The young girl stared at her feathered protector perched atop a low hanging oak branch. Raelia bobbed her head as she looked around. Slivers of sunlight filtered down through the leaves and danced over her golden brown plumage. She let out a piercing cry to greet the two familiar figures approaching the grand tree.
The young girl leapt to her feet and looked in the direction of Raelia’s attention. Her eyes fell upon them. Each man cradled in his arms a neatly bundled body, shrouded in tightly bound blankets and rope. She inhaled deeply. With slow, measured breath she exhaled. Water collected at the corners of her eyes for but a moment. She blinked it away and turned to grab the shovel.
She reactively winced as her blistered hands met the rough wooden haft of the tool. She pulled it from the dry earth and stepped toward the grave. Her mind focused on what must be done and pushed aside the pain. With solemn determination she began to expand the grave. Gently Daven set the small bundle in his arms down. He approached the tattered girl silently. Placing his hand above hers on the shovel he stopped her momentum, “It’s okay. Take your time and say goodbye. We’ll be here.”
Nervously she stopped and looked back to the bodies lying beside one another. She withdrew her hands from the shovel. Very slowly she shuffled toward them. Kneeling between them she placed a hand gingerly upon each and sat in silence.
Daven resumed digging in her stead. No words passed between the group and the labor continued. Arrovel claimed the tool from his companion as the weariness began to show in his breath and rhythm. Still the girl sat in silence, one hand upon her mother’s lifeless form and one upon her brother’s. The shadows grew long as the sun began to linger toward the late day sky. Arrovel finished his task and handed the shovel up toward Daven, “It’s time,” he said softly.
She looked back toward them and nodded in affirmation. Daven pierced the shovel into the ground beside him and moved to the mother’s side. Carefully he scooped her up and carried her to Arrovel who waited to receive the woman. They lowered her gently into the earth. Daven stepped back as the girl approached carrying the smaller body. She knelt down in the dirt. A soft whisper passed to him as she let go, “I’m sorry.” She stood back and watched as Arrovel placed the boy beside their mother.
Daven furrowed his brow, “We do our best for those we love, but sometimes their fate lies beyond our grasp.” He placed a hand on her shoulder. “If there is fault here it does not lie with you. Remember that.” She nodded.
Arrovel rose to his feet beside the prince, “What matters most is how we move forward once we are scarred by the turmoil of life. What you have done here …” he glanced out over the graves of the town, “marks you and reveals strength of soul.”
“And yet I could not help the ones I loved the most with out your assistance,” she cast her eyes down.
“Knowing your limits and being brave enough to admit them is nothing to be ashamed of. Even the mightiest of kings has advisors to lend him aid.” Daven smiled at her. She glanced up at him, the slightest hint of a smile cracked across her dirt smeared face.
Arrovel began to fill the earth back in. She pondered for a moment before speaking again, “I beg you pardon, my lord. Might I ask one more thing of you?” Her eyes darted between them. Both men cast their eyes down upon her in confusion. “Would you take me with with you? I have nothing left here …” she looked to the bodies before her one last time, “and I know much, how to cook, clean and mend. I helped out all over town, in the fields, in the smithy. I learned how to read and write from our records keeper. I am a hard worker, and will serve you faithfully! Please, I owe you a debt for this kindness. One I can only repay with servitude.” She bowed her head, waiting with anxious breath.
Daven turned toward Arrovel, unsure of what to say to her plea. Arrovel raised an eyebrow and shrugged. Daven searched his thoughts, “Servitude is not necessary. But if you are to travel with us, I would know your name.”
She lifted her chin and her eyes widened, “Shoni, Sire! Shoni of Bright Glade.”
“Well then Shoni of Bright Glade, go gather your belongings. The road will be long, only bring what you can carry.” Daven informed her. She nodded and darted into the village. Daven watched her go as Arrovel resumed filling the hole before them. “We’ll bring her to Kristianna, and figure out what to do from there. Then at least she will be with people instead of alone in this ghost town.”
“As you say my prince.” Arrovel replied. “Are you going to tell her?”
Daven gave him a sideways glance, “Her mother’s final wish will be honored. I will not allow her daughter to die here.” He paused, “I’m going to look for another shovel. It’d be best we make some more ground before nightfall.” Arrovel smirked momentarily and returned to his solemn task. Daven turned on his heel and paced toward the center of town, his hand resting upon his sword hilt. His eyes scanned the buildings with new purpose but to no avail. Every potential tool lay in disrepair, with broken hafts or rusted and sundered blades.
Daven sighed in defeat as he spied Shoni running into the smithy. He followed cautiously. She rifled around the corner which had been her hiding place. “Looking for something?” he inquired. She popped up with a small leather wrapped bundle in hand. She untied the package for him to see. In the center rested a finely crafted dagger around which wound a delicate silver chain and pendant.
Shoni unbound the necklace and held it up, “Mother gave it to me for my birthday. It was hers and her mothers before her. I hid it when they began collecting everyone’s special things for the offering. I thought it too pretty to be melted down. Now I have to give it back. It meant a lot to her.”
Daven pressed her hand back down into the bundle, “I imagine it meant a lot to her that you had it. Keep it close to your heart and it will honor her more than placing it on that grave where scavengers could tarnish it.”
She stared at it in contemplation for a few swift seconds. “As you say,” she slipped the chain over her head and tucked it into her dress. She stowed the dagger in the satchel she had prepared as Daven stared at the anvil and the withered copper cage upon it. He stepped toward it to inspect again. “It doesn’t sing anymore,” Shoni piped up from behind him.
“Sing?” He looked at her incredulously.
“I could hear it, but barely. The old man said it sang when the village was happy and peaceful. He said its song made the sun warmer and the stars brighter. Though when it broke the song was sad and angry. Everything around it became dark and old. After, the song slowly faded away. I can’t hear it anymore.” Shoni rang her fingers over the cage again. “It really was very pretty.” She picked it up and turned it over spilling some of the remaining fragments onto the ground in front of them.
A glimmer of light caught her eye. Carefully she knelt down and brushed the pieces away with her small fingers until at last the source was revealed. There among the dull glass-like shards of stone glowed a sliver of faintly pulsing light. Before he could stop her, Shoni snatched up the delicate fragment. It reflected in her eyes with the soft rhythm of a heartbeat. She stared at it mesmerized by its light.
Daven glanced back to the now empty leather wrapping resting upon a nearby barrel. He grabbed it and held his hand out toward Shoni, “I don’t know what that is but maybe we should tuck it away. I have a very smart friend that we are actually on our way to visit. We can show this to her and she will be able to tell us all about it. How does that sound?” He held out his hand for the shard, gently trying to coax it from his new charge.
She shrugged and reached toward his hand with the sliver, “Okay.” Whatever hold the piece had tried to exert over the child seemed to have been dismissed as quickly as it had manifested. He tried to mask his scrutinizing gaze as she offered the artifact to him. Warily he curled his fingers around it. The piece flashed on contact, blinding both of them briefly. Reactively they each turned their eyes aside.
Daven shook his head and blinked to clear his vision. His sight returned and fell upon the shard. It rested in his fingertips, now as dull and lifeless as the other fragments. He grimaced. “Magic be damned,” he muttered under his breath. He turned his gaze upon Shoni, inspecting her as she rubbed her eyes. “Are you all right? How do you feel?”
Her chestnut colored eyes glanced up at him, “Fine.” She spied the shard dulled and mundane in his grasp, “Did I do something wrong? The light is gone now!” Her expression melted into worry.
“All’s well. I believe that was little more than a last gasp. Whatever possessed this stone has expired with no more strength than a gust of wind. Probably for the best.” He patted her on the shoulder. “Let’s keep this between us for now. We’ll bring it along but I see no reason to fret over it until we can consult with someone more knowledgeable in these things.”
Shoni nodded and helped tie the leather straps about the bundle as he collected up the few remaining fragments of note. Once the pieces were secured within the sturdy wrap he tucked it under his arm. Heavy footsteps approached from the town square. Arrovel glanced about searching for his traveling companions. Daven waved to him, “Over here. Shoni was just gathering a few things.”
Arrovel swung a royally emblazoned satchel toward Daven’s outstretched hand, “What do you have there?” He nodded at the leathery package.
“We gathered some of the artifact pieces for Kristianna. Maybe she can make sense of this …” Daven waved one hand absentmindedly over his head in a broad gesture. He knelt down and stowed the bundle within his pack, “… whole mess.” With one quick yank he cinched his bag closed. A large flap folded over the top to protect the contents from the weather. Deftly his fingers fastened the buckled straps. He turned his shoulders so he could see Shoni.
Her small fingers carefully tied the strings of her bag closed. She lugged it over her back and looked up at them. There was a faint clank of metal on metal as several small tools shifted. Daven furrowed his brow and shook his head, “We have a long walk ahead. Be sure you only have what you need for the journey.”
Shoni nodded, “I’m ready.” Daven shrugged in resignation.
“Everything is settled. Did you want to say goodbye one last time?” Arrovel inquired. The young girl stared at the ground for a few moments before responding. Her hair whipped around her face as she shook her head, no. Her fingers wandered to the spot in the center of her chest where the medallion rested beneath her dress.
She took a deep breath and trudged out of the smithy, “It’s getting late. We should be on our way.” Pushing the uncertainty and sorrow from her eyes she steeled herself.
Arrovel nodded, “Yes, let’s.”
Daven rose to his feet and followed them out into the street. A soft rustling noise behind him drew his attention. His eyes fell upon the fluttering of raven black hair and deep purple velvet in an absent wind. With a silent grace the figure sat down on the edge of the forlorn fountain and examined it. He began to step in her direction when hesitation took him.
She traced her fingers through the dust on the seat without disturbing it. Her eyes rose to embrace the sights. Her skin was as smooth and pale as porcelain, her features were delicate and her manner graceful. The vibrant violet of her irises pierced into Daven’s mind as she glanced toward him. The sharp scream of a young girl filled his ears and echoed around him, “… help me!” Startled he snapped toward Shoni in confusion.
Arrovel stood beside the brunette child, holding out Raelia as he explained something about the bird. Neither showed any signs of distress or distraction. Indeed, not even Raelia seemed to register the stranger among them. Daven looked back toward the mysterious woman. She glided to her feet, her expression soft and sorrowful. Wistfully she scanned the landscape one last time. Without so much as a word she strode past Daven, slowly fading from sight with every step until there was nothing.
He searched for answers in the uninterrupted decay of the town square. Had no one else seen her? How did she vanish in front of his very eyes? Why as she there to begin with? And why hadn’t he seen her earlier? A storm of questions filled his thoughts.
“Sire!” Arrovel shouted at him abruptly. Daven regained himself and approached the others. “You seem ill-at-ease. What troubles you?”
Daven waved him off, “I think its this place. I would like a good distance between us and it before this day is done.” He tried to shake the worry from his mind with little success, “You take lead. I’ll bring up the rear.” Her image stayed at the forefront of his thoughts even as he tried to push past. Shoni wrapped her fingers around his for a moment. They stood in silence for a moment. “Lead on,” Daven asserted, adjusting his pack. And together they set sights on the road ahead.