Maritus 22, 372

Maritus 22, 372
Morning

She could not stop her tears, even as she tried. Her shoulders shook and her chest heaved with the force of her emotion. Her sobs were torn from somewhere deep, harsh and ragged as she lay her head upon the pillow beside his.

Lien had finally returned to her.

She attempted not to wake him, even as she clung to him. She could not help herself; releasing him might result in all of it being a dream. She could not take that risk; it might just kill her. She had to touch him, smell him, see him, had to make certain he was real and not merely a halucination brought on by cold and hunger.

His hair was soft now, after she cut through the grime with thorough shampooing. His skin smelled of earth and pine. His breath was scented of cloves and parsely, and he was warm.

Warm. Alive. Breathing. Hers.

She could not have stopped the tears even if it had meant her life. Lien was alive. He was back with her. Not, perhaps, for long, but for now. And now was all that mattered.

Nnow could be forever.

Now was all that made sense.

Her husband had returned.

And Aria fought the urge to scream her joy to the heavens.

Februarius 10, 372

Februarius 10, 372
Noon

Part of her mind was still reeling. She could not believe life had changed so drastically in the space of a few days.

Another piece of silver cutlery clinked onto the pile at her right elbow, polished to a gleaming shine.

She had not known she should not have given her assistance to two houses, and she could not help but feel stupid for making such an innocent mistake. No matter, though. She was here now, having sent the other key back as requested. She wished the kind young lord no ill will at all. He had shown her a side to nobility she had not been aware of. She comforted herself with the knowledge that she had spoken to the older lord first about employment, but had been unable to follow up due to her literary lack and a severe shy spell, not knowing what to put in a letter. She still felt as if she had unintentionally insulted the young lord, but she had warned him of her social failings. She simply had not known. The church urged them to help where they could; she had been completely oblivious that there might be rules to offering one’s service to proper households.

Turning the fork over in her hand as she thought, she trailed the polishing brush over each prong with care. She was beholden to only one house now, though she knew she would follow the young lord’s progress to reclaim his home as closely as she could. She felt for him, and that was odd for her. Aria felt precious little for anyone, especially people she did not know.

Save recently, perhaps.

Recently, she had begun noticing people. Little things. Someone’s size here, a feeling of security there. They were hardly milestones of social advancement, but they made her wonder if a part of her craved human interaction more than she had always believed. Had Brand and Issa thawed her perpetual wariness and mistrust of strangers to a point where she was willingly harboring interest for them?

It was a dangerous path, she reminded herself as she blew gently on the glistening metal. A dangerous path to let people in. Once people got in, it was generally very difficult to get them out again.

Brand, Issa and even mistress le Furil were prime examples of how, once a heart accepted someone into its recesses, even if just the outer ones, it was as if they grew barbs and clung there, weakening her, but warming her as well so that she had not the heart to tear them from their perch.

She had to admit, however, as time continued to pass and Lien still did not return to her, that a life of continual fear of people might keep her safe, but it was a terribly lonely existence. She had found herself growing sadder and sadder as of late, not knowing why until interest of strangers sparked something inside her that felt like life again. Of course, that could simply be attributed to her fluctuating pregnancy hormones. Maybe these flashes of intrigue weren’t really hers at all. Maybe they would fade after her child was born and she would go back to not caring that she could not honestly call another soul friend.

But what if it did not? What if her interest in people only grew? How could she both indulge it and remain safely separate from the drama and emotional pain that always seemed to accompany human interaction? Was it possible to have one without the other?

Releasing an inaudible sigh between gently parted lips, she allowed the fork in her hand to clink atop the previous one she had polished. She reached for a knife next, dipping her brush back into the solution she was using to enhance the cutlery’s silver sheen.

She was a granger now, but Aria was not accustomed to being idle, especially when she wanted very much to be useful here. She had done her rounds of the livestock and tended those that needed it. She had harvested and collected and stored away what needed storing, but she had then been at a loss as to what she should be doing. She had wandered into the kitchens and had quietly asked if there was anything she could assist with. She might not know much about human interaction, but Aria did know that a servant, no matter what their main focus, should never be idle.

It felt good to sit in the warmth of the room, doing something useful. And while she still slept in the blustery winter nights, beneath trees, inside windmills or curled up in shadowed crevices of the city wall, she had somewhere warm to go during the day. And before long, she would have coin for food, if only for a mouthful a day.

She tried not to think about the gnawing hunger that plagued her now, tried not to pay any mind to the delicious scents wafting to her from whatever was being cooked over the nearest fire. She had managed to scavenge a few burnt bread rolls from a baker’s discard heap earlier that day, but it had not been enough to do more than augment just how hungry she truly was.

Hunger was nothing new to her; she had spent most of her life in a perpetual state of it. But as she neared the end of her pregnancy, she found she cried herself to sleep some nights due to the gaping hole in her stomach where she knew food should be. She was uncertain if pregnancy made one hungrier than normal, but it was possible. It made sense. Issa had once said she was eating for two now. Only that she was not; she was not even eating for one.

When she had entered the great hall today and come face to surface with a bar laden with morsels of food, it had taken every ounce of willpower and self-discipline she possessed not to take something, run into a corner like a ravenous dog and devour it. She would not steal from the man who was giving her a purpose.

She knew she should take her bow and go out hunting small game. Forage up some herbs and vegetables so she could make a few dishes that she could pick at for the next few days. But the thought of going back out into the cold caused her to wilt in despair. It was weak, she knew, but the sensation of warmth and comfort, in a kitchen of merrily talking servants and a cheerfully blazing fire, overruled even her common sense.

Her fingers worked without her mind needing to engage; by now, the motions of polishing were automatic. She kept her gaze fixed on her work, but her ears sought out the conversations happening around her. She sat alone on an island of her own social awkwardness. She did not know how to approach people, was not much for small talk that served little purpose and was either too shy, too confused or just plain disinclined to join a conversation that was near enough for her to have slipped into should she have wished to. It had not taken long for some of the servants to realize this, and they left her be.

Most of her was glad, but the new part of her, the part that had seemed to decide that perpetual segregation from the human race was ill advised felt a bit lonely.

As her brush slid effortlessly over the flat of another eating knife, she felt her child stir within her. He or she was either fixing to become a knight or practicing their bardic dancing moves, she thought, with just how often and just how fiercely they were wont to roll about. She was not entirely aware of the tiny smile hovering at the corners of her lips as she lowered a hand to the swollen roundness of her abdomen, gently caressing the taught resting place of the little one she and Lien had made.

Aria’s awareness of her surroundings had always been somewhat augmented. She did not, by any means, notice everything, but she liked to believe she had a fairly good sense of when someone was watching her.

She felt that way now, and so was not terribly surprised when she lifted her eyes from her task to find the cook watching her, wooden spoon clasped in the fingers of one plump hand. The woman was smiling, her eyes flicking down to where Aria’s hand was resting upon her abdomen, then back up to the young woman’s face.

Almost without conscious thought, surprising herself with just how easily it came to her when it had never done so before, Aria found herself smiling back.

Februarius 4, 372

Februarius 4, 372
Nightfall

Brand walked silently beside her as she carried her belongings into the safety deposit room of the bank. Silently, Aria fighting back tears, they packed what would fit into the lockers they had pooled together for her to rent.

She had been seeking a new campsite anyway, so she wasn’t certain why this hurt so much. Perhaps because coming home to find some disrespectful wanderer had ransacked her tent, stolen some of her belongings and left a tainted surprise at her door was akin to coming home to find someone had relieved themselves in her bed.

As she slipped the few folded garments she owned into the locker before her and packed on top of them the herbs and other personal effects that had not been stolen, Aria could not help but feel quite wretched. She did not enjoy feeling as though her hand was being forced, and this was exactly that.

It had been months, and life had gone on as normal. She had lived, had dreamed, had experienced a wonderful Yule, had grown with her child and had enjoyed her time with her friends. But this person’s actions had woken her up to the fact that no where was safe and that she had, as she knew she had done, remained in one place for far too long.

“Where will you go?” Brand asked her.

His voice was low, angry and pained. She knew he did not want to see her leave.

“I dunno,” she replied, closing the locker door and turning the key. “I’ll find a place. I a’wys do.”

“Do you think it was that man who stumbled upon you a few months ago?”

“Ayup,” she said bitterly. “‘E wasn’ too ‘appy tha’ I’d no’ dance wi’ ‘im, so wha’ be’r rvenge than t’ violate th’ place ‘e knew I called ‘ome?”

“Fucking prick.”

“Ayup, but tha’s mos’ o’ th’ ‘uman race fer ya. Now y’ know why I don’ trus’ mos’ o’ ’em. Cause they don’ care fer none but ’emselves.”

“You’re not angry with us for not catching him, right?”

She shook her head as they turned to depart. “No. It wasn’ yer fault.”

She parted with Brand at the north gate. He leant down to embrace her fiercely, and for once, she did not flinch away. She hugged him back, inhaling the comforting scent of forest air that surrounded him.

“We’ll miss you, Nini,” he murmured.

“Yeah,” she found herself whispering. “I’ll miss y’ too.”

She cried as she watched him walk away, clutching her picnic creel to her chest. She was back at square one. The money the pretty bar maid had given her for food had gone to storing what meager belongings she owned before she woke one day to find she and her child had nothing. Turning back toward the city, she trudged toward the crossroads in search of somewhere she would be able to rest her head without danger of being mugged or freezing to death.

Maybe tomorrow would look brighter.

Return To Dreams

It had been a long time since she had built her dreams in her mind and meditated in prayer before sleep. It was more and more difficult to kneel or sit, but she did it anyway, observing the hours she could and ending the day by easing her heart and mind in communion with the Lord.

She had always enjoyed telling stories as a child. Most came from her dreams or her imagination. After pappa had died, she had lost some of that inner spark. Her mind had gone cold and her creativity had gone to sleep for years. Even Lien had not been able to rekindle it.

But now, she found herself daydreaming, and those dreams manifested themselves at night until she felt as if she were living two lives: the real one of the every day and the one she invented to escape it.

She did not dream every night, of course. She suspected if she did, it would frighten her. It would have been too unusual, and that would have unsettled her greatly. But when her dreams were not of the world she invented, she could never truly remember them.

She wished she knew how to write. She often wondered if her dreams would cease if she could get her ideas down on paper. But literacy was never something that was important to her family growing up. Surviving took precedence over reading and writing, and she never truly felt the lack of it unless she was forced into speaking to a stranger in order to have a letter scribed.

She could not say when she built the world she streaked away to during dreams. She was almost certain it had been during her childhood, in the days after mamma’s death. She had been too young to comprehend the loss, too young to be able to withstand the crushing tide of grief that swamped her whenever she remembered that her beloved mamma would never be coming back. She and pappa were alone. There would be no more songs at night, no more secret walks, no more special bond. Mamma had left her, and she had turned to imagination to escape the gaping chasm that truth had left within her heart.

The world she created in her mind was known as Alaléna. It was a world unlike this, a world in which good and evil was clearly divided by a great blue ocean known as the Aemmalee Sea. The part of Alaléna that housed the essence of good was a world of continual daylight. As a child who had feared the dark once mamma was no longer there to gentle that terror, daylight and good had begun walking hand-in-hand. In her child’s mind, all that was evil walked in shadow. It was not realistic, but was a child’s fantasy ever so?

Across the sea from the Daylands were the Nightlands, the home of all that was evil and condemned. The lord of the Nightlands was the terrifying Severus Crutious, the Prince of Darkness itself.

She had first dreamed of him the day mamma had died. She had been five at the time, and when she had opened her eyes to her dreams, she had found herself standing in utter darkness. She had been frightened, and had called for her mamma, so certain that she would come. Mamma had never not come.

Save for this time.

Mamma had not come.

Lord Crutious had instead.

She remembered a low, rasping voice, as gentle as it could be, possessed of a chilling coldness she could, at the time, not explain. She knew now that she had heard such a voice in a neighbor once. It had made her feel cold; she had known just by listening that the man speaking to her pappa was not a good one. She supposed that voice had stayed with her, long after the man himself had left their area of the forest, and had re-surfaced in a time when her mind was most vulnerable to all the things that frightened her.

Crutious had spoken to her, and for a brief time, little her had been soothed by his voice in the darkness. She had clung to the gentleness above the coldness, had believed it meant good.

She had been naive, something that a five year old was expected to be, save in the Nightlands. The voice had not at all matched the man. When he had stepped into the circle of moonlight in which she stood, she had looked up to him, seeking comfort.

And she had been greeted with the sight of a decomposing corpse, skin gray and sagging, bones visible in some places, what flesh still clinging to his spare frame rotting black where it was not covered by sable velvet.

She remembered she had screamed and screamed and screamed while Crutious laughed, displaying jagged, rotting teeth and a black tongue that wriggled against oozing gums like something alive. She had worked herself into hysterics by the time pappa had raced into her room, waking her and gathering her into his arms to comfort her. She had sobbed and he had wept, and both had mourned for mamma.

Crutious seemed to be an integral part of her dreams now. When she returned to them, it was as if she had never been away. Her dream friends turned to her as they had always done, and she expected she had arranged it this way, to keep her from having to attempt explaining things that would mean nothing to the figments of her imagination who had been created with all the goodness of an innocent child. How could she have told her best dream friend that she had forgotten him. How could she explain loss to a figment that had been created never to know it? She told him only that her sleep had been long because she was growing in creative power. She knew he would understand that.

His name was James Callier, and he had grown too. She had last seen Jamie when she was fifteen, though her subconscious had, it seemed, adjusted him to match her in age. Perhaps even to surpass it.

He was far taller than her now; when she fell into step beside him, walking the white shore of the Daylands, she noticed her head did not even come close to reaching his shoulder. When he had turned to embrace her, murmuring, “It’s good ta see ye awake again, lassie,” her ear was level with his heart, and even that required her to rise onto her tiptoes.

His hair caught the sun like a mane of molten flame, and the blue of his eyes looked as if someone had taken some of the Aemmalee’s crystalline water, molded it into two gems and blessed her dream friend with them. She supposed she had. As a child, blue had always been her favorite color.

As they began walking once more, she peered up at his profile, anchored by a strong, square jaw, his features chiseled and his brow high and aristocratic, he looked every inch the prince she had made him to be. The royalty of her world was not that of her waking one. The social system was similar, but the people on top were far less condescending and cruel and far more apt to lend a helping hand. Intermingling and even marrying was encouraged, and money was not as important as the type of person you were.

Moving her gaze from Jamie, she looked down the beach where children played, building sand castles, burying one another and digging for seashells. Their shrieks of joy and laughter were carried to her on the breeze, making her smile with a freedom she did not allow herself while awake. Tilting her face into that breeze, she inhaled the scents of salty air, fish and seaweed, the latter two perfectly balanced below the former and never overwhelming unless one was walking the shore of the Nightlands, where every unpleasant thing was magnified a hundredfold.

That was the horror of the Nightlands. It could take anything that in moderation was good and turn it into something revolting. She did not journey there on purpose, but sometimes Crutious drew her to him in nightmares, and then she had no choice. The Nightlands was a rotted place, a land where everything died a little from the inside out each day. It was desolate, disgusting and made her feel dirty just knowing it was part of her mind. It was like a spot of mold that kept growing and growing as she got older and had seen or experienced more and more unpleasantness. She knew every good thing needed an opposite to balance it. She just wish her childish mind had not created the Nightlands to be so… well… nightlandish.

Shaking those thoughts away, she returned her attention to the here and now. Jamie was watching her, his head cocked to the side as if she was a puzzle he was trying to figure out.

“Wha’ y’ lookin’ at?” she asked, glancing down at herself. “I got somethin’ on me?”

Jamie laughed, shaking his head. “It’s just good ta have ye back, lassie.”

“Y’ said tha’ ‘lready,” she returned, but she was smiling. “Anythin’ new ‘appen while I was ‘sleep?”

“Well, Larken had a bairn.”

Larken Campbell was the sister of her heart, her best female friend in her dream world, and this news made her feel terrible, as if she had betrayed the friend of her imagination who had always been there when she needed her.

“I missed tha’,” she murmured. “I didn’ mean t’ sleep fer so long. Msorry, Jamie.”

“She was no’ angry, lassie,” Jamie said gently. “Ye come and ye go. Yer our creator. Ye got yer own life ta live. We ken this. We miss ye when yer gone, aye, but we’re no’ goin’ ta blame ye fer what ye canna control.”

When she was a child, the inhabitants of the Daylands had felt naught save happiness. She had been so convinced that it was the only way to live. As she grew, however, she found herself opening them to more and more emotions in order to make them grow as people. There was a time and place for happiness, but without anything else to balance it, it was meaningless, and it did not take her long to realize this.

The only thing she had withheld from them was loss. She could not do that to them. It did mean that they could never really comprehend her fear for Lien, she knew. In their minds, if someone went away, they almost always came back if you just waited long enough. Death had no place in their worlds, and thus it would hold no place in their fears. But anger did, and her friends’ lack of it was a testament to their good and understanding hearts, not due to an inability to feel the emotion itself.

“Thanks, Jamie,” she murmured now, stopping and turning to face him. He walked a pace more before realizing she had stopped and backtracked to join her, standing before her and gazing down on her with those Aemmaleen blue eyes.

“Course, Ari,” he said softly.

“I won’ be gone fer so long no more,” she said. “I jus’ needed t’ deal wi’ some stuff in mown world. But tha’s done now an’… so I’ll be ‘ere more.”

She could not say why she felt the need to explain herself, but she did. She had loved this world as a child. How could she have forgotten about it, abandoned it, lost so much belief in good that she had turned away from the very sanctuary she herself had built?

“I’m glad ta hear it,” Jamie said before he glanced at something over her head.

Turning, Aria grinned as she spied Larken racing toward her, long skirts and petticoats hiked indecently above her ankles with not a care in the world for the somewhat scandalized looks she was getting. Her loose hair streamed out behind her like a golden-brown banner and even from this distance, Aria could see the sparkle in her emerald green eyes.

Larken was only a few inches taller and a score or so pounds heavier than Aria herself, but she may as well have been three feet taller and 300 pounds heavier for the force with which she slammed into her friend. Jamie, being the gentleman he was, stepped out of the way and allowed both girls to topple to the sand in a hugging, laughing heap.

“You’re back! You’re back! I can’t believe you’re back! I’ve missed you so much and I have so much to tell you. Like, did Jamie already tell you that I have a baby now? The most adorable little girl to ever grace the Daylands, of course. I mean, at least since I was born.”

Jamie scoffed and Aria laughed as her friend prattled on and on about events Aria could not hope to follow at the speed with which Larken was telling them. They were both still tangled on the sand, heads resting side-by-side, sand in their hair and grinning like two damn fools.

After a time, Jamie joined them and began attempting to braid their hair together. Squealing, they turned on him, tackling him into the sand and beginning to bury him. That attempt turned into a full-out sand-throwing fight that, by the time twenty minutes had passed, had grown from just the three of them to half the teenage inhabitants of the Daylands. Aria could never remember laughing with such abandon anywhere but within her dreams, where a smile was not an invitation for someone to come and take it away, where a laugh was not a summons for something cruel and unnecessary to befall her.

When she dreamed, almost everything made sense. And those things that did not always, eventually, had an answer.


As they walked up the dirt road that led from the beach toward the palace, Larken explained how she and her husband had come to be together.

“We met on Albatross,” she began, referring to the largest island in the Dayland’s southern archipelago. “I’d gone there after father chose to sail to Resthaven.”

Resthaven was the closest anyone in the Daylands came to death. It was an island that, once sailed to, one could never depart. Those who were old, infirm or who felt as though they had given all they could to the Daylands left for Resthaven and did not return.

Lavish parties were held for those who chose to sail. It was a great honor and the Daylanders believed it was a sign of favor from the Divinities that one should recognize it as their time to depart. The whole of the Dayland population lined the coasts to watch the Resthaven ship sail away. They waved, they cheered, they laughed, they cried. It was loss, but not loss, for nobody went unexpectedly, and it was a well-known fact that there was no place more beautiful and good than Resthaven. In comparison, the Daylands may as well have been the Nightlands.

“When did ‘e sail?” Aria asked quietly.

“About three years ago,” Larken replied.

Shortly after pappa had died, then.

“I’m sorry I wasn’ there,” she said.

“It’s all right,” Larken replied warmly. “He had a beautiful send off. I don’t think I ever saw him smile so big.” She smiled herself. “He’s in bliss now, and he deserved it. I miss him, but when it’s my turn to sail, I know he’ll be there waiting for me.”

“No one’s sailin’ anytime soon though,” Jamie instructed. “Royal decree.”

Aria and Larken laughed, each linking an arm through one of the Dayland prince’s, who grinned.

“Anyway,” Larken said. “I was really missing father at the time since, you know, it had only been us two for so long.”

“So I paid for this lassie to go cheer herself up in one of the archipelagos,” Jamie cut in. “And what does she return with? A bloody fiance.”

“How long were y’ gone fer?” Aria asked.

“Two years,” Jamie responded. “I had ta move out there for a while in order ta–”

“Annoy us both thoroughly,” Larken finished.

“Well, aye, that too,” he allowed.

Aria was giggling as she bumped Jamie with her hip. “Let ‘er finish ‘er own tale!”

“Indeed,” Larken said, tossing her hair. “Shut up.”

Jamie and Aria burst out laughing but Jamie did subside into silence as Larken continued her story.

They had met at a meat seller’s stall, when both had attempted to purchase the last seared steak quadkabob available.

They had begun bickering over it until the seller had an idea to ask them a riddle, perhaps to prevent bloodshed right in front of his stall; Larken was rather territorial when it came to Albatross quadkabobs.

Aria wasn’t even certain where the idea for quadkabobs had come from. In her dreams, a quadkabob is much like a normal kabob, only instead of being threaded onto just one stick, the meat and vegetables are threaded onto a frame of four vertical sticks and three horizontal ones before being seared or grilled to utter perfection.
“So we agreed,” Larken said. “And he begins. What crawls on four legs in the morning, and immediately we were both, man! The poor man just sort of shrugged. I think he’d just given up on us and figured he’d let us sort it out.”

“Did ya?” Aria asked as they navigated around an old woman pushing a shopping cart, smiling at her as they passed.

“Of course,” Larken said.

Aria shook her head, grinning to herself. Larken could pull off the most soulful, kicked puppy look she had ever seen, even on kicked puppies! If she had turned the full force of those eyes on her husband, the man would not have stood a chance.

As it turned out, the quadkabob encounter had a happy ending after all. Feeling guilty for so shamelessly cheating the poor man out of a good lunch, Larken had snapped her quad frame in half and offered him one. He had taken it, they had walked together through the market and, according to Larken, “The rest was history.”


Aria had to admit to herself that Larken Campbell, well, Larken Cross now, she corrected herself, really knew how to pick them. Her husband was a dark-haired, dark-eyed, bronze-skinned Divinity, with broad shoulders, hard-packed muscle and a straight-toothed smile. He was like a darker version of Jamie, though Aria secretly admitted to herself that she rather preferred her flame-haired friend with the spray of freckles across his nose and his crooked smile.

“I’ve heard quite a lot about you,” the man, Alestor, said, bowing over Aria’s hand and brushing his lips against her knuckles as if she might break were he to press them more firmly to her skin. “Thank you for giving us this world to live in.”

Aria smiled awkwardly before nodding her head and retreating to stand beside Jamie. Even in her dreams, meeting new people was odd, because she was not aware of creating them all. She suspected she subconsciously created people based upon glimpses of faces she saw while walking the streets of the waking world. But it was always a bit unsettling to meet a figment of her imagination that she could never remember creating.

She also felt odd when they thanked her for being their creator. To her, she was more to them than the Divinities she had created to watch over them. And yet, to Jamie and Larken, she was just Ari. She was pleased that those who were used to seeing her walking the Daylands thought precious little of it, even if they did show her signs of respect she could have done without, but new people always made a big fuss over her creator status.

As Alestor turned to Larken, Jamie slipped his arm around her shoulders.

“Still bothers ye,” he mused.

“I should ‘av’ created ye all ne’r knowin’ I created ye.”

“We’d figure it out,” he replied. “It’s no’ just our instinctively knowing. There is somethin’ ye carry that resonates with us when ye are near. Every being kens its Lord or Lady or Divinity, and ye are the highest of them all ta us. In time, he’ll get past it, just as we all have.”


The baby was indeed beautiful, with her father’s dark hair and skin and Larken’s piercing, laughing eyes and delicate facial features. She was dressed in infant small clothes and swaddled in a seashell-pattered blanket.

“Wait,” Aria said as she examined the edges of the blanket very closely. “Are those quadkabobs?”

“Wait, what?” Jamie asked, hurrying over to look. “Are ye serious, Larken?” was his question only a beat later, after Aria indicated the line of embroidery she was examining. “Ye actually sewed quadkabobs inta yer bairn’s blanket?”

“It was an integral part of our beginning!” Larken defended herself while Aria giggled.

“The poor lass is gonna be starvin’ every night,” Jamie lamented, causing Larken to huff and Aria to laugh louder.
“Does ‘er cradle look like one too?” she asked her friend.

Larken shot Aria a glare, but the corners of her lips were betraying the amusement she was doggedly holding back.

“She’s beautiful,” Aria told her friend, smiling gently at her. “Wha’s ‘er name?”

“Savannah,” Larken replied, beaming down at the baby in her arms. “Savannah Rose Cross.”

Yet another person she had no memory of creating.


“Do y’ like ‘I’m?” Aria asked as she skipped rocks with Jamie on the castle’s main dock.

“Who, Alestor?” Jamie asked. “Aye, he’s no’ such a bad sort. A bit dotin’ and overprotective, but I suppose I’d be a wee bit the same if I were married.”

“It does tend to come wi’ th’ title,” Aria agreed.

Jamie shrugged, skipping a stone a full five or so feet further than she had.

“I would no’ ken.”

They sat in companionable silence for a time, their bare feet swishing back and forth in the sun-warmed waters of the Aemmalee. The sky was darkening toward what passed for night in the Daylands. It was not truly night at all, but more a deep blue twilight in which the moons and stars could shine like precious gems against rich velvet.

She gazed out across the bay, her eyes tracking the glide of a masted ship in the distance as it made its way toward the harbor for the evening. As she watched it approach, Aria asked the question she had been dreading the answer to.

“So… Crutious. ‘Ow much troubl’ ‘as ‘e caused durin’ msleep?”
Even without looking at him, Aria knew Jamie was scowling. Perhaps that odd sense went both ways, because she could almost feel an echo of his anger as if it were her own.

“Quite a bit, ta be honest, Ari,” Jamie said. “He marched on the Daylands wi’ an army of his minions after ye’d been asleep fer six months or so. Guess he thought that with ye no’ around, the Daylands were ripe fer a takeover.”

“Wha’ ‘apened?” Aria asked, rubbing her temples with two fingers. “Did ‘e ‘urt anyone?”

Jamie was silent for so long, Aria found herself glancing over at him. He was staring out over the water with a furrowed brow, his fingers loose about his handful of stones.

“Jamie?”

“Oh, aye?” Jamie said, looking at her. “Aye, he hurt people, Ari. He hurt some so badly the Divinities sent the Resthaven ship to come and take them away. Many were no’ ready to go.”

“What!”

Aria heard the shock in her own voice, but it was not quite as shocked as she felt. The Resthaven ship was never supposed to come in times of war! People were not supposed to be able to sail to Resthaven against their will!

“How is tha’ poss’ble?”

“I had hoped ye could tell us,” Jamie said, shaking his head. “Ye dinnae ken? Ye dinnae give permission fer that ta be done in times of need?”

“Nay,” she said emphatically. “No one’s spposed t’ go t’ Resthaven if’n they ain’t ready.”

Jamie frowned, casting his gaze toward the pier-bound ship. The silence between them was heavy with worry and confusion. Aria knew Jamie must be feeling even more unsettled than she herself was, for if the creator had not changed the rules of how their world worked, then who had?

And why?

Before she could say anything further, she felt a gentle tug at the back of her mind. It was the warning she had known ever since childhood, telling her that wakefulness was on its way.

“We’ll figure this out,” she told Jamie as she pushed herself to her feet. “But I’ve gotta go fer now.”

Jamie rose and slipped his arm around her. They returned to the castle in silence and parted with an embrace at the door of her bedroom. Entering the simply-furnished chamber, she crossed toward the large bed at its center, sinking down onto it as her eyes began to close.

She lost a bit of time then, as she always did, her mind traveling from dreams to waking in a way she could not consciously follow. When she opened her eyes to her tent once more, she blinked blearily and frowned up at the leather roof. She could hear the sounds of the camp waking around her, could hear Arrow pawing at the dirt behind the tent.

And in her mind, she could still hear the voice from her dream.

“Many were no’ ready to go.”

Then why had they gone?

Novembris 1, 371

Novembris 1, 371
Morning

The stone skipped across the surface of the pool, leaving a stream of ripples in its wake. She watched it before plucking another from the pile in her hand and sending it after the first. The cold air lifted the ends of her hair, whipping the long tresses across her face. She did not bother shoving them back. She merely drew the brim of her hat lower and ducked her head, attempting to combat the ferocity of the wind.

A third stone followed the second, skipping only twice before giving up the fight and sinking to the bottom of the pool. Sighing, she tilted her hand, tipping the pile of stones onto the ground beside her left foot. She stared out over the water, watched the ripples sweep out from the points of contact toward the bank. Cupping her chin in her hand, she placed the other over her growing abdomen. Her mind was surprisingly blank, if not entirely peaceful this day. She could not explain why, only that it was.

She could not say when the shadow fell over her, so lost was she in her thoughts of nothing. But eventually, she did blink, noting the absence of the light to her left. Lifting her eyes, she was startled to find Hawk standing beside her, staring down at her with an unreadable expression on his face. She took a moment to examine him more closely than she had ever allowed herself in the past. Hawk had, since the time he had offered her bread and water in an attempt to combat her nausea, ceased to frighten her.

He was tall. Very tall. Taller even than Brand, she could tell. He was far leaner than Brand as well. His strength reminded her of a cat, lean but deadly, swift and quick. His shoulders were broad enough, but he was certainly not the wall of muscle that was Brand, son of Barloth.

His hair was a thick mass of midnight-brown that fell to his shoulders and was only slightly uneven at the ends. Unlike Lien’s jagged cut; Lien did not really care what his hair looked like so long as it was not too long. A fairly well-trimmed beard and mustache wrapped the lower half of his face. It was the same shade of his hair and, she had to admit, rather added to his dark and foreboding air.

His nose was straight and unremarkable and his jaw was strong. His cheekbones were a bit too well-defined and his lips a touch too thin, rather like that Rowan maiden’s. His skin was very slightly weathered, and she knew he had been a ranger far longer than he had been.

He was not what she would have called traditionally handsome. But there was an intensity about him that was intriguing. His piercing gray eyes were beautiful, if a touch heavy-lidded, but even that seemed to suit him in a way it would not have suited most others.

She could not have said how long they stared at one another before Hawk reached into his cloak and withdrew his hand which now held a golden-brown bread roll. Wordlessly, he extended it toward her. She felt a flash of confusion; she was not sick. But by now, she was beginning to learn that people did things just to do them sometimes. It made no sense and had absolutely no logic attached to it, but she had been told that she could not ever expect to understand everything.

Reaching up, she took the bread. Without knowing why she did it, she found her own hand dipping into the basket lying beside her and emerging with a large candied cherry between her fingers. It was a recipe from her past, one she had given Issa permission to pass off as her own; she was not all that interested in being hailed as a cook as well as a brewer, especially since she was no more than proficient at the craft.

Extending her hand, she offered up the sweet to Hawk. It was his turn to hesitate before he accepted the offering solemnly, placing it carefully into his cloak. Without a word, he turned and slipped back into the forest, leaving her there, the still slightly-warm roll in her hand.

Only after she had eaten it did she realize she was smiling.

Octobris 24, 371

Octobris 24, 371
Evening

When the knock came on the pole outside her tent two days later, Aria lifted her head from her pallet, staring uncomprehendingly at the flap for a moment. Then she rose, freeing herself from her nest of blankets and making her weary way over to untie it. Drawing the flap back an inch or so, she peered out.

Issa smiled hopefully, her arms wrapped about a large, reed-woven basket.

Untying the flap the rest of the way, Aria drew it aside, silently allowing Issa in. Not bothering to retie it behind the woman, she just let the flap fall back into place with a soft whush.

“I have something for you,” Issa said, indicating the basket. “Would you like to see it?”

Would she? Aria stared at the basket, uncertain. Why was Issa giving her anything? Was it a Yule present? But it was not yet Yule. What was this, and what did it mean? What response would Issa expect, and how could Aria know how to react if she did not comprehend the why of this offering in the first place?

But would she like to see? Surprisingly, Aria found that yes, she would.

She nodded and Issa beamed. Aria moved closer as her… could Issa be called a friend?… knelt on the dirt floor and lifted the basket’s lid, revealing folds of colorless fabric.

“It’s not much,” Issa said as she reached inside to draw out the gown, shaking it out and showing it to Aria. “My mother gave it to me when I was pregnant with Maybelle. It will adjust with you as you grow so you don’t need to keep making clothing that may never have practical use once the child is born.”

Kneeling down beside Issa, Aria reached out and touched the garment. It was soft, but sturdy, more practical than pretty, but with an elegance to its design that was more elegance than she had ever owned, with puffed shoulders, rustling skirts and moccasins and gloves lined in what she could only judge was rabbit fur.

She adored it at first glance.

“I love it,” she told Issa earnestly. “Thank ya, Issa.”

Issa had, somehow without Aria’s noticing, transcended that obscure line that Brand had done so swiftly after she had met him. She had inched her way past Aria’s outer barriers, into a zone that enabled the young woman to speak a touch more freely with the other. Issa was easy to like, and easy to speak with. Aria could not place her finger on just when it had happened, but she found she did not mind so much now when Issa asked her things, found that a part of her shied away from making Issa sad by refusing to speak to her about anything personal.

“Would you like to try it on?” Issa asked eagerly.

Aria found herself smiling, the small, sweet curve to her lips that, by most standards would have been a small thing, but in Aria’s case was practically a grin.

“Lemme wash first,” she told Issa.

“I’ll help you heat the water,” Issa offered, and Aria nodded, gazing encouragingly over at her.

She knew it was dangerous, but she could not help it. She was growing very, very fond of Issa and her family.


The gown fit like a dream, and Aria discovered that each elegant feature had a purpose. The shoulders puffed because they were adjustable, cleverly concealed cords enabling the fabric about the arms to be loosened and tightened at will.

“My arms got a little chubby when I was pregnant,” Issa explained as she showed Aria the draw ties hidden beneath the shoulder of the frock. “These sleeves were lifesavers, else I’d have torn the seams.”

The waist, too, had been cleverly tailored with an attached sash that had been fitted with knots and loops. Issa showed her how to draw the sash tight or loosen it, holding it securely at the chosen tightness by means of those knots and loops. Aria, to her embarrassment, found she had to wear the sash on the loop before the tightest, her abdomen having rounded visibly with the signs by now. In a stroke of genius, Issa’s mother had sewn the garment in such a way as to control the fit of the bodice by the fit of the sash.

Full, homespun petticoats bolstered the cascading skirts, rustling prettily with every movement, and both gloves and moccasins were the most comfortable Aria had ever worn. The shoes were scuffed, clearly not new, but Aria did not care. These were the finest clothes she had ever owned.

“And for the final touch,” Issa said, gently placing a feminine homespun hat graced with a delicate cloth flower over the loose, damp locks of her hair. “You look beautiful, Nini.”

Aria felt beautiful. Experimentally, she walked across the tent, luxuriating in the swish of the skirts and the soft, warming grip of the moccasins on her feet. When she reached the far wall, she turned to face Issa. She could feel the pleasure on her face. She could not suppress the expression.

“S ‘perfec’, Issa,” she said quietly.

Issa just beamed.

Octobris 22, 371

Octobris 22, 371
Noon

Curiosity was ill becoming of a young woman. Aria knew it even as her small hands slid beneath the lid of the chest in the entrance hall of the Southside Almshouse, patting over the items within. Her knees protested the hard cold of the floor upon which she knelt, and her heart beat somewhere in her dry throat, certain she would be caught and scolded at any moment. When she heard naught save the far off squeak and scurry of a rat through some hidden crevice or other, however, she raised the lid a few inches, chancing a peek into the chest’s interior.

The first thing she noticed were the scents. Rising from the items before her flowed the mingled scents of lavender and fruit, fresh notes of flowers and baser aromas of earth and leather. Closing her eyes, she breathed them in, luxuriating in their enticing bouquets.

Aria had always liked things that smelled pretty, but unless they were natural or cheap to make, she did not bother with them. She had the ability to make lotions that smelled like fruit, but she never did. Cosmetics were not part of who she was. Who was there to care? Who was there to notice? She kept herself clean. The rest had little place in her life.

And yet, when she lifted the lid of the chest and saw the wrapped soaps lying within, she found herself yearning to possess just a single bar of something pretty that would not feel like sand on her skin when she washed with it.

“What are ye doin’?”

Aria slammed the lid of the chest down with a bang, leaping away from it as if it had burned her. Whipping around, she found a pair of moss green eyes staring back at her. They belonged to a tall maiden around her own age. Clearly common, the girl’s features were a touch too strong to be called classically pretty, but her oval face did possess a lovely symmetry. Her eyes were a bit too large for her face, but their color was clear, and while her lips were far too thin to be all that attractive, she had a dimple at the right corner that leant her an air of sweetness. Her hair was by far her most striking feature, a thick-spun mane of russet tresses cascading past her waist in silky waves, shot through with streaks of amber and cinnamon.

Something about the maiden’s appearance felt as if it should mean something to her, but Aria could not place why. But there was something… she felt it as keenly as she knew her own name as she looked into those green eyes.

Then the girl smiled and the thread she had been clinging to slipped from her tentative grasp, leaving her uncertain and confused. Shaking her head, Aria lifted a hand, massaging her temple with a sigh.

“Ye can take some, ye ken,” the girl said, gesturing toward the chest with one long-fingered hand. “It’s a donation chest. Everyone’s allowed ta take a bit of what they need or want.”

Aria peeked at the chest, keeping her other eye on the girl before her. Something told her it might not be such a wise idea to turn her back on this maiden. There was no logical explanation for her paranoia; perhaps it was simply that the maiden had snuck up on her so effectively. It made her feel jumpy, on edge. Was she growing lax in her awareness of her surroundings?

“I’m Rowan, daughter of Jasmine,” the girl continued, and when she curtsied and lifted her hand in the ranger’s salute, Aria felt something inside her both ease and tighten, as if she could not completely decide if she should be comforted by this familiarity with the customs of her people or alarmed by it.

She must have stared for a bit too long because the maiden tossed her hair after a time, folding her arms across her chest with a scowl.

“Ye must be Nini,” she said. “They say ye do nay speak. They say ye can, ye just choose no’ ta most of the time. Why?”

Aria had to give this Rowan props for directness, but at the moment, she was not really in the mood for an interrogation.

Turning back to the chest without a word, she lifted the lid. She knew she was being rude. She understood social customs enough to know that turning away from someone who is speaking to you is not polite. But something inside her rebelled at the thought of being nice to this maiden. It made no sense; the girl had done nothing to her but ask her a question.

Huffing, Rowan reached over Aria’s shoulder, shoving back the lid of the chest and snatching out a few bars of soap, stuffing them into a ragged sack dangling from one arm.

“Nice meetin’ ye, Nini,” she said sarcastically before pivoting on her heel and flouncing from the building.

Absently, Aria reached into the chest, wrapping her fingers around a bar of what looked to be lavender soap. As she rose to her feet, she drew it out with her, slipping it into her satchel with a troubled frown.

On the long walk back to the camp, she could only describe her state of mind as distant, even from herself. She felt as if she were somehow outside herself, even as she moved instinctively toward her destination. She could smell the brisk winter air, could hear the crunch of leaves under foot, could feel the chill of the day seeping through the ragged folds of her cloak. But she could never say what she was thinking as she walked. It felt like a dream, as if part of her was floating alongside herself, wholly distracted by something she could not quite identify.

It was Hawk who brought her out of her stupor. She supposed it was a good thing he had been paying attention to his surroundings, because she certainly had not been. She had been wandering aimlessly toward their camp, lost in that odd, disjointed calm, and then she was there again, catapulted into reality as Hawk hauled her away from the edge of the rocky ledge.

She shook her head, blinking at the trees before her. It took her a moment to register the position she was now in. Someone had hold of her about the waist. It was a male someone; he smelled of leather and forest air, and that scent without a name that was all man. His arms were strong, his grip like the clamp of steel.

It did not take her long to begin struggling in earnest as her hatred of being touched surged violently forth. The arms fell away and she staggered forward, only to find a hand gripping her arm and whirling her around.

Hawk stood behind her, Windwing on his shoulder, gazing down at her with a hard expression on his face.

“Pay attention,” he said harshly. “You nearly fell to your death. Twice, with that little stunt you just pulled. Are you a ranger or not?”

Aria jerked her arm from his grasp, rubbing it as if in an attempt to rid herself of Hawk’s touch. She could feel her eyes narrowing as she glared up at him. He was completely unfazed, and in the end, it was she who looked away first.

“Find your center or find another way to live, haauuhaa lowaa,” was Hawk’s cutting parting comment.

He left her there, scaling down the cliff like a large cat, his final words ringing in her ears.

He was right. It did not, however, mean she had to admit it graciously, even to herself. She scowled in the direction Hawk had vanished even as a part of her wondered how this man was able to breach her perpetual indifference toward strangers. What was so special about him that he was able to bypass all her walls with a single look, a single touch and a single command?

She did not like it.

She did not even look at Brand as he called to her when she entered the camp. Lips pursed, her mood foul, she strode through the flap of her tent, tied it and ignored the world for the next twenty-four hours.

The One

The one has ill plans afoot. She can see it in the cruel quirk of the smile and the manic glint in the eyes. The laugh which bubbles from somewhere deep is slightly hysterical and filled with wicked promise. The one rubs their hands together in anticipation, baring their teeth at their reflection. It is an expression that sends chills down her spine; it is the look of one who revels in pure madness.

That the one has pierced her sanctuary with their presence shakes her to her core. She does not wish to share a home with them. She has too much to lose should they decide to look her way.

She is frozen where she is crouched, peering out from around a tree, watching the one as they lean over the pool, mumbling to themselves and flashing that fell smile every few seconds or so.

The morning light glints off their hair; it ripples like a river of dull flame beneath the pale winter sun, beautifully blended russet and chestnut waves loosed down their back to toy with the wind. Their forest green eyes sparkle with suppressed excitement, their caramel hued skin flushed with it. Their lithe form quivers, each movement quick and sharp like those of a snake. They remind her of a coiled spring, a wild thing, and she finds herself making the sign of the chalice over her brow and her abdomen. She does not want to be anywhere nearby when that tension finally snaps.

Perhaps it is the movement that alerts the one. They whip around, their intense gaze boring into the tree behind which she crouches. She feels her throat close up in terror. She wants to scream, but there is no longer any breath for it. She wants to run, but she is frozen in place as if the one has locked her to the ground by the force of their stare.

The forest is silent. She realizes this as the one’s footsteps crunch loudly over fallen leaves and dead branches. Each one is like a heartbeat, and she wonders if this silent, menacing metronome is sounding the final seconds of her life.

The one is closer now, reaching out a hand toward the branch over her head. She finds herself thinking absently that the hand is quite attractive, with long, artistic fingers and not a blemish to be found. The one is attractive, graceful, and may have interested her despite herself if not for that thing in their eyes… that thing that speaks to the absence of all humanity.

The branches part and the one stares down at her. She cannot look away from those frigid eyes, from the calculation that she knows is weighing the pros and cons of letting her live.

Her arms are wrapped about her abdomen, and she knows she must be pleading with her own eyes.

‘Please,’ she thinks desperately, unable to force the words past her frozen lips. ‘Lord, please. Not th’ baby.’

The one looks at her, giving nothing away in their blank, emotionless stare. When she thinks she may scream after all at the agony of the terrified anticipation shooting through her, the one lifts a hand, pointing a finger directly at her forehead.

And then…

Octobris 18, 371

Octobris 18, 371
Late Night

She was smiling slightly to herself as she passed through the western gate, despite the mess she had left behind in the gutter and the foul taste of bile slicking the inside of her mouth. She had never had an experience quite like the one she had just encountered, and while the entire situation was confusing, it had also been amusing in its own right.

She thought back to the tavern, to the man with the dark hair and the green eyes. They had stared at one another for the better part of an hour. She had been curious about him; she could not say why. He had seemed fascinated by her hair, though again, she could not say why.

Linking her hands together behind her back, she stretched as she gazed up at the sky, following a cluster of stars toward Circadnanoth which was rising high in the east. The man had spoken to her before nausea had forced her out of the tavern. He had said something about how he was generally rather cantankerous, though his wording had been far cruder. It had been an odd form of introduction, and she had not entirely known what to say to it. She had finally fallen back on honesty, and told him that at least he knew it.

Her thoughts were disjointed as she crunched over dead grasses and fallen leaves. Someone had called him the “lord seneschal.” What was that? Was he a noble? She had not known that. She was not entirely surprised; such things often escaped her notice. She never really knew what to look for, after all. She had only ever seen nobles from afar in her travels with Lien. It was rather like watching the moons. You could marvel at their beauty, but they were never near enough to be much more than a passing admiration.

Nobles were like an entirely different species in her mind. Their worlds were so far apart, they may as well reside on the moons, if she was making comparisons. It always made her feel odd when those boundaries threatened to merge. It was not right. It felt as if the world were buckling, as if the very fabric of the social order were warping when a noble deigned to speak with a commoner. Were they not merely supposed to pretend as if the lower classes did not exist? That was what she was used to seeing. Unless a commoner was being whipped or verbally degraded, of course. Was that not what nobles were for? Keeping the low born in their place?

But this man had been kind. Confusing, but she had found herself enjoying their odd little staring contest, pinching her arms beneath the table to keep from smiling as blue eyes bored into green.

Knowing that he was a lord of some sort only served to enhance her overall confusion regarding him. He had not demanded she curtsy. He had not sought to strike her for not showing him the appropriate respect. It was like a parent allowing a child to misbehave right before their eyes. It felt… wrong. Why had he not corrected her oversight? Why had he seemed interested in a low born young woman with naught to offer but social ineptitude’s?

None of it made a lick of sense to her.

Was that really surprising, though? Little ever did.

Brand greeted her with a wave when she finally arrived at the camp. He was seated near the fire with Issa, a bowl of stew in one massive hand while his other arm cradled his wife lovingly about the shoulders.

Aria nodded to him, slipping into her tent and seeking her water skin to wash the taste of bile from her mouth. Fishing the cluster of willow twigs she used for cleaning her teeth from her basket of personal effects, she found her mind turning toward the upcoming winter.

Should she leave the camp before or after the snows began? Aria was surprised to find that the prospect of moving on from here was not pleasant. This had been the closest to a home she had ever known since she had lost her own. She knew this was dangerous and that it was a glaring sign that it was time to depart. To find another camp for the next few weeks. One a bit easier to get to as her body began to alter with the physical signs of her pregnancy.

The thought made her feel weak with sadness, and as she began to clean her teeth, she shoved it away.

She would save that decision for the morning.

Octobris 14, 371

Octobris 14, 371
Noon

Aria glanced up as she heard a gentle knock upon the pole just outside the flap of her tent.

“Nini? It’s Issa. May I come in?”

Aria rolled her eyes toward the leather ceiling. If she was the type of young woman who promised herself such unladylike things as smacking Brand the next time she saw him, she would. He called her Nini so often, despite her protests, that the name was sticking in the camp, and was, to her horror, settling itself in as her ranger moniker.

Pushing herself to her feet, she trudged toward the tent flap and unlaced it, drawing it back and stepping aside to let Issa in.

Brand’s wife bustled inside, all smiles and dimples and tousled chocolate brown hair. She brought with her the scent of fresh forest air and, much to Aria’s more immediate interest, that of baked bread.

“I brought you some bread up from Wilhelm,” Issa said quietly as Aria closed and laced the flap.

Turning toward the other woman, Aria could not stop the grateful smile that briefly touched her lips even had she tried. Her eyes burned, and to her horror, she felt like crying.

“There now,” Issa said, moving closer and reaching out tentatively for Aria’s shoulder.

Aria flinched away, and Issa lowered her hand, looking a little sad, though Aria could not understand why.

“It’s hard, isn’t it?” Issa asked softly. “I know what you’re going through. I had a very difficult pregnancy with Maybelle too. It must be twice as difficult with your husband away.”

Aria just stared at the other woman, not speaking. What was this? It sounded like sympathy, but was it also a subtle probe for information? She did not understand subtleties. If someone wanted to know something, why not just ask? Aria knew she would probably not answer, but it would certainly make her brain hurt less.

“You get sick a lot,” Issa continued, as stubborn as her husband was, if in a softer way, to engage Aria. “We hear you sometimes. Bread can help. I’ve seen you eating your crackers, but sometimes good old bread is the best thing for a rebelling stomach.”

Aria found herself absently wondering just why Brand and his wife were so well spoken. Where had they come from? Who had they been before they became who they were? And why, if they had been blessed, obviously, with some form of education, had they abandoned such a life for this one?

“Thank ya,” Aria found herself murmuring, reaching out for the basket in Issa’s hands. “S’ real nice of ya, Issa.”

Aria did not lie when she spoke to people. She found that she had a very bad tendency of admitting exactly how she felt if she chose to speak at all. If she did not wish to say something, she simply would not rather than tell a falsehood.

Her thanks was genuine. The bread smelled divine, and it tempted her as no food had been doing for about a week now. She was grateful to Issa for bringing it, and, if she was being honest with herself, she was comforted by the presence of another female who could understand what she was going through.

Issa had not misjudged. This was exceptionally difficult without Lien at her side. She knew he was out earning money for them, but it did not make the reality of his absence any easier. This was the life they had chosen, she knew, and it was just how things were. She knew Lien would have no idea what to do any more than she did, but at least they would be muddling through it all together. As it stood, she felt horribly, horribly alone.

“You’re welcome, Nini,” Issa said. She hesitated, then forged ahead. “Do you have any questions?”

Aria’s brows furrowed in confusion. Questions? About what? The bread? Life? Certainly she had questions about the latter, but she knew only the Lord had those answers.

“About being with child,” Issa said gently, clearly seeing Aria’s confusion.

Oh. That made more sense, but why had she not simply asked so in the first place?

Aria lifted her shoulders in a shrug, glancing down at the basket she now held in her hands and breathing in the delightful scent of freshly baked bread. Flipping back a corner of the cloth, she felt her stomach rumble at the sight of perfectly round rolls baked to an even golden brown. Reaching in, she retrieved one, holding it in her hand and allowing the warmth to sink into her skin, causing goose bumps to rise on her arms.

“Nini.” Issa was watching her, her eyes filled with quiet entreaty. “I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me. I know you’re a private person, Nini, but that doesn’t mean you have to face everything alone.”

Aria looked up from the roll she was contemplating, letting the corner of the linen cloth fall back over the others. She stared at Issa, blinking. Well, that had been straight to the point, and she found she was both blind sided by it and grateful for it.

She also found she had absolutely no idea how to respond to it. What did Issa hope she would say? How was she supposed to react to such a statement. Did Issa not realize that, aside from one’s family, one did, in fact, walk this world alone? Friends were never guaranteed to always be there. Family had either no choice or had made the choice to become someone’s for life, as she had with Lien. She did not choose to face this pregnancy alone, but it was one of the challenges the Lord had blessed her with. There was no one to turn to, so how could she possibly face it with anyone by her side when the only one who meant something to her was not there?

“Thanks fer th’ bread,” was all she ended up saying in reply.

Issa watched her sadly as Aria moved toward the small warming pit dug in the floor at the center of her tent. Placing the covered basket within, she raked hot coals over it, not enough to bake or burn, but enough to keep the bread within warm.

“You’re welcome,” the dark-haired woman murmured before quietly letting herself out.

Aria felt awkward, as if she had done something wrong. She did not want to make Issa sad, but she did not know what to do. If Lien were here, he would have cued her subtly in how to react, and she would have followed those cues and made less of a muck up of social situations than she was liable to on her own. Without him, she was floundering in the dark, and people were just so very confusing. She just could not understand the whats and whys and hows of human interaction. It never usually bothered her, but at times like this, when she was fairly certain she had hurt someone’s feelings without understanding those hows or whys, she wished she were different.

As she wandered toward the tent flap to knot it shut, Aria lifted the bread roll she still clutched in her right hand to her lips, sinking her teeth into the warm, doughy softness with a sigh of pleasure. The roll was simple, without added costs or tastes like spices, nuts, cheese or salted exteriors. It was rich and filling, while at the same time gentle on the stomach as she swallowed it. The crisp crust countered the doughy, buttery interior in such a perfect balance of textures it made the bread seem a touch more complex than it truly was.

Lien had always teased Aria for her memory. If something was important to her, it engraved itself upon her mind, never to be forgotten. Her mind, she had often tried to explain, had layers. She meditated in prayer each night, centering her faith and her thoughts. She forgot nothing. It was merely a matter of how far beneath the surface layers of her thoughts she placed things. There were memories, she knew, she had pressed down deep. Painful memories like pappa’s death. They were there, but they were far enough not to hurt with every breath. Memories of her childhood often surfaced now only in dreams, as seemed common for those who were, in fact, no longer children. Memories that were exceptionally special to her were kept close, but apart, barred behind smokescreens of less important memories. A traveling priest had warned her once that tainted ones could invade the minds of others, and she had always kept that warning close and guarded her own as thoroughly as she was able.

What happened next, however, was a memory Aria was not certain she would ever be able to catalog without creating a chest made of pure diamond in her mind. For surely, such an experience could belong nowhere else.

At first, she was not entirely certain she had felt it at all. As she swallowed her first mouthful of bread, she felt her stomach flutter, as it did whenever she received a message from Lien telling her he would be returning home.

Dismissing it as nervousness at facing Issa or Brand after upsetting the former, Aria lifted the bread to her mouth once more.

This time, there was no mistaking the flutter. It began at the center of her abdomen and blossomed outward as if it intended to fill her very core with sensation. She froze where she stood, one hand grasping the ties of her tent and her mouth full of bread. Her right hand fluttered to her abdomen, touching it as if she had never done so before. She gazed down at her hand as the flutter came again, staring at her stomach as if it had just turned to gold.

In a fashion, it had.

Her baby was real now.

Octobris 8, 371

Octobris 8, 371
Dawn

Aria spit out the sour taste of bile atop the rest of the mess in the chamber pot and remained where she was, kneeling on the frigid ground just outside her tent, waiting to see if the heaving would begin again.

It did, clutching her abdomen with spasms of nausea so powerful they rocked her entire body. Tears were squeezed from her eyes as the blustery wind whipped at her face, and her arm hurt from where it was bent behind her head, holding back her hair so she would not vomit in it.

The nausea had begun shortly after midnight, and had plagued her all night. The end result was that she had spent most of the night outside, freezing and sicking up until she was terrified she might throw up the baby itself with the next heave. Surely there was nothing else left in her stomach that could possibly be expelled.

There was no step to warn her of anyone approaching, or if there was, she was too distracted by misery to have heard it. But Aria suddenly found a chunk of bread shoved beneath her nose. She was so startled that she rocked back on her heels mid-heave, taking the bread automatically with the hand that had been bracing herself over the pot. Luckily, the heave brought up absolutely nothing, and so she was not humiliated by vomiting on herself.

When the spasm abated, Aria looked up through streaming eyes to find Hawk standing over her, Windwing an immense black shape on his right shoulder. A startled yelp ripped itself from her raw, aching throat, but was choked off by a coughing fit that made it feel as if it were being raked over a bed of ground glass. How by all that was holy and light had he moved so luning silently!

Hawk looked unimpressed, or perhaps dourness was his usual expression.

“Wahaloloua Lohaaawa, olowalowa,” he muttered under his breath, unhooking a wineskin from his belt and shoving it toward her. Without any other source of liquid within easy reach, Aria seized at it, pouring the blessedly cold ale down her throat. She chased it with the soft, chewy sourdough bread, keeping one eye on Hawk as he waited patiently for her to finish.

When she had, Aria extended the wineskin toward Hawk, but he shook his head, his eyes flitting over to the chamber pot with some disgust.

“Keep it,” he said, his voice like black mead, rich and smooth and possessed of a baritone rasp that was at once both unique and enticing.

Before she could thank him or, if she was being honest with herself, before she could decide whether she wished to speak to him at all, Hawk turned and vanished into the shadows the dawn light had not yet dispelled from their place beneath the trees.

Curling into a fetal position right there on the hard ground, Aria drew her cloak about her and rested her head on her arms. Closing her eyes, she felt the wind whipping at the ends of her long hair as she tried to make sense of the exchange she had just had.

Why had Hawk helped her? Had he witnessed her reaction to him the other night? Did he feel badly for causing her such distress? Aria admitted it had not really been his fault; all he had done was look at her, just as she had been looking at him. But had he felt responsible just the same? And what was that he had said before handing her the wineskin?

Aria could make sense of none of it. There was no logical reason for Hawk to have approached her. They had never spoken. They did not know one another from Dav. They had nothing binding them together. So why had he helped her?

Her thoughts were interrupted by another wave of nausea. It was less intense this time, but still very much undeniable. Pushing herself up over the chamber pot once more with a groan, she proceeded to sick up everything Hawk had just given her. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Aria wondered if that was supposed to be some sort of sign by the Lord to keep away from him and all he offered.


Early Morning

Aria frowned down at her bodice as she sucked her stomach in as far as it would go. She laced up the front of the gown, frowning at its uncomfortable tightness. She was going to have to turn her wool into a bolt before long; she was going to need a new outfit.

Aria pursed her lips in irritation. She had known she would not be able to wear her usual gown as she began to show, but she had not expected to show so early. Or at least to feel it so early. At this rate, she would be showing before too long in any case.

Aria was not a huge fan of tailoring garments. She pricked her fingers constantly and while she possessed the skill to make the basic pieces she could ever need, she did not really enjoy it. She felt as if tailoring garments was a waste of cloth. Why have multiple outfits if one served her well? It was not a pretty outfit, but it was functional and had survived a lot. She was the kind of person who would tailor a new garment only after the first had been worn to its last seam.

That was not the case here, however, and Aria knew she was going to need to take time to tailor a wrap for the baby anyway. She might not enjoy it, but nor would she let that stop her from providing her child with everything she could possibly give it. She loved this unborn person with a quiet intensity that took her breath away. How could someone love another being they had never met? This baby was not even born, was not even a full person yet. How could she feel so strongly for someone that was not yet truly real?

Casting those thoughts into the back of her mind to ponder at a later date, Aria stepped out of her tent, collected her water buckets and began the long, arduous trek toward the stream for that morning’s bath.

Octobris 5, 371

Pvent Roll: Aria witnessed something that upset her a great deal recently.

Octobris 5, 371
After Nightfall

“You said your father liked this pumpkin ale, aye?” Brand asked as he took a seat beside Aria on one of the bonfire benches.

Glancing up from where she was tracing out a sketch in a salvaged ledger, Aria narrowed her eyes up at Brand as she tried to figure out where he was going with this. After a time, she shook her head.

“I said ‘e liked vodka an’ meads,” she responded. “Why?”

“The cauldron says 370,” Brand replied. “You must have invented the recipe recently then. Who did you make it for?”

Aria set down her stub of charcoal, narrowing her eyes even further.

“No one,” she said flatly.

Brand lifted a hand in supplication, though Aria caught that same flash of disappointment in his eyes she had seen the other day.

“It was just a question,” he said. Lifting his tankard, he indicated it with a thumb. “It’s very good. I was just curious to know what inspired you, that’s all.”

Aria was grumpy; her moods had been swinging erratically all week, and she merely looked away from Brand, stubborn in her decision to be annoyed with him for prying. Brand, however, either did not get the hint or ignored it entirely. Knowing him, Aria suspected it was the latter. Brand seemed to miss very little. She knew this made him dangerous, but she could still not help but be genuinely fond of him, even when he annoyed her.

By the same token, she had known him for less than a month. She did not make friends. She did not know how. Her awkwardness with people often found them giving up before she could comprehend what they were attempting in the first place. It mattered little that she liked Brand. He was still a stranger to her, and if he thought she would begin confiding such private things as inspirations and sentiments to him after such a brief acquaintance, then she should probably get used to seeing those disappointed flashes.

“That one says 371,” Brand continued, pointing a large finger toward the cauldron of Wassail Winter Ale suspended over the bonfire. “Did you make that for us?”

Aria’s lips tightened and she blew out an exasperated breath between them. What did it matter if she had? Tossing a glare over at Brand, she was completely taken aback to find him grinning at her. What was funny? She was angry with him. That was not supposed to be amusing.

“You’re cute when you’re angry,” he clarified.

“Huh?” The sound slipped from her before she could bite it back. Aria could feel her eyebrows leaping up her forehead and the corners of her mouth turning down in pure confusion.

Brand’s laugh echoed over the camp, deep and hearty and filled with such good cheer, Aria was tempted to smile. She bit that one back, at least, not willing to stop being miffed just yet.

“Are you going to be upset with me all night?” Brand asked, catching the look Aria was giving him.

She nodded solemnly and was even more confused when he laughed again.

“You know what you need,” Brand said, leaning his shoulder into hers. “You need some Rolden mulled wine. Hawk brought some up from the city. You should try it.”

Scooting away from the touch of his shoulder, not caring how obvious the motion was, Aria looked pointedly away from him, staring resolutely at the fire. Her eyes unintentionally sought out the one they all called Hawk.

Aria had not had much opportunity to form an opinion about Hawk. He seemed to be much like herself. He kept to himself and did not speak often. When he chose to, however, rumor around the camp was that he could tell some truly fascinating tales.

He sat just beyond the circle of firelight now, his hood pulled low over his face, the intermittent puff of a smoke ring rising from the shadowed cowl. He was leaning back on the bench he had claimed, his long legs stretched out before him. The very tips of his supple brown boots breached the edge of the firelight, the leather gleaming like oil as the flames teased them.

The shadow on Hawk’s right shoulder was indistinct, immense, but devoid of specifics in the darkness. It did not matter. They all knew who perched there.

It was Hawk’s namesake, the beautiful hawk Windwing. He was Hawk’s constant companion, and Aria had even heard the man carrying on a low, one-sided conversation with the bird once before after all the camp had retired.

Windwing was a sleek black raptor with feathers that gleamed like ebony satin whenever light struck them and long, curved talons like glossy, deadly spears. A hooked beak that clicked ominously from time to time, Aria knew, could rip the flesh from a rabbit’s bones in a single tear. His wingspan had to be eight feet across or more, and he carried himself with all the arrogance of a creature who knew just how impressive he was and intended for no one to forget it.

As she watched him, the hooded head lifted, and for the briefest moment, a pair of intense gray eyes bored directly into her own. The force behind that gaze was so unexpected and startled her so greatly, she actually gasped aloud.

“Nini, you all right?” Brand asked her, following her gaze to where Hawk had reclaimed his previous position, eyes once more concealed within the shadow of his hood. “It’s just Hawk.”

Aria closed her eyes, feeling her heart thundering inside her breast with a fear that was absolutely absurd. All the man had done was look at her. Why had it startled her so much?

But how had he known she was looking at him? He was sitting on the opposite end of the camp. Was his awareness of his surroundings so well-honed? Was that even possible?

“Nini.” Brand sounded concerned now.

She felt the graze of his hand against her arm, but did not jerk away for once. Part of her was grateful for his steadying presence. Nothing could harm her while Brand sat beside her.

Aria felt Brand motioning to someone as his hand settled more firmly on her arm. She kept her eyes shut, her body rigid as a board on its bench.

Some primal fear had been awakened inside her by meeting that gaze, but she could not for the life of her understand what it had been or why. Something stirred at the back of her mind, a long forgotten memory, perhaps, but she could not draw it forward, could not examine it for the clues it might hold.

She wanted Lien. She wanted him in this moment more than she had ever craved his presence before. She was thoroughly unsettled and she wanted, childishly, to be held and comforted and told that all would be well. Where was he? Where was her husband? Oh, how she wanted him to come home.

Her chest felt tight, and a high-pitched whine rang in her ears. What was happening to her?

She felt Brand abandon his position at her side, only to feel him crouch before her and take both her hands in his.

“Nini,” he said, his voice intent. “Nini, Aria, I need you to breathe.”

Had she stopped breathing? Had Brand just used her name? The realization of the latter fact was enough to startle her from the panic attack she had begun spiraling down into.

Cold winter air raced into her lungs as she drew in a sharp breath, the tightness in her chest loosening its grip entirely only after her lungs decided she was not going to deprive them once again.

The person to her left shifted, and a moment later, Aria felt the press of a wooden mug at her lips. She drank automatically. Cool ale ran down her throat, the lingering effects of her episode receding. Now she just felt drained. Drained and mortified.

“You back with us, Nini?” Brand asked quietly.

Aria nodded, looking down at her lap while her cheeks flamed with such intense heat, she was certain she had just stolen it from the bonfire itself.

“What hap–?”

She saw Brand make an abortive gesture toward the ale bearer out of the corner of her eye before he reclaimed his seat beside her. He did not release her right hand, however, and she was too tired to protest the physical contact.

“Can you get her a flagon of wine, love?” he queried to the person on Aria’s left. “She’s long overdue.”

“I hardly think wine is what she–”

“Issa.” His tone was sharp and the woman, for the voice had been that of a woman, rose with a sigh and made her way toward the campfire.

“My wife,” Brand explained. “You sure you’re all right?”

Aria nodded. “M’ fine,” she mumbled. “Jus’… jus’ star’ld s’ all.”

When Issa returned with the mulled wine, Aria accepted the flagon gratefully. She even managed a tiny smile for the pretty, brown-haired woman whose brow was still creased in concern.

“Issa, daughter of Amber,” Issa introduced herself, saluting Aria as Aria had saluted Brand at their first meeting.

“Aria, daughter of Aemma,” Aria responded automatically.

“Aria was busy being angry with me before she got spooked by Hawk,” Brand said.

The mention of the ranger caused a chill to run down Aria’s spine. Instinctively, she glanced in Hawk’s direction.

He was gone.

For some reason, that unsettled her even more. She found she did not like not knowing where the man was.

“Were you being nosy again?” Issa was asking Brand, who put on an expression of mock affront.

“I am not nosy.”

“Y’ are,” Aria mumbled. She knew they were trying to cheer her, and she found that, suddenly, she was desperate for some normal silliness, even if such things did not come naturally to her.

“See?” Issa said smugly, leaning back in her seat. “You are a right old busybody. Who needs grandmas when we’ve got you?”

“Remember where you sleep, woman,” Brand growled at his wife, his eyes alight with a promise Aria was all too familiar with.

Aria did not understand most things, but the gleam in a husband’s eye that promised his wife payment for teasing him was one she could recognize with genuine affection. It was also, surprisingly, something that did not make her want to disappear with embarrassment.

“Aye,” Issa said sweetly. “On one side of Maybelle.”

“You wouldn’t.” Brand looked horrified. “You would not do that to me. You do remember she gave me a black eye the last time she shared our pallet.”

Issa smiled innocently.

“Do you think this is fair, Nini?” Brand asked, turning to Aria.

Aria shrugged. “T’ain’t my pro’lm.”

Sipping from the flagon in her hand, she could feel her eyebrows flying up her forehead once more at the infusion of flavors the wine possessed.

“Good, isn’t it?” Brand asked with a grin.

She nodded. Good was an understatement. The balance was exquisite, and she would not call herself an expert by any means. But this was something even the clueless could recognize as brewed by a real master.

Cupping her hands around her flagon, she breathed in deeply of the heady aromas rising from the warming liquid. She let them calm her until the lingering chills of fear had departed. She was not getting much sleep, and her moods had been all over the spectrum lately. She was obviously sleep deprived and jumping at shadows that were not there.

Brand and Issa had begun speaking about their daughter, Aria listening to them with only half an ear. Apparently little Maybelle had been making morning rounds to everyone’s tent and querying after their bodily habits. Issa blamed it all on Brand, who blamed it on Issa’s brother, who was not there to defend himself.

As wine, firelight and surprisingly pleasant company mingled in and around her, Aria felt her eyelids growing heavy. She was uncertain how much time passed before she felt herself being lifted from where she sat, nor if she protested before the familiar softness of her sleeping pallet was beneath her. She should have. It was not anyone’s place to pick her up without her permission.

She would be annoyed with Brand tomorrow for it, she decided, before surrendering to the oblivion of dreams.

Octobris 1, 371

Pvent Roll: Aria saw their neighbor doing something interesting.

Octobris 1, 371
Dawn

When she wandered out of her tent, the sun was just streaking the sky with faint rays of pink and gold. The camp was still mostly still, little to no movement from the surrounding tents. Those who had already risen stood near the bonfire, silently sipping from steaming mugs or setting out for the day’s hunting.

Tucking her freezing hands beneath her arms, she wandered hesitantly over to the fire. The nearest man nodded to her, but did not attempt to strike up any conversation, for which she was grateful. Returning the gesture, she reached out toward the bonfire, warming her numb digits in the heat of the blaze.

TAP. TAP. TAP.

Lifting her eyes toward the sound, Aria saw Brand crouched beside the storage house. He had a mallet in one hand which he was using to gently tap a large barrel which rested before him.

Interested despite herself, she slipped from the circle of firelight, approaching the large man. She paused a yard or so away, continuing to watch what he was doing.

Brand had the awareness of a wild animal, Aria was coming to realize. Very little slipped by him unnoticed, and so when he lifted his head and shook his hair back to grin over at her, she was not at all surprised.

“Morning, Nini,” he said, his voice pitched low so as to not wake those who were still sleeping.

Aria felt her face scrunch at the nickname. Brand was one of the only ones beside Lien who knew her full given name, and he had immediately taken it upon himself to invent a nickname for her that was almost as horrifying as Delly.

“Don’ call me tha’,” she muttered, stepping closer and pointing at the cask. “Y’ brew tha’?”

She had been at the camp for only a few days, most of those spent hiding in her tent and recovering from her human interaction disasters, but in that time, Brand had been right there, forcing his company on her in such a clever way she found she did not really mind it all that much. He was simply there whenever she left her tent. He was always performing some task that needed doing, but he was present, and when he saw her, he engaged her. He was as stubborn as an ox and never gave up until he had coaxed her into conversation, even if it was a mostly one-sided one.

The end result was that she was more comfortable speaking in front of Brand than she was anyone else she knew aside from Lien, whom she could speak to without any awkwardness whatsoever. She felt comfortable enough with Brand even to initiate conversation at times, especially if he was performing a task she found interesting.

“Aye,” Brand said, tapping the mallet against the cask again until the seal gave way with a gentle hiss. Pressing a spile plug into the cask after making certain the tap was turned to open, he curled one big hand into a fist, knocking on the side of the oaken barrel. “Family recipe.”

“Wha’s in it?” she asked, sidling closer and pushing on the barrel with one hand. It did not budge, of course, solid as the tree from which it had been carved.

“Rice ale,” Brand responded, rising and stepping over to a second barrel, gesturing. “And that’s barley wine. Golden malt.” Turning to look down at her, he grinned that big, face-splitting grin of his. “You interested in brewing, Nini?”

Aria puffed her cheeks out in an exasperated sigh. She did not understand Brand. She had told him multiple times not to call her Nini, but he insisted upon doing it anyway. Was there something she was missing? He seemed to take some pleasure in irritating her, but she simply could not understand why.

Her shoulders rose and fell in a noncommittal shrug at the question. She had a passing interest, but she had neither the skill nor the inclination to take it much further than that. She enjoyed brewing when she did it, but she doubted she would enjoy attempting to make a career out of it. Common brews, the way she made them, were not fit for city-wide consumption.

“I used t’ brew a wee fer pappa,” she replied hesitantly. She did not speak of her family often. It was a private part of her life that she enjoyed keeping that way. Though she did allow that at times, some connections had to be made.

“What’s your favorite brew to make?” Brand asked, leaning over the second barrel and beginning to tap it.

Aria shrugged again. “‘E liked vodka an’ meads,” she muttered. “S’m spiced ales too.”

Brand looked interested. “Say, Nini,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at her. “If I get you the ingredients you need, would you make us some of what you just mentioned?”

“Uh… Why?”

“Indulge my curiosity,” Brand said. “Besides, we’re always looking for some good brew as winter sets in. You’ll even find some of the men bringing home some of de Rolden’s finest, and that’s not cheap drinking. Having some brews made locally will be an interesting change for us.”

That logic seemed sound to Aria. Why purchase brews if someone could make them for far less? But was not Brand a brewer? Why would they need something different if he could, presumably, brew everything the camp could want?

He must have seen the questions in her eyes, because Brand smacked the barrel’s seal open, turned the tap, plugged it and rose to his feet with a chuckle. “We all enjoy something new after a time, Nini,” he told Aria, looking down at her. “Even if we can brew the same styles of drink, we’ll not do it in exactly the same way.”

Aria made up her mind and nodded. Brand beamed and gestured for her to follow him. “Great! Come with me. You tell me what it is you’ll need, and I’ll see that you have it.


Late Morning

Where had Brand gotten hold of so many imported spices? Aria wondered in awe as she measured nutmeg into a tiny glass vial. He had nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves in an abundance she could have only ever dreamed of. It must have cost him a fortune unless he had an alternative source. He must have. No ranger made extra coin for such things. That was why they lived as they did. They had no other choice.

Even as the thought surfaced, Aria knew it was not entirely true. Were she given a choice between living this way and settling down inside the city in a home that never moved and a sure promise of food and warmth every night, she was fairly certain she would not take it. People grew fond of what they knew, what they were comfortable with, and what worked for them. And while the threat of freezing or starvation was unpleasant, she did not believe she would fair much better locked in one place and surrounded by stone.

She had lived that way once, she remembered as she capped the little vial in her hand and set it aside, reaching for another. When she was a child, she and pappa had lived in a cabin in the woods. That had been home for so long and had held so many memories that when she lost it and was forced to move on, she felt as if she had betrayed the home, built by pappa, that in turn had built her. She could admit, if only to herself, that she was frightened of growing that attached to another building. Best to live in a tent that could come with her no matter where she went. Any memories made there would never, could never be left behind.

Shaking the cloudy thoughts from her mind, she scolded herself silently. Sentiment had no place in the present. She knew she had to remember the past fondly as well as the lessons it had taught her, but pining for what was lost was a waste of energy and tears.

“You out here, Nini?”

Brand stepped around the side of his tent and smiled when he saw her.

“What’ll you be brewing now?” he asked, settling his substantial bulk down upon an overturned barrel. Aria was almost certain she heard the tree the wood was taken from weeping in protest.

“Punk’n ale,” she responded quietly, measuring some ground cloves into the third and final vial she had borrowed from Brand’s chest of brewing supplies.

“I like the sound of that. Was that a favorite at home?”

Aria hesitated, weighing the pros and cons of replying to this question. On the one hand, it was not some enormous revelation. On the other, it was the little things one told others that added up until one discovered they had admitted more than they ever intended. By that time, it is generally safe to assume fondness has formed, and Aria knew that caring for too many people was a sure fire way to make oneself vulnerable.

Brand waited patiently as Aria ran through her thoughts, but when all he received was a noncommittal shrug in response, he looked a little disappointed. Still, he did not press her.

“I hear you met my daughter, Maybelle,” he said, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “She told me you got sick.”

Aria nodded, gathering up the three tiny vials which clinked softly in her hand.

“Are you unwell?” Brand queried.

“M’ fine. I jus’ don’ feel well in th’ mornin’s is all,” Aria replied, a note of irritation in her voice.

Brand’s expression turned thoughtful, and Aria saw his eyes flit down to her abdomen before they returned to her face.

She had suspected the same thing. She still did, despite what the physician had told her the other day. Aria had been feeling ill in the Queen’s Inn and Tavern, and a physician had inspected her by touching her stomach and declared her not pregnant. Aria was no doctor, but even she felt as if that had hardly been a thorough examination. She had not even been asked any questions, thank goodness, but what could one expect from a free check up in a public venue? Still, she was not entirely prepared to believe that diagnosis. This was far beyond merely eating something bad.

“I should get t’ work,” Aria said distractedly, turning back toward the main camp. “Thanks fer th’ s’pplies.”

Brand murmured an affirmative response as Aria turned the corner, making her way toward the small brewing area she had set up for herself just outside her own tent. She had quite a bit of work to do.

Septembris 26, 371

Pvent Roll: Aria had a weird conversation with a child.

Septembris 26, 371
Morning

When she woke the next morning, Aria found a pair of doe-like brown eyes hovering mere inches from her own.

“Aaahh!” she exclaimed, causing the eyes to leap back with a startled gasp.

Pushing herself into a sitting position, she squinted at the small figure kneeling beside her pallet, for, of course, the eyes themselves had not emitted that startled sound. They belonged to the sweet, heart-shaped face of a little girl, her bronze skin and rowan-tinged light brown hair were immediate giveaways as to just who her father was. Aria had just enough time to note the fairly well-tailored linen frock the child was wearing before her stomach, devoid of morning crackers and abused by sudden movement took that moment to rebel violently.

She made it to the chamber pot just in time.

When the bout had passed, Aria rinsed her mouth out several times with a vial of spring water until the foul aftertaste had been spit out into the pot atop last night’s supper. Finding a wad of sweetbreath in her satchel served to cheer her as well.

As she went about these motions, her unexpected visitor watched her with big, curious eyes.

“Does your belly hurt?” the child asked at long last.

Wiping beads of sweat from her brow with a cool, damp cloth, Aria glanced over at the child, sinking somewhat shakily down onto her pallet once more and reaching for the crackers within her satchel.

“Uh… ayup,” she replied quietly.

“Maybe you have to use the latrine!” the child declared. “When papa has a hurting belly, he has awful wind, but using the latrine helps him lots.”

“Uh…”

What? If she had to eliminate, she would have bade the child leave and used the chamber pot. She would have to empty it now, after all. What was this little girl going on about unmentionable bodily functions for anyway?

“Do you get wind too? Mama says women do not. That only men have it because they eat more than we do and because women are gentle creatures.”

Aria stared at the child, blinking down at her in consternation. This was way, way out of her minuscule social comfort zone. She did not speak about such things even to Lien. They both just pretended the less savory faculties of the human body were not something that plagued them, and did not mention their discreet moments alone when they did occur. Now she had a complete stranger, even if it was a miniature one, asking her quite conversationally about bodily wind. Little girls were not meant to speak of such things!

The child seemed to be waiting for an answer, and Aria opened her mouth, then closed it. Tried again. Nothing would come out. She had lost all ability to respond to such a question.

“Well? Do you?” the child insisted.

Aria felt her heart beginning to beat erratically, and her palms had started to sweat. She did not like being cornered by conversations she could not understand or feel remotely comfortable with. Leaping up from her sleeping pallet, she ran from her tent, past the bonfire and out of the camp, leaving the child and her invasive conversation topics far behind.

Children, she decided, were just not normal.


Pvent Roll: Aria witnessed an embarrassing argument between strangers.

Late Morning

Papa used to say, “when it rains, it pours, wee Maggie.” He was right, Aria was certain of this. Perhaps it was the approach of the dreaded Magebane, but she felt as if the entire world was conspiring against her today.

She had fled from one uncomfortable situation only to dash directly into the arms of one about three hundred times worse.

Her headlong flight had taken her to the little town of Wilhelm, where the women of the village had congregated in the square for what looked like a morning market. It seemed to be both rather unofficial while at the same time possessing a distinct air of familiarity about it; she expected this was a common occurrence for them. She had every intention of passing through and making her way toward the mountains, but one of the village women honed in on her as if she had a sixth sense for picking out new faces in a crowd.

The woman was the plump, apple-cheeked type with silver hair tucked tidily beneath a straw hat and deep dimples creasing the corners of her mouth. Her blue eyes made Aria feel strange; they were so full of warm welcome she was uncertain how to respond. The woman had not even spoken yet. When she reached Aria’s side, squeezing her way past a press of mothers gossiping around a table of fabrics, she beamed down at her as if Aria had just been delivered by Dav himself.

“Hello there, dearie,” she said kindly, her singsong voice rich and warm as her eyes. “I’ve not seen you around here before.”

The silence stretched between them. Was Aria supposed to say something to that? She could feel the furrows creasing their way into her brow as the confusion began to set in once more.

“Oh, look at me, no manners whatsoever,” the woman scolded herself, seeming not at all put off by Aria’s lack of response. “My name is Cynthia Brookes, and I am the village baker. There’s my table just over there,” she added, indicating it.

It was a rectangular table standing only a few yards away. Lain with a white linen cloth, it was nearly bowed in half by the sheer quantity of the breads, rolls, cakes, muffins, tarts, turnovers, buns, croissants, pastries, pies and other delicacies that had been arranged atop it. Aria blinked twice after laying eyes on it. Surely her vision was playing tricks on her. She had never before seen so much food in one place, let alone on a single table.

Her expression must have given something of her awe away, for Cynthia glowed with pride as she glanced between Aria’s face and her own impressive display. “Have you come to shop the market?” she asked.

Aria shook her head, looking down at the cobblestones under her mud-caked boots. Scraping her toe against the edge of one, she attempted to chip a particularly stubborn clod from where it had adhered itself to the leather in a clump about an inch around.

“Why ever not?” the woman asked, sounding concerned. “We don’t have much, but what we do have is good.”

Aria cast the straining table another glance. Did not have much? She was not certain if the woman truly knew what that meant, though she did allow such a thought was judge mental and impolite.

“I ain’t got th’ coin,” she replied to the woman with a shrug.

“Oh, I see,” Cynthia said, patting Aria’s shoulder. “At least let me introduce you to my granddaughters! They should be right around your age.”

Inching her arm away from the woman’s touch, Aria stared blankly at her. Why would she want to meet this woman’s granddaughters? She did not even know her. Was this some sort of social custom she had never understood. There were a lot of those. Pretty much all of them, come to think of it.

Cynthia seemed completely oblivious to Aria’s reluctance, beckoning her over to where she had sidled up beside two young women.

Her granddaughters were lovely, Aria admitted to herself as she trudged over to stand beside the older woman. Lovely, but entirely different. She wondered if they were granddaughters from two different children, for surely they could not be sisters.

The older and taller of the two girls was a striking beauty, with silky waves of glossy raven hair and big, long-lashed almond-shaped eyes the same limpid blue as the waters of the Kirulean on a clear day. Her skin was smooth and fair, and her features so perfectly symmetrical and aristocratic it made Aria wonder if the maiden was somehow descended from a gentle bloodline.

Her companion was small and sprightly, only an inch or so taller than Aria herself. Her hair was also soft and wavy, though fuller than the dark-haired girl’s and far, far lighter, a lustrous tawny gold rather than the other’s raven wing black. Her eyes possessed the same upturned shape which hinted at a family resemblance and were a warm, whiskey brown. Her skin, while fair, was far more bronzed than that of either her grandmother or the young woman standing beside her. A peppering of cocoa-hued freckles dusted sun-kissed paths over the rounded apples of her cheeks and the bridge of her straight, button nose. Her features were softer and far more common than those of her companion, while at the same time no less beautiful.

Both young women were slender and shapely, though the smaller one’s own curves were sized down on her bantam frame, while the older maiden carried her fuller blessings with all the grace of a queen.

“Girls? Girls?” Cynthia was saying now, placing a hand on Aria’s arm once more. Aria tensed immediately, but Cynthia either did not notice or thought little of it. “Girls, I would like you to meet… I say, dearie, what is your name?”

“Really, grandmother,” the older girl muttered under her breath, rolling her eyes in exasperation.

Aria hesitated, debating between giving up her real name or her father’s nickname for her. The thought of anyone but pappa calling her Maggie, though, felt all wrong. Even Lien did not call her that.

“Aria,” she replied after a long, awkward silence.

“Aria…?” the woman asked, her tone clearly one of question.

Aria blinked, feeling as if she was missing something.

“Aria,” she repeated, more slowly this time. Had the woman not understood her?

“Yes… well,” Cynthia responded, seeming a touch put off but recovering admirably and touching her granddaughters on their arms. “These are my granddaughters. Eliza,” the blond, “and Susan,” the brunette. “Eliza is fifteen and Susan is eighteen. Why don’t you three make friends while I see to Josh Ried over there.” Aria noticed a young man perusing the wares at Cynthia’s groaning table.

“Hello, Aria,” Eliza said cheerfully, smiling at her with genuine warmth as her grandmother bustled off. “It’s lovely to meet you, isn’t it, Susan?”

Susan, who had turned away from Eliza to inspect a square of muslin on the nearby fabric table, glanced up. “Oh, of course,” she said unenthusiastically, giving Aria a thin smile that did not reach her eyes.

Not the warmest person in the world, Aria concluded without any real opinion either way. She knew she was much the same, her social awkwardness often mistaken for rudeness or arrogance. She would certainly not judge Susan for it; she actually preferred the guarded approaches rather than the openly friendly ones. She did not really know how to handle the latter.

“Don’t mind Susan,” Eliza whispered to Aria as the older girl went back to inspecting cloth. “She takes some time to warm to people. Do you live here in Wilhelm? I’ve never seen you before. Did you just move here? Where are you staying? We live on the village outskirts.” She indicated a roughly southeastern direction in which, Aria presumed, her home lay.

Aria felt herself growing quickly overwhelmed at Eliza’s questions. After her encounter with the little girl at the camp, and now this, she just wanted to crawl into a quiet, secluded area and sleep for a week. Dealing with people was exhausting. Why were they always so curious about things?

“I don’ live ‘ere,” she mumbled, attempting once more to dislodge the stubborn clod of mud clinging to the toe of her boot.

“Oh!” Eliza said. “Where do you live? Is it close by? Perhaps we can spend time together!”

Looking up from her mud removal task, Aria just stared at the girl uncomprehendingly for so long, the smile began to slide from Eliza’s face, replaced with an expression of flustered embarrassment.

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” she said. “I just like meeting new people. Do… Do you think you’ll come to the market each morning?”

Aria shrugged. “Meb’,” she allowed. “I ain’t got th’ coin fer it.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Eliza said, recovering her chipper demeanor much as her grandmother had earlier. “A little secret? Everyone here is more interested in mingling and gossiping rather than spending tons of coin. We do buy what we need, but the markets are really just an excuse for the women to spend some time together before the day’s work begins in earnest.”

“Oh,” Aria replied before falling silent.

“You don’t really say much, do you?” Susan asked, glancing up from where she was admiring a bolt of muslin that matched her eyes perfectly.

Aria stared up at her, feeling the confusion setting into her brow. Of course she did not. Why ask a question whose answer was clearly obvious?

“You didn’t give grandmother your last name either,” Susan continued. “She was asking for it, didn’t you hear her?”

“She asked fer my name,” Aria replied in confusion.

“Yes, dear,” Susan said condescendingly, tossing her head so that her hair caught the breeze and flowed behind her like a river of ebony satin. “But you see, when you introduce yourself, it’s generally polite to give your full name.”

“Leave her alone, Sue,” Eliza said. “She’s just shy.”

“Being shy is no excuse to be impolite,” Susan said, miffed, before tucking the bolt of fabric under one lithe arm and flouncing off toward a woman Aria suspected was the village seamstress judging by the mouthful of pins she was currently sporting.

“I’m sorry about her,” Eliza sighed, grimacing at Susan’s back. “She’s just… she has her own ideas about how people should act. Don’t let it bother you.”

It did not, Aria could honestly admit. It made little sense to her though. If someone asked for her name and she gave the name they would use to address her, how was that impolite? Why was her surname of any concern to anyone? She never did understand why people introduced themselves with their surnames appended anyway. Even pappa had done it.

“S’ fine,” she told Eliza now. “I don’ really care.”

“Oh,” Eliza said, seeming a little taken aback. “Well… that’s good then! Come on, would you like to come with me and get some spiced milk? Natalie Pearfield got the recipe from one of the women in the Hillish village. I didn’t know savages cared about enhancing the taste of milk, but it’s really very good.”

As she spoke, the small blond turned toward a building at the south end of the square that Aria knew in passing to be the Wilhelm Town Hall. The name was a bit of an over exaggeration, but to each their own.

Before Aria could protest that she had not the coin for any spiced milk, Eliza was bounding off through the crowd. Drawn by the sudden, vicious craving that reared up at the very mention of the beverage, she found herself following the bounce of that tawny gold mane as it weaved in and out of the mingling crowd.

Natalie Pearfield, Aria thought, was a perfect representation of her name. She had a long, thin face with such a severe widow’s peak it caused her head to look somewhat pointed. Her hair was a straight, nondescript brown, her skin a fair shade that fell just short of flattering and simply ended up looking a touch wan. Her shoulders were narrow and bony, and her figure was far fuller in the hips and legs than in the less than ample curve of her bust.

Despite her physical shortcomings, the woman smiled prettily enough and seemed to be quite a favorite in the village if all the gossiping women clustered about her was anything to judge by.

Aria hung back as Eliza dove into the crowd, beaming at Natalie and gesticulating with her hands as she spoke. As the girl disappeared, Aria could not suppress a surge of relief. Not bothering to check and see if Eliza was going to return for her, Aria wove in and around the villagers until she escaped into the relative calm of the Wilhelm chapel.

Pressing her slender shoulders to the wall behind her, she breathed an exhausted sigh, sliding into a seated position on the swept wooden floor. Lowering her head onto her drawn up knees, she squeezed her eyes shut and tried to take a moment simply to enjoy the silence.

Since she had already deduced that this day had decided to try her tolerance for people, Aria was not all that surprised when she heard voices drifting her way. Tensing, she lifted her head slightly, ear cocked toward the open door. She lingered where she was, girding herself for another awkward confrontation with some village stranger, but after a minute or so, she relaxed. The voices, two young women, it sounded like, had paused in the Town Hall proper, and by the scratching of a quill against parchment, Aria suspected one or both of them had come to send mail, not to pray.

“–cannot believe you let him kiss you,” one of the women was saying. She had a slightly low, naturally sultry voice that Aria expected young men went stupid for.

“Why not?” The other voice was high, girlish, and thoroughly irritating in its slightly nasally quality. “It was just a kiss.”

“But it’s not spring yet,” the first woman responded. “You should have a bit more restraint, Alexa.”

“Maybe I’m just practicing for the kissing festival.”

“At this rate, maybe you should begin taking knitting lessons from Mrs. Brookes. I hear she makes the loveliest baby outfits.”

Aria bit her lip so she would not smile. She liked this sultry-voiced woman already, and Aria did not genuinely like many people. That comment had been delivered with just the perfect balance of sarcasm and concern.

“Oh, come off it, Coraline. Aren’t you the least bit interested in what it was like?”

“No,” Coraline responded in a tone of flat denial.

“His lips were warm,” Alexa began dreamily, either not hearing or ignoring her friend. “And when he put his tongue in my mouth, he tasted like chocolate.”

“Lord in paradise, Alexa, that’s disgusting!” Coraline sputtered, and Aria heard something heavy topple over, then land on the floor with a solid thud. “Now look what you made me do!”

“How is it disgusting!” Alexa exclaimed. “Everyone kisses like that!”

“Are you an expert on kissing, then?”

“I know more than you do.”

“The arts of scandal aren’t really interests of mine,” Coraline retorted. “You’re welcome to them.”

Aria’s head was back on her knees, her cheeks flushed a bright scarlet. She could tell because her face was hotter than a potato in a bed of coals. She was praying desperately that the young women would leave, and take their scandalous conversation with them.

“Have you never kissed a man with your mouth open?” Alexa was asking. “Come on, Cora, we’re neighbors! You can at least tell me that!”

“I have never kissed anyone before,” Coraline sighed. “You know that. And why would I want to kiss any man with my mouth open and get his saliva all over me? Disgusting.”

“It’s not like that,” Alexa laughed.

Aria heard the sound of someone walking across the room, and then the protest of wood as they presumably sat down on something.

“Really,” Coraline said doubtfully.

The word was more a statement than a question, but Alexa ran with it anyway.

“Of course not! Do you honestly think I would let a man drool on me? Don’t answer that,” she added as Coraline began to say something in response. “If it’s done right, there’s no saliva at all. I mean, other than what’s already in your mouths.”

“Ugh,” Coraline said, sounding thoroughly disgusted.

Aria could not believe what she was hearing. She was a married woman, and so the thought of kissing in an intimate fashion was not repulsive to her, but nor was it something she believed should be discussed in public! And by an unmarried young woman, no less. And in detail? Women should only kiss their husbands like that, and those moments should always be kept private, not shared with anyone, even if they were female friends. She doubted the church looked favorably upon kissing for pleasure anyway, even if one was married. There really was no other purpose to kissing, after all, than to feel close to your spouse.

“It’s really not as disgusting as it sounds,” Alexa giggled. “It made me tingle all over, and I know he felt it too.”

“Do I want to know how you could possibly have known that?” Coraline asked resignedly.

“I felt his manhood become hard,” Alexa said boldly.

Aria prayed that the floor would split open where she sat, suck her inside and spit her out in her tent where she would triple knot the flap and not show her face in public again for a year.

Had that girl truly just said that?

“Alexa!” Coraline sounded horrified. “You *what!* If the Order heard you say that, you’d be flogged for certain if not worse!”

“Well, I didn’t touch it,” Alexa said irritably. “He just sort of pressed it against me a bit and–”

Leaping to her feet, uncaring at this point that the young women would see her, Aria fled from the Town Hall as if all the nightmares of the abyss itself were on her heels. As she raced back toward her camp, she heard Eliza calling her name. She did not stop running. She ran until she could barely breathe and still, she kept moving.

When she arrived back, she flashed through the camp and dove through the flap of her tent, clutching at the sanctuary it offered. Triple knotting the flap as she had promised herself, she collapsed on her pallet and hugged her blankets close to her chest.

Tears burned her eyes and, without really knowing why, she turned her face into the threadbare homespun and wept bitterly. She was overwhelmed and confused, mortified and unsettled and she missed Lien with a ferocity that made it hard to breathe.

She could not say when sleep stole over her, nor if she stopped weeping as it did. All she knew was that, at last, she could hear and feel nothing.

Setembris 25, 371

Septembris 25, 371
Morning

The winter chill was setting in. She could feel it in the bite of the air when she woke, the cook fire having burnt down to embers during the night. Her fingers were stiff as she reached for her lenses, the frames frigid against her skin as she slipped them onto her nose.

The dank air of the cave was not designed to hold heat in; perpetually chilly even in high summer, it was cold as a tainted heart as winter crept over the land.

Drawing her threadbare blanket tighter about her shoulders, she rolled carefully onto her side so as to not upset the delicate state of her stomach. Despite her care, it still rolled ominously, bile burning up the back of her throat. With a massive effort, she swallowed it back, her frozen fingers groping about in her satchel for the hard, leaf-wrapped shape of the crackers she always kept there.

It did not take her long to find them; she had left them on top of everything else in preparation for this moment. Unfolding the leaves, she selected one of the bite-sized crackers at random and slipped it into her mouth.

As she chewed, the mingled flavors of dried prawn, wild berries and common herbs reminding her of the coast, her eyes swept the cave she had claimed as her home. She knew she would need to leave soon; it was never wise to remain in one place for long. Not only did it impose too harshly upon the wildlife that made it theirs, but people had a tendency to find one if one remained in a single spot for more than a few weeks, as she had discovered. While she did not despise people, she also did not know how to interact with or relate to them, and so she went out of her way to avoid them.

She would miss this particular home though, she knew. It had served her well and begun to feel familiar and safe. That was how she knew it was time to leave as well. When a place began to feel safe, it meant one was becoming attached. When one lived by the whims of nature and the strength of one’s own intelligence and wits, there was no room for sentimental ties to one setting. Every ranger knew that.

Swallowing her mouthful of cracker, she pressed another onto her tongue, her thoughts turning toward her current situation. Lien had left on another prolonged hunting trip over a month ago. These were normal for him and it was not unheard of for him to be gone for months at a time. Before, she had traveled with him, but he had bade her remain behind this time. She knew this meant he was after something particularly dangerous that he did not want her exposed to, like a black bear or an exotic animal such as a lion or a tiger. He would have to travel quite far for those, however, and she could not say when or if she would see him again.

Her right hand strayed to her abdomen, still flat, showing no outward signs of what she was beginning to suspect. They had shared time together before he left, she and her husband, and then the nausea had begun. The gut-wrenching vomiting that threatened to turn her insides out. The weariness was quick to follow, rendering her swaying with fatigue after acts that she would have normally performed without any difficulty whatsoever.

Now the cravings. Food of all styles appealed to her, driving her to tears with her lack of being able to procure them. She had no coin for Tubori feasts or Vandagan dishes. The newest craving was mutton and spiced milk, and that, at least, she hoped, was something she might be able to obtain. If she could trade her time at the Hillish enclave in exchange for a leg of mutton and a cup of the spiced milk she had seen some of the women making around the bonfire, perhaps she would once more feel satisfied with food.

Beyond the physical discomforts of nausea, weariness, hot flashes and cravings, there was a cautious hope. She had prayed she and Lien could begin a family when they settled, and it appeared as if the Lord had granted that prayer. She could not be certain without the confirmation of a doctor, something she could not afford, but every feminine instinct inside her told her it was not truly needed and that she was, in fact, with child.

The worries came fast on the heels of these thoughts as her fingers sought out another cracker from its nest of leaves. Living as she was forced to, there was never any guarantee she would survive any given year, let alone the frigid winters Lithmore was known for. She had not had much time to prepare, and the thought of frantically tailoring a winter garment that could also serve as an adjustable pregnancy garment, finding a place to live that would shelter her from the worst of the elements, gathering, hunting and preserving what she could before she was too large to do so safely made her feel limp with exhaustion at the very thought of it all.

Preserving food was its own problem. While she knew how to salt meat and brew her own pickling vinegar, she did not have the coin for the salt or the yeast required for either. But nor had she lived in this part of Lithmore long enough to grow accustomed to the migration and hibernation patterns of the wildlife surrounding the big stone city. How scarce did game become over the winter? How many of the poor survived?

The last cracker found its way past her lips and she carefully folded the empty leaves, slipping them back into her satchel to be used again at another time. Rolling slowly onto her back, she gazed up at the roof of the cave, her eyes half closed as she waited for the crackers to do their work. She wondered vaguely if she had any of the ingredients for some gutcalm tea. She had never mastered the art of medicine, but the basic herbal remedies were common enough known even in small villages for her to have been taught.

She ran through the list of ingredients in her mind. The hemp root was likely to be the most difficult to find, but she was fairly certain she had seen some somewhere. Perhaps she could plant some more in a borrowed plot of land for the purpose, though she wasn’t all too keen on taking more than was absolutely necessary when it came to space. The crackers did their work a good fifty percent of the time and there was no proof the tea could do any better in this instance, even if it was a common enough remedy for morning sickness.

She knew she could also not afford the weariness the tea was said to induce. Not today at least, when she had to take Arrow out so they could begin the search for their next camp. She would need to be alert. There was much to do before full winter set in, and the days were already bitterly cold. She could not waste time sleeping; it might cost her more than she was willing to pay.


Evening

Her feet crunched over leaves and loose stones as she made her way toward the firelight in the distance. Her arms ached from the weight of the water bucket she had hauled up from the stream, and she knew she was going to need to move again before she began to show, or she would never be able to make the journey.

As she trudged along the path, she found herself musing over Lien’s ranger companion. She had found herself returning to the secluded settlement earlier in the day, drawn by the familiarity of its inhabitants. She knew none of them, but their way of life was one she was accustomed to. They were together, yet separate, a community, yet always an authority unto themselves.

The segregation she had witnessed in other encampments did not seem to matter all that much here, and the lack of underlying tensions also worked to set her mind at ease. Everyone kept to themselves when they wished and no one cared enough to waste energy scorning people for their various habits or customs. When all was stripped away, they were none too different, each of them merely trying to survive.

When she had returned to scope the camp out, she had been approached by a man ten or so years her senior. She had been struck by his size at first. He was a towering wall of well-honed muscle who moved with a startling speed given his size. He clad himself in linen garments below layers of warm woolen raiment. She wondered if he wore every article of clothing he owned on him at all times. She did, but it was done more in an attempt to keep warm rather than a desire to keep them from being stolen. Though she did allow she had absolutely no idea if her observation was true, nor did it really matter.

She had been lingering in the scant shadows cast by some garments that had been hung out to dry, gazing upon the camp with something between nostalgia and apprehension when a much larger shadow had fallen over her. Her eyes had been drawn upward until she found herself gazing into the grinning, bronze-skinned face of a green-eyed stranger who had “well-meaning nosy irritant” written all over him.

“I’ve been waiting for you, Aria,” were the first words out of his mouth. His voice fit his size, deep and rich, with a natural cheerfulness to it that tempted one to smile.

Suffice it to say, his words threw her completely for a loop. Why had he been waiting for her? How had he known her name? And how did he know she would return at all?

“S’cuse me?” she asked, feeling her brows furrowing in confusion. It was quite a common expression for her whenever she dealt with people.

“You know, you’re liable to get wrinkles early if you furrow your brow like that,” he said conversationally.

Aria could feel the lines deepening. How had they moved from his expecting her to wrinkles? And why would he care about wrinkles that were not even an issue yet? For that matter, why would he care about wrinkles that were not only not an issue yet, but would not even be his issue when they became an issue at all? It made no sense to her, and she could feel the beginnings of a headache just trying to comprehend it.

When her only response to the big man’s words was to stare uncomprehendingly up at him with large, unblinking eyes, he abandoned the strange talk of wrinkles, reverting to his original topic.

“Delly told me you might come here,” he explained. “Said you had a tendency to move camps every few weeks or so and that when you found this one, it would probably draw you.”

She winced at the nickname, but much to her chagrin, found her lips quirking into an amused grin just the same. Mentions of Lien always made her smile, and imagining the appalled and furious expression on his face at this new moniker was enough to cause her to bite down hard on the side of her cheek to keep from laughing outright.

“There we are, I knew you could smile!” the man said, grinning even more broadly. Aria had not expected that was possible. How could one man’s mouth be so big? It had to be, right, in order for him to smile so widely?

She felt her own smile slide from her face at his words, the corners of her lips turning down as her brow furrowed in confusion once more. Everyone could smile. Had he truly thought she was incapable of it? He sounded as if he had just won a minor victory. How could he possibly know her well enough to know that smiles did not come often to her lips, despite their natural inclination to tilt upward at the corners?

“Will you be coming here to stay?” the man asked, peering closely at her. “Delly asked me to look out for you if you did.”

Her smile was back, soft and gentle this time. She knew other women of her independence might be offended at the thought they needed looking after. Aria was just touched Lien had thought of her enough to find her a protector while he was gone. It just reaffirmed what she already knew; he loved her and thought of her always, even when he could not be at her side.

She made up her mind at once. That was usually how her thought processes worked. When she decided upon something, it was generally quick and decisive. Lien often teased her about being too quick to choose, but he was simply not privy to the inner workings of her mind. She assessed things differently to most other people she knew. They had a tendency to talk about their decisions, take time to weigh the pros and cons, often with the input of other people. Aria did not think that way. If she was in the process of making an important decision, she kept it to herself unless Lien was with her. From him she hid nothing.

“Fer a time,” she told the man before her.

“How long?” he queried, seeming genuinely interested even as the question probed for more information.

Aria shrugged her shoulders, reaching up and drawing her cloak tighter about her as a western breeze sent icy tendrils of cold through the worn garments.

“Fer a time,” she replied, giving the man a pointed look.

He seemed to take the hint and changed the subject.

“Brand, son of Barloth,” he said, placing a large hand over his heart and bowing gallantly to her.

After a beat, she returned the greeting, bobbing a shallow curtsy before lifting her hand in a common enough salute among the travelers she had known. The tips of the index and middle fingers pressed to the brow for wisdom, the lips for good eating and the heart for courage and strength of character.

“Aria, daughter of Aemma.”

“Well, Aria, daughter of Aemma,” Brand said with his apparent trademark grin. “Welcome home.”

He was there now as she hauled her bucket of water into the camp and toward her tent, waving to her, his light brown hair loose about his shoulders, the glow of the bonfire picking out rowan undertones. She nodded to him before pushing aside her tent flap and ducking within, breathing a sigh of relief as it fell to behind her. She always felt as if everyone was watching her when she went out in public. It made her feel clumsy and self-conscious, acutely aware of just how socially awkward she was. Even walking across the full camp made her hot with embarrassment and shaky with nerves.

She had always been painfully shy. There was a time when she was a child when she could not even speak in the presence of individuals who were not her father. He had coached her through that stage, but it had lasted for years. He told her that as she got older, she might outgrow her shyness, but he also told her that there were just some people who were naturally quiet and introverted. He believed she was one of these people, though she knew he had hoped she might overcome the awkwardness that plagued her whenever she was forced into social situations.

She had not so far. Deep down, Aria did not believe she ever would.

Retrieving the unfilled watering trough she had salvaged from the Southside rubbish heap that afternoon, she ducked back outside and walked around to the side of her tent where Arrow had been hobbled. Frowning up at the pony, she sighed. He had been a gift from her father, and she was awfully fond of him, but he was really rather a nuisance at times. He was useful and she knew she would bless her father’s soul for the pony when she began to truly show and walking became difficult, but he was just more work atop that she was already forced to do.

Setting up the trough against the wall of the camp, she eyed it critically. Luckily, it had been discarded on the edge of the heap, so it had not had time to acquire enough filth to make it disgusting, even by her standards. It was badly weathered and missing large gouges of wood from the legs and sides, but the bowl was deep and intact enough, if a bit warped and misshapen at the bottom.

Kneeling at one end of the trough, she hoisted the heavy bucket up to her shoulder before emptying it into the container in a steady gush. She managed not to spill it all over herself, though she did splash her bodice quite thoroughly a few times.

When Arrow had been fed, watered, groomed and his corner of the camp mucked out, she heated a cauldron of water, stolen from the full trough, before returning to her tent with it for a wash. By the time she crawled onto her pallet and drew her threadbare blankets up and around her, she had only enough time to pray for Lien’s safety and to thank the Lord for the blessings of the day before sleep drew her down into its comforting embrace.

First Kill

She wept after her first kill. The rabbit had been so small and white. She had tried shooting at hare and chipmunks for the better part of a morning, and had spent the better part of the afternoon retrieving those arrows that had not snapped upon collision with trees, rocks and stumps.

They were starving. She knew she had to return home with something, but she was simply too inexperienced. If pappa had not hurt his leg, she would not have been forced into this. It was his fault, though even as the ungracious thought entered her mind, she knew it was untrue.

In a fit of childish peak, she collected her last arrow and threw it with all the strength her little arm could muster, watching with satisfaction as it whistled into the underbrush. Satisfaction turned to horror as a fat white rabbit hopped out onto the path, then collapsed, her arrow protruding from its side. She watched, open-mouthed, as the tiny legs jerked spasmotically, the small white body thrashing in its final death throws.

It didn’t take long before the creature lay still. All was quiet around her, but even as she listened, a bird called. Another answered. A squirrel ran up the trunk of a nearby sappling. In less than a minute, the woods had come alive again, mourning little for the one who would never again join them.

She returned home as evening fell, and pappa held her as she wept for the creature she was forced to kill.

“Don’ y’ weep so, wee Maggie,” he soothed. “Nothin’ dies in vain. Y’ always use everythin’ y’ can, an’ y’ respect th’ creature what gave its life fer ya by doin so.”

It was pappa who showed her how to tan the rabbit’s hide in its own brains. It was pappa who taught her how to carve arrowheads with the bones and various tools with the teeth. It was pappa who taught her how to set snares, baiting them with the entrails of her previous kill.

She had often wondered if pappa had wept over his first kill. She never asked, and it never mattered. After learning how to respect the lives she took, she never wept again when she was forced to kill to survive.

A Drawing Of A Child Setting Out Upon Her First Hunt

Drawn by blending an unusual combination of charcoal and wax sticks, the first page of this ledger is home to a beautifully rendered image.

A panoramic vista of nature’s glory covers the page from edge to edge, leaving behind no unshaded inch. A carpet of lush grass begins at the bottom edge of the paper, colored a multitude of greens, from the darker hue of coarser reed grasses to the vibrant green of fragrant springtime blades. Filling a rough semicircle of space, it is edged by forest trees, the artist capturing well the textured surfaces of each rough brown trunk. The trees rise along the right and left sides of the page, exploding into dense canopies which flourish outward across the top of the paper. Expert applications of yellow-gold color create the illusion of dappled sunlight shining through the leafy boughs.

In the center of the page, a whitewashed cottage has been drawn, its shingled roof draped in veils of wisteria, the cascading foliage dripping over the railings of a narrow front porch. A single wisp of gray smoke rises from a stout brown chimney atop the roof, and warm light glows from behind small square windows set into the wooden walls.

A female child of approximately ten years of age stands upon the front steps, loosely coiled brunette ringlets rippling in an unseen breeze. Her delicate, heart-shaped face bears an expression of grim determination, even as apprehension brims in her long-lashed blue eyes.

Dressed in a nondescript brown frock and scuffed black boots, her little hands are clenched around a rough hewn hunting bow nearly as long as she is tall. A full quiver rests on her back, the white feathered ends of the arrows within forming a contrasting cloud just behind her right shoulder.