Nobody ever talks about the months after a war.
Patterns come with time, and after-effects are known only to the future; there may be notes in history books about the days after the war, the funerals and speeches about the oh-so-glorious dead, but then the battle is over, rebuilding begins, and life, as the saying dictates – goes on. People who have homes left return to them, families scattered to the dust may find themselves together again, fractured but still standing. Those too injured to fight anymore retire; the commanders who ordered the deaths of thousands carry on doing so but through taxes and food costs and ‘enacting justice’. The ordinary people celebrate the end of their suffering. And the soldier? The soldier keeps fighting.
Gwenna Sharpe stood on top of Intarra’s Spear as Kaden’s body burned, but did not stay to watch the man they buried in his place go into the earth. She had seen that grisly death with her own eyes, and there were no need for Kettral after war – killers had no place in peace.
So she gathered her ramshackle forces and took them to the only place she could think of: home. Or as close to a home as any of them had. The Eerie had destroyed itself, left shattered and empty, but it had been built up once before, so she knew they could do it again. It was just a matter of time, and hope. The latter was something she was working on.
“We could go anywhere,” The Flea said, standing at her side after they had dismounted from the remaining birds, feet in the ashes of the Eerie. True to his nature, the old bastard was refusing to admit he was hurt, leaving the infirmary two days after the fight on the spear with three spots of blood leaking from his bandages that it seemed would never fully go away; he wouldn’t rest to let the deep knife wounds heal, wouldn’t even think of retiring, so walked around as if completely oblivious to the scarlet kisses on his torso. He was going to be the death of Gwenna, if he didn’t drop down himself first. He looked over, “But you came back here. Why?”
“Because . . .” she shrugged, not entirely sure herself, but a tugging in her gut telling her it was the right decision. “This place was a home at some point to everyone here. It can be again. It’s a place we know – a place people will remember as the home of the Kettral – these walls, these buildings, they represent what we are as much as we do. And being Kettral still has to stand for something, or else what the fuck is the point?”
And, a small voice said at the back of her head, if Valyn ever wants to come back, he’ll know where we are . . .
It felt like a kick in the teeth to find out he had left with the Urghul without so much as a word to them: it stung more than she cared to admit. Although it was true that the man who had fought with them in the capital was so unlike the cadet Gwenna had first met, the soldier she trusted to have her back, or even the Wing Leader she had taken over from, there had still been some part of her that held out hope for Valyn Malkeenian. She had wanted for him to return with them, to their Wing. She had hoped . . . well, she had hoped a lot of things in her life, and it had got her fuck-all, but mostly she had just hoped that by coming home he might finally find some peace.
She hoped she could, too. One day.
Gwenna was distracted as the Flea hummed in response, turning his eyes back towards the ruined buildings. Something that might have been approval swam there, or it could be nostalgia, but Gwenna was smart enough to doubt both emotions: with the Flea, you saw what he wanted you to see, nothing else. But there was something soft in his expression, made vulnerable by pain, and for a moment, she trusted that look.
“I was right about you,” he said finally, leaning heavily on a wooden crutch that had been supplied to him. “You’re a good leader. There may be hope for the Kettral yet.”
“Tell me that when you’re up at five thirty chopping wood to rebuild the barns,” Gwenna retorted, forcing her tone to be light as the corners of her mouth twisted skywards. “Don’t think that you’re getting out of helping just ‘cause you almost died two days ago. What sort of example would that be to set to any new cadets we get, letting them think dying is an excuse to give up?”
For the first time since the fight and perhaps the fifth time she had ever seen that expression ever, the Flea smiled.
“None at all,” he said, tiredness and loss and hope twisting his mouth, shaking his head lightly at the words, “None at all.”
The first night, she woke alone in a gasp, feeling the sweat plastering her hair to her forehead and swallowing back bile. Gwenna sat upright, awake instantly and scanning the area for danger. It had been months since she had slept through the night. Usually, during the war, she was woken to fight or to run – but some nights it was the nightmares. They came and went, wandering through her mind and invading it, malignant and vicious, spreading a corruption through her thoughts as the memories plagued her: killing in the Urghul pits, blood wet on her chin and coppery in the air, each breath dragging the smell further into her lungs; watching Laith die on the bridge, her own hands caked in mud at the time and the silence of that moment, of not even being able to cry out as he fell, dead before he hit the ground; being underwater at that same battle with a bomb in her hand and murky water filling her vision, clogged with debris and blood and bones, thinking this dismal purgatory would be the last thing she knew on this world.
Every horrific thing from the past year was carved into her memory, stark and unwanted, pressing at the edges of her mind in her days spent pretending she was fine to give the others hope, and finally spilling over the seams at night when there was no one to be brave for. Gwenna thought that it was not pain or death or suffering that was the thing to be hated most in the world – it was memory.
Having to live with the doing was much harder than the doing itself.
Everybody talked about the war, but no one talked about the nights after where she woke shaking and screaming, and finally understood the wash-outs better; she knew she could keep fighting, would keep fighting, but now Gwenna knew the cost of war was paid in blood and sleepless nights.
It took her just over a month to get pissed off enough to do something about it.
“Jak, you’re with me,” Gwenna ordered, crossing to the newly built Kettral Barn to find the flyer in his usual spot in Allu’ra’s stable. The first call of order had been to re-home the birds, as while they were trained to make do, the birds had fought hard in the war that wasn’t really their fight, and it was an easy decision to make to put their comfort first. The remaining Kettral Birds were a high priority for none more than the flyer, who since his suicide dive to kill Balendin had grown in leaps and bounds, a newfound confidence not just in fighting but in every step he took, although Jak remained affectionate fiercely of the creatures in his care. She wouldn’t be surprised if he was sleeping in there with them, so she didn’t even have to think to know where to find him, crossing across yard to get there in a grey-light before dawn, early enough that no one else had risen yet.
Construction on the Barracks was their second priority, most of her new Kettral having taken to either sleeping on the beach or in lucky-fuck’s row, but staying in pairs or groups of their Wing, nobody wanting to be alone. Co-dependent Kettral was a new concept, but she didn’t think it was a bad thing to care. It just made you fight harder for the person standing next to you, if you cared if they made it home, too.
They would be too busy building their new homes, a new mess hall, and new training rooms to notice she was gone - or so she hoped.
“What?” Jak looked up quickly from where he perched half on a stable door, the great bird’s head in his lap as he examined its eyes. There was straw in his hair as he blinked confusedly. “Where are we going?”
Jak squinted, a hint of his old fear in the way his back straightened, although the look was more curious than it was afraid. “You’re being evasive. Where are we going?”
“The fuck is it to you? You’re dropping me then you can go to the Kent-Kissing beach for the day for all I care, but I need twelve hours and I need you to fly me, so get up and get moving,” she snapped, ignoring the way heat rose to her face at being questioned. If these bloody people expected her to lead them, then the least they could do was stop second-guessing her orders. She didn’t feel like explaining this to him.
Quickly, she sent him a glare that spurred him into motion, a twinge of guilt hitting her at having to scare him into submission, that wasn’t the sort of leader she wanted to be, but turned and headed outside to wait for him, taking a seat on an empty barrel.
Looking at the slowly-lightening sky, she guessed they had about an hour to dawn. Gwenna’s eyes wandered to the horizon, to their destination beyond it; she accounted a few hours travelling, a time to wait, and then as long as was left to talk before Jak came back, give or take. It should be enough time. Perhaps not for what she really wanted, but time enough to ask the questions she needed to, say her piece, and maybe shift a bit of the guilt weighing heavily on her soul.
She was so distracted watching the sky that she didn’t see the other woman approaching.
“It won’t do any good,” Annick said, appearing out of thin air. Materialising on Gwenna’s left, she joined her in sitting, silently taking the next barrel over and pulling her knees up to her chin. As if it were fused to her very skin, her bow was across her back as usual, even though there was no one left to shoot. Gwenna refused to look over, but she could feel the sniper’s eyes on her, as Annick seemingly read her mind and knew exactly what her wing leader was going to do. “He’s made his decision. You should . . . you’ve got to let him go sometime, Gwenna. He won’t come back.”
“You don’t know that,” Gwenna found herself saying quickly, internally cursing how defensive her tone sounded. “I have to know why . . . And what he’s doing – he’s Kettral still, and could do a lot of harm if he chose to. Just because Il Tornja is gone doesn’t mean the war is over, the Urghul could still come back to fight, and with him on their side, even we wouldn’t stand a chance if we fought for the empire. He’d decimate us.”
“Is that what we are? Still the Emperor’s killers?”
“I don’t know,” Gwenna scowled. “I haven’t decided yet. At the moment, we fight for ourselves . . . the rest we’ll figure out when the next war comes, I guess. But I still need to know.”
For once, the sniper’s voice was uncharacteristically soft. She didn’t reach out to try and touch Gwenna, or give her some bullshit comfort that meant nothing, but a soft-spoken warning; it was almost a relief.
“You might not like what you find.”
“Holy Hull, Annick,” she cursed back, exasperated. “In case you haven’t noticed, nothing in the past year has been good! All we’ve seen is death and misery and more death! One more rotten thing isn’t going to kill me. And neither will he.” Without a doubt, Gwenna knew that to be true. She finally inclined her head towards the sniper. “I’ll give him your love.”
“Don’t bother,” Annick replied evenly. “Just tell him I got Balendin right in his Kent-Kissing eye. Do that for me instead.”
A slow grin spread out over Gwenna’s face. “You got it. I reckon that’ll be the best news he’s had all year.”
She left with Jak just as the Eerie began to come to life below her, wondering vaguely how it would feel the first time she left it again on a mission knowing she might not come back. The thought was oddly disjointed, and she was temporarily glad she had chosen to ride in the bird’s talons on her own instead of taking Jak up on his offer to ride up top with him; hidden from the world, she had a few hours to herself, a blessed respite from having to be the killer or the soldier or the leader they all expected her to be back on the island, a chance to collect her thoughts for what was to come.
Ten miles away from the border, she signalled for Jak to get the bird to screech. To them, the noise erupted, exploding across the empty space and echoing violently, rattling their brains with its proximity. A bird’s screech was loud and booming, going eastwards and westwards to the end of the earth, and she knew it would be enough. It was a distinctive enough sound to place immediately, and she guessed he would come to see what a bird was doing so close. In fact, it was what she was counting on.
Landing with grace, their ride easy now they were not running away from something or to kill someone, Gwenna nodded to approve the place Jak had chosen – an open plane, with a cluster of rocks and a tree nearby, where she could wait in the shade and see any hostiles approaching for miles, although how he knew what to look for she didn’t know. Maybe he had guessed from the location she gave him to fly to, maybe not, but Jak didn’t question the order this time.
As he dismounted and stood beside her for a moment, the expression on his face was almost concerned . . . which just pissed her off.
“Right, you can fuck off now,” she said curtly, pretending to scan the horizon. “Twelve hours should do. Come back here, and do whatever the hell you want in the meantime, as long as you make the pick-up-”
“Is this safe?” Jak cut her off, moving so she had no choice but to look at him. The flyer had an earnest face, and eyes that cared too much when they looked at you. Most of the time, she felt an inexplicable urge to punch him. She had spent too long taking care of herself to need someone worrying about her now. “I – I should stay with you. This is what Wings are for, so people don’t have to take risks alone, and you don’t have to-”
“Yes, I do,” she replied, trying to keep her voice even and failing. Jak meant no harm. “This is about my Wing, Jak. My whole Wing. Because what feels like years ago, ‘Shael take it, my Wing left the Eerie and not all of us made it home, but some of us did. Some of us still can, do you understand? That’s why I have to do this.”
“No buts,” Gwenna said, voice clipped, her tone as commander taking hold. “I have to try, and I’m going to. I don’t need your permission or your help. Now go, do whatever makes you happy for a day; you earned a break when you took that bird to the stars on the battlefield,” she nodded to the bird who waited a few metres away, “Go fly, wherever you want. Hell, go see if you can touch the sun if it’ll make you happy, but do it somewhere far away from here. Go.”
After a second too long watching her, Jak gave a dissatisfied huff but obediently climbed back onto the bird and took off. Gwenna turned, refusing to watch him go. Whether this went well or not, she was stuck here for at least the next twelve hours. Turning towards the tree, she crossed the space and sat among its roots, thankful for the shade and the water in her bag. The planes burned, and she hadn’t missed them one bit.
For three hours, she waited.
He would come, that she knew, but how far he was and how long it would take she could only guess, sitting in the sun as her water supply dwindled. Whenever her stiff limbs started to cramp, she climbed the tree, ran laps around it, or rubbed feeling back into her aching legs. Some of her injuries from the war had never fully healed, she had gained both new scars and new aches set deep into her bones, and her little finger on her left hand no longer bent, leaving her feeling older at twenty than most people did in their sixth decades. It was the Kettral way, but it had hit them hard, and earlier than most.
She was just groaning from too long not moving when it occurred to her that he should be there by now. Standing, forcing her jaws shut to hold back a grunt of pain at the sudden movement, Gwenna fixed a glare out over the cracked dirt.
“Valyn,” she said, not bothering to raise her voice too much. He was there, she suddenly knew it, and he could hear her. “I’m not leaving and I’m not here to fight. You can either come out or I swear to Hull I’ll walk into the Urghul territory and start swinging at those bastards ‘til I find you. Save me the effort, I’ve been fighting your family’s bloody war for months and I’m tired. But that won’t stop me from hacking my way to you if I have to. Your choice.”
Satisfied her threat would suffice, she sat again, this time on a rock in the sun, feeling its warmth brush her back as she waited, eyes flicking around her. It only took a few minutes for a dark shape to appear on the horizon, and less than an hour for it to become one she recognised. By the time the sun had managed to soak deep into her bones, Valyn Hui’Malkeenian was standing in front of her with an unimpressed look on his face.
“What the fuck do you want, Gwenna?”
“Nice to know them princely manners of yours never went away, Malkeenian,” she replied teasingly, suddenly wanting to back out of the whole thing at the sight of him and deflecting with the joke.
Face a masked smile, she tried to look at him without flinching – seeing him in the bright light made the hollowness of his cheeks stand out, the scar crossing his eyes in an ugly gash still red despite its age, traced with smaller marks on his once handsome features. Elements of his family features still remained in the high cheekbones and chiselled chin, but everything that had made him truly wonderful to look at – the light behind his eyes that although dark in hue, were warm in presence, the grin that made his whole face crack to let sunlight shine through it, from his freckled nose to the old scars worn into his face like silver whisps – they were all vanished. The smile was long gone. He looked like a walking scar, a dark mark on the bright desert standing in front of her, and the sight almost left her lost for words.
“We need to talk,” she said eventually, when his eyebrows hitched at her joke but other than that he stood unmoving. With one last sweep of her eyes over a face she used to know anywhere but was now the hooded eyes and sharp teeth of something darker, she tilted her head, motioning for him to sit beside her then turning her gaze to the desert, baked and cracking under the sun. Her eyes found the root of a crack and followed it, tracing patterns across the dirt to distract herself as she waited for him to sit, feeling the tension in his spine as if he were ready to bolt at any minute as he perched a few feet away, letting the silence rest between them for a while. It wasn’t strained, but quiet. “I’m running the Kettral now. Somehow. Trying my best to, anyways, but the Flea must think I’m doing something right because he hasn’t stepped up to take it from me yet . . . he’s alive, by the way. Stubborn as ever; won’t sit down and let himself get better. Talal and Annick are fine too, or as fine as any of us can be after the last year. The new Kettral talk about us all like we’re legends or something, like we did something great instead of just managing to . . . not die.”
Although she watched him from the corner of her eyes, Valyn never betrayed any emotion on his face. His ruined eyes showed no mercy, no movement, and his face remained still and impassive. If anything, he sounded bored, the tone he spoke in getting under her skin. “Does any of this have a point?”
“The point is you should be there,” she snapped, looking over to him. He didn’t even flinch, or look in her direction; Gwenna bit back a scream. “We were a team, Malkeenian. A Wing. I thought . . . we found you again, I pulled you out of the dirt myself, then we fought a fucking war to get you to the top of that spear and you just . . . you just left.”
“So? So I want to know why, you Kent-Kissing Bastard.”
“They’re not my Wing anymore, it’s yours now,” he replied, tone dead as his eyes, not even a sign that he had noticed her outburst. “And I’m not Kettral anymore.”
“Bullshit!” Gwenna cursed, getting to her feet as the frayed knot of her temper finally snapped, letting loose the ship into a storm as she surged to her feet, moving to stand over him, expression as fierce as the mid-day sun beating down on them. “You didn’t spent ten years training on that Hull-Hole of an island to just decide you’re not Kettral anymore! It’s not something you can just throw away, or lose – it’s in your beating heart, in the way you reach to grab your blades before you think, in every Kent-Kissing drop of blood in your body because it’s who you are, not what you are.”
She jabbed a finger at his chest repeatedly as she shouted, grabbing his shoulder with her left hand and slamming her right against his chest, above where his heart would lie, leaning towards those slashed eyes unflinchingly and searching them for something – some emotion, some flicker of the boy she knew, the one she thought she had loved. Valyn rocked under the blows, head half-turning to avoid the full brunt of her words being slung at his head, but there wasn’t even a spark of emotion there.
She was having nightmares and felt every second of every day as if there were grains of sand under her skin, slowly eating away at her until there would be nothing left but the swirling emptiness knawing at her soul each night, and he wasn’t even blinking, he acted as if he were made of stone.
Gwenna felt the red-hot flames of rage licking at her tongue as it darted between her teeth, spewing all the hurt and anger and accusations that had been building up for a month at him.
“You don’t get to – you don’t get to fucking hide and run away, Malkeenian! You don’t get to sit there and pretend you don’t feel, not after everything, everything we did for you, because you asked us to save your brother from those ‘Shael-spawned mountains and we went. We chose to go with you, so you don’t get to just fucking leave us.”
“You chose to come,” Valyn replied calmly, but there was – finally – a bite in his tone, and Gwenna felt hope surge in her breast. If he could feel, she could reach him. “I didn’t make you. The Empire was at stake and we saved it; as you’re so determined to believe – we’re Kettral.” The word was poison on his lips, and he snorted bitterly before adding, “It’s what we do. It’s who we are.”
The words were arrows, and she was full of holes. Brow furrowing with quick blinks, Gwenna took in a sharp breath at hearing herself be mocked, but it only took a moment for her expression to harden. She had come here because he was her friend, and for some reason only Hull knows, she cared about him, and she had wanted to help.
Her knuckles met his jaw a moment later with a loud CLACK, tipping Valyn’s head back, though he put out a hand to stop himself from falling back onto the rock on which he perched. If he had wanted to, he could have stopped her, the logical part of Gwenna’s brain knew that – but she was just so angry, hearing only the snap of flesh and fist and her own blood roaring its way to her ears. Feeling only the sharp flash of pain the atto-second her knuckles hit; seeing only a scarred face that refused to show any emotion. It was enough to make her blood boil, the sun and the loss and the heat resulting in a complete loss of sense.
A moment later, he was on his feet and before Gwenna even had time to process the movement fully since Valyn now moved like the shadows at the corners of your eyes, there was a hand clamped around her throat.
Then he was there, face so close to hers she could feel the gentle brush of his breath against her eyelids, close enough that she could almost taste at the back of her throat the scent of blood that seemed to linger around him, the sickly sweet smell of a wound that never quite healed emitting faintly from his scarred eyes. There was still a speckling of freckles across his nose, though. That hadn’t changed.
And the fact that she was still breathing told Gwenna something as she shifted in the grip, not even moving to break it. Instead, she put her hands on his elbow, not letting him step away and holding him there, staring into those ruined eyes and daring him to blink first.
“Go on, do it,” she growled through the grip, eyes flashing with both tears and anger. “Do it! I’m half-dead anyway.”
Valyn was very still for a moment.
An inch away from her, his eyes widened in what could have been shock, and he suddenly dropped her, stepping away as if he had been burned. Fully prepared to keep ripping into him, Gwenna stopped short as Valyn began to speak in a low, shaky tone, voice thick with self-loathing and . . . fear. It rung as true in her ears, and she could feel it rolling off him like a toxic cloud of bitterness and regret.
“You see? This is why I can’t come back with you,” he said, half bent-over and looking up at her, genuine emotion in his words. “I’m a – I’m a monster, Gwenna. I have been for a long time. It’s . . . it’s there in my blood like bile and I can feel it eating away every piece of me – all the parts of me that were good and honest and hopeful. They’re dead. And that’s left, all I have is this, this hatred. This rage. It burns,” he gasped, hand shaped like a claw over his heart as he tried to explain, the rawness of it making Gwenna take a step away. He was a like an exposed nerve, all emotion and no walls to hold that back. “The Flea saw it, he saw what I had become: he said all I had was killing. There’s nothing Kettral left but causing pain, Gwenna. That’s not what we were – we were supposed to be something better than that, something worth being! And I’m not. I’m . . . I went with the Urghul because they live in blood and shades of suffering, and that’s all I know now.”
“No,” she shook her head, forgetting everything but the fact that he was someone she cared about deeply. No amount of war would change that. “Malkee- Valyn. Valyn. You’re not a monster, you’re hurting. There’s a difference.”
“You don’t understand.”
“I do, trust me I do-”
“How could you?” he demanded, straightening. There was something glassy that took over his eyes, something full of agony. “No one – no one – lost what I did! Nobody else drank from the black Slarn egg, it changed me. I feel it, and you don’t know anything.” Suddenly angry, he looked at her coldly before turning to walk away. “It was stupid for you to come here. Next time you’ll be dead before you land.”
He managed four steps before she caught him by the arm. Gwenna seized his elbow and twisted him around, her grip vice-like and not allowing any freedom or choice but to look her in the eyes. And like the building flame Valyn felt inside, they were on fire.
“How DARE you?!” she roared, her voice which had been strong cracking hoarsely at the force behind the middle word. Throwing her arms out, stabbing at him, screaming in his face, she lost control and let her mouth say the words it yearned to. “You think you’re the only one hurting? Huh? You think you’re the only one with blood on their hands?”
Valyn twisted out of her grip but instead of running away, moved forward to shout again. “It’s not the same!”
She shoved him in the chest with each accusation, “Really? Fucking really? ‘Cause I still remember every – fucking – person I killed in the fighting pits of the people you’re running with now! I still remember their eyes as they died, and the crowd all around cheering including your whore, and the way their throats felt when I cut through them with my knife or my nails or my Kent-Kissing teeth. Do you know how that feels? And these are the people you betrayed us for!” She didn’t give him a chance, pushing forward, advancing, feeling his feet fall into synch to miss hers. “I killed Annurians and Urghul and Legionnaires and warriors! Some of them were probably good people. They probably had families and friends and no clue what was really going on in the war. But I killed them because I had to, and I fucking live with it, because I have to do that, too. What makes you any different?”
“I didn’t betray anyone,” Valyn seethed, face inches away from her again. “At least I know what I am! At least I’m not fighting for an empire that doesn’t exist anymore-”
“Fuck your family feud!” Gwenna spat in his face, grabbing him by the shoulders to shake him again; because if violence was a language, they were both eloquent speakers. She knew the punching and the fighting was how they understood one another best, and half-hoped she could shake some sense into him. “I don’t give a shit what issues you have with your sister! I don’t care if she stabbed you because look around, Valyn – you’re still alive. You still can choose to fight but look at you . . . you just gave up.”
“Prove it,” she said defiantly, refusing to back off. “You think you’re this – broken thing. So am I. So are Annick and Talal and the Flea and even your ‘Shael-spawned sister. I still see them every night in my dreams, I face that darkness, these things that I did – that I am-” Gwenna was half aware of the increasing pitch of her voice, of its creaking and cracking, but her vision had tunnelled until she could see him. Only him. “And I carry on. There’s a way to not be the monster you could be, Valyn. It’s called being better. So stop pretending you don’t have a choice and suck it up like the rest of us have. You still have a choice here, you always did.”
Valyn swayed on his feet, eyes sliding to the cracked floor at his feet. Gwenna didn’t notice, ploughing on and exploding like a star-shatter, and neither of them could avoid the shrapnel of her violent, human emotion.
“You don’t get to just give up. Not when -” she heaved a sob, not knowing why the tide she’d been holding back spilled in an instant, tears leaking angrily from the corners of her eyes, like grit as they scoured down her cheeks. “Not when we need you. Not when I need you.”
The realisation seemed to freeze the air around them. Shocked that the words had passed her lips, slipping out without thought but their own as soon as they had, free once loosed onto the world, Gwenna felt her mouth hang open and tasted the bitter cold where it did, eyes widening visibly. A part of her wanted to take it back, but it was the truth and the rest of her battled to let it be, finally, that painful sting of loss flying free of her chest. Valyn, to his credit, fell utterly silent in the face of her fury, and her sadness.
His face softened a fraction of an inch, and a moment later he slumped where he stood, dejected and exhausted, dead on his feet. Valyn’s intense eyes dropped; he took the abuse, almost like he thought he deserved it . . .
Gwenna’s blood ran cold. Stepping away, she felt desperation wrap her face into an expression of frustration, letting a scream escape her throat through teeth clamped together. Turning on the spot, her hopeless heart sought answers but found only dry, dead desert waiting, cold and unmoving as a bone; as the man behind her. It was only then she noticed time, like a whore stealing a sailor’s purse at dawn, had slipped away from them silently and craftily. The sun had perished in the sky and was casting out rays of amber and gold across the planes, reflected against the pale ground and made eternal, as if they were standing on the surface of the sun itself. She wondered if that was why they were burning.
Slowly, she turned back to him and collapsed on the rocks again, taking her seat. It was almost beautiful, this world, and she was glad it was still there . . . even if some nights she wished she wasn’t. Eyes full of light brighter than the legacy of the Malkeenian flame, Intarra’s spheres in her gaze, she watched the sun set, aware that Valyn had neither left nor joined her and unsure whether that was a good thing or not.
But it was hard to feel much of anything at all, watching the sun play its dance of colour and distilled light across the horizon. It burned, died, and fell below the line marking what might as well be the end of the world, unmarred by man or monument. It was so empty and simultaneously full, as if the earth itself was bursting with life, and to break the ground of such a place would be a transgression against nature itself.
“It’s so beautiful,” Gwenna said sadly, at first hardly aware she had spoken aloud until Valyn replied.
“Yeah,” he breathed, turning his head to look at her, and she saw tears matching her own in his eyes, the words tired as they left his lips, leaking exhaustion in everything he did. “Yeah, it is.”
The last of the light fled that place, replaced with a biting cold in the blue hues of dusk, as he took his place beside her on the rocks, this time closer than before.
She could feel the heat of him where he sat, elbows and knees brushing if they moved, but it didn’t feel right to break the perfect silence just yet. Instead, they sat side by side as if nothing had changed since they were friends and a Wing, as if life had yet to break them so completely, and turned their heads skywards, waiting until the stars had peaked their way through the hazy dusk before they spoke, those tiny bright lights enough for them to see by. It was all the light in the world they needed.
“Why did you join the Kettral?” Gwenna asked, but there was none of the anger from before it her voice. It had drained out of her alongside the sun, replaced by a simplicity and honesty so rarely shown by her, although she couldn’t really bring herself to care. Angling her head towards him, Valyn looked steadily back. “In the first place, I mean. You chose to come to the Islands, or if you didn’t – you chose not to wash out; to spend every day fighting and aching for our training. Why?”
“. . . I was kidnapped when I was a child – me and Kaden were, I mean. He was always the best of us, the one with the eyes and the goodness,” he spoke softly, half a smile appearing on his lips. Gwenna listened, wholly unsurprised he had been kidnapped in his youth – she had come to know Valyn, the Kettral, not Valyn the Malkeenian, but with those eyes that sucked you in like black holes it was hard to forget who his family was. “We spent days waiting to be rescued, and when we were, it was the Kettral who came. They saved us. Like something out of a story, out of a legend where heroes were real – that’s what I thought they were. Heroes,” his smile turned a fraction bitter, but he didn’t harden as he had before. “It took becoming one to realise what we are. Weapons. Killers.”
“We don’t have to be,” Gwenna said quickly, catching his eye. “The old command is gone, Valyn, they tore each other to pieces trying to be the top bitch in the pile. There’s only us left. I’m trying to put the pieces back together of this collasal goat-fuck, but to what, I don’t know yet . . . we don’t have to just kill anymore. We can serve, protect – we’re as good a shield as a sword, you know it. We don’t have to be anything we don’t want to be anymore.”
“No. We are what they trained us to be.”
“- So we train whoever comes next to be better!” With a passion, Gwenna leaned over, one hand crossing her body to rest on his arm, leaning into him so he could see she meant it, so he knew she believed it . . . because if she could, maybe she could believe enough for the both of them. Maybe she could borrow him some of that hope for a future she was only just starting to imagine. “We teach them to be better, better than us – I can’t do it on my own. I don’t know how to fucking lead-”
“You seem to be doing just fine on your own so far,” Valyn replied, but it didn’t sound like a fault. In fact, there was almost a chuckle in his voice. It was almost the cocky, bold and shining as brass boy she had first met sitting in his place, just for a fraction of a second. “Even Hull wouldn’t have seen that coming.”
“Hey,” Gwenna half-laughed, “You shouldn’t insult the leader of the Kent-Kissing Kettral.”
They both managed about a second before laughing, collapsing into silent giggles. The laughter was hysteria, exhaustion, stress, loss, absurdity; a burst of feeling in a void it would be all too easy to sink into. It sounded a lot like hope in the fractured light.
“I need time,” Valyn said eventually. Gwenna was leaning against him now, their arms and bodies pressed together, whether from exhaustion or for comfort was anyone’s guess. She stiffened at the words, but he soothed a moment later. “It’s not just what I feel, Gwenna. Not just this darkness inside of me . . . it’s what I lost. I wanted to be Kettral because they saved Kaden, and I couldn’t.” There was a weighted grief in his voice, a sinking stone. Her hand on his arm squeezed in solidarity. Slowly, he turned his head until they were looking directly at one another. “Can you give me that? Can you give me time enough to sort my head out?”
“Of course,” she found herself nodding, despite the well of absence it built inside her. “Take all the time you need. - I don’t mean that – if you take too long, I’ll send all the birds in the Eerie to find you.” She cracked a grin, “I’m joking. Sort-of. You can’t leave me on my own for too long, ‘Shael take me, I don’t have it in me to hold this shit-storm together forever. Come back before I go mad and put Annick in charge and let her shoot the new cadets to Holy Hull.”
Valyn was broken, but he could still laugh. “I swear it.”
“On the memory of the Wing.”
And that meant something, so Gwenna nodded firmly, the worlds a prayer as they left her lips. “On the Wing that’s still there,” she corrected, “They’re still your family too, Val. They’re waiting.”
Valyn left not long after. Night had firmly seized a hold of the hand and held it in its fist, and he would be noticed as missing before long; not wanting a fight, he walked away in the desert to rejoin the pieces of the Urghul left, and Gwenna stayed on a stone under the stars. It took another hour for Jak to arrive.
“You’re late,” she said as he landed.
“You – you said twelve hours!” Jak protested, growing flustered in the space of a heartbeat. “I followed my orders-”
“Jak, I’m joking,” Gwenna replied easily, clapping a hand on his back. “You’re right on time, as usual.”
“Oh,” Jak looked relieved, face breaking into a nervous grin. There was something warm alongside it, and she found for the first time that she was grateful for the simple act of someone caring about her, and that it wasn’t a simple thing at all. It felt like a big thing. He was watching her carefully, “That’s something I haven’t heard for a while. I’m glad you found what you were looking for.”
“You know what, Jak? I think I did,” Gwenna said, still smiling, ‘Shael take it. Impulsively, she found herself turning to him and asking, “Is your offer to ride up top still open? It’s a long journey back, and I’m tired of being on my own.”
Within minutes, she was soaring on the back of the great bird with her arms around Jak’s neck, whooping and shouting at the thrill of wind whipping through her hair, and Gwenna Sharpe felt more free than she had in months, nothing between her and the stars.
People told stories about the war, but that moment was hers and hers alone; it felt like letting go of a breath she had been holding since the moment she first held a blade in her hands. Nobody knew that story but her, and Gwenna Sharpe smiled.