Chapter 23: Healing

Refugee Hospital

She knelt beside his bed day and night. It was her duty to him, after all. Just as it had been her duty before, to wait for his coming. Yet this had not been the triumphant return that Yanna had imagined.

“Yanna, perhaps you will not want to see.”

Narsix entered the tent with a change of bandages and a grim countenance. She seemed tired, easily wearied, after having her baby boy, Dóchas, but she refused to give up her duties as a healer. Esil watched the baby as she tended to the sick and wounded.

“I have seen his burns already, Narsix,” said Yanna firmly. “I think I will be fine. I will sit by him. He is my partner.”

“He is not your partner yet,” said Narsix, exasperated.

Yanna seemed stung. “You know why we waited,” she said angrily.

Narsix’s face softened. “Yes, I do. I’m sorry, that was unfair of me.”

Yanna sighed. “No, it’s all right. You’re just trying to make this easier on me. But you have to understand, these could be my last days with him.”

“He may live yet,” insisted Narsix. “He has a very good chance! The burns may be deep, but now that the bleeding has stopped–”

“I’m not just talking about the burns, Narsix,” said Yanna, “I’m talking about war.”

Daea-Teachna, Yanna,” said Narsix weakly, “must it really come to that?”

“Who knows what it may come to?” answered Yanna. “The point is that any day could be our last. Our time is more limited than I thought before; this I learned when I was forced to watch my village burn, along with it’s people. Men, women, children, many in the prime of their life. They are dead now, Narsix. Who knows how long we have ourselves?”

“But Yanna–”

“Please, Narsix,” pleaded Yanna. “What would you do? If it were Esil, what would you do?”

Narsix stared at her friend for a long time, then finally sighed. “Exactly what you are doing.”

“Then you will let me stay?”

“Only for today,” answered Narsix firmly. “There are many other families who would like to be doing what you are doing, but they cannot, because they have duties to their other loved ones, or positions in the camp that they cannot abandon. You have a duty to your father, Yanna. He lost you when you lost Sield, then again when you went for Lynea and the other girl, and now he still does not have you, because you mourn for a man who is not yet dead. I know you love Sield, but do you not also love your father?”

“I love my father with all of my heart!” said Yanna, shocked.

“Then be by his side, also,” said Narsix gently. “You are not the only one in mourning.”

Yanna seemed to struggle with all that Narsix had said. Surely it was her duty to be with Sield in his time of need. But didn’t her father need her, as well?

“I must change the bandages now,” said Narsix tersely, saving Yanna from having to answer, and kneeling down at Sield’s side. “You will need to back further away; I do not think that you present any real harm, but the risk of infection is too great. When the bandages come off, you mustn’t be too near.”

Yanna nodded and backed away. She prepared herself for the sight of his burns, but she still felt sick to her stomach as the bloodied bandage was pulled off.

The burn went up from his heel to the top of his right thigh. The angry red welt seemed swollen and tight, stretched until the skin became shiny. In some areas, the fire had eaten through the very skin and muscle, until you could almost see the bone. Blood trickled slowly and gently from the deeper wounds, but it had a strange smell. Yanna couldn’t imagine how excruciating it must have been.

Sield gave a slight groan, walking from his half consciousness, and Yanna wanted to run up and hold him in her arms, and tell him it would be okay. But she held herself back.

Narsix gave his hand a comforting squeeze. “You’ve been so very brave,” she said softly. “Keep it up, and I promise it will be over soon.”

Narsix spread a peculiar salve over the wound; it smelled fresh, somehow, clean. Then her agile fingers deftly wrapped a new bandage around the wound. Sield whimpered slightly as she tightened it, and Yanna fought an urge to cry out for it to be loosened, but Narsix merely smiled, and whispered encouragements for Sield, who seemed to calm. Finally, the last knot was tightened, and it was over.

“Good job, Sield,” said Narsix soothingly. “That was very, very good. It’s over now, it’s okay. You are going to be absolutely fine.”

She gave his hand one last squeeze, then stood up. “He’s all yours,” she smiled.

“Thank you,” said Yanna, amazed at Narsix’s calming ability.

She knelt back down at his side.

“The salve should reduce the pain,” said Narsix, “so he may wake up long enough to talk to, but I make no promises.”

“Of course,” said Yanna absently.

Narsix smiled sadly and left the tent for a moment.

Mira was waiting outside. “How is he?” she asked anxiously.

“He should be fine for now,” said Narsix wearily. “But I fear that I will not be able to heal the leg completely. Some of the wounds are so deep, you see. I am afraid that even if he recovers, he may lose the use of his right leg.”

“How awful!” exclaimed Mira, distressed.

“Mira, what happened?” asked Narsix. “Why were you separated from the rest of your village?

“Well, I’ve already explained to the heads of the camp-”

“Yes, but I would like to know,” insisted Narsix. “I had many friends in your village, and I wish to know what happened to them all.”

Mira sighed. “All right, but it is a very long story, I’m afraid.

“Before the attack, we were preparing for a feast to celebrate a new birth in the village. Many of us were in the dining hall, cooking and decorating for the occasion. We heard screams just as we were about to finish. We saw that most of the village was running out to the mountain path, but we were blocked by a large fire. One of the trees had fallen, and caught ablaze. So we were forced to run in the other direction.

“There, as we were running to the Southern edge of the forest, we found Sield in agony. We managed to put out the fire that had caught on to his clothes, but we could not save him from the burns.

“We traveled through the old forest, where the trees are gnarled and thick. We had many adventures on the way here, but now is not the time for them. We managed to make our way back to the mountain path eventually, but many of us had died from lack of enough provisions.” Mira swallowed. “My sister said she was eating, but really she wasn’t. She gave up her food for me and little Danyr.

“We managed to make it here, but it took us two weeks more than the others, with almost half of our original number dead.”

Narsix laid a hand on Mira’s shoulder. “I am truly sorry for all that you have suffered,” she said sadly.

“I’ll be all right,” said Mira gruffly, unable to meet her friend’s eyes. “It’s Arlen I’m worried about.”

“Arlen?”

“The other girl that Yanna and Accos found,” explained Mira.

“Oh, that’s right, the Traveler,” remembered Narsix. “Why? What’s wrong with her?”

“Well, she is good friends with Yanna and Sield, and I’m afraid that Sield’s burning has distressed her badly. I- I’ve never seen her so angry. She keeps saying that she wants to fight the attackers. Make them pay for what they did to the village, and to Yanna and Sield. She’s talking crazy, Narsix! I’m afraid that she might try something. I really am.”

Narsix shook her head. “Many people have said such things, Mira. But they never act on them. How could they? We don’t know where the attackers are, or even who they are. No, I don’t think you should worry about her. There isn’t anything she can do for now, except make vows.”

“Perhaps,” admitted Mira, but she still looked unconvinced.

“How are Bos and Lynea getting on?” asked Narsix, changing the subject.

Mira giggled. “Oh, I’d say they were getting on very well,” she grinned.

“Oh, don’t be so silly,” said Narsix, the corners of her mouth twitching. “Those two? They’d sooner take each other’s heads off.”

“I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about,” said Mira innocently, hiding a smile.

Narsix sighed. Had she been such a silly romantic when she was a girl?

No, she said to hereself, you were convinced boys were total buffoons back then.

Ah, the good old days.

Chapter 22: Burned

Arlen

After days and days of climbing, we were finally about to reach the camp. I was nervous, although I wasn’t entirely sure why. Sometimes, I wondered if it was just because everyone else seemed so anxious. Lynea grew more restless as time went on, and we neared the camp. I couldn’t really understand it. It almost seemed as if she didn’t want to see her family, which was absurd.

One thing in particular, though, I found really strange. She was constantly muttering in her sleep about her father. She must miss him a lot, I thought. But there was something strange in it. Sometimes, she would bolt upwards in a cold sweat, breathing very heavily, as though she were having a terrible nightmare. I pretended to be asleep at these times, because I didn’t want her to feel embarrassed. Besides, she would only pretend like everything was okay. Whatever was in these dreams was personal, I could tell.

Especially after a night about halfway through our journey. It was late in the night, and I had just started to nod off when I heard her gasp and bolt upright. It had happened several times before, and I considered asking her what was wrong, when the words froze in my throat; A soft crying could be heard from her sleeping area. After that, I decided to leave it be.

This morning, she looked particularly haggard. I guessed that she had had another nightmare last night. Again, I considered asking her if she was okay, but something in her face sealed my lips.

We were packing up when Yanna came to me and whispered in my ear. “I think Accos may need some help with this last leg of the climb. The rocks are particularly treacherous up here. If you would please, just keep an eye on him, remind him to take it slowly–”

“Of course,” I smiled.

“Thank you,” said Yanna, running a weary hand through her hair. I could tell that our little group was turning into a lot for her to handle. She must have seen my expression, because she forced a smile and laid a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry,” she said, “it’ll be over soon, and then we’ll focus on getting you home.”

I swallowed the lump in my throat, and nodded. I hadn’t even thought about home for a while. It seemed like nothing but a long forgotten dream, now. And this had been a rude awakening, indeed. It seemed silly, impossible, even, that only weeks before, my biggest worry had been my dismal algebra grade.

And even if I did make it back to the dreamland, what would I say? How would I explain my long absence? What possible excuse could I give for vanishing into thin air like this? Maybe it would be easier, better, even, if I never went back. But, then, would I ever forgive myself for putting my friends and family through such a thing? But if I did come back, would they forgive me? I began to understand why Lynea didn’t want to face her family.

We set off at a brisk pace, Yanna, as always, leading. I watched as she hopped lightly from stone to stone, quickly determining the safest path. I looked ruefully at my own feet, which were cut and bruised in several places, where I had misjudged a foothold. Accos and Lynea bore several similar marks, Accos most of all.

I once made the mistake of looking down as I climbed, just to check that I had chosen the right foothold. I felt my head swim as I looked down into the dizzying distance below us. After an effort, I managed to tear my eyes away from the terrifying sight, but the memory of it was branded into my memory, and I made sure to take it extra carefully and slowly.

Accos was struggling, we all could tell. He wasn’t built for climbing. My first impression of him was that he was quite thin and lanky; but on closer examination, I thought he looked more shrunken, like a burly man who had lost too much weight too quickly. I wondered, sadly, how many days he went hungry to make sure that his wife and children had full bellies.

He stumbled many times, and had several frighteningly close calls, but, thankfully, there was always a friendly hand at his elbow. I thought that Yanna must have recruited Lynea, as well as myself, as Accos’s helpers.

Lynea and I also had some tense moments. Yanna was quite right when she said how dangerous the terrain was up here; footholds that seemed sturdy gave way under your feet; handholds wobbled dangerously; unseen cracks in the rocks seemed to tug your feet down, down into the depths of the mountain itself.

After a while, however, we managed to find a safe place to set up camp for the night. The sun began to set, giving the sky an orange tinge. We used up the last bits of firewood that we had gathered to build up a fire to warm us through the bitterly cold night, for the air was much thinner and cooler up here.

“Don’t worry,” said Yanna, “we will not be needing any more wood after tonight. We should make the camp by mid afternoon tomorrow.”

When I relayed the good news to Lynea, she merely nodded weakly, muttered a terse ‘thank you’, and warmed her shaking hands by the newly kindling fire.

I wished that I could say something encouraging, but nothing came to mind. So I just stood there like a fool, until the silence grew thick and heavy.

“Arlen?” said Lynea politely.

“Yes?”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m not sure.”

Lynea looked amused. “Why don’t you help Accos, then? He’s having trouble with his knots.”

I laughed.” ‘Don’t worry,’ he says. ‘My knots won’t come free in a hurry!’ I guess he was right.”

Lynea smiled. “I guess so.”

I went over to where Accos and Yanna were both now trying to tug the knot free. Yanna’s expression was a long suffering one, and Accos looked irritable and abashed. As for me, I had to choke back a laugh. After a few minutes, our three combined efforts finally tugged it free.

“I think I will tie the supplies up in the morning,” said Yanna tiredly.

Accos didn’t reply. For a moment, we all sat and stared at each other. Then, we all burst into laughter. After it had died down, I could have sworn I heard a soft chuckle from where Lynea was sitting.

The sun sank out of sight, and the darkness hung over us like a heavy black cloak. A cold wind blew past us, and we all shivered. My companions’ faces flickered eerily in the firelight, and I felt a strange feeling of foreboding. Something was wrong. But what?

* * *

Morning dawned slightly warmer that the night. We forced ourselves up earlier than the day before, so we might make it to camp before dark. Our bodies were numbed from cold and discomfort, but none of my fellow travelers breathed a word of complaint, so neither did I.

The numbing cold made it difficult to climb, as our fingers were shaky and stiff, but we managed it well enough. Poor Accos lagged so far behind, that Yanna finally felt the need to give him some extra encouragement.

“Don’t make me set Lynea on you,” she joked.

Accos started, and his hand went to the spot between his shoulder blades, where Lynea had struck him that night he tried to steal from us. “How did you know about that?” he asked, slightly embarrassed.

“Arlen told me about that night, but only because I asked how you knew the girls.” She was trying not to smile.

Accos smiled ruefully. “Let’s hope none of my fellow bellatores find out about that incident,” he laughed. “In my own defense, she can really hit. It’s still sore.”

Yanna laughed. “Come along, you big baby. Let’s get going, before I really do need Lynea to encourage you.”

We stopped once more, for a meal. This was our only break.

“We are very close, now,” said Yanna. “Only another hour or two.”

Finally, we were only minutes away from the camp. I noticed that Lynea was shaking from more than just cold.

“I’m sure your parents will forgive you,” I said, hoping to help her steady her nerves. “They’ll just be glad to have you back.” I swallowed, realizing that I was reassuring myself, as much as I was Lynea.

“It shouldn’t just be me returning,” she said, and I saw a look of such guilt on her features, that it startled me into silence.

Yanna shouted something down that I didn’t quite catch.

“What did she say?” I asked Lynea.

Her face went pale. “We’ve arrived,” she said hoarsely.

I felt my heart rate quicken, and excitement mingled with fear.

Yanna was the first to make it up. I heard a loud cheer come from the spot where she had disappeared, quickly carried away by the wind.

Next, Accos. Yanna reached down an arm to assist him, and yanked him up out of sight. More cheers.

Lynea stood behind me, whiter than I had ever seen her.

“Would you rather come after me?” I asked.

She nodded gratefully.

I went up higher, to where several pairs of hands were waiting eagerly to help up the next member of our little fellowship. I grabbed the ones that I recognized as Yanna’s and she pulled me up.

The camp was incredibly huge. I saw both the bronzed skin and fair hair of the mountain dwellers, but also the paler skin and slight builds of the forest People. The cheering was not quite as loud as Yanna and Accos had gotten, but that was expected. I must have looked really strange to anyone who hadn’t met me previously. Most of the refugees just gaped at me in wonder. But several older friends from when I had first come here were there, and there were many shaking of hands and slaps of the back.

I nodded thank you’s and forced smiles, but I managed to tug myself away from the crowd and return to the edge of the cliff. There was Yanna and Accos, and a woman with eyes red from crying. She looked very much like Lynea, and I thought, with a sharp intake of breath, she must be her mother. Also, there were a couple of other young men, eager to help out. One of which, I recognized with a start, was Bos.

“Bos!” I cried in surprise.

He looked up at me, beaming. “Arlen!” he said. “You’re looking much better!”

I smiled, and we both turned our eyes down to where Lynea was. She was climbing slowly, as though in a dream.

Yanna reached down a hand. “Lynea!” she cried. “Take my hand!”

She reached up her hand, and Yanna lifted her up to the cliffside.

This triggered the loudest cheer of all. People were swarming to the cliff to greet Lynea, clapping and laughing, and smiling.

“Hello,” she said weakly.

“Let me through! Let me through, I say! Lynea! LYN!”

It was the woman I had guessed was Lynea’s mother. She was fighting her way through to see her daughter.

“Mother,” croaked Lynea.

“Lyn!” cried Amara, embracing here daughter tightly. “Oh, Lyn, I was so scared, SO scared!”

“I’m so sorry, Mother,” said Lynea, her voice cracking.

“You’re sorry!” cried Amara, who was in tears. “Oh, my baby, it is I who should be sorry! I was too hard with you, and I almost lost you because of it!”

“But I didn’t find him,” said Lynea, who was also in tears. “He’s still gone, and it’s my fault–”

“Hush, now,” said Amara, hugging her daughter tightly. “It’s not your fault, and I never should have said that it was. Oh, darling, I’m so sorry!”

Bos lightly touched my arm. “I think we should give them a few moments,” he said softly.

“Of course,” I said. I blinked back the slight wetness in my eyes. This had all reminded me how much I missed my home.

I looked back at Lynea and her mother, and vaguely wondered where her father was.

We separated ourselves from the mass before us. He smiled at me. “Are you all right?” he asked gently. “Are you hurt at all? I know the mountain path was very dangerous.”

“I’m fine,” I assured him. “Just a few bruises, that’s all.”

“That’s good to hear.” For a minute, we just stood and watched the crowd gathered around Lynea, Accos, and Yanna.

“She’s very happy to see everyone,” Bos observed.

“I think there’s someone else she really wanted to see,” I said, smiling.

Bos blushed a deep crimson.

“Arlen!”

I turned on my heel at the familiar voice. A girl, roughly my age, was running up to meet me. Her long, black hair was trailing behind her like a kite.

“Mira!” I exclaimed, delighted. Mira has been a dear friend at the village where I often visited. Her actual name was Mirawen, but Mira had appealed to me, because it didn’t sound so foreign.

“Oh, Arlen, it’s so wonderful to see you!” She hugged me with a laugh.

“It’s great to see you, too!” I replied, a mixture of joy and relief rising inside of me. I hadn’t realized until now how frightened I was that everyone I knew had died.

“Hello, Bos,” beamed Mira.

“Hello, Mira,” he smiled.

“Bos has been a very big help with all of the new refugees,” explained Mira. “Including myself.”

“You mean you’ve only just got here?” I asked, surprised.

“Three days ago,” said Mira. “With several other villagers.”

“I thought all of you arrived when Yanna did,” I said, confused.

“Not all of us,” said Mira, suddenly grim. “That reminds me: Where–”

“Bos!”

Lynea came at a run, dignity forgotten for the moment. She threw her arms around Bos, sighing with relief.

“I’m so glad you’re all right!” croaked Bos.

“Come on,” I said, tugging Mira to the side. I couldn’t help smiling.

“What were you saying?” I asked Mira, once we were out of the way.

“Well, I was wondering where Yanna was,” said Mira, suddenly anxious. “It’s just– well, Narsix wants to talk to her. Head healer,” she explained.

I felt that foreboding feeling again, sure that something was very wrong. “Mira . . .” I said slowly.

“It’s- it’s about Sield,” she stuttered. “He- oh, no.” Mira’s eyes widened in panic.

I followed her gaze, startled and frightened. I saw Yanna talking, frenzied, to another villager. He seemed to be trying to placate her, but it wasn’t working. Yanna merely ran past him into a large tent, which I supposed was a makeshift hospital, judging from the men and women in gloves and aprons.

I ran after here, sure that whatever was in that tent, she wasn’t ready to see it.

“Yanna!”

She ignored my call and went into the tent. Panicking, I followed her inside.

She was bending over, weeping over a man with a very familiar face.

“Sield . . .” she sobbed. “Sield . . .”

I felt my heart leap into my throat, and my stomach flip over, as I looked on at the horrible burn on his leg, through which the very bone could be seen.

I gasped loudly, and scrambled back outside, while healers tried to comfort Yanna.

I sank to my knees, sure I would be sick again, when Mira, Lynea and Bos ran up to me to support me.

“Arlen!” said Bos, concerned. “Arlen, what is it? You look awful! Did you see someone you know?”

“Yes,” I said hoarsely. I looked up at Lynea. “It’s Sield,” I said, my voice shaking badly. “They burned him.”

I felt myself trembling with anger. “They’ll pay for this,” I vowed. “They will pay.”

Chapter 21: History

Lynea

I had never been to the mountains before, only heard about them. Now I was amazed. The sunsets and sunrises looked even more amazing when the trees were far below, and the rainbow of colors filled your entire vision. I had been startled when Yanna and Accos had come instead of Bos, as I was expecting, but after I got over their slightly odd accents I started to like them. Yanna was sweet, and always happy, though sometimes there seemed to be sadness deep in her eyes.  Accos was a horrible climber, having a difficult time, but he was a good sport about it, and always ready to help out. Arlen seemed restless, as if she, like me, couldn’t wait to get to the top.

I wasn’t sure what could be waiting for her there. I had Bos to look forward to, and Mother, of course. But Arlen? She had always been alone. I wondered why I hadn’t asked her before why that was.

‘Probably because you can’t stand her. Remember?’ A little voice in the back of my mind said.

‘Well that’s not true. I apologized, I really don’t mind her.’ I thought defensively. As an afterthought, I added. ‘She’s just different. And I’ve had plenty of reason to be suspicious.’ 

‘You don’t anymore, though. She knows people at the camp! Yanna has justified to you that she really is a Traveler, come from an alternate dimension.’

‘Yes, but which one? And why doesn’t she just go back? Certainly anywhere’s better than here right now. Unless you’re a spy for the enemy. ‘

‘Why don’t you ask her? She’s right there.’  The irritating voice was right. We were watching the sunrise. It was almost over, but she’d had a blissful expression on her face since I’d first shown her.

“Arlen?” I asked. She turned to me, shocked for a moment, and then regained her composure.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot anyone was there. Yeah?”

“I was just thinking, and you have never told me why you are here. I mean, if you are from another dimension, why do you stay here, when the land is under attack?”

A shadow crossed her face. “Well,” She said. “I’ve been coming here for a long time, always by a Door in my dimension. I stay for a while, then go back by a Door in this dimension. But this time I got here, and the Door was… It was gone.”

“How? Did it just disappear?”

“No, no. It – jeez, I’m going to mess this up… Okay, so every Door has a Home. Although the Home can be destroyed, the Door itself can’t. The Door back to my dimension was Housed in a tree, but the tree was destroyed, so now I don’t know where my Door’s new Home is.”

“Oh. I think I understand. So, if the Home moved, why didn’t you come out of the new one when you  traveled from your Dimension?”

She looked confused for a moment, and troubled.

“I hadn’t thought about that, actually. Did the attacks start recently?”

“Fairly, yes.”

“I’m guessing that the location that the Door was linked to stays the same for a while. As in, the Door is linked more to the Home than to the other Door, at least for a little bit. You’d have to ask my mentor, though. He probably knows better than my inferences.”

“Yes, he will know best. Where is he?”

“I don’t know. You’d have better luck asking Yanna.”

“Well, thank you. As soon as it is safe, I promise to help you find your Door.”

“Thanks,” Arlen said it sincerely, but she obviously had other thoughts.

“Girls?” Yanna had appeared from over by the sleeping bags. “I was wondering where you two had gotten off to.”

“We’re here,” Arlen smiled. “Just watching the sun rise… Couldn’t sleep.”

“Well, now that I’ve found you, Accos and I were thinking it might be best we start climbing.”

“I will be packing, then,” I said. I was ready, certainly. I’d been restless ever since Bos left, and this trip up the mountain seemingly couldn’t go any slower. I got up and walked back to my bedroll, gathering my things. Yanna’s stuff was already packed up, and Accos was was working on his. I wondered what his story was. He had left his family, whom he obviously cared so much about, to come get us and repay his debt. He must be from a region where they valued their honor. But where?

“Accos, where did you live before the attacks?”

“Well, it was a bit complicated.”

“We have all day. And probably all of tomorrow, also. And the day after that…”

He laughed, and said, “Point taken. Have you heard of the audax bellatores?”

“The traveling warriors?” I asked, a little surprised. What did they have to do with anything? “I have heard the stories, yes. But they have not come to the Hallosh region while I have been alive.”

“Yes. The full rotation takes up to 10 annuals. Have you heard of how they recruit?”

“Yes. They have a group of messengers, who are always a couple octweeks ahead of them. Why do you ask? This doesn’t seem germane to where you lived.”

“Wait one moment, and you will see. The messengers came to my town 15 annuals ago, saying that we had 2 octweeks to prepare 5 candidates for the audax bellatores. I was chosen along with a few other boys, and one girl. We trained together for a few hours each day until they came. They told us after a series of trials, 2 of us would be chosen and we would become bellatores and travel with them, keeping the peace in Elentiel as our ancestors had since the First War. We competed for days, and one day it was decided that me and the girl, Rivaya would go on with them. We were nervous, as we had never traveled far beyond our village’s borders. However, we knew it was a great honor, so we packed our things and left.

“We soon grew to love our new family, and our new lives. We had many adventures, and helped admit new bellatores into the group. Just a few annuals ago, Rivaya and I became partners, and now our children are audax bellatores, too.” He said this with great satisfaction, and I knew he had been happy. However, since the traveling warriors were real, why hadn’t they stopped the attacks?

“What happened?” I asked. “Why are you in a refugee camp now?”

“We could not stop them. The Wyrms outnumbered us 3 to 1, and they seem to have gotten infinitely smarter since the First War. Most of my order did not survive. Rivaya and I were some of the lucky ones. Our family and a few others were helping people get to the camp when we got lost in unfamiliar territory. That was when I met you. It nearly killed me to try and take any of your things, so it was very important to me that I came to get you two.”

“I am sorry to hear that we have lost so many of the audax bellatores. It is certainly troubling,” I said, meaning every word. I could not believe that our best warriors had been destroyed by the Wyrms. It just reinforced my suspicion that there had to be someone else. But who?

“Yes,” he said. “We had better go see what the others are doing. We’re off to a late start this morning.”

Accos and I walked to where I had left Arlen and Yanna. They seem to have been in deep discussion, but stopped and looked up at us.

“Oh, yeah. We were supposed to be going, weren’t we?” Arlen asked sheepishly.

“Yes, but it is alright. We have been going rather hard lately. However, you might want to get back and pack. We will be waiting for you.” Accos smiled, and as Arlen went back to get her things, he started talking to Yanna.

Soon we were off, Yanna in the lead, and Accos taking up the rear. Arlen and I talked every once in a while, but I mostly thought.

Infinitely smarter… Figures riding on the Wyrms… Who’s out there with them? And what do they have against us?


Chapter 20: The Golden Lands

Arlen

I was feeling particularly fidgety that night, much to the annoyance of Lynea. I kept thinking of Bos, up the mountain all alone. Thanks to my stupidity and rotten luck, no less.

I could tell that Lynea was just as nervous as I was, if not more. How long had it been? A week? Two weeks? Time was slipping away fast, and Bos only had so many provisions. What if we had been wrong? What if there had been no one there? No one to come for us? No one to tend to Bos’s needs?

Too many questions bounced around my head, crowding my thoughts. My head ached, but not the way it had before. The kind of ache you get when your brain just wants to shut down because you don’t want to think about things anymore. But I did anyway.

I thought about the Door. What had Roleo always said to me?

“You must remember, Arlen,” he had said, “the difference between a Door and a Home. The Door itself is the rip in the Dimension, the portal to the next one. It cannot be destroyed, but it must have a physical manifestation. This is the Home. If the Home is destroyed, the Door will be forced into a new one. This can become very complicated for any Traveler, as it means a long search for the new Home.”

But how to search for it? What to look for? I didn’t have the slightest clue.

I took my mind off of my own problems and turned to the tragedy before me. Ther still lay the question of “who?” Who would have done such a thing? Who could have such a terrible grudge against such a peaceful people? What had happened here, perhaps in this very hollow, that had earned this land such a terrible fate?

I couldn’t answer any of my own questions, so I tried to just shut my mind down. When this failed, I tried to distract myself.

I looked timidly towards Lynea as she built a fire for the night. The sky had just begun to darken, and the first few stars danced their way across the sky. A pale half moon could be seen, winking in the distance.

Lynea seemed to be having trouble getting a fire started.

“Ah!” she hissed, cutting her hand on the flint.

“Here,” I said, “let me.”

Lynea looked up at me, her eyes harder than the flint in her hand. Then, reluctantly, she handed me the flint.

I sat down by the woodpile, striking the flint over and over. I didn’t really think I could do this sort of thing better than Lynea, but I could still see, even now, the tremor in her long, clever fingers.

This was the first time I had really taken to observe her since that day they found me (or I found them, whichever it was). Her face was pale under the dirt, but also thin, hollow, even. Probably from malnourishment, I thought. Her eyes, a deep green, had an intense, searching gaze. They darted here and there, constantly watching, as though she expected to be attacked at any moment. She had long, skillful fingers, which she was using to pick apart burnt blades of grass at her feet. I saw again the scar on her neck, and wondered how she got it.

She looked up at me sharply, and I quickly turned my gaze back to the flint.

SNICK!

I caught the flint at the desired angle, and a spark flew into the dried wood and twigs we had gathered. Lynea raised an eyebrow coldly, but I could tell she was surprised.

There was a slight pause as I replaced the flint into the supply wagon. “Thank you,” Lynea mumbled.

“Don’t mention it,” I said politely.

I sat down and stoked the fire for a while, trying to work it into a blaze. We had been very careful to ring it with as many stones as we could find, to keep it from spreading along the dry debris that covered the rest of the ground.

After a few minutes, I had managed to get the fire strong enough to add a little warmth to the chill of the night. I sat and warmed myself for a few minutes.

For a while, Lynea did nothing. Just sat and watched the flames leap up and settle down. I saw a haunted look on her face as her eyes glinted in the firelight. After a while, she came and gingerly sat down across from me. She warmed her shaking hands, maybe hoping that it was the chill that made them tremble so. Despite her cold manner, I could tell she was repressing an intense agitation. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for her as I wondered how many friends she had lost that day she was forced to watch her village burn. Despite what I had been through, she had suffered infinitely more than me.

Once I had tried to ask her why she had left the camp, but she had just brushed my inquiries aside with a brusque request to not concern myself with things that weren’t my concern. I had noticed that as I got stronger (and Bos’s days longer) any trust she had for me had diminished. At first I though that she had just been worried for Bos and was snapping at me because of it, but now I wondered if she didn’t blame me for his leaving. And then, I wondered, is it all because Bos isn’t here? Without Bos’s words of defense, I reasoned, it was not likely that the two of us would be on particularly friendly terms. Especially since he had left for my sake.

I felt a pang. What if something happened to him? Surely I would be responsible for whatever fate awaited him up there. If he was harmed in any way, I would never forgive myself.

I tried my best not to think of such things again, and turned to Lynea.

“Does it hurt?” I asked quietly.

“What?” she asked sharply?

“Your scar,” I said, motioning to my own neck.

“Oh,” she said, relaxing slightly, although I noticed that she didn’t meet my eyes. “No, it has healed, by now. There is no real pain there, but–” she stopped herself. “It does not hurt,” she said shortly.

Neither one of us said anything for a while, staring into the fire pensively. I looked up at Lynea and saw that same haunted look in her eyes I had seen before. I wondered if it was the memory of that day in her village, or something else that disturbed her so.

SNAP!

Lynea and I both looked up sharply, hearing the unmistakable sound of tramping feet across the dried debris. Lynea leapt to her feet, a knife suddenly clutched in her hand. I stood, too, my heart in my throat, and rummaged in the supply wagon a moment, in search of another knife. I withdrew my hand, which I had cut on the blade of the knife we used for food. I carefully put my hand back in and drew it out. Not quite as reliable as Lynea’s hunting knife, but still, a weapon is a weapon.

The sound drew closer, and my heart pounded harder, until I feared that the intruder could hear it. My hands trembled, but Lynea’s were now steadied.

“Get behind me,” she hissed.

I obeyed without question, getting as close as I dared, which really wasn’t very close.

“There are two of them,” she said tensely.

I listened. Sure enough two different voices could be heard.

“They will come from between those trees,” she whispered. “You go over there, I’ll take the other side. When they come through, I’ll rush the one, you the other. Stay clear of their hands,” she added, and rushed to the tree.

My whole body trembled as I hurried to the tree Lynea had indicated. I felt terror claw at my insides. No doubt I was a snivelling coward, but I had never been in such a situation and hadn’t the slightest idea how to handle myself. I had the knife, however, and could probably hold it to their throat, if I could get a good hold on them. I hoped I could get a good hold on them before they got a good hold on me.

Then, just before the intruders emerged, I heard a familiar voice:

“I saw the smoke coming up here, do you think it could be them?”

I almost collapsed with relief, and I might have done, if at that very second, the two had stepped out into the clearing, and Lynea hadn’t tackled the woman, the first to come out.

The man gave a cry of shock and withdrew a knife.

“No, stop!” I screamed.

All three turned to look at me, then at each other.

“Arlen!” croaked the woman.

“Yanna!” I cried.

Lynea looked at me in surprise. “You know one another?” she said.

“Yes,” said the man, “and I believe you know me.”

Lynea looked up with a start. “You!” she cried. “You are the father that tried to steal from us!”

He looked pained. “I can’t tell you how much I regret it,” he said sincerely. “Especially after you were so kind as to give me food for my family. Without you, we may never have made it to the mountains.”

“So you did make it!” I said, smiling. “I’m glad of that.”

Lynea let Yanna up from the ground. Her face was suddenly very excited.

“You say you made it to the mountains,” she said urgently. “Why did you come back?”

I knew the answer Lynea was hoping for, and she was not disappointed.

“Your friend,” said the man, “the boy that was with you, Bos I believe he said. He sent us. Said that one of you was ill. Starved, even. He said that she wouldn’t be able to make the journey without some assistance.”

The grim seriousness of Lynea’s face had disappeared entirely. Her face seemed to glow in the firelight, and her expression was merry. For a moment, I thought she might laugh with relief. If she didn’t, I thought, I might.

“How is he?” I asked.

“He’s fine,” assured Yanna.”His father was especially glad to see him.”

“His father?” cried Lynea. “But then-”

“The Hallosh survivors made it to Mount Caradas,” smiled Accos.

Lynea seemed to tremble slightly. “So Mother is there,” she mumbled. I noticed that the merriment had left her face somewhat, and she seemed exceedingly nervous.

“Yes,” said Yanna, “Amara, isn’t it?”

Lynea nodded.

“She’s been very worried about you,” said Yanna. “Every morning, she and Severin would search the surrounding area for the both of you. Of course, ever since Bos came, I assume she’s been waiting for you.”

Lynea seemed to me very pale, and slightly ashamed. “So she didn’t seem . . . angry?” she asked timidly.

I looked at her curiously, but she kept her gaze on her feet.

“Angry?” said Yanna, surprised. “If anything, she seemed angry at herself.”

Lynea was still staring at her feet, and seemed unable to say anything for a long time.

“But what’s this about you being ill?” asked Yanna, turning to me with concern. “Yu would think that you were on the brink of death, the way the boy put it!”

“I was for a while,” I said ruefully. “If it hadn’t been for Bos and Lynea, I’d probably be lying dead in a pile of ashes somewhere. I’m a lot stronger now, though,” I said, and stood up as straight and tall as I could. Yanna’s gaze lingered on my ribs, which you could almost see through my tee shirt. I blushed slightly, noticing for the first time what a goofy choice I had made weeks ago when I decided to wear that ridiculous “Bossy Beyond Belief” shirt my mom had gotten me one Christmas as a gag gift. Thankfully, I thought, no one else could read it.

“She’s been having severe migraines,” said Lynea, who seemed to have regained her composure. I noticed that she didn’t look at me with such suspicion anymore. It seemed that the arrival of Yanna had validated my story.

“I haven’t had an attack in a couple of weeks,” I protested.

“She tires out easily,” persisted Lynea.

“I’m fine!” I insisted.

Yanna looked at me for a long time. “I have something for migraines,” she said finally. “A herbal cure the village uses sometimes. And we can make frequent rests, if you get tired.”

“I won’t get tired,” I said earnestly. “I can make it, I know I can.”

“I might be able to help you with your more obvious problem,” said Yanna. I assumed she was talking about my being stranded here. “But I admit that I’m no expert at such things,” she added anxiously.

“It’s all right,” I said quickly. “I’m sure things will be fine.”

“Lets hope,” said Yanna grimly.

***

For hours and hours, we climbed. I felt my muscles, already shrunken and weak from malnourishment, seize up with terrible cramps. I gritted my teeth, however, and kept climbing. I wasn’t going to cause any more trouble.

However, when offered a break, I usually took it. But just long enough to relax the cramps and catch my breath. Then we were off again.

The others were always watching me with eagle eyes, and although I knew that they were just looking out for me, it was a little disconcerting. It made me feel as though I were bound to just collapse at any moment.

I was glad of the clothes Yanna had brought for me to wear. My tee shirt had been torn and stained in so many ways, it was definitely time to let it go. Somehow, though, it had made me sad. It had been like a bit of home.

For days and days, we continued to climb. Although tiring, it did have it’s perks to be up so high. Every evening, I would stop for just a moment to savor the spectacular view of the sunset.

The golden red sun would sink slowly down lower into the darkening sky, below the craggy peaks around us. And then, just before it disappeared completely, the light hit the mountains just so, and suddenly, the sky seemed to glitter with an array of color. Gold and red streaked the pinkish clouds, as the ever darkening sky above descended upon us. The faint glitter of stars and the glow of the half moon were mixed in with the magnificent display before us. Beams of light were thrown toward us for the briefest moment, and then, it all disappeared. The stars glittered more brightly, and the dark silhouette of the mountains were thrown into stark relief by the moon.

I sat and watched in awe of the powerful scene, then, suddenly more determined, I followed the others once again.

One night in particular, I will never forget. I couldn’t sleep, so I had decided to walk around a bit.

We were about halfway through with our journey, and had set up for the night. We were on a wide ledge jutting out from the mountainside, and had been able to set ourselves up comfortably. We hadn’t been able to bring up the wagon for the supplies, so most of it had been stuffed in my backpack, or else carried in woven baskets. The pile lay safely against the immense rock wall behind us.

Our sleeping bags lay a little closer to the edge than we would have liked, but still a safe distance away. Although the drop was a little unnerving, I still could not get over the incredible views of the mountains, and had volunteered to sleep the closest to the edge. Every morning, I would awake to the fantastic early morning sun warming my cheeks and prodding me awake with it’s light.

I stood up and walked to the edge of the ledge (rhyme unintended), and stared out below me. Once you got over the gut churning feeling that you were about to fall over, it really was a spectacular sight. It made me feel as if I really were on top of the world (and, in a way, I suppose I was).

I crept on tiptoe past the sleeping bags, to a crevice in the rocks I had noticed before. I had noticed that that particular spot looked over the entire mountain range when we passed it, and I couldn’t resist the idea of such a view. I dearly wished that I had my camera, and could have taken pictures of all the beautiful things I had seen. But, then, who could I have shown it to?

I passed by the sleeping bags. The first, mine, was empty. The second was Yanna’s. I paused a minute, and looked at her. Even in sleep, she looked older. I felt a stab of pity. She had already told me about Sield.

The third was Accos’s. I suppressed a giggle as he let out a snore like a congested bear.

The fourth was–

I looked up sharply to the crevice and saw that Lynea was already sitting in it. Her bag had been empty.

I tried to sneak back to m sleeping bag, unnoticed, but had no such luck. She seemed to have eyes in the back of her head! As soon as I was about to turn back around, she looked around at me.

I froze for a minute, unsure of what to say.

“Couldn’t sleep?” she asked, amused.

I shook my head.

“Neither could I,” she said, turning her gaze back to the skies. “What with Accos’s snoring. The whole camp probably already knows we’re coming. That is, if they haven’t mistaken it for a very congested Paxas.”

I gave a start, and then a surprised laugh. That was the first time she’d made a joke.

She smiled, which was something else she rarely did. “You needn’t be so afraid of me, you know,” she said shrewdly. “I know I was gruff with you before, and I’m sorry.”

“You were just being careful,” I said, shaking my head. “I wouldn’t have trusted me, either.”

“That doesn’t make much sense,” she said frowning, “but I assume it means ‘all is forgiven’?”

I smiled. “Yep.”

“And that means yes?”

I laughed again. “Yes.”

She looked relieved. “You know,” she said matter-of-factly, “maybe you should just shake or nod from now on.”

“Good idea,” I grinned.

“You have been watching the skies every evening, yes?” she asked.

I almost replied, then remembered to just nod.

The corners of Lynea’s mouth twitched. “If you think that our sunsets are amazing, then you should see our sunrises.”

“What are they like?” I asked eagerly.

“See for yourself.” She turned her gaze back to the mountains.

I followed her gaze, and felt my jaw drop open.

The sun seemed to be made of pure gold. It’s brightness and warmth were incredible. Rays of gold penetrated the silvery gray sky of early morning. As the sun rose higher, the light came lower, and it’s rays illuminated the land before us, bathing it in it’s beautiful golden light. The green grass below us, the dark rock above us, all turned to pure gold. And as the warmth of the sun chased away the chill of night, I felt a sudden surge of hope. If the darkness of night could be so easily eradicated, why not the darkness that covered this land? The chill of fear within me was suddenly warmed with new optimism. Things would get better soon.

Even if it got worse, first.

Chapter 19: Interested Party

***

The Nash Home

The Nash family was in a stare of numbed acceptance. Despite Arlen’s disappearance, life went on. Slowly, painfully, but it did. Lauren still had her everyday duties as a housewife; Jamie still had his schoolwork to focus on; and Eric still had his job to do. Yet he was getting sick of his job, and his coworkers, too.

At first, there had been the outpourings of sympathy from everyone, which had only succeeded in making him awkward and miserable. Then there had been the sad looks on everyone’s faces, which had made him angry. And now that he had asked his coworkers to kindly just stop discussing the matter with him and get on with their own business, no one seemed keen on talking to him at all. They seemed to think it insensitive to crack jokes or make small talk around the water cooler with such a tragedy was upon them.

Well, sensitivity be darned! thought Eric hotly. All he wanted was business as usual. To be distracted. But if everyone was going to be a pansy about it . . .

There was a knock at the door. Lauren poked her head out from the kitchen, where she was doing dishes. Eric noticed with a pang the deep lines under her eyes, the grim slash of a mouth. She was looking worse every day.

“Could you get that, dear?” she asked wearily. “I still have half a sink full of dishes in here.”

Eric grunted some sort of assent and walked through the narrow hallway that led to the door.

When he opened it, he was taken aback by what he saw. He had expected more of those useless lumps of a police force asking more questions about Arlen’s whereabouts on the day she disappeared. But instead, he found a girl about his daughter’s age, with blonde hair and greenish eyes, raw from crying. She was carrying a small box.

“Mr. Nash?” she queried in a constricted voice.

Eric nodded. “Yeah?” he said quietly.

“I . . . ” She seemed to be having trouble saying what was on her mind. “I brought you this.”She held out the box to Eric with shaking hands. He took it from her gently, curious in spite of himself.

“It’s- it’s some stuff Arlen left at my house last time she came over,” she said, a tremor in her voice. “I thought you might want it back since– since–”

Her eyes filled with tears, and she bent down, pretending to do her shoelace up to hide them.

After a moment she got back up.

“I found it just this morning,” she said nervously. “I thought I’d bring it out today. My name’s Cassie Grey,” she added “If you need anything, I live across the street, at the house with the green mailbox.”

Then she muttered a strained goodbye and scurried off.

Eric was puzzled by the visit, and the strange behavior of Cassie Grey. “Poor child’s all in pieces,” he thought. “They must be close friends.”

He stood in the doorway a minute longer, lost in thought. Then he gave himself a shake and retired to the living room.

Jamie was reading a textbook for his History class, frowning as he tried his hardest to concentrate. He looked up at his father’s entrance.

“What was that about?” he asked curiously.

“Some friend of Arlen’s,” said Eric. “Came to drop off something of hers that she’d left at her house.”

Pain flickered across the teenager’s face at the mention of his sister’s name. But he recovered himself quickly.

“Is that it, in the box?” he asked.

Eric nodded. “I suppose so,” he said blankly. He sat on the couch, next to his son, and opened the parcel.

Inside was a notebook, with the title “Elentiel” on the front in Sharpie marker. Eric looked up at his son, confused. “I’ve never seen this before,” he said. “Have you?”

“Nope,” said Jamie wonderingly, “it’s new to me.” He sat there quietly for a moment, excitement mounting. “Do you think . . . Maybe it’s . . . A clue?”

Eric stared at him. He highly doubted that an old notebook (it looked about five years old) could hold the answers to what happened to her three weeks ago.

“I suppose we could take a look,” he said uncertainly. Somehow, he felt as if this were an invasion of Arlen’s privacy.

Jamie opened the book and flipped through the pages eagerly, staring at numerous drawings and passages. But his brow clouded and he frowned.

“What on Earth . . . ?” he said incredulously.

Eric, seized by a moment of curiosity and excitement, snatched at the book. “Let me see that,” he said eagerly, and began skimming page after page, his eyes growing wider and wider.

“Oh,” he said weakly. “Oh, my.”

***

FBI Field Office; Jacksonville

Tristan Jacoby was, for the first time in his life, positively stumped.

Special Agent Jacoby had sixteen successfully solved cases to his name. Zero unsolved. He was considered one of the FBI’s brightest and best. And yet . . .

The case had been brought to his attention four days ago. A girl had disappeared three weeks ago without a trace. Now, the FBI dealt with cases just like this one all the time, Tristan had thought. But he soon saw that something in this one had been different.

For one thing, there had been no trace of a clue as to her whereabouts, nor the slightest hint of a motive for her to have disappeared. Runaway? No, she had seemed perfectly happy at home. No problems at school, or with her family. Kidnapping? There had been no ransom note, no calls from a hostage taker, nothing.

And had it been (dare he even think it?) murder? Horrible though it was, it seemed likely. And yet where was the motive? As far as they knew, the family had no enemies, no one who would want to hurt the poor girl. In fact, most people in the neighborhood seemed to agree that Arlen Nash had been a charming, vivacious girl. Perhaps with a slightly overactive imagination; maybe a little bit distractible; but otherwise, a good kid. So what had happened to her?

The infuriating bit was that there had been no clues whatsoever. No anonymous phone calls tipping off the police station. No possible MO’s. No sightings of her, or a captor. No suspicious activity of any kind. No DNA traces in a stolen car, or anything like that. Just . . . Nothing.

Tristan had been puzzling and pondering for days now, hoping that a lead would turn up, a light in the dark. Something, anything. But nothing came. It was as though she had simply vanished into thin air! But that was impossible. No one just disappeared like that. No one.

Tristan ran a hand through his already tousled dirty blonde hair wearily. He had already made plans to talk to the family with his partner the next day. But he was dreading it more every minute. The worst part of his job, he thought, was facing the grieving families; looking them in the eyes and telling them that it would be okay when he knew that it wouldn’t.

But the best part of the job was watching the sadness vanish from their eyes when the victim was taken home after all that time.

He ran another weary hand through his hair reflecting sadly on how he had never had a chance to see the best part of his job yet. But he lived for the day, that he did. And he sincerely hoped (not for the first time) that this might be the case. For Arlen’s poor family’s sake.

Chapter 18: New Hope

Amara & Severin

Amara sat, as Yanna had just a day or two before, watching. Severin had been so, so happy when Bos climbed into camp. He was still elated, spending every moment with his son the that he could. Amara’s daughter was at the bottom of the mountain.

So she stared. She had been sitting there for hours, waiting for Lynea. She hadn’t been expecting to see Lynea again, only barely hoping in the back of her mind. Then Bos had come, and her hope took control of her. Now, she was sitting on an exceedingly uncomfortable rock, but she didn’t care. She would be the first to see her baby. She would apologize, and everything would be right again.

“Amara? You should come back inside. They will not come back for at least a couple of days. You cannot wait through the night out here.”

“But they may come while I’m gone… I don’t want to miss her.”

“Of course you don’t, but you must come inside. You might freeze during the night. Besides, we need all the women helping with Narsix. The baby is coming soon..”

“Oh yes, Narsix. Poor girl. I suppose I can come for a little while.”

“Yes, I knew you would see reason. Let me help you up.” Severin reached out his hand, but Amara continued to stare into the distance. Then, reluctantly, she left her perch and followed him inside.

The refugees were currently hidden in a large cavern they had found, that had a couple of natural caves branching off of it. The cavern bottlenecked, so the entrance was just wide enough for 3 of the People to get in walking side-by-side, and about two feet higher than the tallest among them. The caves had been given to the healers, infants, and the few Elders who remained. Narsix was with a healer now.

Amara went in, but Severin remained outside the room, with the men who were sitting solemnly with a nervous Esil. Esil was Narsix’s partner. The People don’t marry, as humans do; once two people have children they are considered partners for life, even when one dies. Esil was pacing in circles, then sliding down the wall into a sitting position, then getting up and pacing again.

Severin came over to Esil and put his hand on his shoulder.

“Relax. Everything is going to be fine. Pacing is not going to help any.”

“What if there’s something wrong with the baby? Waiting, not knowing. It’s killing me, Severin. You have no idea…”

“Don’t I?,” Severin asked, amused. Echoed screams came from inside the cave, and Esil renewed his pacing with a pained expression.

“Esil, she will be fine. You need to find something to do, instead of just waiting.”

“I cannot ‘find something to do’!” He shook his head. “I’m sorry. It’s just – she.. She must be in such pain.”

“Don’t worry. It is the way of the world, and she will endure. Why don’t we play a little Formidr?” Esil’s face brightened.

“Yes, that would be fantastic,” he said. His brow furrowed. “I will not bet, though. I do not think I’ll be able to focus so well.”

By then some of the solemn-faced men had gotten up and were pulling out whatever Formidr pieces they had on them. Formidr had come from another Dimension, but the People had taken to it enthusiastically once introduced. In these darker times, nothing served to cheer someone up as much as Formidr.

In the game, everyone would set out all the pieces in a long line. The players would sit in two lines, each facing the pieces and each other. You ended up with three rows: one of people, then pieces, then people again. Each person picked a piece in their head, then they sat until the leader of the game asked if everyone was ready, and everyone answered affirmatively. Then, the game would begin. One by one, players would ask their partners questions about what piece they picked. Is it made out of wood? Does it have large, round eyes? Is it living? Their partner, who was sitting across from them, would answer yes or no. Once a player felt sure enough, he or she would guess as to which piece their partner had picked. If they were wrong, their partner would ask them two questions. If they were right, they’re partner would be out of the game. Once everyone had eliminated their partner, or been eliminated, new partners would be chosen. If this caused an imbalance of players in one of the rounds, the last player who had gotten through would wait until the first person got their opponent out, and take that person’s place. That meant the fastest person would get to play twice in one round. Half of the pieces would be taken away. If a player’s chosen piece was taken off, they had to say ‘Formidr’ and choose a new one. The play went on until two people were left, and anywhere from 2-10 pieces. The winner of that round was the next game’s leader, and got to take the piece he had won with.

Often, everyone gave pieces back when they finished, but sometimes they played for keeps. It was to be the former with this game, as most of the players had carved their pieces or had them handed down by relatives now deceased. There were mostly little versions of creatures who roamed the forests of Elentiel, but there were also some carvings of household gods from different regions, plants, inanimate objects like boats, people, and two blocks with runes on them- meant to express something that could not be carved. The pieces were mostly wood, but some had been chiseled into stone, and one had been made from metal by a smith. Metal pieces were prized, as there was little metal in Elentiel, and very few skilled smiths. The refugees also decided to add a twist: if someone picked the same piece as their partner, they were both still in, but had to pick new pieces.

There were about 10 people who were going to play, and all together there were about 25 pieces. The first game Esil made it to the last round, mostly because everyone wanted to keep him occupied and went easy on him. The next game, his head was more in it, and he got to the pretty far all by himself. Severin went to get Bos after the first game, so he wasn’t there. Esil sat the next couple of rounds and cheered on Narsix’s brother. He was still worried about her, but he didn’t want that to keep him from enjoying himself. Severin came back near the end of the 3rd game, Bos in tow.

They played for the rest of the day, players coming and going. They once had almost 30 people playing. About an hour after nightfall – they were on their 27th game – one of the women in the medical cave came out, her face shiny with sweat but grinning.

“The baby is here!” she announced happily. Esil leapt up from his seat on the floor, and everyone looked up from their game. Severin clapped a hand on Esil’s shoulder in congratulations, and some of the others rose to do the same. Then most of them collected their things and went to their beds.

“Is Narsix okay? Is the baby healthy? Is it a boy or a girl? Oh, by the forest, let me in there!” The women by the entrance gave way as Esil went in to see his partner and their new child, followed by his close friends and family members. Since the inside of the cave was getting crowded, many of the women who had been helping made their way out. Amara came up beside Severin, her face strained but happy. They watched Esil as he talked fervently with a glowing Narsix, all the while staring incredulously at his infant.

“It  reminds me of when I had Lynea. Senod rushed in and interrogated me. I think I was so tired I fell asleep with him still asking questions. It feels bittersweet, since they are both gone..”

“Lynea will be with you soon. You need not worry.”

“I just want to hold her in my arms, tell her how sorry I am. But no more of this depressing talk. Today is a happy day.”

“Yes. Yes, it is.”

And it was. Everyone went to sleep that night content, the new addition to their population sleeping her first night peacefully with them.

Chapter 17: Out of the Abyss

Yanna & Accos

Accos had never been so tired. He and Yanna had been climbing for hours, nonstop. His head was still swimming from the lack of oxygen, his feet were aching, and his hands were bloody and raw. But he took a shaky breath, and steeled himself for more pain, because they had to find the girls.

Yanna was on the verge of collapse. Her legs shook, her head swam, and she had numerous lacerations all over her body. Her breath was coming in sharp, painful bursts. The lack of oxygen and the cold mountain air were taking it’s toll, she thought. She looked at the hunched form of Accos beside her. His face was stark white, his lips compressed tightly, his hands clenching and unclenching convulsively. He seemed so drained, so exhausted, that Yanna felt a pang. She was pushing him and herself too hard. They hadn’t once stopped for rest, both too nervous about what might happen. There were many dangerous creatures here, they knew it well. They couldn’t let their guard down. But, then again, if they didn’t stop, they could die anyway.

“Accos?” said Yanna, her voice croaky and hoarse.

Accos looked up at her through bleary eyes. “Yes, Yanna? What is it?” he said nervously. “Is anything wrong?”

Yanna waved a bloody hand. “No, no, it’s alright. But I think it’s time that we rested, or we’ll be the ones who need rescuing, not the girls.”

Accos nodded, relieved. “Good, you look like you could use it.”

Yanna rolled her eyes and decided to let that one slide.

Accos scanned the narrow trail before them, his brow furrowed. It was too dangerous to set up camp there; If anything with malicious intentions were to turn up, the chances of getting away without being either mauled or thrown over the edge were about as slim as the trail. They would have to keep moving for a while, and find a place to stop.

Yanna nodded as he pointed this out. “Good call,” she said.

She looked about intently. “I’d say that that way is our best chance,” she said, pointing at a small, winding ledge at the very edge of the mountain.

Accos stared at her. “Are you insane?” he said incredulously. “We’d surely die! We wouldn’t make that ledge.”

Yanna shook her head. “Have a little faith, my friend,” she smiled. “There are many caves that way, jutting from the mountainside. They’d be a perfectly safe place to stop for the night.”

“Sure,” said Accos crossly, “If we don’t fall to our deaths, first.”

Yanna frowned. “A necessary evil, I’m afraid,” she said severly. “Unless you’d rather take extra time to reach the base, time in which the girls might very well die.”

Accos flushed. “Of course not,” he said briskly. “I was merely concerned for your safety.”

“My safety–!” shrieked Yanna, getting worked up. She stopped herself from yelling, and took deep breaths. “All right, Accos,” she said calmly. “I’ll have you know that I’ve lived here in the mountains almost all my life, and I knew how to climb before I could walk, or talk, for that matter. So you needn’t be concerned, because I know how to handle myself just fine, thank you,” she added, a little less calmly.

Accos was silent.

“Right, then,” said Yanna tersely. “Caves it is.” And she started off at a brisk pace.

“What an ego,” she muttered under her breath.

“That woman is going to get us killed,” breathed Accos.

***

Accos literally clung to life.

His fingers gripped the jagged rock wall before him with an iron grip. His knuckles turned white with the strain.

Yanna noticed his tension. “Don’t worry, Accos,” she said encouragingly, “you can make it! Just have a little faith in yourself!”

“Easy for her to say,” grumbled Accos to himself, watching her lithe figure lightly hopping from niche to niche.

Accos took a ginger step forward, making sure to tread carefully, so as not to dislodge his foothold.

Yanna went so quickly and silently, so unafraid, that one would mistake her for a creature of the mountain. It was invigorating! She hadn’t felt so alive since Sield went missing.

Yanna missed her foothold by a fraction, and slipped slightly.

It was an extremely tense moment. Yanna quickly flung out a hand and grabbed onto a stone jutting from the rock wall beside her, while using her momentum to swing her leg forward to the next foothold.

“Are you all right?” called Accos in alarm.

“Fine,” lied Yanna, taking a shaky breath and continuing on with more caution.

The thought of Sield’s fate had distracted her, and she had stumbled. She would need to stop thinking of him, or it could happen again, and that could put her in a life or death situation.

She tried, she really did, but she couldn’t get him off of her mind. She wondered what had happened to him. Was he really alive? Was there still hope? Or had she been a fool all along?

The injustice of it all hit her hard. For a moment, she wanted to scream into the abyss below her, and let out the excruciating fear that tugged at her very heart.

Accos almost didn’t see it happen. It was so quick, that he merely caught the movement out of the corner of his eye. He looked just in time to see Yanna fall.

Yanna had missed her footing again, and this time, her handhold wasn’t so secure. She hung by her fingers on the ledge, screaming.

Accos cried out in shock, but for a moment, he couldn’t react any further. Panic rose inside of him. If Yanna couldn’t make it that far, maybe he couldn’t, either. Was this how he was doomed to die?

He was breathing heavily, and beginning to feel lightheaded, again. Yanna was going to die if he couldn’t get a hold of himself, he knew. He took a deep breath, gathered his wits, and began to move forward.

He crawled ever so slowly, careful not to lose his footing. He inched closer and closer to where his friend clung desperately to the jagged, jutting rocks.

Yanna was terrified. It was a terrible feeling, to be suspended above the abyss. Her feet dangled over nothingness, and her hands felt as though thy might shatter into tiny, jagged pieces, for she didn’t know how much longer she could support her own weight. She tried to kick a foot up to the ledge, but it was too high, and she almost lost her grip on her handhold. The wind screamed in her ears, and she thought wildly that the mountain was laughing at her. She thought that she would surely die.

Accos was so close to her now. All he had to do was take her hand, and pull her up.

“Yanna!” he yelled, hoping that she could hear him over the wind.

Yanna couldn’t quite see over the ledge, but she could see Accos’s bloody, calloused hand reaching out to her.

“No!” she screamed shrilly. She wouldn’t let go. She couldn’t let go, or she would die.

“Take it!” yelled Accos, holding it out further.

“NO!” screeched Yanna. “I can’t!”

“Yanna!” yelled Accos desperately.

Yanna let out a terrified sob, and realized that she wouldn’t hold on forever. She had to let go.

She reached for his hand.

It was a terrible feeling. The hand that still clung to the mountain seemed to slip, and her body seemed to become heavier. The thought of the nothingness below her almost made her hysterical.

But then Accos caught onto her hand, and she felt herself being yanked upwards. She pushed with all her might with her other hand, and managed to get halfway over the ledge. Accos then grabbed her under the arms and pulled again. Yanna swung a leg up onto the narrow ledge, and managed to hoist herself up the rest of the way. She stood for a moment, panting, clinging to the wall of rock in front of her.

Accos had a hand on her shoulder. “Are you all right?” he panted breathlessly.

Yanna nodded. “I think so,” she said, her voice shaking badly. “Thank you,” she added.

Accos nodded. “You’re welcome,” he said simply.

Yanna suddenly smiled.

“What is it?” said Accos, nonplussed.

“I did tell you to have a little faith in yourself, and you would make it, didn’t I?” she said. “It seems I was right.”

Accos laughed. “Well, so was I!” he chuckled. “This was the wrong way to go.”

Yanna rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t be too certain of that, my friend.” She pointed a few feet ahead. “Look there.”

The mouth of a cave was just barely visible.

Yanna beamed happily at Accos and began to make her way to the cave.

Accos sighed. More climbing.

***

Inside the cave, Yanna was starting a fire. She had always been good at fires. Her mother had taught her how to build one when she was very young.

Accos was staring out of the cave mouth, entranced by the view. Before him was an endless sky, stretching out through eternity. The sun was a bright red orb, sinking slowly into a golden sea. For now, all was peaceful.

But not for long, thought Accos wryly. Not for long.

Chapter 16: The Refugees

Mount Caradas
Yanna was with her father. Her eyes were red from crying, but she shed no more tears. She was waiting, waiting for her fiancée, her betrothed. She had been one of the lucky few who had survived the attack on her village, but her husband to be had not been among them. She had cried, she had screamed, she had called him and searched for him, but to no avail. But she wouldn’t give up on him. She would wait patiently; faithfully; unrelenting. And he would come . . . He would come . . .
Yanna’s father hadn’t the heart to say it, but he knew that there was no way that her lover could still be alive. Sield was gone, and he would not come. His heart was heavy as he held his daughter close. She would never give up . . . She would never love again, as long as she waited for him. She would wait, but he would not come . . .
Yanna stared at the cliffs, imagining Sield, his strong profile, his grubby face, that same tired, triumphant expression he wore after a long hunt. She imagined the game bag on his shoulder, his friendly wave, and he would take the food to his mother, and she would wait for him. Just as she was waiting now. He just needed to deposit his game, and he would come . . .
“Yanna?”
Yanna looked at her father, his worn expression, the sadness in his eyes. He grew tired of her constant vigil, she knew. But she couldn’t leave, he would expect her to wait for him.
“I cannot leave, Papa,” said Yanna quietly. “I must wait for him. He will come.”
“Yanna,” said her father, his voice cracking, “please. Come back to the camp. There is food waiting for you, and water. You must eat. You must drink. Please.”
“When my mind is at ease, I will eat.”
“But Yanna, think of the children who need you to be strong for them. You must set an example. Many people have lost loved ones on this journey, but they do not–”
“He is not lost!” said Yanna, her voice rising in pitch. “He will come. You will see . . .” The very words seemed to soothe her. “You will see . . .”
Yanna’s father could stand it no longer. He stood up and stormed away, angry at not just Yanna, not just the Wyrms, but the whole world. His wife had not made it; Yanna’s fiancée had not made it; so many others had not made it. So many grieving parents . . . So many orphaned children . . . And why? What was happening? Why had so many good people died? Why?
“Why?!” he said angrily, looking up at the sky. “Why are they doing this?”
“Aydan?”
Narsix, a woman from a refugee camp that had arrived two days before, had heard his ravings. She gave a tentative step forward, a hand on her swollen belly. Aydan had been told that Narsix was almost due. He had taken it as a sign that not everything good had been destroyed.
“Aydan, I- I’m very sorry about your wife. And your daughter. She must be so devastated.”
Aydan sighed. “I would have said delirious. She still waits for him. She will never stop waiting for him. No matter what, she will wait and wait and wait.”
Narsix looked surprised. “She has such admirable faith!” she said. “I should have given him up for dead by now. It has been weeks.”
“Yanna never gives up on anything,” said Aydan. “She is one of the most stubborn young ladies I have ever known.”
“Well,” said Narsix, “perhaps we could all take a lesson on hope from her. See that man over there?”
Aydan followed her gaze to a sad looking man, comforting a crying woman. “His son ran away,” said Narsix sadly. “He searched and searched and searched, but couldn’t find him. Finally, the other refugees decided that it wa time to move on, and he had no choice but to follow. He had hoped that his son might be here; Perhaps another camp had found him, or maybe he had found his way here on his own. But he wasn’t here. So he’s waiting, just like your daughter. It is the same story with the woman he is comforting. Her daughter had apparently ran away as well. The two children were good friends, apparently, so they must have ran together. She also lost a little boy, whom she had adopted after she found him in the rubble of one of the villages, crying for his parents. But he was taken by a strange creature. She has no one else, so she waits, just like your daughter, and just like that man. And maybe they will come; you never know.” Narsix smiled. “They have faith,” she said softly. “And that’s my point. Perhaps you should also have faith, Aydan.”
Narsix smiled again. “I must return to my children; they will wonder where I have gone. Goodbye, Aydan.”
“Yes . . . Goodbye, Narsix. And . . .” Aydan stumbled over his words. “I . . . Thank you.”
Narsix waved and went to join her husband and children. Aydan was lost in thought . . .
Suddenly, there was a general murmur amongst the camp. Aydan looked up, curious. There was a great crunching noise; someone was climbing up the side of the mountain!
The whole camp drew their weapons, ready to defend themselves if need be. The crunch grew louder; Archers drew their bows at the ready. Hunters drew their knives. Aydan thought of Yanna. She had no weapons, no way to defend herself. What if she thought it was Sield?
A hand emerged, a human hand. Everyone breathed more easily, but they still held their weapons. They did not know this person’s intentions.
Yanna had run from her perch on the cliff to the gathered camp. “Sie-” she exclaimed, before her father had clapped a hand over her mouth and drew her closer. He held a finger to his lips and let go of her. She nodded and was silent, trembling with excitement. Had Sield come back?
A head of dirty brown hair appeared, followed by the grimy face of a young boy; it wasn’t Sield. Yanna looked close to tears and buried her face in her father’s shoulder. But–
“Bos! BOS!”
The man from before ran towards the cliffside, followed by the crying woman. Together, they helped him over the edge and into the camp. They embraced and cried, and the boy called Bos merely looked dazed. “Father . . .” He croaked. “Father!”
Other members from the family’s village cheered for Bos’s return. What an entrance!
After the cheering had died away, the woman whom Aydan had seen earlier began asking frantic questions. “Where is Lynea?” she screeched, panicking. “Where is my daughter?”
Bos laid his hand on her shoulder. “She is completely unharmed, Amara. She’s at the base of the mountain, waiting.”
Amara looked surprised. “Waiting? Waiting for what?”
Bos looked grave. “Amara- Father- I can’t stay very long. I need someone to come to the base of the mountain with me, so that I may bring Lynea and another young girl up here with me.”
“Another- another girl?” spluttered Severin. “You’ve found another straggler?”
“Not exactly,” said Bos. “She’s a Traveler, Father, and she can’t find her way back to where she came from. We found her in a forest, half dead. She’s very weak.”
Yanna came out of her torpor, all attention, focused and sharp for the first time in days. “This girl?” she said quickly. “Did she have dark hair, blue eyes, and a strange way of speaking? ‘Hi’, or ‘No prob’?”
Bos looked up at her in surprise. “Yes. That is right. Do you know her?”
Yanna paled. “Father,” she said, turning to Aydan,”it’s Arlen. She must have come to visit and found the village destroyed.”
Aydan groaned. Arlen had always been rather clueless. He could only imagine all the troubles she had gotten herself into.
“Yes,” said Bos again, “Arlen! That is her name! Did she visit your village often?”
“Very,” said Yanna grimly. “She could never stay long, but she came whenever she could. A pleasant girl, although a little . . . What’s the word I’m looking for, Papa?”
“I believe you mean to say ‘spacey’.”
“Papa!”
“Well, she is!”
“Bos,” interrupted Severin desperately, “please don’t leave again. Someone else can go. Please, stay here.”
Bos gave a look of uncertainty; he was wavering.
“I will go!” said Amara. “Lynea is my daughter; I must see her!”
“No,” said another man firmly, “you must rest. Or have you already forgotten about what happened just two days ago?”
Amara swallowed. She hadn’t forgotten. How could she? She hated snakes. It was a good thing it hadn’t been a quick acting poison . . .
“I will go.”
Everyone turned around to face the man who had spoken. Bos gasped, recognizing him immediately. “You- you’re that man we met four days ago! We gave you the lasoi!”
The man smiled. “I told you that I would repay you, did I not? I will help in any way I can.”
Bos nodded, unable to say any more. Another voice spoke up:
“I will go,” said Yanna.
Aydan stared at his daughter, shocked. “Y-Yanna? You’re going?”
Yanna nodded. “If Arlen is in trouble, then I want to help.”
“But Yanna–!”
“Please, Papa,” said Yanna gently, “you know why I must go.”
Aydan swallowed the lump in his throat and nodded. He did know why, deep down; she hadn’t
saved Sield, but she could save Arlen.
Yanna and the man said their goodbyes, but Bos stayed behind. He would stay with his father. He felt bad about leaving his friends, and he knew that he would never, as long as he lived forgive himself if anything were to happen to them, but his father was so happy to see him. He couldn’t leave. And Lynea would prefer that he stay, so that he could take care of her mother. So he would leave her in the hands of the other refugees. They would take care of her. But he still felt strangely empty without Lynea. They had always been- how would Arlen have said it? -partners in crime. And now he wouldn’t see her for days. Yes, he felt empty . . .
Yanna packed her things in a satchel, such as food, water, and some clothing for Arlen. She smiled. If Arlen walked around camp in those strange garments, she could cause a panic!
The man, whom Bos had been formally introduced to as Accos, packed his own provisions as well. He said goodbye to his anxious family, reassured them that he would be fine, and started on his way. But before he left, he made one request to Bos.
“Please,” he said, “keep my family safe and sound. I cannot promise you that they won’t go looking for me, and I want to make sure that they do not get hurt. Will you look after them?”
“Of course,” said Bos. “It’s the least I can do.”
Accos smiled. “Thank you,” he said. And then he was making his way down the mountain with Yanna, and as Bos watched them, a cold wind blew across the campsite. The refugees gave a collective shiver, and their thoughts went with the brave mountain climbers who would have more than just a chill to worry about.

Chapter 15: Almost There

Lynea

Giving the laosai away had been stupid of me. But I just couldn’t help it; looking into that man’s pleading eyes and knowing my dad would have been doing the same for me… Slight hunger pains were beginning to bother me, but I would have felt worse if I hadn’t done anything.

I had climbed up a tree to be alone for a while, having woken up earlier then everyone else. I could see the very tips of the mountains on the horizon. About a day’s journey away, the survivors of my people awaited us. I was eager to get there, but I knew Arlen couldn’t travel. I was surprised at myself for even caring, but I was (to my chagrin) beginning to soften towards her, seeing her so weak and sick.
Just as the sunlight was making its way across the sky, I thought of an idea. In the kids’ gatherings back in our village, we had taught ourselves how to make wagons. I could probably modify the design a bit to make it more comfortable, and we could pull Arlen along, with some of our supplies. The thought of her sitting in that wagon, sandwiched in between the supplies, I confess, made me giggle.
I got to work immediately. We were going to get to the mountains! After all my hard work, I was finally going to see my people again. The thought sparked a new, first determination inside of me.

I set about gathering materials: Flexible and not-so-flexible sticks, the incredibly pliant but durable grasses of Elentiel, some stones and a couple of our spare animal hides and blankets. I built a basic frame and weaved the grass to make a the bottom of the wagon, with a primitive shock system and the flexible sticks as walls. I was almost finished when Bos came up behind me.

“You- you made- wow,” he breathed. I wondered if some of Arlen’s sayings were rubbing off on him. “Lynea, this is ingenious! I assume this will help us with Arlen?”

“Yes,” I let my mask slide off. “I can see the mountains, Bos,” I said wistfully. “I just- I couldn’t stand staying here another night. I must go.”

“We all do,” sighed Bos wearily. “Can I help?”

“That would be most welcome,” I smiled.

The sun was filtering through the trees now, and the rays took the edge out of the air. The warmth was definitely needed. It wasn’t until now that I realized just how cold it had been.

We finished the wagon and loaded my spare stones and some more I found on the path into it, and together, we maneuvered it through the jungle. The rocks didn’t fall. In fact, they barely even shook. I smiled at Bos. He smiled back.

“I’ll go awake Arlen,” I said.

“I can do it,” said Bos. “I will help her into the wagon, you can go get our things.”

“Fine,” I shrugged. “How much do you think we can fit in there with her?”

“We’ll find out.”

Bos grabbed our contraption and headed off towards Arlen. I watched him go with a twinge of annoyance that I couldn’t explain. I managed to shake it off, however, and pointed myself in the direction of the tree house. For the first time in octweeks, I found myself happy. I noticed the beauty of the forest, instead of resenting it for its memories. I listened to the creatures, not with apprehension, but with interest. I remembered not walking through ashes, or walking home without my dad, but the comfort being underneath this canopy had always given me. I thought about my mother, and the rest of the Hallosh survivors. I wondered if they were getting through everything alright, and realized I had been selfish going away. I imagined my father walking with me, and decided he wouldn’t want me to be mad all the time, especially not at mother. It couldn’t have been any easier on her than it had been on me when he died. I decided that I was going to try to be positive for a while.

I climbed the ladder, and made a couple of trips up and down, carrying our necessities down to the ground. I brought them over to where Bos was arranging a drowsy Arlen, and what we’d left with her, in the bed of the wagon. I started to do the same with the rest of our things. In the end, we managed to fit everything in there. Bos took the handles on the right, and I grabbed the ones on the left. We found the trail, and started on our way.

“Arlen?” Bos probed gently. If Arlen was hurting, she was being a very good sport about it. She had her eyes closed, and could have been sleeping or trying to prevent showing pain. I felt a pang as I remembered her agonized cries the night before, and I hoped that he was recovering.

“Yeah?” she replied, eyes still closed. I couldn’t tell if she was hurting.

“You’re doing well, right? If anything happens, just let us know.” He had said ‘us’. That meant we were all in this together now, for better or for worse. I resigned myself to the fact that we were all responsible for each other, and decided it would be best to give the girl the benefit of the doubt for now. But I would have to be watchful, and tread carefully. These were dangerous grounds.

“I will,” she said. There was the tiniest hint of strain in her voice. She was still hurting, but she was going to be okay. Bos turned his attention to me.

“We all can tell each other if anything happens,” he said, with a serious look. “We’re going to try to get to the base of the mountains by sundown. In the morning, I’ll go scouting and find someone to help us get Arlen up to the camp.”

“You won’t need to bring anyone back.” She sounded determined. “I’ll get up there on my own. Besides, all these trips up the mountain aren’t practical. And what if something were to happen to you? You’d be on your own, and so would we. I’m feeling better, really!” she said, making a wobbly attempt to stand up on her own.

She made several good points (strangely, the one about Bos being alone particularly bothered me), but I had a better one.

“Arlen,” I said sternly,  “we can’t let you go. You’re not ready yet. What if you faint on your way up, and fall over the edge? You could die.” Arlen opened her mouth to protest, so I quickly interrupted. “There are times when even the strongest of people have to sit down a little while.” This seemed to molify her slightly. “And, actually, having a scout could be useful. We don’t know what might be up there, but we would have a better chance of not running into anything with malign intentions if Bos ran into them first,” I added, winking at Bos, who scowled.

“Lynea’s right,” he said gently, turning to Arlen.

“I know…” she said quietly. She tried to look disappointed, but her relief shone through, all too obvious. Apparently, she was more nervous about the trip up the mountain than she would have had us believe. Then I noticed she was looking at me strangely. Timidly, even. I thought that she was probably waiting for me to make some sarcastic remark. She seemed surprised when it didn’t come. Actually, I was a little surprised myself. I suppose I have a weakness for hurt people trying to push through.

The sun rose higher and higher, until it was directly above us. I could see the mountains even with the thick grove of trees in the distance.

“Do you want to stop?” I asked Bos. Arlen’s face lit up hopefully for a moment, suddenly awakened from her apparent sleep.

“Why don’t we?” Bos winked at me. He helped Arlen out and she sat down with her back against a tree.

“Have we got anything to eat?” she asked expectantly.

“We do.” I said. “You want to finish off the bola?”

“Yes!” she said, a little too fast. “Heh heh, sorry,” she said meekly. “Yeah, I would like that.”

Happily, we ate. For now, everything was great, and we could see the mountains.

Chapter 14: A Father’s Desperation

Arlen

I couldn’t believe what I had done in just a few hours. I had cost Bos and Lynea valuable time, something which they did not have much of anymore, thanks to me. I had cost them supplies, such as the water that they gave me earlier, and the tent poles that had snapped when I dropped them. And I had cost them a lot of trouble. After all that they had done for me, all I had done was make things worse for them. I had never felt so bad about anything in my life.

I sat in the lean-to that they had so graciously made for me to sleep in, wishing that I could get up and walk away from it. I didn’t want to take advantage of their kindness anymore. I was only a burden to them. But my head was still killing me. I could hardly move without triggering another round of vomiting. All I could do was sit and think things through.

I had no chance of finding the Door back home on my own. But if I could find the refugee camp, and some of the Travelers were still alive, they might be able to help me get back home!

I felt slightly guilty for thinking of my own predicament when so many people had died, others homeless and broken. My own situation paled in comparison; At least I had a home to go to. If I could get to it, that is . . .

My head gave an awful throb, causing me to wince. I wondered who had attacked these peaceful People. I could only remember two incidents of war in this place, and even then, they had merely been tales. But were they? I had not been able to shake the feeling that the answer to everything had been staring me in the face for the longest time, and I had just failed to recognize it. Why were the Wyrms so familiar?

Suddenly, I heard a crunching noise behind me, as though someone had stepped on a twig.

I felt my head give another terrific throb, but this time, I didn’t notice it much. My entire body had just grown numb. Lynea and Bos had seemed spooked by this place. The treehouse was so far from here. Was there danger in the area?

I felt my breathing grow shallow, my face grow pale. White hot adrenaline pumped through me: my fight-or-flight response. My head felt as though it were being squeezed to the breaking point, but I didn’t make a sound. I was listening. And then I heard it: A low voice, not Bos. Not Lynea.

I began to shake. Was this person friendly? Perhaps he was just another refugee. But I didn’t know what he might do to me when he found me. Lynea had been suspicious the moment that she laid eyes on me. What would this man do when he discovered me?

He was still muttering under his breath, and I knew he was getting closer. But once he was close enough that I could understand what he was saying, I squeezed my eyes shut, willing him even more to go away. I didn’t need to hear any more of that kind of language.

I suddenly became very aware of my surroundings. If he came for me, I could roll out from under the lean-to and run through the clearing. . . . But what if he had a weapon? A crossbow, or a knife he could throw? I would be an easy target. . . . But the undergrowth near my feet was thicker. . . . I decided that I would have to sit up. If the man found me in this position, I would be completely helpless. My head throbbed, but I hardly noticed. All I was aware of was the constant thump of my heart, so loud, I feared that the stranger might hear it.

I slowly raised myself up, ignoring the thump of my heart, the pounding in my head, the darkness eating at my eyes as the panic threatened to overtake me. I made it up onto my knees, and tried to balance myself on the balls on my feet, in case I needed to spring up and run. And that’s when things went wrong.

Snap! I froze. I hadn’t thought of the leafy debris underneath me. Several somethings snapped and cracked as I tried to keep balanced. I heard a sudden silence: He was no longer muttering, but listening. Listening for me.

I realized that now was the time to run. But my legs were suddenly like water, and my vision swam: I was starting to pass out. I bowed my head for a moment, trying to make the blood come back. I still felt woozy, but I would be worse off than that if I didn’t run. I counted to three in my head: One . . . Two . . . Three! NOW!

But I started too fast, and tripped over my shaky legs, tangling myself in the lean-to. I gave an involuntary yelp as the whole thing came crashing around me.

There was a great crunch as I could hear the man running, but whether to or away from me, I couldn’t tell. I only knew that I needed out of here. Fast. I gathered myself up and began to run.

I threw off the tent from my head just as I went SMACK into something large. And to my horror, it went oof! I had run right into the intruder.

I got up onto my feet, and so did he. A tall, gaunt, starved looking man with a scraggly, unkempt beard and hair. His ice blue eyes were bright with panic and desperation, and his mouth was open in shocked terror. I noticed a pile of supplies next to him, and figured that he must have meant to set up camp here. But then, I noticed that his supplies didn’t belong to him: They were Lynea and Bos’s!

“You’re a theif!” I blurted, too scared and shocked and angry to think. But he was more scared. So scared, in fact, that he drew his knife.

My mouth opened in a scream, but nothing came. I tried to call for help, but my  mouth was too dry, my breathing too shallow, my head too painful, and I felt my knees shake. But just then, he gave a small gasp of pain and dropped to his knees, his knife falling from his hand. A pale, slender hand enclosed upon his shoulder like a vice. A figure stepped from behind him. Lynea!

“What do you think you’re doing?” she hissed vehemently. Her voice was like shards of ice, cold and sharp. Her anger was terrible. Her eyes were like flint, her mouth so thin you could hardly see it. The lines of her face were harsher than ever, and a muscle twitched in her jaw.

The man began to tremble, his face paler than ever. “I was–” he stammered. “I–”

“Lynea!” a voice called. Bos!

“Here,” called Lynea tersely.

Bos’s thin figure broke through the underbrush. He had a knife in his hand as well. Surprise lit his face when he saw the thief. “Oh, no,” he moaned. “Please, tell me those aren’t our supplies.”

“As surely as I live and breathe,” said Lynea angrily.

Bos stared a moment, seemingly trying to make some decision. He seemed to be struggling with something. The man’s expression was pleading.

Finally, Bos closed his eyes and let out a long breath. “Let him go,” he said quietly.

What?!” exclamed Lynea. “Bos, he had a knife trained on Arlen when I caught him! He was willing to kill–”

“No, Lynea,” said Bos gently, “he wouldn’t have killed her.”

I stared at Bos. What was he getting at?

“I know this man,” explained Bos. “He was in one of the outlying villages. I went there at times to hunt. I’ve seen him with his family. His wife, children. I think he was just desperate.”

“But, Arlen–”

“I think he just wanted to scare her off,” said Bos. “He hadn’t been expecting to get caught.”

Lynea stared at Bos a long time, and I held my breath. I noticed that she had a knife in her hand, too.

Finally, Lynea trained his gaze on the man. His expression was frightened, pleading. He was a pitiable figure.

Her face softened slightly. “Is this true?” she asked quietly. “You have a family?”

Tears welled in the man’s eyes. “Yes,” he moaned. “Please,” he begged. “I just need to get them some food and water. My wife, my children. They haven’t eaten in two days. I– I’m afraid for them to die.” And he broke down, burying his face in his hands.

I felt sorry for the man. I knew how his family must be feeling. I thought of the small, starved looking children, a little boy and a little girl, their eyes bright and pleading, waiting for their daddy to get back from his hunt.

I felt eyes peering at the back of my head, and looked at Lynea. She was staring at me with a question in her eyes. She didn’t need to say a word.

“Let him go,” I said softly. “I think that his kids have suffered enough without their dad being killed.”

Lynea nodded, and for a moment, I thought I saw a strange expression cross her face. She held out a hand to the man and helped him to his feet.

“Listen,” she said quietly, and I could tell by the tone in her voice that this man wasn’t off the hook just yet. “Before you can go, you must make a promise that you won’t steal food or supplies anymore.” Her face softened and her voice became gentle. “You aren’t the only one who has to feed their family. There are other children just as hungry as your own.”

The man nodded, his eyes wide, sincere. “I swear,” he breathed.

Lynea took her hand from his shoulder and nodded towards the South. “There is good hunting in that part of the woods,” she said. “Many creatures. And many edible plants, if you know where to look for them.”

The man nodded again, and stared at Lynea, then Bos, then me. “Thank you. Thank you all.”

And he stood and made his way to the woods.

“Wait,” said Lynea.

The man turned around nervously.

Lynea smiled slightly. “Here,” she said, and gave him a small creature that looked slightly like a rabbit, but with a long tail, and shorter ears. “Take it to your children tonight. Do not eat it all at once. Make it go as long as you can.”

The man’s mouth fell open as he took the rabbit-thing. “Thank you,” he croaked again. “I will repay you for this,” he said solemnly. “I promise you that.”

And with those words, he made his departure.