It had been several hours since the sun had set over the Dravara stronghold and a silver of a moon had appeared on the horizon, clustered with stars that were beginning to grow in numbers every passing moment. The days were longer, briefly, and there had been a time, however short, that the snow had almost disappeared entirely. Summer, if it could be called that, was drawing towards its peak. However, she doubted the snow would ever fully disappear like it did during the brief periods where the air itself didn’t seem to freeze.
She didn’t mind the cold and her father had sworn that ice had wormed its way into her blood, accounting for the freezing feet that never seemed to warm even if sat before a fire. While it had been a jest, a joke between them, part of her never doubted there was some truth behind it. The ice, the snow that blanketed the east, was a part of her. It was her home, her domain, and it was the place that had the becoming call of familiarity.
“The night is considerably warmer, isn’t it?”
A laugh. “You say that while there’s still snow on the ground.”
Rowena didn’t turn, only nodding as she braced her arms in front of her. “His day is soon.”
“Let’s hope the weather keeps so those men of yours can travel-“
The man nodded. “Home…the ones from the east anyway.” He paused then, clearing his throat. “Or did you stop allowing that?”
“Travel,” she repeated thoughtfully, “home to their families. I do hope they enjoy that.”
“Was always my favorite day. Bless your father, hope he’s resting well, but he let me go back home again-“
“I was told you never had a family.”
“I don’t…just had a sister, but she’s dead now. Guess that day doesn’t mean as much to me now, does it?” the man laughed.
She had always hated calling it an anniversary, a word that made a tragedy seem more like a celebration than something observed. However, the day of her father’s death was something of a holiday, a day when the duties held upon the shoulders of men were briefly set aside. Many of them, those residing within a day’s ride of the east, traveled home for the evening.
For the obedient ones, she allowed it.
After that day, she never thought about the circumstances too deeply. It was a murder, a killing of a man before his time. As long as that fact remained, it was all that truly mattered. The day returned each year, a haunting reminder, but over the years she felt less of the anger and more of the promise of what would become of it. There would come a time when he would be avenged and the beasts that had killed him would be nothing more than a smudge, a smear in some lost history book.
“I will have a hunt arranged.”
Rowena looked up. “A hunt,” she repeated, “on his day. My grandfather raised hunting hounds and, while my father never took part, I find the tradition…grounding. You understand that once traditions are in place, I do like to keep them. The hunt is no different.”
“Was never much of a hunter myself,” the man admitted.
As useless as he was as a patrolman, clumsy with a gun and hesitant to fire, he was incredibly loyal. That was something she valued and, for him, it meant he was kept within her ranks even after his service had ended.
The man shuffled his feet in the snow.
“Ma’am, I came to ask if you had instructions. Promise of fortune only goes so far and I’m starting to wonder just when-“
“Are you truly here about instructions then?”
A pause and then, “No, ma’am, guess I’m not.”
“Then you lied to me.”
“I meant no harm,” he chuckled, teeth chattering. “I was just asking when I’d start seeing what you promised me. I’ve been doing what you asked, pretty well if you ask me-“
“That smile is unsettling.”
His expression dropped.
Rowena waved a hand dismissively. “While I understand and encourage your eagerness, I’m afraid I can’t reward you until you have done what I asked of you. There are many things to be done and,” she paused, smiling softly, “at the time, none of them have been. I only ask that you are patient and do just what I’ve asked. Do you understand?”
“Patient isn’t really a virtue of mine-“
“Then I suggest you make it one.”
Rowena’s smile fell away.
“Tell me, when you look at me, what do you see?”
There was a pause, an uneasiness in the air and the man shuffled again, shoulders rolling and the ever present smile flickering from his lips. He laughed then, dryly, but there was a glimmer in his eye that betrayed the sound.
“Greatest leader the Dravara have ever seen. Nothing against Orrin, but-“
“You flatter me.”
The man was silent, only clearing his throat, but not a sound followed.
“I should remind you, the Rift Woods are vast and, if you had looked closer, you would have seen someone very willing and capable of making you disappear.” She paused to look over the walls, snapping her fingers. “Just like that.”
Startled, the man chuckled uneasily.
“You frighten me.”
“For the good of both of us, I would hope it remains that way.”
~ ~ ~ ~
The girl had slept past sunrise.
Then came morning, the song of birds, and eventually it reached a time where she would have considered eating a second time. However, she only waited in Silas’ tent, counting the holes in her old knit scarf and waiting for the girl to wake up. The fabric was torn, old and frayed on the ends, and she considered asking Emery to mend it. He likely would insist on making her a new one entirely, something she quite obviously needed, but the scarf had a familiarity about it she didn’t feel comfortable replacing.
Josephine’s head rose when she heard shifting atop the pile of blankets, something of a messy nest of fabric that had been arranged for the girl to sleep. She had found a doll, a ragged old thing made of cloth and just as worn as her scarf, but for Sarafina, it seemed to be a comfort to her.
It was all Josephine could offer.
The blankets rustled again.
“Are you awake?” she called softly, a whisper.
A mess of blonde hair was brushed from blue eyes and the girl nodded, sitting up to rub a tired eye. “Where’s Silas?”
Josephine stood, still twisting her scarf in hand. “He’s in camp, don’t worry.”
“Can we see him?”
She hesitated. “He’s a little upset right now.”
She chewed at her lip, letting go to fidget with her hood. “Are you hungry? I can get you something to eat-“
“Is he okay?”
“Yes,” Josephine replied, nodding quickly, “he’s just fine. He’s just a little mad at Emery right now.”
“I really can go get you something to eat…”
“He won’t be mad at me,” Sarafina answered softly, climbing down from the cot.
The girl came closer, eyes still fogged with sleep, and reached up to take her hand shakily. Josephine adjusted her hood, silently praying her scars would remain hidden beneath the fabric and her hair, but Sarafina seemed to be staring right at them.
“Your eyes are pretty.”
The girl smiled. “My papa’s are green too.”
“I’m sure he has pretty eyes too then.”
Sarafina looked away, doll still clutched under her arm as they stood facing the door. The girl’s head cocked, and her bare feet tapped nervously on the floor. Josephine cleared her throat. “I asked about food. Are you hungry?”
“Can I see Silas first?”
Josephine swallowed, flashing a smile. “Let’s see if we can find him.”
It was bright outside and the sun floated high above their heads, shining in the center of the sky down on the grassing clearing. Josephine felt the rays through her cloak, reaching up to unconsciously brush over the scar that continued across one side of her lips. Silver rivers, Emery had called them. However, they were neither silver nor rivers, flesh that never fully healed and instead trickled down her cheeks in thin gouges.
Emery’s definition was far more positive.
Her head snapped up when the girl dashed off and Josephine stumbled after her, hurrying to the girl’s side as they approached the plump pony grazing outside of the tent. Sarafina reached forward, round arms going to wrap around the animal’s muzzle as she pressed her face into the small creature’s forehead.
“I don’t think you should do th-“
The pony whickered in greeting.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” Sarafina asked, looking up at Josephine and then back to the animal. “Did you miss me?”
She nodded, smiling. “You have a lovely pony.”
“My papa got her for me. He has a pony too,” the girl paused, “no, a horse. Aurora has one too, but Willow was my mother’s horse.”
“That was nice of your mother to let Aurora use-“
“She’s dead now.”
Josephine paled. “Oh.”
“Can we see Silas now?”
“O-of course,” Josephine answered.
There was shouting, distant and across camp.
It didn’t take long to locate them.
“Al, just listen to me for a moment!”
Josephine held tight to her hand as Sarafina set off towards the voice, wincing when she spotted Allikeo. He was on his feet, one arm wrapped tightly around his chest while the other raised an accusing finger towards Emery. Allikeo’s anger wasn’t something she feared and she knew for certain he wouldn’t harm them, but something about the rage burning in his eyes made her feel as if they were nearing an exception.
“Fina, I think we should-“
“Look, she’s happy, Al. Everyone’s going to be just fine and we’ll have your-“
Allikeo snatched him by the collar. “Stop talking, Emery.”
Sarafina broke free from Josephine’s grasp, dashing towards him and pushing to stand between the two of them. She frowned, arms crossing in front of her chest. “Are you fighting?”
Sighing, Allikeo stepped backwards.
The girl wasn’t convinced. “Why are you fighting?”
“Ally’s just upset he didn’t get to go along,” Emery cut in.
“Go along where?”
Allikeo straightened himself. “Dianna, the lady you met yesterday, and a few others are going to get your papa and Aurora back.”
Josephine jumped at the squeal, hearing Allikeo stifle a groan a second later when Sarafina’s arms were thrown around him. Emery chewed at his nails, opening his mouth to speak, but Allikeo silenced him with a glare. Josephine didn’t dare to say a word.
The girl was crying.
“We c-can go home.”
“I know,” Silas agreed, voice strained. “We will…very soon.”
They separated eventually and Josephine thought for a moment Allikeo was going to collapse, but he steadied himself. Had Dianna been there, she would have knocked him flat on his back for getting out of bed. However, given the fact Allikeo towered over both she and Emery, their ability to stop him was limited.
However, he was far too gentle to hurt any of them.
Emery crouched, clasping his hands together. “Right, well, Fina, will you help me get Al-“
A snort. “Silas, she doesn’t know me as Allikeo.”
“Will you help me get Silas back to bed? He needs to rest and I think he’ll listen to you better than me, you know?”
The girl smiled, sniffling as she nodded.
Josephine cleared her throat. “Emery, can I talk to you first?”
He stood, pointing towards a nearby tent. “Take him right over there.”
They were gone then and Sarafina’s rambling trailed off into nothing as they disappeared from view. Emery was smile, something kind, and his hand reached up to push her hair back from where it hung down in her eyes.
“You have such a pretty face. It’s not all crooked like mine. Why’re you hiding it?”
“That little girl didn’t say anything, did she?”
“Don’t need to have a talk with her, do I?”
She pushed him away, shaking her head. “No, she’s very kind. She said I had pretty eyes, nothing about the scars.”
“Good,” Emery exclaimed, grinning. “I like her already.”
Josephine looked off towards the tent again.
“He shouldn’t be on his feet.”
Emery shrugged. “A good dose of something and he’ll do just about anything. Surprised he hasn’t tried leaving us yet. We got a few keeping track of our horses, making sure he doesn’t run off.”
“He has a hole in his chest.”
For the second time Emery shrugged.
Josephine chewed at her lip.
“Do you think they’ll reach the east in time?”
Sucking air through his teeth, Emery nodded. “Took our fastest horses, guess they’re trying their hardest. I talked to him about it before they left. Dianna’s convinced he’s just doing this so we don’t lose Allikeo.”
“And what do you think?”
“I think it’s none of my business.”
Josephine exhaled sharply. “But…if it was your business.”
“Right, right, well, if it was my business, I’d be getting as many people as we can.” He paused then, shaking his head. “But what do I know? I’m just an old drunk.”
“Old,” Josephine chuckled. “You’re no older than Allikeo.”
Emery jerked his head towards the tent. “And he’s getting gray, isn’t he? Guess he’s been through a lot though. He looks good, aside from being shot. I’ll give him that.”
“I’m worried about him.”
“I wouldn’t worry about him too much. Al,” Emery hesitated, gesturing vaguely with his hands, “he’ll be just fine. We’ll all be fine.”
“And what if we don’t get his brother back?”
His eyes rose and Emery chewed at his nail again. For a moment, he was quiet, staring off towards where the girl and Allikeo had gone. The air was still, broken only by voices in tents or those who wandered between them. They were few, spaced out across the small clearing that had been their home for months.
Few never seemed to matter to them.
“Guess I don’t know the answer.”
Josephine shifted, reaching up to tug at her hood unsurely.
Emery smiled bitterly. “Sometimes that’s for the best.”
“Goddesses, may they reach them in time.”
“May they reach them in time,” Emery repeated, snorting. “I need a drink.”
Her eyes narrowed. “No, you don’t.”
“If you need me, I’ll be down at the tavern in town,” he laughed, starting away. “Starting another fight, getting thrown back in prison-“
He stopped then, grinning and waving his hand dismissively. “Just going to check on Silas, don’t worry.”
Josephine shook her head and she turned, moving off towards her own corner of the campsite, a hammock tucked in the branches of a tree. His words bothered her, the fact of not knowing. There was something too covert, too threatening in the lack of knowing. There had to be an answer, she thought.
She tried not to consider how unfavorable it could be.