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In Fate's Hands

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White flecks drifted down from the dark sky, covering the dense pines in a thin blanket that would melt by morning. They had yet to reach the true Freezing season, for which Nicole was grateful. For now, she could admire the beauty of the falling snow without the worry that she may lose a finger or an ear to the cold, even with the black gloves covering her hands and the dark, wool cap on her head that hid her bright locks from prying eyes. Her breath still came out in clouds in the cold night air and the tip of her nose was redder than her hair, but at least she didn't have to make the trek through banks of snow up to her hips.

Her companions—a young, bright-eyed man named Fish and his partner Levi—weren't as cheerful about the situation, but she could only roll her eyes at their muffled complaints. It wasn't like complaining about the weather would make their journey any easier. Instead of joining them in their sour moods, she let their voices fade into the background and focused on the soft crunch of icy grass beneath her feet instead.

They had known when they left that it would not be an easy journey. The cold weather was upon them and patrols had increased to discourage desperate farmers and villagers from robbing those in less desperate situations. The Resistance itself had also caused an increase in patrols. As their numbers grew, their attacks had grown bolder—destruction of armories, raids on supply caches, the occasional skirmish with the nobles' soldiers—and in response, their beloved Duke Robert sent more soldiers to stomp them out.

Some ruler, Nicole thought with a sniff.

He couldn't be bothered to provide for the people in his lands, yet he could take their only strong citizens to send off to fight his wars. Wars that would gain him more territory and more villages to neglect, even as he reaped the benefits from securing their resources. But the winds of change were howling, and if Nicole had anything to do with it, they would not be ignored.

Not even by a man who claimed to be a god.

Through the sounds of her footsteps and the muffled conversation between her companions, a different noise caught Nicole's attention and she slowed her steps until she was level with the two men who had accompanied her.

She kept her voice low as she said, “Eyes are on us. Stay alert. Could be bandits. Could be worse.”

Her gloved fingers twitched, wanting to reach for the worn blade that hung at her hip, but she also wanted to keep their observers clueless for as long as possible. She didn't know how many eyes were on them. She tried not to think about it. Thinking about it would make her antsy, so she focused again.

The crunch of her footsteps.

The sound of her breath.

The twang of bowstrings.

Her brow furrowed at that sound, but her confusion only lasted a moment. Then she was yelling at her companions to get down.

All three of them hit the ground as a barrage of arrows sliced through the air, but only two of them remained unscathed. Nicole gritted her teeth against the burning pain in her shoulder and forced herself to her knees, only to waver a moment later due to a wave of dizziness. She swallowed down the fear and bile burning in her throat and staggered to her feet. She managed to draw her sword with her left hand, but her grip was unsteady.

No one was supposed to be on this route tonight.

Their whole mission had hinged on it.

But the arrow protruding from her shoulder bore Robert's red and white colors, there was no denying that, and the soldiers who now poured forth from the trees wore Robert's crest on their polished armor. Nicole found herself hating that silver falcon more and more as the soldiers rushed them.

They were swarming her. It was the smart thing to do. With her injury, she was the weakest of the three. She tried to hold them off, but each time she met an opponent's sword, the contact sent a jolt through her body and jostled the arrow lodged in her shoulder, and she would have to bite back a curse.

Another hot streak of pain lanced across her back, from the curve of her right hip up to her left shoulder, and this time she did cry out, unable to stop the sound as she stumbled forward and landed on her knees. Her sword fell from her loose grip. Beside her, her companions were forced into similar positions. She knew it had been foolish to hope that she would be able to hold off the soldiers long enough that they could escape, but their capture still weighed heavily on her shoulders.

A rough hand tugged the wool hat off her head and a moment later, that same hand was tangled in her bright hair and yanking her head back.

“You and your friends have been caught in an attempt on the Duke's life,” the soldier hissed in her ear, though she could barely hear him over the thundering of her heart. “Your lives are forfeit.”

Nicole couldn't help but think they always had been with Duke Robert in power. At least she had given hers up fighting, and not waiting for sickness or starvation to come for her like they had come for her family. Despite the pain in her shoulder and the increasing agony spreading across her back, she straightened her posture and turned her head so she could look her executioner in the eyes.

He scowled at the defiant expression on her face, then drove the pommel of his sword against the side of her head.

Not quite the move I expected, she thought as she slipped into a welcoming, painless darkness.


Waverly watched from the castle's high window as a line of soldiers approached the gate in the dawn's light. Even from such a height, she could hear the lead horses snorting in the cold as they pawed at the frost-covered ground. They called their greeting to the guards on duty and she cringed at the screech of the gate that was brought up to allow them passage.

The last of the foot soldiers hurried inside to the warmth of the castle walls, but they weren't without cargo of their own. They held chains in their hands and those chains were bound to three bodies that were tugged behind them. Two of the prisoners held up another in the middle, whose head lolled from side to side as they struggled to walk even with the support.

Once the soldiers and their prisoners were out of sight, Waverly pulled away from the window and the brisk air. As she descended the stairs, she could hear the groan of the gate as it was lowered. Guards greeted her with a nod as she passed them by and she responded with a nod and a smile of her own.

When she approached the throne room, she slowed her footsteps until she came to a halt at the doorway. Pressing herself against the wall, she peered inside, only to find an empty room. Her brow furrowed. They had always been brought here before.

“And just what are you doing, Little Waverly?”

The familiar, deep voice startled her and she valiantly fought to muffle her shriek of surprise. By the sound of the laugh behind her, she hadn't done a very good job. She turned on her heel and found Bobo looming over her, an amused smile on his face.

“I... the prisoners. The ones I saw—”

“Come to protect me in case they made one last attempt?”

Waverly opened her mouth, but promptly closed it, her teeth clacking together. She looked away from Bobo and studied the floor instead. A heavy hand on her shoulder made her look up again.

“I'd say you've protected me enough for one night.”

“Really?”

“Yes,” he said. “I have nothing more to worry about from them and you shouldn't worry yourself either. They've been taken care of.”

“If you're sure...”

“I am,” Bobo said. “Now no more wandering about the halls. We have guests later, and you know what that means.”

Waverly sighed, and nodded her head.

“To bed with you then, so you're not underfoot.”

He gave her a gentle push away from the doorway and she glared over her shoulder, but he only laughed and waved her away. She grumbled under her breath, but started towards the long hall that, after several twists and turns, would lead her to her quarters. Her fingers glided along the cool stone as she aimlessly walked down the familiar hall, but as they trailed along the warm wood of the door to the dungeon, a flash of red entered Waverly's thoughts and she stumbled over her footing.

She winced as she stood back up then shook the thoughts from her head. When she started to walk again, another image flashed in her head. Warm brown eyes framed by dark red hair. A kind, bashful smile.

Waverly's gaze drifted to the heavy door.

She should be in her quarters. She didn't want to be in the way when Bobo had his guests over. A moment of debate, then she pushed the door open and slipped inside. As long as she wasn't wandering the halls, she wouldn't be in the way. Besides, she wanted to get a look at the people who had planned to attack Bobo.

A look couldn't hurt.

Her footsteps bounced off the walls as she descended the staircase. The smell of sweat and unwashed bodies overwhelmed her senses. She made the mistake of trying to breathe through her mouth and nearly gagged, so she stuck with breathing through her nose even if it made her eyes water. When she reached the landing, the dim light from a single torch was all that illuminated the cells and the few prisoners they held: the three captives she had seen brought in. Two guards sat at a rickety table in the corner, squinting in the light of a lantern to see the cards they held in their hands. One looked up at the sound of her footsteps and immediately stood at attention.

“Miss Waverly,” he said. “This... You shouldn't be down here.”

“And you two shouldn't be gambling on your watch,” she said, quirking an eyebrow. “I'll pretend I didn't see you, but only if you pretend you didn't see me.”

The guard rubbed the back of his head and shared a look with his partner.

“They're chained up in cells, Luca,” came the gruff response. “What are they gonna do to her?”

That seemed to put the man's mind at ease and he slowly lowered himself back down to his chair.

While the two of them continued their game, she approached the cells that held the three would-be assailants. All of them were shackled to the wall, thick chains threaded through thick loops protruding from the stone. One of the captives was a grey-haired man with a wide-set face and drooping features. The other was another man, younger with dark hair and the beginnings of a beard. Both of them glared at her, resentment making their eyes hard, but she paid them no mind. Instead, her gaze wandered to the last, a woman who didn't look at her at all. Didn't look at much of anything, actually. She was slumped forward, the chains the only things holding her up, and even in the dim torchlight, Waverly could see the beads of perspiration dotting her skin.

Waverly chewed her lower lip for a moment, then approached the guards at the table. The gruff one looked up from his hand and she gave him a sweet smile.

“I need to take a look at one of them.”

He dropped his gaze back to the cards. “Can look at 'em just fine from outside the cell,” he said, only to yell a moment later when the cards were taken from his hand. “What do you think you're doin'?”

“I need the keys to the cell,” she said. “And if one of you could get me some supplies from the healer, I would appreciate it.”

“Supplies from the... Just what are you going on about?”

“Look, it's like you said. They're chained up. They can't hurt me,” she said. “But one of 'em is in there half-dead, and I doubt His Grace will be happy if he loses a source of information.”

“Nice try, but he's got two perfectly good ones left if we lose that one there.”

Waverly placed her hands on her hips and tilted her head to the side. “And how do you know either of them know a damn thing?”

“How do you know she does?”

“I don't,” Waverly admitted, “but I do know if she dies and the other two don't know anything, His Grace won't be pleased that he lost someone who could have given him answers because you let them die.”

“Miles, just give her the damn keys,” Luca hissed.

The gruff guard held Waverly's gaze, only to curse under his breath and pull the keyring from his hip a moment later.

“You should take up cards sometime, Miss Waverly,” he told her as he handed her the keys. She only smiled and handed back his cards in response. He returned his attention to the younger guard, whose hands shook in the lamplight. “Maybe I'll go grab the supplies,” Miles said with a sigh. He pushed his chair back and glared at the other man. “Damn fool here'd just drop 'em with how much his hands are shaking.”

“Thank you,” Waverly said, and Miles grunted in response before he headed for the stairs she had descended not long before. Once he was gone, she returned her attention to the younger guard. “Sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you.”

“N-No. I wasn't frightened. Not at all.”

“Okay. You weren't frightened.”

She left the conversation at that while the guard still held some dignity and approached the cell that held the woman. After a quick round of trial and error, she found the key to her cell and slid inside. As she approached the injured woman, chains rattled as the prisoners from the other cells jerked forward.

“You stay away from her!”

“Don't touch her!”

But Waverly tuned those voices out and focused on the woman in front of her. She reached out a cautious hand and placed it against the woman's forehead, frowning at how hot the skin was to her touch. Blood caked the side of her face. Waverly gently brushed aside red-stained tresses and found the knot on the side of the woman's head. Another few seconds of inspection, and she found the remains of an arrow shaft embedded in her right shoulder. Blood stained the fabric of what remained of the woman's makeshift armor.

It was the the deep, angry wound that traversed the woman's back, however, that made Waverly's brow crease with worry.

Heat radiated from the area and even though Waverly's fingers only grazed the skin above it, a soft groan reached her ears and chains rattled as the body stirred beneath her touch. Warm, brown eyes met hers and Waverly's breath caught in her throat as they held her gaze, only to close again a moment later.

The door to the dungeon opened and closed, and at the sound of footsteps approaching, Waverly looked away from the prisoner to find Miles standing at the door to the cell with an armful of the supplies he had promised. She took them with a grateful smile that he didn't return, choosing instead to join his partner at the table. Her arms full, she returned to the prisoner and slowly started to lay out the supplies. Thankfully, Miles had thought ahead far enough to bring a clean linen down as well—or maybe the healer had suggested it—so once Waverly had spread that out—a bright, white spot on a dirt-covered floor—she returned to the woman bound to the wall and, after another round of trial and error, she undid the manacles that held her.

A whimper reached her ears as the lanky prisoner fell against her. She was lighter than she looked. The fever was more obvious with the woman's body pressed against her, but Waverly tried not to think about that as she laid her on the clean linen, careful to keep her on her side at least until she could get the rest of the arrow shaft out. She pressed the back of her hand against the prisoner's cheek. She was surprised when the woman leaned into the touch.

She was supposed to die in the ambush.

Waverly had Seen that, just as she had Seen hundreds of other deaths before. Yet she hadn't died. She was here, in Bobo's dungeon, breathing in the same putrid air as Waverly. She had defied the fate that Waverly had Seen for her, and she wasn't quite sure what to make of that.

She had never been wrong before.

As she knelt at the woman's side and studied her soft features a moment longer, Waverly couldn't help but think that, just this once, she was glad she had been wrong.


It was too dark.

That was the first thought that sprang to Nicole's mind when she started to regain consciousness. The second thought that came forth was how much she wished to go back into that blissful state of unconsciousness if it meant she could escape what surely had to be someone dragging a burning coal across her back. It did not come to claim her though, and she was forced to pry her eyes open to at least solve the darkness issue.

It wasn't much brighter with her eyes open, but there was enough light for her to see the low ceiling above her. She let her head fall to the side and she wasn't surprised to find iron bars beside her. Foggy memories from a clear, cold night begged to be remembered, but she pushed them away for the moment and closed her eyes. Obviously the night had not gone as planned, or she wouldn't have woken up in a prison cell, her head wouldn't feel as if it were splitting open, and a trail of fire wouldn't be blazing its way over her skin.

“I don't know how you keep ending up on your back.” Nicole opened her eyes at the unfamiliar, feminine voice that was followed by a soft sigh. She felt movement at her side and tried to control her breathing the way Xavier had shown her back at their camp, but it was so much harder for her to focus when it felt like an ax had been driven into her skull. “Oh! Are you actually awake now?”

A strange woman's face blocked her view of the ceiling. On instinct, she started to scramble away from the stranger, but the searing pain that shot through her back and her shoulders stole her breath and what remained of her mobility, and she dropped back down to the floor with a painful thud. She squeezed her eyes shut and bit her lip, trying to hold back the whimper that wanted to escape.

She wasn't as successful as she had hoped.

The stranger tsk'd and placed a hand on Nicole's uninjured shoulder. “Don't do that,” she said, “you're going to make things worse.” Searching fingers plucked at the fabric covering Nicole's shoulder—whatever it was, it certainly didn't feel like the raggedy armor she had been wearing when she left—then dropped it again. “You're in luck. You didn't tear anything open up here. But you should really be on your side.”

Nicole released a shaky breath through her gritted teeth and slowly opened her eyes again to get a better look at the woman prodding at her. Light, hazel eyes—one of them marred by a dark bruise—and a sharp jawline were the first things Nicole noticed, but the furrow in her brow and the scrunch in her nose softened the woman's features. She let the stranger roll her onto her uninjured side, only to hiss a moment later when her fingertips pressed against her back.

“Sorry, sorry,” the woman said. The next touch was softer and, while not pleasant, it wasn't nearly as crippling as the one before. “That one is taking longer. Probably because you keep rolling over. Every time I come to check on you, you're flat on your back again and I have to roll you back onto your side.” Nicole struggled to keep up with the steady stream of words, but the other woman didn't seem to notice. “Tried to prop you up by the bars. Rolled right onto your shoulder instead and that wasn't any better.” She stopped fussing with Nicole's back—thankfully—and her face popped back into Nicole's line of sight. “Tried to prop you up on my lap so I could make sure you didn't roll over, but...” She laughed, high-pitched and maybe a little nervous. “Well, that time you woke up, and you weren't exactly calm.”

That explained the bruise.

“Sor...”

Her voice, scratchy as it was, abandoned her.

“Oh! Water! You need water.”

Retreating footsteps that returned a moment later. Then, the woman's skinned knees in her line of sight. She glanced up and found her caretaker holding a pouch and regarding her thoughtfully, as if determining the best way to help her drink. Unable to take another slight to her already bruised pride, Nicole solved the problem and slowly pushed herself into a sitting position despite the woman's protests. She was breathless by the time she was upright, and the fire blazed along her back again, but she was not about to let a stranger hold the waterskin to her mouth as if she were a newborn. She tried not to think about how many times that had probably already happened as she accepted the waterskin with a shaky hand.

As she took long drinks from the waterskin, she tried to get a better idea of her surroundings.

There were several more cells that surrounded hers. At first, a pit formed in her stomach when she didn't see Fish or Levi. Maybe they had been killed in the ambush after all. But then her eyes adjusted to the darkness across the hall and she saw their familiar figures in the cells across from her, and the knot loosened. What caught her attention, however, was that they were chained to the wall and she was, well, not.

She lowered the waterskin from her chapped lips and wiped the excess water away with the back of her hand. A giggle at her side drew her attention from her companions across the hall.

“Sorry,” the woman said, but the amused smile remained, “you're just... you're very different.”

Nicole tilted her head. This stranger was calling her different, as if she weren't the odd one sitting in a cell, fussing over a prisoner who probably should have died out in that forest. As the memory of the botched mission pushed its way forward, demanding to be remembered, Nicole shuddered. Her odd caretaker must have taken it as a sign she was cold though, because she disappeared from her side again, only to return a moment later with a blanket. Nicole eyed it for a moment before her gaze shifted to Levi and Fish in the cells across the hall again.

“Don't do that,” the woman said as she knelt beside her. A soft hand on her arm coaxed her into looking at the other woman. “They've got their own blankets. I promise they won't freeze to death in here. And they've been transferred to the cells with the longer chains. They have enough slack to move around and sit against the wall to sleep.” She chewed her lower lip for a moment then said, “But I can't get the guards to unlock their chains completely. Not like I did for you.” She lowered her voice as she said, “It was a fight to get the guards to let you out of yours anyway. The only reason they allowed it was because... well...”

Nicole's eyes hardened and she pulled her gaze away so she could look at the cell bars instead.

She knew exactly why her manacles had been unlocked and the others' hadn't.

She had been injured. She had been too weak to protect her friends, and now she was too weak to even be considered a threat or a flight risk.

She was nothing.

“You're very stubborn, you know?” The woman sighed and shifted so she was in Nicole's line of sight again. “Listen,” she said as she brushed a limp strand of hair out of Nicole's face, “that hard-headed attitude of yours pulled you out of your fever, but you're still hurt. That same stubbornness is only going to make things worse again if you let it.”

She offered the blanket again. Nicole eyed it for a moment, then sighed and took it from the woman's hands. Once it was around her shoulders, her caretaker guided her back down to the floor, and Nicole tried not to wince at the movement. When she was settled on her side again, she lifted her gaze to stare up at the woman kneeling beside her. Curiosity finally got the better of her.

“Who... What's your name?”

“Waverly,” the woman said, “and you're Nicole.”

Nicole furrowed her brow. She didn't remember giving her name. She wouldn't have given her name.

“Sorry. That's just the fifth time we've introduced ourselves to one another in three days.”

Nicole dropped her gaze back to the floor. “Oh.”

“Don't worry about it,” Waverly said as she stood up. “You seem a bit more lucid this time, so I doubt we'll have go through introductions again. Not that I minded. You were always quite sweet whenever you asked.” Footsteps retreated again, this time accompanied by the creak of the iron door. “I'll check up on you again later. Maybe you'll be hungry next time.”

The footsteps faded away and Nicole squeezed her eyes shut. She tried not to think about her failure or about the cell she had been locked in. She tried not to think about the way her body ached or what the future held for her once it healed. Still, the thoughts pushed through and a tight, uncomfortable knot formed in the pit of her stomach.

She doubted she'd be hungry any time soon.

 

Chapter Text

One breath in.

One breath out.

Another breath in.

Another out.

Nicole focused on the simple act of breathing, on the rise and fall of her own chest, as she lay on her side in the dim cell. As long as she focused on that, she wouldn't think about the pain pulsating from her back. The technique also made it easier for her to ignore the sound of her companions' voices. Her friends. The ones she couldn't protect. The failure weighed heavily on her already aching shoulders and she couldn't bring herself to look at the two men she had gotten captured.

At the very least, the two of them could have escaped even if she couldn't. But she hadn't been able to hold off the soldiers long enough for them to run. Now all three of them were trapped in Robert's dungeon because she hadn't been strong enough.

“Nic.”

Fish's familiar voice reached her ears and she realized she had lost focus. She tried again to regain the state she had been in, listening to herself inhale then exhale, but it was no use. She could still hear Fish.

“Nic, we know you're awake over there,” he said. She didn't respond, and a moment later, she heard chains rattle as Fish stepped closer to the edge of his cell. “That's fine. You don't have to talk. Jus' listen,” he said. “We want you to know—Levi and I, that is—we know what you're thinkin', and we want you to know we don't blame you for this.”

The words were supposed to be a comfort, but she took none from them. They didn't blame her, but she knew better.

“Come on now,” Levi chimed in. “We'd be dead if you hadn't warned us about those arrows.”

Nicole squeezed her eyes shut and tried to focus again.

One breath in.

One breath out.

They hadn't died in the ambush, but maybe that would have been kinder. There were no reinforcements coming to save them—the Resistance wasn't powerful enough for a rescue mission in Robert's castle—and even if she could move without her abused body screaming at her to stop, she doubted she would have been able to come up with an escape plan. Not with two guards on them at all hours of the day. They had survived the ambush, only to rot away in the dungeon.

Some leader she had turned out to be.


One breath in.

One breath out.

One brief image of red hair flashed through her thoughts.

Waverly furrowed her brow and frowned. That wasn't right. She shifted in her chair and tightened her hold on the smooth top of the skull beneath her palm. She tried again.

One breath in.

One breath out.

A memory of feverish, brown eyes watching her, not quite lucid, but not completely lost to the fever that had taken hold.

Waverly scowled and opened her eyes so she could glare at the skull on the table, focusing on the dark, hollow sockets. When it refused to give up its secrets, she sighed and slumped against the back of her chair. She supposed she couldn't blame a dead man for her inability to focus. Not when she knew the true cause of her distraction.

Once more, she placed her hand on the top of the skull that rested on the table. The thrum of energy—one she had become familiar with over the years—pulsed beneath her palm, and she took another deep breath, hoping to focus long enough to See where the skull would lead her.

But all she saw was Nicole slumped forward, only on her feet because the chains that held her were too high on the wall to let her fall. Her skin too pale and slick with sweat and blood.

Waverly gasped and jerked her hand back.

The chair scraped against the stone floor as she shoved it away from the table and stood. She paced the length of her room, occasionally glancing at the traitorous skull taunting her from the table. It wasn't the source of her distraction or the distressing memory, she knew that, but it was easier to blame the skull for the vivid memory than think about the actual cause.

She stopped pacing and shifted her gaze back to the skull. She could try one more time, she supposed.

A pounding at her door drew her attention away from the head. A moment later, the door swung open. When she saw Bobo filling the doorway, guards at his back, Waverly shifted her gaze to the floor. The door creaked shut again and when she looked up, only Bobo remained in the room while his guards waited outside. He glanced at the skull and the maps and star charts spread out around it, then returned his attention to her.

“I see you've been busy today,” he said. His long coat dragged along the stone floor as he approached. He placed his hands on her shoulders and studied her for a moment. If he noticed her nerves, he didn't show it. “Tell me you've found something.”

Waverly wished she could.

Her silence was answer enough.

Bobo sighed. “Waverly, the Stone Witch will be here by week's end. If you haven't Seen something by then—”

“I know, Bobo,” she said, “and believe me, I've been trying, but I can't seem to focus.” She crossed her arms over her stomach and looked at the floor. She hated disappointing him. Worse, she hated the thought of not Seeing something before the Stone Witch arrived. She still had nightmares about the last time the witch had helped her focus, the young servant's screams haunting her dreams.

Waverly shuddered at the memory of the pained expression on his face as the witch tormented him.

“I won't let her harm you, Waverly, I can promise you that,” Bobo said, as if knowing where her thoughts had taken her, “but I can't protect everyone within these walls from her. You know that.”

She lifted her gaze from the floor. “I do, but it's hard for me to focus in here.”

“I know what you're going to ask me, and the answer is no.”

“But Bobo, maybe some fresh air and a change of scenery—”

“I said no!” He released her shoulders and stepped away from her. “Have you forgotten the night I found you? Wandering the forest, barely more than skin and bones beneath the rags your captors had deemed fit for you?”

“I haven't forgotten,” she said, “but Bobo, I would only be just outside the castle. I wouldn't leave the grounds and I'd have the guards with me. I'd be safe.”

“Damn it, Waverly, you are safer in here!” He took a deep breath and ran his hand over his hair. “Listen,” he said, his deep voice a softer rumble than it had been before, “I know you think you would be safe out there, but while there are rebels lurking around, there is no safer place than inside these walls. And haven't I let you have your freedom within them since you've been here?”

“Well, yes, but it isn't the same!”

“I know,” he said with a sigh. He rested his hand on her shoulder again. “When things settle down, I promise, things will be different. You'll see.” He didn't smile—he never did—but the hard glint to his eyes had softened and Waverly relaxed. “But for now, find me the next bone.”

“I will,” she said. “Before the Stone Witch comes, I'll find you another.”

“Good girl.” He squeezed her shoulder and any worry that she may have had that he was angry with her dissipated. “Now, will you be taking dinner here or will you be joining me tonight?”

“I think I'll take it here tonight, thank you,” she said. “I suppose if I sit with the skull long enough, he'll be more willing to share.”

Bobo chuckled. “Alright then, Little Waverly,” he said. “If you See anything—”

She smiled. “You'll be the first to know.”

Nodding, he said, “I'll leave you to it then.”

Once he had left, Waverly's shoulders sagged, and her gaze drifted back to the table where the skull sat, mocking her. Her lips twisted into a sneer. Despite what she had told Bobo, she doubted she would be getting any further with the skull for the day.

Not when her mind kept wandering to the dungeon and the woman within it.


Near the bars of her cell, Nicole shivered beneath the scratchy blanket Waverly—No, that woman—had given her. The cold air of the dungeon slipped beneath the edges of the blanket and she wished she could curl in on herself to trap what little heat remained in her body, but she hurt too much to move again. Forcing herself to inch closer to the torch and the little warmth it provided had aggravated the wounds and made the pain flare across her back and in her shoulder. She had long given up on her breathing exercise. Once the pain had started to make itself known again, it had been impossible to block it out.

The heavy thud of the door startled her, and the sound of footsteps made her heart beat harder in her chest. They stopped in front of her cell and she heard a sigh.

“How did you end up over here?”

The strange woman’s familiar voice soothed the fear that had crept up on her and her heart stopped thudding painfully against her chest. The door to her cell creaked open. A moment later, the woman's hand was on her shoulder, but Nicole kept her gaze fixated on the dirty wall. She heard the woman mutter to herself before she stood up and left the cell again. When she returned, she placed a wooden chest in front of Nicole and for a moment, she had the fleeting thought that the woman had been sent to force information about the Resistance out of her. When she opened the chest and pulled out new bandages and several bowls, though, Nicole relaxed.

Her relief was short-lived.

The woman made her sit up after she had filled the bowls with water, and Nicole couldn't stop the groan that escaped. Soft apologies were offered, but they did nothing to ease her discomfort.

“I know it hurts, but I'll try to finish as quickly as possible.”

Nicole gritted her teeth so she wouldn't swear in response.

The blanket slipped down to her waist and pooled over her legs. As the bandage around her torso was unwound, the cold dungeon air against her bare skin made her teeth chatter even harder. The woman knelt in front of her, a wet rag in hand.

“You know, I've never met someone like you.” The touch against Nicole's shoulder was gentle as the woman cleaned the wound, wiping away the remains of the old poultice. “I mean, well, I've met people, obviously. It would be silly if I hadn't met people,” she continued, her brow furrowing as she focused on her task, “but you're different. I can tell.”

Nicole watched as the woman placed a new poultice against her shoulder. She gently lifted Nicole's arm so she could wrap a new bandage around her shoulder to hold the poultice in place. After she carefully lowered it again and tied off the bandage, the woman gave her an apologetic smile and shifted so she was behind her.

It bothered her, Nicole realized, that she couldn't understand this woman. Couldn't understand how someone who served Robert could give her such kind smiles. Couldn't understand how she could cause pain one moment, only to erase it a moment later with gentle touches. Couldn't fathom how she could care about her well-being when Nicole herself refused to care what happened to her.

“This is going to sting a little.”

Then the warm, wet cloth was against the torn skin of her back, and Nicole wasn't able to bite back the curse on her tongue.

That was far more than a sting.

“You know,” the woman said as she continued to clean the wound on Nicole's back, “there's a mountain around here—I've never seen it myself, but I've read about it—where a lone warrior took a stand against a dragon that had taken up residence there. Except, this warrior wasn't much of a warrior and more of a shepherd, really—they barely knew one end of a sword from another—but after months of the dragon stealing their village's cattle and sheep, they decided they needed to do something, and if that meant confronting the dragon, then that's what they would do.”

Nicole gritted her teeth as the woman's touch moved from her left shoulder, down to the middle of her back where the wound was deeper and far more tender. The soft voice, however, continued the story, and Nicole was able to focus on that rather than the pain in her back.

“So the shepherd-turned-warrior left their herd with a trusted neighbor, saddled their strongest horse, and bought the best used armor they could afford along with a sword they didn't know how to use.” She paused for a moment to rinse the rag, then resumed the story and her ministrations. “It was a long ride from their home and the shepherd had to evade bandits, scavenge for food, and survive harsh storms that later caused floods of mud in the forest at the base of the mountain. It was after such a storm that the warrior finally arrived at the mountain, armor soaked through and covered in mud, shaking from hunger, cold, and fear as they called out for the dragon.”

There was another pause as she dunked the rag again. Nicole prepared herself for the next painful touch, but it never came. Instead, the woman was placing another poultice against her skin. Then she was wrapping a clean bandage around Nicole's torso and tying it off.

“All done.”

A moment later, she was in front of Nicole again, packing up the chest, then cleaning up the soiled supplies from the floor of the cell.

“You're just gonna leave it at that?”

The woman startled and dropped the bowl of water. She sighed and knelt down to pick it up, but before she rose again, she looked at Nicole. “What do you mean?”

“The story. You're not gonna finish it?”

Even in the dim torchlight, Nicole could see red flooding the woman's cheeks. She tucked her hair behind her ear and looked down at the floor. “I um... I didn't realize you were actually paying attention.” When she looked back up, there was a small smile on her face. “But if you liked it, I'm sure I can finish it next time.”

She stood and finished packing up the chest. She left the cell for a moment and when she returned, a bundle of furs was spilling over her arms. Nicole watched as the strange woman laid one out on the floor not far from where she sat. When she knelt in front of Nicole again, a kind smile was on her face and she placed her hand on Nicole's forearm.

“I know you're tired and sore and don't feel much like moving, but it's only a small distance, and you'll be much more comfortable on the furs.”

Nicole stared longingly at the heavier blankets piled on the floor. She nodded her head and a moment later, she allowed the woman to slip under her uninjured shoulder and help her move. Despite the short distance, it took the last of her strength to reach the furs, and she would have collapsed against them if it weren't for the gentle hands that guided her down to the floor. A moment later, she was covered with one of the heavier furs.

Once she was settled, the woman left her side and gathered the remaining blankets in her arms. She heard the door to her cell open, followed by the rattle of chains across the hall. Then the door to her cell opened again and the woman knelt in front of her once more, her arms empty. She lifted the corner of the heavy fur and quickly joined her beneath it, surprising both Nicole and the guards.

“Miss Waverly!”

She waved them off. “It's okay. I'll be fine,” she said. “She won't hurt me.”

But the two guards continued to argue with her.

“She's a prisoner, Miss Waverly!”

“She is a person,” she snapped, and the anger in her voice startled Nicole. “One who could freeze without proper care, yet the two of you haven't even bothered to light a fire in the hearth down here. So this is me, caring for her, since the two of you have decided not to.”

Silence followed the outburst, only to be broken by an uncomfortable cough.

“They're um... they're prisoners, Miss Waverly?”

“Yes, we've established that, Miles, so haven't they suffered enough without the threat of freezing to death looming in their futures?” Her eyes narrowed as she said, “If the gods are merciful, you'll never be taken prisoner, but if you are, is this how you would like to be treated? Like dogs?” The gruff man offered no response. “I didn't think so,” she said before she returned her attention to Nicole, offering a small, apologetic smile. “Sorry. They lose all sense of manners in the barracks, I swear.”

Nicole thought it had less to do with that, and more to do with the fear of what Robert could do to them if the woman was harmed. That alone told her she was important to the man, but in what regard, she had no idea. It was common knowledge that Robert had no spouse to care for and no children either. So who was she?

“Are you warm enough?”

“What?”

“Warm enough,” the woman repeated. “It was cold in my study, even with the fire, so I suspect you must have been freezing down here. Are you getting warmer now?”

“I'm fine.”

“Okay, well, I'll just stay here a little longer then. Make sure you're more than just fine.”

Nicole wished she could hate the bright smile the woman gave her, but she found herself wanting to return it. Under different circumstances she would have, but as it was, she settled for focusing on the wall behind Waverly instead.

Waverly.

Her thoughts lingered on the name. She had tried to avoid it, to distance herself from seeing the woman as a person, but the soft story and the careful touches—painful as those had been—had worn her down.

It was a strange one, she decided, but it suited the odd woman sharing the furs with her.


Waverly sat in front of her desk, the skull staring up at her, daring her to touch it. All week, she hadn't been able to connect with it, though her mind had, thankfully, stopped drifting to Nicole. Well, most of the time. There were moments, such as when she was taking her meals or lying in bed, when she would find herself wondering if Nicole was alright. She had told Miles and Luca to keep the fire burning in the hearth so she wouldn't freeze to death, but she hadn't had the chance to check on her since then. Instead, she had spent the last few days with the skull, trying to find the connection she needed, only to fail time and time again.

But it was the morning before the Stone Witch was meant to arrive, which meant she was running out of time to find the thread she needed and decipher it. She groaned and rested her forehead against the desk. She only allowed herself a quick moment to wallow in pity and frustration, then she lifted her head back up and settled in the stiff chair. She took a deep breath, then placed her hand back on the skull and closed her eyes.

One breath in.

One breath out.

She tried to relax and allow the connection to come to her as it had in the past.

Another breath in.

Another out.

A thrum of energy pricked at the skin of her palm, but she kept her eyes closed. Forcing it to come to her hadn't worked in the last four days, so she would wait until she was sure. Her brow furrowed as she felt another thrum of energy, this time against her fingertips.

There.

The tug she had been waiting for.

Her grip tightened on the skull while she allowed the rest of her body to relax. In her mind, she could picture the cord, thin and vibrating. Where it led, however, she couldn't see yet, so she imagined herself taking hold of the cord. She could feel the buzz of power in her palms. She took another deep breath and let herself fall.

Images rushed by her as the cord pulled her along. Dead trees of the northern forests. Frost-covered fields that bled into brown then bright green. Small towns made of rough, leaning cottages. All of them were a blur, pricking at the edges of her vision. When she jerked to a stop, gasping for breath, the first thing she noticed was the putrid aroma that made her gag. Once she had regained her bearings, she realized she was up to her knees in water, green with algae and moss. She grimaced, but returned her attention to her surroundings.

Sunlight filtered through the leaves above her. Mud clung to her feet as she tried to step forward, only to release her with a soft squelching sound. Tall weeds broke through the water's surface. Insects buzzed in her ear, but she paid them no mind. They couldn't touch her here, wherever here was. She frowned and closed her eyes again. The cord from the skull still thrummed in her palm and she was sure to keep a steady hold of it as she stepped forward.

Several steps later, she was in the low swells of a valley. A small river cut through the hills, most likely draining into the swamp she had just been in. Another step forward, and the rush of water filled her ears.

She found herself staring at the wide river that tore through the earth, whole trees trapped in its current. The Talla River. She had Seen it before, but its strength never failed to amaze her. She let her gaze wander, enjoying the bright, warm colors that surrounded her. Then she tugged the cord thrumming in her hand.

She gasped as her body jerked in her chair. The skull rested in front of her again and the crackle of the fireplace reached her ears. She lifted her hand from the smooth skull and shook herself, trying to feel more at ease in her own body. After she felt more settled, she pushed the skull back towards the wall and pulled her collection of maps into its space. She flipped through them until she found the one of the northern region of the country.

The skull had given her several clues, but the most helpful had been the gaping river carving its way across the land. Its powerful roar still thundered in her ears as she scanned the map for the thick line that represented the Talla river. She found it near the edge of the map, at the base of the mountain range that ran along the north east border of the region.

As she tracked the river with her fingertip, she tried to remember what it had looked like in her vision. When she reached the fork, where it split into its smaller sister river—the Tula—she followed the thicker line. It had been too wide across to be the Tula, its rapids too powerful. She stopped tracing the Talla when her fingertip reached the sharp bend of the river. Smaller lines branched off from the thick, hooked line, and Waverly followed each one until she found the one that cut through a valley and drained into the swamp she had found herself in. She opened a small container on her desk and pulled out a stick of charcoal and placed a small x over the area.

Once the map had been marked, she opened the drawer of her desk and pulled a blank piece of parchment from its confines. She lay it over the maps and dragged the piece of charcoal over it. She thought of where she had been in the swamp, the fallen logs and the long weeds. Anything that might make it easier to distinguish from the rest of the swamp. When she was done, her fingers had been stained grey and left splotches on the sides of the parchment as she held it up in front of her. Satisfied with the rough sketch, she stood from the desk and, after changing into a simple dress that was more presentable than her nightgown, she left her room in search of Bobo.

He wasn't a hard man to find when he was expecting an audience.

Waverly approached the doorway to the throne room, her map and the sketch clutched in her hands. She had hoped she had arrived early enough that she wouldn't have to see the Stone Witch, but there the woman stood beside Bobo's throne, her bony fingers digging into his arm as she spoke with him. The hairs of her neck stood on end and beads of sweat formed on her forehead. Ignoring the shaking in her hands, Waverly stepped into the throne room and cleared her throat.

“Well if it isn't your little pet,” the Witch said, her eyes glimmering. Waverly bristled at the comment. “Don't just stand there, dear. I'd like to see if you've made yourself useful. Or do you need another bit of motivation?”

“Constance,” Bobo growled from his throne, and she rolled her eyes. Bobo ignored it and turned his attention to Waverly. He nodded towards the parchments in her hands. “You've Seen something then?”

Waverly nodded and approached his throne. She kept a safe distance between herself and the Witch as she placed the map and drawing into his hands. He studied them for a moment, then nodded and laid them on his lap.

“Thank you, Waverly. You're free to go.”

She held back the sigh of relief she so desperately wished to release and took a step back from the throne instead. Before she could get far, however, a bony hand had clamped around her wrist and tugged her in front of the Stone Witch. A shudder ran down Waverly's spine when she found herself trapped in the woman's dark, piercing gaze.

“Tell me, dear. How is that servant boy doing? I haven't seen him on my last few visits. I do hope he's alright.”

Waverly's stomach turned at the mention of the boy. She tried to tug free, to get away from the Witch's sickly smile, but the grip was too tight.

“Constance!”

Bobo's voice boomed through the throne room, and Waverly stumbled backwards when the Witch released her wrist. Her sharp laugh cut through the air.

“Oh please, Robert. I need to have some fun on these visits. You know how I get when I'm bored.”

Bobo shook his head, but then turned back to Waverly. “Go,” he said. “We'll talk at dinner.” His gaze flickered to the Witch. “All of us.”

Waverly bowed, quick and sloppy, then left the throne room as fast as she could without appearing as if she were rushing to get away.

Judging by the Stone Witch's laughter that followed her, she had been far from successful.


Nicole was in the strange realm between waking and sleeping as she lay beneath the heavy furs Waverly had brought on her last visit. It was the closest she had come to actually sleeping since she had woken up in the dungeon. Somewhere out of sight, a small fire crackled. It wasn't much, but it offered more light and warmth than the lone torch near her cell. She sleepily wondered if that had been Waverly's doing as well.

The creak of the door upstairs interrupted the quiet moment, rousing her from what had almost been sleep. She opened her eyes, hoping she had no reason for the harsh pounding of her heart against her chest. The sound of light footsteps reached her, but it wasn't until she saw Waverly walk in front of her cell that her heartbeat slowed. While she didn't understand the woman or her motives, she was, at the very least, familiar.

Yet she seemed different today as she stepped through the door of Nicole's cell and set the chest on the floor. Her movements were distracted—she struggled to unclasp the locks of the chest, then proceeded to drop the water bowls after she pulled them out—and she had not greeted Nicole nor spoken with the guards like she normally would. Her touch was still careful as she eased Nicole into a sitting position, but her thoughts seemed to be far from the task at hand.

It was strange, not hearing her chatter on about something as she unwound the soiled bandages around Nicole's torso. It was too quiet, even though she could hear the guards talking at their rickety table, but she didn't comment on it. She had plenty of troubles of her own without worrying about those of someone who worked for Robert.

But without the lilt of Waverly's voice, there wasn't much to help Nicole take her attention off the sharp tendrils of pain that snaked across her back each time Waverly pressed the wet cloth against her skin. She gritted her teeth and tried to focus on her breathing instead, but normally deft fingers were clumsy today, and one particularly clumsy touch sent a painful jolt along Nicole's spine, and she jerked away out of reflex, which only made the pain worse.

“Sorry! I'm sorry.”

Nicole struggled to breathe through the discomfort. It had made her head spin and for a moment, her vision had blurred. Soft hands were on her shoulders, steadying her, then Waverly was kneeling in front of her, concern replacing the furrowed brow.

“Are you okay?” she asked, only to shake her head a moment later. “Don't answer that. It was an idiotic question,” she said. Her gaze dropped to the floor. “I'm sorry about that. I don't know what happened.”

“Please don't... do it again.”

Waverly looked up and held Nicole's gaze. “I won't.”

She maneuvered herself back behind Nicole again and went back to work cleaning the wound. The strange silence hung between them once more, only broken by the guards arguing over the rules of whatever game it was they were playing and the drip of water as Waverly dipped her cloth into one of the bowls.

“Last time,” Nicole said, cringing at the way her voice shook, “last time you were telling me a story.” The hand against her back paused. She took it as a sign to continue. “You said you would finish it.”

Waverly sighed. “I don't know if I'd be much good at storytelling today.”

So something was wrong.

“It helped,” Nicole said. “The story, I mean. About the shepherd? It helped.”

When Waverly didn't respond, Nicole resigned herself to suffering through quiet, painful touches. She had held out hope for some kind of distraction, but it seemed the mood that had taken hold of Waverly was there to stay and she would have to live with it. She tried to let her thoughts wander to the crackling fire instead of the sloshing of water as Waverly dunked her cloth again. She tried not to think of the painful touch that was sure to follow. Before she felt the sting of the cloth against her skin, however, Waverly spoke again.

“The shepherd-turned-warrior, soaked to the bone from the storms, and shaking with cold and hunger, called down the dragon from its home high in the mountain. They called until their voice grew hoarse and could barely be heard over the rain. Finally, the dragon swooped down from the mountain side and landed heavily in front of the shepherd, wondering how such a small, insignificant creature could make so much noise.”

Nicole laughed. She hadn't meant to, but she laughed nonetheless, and Waverly's hand stilled against her back for a moment before she started speaking again.

“The dragon didn't care much for the shepherd who had interrupted its slumber and the shepherd didn't care much for the creature who kept stealing their sheep. The shepherd, with their hoarse voice, told the dragon as much, but the dragon had more important things to do than listen to a squeaky-voiced shepherd. So it lowered its massive head until its snout was level with the nuisance. Then, with all the ferocity it could muster, it roared, its breath foul and hot. But the shepherd stood their ground.”

Waverly only paused for a moment to dunk the cloth again.

“You see, the shepherd had traveled so long and hard, it would take more than the dragon's foul breath and gleaming teeth to scare them away. And the dragon, impressed with the shepherd's courage, decided against killing them. However, the roar had caused a rumble in the earth. Rocks, already loosened by the weeks of rain, had been shaken free by the dragon's cry and now came crashing down upon them. While it wasn't an issue for the massive dragon—”

“A tiny shepherd stood no chance.”

“Well, I wouldn't say no chance, but the dragon did fare better in the end,” Waverly replied, and Nicole laughed again. “Still, even after their body was broken and bruised in the rock slide, the shepherd was too stubborn to die. They were still clinging to life a day later, when a beautiful woman with sharp silver eyes and silky white-gold hair found them trapped beneath the rubble.”

She paused again to rinse the cloth, but resumed the story before she pressed against the torn skin of Nicole's back.

“When the shepherd awoke in a soft bed of a cottage they didn't recognize, they wished they hadn't woken at all, for they were in a great deal of pain. The silver-eyed woman who had found them did her best to ease it, taking on the role of caretaker for this stranger they had found in the forest. And as she tried to ease the physical pain, she also tried to ease the anger and hatred she could feel stemming from the shepherd's heart. Hatred for the dragon that had trapped them beneath the rocks.”

“It was many long months before the shepherd could leave. Months of the silver-eyed woman caring for them. Speaking with them. Eating and sleeping beside them. And there were times when the woman would disappear for days on end, only to return with a gift to lift the shepherd's spirits each time. And while the shepherd had finally allowed happiness back into their heart, the hatred still smoldered at the core of it. So one night, they gathered their supplies and snuck out of the cottage so the woman couldn't stop them.”

Nicole heard her drop the rag into the bowl one last time before she felt the cool poultice against the deep gash. Then Waverly was wrapping a clean bandage around Nicole's torso once more, her hands steadier now than they had been earlier.

“All done,” Waverly said after the bandage was tied off.

She stood up, but as she started to walk back to the chest, Nicole reached out and took her by the hand. It hadn't been planned, but the dark coloring around Waverly's wrist had caught her eye, and she wondered if it had anything to do with what had caused her distraction earlier. To her credit, Waverly didn't jerk away in fear, which didn't give the guards a reason to leave their table. Instead, she cocked her head to the side, waiting for whatever it was Nicole wanted.

“You could stay,” she offered, as if the dungeon was a place anyone would want to spend a moment in of their own free will. “To finish the story, I mean.”

Waverly studied her. “You said it helps?”

Nicole nodded.

“Then I'll stay.”

Nicole couldn't help but notice the smile on Waverly's face as she helped Nicole lay back down on the soft fur and covered her with the other. She watched her go through the routine of cleaning up the supplies and packing them back into the chest. Waverly carried it out of the cell and returned a moment later empty-handed.

She lifted the edge of the heavy furs and, after Nicole nodded, she slipped beneath them. A pleasant warmth reached Nicole's skin, warmer than the heat the fire provided. Luckily, Waverly's voice stopped her from thinking about that fact.

“So. The shepherd,” she started, and Nicole nodded. “Well, they snuck out of the cottage and went to confront the dragon that had injured them so badly. But the silver-eyed woman had sensed they were getting restless and had resolved to keep an eye on them. When they snuck out, she knew, and she followed, knowing they were in no state to travel such a far distance, but also knowing they needed to make the attempt. Another part of her was curious what the shepherd would do if they found the dragon again.”

The warmth beneath the blanket and the softness of Waverly's voice made Nicole's eyelids droop. It was almost pleasant now, listening to the story without the sting of her wound accompanying it.

“They traveled for many days, the shepherd and the woman, but with each day that passed, the shepherd felt a different ache in their chest. One stronger than the pain caused by the hatred they carried for the dragon. Each day, the woman watched from the trees as the shepherd's resolve to confront the dragon lessened until, one day, they packed up camp and turned back, heading for the cabin and the silver-eyed woman they had left behind.”

When Waverly had taken her hand, Nicole didn't know, but she was too tired to pull it away.

“But the dragon was only one danger lurking in the forest near the mountain,” Waverly said, her voice grave. “The shepherd was only a day's walk back to the cottage when bandits ambushed them. With nothing of worth to give up, they were prepared to have their life taken from them instead for there were far too many bandits for them to fight alone. But as the rogues' leader was about to give the order, a familiar roar echoed above them and a great beast crashed down upon the trees. The shepherd couldn't believe their eyes as the dragon they had confronted so long ago devoured the bandits that had been about to kill them.”

“When only the shepherd and the dragon remained, the dragon lowered its head and rested its chin on the grass at the shepherd's feet, waiting for the shepherd to take their revenge. But the fatal blow never came. Instead, the shepherd sheathed their sword and placed a hand against the side of the dragon's head, gesturing for it to raise it up off the ground. They offered soft words of forgiveness until, beneath their touch, the dragon's form began to change and in its place stood the silver-eyed woman with the white-gold hair.”

As Waverly’s voice trailed off and Nicole finally started to fall into the restful sleep that had evaded her for days, she found herself smiling at the ending.

Every version of the story she had heard before, the dragon died and the shepherd remained alone.

Chapter Text

Waverly stared at the wooden map in front of her, chewing her lower lip as she pondered her choices. Her hand hovered over a figurine, her fingertips brushing the smooth stone it had been carved from, while Bobo sat across from her and waited patiently for her to make her move. The tip of her tongue peeked between her lips as she finally moved the mounted figure so it rested in front of a crude carving of a hut near a river. Two pearl figures that matched Waverly's in shape had surrounded the hut. Bobo raised his eyebrows at the decision, but promptly swept Waverly's figure off the table with two of his own.

“For someone who can see the future, strategy is not your strongest point,” he teased.

It was a familiar ribbing that Waverly had sat through over the years. She frowned and considered her next move.

“You say that every time we play,” she said as she moved another piece to dance around his, “yet I always come so close to beating you.”

“Close does not constitute winning,” Bobo said as he moved his mounted figures onto the hut Waverly's piece had been defending.

“Maybe not,” Waverly said. She let her fingers linger on one piece for a moment, then switched to the piece she had been moving intermittently throughout the game. It was in the perfect position, one it had gained while Bobo had been focused on destroying the stronger units she had purposely used to distract him. She placed it atop the castle that had been carved into the wooden map then leaned back, a sickly sweet smile on her face. “I do believe that does, though.”

Bobo stared at the map, a crease in between his eyebrows, then looked back up at her. “You are always full of surprises.”

The smile grew into a grin.

“Yes, well, now that you've thoroughly beaten me at a game I thought I had mastered, I suppose it is time to retire for the evening.”

“Aw don't tell me you're upset,” she said as Bobo gathered the pieces on the wooden map and stuffed them in a silk bag.

He shook his head. “Quite the opposite, Waverly,” he said. His hands stilled and he looked up from the board so he held her gaze. “Do not think I could be angry with you for learning.” He resumed picking up the figurines until he found the one he had captured at the end of the game. He held the stone figure of the mounted unit between them. “Though you still seem to favor wasting units on protecting villages you don't need.”

“It's what they're supposed to do.” Waverly snatched the figure from his grasp and held it to her chest. “Maybe I didn't need the villages, but they still deserved to be protected if they can't protect themselves. I won, didn't I?”

Bobo shook his head and finished clearing the wooden map. “You did,” he said as he pulled the strings of the silken bag and tied it closed. He tossed it to Waverly, who caught the pouch in cupped hands. “I'll have to rethink my strategy for the next game while I'm away.”

Waverly frowned at the reminder. She crossed the room to the cabinet tucked in the corner. After placing the pouch on the shelf where it belonged, she shut the doors but lingered at the cabinet.

“Do you know how long you'll be gone?”

“It's a long ride south,” Bobo said.

Waverly sighed. “So you don't know then.”

Bobo shook his head. “And no, you can't come with me.”

“I hadn't planned on asking.”

He studied her for a moment, then said, “Again with the surprises.”

Waverly shrugged. “I suppose I've finally learned how you'll answer.”

“Waverly,” he said, and she knew what would come next. While Bobo justified his decision to leave her at the castle yet again, she studied the mounted figurine she held in the palm of her hand.

When she had first started playing the game with Bobo, it had been easy to imagine him as the brave defender in her hand. After all, he had saved her. He had appeared every bit the hero atop his horse when he found her wandering the forest, covered in dirt and bruises while hunger clawed at her stomach and the cold nipped at her skin. He had covered her then with a cloak that had been almost too heavy for her thin frame and let her eat as much as she wanted, only stopping her before she could gorge herself into sickness.

“And you're not even listening to me, are you?”

Waverly looked up from the figurine to find Bobo a few steps in front of her, watching curiously as she studied the stone figure. She smiled sheepishly, and he shook his head but placed a hand on her shoulder.

“I'll return as soon as I can,” he assured her. “Off to bed with you now though, before I'm tempted to set up the board again and play another round to redeem myself.”

Waverly rolled her eyes, but she wished Bobo a good night and left the throne room so he could finish his last preparations for his departure the next morning. Rather than retire to her own quarters, however, she wandered to the kitchens. Several guards nodded as she passed by and she returned the greeting with a nod of her own.

Despite the late hour, the kitchens bustled with activity. Servants brushed by her as they hurried to clean the mess from the day. Meanwhile, cooks swept by with their arms full of wood, bags of flour, and Waverly thought she saw one man cradling a squawking chicken. She weaved around them, trying to stay out of the way. The head of the kitchen manned a massive pot that hung over the fire pit on a thick rod. She had to stand atop a stool as she stirred the contents and barked orders out in a voice that seemed too large for her small frame. She had just told a young man to prepare the dough for the next morning's rolls when Waverly approached, and her hard eyes softened at the sight of her.

“Don't tell me you missed supper again, Miss,” she said. Waverly nodded, and the cook shook her head. She whistled sharply and a young serving boy appeared at her side, his scarred hands shaking. “Simon, get the young Miss the tray I put aside. You know the one.” Simon nodded and disappeared into the chaos. Once he was gone, the cook returned her attention to Waverly. “Been missin' more meals than usual,” she said. “Does His Grace know you've been so forgetful lately?”

“He doesn't need to know,” Waverly said. “You know how I am when something's caught my interest.”

“Right,” the cook said as the boy returned, a tray in his hands. Waverly gave him a soft smile as she took the tray and tried not to look at the mangled flesh. He could hardly hold her gaze and Waverly felt a twisting in her gut. After he left to resume his chores, the cook said, “Don't mind him, Miss. He'll warm up to you again.”

“He shouldn't have to.” Waverly sighed and dropped her gaze to the platter of food in her hands. “I never meant for that to happen.”

“And he knows that,” the cook said. “Now go enjoy your meal before you lose your appetite. Don't worry about the boy. He's getting better.”

The cook shooed her away and Waverly frowned as she was nudged back into the bustle of the kitchens. She snaked her way around the workers, balancing the tray with one arm while her free hand grabbed any of the loose treats on the tables that caught her interest. When she reached the door, her tray was full, piled with fruit, warm bread slices that had yet to harden, and sweet pastries leftover from the evening meal.

The heat from the kitchen followed her out the door as she left and did not leave her completely until she turned down another corridor. As she walked through the drafty halls, she occasionally glanced down at the tray of treats in her hands. Maybe Nicole would have an appetite today, unlike the previous visits. If not, she was sure the other two prisoners would be grateful for something to eat that wasn't stale bread. Miles and Luca would be happy for an evening treat as well.

When she reached the heavy door she had been searching for, she balanced the tray on one arm again and pulled the door open with the other. She quietly slipped inside and made her way down the stone steps. A familiar sight greeted her: Miles and Luca huddled over the rickety table and the prisoners in their cells.

Chains rattled and she wasn't surprised to feel eyes on her as she walked the corridor between the cells. The young man approached his bars first, his gaze drifting down to the platter in her hands. She offered one of the sweet pastries and he snatched it from her grasp, though she didn't blame him for that. He returned to the back of his cell and offered half the pastry to the older man in the one beside him.

While the two of them spoke in hushed voices, she joined Miles and Luca at the table and set down the tray, interrupting their game of dice.

“Miss Waverly,” Miles grunted when his dice rolled into the edge of the tray.

“Sorry,” she said, even as she placed pastries on the table in front of him and Luca, whose mouth was already watering.

She gave them each an apple as well, then arranged the soft slices of bread on the small plate she had been given. She borrowed Luca's dagger to dice the remaining apple into small chunks that she dropped into the hot cereal. After Miles handed her the keyring—she no longer had to argue with him for it, which was a blessing—she picked up the tray and went back to Nicole's cell.

The door clanged shut behind her.

She set the platter down on the cleanest patch of the floor she could find. Before she tried to get Nicole to eat anything, she wanted to check the woman's wounds again. Brown eyes followed her as she left the cell to grab the chest of supplies she had taken from the healer's room. When she returned to the cell, Nicole grimaced at the sight of the chest in her arms. Waverly sighed and, after she placed the chest on the ground, she crouched in front of Nicole.

“Listen, I don't want to hurt you.”

“Yet I'm sure you're going to anyway,” Nicole said through pained breaths.

“Yes, well, I swear I don't take pleasure in it,” she said as she gently pulled the gauze away from the arrow wound. Nicole winced, but didn't respond.

Satisfied that no nasty fluid was oozing from the arrow wound anymore, Waverly nodded to herself. She made a mental note to change the poultice before she left, then stepped around Nicole so she could examine the wound that had been giving her trouble since the first morning the prisoners had arrived. She grimaced at the yellow and red stains smattering the white bandages that covered Nicole's back. Muttering to herself, she returned to the chest and carried it with her to Nicole's side. She eased the woman into a sitting position, apologizing each time she heard a muttered curse.

“I'm sorry,” she said again once Nicole was up. “If there was a way to do this without hurting you, I would do it.”

“Why?”

Waverly's brow furrowed. “Why what?”

“Why are you doing this? I'm bound to die down here. Why try to care for me?”

It was strange, hearing such words come from Nicole. Waverly had Seen how strong she was. She may have died in her vision, but she had still fought off an onslaught of soldiers with an arrow in her shoulder before succumbing to her wounds. The defeat she heard in the woman's voice now was a grim contrast to the determination she had seen in her vision.

“Why delay the inevitable?”

You've already defied the inevitable, Waverly thought, but she couldn't say that. Not without an explanation she wasn't sure how to give.

Instead, she said, “You're not going to die here.”

When Nicole didn't respond, Waverly sighed and started to peel the bandages from pale skin, wincing whenever she heard a small gasp of pain. Once the dressing had been peeled away, Waverly grimaced at the raw, angry gash that greeted her. Nicole had pulled through the fever that had plagued her when she first arrived, but bits of the deep cut still oozed pus and Waverly did not enjoy the thought of burning those pieces away while Nicole was lucid. It had been hard enough to do while she was delirious. Looking at the blistered and torn skin now, Waverly felt guilt pressing heavily on her shoulders.

She dug through the chest until she found the pouch of dried yarrow root she had slipped from their healer's medicinal chest. As she set the pouch beside her, she said, “I don't know why, by the way.”

“Why what?”

Waverly laughed at the echoed words.

“Why I'm helping you,” she said.

She pulled one of the soaking rags from the bowl of water and wrung it out. As gently as she could, she dabbed at the pus that had leaked from the angry blisters she had caused. Nicole tensed at the touch and Waverly heard the sharp intake of breath that she tried to stifle. “Sorry.”

“You know, if you keep apologizing every time it hurts,” Nicole said, pausing to take a steadying breath, “you're going to lose your voice.”

Waverly paused, her hand hovering over the ragged skin. “Was that a joke?”

“I suppose it was.”

Despite herself, Waverly smiled softly and shook her head.

She dabbed at the blisters again, but this time she bit back the apologies that sprang to her tongue every time she felt Nicole flinch beneath her touch. When she was done, the cloth was covered in splotches of red and yellow, much like the bandages before it. She set the soiled cloth aside and pulled the second one from the bowl so she could get to work on the hard part.

“I'm almost done.”

When she received no response, she set the rag aside with the other and started to hum a soft tune, hoping to give Nicole something to focus on besides the pain in her back. Before she could press the clean cloth against torn skin, she was interrupted by Nicole's soft voice.

“Is the shepherd story the only one you know?”

“No, I know a few.” Her hand hovered over the wound for a moment before she said, “I don't know if you've heard the one about the enchantress in the ocean. Well, maybe you have. She amassed quite a bit of fame when she rose from the depths to help her people on the coast.”

She had hoped the words would provide a distraction from the pain as the shepherd story had, but Nicole still gasped when Waverly gently pressed the cloth against the top of the angry gash. She tried to ignore the sound as she cleaned the wound, but she could feel the rigid body beneath her touch. It was worrying, just as the state of the soiled cloth had been earlier. As clean as Waverly had tried to keep the cell, the dungeon was no place for Nicole to heal.

Waverly frowned, but she pushed the negative thoughts to the back of her mind and focused on cleaning the wound as she continued her story.

“See, for many years she had traveled beneath the ocean, learning its secrets, but while she was gone, her home was ravaged by a people from further inland. When she returned from her adventures under the water, she was heartbroken to find her city in ruins. The survivors had done their best to rebuild, but it was only a shell of what it had once been, and she swore to avenge those who had been lost. However, her magic was tied to the ocean. She would not be able to use it if she left her home on the coast.”

By the time Waverly wiped away the worst of the foggy fluid that had risen to the surface of the deepest part of the cut, Nicole's quick breaths came through gritted teeth.

But at least the worst part was over for the day.

With the remaining water from the kettle and a handful of the dried yarrow leaves she had taken from their healer's medicine cupboard, she prepared a thick paste in the empty bowl. Once it was thick enough, she spread it onto a clean cloth and placed it against the worst of the deep gash.

“Are you sure,” Nicole said in a hoarse voice, “you're doing that right?”

Waverly narrowed her eyes. “I'll have you know, I've assisted our physician through several procedures. I'm positive I'm doing this right.”

“I wasn't in blinding pain for a moment,” she said. “I thought...” She paused to catch her breath, then said, “Thought maybe you were doing something wrong.”

Waverly was quiet for a moment. Then, realizing Nicole was teasing her again, she resumed her story as she carefully started to wrap a clean bandage around Nicole's torso.

“Because the enchantress couldn't travel inland herself, she turned to the ocean once more, and from it she created life. Dark sand turned to golden flesh and saltwater ran like blood through her creation's veins. She placed two stones upon the face, cerulean in color, and they became bright eyes that shined with curiosity. Within their chest, she placed a newly-formed pearl. She covered their naked head with the most brilliant seaweed she could find, and from it grew long locks of blue and green hair that shimmered in the sun.

“In their hand, she placed the tooth of a shark, which grew into a sharp blade. Then she tied a necklace of pink shells around their neck, and thick armor sprang from it that would protect them from any blow. Once they were armed and protected from harm, she sent her nameless warrior inland to find the ones who had wreaked havoc on her home.”

Waverly's voice trailed off as she tied the last bit of the bandage, and she felt Nicole relax. She smiled to herself as she gathered her supplies and began to place them back in the chest. She had just placed the container of dried yarrow root in the bottom of the chest when Nicole spoke again.

“Where did you learn how to tell stories?”

“What do you mean?”

“You're very good at it,” Nicole said. “Did someone teach you?”

“No, I don't think so.” Waverly shrugged and continued cleaning up her supplies. “It's not safe for me to leave the castle yet, so I like to read about all of the places I want to go, including all the stories about them.”

Nicole watched her for a moment before she asked, “What do you mean... not safe?”

Waverly shrugged. “You know, from people like y—” She tried to stop herself, but it was too late. The sentence hung in the air between them, and when Waverly looked up from her supply chest, she found she couldn't look Nicole in the eyes. “That's not what I meant. Just, there are rebels lurking around everywhere, and you're...”

“I'm one of them,” Nicole finished. Her words were quiet, but there was an edge to them. Waverly chewed her lip and nodded. Nicole's gaze drifted to the guards at the table, then returned to Waverly when she saw they were still playing their game of dice. “You say that like we don't have a reason to want him gone.”

“I didn't mean for it to sound that way,” Waverly said. “I just... I don't understand. He's always been a good man.”

“He's not,” Nicole said, her voice hard. “Maybe here, in what I'm sure is a very nice castle when you're not rotting in its dungeon, he seems like a good man. Maybe here, where people are reaping the benefits of what he takes from out there, he seems likes a good man,” she said, “but he's got you all fooled.”

“He doesn't—”

“He does,” Nicole snapped. She hissed in pain a moment later and pressed her uninjured hand against her shoulder. “Damn it!”

“Let me see,” Waverly said. She scooted closer and Nicole eyed her warily. Gently, she took the uninjured hand in her own and coaxed it away from the arrow wound. It didn't appear to have broken open, and she sighed with relief. “I think you just moved it wrong,” she said as she leaned back. Nicole's gaze dropped down to their hands, and Waverly realized she still held Nicole's. She cleared her throat and let go. “Sorry. I shouldn't have said what I said.”

“You weren't wrong.”

“No, but I made it sound like you were my enemy, and that's not how I see you.”

Nicole laughed, but it was mirthless. “I suppose it's hard to think of me as an enemy when I'm about as dangerous as a toddler.”

“No, that's not it,” Waverly said, but again she was left with no way to explain her reasoning without also explaining her visions. Instead, she shook her head and found the poultice she had made for Nicole's shoulder earlier. She placed it against the wound and wrapped it with the last of the cloth in her chest. When she was done, she leaned back again and finally found herself able to meet Nicole's eyes. “Did you want to try eating something a little heavier than broth today? I've brought a few things.”

She twisted and grabbed the tray from where she had left it. The cereal wasn't as hot as it had been earlier, but it was warm enough, she supposed. She dropped the wooden spoon into the bowl and offered it to Nicole, who took the bowl in her good hand and set it in her lap. Waverly took a slice of bread and cheese for herself and nibbled at it as she watched Nicole to make sure she didn't aggravate her wounds any more than she already had during their discussion.

Waverly was happy to let the quiet hang over them, but Nicole's words were stuck in her head.

Bobo wouldn't lie to her, she had always been sure of that. However, Nicole had no reason to lie to her either. Waverly's brow furrowed as she placed a slice of cheese over another piece of bread. If Bobo was as bad as Nicole claimed, then surely Waverly would have Seen something in her visions. Yet, a kernel of doubt settled in the back of her mind as another strange thought struck her.

Waverly frowned, then took a bite of the bread.

It seemed she would have something to research while Bobo was away.


Long after Waverly left, Nicole found herself thinking about the conversation they had shared as she huddled beneath the furs. She had been unable to figure out how someone like Waverly could work for someone like Robert, but the answer had revealed itself as they talked. She had called him a good man, which Nicole knew was far from the truth. The surprise on Waverly's face when Nicole had mentioned that he took from the people around him was enough to confirm her suspicions.

He was hiding it from her.

Why, she hadn't the slightest idea, but it was clear he had kept Waverly in the dark about how he ruled. Which led her to wonder, yet again, who Waverly was to him. Why was she so important that he kept himself hidden from her? Why wouldn't he let her leave the castle?

The questions left a pounding in her head.

“Nic.”

She sighed at the sound of Levi's voice, but forced herself into a sitting position so she could look at him. She owed him that much. Their time in the dungeon so far had not been kind to him. Despite the food Waverly smuggled down for them, his cheeks had grown gaunt and his eyes dim as hope of escaping dwindled. The realization that they were going to rot down here had finally dawned on him and, despite Fish's attempts to lift his spirits and keep him fed, the horror of that realization was taking its toll on him.

“What's wrong, Levi?”

“Nothin',” he said. “I just... Do you think the young lady meant what she said earlier? About not seein' us as the enemy?”

Levi had never wanted this life, Nicole knew that. He had been a painter before he joined the Resistance and Fish had been his favorite subject. But Fish hadn't been able to stand idly by as more and more people died because of Robert's leadership, so he had joined the Resistance. Levi had followed, unwilling to let him fight alone. Nicole had found that admirable before, but now he was facing the consequences of that decision. The possibility that people would remember him as a villain rather than for the art he had created seemed to be weighing heavily on him.

Nicole couldn't get them out of the dungeon, so the least she could do was alleviate this one fear he had.

“I think she meant it. Why else would she keep coming down here?” she said. “Now please try to get some sleep, Levi.”

He responded with a wan smile and said, “You too, Nic.”

She watched as he lay back down on the floor of his cell and slipped his hand between the bars so it rested in Fish's. Fish mumbled in his sleep, but didn't wake. Once she was sure Levi was settled, Nicole eased herself back down to the floor. She tried to take her own advice, but the movement had agitated the wound across her back and a painful throbbing started once more. She clenched her teeth as she tried to will away the pain the way Xavier had showed her after they sparred. It always seemed to come easily to him.

Or maybe he was just a good liar, that ass.

She missed him, she realized. He had been her mentor when she first joined with the Resistance, but he had also become her friend over the years. She wondered if she'd ever get the chance to see him again in this lifetime, or if they would only be reunited in the next. The thought that she may never see him again caused a stab of pain in her chest and tears pricked her eyes. Nicole told herself it was only because of the pain in her back and squeezed her eyes shut, willing herself to think of anything but Xavier as she tried to fall asleep.

When she woke again, it was to the sound of soft humming. She sleepily furrowed her brow and opened one eye, surprised to see Waverly already flitting around the cell. Another tray of food rested on the floor and she was pleased to find that her stomach no longer roiled at the smell. Across the corridor, Levi and Fish already had their own helping of food, and Nicole was relieved that Levi seemed livelier than he had before, some of the color returning to his cheeks.

Unable to stay still, she started to push herself up from the floor. It wasn't long before familiar hands were helping her up and she found herself caught in Waverly's concerned gaze. She was saying something, but it took a moment for Nicole's sleep-addled head to catch up with her words.

“...and I thought I could stop by with breakfast, since you handled it so well last night.”

Nicole studied her for a moment. Once she was sure Waverly was done speaking, she said, “You're here early.”

Either that, or she had slept longer than she thought. It was hard to tell in the cell.

“Well, I do tend to wake early.”

Nicole shook her head.

“No, that's not what I meant,” she said, but she was still tired and her thoughts weren't cooperating with her. She settled for, “I wasn't expecting you again so soon.”

“Oh! Yeah.” Waverly nodded. “Well, I'm not as busy now as I was before, so I can stop by more.” The smile that had been on her face faltered. “If you want me to, that is. I mean, I'd still come by and clean up around here, but we... we don't have to talk, if you don't want to.” The smile returned a moment later, though more subdued than before. “I do like talking to you, though.”

Nicole found herself returning the smile, amused at the words.

“Is there more of what you brought last night?”

Waverly's smile grew into a grin, and she nodded before she went to collect the bowl of warm cereal. When she returned, Nicole took the offered bowl and settled it in her lap the way she had the night before, glad that Waverly didn’t insist on helping her eat despite the shake in her hands. She had had enough of that with the broth.

While she ate, she watched Waverly move about the cell, cleaning as best she could, but Nicole suspected some of the grime that covered the stone floor would be there to stay until the castle itself fell. Which, given Robert's strength, would not happen in Nicole's lifetime despite her best efforts. Unwilling to go down that path of thinking, she stared down at the hot cereal in her lap instead, though her appetite seemed to have fled for the moment. She tapped the wooden spoon against the edge of the half-empty bowl for a moment, then looked back up at Waverly, who had begun to gather the heavy, soiled furs Nicole had been using into her arms.

“How did the ocean warrior fare?” she asked, and Waverly stopped with the bundle of furs in her arms and cocked her head to the side. “In their quest. Did they succeed?”

“Oh. Well, if you give me one moment to get rid of these, I'd be happy to tell you.”

She slipped out of the cell, her arms full, and Nicole realized the heavy blanket she had over her shoulder was different than it had been before. It seemed Waverly had swapped the furs for clean ones while she had slept. When Waverly returned to the cell empty-handed, a frown had replaced the smile that had been on her face earlier.

“Since you're up, we should switch that one as well,” she said, nodding towards the blanket Nicole sat on.

That meant moving, and the thought of it made her grimace. She supposed it was necessary—the blanket she sat upon now was soaked with sweat, blood, and other things Nicole did not wish to think about—but she didn't look forward to it. She sighed, then nodded her head.

“Don't worry,” Waverly said as she rolled out a clean fur in the floor space she had recently swept, “I'll help you, and then you can hear the rest of the story.” She knelt on the blanket and offered her hands to Nicole, who stared at them for a moment before she put aside the bowl and took them in her own. “Alright. Easy does it. It'll be quick.”

It was not quick—at least, it didn't feel that way to Nicole—and despite the short distance between the furs, the effort had left her sweating and breathless much as it had the first time. Her hand curled into a loose fist and she clenched her jaw, frustrated with herself for not healing faster. Waverly's hand upon her fist made her look up.

“Did you still want to hear about the ocean warrior?”

Not trusting her voice, Nicole nodded.

“Well, after the enchantress gathered as much information as she could from the survivors, she sent the nameless warrior inland,” Waverly said. “However, as the warrior traveled further into the country, they became enchanted by the rolling green plains and the towering trees of the forest, whose limbs reached for the deep blue sky that reminded them of home. Yes, their quest remained in the back of their mind, but they couldn't help but marvel at the greenery that surrounded them.”

As she spoke, Waverly's thumb painted a circle over the back of Nicole's hand.

Nicole didn't mention it.

“During their travels across the land, the warrior was finally confronted by an angry storm, which drove them to take shelter in a dark cave. Enraptured by the sight of the lightning that flashed across the dark sky, they were unaware of the other presence hiding deeper in the cave until a loud crack of thunder shook the ground, which brought forth a childish shriek from behind them. They whirled around, their blade drawn, only to find a young boy cowering near the wall of the cave.”

Nicole furrowed her brow as Waverly moved behind her and unwound the cloth wrapped around her chest.

She had heard the story several times before, but she did not recall a child. However, she usually only heard the story told by drunkards around the campfires, so maybe they had left that detail out. She only remembered the beginning and the end of the story herself, so maybe there had been a child after all and she had just forgotten.

She decided not to let the detail bother her and instead continued to listen to Waverly weave the story while she checked Nicole's wound.

“Even in the dark of night, the warrior could see the child belonged to the people their creator's comrades had described. However, when the young boy sniffled against the cave wall then cried out when another roar of thunder rolled across the sky, the warrior knelt at his side and hesitantly placed a comforting hand on his shaking shoulder until he quieted.

“When the storm passed, along with the boy's fears, the warrior took him by the hand and let him lead the way back home. If he noticed the thin film of salt against his palm left by the warrior's hand, he was polite enough not to mention it, for his mother had always taught him to be respectful, especially to those who were kind enough to lend comfort during storms.”

As she hung on Waverly's words, the pain that seemed to cling to her like a plague dulled, even when the wet cloth pricked at the edges of the torn skin.

“During their trek back to the boy's home, the warrior began to feel something strange. Something their creator had not prepared them for. It was a fondness towards the child who held their hand so tightly and spoke of a kind woman he called 'mother.' Because of this fondness for the boy, when they approached the gates of the inland city, the warrior did not reach for their sword the way they had been instructed, and instead allowed the boy to lead the way to his mother, who had recently inherited the throne from a wicked man.”

The cool press of the poultice against Nicole's back was a relief. Soon, deft hands passed a roll of clean cloth over her torso and, once the ends were tied off, Waverly circled back around to sit in front of Nicole again.

“All done,” she said with a smile. “Tell me, do the stories really help? Because when I try to tell them to the soldiers, our healer always hushes me.”

Nicole nodded as she reached for the half-empty bowl of cereal. Her response made Waverly's smile grow.

“Well, good. I hope you're enjoying this one,” Waverly said. “It's one of my favorites.”

“Why's that?” Nicole asked around the spoon in her mouth.

“The ocean,” Waverly said. “From what I've read, it seems beautiful. So much life within it. And the colors!” She sighed, and a wistful expression fell over her face. “Out of the all the places I've read about, that's the one I want to visit most. To see the waves and feel the breeze on my skin.” Her lips curved into a soft smile. “The first chance I get, that's where I'm going.”

“It smells,” Nicole said before she ate another spoonful of the warm cereal.

Waverly's brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“I mean it smells.”

Waverly's eyes widened and she scooted closer. “So you've actually been to the ocean?”

“Yes?”

“What's it like?”

“I just told you it smells,” Nicole said, and Waverly's nose wrinkled. Nicole placed the spoon by the empty bowl and thought back to the time she had spent on the golden shore of the ocean. “If you go in the water, you come out covered in little crystals of salt that cling to every part of your body. It was stuck in my hair for days.” Waverly's eyes widened as she hung on every word. “There were these little creatures hidden in the waves, too, that would leave red marks across your skin if they touched you, but you wouldn't feel the sting until later.”

“It sounds amazing.”

Nicole frowned, but Waverly was undeterred.

“When did you see it?”

Nicole was quiet for a moment as memories of laughter and the warm spray of saltwater filled her head.

“It was a long time ago,” she said. “My family and I had gone to trade the wool we had gathered over the season along with some of the gloves my father had made.”

“Oh,” Waverly said. “Does your family know about—”

“They’re gone,” Nicole said, an edge to her voice that took even her by surprise. She softened her tone as she said, “Sickness and starvation.”

“I’m sorry.” Waverly dropped her gaze to her lap. “I shouldn’t have asked.”

Nicole shrugged.

It had been a long time since she last thought of her family—of her father’s gentle voice, her mother’s soft eyes, or her sister’s mischievous grin. She had thought by now the pain of their loss would have ebbed, but a familiar sadness settled over her as she remembered those warm days spent by the ocean in the spray of the waves.

“It sounds like you were very close,” Waverly said, but Nicole stayed quiet. She hadn’t meant to talk about her family and she couldn’t believe she had let that slip. As if sensing her discomfort, Waverly shifted the conversation. “I don’t remember my family.”

Nicole tilted her head and studied her for a moment. “So Robert isn’t—”

“Oh, no. Not at all." She tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear. "He’s um… He found me.” She dropped her gaze back to her lap and fidgeted as she said, “I think I escaped from somewhere. Everything about that time is so hazy, but I do remember bars. And the dark.” Waverly shook her head. “It’s probably best I don’t remember all of it.”

Nicole surprised them both when she placed her hand over Waverly’s. She wasn’t sure where the action had come from, but it made Waverly smile.

The rest of Waverly’s visit was spent in the quiet left in the wake of the memories they had shared.


When Waverly left the dungeon, a smile was still on her face despite the tone of their last conversation.

She enjoyed talking with Nicole, even if she was the one who did most of the talking. Today, however, Nicole had spoken far more than she had before, and Waverly found she enjoyed the cadence of her soft voice. Yet her heart ached for the pain she had heard in Nicole’s words, caused by more than just her wounds from the ambush.

The first day she had taken Nicole into her care, she hadn’t expected the strange fondness she felt now. She had only hoped to save her from a painful death caused by the wounds from the ambush. She realized now she had no plan for once Nicole recovered.

Waverly wasn’t naive.

She knew Bobo would never release the rebels.

“You’re not supposed to be down there.”

Waverly startled at the sudden voice that greeted her as she walked around the corner and her heart raced until she saw Simon standing in front of her, a bucket of water clutched in his scarred hands.

“Simon.”

“You’re not supposed to go down there,” he repeated. “Is that where you've been taking your meals from Cook?”

Waverly bit her lip then knelt so she was eye level with him. Gently, she took the bucket from his hands and placed it on the floor.

“There is someone down there who was hurt, Simon,” she said. “You know I help the healer.”

“But the healer--”

“Isn’t down there, I know,” Waverly said. “He doesn’t like the dungeon.” Simon didn’t respond, so she took his small hands in hers as she said, “I would not go down there if these were normal circumstances, but she is hurt and needs help. You understand, don’t you?”

“The way you helped me?” he asked, his eyes dropping to the mangled hands in hers.

Waverly’s chest grew tight at the sight.

“If there was some way I could truly fix this, I would,” she said, “but yes, I am trying to help her the way I helped you after the Witch did this.”

She brushed her thumbs over the scarred skin and she thought of Nicole’s back, mangled from the burns she had inflicted while burning away the infection and stopping the bleeding that had threatened to finish the job the soldiers had not.

“Okay, Miss Waverly,” he said, and Waverly smiled at the sound of her name. He had refused to speak it since the incident with the Stone Witch.

“Thank you, Simon.” She stood once more and held out her hand. “If you like, I could help you with your chores.”

He shook his head and picked up the bucket. Despite the use of her name, he still walked a wide arc around her as he left to finish his chores. He slowed in front of the door to the dungeon, then looked over his shoulder and gave Waverly a small smile before he went on his way. Once Simon disappeared down the hall, the bucket clutched in his hands, Waverly breathed a sigh of relief and continued her trek through the castle, a mission in mind.

Ever since her conversation with Nicole the night before, a question lurked in the back of her mind.

She was positive her visions would have shown her any atrocities Bobo had committed. They weren’t selective of the things they showed her, so why would Bobo’s actions be excluded? That question had led to another realization.

Bobo had never appeared in her visions.

In all the years she had lived at the castle, she had never Seen him the way she had Seen the soldiers. She had Seen their deeds and their deaths, unable to stop them despite the many times she had tried. Yet she had never Seen Bobo, a fact that had evaded her until now, when Nicole had forced her to question the truth that had been given her.

Her thoughts were heavy with questions as she stepped into the small library Bobo kept.

A fire blazed in the hearth, brought to life by one of the servants who roamed the halls, and a large cushion rested beside it. Shelves of books lined the brick wall beside it. Unsure of what she was searching for, Waverly walked along the shelves and ran her fingers along the spines of the thick tomes. Many titles were familiar to her, as she had read them during her years in the castle. It was from their pages that she had learned the stories she knew now. There had been several long nights at Bobo’s side as he taught her the way to read the script.

Her hand faltered as she stopped walking along the shelf.

He had taught her so much, yet had never encouraged her to look into her abilities. Distracted by stories of heroes and wondrous, far off places, Waverly had never questioned the strange power she had been given or its limitations. She had never had a reason.

Then she had begun to struggle divining the locations of the bones, and she couldn't figure out why. Unfortunately, the Stone Witch had provided her own solution to that problem.

But then Nicole had survived the ambush, proving Waverly’s vision wrong.

Waverly shook her head and continued skimming the titles on the shelves. Though she had read many of them, the amount of knowledge in front of her that she hadn’t yet studied was overwhelming.

She sighed and pulled one of the books from the shelf, followed by another. When she returned to the fire blazing in the hearth, her arms were full and she cursed as books began to spill over her elbows. They landed on the floor with a thud, and Waverly piled the remaining books in her arms beside them. She kept one and sat on the plush cushion near the fire. She cracked it open and sneezed when some of the dust from the thick pages drifted into her nose.

A servant stopped by several times to add more wood to the fire, but Waverly paid them no mind as she flipped through the musty texts. A headache had started to throb in the space between her eyes, and the muscles at the base of her neck had tightened, but she simply rubbed her neck and pressed on, searching for the answers to her questions she had left the dungeon with.

She had just stumbled onto something interesting when her eyelids started to droop, heavy from fatigue. She shook herself in her seat, trying to startle herself awake, but her mind refused to focus on the faded script and she found herself reading the same sentence several times without comprehending what had been written.

She sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose, willing the pounding in her head away, then slowly stood from the cushion. Joints cracked as she straightened. She tucked the book she had found beneath her arm and gathered the rest in her hands. After placing them back on the shelf, she left the warmth of the library and stepped into the drafty hall. The brisk air was a shock to her warm skin, and she shivered as she walked down the corridor to her quarters with the book under her arm.

While she had been able to focus, she had found a story within its pages of a Seer who had powerful visions, yet they had nearly driven him insane with their strength. They had shown him so many possibilities, his powers had threatened to send him into madness until his lover fashioned an amulet for him. Something about it had dampened his powers enough that the visions became manageable. She had yet to discover what it had been made of, but hopefully more time with the book would reveal the answer.

Waverly yawned, her jaw cracking, and she pushed open the heavy door to her quarters. She placed the book beside the skull on the table, and her fingers lingered on the leather cover for a moment before she crossed to the dresser against the wall and began to prepare for bed.

She knew she was close to finding her answers, but they would have to wait for a new day, when she could look at the letters without them jumbling together on the pages.


Nicole watched from the confines of her cell as Fish paced the floor of his own. He prowled along the edge, as close as his chains would let him get to the bars. While she couldn't blame him for his restlessness, it was dizzying watching him. Levi approached the bars that divided them and stuck his arm through the space between them.

“Ambrose,” he said, and Fish stopped pacing at the sound of his real name. “Come here a moment.”

Fish crossed back to the bars that separated the two of them. Nicole watched as he took Levi's hand in his and pressed it against his cheek. There wasn't enough space for them to do much more, but she was happy they at least had the small touches to comfort them.

“You're makin' me dizzy watching you over there.”

“Sorry,” Fish said, “but you know how I am. I can only sit for so long.”

Levi nodded. “I understand,” he said. “How 'bout you take a seat here for a while? Give your legs a rest before you start pacing again.”

Fish sighed, but he stiffly lowered himself to the floor and kept his hand in Levi's. His gaze drifted to Nicole a moment later.

“Do you think your new friend will be down here again today?” he asked. “I was enjoying her story.”

Nicole knew Fish was only joking, but when he called Waverly her friend, her first instinct had been to object. After all, Waverly worked for Robert, and Nicole didn't know how she could call someone who worked for him her friend. However, after the conversations they had shared, she had begun to realize the situation was not how she had first imagined. She was still wary of calling Waverly her friend, but now a small part of her wished circumstances were different.

Maybe in another life, the two of them could have been friends.

As if answering Fish's question for her, the heavy door at the top of the stairs creaked open and descending footsteps followed. Waverly's familiar figure came into her line of sight. The familiar tray of food was in her hands, and Nicole watched as she passed some down to Fish and Levi before she disappeared further into the dungeon. She heard one of the guards protest, though it lacked any real anger, followed by Waverly's rushed apology. It wasn't long after that Waverly joined Nicole in her cell and placed the platter on the floor beside her.

“Good morning,” Waverly said with a soft smile, but she sounded as if she were still tired. In the firelight from the torch, Nicole could see the dark bags beneath her eyes and the red tint left behind by exhaustion. “I brought breakfast.”

After a painful moment of shifting into a sitting position, Nicole accepted the bowl of warm cereal and diced apples. Waverly had also added several slices of cheese into it this time, and Nicole used the wooden spoon to mix it until the slices melted and thickened the cereal. She took a spoonful of the mixture and watched as Waverly picked at her own apple slices.

“Long night?”

Waverly shook her head. “No, no,” she said. “Just... I was keeping busy yesterday. A lot of reading. I lost track of time.”

Nicole nodded then took another spoonful of the cereal. Waverly continued to pick at the apple slices before she finally sighed and pushed the tray away. Nicole's gaze followed her as she stood up and left the cell, only to return a moment later with the familiar chest of healing supplies and the black kettle of water dangling from her fingertips. The sight of the chest still made her flinch, knowing that despite Waverly's best efforts, it always meant pain.

“If you like, you can finish your breakfast first,” Waverly said as she absently pulled the bowls from the chest.

“I think I will,” Nicole said, hoping to put off the pain of Waverly's ministrations as long as possible.

Waverly nodded as she continued to pull the supplies from the chest. Then she disappeared behind Nicole with the supplies in her hands. While she ate, Nicole listened to the familiar sounds of Waverly preparing to treat her back. She sighed when she ate the last spoonful of cereal.

She should have eaten slower.

“All done?” Waverly asked, and Nicole nodded before she pushed the bowl away from her.

A soft touch against her shoulder made her look beside her. She was greeted with Waverly's apologetic smile.

“I could finish the story, if that would help.”

“You're not too tired?” Nicole asked, and Waverly shook her head. “Then I think I would like that.”

“Okay, let's see if I can remember where we were,” Waverly said as she settled behind Nicole. “So, the warrior took the boy home to his mother, who also happened to be the new ruler of the city that had attacked the city by the sea, right?” Nicole nodded, and Waverly dipped the rag into the water. “Well, after the happy reunion between the mother and her son, the ruler looked upon the nameless warrior, and she explained her desire to right the wrongs her father had committed in his life, starting with the city by the sea that had been so wrongly assaulted. And the warrior smiled, happy to hear that the woman was willing to accept the burden her father's decisions had left behind.”

Waverly pressed the rag against Nicole's skin, but Nicole managed to bite back the gasp that tried to escape.

“Despite their similar desires to help the coastal city, however, it took many long nights of planning before the two of them were able to find the best way to help rebuild the city and provide for the survivors. Once they had come to a decision, the ruler smiled upon the nameless warrior and called her Marina, for no one so honorable and kind should be without a name.”

Nicole furrowed her brow. She could have believed that she had forgotten about the boy, but this part did not seem to fit her memory of the story either. It had never ended so calmly in the versions she had heard. Although they varied, there had always been a great battle in the stories she had heard, and the warrior always proved their might thanks to the gifts of the Enchantress.

“However, the true test of their new alliance came when reports of a new enemy reached the warrior. An enemy that threatened the weakened city by the sea, ready to pick the remains of what they thought was a defenseless target.”

“I suppose they were in for a surprise.”

Waverly nodded. “The ruler of the inland city led her forces through the country, riding alongside Marina, and when they reached the city by the sea, the Enchantress looked upon them with wide eyes, for this had not been the outcome she had expected when she sent forth her creation. And though the city folk were wary of those who had come, the warrior explained what they had learned during their stay and that the ruler had come to make amends and help them.

“The morning before the battle, Marina the ocean warrior smiled fondly at the ruler as she prepared herself for the fight. Wordlessly, they untied the necklace that hung around their neck and fastened it around the ruler's, knowing it would provide far more protection than any human-crafted armor. The ruler chided them, but Marina would not take the necklace back. They reminded the ruler that they were far from human, despite the name they had been given, then slipped out of the tent to join the ranks."

Across the corridor, Nicole could see Fish and Levi pressed against the bars of their cells, eagerness in their eyes as Waverly approached the end of the story.

“Even with the help of the ruler's forces, it was a long and bloody battle, but by the end of the day, the invading forces had dwindled until they were forced to surrender and return home. However, the ruler's son tugged on the sleeve of his mother's pale pink armor and she followed him to the edges of the battlefield. There in the setting sun, she found the Enchantress, and at her feet lay Marina, their sword shattered from their attempt to protect the ruler's son. A hole in their chest revealed a chipped pearl where their heart would have been.

“The ruler dropped to her knees at the dying warrior's side and begged the Enchantress to help, but the Enchantress only repeated the words Marina had spoken that very morning. She told her the warrior had been a tool, and that tool had served its purpose. But the ruler would not listen because to her, Marina had been far more.”

Waverly began to wind the cloth around Nicole's torso once more, but the stiffness Nicole usually felt had been kept at bay by Waverly's words. Once the cloth had been tied off, she felt Waverly move. Soon she was sitting in front of her again, checking the arrow wound in Nicole's shoulder as she spoke.

“The Enchantress, moved by the ruler's feelings for her creation, summoned a new pearl from the ocean and placed it in the warrior's chest. Then she filled the hole with a new layer of sand. She gathered the ocean breeze and breathed it between the warrior's lips. The light returned to the warrior's cerulean eyes as they became whole again. To show her gratitude for saving the city by the sea, the Enchantress freed Marina from her service, and they were able to spend the rest of their days alongside the ruler and their son.”

Silence filled the cell once more as Waverly concluded the story and finished wrapping the clean bandage around Nicole's shoulder.

“Do you always change the endings of the stories you tell?”

Waverly tilted her head. “What do you mean?”

“I mean... Well, every time I've heard that one, the warrior avenges the city and is returned to the ocean,” she said. “And in the story you told about the shepherd, the shepherd slays the dragon and is rewarded with its treasure.”

Waverly sighed and stood up so she could gather the supplies. When she stepped in front of Nicole again with the bowls in her hands, she said, “You know, if you don't like the endings of my stories, you could always tell one yourself.”

Fish laughed from across the corridor, and Nicole felt her cheeks flush with heat. She dropped her gaze to her lap and said, “I never said I didn't like the endings. They were just different.”

Waverly's laughter joined Fish's and when Nicole looked up again, she found that Waverly's whole face had brightened in the torch light. When the laughter died down, a smile remained on Waverly's face, though it somehow seemed softer than those she had given her before.

Then Waverly winced and the bowls clattered to the floor, startling Nicole. She clutched at her head as she stumbled backwards into the bars of the cell. Nicole heard the sharp gasp of pain before she saw Waverly squeeze her eyes shut.

“What's wrong?”

But a whimper was the only response she received.

Then Waverly was tipping forward, and Nicole reacted without thinking. She leaned forward and caught Waverly before she she could hit the stone floor, which saved her from a split skull, but the pain in Nicole's shoulder and back flared to life. She gritted her teeth and struggled not to drop her as she sank down to the floor. When she finally managed to gently ease her down to the floor so her head rested in her lap, Waverly's eyes were closed, but the crease in her forehead hinted that she was still in pain.

“Waverly?!”

She barely registered the sound of the door to her cell opening as she stared down at the unconscious woman in her arms. The two familiar guards entered and started to take Waverly from Nicole's lap. She managed to grab hold of Waverly's hand, but it slipped from her weak grip as the guards carried her from the cell.

“Wait!”

The door to her cell slammed shut. Panic was plain on their faces as the guards handled Waverly's limp body and started to maneuver her towards the staircase.

Nicole forced herself against the bars so she could see better. “Is she okay?” Still, the guards ignored her as they struggled with an unconscious Waverly. “Please, just tell me if she's alright!”

The two men shared a look, but before they could answer, the door at the top of the stairs creaked open. Nicole watched as the color drained from their faces. Her heart thudded in her chest at the sound of heavy footsteps descending the steps. The imposing figure that reached the bottom of the stairs made her tighten her grip on the bars.

Robert.

The two guards began to babble in an attempt to explain what had happened, but Robert's only response was to take Waverly from their arms and scoop her into his own. Despite his silence, his anger was palpable. The guards quieted and stepped back, lowering their eyes. Robert looked down at Waverly, then turned back to the stairs. Before he left, however, his gaze met Nicole's, and she felt her own anger rise.

“Why isn't that one in chains?”

They were the only words he spoke before he started up the stairs once more with Waverly in his arms.

Chapter Text

Tucked beneath the blankets of her bed, Waverly lay rigid against the mattress. Her hair stuck to her forehead, damp with sweat. She mumbled unintelligibly then quieted again. When her eyes slowly cracked open, a painful throbbing remained in her head, along with the vivid images of her vision. She grimaced and closed her eyes again as she placed her hand against her aching head, but the pain and the memory of the vision remained.

“Nicole?”

“I wasn't aware the two of you were on such good terms.”

Her eyes opened again at the familiar sound of Bobo's low voice. Slowly, she turned her head to the side so her cheek rested on the pillow. She was greeted by the sight of Bobo at her bedside, his figure filling the chair that normally sat beside her desk. His hands rested loosely on the arms of the chair as he watched over her, but she could see the tension in his stiff frame.

She sighed and turned her gaze back towards the ceiling. Now that she had regained some of her bearings, she realized it was the ceiling of her own quarters that she stared at, not the low one in the dungeon. Regardless of where she was, however, Bobo was not the one she had expected at her side.

“You've returned early.”

“That's all you have to say to me?”

“Well, what do you want me to say?”

He leaned forward. “I searched the castle for you. Your quarters. The library. The damn kitchens,” he said. “So what I would like from you, Waverly, is an explanation as to why I had to be informed by some servant boy that you were down in the dungeon, entertaining the prisoners!”

Waverly startled at his raised voice, but she felt her own ire rising. She turned her head again to look at him with narrowed eyes.

“They were being treated like dogs down there, Bobo,” she said. “Worse, you let them be treated like dogs. She was half-dead, and you never sent the healer to help her.”

“Help her?” His lips curled into a snarl. “Damn it, Waverly, they want me dead, and you want me to help them?! Would you have preferred I rolled out a nice carpet for them that led straight to my throne as well? Perhaps I should have held a grand feast in their honor for their attempt on my life.” His grip tightened on the arms of the chair. “How did you expect me to treat the people coming to kill me? With kindness?”

“With decency,” Waverly snapped. She pushed herself up so she sat with her back against the headboard of her bed, and held Bobo in her hard gaze as she said, “You could have been the bigger person. You could have pardoned them, or at the very least—”

“You did not just suggest I pardon the same people who would gladly stick a dagger in my back,” he said, his voice a low growl. “This is not one of your stories, Waverly. The only outcome of me pardoning them would be a knife in the gut by one of their friends.”

“Then you could have listened. You could have at least tried to hear what they had to say.”

“The way you so obviously have?” he asked. Bobo leaned back in the chair and regarded her for a moment. “Tell me, Little Waverly. Exactly how talkative do you think they'll be if they find out about how you aided in their capture?” Waverly's eyes widened at the question. “That one you're so fond of... Do you think she could even stomach to look at you if she found out what you did?”

Waverly dropped her gaze down to her lap and curled her hand into a loose fist.

“The time for talk is long over. They won't speak with someone they hate,” he told her. “I doubt I'd get more than several craftily worded curses flung at me for my troubles.”

He stood from his chair and started for the door, but Waverly stopped him with one last question.

“What did you do, Bobo?” She looked up from her lap, and her eyes were still bright with anger as she asked, “How did the man who saved me make so many people hate him?”

He shook his head. “I never claimed to be the hero you thought I was, Waverly.”

Then he was gone, leaving Waverly alone in her bed with the remnants of her vision haunting her thoughts.

He would return later, she knew, to ask about what she had Seen down in the dungeon. The memory of the vision made her groan, and she slid back down the headboard so she rested on the pillow again. She pressed her palm against the side of her head and squeezed her eyes shut as she took a shaky breath. It had been years since a vision had left such a pounding behind her eyes, but this one had been about Nicole.

Nicole.

She had already Seen her die once before, with determination and defiance blazing in her eyes, even as the sword cut across her back and left her lifeless on the frozen earth. There had been no battle in Waverly's last vision, no soldiers for Nicole to fight as she was hauled onto a great platform with heavy chains strung between her wrists and ankles. However, defiance still shined in her warm, brown eyes as she was led to a worn, wooden block in the center of the stage and forced to her knees in front of the large crowd that had gathered. The fight never left her, even as the great sword descended and—

Waverly's stomach turned, and she rolled onto her side moments before its meager contents reappeared on the stone floor at her bedside. When she finished retching, she fell back against the mattress once more, though now her throat burned. Her eyes stung as tears pricked at their corners, and she let them fall as she stared up at the high ceiling.

According to what she had Seen, Nicole was going to die, and Waverly wasn't sure what the chances were of her vision being wrong a second time.

She doubted they were very good.


The cold iron around Nicole's wrists bit into her skin. She had tried to stand to alleviate the pull on her shoulders, but her shaky legs had buckled beneath her, and her knees had painfully met the stone floor. Now she leaned forward, suspended by the chains attached to the wall, and shivered as the freezing air of the dungeon crawled over her bare skin. The blankets that Waverly had brought them had been promptly taken after Robert's appearance, leaving the three of them to suffer through the cold yet again.

And Waverly...

Nicole couldn't shake the memory of Waverly stumbling into the bars, or the image of her toppling forward. She couldn't make sense of what had happened. Worse, she couldn't rid herself of the worry that had settled in her gut. Aside from clamping the manacles around her wrists, the two guards hadn't been interested in interacting with her at all, which meant no news of Waverly.

The loud creak of the door at the top of the stairs made her lift her head. Hope fluttered within her for a brief moment, only to be dashed when she heard the heavy footsteps against the stone steps. She knew who was descending the stairs, and it wasn't Waverly.

Robert reached the foot of the stairs, and the torchlight seemed to flicker away from him as he approached the door to Nicole's cell. When the door swung inward, Nicole straightened as much as her position would allow and never let her gaze fall from Robert's, even as he stood in front of her and blocked out the light from the torch.

“So you're the one Waverly has been pitying.” He studied her for a moment before he said, “May I be honest? I expected someone a bit more impressive.”

“If we're being honest, then you won't mind me saying you've lived down to my expectations,” she said, though the chattering of her teeth stole the desired sting from her words.

“Cold, are we?” he asked. Nicole glared at him. “Good. Wouldn't want you to forget you're a prisoner here, not some esteemed house guest. How are the chains? Too tight?”

Nicole mustered as much strength as she could and, gritting her teeth, she shifted one of her legs so her foot was flat against the floor and pushed herself up. Her forehead collided with Robert's face, and he cursed as he stumbled backwards from the unexpected blow. Nicole sagged forward as the last bit of energy left her, but Robert's hand around her neck stopped her from falling back to her knees.

She cried out when she was pinned against the wall instead.

“It seems you've grown far too comfortable while Waverly's been caring for you.” His voice was a low growl in her ear. His grip tightened, and Nicole struggled to breathe. “Let me be the one to remind you that you are a prisoner here.”

When he released her, she fell back to her knees, and the chains jerked painfully on her shoulders. Once she regained her breath, she glared back up at Robert.

“And Waverly?” Her voice was hoarse, but she pressed on. “Have you reminded her that she's a prisoner as well?”

“Waverly is not a prisoner.”

“An esteemed house guest then,” Nicole said. “One who hasn't been allowed to leave in who knows how long.” Robert scowled, and despite the pain blazing along the wound on her back, Nicole was glad to see that she had gotten under his skin. “How long do you think you'll be able to keep her in the dark about who you are?”

His answer was a swift punch to Nicole's gut, and for the second time, she found herself breathless. He tangled his hand in her hair and forced her to look at him as she struggled to breathe.

“You should worry less about my standing with Waverly and worry more about yourself.”

He released his hold, and she fell forward once more as she tried to regain her breath. She heard the door of her cell slam shut, and she forced herself to straighten so she could watch Robert retreat back up the stairs. She heard the creak of the heavy door, and her chains rattled as she allowed herself to slouch once more. Every inch of her body ached now, but it had been worth it to see the anger on Robert's face.

“Nic, you idiot,” Fish said from across the corridor. “What were you thinkin'? You're gonna get yourself killed!”

Nicole laughed at that, and shook her head. She might as well be dead already, given the circumstances. If she didn't freeze to death, the wounds from the ambush would do it, especially with no Waverly to stave off the threat of infection. Despite what she had thought during the battle, it seemed she would be wasting away just like her parents and sister after all, but she would be damned if she didn't use the time beforehand to get under Robert's skin.

His armor was not as thick as it appeared, and its weakness rested in Waverly.


The whole day had passed since Waverly's vision, or at least since she had woken up from her catatonic state, and she had spent it in her bed, recuperating from the images she had seen and the toll it had taken on her body. She had forgotten what it was like, to be bedridden after a vision, but this one had left her limbs heavy and created a fog in her head that only cleared for moments at a time.

As she predicted, Bobo returned to her bedside late that evening to ask her what she had Seen, but she remained tight-lipped on the matter, unwilling to plant the idea for execution in his head. She had already gotten Nicole and the others into enough trouble by sharing her visions with him, and she refused to do it again.

Her refusal to speak with him made him clench his jaw as he tried not to show his anger with her, and he asked again, only to be told that she had not had a vision at all. They both knew she was lying to him. His eyes grew hard, and he stood from the chair.

“Perhaps tomorrow you will feel more talkative.”

He kept his voice calm, yet his efforts were undermined by the way he yanked open the door and slammed it shut behind him.

Waverly waited until she was sure he would not return, then swung her legs over the side of the bed. Thankfully, the dizziness she had felt earlier was absent, and she crossed her quarters on shaky legs until she reached the desk that held the skull. More importantly, the book she had taken from Bobo's library still rested beside it. She clutched it against her chest and went back to her bed.

In the dim light of a flickering candle on her bedside table, Waverly studied the script scrawled across the pages of the book. The record of the powerful Seer had ended without a hint of what his amulet had been crafted from, so she had pressed forward, hoping to find more. The cloudiness of her thoughts made it more difficult than it should have been, and as she squinted at the faded text in the dim candlelight, the throbbing behind her eyes worsened, but when she finally found a rough diagram of the amulet in the middle of the tome, the ache faded away and she felt a short thrill of triumph.

The tip of her tongue poked between her lips as she carefully tore the page from the book. She would return the book to its place in the library, but she would hold onto the diagram for now. Her legs shook less as she crossed her bedroom yet again and opened her desk drawer, where she slipped the torn page between the blank sheets of parchment and the sketches she had done over the years. Once the diagram was hidden, she leaned against the desk and rubbed her tired eyes with a loose fist. As exhausted as she was, there was still one last thing she had to do before she could let herself sleep.

She pulled open the door to her quarters and poked her head into the hall. When there was no Bobo in sight, she slipped into the corridor and started towards the dungeon.

The guards greeted her as they normally did—with a slight nod—and she nodded back, as if she weren't sneaking around behind Bobo's back. The polite smile on her face was enough to stop them from asking questions, as they had grown used to her wandering the halls over the years. It wasn't uncommon for her to wake in the middle of the night and sneak off to the library or the kitchens to calm her thoughts. The closer she got to the dungeon, however, the more unsettled she became. Had Bobo warned them not to let her back down?

When Waverly approached the corridor that led to the dungeon, she pressed her back against the stone wall of the wide hall. She inched forward and peeked her head around the corner, only to breathe a sigh of relief when she saw no guards were posted outside the door. Bobo was so convinced of her blind loyalty to him, he assumed she would not make another trip down to the dungeon after their discussion. Or maybe he had assumed she would have been too weak to make the trek.

Regardless, the lack of guards was welcome as she pushed open the heavy door.

The cold had returned to the prison without the fire in the hearth, and Waverly shivered as she slowly descended the stairs. When she reached the landing, it took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, but once they did, she found Luca and Miles seated in their usual spots at the rickety table. However, there was no card or dice game being played between them, and when their eyes landed on her, they widened the way they had the first morning she had come down the stairs.

“Miss Waverly, you can't be here,” Miles said, and there was an edge to his voice that hadn't been there in the previous times she had visited. “If you don't get out—”

“Miles, please,” she said, but he shook his head.

“Don't 'Miles' me,” he said. “We've already gotten in enough trouble,” he said, gesturing towards Luca, “and we don't want or need more. Now kindly escort yourself back up the stairs before I have to do it.”

“Waverly?”

The soft rasp of Nicole's voice drew Waverly to the bars of the cell, despite Miles's words. He protested, but she quickly shushed him.

“I won't go in,” she said to appease him, though she so desperately wanted to open the door and unlock the manacles that held Nicole in place. Even in the dim light from the torch, she could see the strain it was putting on her abused body. The sound of her chattering teeth reached Waverly's ears, and she pressed her forehead against the bars, squeezing her eyes shut against more threatening tears. “I am so sorry, Nicole.” She opened her eyes again and wiped away the tears that had escaped. “I swear I didn't mean for any of this to happen.”

“What are you talking about? Waverly, you collapsed. This isn't your fault,” Nicole said. “You collapsed, and I thought...”

Waverly nearly choked on her guilt. “I'm okay,” she said. “I just... There's something I need to tell you. About me.”

“You think?”

And Waverly laughed, though Bobo's words from before repeated in her head. She doubted Nicole would ever want to speak with her again after tonight. She shook her head and curled her hands around two of the bars to steady herself.

“Earlier, when I passed out, it was because I Saw something,” she said, but the confusion remained on Nicole's face. Waverly sighed. She had never had to explain her abilities to someone. “What I mean is, I'm a Seer. That was a vision.”

Nicole furrowed her brow. “A Seer?” Waverly nodded. “And you Saw something? Like the future?”

“Yes,” Waverly said. “But Nicole, about what I Saw. I'm not going to let it happen. I promise, I'll find a way to change it.”

“What did you see?”

She dropped her gaze to the grimy, stone floor and shook her head. “It doesn't matter. I told you, somehow I'm going to fix it.” She tightened her hold on the bars in her hands as she prepared herself for what she had to say next. When she looked up from the floor and met Nicole's gaze, her eyes burned with tears, though she didn't know if they were from regret or shame. “There's something else I need—”

The heavy creak of the door interrupted her. A moment later, Waverly's arms were behind her back—not painfully, but enough to restrain her—and Nicole tugged against her chains as the guard pulled her away from the bars. Miles whispered an apology in her ear and turned her away from the cell so she was facing the steps when Bobo reached the landing, a scowl on his face. She could feel Miles shaking behind her as Bobo approached.

“Your Grace,” Miles said in a deceptively strong voice despite the tremors in the hands that held her. “I was just about to escort Miss Waverly back upstairs.”

“That will be unnecessary.”

Waverly yelped as a strong hand wrapped around the back of her neck and pulled her out of the guard's grasp. She heard Nicole call after them as Bobo dragged her to the stairs. Waverly struggled in his grasp, but he only tightened his grip and forced her up the stone steps.

The door to the dungeon slammed behind them as Bobo shoved Waverly into the corridor. She stumbled forward, but when she turned to face him, anger rather than fear blazed in her eyes.

“What do you think you're doing?” Bobo asked. “I tell you not to go down there, and the first thing you do when I leave you alone is disobey me?”

“I just needed to check on her,” Waverly snapped. “Them, I mean. I needed to check on them.”

Bobo regarded her with dark eyes, but Waverly refused to feel small beneath his hard gaze. “Just what has she been telling you down there that has gotten you so attached?”

“Nothing,” Waverly said. “She doesn't tell me anything, and I don't tell her anything, if that's what you're worried about. But she needed help, and you weren't offering.”

“Again with this? Waverly, they are rebels. She is a rebel,” he reminded her. “Why would I help the people who have been trying to kill me?”

“Because you helped me!” She held his gaze as she said, “You didn't even know me, but you saved me in that forest. You gave me a place to call home. How can you be that person, yet still be so callous towards them?”

“I told you earlier—”

“I know. You're not the hero I thought you were, but I still don't understand how you can be this.” She gestured towards him, and he scowled. “You weren't heartless when you found me, so what changed?”

Bobo's hand curled into a fist.

“That's enough,” he said. “Since I did not make myself clear last time, let me be more direct. You are not to visit them again. Do you understand?”

“Oh, I understand,” Waverly said, “but if you think I'm going to help you find the last of the bones while they rot down there—”

“I said enough, Waverly!”

The roar of his voice echoed through the corridor, and she fell silent as he approached her. He placed his hands on her shoulders and pushed her backwards until she was trapped between him and the stone wall. His dark eyes bore into hers, and she finally had to look away from the anger she saw in them.

“You will not see them again,” he said. “And you will continue to search for the bones, or I will be sure to let the Stone Witch know just how fond you've become of our prisoners.” The mention of the Witch made Waverly's breath catch. “Understood?”

“Yes, Bobo,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

“Good.”

The pressure against her shoulders disappeared, and Bobo stepped away from her. She couldn't bring herself to look at him, to see the stranger standing in the place of someone she had admired. The ghost of his harsh touch against her shoulders lingered, a reminder that he was not the man she thought he was.

“Come along then,” he said. His voice was softer than it had been moments before, as if he hadn't just threatened to hurt the prisoners below. “I'll walk you back to your quarters.”

She shook her head. She didn't want to go anywhere with him now.

“That wasn't a request, Waverly.”

The trek back to her quarters felt longer than it should have, and not a word was spoken between the two of them. Along the way, Bobo spoke with two guards they passed in the halls, who then followed them to Waverly's room. When they reached the door to her quarters, Bobo ushered her inside, and the two men who had followed stood guard.

Waverly glared at Bobo, but once the door closed, her shoulders sagged in defeat and she retreated to her bed. The mattress creaked when she sat on its edge, and dark thoughts filled her head.

The memory of Nicole suspended from the wall by her chains yet again made Waverly choke back a sob and cover her mouth with the palm of her shaky hand. She had been so sure of things when she had promised Nicole she wasn't going to die here, yet her Sight had shown her otherwise. Even if they weren't executed like her vision had shown her, Nicole and the others were still going to die if Bobo had his way.

Waverly couldn't let that happen.

She wiped the tears away from her cheeks and lay down on the mattress. She closed her eyes and took steadying breaths as she tried to calm herself enough to think of a plan.

Guards were sure to be posted outside of the dungeon now, after Waverly had so boldly decided to defy Bobo's wishes. She also doubted the ones posted outside her door would remain at her quarters all day, and suspected they would be following her throughout the castle to make sure she didn't end up in places she shouldn't be. It would take time to ease them into relaxing around her enough that she could easily wander off.

But time was something Nicole didn't have.

Waverly released a shaky breath and rolled onto her side. She curled her legs so her knees were as close to her chest as they could get, and she stared at the wall, willing a plan to somehow reveal itself in the bricks.

Her brow furrowed.

She reached out and ran her fingertips along the smooth stone as a thought danced in her head. Thoughts of the powerful Seer came to mind, as did the diagram of the amulet he had been given. At the center of it, there had been a coarse stone, painted a multitude of colors by the earth itself. The castle walls looked nothing like the stone in the diagram. Still, a thought had struck her, and she followed its thread until she stumbled upon the beginnings of a plan.

By morning, the exhaustion from the night had fled, replaced by a thrum of nervous energy as she swung her legs over the side of the bed once more. Her plan would still require time, but as she prepared for the day ahead, hope swelled within her.

After she left her quarters, she wasn't surprised when the guards followed her down the hall. It felt strange, having her movements watched. She had always been able to roam freely around the castle. Even when she approached the large doors that led to the bridge outside, the guards had merely sent her on her way without a second glance. Now the eyes of the guards upon her felt overbearing and made her skin crawl as she roamed the halls down to the kitchens.

The bustle of the kitchen greeted her as she stepped through its doors, and the blast of heat from the fire pits was welcome against her chilled skin. As she had been before, the head cook stood on her stool at the large pot that hung above one of the fires. Waverly weaved around servants and chefs to reach her. The pair of guards was close behind her, though they knocked into several servants as they followed.

“Mornin' Miss,” the cook greeted her. Her gaze drifted to the guards who appeared behind Waverly. “Seems you've brought some unusual company with you today.”

Waverly grinned and said, “New friends to feed.”

The cook tsk'd and shook her head, but she let out a sharp whistle. Moments later, Simon appeared at her side. After she gave him instructions to fetch a platter of food, he eyed Waverly and her guards warily, then quickly wandered off to do as he was told. When he returned, he thrust the platter towards Waverly, but looked away from her as he waited for her to take the tray. Gently, she took the tray from his scarred hands, yet he still refused to look at her. She sighed, and turned to leave, only to be stopped by a tug on the back of her shirt. When she turned back around, Simon was nervously chewing his lip.

Finally, he asked, “Are you still going to see her?”

Waverly regarded him for a moment, then gave the tray to one of the guards before she knelt in front of the servant boy.

“No, Simon,” she said. “As much as I would like to, I'm not going to see her. His Grace has forbidden it.”

“But you said you were going to help her.”

“Yes, a task which would have been much easier, had you not told His Grace where I was yesterday.”

Somehow she managed to keep the anger out of her voice. She knew Simon was only a child, and given Bobo's temperament when she had woken, she could only imagine that he had been even more frightening when he had returned to the castle and been unable to find her. Waverly couldn't fault Simon for revealing her secret in the wake of a temper that she had just started to see herself. Still, the reminder that she couldn't help Nicole was a bitter blow, and she frowned as she stood once more. Simon tugged on the hem of her shirt again, and she looked down to find an apologetic expression on his face.
His voice was barely above a whisper as he said, “I could help? Since you can't right now?” He looked down at the floor. “I know it won't fix what I did, but I'd like to help her, if you'll let me.”

Some of the weight lifted from Waverly's shoulders at the offer. Simon wouldn't be able to treat Nicole's wounds, but he could at least take food down to the dungeon.

“You would do that?”

He nodded. “If you'll let me.”

Waverly could have cried from relief. Instead, she knelt in front of him again. “All you would need to do is take them a tray of food. That's it. You may have to hold it for Nicole, but you can handle that, right Simon?”

He smiled. “Yes, Miss Waverly.”


It was cold.

That was the most prevalent thought that drifted through Nicole's head as she sat in the cell. Though she now sat with her aching back against the wall, she still couldn't lower her arms to a more comfortable position, and if she shifted the wrong way, her right wrist stung and another warm, red rivulet of blood would join the dried trails that trickled from the broken skin. After Robert had hauled Waverly away by the scruff of her neck, Nicole had jerked too hard against her restraints, which had torn the skin beneath the iron shackle.

In an attempt to retain what little bit of warmth she could, she shifted her legs so they were tucked beneath her once more, but the painful movement was useless, and she found herself wishing for the stolen blankets.

The heavy door creaked, and Nicole steeled herself for another encounter with Robert, but it wasn't his heavy footsteps that descended the staircase, nor was it Waverly who appeared in the dim torchlight. Instead, it was the scrawny figure of a young boy with a mop of brown hair that fell just below his ears. In his hands, he carried a tray of food, and the smell that wafted through the bars made Nicole's stomach growl.

He spoke with the guards for a moment, but their voices were too quiet for her to hear. Then the boy carried the tray of food to Fish and Levi's cells across the corridor and set down a bowl in each one. When he came to her cell, however, she heard the older guard grumble from his seat before he hobbled over to unlock the door. The boy smiled up at him before he approached Nicole with the tray in his hands. Nicole's gaze dropped to the last bowl of hot cereal and apple slices he had brought, and she felt her mouth water.

“She couldn't come,” he said, “but she wanted you to have this.”

Nicole gritted her teeth and slowly forced herself to stand so she would be able to move her arms easier. When her legs threatened to collapse beneath her, she pressed her back against the rough wall for support and gasped at the shock of pain it sent through her body. Once she was sure she wouldn't fall, the boy held the tray for her, and with shaky hands, she ate spoonful after spoonful. She was just as grateful for the warmth of the steaming cereal as she was for the food itself.

When the bowl was empty, she let the spoon clatter against the tray before she swiped a few of the apple slices. They were sweet and refreshing, but her strength was wavering, so she quickly finished the last of the slices before she carefully lowered herself to the floor once more. She looked up at the boy and gave him a small, grateful smile.

“Thank you,” she said, but he only shrugged. “You said she couldn't come?” The boy nodded. “She's okay though, right? Robert didn't hurt her?”

His grip tightened on the tray. “Why should you even care if she's okay? Why care about her at all?” Nicole's eyebrows knitted together at the hostile response, and the boy shook his head. “I don't know how you can be worried about someone like her, after what she's done.”

“What she's done? All she's done is help me.”

The boy's laugh was bitter. The sound was strange, coming from someone who looked so young, and it made Nicole's skin crawl.

“She's the reason you're here.”

“That's not possible.”

The boy knelt in front of her, and she saw pity in his grey eyes. “She didn't tell you then? About her visions?”

Nicole studied him, trying to figure out what he was implying, before she said, “What do her supposed visions have to do with me?

“They're real, you know,” he said. “She uses them to help His Grace find things for the Stone Witch. She used them to See you.” He tilted his head. “How do you think His Grace knew where you would be in that forest? She Saw you, and she told him where to find you.” He stood once more, and Nicole bristled at the pity in his eyes. “She did this to you and your friends, yet you still care about her.”

“She didn't.”

The boy only shook his head. “Then how did they find you?” he asked again. “She told him. Then she tricked you into being her friend. It's what she does.”

Nicole glared at his back as he retreated from the cell and trudged back up the stairs. Once she heard the heavy door close, she sank back against the wall. She didn't want to believe the boy's words. The thought that Waverly had been the reason they had been ambushed caused a tightness in Nicole's chest.

“Nic?” Across the corridor, Levi stood close to the bars of his cell. “You don't believe him, do you? That sweet, young lady... She wouldn't, would she?”

Nicole didn't have an answer for him, and his features seemed to droop in the torchlight when she stayed quiet. He wandered away from the bars and approached those near Fish's cell instead, most likely hoping to find the reassurance Nicole couldn't provide.

She glared at the stone floor, still grimy with filth despite Waverly's best efforts.

She didn't want to believe what the boy had said, but he had raised the question she had been asking herself ever since they had been ambushed, and now his words wouldn't leave her. If Waverly really had Seen what had happened—if she had truly been the one who told Robert about the route—then she was just as responsible for the ambush as Robert.

Nicole's hand curled into a fist as anger burned at the corners of her eyes.

She had been stupid, she realized, to be so easily tricked by a bright smile, kind eyes, and a sweet voice.


Waverly could tell the guards following her were bored. She could see it in the way they stifled their yawns and fidgeted with the pommels of their swords. Their eyes wandered as they walked through the castle halls behind her, and she heard their soft sighs whenever she stopped at a tapestry—there were quite a few draped throughout the castle halls—and studied the scenes that had been woven into the fabric.

Before her tour of the many tapestries hung throughout the castle, Waverly had led them to the library, where the warmth of the glowing fire was pleasant and chased away the cold chill from wide halls. However, while they were there, she had found one of the thickest books on the shelf and hauled it to the cushion near the fireplace. When she read aloud, she had seen the way their eyelids drooped as she plodded through the pages of a book about plants indigenous to the region.

Now they wandered the halls once more, and Waverly made sure to inspect each tapestry.

The slow journey brought them back to the kitchen, where preparations for supper were in full swing. It was far busier now than it had been earlier in the day. Workers gracefully danced around one another with their hands full of dishes, trays, and heavy bowls. They moved with ease, years of working together in the kitchen creating a familiar routine.

She stepped into the fray, and her guards followed as they had before, though this time they had to work harder to avoid colliding with some of the workers. As she had done this morning, Waverly sought out the head cook, who had left her usual position at the mixing pot and gone to the far end of the kitchen, where sturdy wooden tables had been shoved against the wall and held slabs of butchered meat, ready to be seasoned. The further into the kitchen they went, however, the more her guards struggled to step around the workers who scurried throughout the room.

They had made it halfway into the kitchen, where the activity swelled as servants and cooks crossed paths, when Waverly allowed herself to be swept into the flow of the busy workers. Cooks and servants alike circled her in their dance, and she used the opportunity to drop to the floor and crawl beneath the closest table. She watched from her hiding place as booted feet stomped into her view, searching for her in the chaos of the kitchen. They stilled in front of the table she hid beneath, and she scooted further back until she had nearly come out the other side. She tried to control her nervous breathing as they lingered in front of her, but her heart hammered in her chest when one of them began to crouch.

“You've already lost 'er,” came the head cook's booming voice. The one who had begun to crouch paused with his hand resting on the table as another pair of legs appeared in Waverly's sight. “Gave you the run around, she did. Slipped right back out that door while you two oafs were shovin' your way through my kitchen tryin' to find her.”

“This is none of your concern,” one of the guards said.

“It is when the two of you are pushin' my workers out of the way for a girl who already got the drop on ya.” There was a long pause, before Waverly heard her say, “She's been comin' to this kitchen for years now. You think she doesn't know our routine as well as we do? Why else would she be comin' here now, the busiest time of our day, if it wasn't to lose the two of you tailin' her?” There was another long pause, followed by, “I suppose His Grace had you followin' her for a reason. You know the longer you stand here arguin' with me, the closer she gets to wherever it is you two were supposed to stop her from goin'.”

She heard the rough grumble of the guards. The one who had crouched in front of her stood, and she held back the sigh of relief as she watched the pair of them shove past the cook. Once they left her line of sight, the stomping of their boots a misplaced sound in the chorus of the kitchen noises, Waverly released the sigh she had been holding back, and the weight that had been on her shoulders slipped away. Still, she decided to wait beneath the table until she was sure they were gone.

“You can come out from under my table now, Miss,” the cook said. Waverly chewed her lip for a moment, then slowly crawled out from her hiding place, a sheepish smile on her face. “Don't be givin' me that look now. Your little scheme with those two brutes nearly messed up supper.”

The grin dropped from Waverly's face as she stood. “I'm sorry,” she said, wiping off the front of her skirt. “I didn't mean to cause you any trouble. Honest. I just needed to get away from them for a while.” Her brow furrowed. “It's very unnerving, feeling eyes on you at every moment. I didn't like it.” She shook her head, and the smile returned to her face. “Thank you,” she said, “for helping me.”

The cook tsk'd. “Please. I just wanted 'em out of here,” she said. “Now, you go cause trouble elsewhere, Miss Waverly, before those guards come back. I have a kitchen to run.”

She shooed Waverly away from the table, and Waverly weaved through the crowded kitchen once more, back to the entrance. She peeked her head into the hall and, not seeing the guards, she slipped into the corridor. Thanks to the cook, it was likely that her guards had headed for the dungeon, but Waverly had other plans. Rather than head towards the dungeon, Waverly started down the hall in the opposite direction. There were questions that needed answers, and she was going to find them while Bobo focused on preventing her from seeing Nicole.

Although the guards no longer tailed her, she was still careful on her way back to her quarters. Whenever she heard the heavy footsteps of other guards, she ducked into the nearest hiding place she could find. Usually it was one of the empty solar rooms that occasionally housed the guests she was never allowed to meet, but there were times when there were no rooms available for her to hide in, and she would have to backtrack to a safe corridor until the guards passed her.

It was a slow journey, and when she finally reached her quarters, she quietly slipped inside and, after shutting the door, she leaned heavily against it. Her gaze drifted to the small window across the room, shuttered off to stop the cold winter winds from drifting inside, though the occasional chill seeped through.

She pushed off the door and went to her dresser, where she dug through the drawers until she found the heaviest articles of clothing Bobo had given her. She layered the clothes over herself, but bent her arms several times to ensure she still retained flexibility and movement. Once she was satisfied, she nodded and walked to the closed window. She unfastened the wooden shutters and shivered as the icy wind from outside swirled into her quarters and nipped at her exposed skin. When she leaned over the edge of the window and saw the long drop to the ground, she gulped and took a step back. Her hands shook at her side, but she curled them into clenched fists.

She didn't have time to be afraid.

Her determination restored, she yanked the blankets from her mattress and tied them together with tight knots. The makeshift rope still wasn't long enough though, so she returned to her dresser and dug through the bottom drawer, pulling out the extra blankets she would normally use later in the season. Once the corners of all the blankets had been tied together, she moved her bedside table across the room, then shoved her heavy bed closer to the small window. She was sweating by the time she fastened one end of the makeshift rope to the thick bed post. After a hard tug to test the tightness of the knot around the post, Waverly nodded to herself and tossed the rope out the window. Before her fear could catch up with her, she grabbed hold of the cloth and climbed over the window ledge.

The wind whipped around her as she inched down the wall. Her feet slipped on the stones several times, and it was only the tight grip she kept on the blankets that stopped her from plummeting to the ground. She shivered and tried to press closer to the wall as a strong gust pushed against her, threatening to send her careening sideways. Once the wind fell to a manageable level, she continued her descent down the caste wall.

“You can do this.” She scooted a few more inches down the makeshift rope, but closed her eyes and whimpered when another great gust pushed against her. After it died down, she shook her head, and said to herself, “One step at a time, Waverly. You can do it.”

Despite the hammering in her chest, she forced herself to continue the descent.

She developed a steady pace, becoming more confident the lower she got without incident. Occasionally she would have to press herself against the cold wall whenever an abnormally strong wind assaulted her, but the fear that she had started with had fallen away with each shaky step down the wall.

Then she heard it.

Louder than the howl of the wind, the sound of tearing fabric made her look up, and her eyes widened when she saw the small rip in the blanket above the one she clung to.

“Oh no...” She quickened her pace, but the sound only followed her as more of the fabric tore. “No, no, no.”

In her state of panic, her fingers fumbled around the blankets, and her chest tightened in fear when she lost her grip and began to plummet to the ground. She was too scared to scream, but she blindly reached for her makeshift rope until she managed to grab a handful of the blankets with one hand. She almost let go again when the harsh stop painfully jerked her shoulder, but she gritted her teeth and grabbed hold of the blanket with her other hand as well.

Her heart thudded painfully against her chest as she regained her breath, but her recovery was short-lived. The force of her fall made the torn blanket rip completely, and she yelped as she fell the rest of the way to the ground.

Her landing was less than graceful. Upon hitting the ground, her ankle painfully twisted beneath her, and she fell backwards, the air rushing from her lungs as her back smacked against the ground. The light blanket of snow over the grass had done nothing to cushion her fall.

After she regained the breath she had lost, she forced herself to stand. The flash of pain in her right ankle nearly made her crumple back to the ground, and she bit down on her hand to stop herself from crying out. Once the pain passed, she limped forward, searching for the bailey where they kept the supplies for maintaining the castle grounds.

It took longer than she would have liked to find the bailey, and when she did find it, she had to fumble through the darkness inside until her eyes adjusted to the lack of light. At least outside, the moonlight had illuminated the grounds. She muttered curses under her breath as she stumbled in the dark, which aggravated her twisted ankle. Even after her eyes adjusted, Waverly still struggled to find the shovel in the mess that had been left in the bailey. Whoever maintained the grounds in the warmer seasons did not seem to value organization.

She found the shovel buried beneath the mess of supplies, and a triumphant smile spread across her face as she tugged it free. When she limped out of the bailey, shovel in hand, her confidence in her plan had been rekindled.

Not far from the bailey, she plunged the head of the shovel into the cold earth and stepped on the edge of the iron spade with her left foot to force it through the frozen dirt. If she was right, it wouldn't matter where she started digging, as long as it was on the castle grounds, and the bailey at her back blocked the harshest winds so it seemed as good a spot as any to dig.

With each plunge of the spade into the dirt, Waverly could feel herself getting closer to the answers awaiting her. Despite the cold, beads of sweat formed on her forehead as she dug deeper. She shivered and wiped it away with the back of her hand, then returned to digging. By the time the hole was up to her hips, the skin of her palms had cracked and torn from her grip on the wooden handle and the cold. She ignored the sting in her hands and continued to dig, gritting her teeth as she dumped another pile of dirt on the side of the hole.

Her arms were shaking from exertion when the tip of the shovel clunked against something harder than the dirt that surrounded her. She dropped the shovel and shakily dropped to her knees. She pushed aside the loose dirt with her battered hands, too tired to worry about the open sores of her palms as she unearthed the thick bedrock beneath her.

Even in the moonlight, she could see the dull glimmer in the rock she had cracked with the tip of the shovel. She coughed into the crook of her elbow and sniffled before she grabbed the shovel again and chipped away at the rough rock until a thick piece finally came loose. Another coughing fit overtook her, but once it passed, she reached for the piece of rock and studied the swirls of color embedded within. Despite finding what she had been looking for, her shoulders were heavy with disappointment. Waverly sighed and pocketed the rough stone before she stood.

Rough hands startled her as they reached beneath her arms and pulled her out of the hole.

She dropped the shovel in surprise, but she struggled in her captor's grip. Fear hammered in her chest as she kicked at the shins of whoever had grabbed her. Bobo had been right. She shouldn't have gone outside. Even in the safety of the castle grounds, someone had come to take her away. She struggled harder in their tight grip.

“Waverly, enough!”

She stopped fighting when she heard the low rumble of Bobo's voice coming from behind her, only to dissolve into another coughing fit a moment later. Without the repetitive task of shoveling to keep her distracted, the cold that had been biting into her skin throughout the night made itself known, and her teeth chattered in between coughs. Bobo placed a heavy hand on her shoulder, and while she would have shrugged it off earlier in the day, the exhaustion from the cold and the digging had finally caught up with her, and she allowed him to guide her through the castle grounds until they came to the closest doorway that led into the castle.

Even within the castle walls, Waverly couldn't seem to get warm. The cold from outside clung to her skin and followed her through the drafty halls as Bobo quietly guided her back to her quarters. She chanced a glance at the large man, and found him clenching his jaw to keep his anger in check. When they reached the heavy door to her room, the two guards who were supposed to be watching her stood beside it. Scowls were on both of their faces as Waverly walked by them into her room, but she was too cold and tired to care.

A fire blazed in the hearth, and Waverly was grateful for the warmth that wrapped around her. The shutters had been closed, and what remained of her blankets had been piled on her mattress. Waverly quickly peeled off the outer layers of her clothes until she only stood in her loose shift, which was damp with sweat. She quickly crawled into her bed while Bobo spoke with someone outside the door, and she pulled the heavy blankets up to her chin.

Whoever was on the other side handed over a tray, and Bobo promptly closed the door once the conversation was over. With his free hand, he dragged the chair from the desk and brought it to Waverly's bedside, and on the tray she saw an assortment of supplies similar to those she used to treat Nicole's wounds. His large frame filled the chair when he sat down and placed the tray on his lap.

“Give me your hands,” he said. His voice was rough, but lacked the bite Waverly had anticipated. “Waverly, let me look at them.”

She sighed and dropped the blanket, then let her hands hover near his with her palms up. He took one in his own and studied the torn blisters left behind by the shovel. The tips of her fingers were red from the cold, and they had started to tingle as warmth seeped back into them. His touch was methodical as he applied a cool salve to her palms.

“Just what were you doing out there?”

With her teeth still chattering, Waverly said, “Digging.”

He looked up from her hands, and the stern expression on his face made her feel far younger than she was. She shrank back against her pillows, and Bobo leaned closer to wrap bandages around her hands.

“You could have died climbing out that window, and that's all you have to say for yourself?”

She shrugged. “It's the truth,” she said. She considered her next words carefully before she said, “That seems to be a concept you struggle with.”

“For the last time, I have not lied to you.”

“No, you've just been hiding things from me.”

Waverly pulled her bandaged hands out of his grasp and swung her legs over the side of the mattress. She maneuvered around the chair and limped to the trousers she had discarded earlier. From its pocket, she pulled out the jagged chunk of rock she had found before she crossed the room to her desk pressed against the wall. She dug through the drawer until she found the page she had hidden within her drawings. When she returned to Bobo, she sat on the edge of the bed and held the stone out for him to see. He took the stone from her hand and studied it. The swirls of color encased in the grey rock blazed in the light of the fire, and Waverly saw the slight widening of Bobo's eyes before he schooled his features.

“That's what you were digging for, Waverly? Rocks?”

“Not just any rock.” She held out the sheaf of paper that displayed the the diagram of the amulet. At its center was a polished stone, one with the same brilliant array of colors as the shards in the rock in Bobo's hand. “This is why I've been struggling to See lately.” She pointed at the stone in the diagram. “You've had me in this castle for years, never allowed to leave, and it's been dampening my abilities since the day I got here.” She studied him for a moment before she asked, “If you need me to help you appease the Stone Witch, why would you keep me from my full potential?”

Bobo scowled. “Waverly, it was for protection.”

“For me or you, Bobo? Because I haven't had a single vision about you in the years that I've been here, so it would seem you're the one being protected, not me,” she said. “Is that why I can't leave the castle? Or go with you on your journeys? You don't want me to See what you've really been up to out there, or stop you from—”

“Damn it, Waverly, it was to protect you!” He stood from the chair and the tray of supplies clattered against the stone floor. He towered over her and placed heavy hands on her shoulders as he said, “Do you know what waits for you outside of these castle walls?” he asked, and Waverly winced as the grip on her shoulders tightened. “Insanity is all that is out there for you. Not some grand adventure or brilliant story. Just insanity.”

He released her shoulders and stepped back. Waverly jumped when he kicked over the chair he had been sitting in, his anger getting the best of him. He took a moment to breathe, running his hand over his hair, then turned back to Waverly.

“You've obviously read the story of the old Seer. Did you skip the section where he was nearly driven mad by his visions?” He shook his head. “You suddenly want to pretend I'm the villain here after years of caring for you, then fine, but the only reason I've kept you from wandering outside the castle walls has been for your benefit.”

“How am I supposed to believe you? You kept this from me, even when I started to struggle to find the bones.” Angry tears pricked at her eyes. “Bobo, if you had just let me off the castle grounds, for just a little while, the Witch never would have tortured Simon. I could have found that stupid bone for her.”

“And you'd be lucky to remember your own name after,” Bobo said. “Why do you think you can't remember your past?” His expression softened, and he crouched in front of her. “You have a very powerful gift, Waverly, but it had already begun to destroy your mind when I found you. Your name was all you had, and if I let you off these grounds—even to help with the bones—who knows if you'll even have that to cling to.”

Waverly swiped at her tears with the back of her hand, trying to regain her composure. “I don't care,” she said. “I should have been able to find that bone on my own. Simon never should have been tortured.”

“What happened to the boy was unfortunate,” Bobo said, “but it was something I was willing to endure, if it meant you could hold onto your sanity and still find the bones.”

“Endure?” Waverly's voice was hoarse as she said, “You endured nothing that day, Bobo. You weren't here when she brought Simon into my room. When she forced me into that chair and made me keep my palm on that skull for hours while she cut into Simon's hands, you were nowhere to be found.” She shook her head. “I wanted so badly to get up and stop her, but something kept me fastened to that chair. All I could do was watch her drag that blade through his skin each time I failed. And you weren't there, Bobo. You weren't there, so how can you say you endured it?”

Unable to hold his gaze, Waverly lowered her eyes to her lap. Bobo hadn't been there. He hadn't seen the pleading in Simon's eyes, or heard his screams. He didn't know how powerless she had felt, restrained to her chair by chains she couldn't see. Yes, he had finally shown up and put a stop to it, appearing to be the hero she had always imagined him to be, but it wasn't until after she had managed to make the connection with the bone and See where it was hidden.

Which was convenient, for him.

“Waverly...”

She shook her head. “I think I want to be alone right now,” she said. “I've been followed by guards all day, and I am really quite tired of the forced company.”

Bobo straightened to his full height, and his coat swished around him as he turned around and took long strides back to the door. With his hand on the knob, he looked back at her over his shoulder.

“All that I've done has been for your protection, Waverly.”

She didn't reply, and the next sound she heard was the closing of the door.

When Bobo didn't return, Waverly slipped back under her blankets and rolled onto her side to watch the flames burning in the fireplace. The cold that had clung to her from outside had finally melted away, but there was now a tickle irritating the back of her throat that she couldn't seem to rid herself of. She slid her hand out from under the blanket and studied the coarse chunk of rock she still held.

The blue, purple, and green swirls sparkled in the light of the fire. She rubbed her thumb over the smooth bits of stone and decided the picture in the diagram had not done it justice. Despite the dampening effect it had on her abilities—especially in such great abundance beneath the castle—Waverly found it beautiful. It had also led her to the truth of what Bobo had been hiding from her.

She reached over and placed the chunk of rock on top of her bedside table before she pulled her hand back beneath the blanket. After clearing her throat once more, she tucked her hands beneath her chin and finally succumbed to her exhaustion.

The next morning, when Waverly left her quarters, she was surprised to find that the guards no longer stood watch by her door. Her brow furrowed as she stepped into the hall. No one was posted at either end of the corridor either. She tentatively stepped forward, half-expecting her two escorts to appear at the movement, but when no one jumped at her from the shadows, she limped down the hall, her movements slowed by the soreness left behind from her night of digging.

When she approached the hall to the dungeon, she pressed herself against the wall and peeked around the corner. A guard was posted by the door, and Waverly sighed as she leaned back against the wall. It was a move she had expected, but when no guards had been posted at her door, a flicker of hope had been ignited, only to be snuffed out. Still, there was no escort following her, which made sneaking into the dungeon a little easier. She just needed a distraction.

Feeling the annoying tickle at the back of her throat again, she headed back down the hall, away from the dungeon. Once she was far enough away, she released a hacking cough into the crook of her elbow. When the coughing fit tapered off, however, her gaze landed on one of the large tapestries hanging from the ceiling. She cleared her throat and stepped closer to the ornate piece for a better look. She pinched the soft fabric between her fingers and smiled as a plan started to form.

All she needed was a torch.

The tapestry she chose was much closer to the dungeon than the first one she had seen. It would be sure to grab the guard's attention, and she would have enough time to slip into the dungeon to talk to Nicole. She had pulled one of torches from its perch on the wall on her way back to the dungeon. As she lowered it to the bottom of the tapestry, smoke curled away from the edges and orange flames flickered to life, slowly eating its way upwards. With the first part of her plan complete, Waverly took as deep a breath as she could through her stuffed nose, then made her way down the hall.

Waverly hurried around the corner that led into the corridor where the guard had been posted. When she noticed that he had seen her, she quickened her pace and nearly collided with him. He leaned back as the torch in her hand almost smacked against him. At first, her words were too rushed to be understood, but the guard put his hands on her shoulders and tried to help her calm down. Waverly waited several seconds before she finally allowed herself to seem calmer.

“Now what has you so riled up?”

“Fire,” Waverly said. “I didn't mean to, I swear, but I saw something interesting in this tapestry I was studying, and I just wanted a closer look, I swear, but then the torch... and now it's spreading and I don't know what to do.”

The guard cursed under his breath. “Listen, give me that," he said, and she handed him the torch. "Now go find one of the servants to come help,” he told her. “I'll go see what I can do in the meantime. We do this right, His Grace won't have to know what happened.”

“Thank you,” she said in a soft voice before the guard left to tend to the fire she had started.

When he disappeared around the corner, Waverly opened the heavy door to the dungeon and slipped inside. Her footsteps echoed as she made her way down the stairs. When she reached the landing, she found Luca and Miles had taken up cards again, and the two of them startled in their seats once they saw her.

“Miss Waverly, you know you're not allowed down here.”

Waverly gave Luca the sweetest smile she could muster before said, “If I'm not allowed down here, then why isn't there a guard posted upstairs anymore?”

Luca opened his mouth to answer, but when no explanation was forthcoming, he looked at Miles, who just shook his head.

“Best not to worry about it, Luca,” he said as he shifted the cards in his hand. “She's gonna do as she likes regardless of what we tell her.”

Luca seemed unsure, but he turned his attention back to the cards in his hands. Waverly rubbed the back of her neck and approached Miles. He looked over his shoulder and, anticipating the question before she even asked, he rolled his eyes, then produced the keys to the cells from the belt around his waist. She smiled as she took them from his hand.

“Thank you.”

“Don't thank me,” he said. “Jus' don't get caught poking around in there this time.”

When Miles returned to his attention to his card game with Luca, Waverly crossed to Nicole's cell, ignoring the way Levi and Fish watched her every move as she fumbled with the key in the lock.

Nicole sat with her back pressed against the wall, her hands suspended from the wall by the chains. Trails of red streaked along the pale skin beneath the manacle on her right wrist.

Despite the uncomfortable position, her head had lolled to the side, and when Waverly knelt beside her, she heard her soft breaths. She felt a tug of guilt at waking her. It had probably taken time for Nicole to find sleep, and if she had more time, Waverly would have let her continue sleeping. However, time was one thing they didn't have, so Waverly gently placed her hand on Nicole's uninjured shoulder and whispered her name to wake her.

Warm, brown eyes fluttered open, and when they landed on her, a sleepy smile appeared on Nicole's face—much like the ones Waverly had seen while Nicole had been delirious in her fever—but as she slowly awakened, the smile on her face faded, and she jerked away from Waverly's touch.

“Sorry,” Waverly said. “I didn't mean to scare you.”

Nicole studied her for a moment, a hardness in her eyes that Waverly hadn't seen before. Finally, she asked, “Why are you even here?”

“Because you were right,” Waverly said, and Nicole's brow furrowed. “About Robert, I mean,” she said. “He's been hiding things.”

“What a surprise,” Nicole said, though her voice didn't agree with the sentiment. “Speaking of surprises, the servant boy you sent down with the food... he was a surprise.”

“Simon?”

Nicole shrugged. “He didn't give me his name,” she said. “But he did tell me something else that I found kind of interesting.” Hard brown eyes met Waverly's, and any trace of warmth Waverly had seen in Nicole's expression was gone. “You had a vision about me. Before I came here, you Saw me.”

A knot formed in Waverly's stomach. “Nicole, we don't have time to talk about this now.”

“Well, I want to talk about it now,” Nicole snapped. “That boy told me you had a vision of the ambush, and you told Robert about it,” she said. “Just... tell me he was lying. Tell me you're not the reason we were caught.”

Waverly bit her lip and studied the grimy stone floor. When she looked up again, tears had blurred her vision, but she could still see the hurt in Nicole's expression.

“I see.”

“Nicole, please,” Waverly said. “I made a mistake. I did it to protect Robert, not to intentionally hurt you. I didn't know this would happen.”

“How could you not know, Waverly? You Saw them attack us! You Saw what they would do, and you told Robert where to find us.”

“I didn't know you, Nicole. All I knew was someone was on their way to hurt the only family I have left, and I had been shown a way to stop it,” she said. She shook her head and wiped at her eyes. “Listen, you can hate me for this all you want—I know I deserve it—but Nicole, I'm going to do all I can to fix this. I promise. I just need you to be ready.”

“You want to fix this?” Nicole asked, and Waverly nodded. “Then get out.”

“Nicole—”

“Don't,” Nicole said. “Just leave, Waverly, because right now, looking at you hurts, and I am so tired of hurting.”

Waverly wanted to reach out, to ease the ache Nicole was feeling, but instead she stood up from the stone floor and brushed the grime from her skirt. She was the root of Nicole's pain—all of it—and if she wanted her gone, she would go until she could put the rest of her plan into action.

She wiped at her eyes one last time, then left the cell, the door clanging shut behind her. After she locked it, she wrapped her hands around the bars and leaned forward. "I know you're angry with me, and I don't blame you," she said, and she tightened her grip on the bars, "but please, when the time comes, just be ready."

 

Chapter Text

The door slammed shut behind Waverly after she stepped into the kitchen, but the sound was swallowed by the usual cacophony of noise that filled the large room. With quick strides, she weaved her way around the workers, though her steps were far from careful and she bumped into several people before she reached the head cook, who stood beside the iron oven and spoke with a young woman holding a plate of rolled dough .

“We'll need more than that, love,” she said. “His Grace has company comin', so another batch at least.” The woman nodded, and after she left to do as the cook bid, the cook turned her attention on Waverly. “Here for your breakfast, Miss?”

“No, I'm not,” she said. “I need to speak with Simon. Where is he?” Before the cook could answer, Waverly caught a glimpse of shaggy, brown hair near the preparation tables pushed against the far wall. She watched as Simon deposited an armful of plates onto the tables, nodded, then left to gather supplies from the larder. “Never mind,” she said, a scowl on her face, “I've found him.”

“Miss?”

But Waverly had already stepped around her.

The cool air of the larder surrounded Waverly as she stepped inside and closed the door behind her. From the ceiling, rabbits, birds and stuffed sausages dangled from iron wheels adorned with hooks, and Simon stood on a wooden stool beneath one of the wheels to reach the links of sausage. Once he had them in hand, he stepped down from the stool and turned to leave, only to startle at the sight of Waverly standing at the door, her arms crossed over her chest.

“You told her?” The anger that had smoldered within her on her way from the dungeon to the kitchen flared as she stepped towards him. “Simon, how could you do that?”

“It was the truth,” he said. “You shouldn't keep secrets, Miss Waverly.”

“It wasn't your secret to tell!”

Her voice cracked, and she had to cough into her elbow when the tickle at the back of her throat became too much to ignore. Once the coughing fit subsided, she reminded herself that Simon was just a boy, and tried to regain control of her temper. She took a deep breath and ran her fingers through her hair. When she spoke again, her voice was steady despite the anger simmering below.

“You're right,” Waverly said. “It was the truth, and she deserved to know it. All of it. And I was going to tell her myself, when I could explain everything.” She crouched in front of him so she she could easily meet his gaze. “But you took that from me. Do you understand?”

He smiled. “Yes, Miss Waverly.”

“Damn it, Simon!” She straightened her posture and stepped away from him. “Why are you doing this? I trusted you.”

“I trusted you, too, Miss Waverly,” he said, and the smile slipped from his face. The haunted expression that replaced it looked out of place on such youthful features. He lowered his eyes and twisted the string he held in his scarred hands. “You kept telling me it would be alright. You promised you wouldn't let her hurt me, but you lied.”

Waverly stammered over her words, but Simon cut her off.

“Then you got to be happy again,” he said. His fists tightened around the string. “It isn't fair, Miss Waverly. You let her do that to me. Why do you get to be happy and I don't?”

“Simon, believe me, I tried.”

He shook his head. “No, you didn't. Not like you try for His Grace,” he said. “If you had tried like that, maybe I could be happy, too, but I'm not.” He raised his chin slightly and met Waverly's gaze again. “And now you're not either.”

His words were a punch to the gut.

Waverly knew that day had hurt him, but she had tried to help. She had cared for Simon as best she could, had stayed with him through the long nights of recovery that came after to soothe nightmares and change bandages. When it became apparent her presence only reminded him of the time spent with the Witch, she had tried to give him the space he needed. She had hoped time and distance would help mend the damage that had been done.

It seemed it had only caused the wounds from the Witch to fester.

That's why you told her? To make me unhappy?” She narrowed her eyes. “It wasn't me who did this to you,” she said, gesturing towards his hands, “and all I've done since that day is try to make things right, but I can't keep apologizing for something I didn't do.”

Despite her words, a weight draped itself over Waverly's shoulders as she left Simon behind and headed for the door. She lingered in the doorway, her hand pressed against the cold stone, and she looked over her shoulder to find his dull grey eyes glaring at her back.

“I truly wish I had been strong enough to stop her, Simon,” she said. “You never should have been hurt. You didn't deserve any of that.”

“And the lady down in the dungeon did?”

The question cut deep, as she suspected it was meant to, and Waverly's hand tensed against the stone, her nails scraping the smooth rock. She had no excuses to hide behind, and Simon knew that. She had watched Nicole die in her vision, yet she had still told Bobo where they would be.

“No, she didn't.”

The chaotic sounds of the kitchen greeted her once more when she left the larder, fleeing from Simon's dull, grey eyes that she could still feel lingering on her back even after she closed the door behind her. As she weaved through the crowd of workers in the kitchen, she tried not to let Simon's words discourage her from the task at hand.

Maybe she hadn't been strong enough to help him, but she could still help Nicole.

She stepped into the drafty hall, and the chorus of kitchen sounds were left behind as she started to wander the castle corridors towards the library, trying to forget the conversations with Nicole and Simon. She needed to focus on finding a way to get Nicole and her friends out of the castle, and she couldn't do that if she kept thinking about the hurt that had cracked Nicole's voice as she had told her to leave.

Waverly shook the memory from her head and turned her thoughts towards getting Nicole free.

As it was, the way to get Nicole and the others out of their cells had come easily to her. The stumbling block, however, was how to distract the guard so she could get back down to the dungeon. She doubted he would fall for her fire trick again without getting suspicious, so that left her trying to get him away from the door long enough for her to get everyone out.

The other snag she ran into had been supplies. More importantly, how she could get them to Nicole and the others. Although the recent snowfall had melted in morning light, the days were already growing colder and shorter. Soon, more snow would stick to the ground, and they would need warm clothing and blankets to keep from freezing to death. Rations as well, since she doubted they'd be able to stop to hunt the first few days they were on the run, especially with Nicole injured. That was another thing they would need: Healing supplies to treat Nicole's wounds. She had already gone too long without a dressing change for Waverly's liking, and it would do them no good to get through the gate if Nicole died from an infection out in the wilds.

The gate was another problem of its own. More specifically, the issue lay in how to keep it shut long enough to let the rebels get a decent head start before Bobo and his soldiers could chase them down.

Waverly sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose.

There was still so much she had left to plan, but at least she had figured out how to sneak them through the castle corridors without raising the alarm.

“That's just great, Waverly,” she muttered to herself. “A lot of good that does you without figuring out the rest of it, though.”

She shook her head and tried to return her thoughts to the task at hand, but as she passed what she thought was an empty solar room, she nearly stumbled over luggage that had been left at the door. She managed to catch herself on the wall, hissing as she scraped her torn palms on the stone. A curse was about to escape as she cradled her hand to her chest, but when she heard familiar voices coming from inside the room, she bit back the words and pressed her back against the stone wall. Her heart hammered in her chest at the sound of the Stone Witch's voice drifting through the doorway.

“Idiot. I told you she was up to something," she said, and Waverly only needed one guess as to who she was talking about. “You let that little brat roam free, and look where it's gotten you.”

“I returned, didn't I? I would say you've made your point, Constance.”

Waverly shivered when she heard the familiar rumble of Bobo's voice.

She knew she should keep walking—that she should pretend she hadn't heard the chilling sound of the Stone Witch's voice and continue on her way before another coughing fit overtook her—but curiosity kept her rooted to the spot.

“Then why does she still wander the halls freely, Robert?!” The shrill response made Waverly's heart thud even harder, and for a moment, she wondered if the Witch could somehow see through walls. “You've put far too much trust in that girl's loyalty to you, and I would think that what you stumbled on would have shown you that.”

“What would you have me do? Giving her an escort proved useless.”

“You've got a dungeon, don't you? Toss the little brat in there and be done with it,” the Witch said. “Or is your little pet too good for that?” Waverly bristled at the remark, and her hands curled into fists. “Oh, don't tell me you've developed a soft spot for the girl, Robert.” There was a pause and a sigh, followed by, “I do suppose if you pretend to care for someone for nine years, it's bound to—”

“Enough of that, Constance,” Bobo said, his voice a low growl. “How willing do you think she would be to help you if she was treated like a prisoner?”

The witch tsk'd. “I think we've established that I can be very convincing,” she said. “Besides,” she continued, “you treating her as some surrogate daughter, or whatever it is you've been doing, hasn't exactly been producing results lately, has it?”

“Yes, well, she has been around a negative influence recently,” Bobo said, “but that little problem will be dealt with soon enough. Could possibly get those damn rebels to settle down for a while, too.”

“Ambitious as ever, aren't you, Robert?” The Witch asked. There was another pause, followed by, “You don't want to treat her as a prisoner, yet you think she'll be more cooperative after you execute her little friends?”

Waverly clamped her hand over her mouth to hold back the gasp. While she had Seen Nicole's execution, she thought there would still be time to come up with a solid plan, but if Bobo was already talking about an execution with the Witch, the time she thought she had had already run out.

“No, I don't think she'd be nearly as helpful with the execution in her head,” Bobo said, “but if I remember correctly, you've dabbled in memory magic before.”

The laugh from the Witch sent a shiver down Waverly's spine.

“You would let me? To your little pet?”

Waverly heard Bobo sigh.

“I don't see any other way to fix the damage that has already been done,” he said. “That damn rebel down there has her questioning things, and—”

The chatter of servants from further down the hall startled Waverly into action. She moved away from the wall and stepped back from the doorway as quietly as she could just as two servants turned the corner into the corridor, fresh blankets in their hands for the Witch's room. Waverly backpedaled for a moment before she turned around and hurried back into the corridor towards the kitchen, the conversation she had overheard at the forefront of her thoughts.

Already, her vision was in the midst of coming true, and her stomach threatened to revolt as the image of Nicole being dragged onto that platform flashed in her head. Her chest tightened, and she had to stop in her tracks, placing her hand against the wall to steady herself. She squeezed her eyes shut and took deep breaths to fend off the building panic filling her chest.

It wasn't working well.

She tried to think of anything else, but the memory of her vision lingered even as she pushed away from the wall and changed her course to avoid encountering Bobo and the Witch. Rather than the small library, she decided on the safety of her own quarters instead, even if it meant a longer walk back through the winding halls.

The vision and Bobo's conversation with the Witch still sat at the front of Waverly's thoughts as she stepped through the door to her room and closed it behind her, but she took a seat at her desk anyway, hoping that she'd be able to chase the intrusive memories to the back of her mind once she was able to start working on her plans again. From the desk drawer, she pulled one of her many maps and a new stick of charcoal. After a moment of deliberation, she took out a blank sheaf of parchment as well. As she studied the map, her right hand dragged the charcoal over the parchment. The sound and the mindless motion helped focus her thoughts as she tried to divine the best path for Nicole and the others to travel.

Once she thought she had found an acceptable route, she pulled the charcoal away from the parchment and dragged it over the map, painting a black course from the castle to a town in the south, followed by another line to one in the west, and two more in the north and east. She didn't know where they would reconvene with the Resistance, but she could at least chart a course to the nearest towns where they could recuperate and resupply. Which brought her to her next task: The supply list, and where to stash them once she had them.

She carefully rolled up the map and set it aside. After taking a moment to stretch, she pulled the parchment in front of her. She flipped over the meaningless scribbles and began to work on the list on the blank side.

Hunched over her desk with her mind working furiously to plan the escape, the threat of the execution her vision had shown her was pushed to the back of her thoughts. As she jotted down supplies—her usually loopy handwriting stilted and scratchy thanks to the bandages on her hands—she let her mind wander over other aspects of the plan, like how to take care of the guards and the castle gate.

Occasionally, when her thoughts became too crowded, she would tear herself away from the list of supplies and pace across her quarters. Other times, she would set down the dwindling stick of charcoal and flex her cramped, stained fingers while she stared at the stone walls with the vain hope that they would provide a solution to some of the problems that still threatened the escape plan.

By the time the list was completed, Waverly had also managed to determine how to get the guards out of the picture, which left her with only one more snag in her plans. She leaned back in her chair, and her gaze drifted to the skull that rested on her desk. She scowled at the hollow eyes that watched her, then turned the head around so the empty eye sockets no longer mocked her efforts. With the list done, Waverly turned her thoughts towards the last stumbling block.

The gate.

If everything else went smoothly, it would be easy enough to get them out. The hard part was preventing the Bobo from being able to go after them, which meant finding a way to disable the gate, but nothing was coming to mind. Everything else would be simple, but Nicole and her friends were going to die because Waverly couldn't come up with a way to keep the gate closed once they were gone. What good would escaping do them if Bobo and his men were able to follow on horseback as soon as he realized they had escaped? He'd find them not long after their first breaths of freedom.

“Damn it!”

Frustrated, Waverly slammed her fist against the desk, only to hiss in pain a moment later. She cradled her hand against her chest, wishing she hadn't done that. The broken and torn flesh of her palm left behind by her night of shoveling stung from the unwarranted assault. When it subsided, she sighed and stood from the chair so she could collect the supplies Bobo had left on her nightstand.

Sitting on the edge of her bed, Waverly began to peel the bandages away from her hand, wincing as it revealed the torn skin beneath it. Blisters left by the shovel oozed clear pus, but it was nothing compared to other wounds Waverly had seen while helping the healer.

Or while helping Nicole.

She shook her head to clear it, then scooped some of the thick paste from the ceramic jar on the table. She spread it over the tender skin, hissing at the slight sting. There had been another time, long ago, when Bobo had treated wounds on a sniffling Waverly's singed hands and neck, earned through curiosity and a fascination with the stories of dragons she had read.

And the little bit of the magnesium the healer stored in his highest cabinets for his special milk of magnesia concoction.

Waverly stood a little too quickly, and stumbled forward in her haste. Once she recovered her footing, she went to the window, opened the shutters, and looked below. It was darker than she had expected, and she briefly wondered how much of her day she had wasted pacing and searching the walls for answers. Rather than dwell on those thoughts, however, she let her gaze wander over the castle grounds, covered in a thin blanket of snow, until she found what she was looking for. The slight dip in the earth not far from her window, where she had tossed one of her experiments while trying to create the same fire that dragons could. It had scared her back then, along with half the castle staff, but now...

A knock at the door startled her, and she quickly closed the shutters of her window and returned to the edge of her bed. A moment later, the door creaked open, and Bobo's figure filled her doorway. The conversation she had stumbled upon earlier flashed through her thoughts, but she feigned disinterest and focused her attention changing the bandage of her other hand.

“Supper is being served,” he said, but Waverly only shrugged. “I'd like for you to join. With how busy I've been, you've spent too much time on your own, and that's my fault.”

Waverly looked away from her hand and met his gaze as she said, “I'd rather take my meal in here, thank you.”

Bobo scowled. “Not a request, Waverly,” he said. “We have a guest, and she'd find your absence rude.”

Waverly studied him for a moment then returned her attention to her hand. “There's only one guest who would want to see me, and I don't think I want to see her.” She finished wrapping her hand and stood from the bed to join him at the door. “But I suppose if I don't go, she'll find someone else to torture.”

She brushed by him, but it wasn't long before he was at her side, accompanying her to the great hall where the Stone Witch waited for them.

Waverly's anger simmered just beneath the surface as the two of them walked through the corridors, but she managed to hold her tongue. As they approached the gaping doorway that led to the great hall, however, the conversation she had overheard came to mind once more, and she hesitated at the entrance.

She had been too worried about the escape plan to think about it then, but Bobo had mentioned memory magic. What if they were forcing her to dine with them so the Witch could take her memories? Seated beside the head of the table sat the Witch, fiddling with the cutlery and grimacing at its quality. Fear crawled into Waverly's chest, but she forced herself to take slow steps forward and resolved to be on her best behavior. If she was courteous and obedient, maybe they wouldn't see a reason to take her memories. Not yet.

Not before she could save Nicole.

She seated herself a safe distance from the Witch on the end of the table near the doorway, but Bobo insisted she join them. Despite the fear hammering against her ribcage, she pushed her chair back and walked to their side of the table. She seated herself to the left of Bobo, across from the Witch, who propped her elbows up on the table, folded her hands one over the other, and rested her chin upon them as she studied Waverly. Unable to hold the woman's gaze, Waverly ducked her head and stared down at the empty plate that had been placed there before she had arrived.

“Don't be so shy, Dearie,” the Witch said, and Waverly felt something press against the bottom of her chin, pushing her to meet the Witch's cold eyes. “You ran out so quickly during my last visit, we didn't have much time to catch up.”

The skin of Waverly's chin crawled where tendrils of the Witch's magic still lingered, holding her head up so she couldn't look away.

“I'm sorry,” she said, the words bitter on her tongue. “I was very tired that day.”

The Witch nodded, and Waverly sighed in relief when she felt the pressure against her chin slip away.

“Yes, yes,” the Witch said. “You had been very busy, I remember. Found me another piece of my boys.” She leaned forward, and despite her resolve to be brave, Waverly trembled. “From what Robert tells me, you've found another diversion to occupy yourself with as well.”

Waverly was saved from having to respond when the servants bustled into the great hall, carrying dishes of food that Waverly had no appetite for while the Witch watched her. A familiar mop of brown hair stood out amongst them. Clutching a silver pitcher in his hands, Simon stood between two of the taller servers, but once the food had been placed on Waverly's plate, he came forward. His hands shook as he poured water into the goblet, and some of it splashed onto the table. He quickly stepped back, but not before sharing a look with Waverly.

The haunted expression had returned, and whatever anger he held towards Waverly was overshadowed by his fear of the Witch on the other side of the table, and she had a moment of realization as she watched him hide behind her chair.

She was the only one he could safely blame for what had happened to him, and the only one he could retaliate against without the fear of facing more pain.

Waverly sighed and returned her attention to the plate of food that had been placed in front of her. With all the worrying she had been doing—and the Stone Witch sitting across from her—she didn't feel hungry, but she forced herself to eat at least the warm bread that had been prepared, dipping it in the sweet sauce that had been drizzled over the portion of pork she had been given.

She had been loathe to admit it earlier, but the Witch's presence made her plan to sneak Nicole and the others out that much harder. She had felt the strength of the woman's power, and stopping the rebels as they escaped would be nothing to her. Even if they did manage to escape while the Witch was there, Waverly's plan to disable the gate would do her no good if she could simply raise the gate with her magic, but time couldn't be wasted waiting, which meant Waverly needed to think of a way to get her to leave.

“You've barely touched your food.”

Bobo's voice pulled her from her thoughts, and she looked up from the plate to find him and the Witch watching her curiously.

“I'm not very hungry,” she said as she nudged the dish away from her. “It's why I wanted to take my meal in my bedroom.”

The Witch laughed, but Bobo scowled.

“You and I both know that is not the reason,” he said. “You only wished to sulk by yourself over that prisoner in the dungeon.”

She bit back the response that rested on the tip of her tongue, and chased it down with a swig of the water Simon had poured for her. After she set the goblet down, she grabbed her fork and cut a piece of the pork with its edge. Satisfied, Bobo turned back to the Witch and continued their conversation. Waverly caught snippets of it, but quickly returned her thoughts to how to get the Witch out of the castle.

“You there.”

Waverly looked up from the food she had been pushing around her plate, and found the Witch's gaze had drifted away from her to focus on the boy hiding behind her. Simon's eyes widened, and a cruel smile appeared on the Witch's face.

“Yes, you,” she said. “I know you, don't I?” Simon shook his head and tried to slink further back, but the Witch tsk'd and beckoned him forward. No doubt feeling the same force Waverly had felt against her chin earlier, Simon stepped away from Waverly's chair. He stood there, the pitcher shaking in his trembling hands. “Ah, yes. Now I remember.” She pulled the chair out beside her and patted her hand against it. “Come, dear. Have a seat.”

“Constance,” Bobo growled from his chair. “Is now really the time for this?”

She gave him a pointed look, but quickly returned her attention to Simon, who had started to walk to the chair she had pulled out. He stiffly sat beside the Witch, and his grip tightened on the pitcher as she placed her slender hand on his shoulder.

“Little Waverly's motivation. That's what you were,” she said. A slight pout appeared on the Witch's pink lips. “But Waverly can't seem to focus on what's important lately, so it would seem your job isn't quite done, little one.”

Waverly's eyes widened as the Witch's free hand slipped to one of the knives placed on the table. The sharp blade gleamed in the candlelight, and Simon whimpered as he was held in place. Before she could drag the edge across skin, however, Waverly stood from her chair, and the sound of its legs scraping against the floor drew the Witch's gaze back to her.

“I found a bone!”

“You what?”

The Witch's eyes gleamed, but Bobo's had darkened at Waverly's words.

“A bone,” Waverly repeated. “I Saw one today.” The knife wavered, so Waverly continued. “That's why I've spent the day in my quarters. I wasn't sulking,” she said, her eyes never leaving the Witch's. “The skull, it kept calling to me. It hasn't done that in months. I... thought it might be important.”

The Witch released her hold on Simon and shoved him away. “Of course it's important,” she said. “Why didn't you say something sooner, you little—”

“I wanted to be sure,” Waverly said, her heart racing in her chest. Her thoughts struggled to stay one step ahead of what she was saying. “The clues were harder to work out this time. Kind of vague. I wanted to double-check that they were right. That's why I didn't say anything.” She looked down at her fidgeting fingers. “I just... wanted to be sure.”

When she looked back up from her hands, the Witch was standing, and Simon had moved as from her as he could, circling back around the table to hide behind two servers far taller than himself. Bobo still watched her, suspicion darkening his eyes, but he hadn't stopped her yet.

“Did you figure them out then? The clues?” the Witch asked. “Where is he?”

“Through the mountains,” was the first thing she could think to say. “Just after the pass, when the road forks. The right fork is the one you want to take.” She desperately tried to remember the maps tucked away in her room. “The plains are so open up there, it was hard for me to figure out where it was exactly, but I remember a canyon was nearby. And the bone didn't seem far beneath the earth.”

The Witch turned her gaze to Bobo. “You heard her, Robert.”

“Yes, I did,” he said, his words sharper than usual. “If you recall, Constance, my scouts are still in the swamps in the south, digging up the other bone Waverly Saw. I can't very well send them north if they aren't here.” The Witch started to speak, but Bobo cut her off. “Do you think now is the best time to tell me to go on my own?”

The Witch scowled, but she shook her head and brushed the wrinkles out of her dress.

“Fine,” she said. “Then I will go in your stead with a handful of your guards, since you've obviously got your hands full here.” She glanced back at Waverly, but quickly returned her attention to Bobo. “I do hope you'll have things under control when I return.”

His brow furrowed. “You're leaving now?”

“Robert, my boys need me,” she said. “Besides, you know how I hate to waste my nights in this dreary castle. So dull and drafty.” She turned her attention to the servants who had gathered in the great hall. She pointed at the two taller servers Simon hid behind, and beckoned them forward. “Right then. You two there. You'll be taking my things out to my carriage.”

Even after the Witch and the two servants had left the great hall, Waverly's heart still thudded in her chest as she stared at the stone floor.

She had just lied to the Stone Witch.

The same Stone Witch who could restrain Waverly without lifting a finger, and who had been willing to cut into an innocent boy just to get the results she wanted.

And Waverly had just lied to her.

She clutched at her chest with her bandaged hand, hoping to calm herself, but her heart continued to beat out a quick rhythm. When a dark shadow fell over her, she looked up and found Bobo towering over her, a scowl on his face.

He kept his voice low as he said, “I hope the boy was worth the stunt you just pulled. You may have fooled Constance, but it won't take her long to realize what you've done.”

“I don't know what you're talking about.”

Waverly's voice shook slightly, and Bobo didn't remark on it, though she could still see he wasn't convinced.

“For your sake, you'd better actually find something before she returns because I can't protect you from her wrath. Not after you've insisted on making a spectacle of her like that.”

As she watched him leave through the gaping doorway, his long coat swaying behind him, she decided she would not be finding much of anything for them after Nicole and the others escaped.

Even if they stole her memories from her, she would make sure she couldn't help them ever again.

Once the last of the servers trickled out of the hall with their empty dishes in hand—Simon had been the first to leave, fleeing after the Witch had left—Waverly made the trek through twisting corridors and up winding stairs back to her quarters, where she could safely wait for the Stone Witch to depart.

After she shut the door behind her, Waverly's gaze drifted to the skull, and she crossed the room to the table it rested upon. She lifted it from the desk and stared into the dark hollows of its eye sockets. She had spent years building a connection with the damned thing after she learned how to scry. In some ways, the skull had been her only constant source of company. She set it back on the desk and turned it away from her while she waited.

The Witch's departure didn't take long.

With the promise of finding another part of her son, she couldn't leave the castle soon enough. Even through her shuttered window, Waverly could hear her shouting at the servants to load her luggage faster. Still, Waverly waited until she heard the groan of the gate as it was lifted to release her. Then she listened for the crank of the chain that lowered it back into place behind her. Once she heard that sound, she pushed herself up from the bed and began to put her plan into motion.

Gathering the supplies was easy enough, although it did require several trips from the storage room to one of the empty solar rooms closer to the dungeon. Several times, Waverly found herself ducking the guards as she carried bundled blankets and packs in her arms to the empty solar she had found suitable.

It was easier to gather the rations of food from the kitchen. The head cook knew it was hard for Waverly to find her appetite while the Witch visited, so when she showed up to gather what appeared to be small snacks to nibble on throughout the night, she was happy to let Waverly help herself.

She tried not to take too much, hoping to keep the cook's suspicion at bay, but she also had to think of how much food the three rebels would need during their escape. In the end, she made sure the cook wasn't looking, then swiped as much food as she could, and placed it into one of the packs she had smuggled in beneath her shirt.

Her last stop had been to see the healer, where he talked at her incessantly about the guards recent complaints of aches and pains, but she had only nodded along while she picked through the healing supplies that would be needed to keep Nicole's wounds clean. Her own bandaged hands made it believable that she only wished to have it for herself. Whenever it seemed he was about to question her, however, she would quickly turn his attention back to the guards and their complaints.

The hardest part had been finding a way to grab the magnesium without him seeing, but she had told him she hadn't been able to find sleep lately, and the man had grumbled to himself before stalking off to find something to help her with her troubles. While he was distracted, Waverly had quickly grabbed his small stepladder and placed it beneath the highest cabinet. As quietly as she could, she opened the cupboard and, after a quick scan of the minerals he kept there, she grabbed the jar with the one she needed.

She had nearly stumbled in her haste to get down from the stepladder, but she managed to slip the jar that held the magnesium into her bag of supplies just as the healer had turned around with a long, glass vial, warning her not to take too much, lest she wanted to slip into an eternal sleep, and she had nodded along to the warning as she took the vial in her hands. Then she had flashed him a smile and left, sneaking through the corridors back to the solar, where the rest of the supplies had been hidden.

Now she stood at the door to the kitchen once more, ready to enact the last half of her plan.

The vial she had been given by the healer was hidden away in the pocket of her breeches, and as she stepped into the kitchen, she could feel the container brushing against her thigh, reminding her that she was truly doing this. She managed to keep herself from shaking as she weaved through the kitchen and made her way to the head cook once more. After a quick conversation about the guards down in the dungeon, the woman sighed, but gestured for one of the servers to bring Waverly a tray.

“I trust you aren't getting yourself into trouble again, Miss,” the cook said as Waverly took the tray from the server. Waverly, wisely, didn't reply. The cook shook her head and turned back to the large pot she had been stirring. “There's a reason I never had children of my own, and you, Miss, are a reminder of why.”

Waverly grinned, which only made the cook sigh again.

After giving the cook a soft “thank you,” Waverly excused herself and slipped back through the workers. By the time she reached the door, her nerves had, thankfully, lessened significantly as she came to terms with what she was about to do. After one last, steadying breath, she left the kitchen and made her way to the dungeon.

When she reached the corner that turned into the hall, however, she paused and dug through her pocket to retrieve the vial she had been given. She studied it for only a moment before she let a few drops fall into each bowl of porridge she had been given.

Around the corner, she found that the same guard who had helped her with the fire was still stationed at the door to the dungeon. He smiled politely at her as she approached, though he seemed confused by the tray of food in her hands.

“For Miles and Luca,” she explained, returning the polite smile. “I've caused them a lot of trouble lately. I brought a peace offering, since they didn't get to leave for supper.” She shifted her weight and ducked her head, trying to look shy, before she said, “You're welcome to have some as well. For helping me with the tapestry fire.”

He shook his head. “Appreciate it, Miss, but I'm not hungry,” he said, and Waverly resisted the urge to groan at his words. “'Tween you and me, I got friends with some of the servers, and they brought some of the leftovers from supper for me. That damn cook sure knows how to roast a pig.” Waverly's grip tightened on the tray as she tried not to scowl. “Luca and Miles will like what you've brought them though. I'll take it down for you.”

She wanted to object—this had not been part of the plan—but she also didn't want to raise his suspicions, so she let the guard take the tray from her, and scowled as she watched him disappear behind the door to the dungeon. When the door creaked open again, he returned with an empty tray, which he returned to her waiting hands.

“They send their thanks, though they did wish you had sent some pastries down as well.”

Waverly tried to keep the frustration out of her voice as she said, “I'll keep that in mind next time.”

“If you do bring them some treats next time, I'll take you up on your offer.”

He winked, and Waverly grumbled, but she pressed the tray against her chest and started to walk back down the corridor, trying not to rush her steps. Once she turned the corner, she pressed her back against the wall and stared up at the ceiling. Of course the dungeon had to be protected by the one guard in the castle who was smart enough to be kind to the serving staff.

Now she had to think of a new way around him, since he hadn't taken any of the drugged food.

She sighed and looked down at the tray in her hands, the metal glittering in the torchlight.

There was an obvious way to take care of the guard, but it would be far more physical than her original plan, and she would need another reason to coax him into a more vulnerable position. As it was, she doubted she'd be able to get a good swing at him. She drummed her fingers against the tray and let her thoughts wander, hoping something would come to mind.

When an alternative did come to mind, Waverly frowned, but she didn't have time to think of anything else, so she swallowed her pride, bent down, and untied the laces of her boots. She straightened once the laces rested loosely on the stone floor, and clutched the tray against her chest. She tried not to think about the slim chances of her plan actually working as she stepped back into the corridor and hurried down the hall.

Once she was close enough to the guard, she braced herself, then let herself fall. Her knees scraped against the stone, and she let the tray clatter to the floor, not far from where she fell. She hissed to herself as she got back to her feet. The sound of footsteps approaching almost made her smile as she pretended to struggle with the laces of her boots.

“Miss Waverly,” the guard said as he approached her side, “are you alright?”

“I'm fine,” she said, though she made sure her voice sounded slightly strained. “Really, I'm okay. I guess I was in too much of a hurry.” She sniffled, and wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. “I'll be okay.”

“Are you sure?” She nodded, only to fumble with the laces of her boots a moment later. A soft hand on her shoulder made her look up from her task. “Let me help you with that.”

“Really?” she asked, and he smiled. “Thank you. It's just, the bandages make it hard with the laces, and I really need to get back to the kitchen, and—”

“Don't worry about it, Miss Waverly,” he said, cutting her off. “Just gimme some space, and we'll have those boots laced again in no time.”

Waverly sniffled again and gave him a weak smile of her own before she straightened her posture, picking up the tray as she stood.

She bit her lip as she watched him lace her boots, before she said, “I'm sorry.”

“For what?”

“For this.” She brought the tray down on his head with a heavy thud, and he fell to the side, startled from the blow. He groaned, and Waverly's eyes widened as she realized he was still conscious. “Shit! I'm really sorry.”

Then she brought the tray down on his head again, the second blow knocking him out as she had intended. Waverly sighed in relief when he didn't get back up again, but she still had to get him out of the hall.

She slipped her arms beneath his to lift him, only to find that he was far heavier than Nicole when she couldn't lift him high enough to lean him against her chest. She sighed, and gently rested him back on the floor.

That only left one other option.

Even dragging the guard the short distance to the dungeon by his feet left Waverly panting for breath, and she grunted as she pushed the door open. Luckily, when it closed again, the door managed to miss the guard's head. The steps were a different matter, and Waverly found herself muttering soft apologies each time the back of his head smacked against the stone. She was grateful when they finally reached the bottom of the stairs and she was able to drag him into one of the empty cells, though she imagined the guard would awake with a throbbing headache.

Once the guard was settled, Waverly looked towards the rickety table where Luca and Miles usually gambled away their earnings, and she found them slumped over in their chairs, the sleeping tonic coursing through them. In the other cells, Fish and Levi watched her with wide eyes as she approached the drugged guards and dragged them the same way she had the guard from upstairs.

After she had them all in the cell, she pulled the loop of keys off of the belt around Miles's waist. She closed the door behind her and turned the key in the lock until she heard the click. She shared a look with Fish and Levi before she focused her attention on the cell she had been avoiding.

Nicole.

Brown eyes watched her as she unlocked her cell and stepped inside. Waverly flipped through the keys and only approached Nicole when she found the one to the manacles. When she tried to unlock the irons clasped around Nicole's wrist, however, Nicole only pulled her hand away from her.

“What are you doing?” Despite the chattering of her teeth, there was a hardness to Nicole's words. Waverly shook her head, and reached for the manacle, only to have the wrist jerked away from her again. “I asked what you were doing.”

“I'm helping you.”

Nicole was quiet for a moment before she said, “I don't want your help.”

“Well, I don't have time to argue with you,” Waverly said, before she fumbled with the keys once more. Once she had the one she needed, she wrapped her hand around Nicole's forearm to hold it in place, then unlocked the manacle around the raw wrist. “I know you're angry with me—and for good reason—but I believe I've told you once before that your stubbornness is only going to hurt you.”

Nicole glared at her, but winced a moment later when Waverly gently lowered her arm to her side, her muscles most likely stiff from the position they had been kept in.

“You told me a lot of things,” she said, “but there were a lot of things you hid from me, too.”

“And I am truly sorry for that, and for everything else I've done, but now is not the time to be angry with me about it.”

When Waverly tried to unlock the other manacle, Nicole was able to tug her hand away from her wrist. Waverly took a deep breath, and finally met Nicole's gaze.

“Will you please let me do this?”

“Why?” Nicole asked. “So you can ease your conscience about getting us trapped down here? So I won't hate you?” She scowled and said, “Give me one good reason I should trust you after what you did, Waverly. For all I know, you're leading us right into—”

“Please!” The desperation in her own voice surprised even Waverly, but she was past the point of caring. “Nicole, I'm not asking for forgiveness. You can hate me for the rest of your life if you want—I don't care—but please don't make me watch you die again.” She held Nicole's gaze as she said, “I put this part of your story into motion. All I'm asking is that you let me change the ending to the one you deserve.”

Slowly, the grip on her wrist loosened, and the hardness in Nicole's eyes softened slightly, giving Waverly a glimpse of warm, brown eyes. Seeing that she had Nicole's permission, she twisted the key in the lock to the irons, and Nicole breathed a sigh of relief as she was finally able to let her muscles relax. While she was reacquainted with the sensation of freedom, Waverly stood up and left Nicole's cell so she could unlock the others.

Although they still watched her with suspicion in their eyes, Fish and Levi didn't struggle as much as Nicole had when Waverly unlocked their chains. The manacles dropped to the floor, and the two of them rubbed their wrists as the cold air hit the raw skin that had been left behind.

Waverly had just told them to put on the guard uniforms when she remembered she had locked the door to the other cell in her haste to get to Nicole. She cursed under her breath, and left Fish and Levi so she could unlock the cell that held the guards again. As she slid the key back into the lock, her hands trembled, the nerves from earlier returning.

This was the last part of her plan.

In theory, it would be the simplest part as well, but worry gnawed at Waverly's stomach. If they were caught now, everything she had done would have been for nothing. She shook those thoughts from her head and opened the door.

While Levi and Fish changed into the guard uniforms, Waverly returned to Nicole's side. She slipped her arm around her waist and gently helped her to her feet. When she stepped away, Nicole swayed where she stood, but put up a hand to stop Waverly from coming to help her.

“This won't work if I can't walk, Waverly,” Nicole said. “Just... let me try.”

Waverly watched as Nicole took several shaky steps forward, but stumbled near the door. She caught herself on the bars to stop from falling. Then, gritting her teeth, she used the bar she clung to and straightened herself again. The next steps she took were far from graceful, but she didn't stumble as she walked to the cell where Fish and Levi were changing. Waverly followed close behind her, in case she needed more support.

It was a three person job to get Nicole into the last guard's uniform, and all of them were panting by the time she was dressed. With everyone in their disguises, Waverly locked the cell that held the guards again, and they turned their attention to the next obstacle that stood in their way.

The stairs.

Waverly didn't know how Nicole had any energy left after changing into the uniform, but she struggled her way up the stairs with the help of Levi and Fish, Waverly trailing behind them in case she stumbled back. Several times, Waverly surged forward to catch her, though it caused Nicole to bite back a gasp every time the wound on her back was touched. When they finally made it through the door, there was a collective sigh of relief, but the moment of respite was over far too quickly.

The trek to the solar where Waverly had stashed the supplies was a long one, despite the nearness of the room Waverly had chosen. There were several stops that had to be made so Nicole could rest against Fish and regain her breath. When they finally reached the room, Waverly ushered them inside and closed the door behind them. While Fish and Levi started to shoulder some of the packs she had prepared, Waverly guided Nicole to one of the lounge chairs and eased her into it so she could truly rest for a moment.

Nicole watched her for a moment, her eyes dropping to Waverly's fidgeting fingers, then asked, “What's wrong?”

“Nothing's wrong,” Waverly said. “Just... there's one thing I have to ask you.” Nicole waited patiently—or maybe she was just too tired to snap at her—and Waverly glanced over her shoulder for a moment, before kneeling at Nicole's side. “When you all leave, there's something I need you to take.”

Nicole's brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“It's hard to explain, but there's a skull. If you take it, they won't be able to use it to find the bones anymore,” Waverly explained. “I know it's dangerous, and I won't force you to take it, but Nicole, if the skull stays here, the Witch will still be able to find the pieces she needs. All you'd need to do is hide it somewhere she can't find it.”

“No, I understand that. I mean, as well as I can, I guess.” She tilted her head. “You're not coming with us?”

Waverly opened her mouth, but quickly shut it a moment later, surprised by the question.

“If I go with you, Robert will never stop looking for you.” She shook her head. “No, I'm staying here. I'm not going to make you an even bigger target by coming with you.”

Nicole was quiet for a moment, seeming to collect her thoughts. When she spoke again, her voice was soft, the way it had been the day they had talked about the ocean, and Waverly hadn't realized how much she had missed the sound.

“They're going to know you helped us escape.”

“I know that.”

“And what? You're going to talk your way out of trouble?” Nicole asked. “Waverly, I know you're special to Robert, but what you're doing... There isn't a way to talk yourself out of it.”

Waverly pushed herself back onto her feet and avoided looking Nicole in the eyes.

“Will you please just take the skull, Nicole?” she asked. “Get it as far away from here as you can,” she said. A thought struck her a moment later, and she added, “But don't go north.”

“What's in the north?”

“The Witch,” Waverly said, and she couldn't hold back the shudder that ran through her. “It was the first place I could think to send her. I'm sorry.”

Any response Nicole could have had was interrupted when Levi said they were ready to go. The packs had been arranged so the blankets were rolled up beneath them, though Fish carried another attached at the top of his pack for Nicole. The uniform and the cloaks that covered them gave them the appearance of the scouts Bobo usually sent on patrol. They would also keep them warm throughout their journey to whatever town they chose to travel to, and the fact that her plan actually appeared to be working eased some of the tension in Waverly's chest as she walked over to one last container she had stashed in the room.

It was a glass jar filled with water. Within it was a smaller vial, holding a chunk of the magnesium she had pilfered from the healer's cabinet.

“Once you're outside, I'm going to disable the gate,” Waverly said. “It will buy you some time to get further away before they come after you.”

Levi studied the jar with wide eyes. “What's that do, exactly?”

“Well, it makes a very loud and very destructive blast,” Waverly said, “and if I set it off in the gearbox, it will stop them from raising the gate again after you've left.”

Fish tilted his head to the side. “Where's someone learn how to do a thing like that?”

“I wanted to learn how to make dragon's fire when I was younger.”

Waverly left them again, and returned to Nicole's side. She slipped under Nicole's arm and helped her stand again. When she stepped away, Nicole swayed less, but Waverly could still see the exhaustion weighing on her limbs.

They were in the last stretch of the plan, though.

Soon, Nicole would be back with her friends where she belonged, getting the rest she so desperately needed.

“Waverly.” Nicole's voice shook her from her thoughts. “I'll take it with me. The skull, I mean.”

A heavy weight slipped from Waverly's shoulders, and she breathed a sigh of relief.

“Thank you.”

Then they left the solar to continue their journey.

The walk to the front of the castle was just as slow as the one to the solar room, and the longer they spent within the castle walls, the harder Waverly's heart thudded in her chest. The second set of stairs they climbed to the main level had left Nicole winded, and perspiration beaded on her forehead as she pushed herself forward. Several times they found themselves ducking into empty rooms to avoid the guards that roamed the halls, which gave them a moment of rest, but also stole precious time.

Before they entered the main hall, the rebels pulled the hoods of the cloaks over their heads, and Waverly trailed behind them. The large doors that led to the courtyard were so close, but with each step, it felt as if they moved further away, and Waverly found herself taking deep breaths to calm her nerves as they walked through the open hall.

Even when they reached the large doors that led to the courtyard, she couldn't relax. The guards that waited by the entrance made sweat sting her palms as they approached. Whatever conversation they had with Fish was muffled, drowned out by the sound of her pounding heart, and the creak of the door opening startled her. It seemed the disguises had worked, and Fish had managed to sound convincing enough.

Waverly started to follow them outside, but one of the guards placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Ah, ah, ah, Miss Waverly,” he said. “Where d'ya think you're going?”

“I...” Her gaze darted to Nicole and the others. Panic blossomed in her chest, but she pushed it down and forced herself to focus. Her eyes drifted to Fish's scruffy face, and Waverly said the first thing that came to mind. “I wanted to say goodbye to him.”

She nodded towards Fish, whose eyes widened. The guards shared a look, and Waverly used their moment of distraction to wiggle out of the guard's grasp and step outside. Once she was at Fish's side, she slipped her hand into his, looking up at him with adoration her eyes. The look he gave her in return was far from flattering.

“Just pretend,” she hissed through her bared teeth, and Fish quickly softened his features as realization dawned on him. Waverly reached up and ran her hand through his dark locks of hair, which had grown shaggy during his time in the cell, then turned back to face the guards. “Please, may I escort him to the gates? I'll come right back.”

Waverly didn't wait for an answer, and tugged Fish behind her into the courtyard. Nicole and Levi followed her quick pace, Nicole leaning heavily against Levi's side. The fresh air outside helped Waverly regain her focus, and as they approached the gate, she had begun to relax. Fish repeated the conversation he'd had with the guards at the door, though this time, Waverly was at his side, staring up at him with a sweet smile as she held his hand. His own grip around hers was tight, but Waverly understood his discomfort.

While one of the guards began to raise the gate, the other guard nodded towards Nicole and Levi. “That one don't look like he's gonna be much help to you.”

“Few too many drinks, this one,” Levi said from her side, and Waverly watched as Nicole narrowed her eyes at Levi. “He'll be alright,” he continued. “Jus' needs to walk off some of the drink.”

The guard raised an eyebrow, but only shook his head.

After the gate had been raised, Waverly turned her attention back to Fish, keeping the sweet smile plastered on her face.

“Stay safe out there, love, and come back to me.”

She leaned up on her toes and pressed a kiss against Fish's scratchy cheek. When she pulled away, Fish's face had been flooded with red.

“You, too,” was his squeaked response.

The two guards looked at Fish with pity, and one of them told him he hoped he died out in the field.

“It'll be a kinder, swifter death than whatever His Grace does to you if he finds out 'bout the two of you,” he said when he saw Fish's stricken expression. “But, good luck.”

The tension that had rested between Waverly's shoulder blades dissipated as she watched the rebels walk beneath the gate. When Nicole looked over her shoulder, however, she felt an ache in her chest, and tears pricked at her eyes. She sniffled, and wiped them away, but the ache in her chest remained.

It would be the last time she saw Nicole.

After the Witch returned, she wouldn't even remember her, and that thought hurt more than the realization she would never see her again.

“Don't be sad, Miss Waverly,” one of the guards said. “We was just kiddin' about His Grace findin' out 'bout the two of you. We won't tell 'im, and I'm sure that lad of yours will do just fine out there.”

“Thank you,” Waverly said, and gave Nicole a weak smile.

It should have been the last.

It should have been a final goodbye, one that she could hold onto in the days to come, before her memories were taken from her.

But then the clang of bells filled the air, and Waverly's chest tightened.

The alarm.

Chaos filled the courtyard as the guards from the doors to the castle rushed outside. The guard who had just spoken so kindly to her now had a tight grip on her arm while his partner engaged with Fish and Levi.

Then the grip on her arm was gone, and she looked beside her to find Nicole, a shaky grip on the sword she had just plunged into the stomach of the guard who had held Waverly. Even beneath the hood, Waverly could clearly see the sweat that soaked Nicole's forehead from the effort of lunging at the guard. Their eyes met, and Waverly saw the plea behind the look before Nicole spoke.

“Come with us.”

Waverly knew she should refuse. She had so much to pay for. Whatever atrocities Bobo had committed, she had helped him. She deserved whatever awaited her.

But Nicole's eyes were so soft, despite what Waverly had done.

Waverly looked over her shoulder one last time at the castle she had called home, only to catch a glimpse of Bobo's hulking figure amongst the guards rushing them. Her eyes widened, and she helped Nicole wrench the sword free from the guard she had buried it in so she could get away.

Once Nicole was past the gate, Waverly dug in her pocket for the jar, and yelled as she threw it at the gearbox. The resulting blast made her stumble backwards, but she caught herself before she could fall. The screech of the gate plummeting to the ground reached her ears, and Waverly raced to get beneath it before it hit the ground. It slammed shut just as she stumbled beneath it, locking the guards within the castle walls. Levi helped her up and pushed her forward, and the two of them joined Nicole, who was leaning heavily against Fish.

Cold air stung Waverly's throat as they started for the edge of the forest. They had nearly reached the tree line when a deep yell sent a shiver down her spine. Waverly glanced over her shoulder, and saw Bobo atop the wall, a long javelin in his hand. There was another shout that filled the air as he threw the spear, followed by the sharp whistle of the spearhead cutting through the air.

She hit the ground hard, and struggled to breathe as blood stained the fresh blanket of snow that surrounded her.

The safety of the treeline taunted her, only an arm's length away.

Chapter Text

“We have to go back!”

Fish's voice echoed through the cave, and Waverly watched as he paced in front of Nicole, who sat with her back propped against the wall.

“Nic, please.”

Waverly winced at the desperation in Fish's voice, and she curled her knees toward her chest as the memory of the botched escape bombarded her thoughts.

Everything had been fine, until the alarm split the stillness of the night and raised the guards' suspicion, shattering any hope of a peaceful escape. But even amidst the rush to get past the gate, Nicole had come back for her. She had looked at her so softly then, like she was still deserving of a second chance, and every defense Waverly had built—every reason she had created to stay behind—had slipped away.

So she ran.

She ran, and Levi had paid the price for her cowardice.

Waverly's throat constricted at the memory. She shouldn't have run. She should have stayed behind like she had planned. Maybe Bobo would have been satisfied to know he still had her in his possession. But she hadn't stayed, and now Levi was dead, a spear that had been meant for her piercing his back.

He had saved her.

At first, she thought the spear had actually struck her, but it had been the force of Levi's body plowing into her that had knocked her to the ground, and the collision with the earth had stolen the breath from her lungs. She could only gasp for air as a wet warmth spread over her side, the blood from Levi's wound staining her shirt and the powdery snow beside them. The rattle of his last breath had echoed in her ears, but Bobo's anger soon followed, Waverly's name tearing from his lips again.

Fish had appeared at her side and pulled Levi's body off of her, and his voice had been strained as he continued to say Levi's name like a prayer. But Levi was gone, and arrows had begun to rain down on them from the castle walls, forcing them to flee into the safety of the thick forest.

“We can't just leave him there. Nic, I... I know he's gone,” he said, “but we can't just leave him out there for Robert and his men. He doesn't deserve that.”

“You think I want that?” Nicole asked, her voice tight, though Waverly couldn't tell if it was from her exhaustion, or her emotions. “I'm sorry, Fish, but if we go back there, we're dead. Even with the gate down, they still have archers, and I'm sure by now they've already gathered the ladders to get down from the walls.” She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the wall of the cave. “They may not have the use of their horses with the gate down, but it won't be long before they're combing the forest for us. Our only chance now—if we even have one—is the time Waverly bought for us with the gate.”

Fish's shoulders sagged as the finality of Nicole's words struck home. “A lot of good that did Levi.”

Waverly heard Nicole sigh beside her as Fish walked away. He settled near the wall opposite from them, and he kept his sad gaze fixed on the small sliver of forest that could be seen just beyond the dark mouth of the cave. His thoughts, most likely, were with the man they had left behind.

A light touch on her shoulder startled Waverly, and when she looked over, she saw Nicole's hand resting there. She lifted her gaze from the hand on her shoulder, and found Nicole regarding her. Sweat-soaked bangs clung to her forehead, and dark circles colored the too-pale skin beneath her eyes.

“I know what you're thinking,” she said, her voice soft, “but what happened to Levi... That wasn't your fault.”

Waverly shook her head, and her voice was no louder than a whisper as she said, “I should have stayed.”

“And what good would that have done?”

“Levi would still be here,” she said. “There wouldn't be a target on your backs.”

“Levi knew what he was doing,” Nicole said. “And we're part of the resistance, Waverly. We were going to be targets whether you ran with us or not. Though, I suppose we may have caused Robert quite a bit more grief by bringing you along.”

“Is that why you came back for me?” Waverly asked, bitterness staining her voice. “To cause him grief?”

Nicole sighed. “Is that what you think?”

She wrapped her arms around her knees. “I don't know what to think, Nicole.”

A chill ran down her spine as she remembered the anger that had filled Bobo's voice—no, Robert's—before he hurled the spear from the wall. For years, she had helped him find the bones, and he had taught her so much in return. She had grown to care for him, finding in him some semblance of the family she couldn't remember, and she had thought he cared for her as well.

But he had tried to kill her.

“Do you know what I think?” Nicole asked, and Waverly turned her head to look at her again. “I think you need to get some sleep.”

“I don't know if I can.”

“Try,” Nicole said. “We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow, and who knows how many hard days to follow. You need to rest. We all do.”

Waverly considered the words.

Slowly, she uncurled her legs away from her chest and got to her feet to retrieve the blankets from the pack at the back of the small cave. It was the only one that had survived the escape from the castle. The other was still strapped to Levi's back, pinned there by the spear Bobo had thrown. Waverly's hands shook as she unlaced the blankets. It took a moment of fumbling, but once the blankets were free, she limped over to Fish, who took the one she offered without a word, a distant expression on his face.

She made her way back to Nicole's side, where she laid the heavy blanket over her torso so the edge rested against her chest. Nicole mumbled her thanks, and she carefully lowered herself to the ground to rest on her side. When Waverly started to settle against the wall again, further away this time, Nicole's voice interrupted.

“Waverly, come here.” Waverly paused to look at her, and found that she had lifted the edge of the blanket. Seeing her surprise, Nicole tilted her head. “Unless you really wanted to freeze tonight.”

Recognizing the offer for what it was, Waverly moved closer to Nicole and slipped under the blanket so they could share its warmth. She kept a gap between them, uncertain of how comfortable Nicole was with her being so close. Though she had slipped beneath the furs several times in the cell to help keep Nicole warm, it felt different now. The pain of what she had done rested in the space between, and whatever familiarity that had grown between them was gone, shattered by the knowledge that she had told Bobo—no, she had told Robert—about them.

Waverly squeezed her eyes shut.

Nicole was right.

If they hoped for any chance of surviving, they needed to rest when they could, and Waverly couldn't do that if she dwelled on her past mistakes every night. So she pushed those thoughts aside, and focused on the future that awaited them as she tried to let sleep come to her.


Darkness surrounded her, painting the thatch houses of the empty village in shadows. Doors hung sideways from the frames of the houses, if they were attached at all. Some had been torn clean off, and thrown to the ground. The stillness that filled the area sent a chill up her spine, and she scanned the dusty road for any sign of life, but there was nothing, not even the whisper of the wind blowing through the tall grass growing between the houses, or the buzz of insects despite the warm season.

She took slow steps forward, her gaze gliding from one home to the next in search of life. Just past the threshold of one of the houses—its door torn from the hinges—she saw a dark, red stain on the wooden floor, and scratch marks marring the doorway, but a sudden screech split the air before she could examine it more closely.

The sound brought her to her knees, and she clamped her hands over her ears. Her entire body trembled, and she stared at the ground with wide eyes as the piercing scream threatened to rupture her eardrums. Gritting her teeth, she forced herself to lift her gaze from the ground.

Through the dark shadows, at the outskirts of the village, she could see two pale figures lumbering towards her. They were larger than anyone Waverly had ever seen, and their hulking bodies walked with a disturbing slowness, but she found herself unable to move. When they approached, she could hear a distinct crunching sound, and something that resembled a finger dangled from the lips of one of the figures. Waverly's stomach turned, but she couldn't look away, even as their slow steps stopped in front of her.

A cold sweat broke over her skin when a meaty hand wrapped around her upper arm and lifted her from the ground, bringing her inches from the figure's snarling face, its bared teeth stained red.


Nicole cracked open her eyes, woken from her light sleep by the sound of small whimpers beside her. Slowly, she moved forward, and placed her hand on Waverly's shoulder, surprised to feel the small frame beneath her palm trembling. She gritted her teeth and pulled herself closer. When she turned Waverly so she rested on her back instead of her side, she found that the other woman was still asleep, trapped in the throes of a nightmare.

“Waverly,” she whispered. “Waverly, wake up.”

But another whimper was the only response.

Nicole moved her hand so it rested on Waverly's forehead, where the skin was slick with sweat despite the cold. A soft groan reached Nicole's ears, and Waverly's breathing quickened. Again, Nicole called Waverly's name, louder this time, but there was no reaction. Nicole gently shook her, but the outcome was the same. Waverly remained asleep, and the whimpers continued. Nicole frowned, unsure of what to do.

If she were honest with herself, she hadn't been sure of what to do since they had left the castle. The mad dash through the forest had been closer to a scramble, all thoughts of following a specific route ruined when the alarm had sounded at the castle gate and Robert had been made aware of their escape. The cave had been found by accident, when she had stumbled over thick tree roots, her legs too heavy for her to lift any longer even with help from Fish and Waverly. It had forced them to stop and rest.

While she was frustrated with herself for slowing them down, the respite had given them time to observe their surroundings, rather than stumbling through them in a panicked blur. Waverly had found the slanted mouth of the cave, obscured by rocks, and the branches of a fallen tree. It had taken some maneuvering, but they had managed to climb over the tree and beneath the outcropping, though the effort had exhausted the last of her energy.

Then Fish had wanted to go back and retrieve Levi's body, and Nicole hadn't known how to tell him she doubted she could climb out of the cave again, let alone make the dangerous trek back to the castle. She had hoped sleep would restore some of her strength, but with Waverly whimpering beside her, it seemed she wouldn't be getting much more. The fear that she would only slow them down again in the morning plagued her, but that was a problem to face in the light of day.

The one in front of her now took precedence.

Nicole rubbed her thumb over Waverly's clammy forehead, hoping to chase away the furrow in her brow, and she felt her shiver beneath the touch. Whatever the nightmare was, it had a firm grasp on Waverly and would not let her awaken, so the most she could do was what her mother had always done for her and her sister to chase away their bad dreams.

Nicole lowered herself to the rocky floor once more, closing the gap between them. She moved her hand from Waverly's forehead, and placed her palm upon her stomach instead, hoping the contact would provide something to ground her, wherever her mind had taken her. She muttered soft, soothing words. They were nonsensical, but she hoped the sound of her voice would break the spell the nightmare had on Waverly, the way her mother's had for her when she was younger.

Gradually, she felt Waverly's body relax beneath her hand, and Nicole's words became less frequent. Just as she started to drift off, however, Waverly jerked awake, pulling the blanket with her when she quickly sat up.

Nicole groaned, the promise of rest slipping away from her.

Waverly's breathing slowed, and after she calmed down, she looked down at Nicole, an apologetic expression on her face.

“I'm sorry,” she said, her voice scratchy from sleep. “I didn't mean to wake you.”

“Wasn't asleep anymore,” Nicole replied, unable to keep her frustration from her words. While Waverly lay back against the ground, Nicole asked, “Was it another vision?”

Waverly shook her head. “No. Just a nightmare.”

“Are you sure?” Nicole asked. “I couldn't wake you.”

“I'm sure,” she said. “Visions feel different.”

“How so?”

“It's... hard to explain. The visions always have this strange pressure that comes with them,” she said. “When I was younger, the headaches they caused would leave me bedridden for a day or two, but as I got older, the pressure became less intense, and I'd at least be able to function after.”

It was getting harder for Nicole to follow the conversation as her eyelids drooped. The familiar lilt of Waverly's voice, along with the exhaustion that clung to her, was lulling her back to sleep, but the memory of Waverly collapsing in front of her drifted to the front of her mind. “So that day in the cell—”

“Was the first time that has happened in years.”

Nicole hummed, unable to form a more articulate response as she succumbed to the sleep that she so desperately needed.

When she woke again, it was to the chill of the morning air, and the warmth of Waverly's body beside her. It took a moment for her head to clear itself of the sleepy fog, but when it did, she pulled her hand away from Waverly's stomach, and slowly shifted into a sitting position. She clenched her jaw when she felt the familiar, annoying pain of the wound across her back, and she used the wall for support as she shakily got to her feet.

Waverly stood as well, and when Nicole swayed, quick hands were on her hips to steady her. They pulled away once Nicole found her balance, and Waverly crouched to roll the blanket they had used. At the back of the cave, Fish was checking the contents of the remaining pack, taking stock of the supplies that had survived. Beside him, his blanket had already been rolled and laced, ready to be tied to the bottom of the pack. Once he was done rummaging through the supplies, he sighed and stood up. When he reached Nicole's side, she could see the sadness that lurked in his eyes.

“We're in a tough spot,” he said. “Half the provisions were in the other pack. We should still do okay if we're careful with what we have. But Nic, the supplies for your wound... They were in Levi's pack.” His voice cracked around Levi's name, and his eyes glistened. Beside them, Waverly's hands stilled at the revelation. “I'm sorry, Nicole.”

It wasn't news she had wanted to wake up to—the salve Waverly had put across her back had always soothed the angry gash, and she didn't want to think about the new risk of infection—but there was nothing they could do about the pack that had been lost to them.

All they could do was move forward, wherever that led them.

“I guess we'll have to move fast then,” she said. “Ruthie will have supplies at camp. We just need to make it there.”

“Nic.”

But Nicole ignored him, and took slow steps towards the ledge that rose up to meet the opening of the cave, where the trunk of the fallen tree they had climbed to get inside taunted her. Soft footsteps followed her, and it wasn't long before Waverly was at her side, Nicole's cloak in hand. When she offered it, Nicole shook her head.

“Keep it,” she said. Waverly started to object, but Nicole cut her off. “You don't have anything to keep you warm. I've got a full uniform. It itches a little, but it's warm enough.” When it looked like she was still going to argue, Nicole said, “Waverly, I'm not going to let you freeze to death, especially not after last night!”

She hadn't meant to sound angry, but the news about the healing supplies and the thought of climbing out of the cave had put her on edge, and though she hadn't shown it as openly as Fish, Levi's death weighed heavily on her. She sighed, and rubbed the back of her neck.

“Please, just wear the cloak.”

Waverly wordlessly fastened the cloak around her neck, and Nicole tried not to feel guilty about hurting her feelings. When Fish joined them, Nicole supposed it was useless to put off climbing out of the cave any longer.

Waverly climbed first, though she had to stand on the tips of her toes to reach the lowest of the branches that hung over the side of the ledge. Her feet kicked the empty air until they gained purchase against the earth, and she started to climb her way out. Nicole watched as she scrambled along the branches until she slipped out of sight. A soft 'oomph' was heard, but soon after, Waverly peeked her head over the trunk, which meant it was Nicole's turn.

She stretched for one of the low hanging branches. Once she had a tight grip, she gritted her teeth and started the climb she had been dreading. Steady hands on her hips helped her lift herself, but the wound in her shoulder still burned at the exertion. Beads of sweat already started to trickle from her forehead, and her hands shook, but she reached up and grabbed hold of the next branch.

One at at time.

All she had to do was climb over the tree, one branch at a time.

Fish's hands slipped from her hips and pushed against her booted feet instead. She surged forward to grab the next branch. The cold air greeted her as she peeked her head out of the cave, and a light dusting of snow still covered the top of the tree trunk. More flakes floated down from the grey sky, and she blinked as several landed near her eyes. She nearly slipped, but the grip on her legs held her steady, and she reached for the next branch.

Keep moving forward.

She was panting by the time her stomach slid across the top of the trunk, but with the end in sight, she gritted her teeth and used the branch in her hands for support to pull her dangling legs the rest of the way onto the tree trunk, only to slide forward a moment later from the ice hidden beneath the snow. Waverly caught her before she could hit the ground, and Nicole groaned as Waverly stepped backwards. The movement gave her enough room to bring her legs the rest of the way over the tree, but it also jarred the wound in her shoulder.

Still, she was out of the cave and over the tree, which was one less problem to worry about.

Nicole leaned against the tree trunk to rest, her body trembling from the effort, and Fish passed the pack and blankets up to Waverly. While she tied the blankets to the pack, Fish hauled himself up with an ease Nicole envied. Wordlessly, he took the pack from Waverly's hands and settled it on his back.

Though he seemed to prefer the comfort of his own company for the time being, he kept his pace slow enough that Nicole wouldn't fall too far behind. Waverly limped beside her, occasionally pressing a hand against the small of Nicole's back to keep her steady whenever her steps began to falter. She was quiet though, and Nicole suspected the conversation in the cave had had something to do with it.

“About what I said earlier,” Nicole started. “It didn't come out right.”

Waverly's voice was soft as she replied, “No, I knew what you meant.”

Nicole's brow furrowed. “You did?”

Waverly nodded.

“Oh,” Nicole said. “Well, I'm glad you understood, then.”

“Yeah.”

Silence followed the short conversation. The powdery snow that had swept over the ground in the night muffled their slow footsteps, and the quiet amplified the rest of the forest—the chirping of the birds that braved the winter cold, the chattering of a squirrel as it darted across the trees to get back home. Large flakes drifted down from the grey sky, melting against Nicole's cheeks, catching on Waverly's cloak, and joining those that already blanketed the ground. Her thoughts drifted back to the night they had been ambushed.

It had been snowing then, too.

It somehow felt fitting that it should be snowing again during her first morning of freedom, though she wasn't quite sure why.

Beside her, Waverly stumbled. She quickly regained her footing, but Nicole saw the wince of pain that flashed across her face.

“You're limping,” Nicole said. “Did that happen last night?”

Waverly shook her head. “Two nights ago,” she said. “I climbed out my window, but one of my blankets ripped, so my landing was rougher than I expected.”

Nicole blinked. “You did what?”

“Climbed out my window?”

She studied Waverly for a moment, making note of her short stature. Although Nicole hadn't gotten a great look at the castle as she was being dragged into it or while she was fleeing from it, she had still seen the height of the lowest window. She was about to ask her what had possessed her to do that, when she saw Waverly wince again.

“Are you sure you're okay?”

Waverly nodded. “Too much weight on the wrong foot.”

Nicole quietly accepted the answer, though her thoughts still lingered on the image of Waverly climbing along the castle walls. Her companion was full of surprises, it would appear, although not all of them had been pleasant to discover.

As they pressed on through the forest, no clear destination in mind, Nicole found herself leaning more and more heavily against Waverly. Every step seemed to take more effort than the last, and sent a jolt of pain along her back. Ahead of them, Fish paused whenever he realized he had gotten too far ahead of them, and he'd wait for them to gain ground so they wouldn't lose track of him in the trees.

There were several moments when Nicole would hear a quiet gasp from Waverly, and see the wince that followed. Each time it happened, the less Nicole believed the excuse about her ankle.

When the haze of the midday sun could be seen behind the grey clouds, they took a moment to rest, and split some of their meager rations between them. While Nicole slowly chewed the salted jerky Fish had handed her, she watched as Waverly only nibbled on the portion she had been handed, then tucked the rest of it away.

It was hard to start moving again after the brief respite. Nicole's muscles were sore from lack of use, and they protested at the movement. Despite the steady thrum of pain that traveled along her back with each unsteady step, she pressed forward with Fish and Waverly, afraid to linger too long with the threat of Robert's men stalking them.

Throughout the day, Waverly continued to keep Nicole's pace, though she would occasionally fall behind, or lose her footing, and when Nicole would ask again if she was okay, she would only wave her off, or mention the ankle she favored.

Dusk fell around them, turning the trees into shadows, their bare branches skeletal in the low light. Waverly's hand trembled against Nicole's back, and her eyes were wide as she scanned the spaces between the trees. Fish had disappeared from sight with the hope of finding a place to sleep for the night. Worry gnawed at Nicole's stomach until he returned from the shadows, and approached them for the first time all day to tell them about the thicket he had found. Nicole and Waverly followed him until they came upon the shelter hidden amongst the bare trees.

It was small, but the bushes were interlaced so densely that very little snow covered the ground beneath the arcing branches. What little did reach the ground was covered by thick boughs from a pine tree, courtesy of Fish. Twigs snagged at Nicole's clothing as she crouched beneath the arch of the thicket. The pine needles were sharp against her palms as she lowered herself to the ground, but at least they kept her dry. Waverly sat beside her in the cramped space, and Fish squeezed in last.

“Sorry it's not bigger,” Fish said as he unlaced the blankets from the pack. “Didn't see any other caves. This was the best I could do.”

“It's okay, Fish.

She hadn't expected their luck to hold out long enough for them to find another cave anyway, and the overhanging branches provided cover from the snow that continued to fall from the cloudy skies, keeping them dry. She did wish they could build a fire, but without knowing how close Robert's men were, it would be too great a risk. The insulation from the pine branches and their body heat would have to be enough.

Fish passed one of the blankets to Nicole, and she covered both her legs and Waverly's with it, since Waverly appeared to be lost in thought. He dug through the pack, and pulled out the hard bread and cheese for them to split. When Nicole held it in front of Waverly, she took it with a soft 'thank you,' but didn't say much else, her thoughts returning to wherever they had been as she absently ate the rations she had been offered.

Once they had finished the meal and agreed on their watch shifts, Nicole slowly lowered herself to the ground, wincing as the pine needles pricked the small patches of skin the uniform left exposed. Waverly soon followed her lead and lay beside her as she had done the night before.

As Nicole drifted towards sleep, a spark of hope ignited in her chest.

They had survived their first day in the forest.


The ground scraped against her legs as the figure dragged her along a rocky path, the material of the skirt she wore shredded to pieces from the long trek. She dug her heels into the earth to stop—the feeling that she had done this many times before falling over her—but the one who held her was strong, and all she managed to do was leave a red trail behind her as the rocks tore the skin of her bare feet. She struggled against the vice grip around her arm, twisting and turning, trying to tug herself free. A low growl rumbled from the one who held her.

Then she felt it.

The hard tug on her arm that wrenched her shoulder from its socket. She screamed at the sound it made, and the pain that followed. The scream died when her throat was too raw to continue. Soft whimpers were all she could manage as the figure pulled her further along the path.

It led them into the gaping mouth of a cave unlike any she had ever seen, and the light of a torch flickered along the black walls. Half-eaten bones littered the cave floor, and her stomach turned at the sight. She squeezed her eyes shut, but it did her no good. She could still see her dark surroundings. The deeper they walked into the earth, the narrower the passage became, and she felt her shoulders scraping along the jagged rock. Her captor seemed unaffected by the stones that dug against their thick body.

The narrow tunnel opened into a spacious cavern, and she yelped as the large figure jerked on her arm once again, this time to toss her further inside. Her cries echoed in her ears as she curled in on herself. Another hand found its way around her neck, this one just as thick as the other, and she gasped as she was forced to her knees to face her captors.

The firelight of the torches shined upon them, their skin pale and sickly against the dark rock of the cavern that held them. The shrieks that tore from their mouths filled the room, bouncing off the walls and pounding against her ears. She collapsed against the floor of the cave once more, and tried to crawl away from the sound, but her body felt so heavy, and her arms were so weak.

She couldn't move.

The screams tapered off, but she still trembled from the pain they had caused. When the figures bent over her, their red-stained teeth bared, she kept her gaze fixated on the dark walls, even as she felt their hot breath against her neck.


It was Waverly's distressed cry that woke Nicole.

It was louder than the whimpers of the night before, and when she blinked the sleep from her eyes and scooted closer, she found Waverly's skin was soaked with sweat. She placed her hand against Waverly's clammy forehead, and a groan slipped through chapped lips. Fish sat across from them with his knees pulled to his chest, his gaze fixated on Waverly's rigid form.

“She's been like that for a while now,” he said. “I... I tried to help her, but I think I made it worse, 'cause she cried out like that. I didn't know what to do, Nicole, I'm sorry. I swear I didn't mean to hurt her.”

“Fish, take a breath.”

He did as he was told, and some of the panic left his eyes, though he didn't tear his gaze away from Waverly, whose chest rose and fell far too quickly. Nicole closed the space between them completely, and placed her hand against Waverly's stomach as she had done the night before.

A sharp gasp reached her ears.

“Shh,” Nicole said against her ear. “You're alright.” She rubbed small circles over Waverly's taut stomach as she spoke, but the tension remained. Nicole sighed, and turned her gaze back to Fish. “Get some sleep,” she said. “I'll keep watch and try to calm her.”

“Nic,” he said, “what if someone had been here? What if they had heard?”

“No one was here, and no one heard but us,” she replied. “Now go to sleep, or you're going to regret it in the morning.”

Fish's gaze lingered on Waverly a moment longer before he curled up under his blanket, using his folded cloak as a pillow.

Nicole kept her gaze on the opening to the thicket, scanning the trees for any movement that didn't belong. As she kept watch though, she whispered in Waverly's ear, and kept her hand moving in slow circles. Occasionally, Waverly's rigid body would tremble against her palm before it tensed again, and she would whimper from whatever was happening in her head, but there were no more cries of pain or distress.

Her arm was tiring by the time the muscles beneath her hand relaxed.

She breathed a sigh of relief, and pressed her forehead against Waverly's shoulder, the fabric of her shirt damp with sweat. A moment later, Waverly jerked awake the way she had the night before. Nicole shivered at the cold draft against her skin when Waverly pulled the blanket up with her.

Nicole slowly pushed herself up. “You're okay. You're safe.”

Hazel eyes met hers, and she could see the fear still lurking there, so she moved her palm away from Waverly's abdomen and placed it over the back of her hand instead. Gradually, Waverly's breathing slowed, and she seemed to reorient herself with her surroundings. Nicole pulled her hand away and let it rest in her lap.

“I'm sorry,” Waverly said. “I keep waking you up.”

Nicole shook her head. “Was my turn to take watch anyway.” Her eyes drifted from Waverly to the forest outside the thicket. The shadows had dissipated, and the cold morning sun now bathed the snow outside their shelter in a soft light. “Looks like it's over now, though. We need to get moving.”

After waking Fish and packing up their things, the small group crawled out of the thicket and continued their trek through the forest.

Much like the day before, Nicole leaned heavily against Waverly as they walked. The snow that had fallen so steadily throughout the night continued, and a bitter wind accompanied it, whipping the fresh powder into their faces and nipping at their skin. Nicole's teeth chattered as they trudged through the snow, as did Waverly's, even with the added protection of Nicole's cloak. Fish continued to scout ahead, though his steps were slowed by the thick snow halfway up his calves. The midday sun was reaching the center of the sky when Fish doubled back to join them. He unfastened his cloak as he approached, and held it out for Nicole when he reached her.

“It should be warmer now.”

She took it with a nod of thanks, and Waverly helped her fasten it around her neck. It was warm, heated by his body, and she tried to enjoy the brief sensation before it slipped away again.

They stopped once more to eat, and their fingers shook as they forced themselves to choke down the hard jerky, their appetites stolen by the cold. After they finished the meager meal and started walking again, Fish took point and moved ahead.

Waverly jerked to a stop a moment later with a gasp of pain, and Nicole stumbled over her own feet.

When she looked back at Waverly, she found her bent at the waist with her fingers tangled in her hair as she clutched her head. Another cry came forth, and Waverly staggered forward, tumbling into the snow before Nicole could reach her.

She writhed on the ground, her back arching and body twisting as she tried to escape whatever was causing her pain. Snow was flung into Nicole's face as she knelt beside her. She sputtered, and wiped it away before she called Waverly's name. The only response she received was a groan, and she thought back to the day in the dungeon. How helpless she had felt then, unable to do anything but watch as Waverly was taken away from her. She was just as helpless now as she watched Waverly's body contort in the snow.

It hadn't been like this in the cell.

This was far worse, and Nicole had no clue what to do.

She pressed her hands against Waverly's shoulders, gritting her teeth against the sharp pain in her own shoulder the exertion caused. Another pair of hands joined hers, and she looked beside her to find that Fish had come to help.

Waverly stilled, but when she opened her eyes, tears glistened in the sunlight. Nicole released her and leaned back. Fish did the same, and Waverly eased her way into a sitting position. She winced, and pressed her hand against her head.

“What... Waverly, what was that?”

“Visions,” Waverly whispered. “They're visions.”

Nicole furrowed her brow. “No,” she said. “No, because that was not what happened in the prison cell. That had been bad, but Waverly, this was worse.”

“I know.” Waverly whimpered. “I-It's never hurt like this before. Not even the first time.” She choked out a sob, and leaned forward, cradling her head. “It's not supposed to be like this.”

The apprehension that had lingered around Nicole since they left the castle slipped away, and she leaned forward to wrap her arms around Waverly. She made soothing sounds against Waverly's ear as she ran her hand over the long locks of messy hair, hoping to ease the tension in the body that trembled against her.

“Nic, we gotta move,” Fish said, shifting his weight from one foot to the next. “I'll try to find us shelter, but we can't stay here.”

Nicole nodded, but she didn't pull away from Waverly. The sound of his muffled footsteps reached her ears, and when she looked over her shoulder, he was gone. She turned her attention back to Waverly, who still trembled in her arms.

“Deep breaths,” Nicole said. “Come on. You'll feel better.” Waverly shook her head against Nicole's chest. “Waverly, please. If you don't work through this, they're going to find us, and everything you did to help us will have been for nothing. So please, just take deep breaths and try to focus.” She felt a shuddering breath, followed by its shaky exhale. “Good. Take another.”

Waverly repeated the process several times—inhale, exhale—until the shaking stopped. When she pulled away, her cheeks were streaked with tears, and Nicole could still see the occasional twitch of pain, but she had managed to calm herself.

“Good,” Nicole said, keeping her voice soft. She tucked Waverly's hair behind her ear, and gave her a small smile. “Now, what did you mean when you said it wasn't supposed to be like this?”

“It's not,” Waverly said, her voice hoarse. “The visions, I mean. T-There's only supposed to be one. I can handle one. Not all of them.”

“All of them?”

Waverly nodded. “The same thing. I keep Seeing the same thing, but it keeps changing. All of it keeps changing. Little details shift, and so does the outcome.”

“Waverly, focus,” Nicole said. “Stop thinking about the vision for a moment. Focus on your breathing again.”

Visions,” Waverly corrected her through gritted teeth, “and I don't know which one is right. There are so many... so many different paths, Nicole, but they disappear so quickly. H-How do I know which one to follow? It's never done this before.”

Nicole didn't know how to answer that.

“We'll figure something out.”

She looked over her shoulder for Fish, but he still hadn't returned, so she focused on Waverly again.

“It was the bedrock,” Waverly said in a soft voice. “It was dampening my Sight, but now it's gone.” She shook her head. “It's why I keep getting so many.”

Nicole was quiet for a moment, absorbing everything Waverly had told her, before she said, “Yesterday, when you kept stumbling. Was it really your ankle?”

Waverly shook her head, whimpering a moment later. “No,” she said, her voice hoarse. “No, I... I kept getting these flashes of someone, but I don't know who they are.”

“Waverly, they've been hurting you,” Nicole said. “Why didn't you say something?”

“I didn't want to slow us down,” she said. “Not after what happened to Levi.”

Nicole started to respond, but Fish interrupted, jogging up behind them.

“I found somewhere,” he said, panting between words, “but you're not gonna like it.”

The rest of the conversation would have to wait.

After Nicole and Waverly stood from the snow covered ground, both of them shaky on their feet, they followed behind Fish, who didn't stray as far as he had the rest of the day. When he stopped at a tall outcropping of rocks rising from the snowy earth, Nicole grimaced.

She could see the advantages—there was a wide ledge they could sleep on, and a larger rock jutted out above it at an angle, providing shelter from snowfall, while two more on the sides would protect them from detection and the wind. It was almost as good as finding a cave, though it wasn't as deep.

But Nicole still had her reservations.

“And how am I supposed to get up there?”

He rubbed the back of his neck. “I told you, you weren't going to like it.”

“I can barely walk without someone to lean on,” she hissed. “How do you expect me to pull myself up?”

“Now, I never said you would have to do it yourself,” he said. “We can help you, like we did at the tree in front of the cave.”

“Fish, that was a tree trunk! And not even a very big one,” she said. “This is a snow-covered pile of rocks with a ledge I can't reach.”

“Nic, please. It's the only place I could find,” he said. “Everywhere else is too open, and we already wasted the rest of our daylight getting here. It'll be dark soon.”

She looked away from his pleading eyes, and studied the outcropping instead. It really was perfect, and Fish was right. There was nowhere else for them to go.

“I suppose we have no other choice.”

Fish placed a hand on her uninjured shoulder, and said, “If there was anywhere else, I would have taken us there.”

“I know.”

She gave him a weak smile, the dread of climbing already settling over her.

Waverly climbed first, after Fish pointed out the safest places to reach for, and Nicole held her breath as she watched her scramble along the rocks, flinching each time she saw Waverly's grip slip on the snowy stone. She heard a hiss of pain when Waverly was near the ledge, and she stepped closer, prepared to catch her if she fell backwards, but she only paused for a moment before she finished the climb, and pulled herself over the ledge.

Once she was sure Waverly was safe, Nicole reached for the first handhold she could find. Fish's arms encircled her waist. He began to lift, and she reached for the next groove in the rocks. She already felt the strain against her damaged muscles.

Several times, she found herself slipping, and she would grab the closest handhold she could find before she fell. Fish's grip had left her waist, and he now waited below, ready to catch her if anything went wrong. Meanwhile, Waverly waited above her. When slender hands wrapped around her forearms, Nicole looked up to find Waverly hanging over the edge, ready to help her up.

“Do me a favor?” she asked, and Waverly tilted her head to the side. “Try not to have another vision until after I'm over the ledge.”

Despite the pain Nicole knew she was still in from her visions, Waverly laughed, and nodded.

With one last boost from Fish, who pressed against the bottom of her booted feet, Nicole surged forward, and Waverly pulled her over the rest of the way, leaving them both breathless on the flat slab of rock.

Nicole pushed herself to her knees and crawled away from the edge of the ledge towards the back of the small cave the overhanging rock formed. While she situated herself against the slanted wall, her long limbs awkward in the cramped space, Waverly settled beside her, and her gaze flickered from one wall to the next.

Fish pulled himself over the edge next and joined them beneath the overhang. He unlaced the blankets from the pack and handed one to Nicole. She spread it over herself and Waverly, who had her knees curled against her chest. Fish didn't linger long. He took his own blanket, and moved closer to the ledge to take the first watch.

“There's going to be a storm.”

Nicole turned her head at the sound of the muffled voice. “A storm?”

Waverly nodded. “The visions from earlier. That was the only detail that didn't change. The wind's bringing a storm in from the west.” She paused, then said, “Or maybe it was the east. It was hard to tell with how hard the wind was blowing.”

“And when is this storm coming?”

“Soon,” Waverly said in a tight voice. “And Robert's soldiers. I Saw them in one of the visions, frozen in the aftermath, but they survived in another,” she said. “Either way, they're close. So close. And so is the storm.”

Nicole sighed, and leaned her head back against the rock wall. There was nothing they could do about the weather, and they were just as powerless against the possibility of the soldiers finding them. Fish was the only one amongst them who could fight, and even if Nicole could easily lift the sword she had taken from the dungeon guard, there was no way the two of them could hold off a group of Robert's troops.

Not for the first time since they had fled, Nicole feared they had escaped the castle, only to find death in the forest because she couldn't move fast enough.

As if sensing her distress, Waverly placed her hand on her knee, and said, “Maybe they aren't as close as my visions made them seem. The details kept changing, so it's hard to be sure.”

Nicole gave her a weak smile. “Maybe...”

The fragile hope the words had produced was shattered not long after night fell, and darkness blanketed the forest. Fish waved Nicole over to the ledge, and a groggy Waverly whimpered as she slipped from under the blanket to join him. He nodded towards the trees, but it hadn't been necessary.

Nicole had already seen the specks of torchlight flickering in the shadows.

She tensed as the dancing flames came closer. The first figures emerged from the trees, and Nicole's breath caught in her throat at the sound of the gruff voices that rose from beneath them.

“This is shit,” one of the men grumbled. “Out here freezin' my cock off, searchin' for some girl His Grace tried to skewer himself.” He shook his head. “Probably not even alive anyway, so damn cold out here, and one of 'em might as well've been dead already.”

The space beneath the ledge was bathed in torchlight as more soldiers broke from the trees. Once the last of them gathered in the small clearing beneath the outcropping, they began to make camp, and Nicole scooted away from the edge. Fish followed her to the back of the small cave, where Waverly shivered beneath the blanket, though Nicole didn't know if it was from the cold, or the pressure in her head.

“They're here, aren't they?”

Nicole nodded at the soft question before she slipped beneath the blanket.

“They've set up camp beneath us. The outcropping is shielding them from the worst of the wind,” she said. “I don't think they know we're here, though. The snow and wind must have swept away our tracks.” She gave Waverly a smile, hoping to hide her panic. “Small blessings, I suppose.”

Waverly returned the smile with a weak one of her own, but winced a moment later and clutched at her head. Nicole took her free hand in hers, and gave it a tight squeeze. When Waverly relaxed again, her breathing was shaky, and Nicole saw the fear in her eyes as she focused her gaze on her again.

“Don't let me fall asleep,” she said in a hoarse voice. Nicole started to object, but Waverly shook her head. “Nicole, if I have those nightmares again, or if I have another cluster of visions, they're going to know we're here. Now, I don't know how to stop the visions, but I know I can't have the nightmares if I don't go to sleep,” she said. “So don't let me sleep. Please. Not until they're gone.”

Waverly was right, Nicole knew that. It was impossible to wake her from the nightmares, so the only logical step was to prevent them until the soldiers left. Still, she hated the idea of keeping Waverly awake when she so obviously needed rest. The stream of visions over the last two days had taken their toll, and Waverly's exhaustion was clearly visible. Even with the possibility of nightmares, Nicole had hoped sleep would at least give Waverly a respite from the headaches that plagued her.

“Nicole, please,” Waverly said, “I don't want to go back to that place.”

She didn't know if she meant the castle, or wherever it was her nightmares took her, but Nicole squeezed Waverly's hand again.

“You won't.” She shared a look with Fish, then turned back to Waverly. “We won't let you.”

True to her word, Nicole kept a close watch on Waverly through the long night, jostling her whenever she caught her drifting off. The night had grown too quiet for words to be shared between them, so there was no other way to keep her awake. At Nicole's request, Fish slept curled up against the wall first. When her own eyes grew heavy, she tapped against Fish's leg with the toe of her boot, and once he shook himself awake and scooted closer to Waverly, Nicole lay down beside her, using the cloak Fish had given her as a pillow.

She slept lightly until she felt Fish's hand on her shoulder, gently shaking her awake.

After the fog of sleep passed, she crawled behind Fish to the ledge, where they could see the soldiers milling about beneath them in the grey morning light. Some of their numbers had dwindled, but those who remained didn't appear to be packing up camp yet.

Nicole frowned, and slipped back into the small cave. Fish followed, and when they were inside the safety of the shelter, she found his expression mirrored her own distress.

“They've either sent out a few scouts, or a hunting party,” she whispered. “Regardless, we're stuck here until they leave.”

Fish sighed, and Nicole resisted the urge to do the same. The thought of wasting the day in the cramped cave weighed heavily on her, but there was nothing they could do but wait. She returned to Waverly's side, who watched her with tired eyes. Nicole hoped the soldiers left before she had to spend another sleepless night in the cave.

While she kept watch over Waverly, making sure she didn't fall asleep, Nicole listened to the sounds of the men outside. Each raised voice made her hold her breath, afraid that someone had somehow seen them despite the cover they had taken.

It was Waverly's whimper, however, that sent a cold shiver of fear down her spine.

Nicole felt the body beside her tense, and watched as Waverly clutched at her head, her breathing coming in quick gasps. When her eyes opened again, they were glazed over, and Nicole realized Waverly was lost to the visions assaulting her. Her body twisted and contorted against the stone, and Nicole, afraid the movement would attract the attention of the guards below, tried to press down on her shoulders like she had the day before, but Waverly resisted.

A low moan rumbled from her chest, and Nicole quickly pressed the palm of her hand against Waverly's mouth, stifling the sound as best she could as she struggled to hold her down. When Waverly twisted away from her, Nicole followed. Unable to see another option, she held Waverly's shoulders down against the cave floor again, and slipped her legs over her waist, straddling her until she could lay the length of her body against Waverly's. There was another whimper against the palm of Nicole's hand, before Waverly's body started to twist beneath her. Nicole gritted her teeth, and struggled to keep her down.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, she registered the pull of the torn skin across her back, and the pool of warmth that followed, but she couldn't worry about that until after Waverly's visions passed.

“Shh,” she whispered against Waverly's ear. “Shh, you're okay.”

Fish appeared at her side and helped press down against Waverly's shoulders. He flinched when Waverly groaned against Nicole's hand. The sound was muffled, but with the danger of the soldiers outside, it echoed in their ears.

“Waverly, please,” Nicole whispered, her own panic making her voice shake. “We're so close. You just have to be quiet a little longer, and we'll be safe. I promise.”

The plea fell on deaf ears. Waverly twisted beneath her again, and Nicole had to press harder against Waverly's mouth to stifle the groan of pain that followed. The warmth she had felt against her back spread as the exertion tugged at the torn edges of her skin more. Unable to ignore it this time, Nicole bit down on her lip and buried her face against Waverly's neck to stifle her own cry of pain.

“Please, Waverly,” she begged against the warm skin. “We can't get caught. Not now. You haven't even seen the ocean yet.” She took a breath to steady her voice, shaky from the hot pain racing along her back. “So I need you to come back from wherever this vision has taken you, because you won't ever see the ocean if we get caught.”

The body beneath her contorted once more, but there was far less fight in the struggle, before it sagged back against the cave floor. Waverly's breathing quickened against Nicole's palm, and when she eased off of Waverly's small frame, she found the fog had cleared from her eyes, though she did appear to still be disoriented. Waverly squeezed her eyes shut as her body shook beneath Nicole's, silent tears falling from the corners of her eyes and mingling with sweat.

With the threat of the visions gone, Nicole slid back to the cave floor, but she kept her arm over Waverly's stomach as she rested against the cool stone. She felt a touch on her shoulder, and looked up to find Fish's leaning over her as he crouched beneath the low ceiling. His worried gaze fell on her back, but she shook her head, and nodded towards the opening of the small cave instead. He lingered a moment, chewing his lip, before he returned to his post at the ledge. When there was no sign of trouble, Nicole breathed a sigh of relief.

They had managed to keep Waverly quiet and still enough.

They were safe.

The hours that followed were slow. The pack was passed amongst them in silence when they took their meal of hard bread and cheese, though nerves caused by the soldiers below kept their appetites at bay. It was just as well, given how little they had left. Nicole's injuries had slowed them down, and now their meager supply of food had dwindled sooner than they had planned. They had enough for one more day, maybe two. Soon, the skull Waverly had smuggled out of the castle would be the only thing that remained in the pack, wrapped in a grey shirt softer than any Nicole had felt before.

The sound of shouts reached Nicole's ears, and she looked up from her crust of bread, her eyes wide. Fish looked over his shoulder and shook his head when she started to move. He scooted back from the ledge, and joined them at the back of the shelter.

“It was a scouting party they sent out looking for us,” he said. “No luck.”

If she had more strength, Nicole would have smiled, but the struggle with Waverly had left her weak and sluggish.

“They're packing up now, “ he continued. “Seems they're not too happy to have wasted their time out here. They're meeting up with another group somewhere else.”

Nicole gritted her teeth and said, “Guess we better not go that way when we leave then.”

It took far too long for the soldiers to move out, and Nicole was on edge as she listened to the sounds of them breaking camp, afraid another bout of visions would assault Waverly before the soldiers were gone. Even after the soldiers had left, the three of them continued to wait. Finally, Fish waved them forward, and Nicole clenched her jaw as she struggled to crawl to the ledge. Relief would have flooded through her at the sight of the empty clearing, but she was now faced with the reality of climbing down from their shelter.

Fish descended first, moving with ease despite the pack on his back. Once he waited at the bottom, Waverly joined Nicole at the ledge to help lower her down. The exhaustion in her eyes did nothing to soothe Nicole's nerves, but she still slid over the edge, trusting Waverly to keep her grip around her forearms the way she had the day before.

And she did.

But Waverly couldn't lower her to the ground completely, and Fish was still too far to reach her dangling legs, so Nicole had to grab hold of one of stones jutting out of the rock face. Once she was secure, she nodded, and Waverly released her wrists so she could lower herself far enough for Fish to steady her.

She was unprepared for the agony that flared across her back as she lowered herself. She felt the final tearing of her ragged skin, and cried out in pain, then fear as she lost her grip on the rock.

Fish broke her fall, and they both tumbled into the snow, where she gasped for the breath that had been stolen from her. The grey sky above her seemed fuzzy as a wet warmth blossomed over her back. Someone said her name beside her, and when she turned her head so her cheek rested against the snow, she found Waverly crouched over her, worry clouding her eyes as she continued to say Nicole's name.

She pushed herself up from the ground, though the motion made dark spots appear in her vision. Waverly and Fish helped her to her feet, but a wave of dizziness threatened to send her down to her knees. The effort it took to step forward made tears sting her eyes. She was going to slow them down even more if she couldn't push past the pain in her back.

Gritting her teeth, Nicole forced herself to move forward.

Fish and Waverly stayed at her side, catching her each time she stumbled. Red droplets stained the snow beneath them, but she pressed on, and her companions steadied her with each step. The further they walked, however, the more disoriented she became. Soon, the pain burning across her back was all she could focus on, and the voices beside her became nothing more than soft murmurs that held no meaning for her.

As night fell, she barely registered the darkness that covered them, too tired to keep her eyes open. She hadn't noticed her companions had stopped until she jerked in their grip. The muffled sounds of an argument caught her attention, and she forced herself to open her eyes. She blinked away the spots and the blurriness from her sight as best she could, and she was greeted by the sight of a cottage. The windows were alight with a fire blazing inside. The fence of a small garden jutted off from its side, though it was covered in snow now.

“We don't know who lives there, Waverly!”

“We don't have a choice,” Waverly responded. “We're going to freeze out here, and Nicole can't go much further.”

“You think I don't know that?” Fish asked, his voice strained. “I've already lost Levi. Do you think I want to lose her, too?”

“Then we go to the cottage.”

“So they can turn us into Robert the first chance they get? What good will that do Nicole?”

She wanted to interrupt, but the crunch of snow behind them distracted her. She slid her arm from Fish's shoulder, and her hand went to the sword that hung at her hip. The earth tilted beneath her as she turned around, drawing the sword as she moved. She staggered sideways against Waverly, and the man who had crept up behind them raised an eyebrow at the action. The other two turned to see what had grabbed her attention.

Nicole's gaze fell to the large axe that dangled from his hand. He swung it upward so it rested on his shoulder, and her grip tightened on the handle of the sword as he stepped toward them.

“Now what do we have here?” he asked, his voice a low rumble.

It was the last thing Nicole heard before her vision blurred. Her sword fell from her hands into the snow, and she fell heavily against Waverly as the world around her went dark.

Chapter Text

The howling of the wind reached Nicole's ears.

It wasn't the sound that made her brow furrow as she slowly regained her senses, but the fact that she didn't feel the cold bite that should have accompanied it. She actually felt warm—warmer than she had felt in recent memory—and that thought alone made her sigh as the rest of her senses awakened. Groggy brown eyes fluttered open, and she was met with the sight of a large fire blazing in the hearth of an unfamiliar room. The weight of a heavy blanket covered her up to her neck, though it wasn't one they had brought with them in their escape from the castle, and she rested on a bed far softer than the ground or the dungeon floor.

“I see you've finally decided to rejoin the land of the living.”

The unfamiliar voice drew her attention to a doorway that led to a room she couldn't see. There she found an older woman leaning against the wall, her grey hair cut short, and cropped close to her head.

“Where are—” Her throat was dry, and she found herself coughing around the words. The stranger shook her head, and disappeared into the room behind her. When she returned, a waterskin filled her hands. She approached the bed, and Nicole quickly accepted the offer. Half the water had been drained from the skin before she lowered it from her lips and wiped her mouth. Rough hands weathered from years of work took the waterskin and placed it on the floor. “Others,” she said. “There were others with me.”

“If you took some time to look around, you'd answer your own question.”

Nicole watched her for a moment before she slowly pushed herself into a sitting position. The blanket pooled around her waist, and when she felt the warmth of the fire against her skin, she looked down to find her shirt had been removed, but fresh bandages had been wrapped around her torso and shoulder. Another had been wrapped around her raw wrist. Although the movement caused a dull pain to run along the gash across her back, it was nothing compared to what she had felt when it had torn open again. Sitting on the floor near the foot of her bed, she found Fish propped against the wall, fast asleep with an orange and black cat curled in his lap. Both of his wrists had been dressed as well.

She returned her attention to the woman who stood at her bedside.

“Waverly?”

The frown that appeared on the woman's face did nothing to ease Nicole's worry.

“Resting, same as you, but she was afraid she might wake you if she stayed in here. Didn't know what she meant, 'til we finally got her to sleep in the spare bedroom.” She shook her head. “Poor girl.” Nicole started to peel the blanket away, only to be stopped by the woman's hand against her uninjured shoulder. “Now don't go hurting yourself again already. She's in good hands, I promise.”

Nicole held her hard gaze, but when the woman tilted her head and raised her eyebrows, she sighed and leaned back against the soft mattress. She turned her head, letting her cheek rest on the pillow, and studied the stranger.

“Who are you?”

“Name's Gus,” the woman said, “and you've already had the pleasure of meeting my Curtis.”

Nicole's brow furrowed. “The man with the axe...”

Gus nodded. “That would be him,” she said. “Imagine his surprise when he came home from chopping wood, only to find you lot arguin' in front of the cabin before he could bring the sled in. He did get a good laugh at your effort to fend him off.” She chuckled, and her stony face softened. “From how he tells it, you were very valiant, 'til you went and passed out on your friend.”

Nicole winced at the memory.

It had not been her finest moment.

“She's alright, though?”

“Faring a bit better than you have been, though that's not sayin' much. We got a hog buried out back who was faring better than you were when Curtis helped carry you in.” The edges of her mouth quirked into a tight smile, and she placed her hand over Nicole's shoulder again. “Rest a little longer, then you can check on her yourself. I don't want to clean your blood off my floor again.”

Nicole wanted to argue, but the warmth of the fire, mingling with the exhaustion from the trek through the forest, made her eyelids droop despite her wishes. Unable to keep her eyes open any longer, she let them close.

Her voice was soft as she said, “Robert's soldiers. They were tracking us. I'm sorry.”

“Don't you worry about them right now,” Gus said. “If they haven't turned back to the castle, the storm will make quick work of 'em.”

Gus's words brought comfort, and for the first time since they had left the Resistance camp, Nicole allowed herself to truly relax, the weight of the world no longer pressing painfully on her shoulders as she succumbed to the heavy fog of sleep.

When she awoke again, it was to a wet tongue against her cheek.

She mumbled incoherently, and pressed her face into the pillow, but her visitor was undeterred. A cold nose buried itself into the pillow as well, sniffing and prodding, trying to make her turn her head again. Nicole cracked open one eye to find a dark snout pushing against the side of her face. As if sensing that she was awake, a large tongue licked her again, mussing her already messy hair even more. From across the room, she heard a snicker, but it was followed by a cough, and a deep voice Nicole didn't recognize.

“Clanton, you oaf. Cut that out.”

The dog tilted his massive head to the side, his tongue hanging from his mouth. A soft huff followed, before the dog left the bed and padded across the room to sit in front of the tall man near the hearth. His tail swept the wooden floor as the man—Curtis, Nicole assumed—scratched behind his folded ears.

“Now you lay down, and leave our guests alone.”

The dog barked, deep and loud, but he settled on the floor near the fire.

Nicole pushed herself up from the mattress, wincing at the pull of her skin as she moved. The wind still howled outside, mingling with the crackling of the flames in the hearth. Curtis looked up from the dog and gave her a toothy grin.

His eyes were set far apart, and his nose seemed too small, given the width of his face. His skin was scarred with pockmarks, though most of them were hidden behind a thick, dark beard that didn't match his dull, grey hair, which had been shaved close to his head. A deep, diagonal scar cut across his lips, the bottom of it trailing through the beard down to his chin. However, his wide smile was bright, and Nicole found herself returning it with a small one of her own.

He appeared far less threatening in the light of day, without the axe in his hand.

“Good morning,” he said, his voice rough, much like his appearance. “Seems you've made a good first impression on Clanton.”

Before Nicole could answer, Gus and Fish stepped through the doorway, both of them carrying bowls in their hands.

Fish's face was shaven, and his hair had been trimmed. The orange and black cat wove its way around his feet as he approached Nicole's bedside. He handed her one of the bowls of porridge, and took his own small meal on the floor at the foot of her bed, where the cat rubbed against his knee. Gus handed Curtis his bowl, and the two of them remained by the doorway, caught in a quiet conversation.

She had expected Waverly to walk through the door as well, but she never appeared.

The porridge had been sweetened with sugar and a dark, thick syrup. Bits of charred meat—bacon, she presumed—had been mixed into the porridge, and the meal warmed her from the inside. After she had scraped every last bit from the wooden bowl, she placed it on her lap and her gaze drifted toward the doorway.

Waverly still hadn't joined them.

Nicole glanced towards the hearth, where Gus and Curtis stood. Seeing that they weren't watching her, she placed the bowl on the floor and swung her legs over the side of the bed. Her arms shook as she pushed herself to her feet. A series of loud barks echoed through the room, and she looked at the dog, who wagged his tail and continued to bark. Gus turned towards her with narrowed eyes, and Nicole sighed.

“Now, I could have sworn I told you to rest.”

“I did rest.”

The hard look on Gus's face remained.

“Come now, Gus,” Curtis said, already walking towards her. “She jus' wants to check on her friend is all. Can't get mad at her for that.” The touch against her elbow was gentle. “And I think the little one might want to see her, too, after the scare she gave 'em.”

Gus sighed. “Fine, but if any more blood gets on my floor, you're cleaning it up.” she said, though the hint of a smile on her face softened the sting of the words. “Sentimental, old fool.”

Curtis only grinned.

He let Nicole lean against his arm, and he led her through the doorway Gus and Fish had come through earlier. In the center of the room, a heavy pot sat upon a bed of coals encased in brick, and a pair of bellows leaned against the stone alongside the poker to adjust the coals. Curtis allowed her to fill an empty bowl with the porridge inside before he turned her away from the pot, and led her to another door to the right.

It opened to a small, dark room. Light flickered from a candle on a wooden nightstand. The dull glow washed over a bed roughly the same size as her cot, and just outside the soft light, Nicole saw Waverly curled beneath a heavy blanket. She was turned away from the candle, and she had pressed herself as close to the wall as she could. Curtis helped her to the bed, and steadied her as she lowered herself to the mattress. Once she was settled, Curtis insisted he would only be a shout away if they needed anything.

After he left them, Nicole let her gaze fall to Waverly's tense figure. She placed the back of her hand against Waverly's cheek, and frowned at the clammy skin against hers, but she heard a soft sigh as Waverly leaned into the touch. She watched as Waverly's brow furrowed before she shifted onto her back and found Nicole sitting beside her.

“You're awake,” she said, her voice scratchy from the little sleep she must have gotten. Nicole nodded, and Waverly released a shaky breath. “You scared me. You were so cold, a-and when we took off the uniform, there was so much blood, and your breathing—”

“Waverly.” Nicole shifted her hand so her palm was pressed against Waverly's cheek, and she rubbed the pad of her thumb over the dark shadow painting the skin just beneath Waverly's eye. “I'm safe. You and Fish, you got me here in time.” The panic in Waverly's eyes dissipated at the soft words, and Nicole pulled her hand away to rest against the side of the bowl on her lap. “Gus mentioned you had another nightmare.”

Waverly nodded. “I had hoped sleep would get rid of my headache, but the nightmares keep coming back.” She shifted her gaze away from Nicole, and focused on the ceiling instead. “I understand why I'm getting the visions, but the nightmares...” She shook her head. “I don't know what they are.”

Nicole stared at the bowl in her lap for a moment, then said, “We'll figure it out.”

“We?”

“That's what I said, isn't it?” Nicole shifted, and pulled her legs onto the bed, filling the narrow space that remained. “Now, I brought you breakfast. Maybe some real food in your stomach will help.” She thrust the bowl of porridge towards Waverly. “It's good.”

Waverly watched her closely, then pushed herself into a sitting position so her back pressed against the wall. She took the offered bowl from Nicole's hands and set it on her covered lap. She stared down into it, before she turned towards Nicole again.

“How can you still be so kind to me?” Waverly asked. “After what I've done, you should hate me.”

“Is that what you want?”

“Of course not.”

Nicole pinched the bridge of her nose. “Waverly, this is a very confusing conversation,” she said. “Please, just eat. If you'd rather I wasn't here, I'll go.”

“No.” Waverly sighed. “I'm sorry. I'm just tired,” she said. “I would like it if you stayed.”

So Nicole stayed, and watched over Waverly as she ate as much as she could, but she had only taken a few bites before she winced and handed it back, shaking her head.

“No more.”

“Headache that bad already?”

Waverly nodded, and squeezed her eyes shut as she took deep breaths. Nicole placed the back of her hand against Waverly's forehead. Her skin was still too warm, and she shivered beneath Nicole's touch.

“Maybe Gus and Curtis have something for the pain.”

She gritted her teeth and pushed herself up from the small bed, but Waverly's hand wrapped around her wrist before she could get far. She looked down to find clouded, brown eyes watching her.

“If they do,” Waverly said through heavy breaths, “you should have some, too. For your back. I know it's hurting you.”

“Can't get anything past you, can I?” Waverly gave her a small smile before she released Nicole's wrist and squeezed her eyes shut again, a small whimper escaping. “I'll be back soon.”

When she returned to the small room, she was hanging on Gus's arm, who held a steaming mug in her free hand. It had a strong, wet smell that reminded Nicole of the warm springs and summers she had spent as a farmhand after she had been left on her own. Gus had assured her it would help, but she worried Waverly wouldn't be able to drink it because of the smell.

Waverly had turned back onto her side, away from the candlelight, and curled in on herself. Nicole sat on the edge of the bed once more, and coaxed her back into a sitting position so she could take the mug. Her hands shook as she wrapped them around the cup, and Nicole saw the grimace that crossed her face when she brought it to her lips. There was a moment of hesitation, then she gulped down the brew as fast as she could. Once the cup had been drained, Gus took it from her shaky hands, and Nicole tucked a damp strand of Waverly's hair behind her ear.

“Now, it might make you a little sleepy,” Gus said as Nicole helped Waverly lay back against the thin mattress, “but from what I can tell, sleep might be the best thing for you, and this might ward off the nightmares keeping you up. Curtis will be here to look after you, so if you need anything else, you just let him know.”

Nicole's brow furrowed, and she looked up from Waverly. “Curtis?”

“Yes, Curtis,” Gus said, “because you are getting a bath. Then I am changing the dressing on your wound again, and you are going to rest like I've been telling you to, you stubborn fool.”

“I—”

“Don't you argue with me. I've already let you wander about more than you should have,” she said. “You can stay until Curtis has the tub ready, but the moment it's filled, you're gonna be in it.”

Nicole grumbled under her breath, but quieted when Gus raised her eyebrows.

Once Gus left the room to check on Curtis's progress, Nicole turned back to Waverly, who had an amused smile on her face. Nicole returned it with a thin one of her own as she ran her hand over Waverly's bangs.

“Is it helping?”

“I just drank it,” Waverly said. “Even if it does help, it isn't going to be immediate.”

Nicole shrugged. “I guess I'm just impatient then.”

“Actually, I think you may be the most patient person I've ever met.” Waverly shook her head. “Though, I'm not sure that's saying much, given the circumstances.”

“I'll take the compliment, regardless.”

Waverly started to respond, but a tremor coursed through her small frame, and she closed her eyes instead, biting back a groan. Nicole kept smoothing Waverly's bangs against her forehead, but she slipped her free hand into Waverly's and gave it a reassuring squeeze. Slender fingers tightened around her hand as another tremor passed. When it ended, Waverly panted with her face pressed against the pillow, and beads of sweat trickled along her skin.

Still, it had passed quicker than the ones in the forest, and Nicole wondered if Gus's concoction had helped lessen the severity, or if it was only a fluke.

“You're alright,” she said, keeping her hand in Waverly's. “You're gonna be okay. We'll find a way to fix this, I promise.”

A cough from the doorway made her look over her shoulder. Gus waited in the opening, a shadow in the dull light from the coals. Curtis stood behind her, ready to watch over Waverly while Gus took care of Nicole.

“I'm coming. Just give me a moment,” she said before Gus could reprimand her for dawdling. She looked back down at Waverly, and found her watching through drooping eyelids. “Get some rest, okay?”

Waverly nodded, and Nicole released her hand. After Waverly had rolled away from the brightness of the flickering candlelight, Nicole pushed herself off the bed, and Gus ushered her through the doorway while Curtis settled himself on the floor.

The wooden tub had been dragged into the same room as the hot coals warming the porridge, and Nicole was happy to see that it would be long enough to fit her gangly frame rather than force her to tuck her knees against her chest. Although she occasionally winced as Gus peeled away the bandages wrapped around her torso, her thoughts remained on the bath that awaited her, and she felt a flutter of excitement. Once the soiled bandages were off, Nicole unlaced the stolen trousers and clumsily removed them. Gus helped her step over the edge of the tub, and she lowered herself into the warm water with a contented sigh.

Although Waverly had tended her wounds in the dungeon, there had been little she could do to keep the rest of her clean. Sweat and dirt had clung to her like a second and third layer of skin, along with whatever else had darkened the floor of her cell.

Gus offered her a rag, and Nicole soaked it in the warm water, then wiped the remnants of sweat, dirt, and dried blood from her arms, her chest, and her neck, washing away the reminders of Robert's dungeon one layer of grime at a time. When she reached the back of her neck, however, she frowned at the matted mess of hair that brushed against her knuckles.

The cloth was taken from her hand, and Gus motioned for her to lean forward.

“We'll worry about that soon enough,” she said, as if she knew where Nicole's thoughts had wandered. “For now, let's worry about getting the rest of you clean.”

The rough words were followed by the press of the soft cloth against her back as Gus washed what Nicole couldn't reach herself. Slowly, she began to feel like a person again as the bath water clouded with the filth that had covered her for so long.

“Alright,” Gus said, and handed Nicole the rag again, “let's see what we can do about this mane of yours.”

She started to walk away from the tub, but Nicole reached for her wrist before she could get far. Hard eyes fell to Nicole's hand. She lowered her head as she loosed her grip and let her hand fall against the water.

“I'm sorry,” she said. “It's just, if you could try to save it, or at least as much as you can, I'd um...” Her eyes stung as she stared at the water that pooled around her waist, and her throat tightened around her words. “I'd really appreciate it.”

“I don't make promises I can't keep,” Gus said, and Nicole sighed. A touch against her shoulder made her look up, and she found Gus's expression had softened, despite the harsh words. “But I'll do what I can.”

She watched Gus leave through the doorway that led into the sitting room, then leaned back against the wall of the tub and closed her eyes, dreading what was to come next.

She knew she could always grow it back again, and in the greater sense of things, it wouldn't be the worst that had happened to her, but...

But how much more did she have to lose?

She had already watched her parents wither away after Robert's soldiers had taken the bulk of their harvest for the campaign in the east. Then the sickness they brought back with them had latched onto Hayley, and despite their best efforts to fight it off, her sister had wasted away much like their parents. Her home—or what had remained of it after her family was gone—had been devoured by flames, sacked by one of the surviving forces from the east.

Her hair was all she had left, and it seemed even that would be taken from her.

She took a deep breath, and opened her eyes. She found Gus standing behind her again with a brush and scissors in hand and a sad smile on her face.

“Seemed like you were somewhere else. Thought I'd wait for you to come back to yourself,” Gus said. “Are you ready?”

Nicole nodded, and heard the sound of wood scraping against the floor. Water sloshed close to her ear, and she realized Gus must have brought a basin from the other room. Calloused hands tilted her head back further until her hair dipped into the water. There was another splash as Gus scooped handfuls from the basin and poured it over over the locks of hair that didn't reach the water. Nimble fingers worked a pleasant-smelling soap into the tangled strands.

Once Gus had deemed the lather had soaked in her hair long enough, Nicole felt a harsh tug against her scalp as Gus dragged the brush through her matted locks. She winced, and resisted the urge to glare up at the older woman, who continued the assault against her hair. However, Gus was true to her word. She did her best to salvage what she could before she sighed and set the brush upon the stool.

Nicole squeezed her eyes shut against the words she knew would follow.

“Now, I told you I would do my best to save what I could, and I did,” Gus said, “but whatever trouble you managed to scrape yourself out of has left most of this—”

“I understand,” Nicole said, though her shoulders drooped, and she sank further into the tub. “I suppose it'll grow back eventually.”

Gus nodded, then guided her head back to the basin. After she rinsed away the lather, Nicole heard the smooth metal slide against her hair. The quick snip of the shears was sharp in her ears, and her grip on the edge of the tub tightened, her nails digging into the wood as the blades glided through the tangled knots.

It didn't take long. Gus was efficient, and she removed the clumps of matted hair with precise cuts, and evened the ends of what remained with practiced hands. When she finished, she set aside the scissors and took up the brush once more to comb it through Nicole's hair again, removing the last of the lesser tangles.

“That wasn't so bad, now was it?”

Nicole stayed quiet, even as Gus helped her out of the tub and offered a thick, scratchy towel. While she dried herself, her gaze drifted to the clumps of dark, wet hair that had been left on the stool. Seeing it there, she realized just how snarled and dirty it had become in Robert's dungeon, mangled beyond saving.

As she ruffled her shortened locks with the towel, Nicole had to admit she felt lighter with it gone.


Walls of black rock surrounded her, rising from the ground and trapping her in a pit. It wasn't deep—if she stood at her full height, she could easily surpass the ledge—but thick bars crossed over the opening overhead. Thin wire had been wrapped around the rods, and sharp barbs protruded from it, threatening to catch her exposed skin if she wasn't careful. Even in the dim light, she could see the remains of those who had forgotten themselves, or had faced something far worse than the pain the barbs promised.

She stayed huddled against the dark rock with her knees pulled to her chest, and focused on the roof of the cave chamber that arched high above the pit. Somewhere out of her line of sight, a torch burned, and cast a dim light over the dark stone. She tried to distract herself by watching the dancing shadows, but she couldn't block out the deep voices that rumbled from the creatures above her. They spoke in a tongue unfamiliar to her, but each low snarl of words crawled over her skin, and she shivered at the sounds.

When the words stopped, a knot tightened in her stomach.

A shadow fell over her in the pit, and her breathing quickened as a pale face loomed over the bars. It opened its mouth, and a sharp scream pierced her ears as the creature yanked open a section of the barbed cage. The thick arm reached through the space, and she tried to scramble away, but the hand was around the back of her neck before she could get far.

All thoughts of the barbs wrapped around the bars fled as she fought to stay within the confines of the pit she had been tossed in, while the creature above her fought to drag her out. The jagged metal bit into her palms when she wrapped her hands around the bars, but she clung to them, and the safety that they promised. The creature was far stronger than her, and yanked her away, slicing deep, red trails through her palms and fingers.

It turned her towards its pale face, and hunger shined in its dark eyes as it raked its gaze over her.


Waverly gasped, and her eyes opened to find another dark wall in front of her.

Her heart hammered in her chest, and when she felt a heavy hand on her shoulder, she yelped and curled in on herself. The deep rumble of someone's voice stoked her fear, and she whimpered into the pillow.

The pillow.

Gradually, her breathing slowed as she realized she was no longer in the pit, or trapped in the clutches of that hulking creature. It was the wall of the house she had pressed herself against, not the dark stone from her nightmare. It was Curtis's deep voice she had heard, and his hand she felt upon her shoulder now, offering comfort. She relaxed beneath the touch, and took a calming breath.

She was safe.

When she rolled onto her back, she found Curtis hovering over her.

“I'm okay.”

She offered a weak smile to reassure him even as her eyelids drooped again. She was still so tired, the nightmares sapping what little energy sleep had provided, but the thought of going back to that place forced her eyes open. She was relieved to see the wooden ceiling still above her, and not the stone of the cave.

“Seems old Gus's brew was a little too potent. Knocked you right out,” Curtis said with a chuckle, but she could still hear a tinge of concern coloring the words. “Though it doesn't look like it did you much good with those nightmares.”

“It's helping. Headache is gone for now.” She didn't know how long it would last, and her head felt foggy, but she would enjoy the absence of pain while she could. “Nicole? Is she okay?”

She remembered a quiet conversation and the weight of a soft hand against her cheek, but she couldn't remember if it had been real or just another vision. So many had passed over the last few days. Some were only glimpses, while others lingered and branched off into more. They were tangling together, and she was struggling to tell them apart from the past and present.

Curtis smiled, which she took as a good sign. “She's better. Getting her bandages changed, though I suspect she won't be far from your side too much longer,” he said. “She's protective, that one.”

A small smile tugged at her lips.

Nicole was protective, but she was also brave, caring, and everything else Waverly had imagined Robert to be. She was the hero of the stories she had loved for so long.

And Waverly had hurt her.

The smile fell.

So what did that make her?

She pulled the blanket tighter against herself, and shook those thoughts from her head. If she dwelled on the question, she feared the respite from her headache would end long before another vision came.

“Now, I know you weren't feelin' well earlier,” Curtis said, and Waverly was grateful for the distraction, “but you mentioned the headache was gone for now, so maybe you'd like to try eating again, before it comes back.” He offered her the bowl of porridge Nicole had given her earlier, and she pushed herself up in the bed so she could take it from him. “It's cold, but still good, I promise.”

Now that her head had stopped pounding, her stomach no longer roiled at the smell. It wasn't like the meals she had at the castle—no one could prepare food like the cook—but it tasted better than the rations in the forest, and without the threat of her stomach rebelling, she was able to enjoy the sweet and smoky flavors that mingled on her tongue. After she had scraped the last of the oats from the wooden bowl, Curtis took it from her, and she gave him a small smile.

“You're very kind,” she said. “You and your wife both. You didn't have to take us in, but you did.”

He grinned. “Well, it's not often I come home to find a half-frozen group of people arguin' in front of my house. Even rarer that a walkin' corpse draws a sword on me to protect her friends.” He rubbed the back of his head. “S'pose I was intrigued.” The grin returned, and the corners of his dark eyes wrinkled. “Gus pretends she doesn't like when I'm intrigued, but I can tell she likes the three of you.”

“Really?”

“She hasn't tossed ya back out in the snow yet, has she?”

Waverly's eyes widened. “She wouldn't do that, would she?”

“Well—”

“Curtis, would you quit tellin' lies?”

The words startled both of them, and Gus's shadow soon fell over them. Curtis looked over his shoulder, and the rumble of a low laugh followed. Gus crossed her arms over her chest, but the expression on her face was far from scolding, despite her words. Her gaze fell to Waverly, and she smiled.

“Don't let him frighten you. He doesn't know what he's talking about,” she said. “Besides, I've only ever tossed one person back out into the snow, and he damn well deserved it for stumblin' home drunk and breakin' the door.”

Red colored Curtis's cheeks, and he dropped his gaze to the floor.

“You know how Jem and his girls are,” he muttered.

Gus rolled her eyes, and Waverly found herself smiling as she listened to them continue their banter, this time talking about whoever Jem and his girls were. The creak of the floorboards drew her gaze to the door, and she found Nicole hovering in the space of the doorway.

When she stepped further into the the room and closer to the flickering candlelight, Waverly's breath caught in her throat, and she swallowed several times to clear it.

Nicole still wore the trousers they had taken from the guard, but the uniform top had been cut away to reach her wound the night they had arrived. It had been replaced by a loose, dark blue tunic that fell past her hips. A small slit at the collar dipped towards her chest, and Waverly could see the clean, white bandages beneath. Her eyes widened at the sight of Nicole's hair. The locks that had once fallen past her shoulders now only reached her chin and shimmered in the candlelight, no longer darkened by sweat and blood.

The bed creaked when Nicole settled beside her, and Waverly fidgeted with the edge of the blanket that covered her legs. She exchanged words with Gus and Curtis, but they were muffled as Waverly focused on the strange pounding of her heart. She had nothing to be afraid of, yet it continued to beat as if she had just woken from one of her nightmares. Her hands twisted around the blanket.

Curtis's brow knit together in concern. “You alright?”

She shook her head and placed her hand against her chest, where her heart still hammered against her palm. She didn't know what was wrong, or how to voice it, and that was only causing her more distress. The soft, brown eyes watching her did nothing to ease the feeling.

“It feels strange,” she said. “Here, I mean.” She clarified by tapping her fingers against her chest. She dropped her hand down to her stomach. “And here, too. But not sick. Not like earlier. Just strange.”

Nicole placed her hand against Waverly's forehead. She frowned, and turned back to Curtis and Gus.

“Do you think it's a reaction to the tea you made her?”

Curtis laughed, but Gus elbowed him in the side to quiet him.

“No, I don't believe there's anything in my tea that causes those particular reactions.” She dropped her gaze to Waverly, and an amused smile softened her features. “Give it some time. I think you'll be just fine.”

Waverly hoped she was right.

“Well, with the blizzard still howlin' outside, we've got some things to take care of around here, and that friend of yours seemed like he might need the distraction,” Gus said. “We're only a shout away, should the two of you need anything.” She leveled her gaze at Nicole. “And I do mean shout. One of us is bound to hear you, so don't come to find us when you're supposed to be resting.”

Nicole nodded.

Satisfied with the response, Gus led Curtis away from the bedside, and he flashed the two of them another smile before he followed her out of the small, dark room. Once their figures had disappeared through the doorway, Nicole turned back towards her, and Waverly found herself caught in her warm gaze once more. Heat flooded her cheeks, and she ducked her head.

“Are you sure you're okay?”

“It's just...”

She forced herself to take a deep breath, followed by another. When her heartbeat gradually slowed, she breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever that reaction had been, it seemed Gus was right. It was only temporary.

“It's nothing,” she said, “but my head is still a little cloudy.”

“Gus mentioned that might happen,” Nicole said, nodding. “It should wear off soon.”

“I don't like it,” Waverly mumbled as her eyes slipped closed again. An image of a twisted, pale face with red-stained teeth flashed through her head. She stiffened, and forced her eyes open once more. She turned her head towards Nicole, and studied her to distract herself from the nightmare that now lurked in the corners of her thoughts. “You cut your hair.”

Nicole hummed. “Gus saved what she could,” she said, a tinge of sadness coloring her words. She took the ends between her fingers. “It'll take some getting used to.”

“I think it looks nice.”

Nicole blinked, but a smile slowly spread across her face, and Waverly found herself mirroring the expression even as the strange fluttering in her stomach started again.

She cleared her throat and schooled her features into a more neutral expression, but Waverly could see a hint of red coloring her cheeks.

She ran her fingers through the short locks. “Compared to the mess it's been since you've known me, this is probably an improvement. But thank you.” She sighed before she dropped her hand down to her lap. “You know, my mother used to braid it for me,” she said. “When I'd... When I'd braid it myself after she was gone, I'd remember those quiet, early mornings with my family, and it was like I had a piece of them with me that I could still touch.” Her fingers curled to form a loose fist. “Now it's gone, and it's silly, but it feels like I've lost them all over again.”

Waverly hesitated before she placed her hand over Nicole's. She had no words of comfort to offer—none that would soften Nicole's loss—but she could provide this, at least.

“I'm sorry you lost them,” she said. “And I'm sorry they aren't here to see the kind of person you've become.”

“And what kind of person is that?” Nicole asked, the words bitter. “The kind who lets her friends get captured? Killed even?”

Waverly shook her head. “No,” she said. “I was thinking more along the lines of the kind who tries to fend off a possible enemy, even though she can barely stand.” She debated with herself for a moment before she said in a softer voice, “Or the kind who takes an arrow to the shoulder, but keeps fighting to save her friends.” She gave Nicole's hand a soft squeeze. “I think your family would be proud of the person you've become.”

When Nicole didn't respond, Waverly thought she may have overstepped her bounds. She pulled her hand away and looked down at her lap.

“I'm sorry,” she said. “Maybe I'm not the person to talk to about this.”

“It's fine, Waverly. You didn't do anything wrong,” Nicole assured her. “I just... I forget, sometimes, how much I miss them.” A touch against her elbow made her look up. The smile on Nicole's face was smaller than the one earlier, subdued by the topic. “Thank you for saying they would be proud of me. It means a lot.”

Waverly started to respond, but a heavy pressure settled behind her eyes, and the room around her distorted, its edges blurring then fading until she could no longer see the walls of Gus and Curtis's home.

New colors bled into her sight, and when they settled, she found herself in a field, but the lush grass had been uprooted, churned into nothing more than clumps of dirt. Grey clouds covered the sky above, and a thick veil of fog had settled over the ground. Strangers clad in mismatched armor stood beside her, bruised, bloodied, and smudged with mud. All were still as they watched the scene unfolding in front of them.

A lone, dark-haired woman stood in the clearing, clutching a bloodied longsword in her hand. It glimmered in the fog, and the wind whipped at the woman's long hair.

Waverly had Seen glimpses of her before. Always in a tavern, always seated beside a man with a mischievous glint in his eyes that softened whenever his gaze fell upon her.

Now she stood at the front of a tense crowd with a different man lying at her feet. A hand—it looked more like a claw, upon closer inspection—grasped at her legs, but the squelch of metal parting flesh was heard as she pinned it to the ground with the sword. A pained scream pierced the air. She pulled it from his palm, and the sharp digits curled inward. The woman placed the tip of the blade against the man's heaving chest.

“Do you and your friends truly think you stand a chance against Robert?” The man laughed, despite the blade against chest. “You're all fools,” he shouted, turning his head towards the group. “Those of you who survive the carnage will only live long enough to be executed!”

The sword shook in the woman's hands, but her voice was steady as she said, “You made a deal with that woman. You thought it meant we couldn't defeat you. Look where you are now.” She pressed down, and a faint glow emanated from the handle, spilling between the cracks of her fingers. “Maybe Robert doesn't fear us yet,” she said, and plunged the sword deeper into his chest, “but he will when he learns what this can do.”

The light swirled from the handle and twisted its way along the blade until it reached the wound. The man's eyes burned red, and he squirmed against the light slipping into his chest. He clawed at the dirt, and the smell of burning flesh filled the air as the bright glow devoured his body. When the woman pulled the blade away, the glow dissipated, and only a charred shell was left at her feet. She looked up from the body to face the crowd, and Waverly could see the streak of blood that traveled from the back of her ear to the front of her neck, along with a raw scrape across her cheek.

The woman sheathed the sword and stumbled away from the charred corpse. Murmurs swelled through the crowd, building until the sound became a roar that shook Waverly's entire body with the strength of it. The woman's gaze met hers and widened slightly.

“Waverly?”

The voice was both familiar and strange at the same time, and Waverly's brow furrowed.

A moment later, she found herself back at the start of the vision, where the woman stood over the man once more. She held a sword, same as before, but when she pressed the tip against the man's chest, the bright glow never appeared. When it plunged through his flesh, a twisted smile appeared on his face.

The woman's eyes widened as he got to his feet. He wrapped a clawed hand around the blade protruding from his chest and pulled it free. He tossed the sword away, and it hit the ground with a thud. The woman stumbled back, but he was faster, and his hand was around her neck before she could escape. He turned her towards him, and the twisted smile on his face widened as he pulled his free hand back.

Waverly turned her head, but she still heard the sound of his clawed hand tearing through flesh, and the pained scream that followed.

“Waverly!”

The dull colors of the field melted away, and she gasped as the shadows of Gus and Curtis's home surrounded her once more. Pain hammered against her skull.

It seemed her brief respite had ended.

She groaned and closed her eyes. Her hands curled around the edge of the blanket, and she released a shaky breath before she turned towards the one who had called her name. She opened her bleary eyes and found Nicole watching over her.

“Not getting any easier, is it?”

“No,” Waverly said, her voice barely a whisper.

“Do you need more of Gus's tea?”

“Not yet. It makes my head feel funny, and it'll put me to sleep,” she said. “No, I think I'll wait. It's... It's not that bad right now.” It was a lie, and the way Nicole raised her eyebrows suggested she didn't believe it. “If it gets worse, I'll have more of the tea, but right now I'd rather stay awake as long as I can.”

Waverly didn't know how long that would be—she was exhausted, and already struggled to keep her eyes open—but Nicole sighed, and nodded in agreement. A quick knock drew both of their gazes to the door.

Curtis's figure filled the doorway. He stepped inside the room and, after looking over his shoulder, he closed the door behind him.

“Sorry to interrupt, but Gus and I heard shouting,” he said. “Wasn't quite what I expected to find when I came to check in on ya. Seemed a touch more frightening than the nightmares you've been havin'.”

Waverly sank lower in the bed and pulled the blanket up to her chin. She didn't know how she was supposed to explain what he had seen. Not without sounding like a freak.

It had been different in the castle.

With the Stone Witch's frequent visits and various displays of power, Waverly may have been an oddity, but at least she hadn't been the strangest—or the scariest—among them.

Curtis saved her from giving an explanation.

“Maybe it's not my place to say somethin',” he said, “but there's a friend of ours—well, I suppose she considers herself more of an acquaintance, really. Bit of a loner, that one, but she's got a good heart.” He shook his head at his own distraction. “I don't quite know what's ailing ya, but it seems like somethin' she would know about.”

Nicole narrowed her eyes. “And what, exactly, does this woman know about?”

Despite the closed door, Curtis looked over his shoulder again before he stepped closer to the bed. His voice was a whisper when he spoke again.

“I was jus' telling the little one over there about my friend Jem and his girls earlier,” he said, nodding towards Waverly. “Thing is, we met when one of his girls—Josephine—wandered here by mistake, clutching at her head and crying about the monsters whispering in her ear. Poor girl couldn't talk much beyond that,” he said. “We took care of her as best we could until Jem appeared on our doorstep a few days later, searching for her. Turns out he'd heard rumors of a woman not far from here, and he'd been desperate enough to make the journey to help his daughter, but she'd wandered off from their camp.”

Despite the pain pounding away at her skull, Waverly listened with rapt attention as Curtis told the story, and an ember of hope flickered to life.

“We knew the area better, so I helped him find the woman he'd been seeking while Gus watched over his other girls,” he said. “Now, Mattie and her family have lived here far longer than we have. She'd always been known for her crafting skills, but there had been whispers of other talents passed down through her family. The night she ushered us through her door, Jem and I got a glimpse of those talents.” He sighed and shook his head. “Whatever Josie'd been afflicted with, I watched that woman break the hold it had on her. Still can't put into words what it was I saw, but I'll always remember the grin on little Josie's face the next morning when she could spend the day in the sun without worrying about those whispers coming back to torment her.”

“And you think this woman could help Waverly?”

“I think she's worth talking to. At the very least, maybe she could take those nightmares away,” Curtis said. “But, you've got some time to make a decision. By the looks of it, storm out there won't be dyin' down for another couple of days.” He gave them a small smile. “Supper will be ready soon. It's a tomato soup. Nice and light, if you're feelin' well enough to eat.”

“Thank you, Curtis,” Waverly said. “For everything.”

“It's nothing, really,” he said. “Though, I'd appreciate it if you didn't mention it to Gus. She's not one to believe in the things she can't see, and she'll think I've been drinkin' too much if you bring it up.”

They agreed to keep the conversation secret from Gus, and after they assured him Waverly would be fine, Curtis left to check on the supper he had promised.

Once he had slipped through the door, Waverly sighed, and looked at Nicole, who chewed her lower lip.

“We don't have to see her,” she said, and Nicole lowered her gaze to meet hers. Waverly swallowed. “I mean, you don't have to see her. You and Fish, you can get back to the Resistance. I can go see this Mattie person on my own.”

“Not that I doubt your abilities, but you're not exactly in the best shape to be wandering around on your own.” Waverly started to object, but Nicole pressed on. “Even if you don't get lost, what happens when you have your visions? You go by yourself, you've got no one to watch out for you when you're most vulnerable. Maybe Robert's soldiers have been chased off by the storm, but the world is filled with people just as dangerous,” she said. “You shouldn't face them alone.” She offered a smile. “Besides, I told you we'd figure this out together, didn't I?”

Waverly nodded.

“Well, I'm not one to say something I don't mean.”

Tears pricked at her eyes, and Waverly quickly wiped them away with the back of her hand before she dropped her gaze down to her lap. Again, she found herself wondering how Nicole could be so kind to her after she had nearly gotten her killed.

The bed creaked, and she looked up from her lap to find Nicole standing on shaky legs.

“Gus isn't going to be happy if she catches you up and about.”

“I'm not going far,” Nicole assured her. “I need to talk with Fish about this Mattie woman. Figure out just how we're going to go about this. I promise I won't be gone long.”

“Nicole—”

But she had already started towards the door without her.

After Nicole disappeared into the next room, Waverly curled her knees towards her chest. A stab of pain just behind her eyes made her whimper and she took a steadying breath, then rested her cheek on her knee. She kept her gaze on the wall rather than the flickering flame of the candle. As she tried to block out the throbbing in her head, her thoughts drifted to the conversation Nicole would be having with Fish, but that did nothing to ease her discomfort.

What if he didn't agree to see Mattie?

After all, there was no guarantee the woman could help her, making the trip itself a gamble. It would mean another stop before they reached the safety of the Resistance camp. Nicole herself had mentioned the dangers that lurked—dangers they would risk facing on the off chance that Mattie might be able to help her.

She couldn't blame Fish if he would rather travel to the Resistance camp than help her.

Another stab of pain made her wince, and she dug her nails into the blanket. When it died back down to a dull throbbing behind her eyes, she released a shaky breath.

No, she couldn't blame Fish, but she also couldn't stomach the thought of suffering through the clusters of visions any longer than was necessary.

She pulled the blanket off her legs and swung them over the edge of the bed. Maybe if she spoke with him as well—she'd beg, if she had to—he'd be more likely to agree. As she approached the door, however, the sound of hushed voices gave her pause.

“I know you're attached to her, Nic—”

“That's not—”

“—And I understand, I really do, 'cause she's a sweet girl,” he said. “But she could be happy here. The way Gus and Curtis talk, I know they're already fond of her. It would be a new home. A chance at a normal life for her.”

“And when Robert's soldiers come knocking on their door after the storm dies down? What do you think happens then, Fish?” Nicole asked. “Do you think any of them get to live long enough to see the happy ending and the normal life you described?”

“I... I didn't think—”

“No, you really didn't,” Nicole said. “You can't tell me to look at the bigger picture when you haven't done the same.” Waverly heard her sigh. “She needs help, Fish, or those visions are going to drive her mad.”

“Fine,” he said. “I suppose if you insist on bringin' Robert's oracle back to the camp with us, the least we can do is make sure she's sane enough to be of some use.”

Waverly stumbled back from the door, and Fish's words rang in her ears as she crossed the room, back to the bed. They left an ache in her chest and made her eyes sting as she crawled back under the heavy blanket.

That must have been why Nicole had asked her to flee the castle with them, and why she was being so kind to her now.

Just like Robert, they only wanted to use her.

Chapter Text

The storm continued to rage.

The wind whipped against the cottage, and thick layers of snow piled in front of the windows, blotting out what little light penetrated the storm. Once again, Nicole found herself in a place where time went by unmeasured. Although she was grateful for the rest, an uneasiness settled over her as the uncounted days passed. It wasn't the dungeon, but she still felt like a prisoner as the wind howled outside.

She spent the time avoiding Fish, still raw from the conversation they'd had about Waverly.

Despite how the argument had ended, he was right about one thing.

Waverly could have been happy with Gus and Curtis. Under different circumstances, Nicole would have let her stay and have the life she had missed. But Waverly was no ordinary woman, and she knew Robert would not stop searching until Waverly was back in his grasp. Nicole would not risk the lives of Gus and Curtis. Not when they had already risked enough by sheltering them through the storm.

She told herself that was the only reason.

Rather than waste her energy arguing with Fish, she kept watch over Waverly, who continued to refuse Gus's tea until the headaches were unbearable.

Nicole understood she was avoiding the nightmares that sleep brought, but she also knew the headaches and visions were taking their toll on her. She had grown quiet and withdrawn. She kept herself curled beneath the blanket and tucked against the wall while Nicole sat beside her, studying maps Curtis had sketched for her. The nightmares chased away her appetite when the headaches didn't.

Nicole did her best to care for her, but as Waverly's condition worsened, she would find her thoughts drifting to Hayley, and she would have to quickly shake them away.

When Nicole couldn't look after her—whether it was because she had to sleep, or move before she went stir crazy—Curtis would pull a chair into the dark room and watch over Waverly. He always brought a small chest with him. From it, he would reveal the treasures he had gathered over the years and share the stories behind them.

One morning, Nicole awoke to the sound of Waverly whimpering beside her, and she sleepily rolled over and crossed her arm over Waverly's side so the palm of her hand rested against her stomach. Whether it was a vision or a nightmare, the action seemed to calm her.

The whimpers quieted, and Nicole enjoyed the moment of peace that followed.

Her brow furrowed.

It was quiet, the silence undisturbed by howling wind whipping against the cottage.

The storm had passed.

Waverly groaned and shifted beneath her arm until she rested on her back. Nicole opened one sleepy eye to find her staring up at the ceiling, but her expression was blank, and her thoughts seemed to be elsewhere, far from the small, stifling cottage.

The blankets shifted as Nicole pushed herself up and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. As she rose from the thin mattress, a dull pain pulsed from the wound across her back, but it was far easier to move now than it had been when they first fled the castle.

After one more glance at Waverly, she slipped into the next room and found Curtis at the large pot, stirring its contents. When she approached, he flashed his usual toothy smile before he handed her an empty bowl from the edge of the coal pit.

“Was thinkin' it wouldn't be long before you were up, 'specially with the storm ending last night,” he said as he scooped the porridge from the pot. Once her bowl had been filled, he settled the ladle against the edge of the pot. “How's the little one doing?”

His voice was soft, the way it always was when he asked after Waverly, but this time there was a touch of sadness behind it, and Nicole suspected it was because he knew they would be leaving now that the storm had passed.

“It's hard for me to say. I don't know anything about what she's going through, or how to ease it.” She sighed and shook her head. “She's awake now, you know. I need to speak with Fish, and I'm sure she would enjoy another history lesson before we leave, even if she doesn't feel much like talking.”

“So you'll be leavin' today then?”

Nicole nodded.

“The sooner we reach Mattie, the better,” she said. “I don't know how else I'm supposed to help her, and if Mattie can't do anything—”

Curtis placed his hand on her uninjured shoulder.

“She can ,” he said. “Now, you eat and have your talk with Fish. I'll go watch over the little one until you get back. Like you said, she might enjoy one more lesson before you leave.”

He gently patted Nicole's shoulder before he walked past her towards the small room she shared with Waverly. Before he reached the door, however, he paused and called Nicole's name. She quickly swallowed the spoonful of porridge and turned around, the spoon still dangling from her mouth.

“I know you're worried 'bout not being able to help her,” Curtis said, “but you've been helping jus' by stayin' close.”

Curtis's words lingered after he disappeared into the dark room. She could hear his muffled voice as he spoke with Waverly, and she pondered what he had said while she ate. Compared to the stories he could tell Waverly to take her mind off the pain in her head and the nightmares that haunted her, Nicole didn't feel like much of a comfort, especially after Waverly had become so withdrawn.

She tapped the spoon against the rim of the empty bowl before she shook her head and set it aside to wash later, after she finished her conversation with Fish. She took a deep breath, then limped her way through the door that opened into the living space at the front of the house.

The fire crackled in the hearth of the wide room, far warmer than the one she shared with Waverly. For the first time in days, soft rays of sunlight trickled in through the window. Fish sat beside Gus on the cot—it had become his after Nicole joined Waverly—where he helped her sharpen the blades of her cooking knives. The orange and black cat had curled at his feet, its tail covering its face as it snored softly. Clanton lay sprawled in front of the hearth. His tail wagged at the sight of Nicole, but he didn't move from the warmth of the fire aside from letting his tongue hang from the side of his mouth.

“Good mornin',” Gus said without looking up from the blade in her hands. “I trust you've already eaten?”

Nicole nodded. “Yes. Thank you,” she said. “I was wondering if it would be at all possible for me to steal Fish from you for a moment?”

Gus stopped the motion of her hands and looked up from the knife. “Might need him for longer than a moment if you're plannin' on packing up to leave,” she said, and Nicole shifted her weight from one foot to the other before she nodded again. Gus nudged Fish, and he sighed before he set the paring knife aside. She tsk'd and said, “Now don't grouse about it.”

The cat at Fish's feet let out a soft mewing sound when he stood and joined Nicole. He looked around the room to avoid her gaze, and she realized he must have still been smarting from the argument they'd had as well.

Rather than have the conversation in the house, Nicole led Fish to the door. She pulled their cloaks off the hooks on the wall and once they had been tied around their necks, they slipped outside into the crisp, fresh air. She squinted against the bright light bouncing off the snow until her eyes adjusted, then turned to face Fish.

“I just wanna talk before we leave,” she said, her breath causing a puff of white mist to form between them. He glanced at her, but quickly dropped his gaze back to the snow at their feet. “I know you think this is a mistake, and maybe it is, but we joined the resistance to protect people, Fish, and that includes people like Waverly.” Her expression softened. “I know you're hurting, but Levi—”

“Don't.” He looked up and met her eyes. “Don't try to tell me what Levi would have wanted. He's not here, and no amount of doing whatever he would have wanted is going to bring him back,” he said. “Now, I've already agreed to bringing Waverly back to camp, but I won't pretend to be happy about the consequences that could bring down on our heads.”

Nicole tilted her head to the side. “Consequences like Robert hunting us down to imprison and execute us all?” she asked. “Because that's already what he's been doing, Fish. Whether we have Waverly with us or not, we're going to be targets same as we've always been. You knew that when you joined us.” She bit her lip, then placed her hand on Fish's shoulder. “And so did Levi.”

“That idiot,” he said, his voice hoarse, but he didn't pull away from her touch. “Never touched a sword in his life, but he came with me anyway." He shook his head. "If he'd had a bit of sense at all, he'd have just stayed home, but the damned fool had to go and follow me into a fight he wasn't ready for.”

“Of course he followed you,” she said. “He loved you, Fish.”

“Idiot,” he repeated. “Idiot, idiot, idiot.”

The words were broken by a harsh sob, and Fish covered his mouth to contain it, but Nicole pulled him towards her. His frame folded against hers, and she wrapped her arms around him as he finally allowed his heart to break. He shook in her embrace and clung to her, as if hoping she could somehow replace the one he had lost.

When the sobs died, Nicole loosened her grip, and Fish pulled away, wiping the tears from his face with the back of his hand. So much had happened since Levi's death, there hadn't been time to mourn. Now wasn't the time either, but at least Fish had been able to release the emotions that had been building since that night. He deserved the time to mourn though, and he would not find it until he reached the safety of the camp.

“Fish?” He looked at her with glassy eyes, wet with fresh, quiet tears. “I want you to go ahead of us.” He tilted his head to the side. “What I mean is, I want you to head back to camp before us.”

“Nic—”

“You'll move faster alone. That storm bought us some time from Robert's soldiers, and you shouldn't waste it waiting on Waverly and me.” She gave him a soft smile. “They'll be happy to know we're alive, and you'll be able to truly mourn Levi.”

Fish rubbed the back of his neck. “It doesn't feel right, leaving you behind.” He dropped his gaze back to the snowy ground. “I can't lose you, too, Nic.”

“You won't. I promise,” she said, and placed her hand on his shoulder again. “This isn't a forever kind of goodbye. Mattie's home isn't far from here.”

He sighed. “Fine,” he said, “but you'd better keep your word and be quick on my heels, or Xavier will kill me.”

Nicole laughed before a cold breeze slipped beneath her cloak and made her shiver. She took one more breath of the fresh air before she slung her arm over Fish's shoulder and guided him back inside so they could pack for the coming journey.


Curtis's voice sounded muffled to Waverly's ears as she stared up at the ceiling in the dark room, but they had a slow, gentle rhythm to them that distracted her from the stabbing pain in her head. Even if she couldn't quite follow along with what he was saying, the sound was soothing. Then his voice quieted, and when she finally turned her head, he was no longer at her side, but out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of the pale figure from her nightmares lurking in the darkness at the edge of her bed. She sucked in a sharp breath at the sight, but the figure disappeared when Curtis entered the room again, a steaming bowl in his hands as he settled beside the bed once more.

Soft words were spoken while he gently guided her into a sitting position and handed her the bowl of warm broth. The smell made her stomach turn, and her nose crinkled.

“Jus' try to sip a little of it,” Curtis said. “Can't have you leavin' without at least a little food in your belly.”

Leaving.

They were leaving.

Some days, she thought they had already left, but then she would come back to her senses, and she'd be back in the dark room with a pounding in her head as the realization dawned on her that it had only been a vision. But now they were truly leaving, and Waverly couldn't find it in her to be happy about it.

Not when she knew what awaited her after Mattie helped her.

She felt Curtis's eyes on her and, not wanting him to worry, she brought the bowl to her lips and tried not to grimace as she sipped the broth. Despite the way her stomach twisted, she drained the bowl until it was empty and handed it back to Curtis. The soup threatened to reappear a moment later, but she forced it back down before she leaned her back against the wall and closed her eyes, only to open them again when she heard a soft knock at the door.

Nicole stood in the doorway, and after exchanging a few words with Curtis, she stepped further into the room and he left to give them their privacy. Waverly released a quiet breath and turned her head away as Nicole approached.

“Gus thought these might fit you,” Nicole said, and Waverly wished her voice wasn't so gentle. If Nicole just wanted to use her, she'd rather she said it directly instead of hiding it behind soft words and comforting touches. “They should be warmer than what you have now, and maybe a little more resistant to the snow.”

Waverly took the bundle of clothes without a word, and Nicole cleared her throat before she turned away. Waverly shifted so she sat on the edge of the bed before she tugged the thick, wool stockings over her feet, followed by the heavy trousers to cover her bare legs, and a pair of leather boots that were snug against her feet. She pulled the white tunic over her sleep shift for extra warmth and slipped thick gloves over her hands.

The last item was the cloak Nicole had given her in the forest.

She draped it over her shoulders, trying not to think of the warm feeling that spread through her body as she fastened it around her neck.

Once she was dressed, Waverly slowly stood from the bed and stepped around Nicole to leave the small room. When she reached the wide room at the front of the house, she winced at the bright light of the fire that assaulted her eyes and hissed as the pain in her head worsened. Heavy hands on her shoulders steadied her, and Curtis's frame blocked some of the light.

“Jus' a few more days, Waverly,” he told her. “Mattie will take good care of you.”

She gave him a weak smile, and he pulled her into a hug.

In all the years she had lived in the castle, she couldn't remember a time when Robert had hugged her, yet a man she had only known for a short while—a man who wanted nothing from her in return—had freely embraced her, simply because he would miss her. A tight knot formed in her chest as she stepped away from him and turned towards Gus, who had a more subdued smile on her face.

“Be safe out there,” she said. Her gaze drifted behind Waverly, and she realized Nicole must have joined them. “I don't want the two of you showing up at my door a bloody mess again, you understand?”

Waverly's brow furrowed. “Two?”

“Fish already went on ahead to find our friends,” Nicole said from behind her. “I thought it might do him some good.”

“Speaking of doing some good,” Gus said before she gave a sharp whistle. The dog sprawled in front of the hearth scrambled to his feet and trotted to her side. When he sat beside her, his thick tail swept from side to side. “We'd like you to take Clanton and the sled with you.”

“That really isn't necessary,” Nicole said. “We'll be okay.”

Gus quirked an eyebrow. “Alright,” she said. “Draw the sword at your hip without wincing, then let me see you take a few swings.”

Silence fell over them and the crackle of the flames was all Waverly heard until the smooth sound of metal sliding against the leather scabbard filled the room. Curiosity getting the best of her, she looked over her shoulder at Nicole, who stood further back in the dark room. Her brow was furrowed in concentration and she took a deep breath before doing as Gus asked. She managed three swings before the sword fell from her hand and clattered against floor as she clutched at her shoulder. The short demonstration had her gritting her teeth in pain as she knelt down to retrieve the fallen sword.

“You might be healed enough to limp your way to Mattie's house, but you've gotta accept you can't fight yet,” Gus said as Nicole sheathed the sword. “Clanton is a good dog though. He'll protect you like you were his own, and he's strong enough to pull the sled for you.”

For a moment, the frustration was plain to see on Nicole's face, but she quickly schooled her features into a more neutral expression and straightened. Her tone was polite as she spoke again, but sharpened by the frustration she felt with herself.

“Thank you,” she said. “You didn't have to do any of this. I don't know how to repay you.”

“You can start by not winding up dead because you were too stubborn to admit you needed help.”

Nicole blushed and ducked her head.

“Alright now, Gus. That's enough. You've made your point,” Curtis said. “I'll get Clanton hooked to the sled and their supplies loaded.” He leaned over and placed a kiss against Gus's head. She rolled her eyes, but smiled anyway. “You be nice while I'm gone.”

“I'm always nice.”

Curtis chuckled at that, but didn't argue. Instead, he slipped out the front door, and Clanton was close on his heels, his thick tail wagging as he clumsily pranced at his owner's side.

While he was gone, Nicole guided Waverly to the cot pressed against the wall. Waverly would have preferred the soft darkness of the small room, but she supposed she needed to acclimate to the brightness sooner rather than later, or the journey would be even more miserable.

Her gaze drifted to Nicole, who had gone to their packs—it seemed Gus and Curtis were determined not to let them leave empty-handed—and checked over their supplies. Gus knelt beside her, and even though Waverly couldn't hear the conversation, she did hear Nicole's defeated sigh, and she saw the tension in her body as she pulled away from the older woman and stood once more. She joined Waverly on the cot, but stayed quiet.

Neither of them broke the silence, both absorbed in their own thoughts.

After the sled was hitched and loaded, Curtis called them outside into the cold air. Nicole and Gus exchanged their final words near the door to the cottage—most likely Gus reminding her, yet again, not to strain herself on the journey—and Curtis came to stand by Waverly near the sled, his shadow blocking the bright rays of the sun bouncing off the snow.

“You'll be better in no time. Mattie will know how to help you,” he told her. “And when the two of you come back, maybe you can tell me a few stories of your own. I've been told you have a knack for it.”

The most she could offer him was a wan smile in response.

It wasn't long before Nicole joined her side. She exchanged a soft goodbye with Curtis, and Waverly thought she may have heard her voice crack around the words. Curtis was kind enough not to mention it. He placed his hand on her uninjured shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze as he wished them a safe journey.

Soon they were trudging through the thick snow, leaving the safety of the warm cottage behind.

It was a quiet trek, the silence between them only broken by Clanton's breaths as he pulled the sled and the sound of the runners cutting through the snow. He kept a consistent pace with Nicole, remaining close to her side so he could nudge his large head against Nicole's hand.

The sparse trees that had surrounded the cottage became further and further apart until they had left the forest completely. For a moment, she found her breath stolen by the sight of the wide fields that greeted them, and she forgot the pounding in her head. The sky stretched above them towards the horizon, the deep blue only broken at the edges by the snow-covered hills in the distance. Even in her visions, Waverly had never seen anything like it, and she stumbled over her own feet as she tried to absorb the world around her that suddenly seemed so much bigger than any of the maps in the castle had prepared her for.

“Careful.”

Nicole's voice broke the spell.

“I'm fine,” Waverly said, even as she became aware of the dull pain pulsing behind her eyes once more. She sighed and dropped her gaze to the ground, squinting against the brightness of the fresh snow as they continued on their way.

As the day pressed on in silence, the pounding in her head worsened. Without the cover of the trees, there were drifts of snow that rose to Waverly's knees, making it cumbersome for her to trudge her way through. Those were the times she found it easier to follow in Nicole's footsteps rather than trying to forge her own trail.

Yet there was a time when the snow melted away completely, and the crushing quiet was replaced with the crackle of fire as Waverly found herself in a room that was well-kept despite the immense number of tools that surrounded her. Each item seemed to have its own spot, and even those that had been laid out on the wide wooden table pressed near the wall were neatly arranged.

Then the cold snap of air chilled her skin once more, and she was back in the snowy fields. It took a moment to reorient herself, but it wasn't long before she realized there was a steady hand at her hip, guiding her. Puzzled, Waverly looked over her shoulder at the trail of footprints behind her. It seemed she had veered off course, but the tracks of the sled and Nicole's steps joined hers, and the trail arced slightly until they were back on course to Mattie's.

She cleared her throat and pulled away from Nicole's touch, muttering a soft apology.

Quiet followed once more as they continued their trek. Occasionally, Waverly would catch Nicole glancing towards her, most likely making sure she hadn't begun to wander again.

It was necessary, Waverly realized, as she would sometimes slip back into that place with the crackling fire and the unfamiliar tools, only to blink and find herself back in the open field, Nicole's hand at her hip guiding her again.

She never wandered as far as she had the first time it happened.

When they stopped to eat, the hills in the distance seemed just as far away as they had when they'd left the forest. If Nicole was discouraged, she didn't show it as she sat on the sled, splitting a piece of dried meat with Clanton as she studied the crudely drawn map in her lap. Waverly sat beside her, her own thoughts cloudy from the headache and the glimpses of the place that her head kept showing her.

She shook her head at the meat Nicole offered, her stomach still churning from the broth she had forced down earlier. Nicole frowned, but tucked it away before returning her attention to the map. Waverly studied the map as well, following the line that traveled along the parchment dotted with crude drawings of what she assumed were supposed to be landmarks. It was nothing like the ones Waverly had used in the castle when she searched for the bones for the Witch, but Nicole didn't seem to have a problem reading it. Waverly watched as she carefully rolled the map and put it away. She made a mental note of which bag Nicole stowed it in before they continued their journey once more.

When they stopped again, the sun had begun to sink below the horizon. Waverly shivered and pulled her cloak tighter against her torso and watched from the sled as Nicole moved with a sense of purpose. The harness removed from his chest, Clanton stayed at Nicole's side as she shifted the snow away from the sled and piled it into a sturdy wall to block the wind. While she worked on the barrier, Waverly tried to make herself useful as well.

After she found the thick furs Gus and Curtis had given them, she pushed the packs into a pile at the back of the sled, forming a small wall to block the wind, as well as something to rest their heads against through the night while Nicole slept. The one with the map was carefully placed at the outer edge of the rough pile.

“Sorry there's nothing to make a fire with,” Nicole said as she settled beside Waverly on the sled. “Curtis said there should be a few more trees once we reach the hills, though.”

She nodded absently, her thoughts on the approaching night, and the days that would follow. Her gaze fell to the bag that held the map, then drifted to the hills in the distance.

As kind as Nicole had been while they had stayed with Curtis and Gus, the conversation she had overheard with Fish had twisted every gesture and moment of comfort into something far darker. As much as she craved the warmth Nicole exuded, she had to remind herself Nicole wasn't trying to be her friend. She had already mistaken kindness for caring and friendship once with Robert.

She refused to make the same mistake again.

Nicole offered her another scrap of dried meat, along with a slice of bread and a chunk of cheese. After a moment of deliberation, Waverly took it and tried to eat as much of it as she could before her stomach protested. Some of the worry that had lined Nicole's features slipped away.

After they had shared the meal, Nicole settled against the packs Waverly had piled at the edge of the sled and pulled the furs up to her chin. The hood of her cloak protected what the blankets could not. Although she didn't plan to sleep, Waverly joined her beneath the furs, and Clanton curled up at the front of the sled, warming their feet.

Waiting for Nicole to fall asleep was excruciating. The seconds dragged by as Waverly listened to her soft breathing, waiting for it to even out. Her own exhaustion had become a constant companion, one that was far more welcome than the nightmares that awaited her if she slept.

When the sound of her breathing was finally punctured by the occasional soft snore, Waverly released a breath of her own, but waited longer still.

Once she was sure Nicole was truly asleep, she slowly pushed her half of the furs to the side so none of the frigid air would slip beneath and disturb the woman beside her. The dog at the end of the sled lifted his head as she moved and wagged his tail. She glanced back at Nicole to make sure she hadn't woken, then turned back to Clanton. Carefully, she slid off the sled and grabbed the bag with the map as she moved. Before the dog could bark, she reached forward and rubbed his head, then scratched behind his ears. His tongue lolled out of the side of his mouth and he closed his eyes, content with the attention. Convinced that he wouldn't bark, she leaned forward and gave him a light kiss on his snout. She pressed her forehead against his, taking comfort in the contact.

When she pulled away, her eyes stung.

“Take care of her, okay?” she asked, and Clanton tilted his head to the side. “Get her back to Gus and Curtis safely.”

He whined when she stood, but settled his chin on the sled. She slung the small pack over her shoulder and, after one last glance at Nicole, she started the rest of the journey alone.

An ache settled in the center of her chest as she trudged through the snow toward the hills, but she pressed forward despite the small voice telling her to turn back. It was a slow pace she kept, her steps faltering whenever her mind was taken back to that room with the tools and the wide table. Several times, she would come back to herself and continue walking, only to realize too late that she had veered off course. Without Nicole there to guide her, she spent more time backtracking to get where she needed to be, and the pounding in her head worsened.

The sky had brightened to a pale grey when Waverly finally reached the hills. She shivered in the brisk morning air as she trudged through the thick snow, her teeth chattering. She stopped for a moment, pulled the map from her bag with shaky hands, and unrolled it. Exhaustion blurred the rough drawings on the parchment, and she blinked several times to get her eyes to focus correctly. Once she was sure she knew where she was going, she rolled the map up once more and stowed it away.

She took her first step into the valley between the low hills, but a sharp pain stabbed through her skull, and she stumbled forward. She clutched at her head, tangling her fingers in her hair, and cried out as she fell to her knees. The world around her melted away, bleeding into the cold stone of the throne room back at Robert's castle.

The wooden map had been set up on the wide stone table against the wall, and the game pieces covered it. Robert loomed over it, rolling a marble figurine between his fingers as he contemplated the board, and Waverly felt hollow. She had spent so many evenings sitting across from him, learning how to play. The pride she had seen on his face when he realized how easily she could learn had made her giddy. It felt like he had cared.

But it had all been a lie. A well crafted one, but a lie nonetheless.

As Robert finally placed the piece on the board, a shrill voice split the quiet of the throne room, and a cold chill crawled along Waverly's spine.

“Where is she?!”

Robert looked up from the map and found the Witch in the wide doorway, her normally well-kept hair wild beneath her fur hat. Her fury was palpable as she took long strides into the room to join Robert at the table. He returned his gaze to the wooden map, studying the pieces.

“Don't ignore me, Robert. Where is that brat of yours hiding?” she asked. “I've spent more than enough time feeling like a fool, digging through the snow for nothing because your little pet is a lying sack,” she said. “Now you are going tell me where she is so I can—”

“I don't know where she is.”

The Witch blinked, but the surprise quickly morphed into a scowl.

“You don't know where she is?" She rolled her eyes. "Please, Robert. It's a big castle, but it isn't big enough to lose someone in,” she said. “Now stop trying to protect her. I'll make her lesson quick.” She paused, considering the words. “Well, maybe not.”

His fist clenched around the stone figurine.

“No, I mean she's not here, Constance,” he said. When he opened his hand again, the figurine fell to the floor in pieces. “She ran. She freed those damned rebels, and she ran with them.”

The Witch's sharp laughter made Waverly cringe. When Robert didn't seem to share her amusement, the laughter died and her eyes narrowed into a glare.

“You mean to tell me, Robert, that your little pet—the one you insisted was loyal—turned on you?” She scowled. “Worse, you let her get away?”

“I didn't let her do anything,” Robert said.

“You certainly let her get the best of you.” She jabbed her finger into his chest. “The one person who could help us find my sons, and you lost her. And you want me to keep my end of the bargain?” She scoffed. “Without that girl, my boys will only remain bones. Why should you be rewarded for a job left unfinished?”

Robert scowled, and grabbed the Witch by her wrist. “I did not waste my days digging in the dirt, only for you to go back on your word, Constance,” he growled. “You made a promise and you will keep it.”

“Oh, dear Robert,” she said, shaking her head, “I've granted you so much strength over the years, and this is how you repay me? With threats?”

Her eyes glowed a bright blue, and her free hand wrapped around Robert's throat. The sound of choking reached Waverly's ears, and he released the Witch's wrist to claw at the hand at his throat, but the Witch only tightened her grip. When his face began to redden, she laughed and tossed him against the wall as if he were no more than a child's doll. His head cracked against the stone wall, and he crumpled to the floor beside the table that held the wooden map.

He struggled to lift himself up again, but the Witch's hand was at his throat once more, and she held him there against the wall, nails digging into his skin and her knee buried in his stomach. From her coat, she pulled a familiar knife with a bright white edge and pressed the flat of the blade against his cheek. A sizzling sound and the smell of burning flesh made Waverly cover her mouth and step back.

“How quickly you forget,” the Witch hissed, pressing harder on the blade as she dragged it across his skin.

The scream that followed was foreign to Waverly's ears. In all the years that she had stayed in the castle, she had never heard him cry out in pain, yet the Witch had drawn out the sound effortlessly. When she pulled the blade away, Robert was breathing heavily, trying to regain his composure. A smoldering, blistered burn marred his cheek. Above the burn, just below his eye, the edge of the knife had left a deep cut. He quickly covered his cheek with his hand. She took his chin between her slender fingers and forced him to look at her.

“You think you have power?” She laughed and shook her head. “You have scraps. Compared to mine, it might as well be nothing.”

A sickly smile appeared on her face and she pressed the blade against his lips, though this time it didn't burn. Robert glared up at her, but she stroked his unmarked cheek with the back of her fingers. Anger burned in his dark eyes, but he ran his tongue along the flat of the blade, licking away the trickle of blood left behind on the steel.

“Good.”

Satisfied, she tucked it into her jacket as she stood. He started to rise as well, only for her to press her foot against his chest and pin him against the wall. The bright glow had left her eyes, but her words still sent a shiver down Waverly's spine.

“We will find her, Robert,” she said. “And when we do, you will let me deal with her myself.”

The throne room dissolved and the cold air greeted her once more. The headache was quick to follow, but she could only focus on the Witch's last words as she knelt in the snow. Her heart hammered painfully and she clutched at her chest, trying to calm it. She struggled to breathe around the fear lodged firmly in her throat.

The Witch was going to find her.

“Waverly?!”

Nicole's voice.

That had sounded like Nicole's voice. Waverly shook her head. Nicole couldn't be here. She had left her behind. She was supposed to go back to the life she had had before Waverly had ruined it, not come after her.

“Waverly!”

The voice was accompanied by the sound of a dog's bark and the crunch of snow beneath hurried steps. Then Nicole was kneeling in the snow in front of her, inspecting her, and Waverly couldn't meet her eyes.

“Shit...” Nicole moved from Waverly's line of sight, only to return a moment later and drape something heavy over her shoulders. One of the furs, Waverly realized when Nicole helped her stand. She nearly lost her footing as they walked back to the sled. “Careful.”

Once she was settled on the sled with her head resting on the packs, Nicole covered her with the second blanket and tucked the edges in at her sides. Her mouth was drawn in a thin, hard line. There was also worry and concern etched in the crease of her brow, but Waverly couldn't figure out why.

“I'm going to get us somewhere warm, okay? You're going to be alright.”

Waverly closed her eyes and shook her head.

She wasn't going to be alright.

Not if the Witch found her.


The cave Nicole found wasn't much, but it blocked the occasional gust of wind that blew through the valley. She dropped the leather strap in her hand and flexed her stiff fingers before she freed Clanton from his harness. Once he was free, Nicole walked back to Waverly, who, thankfully, still watched her with tired eyes. She had been so cold when Nicole found her in the snow, she was worried she would fall asleep on the sled, never to awaken again. But she was awake, and she mumbled as Nicole helped her from the sled and led her deeper into the cave.

After she had her settled on the ground, Nicole covered her with the furs again and called Clanton's name. He was happy to obey, and quickly trotted to her side, his tail wagging. She pointed to the space beside Waverly, and he wiggled his way beneath the furs.

“I'll be back. Is it too much to ask that you don't run off while I'm gone?”

When she didn't get an answer, she sighed and shook her head, but returned to the sled. She cleared the supplies that had been piled at the back, then took the leather strap in hand and left the cave in search of firewood, lugging the sled behind her. Although the valley wasn't bursting with tall, thick trees like the forest, she had made a mental note of several smaller trees dotting the snowy valley while she helped Clanton pull the sled.

That would be enough for now.

The trek took her further from the cave than she would have liked, but when she returned, branches and twigs covered the sled in a wide, messy pile. She checked over Waverly once more, happy to find her skin no longer felt like ice against the back of her hand, then returned to the mouth of the cave to start the fire.

Once the sticks had been set and a nest of dried tinder placed in the space beneath them, she fumbled with the flint and knife until several sparks caught the tinder. Slowly, the flame twisted its way around the thin twigs, and Nicole fed the fire with smaller branches. It was small and somewhat pathetic at first, but once the flames began to eat at the thicker branches, she felt its warmth spread throughout the cave.

With the fire finally burning brightly, Nicole returned to Waverly's side. She heard the soft thud of Clanton's tail beneath the furs as she pressed the back of her hand against Waverly's forehead. A soft sigh of relief followed, and she settled herself against the stone wall. She winced as the rough rock pressed against her back and the aches from the day's activities made themselves known.

So much for not straining herself.

“Why did you come after me?”

The question drew Nicole's gaze from the fire, and she found Waverly studying her with bloodshot eyes.

“Why did I come after you?” Nicole repeated. “I think the better question here is why did you run away? Waverly, you could have died. You almost did.” She shook her head. “I came after you because I promised to help you, and that's what I'm going to do.”

“And then what?” There was an unexpected edge to the question that made Nicole blink in surprise. “What happens after Mattie is able to help me? If she is able to help me? I just go with you and become some kind of tool or pet for the Resistance instead of Robert?” she asked. “I know I've made my mistakes, and I will gladly spend my life trying to correct them, but I won't be used like that again. Not even by you.”

“By me?” Nicole's brow furrowed. “What are you talking about?”

“' The least we can do is make sure she's sane enough to be of some use, '” Waverly said. “Or were you and Fish talking about someone else that night?”

Nicole narrowed her eyes. “That's what this has been about?” She took a deep breath and ran her fingers through her hair, trying to rein in her emotions before she spoke again. “Waverly, I don't want to use you. Like I told Fish, you're a person, not a tool. If you had bothered to eavesdrop on the rest of the conversation, you would know that.”

“Then what do you want, Nicole?” Waverly asked. “Because I can't figure it out.”

“What do I want?”

The frustration and fear she had felt since she awoke without Waverly beside her finally slipped from her control.

“What I want is to forget what that boy told me down in the dungeon. What I want is to forget the way you looked at me when I asked if it was true,” she said. “But every time I move, I'm forced to remember you hurt me, and I can't change that.”

“Then why help me?”

“Because more than anything, I want my friend back.” The words hung between them in the quiet cave until Nicole cleared her throat and pressed on. “I can't forget what happened, Waverly, but I have been trying so hard to work through it so I can forgive you.” She shook her head and got to her feet, wincing at the muscles that protested the movement. “I guess that doesn't matter, though. You've already made up your mind about what it is I want.”

“Nicole...”

“I'm going to keep an eye on the fire,” was all she said before she returned to the mouth of the cave.

She pulled one of the longer sticks from the sled and settled herself near the small fire she had built. After adding more branches to the flames, she prodded at the coals that had piled on the ground. The flames danced over the end of her stick, and Nicole frowned as she watched it burn.

It would be easier, she imagined, if her motivations for helping Waverly were as simple as wanting to use her. That would actually make sense, at least.

Instead, she'd been stuck with a mix of swirling emotions that complicated everything.

Although the initial hurt and anger she had felt at learning of Waverly's involvement in the ambush had lessened, traces of it still lingered. While they had stayed with Curtis and Gus, it had often butted heads with the fondness Nicole had come to have for the woman. Yet when she awoke in the middle of the night to find Waverly gone and her footprints in the snow, what remained of the hurt and anger was gone.

All she had felt was fear.

She poked at the coals again and watched as sparks rose in the air towards the roof of the cave before she added her stick to the fire and stood. She stretched her arms towards the roof of the cave, then dug through the supplies to find the provisions. Once she found it, she seated herself in front of the fire again with the pack settled between her legs. She already missed the warm porridge and tomato soup Gus and Curtis had prepared at the cottage, but the dried meat she absently chewed now as she watched the flames wasn't terrible.

After she had finished her own meal, she carried the pack to the back of the cave where Waverly still rested beneath the furs. She placed the pack beside her, noting the way Waverly couldn't bring herself to look her in the eyes, then crossed over to Clanton. She crouched in front of him and offered him a strip of meat she had plucked from the bag. While he ate, she rubbed his neck.

“I'm getting more firewood. I'll be back soon. Make sure she eats, too,” Nicole said loud enough for Waverly to hear. He answered by licking her cheek. She scratched behind his ear and said, “Good boy.”

She winced as she stood up again and returned to the mouth of the cave, where she tightened the cloak around her neck and tugged the gloves back over her hands. The cold was hard to face after the warmth of the fire in the cave, but as she stepped back into the snow with the sled behind her, she told herself it would be worth the trouble to have a warm night of sleep.

She trudged through the snow, crossing from one scraggly tree to the next. She pulled off the thickest branches she could find and collected whatever scraps of bark she could pry off with her knife. It was a mindless activity, one that should have allowed her to sort through the conversation with Waverly as she worked.

Yet all she could think about was what would have happened if she hadn't found her in time. Waverly had already been far too cold when Nicole finally caught up with her. If she had woken with the sun rather than in the middle of the night, she imagined it would have been a far different outcome when she found Waverly again.

Her fingers fumbled with the knife in her hand and she cursed when it landed in the snow, but didn't move to retrieve it. Instead, she pressed her forehead against the tree and closed her eyes as she took a shaky breath to calm herself.

Waverly is in the cave , she reminded herself. She's safe .

Another breath, then she swiped at her eyes and retrieved the fallen knife. Once she had wiped the snow from the blade and handle, she returned to the task at hand, though this time she focused all of her attention on collecting more fuel for the fire and refused to let her thoughts wander back to that place where she hadn't found Waverly in time.

When she returned to the cave, it was still light enough for her see, but the sky had turned a dark violet as twilight fell upon the valley. The fire still burned in the cave, though not as brightly as when she had left. After pulling the sled inside, she quickly fed the flames more of the branches she had harvested from the trees, then glanced over her shoulder at the back of the cave.

Waverly was still there, curled on her side while Clanton snored next to her.

Nicole rubbed the back of her neck, then settled herself against the pile of packs she had shoved against the cave wall earlier. It wasn't terribly uncomfortable, and as she watched the fire climb the branches, she felt her eyelids drooping until she dozed off.

A sudden weight over her torso woke her from the light sleep, but when she opened her eyes, she realized it was only one of the furs. The bags shifted as Waverly sat beside her and leaned against them. Nicole muttered a soft 'thank you' before she turned away and squeezed her eyes shut. A moment later, she sighed and rolled onto her back again. She found Waverly sitting with her legs pulled up to her chest and her chin resting on her knees. She caught a wince of pain, most likely caused by another headache.

“Did you eat?”

Waverly nodded, then turned her head so her cheek rested on her knee as she looked at Nicole.

“I'm sorry,” she said. “I never wanted to believe you would use me, and it hurt to think of you doing that, but it made more sense than the alternative.” She shifted her gaze back to the fire. “I spent nearly a decade with Robert, and he was always so kind to me. Maybe a little stoic at times, but I was never afraid of him. I thought he was my friend.” She shook her head. “But after all of those years, I meant so little to him that he tried to kill me. He would have if it hadn't been for Levi.” She bit her lip before she continued. “It didn't make sense. If I was worth so little to the man who raised me, how could someone I had hurt so badly actually care about me?”

“And then you heard the conversation with Fish,” Nicole said.

Waverly nodded. “It hurt to hear, but at least it made sense. Be kind to me, get me to come back to the camp with you, and then use me the same way Robert did,” she said. “But that wasn't fair to you, Nicole, and I'm sorry.”

As Nicole listened to Waverly speak, she felt a new wave of sadness for her. It wasn't just Lord Robert that had hurled a spear at her the night they fled the castle, but someone she considered her family. Her only family, as far as Nicole knew. She bit her lip, then slowly sat up. After a moment of deliberation, she placed her hand on Waverly's shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze, which earned her a soft smile.

It was a step in the right direction, she decided as she lay back down and closed her eyes. Waverly settled beside her a moment later, and she heaved a sigh of relief before she let herself drift back to sleep.

When morning came, Nicole awoke to the bright rays of the sun and Waverly sitting beside her, knees pulled to her chest the way they had been the night before. Rather than ask if she'd managed to get any sleep at all—a question she felt she already knew the answer to—she forced herself up and started breaking camp.

Clanton pranced along beside her as she gathered their things, his tongue hanging from the side of his mouth. Waverly helped her stack the supplies at the back of the sled again. At the front, they piled what remained of the firewood Nicole had gathered and tied it with the leather strap she had used the day before to pull the sled.

Once everything was secured and Clanton was hitched to the sled, they continued their journey into the valley.

Just as she had done the first day they had traveled, Nicole kept a close eye on Waverly. Whenever she started to drift off course, she placed a steady hand at her hip and guided her back to the trail. It seemed to be happening more frequently now, and she wondered if it was because of the exhaustion she could see plainly on Waverly's face.

When she started to stumble over her own feet even while she was lucid, Nicole decided it was time for a break. She called Clanton to a halt, and helped Waverly back to the sled, where she settled her beside the small pile of branches. Waverly winced, and Nicole tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear before she walked to the back of the sled. She returned with the bag of food and a waterskin. She offered the latter to Waverly, who accepted it with shaking hands and took several sips before wincing and lowering it to her lap.

“We'll be there soon,” Nicole said in a soft voice as she sat beside her. “Maybe tomorrow morning, if we can keep this pace.”

“Maybe,” Waverly said, and her grip tightened around one the sticks beside her. “Or, more likely, I'll keep slowing us down and we'll make it there by spring, when I've already been driven mad by these ridiculous visions and nightmares.”

The stick in her hand sailed through the air, and Nicole startled at the shout that accompanied it. Clanton whined when the harness prevented him from giving chase.

“Sorry,” Waverly mumbled before she rested her head in her hands. “I just want this to be over, and if Mattie can't help me...”

“She can,” Nicole said, only to receive a huff of disbelief in response. “Listen, Waverly. Before I met you, I didn't believe much in stuff like, well, stuff like you, I suppose. Oracles and witches, they were just characters in stories, and even when you told me you'd had a vision, I didn't think it could be real.” She chewed her lip for a moment, then said, “But when the boy mentioned you had Seen the ambush, that's when I started to believe.”

She shook her head and placed her hand on Waverly's knee.

“The point is, Curtis says this woman has some kind of power that can help you, and I'm willing to believe that's true.” When Waverly lifted her head from her hands and met her gaze, Nicole offered a thin smile. “More importantly, I believe in you , Waverly. You're strong enough to make it through this until she can help you. You're not going to lose yourself.”

“You really think that?”

Nicole nodded. “You did tell me you climbed out of your window with a rope made of blankets,” she said. “If that's not strength of will, I don't know what is.”

Slowly, a smile began to spread across Waverly's face, but a hiss of pain chased it away, and she clutched at her head. Nicole slid her hand to Waverly's back. As she rubbed her palm in small, comforting circles, her thoughts drifted to the bags of tea Gus had packed.

Waverly wouldn't like it, but Nicole didn't know what else she could do to help her.

Once the pain had passed, she helped Waverly stand again, and they continued their trek through the valley. Clanton followed behind them with the sled, only stopping to retrieve the stick that had been thrown earlier.

With the headaches plaguing Waverly, there wasn't much conversation for the rest of the day. When the sky began to darken and the air grew colder, Nicole scanned the hills for shelter as they walked. The best she could find was a rocky overhang, but at least it was dry and trees weren't as scarce here as they had been by the cave.

To block the wind from at least one side, they pulled the bags off the sled and piled them into a makeshift wall they could still lean against. Once that had been built and Nicole had a small fire going to get the shelter warm, she unhitched Clanton from the sled and he followed her to the packs, where she dug through the sack that held their provisions.

“I'm not very hungry,” Waverly said as she sat down in front of the fire.

“Not what I'm looking for.”

Nicole pulled a wooden cup and clay bowl from the pouch. She filled the bowl with water from the waterskin and placed it near the small fire. While she waited for the water to warm, she fastened one of the leather straps to the sled and left to gather more firewood to last them through the night. By the time she returned, the water in the bowl was ready, but she took some time to add more wood to the fire, and placed several large branches around it so they would catch once it grew larger.

She returned to the pack of provisions and felt Waverly's eyes on her as she sifted through it. She frowned then turned towards Waverly when she couldn't find the pouch that held the tea packets. Without a word, she held out her hand. Waverly hesitated, but eventually sighed and handed over the missing pouch.

“Nicole, please,” she said, and the pleading in her voice gave Nicole pause as she pulled one of the packets out. “If I go to sleep, I'm going to go back to that place, and I know you think I'm strong, but I can't—”

“You're exhausted,” Nicole said. “Not only that, but your headaches have gotten worse. Don't think I didn't notice you stumbling out there.” She dumped the contents of the pouch into the cup, then poured in the hot water. While it steeped, she turned back to Waverly. “You need rest, and this is the only way I can think of to help you get it.”

“Well, I'm not going to get much rest if I just end up having another nightmare, now am I?”

There was anger in the question, but Nicole could hear the underlying fear behind it.

“I'm going to be right here,” she said. “I promise.”

Waverly held her gaze, and at first she thought she would object again, but she only sighed and sagged against the packs in defeat.

Once the mixture steeped long enough, Nicole poured the tea into the bowl until only the leaves were left at the bottom of the cup. After she tossed them, she returned the tea to the cup and handed it to Waverly, who glared at her over the rim, but still swallowed down the brew. A grimace followed, but she managed to drink it all as Nicole sat down beside her.

“Good,” Nicole said. “Now come over here.” Waverly only stared at her, and Nicole rolled her eyes before she patted the space in front of her. Once Waverly was in front of her, she stretched out her legs. “Now lean back.”

Slowly, Waverly settled against Nicole's torso until the back of her head rested on her chest. Nicole pulled the furs over them, then crossed one of her arms over Waverly's abdomen.

“Is this okay?”

A nod.

“Alright,” she said before she used her free hand to comb through Waverly's hair. “And this?”

A pause, followed by a contented hum and another nod.

“Good.”

The fire crackled in front of them and Nicole watched the flames creep towards the logs she had placed. Beside them, Clanton licked the snow from his paws.

“You know,” she said, breaking the quiet of their camp, “there's a story I've heard a few times. Some of the farmhands I worked with used to tell it around the fire some nights. It was about two boys named Dixon and Jaxon—well, I guess it could be about anyone now that I think about it, as long as there are two of them, but I've always heard it told about boys.”

Her fingers paused in their ministrations as she thought back to the various times she had heard the story, only for Waverly's voice to interrupt her thoughts.

“The story being about two boys is fine.”

“Alright,” she said before she resumed threading her fingers through Waverly's hair. “Well, they don't stay boys. They grow up, obviously.” She shook her head and took a moment to collect her thoughts again. “But when the two of them were children, they were inseparable, and as they grew into young men, their bond only strengthened as they practiced swordplay and strategy. And though they weren't quite equally matched, the boy with more skill—Dixon—would not abandon his friend Jaxon, and his friend would not abandon him.”

Nicole studied the flames as she tried to remember what happened next. A soft sound from Waverly prompted her to continue.

“Sorry,” she mumbled. “The two friends, now young men, joined the town guard, where both of them flourished. Dixon rose through the ranks faster, easily outmatching the other men in their troop, but Jaxon rose alongside him. One day—”

“Why?”

Nicole's brow furrowed at the question. “What do you mean 'why'?”

“I know they're friends and that's why he helps him, but why are they friends?”

“Huh.” Nicole chewed her lip, then said, “Well, given how the story goes, I'd say it's because of what they offer one another. Jaxon, though not an expert in swordplay and strategy, understands Dixon and tempers his anger. In return, he has a friend who has always been willing to teach him. I guess I should have mentioned that earlier.” Waverly nodded against her chest, and a thought occurred to her. “Do you know this one?”

“No...”

Nicole didn't quite believe her, but she continued anyway.

“Inevitably, the town was attacked, and though they were able to fend off the warlords who tried to raid them, people were killed and some were taken as slaves. Jaxon was injured. Not fatally, and he did recover, but something deep inside Dixon became twisted that day, and when he took command of the town guard, he announced they would be taking back those who had been stolen, and they would make short work of those who stood in their way.”

“Jaxon... He went with him?”

Nicole nodded.

“As promised, they took back those who had been stolen. Under Dixon's command, they didn't stop there,” she said. “He found more warlords to fight, more enemies to conquer. What had started as a small contingent of soldiers had grown into an army, and Jaxon stayed at his side, too blinded by loyalty to see that Dixon had changed.”

Waverly shifted against her until her cheek pressed against her chest. A light touch against her hip made Nicole's breath catch in her throat, and she quickly continued the story to cover it.

“However, he um... He finally noticed the change when Dixon ordered an attack on a town not much bigger than their own,” she said. “He pleaded with Dixon to call off the attack, but words alone could not stop him, and Jaxon didn't yet have the strength to do what needed to be done.”

She didn't know if Waverly was still awake, or if the tea had put her to sleep, but she plodded ahead anyway.

“The town burned, and when Dixon left with his troops, Jaxon stayed behind to help pick up the pieces that had been left, though the townspeople eyed him with mistrust,” she said. “Yet there was a boy who followed in his steps, always several feet behind. When he finally asked what he wanted, he learned the boy was an orphan, so he took him under his wing.”

“They killed his family,” Waverly mumbled sleepily against her chest. “It's important.”

“Right, yes,” Nicole said, nodding. “His family died in the attack. I always forget that part.”

“S'okay,” Waverly muttered sleepily, and her hair brushed against Nicole's skin as she shifted until the top of her head was tucked just beneath Nicole's chin.

Once she was settled, Nicole continued.

“So he took the boy under his wing. Cared for him and taught him to fight. Guilt was a constant companion, but he hoped to do at least one good thing by raising the boy into someone stronger and smarter than he had been. Someone strong enough to do the right thing when it presented itself.”

Nicole's words trailed off when she felt Waverly's body relax against hers, but she continued to run her fingers through her hair, hoping to keep the monsters at bay as she slept against her chest. It wasn't the most comfortable position and her arm had grown tired long ago, but it was the first time she had seen Waverly sleep peacefully, so she stayed where she was and kept her gaze fixed on the fire as she listened to Waverly's soft breaths.

When the flames that licked at the wood started to die, Nicole felt the woman in her arms shift against her. She tilted her head down and found Waverly staring up at her with something like wonder in her eyes.

“There weren't any nightmares,” she mumbled, her voice still heavy with sleep and slow from the effects of Gus's concoction. “Are you magic?”

Nicole shook her head. “No, no magic here,” she said. “Just me.”

“Special then.” She closed her eyes again and sighed. “I've always known you were special.”

“Oh yeah?” Nicole asked, a small smile crossing her face at Waverly's sleepy words. “What makes you say that?”

“Because I Saw something in the vision...” she said in a soft voice. “ The one about the ambush—I'm still so sorry about that, Nicole, I really am.”

“I know you are, Waverly,” she said as she tucked a stray strand of hair behind Waverly's ear. “So what? You Saw me get pummeled, and somehow that gave you the impression I was special?”

Waverly shook her head, and hazel eyes cracked open. “I Saw you die.”

“Oh.”

Whatever answer she had expected, it certainly hadn't been that. Before she could dwell on the thought for too long, however, Waverly's voice distracted her.

“But you didn't die,” she said. “My vision was wrong, and they're never wrong.”

“And that's what made you think I was special?” she asked. “A knack for not dying when I'm supposed to?”

“Not just that,” Waverly said as her eyelids drooped again. “There was another I had, that first morning you were there.” Her voice softened as sleep started to take hold again. “It was more of a glimpse, but you were smiling in it—really smiling, not the way you smile now—and I remember thinking about how much I wanted to see it again...” She paused for a moment, then said, “You have such a pretty smile, Nicole. I keep hoping I'll see it for real.”

Nicole's face burned at the mumbled admission, but she was saved from fumbling over a response. Waverly had already fallen asleep again, her cheek pressed against Nicole's chest and her hand pressed against her hip. She sighed, and reached for the firewood from the sled. After tossing more wood into the flames, she settled against the packs and got as comfortable as she could.

“Goodnight, Waverly.”


Waverly awoke to the slow rhythm of a heartbeat thudding against her ear. The gentle rise and fall of Nicole's chest threatened to lull her back to sleep. Part of her wanted to let it. But the effects of the tea had worn off, and already she could feel the familiar pressure building behind her eyes as another headache started even without a vision assaulting her. Sighing, she opened her eyes and slowly slid out of the blankets. Nicole mumbled in her sleep before turning onto her side.

After all the trouble she had put her through the last two days, Waverly decided to let her sleep a little longer while she started breaking camp. Clanton was close on her heels as she worked, nudging his head against her hand whenever it was free. Once the firewood had been moved to the front of the sled, she began moving as many of the bags as she could without disturbing Nicole's rest.

It felt good, being able to move without exhaustion weighing down her limbs.

She had forgotten what that was like.

When she reached the last of the packs, she crouched beside Nicole and rested her hand on her shoulder to wake her. More mumbling followed, but she eventually rolled onto her back and opened her eyes.

“Morning already?” she asked, and Waverly nodded. Nicole pushed herself into a sitting position and looked around their shelter, then her gaze shifted back to Waverly. “You didn't have to do all of that yourself.”

Waverly shrugged. “I'm not the only one who needed more rest.”

“Well, thank you.” Nicole scratched the side of her head as she yawned, then got to her feet. “How are you feeling?”

“Better,” she said with a smile. “I didn't um... I didn't realize how exhausted I'd been. Thank you for helping me sleep through the night.”

Nicole's rubbed the back of her head. “You're welcome.” There was something strange about her voice. Before Waverly could question it, she said, “I'll get these last few bags on the sled, then we can be on our way.”

Once everything had been secured and Clanton hitched to the sled, they continued their journey through the valley. The sun was bright against the snow blanketing the hills that rose above them, which only made the dull ache behind her eyes worse, but there was still a bounce in her step that had not been there the last two days. Her mind drifted less to the strange room with the neatly-aligned tools, although there were still times she would blink and find Nicole's hand at her elbow.

It was better when they walked through the thin copse of pine trees. The light was blocked by the thick branches, and though she kept getting nettles caught in her hair, she was grateful for the cover of shadows the trees provided. She didn't have to squint at the rays bouncing off of the snow. She could almost say she was enjoying herself as they reached the edge of the trees.

Then a sudden snap reached her ears, and she yelped as something beneath her feet pulled her and Nicole skyward.

The two of them were a mess of tangled limbs as cold ropes trapped them in the air, and Waverly felt nauseous at the sensation. Nicole cursed and tried to move, but only managed to slide even further beneath Waverly. For a moment, they were face-to-face, and the closeness made Waverly's heart hammer in her chest, same as it had that day at the cabin.

Clanton pranced beneath them, barking.

Nicole released a breath and tried to relax against the ropes, but she could see the panic in her eyes.

“Waverly, I know it's kind of a tight fit in here, but can you try to move your leg just a little bit?” she asked. Waverly nodded and tried to disentangle her leg from between Nicole's, only to hear her gasp a moment later. “Okay, never mind,” she said, her face turning red. “Do not move like that.”

“I didn't hurt you, did I?”

Nicole shook her head. “No, no. That didn't hurt. Just... don't do it again,” she said. “Try the other leg, I guess? I just need a little more room to move.”

Waverly tried to do as she asked, but only received the same response as before.

“Are you sure I'm not hurting you?”

“I'm fine.”

An unfamiliar laugh interrupted, and Waverly looked down to find a dark-haired woman standing beneath them. She was bundled in a brown jacket, and a blue scarf hung over her shoulders. Most noticeably, there was a smirk on her face.

“I was thinking about cutting you down when I heard old Clanton here, but it looks like you two are having fun,” she said. “Should I come back later instead?”

“No,” Nicole said, her voice tight. She cleared her throat and tried again. “I mean, now is fine. Please.”

Waverly's brow furrowed as she pondered the woman's words. How could they be having fun?

“Alright,” the woman said. “Brace yourselves, though.”

Waverly watched the strange woman scratch behind Clanton's ears before she trudged through the snow to the treeline. Sunlight glinted off steel, and then Waverly felt herself dropping back to the ground.

The snow cushioned their fall, though Waverly still wouldn't have called it a pleasant landing as she sat up. Nicole had already gotten to her feet. The red coloring still hadn't left her cheeks, and she avoided Waverly's gaze. The crunch of snow pulled Waverly's attention back to the woman who had freed them.

“Don't get many visitors out here, 'specially not in the winter,” she said. She nodded towards Clanton, who had moved to Nicole's side. “I see the two of you know Gus and Curtis.”

Waverly nodded. “They helped us during the snow storm.”

“Helped you again, letting you bring Clanton along,” she said. “I don't normally take so kindly to strangers coming on my land.”

“Kindly?” Nicole said. “I think we may have very different definitions of that word.”

“You're not dead, are you? That's a kinder treatment than any of the bandits get when they try to poke around here,” she said. “But if that's not enough, fine. I'll even lead the way across the field.” She started to walk towards the cabin in the middle of the field, but stopped to look over her shoulder. “Try to walk where I walk. Wouldn't want either of you to find the bear traps.”

Waverly stiffened at the mention, and latched onto Nicole's arm as they walked in the woman's foot prints.

“Waverly,” Nicole said, “you're tugging too hard on my shoulder.”

“Sorry.”

She quickly released Nicole's arm.

“Here,” Nicole said, slipping her hand into Waverly's. “Just hold tight and stay close, okay?”

Waverly nodded, and squeezed Nicole’s hand.

As they got closer to the cabin, she slowly started to relax. If they had found Mattie—which it seemed they had, given that she recognized Clanton—then she was hopefully one step closer to getting better.

When they reached the cabin, she stared up at the wooden sign that hung above the door. 'The Blacksmith' was written in thick, black letters.

Nicole gave her hand another reassuring squeeze before the two of them followed the woman inside.

Chapter Text

The inside of the cabin was well lit by a fire that crackled in the hearth and the sunlight that streamed through the windows. Pressed against the wall was a small cot. A wool blanket covered it, tucked tightly around its edges, and a brightly-colored quilt had been folded into a neat square at the foot of the bed. The rest of the room was more of a workshop than a home. Tools Waverly had never seen before hung along the walls, while others dangled from the ceiling. Several tables filled the room, almost all of them supporting one or two projects the woman must have been working on. Saddles, yokes, and even pieces of a broken plow, all waiting to be repaired.

As she led them to the only empty table in the large space, realization dawned on Waverly.

It was the room from some of the visions she'd been having.

The woman offered the two of them a chair at the rickety table, and as they took their seats, she frowned.

“Had I known the two of you were already in pain, I would've been a little more careful lowering you from the trap.” Waverly and Nicole shared a look. “Your wounds,” she continued, nodding towards Nicole. “They're still healing, aren't they?” She turned her attention to Waverly. “And yours,” she said. Her eyes narrowed as she studied her, and Waverly fidgeted beneath her gaze. “They can't be seen, but you are most definitely in pain.”

“How—”

The woman shook her head and hung her scarf on the back of her chair. “Runs in my blood,” she said before she walked around the table to stand behind Nicole. “May I?”

Nicole hesitated, but when she nodded, the woman undid the ties of her cloak and helped her remove the tunic. Waverly forced herself to watch as she removed the bandages and revealed the mangled skin beneath it. It had healed since the days in the dungeon, but she could still see the damage she had caused from both the vision and from trying to save her from her wounds. The deep gash, though no longer weeping, was dotted with burn marks from Waverly's attempts to stop the bleeding and the infection.

The woman trailed nimble fingers along the wound, and Nicole visibly shivered.

“Wait here,” she said before she walked to a cupboard pressed against the wall. She returned with a basket of healing supplies that she laid out on the table. She dipped a cloth into a clay jar and scooped out some of the salve from inside. As she spread it over the wound, she introduced herself. “The name's Mattie, though I suppose Gus and Curtis already told you that if you knew how to find me.”

Nicole introduced herself through gritted teeth, then nodded towards Waverly. “And this is Waverly. She's the one who needs your help.”

“I'm sure she does, but pain is rolling off the both of you in waves, so hold still and let me ease the pain of the wounds I can see,” Mattie said. She shifted her gaze to Waverly. “Your wound is a little more complex, but I'll see what I can do.”

Once Nicole's torso had been wrapped with bandages again, Mattie moved to Waverly's side and crouched in front of her while Nicole tugged the tunic back over her head. Slender fingers rough with callouses held Waverly's chin as Mattie stared into her eyes. Nicole protested, but Mattie continued her examination, gently turning Waverly's head from side to side. Waverly winced at the movement.

“Hm...” Mattie released Waverly's chin, but pressed two fingers from each hand against Waverly's temples. She moved them in slow circles, steadily applying more and more force with each revolution. Waverly gasped as the pressure in her head dissipated. The pain behind her eyes remained, but it was tolerable for the moment. The pads of the Mattie's fingers drifted along Waverly's hairline, and for a moment, memories of Nicole's gentle touch from the night before sprang to mind.

When Mattie pulled away, Waverly sighed.

“It's only temporary,” Mattie said. “Now, before I can help, I need to ask. Do you know what's causing these headaches?”

“I See things.” Waverly squirmed in the chair, but Nicole placed a comforting hand on her knee. Mattie tilted her head to the side, and Waverly continued. “Visions, I mean. I have visions. I always have,” she said. Her voice dropped to a whisper and she lowered her gaze to her lap as she said, “But they've gotten so much worse. There's too many of them, sometimes all at once with no time to breathe.”

Mattie remained silent for a moment, then stepped away from the chair. Waverly looked up from her lap and watched as she settled in the chair across from them.

“Visions?” A thoughtful expression appeared on Mattie's face. “Now that is certainly something,” she said. “Tell me. Do you know the story of the Old Seer?”

Nicole shook her head, but Waverly nodded.

“He was nearly driven insane,” she said, “until his lover made him an amulet from a stone that dulled his Sight.”

“That's right,” Mattie said. “A chunk of ammolite set in an enchanted silver pendant.”

“And... you have some of this ammolite?”

Mattie shook her head. “Unfortunately, no,” she said. “I haven't had a use for it over the years, so I haven't held onto any. People are more interested in iron, steel, and leather.”

Nicole sighed and leaned back in the chair. She turned towards Waverly, her expression apologetic. “We'll figure something out, Waverly.”

Despite Nicole's words, Waverly couldn't help but feel the sting of defeat. All of her hopes of getting better, crushed in the span of two words. Her hands balled into fists and she looked away from Nicole as tears gathered in her eyes. Her thoughts drifted back to her quarters in the castle and the chunk of rock that had rested on her nightstand. If she had known she was going to run, she would have packed it. She wouldn't have let it leave her hands.

But she hadn't known and she hadn't packed it.

“Now hold on,” Mattie said, and the downward spiral of Waverly's thoughts came to a halt. “I may not have any ammolite on hand, but there's a canyon nearby—maybe half a day's walk—that has a whole mess of it beneath the dirt in the caves. I've got the silver for the pendant if you're willing to get your hands dirty for the ammolite.”

Nicole glanced at Waverly, then returned her attention to Mattie. “I am.”

“Even if it means taking care of a few bandits first? No offense, but you're not exactly at your peak.” Nicole nodded without hesitation. “Alright then,” she said, a soft smile on her face. “If you're truly feeling up to it, then I suggest we leave now so we can make the camp by nightfall.”

Nicole and Mattie both rose from their chairs, but when Waverly stood, she had to catch herself on the edge of the table. The pain in her head that Mattie had chased away had returned, pounding against her skull as the workshop shifted.

When her surroundings settled, an image of the dark-haired woman from before appeared in front of her, sitting cross-legged on the floor of a small tent. The gleaming sword rested on her lap, and a frown marred the woman's face as she cleaned the bloodied edge with a cloth.

“I still say this is a wagon full of horse shit. I'm not some chosen one, no matter what Waverly says,” the woman said, “but I'm not dead, so I suppose I owe you some kind of thanks.” Waverly's brow furrowed in confusion. Was she talking to the sword? “Guess that means I won't be sellin' you any time soon. They'll be happy to hear that.” Her hand paused in its ministrations. “Seems you're glad to hear it, too.”

As if hearing her own words, she shook her head and continued cleaning the blade, muttering to herself.

Waverly blinked, and the scene shifted again until she was in a familiar tavern. One she had Seen in several of the visions she'd had during their mad dash through the forest. As she suspected, the woman sat at the bar. Or rather, she was hunched over the counter, her cheek resting on the wood as she slept. Her mug had tipped over, and a puddle of her drink had spilled over the counter and soaked the ends of her hair.

The bartender—a large, grey haired man she recognized from similar visions—approached and shook his head at her position. He wrapped his arms around her middle, and she groaned as he removed her from her stool and half dragged her across the empty tavern to a small room. There, a makeshift bed had been made from a pile of straw on the floor. She mumbled in her sleep as the man lowered her to the bed then covered her with rough, tattered blankets. As if knowing what would come later, he placed an empty bucket near her before leaving the room.

The scene dissolved, and Waverly's body jerked as she came back to the workshop.

She found that she was sitting on the chair again. Nicole knelt in front of her, hands on her shoulders to keep her from falling over. Mattie stood at the other side of the table. Her scarf was draped over her shoulders again, and a thoughtful expression covered her face as she studied Waverly. Then the headache came rushing back, and Waverly hissed as she pressed her hand to her head. Mattie silently moved around the table and placed her fingers against Waverly's temples. She repeated the circular motions from before, massaging the area until some of the pain dissipated.

“Thank you,” Waverly said when she pulled away.

“Like I said, it's only temporary. You can truly thank me once I've made your amulet,” Mattie replied. She straightened to her full height. “Now then, if you're ready.”

She started towards the door, only stopping to pull a hammer from a rack nearby. After Nicole was sure Waverly was okay, the two of them joined her. Clanton barked as they stepped outside, then fell in step beside them. They were careful to walk in Mattie's footsteps, afraid to find one of the many traps she had hidden beneath the snow.

Once they were safely out of the clearing, Waverly followed Nicole. Clanton stayed at her side, pressed against her legs to help steady her if she needed it. Her gaze drifted to the hammer Mattie kept propped against her shoulder.

Half of the handle was made of wood, and strips of leather had been wrapped around it. A short neck of metal stemmed from the wood until it reached the dual-sided head. One side was thick with a wide, flattened edge while the other side tapered into a sharp, curved spike. Jagged lines had been carved into the metal of both sides. They twisted around one another like rope, then twirled around the neck. The sunlight caught the markings, and Waverly thought she saw a faint glimmer of light run along the lines.

Her thoughts turned to the sword in her visions, and the glow she had Seen as it pierced the chest of the man clawing at the woman's leg. The light had swirled along the blade just as these jagged lines curled around the head of the hammer. Her brow furrowed. Mattie wasn't the woman from her visions, she knew that, but it seemed they were connected somehow.

“So these bandits,” Nicole said. “Just how many are we up against?”

Mattie shrugged. “Not that big of a group anymore,” she said. “Too many of 'em thought I was an easy target because I live alone out here.” She shook her head and shifted the hammer head to her other shoulder. “Cured 'em of that way of thinking, though it took some time for them to learn,” she said. “Not well-trained, either. They steal what they can from defenseless farmers and travelers like cowards. Still, there's enough of 'em to be dangerous, and they don't exactly fight fair.”

“And Robert hasn't stopped them?” Nicole and Mattie came to a halt and turned to face her. “I just mean um... He has so many soldiers under his command. They'd be easy enough to stop, I would think.”

Mattie tilted her head to the side. “Not from around here, are you?” she asked. “ His Grace is too busy chasing down rebels and conquering other lands to care about bandits. Some places, it's his men that do the robbing, except they're not called bandits when they do it.”

Waverly chewed her lip and dropped her gaze to the snow at her feet. The sound of approaching footsteps reached her ears, but she didn't look up until she felt Nicole's hand on her shoulder. She lifted her gaze to find warm, brown eyes watching her.

“I'm sorry. That was a stupid question, I know.”

Nicole shook her head. “It wasn't,” she said. “There's a difference between being told about Robert and actually realizing it for yourself. The person he was to you is so different from who he is to us, and I'm sorry, but this is only a scratch at the surface.” Her hand moved from her shoulder and tucked stray locks of hair behind Waverly's ear. “I won't lie. There's a lot you're going to see and learn that won't be pleasant. And it's going to be confusing and hard to come to terms with, but that's not your fault, Waverly.”

“If you two are gonna dawdle, should we just set up camp here then?”

Nicole offered Waverly a reassuring smile and pulled her hand away, then turned back towards Mattie, saying, “We're comin'.”

As they continued their trek, Waverly kept Nicole's words in her thoughts.

Although she claimed what Robert had done wasn't her fault, Waverly wondered just how many of Robert's resources had been wasted searching for the bones she Saw. How many places had he invaded to retrieve them? How many lives had she ruined by helping him?

Clanton nudged her hand, and she ran her palm over his head down to his neck and back again, then scratched behind his ear, grateful for the distraction from the dark thoughts.

As they got closer to the gorge, the pain in Waverly's head began to ease until they reached the cliff's edge, where it faded away completely. The constant pressure behind her eyes lessened as well, and Waverly breathed a sigh of relief. There would be no visions. Not here, at least. And if Mattie could truly harness the power of the ammolite like the Old Seer's lover had, then she'd be able to go wherever she wished without the fear of being bombarded as she had been since she'd left the castle.

A fire burned far beneath them, its light licking at the walls of the canyon. Four men and two women huddled around it, using logs as benches. There was a shout, and another woman stepped out of one of the caves Mattie had mentioned. She joined the group at the fire and one of the men made space for her on his log. The weapons on their backs and at their hips were menacing in the firelight. Waverly's gaze drifted to Nicole, who had begun to clear a space in the snow beneath the bare branches of a wide bush.

She wrapped her arms around her middle and shifted her attention back to the bandits below.

Mattie had said there weren't many of them and that they were untrained, but that didn't change the fact that Nicole was still injured. She remembered how she had struggled with the sword in Gus and Curtis's cabin, and that was after resting through the storm.

“Everything alright?” Nicole's voice startled her. “Sorry. Didn't mean to scare you.”

“Not your fault,” Waverly said. “And I'm fine. Better than fine, actually. The ammolite, it's really here. I can feel it.”

“Good. Would have hated to drag you all the way out here for nothing,” she said. “Come on.”

She placed her hand against the middle of Waverly's back and guided her away from the ledge towards the bush they had cleared the snow from. Clanton already lay beneath its thin, prickly branches, but there was still space for one more beside him. She knew exactly who was supposed to lay there, too.

“I can't just hide here,” she hissed. “The whole reason you're going down there is because of me, and I'm supposed to just let you and Mattie go without me?”

“Waverly, it's okay.”

“No it isn't, Nicole,” she snapped. “I-I know she said they're not very good, but any one of them is capable of having sheer dumb luck.”

Nicole's hands moved to her shoulders.

“If anyone here is going to have sheer dumb luck, it's me.”

“I'm being serious.”

“So am I.” She gave her a teasing smile before gently squeezing her shoulders. “Listen,” she said, “I know you want to help, but until you learn how to fight, staying here where I know you're safe is helping. Do you understand?”

Waverly held Nicole's gaze, willing her to let her come, but in the end she looked away first and stared at the snow around her feet.

“Fine.”

She shrugged off Nicole's hands and crawled beneath the branches of the bush, where Clanton panted beside her. Nicole crouched in front of her.

“We won't be long, I promise.” She reached behind her back and withdrew the dagger she'd used to start their fires. She offered the handle to Waverly. “Just in case.”

Waverly rolled her eyes. “Yes, I'm sure the bush will be extremely dangerous while you're gone.” She took the offered dagger and examined the blade before looking up at Nicole. “Be careful, okay?”

Nicole nodded, then joined Mattie near the cliff. The two of them exchanged words too quiet for Waverly to hear before they started for the narrow path that snaked along the canyon walls and descended to the bottom of the gorge. They disappeared from Waverly's sight, and she tightened her grip on the handle of the dagger.

Although Nicole and Mattie had cleared most of the snow, the cold, wet ground beneath the bush soaked the knees of her trousers as she waited. She twisted her fingers tighter around the handle. With each moment that dragged by, she found it harder to keep still. Clanton pressed against her side, trying to calm her, but she could not keep her thoughts off to the danger that awaited Nicole and Mattie in the canyon below.

“Not too bad of a haul today, was it?”

Waverly's heart jumped into her throat at the sound of the unfamiliar voice.

“Better than our last, that's for sure,” another answered. “Might have to be movin' on soon, though. Snow's keepin' travelers away, and we jus' about bled the farmers 'round here dry.”

“A pity, that,” the first man said, and Waverly tensed as she realized they were coming closer. “Wouldn't say no to spendin' the rest of the season in a warm tavern 'stead of some leaky caves.”

A loud laugh followed, and she tried to move as far back into the bush as she could without making a sound. Clanton stayed still beside her, though she could see the gleam of his teeth. The pair drew closer. Close enough that Waverly heard the crunch of snow beneath their feet.

And then she didn't.

Before she could wonder why they had stopped, the thin branches above her snapped, and a thick hand grabbed her by the back of her cloak. Twigs scratched at her clothes as she was lifted from the bush and brought face to face with one of the bandits. A rough patch of hair covered his jaw, and there was a hardness to his steely eyes.

The other man approached, just as haggard as the one who held her. “Now what do we have here?”

“Nice treat, if you ask me.”

Waverly scowled and jerked away, but the man only laughed and pulled her closer. She tightened her grip on the handle of her dagger hidden beneath her cloak. When he dragged his knuckles along her cheek, she brought up the blade. There was a moment of resistance before it pierced the flesh of his forearm. He cried out in pain and his grip loosened.

“Liam!”

She pulled the dagger from his arm and he screamed again as he fell to his knees. He clutched at the wound and blood pooled between his fingers as he took several shaky breaths to calm himself. Waverly stepped back from the two of them, keeping a tight hold on the handle.

“You are gonna pay for that, you little—”

The words were cut off by a loud snarl before Clanton sprang from the bush and knocked the second man to the ground. Waverly looked away as his teeth tore into tender skin, the man's shouts dying in a choked gurgle. Her stomach threatened to rebel at the sound, but before it could, the wounded man rammed his shoulder against her. The dagger fell from her hand as she fell, landing somewhere in the snow, and her eyes widened in panic as the man wrapped his uninjured hand around her neck to hold her in place.

“Bitch,” he said, his voice strained from the pain in his arm.

Spit flew from his lips, but Waverly was more worried about the crushing grip around her throat. She struggled to breathe as he tightened his hold.

Then she saw it.

A knife hanging from his belt.

She blinked away the spots from her vision and clawed at the man's hand. His laughter rang in her ears, but it abruptly stopped when Clanton's low growl filled the air. For a moment, his grip loosened as he shifted his attention to the dog, and Waverly took her chance. She stopped clawing at his wrist and reached instead for his knife. She wrapped her fingers around the hilt and tugged until it came free from its shoddy sheath. There was a shout, though she wasn't sure if it was her or the man on top of her. Then she shoved the blade forward, into his thick chest. His eyes widened, but rolled into the back of his head a moment later as he lost consciousness.

Waverly yelped as he fell forward and collapsed on top of her, his weight trapping her beneath him once more.


The hike down the steep path was slow-going. Nicole kept herself pressed to the wall and refused to look down. Occasionally, her foot would catch on a piece of ice hidden beneath the snow, and she'd steady herself against the rock, taking deep breaths as she calmed her nerves. After one such incident, Mattie looked over her shoulder with an amused smile on her face.

“Don't tell me you're afraid of heights.”

Nicole shook her head. “Falling,” she said. The memory of the rock pile in the forest was still fresh in her mind. The weightless sensation that had briefly surrounded her, followed by the harsh impact with Fish and then the ground. “I've had my fair share of it recently, and would prefer not to do it again so soon.”

Mattie, thankfully, refrained from making any further comments, and Nicole was able to concentrate on placing one foot in front of the other. She didn't relax until they reached the end of the narrow trail at the bottom of the gorge.

The sun had disappeared and the cover of night gave them plenty of shadows to hide in as they crept closer to the bandits. They stayed close to the canyon wall until they ducked behind a group of snow-covered boulders. Nicole glanced around the rocks, and when she ducked back behind them, she shook her head.

“There are too many to sneak up on all of them, but we could get the drop on one or two. Three if we're lucky.”

Mattie shifted her hammer and smiled.

“Oh, I think we can surprise all of them,” she said, and Nicole's brow furrowed. “Just stay behind me and be ready to watch my back.”

Nicole wasn't sure what she was planning, but she drew the sword at her hip anyway. The ache in her shoulder was still present, but if the bandits were as untrained as Mattie had said, the fight wouldn't last long.

“You ready?” Mattie asked, and Nicole nodded. She started to creep forward, but Mattie pressed her hand against her stomach to stop her and shook her head. Excitement colored her voice as she said, “Me first.”

She hefted the hammer from her shoulder and tightened her grip around the handle. The lines carved into the hammerhead glowed with a bright light, and Nicole's eyes widened. Mattie stepped around the boulder and drove the spiked side into the ground. A loud crack split the air as the force from the blow sprayed snow and rock, plowing a deep trail to the bonfire. Shouts filled the air, but they quickly changed to screams as flaming chunks of wood sailed through the air. Nicole ducked back behind the boulder as one piece came hurtling towards her.

“What was that?!” she asked, her heart pounding in her chest.

“Is now really the time to be asking questions?”

Nicole scowled, but followed Mattie as she ran into the heart of the camp.

The first two bandits she encountered had drawn their weapons, but they were still off balance, making it easy for Nicole to take advantage and disarm them despite the pain that flared in her shoulder. The third had regained her bearings enough to counter the blow that was meant to knock the short sword from her hands.

Nicole stepped back, careful not to slip in the snow. The woman was quick to follow, and she had to deflect a thrust meant for the left side of her chest, followed by an overhead strike aimed for her the space between her shoulder and her neck. Nicole gritted her teeth as she pushed the bandit back. Another thrust towards her torso, but it was sloppy. She sidestepped the strike and drove the pommel of her sword into the woman's temple, and she crumpled at her feet.

There was no time to revel in the victory. Mattie had her hands full with three of the remaining bandits, though she appeared to be holding her own with the help of her strange hammer.

Nicole tightened her grip on her sword and started towards her to lend a hand, but the sound of heavy footsteps made her turn, and she raised her sword in time to block the club that had been swung at her head. The force of the blow caused a sharp pain in her wounded shoulder as she fended it off, but she took a deep breath and forced herself to keep a tight hold on the sword, even as she staggered backwards.

As he continued to swing at her, aiming for her head, neck, and sides, she continued to step back, just out of his reach. But she couldn't keep running forever, so rather than avoid the next blow, she stepped forward. The thick wood near the handle bounced off of her collar, and she knew it would leave a bruise. Meanwhile, she had buried her sword into his stomach, leaving him wide-eyed as she withdrew the blade again and stumbled backwards. The club fell to the ground with a soft thump against the snow and the man dropped to his knees before slumping to his side.

Nicole ignored the sting of pain near her neck as she turned back to help Mattie.

Two of her assailants had been dealt with. Judging by the burst of snow and earth that surrounded her, the strange hammer's power had come in handy again and blown them back. Now she was fending off the last bandit, catching the sword with the long handle of her hammer before it could reach her.

While he shoved his blade against the handle and tried to overpower Mattie, who looked just as tired as Nicole felt, she stepped up behind him and struck him in the back of the head. He crumpled to the ground to join his companions in unconsciousness, and Mattie gave Nicole a grateful smile through ragged breaths.

Nicole tried to catch her own breath as she sheathed her sword. Sweat stung her eyes and made her shiver in the cold night air. All that was left of the fire were smoldering chunks of wood, the flames doused by the snow they had landed in. Nicole picked her way around the smoking pieces as she and Mattie gathered the bandits that were still breathing and dragged them all to one spot near the center of the camp where the fire had been. Mattie tied their hands behind their backs and then their feet while Nicole recovered from the exertion.

“You alright?”

She nodded, but winced a moment later. The excitement from the fight was fading, and the aches and pains it had left behind were making themselves known.

“We're almost done,” Mattie said. She tugged the last knot tight and stood. “Come with me.”

Nicole followed her across the camp to one of the dark caves. Crates were pressed against the stone walls, most likely filled with stolen goods. A torch flickered and the firelight bounced off the head of the strange hammer, but Nicole kept her questions to herself for the time being.

Mattie held out her arm to stop her when they had reached the edge of the light cast by the torch.

“I'll take care of the hard part,” she said. “You just stay back here.”

She stepped deeper into the shadows. Once she was a safe distance away, she tightened her grip on the handle of her hammer. The light swirled around the metal again, illuminating her face in the dark. Nicole watched as she drove the spiked side into the ground, and the earth rippled around it. Unlike the first blow she had seen, this one was limited to the space in front of Mattie. Nicole didn't even feel the ground quake beneath her feet. The worst of it was the spray of dirt she had to dodge.

The glow from the hammer died and Mattie reached down into the hole she had made. When she pulled her hand back up, she held a fistful of shattered stones. She let out a low whistle and rested the hammer on her shoulder. Her footsteps echoed through the cave as she walked back to Nicole and held out her hand for her to see.

Chunks of blue, green, and red glimmered in the torchlight, encased in grey stone.

“It's beautiful,” she said, running her fingertips along one of the stones. “This is ammolite?”

“It's a little rough around the edges, but with some work, it'll be just what your friend needs.”

“Thank you.” Nicole lifted her gaze from the stones in Mattie's hand. “If there's anything I can do to repay—”

Mattie shook her head. “Listen. Those bandits have been a pain in my ass for too long now.” she said. “You helped me take care of them when you just as easily could have left me to fend for myself, so consider that your payment.” Nicole started to object, but Mattie shushed her. “Don't argue with me. Waverly is waiting for us, and if she hasn't worried herself sick over you, then she's at the very least getting cramped under that bush you left her in.”

Nicole sighed and followed her back through the cave, though she tried to recall some of the supplies Gus and Curtis had given them. Maybe there was something she could leave with Mattie in return for her help.

The trek back up the path was just as slow-going as the descent had been, though this time Nicole made it alone. The cold was settling over her now that the sun was gone, and she wanted nothing more than to tell Waverly it was safe to return to the bottom of the gorge. Hopefully, by the time the two of them made it back down, the fire Mattie had destroyed would be blazing again and they could get warm for the night.

As she approached the top of the path, she blew on her hands then rubbed her arms. She hoped Clanton had been able to keep Waverly warm. A harsh gust of wind greeted her as she took her first step off the path. She cursed and tugged the cloak tighter around her before she started for the bushes where she had left Waverly.

Her steps faltered.

The lifeless gaze of a corpse stared up at her from the blood-stained snow, and Nicole's heart pounded painfully in her chest as her eyes drifted to the bottom of the bush, which was now empty. A bright red trail circled around it, and Nicole's thoughts raced as she forced herself to step forward, terrified of what she would find on the other side.

“Waverly?” she said as she followed the trail, her voice barely a croak.

She breathed deeply, trying to stay calm, but when she found the body of a burly man face down in the snow, she had to blink against the stinging in her eyes. Clanton lay beside him, whining as he nudged at a hand that was far too small to be the bandit's. She grabbed hold of the thick arm and tugged, cursing at the heavy weight. The muffled sound of a groan made Nicole's eyes widen, and she pulled harder. Slowly, the body shifted enough to reveal Waverly's face.

“Nicole?”

“I'm right here. Are you hurt?”

“C-cold.”

Nicole tugged on the dead man's arm again until his torso no longer covered Waverly's. Once she was free, Nicole knelt at her side. She wrapped her arms around her, trying to provide warmth and reassure herself that she was alive.

“I'm so sorry,” she whispered against Waverly's ear. “There wasn't supposed to be anyone up here. You were supposed to be safe.”

Waverly trembled in her arms, and when she spoke again, it was through chattering teeth.

“I killed him,” she said. “I-I killed him, and I lost your dagger.”

Nicole shushed her and tightened her hold. “Don't you worry about that. I'm far happier to see you alive and him dead than the alternative, okay?” She pulled away, but kept her hands on Waverly's shoulders, unwilling to break the contact. “I know it's hard to hear, but you did what you had to, Waverly. Do you understand?”

A long moment passed before Waverly nodded.

“Good,” Nicole said. “As for the dagger, we'll find it in the morning, when it's warmer and there's more light.” She helped Waverly to her feet and brushed some of the snow from her clothes, then offered her hand. “Come on. Mattie should have a fire going by now.”

Waverly nodded again, and Nicole guided her to the path at the edge of the cliff.

As they descended the narrow trail, Nicole kept their hands clasped.


When they reached the bottom of the canyon, the light of a large fire greeted them. Mattie sat on one of the makeshift benches, a long stick in her hand and her hammer resting beside her. A pot hung near the flames by an iron bar. A group of four bloodied bandits sat at the edge of the firelight with their hands and feet tied and cloths stuffed in their mouths. Scowls marred their faces as they watched Waverly and Nicole approach the fire.

Mattie raised an eyebrow at Waverly's blood-stained clothes as she sat on the log on the other side of the fire. Nicole joined her and Clanton lay at their feet, his muzzle stained red.

“Seems someone got more excitement than expected.”

“Two of them were coming back to camp and they found me in the bushes.” Waverly leaned forward and scratched the dog behind his ears. “Clanton got one of them, though,” she said. “The other one fell on me and I got stuck underneath him.”

“You... got stuck?”

“He was really heavy, okay?” She pressed her fingers against her neck where the man had held her. “And I was kinda worrying more about being able to breathe than where he would land.”

Mattie laughed and shook her head as she got to her feet and walked to the pot that hung in front of the fire.

“Guess we could have used you down here after all.”

After scooping some of the stew into a wooden bowl, she brought it and a piece of hard bread to Waverly, who accepted them with a grateful smile. She happily dug into the thick stew while Nicole and Mattie filled their own bowls.

Without the headache pounding in her head, food actually looked appetizing and her stomach didn't churn at the smell. It wasn't the same as what Cook had made in the castle—it seemed she still needed to adjust to simpler meals—but the care that went into preparing it warmed her in the same way Cook's food used to. However, she didn't realize how hungry she had been until her spoon scraped against the bottom of the empty bowl.

“Here,” Nicole said as she offered the remains of her dinner.

“Are you sure?”

She nodded. “I'm not very hungry tonight.”

Waverly frowned, but took the bowl from her hands. While she ate, Nicole stood from the log and approached Mattie on the other side of the fire. Waverly couldn't hear the exchange of words, but Mattie loosened a pouch from her belt and handed it over to Nicole. When she returned to their log, she crouched in front of her.

“Thought you might be happy to see this.”

She dug through the pouch and pulled out a hunk of stone almost as large as her hand. Waverly's eyes widened as the firelight caught the colors embedded within the grey rock. She set her bowl aside and Nicole handed her the stone for a closer look. The flames made the specks of green and red come to life in her hand.

“Wow,” she said, studying the colors. “You found it.”

“It'll be a bit more impressive when it's finished,” Mattie said. “Once all the rock has been worn away and the ammolite's been properly shaped.”

Waverly looked up from her hand. “And you can do that?”

“Well,” she said as she dipped the last of her bread into the bowl, “I'm not called 'The Blacksmith' for nothing.”

Waverly smiled and rubbed her thumb over the flecks of color in the rock as she shifted her gaze skyward.

In the warmer seasons at the castle, she would find the highest window and study all the constellations she could find, but out here in the open, it felt like a different world. There was so much more. Swirls of light where the stars bunched together and twisted through the dark while other patches were more spread out. There were several shapes she recognized from her charts. Others, she had never seen before, and she wondered at the stories behind them.

Once the amulet was made and her visions were under control again, maybe she could learn the stories she didn't know and share them with Nicole.

Something soft smacked her in the chest, and she let out a quiet 'oomph.' She lowered her gaze and found a blanket in her lap. Mattie stood in front of her with her arms full. She handed one to Nicole, who grimaced as she held it out in front of her.

“I'm not going to get fleas, am I?”

Mattie shrugged. “I guess that's a chance you'll just have to take,” she said as she crawled under her own. “Unless you'd like to freeze all night like our friends here.”

Nicole sighed and moved down to the ground beside the fire. Waverly settled on the ground beside her and pulled her own blanket over her shoulders. After she was comfortable, she closed her eyes. As she drifted to sleep, one thought circled through her head.

One more day, and she would have the amulet.

She would finally be better.


Metal bit into her wrists and sweat dripped from her forehead, running down her cheeks and along her neck. Fire surrounded her, and the sweltering heat from its flames was an almost tangible presence, pressing heavily on her body and stealing the breath from her lungs. Beside her, another person struggled against their bonds that had been staked into the ground. Despite their closeness, she couldn't distinguish their features, or understand their muffled cries, but when they turned their head towards her, the fear in their eyes mirrored her own.

There were no bars separating them, but the open space was taunting.

With her wrists shackled and the chains staked into the ground, she couldn't reach them to provide any form of comfort. When she tried to speak, her own words were garbled, and her companion's panic only seemed to grow.

Heavy footsteps reached her ears, and she turned her head towards the edge of the plateau they had been shackled to. Her stomach twisted into a tight knot when the hulking, pale figure stepped onto the flat earth. Its eyes combed over her, and she shuddered, but as it lumbered past her, her heart beat harder in her chest.

It wrapped a large hand around her companion's neck, and she called out, trying to get its attention, but it ignored her shouts as it focused on the person in its grip. There was a brief struggle as they fought to escape the creature's hold, but it raised its free hand to their upper arm, and she heard the crunch of bone between its fingers.

The pained scream that followed pierced her ears.

She tried again, pleading with the creature to leave them alone—to come to her instead—but the words were ignored as it focused on playing with the person in its hands. When she couldn't get it to listen to reason, she fought against her own chains. She scraped her wrists raw, but she still could not slip them through the tight manacles.

The pained screams stopped.

She stopped her struggling and shifted her attention back to her companion.

She could still see the creature twisting limbs and appendages in ways they shouldn't have been twisted, but its captive stayed silent. The light in their eyes had dulled, and though she could still see the rise and fall of their chest, she doubted the movement would last much longer.

Tears stung her eyes and she stopped fighting against her restraints.

Instead, she settled her knees on the hot earth, burning from the flames that surrounded them, and she held her companion's gaze. If it was the only comfort she could provide, then she refused to look away.

And she didn't.

Not even when the dull light left her companion’s eyes and their chest stilled completely after one final, ragged breath.


Movement at Nicole's side pulled her from her dreamless slumber. She slowly blinked the last vestiges of sleep from her eyes then pushed herself up so she could watch over Waverly, who slept restlessly beside her and cried out against an unseen enemy.

The nightmares had come back.

After a moment of deliberation, she crawled behind Waverly and slipped her hands under her arms. Another sharp cry split the air as she gently lifted her from the ground, and Nicole mumbled soft words of reassurance in her ear. She slid her legs beneath the blanket so Waverly lay between them, then slowly guided her head back until her cheek rested against her chest. There was more resistance this time than the night before, but as Nicole threaded her fingers through Waverly's hair, tense muscles relaxed and Waverly's breathing calmed.

“You care for her a great deal.” Mattie's voice startled her, and she looked up to find her with her head propped on her hand as she watched them from across the fire. “How long have you known each other?”

“I don't know,” Nicole said. Autumn had been ending and the first signs of winter had blanketed the ground in a thin layer of snow when she had been captured. However, it wasn't until they escaped that the full force of winter had reached them. Stuck in the dungeon, time had dragged by, but not even a whole season had passed since she had met Waverly. “Not long at all, really.”

“Hm...” Mattie studied them for a moment. “The two of you didn't mention the nightmares earlier. Is this new?”

“She's been having them since we left the—since we started traveling,” she said. “I thought they had something to do with her visions, but the ammolite isn't keeping them away.” She brushed the pad of her thumb over Waverly's cheek, and a soft sigh followed as Waverly tried to press herself closer to her. A smile flickered across Nicole's face at the unconscious action, but it was quickly replaced by a frown. “I don't know what they are. I never asked,” she admitted. “But maybe with the visions under control, we can cope with the nightmares better.”

“Maybe she doesn't have to cope with them.” Nicole raised her eyebrows, and Mattie pushed herself up. “My family has been doing this for generations. Fixing things. Fixing people .” She shook her head. “I'll explain more tomorrow when we get back to the cabin,” she said. “She should hear it, too, and I'm not fond of repeating myself.”

“Fair enough,” Nicole said. “How about explaining the fancy hammer then instead? I've never seen anything like it.”

Mattie rolled her eyes, but Nicole saw a hint of a smile.

“People and tools, they aren't so different from one another. In most cases, they are both born from a labor of love. They both require a certain kind of healing when they're broken,” she said. “And sometimes, they both need help to reach their full and true potential. Occasionally, the support can come from something as simple as an amulet dulling an unforgiving pain or unrelenting voices.” She reached behind her and pulled her hammer into her lap, resting the long handle over her legs. Her fingers trailed over the lines etched into the steel head as she said, “For things like my hammer, it's a little more complicated.”

She looked up and met Nicole's eyes.

“Sometimes, a little bit of yourself has to be put into something—like my hammer—in order for it to reach its full potential, and those things become part of you, as much as you become part of them,” she said. “The same can be said for people.”

Nicole nodded along as Mattie spoke, but then her brow furrowed. “I'm really sorry, but you lost me at the end there when you mentioned becoming your hammer.”

“No need to apologize. It's my own fault. Living out here, I don't get to have many conversations unless Gus and Curtis visit. I'm a little out of practice,” she said. “To put it simply, in order to enchant my hammer, a piece of myself had to be given. In return, the hammer reached its true potential and now lends me its strength when I need it.”

“Right,” Nicole said. “Simple.”

Mattie laughed and put the hammer aside. When she turned back to Nicole, an amused smile was still on her face. “It will make more sense tomorrow when I craft the amulet, I promise,” she said. “For now, try to get some rest.”

Realizing she would get no more answers from Mattie for the night, Nicole sighed and slowly shifted Waverly until she rested on the ground instead of against her chest. There was a small noise of distress, but it quickly quieted when Nicole scooted closer and draped her arm over Waverly's side. Once she was settled, she closed her eyes and tried to get back to sleep, Mattie's words lingering in her thoughts as she drifted off again.


When Waverly awoke, it was to warm breath tickling the back of her neck and a solid body curled around hers. Confused, her brow furrowed and she carefully rolled onto her back. Her heart raced when she found Nicole so close, still asleep. Despite the strange feeling, she found herself smiling at the peaceful expression on Nicole's face as she slept and the way the bright rays from the morning sun tangled in her hair. Then Nicole began to stir beside her, and brown eyes struggled to open. When they did, a sleepy smile appeared.

She looked softer in the morning light, and the fluttering in Waverly's chest quickened.

“Morning,” Nicole said, her voice still heavy with sleep.

“It is.” Nicole snorted at the response, and Waverly's cheeks burned. “I mean. Yes. Good morning. That's what I meant.” She cleared her throat and sat up, shivering at the cold air that greeted her. “I didn't mean to wake you, but I didn't know you were so close.”

Nicole sat up as well, scratching the side of her head. “You had another bad dream. I thought it would help,” she said. “Was that okay?”

Waverly nodded. “Yes. Thank you,” she said, but she dropped her gaze down to her lap. “I really hoped the ammolite would get rid of them, but I guess not.”

“Actually, Mattie mentioned she might be able to help with those, too.”

“Really?”

Nicole nodded. “Said she would explain more at the cabin.”

Waverly breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn't a guarantee, but at least it offered hope. If Mattie could truly ease the visions and rid her of the nightmares, she would have a chance at a real life outside of the castle without the fear of madness. Where that life would take her, she didn't yet know, but there would be time still to figure it out.

“You know, the sooner you two stop making small talk, the sooner we can get back to the cabin and I can make that amulet.”

Mattie stood on the other side of the fire pit, her hammer propped against her shoulder once more. In her other hand, she held the end of a rope that traveled along the line of surviving bandits they had captured.

“What are you going to do with them?” Waverly asked as she stood. “You said Robert doesn't care.”

“Still deciding. After the harm they've done to the farmers around here, I should leave 'em to their own grisly fate out in the wilds,” she said. “Then again, His Grace may not give two shits about bandits, but the people who've had to go hungry because of them sure do. I think they'd be able to come up with a suitable punishment for our friends here.”

The color drained from the faces of the captives. Mattie tugged on the rope and the four of them stumbled forward, their legs still bound. Clanton followed alongside them as Mattie led them towards the steep path, his teeth bared and a low growl rumbling from the back of his throat. Waverly and Nicole were close behind.

It was a slow walk. When the trail narrowed, Clanton fell back so he was at the heels of the last bandit. Nicole stayed behind him and Waverly followed. During the hike to the top, Waverly noticed the tension in Nicole's body, the stiff way she carried herself with her hand pressed against the cliff for support. Several times, she saw her glance towards the edge of the trail and she could hear the slight hitch in her breath as it caught in her throat.

She was afraid, Waverly realized.

Slowly, so as not to slip on the snow beneath her feet, she shuffled forward. Once she was close enough—not quite side by side with Nicole, but a few steps behind—she reached out her hand and, after a moment of hesitation, placed her palm against Nicole's lower back, careful of the wound that cut across it. Nicole didn't pull away, but brown eyes flickered towards Waverly, only to quickly return to the path ahead of them. When they reached the top of the trail, the muscles beneath Waverly's hand relaxed, and Nicole breathed a sigh of relief once they were far enough from the cliff’s edge.

When they approached the bush she had hidden in, Waverly's stomach turned.

The corpse of one of the bandits was sprawled in the snow, his throat torn and the skin shredded. The captives saw the body as well, and Waverly watched as they shied away from the dog that walked alongside them. The dried blood from their companion still covered his snout, and the evidence of what had caused it had made him far more menacing.

When they neared the bushes, Nicole put out her hand, and Waverly came to a stop.

“Wait here,” she said before stepping behind the bush.

Waverly tried not to look at the splotches of blood—tried not to think about what had caused them—but she still remembered the resistance of the man's skin as she pressed the knife into his chest, followed by the hot spray of red that had stained her hands and the front of her tunic.

But the memory of his foul breath against her skin, his rough fingers against her cheek, and then around her neck was worse.

Nicole's words rang in her ears as she fiddled with the knot that held her cloak in place.

“You did what you had to.”

“I'm far happier to see you alive and him dead than the alternative.”

When Nicole reappeared from behind the bushes, the dagger Waverly had dropped in the fight was in her hand, and she waved it from side to side.

“Found it,” she said as she approached. “Told you it was nothing to worry about.” She tucked the dagger behind her back, then placed her hand on Waverly's shoulder. Her voice softened when she said, “Come on. There's nothing else worth seeing over there, and I have a feeling Mattie will be cross if we keep falling behind.”

Waverly nodded and walked at Nicole's side as they followed behind Mattie and her captives, leaving the bush and the unpleasant memories behind.

She didn't look back.

As they neared Mattie's cabin, the familiar pressure in Waverly's head returned, settling just behind her eyes. She cursed under her breath and fumbled for the pouch tied at her waist. She extracted the piece of rock Nicole had given her the night before, careful not to drop it in the snow, and clutched it tightly in her hand as she raised it towards her chin.

The pressure remained, and she squeezed her eyes shut at the pain that followed. A small whimper escaped, and she stumbled over her footing, but she was quickly steadied by Nicole's hands. When she opened her eyes again, she was met with a concerned expression on Nicole's face.

“I'm alright.”

“I thought the ammolite was supposed to be helping?”

“I'm sure it did when there was a whole mess of the stuff beneath us.” Waverly looked around Nicole's shoulder and found Mattie approaching, the rope still in her hand. When she reached them, she passed the rope to Nicole so the bandits couldn't run, then placed her hand over Waverly's, which still clutched the ammolite. She gave her an apologetic smile. “I'm afraid that piece won't be nearly as helpful until it's been set within the amulet, but I can relieve some of the pain like I did yesterday, if you like.”

Waverly nodded, and Mattie pressed her thumbs against her temples. She rubbed them in tight circles, and just as it had the day before, the headache faded for the time being. After Waverly thanked her, Mattie took the rope back from Nicole and continued to lead them back to the cabin. Despite Mattie's words, Waverly kept a tight grip on the rough rock and took comfort from it. Whenever she felt the dull pain returning, however, she tried to imitate what Mattie had done. Her technique wasn't nearly as effective, but the headache became manageable as they made their trek back to the cabin.

The midday sun was at their backs when they reached the clearing. Despite the clear sky and bright rays bouncing off the snow, however, there was still a chill in the air, and Waverly looked forward to the warm fire that awaited them. To her surprise, the footprints that should have led away from the house and into the woods had disappeared. Any trace of their leaving was gone, and after Mattie tied the bandits to one of the thick trees, Waverly and Nicole had to follow her through the clearing to her cabin yet again.

Once inside, Waverly closed the door behind her. Mattie mounted her hammer on the rack near the entrance, then led them to the back of the workshop once more. As she walked, her hands darted to some of the tools that rested on various tables. She didn't look as she picked them up, and Waverly remembered her visions, where everything had been neatly placed. Every tool had a designated space, and Mattie knew exactly where those spaces were.

When they reached the table at the back of the cabin, the three of them took the same seats they had been in before. Mattie placed the tools on the table, and Waverly studied them: thick gloves, a hammer, a chisel, and a thick sheet lined with a dark, coarse material she had never seen before. Mattie held out her hand, and she gave her the rough rock she had been clutching through the woods.

“I'll free the chunks of ammolite from the rock, but you, Waverly, will be handling the next part while I craft your pendant at the forge outside.”

She placed the chisel against the rock and dragged it along its edges until she found the spot she was searching for. A precise, gentle strike with the hammer, and the rough rock crumbled away from the red and green gem, revealing more of the ammolite beneath. It was a process of turning the stone over and striking away the grey to release the gem within, and Waverly watched, fascinated by the way Mattie always seemed to know where to strike to remove the most rock without fracturing the gem within. When half of the rock had been removed, Mattie spoke again.

“So, your nightmares,” she said, not taking her eyes off the task at hand. “Nicole mentioned she hasn't asked about them. No harm in that, but if I'm going to help you with them, I need to know what they're about.” Another strike, and another wave of grey crumbled to the table. “They don't seem normal.”

Waverly's brow furrowed, but before she could ask, Mattie's dark eyes lifted from the rock and held hers, as if she already knew the question on Waverly's mind.

“My family has been doing this for generations. As far back as I can remember, actually,” she said. “You know the story of the Old Seer, yes, but his lover who crafted the amulet? Nobody knows their story, or that it continued long after the Seer passed on.”

Waverly's eyes widened. “You—I mean, your family,” she stammered. “You're a descendant of the Old Seer and the one who helped him?”

Mattie shook her head. “Just the one who helped him,” she clarified. “They were lovers at the time, but bore no children while they were together. Yet in the trials that came, the Old Seer and the first Blacksmith of my line remained friends.”

“Trials?”

Mattie nodded. “They're only stories now, and many of them have been lost to time, but there is a great evil in this world that once ran free across the lands, terrorizing all in its paths,” she said. She dropped her gaze back to the rock and continued to strike. “The Old Seer, he was plagued with visions of this evil. Wicked demons who swept through towns and cities, stealing folks away from their homes so they could devour them.” The strike that followed caused Waverly and Nicole to jump. “And he Saw them. Their deaths, and all possible forms those deaths could take. It was maddening, until he met the first Blacksmith.”

“Who crafted the amulet for him,” Nicole supplied.

Mattie nodded. “It dampened his power. The visions were less frequent, and instead of Seeing every possible path the future could take, he only Saw the most probable outcomes.” Waverly saw a frown flicker across Nicole's face before she averted her gaze and stared at the wall instead of the table. Before she could ask what was wrong, Mattie had started speaking again. “He also Saw a way to defeat the evil that plagued the world, and it intertwined his path with the Blacksmith's once again.”

She struck the last of the rock, and it joined the pile at the table. She laid the chunk of ammolite on its side and placed the chisel against its center. A quick strike, and the ammolite split in two halves. Mattie pushed them towards Waverly, then offered the gloves and the coarse sheet, and Waverly took them. While she tugged the gloves over her hands, Mattie left for a moment. When she returned, she placed a large pot of water on the table.

“This is where your work begins,” she said. “You'll want to keep the stones wet as you wear them down.” A moment of hesitation, then Waverly dipped the first gem into the pot of water. As she began to rub the stone with the harsh sheet, Mattie settled in the chair across from her once more. “Now, these nightmares of yours. Do you remember them?”

Waverly nodded, biting her lip as she focused on the task in her hands.

“Hulking, pale figures with twisted, blood-stained smiles,” she said. “Almost human, but not quite.” Her tongue poked out from between her lips as she turned the stone over in her hand. “They're slow, too, and you should be able to run. You should be able to get away. But then they let out these piercing screams, and you can't move. You're stuck in place as they lumber towards you and your heart hammers in your chest because you want to run, but you can’t .”

She nearly dropped the stone as her fingers shook. Nicole's hand found its way to her knee and gave a gentle squeeze, reminding her she wasn't in that place right now. Across from them, Mattie sat with her lips pursed, but she nodded a moment later for Waverly to continue. She took a shaky breath and resumed rubbing the stone.

“They're so strong, and you can fight as hard as you want against them, but they don't care.” She took a shaky breath. “They pulled an arm out of socket once, and I swear I felt that pain even after I woke.” Mattie's brow furrowed, but Waverly continued. “And there were these cages--pits dug into the ground--and the bars overhead had this spiked wire around them, but you didn't care about that when they came for you,” she said. “You clung to them even as the jagged barbs tore your palms open.”

“That's enough,” Nicole said in a hard voice as she tightened her grip on Waverly's knee.

Mattie was quiet for a moment, but then she nodded.

“Yes, I believe you're right.” She leaned forward and rested her chin on her folded hands. “Waverly, I don't think these are nightmares at all, but memories.” She sighed and leaned back in her chair again. “But that would mean a connection to something that belonged to those creatures.”

Nicole’s brow furrowed. “I'll be right back.”

She gave Waverly's knee another reassuring squeeze before she stood from the table and left the workshop. A cool breeze drifted inside as she stepped out the front door. When she returned, a pack dangled from her hand. One from the castle, not one Gus and Curtis had given them. After she sat back down, she settled the pack in her lap and dug through its contents until she found what she was looking for. Waverly watched as she pulled the skull from the bag and set it on the table beside the pot.

Mattie's eyes widened and her chair scraped against the floor as she scooted back from the table.

“Something like this?”

Mattie looked from the skull to Waverly and Nicole then dropped her gaze to the skull again. She hesitated for a moment, then took the head in her hand to study it.

“Where did you get this?” She raised her eyes to meet Waverly's. “Where?”

“I... A woman gave it to me.”

The skull thudded against the table as Mattie rose from her chair and paced the floor, muttering to herself. Her gaze drifted back to Waverly.

“So she's searching for them, then,” Mattie said. “Tell me, were you given another?”

Waverly shook her head, and she cursed.

“Isn't that a good thing?”

“No,” Mattie said. “No, it’s not.” Mattie rounded the table, and when she was at Waverly's side, she gave her a sympathetic smile. “You poor, sweet girl,” she said. “How long have you been helping the Stone Witch look for her sons?”

Waverly flinched at the mention of the Witch.

“I was young when she brought it to the castle. I'd maybe been there a year.” She dropped her gaze down to her lap, the gem forgotten for the time being. “And I wasn't helping her. I was helping Bobo.”

“Bobo?” Nicole mumbled.

“That's who Robert was to me,” she said. “I didn't know he... I thought he was different because he was kind to me. And I thought she was hurting him. I was sure I could get her to leave him alone if I found what she was looking for, so I started searching for the bones for her.” She wiped at her eyes with a balled fist. “But it was all just a lie. A trick to get me to do what they wanted, and I fell for it.”

“Waverly,” Nicole said, “you were just a child.”

“No, I was an idiot!” She stood up and the chair clattered against the floor when it fell. She stepped away from the table and turned her back on Mattie and Nicole. “He went wherever I told him, even lands that weren't his. People died because I helped them.” She shuddered. “There weren't many bones left to find when we fled. If she manages to find them without me—if she's able to bring those things back—more people are going to die because of what I did.”

Soft footsteps approached, and a shadow fell over her as Nicole stepped in front of her. Gentle hands rested on her shoulders. She didn't shrug them off, though the guilty part of her felt like she should.

“You were a child,” Nicole repeated in a soft voice. “And maybe I didn't understand it at first, but Robert became your family. It isn't your fault he used that against you. He knew what he was doing. You didn't.”

She shook her head. “Ignorance shouldn't excuse the things I've done.”

“It wasn't supposed to be an excuse.” Nicole sighed. “If you're not going to forgive yourself for this, then I will.” Waverly looked up from the floor and met Nicole's gaze, but she only found compassion in her warm, brown eyes. “Robert kept you locked away in that castle, away from the things he was doing. He used your love for him so you would do his bidding, and because of that, you've made mistakes,” she said. “But you're not a bad person, Waverly. You deserve forgiveness.”

“Nicole...”

“Come on,” Nicole said. “You still need to finish sanding down the stones.”

Waverly followed her back to the table, where the gems and Mattie waited for her. She picked up the chair and settled it near the table, her cheeks burning as she remembered the outburst, then sat down to continue her task. Mattie had distanced herself from the skull and now leaned against the wall. She watched Waverly for a moment before she spoke again.

“It's very likely she found the bones of her first son on her own over the last three centuries. You've only helped her find the last son.”

Waverly suspected the words were supposed to be reassuring.

They weren't.

“What's done is done,” Mattie continued, “but once the amulet is finished, I can sever the connection you have with the skull. It will stop the nightmares.”

Rather than answer, Waverly focused on shaping the stone in her hands, and Mattie didn't force a response. Instead, she pushed off of the wall and went to the cabinet on the other side of the room. After rummaging through its contents and finding what she was looking for, she nodded towards the door at the front of the cabin.

“You continue with those stones. I'll be working on the pendant.” She turned her attention to Nicole, who had settled beside Waverly again. “Now, you just keep her company. Don't go trying to polish the other one. She has to form the bonds herself if she wants it to work.”

“If you say so.”

“I do,” she said, then started for the front of the house.

After the door closed behind her, a stillness filled the cabin.

It was eerie without Mattie there. Waverly felt out of place as she sanded down the gem. But she continued to rub the rough rock, occasionally dipping it into the pot of water whenever it seemed too dry, and the uneasiness left behind by Mattie’s absence lessened. Nicole stayed beside her, and once again, Waverly found herself marveling at her patience.

By the time she finished the first stone, her fingers were stiff, but Waverly smiled as she dunked the gem one last time, then set it aside. Before she could start the second, Nicole took her hands in hers and quietly massaged some of the stiffness away. When she was done, Waverly offered her thanks and turned her attention to the next stone.

While she rubbed at the coarse rock, Nicole left the table.

Waverly shivered at the breeze that filled the room when Nicole slipped outside. She lifted her gaze from the rock to look out the window. The sky had darkened, but there was still a soft glow flickering outside, most likely from the forge Mattie had mentioned. Without the sun though, it had grown colder, and she found herself wondering how the bandits would fare through the night.

When Nicole came back inside, she returned to the table with another pack—this time from Gus and Curtis—and offered her a cold wedge of cheese, a few slices of cold meat, and the waterskin. Waverly glanced down at the rock in her hands, but Nicole convinced her to spare a moment to eat and drink before she continued. As she ate, she realized the pain in her head was barely noticeable now. She had been so focused on shaping the stone, she had forgotten about her headache.

She glanced at the finished gem and, after finishing the wedge of hard cheese, she took the stone in her hand and studied it. Without realizing it, she had shaped it into a small teardrop. Now that the jagged rock and layers of dirt had been rubbed away, the brilliant colors glimmered. The reds and greens were most obvious, blazing as the firelight bounced off of them, but there was a subtler, darker blue color near the rounded bottom.

Once she finished the small meal and drank from the waterskin, she set the stone aside again and continued with the next rock.

When Mattie returned from the forge, night had completely fallen and Waverly had just finished the second stone. It was longer than the first, and thinner, too. One end was wide, but it narrowed slightly at the other side. She hoped Mattie didn't think the uneven shape had ruined it. To her, it was just as brilliant as the first stone when the firelight flickered over it.

Mattie settled in the chair across from them and placed a new set of items on the table: a pouch and a fire poker, the spike still red from the fire. Though Waverly recognized these tools, she hadn't the slightest clue what they were supposed to be for, so she directed her attention back to the gemstones.

“They're finished,” she said. She flexed her fingers and pulled off the gloves, wincing at the ache that had settled in her hands.

While she tried to ease the stiffness in her hands, Mattie lifted both stones from the table and inspected them. After a slight nod of approval, Waverly breathed a sigh of relief and rested her head against Nicole's shoulder as she let the exhaustion from the day settle over her. A moment later, she realized what she was doing, but before she could pull away, Nicole's hands slipped over one of hers and massaged her fingers just as she had done earlier.

A slight commotion at the door drew Waverly's attention, and she looked over her shoulder to find the bandits had been brought inside, though they didn't look comfortable as they cowered in the corner while Clanton lay in front of them.

“Wouldn't be much retribution taken by the farmers if I just let 'em freeze out there,” Mattie said. “Now, I'll set these in a moment. First, I want to sever your connection with that thing before it gets too late.” She nodded towards the head. “Place your hand on it and leave it there no matter what. Do you understand?”

Waverly glanced at Nicole, then set her palm against the dome of the skull. From the pouch, Mattie withdrew a handful of ash and, through a closed fist, she let the soft flakes fall onto the back of Waverly's hand.

“With this, I ask the earth to raise its walls.”

Waverly felt a familiar pull, the tendrils of the other bones tugging at the edges of her awareness. Mattie glanced at her and shook her head before bending closer to Waverly's hand.

“I ask the air,” she said, then blew a portion of the ash away, “to silence its voice.”

A harsh whisper hissed in Waverly's ears, but she kept her hold on the skull. She watched as Mattie took the waterskin from the edge of the table and poured some of it into her hand.

“I ask the water, untainted, to cleanse this girl and make her the same.”

It dripped from her hand onto the back of Waverly's. A sharp sting of pain took Waverly by surprise, and she clenched her teeth. Mattie took the iron poker in her hand, and Waverly's eyes widened.

“I ask the fire,” Mattie said as she brought the smoking end of the iron towards Waverly's skin, “to loosen its hold.”

Grey ribbons of smoke floated down to the pile of ash on the back of her hand. Though the hot poker never touched her, she felt a fire burning its way along her fingers. The whisper in her ear grew to a roar, but Mattie's voice was louder.

“Great Mother, we ask that you protect this girl. Free her from the tethers of a burden she was too young to accept. Sever the bonds with this creature.” As if responding, a gust of wind rattled the window, and the invisible fire at the back of Waverly's hand grew hotter. “Waverly, sweet girl, do you accept the Great Mother's help? Do you wish to cut ties with this creature you've known so long?”

“I do,” she said, her voice hoarse as she struggled with the pain burning along her fingers. The voice in her ears screeched, and she felt another harsh tug, as if the skull was begging her to keep the bond. Through gritted teeth, she added a quick, “Please.”

Mattie nodded, and swept her hand over Waverly's.

“Your answer has been heard.”

The sharp scream was silenced and the burning in her fingers faded, though she could still feel a dull, lingering pain.

“Waverly, you may now release the skull,” Mattie said. “The bond has been cut.”

She breathed a sigh of relief and pulled her hand back. After all she had felt while Mattie spoke, it looked no different than it had before, and neither did the skull.

Mattie excused herself from the table and took the polished stones Waverly had shaped. She crossed to the front of the workshop, allowing Waverly and Nicole some privacy while she finished the amulet.

“Are you alright?” Nicole asked.

Waverly nodded, though she cradled her hand against her chest.

A new wave of exhaustion settled over her. Despite the strange ritual, she still feared giving into it, so she settled for resting her head against Nicole's arm again. They stayed like that until Mattie returned, the finished amulet dangling from a leather cord clutched in Mattie's fist.

“You have given yourself to this stone, Waverly, and so it shall give itself to you in return,” Mattie said.

Waverly accepted it and turned it over in her hands, studying the marks that had been carved into the silver. She traced her fingertip over the thick lines that cut across the back, then turned it over again to run her thumb along the smooth circle of stone.

“The enchanted silver will amplify the ammolite's effects,” Mattie explained. “You'll still have visions. There's no way to stop them completely. But with this around around your neck, you'll be able to travel as far and wide as you wish without being overwhelmed ever again.” A soft smile crossed her face. “All you have to do is put it on.”

Waverly held the amulet in front of her for a moment, then took a deep breath.

She slipped the leather cord over her head and let the pendant rest against her chest.

Chapter Text

Through the night, fresh snow had fallen over Mattie's cabin and the clearing that surrounded it, but the clouds had passed before sunrise. Now the early morning sun coated the snowy trees in a soft light, painting the powdered branches gold as it rose over the valley. As beautiful as the sight was, however, Nicole couldn't take her eyes off Waverly, whose laughter rang through the air as she wrestled with Clanton in front of the cabin. The dog seemed to be winning, pinning Waverly to the ground and attacking her with his great tongue far more than she managed to push him over.

Nicole leaned against the wall beside the front door, a soft smile on her face as she watched Waverly truly enjoy her freedom for the first time since they had left the castle.

Freedom from Robert.

From the visions.

From the nightmares.

After the ritual had been completed and the amulet had been made, Waverly had still put off sleep as long as possible, afraid of what might find her in her dreams despite Mattie's reassuring words. When she had finally fallen asleep in the bedrolls that had been brought out for them, Nicole had stayed awake and watched over her until she was sure the nightmares wouldn't come.

And they hadn't.

Instead, Nicole had managed to sleep through the night, and when she awoke, she had found Waverly outside with Clanton, celebrating in the snow.

Quiet footsteps reached her ears as Mattie joined Nicole at the doorway, two steaming mugs in her hands. Nicole took the offered cup with a soft 'thank you' before she turned her attention back to Waverly and Clanton.

"I may not understand what you did," Nicole said, "but I'm grateful for your help." She sipped at the bitter black tea, and it warmed her from the inside, leaving a tangy aftertaste on her tongue. "It's good to see her like this."

"Of course."

"And I know you said helping with the bandits was payment enough, but I can't just leave you here empty-handed." Mattie started to protest, but Nicole shook her head. "Gus and Curtis, they gave us more than enough supplies. I think they'd like us to share them with you, since they couldn't come themselves."

She took another sip of the tea, allowing Mattie time to think it over.

There was a quiet sigh, followed by, "Did they happen to give you any jars of Curtis's tomatoes?"

Nicole smiled against the rim of her cup.

"I think they may have snuck a few into our supplies."

"Then I suppose I won't argue over it anymore. I can't say no to those." Mattie shook her head and leaned against the doorjamb. She dug her hand into the pocket of a small pouch clipped to her belt. "I've something for you as well."

From the pouch, she pulled a necklace and shoved it into Nicole's free hand. Nicole's brow knit together as she lifted it and studied the pendant. Dangling from the cord was an amulet similar to Waverly's. It was the second stone she had shaped and polished, thinner at one end than the other. A simple, silver mold covered the top, where it hung from the leather strip. When she met Mattie's gaze, amusement glimmered in the other woman's eyes.

"I uh... think you may have misread something here." Nicole shifted her weight and mumbled, "We're not..."

Mattie rolled her eyes. "Relax. It's nothing like that." She tapped on the amulet and said, "Should she ever lose her own, you'll be there with this to replace it. That's all."

"Oh."

Nicole glanced at Waverly, who was still wrestling with Clanton in the snow, then dropped her gaze back to the amulet in her hand for a moment before she slipped the necklace over her head and tucked the pendant beneath her tunic to hide from prying eyes.

If it meant Waverly wouldn't suffer the way she had before, Nicole could keep the spare amulet safe.

"Clanton, cut it out!" The words were followed by another laugh, and Nicole found Waverly pinned by Clanton once again, who was slobbering all over her to celebrate his victory. When she pushed against his chest, the dog stepped back so she could sit up and catch her breath. "You win this time, you oaf."

She shook her head, dislodging some of the snow that covered her, and clambered to her feet. Clumps of it still clung to her hair, even as she bounded towards Nicole and Mattie. Despite the cold, a wide grin was on her face when she approached, and the corners of Nicole's lips twitched as she returned it with a subdued smile of her own. Waverly's cheeks reddened, and she quickly turned her attention to Mattie.

"Thank you," she said. "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

She repeated the words as she wrapped Mattie in a hug. Mattie juggled the mug of tea between her hands so she could return the hug without spilling her drink. When Waverly pulled away, Mattie patted her on the shoulder with her free hand, almost as if she were unsure of how to react to the display of affection after spending so much time alone. A comment was on the tip of Nicole's tongue, but then Waverly's arms were around her waist in a tight embrace.

She stiffened for a moment, but once the surprise faded, she slowly brought her own arms up to wrap around Waverly. A pleasant warmth blossomed within her, and she tightened her hold.

"Waverly?" A soft hum was the response. "Your clothes are soaked through."

"Oh!" Waverly stepped back, but the warmth remained, nestled near the space where the amulet rested against Nicole's chest. "Sorry. I lost track of how long we were rolling around in the snow, I guess." She rubbed the back of her head. "Wait for me while I change into something dry?"

"I'll be right here."

A bright grin, then Waverly disappeared back into the cabin, where they had left some of their bags the night before. When Nicole turned her attention back to Mattie, the amused expression had returned.

"What?"

"It's nothing," Mattie assured her before changing the subject. "I take it the two of you will be heading back to see Gus and Curtis now?" Nicole nodded. "Give them my regards, would you? I've been a bit absorbed in my work recently. Haven't had the time to check in on them."

"You could come with us, you know," Nicole said. "I'm sure they would like to see you."

"That may be, but I'm afraid I'm going to be a bit busy taking care of that lot of bandits we captured."

Nicole frowned. "Are you sure you don't need any help with them?"

"Appreciate the offer, but something tells me the two of you have somewhere else to be, not wandering with me to some local farms," she said. "Besides, you don't live alone out here without learning to protect yourself."

Nicole thought back to the glowing hammer and how Mattie had wielded it with ease. She chewed her lip for a moment, pondering her next words.

"You know, if you'd ever like to pit those skills of yours against Robert and his men—"

"The answer's no. There are people here who need me," she said. "With Robert and his little underlings taking so much of their crops, their livelihood is linked to their equipment and how much they can harvest. Maybe mending broken tools isn't as glamorous as fighting with the Resistance, but I'm not going to abandon them so I can pretend I'm some kind of hero. That's not who I am."

The rejection left a sour taste in Nicole's mouth, and she quickly took another sip of the tea to wash it away. Despite the sting of Mattie's words, however, Nicole could understand her decision. She wouldn't hold it against her.

After she lowered the cup, she said, "You know, I believe there are quite a few people around here who would consider you a hero for what you do."

"That's it then?" Mattie asked. "No grand speech to sway me to join you and your friends?"

Nicole shook her head. "No. You're right. There are people who need you here, and I'm not going to tear you away from them." She dropped her gaze to the cup. "I don't ever forget who we're fighting for, but there are times I get so caught up in the Resistance's battle against Robert, I do forget there's a quieter fight for survival happening alongside us, and it's just as important."

Mattie tilted her head.

"Never thought I'd meet a Resistance soldier who could admit that."

Nicole laughed. She knew exactly what kind of Resistance soldier Mattie had in mind: arrogant, self-centered glory hounds. The outpost she had been stationed in, there was one man in particular who embodied that image, though she tried to avoid him as much as possible.

She grinned. "I can be surprising sometimes."

Soft footsteps drew Nicole's attention away from Mattie, and she found Waverly approaching. The wet set of clothes had been swapped for a dry, white tunic and a new pair of thick trousers with a patch sewed into one of the knees. Two of their packs were slung over her shoulders, and there was a bounce in her step as she carried them outside to the sled and settled them next to the pile of bags.

Before they secured their packs, Nicole dug through them until she found the jars of tomatoes Curtis had given them and passed them to Mattie, who disappeared into the cabin to put them away. While she was gone, Nicole and Waverly hitched Clanton to the sled and checked over their bags. Once Mattie returned and Nicole was sure none of the packs were going to fall, the three of them crossed the clearing towards the treeline where they had first met, Nicole and Waverly following behind Mattie to be sure not to step in any of the hidden traps beneath the snow. As they approached the trees, Nicole searched them for any trace of the net they had been caught in before, but there was none to be found.

"I suppose this is goodbye then," Mattie said. "I hope the Great Mother watches over you in your travels and keeps the two of you safe. Your company wasn't entirely unpleasant."

Nicole's brow furrowed. "Thank you?"

"It was very nice meeting you," Waverly said beside her, "and thank you again for helping us."

"It's what I do," Mattie told her, though a small smile softened the impersonal remark. "All I ask is that the two of you look out for one another. The Stone Witch nearly has her sons, which means there's chaos brewing. Something tells me you two are going to be at the heart of it when it comes."

"You stay safe, too," Nicole said. "It'd be nice to see you again under less unfortunate circumstances."

Waverly nodded beside her. "I'd love to learn more about the first blacksmith and the rest of your family some time."

Mattie raised her eyebrows. "Really now? And here I was thinking you'd like to learn a bit more about the Old Seer, not my family history."

Waverly's cheeks reddened. "Well," she said, "I might want to learn more about him, too, but your family's story deserves to be heard. Especially if they're anything like you."

Nicole wasn't sure, but she thought she saw a tinge of red rise to Mattie's cheeks before she crossed her arms over her chest and cleared her throat. "You're very kind, Waverly," she said. "Try to remember that whenever you start to feel the weight of your past mistakes pressing on your shoulders."

Waverly dropped her gaze to the ground and mumbled that she would try.

After a final goodbye between the trio, Mattie headed back to her cabin while Nicole and Waverly started their trek through the pine trees.

 


 

Waverly walked alongside Nicole, a lightness to her steps that had been missing since they had left the castle. There was so much she had missed the first time they had cut through the valley, and she couldn't stop her gaze from wandering, absorbing the scenery she had been too distracted to truly see before. Although there wasn't much—mostly only bare trees, their branches coated in fresh snow—it was enough to captivate her. She had been kept inside the castle for so long, the trees of the surrounding forest far from her reach. Since they had escaped, there hadn't been time to examine the new world around her. Then she had been too sick to care.

Now it was different.

Without the throbbing headache, she could enjoy the crunch of snow beneath her boots as she trudged through it. She could smile at the chirping birds that had stayed for the winter. It was hard to keep Nicole's pace when every part of her wanted nothing more than to explore her surroundings. Most of it was blanketed in snow, but there was so much to see—so much to touch with her own hands rather than experience through the dulled senses of her visions or a haze of sickness.

"You can go on ahead of me, you know."

Waverly turned her head to look at the woman beside her.

"What?"

"Waverly, you've spent your life cooped up inside. I'm not going to force you to stay by my side now that you're free. Explore, if that's what you want to do," she said. "I'll be right behind you."

"You're sure?"

Nicole nodded, and Waverly grinned.

She quickened her pace and broke away from Nicole and Clanton. When she approached the first grey, scraggly tree she could find, she tugged off one of her gloves and trailed her hand along the icy trunk. She smiled at the roughness of it against her fingertips and dragged her nails over the bark, reminding herself that it was real.

A burst of cold spread across the top of her head. She yelped in surprise and tugged her hand back from the tree as she looked up.

Two blue birds had landed on the branch above her, and a portion of the snow that had been there had been knocked off. It now dripped from her hair down to her neck, but she was too busy watching the birds hop amongst the branches to notice. When they finished their dance in the treetop, she watched as they fluttered their wings and flew off, their playful chirps echoing in her ears as they rose above the hills and chased one another through the sky.

Once the birds were out of sight, Waverly continued her exploration of the valley. Despite Nicole's words, she tried not to stray too far ahead. It would be just her luck to get lost. She stopped at another tree, larger than the last, and circled its wide trunk. Not only was it coated in snow at the top, but it was enveloped in a thick layer of ice as well, the weight of which made the branches bow, forming a frozen curtain around the tree. Golden rays from the sun passed through the ice and blazed along the branches.

Suddenly, they didn't seem as bare as they had before.

Waverly ran her fingers over one of the twigs encased in ice, and her thoughts drifted to more fantastical stories she had read that mentioned frozen fire.

If there was actually such a thing in the world, she believed she had found it here in the valley.

Once Waverly felt she had explored enough, she returned to Nicole's side. Although there was a smile on Nicole's face, it was tight-lipped and strained.

"Are you okay?"

"Everything's fine," Nicole said through gritted teeth. Waverly raised her eyebrows at that, and Nicole sighed. The thin mask she had worn to cover her frustration fell as she said, "I feel slow limping along behind you, is all. It's not important."

"You're still recovering."

"I'm aware," Nicole said, "and that's the problem. This is taking far too long to heal for my liking."

"It's not," Waverly said, but the grim expression didn't leave Nicole's face. "You've only had a short time to truly rest. Before that, you were stuck in a dungeon where the conditions were less than ideal." Nicole laughed at the understatement, and Waverly smiled. The mood hadn't completely lifted, but it was a start. "After that, there was no time to rest while we ran, and then your wound opened again." A moment of debate, and then she placed her hand on Nicole's arm. "So please," she said, "stop being so hard on yourself for something that isn't your fault."

When Nicole didn't respond, Waverly tried a different approach.

"You know," she said, "you never finished the story about Jaxon and Dixon. I wanted to hear how it ends."

"You already know how it ends." When Waverly started to object, Nicole interrupted. "Don't try to tell me you don't. The only reason I remembered as much as I did was 'cause you were asking the right questions," she said. "You've probably come up with a much better ending for it anyway. You're good at that."

Waverly's cheeks burned at the compliment and she ducked her head to hide the blush spreading across her face. "Well, that might be true," she mumbled before she shifted her gaze to Nicole again. "I'd like to hear how you'd end it, though."

Nicole glanced at her, then crossed her arms over her chest. "Fine," she said. "What's the last part you remember me telling you?"

Waverly thought back to that night, when Nicole had let her rest against her chest: the warmth that had enveloped her when Nicole rested her arm across her stomach; the way she had run her fingers through her hair while she told the story; the soft cadence of her voice that had lulled her to sleep and kept the nightmares at bay. Unbidden, the corners of Waverly's mouth quirked upward. Nicole's raised eyebrows reminded her there was a reason she was supposed to be remembering that night.

"Sorry," she said. "Jaxon had taken in the orphan boy. That's the last thing I remember."

"Alright, well, he took the boy in. And then he raised him," Nicole said, though there was very little passion for the story in her voice. "Years passed, and—"

"Was it easy for him?"

"What?"

"Raising the boy," Waverly clarified. "Was it easy for Jaxon to do?

Nicole's brow furrowed. "No, I suppose it wasn't easy for either of them," she said. "In the beginning, the boy was filled with anger, and he didn't know what to do with it except lash out. That anger reminded Jaxon of the friend he had lost to rage."

There was a pause, and Waverly waited while Nicole collected her thoughts. She was about to ask another question when Nicole spoke again.

"So, Jaxon taught the boy how to handle a sword in order to defend himself, but he also showed him ways to handle his rage. Jaxon taught him that only he could be responsible for controlling his temper, not anyone else..." The words trailed off, and Nicole dropped her gaze to the snow beneath their feet as they walked. Several seconds of silence passed before she said in a quiet voice, "If he could not control his anger, then it should not be used as a weapon."

"Nicole?"

"Sorry," Nicole said. "It just reminded me of something a friend used to tell me. That's all." She rubbed the back of her neck and looked skyward. "I'm not very good at this."

Waverly offered a small smile. "You're doing fine."

Nicole scoffed at that, but continued the story regardless.

"Many years passed and the boy grew into a man that Jaxon was proud to call son, even if they weren't related by blood," Nicole said. "He had grown into a skilled fighter, surpassing Jaxon himself." Nicole tilted her head. "I suppose that isn't saying much, since Jaxon hadn't been a great fighter to begin with."

Waverly laughed at the remark, and she thought she saw a hint of a smile tugging at Nicole's lips.

"He was skilled with a sword, but he was always ready with an eager grin as well, the rage from his childhood tamed thanks to Jaxon's lessons," Nicole said. "But the good can't last forever, and the peace Jaxon and his son had found ended when Dixon and his army returned to the fields outside the village."

"There was an argument between the two of them the night the army was spotted, and it only ended when, in a desperate attempt to keep his son from challenging Dixon, Jaxon admitted that he knew how strong the army's leader was because he used to ride at his side," Nicole said. "It tore a rift between the two of them. Jaxon's son could no longer look at him without seeing the man who had ripped his family apart, and there was no explanation Jaxon could give that would change that."

Waverly glanced at Nicole, suddenly wary of where the story was going, but she refrained from asking a question that might change how Nicole wanted it to end.

"Despite Jaxon's pleading, his son—if he could even allow himself to call him that—left the village and rode out to the camp to challenge Dixon. But Jaxon could not stand by and wait for the aftermath this time, so he followed. When he arrived at the camp, he found his son trying to negotiate with the man who sat at the head of the army," Nicole said. "Although many years had passed and the man had been twisted and scarred by hatred and anger, Jaxon recognized Dixon, and his heart ached for the friend he had lost."

Nicole's voice trailed off.

"You were doing well," Waverly said. "Why did you stop?"

Nicole frowned. "I don't know how to tell the next part," she admitted. "I've never thought about changing the ending to it before."

"Later then," she said. "After you've had time to think of an ending you'd like." She tugged her cloak closer and looked up at the darkening sky. "I'd say it's about time we made camp anyway. It's getting cold."

Nicole followed her gaze. "Huh," she said. "Didn't realize how late it'd gotten." She glanced at Clanton and the sled. "We've got plenty of firewood for tonight, but we'll need to gather more tomorrow morning."

"Could you teach me?"

"Teach you what?"

"How to build a fire," Waverly said. Before Nicole could answer, she continued, saying, "It makes sense. If we're going to be out here, I should probably learn. That way, you won't have to do it all the time. And if we ever got separated somehow, I'd be able to—"

"Waverly, slow down for a moment," Nicole said, but there was an amused smile on her face. "I'll teach you."

"Really?"

"Of course," she said. "I'd be happy to."

Waverly grinned.

She was going to learn how to make a fire.

One that wasn't caused by an explosion.

 


 

As Nicole suspected, Waverly was a quick learner.

The two of them had found shelter beneath one of the trees and, after clearing the snow from its branches, they had knelt beside one another and Nicole had shown her the best way to build a fire while Clanton gnawed on one of the extra sticks. While she explained how to position the sticks and start the fire, Waverly had watched attentively, asking questions whenever necessary. When the sparks from her flint and dagger caught the tinder and the small flames licked at the twigs, Waverly's eyes had widened before a grin spread across her face.

Now the two of them sat side by side on the sled near the small fire, their blankets draped over their shoulders. Clanton rested across from them, licking the snow from his paws while the two of them ate and fed larger sticks to the flames so they would dance higher.

"We should reach Gus and Curtis's cabin by tomorrow night if we keep this pace. Then we should be able to make good time to the outpost," Nicole said after she finished the last of her meal. She frowned and tossed another stick into the fire. "Waverly?"

"Hm?"

"I know joining the Resistance wasn't exactly the first thing you had planned to do once you were able to leave the castle, and I'm sorry the choice was taken from you," she said, "but this is alright, isn't it?"

A long silence followed before Waverly answered.

"It has to be alright, doesn't it? Like you said, there isn't much of a choice for me." She poked at the embers with one of the long sticks from the sled. "Outside of my time with Robert, I have no past to fall back on. No family. No friends. And with Robert looking for me, this is the safest option for everybody."

"Right," Nicole said, though the response made her heart feel heavy.

When she'd asked Waverly to run with them, she hadn't been thinking about the repercussions. There had been too much chaos at the gate for that. All she had worried about was getting Waverly out of there and taking her somewhere safe. Yet all she had managed to do was pull her into the other side of the battle, not further away from it.

"Nicole?" A touch against her knee made her look at Waverly again. "Even if I had all of those things, I'd still want to go with you."

The warmth from before spread through Nicole's chest again. She quickly averted her gaze to hide the shy smile the words had caused. Despite all that had happened, her fondness for Waverly had grown into something more—something she was afraid to put a name to, even in her thoughts—so it was a relief to hear that she wanted to be with her, regardless of the circumstances that had thrown them together.

"Is that a real smile I see?" Waverly asked, and Nicole's cheeks burned as she ducked her head. "No, don't hide it!"

Then Waverly was in front of her, kneeling in the snow with a wide grin on her face. Nicole quickly turned away, but Waverly was persistent, shifting her position with every movement Nicole made. It turned into a game of sorts, and the smile on her face only grew the longer it went on. Finally, when Clanton started to bark at the commotion they were causing, Nicole stilled and let her gaze meet Waverly's.

"Oh, wow," Waverly said, her voice a whisper. "You have a very pretty smile, Nicole."

"So you've told me before."

Waverly's brow furrowed. "What? No I haven't."

Nicole laughed. "You have," she said. "That night when I started telling you the story, you told me you liked my smile."

"I didn't."

"Oh, you most certainly did," she said. "Woke up out of a dead sleep to tell me how pretty it was and that you wanted to see it more." Waverly's cheeks turned a deep shade of red. "Don't worry." She leaned forward and whispered in Waverly's ear. "Your secret is safe with me." Waverly responded by shoving a handful of snow into Nicole's face, making her sputter. "Waverly!"

"I'm never drinking Gus's tea again," she grumbled as she stood.

Nicole laughed again despite the snow dripping beneath the collar of her tunic.

Later that evening, after night had fallen completely and the stars were shining above them in full force, Nicole fed the last of their firewood to the flames while Waverly laid out the blankets on the sled and crawled under one. Nicole joined her, and Clanton curled up at their feet.

With no nightmares to chase away, she allowed Waverly her space and stayed beneath her own blanket. However, it wasn't long before Waverly scooted closer and pulled her blanket over both of them. When she rested her head on Nicole's shoulder, her soft breaths against Nicole's neck caused a fluttering in her stomach that she hadn't felt since she had first joined the Resistance.

Long after Waverly fell asleep, Nicole found herself staring up at the stars through the overhanging branches, wondering just how she had managed to get herself into this predicament.

It was far more than just her protective nature extending to Waverly. She had realized it the night she had woken up and found Waverly missing. But giving voice to those feelings—giving them a name—would make them too real, and she wasn't sure she could handle them.

Not yet.

Not when her head kept telling her she shouldn't be having them after everything that had happened. It was one thing to forgive Waverly, but this...

This was something different, and her mind wasn't ready to make those feelings real, even if her heart was.

She sighed and closed her eyes, willing her thoughts to stop so she could get some sleep. A moment later, Waverly scooted closer, then draped her arm over Nicole's stomach.

It was going to be a long night.

 


 

The next morning, Waverly woke before the sun. Beside her, Nicole still slept with her nose buried in Waverly's hair. Rather than extricate herself from the shared blankets, she smiled and closed her eyes again, relishing in the warmth from Nicole's body so close to hers.

Waverly had never needed this closeness before.

She'd grown used to nights by herself and the distance the inhabitants of the castle kept from her. She didn't blame them for keeping away—she knew now they had feared Robert's wrath should any harm come to her—but it had been lonely, especially whenever Robert had to leave the castle. And even if he were around, physical affection was limited to the occasional pat on her shoulder.

So she had adapted.

She shook those thoughts from her mind and burrowed her face in the crook of Nicole's neck, then tightened her grip around her waist.

"Do you ever sleep past sunrise?"

Nicole's voice was a soft rumble in Waverly's ear.

"I've tried," Waverly said, pulling away just enough so she could look at Nicole. "It doesn't work very often."

"Of course not," Nicole mumbled. Sleepy brown eyes opened as she stifled a yawn, then stretched out, wincing at the pull of muscles. There was a sigh, followed by, "Might as well start gathering the firewood since we're awake. Think you're up for it?"

Waverly nodded and pushed herself up from the sled. Nicole muttered a curse at the burst of cold air that slipped under the blankets before she rose as well. Once they had tugged their boots on and fastened their cloaks, Waverly hitched Clanton to the sled, and the three of them searched the sparse trees for firewood.

Nicole showed her the best ways to find it, whether it was peeling bark from the trunks of trees or snapping twigs off of branches. She talked about why pieces of every size were important and reminded her of the fire they had started together the night before so she would understand why each piece was needed. Waverly nodded along, listening as closely as possible and absorbing every word.

After Nicole decided they'd piled enough sticks, twigs, and bark on the sled, she tossed Waverly the bag of provisions—still heavy with the food Gus and Curtis had given them—and the two of them ate from it while they walked, too eager to reach the cabin to stop for the light meal.

When they reached the fields, the sun had risen over the horizon, but grey clouds had rolled in as well, making the flat land look more lifeless than Waverly remembered. She glanced at Nicole, expecting her to call for a break, but she continued to trudge forward. Waverly followed, surprised by her quick strides.

Later, the two of them shared a small meal and passed the waterskin between them as they walked beneath the midday sun. Snippets of conversation broke the quiet that surrounded them, accompanied by the occasional squawk of a bird that Waverly couldn't find despite her best efforts. As twilight fell, however, the conversations became shorter and less frequent, and Nicole's mouth formed a thin line as her steps became slower.

Waverly was about to suggest they stop for a moment when Nicole spoke up again.

"Look."

She nodded her head towards the forest, which had finally come into view. No longer a speck on the horizon, Waverly could see the individual shapes of the bare trees, rather than a dark line. A thrill of excitement fluttered to life as she realized how close they were to seeing Curtis and Gus again. Then Nicole's steps faltered, and Waverly had to catch her before she tumbled into the snow.

"I'm alright," Nicole said, even as she leaned heavily against Waverly.

"No, you're not," Waverly said, guiding Nicole towards the sled. Once she was settled against the packs, Waverly pulled the blankets from the pile and laid them over Nicole. "You're exhausted, and you should have said something."

"The way you said something about your visions in the forest?" Nicole asked as she started to sit up again.

Waverly rolled her eyes and gently pushed her back. She earned a glare for her efforts, but Nicole made no attempt to push back against the hand on her chest. "That was different and you know it," she said. "Robert's soldiers aren't on our heels. You can rest when you need to. I know you don't want to admit it, but you need to now."

"Damn it, Waverly, I don't need to be coddled!"

The words rang through the air, harsh and grating against Waverly's ears. Nicole's hand curled into a loose fist and she looked away.

Waverly sighed, and placed her hand over Nicole's. "I know you don't, and that's not what I'm trying to do," she said. "But if you keep pushing yourself like this, all the progress you've made towards recovering is going to come undone, and you'll be back where you started. Is that what you want?" When Nicole didn't respond, Waverly's stomach twisted into a knot, but she continued. "Please just humor me and stay on the sled? At least until we reach the treeline."

Nicole stayed quiet.

Realizing it was the best she was going to get from her, Waverly stood and dug through the bags until she found the long strip of leather Nicole had used to drag the sled. After she fastened it to the front, she stepped forward until she was alongside Clanton, who waited until her command before he started pulling again.

It was a long trek across the field, tugging the sled behind her. Occasionally, she would glance over her shoulder to check on Nicole, who avoided her gaze. Twilight had given way to night when they reached the treeline, and Waverly's arms felt heavy even after she untied the leather cord and dropped it onto the sled. When Waverly approached Nicole's side, she still wouldn't look at her, and the knot in her stomach tightened.

"The cabin shouldn't be far now," she said as Nicole swung her legs over the edge of the sled and stood. "Are you going to be angry with me the rest of the way there?"

"Let's just keep going, Waverly," Nicole said. "Like you said, we're almost to the cabin, and I'm tired of being cold."

Waverly sighed and followed behind her, wishing she knew how to lift Nicole's mood.

After the long trek through the field and the forest, the light from the cabin shining through the trees was a welcome sight.

Even more welcoming was the hug Curtis and Gus wrapped Waverly in after they answered the knock on the door. Nicole stood off to the side with Clanton, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, but Gus quickly ushered her inside as well.

Clanton bounded after them, eager to see his owners after so many days away.

Waverly settled herself on the cot across from the fire, and a bowl of hot cereal was pushed into her hands by Curtis, who had a wide grin on his face.

"You look better, little one."

"I feel better," Waverly said. She lifted the amulet in the palm of her free hand. "Look what she made me."

Curtis studied the tear-drop stone and the brilliant colors that shined in the fire light. "Oh, now that is lovely," he said while Waverly ate. "Not quite as lovely as that smile on your face, though. I take it the visit with Mattie went well?"

Waverly nodded and let the pendant drop back down to her chest. "The stone helps with my head," she explained around a spoonful of the sweet cereal.

"Don't talk with your mouth full like that," Gus said as she approached, and Waverly quickly swallowed. Nicole was close behind Gus and she gingerly joined Waverly on the cot. "I'm happy to see the two of you managed to keep yourselves out of trouble and made it back here in one piece."

"No bleeding on your floors this time," Nicole said with a forced smile on her face.

"That's right." Then Gus shoved a bowl into Nicole's hands as well. "Something tells me the two of you may have stayed out of trouble, but you've still managed to strain yourself somehow."

It was meant to be a gentle ribbing, but Waverly saw the flicker of anger that crossed Nicole's face before she ducked her head to hide it.

She placed her hand on Nicole's knee to calm her and smiled sweetly at Gus. "Actually, we're both tired. It was a long walk, and I think once we eat, we'd like to lay down," she said. "Would we be able to use the room we did before?"

Curtis looked up at Gus then nodded. ""You could," he said. "We thought you might like to take this one near the fire, though. It's a bit warmer than that drafty, old room."

Waverly glanced at Nicole, who kept a tight grip on the spoon in her hand. "I think we'll be okay in the other one," she said. "Thank you. Again."

"Think nothing of it," Curtis said. "The two of you are welcome here whenever you need a place to lay your heads."

Nicole didn't wait until she was done with her meal. Instead, she stood from the cot and brushed past Gus before disappearing through the doorway. Gus scowled and rested her hands on her hips.

"Now just what kinda bug has crawled up her—"

"She's uh... I don't think she's been feeling well today." Waverly stood and handed her bowl back to Curtis. "I'll go see if she's okay."

After offering an apologetic smile to Gus and Curtis, she left the main room to check on Nicole. She found her in the small bedroom they'd shared during the snowstorm, limping back and forth across the floor.

"You know Gus is going to yell at you if she catches you wearing—"

"Wearing myself out?" Nicole said. "Yeah well, Gus can yell at me all she likes. She's not my mother. She barely knows me."

"I was going to say 'wearing a hole in her floor'," Waverly muttered as she stepped further into the room, closing the door behind her. "And maybe Gus doesn't know you very well, but she cares about you. Curtis, too. So don't take it out on them just because you're angry with me."

Nicole shook her head. "I'm not angry with you."

"Well, you're sure acting like you are!" Nicole stopped her pacing, but Waverly continued. "Worse, you won't tell me why you're angry with me, so I can't fix the problem."

"It's not a problem you can fix."

"Not if you don't tell me what it is, I can't."

"The problem is that somewhere between the ambush and the dungeon, I broke, Waverly," Nicole snapped. "I broke, and as hard as you tried to put me back together again, there are still these gaping cracks that were never there before and everybody can see them." Rather than resume pacing, Nicole dropped to the edge of the bed, and her shoulders sagged. "And I know you said once I've had time to rest, it will start to heal better, but I'm still... I... What if it doesn't heal, Waverly?"

Nicole looked away, but not before Waverly saw the glimmer of tears she was trying to hold back. Hesitantly, Waverly stepped forward until she was in front of Nicole, then knelt on the floor.

"I don't know what to say that will make this better, but I do know you're not broken, Nicole. You never were. Injured, yes. But broken?" Waverly shook her head. "I don't think so." Slowly, she reached up and tucked some of Nicole's hair behind her ear the way she had done for her so many times. Her thumb ran across a wet patch of skin on Nicole's cheek, but Waverly didn't mention it. "I know you're tired of hearing me tell you that rest will help you recover, but it will. I promise."

"And you keep your promises?" Waverly nodded, and Nicole sighed. "I'm sorry I snapped at you earlier," she said. "I was an ass, and you didn't deserve that."

"Already forgiven," Waverly said, offering a soft smile. "Now, I'm going to visit with Gus and Curtis. Do you think you're up for it? It might take your mind off of things."

Nicole shook her head. "You go," she said in a hoarse voice. "I think... I think I'm going to try that 'resting' thing you keep talking about."

"You're sure?"

Nicole nodded. "I'll try to join you later."

"Alright well, if you don't, I'll bring you your supper when I come back, okay? If you're asleep, we can always save it for breakfast tomorrow."

Nicole nodded again, then shifted her legs onto the bed so she could curl up on the mattress. Part of her was glad Nicole was staying in bed—she needed it more than either of them had realized—but the other part of her already missed her presence as she started for the doorway alone.

"I won't be long," she promised, before slipping through the door.

In the front room, Curtis had moved closer to the hearth while Gus straightened the blankets on the cot. Clanton lay between them, sprawled across the worn rug. When Waverly returned, Gus stopped fiddling with the blankets and sat on the cot instead, then patted the space beside her. Waverly joined her on the mattress and was surprised when Gus's arm snaked around her shoulders to pulled her into an awkward hug.

"Is that hard-headed friend of yours feeling better?"

Waverly shrugged. "She's trying to rest now, but I know she's still frustrated."

"Sounds like someone else I know, " Gus said before leveling a glare at Curtis, who was too busy petting Clanton to notice. "Damn fool doesn't know the definition of rest. Been too many times he's hurt himself and I've had to threaten to tie him to the bed, but you can guess what kind of comment that earned me."

Waverly's brow furrowed. "Does he like being tied to the bed?"

Gus made a choking sound that quickly morphed into a laugh that made her double over. The sound made Curtis look up from Clanton. When Gus sat up again, she wiped at her eyes.

"I'm sorry to tell you this, Waverly, but that is not a conversation I am willing to have with you right now. Or possibly ever."

"Oh," Waverly said, though she didn't quite understand. Then realization dawned on her, and her jaw dropped slightly. " Oh ! No, no. I wasn't—You're right. I don't need to know that. About you. Or anyone, actually."

Her cheeks burned and she shifted her gaze from Gus's.

The comment Mattie had made while she and Nicole had been trapped in the net suddenly made more sense.

Her cheeks burned even hotter and she cleared her throat, which was suddenly tight. Gus was quick to leave the cot and return with a waterskin, which Waverly gratefully accepted. After she had drained most of it, she glared at Gus, who was now laughing at her reaction while Curtis and Clanton stared with their heads tilted to the side.

"You're a funny one, Waverly." Gus patted her knee, then took the waterskin from her hands and set it aside. "As for your stubborn friend, my advice to you is to keep looking out for her. She might think she knows best, but if she's anything like my Curtis, she'll be too hard-headed to admit when she needs to rest." She leaned closer and whispered, "Sometimes you have to be clever about it, and you seem like a very clever girl, Waverly."

Waverly smiled and looked down at her lap.

She could be clever.

 


 

Just as Waverly promised, she didn't take long to return.

The creak of the door woke Nicole from her light sleep, though it felt as if she'd just closed her eyes. Then the mattress dipped as Waverly crawled into the space between her and the wall. After a rustling of blankets, Waverly pressed against her side just as she had done the night before. The soft touch against Nicole's cheek, however, was unexpected.

"They were worried about you," Waverly whispered. "I let them know you were alright. Just tired." A sigh, and then she dropped her hand from Nicole's cheek so she could drape her arm over her stomach. "You missed the story about how they met, though. They were very sweet on one another when Curtis was a soldier for Robert's father, but I guess Gus wouldn't admit it until Curtis didn't return from a campaign one year." Waverly tightened her hold. "But then he did come back—a little worse for wear, the way Curtis tells it—and she was so happy to see him again, she forgot to keep convincing herself she didn't care."

She shook her head before she rested it on Nicole's shoulder.

"They're very strange, but I'm glad we met them," she said. "I don't remember my parents, but I'd like to believe they were something like them."

Nicole didn't know if Waverly knew she was awake, or if she was just talking to talk, but the sound of her voice was soothing, and she found herself drifting off again as she listened to her speak. She didn't miss the hint of wistfulness in her voice, though, or the sadness. Unable to think of any words to comfort her in her sleepy haze, Nicole pulled Waverly closer—eliciting a yelp of surprise—so her head rested on her chest, just beneath her chin.

"You were supposed to be sleeping," Waverly muttered.

Nicole shushed her. "I will be soon," she said. "Thank you for telling them I was okay, even if I was an ass to you."

"You were just tired and frustrated. I understand," she said. "Not like you ran away in the middle of the night like some people do when they're angry."

Nicole laughed. "True," she said as she ran her fingers through Waverly's hair. "You know, your family might be out there still."

Waverly shrugged. "And I don't remember anything about them. How am I supposed to find them if I don't even know where to look?" She shook her head. "And what little I do remember about my past, I'm not sure I can trust."

"And why's that?"

"The Stone Witch." Nicole felt her stiffen against her side. "After that second vision I had of you, I overheard Robert speaking with her. He um... He was worried about your influence over me and mentioned the Witch had dabbled in memory magic before," she said. "He told me the reason I couldn't remember anything was because the power of my abilities had ruined my mind to the point where my name was all I could remember. But if the Witch knows how to alter memories and take them away, then maybe she's used that power on me once before."

Nicole continued to run her fingers through Waverly's hair as she mulled over her words. Fear had radiated from her as she spoke of the Witch, a tremor in her voice as she spoke.

"You told me before that you sent her north."

"I needed her out of the castle so you'd have a chance to get free. So I lied. I told her she could find a piece of her son through the mountains there."

Nicole chewed her lip.

She didn't know much about the Stone Witch except that Waverly seemed terrified of her. And yet she'd lied to her, with no plans of escaping for herself once Nicole and the others were free. If the chaos at the gate hadn't happened—if Nicole hadn't asked her to come with them—she'd be facing the Witch's wrath alongside Robert's.

The stakes Waverly had set for the escape had never been clearer.

"What happened to you going to sleep soon, huh?" Despite the playful tone, her voice shook around the words. "Get some rest. We have another long walk ahead of us tomorrow."

Nicole rolled her eyes, but tightened her hold on Waverly.

"Maybe I'll have finally reached the end of that story by the time we reach the outpost."

Waverly hummed. "Maybe," she said, "but I'm not going to hold my breath."

"Don't be rude," Nicole muttered. "I'll make you a deal," she said. "The first night you're able to make a fire without my help, I'll finish the story."

"I'll hold you to that," Waverly said, her voice quiet as she started to succumb to sleep. "Not sure it's fair to you, though."

Nicole chuckled and closed her eyes. "No, it probably isn't," she said before she drifted off into a dreamless sleep, much deeper than her first attempt.

The next morning, after an awkward apology to Gus and Curtis for her behavior, Nicole and Waverly shared a warm meal with the older couple in the front room. While Nicole ate, Clanton lay at her feet. Beside her, the cat she had seen stalking Fish during their first stay was curled in Waverly's lap, purring against her stomach.

After they finished the warm meal and prepared to leave, Curtis took Nicole aside while Gus and Waverly said their goodbyes.

"Somethin' tells me the two of you have a bit of a hike ahead of ya," he said. "We'd like you to take the sled for firewood and the supplies. We gotta keep Clanton, though. Boy turns into a big pup all over again if he's away from us for too long."

"He's a good dog," Nicole said, thinking of the way he'd protected Waverly when Nicole couldn't. "I'd argue with you about the sled, but something tells me it'd be a bit like talking with a wall."

Curtis grinned and the scar that ran through his lip stretched. "You'd be right about that."

Nicole rolled her eyes, but there was a small smile on her face. "You're a good man, Curtis," she said. "You and Gus, um... You really helped us out of a tight spot when you didn't have to, and I know I've said it before, but I don't know how to repay you."

"And we've told you before to just stay safe," he said. "We're mighty fond of the two of you. That Fish boy, too. We'd rather you kept out of trouble, but somethin' tells me that isn't an option, so the most we can ask is that you stay safe." He rested his hand on her uninjured shoulder. "Maybe come back and visit some time, if you're ever out this way again."

"So that's why you're letting us take the sled," she said. "So we have an excuse to come back." Curtis's eyes widened and Nicole laughed. "It was a joke, Curtis. We wouldn't need the sled as an excuse to come back anyway. I think the time we spent here was the closest I've felt to being home in a long time."

"Come on now. You keep saying stuff like that, you're gonna make an old man cry, and you don't want that," he said. "By the looks of it, the little one and Gus are done with their goodbyes. We should be joining them."

Nicole nodded and followed him to the sled, where Waverly and Gus waited.

After a final, reluctant goodbye and a stiff hug from Gus, Nicole and Waverly grabbed hold of the leather straps Curtis had hitched to the sled and started their journey to the outpost.

While they trudged through the snow, Nicole tried to keep her thoughts off the slow pace she was setting. Instead, she thought of possible ways she could end the story she had promised to finish. With Waverly being such a quick study, she doubted she'd have much more time to come up with something, and she had wasted the previous day sulking.

Throughout the day, Waverly asked to stop several times, claiming her legs needed a break while they ate. Nicole suspected it was for her benefit rather than Waverly's, but she heeded the requests and the two of them would sit on the sled and eat some of the bread and hard cheese they'd been given. Occasionally, Waverly would stray from the sled, only to return with an armful of branches from the nearby trees. Then she would take up the second leather strap again and ask a dozen questions about fire building, and Nicole couldn't help but smile as she answered them.

The first night, Waverly's structure for the fire was sloppy and Nicole reminded her of how she had set it up before, then helped her steady the twigs so they could support heavier sticks and branches. After Nicole struck the flint with the dagger and caught the sparks on the tinder, a pout appeared on Waverly's face. There would be no story for the night. Instead, Nicole explained more about building fires, including how to start one if there was no flint on hand.

The second night they stopped, Waverly's structure was sturdy, but when she tried to strike the flint and catch the tinder, she fumbled with the dagger in her excitement. Nicole's eyes widened at Waverly's yelp as the blade nicked Waverly's finger and blood pooled around the stone. She scrambled to find the healing supplies that had been packed. Waverly hissed as Nicole pressed a cloth to the injured digit and told her to hold it there. After getting the fire started and melting a cup full of snow, she cleaned the wound—which was not as deep as she feared, but she was sure still stung—and wrapped it.

The third night, Nicole watched as Waverly assembled the twigs, her tongue peeking between her lips as she concentrated. Then she struck the flint, carefully this time. When the sparks finally caught the nest of tinder, she shouted in surprise and then grinned up at Nicole.

"Might wanna add some more before it goes out again," Nicole teased.

"Right, right," Waverly said, nodding as she placed twigs against the piles.

Slowly, the fire grew as the flames licked at the sticks. Waverly sat beside Nicole on the sled, a smug smile on her face as she watched the fire thrive. She bumped her shoulder against Nicole's to get her attention.

"Don't worry. I haven't forgotten my promise," Nicole said. "I'd say you've earned the end of that story, though I'm sure you're getting the short end of the stick in this deal."

Waverly shook her head. "No, I like stories, and you were really starting to do well the last time you told it."

"If you say so," Nicole said. She looked up at the cloudy sky as she gathered her thoughts, then returned her gaze to the fire. "Last time, Jaxon went after his son, who had gone to confront Dixon, yes?" Waverly nodded. "Well, he watched as his son spoke with his old friend, twisted from years of hatred and anger. But there was no way to speak with Dixon now that would get through to him. No words from a stranger would sway him to spare the village. Instead, he only laughed and drew his massive blade, prepared to cut down the foolish young man who had come to speak with him."

"You've been thinking about this a lot, haven't you?"

Nicole nodded, then continued the story.

"At first, the young man fared well against Dixon, matching him blow for blow. But as the fight wore on, Dixon became more brutal, and he realized the man had only been toying with him. His cruel laughter sent a cold shiver of fear down Jaxon's spine. When he brought the young man to his knees, Jaxon could not stay back any longer. He burst through the crowd of raiders with his dagger drawn and tackled Dixon to the ground before he could deliver the killing blow."

The fire crackled in her ears and she tossed a small stick into the flames.

"He could hear the twang of arrows that followed, but with the way he and Dixon were entangled, there was nothing Jaxon could do to avoid them. There was a shout that sounded like his son's, followed by piercing pain in his back as several of the arrows struck him," she said. "Still, he pushed himself off of Dixon, revealing the dagger buried deep in the twisted man's chest. Dark eyes stared up at him, wide with surprise. He thought he saw a glimpse of the man who had once been his friend, but then the light in his eyes faded, and Dixon was no more."

Nicole tapped her fingers against her knee and glanced at Waverly, who was watching her intently. Her cheeks warmed at the attention, and she quickly returned her gaze to the fire.

"When he struggled to his feet, his son was at his side, and the anger from their argument had left his eyes. Instead, he only found concern as he helped him leave the encampment," she said. "Many of Dixon's men challenged them, but Jaxon's son was strong. Strong enough to fend off the raiders who attacked them, none of them nearly as strong as Dixon had been. Once they had reached safety, Jaxon's son tended his wounds as best he could until they could reach the village, where he could be treated by a healer."

Nicole was quiet for a moment and prodded the embers with one of the sticks.

"Jaxon's son sat by his side for many days, waiting for him to heal while he came to terms with the man his father had been and the man he had become," she said. "When Jaxon awoke, his son was at his side, though he was unsure if he could call himself that any longer. Yet the young man's hand was still in his, and when he looked upon his face, the contempt he expected was nowhere to be found. He knew Jaxon had been a fool, blinded by his friendship with Dixon. Yet he had finally been able to deliver the blow that needed to be made so he could protect his son."

Nicole cleared her throat and dropped her gaze to the snow.

"And that was that, I guess," she said. "He wasn't made into a constellation like he was supposed to be, but I suppose living out his days with his son could be just as good."

"I liked it," she said. "I'm glad Jaxon's son could forgive him. And that he lived. You had me worried for a moment."

Nicole shrugged. "Jaxon made mistakes out of friendship, but when he realized what Dixon was doing, he tried to stop it," she said. "And then he tried to make up for all that he'd done. I would think his son could understand that, especially when Jaxon chose to protect him over Dixon."

"You should tell stories more often."

"Oh no," Nicole said, shaking her head. "I think I am all out of them."

"Now, I don't believe that."

Nicole rolled her eyes and gently shoved her. "Let's just get to bed," she said. "No more stories for the night."

"So I get another one tomorrow night?"

"Only if you're tellin' it, Waverly," Nicole said as she dug through the packs and pulled out the blankets.

She tossed one at Waverly, then rested her head against the bags. Waverly joined her beneath the blankets and nestled against Nicole's side. A long stretch of silence followed before Nicole broke it again.

"Did you put more wood on the fire, or are we just letting it go out tonight?"

"Shit!"

Nicole laughed as Waverly sat up again and added more wood to the fire, building it up enough that it would last through the night.

 


 

In the days that followed, they left the forest and walked through snowy fields of farmland. Most of the farmers took refuge from the cold in their homes, but they would pass the occasional person outside, escaping the confines of their house to avoid going stir crazy. On warmer days, Waverly could see them climbing along the roofs of their homes, patching up the rough ceilings and any other damaged parts of their houses.

While they walked, Waverly filled the air with stories as often as she could, determined to keep Nicole from the dark place her thoughts had taken her before. She told tales of knights who protected those who could not protect themselves; stories of the Enchantress and her travels on the ocean floor; stories of people who could transform into creatures more fantastic than themselves, who found their happy endings with those who had the patience and mindset to understand them. Nicole was an apt listener, inserting her own comments at opportune moments so Waverly would know she was paying attention.

When they made camp, they took turns building the fire. As their supply of firewood dwindled, however, the fires became smaller. Yet they always made sure to leave enough to last them through the night and chase away the bitter cold that tried to slip beneath their blankets.

Then the fields gave way to thick forest once more. Nicole seemed to navigate her way through the trees with ease. The trees blocked the brutal winds that had sometimes whipped through the fields. Waverly was happy to replenish their supply of firewood while Nicole spoke of how the forest looked in the fall, bursting with color and wildlife.

"You'd like it in the spring, though," she said as they stepped around a small, downed tree. "Everything smells fresh and new, and in the mornings, mist covers the forest floor in a thick cloud. Would fit right in with those stories you like to tell."

Waverly grinned. "Sounds like it," she said. "It's beautiful like this in its own way, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to warmer weather and more colors than just... grey."

Nicole laughed. "It'll be warm before you know it," she said. "At first it'll just be a mess of mud. If you think the grey is bad now, just wait until the dull brown. But one morning you'll open your eyes and be surrounded by so much green, you'll think the earth awakened while you slept through the night."

"Wow."

Before she could say more, however, the sound of water grabbed her attention, and she squinted so she could see between the trees. Then they widened, and she looked at Nicole, who had an amused expression on her face. She dropped the leather strap onto the sled then ran ahead of Nicole, the sound of waves drawing her forward.

The trees thinned, revealing a snowy hill that dipped down to an icy shore. Patches of snow dotted the sand that gave way beneath her booted feet. She scooped a handful of it, shivering at the feel of it in her hands, then ran back to Nicole, who had broken through the trees as well. Her steps felt sluggish and awkward in the sand, and when she finally reached Nicole again, she was breathless from the effort, but she couldn't keep the grin off her face as she turned back towards the water. It stretched towards the horizon, and as hard as Waverly tried, she couldn't see the other side.

"Is... Is this the ocean?"

"Waverly," Nicole said, "this is a lake."

The bubble of happiness in her chest deflated and Waverly's cheeks burned as she dropped her gaze down to her boots.

"Oh," she mumbled.

"Don't feel bad," Nicole said. "It's a big lake. Just as impressive, I think, but not as smelly, so much better than the ocean."

Waverly rolled her eyes. "What do you have against the ocean?"

"What do you have against lakes?"

The sound of footsteps interrupted the conversation. Waverly stiffened, but Nicole made no move to draw her sword.

A moment later, she saw why.

Fish's familiar figure stepped out of the trees, dressed in leather armor much like what they had been wearing when they'd first been brought to the castle. An unfamiliar man emerged as well, a stony expression on his face. When they approached, Waverly could see that Nicole was trying to school her features into a neutral expression, but a smile tugged at her lips when Fish and the stranger stopped in front of them.

"Fish," Nicole said, nodding towards the man. He returned the greeting with a nod of his own. Then she turned her attention to the unfamiliar one, whose expression hadn't softened in the least. Her voice wavered as she said, "Xavier."

He nodded as well, then shifted his gaze to Waverly. Despite the hard expression on his face, there was a softness to his dark brown eyes that he couldn't hide completely. They weren't warm like Nicole's, but they were kind.

"I think a discussion about your unusual recruitment methods may be in order," he said, and Waverly couldn't tell if it was supposed to be a joke or if he was serious. "But first, let's get you across this damn lake. Some folks around the outpost will be happy to see you."

When Fish and the man named Xavier started for the shore, Nicole looked at Waverly.

"You ready?"

She nodded, though her nerves had flared to life. She hadn't realized how close they were to the outpost, and now she wondered just how much the people there knew about her.

About where she had come from.

About what she could do.

Then she felt Nicole's hand slide into hers, and the worries fled to the back of her mind as she followed her down to the water.

Chapter Text

While Fish guided the ferry across the lake’s glassy surface, Nicole sat beside the sled with her back against the railing and watched as Waverly marveled at the small islands coated in snow and the dark rocks that cracked the water's surface. Her eyes were wide as she observed their surroundings, much like they had been when they had walked through the valley. When Waverly leaned over the side to peer down at the water beneath them, Nicole's smile morphed into a mischievous one.

Braving the frigid temperature, Nicole slipped her hand beneath the low railing, dipped her fingers into the lake, and grinned as she splashed Waverly. Nicole laughed at the surprised yelp that followed, but when she caught Xavier studying her, she cleared her throat and looked away, biting her lip to hold back the smile that was fighting its way across her face.

As the ferry approached the other side of the lake, she saw the watchtower looming over the water before she saw the shore, and the sight of it made her heart swell. The outpost wasn't much, but it was the closest thing to home she had, and she was finally returning. It was a feat she had considered impossible after the ambush, yet here she was.

It didn't feel real until the bottom of the ferry scraped the ground as Fish brought them ashore in the dying light. Even then, she was tentative as she stepped off the boat.

“Nicole.” The sound of Xavier's voice was accompanied by a firm hand on her shoulder. When she turned to face him, his usual stony expression had softened. Not quite a full smile—Xavier reserved those for private moments—but she thought she saw the corners of his mouth twitch. “It's good to have you back, and in one piece at that.”

“You know it'd take more than a couple of Robert's men to get rid of me.”

“Yes, well, I was still a bit concerned when Fish returned without you, but he said you wouldn't be far behind him.” He released her shoulder and his gaze shifted to Waverly, who was helping Fish bring the ferry onto the shore. His eyes narrowed slightly as he watched her. “He also informed me of certain... things.”

Nicole frowned at his tone. “Whatever you've heard, those things are complicated.”

“Right,” Xavier said, and he turned his attention back to Nicole. “And I'm sure you will clear it all up for me.”

Nicole nodded.

The sound of approaching footsteps reached her ears and she felt Waverly step beside her. Xavier's stoic expression returned and Nicole wondered what, exactly, Fish had told him.

“We'll talk more later,” he said. “For now, go get yourself checked out by Ruthie. She'll want to see for herself that you're alright.” Nicole started to protest, but Xavier shook his head and cut her off. “Nicole. Later.” He glanced at Waverly again, then turned back to Nicole. “You'll know where to find me.”

Then Nicole found herself staring at his back as he left them on the shore.

“Yeah, well, nice to see you, too,” she mumbled. She heaved a heavy sigh, then looked at Waverly. “Guess I'll be seeing Ruthie,” she said. She offered a smile as she tried not to think about Xavier's gruff dismissal. “You're welcome to come with me, if you like, unless you'd rather stay with Fish. Maybe ask him to show you around.”

Waverly glanced at Fish, who was securing the ferry to the wooden post jutting from the sand, then returned her attention to Nicole. “I'm not sure he likes me much.”

Nicole sighed and draped her arm over Waverly's shoulder.

“Come on.” She guided her away from the shore and towards the camp. “It's not you,” she assured her once they had reached the woods. “When Levi...” The word that was supposed to follow lodged itself in her throat. She shook her head and tried again, this time working around the word she couldn't bring herself to say. “I think Fish lost a piece of himself when he lost Levi. It'll be a long while yet before he's done mourning.”

“I hope you know, if I could go back to that night—”

“Waverly,” Nicole said, “You didn't kill Levi. He chose to save you. And I... I know that's a lot to have on your shoulders, but it was his decision. I know that and, deep down, Fish knows it, too.” She mulled over her next words. “Fish and Levi both enjoyed the stories you told while we were in the castle. Maybe you could try sharing them with him again. It might help you both work past this.”

Waverly chewed her lip, but whatever was on her mind, she kept it to herself as they walked further into the woods.

In the center of the outpost Nicole caught glimpses of familiar faces warming themselves around the blazing fire. A pot had been hung near the flames and those surrounding the fire stared at it with hunger in their eyes as they waited for their meal. Through the trees and tents, Nicole could see the base of the watchtower. It stood near the shore of the river that drained into the lake, sturdy as ever. Xavier would be there, poring over maps and plans, deciding on their next move since Nicole and her men had failed their mission.

“Who is Ruthie, exactly?” Waverly asked, and Nicole was happy for the distraction.

“She's our healer,” she said. “The two of you could probably swap tips, if you're interested.”

Waverly ducked her head. “Oh, I'm not so sure about that,” she said. “I know I said I assisted our healer at the castle, but I mostly just held things for him and tidied up. It wasn't a very hands on learning experience.”

“Well, I'm glad you're telling me that after you've already treated me and not before,” Nicole teased, and Waverly's cheeks reddened. “Listen. You didn't let me die while I was in the castle. Ruthie will like you well enough for that alone, even if she doesn't show it. And you certainly didn't doubt your skills then, so don't start now.” Nicole leaned down and whispered in her ear. “Besides, you can't be nervous around her. I think she can smell fear.”

Waverly laughed and finally met Nicole's eyes. "Are you speaking from past experiences with her?”

“Would you think less of me if I was?”

“Of course not,” Waverly said. “Though, I suppose someone would have to be pretty intimidating to scare you.”

“You have no idea,” Nicole said with a soft smile, though her thoughts were no longer on Ruthie. “Just be you, Waverly, and you won't have to worry about her or anyone else in this camp.”

As they approached the healer's tent, the sound of cursing could be heard, and Nicole grinned at the sound of the familiar voice. When she brushed aside the flaps of the tent and led Waverly inside, she found a slender, white-haired woman kneeling in front of a brunette woman, who sat on one of the makeshift cots scattered throughout the tent. A lantern hung from the top of the tent, casting a dim light. The brunette woman held a cloth sack against her eye with a bandaged hand and hissed as the other woman applied a salve to her unwrapped palm.

“Chrissy, you're supposed to dodge, not use your face as a shield,” Nicole called out.

“That what I've been tellin' her, but she never—” The older woman paused in her ministrations, then turned her gaze towards the front of the tent. “Nicole.”

“Hello, Ruthie.”

Ruthie patted Chrissy's hand and let it rest on the cot. Then she pushed herself up from the ground and took quick strides towards the front of the tent with a scowl on her face.

“Don't you 'Hello, Ruthie' me,” she said when she approached them. “First, there's no word sent back from you after you and those boys take on that fool's errand. Then Fish turns up without Levi, and you're still nowhere to be found. Then I find out from him you nearly got yourself killed, but you can't be bothered to come back after you escape because you've found more trouble to get yourself into.” Ruthie huffed and turned her attention to Waverly. “And who's this now?”

Waverly glanced at Nicole, then quickly introduced herself.

Ruthie didn't seem impressed.

“So you're 'Trouble' then.”

“No, she's a friend,” Nicole said. “And if you couldn't tell, I'm fine, so you can stop worrying.”

A sharp laugh was Ruthie's response. “If I remember correctly, the two of us have very different definitions of the word,” she said. “Come in and sit down so I can take a look at you.”

Nicole sighed and followed Ruthie to the empty cot beside Chrissy's. Once she was settled, Waverly stood beside her, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.

“It's nice to see you again, Nicole,” Chrissy said. She attempted a friendly smile, but winced a moment later. Nicole hadn't seen it from the entrance, but now that they were closer, she could easily see the bloody tear in Chrissy's lip. “When you didn't send word back to us...” She dropped her gaze to the ground. “We thought you were dead. And then Fish said—”

“Chrissy, I'm alright,” Nicole said. “Looks like you've seen better days, though. Did you get that split lip sparring with Xavier?”

Ruthie laughed and Chrissy's face reddened.

“No. Well, yes, but it wasn't his fault. He helped me get back here, too, before he went on patrol with Fish again.”

“They were done training for the morning,” Ruthie clarified. She gestured for Nicole to remove the cloak and tunic. When Nicole started to unfasten the cloak, she continued, saying, “When they were leaving the sparring area, this one went and slipped on a patch of ice. Smacked her face on one of the trees and knocked herself right out.”

Chrissy groaned. “The one person in camp who didn't see it happen, and you had to tell her?”

Ruthie shrugged. “She was bound to find out anyway,” she said. “You're free to go now, if you like. No lecture from me tonight. Seems I'll be saving it for someone else.”

Chrissy breathed a sigh of relief and stood from the cot. Nicole glanced at Waverly again, and remembered what she had said before they reached Gus and Curtis's cabin.

She had no family. No friends.

Nobody outside of Nicole.

She bit her lip, then called Chrissy's name, stopping her in her tracks.

“I know you're probably tired,” she said, “but before you turn in for the night, do you think you could show my friend Waverly around the camp?”

“Nicole, I don't mind waiting,” Waverly said.

“I know you don't,” she said, “but I'm going to be here for a while, and then I've got to meet with Xavier.”

Waverly lowered her gaze. “And you don't want me in the way.”

“That's not it at all,” Nicole said in a soft voice. “I just thought you'd like to try your hand at making some new friends while I'm busy, and Chrissy is as nice as they come. That's it. You don't have to if you don't want to.”

“I...” Waverly's gaze shifted to Chrissy, who had pressed the cloth sack against her bruised eye again but was still offering a small smile. “I think I would really like that,” she said. “But you'll find me again when you're done?”

Nicole nodded. “I'll join the two of you at the fire once I've spoken with Xavier. Now go on before Chrissy changes her mind.”

Waverly nodded and, after excusing herself, she joined Chrissy at the front of the tent and properly introduced herself. Once they had slipped through the flaps of the tent, Nicole turned back to Ruthie and sighed.

She was so tired of people poking and prodding at her.

Ruthie's touch, though skilled, wasn't as gentle as Waverly's as she examined the wound in Nicole's shoulder. It was healing well, but it still ached fiercely at night, especially if she accidentally strained herself when pulling the sled. Waverly had helped during the trek to the outpost by kneading the muscle around the wound to ease the discomfort, which she had been grateful for, but it would take more time than she liked before she would have her full strength back.

But it was the long gash that cut across her back that worried her most.

When Ruthie moved behind her, Nicole took a sharp breath and tightened her grip on the cloak in her hands.

“Stop fidgeting,” Ruthie said as she unwound the bandages around her torso.

“I'm not fidgeting,” Nicole muttered. She winced at the touch against her skin and looked over her shoulder. “You know, Waverly tells stories whenever she tends to it. Maybe you could try that, too.”

Ruthie's fingers stilled and she met Nicole's gaze with a hard one of her own. “Are you offering tips on how I should do my job?” she asked. “The one I've been doin' since before you could walk?”

Nicole shrugged. “It was just a suggestion.”

Ruthie raised an eyebrow. “And just what part of me looks like a storyteller anyway?”

“Uh...”

“That's what I thought,” Ruthie said. “Now don't be telling me how to do my job. Especially not when you and Xavier can't be bothered to listen to me about how to do yours. I told the both of you it was a reckless plan, and now look what's happened to you.” The touch that followed was surprisingly gentle as Ruthie ran the pads of her fingers over Nicole's back. “You shouldn't be here after a wound like this, Nicole, much less walking around. Their healer was sloppy with the cauterization, but I suppose I owe them my gratitude for keeping the infection at bay.”

Nicole shifted herself on the cot so she faced Ruthie. “You can thank her when you see her again. Waverly's the one who kept me alive.” She cocked her head to the side and smiled. “I doubt it was an easy feat, so maybe the next time you see her, try to be a little nicer.”

“Maybe next time, you and Xavier listen to me so you don't get yourself in this kind of situation in the first place,” Ruthie said, but it was quickly followed by a deep sigh. “I'll be sure to thank her when I see her around camp, but I'd like you to promise me something in return.”

“And what's that?”

“Don't go scarin' me like that again,” she said. “I've already outlived too many young people because of this war with Robert. Good people. And I don't want you to be one of them, Nicole. Not when you have so much to offer to the world.”

Nicole blinked and ducked her head.

“I'll uh... I'll try not to do that again then,” she said. “I'm sorry.”

Ruthie cleared her throat and quickly changed the subject. “Turn around again. I wasn't done examining the patchwork that friend of yours did.”

Nicole shifted on the cot and kept her gaze fastened on the ground, resigned to the poking and prodding that would come next.

She hoped Waverly was having a better time than she was.  


There wasn't much to see in the small outpost, Waverly realized. 


The most impressive sight was the watchtower: a massive structure that stood guard over the river and the lake. Judging by the state of the stone, it had been there far longer than Waverly had been alive. They didn't go inside, but Waverly caught a glimpse of the stoic man from the shore through the entrance, pacing across the floor.

When Chrissy led her to the supply tent, she was surprised to find Fish inside, checking over their inventory. Her stomach twisted, but Nicole's words from the shore echoed in her head. Rather than avoid Fish, she offered a soft greeting. He fumbled the jar in his hands, but quickly recovered it and returned her greeting.

“I didn't expect to find you here,” Waverly said. “I thought you'd be around the fire once you tied up the boat.”

“Not yet.” Fish rubbed the back of his head. “It's busy work. Keeps my mind off of... off of things.” The smile that followed was small. “You look better. Guess that trip was the right idea after all.” She nodded. “I'm glad. Really, I am.” He dropped his gaze to the jar in his palm and cleared his throat. “But I uh... I need to finish this. You two should be on your way.”

It was far more of a conversation than she expected to get from Fish, and the knot in her stomach loosened as Chrissy led her through the rest of the camp. While they walked, Waverly clutched the ammolite pendant in her hand, drawing comfort from the gemstone whenever she felt strange eyes following her.        

The last place Chrissy showed her was the sparring area, and Waverly was surprised to find it wasn't much more than a small clearing where the snow had been worn away and mixed with mud by booted feet. As they approached the training circle, a light blush dusted Chrissy's cheeks and she pressed the cloth sack against her discolored eye again as she warned Waverly to watch for ice. In the center of the clearing, a small group of fighters clashed. Another fire had been made on the outskirts, not nearly as large as the one that blazed in center of the outpost, but bright enough for the fighters to see.

“I know it's not much, but this is where we do our drills,” Chrissy said. “It can get crowded if we all try to practice at once though. Sometimes we just have to find somewhere else to train.”

It was far different from the drilling yard at the castle, where there had been ample space and lighting for Robert's soldiers to practice, regardless of the time of day. Waverly had watched them sometimes, engrossed in their movements. Those she watched now weren't nearly as graceful or skilled as Robert's soldiers, but even from her spot at the edge of the clearing, she could see the passion was there, fueling their attacks.
It was no wonder they had been giving Robert and the other nobles so much trouble.

“They're very determined,” Waverly said.

Her gaze was drawn to one man in particular defending against a group of four. His grin could be seen in the firelight as he fended off his assailants with ease. He side-stepped one thrust and blocked another before he drove the pommel of his sword into the shoulder of one of the fighters who had stepped too close, forcing them to the ground with the heavy blow. Those that surrounded him took a step back, wary of receiving the same fate as their friend.

“He goes by Champ,” Chrissy offered when she saw where Waverly's attention had landed. “If you're wondering, that is.”

“Champ?” Waverly’s brow furrowed. “Really?”

Chrissy nodded. “He was part of the most successful attack on a weapons' cache. It was owned by Lord James in the south. The odds were stacked against him and his men, but they managed to get away with not only a tremendous amount of new weapons for the resistance, but with Lord James's dignity as well.” Chrissy sighed. “He's one of the most skilled fighters here and, unfortunately, he knows it.”

Before Waverly could ask more, one of the fighters surrounding Champ grunted as he took another swing at him, only to have his blade deflected. He quickly found the tip of Champ's sword at his throat. The fighting ceased for a moment as all eyes in the sparring circle landed on the duo. Then a hearty laugh filled the air, Champ lowered his blade, and clapped his free hand on the other man's shoulder. The amused grin never left his face as he sheathed his sword. The others did the same and followed him out of the muddy clearing.

Their boisterous voices filled the air as they approached the trees, their heavy breaths forming clouds of mist in the cool air. When they walked by, Chrissy stepped out of their path and pulled Waverly with her before the group could collide with them. Champ still had his arm draped over the shoulder of the man he had leveled his sword at. There didn't appear to be hard feelings between the two of them. When the group disappeared further into the trees, Waverly turned back to Chrissy.

“You said he's one of the most skilled fighters here?”

“He may be a bit thickheaded in other matters, but when it comes to fighting, he matches pretty evenly with Xavier and... and Nicole.” She chewed her lip for a moment. “I heard about the ambush from Fish,” she said, her voice quiet. “She's alright, isn't she?”

“She's doing better.”

It was the best answer Waverly could give her under the circumstances.

“Good,” Chrissy said. “We aren't close—not really—but she's always offered me encouragement when I needed it most and made me laugh after particularly hard days of training with Xavier.” Chrissy tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Fish also told us you kept her alive, so thank you for making sure she made it back here to us.”

Waverly's stomach twisted into a knot.

She was the reason Nicole nearly hadn't made it back, and here Chrissy was, offering her gratitude.

“Please don't thank me for that,” Waverly said. “She did most of it on her own. I just changed bandages and helped pull the sled. That's all.”

Thankfully, Chrissy didn't push the subject.

Instead, she guided Waverly away from the sparring area and back into the woods to continue their trek through the outpost.

“You mentioned earlier that you've been training as well?” Waverly asked as they approached the center of the camp. “How is that going?”

Chrissy lifted the cloth sack and shook it. “This is about how well it's been going,” she said. “I've collected more bruises, scrapes, and sprains here in one season than I have in my entire life. Sometimes, when I'm resting in my tent, too stiff to move, I wonder if this is really the right path for me, or if I'm only wasting Xavier's time.” She shook her head and said, “Never mind that. I promised Nicole I'd show you around, not try to shove my life story down your throat.”

Waverly smiled. “I don't mind,” she said. “I actually quite like stories.”

“Really?” Chrissy asked, and Waverly nodded. “Sorry to say, we don't get much of them around here. Not sober ones anyway. But every now and then, we can manage a drunken one around the fire, even if it is a group effort. Usually it's just off-key singing of bawdy songs, though.”

“I could tell you one,” Waverly offered. “Might help you take your mind off that headache you must have.”

“I might take you up on that,” Chrissy said as they approached the blazing fire in the center of camp.  “But first, I'm starving.” She placed her free hand against Waverly's elbow and guided her towards the end of the short line in front of the pot hanging near the fire. “Don't worry. It shouldn't take long now.”  

Most of those who had been waiting when Waverly and Nicole had passed by now sat on the large stumps that surrounded the fire. Some lingered in the shadows, talking among themselves between sips from the bowls in their gloved hands. While they waited in the line, Waverly scanned the unfamiliar faces for the one she knew she would recognize, but Nicole was still nowhere to be seen. She sighed and shuffled forward as the line moved.

Just as Chrissy said, it wasn't long before the two of them had half-filled bowls shoved into their hands by the man standing at the pot. His gaze lingered on Waverly as she took the bowl, and she offered a smile in return to put him at ease before she followed Chrissy to the other side of the fire. Although it was considerably warmer now than it had been when they had first fled the castle, Waverly stayed as close to the flames as she could to keep the lingering chill away.

The soup that had been ladled into the bowl was bland and the small hunks of meat were chewy, but it warmed her from the inside, so she hid her grimace behind the bowl and drank it as quickly as she could. While she ate, others brushed by her to get through the small crowd. They mostly paid her no mind aside from a questioning glance. So when she felt someone stand beside her, she thought nothing of it.  

“I couldn't help but notice you watchin' me earlier.”

Waverly startled at the unfamiliar voice, and what remained of her tasteless soup sloshed over the rim of the bowl and splashed onto her tunic. She muttered a curse under her breath before she turned her head. She found the man from the sparring circle at her side, the crooked smile still on his face.  

“Didn't mean to scare you,” he said. “Just came to introduce myself.”

“It's Champ, isn't it?”

“Now how's it fair a pretty girl like you knows my name, but I don't know yours?” His gaze drifted down to her lips then flickered back to her eyes. “Not that I don't like hearin' you say my name, but I'd like to learn yours, too.”

“Champ,” Chrissy said, “now's not really the time. Waverly's had a long journey and doesn't need you hounding her.”

Champ raised his hands and laughed. “No hounding here,” he said. “Just trying to get to know a new face. That's all. We don't get them as often as we used to around here.”

“It's okay, Chrissy,” Waverly said. “Nicole said I should try to make friends, didn't she?”

“And I'm a great friend to have. Just ask Peter or anyone else.” He tilted his head. “So Nicole's finally come back then, huh?” Waverly nodded. “Well, I guess I'm lucky she brought someone as pretty as you with her, aren't I?”

Waverly's cheeks burned and she shifted her gaze to the fire. She'd stumbled into unfamiliar territory and none of the books or stories she'd read had told her how to respond.

“You know,” Champ said, and she tore her gaze from the flames to meet his eyes, “not only am I a great friend, but I'm one of the best when it comes to swordplay. Maybe only second to Xavier himself now.” There was a glimmer in his eyes as he said, “If you were interested, I could teach you a few things. You couldn't ask for a better teacher.”

Waverly furrowed her brow and looked towards Chrissy for an answer, who shrugged in response and quickly returned to sipping the soup from her bowl. When Waverly turned back to Champ, the crooked grin had reappeared.

“You would do that?” she asked. “Train me?”

Champ started to respond, but his words were muffled as Waverly's thoughts drifted to Nicole.

Nicole, who had fought so hard to save her friends that night in the forest. Nicole, who had saved Waverly from the guard in the courtyard the night they had fled. Nicole, who had confronted a group of bandits just to retrieve the ammolite Waverly needed for her pendant.

So often, she fought to protect those around her, but who protected her?

“I'll do it,” Waverly said, interrupting Champ mid-sentence, though she wasn't quite sure what he had been saying to begin with. When he looked confused, she clarified. “The lessons, I mean. I'd like you to teach me.”  

“You're serious?” Champ asked, a touch of excitement in his voice.

Waverly nodded. “I am,” she said. “When can we start?”

“Well—”

“I was thinking tomorrow, if that's alright with you,” she continued. “Sometime early morning?”

“Tomorrow then,” Champ said, and Waverly felt a flutter of excitement.

She didn't want to be used for her visions—she was too raw from Robert's betrayal—but she could still help the Resistance in other ways. And if she could learn to defend herself, maybe she could lessen the burden weighing on Nicole's shoulders. She smiled at that thought.

“Enjoyed the bland venison and tuber soup that much, huh?” Chrissy asked, bumping her shoulder.

“Just thinking.” When Chrissy raised her eyebrows, Waverly shook her head. “Don't worry about it. Besides, I think I told you I'd share a story with you.” A thought occurred to her, and the smile on her face faltered. “If you still want to hear it, I mean.”

“The other option is listen to Champ and his friends sing horrible songs all night,” Chrissy said. “I'd at least like to hear something pleasant first.”

“Well then,” she said, “have you heard the story about the shepherd and the dragon?”


“You'll be taking it easy now,” Ruthie said as she escorted Nicole out of the tent. “It'll be good for you to start training again, but nothing fancy, you hear me? I want you to take it slow.”

“Yes, Ruthie.”

“And see me after so I can make sure you haven't strained yourself and redress the wound.”

“Yes, Ruthie.”

“And—”

“Yes, Ruthie.”

The healer narrowed her eyes, but Nicole only smiled in response.

“Don't think you can just flash those dimples of yours to get out of trouble,” she said, but her expression softened and she rested her hand on Nicole's forearm. “Fine. No more lectures from me for the night. Xavier might start to get impatient if I keep you much longer.”

Nicole raised her eyebrows. “Might?”

Ruthie laughed and shook her head. “Alright, alright. Get goin' before he sends someone to collect you. That's the last thing I need.”

“Thank you.” She gave Ruthie's hand a quick squeeze. “And I'll see you first thing in the morning, I promise.”

After Ruthie slipped back into the tent to tend to her other patients, Nicole headed for the watchtower. As she approached the river, she quickened her pace until she reached the entrance to the tower where Xavier waited for her. She paused for a moment in front of the entrance to collect herself, then calmly crossed the threshold. When she found Xavier waiting at the ground floor, hunched over a small table pressed against the wall in the light of a hissing torch, she breathed a sigh of relief.

No stairs to climb.

She closed the heavy doors behind her then stepped further into the flickering light. He looked over his shoulder and, seeing that it was her who had joined him, he straightened his posture and crossed the room.

A stinging started in her eyes and she ducked her head as she tried to blink it away. She tried to clear away the lump in her throat as well, but it was there to stay. There was a touch against her shoulder, and she dragged her gaze away from the stone floor so she could look Xavier in the eyes. A soft smile greeted her—a rare sight—and she bit her lip to keep the flood of emotions under her control.

In the dungeon, she'd convinced herself she'd never see him again in this lifetime—never get the chance to tell him how grateful she was for his friendship and everything he'd taught her—but now he was standing in front of her with his hand on her shoulder, and it was taking all of her strength to maintain her composure and refrain from wrapping him in a tight hug.

“You saw Ruthie?” he asked, and Nicole nodded. “Good, good.” He cleared his throat and lowered his hand. He turned away from her and walked back to the desk he had been hunched over. As he studied the maps and documents that cluttered it, he asked, “What did she have to say about your injuries?”

Nicole stared at his rigid back.

This wasn't exactly how she had wanted their reunion to go. It had been different at the shore when they were surrounded by people, but behind closed doors she had thought there would be less formality.

“You know, Xavier, you could just ask me how I'm feeling if that's what you're wondering. It'd be a lot quicker than the strategy you're attempting to use now and I might actually get the impression you were happy to see me again.” She hated how strained her voice sounded. She cleared her throat and crossed her arms over her chest. “But, I'm fine. Thank you for almost asking. Now would you prefer I left you to your maps?”

Xavier stayed quiet and Nicole clenched her jaw before she turned on her heel to head towards the heavy doors.

“Nicole.”

She paused with her hand on the door and looked over her shoulder. She found that he had turned to face her again and now leaned against the table.

“I'm happy you're safe and back at camp where you belong. I'm sorry if I made you think otherwise.” He rubbed the back of his head, then stepped towards her. “Now how are you feeling? Honestly this time.”

Her voice was soft as she said, “Like I shouldn't be here.”

Her thoughts drifted to Levi and the javelin that pinned him to the ground. She could still see the pool of blood that spilled onto the snow from the wound and she could hear the pained cry that had torn from Fish's throat.

“Levi, he... he...” She still couldn't dislodge the word from her throat.

“I know,” Xavier said. “Nicole, Fish told me what happened. That wasn't your fault.”

She shook her head and lowered her gaze to the stone floor. “Deep down, I know it was,” she said. “I know I should have stayed in the dungeon.” Her eyes burned at the admission, but she continued. “I slowed them down, Xavier. I could hardly walk, and it slowed them down enough that the guards were found before we could get out. If I had just stayed like a real leader would have, they all would have made it out. I know they would have. But I...” She took a shuddering breath and squeezed her eyes shut, trying to stop the tears that threatened to spill over. “But I was scared, Xavier. I didn't want to die down there all alone.”

The tears she had been holding back slipped out as the fears and insecurities she'd kept locked away finally fought their way free. She'd nearly died. Worse, she'd gotten her friend killed and cost the other his lover because she couldn't bring herself to make the decision that she should have. When Xavier looped his arms around her, she hid her face in his shoulder.

Once she could control her breathing again, she pulled out of the stiff embrace and turned away from him, embarrassed by not only the tears, but by what she had confessed. The shame she felt over her decision threatened to spill over again, but she bit her lip and managed to keep it at bay.

“It was so much easier when I thought I was going to die in the ambush. I was ready for it to happen then, and from what I've been told, I should have,” she whispered. “But I couldn't make myself stay in that dungeon when it mattered. Not without Fish and Levi and... and Waverly.”

“Nicole,” Xavier said, “I can't take away the guilt that comes with surviving. You and I both know it's something we all have to work through in our own way. But I can tell you that, whether your decision was right or wrong, I'm glad you did survive.” When she didn't respond, he said, “I was told he died saving your friend Waverly. Do you blame her for what happened as well?”

“Of course not,” Nicole said in a hoarse voice. She swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand and stared up at the ceiling as she took deep breaths. Once she felt she had calmed down, she turned back to Xavier. “I'm sorry.”

He shook his head. “You have nothing to apologize for,” he said. “I'm sure Fish would want you to know that as well.”

“Has he been okay?” Nicole asked, grateful for the chance to steer the conversation away from herself.

“He's been coping. He took some time to mourn, but he's been keeping himself busy ever since,” he said. “When he first arrived though, he told me about the ambush and the dungeon. He also told me Waverly worked for Robert. Is that true?”

Nicole nodded. “Yes, but before you start chastising me for saving her, please hear me out,” she said. “I don't know what Fish told you, but I know he was still hurting when we parted ways.”

Xavier crossed his arms over his chest. “Alright,” he said. “If you think you've got a clearer head, then you tell me what happened that made you bring one of Robert's lackeys along.”

So Nicole told him.

About the ambush.

About the dungeon.

About the woman with the kind smile, who saved her from death and told stories to take away the pain the wounds had left behind.

She told him everything, but she avoided mentioning Waverly's gift.

When she finished, Xavier studied her for a moment. Then he uncrossed his arms and walked back to the desk against the wall. He straightened the maps and documents, then turned around and leaned back against the table.

“Why did you have to take her to find this Mattie woman before you came here?”

Nicole had already prepared her answer for this question. “She was sick,” she said. “Curtis—the man at the cabin I told you about—told us Mattie could help.”

“Right,” Xavier said. “So it had nothing to do with her visions or the fact that they were out of control.”

Nicole felt her breath catch in her throat. “Damn it, Fish.”

“Your accounts of what happened were almost the same, aside from that one little detail,” he said. “What I'm wondering now is why you were so set on keeping it from me.”

Nicole sighed. “It didn't seem important.”

“It didn’t seem important?” Xavier repeated. “We have Robert's Seer walking around our camp, and somehow that's not important enough to share.”

“It's not,” Nicole insisted. “Waverly may have been his Seer, but that's not all she is.”

“True,” he said. “She could be a spy as well.”

Nicole narrowed her eyes. “She's not a spy, Xavier,” she said. “She was a prisoner in that castle, held captive by lies. She deserves to be free just as we do.”

“And her visions?” he asked. “Does she plan to share those with us as freely as she did with Robert?”

“Whatever she Sees, it isn't any of our business,” Nicole said. “I've already had this conversation with Fish. No doubt he told you about her so you would try to change my mind, but Waverly isn't a tool. She's a person. And it's true that she's made her fair share of mistakes, but she wants to make up for them. She can do that without sharing every vision she has with us.”

“Did you have something in mind for her?”

Nicole chewed her lip. “I may have mentioned to Ruthie that she was the one who kept me alive,” she said. “I know she won't admit it, but Ruthie can't be the only healer we have. It'll be too much when we move forward. I'm hoping she'll see the merit in Waverly's abilities and finally take on an apprentice.”

“A wise decision.”

“I can teach her to defend herself, too. She's a fast learner,” Nicole said. “We'd do well to have a healer in the field and not just in a tent on the outskirts of battle. If Waverly can fight, she could fill that role if we ever needed her to. I still have to ask her if she'd be interested, but she's set on making up for the mistakes she's made.”

Xavier clenched his jaw, and for a moment Nicole feared that he would turn her down.

“You know I don't like having a stranger in the camp. One that used to work for Robert is even worse.” Nicole started to object, but he cut her off. “I may not trust her yet, but I do trust you. And like you said, she saved your life.” He offered the smallest of smiles. “I suppose I can give her a chance.”

Nicole breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you.”

“Now if that's everything, you're free to go,” he said. “You've earned some rest after what you’ve been through.”

“Actually, there's one more thing,” Nicole said. “According to Waverly, Robert has someone helping him. A woman called The Stone Witch.” Xavier raised his eyebrows, but Nicole pressed on. “Now, I don't know much about her, but I do know she terrifies Waverly. Mattie—The Blacksmith woman I mentioned—didn't seem thrilled about her either. They were using Waverly to find the bones of her sons,” she said. “Waverly described some of the things they could do and, Xavier, if this Stone Witch woman is able to bring back her sons, we're going to have a problem far more threatening than Robert.” She sighed and her shoulders sagged. “Things are so much bigger than we thought, and I'm not sure how we're supposed to fight them.”

“We'll figure something out,” Xavier said. “But for now, go get some food in you. I'm sure your friend misses you.”

She nodded and started for the door, only to stop and look over her shoulder when Xavier called her name again.

“I want you to know I missed you, too,” he said. “You'll find your tent where you left it. All of your belongings should still be there as well.”

Nicole smiled back at him before she quickly slipped through the heavy door, afraid he'd see the tears building in her eyes again.

He'd kept her tent up for her and taken care of her things, even after she hadn't sent back word about the mission; even after it had to be obvious that the mission had failed and that they had been either captured or killed.

He hadn't given up on her.

Rather, he'd been holding out hope that she would come back.

By the time she reached the center of the outpost, she had managed to get her emotions under control again. As she approached the fire, she saw that those who had encircled it earlier had huddled together in a group on one side. She furrowed her brow in confusion, but as she stepped closer she saw the reason why and smiled.

Waverly stood on that side of the fire, her hands moving as she wove a story, and every pair of eyes was on her as she spoke. It wasn't until Nicole stepped into the firelight that she heard what she was saying.

“But as the leader of the bandits was about to give the order to kill the shepherd and loot their corpse, a familiar roar echoed above them and a great beast crashed down upon the trees. The shepherd couldn't believe their eyes as the dragon they had confronted so long ago devoured the bandits that had been about to kill them.”

It was the story about the shepherd and the dragon.

Seeing Waverly tell it now was far different than it had been in the dungeon. She was more animated, giving a performance rather than just telling a story. She had been good at telling them in the dungeon, but here, with an audience hanging on her every word, she was truly in her element, and Nicole found herself entranced by the sound of her voice despite having heard the story before.  

“When only the shepherd and the dragon remained, the dragon lowered its massive head and rested its chin on the ground at the shepherd's feet, waiting for the shepherd to take their revenge.” Waverly said. “But the fatal blow never came.” A low murmur of confusion spread through the crowd that surrounded her, and Nicole smiled at the reaction. “Instead, the shepherd sheathed their sword and placed their palm against the side of the dragon's head, gesturing for it to lift its chin from the ground. They offered soft words of forgiveness until, beneath their touch, the dragon's form began to change, and in its place stood the silver-eyed woman with the white-gold hair.”

A gasp of surprise rippled through the group and Nicole laughed. The sound drew Waverly's attention away from her audience. When she met Nicole's gaze, a grin stretched across her face and she quickly excused herself from the crowd.

“You've certainly managed to find yourself some friends,” Nicole said as Waverly approached her. The grin only widened in response and the corners of her eyes crinkled. “Enjoying yourself?”

“Very much,” Waverly said. “I'm just sorry you missed the story.”

“I heard the important parts,” Nicole said. “Did you eat?”

Waverly nodded. “You should, too.”

She slipped her hand into Nicole's and guided her towards the pot that hung near the fire, as if there was some chance Nicole might get lost. Waverly only released her hand so she could fill one of the clay bowls with soup, then offered it to Nicole, who took it with a smile and followed her to the empty space beside Chrissy. Before Waverly could get too comfortable beside her, however, one of the men who had been listening to the story pulled her away to talk with her more, most likely about the way she had changed the ending.

“I heard you were back in camp, but I wasn't sure how true it was.” Nicole's smile fell at the sound of the familiar voice, and she shifted her gaze from Waverly, only to find the last person she wanted to see standing beside her. He shrugged and said, “Guess I owe Peter a coin or two.”

“Champ.”

“I suppose I can't be too mad at you, though,” he continued. “If you hadn't made it back, I'd have never met your new friend. Where did you manage to find someone like her?”

Nicole bit back the response at the tip of her tongue and shifted her gaze to Waverly instead, who had been freed from her conversation and was now coming to join them. Nicole forced herself to smile despite Champ's presence, but Waverly furrowed her brow as she approached and Nicole knew she'd been caught.

“Everything alright?”

Nicole nodded. “Just sore,” she said. “Ruthie might be the best at what she does, but she doesn't have the gentlest touch. That's all.”

“You can say that again,” Chrissy muttered. “Did you see Xavier, too? He wouldn't say it, but I know he missed you. After Fish came back and told him you wouldn't be far behind, he started to go on patrols again. I think he wanted to be the first one to see you.”

“Yes, I spoke with him,” she said. “He failed to mention that part. I'll have to keep that in mind.”

“Oh,” Chrissy said. “Oh no. Maybe he didn't want you to know.”

Nicole laughed. “Too late,” she said. “I know now, and I'm not going to let him forget.”

“Well, please don't tell him I was the one who told you.”

“Your secret is safe with me, Chrissy.”

Chrissy breathed a sigh of relief and shifted her gaze back to the fire.

Nicole stared down at her bowl and frowned at what she knew would be a flavorless meal. Although she'd grown used to the bland food in the Resistance over the years, the days they had spent with Gus and Curtis had spoiled her with simple but rich meals. After a quick sip of the soup, she grimaced and turned her attention to Waverly, who was laughing at something one of the women nearby had said. It seemed Champ had left, which was fine by Nicole.

“I told you they'd like you well enough,” Nicole said once Waverly was free of the conversation. “Smart move, sharing that story with them.”

Waverly ducked her head, but not before Nicole saw the smile. “Well, I had only started telling it to Chrissy to distract her from her headache,” she said. “People started to hear though, and suddenly a crowd had gathered around me to listen. I didn't mean for that to happen.”

“Yes, well, you heard my attempt at storytelling. That's about the norm around here.”

“Oh, wow,” Waverly said, her voice low and serious. “That's the saddest thing I've ever heard.”

But she couldn't stop the corners of her mouth from twitching into a teasing smile a moment later, followed by an infectious laugh. Nicole playfully shoved against Waverly's shoulder with her free hand, causing her to stumble sideways.

Then Champ appeared at Waverly's side and the smile that had been on Nicole's face quickly fell.

“Sorry I had to disappear. Peter wanted some pointers.” He flashed a smile at Waverly, and Nicole rolled her eyes. “Speaking of,” he said as he stepped closer to Waverly, “are we still meeting tomorrow morning for those uh... lessons?”

Nicole furrowed her brow. “Lessons?”

Waverly beamed at her. “Champ offered to train me! We're starting first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Oh.”

Nicole chewed her lip and dropped her gaze to the bowl in her hand to distract herself from the stab of pain in her chest. She tried not to let the news bother her. Champ was a good fighter, and she had been the one to tell Waverly to make friends. Just because she didn't get along with him didn't mean Waverly wouldn't. Part of her had hoped to share something with Waverly that she was good at--or at least used to be good at--the way Waverly had shared her stories.

But she supposed it didn't matter as long as Waverly could protect herself.

“That's great,” she said. “That's really great, actually. It'll be good for you to learn how to defend yourself.” Her gaze flickered to Champ. “I'm glad you managed to find a teacher so quickly.”

“Not just any teacher. The best teacher,” Champ said. “You know, a few years back I stumbled on some no-name village in the middle of nowhere—don't even think you could find it on a map—and there was this old man that lived at the top of the hill there. Took one look at me and knew I was a great warrior, so he sat me down in his little uh... his hut, you know? And he gave me a special tattoo so everyone would know what he knew.”

Nicole rolled her eyes and sipped from her bowl again while Champ pushed up the long sleeve of his tunic, revealing his thick forearm. When he turned it over, there was the tattoo Nicole had seen at least twenty different times. Waverly leaned closer to examine it in the firelight.

“Old man said it's the ancient Drasthian word for 'Strength,'” he said with a proud smile.

Waverly furrowed her brow. “No,” she said. “This is the Drasthian word for 'Onion.'”

Nicole choked on the soup that was halfway down her throat.

Beside her, Chrissy snickered into her hand.

“What do you mean?” Champ asked. “He told me it meant strength.”

“Yes, well, he definitely lied to you.” She dragged her fingertip over the dark, loopy script. “It says 'Basilehten.' Onion. The word for 'Strength' is much shorter.” Beside the tattoo, she traced her finger over his skin in a short pattern. “ 'Qua' . See?” Champ pulled his arm away and quickly rolled down the sleeve. His face was red in the firelight. “Maybe it was a metaphor?” Waverly suggested. “I suppose onions can be strong.”

“They certainly smell pretty strong,” Chrissy mumbled.

Nicole tried to hold back her laughter, but only managed to snort into her bowl.

She made a mental note to give Chrissy a hug before she turned in for the night.


Later that evening, after Nicole had finished her meal and hugged Chrissy—Waverly had laughed at the surprised expression on Chrissy's face—the two of them excused themselves from the small crowd as they fought off jaw-cracking yawns. Waverly followed Nicole through the trees until they reached the small valley.

Chrissy hadn't shown her this part of the outpost.

It was dotted with tents and smaller fires. Figures weaved between the firelight and the shadows. Some of them stayed close to the campfires, while others disappeared into one tent or another. Nicole led the way down the snowy hill with cautious footsteps until they reached the bottom of the valley.

“My tent's not far from here. Xavier said he left it where it was,” Nicole told her. “You can stay with me tonight, if that's okay. And if you'd rather have your own tent, we could probably find another in the supply shed tomorrow,” she said. “After your lesson with Champ, of course.”

“Do you want me to have my own tent?” Waverly asked as they stepped around one of the fires.

Nicole glanced at her. “I want you to do whatever makes you comfortable, Waverly,” she said. “You can have your own space, if you like—I'd understand if that's what you wanted—but you're welcome to stay with me if that's what you'd like to do, too.”

“And you?” Waverly asked. “Nicole, if you need space, I can—”

“Waverly,” Nicole said with a small smile, “if I needed some space between us, I wouldn't have offered my tent to begin with.”

“Oh,” Waverly said. “Well, in that case, I think I'd like to stay with you. I'm not sure I want to go back to being alone just yet.”

“Were you alone a lot in the castle?”

Waverly shrugged. “Robert didn't really encourage people to be my friends,” she said. “I tried, but most kept their distance. I know they were afraid of Robert, but I think they were a little afraid of me, too. Of what I could See.” She dropped her gaze and stared at the snow as she said, “The boy who told you about my vision—Simon—he had been my friend. Or more like a younger brother, I suppose. He had never been afraid of me until the Stone Witch hurt him.” With her gaze on the ground, she didn't see Nicole had stopped until after she had walked into her. When she looked up, she saw that they had reached a tent that looked the same as every other tent in the camp. “Sorry.”

“It's fine,” Nicole said. “Come on. It'll be warmer in here, though not by much.”

Waverly followed Nicole and ducked into the tent.

Nicole kept the flap open so some of the firelight would trickle inside while they prepared for bed. With the little bit of light, Waverly could see the bags tucked away in the corner of the tent. She wondered if those were all of Nicole's belongings, or if the rest was stashed elsewhere. The furs that Gus and Curtis had given them rested alongside the bags, and Waverly realized Xavier or Fish must have brought them from the ferry. A bedroll had already been laid out across the ground.

After Waverly removed her cloak and tucked it beside Nicole's things, she joined the other woman beneath the furs and curled up by her side. Thoughts of Simon and the Witch fled as she focused on the rise and fall of Nicole's chest beneath her cheek.

“So,” Nicole said, interrupting herself with a yawn, “you can read Drasthian.”

Waverly nodded. “There were scrolls in Robert's library that were written in Drasthian script. Poetry, stories. Things like that. He taught me how to read them when I was younger,” she said. “It's such a pretty language. My pronunciation isn't perfect, but I like writing out the script. And the stories are interesting. They’re all warnings against those who would challenge the desert sun.”

“Very interesting,” Nicole mumbled.

Waverly could hear the exhaustion in her voice as she fought to stay awake, yet she still felt Nicole's fingers tracing circles over her back even as she started to fall asleep. Waverly smiled and closed her eyes, focusing on the sound of Nicole's breathing once more. As she started to feel herself drift off, however, she remembered a line from a poem she had read long ago.

She murmured the words against Nicole’s chest, her own exhaustion ruining the smoothness of her pronunciation, and Nicole hummed in response.

Waverly smiled when Nicole pulled her closer.

 

 

Chapter Text

The sun had yet to rise over the woods when Waverly awoke. Beside her, Nicole still slept with her face buried in Waverly's hair. Carefully, she freed herself from Nicole's limbs to keep from waking her and quietly crawled across the tent to the pile of bags Gus and Curtis had sent with them. She rummaged through them until she found a clean tunic and the gloves that had been packed away. While she tugged the green tunic over her head, a soft rustling of blankets reached her ears. After she smoothed the wrinkles out of the tunic, she looked over her shoulder and found Nicole sitting up with the furs pooled around her waist while she rubbed her eyes.

"I was trying not to wake you."

"S'okay," Nicole mumbled, her voice still heavy with sleep. "Told Ruthie I'd see her first thing in the morning. Lucky for me, I have a tent mate who can't sleep past sunrise." A yawn followed, and Waverly smiled as she watched Nicole shake her head, as if trying to jostle herself awake. "You off to meet Champ?"

Waverly nodded, unable to hold back the excited grin.

Nicole scratched the side of her head and pushed the furs off her legs.

"You know, I've always found it much easier to train with my hair out of my face," she said as she joined Waverly at their bags. She dug through her own and pulled out a wooden brush and a worn ribbon from one of the pouches. "I could braid yours for you, if you like."

Waverly smiled at the offer. "You'd do that?"

"Of course. I offered, didn't I?"

Waverly followed Nicole back to the bedroll and settled herself between long legs. After Nicole ran the brush through her hair and worked out the knots as gently as she could, she placed the brush to the side and started on the long braid. Waverly enjoyed the early morning hush that fell over them while Nicole worked.

However, the braid was only halfway done when Nicole's fingers slowed, then stopped. Waverly's brow furrowed. She felt a soft touch against the back of her shoulder before Nicole's breaths tickled her neck. Slowly, she turned her head and found Nicole with her cheek pressed against her shoulder and her eyes closed. Her hands had dropped from the unfinished braid and now rested on the ground.

She'd fallen asleep again.

Waverly smiled at the sight and, very carefully, brushed the short locks away from Nicole's face so she could get a better look. But Nicole startled at the touch and pulled away from Waverly's shoulder, a look of confusion on her face.

"You went back to sleep," Waverly explained.

A hint of red colored Nicole's cheeks and she cleared her throat.

"Sorry," she said. "I'm almost done."

The braiding resumed and, once it was finished, Nicole tied it off with the faded ribbon. A tap against Waverly's shoulder told her she was done.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome," Nicole said as she started to cover herself with the furs again.

"What are you doing?"

"Going back to sleep. It's too early."

"Didn't you say you have to meet Ruthie soon?"

She paused. "Damn it, I did say that, didn't I?" Waverly nodded and Nicole sighed. "I suppose if I don't go, she'll just drag me out of the tent, and that's a little too embarrassing for me."

Waverly laughed and shook her head as she searched for her cloak in the pile of bags. When she found it, she tightened the clasp around her neck and looked over her shoulder at Nicole.

"You're not going to fall asleep again if I go, are you?"

Nicole waved her away. "Don't worry about me. Go meet Champ for your lesson." Waverly grinned as she stood up and crossed to the entrance of the tent. "And Waverly?" She paused and looked back at Nicole. "You'll do great, okay? You're a fast learner and Champ is lucky to have you as his student."

Waverly felt her cheeks warm and, after a quiet 'thank you,' she ducked her head and slipped through the tent flaps into the brisk morning air.

The sky was a light grey, though the sun had yet to rise over the horizon. Embers of camp fires still smoldered in the valley as Waverly picked her way around the tents. She could hear the soft snores of people within, though some were crawling out of the tents just as she had. She recognized some of them from the night before. They'd been huddled around the fire, listening to her tell the story of the shepherd and the dragon. They nodded politely and she returned the gesture.

At the edge of the valley, she found Chrissy outside one of the tents, fiddling with the clasp of her own cloak. A sword hung at her hip, looking out of place on the lanky woman. When she saw Waverly, a bright grin spread across her face and she shuffled through the snow to meet her. After they made it up the hill, the two of them spoke in hushed voices about the night before. Waverly was happy for the company, as it made the trek to the clearing pass quickly.

Xavier was already at the field when they arrived, waiting with a familiar stony expression on his face. His gaze lingered on her even as Chrissy approached and her insides twisted. She still didn't know how much he knew, but the way he kept his gaze on her, Waverly suspected he didn't trust her. It was a reasonable mistrust—she had worked for Robert, after all—and Waverly feared he might ask her to leave because of it.

She would just have to make herself useful, she decided, and learning to fight alongside the Resistance would be her first step.

Though it appeared Champ did not know what 'first thing in the morning' meant, so she would have to wait a little longer before she could start gaining his trust.

While she waited for Champ, she watched Chrissy spar against Xavier in the center of the field. She seemed out of her depth, but Xavier slowed his attacks so she could block and parry. Several times, he stopped the match so Chrissy could adjust her stance or so he could show her a different approach to an attack.

Although he wore a stern expression, she could see the care he put into training Chrissy. Whenever she made progress, his lips would twitch into something that might be considered a smile. As a result, Chrissy seemed to gain more confidence in her strikes and the pace of the sparring match quickened. The flurry of movement only lasted for a short time before the edge of Xavier's blade stopped just before it could touch Chrissy's neck, but she wore a grin on her face. He tapped her shoulder with the flat edge of the sword and showed her where she had gone wrong.

"See anything interesting?"

Waverly startled at the sudden voice in her ear and turned to find Champ standing beside her.

"Champ!" She pressed her hand against her chest to calm her racing heart. "Don't sneak up on me like that."

He shrugged. "Didn't mean to," he said. "I brought you something. Figured you didn't have one of your own."

He held a dull sword in each hand, both far larger up close than she had expected. The familiar crooked grin appeared as he offered one to her. Waverly took it with both hands and nearly dropped it in surprise. It wasn't so heavy that she couldn't lift it, but she wasn't sure how she was supposed to easily swing it the way Champ had last night or the way Chrissy and Xavier did now.

Champ crossed his arms over his chest and tilted his head. "You look good with a sword in your hands, Waverly."

"I doubt that," she grumbled.

"You'll look even better once you know how to use it," he said. "Come on."

Waverly followed Champ through the training circle to the space where he and his friends had been sparring the night before. Again, she felt Xavier's eyes on her, and she tightened her grip around the sword hilt.

When they reached the edge of the clearing, Waverly positioned herself across from Champ. She recalled the drills she had watched from the castle and shifted her stance into one that she thought resembled how those soldiers had stood, though she couldn't help but feel unsure of herself as she held the sword in front of her.

Champ nodded at the positioning, then took a similar stance himself. She watched as he took several swings, the blade slicing an invisible enemy to ribbons as it cut through the empty air. She tried to follow his footwork while he danced around her, but he was surprisingly quick and it was hard to keep track of his movements.

When he stopped, his breathing had hardly changed, and there was a wide grin on his face again.

"Now you try."

"You want me to try all of that ?"

"It's easier than it looks, I swear," Champ said. "Just trust yourself with the sword."

Waverly frowned.

This wasn't quite what she had imagined when he offered to give her lessons.

Still, she tightened her grip around the sword and, after a deep breath to steady herself, she tried to move the way Champ had. Her swings were far from quick and her steps were clumsy when she tried to imitate his footwork. Several times, she tripped over her own feet and nearly landed in the mud.

"You're thinking too much," Champ said after she stumbled over her footing yet again. "Just let your instincts take over and you'll be fine."

The words gave her pause. She sighed and lowered the blade. "Champ, I don't exactly have those instincts."

"Sure you do. Everybody does," he said. "Maybe all you need is some incentive to get in touch with yours." He lifted his own blade and grinned at her. "I'm gonna come at you and I want you to block my strikes. Just trust yourself with the sword."

"I don't think that's—"

Waverly yelped as Champ took a swing at her. She stumbled backwards and awkwardly lifted her blade to fend his off. The force of the blow jarred her hands and she nearly dropped the sword from the impact.

"Don't be afraid of it, Waverly," Champ said. "It's only a practice sword."

It was only a practice sword, but Waverly found that it still stung when the point of the dull blade bit into her shoulder for the first time. She gritted her teeth and kept her grip on the hilt despite the ache, and focused on blocking the following attacks. As it was, she could hardly anticipate the strikes. The few blows she knocked away were by sheer luck rather than any sort of skill. The others connected painfully with her shoulders, stomach, arms, and legs.

When the dull edge of the blade cracked against her shoulder for the third time, the sword finally fell from Waverly's shaking hands. She shook her head and called for a halt to the lesson.

"This isn't working," she said, breathless.

"These are basic maneuvers, Waverly," Champ said. "I don't know how to make it any simpler for you."

"Well, you could start by explaining what you're doing!"

"And I told you, I trust my instincts. You should trust yours, too," Champ said, and she could see he was just as frustrated as she was. "I can't explain it any better than that."

She took a deep breath to calm herself and picked up the practice sword again. After she wiped the mud from the handle, she turned her attention back to Champ, who was rubbing the back of his head and wouldn't meet her gaze.

"I'm sorry," she said. "If you can't explain it any better, can you slow down your strikes so I can at least try to see what you're doing?"

He shrugged and shifted into a fighting stance again. "Alright."

Waverly had just positioned herself into a similar stance when Champ went on the offensive again, his attacks no slower than they had been before.

It was going to be a long morning.


 

Nicole winced as Ruthie applied fresh salve to her back, but kept herself still despite the rough touch. It wasn't long before she felt the effects. It soothed the pain that still lingered, and she breathed a sigh of relief. While she had always been aware of the discomfort while they had traveled, she'd grown accustomed to it. She hadn't realized just how accustomed she had become until the salve eased it.

Once the wound had been dressed and wrapped again, Nicole tugged her tunic back over her head, hiding the amulet that dangled from her neck once more. Ruthie had questioned it earlier and she hadn't been sure how to answer, so she had merely shrugged and said it was a gift. That had earned her a suspicious look, but it was easier than trying to explain what the pendant was without revealing Waverly's ability to someone else.

After she put on her vest as well, Ruthie passed her her cloak.

"Thank you.” As she fastened the clasp around her neck, she said, "That feels much better, by the way."

"It oughta. The time between dressings set your healing back, but we'll make up for that," Ruthie said. "Now, when do you plan to start building your strength up again? Xavier won't say it, but he's missed sparring with you. Chrissy is all well and good, but she's still finding her legs."

"Soon," Nicole said. "Unfortunately, I've got plans for this morning, so it will have to wait just a little bit longer."

"Well, don't put it off for too long," Ruthie said as Nicole pushed herself up from the cot. "Wouldn't want some people around here to get the impression you've lost your touch."

"You mean people like Champ?"

"Now, I didn't say that." Nicole raised an eyebrow, and Ruthie sighed. "Yes, Champ. He had his sights set on your position when the three of you didn't return. I'd say he's still holding out hope that you're too injured to continue being Xavier's second-in-command."

"His concern is touching."

"This is serious, Nicole," Ruthie said. "If he thinks he has a chance of taking your place, no doubt he'll try to bait you into doing something stupid."

"Then I won't take it. Simple as that." She tilted her head and smiled. "I appreciate you looking out for me, Ruthie, but I've been dealing with Champ's idiocy for almost a year now. I know how to avoid him and his posse."

"I'll still feel more comfortable once you've gotten your strength back," Ruthie said as they approached the entrance to the tent. "Just in case."

"Then that makes two of us." She rubbed the back of her neck and sighed. "I'll start tomorrow morning, if that will make you feel better." Ruthie started to speak, but Nicole continued. "I know, I know. I'll take it easy so I don't strain myself. You won't see me in here more than you need to, I promise."

When the the corners of Ruthie's mouth twitched, Nicole knew she'd said the right thing.

With Ruthie satisfied, Nicole stepped outside the healer's tent and ran her hand over her hair until her palm rested against the back of her neck. She glanced up at the light grey sky and released a shaky breath before she started for the storage shed.

Despite her words to Ruthie, she was worried about Champ. She suspected with Waverly around, he would be distracted from issuing any kind of challenge. She couldn't be sure how long that would last, but it would give her time to recover some of her strength. However, his interest in Waverly raised a different kind of worry. The kind that made her stomach tie itself into knots when she thought about them together.

"Don't be an ass about it, Nicole," she muttered to herself, and promptly shook those thoughts away as she continued through the camp towards the storage shed.

It wasn't a long walk from the healer's tent to the supply shed. However, she was stopped several times by her fellow Resistance fighters. Some asked how she had survived, awe in their expressions. Others practically shook with fear as they asked about Robert and the castle. Some asked about Waverly, and she was happy to explain that Waverly had helped them escape. Most asked how she was doing after the ordeal, which was a harder question to answer.

When she finally reached the supply shed, she breathed a sigh of relief and stepped through the door.

Inside, the wall to the right was lined with shelves, which held their reserves of roots and vegetables, along with the supplies Ruthie needed for her healer's tent. Wooden crates were piled against the back wall, filled with smoked and salted meats, either to be made into the soup they'd had the night before or to be given out as trail rations for traveling parties. Weapon racks and chests lined the last wall, holding swords and axes. A chest of dull practice swords was kept in the corner, so as not to mistake them for their deadlier brethren.

Fish sat on the floor, propped up against one of the crates of meat. He kept a blanket draped over his legs and his head was tilted to the side as he slept. She wasn't surprised to find him here. She suspected it still hurt too much to sleep alone in the tent he had shared with Levi.

Rather than wake him, Nicole let him rest while she took stock of their supplies. Winter was always a worrisome, hungry time even before Nicole had joined the Resistance. As she checked the remains of their stores, however, the worry eased. They would still be hungry, but they wouldn't starve before spring if they were careful.

"Nic?" She looked down at the sound of the sleepy voice and found Fish watching her. "What are you doin' in here so early?"

"Supply check." She crouched in front of him and offered a smile. "Wanted to check on you, too, and Xavier mentioned you've been keeping busy in here," she said. "How you holding up, Fish?"

He shrugged and lowered his gaze to his lap. "It's easier, being here..."

"But sometimes it's harder, too," Nicole supplied, and Fish nodded. When he stayed quiet, she eased herself down to the floor and sat beside him. She tapped her fingers against her knees for a moment before she said, "Did I ever tell you how much Levi's art meant to me?" Fish shook his head. "To see him continuing to create something beautiful in a world that was far from it. That meant a lot to me," she said. "You know, not long after the two of you joined us, he'd gotten his hands on an old coal from one of the fires. He approached me a few days later with a scrap of parchment in his hand and offered it to me."

She slipped her hand beneath her cloak and pulled a folded sheet from the pocket of her vest. Carefully, she unfolded the scrap of parchment and revealed the drawing within. It was a simple scene of the lake. A fire had been sketched on the shore and human figures surrounded it, sharing a meal. She showed it to Fish, who trailed his finger over the sketch.

"When he gave me this, he said it was because I always looked lonely around camp, even when I would join you all at the fire or when I was talking with Xavier. Said he wanted to give me something to remind me I wasn't alone." She pressed the drawing into Fish's hand. "But that was a long time ago."

"Nic, I can't take this away from you."

"You're not. I'm offering it," she said. "I know there wasn't much time for Levi to practice his art. Not with drills and raids and hunting and everything else we've had to do in between. I'd like for you to have this and add it to whatever else he was able to make." She smiled and said, "Besides, I'm not so sure I need the reminder anymore. I don't feel as lonely as I used to."

Fish studied her for a moment before he dropped his gaze back to the drawing and smoothed his thumb over the dark lines.

"His collection is back in our—my—tent," he said. "You're welcome to look through it, if you like. You and... You and Waverly both. I think he would have liked to have shown her some of his pieces." Fish laughed, but it was hollow. "Probably would have offered to draw a scene from one of those stories she told us," he said. "I wish he'd had the chance."

"Fish?" He looked up from the drawing to meet her gaze. "I'm sorry we couldn't go back for his body. If there was any way for us to get him back, I swear I—"

"I was bein' foolish that night, Nic," he said. "I knew what awaited us if we went back, but at the time, I didn't much care for the consequences. I just wanted my Levi again." He shook his head. "No, you made the right choice. I'm glad one of us kept a clear head, otherwise we wouldn't be here now," he said. "Took you long enough to get here, though. I thought you said that woman's cabin wasn't far from Gus and Curtis's?"

Nicole rubbed the back of her head. "We uh... had some delays."

"Oh really now?"

She nodded and, after she settled against the crates and found a comfortable position, she began to share what happened after they had parted ways. His eyes widened slightly when she talked about Mattie and the way she had taken down so many bandits with her hammer.

"Waverly would do a much better job of tellin' this if she'd been there to see it all. But I'm telling you, it was like nothing I'd ever seen before, Fish. Mattie could have been someone right out of Waverly's stories." She tilted her head back and stared up at the ceiling, tracing the cracks in the worn boards with her eyes. "I'd like to see her again when all this is over. Gus and Curtis, too. It'd be nice, visiting them without Robert's shadow looming over us."

"You were right," Fish said. Nicole turned her head slightly to look at him. "You don't seem as lonely as you did before." He offered a small smile. It was more than she'd gotten from him since Levi's death. She easily returned it. "You wear happiness well, Nic," he said. "I hope you don't lose it again. It's good, seein' you smile for real."

Her cheeks warmed as she remembered a similar compliment Waverly had paid her on the journey back from Mattie's cabin.

"Don't you worry, Fish. I'm gonna try to hold onto it as long as I can," she said. Using the boxes for support, she got back on her feet. "I've got to head out again. Will I see you at the fire tonight? Waverly might tell one of her stories again."

Fish shrugged and lowered his gaze back to the drawing.

There were no more comforting words she could offer. If there were, she didn't have them. Instead, she crouched down and placed her hand on his shoulder. She gave it a gentle squeeze. He didn't look up from the parchment, but he covered her hand with his own.

With nothing more left to be said between them, Nicole left the supply shed behind and started for the watchtower. She doubted she would see him around the fire anytime soon, so as she walked through the outpost, she made a mental note to stop by the supply shed again before she turned in for the night.

Rather than cut through the center of the camp where the bonfire blazed, Nicole changed her course and took a longer path through the woods until she reached the river's edge. The rough gravel crunched beneath her boots as she stepped onto the narrow shore. Unlike the lake, ice covered the river's surface and clung to the dirt. She walked beside it and passed several fishing holes that had been carved into the ice. Further downstream, alongside the riverbank where the snow was hardly more than a light dusting, a patch of green caught Nicole's eye, and when she approached it, she crouched to get a closer look.

Drooping white flowers were growing from the green patch, shivering in the light breeze that slipped through the trees. She lifted the delicate petals of one with the tip of her finger, careful not to do harm to the stem sprouting from the earth. The flower was small and had yet to fully open its petals, but she suspected it wouldn't be much longer before it blossomed into its usual bell shape. Despite its delicate appearance, it had been hearty enough to break through the rocky shore and the layer of snow above it.

Nicole pulled her finger away from the petals and straightened her posture as the flower drooped again. Carefully, she stepped over the small flower patch and walked into the woods. The snow was deeper further from the river, but after long moments of searching, Nicole found what she was looking for and smiled. She made a note of her surroundings before she returned to the riverbank and resumed her trek to the watchtower.

It would still be some time before the snow melted enough for the flowers to reveal themselves in the woods, but once they did peek through the snow, Nicole wanted to show them to Waverly. She thought the other woman might enjoy the sight of the tiny flowers blanketing the earth, and she liked seeing the look of wonder and awe on Waverly's face whenever she thought something was beautiful.

Nicole paused again as she realized where her thoughts were heading. She shook her head and pushed them to the back of her mind.

When she reached the watchtower, she found Xavier studying the maps again. Rather than draw his attention away from them, she joined him at the desk. He glanced at her when she stepped beside him, then dropped his gaze back to the map of the region. A dotted line traversed the parchment and several wooden replicas of buildings had been placed to represent cities and towns while shoddily whittled figurines sat upon the dotted line.

"Don't tell me you've been waiting for me to get back before plotting our next move," she said. "Not that it isn't a nice sentiment that you thought I was important enough to wait for."

Xavier shook his head. "Nice try, but no, that isn't it," he said. "While you were enjoying Robert's hospitality, we had to fall back on other plans. Safer plans." He trailed his finger along the map, down to a town south of them. "Before you left, you remember we discussed a way to raise morale?" Nicole nodded. "Well, Chrissy and I finally managed to have a private conversation with the tavern keeper here." He placed his finger on the wooden piece that was meant to be the town. "He's no supporter of Robert's, we're sure of that. However, he isn't too keen on the Resistance, either."

"Been getting a lot of that lately," Nicole muttered. "So there's no chance of him helping us?"

Xavier shook his head. "I thought that at first, too," he said. "It's true he didn't seem very interested in helping us when we first sat down with him, but it appears Chrissy has a knack for negotiations. He promised to give us a portion of his supplies for a price."

"And just what, exactly, is the price?"

Xavier tapped his finger on the dotted line that branched across the entire region. "The price is Robert's purse."

She pinched the bridge of her nose. "He wants us to ambush Robert's tax collectors?" she asked, and Xavier nodded. "Why doesn't he just ask Wynonna and Doc to do it? They love crime."

"I'm sure he would, if it weren't for the contingent of soldiers he's been sending with them everywhere," Xavier said. "Wynonna and Doc are good, but the risk is still too high for them if they were to get caught. Shorty won't put his friends in that kind of danger."

Nicole sighed and returned her gaze to the map.

"How much time do we have to prepare?"

"Not much at all. By now, the taverns have had time to make a profit from travelers escaping the cold. Robert is likely to dispatch his collectors soon," he said. "I've already made a list of those I'd like to take with me when I go. Now it's just a matter of developing a strategy and choosing a place to strike."

"Well, we don't want to hit them too close to Purgis," she said, pointing at the town. "Wouldn't want them getting any ideas that someone there may have connections with us. We also don't want to give them any reason to think that our encampment is nearby."

Xavier nodded. "Which is exactly why I was weighing our best alternative options when you came in." He glanced at her, then dropped his gaze back to the map. "Speaking of best options," he said, "I thought you said you were going to teach your friend to fight?"

"Yes, well, Champ beat me to it," she said with a shrug. "He's a good fighter. As long as she's learning, it shouldn't matter if he trains her or if I do it."

"Amazing," Xavier said. "You almost managed to say that without a hint of bitterness. If I didn't know you so well, I would have been fooled." Nicole rolled her eyes. "As for whether or not she's learning, that's debatable. Champ's a skilled fighter, yes, and he can be a good instructor for those who already have a basic knowledge of how to use a sword," he said. "But your friend? She definitely does not have that knowledge."

Nicole chewed her lip. "I'll talk to her tonight then. Ask her how it went."

"You do that. Preferably before she gets someone hurt," Xavier said as he slid one of the figurines closer to the mountains. "I'd say 'before she hurts herself' but it's a bit late for that sentiment."

"She's okay though, right?" Nicole asked, trying to ignore the way her stomach twisted. "Nothing serious?"

"She's a little more bruised than she was when the two of you arrived, but she'll survive," he said. "Now tell me what you make of this area here."

Nicole shifted her gaze to the forest Xavier was pointing at.

"They'll be a bit wary in the trees, that's for sure. More alert," she said. "However, that doesn't mean it's a terrible spot, if we use it right." Her brow furrowed as she studied the map. "I'd say splitting our forces would be a good move, one group in the forest and another a little ways outside it."

Xavier nodded. "Let them relax a moment once they've made it through unharmed, then the first group surprises them and drives them back to the trees, where the second group will be waiting for them."

"Rattling them with the first attack and then trapping them between two groups," Nicole said. "I like it, but we need to do something that gives us the advantage once they come out of the forest. I don't like the idea of confronting Robert's men head on without something to shift the odds in our favor."

"Well then," Xavier turned his head towards her, "let's come up with something that'll ruin their day."

Nicole was unable to keep her smile away.

It felt good, working at her friend's side again, even if she already knew she wouldn't be on the list of those accompanying him.

There was no way for her to regain enough of her strength by the time they left, she could admit that. So she would settle for helping him come up with a plan that would help him return safely. She could do that much.

"How do you feel about keeping a few archers in the trees?"

"I feel like they're a good idea," Xavier said. "I'll add some names to the list."

Nicole wasn't sure how long the two of them had stood at the desk, but they had managed to put together three solid plans before Nicole had to hide a wince when she shifted the wrong way and sent a spike of pain across her back. Unfortunately, Xavier was perceptive as ever.

"You've been bent over this desk too long." She shook her head, but he stepped away from the desk and the map. "Come on," he said. "The map will still be there after you've sat down for a moment."

Nicole hesitated before she followed him to the stairs. Gingerly, she lowered herself to the stone steps and Xavier sat beside her.

"I've been meaning to tell you something," Nicole said once he was settled. He raised an eyebrow, and she said, "Your techniques on blocking out pain were horse shit, you ass."

There was that hint of a smile again. "You must've been doing them wrong."

Nicole laughed. "No, I definitely did them the way you always showed me," she said. "And I'm happy I'm here to tell you they're complete shit. I was worried I wouldn't get the chance before you tried pass them on to someone else," she said. Then she turned away from him and focused her gaze on the stone wall as she contemplated her next words. "I was also afraid I'd never get the chance to thank you," she said. "For uh... For being my mentor and for being my friend, I mean. So, thank you." She rubbed the back of her neck. "Anyway," she said, clearing her throat, "that's all I wanted you to know and I've said it, so now you know."

When silence was all that greeted her, she turned her head back towards Xavier, only to find him studying her, a pensive expression on his face.

"You're a good second-in-command, Nicole," he finally said, "and a good friend, too."

"Don't get too sentimental on me, Xavier," she said with a teasing smile before she leaned back against the stone steps.

He'd been right when he said she'd been hunched over the desk too long. She debated resuming her training later in the evening rather than the next morning if she wasn't too exhausted by the time night fell. She was eager to regain the strength she had lost, especially with Ruthie's warning about Champ at the back of her mind. However, part of her balked at the thought of people seeing her struggle to handle a sword again.

Maybe morning would be best after all, while most of the outpost was still asleep.

"You alright?"

She nodded. "Just thinking." She sat up again and pushed herself to her feet. She stretched her arms above her head and groaned as her back cracked. Then she gestured towards the desk. "I should be okay to work out the details of the last plan now."

"Let's try to make it quick," Xavier said as he followed her. "Then you can go check on your friend for yourself. Make sure she hasn't cut any fingers off since I left the sparring yard."

"Xavier."

"That was a joke, Nicole," he said once he was at her side. "They were using practice swords when I left, so the worst she could do is break one."

"Xavier!"

After they had discussed the final details of the last plan, the two of them went over the list of people Xavier planned to bring with him. Once several more names had been added to the proposed group—their best archers—Xavier dismissed Nicole so she could find Waverly and assess the damage that had been done during her first day of training.

The first place she checked was the healer's tent, but Ruthie mentioned that she'd already come in earlier in the day to have her blistered hands wrapped, but had scurried off soon after she'd been treated.

"Seems somebody made her think I was a force to be terrified of," Ruthie said, narrowing her eyes. "She left with Chrissy after I patched her up."

With no luck at the healer's tent, Nicole headed for the center of camp where the bonfire blazed. There she found Chrissy, whose right eye was a deep shade of purple, but there was no trace of Waverly in the small group that had gathered. Chrissy smiled at her when she approached and Nicole returned it before she turned to warm herself at the fire.

"Is Waverly nearby?" she asked once a bit of warmth had seeped back into her body. "I wanted to ask how her first lessons went."

"She said she wanted to lie down for a bit, so I took her back to your tent," Chrissy said. "She mentioned she had a headache, though I doubt that's the only thing that ached. First day of training is always the worst day of training."

A headache.

Nicole quickly thanked Chrissy before she excused herself and started towards valley.

She found Waverly in the tent, curled beneath the heavy furs with her body pressed as close to the thin wall as she could get. Nicole knelt beside her and rested her hand on her shoulder.

"Waverly?" She received a groan in response. Then Waverly rolled onto her back, her eyes still closed. Nicole moved her hand from Waverly's shoulder and placed her palm against the side of her head instead. "Chrissy said you had a headache," she said in a soft voice. "Are you alright?"

Bleary eyes opened, and Nicole's suspicions were confirmed.

"One of my visions," Waverly said. "Not as bad as the ones before, but it took me by surprise. And now my head aches, along with every other part of my body."

"Waves..." Nicole bit her lip. After a moment of deliberation, she unlaced her boots and set them aside before she joined Waverly under the furs. It didn't take long for Waverly to scoot close enough to rest her head on her chest. "I could see if we have more of Gus's tea left, if that would make you feel better."

Waverly shook her head. "It'll just make me sleep the rest of the day, and that's not what I want," she said. "I just needed to lay down. It was too bright outside, with the snow and the sunlight."

"Alright," Nicole said. "We can stay here for awhile then."

"You don't have to," Waverly said. "Not if you're busy, I mean."

Nicole responded by pulling her closer. "Not busy," she said as she absently combed her fingers through Waverly's hair. "I've already taken care of everything I needed to today, so just let me take care of you for the time being, alright?"

Waverly nodded against her chest then released a sigh.

"They just keep showing me the same woman," Waverly said. "In some of them, she seems to know me, but I've never met her. In others, she's in a tavern, but I never know which one. This has to be the fourth vision I've had about her, and that isn't counting the small glimpses I've gotten of her," she said. "But I never See anything useful. Nothing to tell me who she is or where she is." She was quiet for a moment, then she said, "If she's so important and I'm supposed to meet her, why won't they show me where to find her?"

"What makes you think she's important?" Waverly stiffened against her side. "Sorry," Nicole said, though she did feel a pang of hurt at the response. "You don't have to tell me."

"No, I want to," Waverly said. "It's just... Well, when I first started having the visions about her, I didn't know what to believe. I kept seeing so many different outcomes and I didn't know which ones were the real ones."

"Waverly—"

"Nicole, I don't want you to think I was hiding things from you again. I wasn't, I swear," she said, and Nicole could hear the panic rising in her voice. "I just didn't know what was real. I wanted to figure it out first and—"

"Waverly, listen, it's alright," Nicole said. She put some distance between them so she could see Waverly better and so Waverly could see her. "I trust you, okay? I do. So no, I'm not going to think you were hiding things from me when you could barely make sense of them yourself." She reached out and placed two fingers beneath Waverly's chin so she would meet her gaze. "Understand?"

Waverly nodded and Nicole smiled.

"This woman I keep seeing, she has a sword unlike any I've ever seen before," Waverly said. "When she wields it, it glows a bright white and burns those it touches. I've Seen her use it twice now, and both times they have been visions of those who have made deals with the Stone Witch." She shivered at the mention of the Witch, but pressed forward. "Mattie said the Old Seer Saw something that could bring an end to the evil plaguing the past," she said. "Maybe that's what I'm Seeing now. A way to stop the Witch and those she's been helping."

Nicole was silent as she absorbed Waverly's words and what they meant.

An end to Robert.

An end to the pain he and the people like him caused.

An end to it all, and Waverly had Seen the way to bring it about.

"Nicole?"

"Sorry," she said, her voice strained as the weight of Waverly's words settled over her. "Mattie said um... Mattie said the Old Seer had trials of his own he had to go through before he could stop the evil in his time, didn't she? Maybe finding this woman is one of your trials."

"If that's the case, then the visions could be a little more helpful and show me where to find her."

Nicole laughed. "They're called trials for a reason, Waverly," she said. "Your visions can't do all the work for you."

"After all the trouble they've caused me, they should."

A thought struck Nicole.

"Waverly?"

"Hm?"

"Did anybody see you have this vision?"

Waverly shook her head. "No, it was after my lesson with Champ. I was on my way to visit Ru—I mean, the bonfire."

Nicole raised her eyebrows. "You were on your way to visit the bonfire?" she asked. "You just wanted to have a nice chat with it?"

"Yes. I mean, no. I mean, I was on my way to the bonfire," Waverly said, and Nicole allowed the lie for now, only because Waverly seemed flustered. "Anyway, I felt the pressure behind my eyes on the way there and made sure to catch myself on a tree before I fell in the snow," she said. "Chrissy found me leaning against it, but the vision had already passed. She thought I was just tired from my lesson. She doesn't know about the visions."

"And how did your lesson with Champ go?"

"I think it went well," Waverly said, and Nicole furrowed her brow. That wasn't the impression Xavier had given her. "It was only my first lesson though, so I still have a lot to learn. I'm sure I'll start to pick things up a little easier after a few more."

"That's great," Nicole said, trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice. "How's your head, by the way? Any better?"

Waverly was still for a moment, then she nodded.

"Are you feeling well enough to eat something?"

"Food sounds wonderful," Waverly said. "There's just one problem."

"And what's that?"

"I don't think I can get up."

Nicole laughed and eased Waverly into a sitting position before she helped her back onto her feet and out of the tent. She let Waverly use her arm for support as they headed for the bonfire and she thought back to her first lessons with Xavier. For a week, she’d hardly been able to move without groaning, though part of that had been caused by her own poor decisions.

She hoped Waverly’s lessons with Champ wouldn’t be quite as harsh. 


 

After the first day of training, Waverly expected things to go smoother with Champ. It was true, her first lesson had been rough, but she thought the second would be easier. She thought that Champ would see his method was not working and would adjust accordingly.

So the morning of her next lesson, after Nicole braided her hair again—this time without falling asleep—Waverly started for the training yard with as much bounce in her step as her sore body could muster. Nicole walked beside her this time and when they reached the hill, she was kind enough to give her a helping hand just as she had the night before. Chrissy was already at the top and she offered Waverly a sympathetic smile when they joined her. Once the three of them reached the center of the outpost, Nicole separated herself from the two of them, but not before assuring Waverly she would do well at her lesson.

She hadn't thought it was possible, but the second lesson went worse than the first.

Her body still ached from the day before, making her movements and reactions sluggish. She blocked fewer strikes and absorbed more, which only added to the collection of bruises spreading across her torso. Luckily, none of them were easily visible, hidden beneath layers of clothing. Nicole wouldn't be able to see the evidence that Waverly wasn't as quick a learner as she thought she was. By the end of the second lesson, she had bruises painted on top of bruises.

Later that evening, when Nicole asked how her second lesson had gone as they huddled around the blazing bonfire, Waverly assured her it went well and tried not to wince as she smiled.

The morning of her third training session, Waverly couldn't muster any kind of enthusiasm. After Nicole braided her hair, there was a lingering touch against her right shoulder—which was thankfully not as tender as her left—as Nicole asked if she was alright. She nodded and slowly pushed herself to her feet, trying to look excited for the painful lesson that awaited her.

She wasn't the only one getting frustrated.

Champ's patience was wearing thin. She could see it in the rushed demonstrations he provided after a third or fourth request, in the way he clenched his jaw each time she failed to block one of his attacks. He'd quickly hide it with that boyish grin she'd grown familiar with, but he was never quite fast enough.

She was starting to feel like a waste of his time.

That afternoon, after she and Champ had parted ways so he could spar with his usual group of fighters, Waverly left the training field with the heavy weight of failure pressing on her shoulders. At first, she started towards the supply shed so she could return the practice sword and say hello to Fish, but as she reached the center of the outpost, her grip around the sword hilt tightened and she changed direction.

Chrissy had mentioned some people chose other areas to do drills when the training circle was too crowded, so maybe she could find a secluded spot to practice. If she could master one of the maneuvers Champ had shown her, or even just execute one without falling in the snow, maybe she would feel like less of a failure.

If she could do that, then maybe she wasn't a waste of his time.

Before she could find a space of her own, however, she stumbled upon someone else in the quiet, wooded area who seemed to have had the same idea.

Nicole, she realized.

Waverly watched Nicole's movements as she squared off against a tree. The strikes weren't quick the way Champ's had been and they were nowhere near as showy. They were slow and repetitive overhead strikes that bounced off the thick trunk. The occasional chunk of bark fell to the ground. Then Nicole circled the tree with careful steps before she set herself and launched into another round of slow, overhead strikes.

Waverly looked down at the sword in her hands then shifted her gaze back to Nicole. Mimicking Nicole's stance the best that she could, Waverly followed her lead and turned to face one of the nearby trees. Her arms ached as she lifted the sword and brought it down upon the trunk, but with her feet planted, she felt more in control of the blade now than she had over the last three mornings, though it still felt awkward in her hands.

After several strikes, she glanced at Nicole again to see if anything had changed, but she was still practicing the same overhead strike as before. The only difference was, she had begun to quicken her pace, though Waverly wasn't sure she was aware of it.

One of the strikes cracked against the tree trunk and the sound echoed, but the pained cry after was louder. Waverly stopped her own steady assault against her tree at the sound and turned to find Nicole clutching at her shoulder. Another cry followed—one born of frustration and anger—as Nicole tossed the sword away then cradled her arm. Waverly lowered her own blade and took cautious steps towards her.

"Nicole?" she called out once she was closer.

She didn't answer, but Waverly saw her stiffen at the sound of her voice. Knowing that Nicole had heard her, Waverly continued until she was at Nicole's side. Despite how slow the strikes had been, Nicole's hair was damp with sweat and she took ragged breaths, though Waverly wasn't sure that was from the exertion or from the pain in her shoulder.

"I'm sorry," Nicole said, and Waverly's brow furrowed at the apology. "If I had known you were here, I wouldn't have thrown the sword."

"I didn't exactly make myself known."

"I still shouldn't have thrown it."

"You're alright though, right?"

Nicole nodded. "Just an idiot," she said. "Got too comfortable with what I was doing and let myself slip. I'll be fine." She let her hand drop from her shoulder and shifted her gaze to Waverly. Any anger or frustration she may have been feeling, she hid it well. "What brought you all the way out here?"

Waverly blushed. "I, uh... thought there might be somewhere I could practice," she said. "Privately."

"Oh." Nicole rubbed the back of her head and Waverly smiled at the action. "If you give me a moment, I'll get out of here. I was nearly done anyway."

"You can stay if you want," Waverly blurted out, and Nicole blinked at the outburst. "It's just, well, I wanted to practice because I've been struggling with some of what Champ has been showing me. Okay, all of what Champ has been showing me."

"I thought you said the lessons were going well?"

Waverly sighed. "I lied," she said. "I didn't want you to think I was wasting his time, but now I'm starting to think I am. I can't even do the most basic steps he shows me."

She tightened her grip on the hilt of her sword and ducked her head. A touch against her arm made her look up again.

"Waverly, I promise you're not wasting anyone's time," she said. "And if you feel like you're struggling then I'd be happy to help you practice."

Waverly smiled. "Thank you."

"Think nothing of it," Nicole said as she took a step back. "Now, why don't you show me what you're struggling with and we'll start from there."

Waverly nodded, then planted her feet. She gritted her teeth before she started one of the maneuvers. Her movements were sloppy as she raised the blade. Halfway through trying to swing the sword in the pattern Champ had shown her, she stumbled over her footing. Nicole caught her before she could fall in the snow—again—but her hands pressed against tender bruises on her sides, and Waverly dropped the sword as she hissed in pain.

"What's wrong?"

Waverly shook her head and took a step back. "I'm fine. It's fine. Everything's fine."

"That would be far more believable if you weren't saying it through your teeth, Waverly." She stepped closer and took the hem of Waverly's tunic between her fingers. She met Waverly's gaze with warm brown eyes. "May I please look?"

A moment of silence, then Waverly nodded. Carefully, Nicole lifted the shirt and the one beneath. The cold air against her skin made Waverly shiver. She bit back another hiss when Nicole's fingertips brushed one of the many bruises she'd acquired over the last three mornings.

"I thought you were just sore..." Nicole whispered. There was a flicker of emotion across her face, but Nicole schooled her features before Waverly could decipher it. "What kind of training has Champ been giving you, Waverly? Are there more of these?"

Waverly chewed her lip. "We were just sparring. That's all," she said. "I was having trouble with the steps he showed me. He thought it would help me get in touch with my instincts. You know, stop thinking so much and let my body take over? He was trying to help."

Nicole sighed and let the hem of the tunic fall. "Waverly, you don't have those instincts. Not yet. He should have known that. Now wait here a moment."

While Nicole went to retrieve the sword she had thrown earlier, Waverly released a deep sigh.

It was a relief, hearing Nicole repeat what she had told Champ that first morning. She'd spent three days feeling like a bumbling idiot because her body wouldn't react the way Champ said it should. Three days getting more and more frustrated with herself as she absorbed blow after blow from the dull practice sword.

When Nicole returned, she picked up the sword Waverly had dropped and offered it to her.

"If you're feeling up to it, we'll start again the day after tomorrow, alright?"

"Really?" Waverly asked as she walked alongside Nicole through the trees, grateful for the slow pace she set. "You won't be too busy?"

Nicole glanced at her, then returned her gaze to the snowy path. "Waverly, the day we arrived, I suggested to Xavier that I teach you to defend yourself, but you'd already found someone else to train you before I had the chance to ask," she said. "And Champ is a skilled fighter. I thought he'd be a good teacher, too, given how often he helps those friends of his." She sighed. "Apparently I was wrong."

"I think he brought it up as a joke," Waverly muttered. "I don't think he was expecting me to accept his offer, but I was so excited for the chance to learn something useful, I didn't give him the chance to back out," she said. "I'm almost positive he'll be relieved when I tell him I've found someone else to teach me."

"You know a lot of your skills are useful, right?" Nicole asked. "Healing, map reading, storytelling. All of those things are just as important as being able to fight."

"And how am I supposed to protect you with a story?"

Waverly walked a few paces ahead before she realized Nicole wasn't at her side anymore. Confused, she looked over her shoulder to find she had stopped in her tracks.

"You... want to protect me?"

Waverly's cheeks warmed and she ducked her head. "Well, I want to at least be able to watch your back," she said. "You're always so busy looking out for everybody else, Nicole. I want to be able to do that for you."

Nicole stayed quiet, and Waverly began to worry she'd said something wrong. Then a small smile appeared on Nicole's face.

"You never cease to amaze me, Waverly. You know that?"

Unable to think of a response, Waverly simply shook her head.

"Well, it's true," Nicole said as she walked past her. "Now, come on. It's your turn to get yelled at by Ruthie."

Waverly groaned, but she followed Nicole through the trees back to camp. The last time she had gone to the healer's tent, she had sat stiffly on the cot while Ruthie wrapped her blistered hands. She hadn't let her examine anything else, afraid she would mention it to Nicole and reveal how much she was struggling with training. Now Nicole knew anyway, but the disappointment she'd expected was nowhere to be found.

When they reached the healer's tent, Ruthie was in the midst of organizing her supplies in the wide cabinet. Waverly watched with curious eyes until Nicole cleared her throat to get the woman's attention. Ruthie looked over her shoulder and, seeing it was them, crossed her arms over her chest and turned around.

"Did you miss her storytellin' so much that you brought her along to tell one while I change your bandages?"

"No, Ruthie," Nicole said, a hint of red coloring her cheeks. "She has some injuries of her own that need to be tended to. Seems she was worried about me finding out about them."

Ruthie pursed her lips, then guided Waverly to one of the cots. "Let me take a look at what you've managed to do to yourself."

Waverly glanced at Nicole, then released a sigh of resignation before she undid the clasp of her cloak and pulled the tunic over her head. She hesitated before she removed the grey slip as well, revealing the myriad of bruises that covered her torso.

"Waves..." She looked up at the sound of the nickname and found Nicole staring at her, her eyes soft and warm in a way that made Waverly's stomach flip. Her gaze lingered on Waverly's left shoulder, which had taken the brunt of the strikes. "I wish you would've told me. This isn't how I wanted your training to go."

Waverly winced as Ruthie applied a salve to her shoulder. "Not exactly how I wanted it to go either," she said, "but I kept telling myself if I could just let my instincts take over like he told me to, I'd be fine." She offered Nicole a weak smile. "Guess I think too much, huh?"

Ruthie tsk'd in front of her. "Or not enough." She dipped her fingers into the clay jar again. Waverly shivered when she spread the salve over her bare side. "This one's been talkin' you up, tellin' me how smart you are, and the first time I really treat you, it's 'cause you were being stubborn," she said. "Explains why she likes you so much, but makes me question how wise it is for me to ask you to be my assistant."

Waverly blinked in surprise then looked up at Nicole, who shrugged.

"You want me to be your assistant?"

"That might not be the word I'm lookin' for," Ruthie said. "More like an apprentice, if you'd be interested in learning."

"Really? You'd want me to help you?"

"Learn from me," Ruthie corrected her. "And yes, I would." Her gaze flickered from Waverly to Nicole then back to Waverly. "She told me you were the one who kept her alive in the dungeon. I've seen my fair share of cells. I know what kind of environment that is and how hard it is to keep someone alive in it," she said. "You might've been sloppier than I would have liked, but the point is, you saved her. The skill is there. It just needs some... polishing."

Waverly grinned at the words, unable to hide her excitement. Then Ruthie touched another bruise and she hissed, but the smile remained.

"I would love to be your apprentice," Waverly said. "I... wow. Thank you. When can I start?"

"I'd say right after this," Ruthie told her. "You can help me redress the wound on Nicole's back, and I'll show you where you could have done better."

Nicole frowned. "Why is it whenever I come here, I get lectured, but Waverly gets an apprenticeship?"

"'Cause this is the first time I've had to treat Waverly for doin' something stupid. You, on the other hand, are a repeat offender," she said as she smeared the cream over the last of Waverly's bruises. "And the one and only time I asked you to help me with an infected leg, you threw up and then passed out in the mess you made."

"You didn't tell me you were going to cut it off!"

Ruthie paused in her ministrations and glanced up at Waverly. "You think you can handle something like that?" she asked. "Sawing through another person's flesh and bone before the infection has the chance to spread?"

Waverly nodded. "I used to hold things for the healer at the castle and clean up around the infirmary. I've watched him do that."

"Watchin' and doin' are two very different things, but it will hopefully be a while yet before you have to do it at all," she said. "Now, put your things back on and let Nicole take a seat here before she passes out again."

Waverly quickly stood from the cot so a very pale Nicole could sit down. Ruthie stepped around the bed while Waverly put her slip and tunic back on.

"Do me a favor?" Nicole asked as she undid the clasp of her cloak. "Don't talk about cutting limbs off while you're back there dressing my wound."

"Don't know why it bothers you so much," Ruthie said. "You go around stickin' your blade into people's' guts and you do it without retching."

"It's different, " Nicole said. "In the moment, it's different. I'm not surrounded by the smell of rot and I don't have to see the pus leaking from their infected wounds or hear the last ragged breaths they take before they pass over." She shook her head and gripped the edge of the cot. "Can we please stop talking about it? I'd prefer not to throw up all over myself today."

"Fine," Ruthie said. "Waverly, come back here."

Waverly nodded and joined Ruthie behind Nicole so she could start her first lesson as an apprentice.

Despite the ache left behind from her training sessions, her excitement made it easy to stay on her feet while Ruthie redressed Nicole's wound and instructed her. She listened with rapt attention as Ruthie told her how she could have done a better job with the cauterization, pointing out the areas where Waverly had so obviously had trouble.

"You see, cauterization can be used in a pinch," Ruthie said as she wrapped fresh bandages around Nicole's torso, "but it brings about its own problems, like the risk of infection, which I'm sure you and Nicole were fightin' against for quite awhile." Waverly nodded while she watched. "Now ideally, you'd want to stitch 'em up. You know anything about that?"

"A little," Waverly said. "I saw our healer do it occasionally, but he never let me do it myself."

"I see," Ruthie said before she tied off the last of the bandage. "Well, that will be changing in the future, but for now, I'll give you some supplies to practice with." She tapped Nicole on the shoulder. "You're done."

Nicole breathed a sigh of relief and pulled her tunic back over her head.

When they left Ruthie's tent, Waverly's arms were full, sewing supplies and rolls of parchment given to her by the old healer. Nicole carried the two practice swords as they walked back to the supply shed. She frowned at the one Waverly had been using.

"That dolt," she muttered.

"What?"

"Why'd he give you a longsword? No wonder you looked so awkward wielding it." She shook her head. "We'll find you something smaller next time."

After they brought the practice swords back to the supply shed and shared a brief conversation with Fish, the two of them returned to their tent in the valley and shed their outer layers.

With much of the afternoon's daylight left, Waverly sat cross-legged beneath the furs and unrolled one of the parchments Ruthie had given her. It was a list of different salves that included their uses, their ingredients, and the best methods to make them. While she studied the list, Nicole dug through her bags. Once she found what she was looking for, she joined Waverly beneath the furs.

Curious, Waverly stopped reading the list and shifted her gaze to Nicole, who had a small knife in one hand and a hunk of wood in the other. She dragged the blade across the wood with slow, deliberate strokes that peeled layers away from the thick block. Waverly returned her gaze to the parchment in her hands and smiled as the soft sound of the knife scraping wood filled the tent.

She managed to read through three of the scrolls Ruthie had given her before she had to squint her eyes in the poor light. Beside her, the hunk of wood in Nicole's hands had begun to take a rounded shape, but with daylight slipping away, she stopped dragging the knife across the block and began to gather the shavings instead.

Once she had swept the shavings off of the blanket and into her palm, the two of them dressed again and made their way to the middle of the outpost, where a pot full of bland soup awaited them.

When they reached the blazing bonfire, it seemed half the camp had already gathered and now stood in the line for the pot that hung by the flames. Nicole and Waverly took their place at the end of the line and shuffled forward. After they had their bowls in hand, the two of them joined those who were huddled around the fire and sipped at the bland soup. Waverly grimaced as she swallowed the last of it and quickly tried to hide her expression, but she heard Nicole laugh a moment later.

"You don't have to pretend it isn't terrible, Waverly. Four days of flavorless fish and vegetable soup is hard to like. You just keep telling yourself you're used to it until one day it's true." She swirled around what remained in her bowl and sighed wistfully. "I do miss Curtis's stews, though."

Waverly nodded. "I miss them, too."

"Miss who?" Waverly startled at the sound of Champ's voice and Nicole's posture stiffened. When she turned to face him, there was an apologetic smile on his face. "Sorry. I don't mean to keep doin' that to you."

"And yet you continue to do it," Nicole muttered beside Waverly.

"It's fine, Champ. We were just talking about a nice couple we met on our way to the outpost," she said. "Since you're here though, there was something I needed to talk to you about. With the training, I mean."

"I suppose great minds think alike then. That's one of the reasons I came over."

"Yes, well, I wanted to tell you I, uh..." She looked down at her empty bowl, hoping to find the words she needed, but there was nothing there to help her. She sighed and met Champ's gaze again. "You are a very skilled fighter, Champ, but I don't think I'm a good match for your teaching methods right now, so Nicole is going to help me."

The grin on Champ's face fell and Waverly felt a pang of pity. She hadn't meant to hurt him.

He rubbed the back of his head. "Well, that's fine," he said, and his gaze flickered to Nicole for a moment before returning to Waverly. "I was gonna tell you I'd be gone for a mission with Xavier, but if Nicole's not comin' with us, I suppose that solves the problem." He shifted his weight awkwardly then thrust out his other hand, which clutched the stems of small, white flowers, their petals drooping in a way that made them look like bells. "These were to apologize for missing our next lessons. Not really needed now, I guess, but you can still have them."

Waverly took the group of flowers from his hand and studied their delicate petals. "Snowdrops?"

He shrugged. "I just found 'em by the river. They were pretty like you, so I thought you would like them."

Waverly smiled and she ducked her head as her cheeks warmed. "I do," she said. "Thank you, Champ."

He cleared his throat and, after an awkward goodbye, he joined his friends across the fire. Beside her, Nicole's jaw was clenched as she watched Champ's retreating figure. Waverly set the flowers in her empty bowl, then placed her hand over Nicole's free one. Slowly, stiff muscles relaxed, and her gaze fell to their hands rather than Champ's back.

"I think I'm ready to turn in for the night," Waverly said.

Nicole nodded and followed her as she left the bonfire and led the way through the trees, back to the valley.

Inside the tent, after the two of them had prepared for bed and slipped beneath the heavy furs, Waverly scooted close to Nicole and the extra warmth she provided. However, there was something different about the way she held her now. It was as if she were afraid she would hurt her if she pressed too hard.

So Waverly tightened her hold instead.