The dark sky in the distance hasnâ€™t moved in weeks. Mother and Kaylyn seem too preoccupied with their life-long quest to worry about it, but it keeps tugging at me.
â€œWhat do you think of the clouds in the distance?â€ I ask Jorrin. Not only am I hoping to find someone as curious as me, but itâ€™s a good excuse to talk to him.
|Savage Light By Janeal Falor|
But itâ€™s not, after all. â€œMmm,â€ is the only response I get, his hazel eyes focused on something far off.
Does he even realize Iâ€™m here?
It doesnâ€™t matter. He has a lot to be distracted with. We all do. But soon enough there wonâ€™t be any distractions left. Once mother and Kaylyn defeat the last evil person alive, there will be nothing left to worry about. Maybe then heâ€™ll be interested in settling down. Interested in me.
And I will finally have what Iâ€™ve wanted for so long.
I stare off in the distance at those clouds, wondering about it. At seventeen, Kaylyn and I are now the oldest unmarried girls. Doubtful marriage has even crossed her mind. Being chosen to bring peace is a good excuse, at least. It means sheâ€™s too busy saving us all. I left that life when I wasnâ€™t needed anymore, and thereâ€™s an ache in my chest from no longer helping.
An ache I think Jorrin can fix.
â€œDo you feel that?â€ he asks.
The ache lessens. Is he finally recognizing something between us? â€œFeel what?â€
â€œClose by. Darkness. Malryx is chasing a light.â€ He jumps up, making the ache come back with a burn.
Despite the pain, I follow suit, stretching my power up and down the mountain as I do so to feel what heâ€™s talking about. My Zophasken, or power, skims across the land, letting me feel what it finds. Plants and animals are all thatâ€™s immediately close, their neutrality a constant presence. Sparks of light hover around home as they should. I sense other Zophas, fighters of evil, like us doing chores, but as I reach further out somethingâ€™s different. A glow is racing for home, darkness marring the space behind it, trailing after it.
The last darkness left in the world has come to us. It canâ€™t bode well. â€œWhich of us do you think heâ€™s following? Is it Kaylyn, my best friend? Should we go help?â€
But Jorrinâ€™s already off, going to do what I should have done instead of asking, long legs running up the mountain. Too much time out of the life of fighting has made me slow. I hurry after, moving closer to the spot of light I can feel with my power. Itâ€™s slowing, but then the darkness is going even slower, letting the distance between them grow.
Weâ€™re almost to whoever of us is being chased when Jorrin calls out to me, â€œMarsa, wait!â€
Itâ€™s too late. My heart is already frozen. On the ground before him, mother has collapsed to the ground. Crimson stains the dirt around her.
â€œMomma!â€ I rush to her side, rip a piece of cloth from the bottom of my shirt, and press it against her bleeding wound. Little good it does. My hands are already wet with her blood, which makes my own pound within my veins.
â€œShowna?â€ Jorrin gently asks. â€œWhat happened?â€
â€œMorphrac. Surpriseâ€â€”she gasps for airâ€”â€œattack.â€
â€œIâ€™m going to carry you back to help. Everything will be fine.â€ But by the sound of his voice, and the blood on me, everything isnâ€™t fine.
I move to the side, careful to keep pressure on her wound as he lifts her, and I hurry to keep up. My cloth is beyond soaked when we enter the clearing where the others wait, and he sets her gently on the ground.
Someone thrusts clean bandages into my hands. I pile them on top of the old ones, trying desperately to keep her precious life force where it belongs, but this is beyond me.
â€œWhereâ€™s Kaylyn?â€ And why wasnâ€™t she with Mom? Why didnâ€™t she prevent this, as is her duty?
â€œI can feel her coming,â€ someone replies, but my thoughts are so muddled, I donâ€™t even know who responded.
But sheâ€™s right. There is a bright light headed our way, opposite from the direction of the encroaching darkness. Sheâ€™s coming now, but from the red staining the table, it wonâ€™t be soon enough.
â€œMomma.â€ The word escapes me, crushing the air from my lungs.
â€œShh. It will be fine. Kaylynâ€¦ will take care ofâ€¦ things.â€ But sheâ€™s so pale; the faintness of her voice says things will never be fine.
As if summoned by her name, Kaylyn dashes into the clearing. She hesitates for a moment, just a small, small moment, but inside Iâ€™m screaming at her to move. To help. To fix this.
The silent pleading doesnâ€™t have to turn to words. She recovers and hurries to the other side of the Mom. Others move out of her way, letting her in. Her skills have to be enough to help. Have to stop the bleeding.
Kaylyn reaches out to check the injuries, but Mom stops her. â€œLeave it.â€
â€œMomma, no. She can fix you.â€ My heart is being shredded by a thousand knives. This canâ€™t be happening. Mom was never supposed to die. She was supposed to live. She was supposed to see her dream fulfilled. Thereâ€™s only one Malryx left: the last remaining evil on the planet is almost vanquished. Itâ€™s not possible that he should defeat her when the goal is so close.
Kaylyn takes her hand as if none of my thoughts are real. Isnâ€™t she going to at least try something? We canâ€™t just let my mom die!
â€œItâ€™s my time.â€ Momâ€™s breathing becomes more ragged as she focuses in on Kaylyn. â€œAnd yours.â€
The knives in my chest grow jagged. â€œMomma.â€
â€œDonâ€™t talk anymore. Save your strength. Iâ€™ll find him,â€ Kaylyn says to her.
â€œGood. I know your final battle will be won.â€ Momâ€™s expression relaxes a little at this. At least Kaylyn can comfort her in her last moments. Assure her that the Malryx are soon to be vanquished. But itâ€™s not enough. Not nearly enough.
â€œThose of youâ€”â€ Mother coughs, and my lungs twinge on hearing it. Jorrin holds out a waterskin, but she waves it away. â€œIf you havenâ€™tâ€¦ given Kaylyn your powerâ€¦â€
â€œHush now,â€ Kaylyn says. â€œIâ€™ll be fine. Iâ€™ll defeat Morphrac for you as I am. The Aster and Astra said I can do this, so I can.â€
Mom continues on, driven to her goal even as life pools out of her. â€œGive Zophasken to Kaylyn,â€ she says between gasps. â€œSheâ€™s our best chaâ€¦â€
Her face goes slack. I gather her to me as if it will somehow help bring her back. â€œNo, Momma! Donâ€™t leave me!â€
Sobs wrack my body. Pain more fierce than any Iâ€™ve ever felt before attacks my core. The others are talking, discussing. Now isnâ€™t the time for it. We have to mourn. Have to! Sheâ€™s gone. From this world. From our home. From my life. It canâ€™t be. It just canâ€™t. They need to fix her. Kaylyn needs to fix her.
But sheâ€™s still beneath me, with not even the faintest movement of breath. I press my forehead to hers, squeezing my eyes tight. Any moment now, sheâ€™ll waken and rise, not even talking about her injury, ignoring it like she always does. Being tough for us. Tough for me. But thereâ€™s nothing.
Sheâ€™s gone. Really gone.
How can that be?
And the others are still talking like she didnâ€™t just stop living right before us. I squeeze her tight, wanting to rail at all of them. Except I can still feel that spot of darkness moving closer. The Malryx never allow time for mourning. Just because this is my mother doesnâ€™t make it any different.
The others are right. We have to move on like we always do. I gently close her eyes. Thereâ€™s nothing for the spasms raking through my chest. The best thing I can do now is the thing she wanted. Iâ€™ll make mom proud. Iâ€™ll help by doing what Iâ€™ve realized the others are doing. Giving their power to Kaylyn.
I push myself off the ground, unable to take my thoughts from Mom even though Iâ€™m leaving her. The sharpness dulls to a numbing ache as I wait for the last of them to finish sharing their power with the one who can defeat evil. When they walk away, leaving Kaylyn alone, I move to her, my steps heavy, and place my hand on hers.
â€œI can do this,â€ she says.
â€œI know.â€ She can, and she will. Momâ€™s dream will live on. â€œMy Zophasken is yours.â€
My power flows through me, down my hand and into her. Its loss leaves me cold, but this chill is nothing compared to the ice inside my soul. Kaylyn needs its warmth and strength now more than ever. The Aster and Astra were right to choose her to defeat the last evil. Sheâ€™s stronger than the rest of us and knows how to use that power. But Morphrac already killed my mother. It wonâ€™t be an easy fight.
â€œI canâ€™t lose you, too.â€ The words escape me before I realize it.
With most of my Zophasken now gone to her, she wraps me into a hug and whispers into my ear, â€œNothing will happen to me, and your motherâ€™s death wonâ€™t be in vain. Iâ€™ll defeat Morphrac. The world will be rid of Malryx. Your motherâ€™s dream of ridding the planet of all evil will come true.â€
Tears splash down my face as she lets me go, and Tavo puts his arm on my shoulders. Itâ€™s true. The evil people that have been around forever are about to be vanquished. Those lying, murderous people.
Something breaks close by, making me jump. Tavo pulls me closer and whispers, â€œItâ€™s going to be okay.â€
The words feel hollow, though I know they were well meant. Even if Kaylyn defeats Morphrac, it wonâ€™t bring back Mom.
Outside, Morphrac taunts. â€œCome out to play, my little Zophaslings. Or did my slaughter of your leader leave you too scared to face me?â€
What does a person have to be like to mock someone with a murder? What darkness haunts his soul? This is why Momâ€™s dream needs to be fulfilled. Evil such as this shouldnâ€™t taint the world.
â€œI will do this,â€ Kaylyn says. â€œStay in the cave until I get back.â€
â€œVitliruc,â€ Jorrin says.
â€œVitliruc, my friend,â€ I say, longing to give her more than just my power and good wishes.
And then sheâ€™s gone.
With Mom growing cold behind me, itâ€™s hard not to worry Kaylyn will end up in the same place. Even if the Aster and Astra are right, even if she is the one to defeat the last Malryx, no one ever said she would live through it.
Today, Iâ€™ve lost one of the two people Iâ€™m closest to. I canâ€™t lose the other. I want to call Kaylyn back, to tell her it doesnâ€™t matter. Thereâ€™s only one evil person left. How much damage can he do?
But Mom is proof enough of how much damage even just one can do. And evil always draws more evil to itself. It grows and morphs, tainting those it touches. It needs to go; only I wish Kaylyn didnâ€™t have to deal with it.
The Aster and Astra have chosen her, though. They have guided her though this path. This is what should be. The defeat needs to happen, and sheâ€™s the one to do it.
The others take care of motherâ€™s body, cleaning and preparing her for the ceremony that will likely take place tonight. Attending her funeral never crossed my mind. I stare numbly at their preparations, trying to process it all.
When some time has passed and Kaylyn seems far from the cave, someone is sent to tell the village and the Aster and Astra what has taken place. What will they think of all thatâ€™s happened? Of Kaylynâ€™s battling for the last time? Of the life thatâ€™s been claimed?
For myself, itâ€™s something I never, ever wanted.
Once done, we sit and wait. And wait. Jorrin sits on one side of me, Tavo on the other. Both stay close, comforting without saying a word. The afternoon passes, and I lay my head on Jorrinâ€™s shoulder and drift. Sleep is elusive, but the drifting helps take away some of the pain, worry, and pressure.
Footsteps near. I stretch my Zopahsken, but I have so little left it can only detect the area just outside the cave. It may be Kaylyn. Or it could be Morphrac, come to taunt us about Kaylynâ€™s death.
I jump to my feet, wishing my sword was on me. Why did I stop carrying it around? Right. Because I wasnâ€™t needed any longer. It doesnâ€™t matter because itâ€™s just Kaylyn coming into view, pale and drawn. No serious injuries to be seen. Thereâ€™s already been enough blood for one day.
Unless he got away?
â€œItâ€™s done,â€ she says, easing the last of my fears.
Thatâ€™s it then. The last evil on the planet has been vanquished. Momâ€™s dream came true. Just not before she died.
The pain grows more numb by the hour, every moment bringing me closer to saying goodbye to Mom for this life. Somehow itâ€™s already time to inform Kaylyn and Jorrin whatâ€™s going on. As I approach, the two are huddled close, Jorrin wrapping a nasty cut on her arm. The tenderness he uses as he works almost makes me wish my arm was bleeding.
Stupid thought to have at a time like this, yet his movements are so soft, his fingers whispering across her skin as he tightens the bandage. I can almost feel it. I should have gotten cut instead.
â€œThe ceremony is starting soon.â€ My voice sounds strange, like someone else has taken over.
Jorrin drops his hand from Kaylynâ€™s bandage, but otherwise things are quiet. Are their thoughts wondering where mine are? We shouldnâ€™t be having a funeral at a time like this, though there will be a celebration afterward as well. There should only be celebrating on the day when evil was finally vanquished.
Iâ€™m not ready to let Mom leave, and going to the ceremony will be just that. Itâ€™s hard to think weâ€™ll be moving onto this new life without her. Sheâ€™s been the driving force behind so much, how will things flourish with her not here? At least with the Malryx gone thereâ€™s no need for her guidance fighting against them, but I still need it. I glance at Jorrin. Now, more than ever, I need her guidance.
â€œI thought it would be harder to defeat Morphrac,â€ Kaylyn says, breaking me from my morose thoughts. She sounds like Mom.
â€œGive yourself some credit,â€ I say. â€œYouâ€™ve always been the best of us. Thatâ€™s why you were chosen. The Aster and Astra knew youâ€™d be able to do it.â€
â€œMaybe, but I guess I expected something more. Iâ€™ve fought tougher opponents.â€
Why didnâ€™t Mom survive then? She trained Kaylyn. She should have been up to the task.
â€œHe was their leader,â€ Jorrin says. â€œPerhaps he only excelled at leading and not actual fighting?â€
He seems to be forgetting Mom too. But maybe there was a reason for the way things happened. Something weâ€™ll never understand. I canâ€™t imagine anything making my motherâ€™s death understandable.
â€œWeâ€™re going to be late if we donâ€™t leave now.â€ Canâ€™t be late to my own motherâ€™s funeral, even if Iâ€™d rather skip it.
Jorrin helps Kaylyn stand, and she hurries down the mountain ahead of us. Jorrin and I follow after, at a pace more fitting to the emotions clouding me. The forest is as heavy as my heart, thick with trees, even as we pass the village built on the side of the mountain. I wish Jorrin would talk. Would say something. But then, Iâ€™m not saying anything either. Itâ€™s hard to think of words.
â€œDo you think Kaylynâ€™s all right?â€ I ask. â€œSheâ€™s been different. Distant.â€
â€œI donâ€™t know. Hopefully she just needs time. Itâ€™s not how any of us wanted to have the Malryx defeated.â€ He looks at me. Really looks at me like I can never remember him doing before. â€œHow are you doing with this?â€
My throat threatens to close, but I force the words past my grief. â€œAngry. If she could have lived past today, the only danger left would have been natural causes.â€
He puts a hand on my arm; a blanket of comfort softens my ache at his touch. â€œIâ€™m sorry. She was a good woman.â€
â€œThe best.â€ Iâ€™m embarrassed by how my voice cracks, but he only nods in agreement.
Words no longer seem needed as we continue on. Though his hand is no longer on my arm, the blanket of warmth remains just by being with him, by walking by his side. Does he feel that connection between us?
By the time we reach the village, Kaylyn has slowed enough for us to catch up with her. I wrap my arm around one of hers. Jorrin sticks close to her other side, and together, we stop just outside the group gathered around the pyre. Around my mother.
Despite the silence, many people are here. Probably all who were in hearing distance who could travel. Mother was well loved for everything she strove toward. For everything she did, even when it meant giving up personal things to make it happen. I always wanted to spend more time with her, but her cause was worth the time apart. Sometimes people have to do what they donâ€™t want to do for the greater good. I always understood that.
â€œShowna was an incomparable leader and friend.â€ The Astraâ€™s robes flow around her in a swath of black night, the silver twinkling like stars. Mom would have liked that.
The tears start then, hot down my cheeks. Kaylyn hands me her handkerchief, her own eyes glistening, but sheâ€™s not actually crying. The words make a melodious background Momma would have been bored with, but patiently sat through. She was good at duty. I canâ€™t even pretend to focus on whatâ€™s being said. Kaylynâ€™s handkerchief is soaked before they even light the pyre.
Jorrin wraps his arm around me, which makes me cry harder. It should be comforting, and it is, but my mother should have been here for this. I try to enjoy the comfort as much as I can anyway.
The ceremony seems to take forever before the Aster falls silent. A villager hands the Aster a torch, and itâ€™s time. Time to let her go. I canâ€™t let my feelings be part of what holds her back. She needs to move on, and I need to let her. The Aster lights the pyre, making my tears come to a sudden, violent stop.
The flames crackle against the stillness of the night until the Aster says, â€œIf any would like to speak of Showna, please take this opportunity to do so.â€
Everyone looks our way. Though itâ€™s not really our way. Itâ€™s Kaylynâ€™s way. Sheâ€™s the one they all look to now. The one who should be stepping forward to take my motherâ€™s place. But she doesnâ€™t. She just stands there, gripping the hilt of her sword in the way she does when sheâ€™s upset.
Thereâ€™s only one way I can think to help her. Besides, this is my mother weâ€™re honoring. I have rights to start the memories as much as Kaylyn does, and I know it will help her out. I step forward.
â€œMother was unlike the rest of us. She helped pave the way for us to have freedom from the Malryx. More than anyone else, she would have realized what has been accomplished this day and want it celebrated. I only wish sheâ€™d lived a long enough to see it.â€
I move back next to Jorrin and stare up at the stars. The place Mom will soon be. Others speak of her. Of her goodness and kindness. Of her unwavering determination to give us a better world. Thereâ€™s so much good to say about her. That was my mother.
Once everyone who wants to speak has had a chance to, the Aster and Astra toss a handful of something onto the fire that makes it spark. â€œWe release you to the stars.â€
The flames burn high and bright, carrying Mommaâ€™s soul to the stars where she now belongs. It doesnâ€™t matter what words are said, as long as she numbers among the others who came before us. Sheâ€™ll probably burn brightest of all, eager to light the way at our darkest time. And I am nothing like her.
â€œPlease go and enjoy the festivities,â€ the Aster says, breaking my morbid thoughts. â€œWe have the peace Showna, and many others, always dreamed weâ€™d have from evil people of this world. Let us celebrate that.â€
The crowd floods away. It feels a little like theyâ€™re eager to be celebrating instead of remembering Mom, but itâ€™s what she would have wanted. What she fought her whole life for. No matter how many times I remind myself itâ€™s what she would have wanted, the words never seem any warmer. Never hold any more comfort.
Not everyone leaves to celebrate, though. Those charged with fighting the evil, whether they fought until the end, or their services stopped being needed some time ago, all stay. They wait as the crowd disperses around us. We Zophas are what remains, those of us who knew Mother best. Those whom she led, even when it meant less time for things other mothers in the village did, like making special treats.
Kaylyn is the focus of attention. She would most likely have taken motherâ€™s place if warriors were still needed. Even if theyâ€™re not, sheâ€™s still the leader they look to, and Iâ€™m the daughter that always tagged along.
Kaylyn rubs her thumb across the ball of the hilt of her sword and looks toward the stars.
Mother is there now, shining down on us. I dab my eyes again, hopefully for the last time. At least for tonight. Tears are supposed to be freeing at times like these but always leave me feeling swollen and achy.
The others look to Kaylyn. She appears fit to be my motherâ€™s heir as she gives a nod to them, releasing them. They depart, unhurriedly, except for Jorrin. He waits by the fire, staring deep into its flames.
Weâ€™re supposed to all move on now. Let her life be remembered and her death honored, but not mourned over. It gives room for Jorrin in my life. Tonight will be the night we start building something new. Something we can grow together in. But the needs of my dearest friend come first.
I hold out Kaylynâ€™s now soggy handkerchief. â€œThank you.â€
It is pretty gross after the night Iâ€™ve put it through. â€œJust as well. My tears and snot are all over it.â€
Our laughter feels forced. Hollow. Not what I need to be feeling right now. I glance at Jorrin waiting so patiently. The ache in my chest will be fixed soon. Time and love are supposed to heal heartaches.
â€œHave you said anything to him yet?â€ she asks, her voice low enough he canâ€™t hear.
â€œNo, but Iâ€™m certain heâ€™s guessed my feelings by now.â€ How could he not?
â€œThen perhaps you should get him to the festival, where you can cheer each other up. Showna would have been delighted to welcome a son-in-law to celebrate evil being eliminated.â€
My face feels fiery. Thereâ€™s no question of that. Too soon for anything like that. â€œA proposal is unlikely tonight, let alone a wedding.â€
â€œYouâ€™ve waited long enough. At least tonight can get you started in the right direction.â€
The fire doesnâ€™t leave but moves to my chest where Iâ€™ve kept all my hopes and dreams. Things Kaylyn knows all too well. Only I no longer know what her hopes and dreams are. There must be someone in her future soon. â€œDonâ€™t fret, sister. We will find you a match soon enough.â€
She looks to the man I hope to soon make mine, not commenting on my statement. â€œGo on. Iâ€™ll be along shortly.â€
Probably more like in an hour. But if itâ€™s what she needs to feel like she can be ready to let Mother go, itâ€™s what weâ€™ll give her. As long as she doesnâ€™t mourn too much and become infested with sadness. â€œDonâ€™t be too long. Itâ€™s time you learn to dance and play.â€
The prospect has me wanting to twirl to Jorrin. To let my emotions loose. Since weâ€™re still on sacred ground, I let the feeling stay wrapped inside until the festival. Jorrin is somber, still feeling the effects of the ceremony. Or maybe, like me, heâ€™s trying to remain solemn while still here. Hopefully the celebrations will loosen him some. Iâ€™m ready for dancing and merrymaking. Ready to leave the ache behind. At least for the moment, to try to give Mother what she would have wanted.
â€œKaylyn needs some time alone, I think. Letâ€™s go have fun, and she can join when sheâ€™s ready.â€
His gaze darts to her, but he holds out an elbow for me. Heâ€™s never done that before: things are already looking brighter.
We walk across the field until we come to a clearing at the bottom of the mountain near the hall where we eat. By the time we reach the gathering, things are already underway. Food out, music playing, couples dancing. The air is potent with their joviality.
â€œWould you like something to eat?â€ Jorrin asks.
â€œLetâ€™s dance instead.â€ Food isnâ€™t distracting enough. Besides, finally being with him, mixed with wanting to put the dayâ€™s events behind me, has my feelings bouncing inside me; Iâ€™m ready to spin free until Iâ€™m so worn forgetfulness overtakes me.
Jorrin leads me to a free spot in the dance clear. We spin and twirl along with the others, the thrill of being thrown into the air and twisted about exactly what my emotions needed. They soar higher than even I do, releasing some of the ache over Motherâ€™s death into the cool night air.
After the song ends, Jorrin leads me to a food-laden table. Boys always want food. Maybe I should learn to cook. Not to take over a cookâ€™s job, but so I can make Jorrin a special treat once in a while. Let him see what I feel through sweets.
He offers me some sort of pastry, but I donâ€™t even know what it is. My thoughts are too jumbled, nervous, and excited for me to pay close enough attention. At least the dancing seems to have helped some. â€œNo, thank you.â€ I wave him away and look out at the dancers.
The song is milder than the last one, not as good at expending my nerves, but still moving. I suppose it doesnâ€™t matter since weâ€™re sitting this one out anyhow. My feet bounce me up and down, reminding me they want to move, as if I could forget.
Tavo, another Zophas who left shortly after I did, taps me on the shoulder. â€œLooks like you could use a dance. May I twirl you around this time?â€
Jorrin lingers over the food like he isnâ€™t ready to move. As if heâ€™s not feeling the beat like my feet are. Itâ€™s not bad to dance with other boys. Especially when they ask. Iâ€™m not hiding my feelings for Jorrin, and itâ€™s not uncommon for girls to dance with lots of different boys even when they have a beau or are married.
â€œThatâ€™d be great,â€ I tell Tavo.
He grins and leads me onto the dance floor. Unlike Jorrin, he doesnâ€™t just dance with me, but he talks to me, makes me laugh. The sound feels odd, spurting from me on a night like this one, but is a balm to the stinging sorrow.
Tavoâ€™s short, curly, blond hair is a perfect contrast to his golden-brown eyes. Iâ€™m not sure I ever knew what color his eyes were before, but thatâ€™s what happens when you dance, I suppose. Though heâ€™s not as tall as Jorrin, heâ€™s several inches taller than me, so itâ€™s easy to twirl beneath his arm.
The song comes to a close, and he grips my waist with both of his hands, keeping me perfectly safe as he tosses me in the air one last time before bringing me back down to him. As the other dancers clap, I hug him. Heâ€™s warm and soft, and itâ€™s so much easier to be comfortable around as a friend than to know how to behave around Jorrin.
â€œThat was just what I needed. Thank you.â€ And maybe Jorrin will ask me to dance to the next song now that heâ€™s had time to eat. â€œIâ€™m going to go check on Jorrin.â€
Tavoâ€™s suddenly releases his grip on me as he smiles. â€œIâ€™ll take you back.â€
But Iâ€™m already winding my way through the other dancers who are lining up for the next song. Jorrinâ€™s right where I left him, next to the food table, gaze turning back toward where Kaylyn probably still is. My own thoughts trail where his gaze is. Itâ€™s hard not to worry about her. I hope sheâ€™s handling everything all right and that she joins us soon. It will be so much easier for her to process if she gives into the celebration of everything theyâ€™ve done, everything Mom did. Thatâ€™s why weâ€™re having these festivities after all.
I move close to Jorrinâ€™s side, Tavoâ€™s back already trailing away from us. I wonder who heâ€™ll find to dance with next. Whoever it is, Iâ€™m sure sheâ€™ll appreciate what a great dancer he is. If only Jorrin would ask me. Except he starts to grab for a cake as a new song starts. We can eat later. Even our leaders, the Aster and Astra, chosen to help us before I was even born, are dancing with others now. Theyâ€™re almost what I imagine having a grandmother and grandfather would be like. And setting such a good example by enjoying the festivities.
â€œWill you dance with me, Jorrin?â€
He puts my hand on his elbow and leads me back to the clearing. My feet are ready to move before we reach an empty spot. Once we do, thereâ€™s no holding back. Our hands press together, arms around each other, feet perfectly in rhythm. We move to the music, flying through the air, twirling, moving together. This is what Iâ€™ve always wanted. This is what Iâ€™ve been waiting for.
The beat thrums through me as Jorrin throws me in the air, catches me, and whirls me away from him then back toward him. My breath is fast. Shallow. Heart pumping like mad. I let the pulse jumping in me radiate through my smile. He smiles back.
Everything is light and free. The music crescendos and ends with a smashing beat, dancers cheering. I collapse against Jorrinâ€™s chest with a laugh.
â€œThat was perfect,â€ I gasp out. â€œYouâ€™re marvelous. Why havenâ€™t we danced before tonight?â€
He smiles, shrugs, and looks around. â€œI donâ€™t know. Guess the opportunity never came up.â€
Thatâ€™s true. We never had much of a chance for dancing when fighting Malryx. But I havenâ€™t done much fighting for a long time, and he has done less the last year or so. Why havenâ€™t we found ourselves together at a dance before this? I shake off the thought. Weâ€™re here now. Thatâ€™s what matters.
Jorrin takes my hand, causing a flutter of excitement in my chest. He pulls me toward the edge of the crowd, and my excitement deflates some until I see where heâ€™s headed. Straight toward Kaylyn, whoâ€™s looking solemn, but is at least here.
I curl toward Jorrin as we walk, unable to stop the laughter from bubbling up within me.
â€œThank you,â€ I tell Jorrin as we reach her.
â€œMy pleasure.â€ His words make the fluttering quicken. â€œWhat about you, Kaylyn? Would you like to dance?â€
The fluttering sputters, and I try to force it back to its merriment. Weâ€™ve been having a good time together, but Kaylyn is our friend. From the drawn set of her mouth, she needs something happy to offset her thoughts. Thatâ€™s the great thing about Jorrinâ€”heâ€™s always better at noticing these things than I am. Perhaps the more time I spend with him, the more his goodness will rub off on me.
But Kaylyn doesnâ€™t look as if she feels the same about the idea. She purses her lips as she eyes those waiting to dance. â€œI donâ€™t know how to dance.â€
â€œI can teach you. Itâ€™s easy.â€
â€œHe really is great,â€ I add, despite the strange feeling of reluctance pouting inside. â€œIâ€™m sure he can help you.â€
The music starts, and behind me, the dancers begin, but still Kaylyn hesitates. â€œWhy donâ€™t you dance with Marsa again? Or another girl? Iâ€™m sure theyâ€™d be pleased to have you.â€
â€œOf course. Marsa?â€
The fluttering is back without any hesitance. I grab his handâ€”when did I let go?â€”and weâ€™re off again. The beat moves through me as it did before, the music just as loud, the dancing just as engagingâ€¦ but something is off.
That happy bounce wonâ€™t return to my step, even though Jorrinâ€™s hands are on my back, arm, shoulder, and my own hand as we twirl about. Touching me like Iâ€™ve always dreamed of. In a way that, only a short while ago, made me excited for the new path our lives are about to take. But now the exuberance is gone. No matter how much I try to let the atmosphere draw me in, thereâ€™s no way to completely forget.
Kaylyn is upset. Momma is gone. And how did Jorrin and I stop holding hands without my realizing it?
The week moves in a sort of stuck way. Things try to be like they were before my mom was gone and the Malryx were defeated, but of course they canâ€™t be. And I donâ€™t want them to. Other than the dance, things canâ€™t move forward, either. Thereâ€™s something there holding everything back from taking the next step. Itâ€™s keeping Jorrin and me apart and keeping Kaylyn from finding her place in life now that our fighting skills are no longer needed.
Whatever it is, I try to spend as much time as I can with them both, to let them know Iâ€™m ready to move on with them when they are. Even if it takes a while. I can continue with my duties, helping in the infirmary and the gardens, until theyâ€™re ready. Even if itâ€™s hard. Whatâ€™s harder is not thinking about how much I miss my mom. How much I long to listen to her tell one of her stories just once more.
This morning, the garden is quiet. Too quiet. The weeds are few enough that Iâ€™m almost done with them even though Iâ€™ve only been here a few minutes. The herbs I planted are thriving, twinning toward the light, just like they should.
The thought makes me look in the distance. The dark clouds canâ€™t be seen from down here, but when I was at the top of the mountain yesterday, they were still there, and just maybe, a little bigger. I stand on my tiptoes to see if that will help me spot them from here.
â€œI think I need help,â€ a male voice says behind me.
I turn to find Felix clutching his head, blood oozing out between his fingers. I hurry over to him, trying to keep my face from showing panic at so much blood. Itâ€™s a head wound. Bleeding is just what they do. â€œLetâ€™s get you to the nurse.â€
I wrap an arm around him and support him, just in case he faints. His weight is easy to help hold up, though greater than my own. Even though I donâ€™t train anymore, I still exercise regularly. It doesnâ€™t take us long to hobble to the infirmary. Its central location is easy to get to from anywhere. The nurse isnâ€™t in sight, though. I guide him to a nearby sick bed, and help him lay down.
â€œBrilona,â€ I call out.
The nurse scuttles out from the hall and gasps. â€œMy, my, Felix, what have you gotten into this time?â€ She doesnâ€™t let him reply. Istead, she tsks and gets to work inspecting the wound. She switches his hand for a cloth, only itâ€™s soaked in moments. â€œLands.â€
â€œWhat is it?â€ I bend my knees slightly even, though being ready to maneuver wonâ€™t help. Too many years of training for battle when the adrenaline hits make it impossible to do otherwise.
â€œFetch Kaylyn for me, will you? Sheâ€™ll have a better handling on this one than I do,â€ Brilona says.
â€œCourse. Iâ€™ll be right back, Felix.â€
â€œIâ€™ll be here,â€ he calls out as I hurry from the building.
Itâ€™s probably not as bad as Brilona thinks, but she doesnâ€™t deal with wounds like this often. Thereâ€™s a need to hurry but not a frantic urgency behind finding Kaylyn. Sheâ€™s been all over the town this week, trying her hand at many different tasks, she, the Aster, and Astra hoping she finds a place to settle into. I donâ€™t think such a place is going to be as quick to find as any of them hope.
My transition was hard, but I had time to adjust as my duties as a Zophas slowly ended. She doesnâ€™t have that luxury, and today, sheâ€™s stuck in the barn. Not that itâ€™s a bad place to be, but it certainly isnâ€™t one I picture Kaylyn in. Of course, I canâ€™t picture Kaylyn doing anything other than fighting.
When I reach the barn, I find Kaylyn in the corral sitting on a stool next to a cow. Bet sheâ€™s loving that. Maybe itâ€™s a good thing Felix needs looking at.
â€œKaylyn, youâ€™re needed in the infirmary,â€ I call out as quickly as I can.
Her head pops up faster than she draws her sword against a Malryx. She says something to the woman in charge of the farmyard, who gives a chuckle. They exchange a few more words before Kaylyn hurries over, dodging the cows like sheâ€™ll have to go back to milking them if she gets too close.
â€œThat was good timing. Is someone really hurt?â€ Her eyes are bright as we hurry toward the infirmary, but I can forgive her excitement. Itâ€™s that adrenaline rush, the power of what we know and do, coursing through her.
â€œIs it serious?â€
â€œI donâ€™t think so. Brilona was nervous about all the blood, so she sent me for you. Itâ€™s a head wound. You know how those bleed.â€
â€œDid we miss a Malryx?â€ Something sounding a little like excitement coats her words. Almost makes me miss the thrill of a good fight.
â€œNo. Itâ€™s Felix.â€
â€œOh.â€ Her shoulders slump. I want to reach out and comfort her, but she continues talking as if trying to hurry past what is no longer. â€œWhat did he do this time?â€
â€œI didnâ€™t get the chance to ask. Itâ€™s certain to be something entertaining, though.â€
We head a small ways up the mountain on the stairs to the infirmary. Kaylyn enters, and I follow. Felix is right where I left himâ€”on a bed, holding a rag to his head, but Brilona isnâ€™t. Her frantic movements are focused on getting more rags. â€œPraise the night sky. He just keeps bleeding.â€
A little overly dramatic. Itâ€™s not that much blood. Once, when we were out hunting for Malryx, he slipped crossing a stream and landed on a stick. There was more blood then than Iâ€™ve ever seen, and it took him a month to recuperate from the injury.
â€œHi, Felix,â€ Kaylyn says, her voice as calm as it always is when dealing with the wounded.
I hurry to the back room to heat some water while she gets an assessment on what needs to be done. Weâ€™ve seen this before. Probably could have even treated it myself, but she always had more of a knack for it than I did.
I move back and forth between taking out fresh supplies and cleaning things up. Kaylyn has Felix so rapt, he doesnâ€™t even seem to notice me moving about. Itâ€™s easy work, though. One I did many of times on the road. At least here thereâ€™s plenty of fresh, clean supplies. By the time heâ€™s fixed up and sent on his way, Iâ€™m already done putting everything away. Brilona shows us out, claiming we need dinner while she makes notes on what Kaylyn taught her.
â€œThanks for fetching her for me,â€ Brilona tells me as I head out to follow Kaylyn for some much needed food.
â€œAlways happy to help.â€ I give her a big smile. â€œDonâ€™t stay writing notes so long you forget to eat.â€
â€œI would never.â€
I laugh as I pass through the doorway, making a mental note to bring her something later if she doesnâ€™t show up for dinner. Kaylyn is waiting for me a few yards down the path. Now that no oneâ€™s health is in danger, she should be a little more upbeat, or at least more at ease. But she trails along my side, feet dragging instead of her usual precise steps. Why ever for? Doesnâ€™t she realize what a good job she did?
Maybe not. Maybe someone hasnâ€™t thought to tell her this is where she should be. If she canâ€™t fight, she should be doing the thing sheâ€™s good at thatâ€™s closest to what she did before. Itâ€™s why I work mostly in the herb gardens now. Hoping to help her understand that, I quietly say, â€œPerhaps you could work in the infirmary. Be a healer?â€
Well, that didnâ€™t sound convincing at all. â€œDo you want to talk about it?â€
She shrugs. â€œNot now. Sorry, Iâ€™m still trying to sort my thoughts out.â€
â€œDonâ€™t worry about it.â€ But Iâ€™ll worry about it. Never before have I not known what she was thinking. We used to have almost the same thoughts. And when we didnâ€™t, we always talked things out. I suppose this will return as we spend more time together.
Time. I can give her that. I can be patient.
And while Iâ€™m waiting, thereâ€™s time to heal from losing Mom. Time to fill the ache in my soul. At least everyone says time fixes things like this. Right now, I donâ€™t see how it could, but it must happen. My mother didnâ€™t ever seem to have a hole from losing my father to the fight when I was little.
Besides, Iâ€™ve got Jorrin. Things are going to happen with him soon. I just know it. It should help fill the ache inside me. Just thinking of him sparks a light in me. I want to skip to dinner, knowing heâ€™ll be there.
The dining hall is within view. Hopefully, heâ€™s already there waiting for us. Or maybe he should come in a few minutes after us and then be able to see where we are and join us. Ideally heâ€™d be with us already, but heâ€™s working to find good building lumber today. Itâ€™s fine, though. I shouldnâ€™t push things so hard. Itâ€™s only that, wellâ€¦Iâ€™m tired of waiting. Iâ€™m ready, but I told myself I can be patient, and I can. Even if itâ€™s hard. Why am I even worrying about this so much?
â€œWhatâ€™s going on down there?â€ Kaylynâ€™s voice startles me from my thoughts.
Guilt tugs at me since Iâ€™ve been thinking of Jorrin instead of talking with her. But then, if she was in the mood to talk, she would have said something. Right? I donâ€™t know. When did things become so complicated?
I look down toward the riverside where sheâ€™s pointing. A crowd has gathered at the bank, with more people trailing over as we watch. Something must be going on, but I donâ€™t remember hearing about any gatherings. â€œI donâ€™t know. Maybe theyâ€™re all trying to catch fish with their hands?â€
Jorrin did that once. Just thinking of the memory has me torn between laughing and being in awe. Itâ€™d be a good skill for him to teach others. I wonder if I could ever figure it out.
â€œHopefully theyâ€™re more graceful than Felix.â€
I chuckle. If he were here, heâ€™d be laughing even harder. Jorrin may be a good teacher, but Felix is isnâ€™t exactly coordinated.
Kaylyn heads toward the gathering, and I follow after, like usual. Weâ€™re not the only ones coming, either. Others have spotted the crowd and are headed toward it as well. But no Jorrin in sight.
When we get in the midst of those hovering around someone, I ask, â€œWhoâ€™s that, Tavo?â€
I lean closer to hear his reply, growing warmer just by being near so many people. â€œMessenger from Criown. Weird things have been happening at their village.â€
Criown? I went there once with Mom a few years ago. The memory brings a painful twist.
â€œWhat sort of weird things?â€ Kaylyn asks.
â€œAnimals have been acting as if a predator is about, even when the villagers canâ€™t find one. Strange clouds in the forest by them have been growing bigger by the week.â€
â€œWhat type of clouds?â€ I canâ€™t even think of what a strange cloud could be. And growing bigger? Clouds come and go as they should, sometimes gathering to take up the whole sky, dotting it with puffs of white or gray. They donâ€™t stick around and grow bigger. Exceptâ€¦ â€œThe darkness you can only see at the top of the mountain?â€
â€œSame ones. He said theyâ€™re even stranger up close. Odd color. Donâ€™t ever blow away. Only grow thicker and bigger.â€
The statement shoots a tiny spark of fear through me. But why should it? I mean, what heâ€™s describing certainly is odd, but why fear it? Thereâ€™s no way to know the answer to that. I wonder if Jorrin does. He sometimes senses things others canâ€™t.
The Aster helps the messenger head toward the row of homes on stilts up the mountain side, and the crowd begins to disperse.
â€œAre they going to tell us anything more?â€ I ask Tavo.
â€œYeah. They were talking about letting him get some sleep before that, though. Apparently he came straight here, barely stopping for a real meal or sleep. Theyâ€™ll have a gathering later tonight that anyone can join.â€
Not sure I want to know what theyâ€™re going to say in that meeting. â€œIâ€™m going to go eat before then. Iâ€™ll see you two later.â€
â€œWant some company?â€ Kaylyn asks.
She would come with me if I asked, but her gaze is focused far off in the distance on nothing, as if sheâ€™s deep in thought. Heavy thought. â€œThanks, but Iâ€™m good. Iâ€™ll see you soon.â€
â€œAre you coming to hear what they have to say tonight?â€ Tavo asks.
Everyoneâ€™s certain to be there, but I want to go crawl into my bed instead and stay there long past time to get up. â€œProbably.â€
â€œIâ€™ll see you then.â€ He gives me a grin thatâ€™s dulled by the worry of the situation, but like he still wants me to know heâ€™s here for me.
And itâ€™s true. Even though Mother isnâ€™t here, I have to remember I wonâ€™t be alone. Not that I always needed her, but she would have been there. But Jorrin will probably be going, too. I give Tavo a small smile back before heading toward the dining hall. Jorrin has to be inside by now. Unless someone from the crowd waylaid him with stories of strange, shiver-inducing clouds. Wherever he is, Iâ€™ll find him.
I donâ€™t have to hunt much; heâ€™s at a table in the back of the dining hall by himself. The hall is surprisingly empty for this time of night. After seeing the messenger, food doesnâ€™t seem appealing, but I grab some corn bread and chili anyway, before joining Jorrin.
He nods. â€œHow are things?â€
â€œOh, you know. Dirt and weeds. Felix had an accident that needed some tending to. Nothing much.â€
â€œFirst time this month for him, isnâ€™t it?â€
â€œSecond, but there was enough blood to make Brilona nervous. Kaylyn fixed him right up, though.â€
â€œSheâ€™s good at that,â€ he says. â€œWhat happened to her? I thought you two were coming to dinner together.â€
I push the bean around my bowl. â€œShe, umâ€”Have you heardâ€¦?â€
He stops eating. â€œIs everything all right?â€
If I want to have a relationship with him, I should be able to tell him what Iâ€™m feeling. Besides, heâ€™s asking. That has to be a good sign. Right? â€œHave you heard about the messenger from Criown?â€
â€œSeemed like the whole village was down there to meet him.â€ I quickly explain the few details I know, ending with, â€œSomething about it has me feelingâ€¦ off.â€
â€œThat explains why itâ€™s so empty in here.â€ He leans back, ignoring his half-finished plate. â€œThere is something about this that feels different than other problems weâ€™ve been called to help with. Though without Malryx, I guess it would.â€
â€œTrue. Even though I havenâ€™t been working with you guys much lately, I donâ€™t know how long it will take me to get used to them actually being gone.â€ Maybe weâ€™ll never get used to it. Maybe itâ€™s like archery. Iâ€™ve given it up, but it seems like it should still be part of my life. Itâ€™s engrained in my every movement.
â€œYou said theyâ€™re meeting once heâ€™s rested?â€ he asks.
â€œWe should be there.â€
â€œIâ€¦ donâ€™t know. Iâ€™m not sure I want to be involved. I have to finish in the garden.â€
â€œNot at night, though. No one expects that. Itâ€™ll still be there tomorrow. And I think if we learn more about whatâ€™s going on, it will help.â€
Going definitely feels worse, but heâ€™s right. I need to learn about it. When have I shied away from anything hard? Never. Now isnâ€™t the time to start. â€œYouâ€™ll come with me, then?â€
â€œYou know I will.â€
My heart flutters. I can do this then. Heâ€™ll be at my side, and Kaylyn will be there. Mom must be watching me from the stars. Nothing could possibly go wrong.
â€œOur crops are yielding less, our animals are fitful, and the darkness over us hasnâ€™t brought rain,â€ Foley, the messenger says.
No rain? Thatâ€™s enough to drive a person crazy right there, not to mention the problems it would cause with food and animals. He continues talking about the villageâ€™s circumstances, and the tales of how things have slowly been changing in the forest near them. How it slowly seemed to spread but didnâ€™t worry them at firstâ€”what was there to worry about? How things have gotten worse. How animals are acting strangely, and the dark cloud hovering nearby hasnâ€™t moved in weeks except to grow, threatening to block out their sun.
All of it makes me want to return to the garden, go back to before Felix interrupted.
If my mom was here, sheâ€™d have some ideas on what to do about it. The thought makes my worried heart ache. At least Jorrinâ€™s here, though. He looks on the scene with the kind of determination that makes me lean a little closer to him. Whatever is going on, it will be fine.
Suddenly, Kaylyn speaks up. â€œIâ€™d be willing to lead a group back with Foley to see what we can find out and how we can help.â€
What? Sheâ€™s really willing to risk herself in this situation? I guess I understand. Sheâ€™s been struggling to find her place, and this is more like the missions we used to journey on together. Only, when my time as a Zophas ended, I was happy to be throughâ€”if a little lost for a while trying to figure things out. I wish she could be that way as well. What really matters is what the Aster and Astra think, the look theyâ€™re exchanging. Whatever it is they read in that look, they both seem in agreement.
The Astra says, â€œThis would be a good option for you, Kaylyn, and we believe your knowledge will be of great use with the task. We will find others to join you.â€
Thatâ€™s it then. Sheâ€™s leaving me again, only this time willingly. As the Aster and Astra discuss with Foley if this will work, I canâ€™t focus on their words. At some point, I slump back against the bench. The task is for a good purpose, but it shouldnâ€™t be happening. My father left, my mom left, Kaylynâ€™s leaving. Everyone leaves.
â€œIâ€™ll go with you.â€ Jorrin suddenly volunteers.
Point proven. My chest squeezes with a painful twinge, but this doesnâ€™t have to be the end of us. Maybe it will be a good chance for Kaylyn, Jorrin, and me to spend time together like we havenâ€™t in too long. I stand. â€œSo will I.â€
Kaylyn beamsâ€”not in the carefree way I do, but in her own subtle, glowing kind of way. Tavo also volunteers, along with a few other former Zophas.
â€œItâ€™s settled,â€ the Astra says. â€œGather supplies, and you will leave at first light. May the stars aid you on your quest.â€
As those gathered disperse, faces lighter now that someone capable is hunting to solve the problem, I slump back down on the bench. My volunteering was impulsive. Too impulsive. As much as I want to help, is it the right thing for me? For the others? The good thing to do isnâ€™t always clear.
Itâ€™s been over a year since Iâ€™ve steadily served my Zophas calling. The time away from it has been better suited to me. As much as Iâ€™m ready to move on, Jorrin hasnâ€™t been away from the Zophas as long as I have. Maybe the time apart would have been good for him. For us.
More than that, the thought of this journey, and what Foley described, leaves a dark tinge of worry.
Itâ€™s peaceful this time of the morning and too early for me to be awake. I yawn as we start off. Kaylyn decided we should set off earlier than first light, so the stars still twinkle overhead, wishing our journey well. Foley is only too eager to get started. I, on the other hand, not so much.
â€œThereâ€™s no sense in rising before the sun,â€ I say, another yawn attacking me.
â€œYouâ€™d dance the night away and sleep all day if it wasnâ€™t for chores,â€ Tavo teases.
If I werenâ€™t so tired Iâ€™d stick my tongue out at him. â€œAs any sane person should.â€
â€œRight now is the best time to be awake,â€ Sosha adds. â€œNight creatures are just going to bed and day creatures are just getting up. Sometimes you can catch glimpses of them both if you time it right.â€
â€œAnd your breakfast is still hot,â€ Felix says.
â€œFine. Iâ€™m the only one with a good sense of when to sleep.â€ I stretch as much as I can make myself with tiredness and the pack on my back weighing my limbs. â€œThought the rest of you would have better sense than that since we donâ€™t have to go out on quests anymore.â€
â€œIt was never the quests that got us up early,â€ Sosha says.
â€œI know.â€ A third yawn escapes me, making my eyes water. â€œIâ€™m just lazy.â€
â€œI wouldnâ€™t say lazy,â€ Tavo says. â€œMore like you donâ€™t enjoy mornings as much as the rest of us.â€
In other words, everything is somehow the same as it was when we went on quests, even though itâ€™s all changed.
â€œLetâ€™s go,â€ Kaylyn says, coming to our group and directing Foley to lead us down the dirt road.
Already, fading memories of past journeys make this one familiar, yet different. Jorrin is always near, though we donâ€™t talk. No one does. That our quest is something weâ€™ve never tried before is too nerve-racking for chatter, I suppose. Not the most romantic way to spend my time with Jorrin, but at least weâ€™re together.
We continue on the full day, moving through the forest toward the mountains. Weâ€™ll take a canyon to get between them, stopping only briefly for necessities and food. We break for the night and hurry to make camp and eat so we can be rested for another wearing day.
I stretch, letting the new movement combat the dayâ€™s soreness. â€œIâ€™ve spent too much time doing gardening instead of stretching.â€
Jorrin laughs. â€œYou should have joined me training. I figured even if I wasnâ€™t going to be a Zophas anymore, the exercise still felt good. And today it proved useful.â€
â€œI wish Iâ€™d joined you.â€ This was the right choiceâ€”coming with. â€œWant to help me get firewood?â€
â€œSure.â€ But his gaze isnâ€™t on me.
No matter. Itâ€™s a good start.
The second night we stop, thereâ€™s more life in our group. The fire is big and bright, warming my face while my back is chilled. Though days are still hot, nights are cool. Iâ€™m grateful the melancholy from the first day hasnâ€™t carried on through tonight. When I donâ€™t think about it too much, it easily feels like traveling back in time to when we were all Zophas, fighting evil, and working together to make life better for everyone.
â€œWeâ€™re running low on water,â€ Kaylyn says to me. â€œIâ€™m going to refill the waterskins at the stream.â€
â€œI can help, if youâ€™d like.â€
â€œThanks, but Iâ€™ll be fine. Donâ€™t wait on me for dinner. Iâ€™ll be back in a while.â€
Not surprising. Sheâ€™s always sought solitude more than I have. We may be like sisters, but I thrive with others while she prefers her own company. â€œEnjoy.â€
I do a few stretches outside the fire ring, trying to burn some of my nighttime energy while loosening my muscles so Iâ€™m not as sore tomorrow.
â€œToo bad you canâ€™t find this kind of energy in the mornings,â€ Jorrin says.
â€œItâ€™s only too bad the rest of you donâ€™t have this much energy when we stop at night,â€ I counter with a smile. â€œWeâ€™d have dinner in no time and still have a chance to dance and tell stories.â€
â€œBut then your antics at night wouldnâ€™t be as entertaining for the rest of us,â€ Felix says.
I laugh and sneak a glance at Jorrin, wondering if he has the same thoughts. He grins at me, the firelight dancing shadows across his face. Maybe heâ€™s growing more open to the idea of us. Everything feels perfect. Maybe heâ€™ll even propose before we finish this quest, and weâ€™ll have extra news for the Aster and Astra.
We converse as a group around the fire while dinner cooks. Iâ€™ve missed the smokiness, mixed with the savory smell of Tavoâ€™s latest meal. Thereâ€™s something so homey and comforting about it. The ache from losing my mom is tender at moments like these.
* * *