary pressure on her. Or that she was completely unwilling to hide her face to suit the comfort of those she was talking to. She felt like she should, sometimes, and that was all the more reason not to.

Ultimately, once she’d made it to Araluen,  she was a little tired, not of the road but of everyone staring. She didn’t feel uncomfortable, per se. Just tired.

Alyss walked through the doors of the castle, hardly even noticing the guards letting her through, and only then did she remember that this was not only home to the head of the Corps. Unfortunately, the realization came to her a bit too late – specifically, when she saw a frantic ball of white barreling toward her in the corridor.

Alyss was a tall woman. Taller than most men. Probably taller than Horace. This did not mean, however, that Horace could not swoop her up and pick her off the ground if he got a sufficient headstart. And – well, he did get one here.

She only managed a breathless wheeze on impact before she was carried a few feet back by the force of a fully armed knight. The steel pauldron pretty much punched her in the stomach, and she was hacking up a lung for a moment before everything around her cleared up and she finally saw what had happened.

Horace, who had seen her round the corner on her way to Crowley’s office, had rushed to greet her, in the process probably destroying a few of Alyss’s inner organs, and now she had the possibly-crying prince consort in her arms. The crushing embrace she was being held in was not doing wonders to her health either, but the few strained ‘Hey, Horace,’ and ‘Oi, that’s well enough, please’ didn’t change much. She finally gave in to her fate, wrapped her arms around him tightly and smiled into his hair.

“Hey,” she managed.

“Alyss, you—“ Horace shook his head, swaying her to the sides with it. She couldn’t reach the floor, so she just kind of hung there like a draped towel. “You colossal idiot.”

“Yeah, that’s what I like to hear from someone who’s shortening my life by just hugging me,” she said, a smile edged into her voice, and he finally realized that maybe he shouldn’t have crushed the poor woman like that.

Once Alyss was finally on the floor dusting herself off with her usual elegance, made a little less eloquent by the fact that her hair was now pretty much going in every direction and her arms had some red marks from where he’d grabbed her to lift her up, Horace could finally take a look at her, and she at him.

She saw the glance slip over her face, her burns, a little startled – well, that was to be expected. Then, seemingly deciding not to mention it, Horace looked over the entirety of her, the uniform, the eyepatch.

“Right back and on, aren’t you,” he chuckled. Alyss grinned as it was her turn to stare him head to toe. He hadn’t changed much – they saw each other only a little more often than once in a year, now, to be honest, so she didn’t know what she expected. She did, however, notice that he’d grown out his hair, and it fell a little lower than his shoulders, now.

“What’s with the mane, Sunrise Warrior?” she teased lightly, grabbing one of the strands with two fingers. He laughed, throwing his head back and out of her reach. “I took Cassandra for the lion in this castle.”

“Don’t let her hear you saying that.” Horace snorted, shrugging. “Don’t go ‘round telling everyone, now, but it’s a strategy.”

“Strategy,” Alyss repeated.

“Yeah. See, Maddie hates it.” He nodded toward the door he’d come through. Alyss already had a smile spreading over her face. “And I thought, you know what, might as well... That is, as Maddie cuts her off, I’ll grow mine out.”

“You think that’ll persuade her to stop cutting hers?” Alyss laughed out loud.  The Princess of Araluen was a wild lady, she hadn’t even seen her all that much and she knew that the first time they met, back when Madelyn was in her buggy, almost. That’s what you got when you threw together someone like Horace and someone like Cassandra. Two campfires made a forest fire. “She’ll sooner sneak up to you and slash yours off while you’re asleep.”

“Might as well,” Horace muttered quietly. “It gets everywhere.”

“Hm. Have you considered not doing it, then?” Alyss sighed, linking their arms together for a walk. Horace shrugged, leading her through the corridor – not the way to the Commandant’s office, but she figured she had more people to see beforehand.

“I know it’s petty, Alyss,” Horace chuckled. “But I’m not going to outright tell her what to do with her hair. On that regard, she’s all mommy. Imagine what would happen if I told Cassie to grow out hers.”

“You would immediately be killed,” Alyss said, and Horace nodded. They looked up at each other, and then wheezed. “Truly, I’m looking forward to seeing the two,” she said.

Horace tilted his head, regretful. “Maybe Cassie, if you’re lucky and she’s not overrun with too much work. There’s so much  petty crime these days I’m—“ he glanced to the sides, and, quieter, “I sometimes wonder what the Rangers are even doing.”

“Thank the Rangers you only have petty crime,” she replied easily. “Why the secrecy?”

“Meratyn.” Horace gestured vaguely with his hand. “Hears everything. No idea how.”

“I told you,” Alyss chuckled. “A Ranger. Anyhow, I can’t see Maddie?”

Horace bit down on his lip, thoughtful. Alyss raised her eyebrow. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” he said.  “She doesn’t much tell us where she goes these days. Always back by morning, though. Cassie tries to talk to her about it, but to no avail.”

“Well, she’s—what, fourteen?”

“In a bit.”

“Soon to be fourteen, then. Remember us at that age?” Alyss flashed a grin. “Poor old Mistress Aggie had to wonder each day whether a wolf got us in the woods or whether we’re out to watch you and Will chase each other through the streets again, and both were equally dangerous.”

“You reckon she’s in the woods, then?” Horace looked away. Alyss could see he was concerned for his daughter, and she felt for him, truly.

“I just said we used to go to the woods.” She patted him on the shoulder, comforting. “Not necessarily the entire way, too.”

All their games had been strange. They knew loads of the forest – well, mostly that it was dangerous and one should never go there, so, naturally, they all went there. Never into the forest, really – when they were little children, they wouldn’t even go past the first trees. They had a game – one of them would prance a few feet in, and then barrel back like a wild stag. It was an incredible show of courage back then, considering the rumours that the Ranger knew everything that was going on in his woods.

Now, it was a little funny, knowing that the place she felt most at peace was with a Ranger, in his cabin in the middle of those supposedly wicked woods. Though, to be fair, Will did seem to be able to somewhat sense whatever was going on around him in the forest, just short of being something out of this world. So, she reasoned with an unintentionally large smile years ago, Halt probably also knew they were running around by the place, getting up to stupider and stupider things. And he probably just sighed and went about his day, knowing that if he were to suddenly emerge in front of them, they’d never come again.

“Maddie’s the same, probably,” Alyss told Horace. “She just wants some freedom. I’m sure Cassie understands.”

“She does, that’s why she’s not punishing Maddie in any way except the occasional short grounding.” Horace seemed down. Alyss didn’t have children herself yet, but she knew children that she loved, and she knew what it felt like.  “But it’s a little hard, you know? Looking at how daring she’s being with her own life, and completely ignoring whatever we try to warn her about. Being a princess only adds to the danger, it doesn’t take away from it, but she seems to think that. Cassie loses nights of sleep over it.”

They stopped in front of the big door to the queen’s hall. Horace sighed, raising a hand to touch his temple. “Just, please,” he told Alyss before opening the door, “talk to her about something less headache-inducing. You two know your ways.”

“We sure do,” Alyss agreed, and stepped forth.

The light in the hall was blinding – not that bright, but the corridor was dim. Cassandra reclined in her chair – a throne, sure, but she didn’t seem to be using it as such, her back against and legs over the armrests. She had the crown on her head, a slender circlet of gold that had slipped a little lower than it was supposed to, and she seemed used to it. Lazily sprawled in the chair, her many skirts hiding almost the entirety of it, she looked far less busy than she really was.

She had a letter in one hand and a red quill in the other, and she was scribbling away right on the letter – analysis, probably, of whatever was written, considering it was red ink.

“Would you please close the door, love, it’ll get chilly,” Cassandra said across the hall. Horace obliged, but Alyss perked up with a crooked grin.

“A little too late to ask for me to be your prince in shining armour, your Majesty,” she said, bowing in an elaborate manner.  Cassandra looked up, and even from the considerable distance Alyss saw the way her eyes just lit up, and chuckled. “Though I certainly will try, if that’s what you request.”

Cassandra was far faster than her husband. She made it down the stairs and across the hall in less than five seconds, Alyss swore – the upside of that, though, was that she was far lighter, too. So when Alyss found herself with a handful of Queen in her arms, at least she wasn’t physically punched in the gut by any armour, though Cassandra’s bony shoulders definitely bruised her collarbone.

“Alyss!” she’d shouted, and laughed wild and loud once they both had their arms around the other. “Alyss, Alyss! Thought it’d be years before I saw you again! Alyss!”

“I thought the same, your—“ she began with a smile, but Cassandra drew back with furrowed brows.

“Follow on that form of address and I’ll have you lynched.”

“You’ll have me lynched, your Majesty?” Alyss chuckled, stressing the last words instead, and Cassandra rolled her eyes all the way into the back of her head. “Quite so, definitely.”

“Oh, just quit it,” she laughed, hugging her again. “We genuinely thought we’d never see you again, dear.”

Although the weights differed, Cassandra’s grip was no weaker than Horace’s, and Alyss had to try and squirm for a while until she was let go. Horace behind her was trying very hard not to laugh, as if he hadn’t done the very same thing moments ago.

“You know,” Alyss said, quietly, “so did I.”

“Good that we were both wrong, then,” Cassandra said, her tone light. The women smiled at each other.

“You spilled the ink, Cassie,” Horace commented, interrupting a rather sweet moment. Cassandra’s jaw dropped, she jumped away from Alyss and whipped her head around. The ink was, indeed, spilt. Cassandra breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t anywhere near her papers, and waved a hand in dismissal.

“Oh, that’s no bother.” She looked over Horace’s shoulder. “Someone will clean it up in a minute.”

“I suppose some things are just for us mere mortals, my Queen,” Alyss jabbed, smiling thinly. Cassandra chuckled.

“Knowing me, I’d just leave more stains than there were before.” She shook her head. “I was just useless the past few months, you know. Nobody knew where you were and it was all horrible.”

Horace groaned pointedly behind them. Alyss was sure this wasn’t the first time he was hearing about this.

She looked up, in thought. “Don’t say that. I’m sure you were wonderful whenever.” Glancing down, she took a moment to look around. “Reminds me – where’s my goddaughter gone off to?”

Cassandra sighed almost in perfect unison with Horace, turning around to return to her throne. Alyss followed, and Horace nodded to his wife before disappearing behind the door. It seemed like there was no rest for neither Queen nor the Prince.

The Queen herself, though, now seemed about a decade older than five seconds ago, reclining in the chair, brushing her hand over her letters as if they’d gathered dust in the five minutes she’d left them alone. Finally, she answered Alyss, “Hell if I know.”

“Again?” Alyss raised an eyebrow. Cassandra sighed, nodding.

“I don’t know, Alyss. I wish she just...” she opened her arms. “...I just wish she was a little more careful. She’s so reckless, now.”

“Just like you were?” Alyss stung, and Cassandra laughed, covering her face with one hand.

“Horace keeps telling me that,” she admitted. “And that’s fair. I understand her, I just understand my father better too, now. I just— God. Running off in the middle of the night. Never home by the time we agreed upon. What a headache.” She rested her head on in her hand, propping it up on the armrest by the elbow. “You’re good with kids, Alyss. What do we even do?”

“I’ve no children,” Alyss reminded. “By all means, you’re better than me at this.”

“I’m beginning to doubt that,” Cassandra muttered. “I’m proud of her for all she does well. That’s riding, sparring, hell, she could write quite the rallying speech if she wanted to, but... I can’t have her risking her life like this. Do you know how many people out there despise the royal family?”

“Not better than you,” Alyss agreed. “But don’t nag her too much about it, I think. I hope she comes around.”

“See, Alyss, that’s the point.” She smiled a sad little smile. “She doesn’t listen when you say it in any way other than yelling. And I don’t yell at her. So, she never listens.” Wistfully, she added, “Maybe I shouldn’t have let her get so close to Crowley. Poor man’s too old to be dragging around a rowdy kid. Although, I suppose, me and Maddie are birds of a feather.” She looked up at one of the massive windows in the hall, remembering something with a distant fondness in her eyes. “When I was a kid and my dad didn’t have time for me, I’d latch onto Crowley’s leg and not let go for hours. He couldn’t do anything, I thought, I was the Crown Princess. Well, he could’ve just shaken me off and my father wouldn’t have batted an eye.” She chuckled. “But he never did. Wouldn’t make sense for him to tell Maddie off either, then, I guess.”

Alyss nodded along, grinning as well. Crowley was that kind of man.

Then, she gasped.

“Hm?” Cassandra looked down at her. Alyss was covering her mouth with her hand.

“I’m supposed to take a document to the Ranger Commandant. I’m gonna have to be off,” she said apologetically, rushing down the stairs leading up to the throne.

“Aw,” Cassandra said, following her with her gaze. Alyss sure was in a hurry, she thought, calling after her, “Tell him good day from me!”

Alyss waved and was out the door in an instant. She didn’t know why she was trying to be so quick – she was early, after all.

The climb to the office reserved for the Head of the Corps was rather short for someone like Alyss, long-legged and all. Snickering to herself quietly, she thought that it probably wasn’t as easy for a Ranger. Albeit fit, they weren’t the tallest folk.

Three soft knocks after finding herself in front of the door and an equally soft voice calling her in, and Alyss was inside with the letter neat and ready in her hands.

The Commander sat at his table, pushing around piles of papers with an utterly miserable look in his eye until Alyss came in. He stood to greet her with a nod, which she returned. He went from exasperated to cold in a split second.

“You’re late, Lady Alyss,” Crowley said, the clear hazel staring through her. He didn’t look much at her scars, but that was far off the point. She had seen the look on Halt’s face, never on Will’s. It was chilly, and it was generally unpleasant. It took her a moment to find her voice for a reply. What reply, though?

While she had her lips parted, searching for a response, knowing he was wrong, the ice in the Ranger’s eyes thawed in one moment, and a smile stretched across his face. “I’m messing with you, Lady. You were supposed to be here tomorrow. Rode like hell, I’m assuming.”

She squinted at him, and while most other people would be dead on the floor from the glare, it only made him chuckle. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Couldn’t help myself.”

“Clearly,” she said, “You would’ve made fortunes as a minstrel, Commander.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.” He winked at her and sat down, never looking away. “Although I’d say your husband is a better fit for the role. Sings only second to Berrigan, the earth be easy on him.”

“My husband’s second to no one,” Alyss disagreed jokingly. Crowley shrugged.

“If you say so. You’ve got something for me?” He raised his eyebrows at the neat pile of papers – it wasn’t just one letter, naturally – in her hands. She put it down on his table, and he groaned, raking his hands through his hair slowly. “Of course. Of course.”

“Overrun, sir?” she asked, unable to resist a smile at the corner of her lips. Crowley glared at her from the gaps between his fingers.

“Don’t call me that, I hate it,” he asked quietly. “Overrun is a funny word. I’m drowning, Lady Alyss. They’ll find me dead at this table any day, now.”

“I know a few people who’d object to that strongly.” Alyss sat down in front of him. “Anyhow.”

“What hellish plane of existence am I getting all this from?” Crowley asked, and she chuckled.

“Lady Pauline.”

“Oh.” That didn’t seem to lift his mood very much. “I’m assuming I’ve done something to make her very, very mad.”

“I wouldn’t know, Commander.” She chuckled. “If sending you some letters is a sign of her being mad, I don’t think she’s been at peace once in her life.”

“I mean, look at what we’re doing.” Crowley shrugged, empathetic. “Can’t really have peace when you’re in the field. Couldn’t before, can’t now, either.” Dropping the theatrics, he untied the strings the pile was fastened with, and papers scattered over his desk. He picked up one to inspect it while Alyss watched him, in thought. “Maybe it is easier, now,” he muttered, more to himself than to anyone else. “Doesn’t constantly have to deal with me being sweet on her.”

“I didn’t know you and Lady Pauline have, well. History.” Alyss tilted her head, curious. She knew the three along with Halt were friends, but not much more than that.

“Yes, well, not that kind of history,” Crowley chuckled, and Alyss immediately regretted giving him way to speak. “Though, you know, when we were younger, I would’ve rather liked that. It was as if—“

“Sir,” she said, ignoring his little glare at the address, “If you finish that sentence, I will throw myself out this window and break my entire body on the rocks below as soon as you go quiet.”

“If only escaping paperwork was that easy, Lady Alyss,” Crowley grumbled, granting her request. By all means, Alyss knew that Pauline had been young and most likely as rowdy as everyone else, but she’d never seen her so and could hardly imagine it. Sort of like children could hardly imagine their own parents being anything else than their parents. “If only it were that easy.”

“You dislike it this much,” Alyss stated, resisting a smile. “How do you people get that far without doing any honest work?”

“Oh, ‘honest’ work, yes, you’ve got me there,” Crowley chuckled. “I do it. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“It’d definitely be easier if you did, though.”

“You enjoy paperwork, Lady Alyss?”

“It’s not that bad,” she insisted. He raised both his eyebrows, looking away.

“Well, now, it’s not.” He shrugged. “I don’t go on missions like you anymore. If I signed as many letters back when I was younger as I do now, we’d be an entirely diplomatic country and the Corps probably wouldn’t exist.”

“If you didn’t do it,” Alyss asked, having to admit to herself that she’d forgotten completely the point of her visit and that she felt as familiar with him as she did with, say, Halt, “then where’d it all go?”

“Not all of it went somewhere,” Crowley argued. “Some, Halt did. Some, the other Rangers. Some,” he nodded towards the empty wall of the room. “Into my fireplace. Straight in.”

She laughed, heartily, until she realized he wasn’t joking, and sort of just stood there with her mouth open. He watched her with a small smile. Unfazed by her horror, he cleared his throat, restacking the letters neatly.

“Well, I trust you not to bring any rumours back to Redmont, Lady Alyss,” Crowley said with a light expression. “Wouldn’t want Baron Arald to know what I did with half his complaints about Halt.”

“Trust me?” Alyss joked. “You really shouldn’t. I’ll do anything to improve Redmont’s reputation, even if it includes bringing yours down.”

“And yet,” Crowley said again, calmly, “I trust you.”

A little pause.

He winked. “Also, I trust Halt would talk you out of it one way or another, since it’d be... A little humiliating for him, and I know he wouldn’t exactly enjoy something like that. As they say,” he said, looking somewhere over her shoulder, “The friend of my friend...”

“The enemy of my enemy,” Alyss corrected, and he glanced down at her, a smile spreading across his face again.

“No.”

“No?”

“Come, Lady Alyss, have a little creativity.” He chuckled into his hand. Alyss tilted her head. If she didn’t see the streaks of white in his hair, if she didn’t see the laugh lines on his face, she’d almost think she was talking to a child.

“The fact that Halt would ‘convince’ me to keep quiet about all his wrongdoings in order to help you, Commander, doesn’t make us friends.”

A little pause.

“Well. Good answer, I suppose.” He winked at her again nonetheless. He seemed to like the gesture as much as Will liked raising his eyebrows. “It’s why you’re a Diplomat. I don’t doubt you know that.”

“What makes us friends,” Alyss continued, and Crowley looked up at her, suddenly a little startled, “is that we’ve talked to each other on multiple occasions, we’ve written to each other – on terms of work or not – and you’ve yet to betray me, and vice versa.”

Crowley intertwined his fingers under his chin, resting his head on his hands. She saw hazel eyes trying to pierce her soul for a moment. Every Ranger had the stare. She’d only learned to differentiate between when the stare was serious or unintentional.

“You – and I hope you don’t mind me saying it – you remind me of Lady Pauline so much I was lost for a moment,” he confessed, and she gave a quiet chuckle. “What a... cold way to look at it.”

“That’s how it is, wouldn’t you say?” Then, a moment of silence.

They were looking straight at each other when Crowley glanced down at the letter she’d brought him, his grin widening. “How’d we get here? You brought me paperwork and I dare call you a friend. Shameful.”

Unable to help it, Alyss laughed out loud. It seemed like every Ranger she’d met hated paperwork. She simply couldn’t understand what was so bad about sitting down and writing something out every once in a while. Crowley distinctly seemed to hate it with a passion, though, opening the letter and scribbling something down on a different piece of paper, staring at the writings with a frown.

“Steadlow acting up again?” he muttered, half to himself, half to Alyss. The tricky nature of urgent letters was that the Courier would have to wait until the respondent writes theirs and only then go back home. Crowley looked up at Alyss. “Honestly, will the man ever realize pursuing married women and letting his guards do whatever they please won’t make the Queen or anybody else happy? Poor Will is bending over backwards in there.”

Probably sensing Alyss’s confused glance on his head, he raised his eyes to her. “Will?” she asked.

“Oh,” Crowley laughed. “We have three Wills in the Corps. One of them’s yours. The other two... Well, Lady Alyss, you’d have to arrange that.”

Alyss snickered at the reply. Naturally. Will was a pretty common name.

Crowley’s smile faded. “But I’m really asking Steadlow’s Will to break his bones here. Something should be done about it. And so that he’d stop tormenting you and Pauline every time he’s out of girls.”

Alyss raised an eyebrow to an informal address of Pauline, but figured it was as easy for him as addressing Halt. It was no secret the three were close back in Morgarath’s days, and it was a little bit more of a secret that the closeness never went anywhere.

“How old is he, again?” Crowley asked Alyss. She didn’t even need to think.

“Fifty-three, if memory serves,” she answered. He whistled, leaning back, the quill dotting the paper with a few specks of ink.

“A good bit younger than me, then. But, eh...” He tilted his head. “I reckon I could deck him.”

Alyss laughed out loud at the unexpected speculation, and Crowley looked at her, smiling.  Then, he glanced down at the letter with no more than another word, and picked up a different quill – this one dark red, a little bit like blood and a lot more like his hair. The ink was red as well, and Alyss watched as he took apart Lady Pauline’s letter, marking some things and crossing out others.

Her eye wandered to the long, colourless scar over his face. It went from the very top of the forehead to the lower area of his cheek, barely avoiding the lips. It definitely made him seem more intimidating than anything - without it she guessed Crowley would look a great deal more like an ordinary man you could mistake for a farmer on the street. But the scar screamed Ranger , and it made him stand out.

If he’d felt her staring, he didn’t give it away in any way. She noticed the skin stretched together around it, most likely done to close the wound properly. She resisted a wince, thinking how messy of an ordeal it must’ve been.

Alyss caught herself – if she was thinking this just by looking at him, what were people thinking looking at her?

No. Who cares what people think?

“Would it be terribly impolite of me to ask you the origins of that scar?” she requested, and Crowley looked up to her, a little out of it before he rearranged his thoughts. She smiled. “Sorry. Morbidly curious.”

“Curiosity killed the cat,” he warned her, never dropping the pleasant expression.

“Satisfaction brought it back,” she answered, and he sighed, leaning back again.  It seemed like whatever break from paperwork Crowley could take, he would.

“Smart, that’s smart,” he complimented, reaching up to rub at the part of his scar on his forehead with two fingers. “Oh, well. It’s a bit of an embarrassing story, nothing to get excited over, really.”

“This much and it’s embarrassing?” Alyss asked, joking. He looked up at her, wide-eyed.

“Hey, now. It’s not my fault embarrassment’s costly.” He sighed. “Well, I was a lad, a decade and a bit younger than you now, and got whacked over the head with... I can’t even remember. May have been a club, may have just been a sword handle or something. Either way, I wake up, half my face is sliced off, Halt can’t stop laughing.” He shrugged at her raised eyebrow. “Actually, if you want theatrics, might as well bother Halt about it. He was the reason I didn’t actually get my head cut off back then.”

“Oh?”

“You’ve heard of Thorgan, yeah?” he asked, and Alyss nodded. Who hadn’t? The man was a murderous bastard. Those ones tended to go famous. “Nasty bloke. I was seeing in twos at that point,” Crowley chuckled. “You know, already cut up and whatnot, and I see Halt, Thorgan, there’s a loud hit – sounded horrible, let me tell you, if you’ve ever heard a skull cracking – and I couldn’t remember much after that, just that something fell on me and it was dark.”

She listened, fascinated, subconsciously comparing him to herself. It felt a little similar, only her initial incident wasn’t quite so drawn out. But she most definitely remembered the crack of a skull – her own one – and the unforgiving darkness.

“So, I say, go ask Halt,” Crowley told her. “They tell me he fell over me trying to protect me. Got a nice black scratch over his right temple to prove it. Except he hides it with the mop he calls hair, so might have to hold him steady to take a better look.” He winked at Alyss, who smiled, glancing down.

“I see.”

“Why did you ask, Lady Alyss?” Crowley questioned. She shrugged. “If you wish for a comparison, I’m telling you, talk to Halt. I was trying to defend myself. He was trying to save someone. And I think you were, too.”

The turnaround to her incident took her by surprise.

“Weren’t you?” he prompted. Looking up at him, Alyss realized the playful old man knew far more than he let on, including all the details of what people he wanted to know about were doing and why.

“There was a girl,” she said, quietly. Evie’s smile surfaced in her mind. “So yes, I suppose I was.”

“Never even knew her before, did you?” Crowley tilted his head. “That takes some courage, Lady Alyss.” He smiled a tiny smile for her. “Be proud of it.”

“I am,” she replied. His smile widened slightly. “Though work is definitely harder when I look...” She closed her eyes. “...Like that.” She knew it was not that bad. It still frustrated her to no end.

Crowley leaned back, resting his arm on the back of the chair. “What makes a man look ‘braver’ or ‘accomplished’ can’t logically make a woman ‘ugly’ or ‘incompetent’,” he said, briefly forming air quotes with his fingers. “You’re not any of those ‘womanly’ qualities, and I know you know it.” He was right, she did know it. His face scrunched up in disgust. “Never liked people that treat folk different based on something trivial.”

“You’re a good man, then,” she said, nonchalant. He shrugged.

“Thank you.” Seeing her stand up, Crowley raised his eyebrows. “Where to?”

“I’ll drop off my things,” Alyss excused herself. Crowley nodded, biting the end of his quill.

“Know where to go?”

“By my bones,” she chuckled. “Besides, maybe I’ll stumble upon the Princess somewhere. I rather want to see my goddaughter.”

“Ah, very well. I wish you luck in all your journeys.” Crowley grinned suddenly, and Alyss got a tingling feeling that something wasn’t right. She turned back to face him.

“You know where she is,” she said slowly, turning it into a statement instead of a question. He tilted his head, pretending to think. “You know where Maddie is, don’t you?”

“Maybe,” Crowley said, quiet and strangely pleased with himself, raising a finger to his lips. “Maybe not.”

“No hint at all?” Alyss inquired. Crowley pressed his lips together and shook his head with a feigned expression of sadness. “Alright. I’ll remember that.”

“I am suddenly terrified.” Crowley looked down, and the two paused before chuckling to themselves.

Before she could step over to the corridor, he stood up to see her out.

“Good luck out there, Lady Alyss,” he wished. “Gods know, at a time like this you’ll need it.”

She nodded to him, smiled, and closed the door.

 


 

The sun was setting when Alyss ran up the stairs of Redmont Castle, having spent the entire day in a rather heated debate with Pauline, as she did many days at this time. Safety precautions, group-forming, assigning newly-graduated Diplomats and reassigning older ones – she wanted younger workers to stick their noses in the business as preparation of taking over the older generation, and although it’d always been like that, it was now that Alyss really started to feel the passing of time. Pauline’s hair was smooth silver, no longer dark and glossy as she remembered it from years ago, and wrinkles from both frowns and laughter had formed underneath her eyes and on the sides of her mouth. Perhaps the most jarring reality check was the way her hands would sometimes start shaking with no foreseeable cause, making her take a moment to put away her quill and close her eyes to rest.

Alyss knew people grew old. It was also simply natural for her people to get attached to the past a little.

Pauline had invited many Diplomats to test their skill, and Alyss was no exception just because she was one of her pupils. They argued and brought up opposite points, they clashed together in discussions that fell just short of fights, and yet at the end of the day they both still knew it didn’t damage what they had, at all.

Now, Alyss was quite glad to have concluded the debate on safety precautions and the optimal amount of people in a diplomatic party (Pauline insisted on having part of the conversation in Nihon-Jan, the language Alyss still struggled a fair bit with) and let her teacher rest. She herself, however, was off to have yet another conversation, and she had a sneaking suspicion this one would not be quite as enjoyable as the last.

She was clutching a simple letter in her hand, an acceptance short and sweet—

Lady Alyss,
You may visit whenever, provided you check with my schedule first. I have heard of your distress and have an idea of what you require of me, so I await our meeting.
Much love;
Maria di Lucca

That was, of course, quite a dramatic way to put it, Alyss thought. Mary, however, was a clever and experienced woman, and there were few Diplomats who hadn’t heard of her. Even Will, after prompting her, heard out a few stories about Knife-Sleeved Mary, told by her with a smile, albeit the little twinge of sadness was there.

That twinge was precisely why she’d set up a meeting – or, well, inquired about one, only to get this rather open invitation. Of course, she appreciated it. Her eye still ached – or the empty space where her eye once was, rather. Maybe it was mushy in there, somewhere, she never dared check. Never could put her hand anywhere near her eye. In the evening, Will would gently slide the soft, child-made eyepatch off her head. In the morning, as soon as she woke up, it’d go up there again. It was a sort of shield for her, she supposed.

Sighing as she finally approached the door, Alyss gathered up all the courage she had, prepared herself for the worst, and raised her hand to knock, when the door opened.

A young man stepped forth, nearly walking into Alyss. Well, maybe ‘man’ was a bit of an overstatement. There was a small bronze branch on his shirt, and Alyss found that she was staring down one of the apprentices. He froze in place once he realized he’d nearly stepped on her toes, and looked up to see her smiling warmly down at him. The boy recognized her, bowed his head nervously, rushing to get out of her way, murmuring something between a greeting and an apology.

“It’s alright,” she said, never dropping the smile. “It’s dark out already. You should go rest.”

The boy gaped for a moment, bowed his head again and scrambled down the stairs, occasionally glancing over his shoulder before disappearing. She raised her eyebrows at the empty stairwell when a voice came from behind the door the boy had failed to close in his surprise.

“Don’t tell my kids what to do, Lady Alyss!” The tone was stern, but Alyss could tell immediately the speaker was grinning. She stepped up, and a short, bouncing figure emerged from behind the corner of the room. “Though, the lad really should know better than to leave the door wide open. The nights get chilly.”

“Lady Mary,” Alyss greeted, the slightest bit sheepish, “I assumed your lessons had concluded?”

“You assumed correctly,” Mary said, finally showing herself in the doorway and beckoning Alyss in. “Come, come, you’ll get cold.”

She didn’t need to tell Alyss twice. Alyss walked inside, making sure to close the door behind her, and looked on to examine Mary. The two hadn’t seen each other in a long time – actually, it was probably years. Mary was one of Alyss’s evaluators, anyway, so she was closer in age to Pauline than her. Rather, she could’ve probably been Pauline’s mentor, too. Her age had forced her to nearly double over, her eyelids had drooped over her eyes, and her hands and face were spotted with blemishes. She walked, however, with impossible grace for someone like her – or bounced, rather. She seemed very energetic at such an age.

“Being gawked at by a pretty young girl won’t give me any additional years to live, Alyss,” Mary said, a cheeky look in her eye. Alyss realized she’d been staring, and that Mary was staring back, looking over her face, her hands. Her own expression had gone a little sour once she saw the scars, the wounds. The ashy black in her skin.

“My apologies,” Alyss said, sincere.

“No, don’t, don’t.” Mary shook her head. “It’s the last thing I care about, child.”

Alyss, who was a few years over forty, now, could hardly be considered a child – but, she figured, Mary must’ve been at least double that.

“So, then, dear, sit down, we can talk,” she prompted, leading her to a table and even pulling a chair back for her. “No tea, I’m afraid. I rather like to leave food and drink for my apprentices, but the kids have ridiculous appetites.”

“I can imagine,” Alyss chuckled, taking her seat and watching Mary circle the table to settle in hers, leaning on the hard surface with her hands intertwined. “Or, perhaps, your food is simply that good.”

“Don’t flatter an old woman, Alyss,” Mary chuckled, her voice hoarse. “We can hardly take a compliment without seeing some sort of insult hidden underneath.”

“I reckon Pauline would disagree with that,” Alyss countered, smiling. Mary scoffed, turning her head to face away from the table.

“Pauline and I disagree on many things, Alyss,” she said, shrugging. “People like to call it clashing of young and old, but I was only maybe a decade older than her when I had to wrap up her apprenticeship. Still, we fought and fought. Could never convince her of anything I believed. That doesn’t stop me from calling her one of my dearest friends, though. Pauline’s got a backbone, and I always admired that.”

Alyss blinked. “I thought…” Well, this was all new. Alyss didn’t think many things could surprise her right now, but this was a first. “I thought Lady Pauline’s mentor was long-dead?”

“Aye, she is,” Mary agreed, nodding with a sudden sorrow somewhere deep in her eyes. “Dead before the woman could even see the silver branch worn by her first pupil. They trusted Pauline over to me, since they were short of Diplomats, Morgarath - gods, my tongue forgot that name, how lovely - in full power and all. Poor girl was devastated, but oh - look where she got. Anger can be one hell of a motivator, it seems.”

Alyss just sat there, surprised into silence. She always assumed her teacher had always been like this - composed, steady and wise. She knew, naturally, that Pauline had been a girl, but, again, she couldn’t imagine it.

Mary sighed, shaking her head. “Enough reminiscing on the past, or I’ll start missing all my late students. I’m assuming you’re here because of your eye, Alyss.”

Such a sudden leap from one sad topic to another threw Alyss off for a moment until she found her voice down in her throat.

“Ah,” she cleared her throat, “yes, I am.”

“I knew you’d come.” Mary closed her eyes. “From the very day I heard you were one-eyed, I knew you’d come. The only thing Pauline and I agreed on since day one was that you were going to make a brilliant Diplomat, and we were not wrong. And, Alyss, you’re not any worse now than you were before.”

“But, my eye,” she said, quietly, staring at the table. “I can’t see out of it. I tried to-- I tried to throw knives when I first came home, and it was… It was pitiful, Lady Mary. Utterly pitiful.”

Mary hummed in compassion, reaching out to give her a comforting pat on the shoulder.

“I understand,” she said. “I’d feel the same way.”

Alyss looked up. She was not going to cry, she told herself. She was not going to cry. And yet, her voice hitched in her throat. “Is there anything… Anything I can do?”

“Did you rely on knife-throwing as your main means of offense and defense?” Mary leaned closer, and suddenly Alyss was a nineteen-year-old apprentice getting ready for her silver-branch evaluations.

“No, Lady Mary. I prefer close combat.” She looked back at Mary, who was eyeing her intently. “If I’m away from a ranged target, I would throw a knife, but I mainly used blades and pins on a foe nearby.”

“Then re-educating yourself on knife-throwing would mostly be a waste of time,” Mary said with a note of finality, and Alyss’s heart dropped. 

“I… I see.”

Sensing her rising discomfort, Mary sighed.

“You can eventually get used to it again, but I don’t think you should. I recommend you focus on your strengths instead.” She pressed her lips together, and it was like she had to force the next words through her lips. “And, without extensive training that would ultimately weaken your other skills, I don’t believe you can get back to the speed and accuracy that you had before.”

Alyss closed her eyes - both - and put her hand to her eyepatch, finally pressing down on it with her fingers. She took a couple of breaths so her voice would be at least somewhat leveled, and asked, small and quiet, “So you can’t help me at all?”

Mary cocked her head to the side, sorrow reflecting in her eyes. “I’ve not taught anyone with half a face before, Alyss. I’m not sure what I can do.”

Alyss swallowed the ‘half-a-face’ – it was true, after all – and balled her fists.

“Has there really not ever been a Courier with one eye?” she asked, and Mary must’ve felt the dismay in her voice. She shrugged, apologetically.

“Not that I’ve heard,” she replied, and Alyss shrank a little further. “I’m sorry. But...” She took Alyss by the hand for comfort. “I have seen knife-throwers with one eye. And a blind one to boot.”

“A blind one?” Alyss repeated, hardly believing her ears.

“As blind as a pup on its first day. Of course, that one’s an exception, and he was only doing it for show – wouldn’t get anywhere in a real fight.” She pressed her lips together. “But I suppose that proves you could throw knives if you put a ridiculous amount of time and effort into it, since you already know how to do it – but the question here is, should you?”

“Probably not,” Alyss replied, repeating her previous words and hanging her head. Mary put a hand on her shoulder.

“Probably not,” she agreed quietly. “But don’t let it get you down. I know very well how satisfying a good throw is,” she grinned, flashing teeth, and Alyss realized her hand was far heavier than it was supposed to be – oh, Knife-Sleeved Mary , “But you have an advantage that I don’t.” She took two strands of Alyss’s hair and ran down them with her hands gently. “Look at those pretty pretty locks – could fit more than a few pins in there, should you want to.”

“That’s what I do,” Alyss chuckled. Mary looked up at her, smiling.

“And dresses, Alyss, you wear dresses, yes?”

“Daily.” She nodded. Mary clapped her hands together.

“You don’t need an eye to lodge a knife into some poor bastard’s skull by hand, then,” she reminded, and now Alyss laughed out loud. Something was amusing to her about this – an old, sweet-looking lady teaching her about the semantics of stabbing people.

“Why did you never wear dresses, Lady?” Alyss asked, stepping back a little. “I’ve always wondered. Oh, and the hair, too. You never had it long.”

“Tedious, and tedious,” Mary replied easily. “I’ve still no idea how you young folk manage it. Didn’t know even when I was young myself.” She let Alyss go and sighed. “The only downside was that I had to learn how to braid my daughters’ hair from scratch. But dresses? Count me out. How do you run? How do you do things? I’ll take a half-skirt on a good day, but other than that, I can handle a couple of stuck-up idiots bad-mouthing me for wearing men’s clothing. It’s not like we haven’t been undercover, eh?” She winked at Alyss, and Alyss gave her a smile.

It was true, female undercover Couriers would often turn themselves into men. It was a given that a man would be granted more respect on the road, and albeit most people scoffed at it (rightfully so), the Couriers would shrug and get that respect one way or the other, for safety’s sake. One could assign a female Diplomat to almost any job, while the men in the Service had their missions narrowed down a little bit – while it was rather straight-forward with the women that were painted and dressed to look like men, it was near-impossible to make a man look like a woman.

Alyss smiled subconsciously. Because, of course, even the impossible had been done in the Diplomatic Service.

“That’s all I have to tell you, Alyss,” Mary concluded, giving her a pat on the shoulder as a goodbye. “Don’t fret, though, I’m not shoving you out. If you do decide to spend some time on practice, come to me. I’ll help you out as much as I can.”

Alyss stood up and bowed her head to the elderly Courier. “Thank you, Lady Mary.”

“It’s quite alright. Run along, now.”

Once she’d closed the door, instead of the overwhelming emptiness she felt when she first realized she wasn’t going to be doing any knife-throwing anytime soon, she felt... Well, as if she’d had a rather pleasant chat. Mary was talking to her as if she was barely out of apprenticeship at times, and Alyss understood – after all, she was nearly twice as old as Alyss.  And she hadn’t completely bashed Alyss’s wish, either.

She sighed and turned to go.

She had no work for the rest of the night – in fact, she’d taken the trip to Redmont on her free day just so she wouldn’t have to stay home and be with her thoughts. Will was sketching something out with Halt in the castle, too, and she said hello to Pauline on her way inside – it was a win-win situation, really.  Alyss figured she’d wait on Will to get his things gathered and then they could go back home together. Subconsciously, she smiled, twirling a strand of hair on her finger. It was nice to think about.

However, it would seem that fate had one more unseen acquaintance to throw at her – in fact, she was barreling down the hallway with all the strength and fury her tiny legs could manage.

“Lady Alyss!” a young voice called from behind Alyss, and she snapped her head back. “Lady Alyss, oh, Lady Alyss, wait, I have a—“

As she turned to face the speaker, the little girl that was now in front of her skidded to a halt, skirts gathered in tiny fists, tousled. She felt the moment screech to a full stop too as the girl assessed her, glance lingering on the left side of her face. Curious wide eyes stared her up and down for a moment, both of them frozen.

“Yes, Minnie,” Alyss replied with a cautious softness to her voice, bowing her head ever-so-slightly. Some hair fell onto her face, hiding the patch, and Minnie managed to tear her eyes off of her.

“Whoa,” she said, voice as genuinely surprised as only a child’s could be, “You look freaky, Lady Alyss. Did you get captured or something?”

Something about the innocence of her tone and the brutal honesty took Alyss’s breath away. Whereas the others’ careful and deliberate avoidance of even looking her in the eye infuriated her, Minnie’s question felt so casual – and just like a punch in the gut.

Minnie herself was a strange sight indeed, far too young to even be training to take on a laurel branch, but it was simply how children born into the service were. Even at such an age, they knew of the dangers the only slightly older would face, and so Alyss, despite being considered one of their finest, was, to Minnie, just another fellow that’d pass her in the hallways, once and then perhaps never again. A friend, but one that might disappear any minute.

She could disappear any minute.

Alyss hid her hands behind her back to refrain from touching her chin and bore it, smiling thinly.

“I was caught in a fire,” she told Minnie, who nodded sagely. The gesture didn’t suit her.

“That’s, utmostly, um, not good,” Minnie stated, and Alyss’s smile widened at her misplaced vocabulary, just a little bit. “How’d it happen?”

Alyss debated with herself for a good moment before deciding against telling her. Her face and arm felt weird, tingling. Acknowledged, even recognized, and most uncomfortable.

“I can tell you some other day,” Alyss offered. “Do you have something for me?”

Minnie nodded earnestly and held out a pile of letters in front of her, hands completely straight, and even then she had to tip-toe to hand them to Alyss, who took them in one hand. It was shaking, very slightly, but it was, she noticed.

“They’re from the Baron of Steadlow,” Minnie announced. Alyss racked her brain trying to remember – and, quite easily, she did. He’d written Pauline a few (many) times, conveniently forgetting about Halt’s existence and the ring he’d put on her hand – all three occasions were equally exhausting as mentor and student bonded over the most polite ways to tell the man to stuff one of his fancy boots where the sun shines not. “I knew his name, but I forgot,” Minnie exclaimed proudly.

“Make sure you don’t forget mine,” Alyss joked, and she puffed out her chest.

“I can’t forget yours, Lady Alyss,” she insisted, looking around, clearly having lost interest in her scarring. It felt nice, but the quiet You look freaky echoed around in her head. “You’re here too often and I like you.”

“Thank you. Who gave them to you?” Alyss asked, turning over the letters. They carried a sickly sweet scent and the handwriting on the back immediately activated her fight-or-flight response. Well, that’s Steadlow for you. Neither steady nor low, it seemed.

Minnie beamed. “Lady Pauline.” It sounded like she was gushing about something wickedly important. Well, Pauline’s name did carry a significant amount of weight. “She said she’d need you to take them over because she was overrun by others, and she also said something else I can’t remember.”

Alyss gave a little chuckle at her unconditional honesty and reached out with her free hand to ruffle her hair. Thinking nothing of it, Minnie made a noise of offense and clawed at her wrist with both hands. Her nails, albeit short, scraped against the scarring.

The arm shot back by itself without Alyss even having to think about it, and hid under the side of her cloak. Minnie was pulled forward a little by Alyss’s sudden jolt, stumbling into her.

Alyss had frozen, not really comprehending what had just happened and turning her head slowly to look at her covered hand. It hadn’t hurt, really, Minnie was not yet any serious threat physically, but it had felt – it felt, some way. Not painful, but terribly unpleasant. Like if she had let Minnie hold on to her, it would’ve driven her mad. It was like every single hair – if there were hairs on her arms, if they’d ever grow there again, anyway – stood against the pressure, squeezing back into her skin, pricking, irritating.

As she was standing, staring at nothing in particular, Minnie, who had just found herself a few inches closer to a Courier than she was used to, for a lack of better things to do, wrapped her arms around Alyss’s waist. Alyss looked down, momentarily forgetting the sensation on her wrist, at the child who was nonchalantly holding onto her as if this wasn’t the first time someone had pulled her around. Minnie muttered into her dress:

“Sorry.” She shifted, and Alyss, also not really sure what she should do, followed suit. After they stood for a minute or so, just thinking their own thoughts, Minnie asked, quietly, “Do they hurt?”

Letting her go and stepping back, a little hesitant, Alyss spun around in her dress with a smile that was not yet to be figured out as a fake from someone as young as Minnie.

“Not really, no,” she answered, still holding on tightly to the letters. “They just, they’re just there.”

“Will they be there forever?”

“I believe so,” Alyss answered, and the words left an ashy taste in her mouth. “Unfortunately.”

“Yeah,” Minnie murmured. “But they look freaky. And the eyepatch too. I like it.”

A little bit of warmth spread in Alyss’s chest. She knew Minnie didn’t mean to come off mean, she could remember being just as blunt in her earlier years, but there was just something about her that made Alyss want to either tear up or start laughing.

“Thank you,” she nodded. “A couple of dear friends made it for me.”

Minnie nodded, and something glimmered, just under her chin. Seeing an opportunity to talk about something else, Alyss bowed down to pick the small pin off of Minnie’s oversized cloak. The gleaming silver laurel branch in her hand reflected sunlight right into her eye. As she looked down, Minnie was staring to the side, deliberately avoiding eye contact.

“Relieved Lady Gisela of her branch, have you?” Minnie clasped her hands together innocently, fingers interlacing. “You should go put it back. And be honest about it this time.”

“Mama only needs it when she’s awake,” Minnie muttered with a sheepish smile. “And I don’t feel like a Courier when I’m not with it.”

Gisela was one of the younger diplomats, not even thirty yet, so she willingly held up most nights; it was surprising how many ravens would fly in during the dark hours and how many matters would need mending by early morning. Alyss would stay the nights when she was fresh out of apprenticeship as well, and Pauline would say nothing was ever quite as mentally taxing as nightly watches during wartime. In short, nights were exhausting, and nobody would ever dare to side-eye a Courier who slept throughout the day if they had taken the reins during the dark hours.

“That’s because you’re not a Courier yet,” Alyss explained patiently. “And Lady Gisela gets very frightened when she can’t find her cloak and pin after she wakes up, doesn’t she?”

Minnie looked even further away, ears turning bright red.

“Yeah,” she mumbled, stepping in place. “I’ll return it.”

Thus Minnie was not only Gisela’s child – more like a child of the Diplomatic Service, wandering the halls whenever she was bored, whenever she saw an opportunity to trip someone over and tail them around, armed with her mother’s determination and her father’s – a guard that typically only stayed nights; how incredibly surprising – boldness. She could’ve very well been an apprentice by now, despite lacking just a little less than a decade in years.

Young Minnie looked up at Alyss, just to see her smiling down at her.

“That’s the right thing to do,” she confirmed softly, this time gently touching the top of her head. Minnie didn’t touch her now. “Besides, having a laurel branch isn’t the entirety of being a diplomat.”

“But it’s a start,” Minnie insisted. “And, Lady Alyss, I want a laurel branch.”

Alyss laughed quietly, watching as Minnie’s hand’s found her hips, posing her at a stubborn stand.

“If you still want it in a few years, you’ll get it.” She knelt down, her eyes on the same level as Minnie’s. “It’ll be a bronze branch, and, save for the silver, it’ll look just like Lady Gisela’s, and like mine, but it’ll be yours and yours alone. Doesn’t that sound nice?”

“Yeah,” Minnie said, breathless, overtaken by a vivid dream.

“But you’ll have to work hard for it,” Alyss warned, smiling in her own nostalgia. “And you’ll be challenged, and sometimes it’ll seem like there’s not a minute to rest. But if you get through that, you’ll receive one like this, carved in silver.” She held up her pin on her own cloak, shining in the morning light. “It’ll be a testament of your experience. You’ll have to prepare for it.” Cautiously, she added, “Are you sure you can handle that?”

Of course, wide-eyed, Minnie jumped to the challenge.

“I will,” she swore, and Alyss graced her with another laugh, gently pinching her cheek.

“Then,” she continued on, “if you do it right, after many, many years, you’ll get your third laurel branch.”

“In gold,” Minnie ended for her, and Alyss nodded. There were a few golden-branched Couriers in Redmont, Lady Mary included.

“It will stand as a sign of utmost respect and pride,” she said. “But there is so much – impossibly much – that has to go right for you to earn it. You’ll work for years, and you won’t work for the laurel branch. You’ll work because you’re a Courier, and the branch isn’t important in itself – it’s important as a symbol of all the years you’ve served justice, diplomacy and peace.”

Minnie listened with her lips slightly parted, and, despite Alyss’s knees beginning to ache, she didn’t get up, staring at the wide-eyed face.

“Now, then, do you understand why the branch is so important to its bearer?” she asked, and Minnie nodded, absolutely sure of it.

“It’s a mark of your work,” she answered.

“Sure it is,” Alyss said. “But there is no mark without the work. And this is dangerous work, Minnie. And yet you say you’ll get through it, am I correct?”

“Yes!” she repeated, and Alyss bowed her head. Some things about children – their unyielding courage, for example – simply had to be respected.

“So said your mother, and she did it,” she reminded. “You walk carrying her mark – coated in her reputation. Wouldn’t you say that sounds a little like cheating?”

Minnie went even redder, the heat spreading to her entire face. “I s’pose...”

“Uphold your own stature,” Alyss advised, not unkindly. “And let Lady Gisela keep hers.”

Minnie nodded, clear on it all now. “Okay,” she promised, pulling at the pin lightly. “I won’t take it anymore.”

“That’s a good choice,” Alyss nodded. “Continue making those, and you’ll become a great diplomat in no time.”

Before she could stand up, though, Minnie grabbed her sleeve.

“Wait,” she asked, flushing a little, and pointed at her open palm nervously. “Before you go, can I— can I touch your arm?”

Alyss was silent for a moment. Then, with as little emotion in her voice as she could, she managed, “Alright.”

Minnie perked up in joy at the opportunity and stared Alyss’s offered arm up and down for a little while before carefully putting her hands on the forearm where the scars seeped into healthy skin, and ran her fingers over the line, just before the point of no return. She lifted her hand and did it again, curious, poking at the discoloured patches and the scotches in her skin. Somewhere along the lines of the ordeal, Alyss felt like closing her eye. Minnie’s hands were warm and nonthreatening, exploration motivated only by childish curiosity.

Despite finally dropping her hands, Minnie still eyed the marks.

“Was that,” she asked silently, meekly, “Was that in line of your work?”

Alyss suddenly felt like there was a lump in her throat.

“Yes,” she answered, trying her best to even out her voice. “Yes, it was. If not directly, it was what any good Courier would be ready for.”

“Okay,” Minnie said, barely audible. “I see.”

Without being asked, she helped Alyss up – and the latter was, admittedly, grateful. Her tiny hand still in Alyss’s, Minnie gave one last look to the letters before looking up at her.

“Lady Alyss,” she said, drawing back, letting go of her hand. Something on her face was a little less-than-childish – a little too mature to look natural. “Lady Alyss, I hope you get the golden laurel branch.”

The lump returned, this time taking away her voice completely. She smiled at Minnie, straining.

“Thank you,” she whispered, and Minnie spun on her heel and skipped away, unaware of the impact, already looking for something fun to do.

Alyss followed her with her eye, standing still in the middle of the hallway with a wrapped pile of letters in one hand and the other up by her face, dabbing at her cheeks with her sleeve as discreetly as she could.

She turned around, and Will sat there, on the bench by the wall, wrapped in his cloak, looking up at her. As soon as she saw him, he stood up.

Alyss tilted her head, her eye slowly drying, as he stepped towards her cautiously, offering his arms.

“How long have you been sitting there, you nosy little ghostling?” she asked, only a little irritated. He flashed a guilty smile as Alyss hugged him briefly before going back to staring him down.

“Just a moment, came in as she was calling you old,” he said, very obviously joking. Alyss hit him on the shoulder lightly anyway.

“Old? Not everyone who gets a golden branch is old. Isn’t the same policy at work with you Rangers?” she asked. He shrugged, offering his arm again. She linked hers with his, and they made their way down the hall, she with letters, he with some sort of wide map rolled under his free arm.

“Well, really, the later you get the golden leaf, the better, as long as you get it while you’re alive.”

“And dead Rangers get a golden leaf, then?” Alyss questioned further. “What about if an—“ –apprentice dies , she wanted to say, but refrained after seeing Will’s expression.

“Let’s not... talk about death, alright, Alyss,” he asked, and she nodded. Naturally. She had enough looming threats in her life as it was.

The rest of the way was paved with more pleasant conversation, about Lady Mary and Pauline and Halt and the rest of the people they saw today, on a more leisurely occasion, and how glad they were to have free days – it felt rather nice. Alyss barely felt how they crossed the forest, how they found themselves in the clearing, in their cabin, and how they ate and kissed and laughed – all the while talking.

But as soon as they were home – well, not quite, as soon as they were in bed and all the fires were out – Alyss was facing it again. The sun had set, and with it went Alyss’s serenity. It wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been once they first came home. Alyss was not prepared to deal with the scope of various worries that simply being home and being safe and having Will by her side would cause her.

At first, she would pace around during the night, unable to sit down, much less go to sleep. She’d pace until she couldn’t walk anymore, until she could barely breathe and her legs ached like hell. When shoes began to feel uncomfortable, she took them off. When her head started to feel heavy, she let down her hair. When she felt like she was about to tear up, she’d quicken her pace. She would never cry, but there’d be a pit in her stomach that’d only grow with each step that was supposed to make her feel better.

And it was all very unfair, because Alyss had nothing to fear. She had nothing to lose while she was here, looked over, cherished, treasured, damnit, with her husband and her teacher and friends, and she’d been through the absolute worst that life could give her directly. It had fucked her over and destroyed the most part of the security she’d taken for granted, and, for those first horrible horrible months that were supposed to be her rest, her easing back into work, she thought she’d never recover from it. It was like someone had flipped a switch – the second she stepped into her home and it was dark outside, she’d look anywhere and be able to see red light coating the rooms, she could hear the crack of sparks from a fire and she could smell the putrid, revolting stench of burning human flesh.

“What are you doing?” Will asked, looking her up and down. He’d dropped the bag he had taken off poor Tug, and stepped toward her, arms open in an inquiry. “Are you—Are you okay, Alyss?”

Alyss’s hand was up to her mouth – to her nose, actually. She was breathing, she was sure of that, but her senses had suddenly flared up. She and the world were separated by a hard wall, and she swore she could feel flames licking at her heels.

“I feel it,” she answered nobody in particular. It’s not like it told Will anything. “I can smell it. The fire.”

Will furrowed his brows in immediate concern, sniffing the air. Once she saw the confusion overtaking his face, she realized her mind was lying to her. But that only made everything ten times worse.

“Darling,” Will said, quiet and cautious, taking another step. She stepped back involuntarily, nose still buried in her hand. “I won’t hurt you.”

“I know,” she said, and drew in another breath. Her hands, she realized, didn’t carry that terrifying stink of melting skin and scorching bone. In fact, it smelled of grass. Alyss drew slight strength from the knowledge. “I know. I’m not worried.”

“Can I come closer, then?” he requested, and she walked to him instead. Just as carefully, he took her hand and kissed her knuckles, and she wrapped her arms around him, because he smelled different. His scent was pleasant, exactly like you’d expect of someone that spent most of their time out in the forest, calming, natural. He rubbed circles into her back, shushing her, kissing her shoulder. Only then did Alyss realize she’d teared up.

Once Will raised his head to look at her, to mutter meaningless, near-incomprehensible comforts, she could smell the cabin again. And it did not bear the stench of fire.

That was then, though. It had gotten better. So much better, in fact, that, although she never went a day without some kind of anxiety pooling in the bottom of her stomach, she almost never paced anymore. She could laugh in the evenings, and she would listen to the songs Will sang with his mandola and not associate every line with her fears in one way or another.

Still, sometimes she’d wake up in the middle of the night when it’d get too hot or too cold, and it’d feel all the same in her toes, in her hands. It’d feel like burning, and she’d curl up into a ball and hide in Will’s embrace; he could never sleep when she was unwell. He refused to, until her eyes were closed again and her breathing evened out.

And sometimes, even more rarely, the monster of the first months would rear its head and Alyss would stall before entering the cabin.

In response to this, Will started taking walks with her. In the middle of the night, if she wanted to. They’d go out, they’d stay up until she’d laugh, until she’d forget. Sometimes, it didn’t work for long. Sometimes, it did.

“Please,” Will said, taking her hand in his gently. “Walk with me.” Albeit he was shorter, his hand closed over her completely. Alyss pulled it away, looking away.

“You’re tired,” she muttered to the ground. Will chuckled.

“Not at all. Come on. I’m asking.” He caught her hand again, carefully brushing his thumb over the wrinkled, dry skin on her wrist. He seemed to know when it hurt. Will had some sort of sixth sense for two things – for his woods, as a Ranger, and for Alyss’s feelings, but only after they got married, for some reason. He never treated her like she was weak, like she didn’t know what he was doing, but sometimes, sometimes she needed reassurance, as did he. And they knew each other. And Will would be so bloody cautious with her, touching her like she was a little intricate rose of glass, and she vaguely remembered being the very same way when...

Well. Life had screwed up both of them, a little bit. Alyss wondered sometimes if there was a single person in the world that didn’t have numerous complains for the hypothetical personification of Life. Or Fate, Destiny, the gods, whatever. Because she and Will sure did.

He relied on his own hurt a little bit, to help her. His was, he claimed, a little easier to bear after such a long time. And indeed, Alyss could see a bit of himself in her; back when they were sixteen, and when he was back from Skandia, he’d visit sometimes, and Halt and Pauline would stall, unbeknownst to them, so they could spend the nights together. Will would wake up sometimes, straight-up yelling.

“Back there,” Alyss said, her voice quivering just a bit, hands carefully tracing Will’s collarbones, “how do you— In the cabin, I mean, what do you...”

Alyss Mainwaring, the most promising Courier apprentice indeed.

“I don’t know, but,” Will managed, eyes closed, face buried in his hands. He was hunched over, and his voice was muffled. “Halt. Halt teaches me Hibernian sometimes. Can’t bring myself to think about anything else when I’m... neck-deep in foreign grammar, I—I think.”

“I’ll teach you some Nihon-Jan, if you’d like,” she’d offered softly, as softly as she could. And once he looked up, she knew her offering would be taken, before Will awkwardly stood up, only to bend down to where she was sitting and wrap his arms around her. She did the same, kissing him on the top of his head.

Alyss didn’t love him like she loves him now, back then. But they were just as close, just as good of friends as he was with the rest of the Ward kids.

“Some writing, maybe,” she muttered into his hair. “That’ll take you away from everything.”

His chuckle was only a little tearful.

It happened sometimes even after they had married, too. He’d come awake in the middle of the night with a sharp gasp, shoot up forward and wrap his arms around himself. The blanket would fall, and the first thing Alyss would see would be the scars on his back. After a while, he’d lie back down, still shaking, he’d dig his head into Alyss’ chest, and he’d breathe quiet cries into the night as she kissed him, wrapped herself around him, caressed his scars and told him nobody would ever put him through anything like that ever again.

It was always full of relief, the conversation, almost cathartic, every word.  Will would tell her calmly about the cold, about the way frost gets into your mouth and wraps icy claws around your throat, and the way whip feels on skin and that it hurts way more after the whipping than during it (Alyss could hardly stand to listen to these things, and she’d bury her face in Will’s chest whenever he started talking about the whippings and the punishments and whatnot), and how now whenever he could smell salt in the air would be his mind’s undoing. And Alyss would tell him about the way a month-long slumber feels, about how tedious and how off-putting constantly changing the bandages that have become a substitute for your skin was, and about how even the gentle flame whispering from their fireplace would, to her, become the most dangerous thing in the house as soon as it was lit. Will took her words to heart, and, unless the weather outside was truly living up to the Araluenian standards of constant rain and freezing cold, the fire in the hearth would barely even flicker.

After all, they always had each other to be warmed by.

So, when Will offered her his arm for a walk, she accepted with no more thought.

They turned away from the cabin, lazily heading into the welcoming, cool darkness of the forest. Will knew it like the back of his hand, and Alyss did too, after all this time. They would never get lost in their own home. Only, perhaps, in each other.