Jennie Warren was haggling with a grain merchant when her world started to fall apart.
It wasn't something she realized at the time of course, but looking back she would come to realize that it was the start of the end.
The market was busy that day. It was the first full day of spring, the ground still wet from the nighttime rains and the sun bright in the early morning air. It even felt like spring, and even though she was haggling with a thick-headed mule of a man over the grain he was trying to gouge her over, she was in a good mood.
Behind her a gaggle of children raced through the market, yelling and screaming as they chased one another, causing chaos as they went. The worst they got in return were amused smiles from the adults doing their weekly shopping among the tents and wagons.
“Four copper a bag is highway robbery,” Jennie said, folding her arms over her chest and glaring up at the man.
He glared right back, the frown he wore making his receding hairline look all the worse. “Prices have gone up! Four copper is barely covering what I paid to get them here.”
“Jacobi, you and I both know you barely paid a copper for those!”
“Three copper, but that's the best you'll get.”
Highway robbery! Jennie shook her head, gave him three copper pieces with the king's face stamped on them and took her bag of wheat. Her mother would have been horrified to see her spend so much on a single bag. Jennie knew the next patron would be getting a better deal, two copper at most, maybe a copper and a half if Jacobi was feeling generous.
She couldn't really blame him though, Jennie thought as she hefted the bag and started towards her next destination. He knew who she was. More importantly he knew who she was apprenticed to and that she could afford four coppers, could afford much more than that if it came down to it. If he hadn't known her, one look at the tattoos that wound their way across her arms and part of her face would have been enough to clue him in.
There was no mistaking the tattoos of the Magi after all. No one had designs with such precise lines, at such convoluted angles upon them other then the Magi. Jennie wore hers proudly. It had taken a lot of work and study to get them after all. Black ink formed the base of all of the designs, but there was blue and vivid red, with occasional white and yellow mixed in as well. So far her tattoos only covered her arms and her right cheek.
The grand Magi had tattoos over their entire bodies.
Jennie had even heard once, that some of the most powerful Magi tattooed the inside of their eyelids.
She didn't really begrudge Jacobi his coppers though. For all his scheming ways the grain merchant had cause to try to recover as much money from her as he could. Jennie's master had just charged ten times that amount from Jacobi for a warding spell to keep insects and rodents from his wares. She'd seen it dangling from the man's tent pole, a small ivory plaque with thin lines carved upon its surface.
Each line had a purpose, a special meaning and designation to focus and control the magic that it summoned. Her master did good work and Jacobi would have no mice or weevils in his grain this year.
“Jennie!” A man's voice called and she turned from the vegetables she'd been examining. As much as her master loved his porridge she thought she could get him to eat something else once in a while. “Jennie, good, glad I caught up to you.” The man yelled, nearly tripping over his own feet in his rush to get to her. Jennie hid a sigh, turning back to her shopping.
“What is it Levi?”
He straightened up his vest, flattened down his hair, which immediately sprung back up, and dug around in a pocket.
The stall owner, old Margaret, gave Jennie a look and took her offered copper in exchange for a small container of wild picked berries. Before Levi had realized it, Jennie was moving off to the next stall.
“Wait!” Levi called, frantic as he dashed in front of her, offering her a gold ring.
Jennie sighed, rolled her eyes, and set down the bag of wheat. “Not now Levi, I have to get back to the tower.”
“But I'm going to propose to you!” he cried, his voice cracking halfway through. Jennie put a hand to her head, groaning.
“Jennie Warrne, we're fated to be husband and wife, so won't you marry me? I know you're still an apprentice to old Meriweather, and you said you can't marry while you're an apprentice, I know that, but you could wear my ring.”
He spoke with intent and in earnest, even getting down onto one knee.
“Levi,” Jennie hissed, hearing the chuckles of the other market goers as the townsfolk moved around them. No one so much as paused at the proposal. “I told you last week, I'm not marrying you until I'm a full healer, and that goes for wearing your ring too.”
“But you're promised to me!”
Jennie moved around him, picking up her wheat and walking. “I have to get back to the tower.” The rest of the shopping could wait until tomorrow's market. “Bye Levi!”
She didn't even feel bad leaving him kneeling there, one hand outstretched with the gold ring between his fingers. The first time he had done it she'd felt humiliated and embarrassed by the entire thing. Jennie knew she wasn't a good catch, not with the tattoos or her height, or her black hair. No one else in the village had such dark hair, and only a few of the men were as tall.
An older woman with long dark hair and a sword at her side called, “Hi Jennie! How many times does that make?”
“An even two dozen, Ella.” Jennie sighed, walking faster towards the edge of the market.
“He's persistent!” Ella laughed and Jennie just waved her free hand, careful not to curse out loud.
The apprentice excuse had held Levi at bay for three years now, ever since she'd started her apprenticeship. She didn't know how much longer she'd be able to keep that one up, especially since he was right, she was promised to him. If it hadn't been for old Meriweather she would have already been married and bearing him children by now. Thank the Gods she'd shown some magical talent and old Meriweather hadn't had an apprentice in longer than Jennie had been alive.
Meriweather had been desperate for someone to clean and do laundry, and she'd just been desperate.
Levi had sworn he'd wait for her.
All of which wouldn't have been a problem if she'd shown enough talent to become a Magi herself, but compared to even her mostly senile master Jennie's abilities were limited. She had a knack for healing and some rudimentary illusions. Everything else ended in a complete disaster. Which explained why she was still nothing more than an apprentice, not even one close to being a journeyman, which would have been expected from a woman almost ready to turn her second decade.
Jennie knew there'd already been talk about her becoming an old spinster in town, a fact she did her level-best to forget.
The sight of Meriweather's keep, known around town as simply the Tower, always helped. She smiled at Seth the sheep herder as she passed him and his flock at the edge of town and caught her first sight of the Tower. For as long as anyone in the town could remember the Tower floated in the sky over pastures to the south of the windmill.
Jennie could remember staring up at it in awe as a child, amazed that an entire tower could float in mid air like that. Hanging as if from some invisible rope. It had been a popular game with her friends to see who would dare run under its shadow, yelling in fear as they went.
Those days were long gone, she lived in the tower now. For someone without the right magic it was a pain in the neck to get up and down from. And Jennie didn't have the right magic, which meant a long climb up a swaying rope ladder and then even more effort to haul up the weekly purchases.
The entire thing, in Jennie's mind, was annoying.
At least the flowers were blooming and she found her good mood returning as she walked through the seldom-used pasture. The grass was thick and green, well-watered from the nightly rains, and the spring sun was warm on her face.
It was the flowers that saved her.
Jennie paused halfway to the tower, leaning down to smell a set of delicate looking buttercups, loving how beautiful they looked. It was only because she paused there that she wasn't in the shadow of the Tower when things changed.
At first she thought she'd been stung by a bee. The sharp pain on the back of her right hand blazed stronger than any bee sting though, and Jennie yelped, pushing up her long sleeves to look. There was no bee, no obvious sting. But as Jennie watched, her eyes widening in disbelief, part of the tattoo on that hand, the part that helped her control the cooling of a fever, twisted in on itself, the ink ripping away from her skin.
Mouth open in complete astonishment she watched the small drops of black ink hang in the air in front of her before vanishing like smoke.
Her hand ached as if she'd bashed it in a door and she lifted it to stare at the blank spot where part of her tattoo had just been.
“Impossible,” she said, not realizing she was talking. “That's not…”
The groan of stone grinding against stone brought her attention upwards, towards Meriweather's tower.
Her already wide hazel eyes widened even further as she realized the tower, that had been there for generations, was moving. At first she thought Meriweather had finally decided he wanted a different view, something he'd often joked about.
Only when the top of the tower tilted towards her, stone's falling free from the walls, did Jennie realize it wasn't just moving, it was falling.
Falling towards her!
Hiking up the loose skirt she was wearing, Jennie turned and ran, sprinting as fast as she could through the pasture. The shadow of the tower blotted out the sun, growing darker and darker around her as she ran. Small rocks and dirt rained down on her.
With one last desperate lunge she threw herself forward and the tower slammed into the ground behind her. It hit with such force that she'd later find out it shattered windows in almost every building in town and people as far away as Bedford felt the earth shudder beneath there feet.
Coughing on the cloud of dust that rose up around her, Jennie scrambled to her feet. The tower lay in ruin right before her. Two of the massive stones from the wall lay within reaching distance of where she'd fallen and she swallowed, realizing how close she had just come to death.
“Meriweather!” Jennie yelled his name. Coughing she scrambled through the haphazard jumble of stone and wood. Here and there she recognized things from inside the tower.
The shattered kitchen table.
A crushed set of bookshelves.
The keg of water from the kitchen, broken and empty.
Near what had been the base of the tower she found her Master. Meriweather had always been a large man, he hadn't changed since she'd been a child. A large potbelly and prone to loud laughter whenever something struck him as funny. Only in the last few years had his memory started to fade and he'd begun forgetting things like where he'd put his spectacles.
Still, he'd been as close to a father as she'd ever had and Jennie wept as she spotted the old man, as broken as the furniture and walls among which he lay.
Amazingly he was still alive when she reached him, breathing shallow and fast, eyes wide and staring up at the bright blue sky above them.
“Jennie?” He rasped her name and she nodded, crying too hard to answer as she clutched the one hand she could find. The other was beneath a stone that weighed as much as three horses.
“Jennie, the magic failed.” His voice was so quiet she had to press her ear to his lips to hear him. “The magic…”
Then he wasn't breathing anymore. She cried over his body.
Only when the villagers came to get her, pulling her away from her dead master did she realize something else had changed. Old Meriweather's skin was completely unmarked, not a single tattoo remained upon it.
Ella had checked on Jennie as she slept several times. She kept Levi from bothering her and scowled as she discovered him outside her door again. “Levi, you may be promised, but...” she stressed the word ‘but', “she does not wear your ring. So stop this inappropriate behavior,” she snapped. Ella swore sometimes that kids would drive her to drink. “Now get back to your parents house.” The whole time Ella's hand was on the pommel of her sword giving him a very serious look, she hoped.
Once he had scampered off again, Ella entered the room checking on Jennie.
“That was Levi again wasn't it?” Jennie asked, voice still hoarse from crying. Her face buried against the pillow.
“Yes, and he's about to get my foot up his ass,” Ella grumbled. She sat down next to the bed. “Jennie, people are scared and you're the only Magi we have. The town council wants to talk to you.”
“I'm not a Magi!” Jennie said, feeling like she'd repeated that over and over again in the day since the tower had fell. “I'm just an apprentice, Ella.” She lifted her head, giving the older woman a pleading look. “I'm not even very good with most magic.”
Ella gave her a stern look. “Okay, stop this feeling sorry for yourself. You are the only magic user we have now, these people depend on you and they're scared. You have magic, no matter how small, and that's a lot more than anyone else. Now get up and go wash your face.”
“But…” Under Ella's gaze Jennie ducked her head and got up. “Did the elders send a messenger to the Magi like I asked? They'll have to send a new Magi to replace my… Meriweather.” The cold water felt good as she splashed it on her face. “They have to, the equinox is only a few days away.”
“No one will leave. Another messenger from Murdock came here looking for Meriweather, their Hearth Witch was killed when her magic failed and the great tree her home was in broke and fell destroying most of the town.” Ella cleared her throat. “They will send you to ask for help. Don't be surprised by that.” Ella shouldn't give the young woman warning, but she deserved not to get blindsided.
“M-me?” Eyes wide, Jennie turned. “But…” She gestured around herself at the guest room in Ella's home and at the village that lay beyond its walls. “I've never even been outside of the village. Someone else must be able to go? Someone who knows how to get to the College of Magi ?”
“I will volunteer to go with you, Jennie, but it's time to step up and be an adult. No more hiding behind Merriweather.”
“You will?” At Ella's nod some of Jennie's panic receded. She'd never left the village before simply because she'd never wanted to. Why would she? She'd had everything she wanted within less than a day's walk. “When will we go?” The empty spot on her hand itched and she rubbed it.
“We will wait for the council to ask you first.” Ella smiled, amused. “Focus, Jennie.” She stood. “If you are composed I will take you to them now.”
Jennie looked down at herself, at the clothes that were borrowed, and the boots that were hers. All she had left was what she had been wearing and what she could recover from the ruins of the Tower. She could remember the look on Meriweather's face, and how strange it was to see a Magi without a mark on his skin.
Ella nodded and opened the door. “They are at the Inn .”
The Inn of the Three Arms was the only public building of note within the village. There was of course the Mayors house, but it was a small thing and no one ever paid him any attention anyway. Everyone, even he, listened to the Elders when things were decided. Which was how the Mayor ended up being Mayor after all.
“Elders,” Jennie said respectfully to the group of seven old townsfolk who were at the one long table in the common room. The Inn, like all the buildings was made from field stone and the firelight cast reflections here and there as it glinted off embedded crystals.
She remembered tracing and counting every crystal she could find in those stones when she was younger.
Samuel, the oldest of the old, puffed on his pipe as he watched her with his one good eye. “Jennie, you'll be taking a message to the Magi.” Jennie had to lean forward to understand his reed thin voice.
Jennie nodded, thankful for warning from Ella. She pressed the thumb of her left hand against the bare patch on the back of her right.
“She should stay here! We need a Magi and she's all we have,” an old crone of a woman spoke up. Jennie remembered when she'd once been caught stealing an apple from Bernice's garden. She hadn't been able to sit down for a week after that.
Jennie shook her head, dark braided hair flying. “No,” she said quickly, before the Elders could start a debate that might last for days. “There must be a Magi here before Equinox. I'm not powerful enough for that.”
“Three days girl,” a third elder said slowly in his low booming voice. “Three days until Equinox.”
“I know,” Jennie said, and she did, she could feel the time slipping away. “I'll be fast. It isn't long to the College, not by Swiftwater and the bridge.”
“Good,” Samuel said, eyeing Ella curiously.
“I will be going with her, as her escort,” Ella said simply.
That set off another round of discussion and Jennie sighed quietly, listening as they started to debate it.
“You're the constable,” Samuel said finally, when some of the side conversations quieted. “You're needed here.”
“My duty is to protect this town. Right now Jennie is more important than anyone else. So to protect the town I must protect her.” Ella's eyes flashed with anger. “My decision is made, I am going.”
In the end the only one who caused a lot of trouble was Levi. He was waiting for them on the only road that headed north, towards the rest of the kingdom and the College of Magi . Jennie stared, horrified as he started singing a farewell song he'd composed for her, on a lute that she hadn't known he owned.
Ella stared straight ahead and tried not to laugh. “I'll leave you two alone for a moment.”
“No wait!” But Ella was already moving past Levi and Jennie had no choice but to listen to the song. It was quite long, there were at least five different verses and several refrains and she closed her eyes wondering when Levi had tried to practice with a lute before.
“Levi!” Jennie finally said, cutting him off when he paused to take in another breath. “I have to go.”
“You'll come back safe?”
“Of course I'll come back, where else would I go?”
“And we'll get married?”
“You're not an apprentice anymore, you aren't!” he said when she started to argue. He pulled out his ring, almost shoving it onto her finger. “So you're going to be my wife when you come back.”
“Goodbye Levi. I'll be back before the equinox.” And hopefully that would be enough time to figure out how to avoid a marriage.
Levi serenaded them as they left and Jennie didn't have to look over to know Ella was smiling. “He means well,” Jennie finally said.
“No he doesn't. If he meant well, he would think of you and not just himself,” Ella replied.
Jennie fidgeted with her pack, glad she'd gotten at least a few items from the rubble that was left of the tower. “We grew up together, we're supposed to marry.”
“And that's the problem. He just assumes you're his, so he doesn't really see you as a person. Most people would never dare do half the things he's done with a Mage.” Ella sniffed. “And just because something should happen, doesn't mean it's best thing to happen.”
They walked a while in silence after that, Jennie watching the road she knew so well. In only another mile she would be as far from the town as she'd ever been in her life and then she would go even further than that. She knew every tree and every boulder in the fields they were passing. Knew the names of almost every cow in them as well.
“Ella? Thank you, for coming with me.”
“You're welcome. We need you, Jennie, the town does. I don't know if the old tales are true but without the magics, the darkmen will come. There will be no laughter or sun, just darkness if that is true.”
“What the town needs is a Magi before the equinox.” Jennie straightened her shoulders. “So we best walk quickly I suppose.”
They made a good pace by the time the made camp for the night, then she had to remind herself Jennie hadn't always been the Mage apprentice.
“I can do that,” Jennie said when they'd set up their small camp, blankets to sleep on and a single pot to boil water with. The firewood was easy to find this far from the village and Jennie crouched down by the stack of wood. Making a fire was one of the first basic lessons she'd ever learned from Meriweather.
Carefully she used her finger to draw lines in the dirt next to the fire, using them to shape and fix the magic she was gathering. Then, when she had everything as she wanted she released the magic and the bundle of wood burst into flames.
“Owe.” Jennie winced, rubbing at the back of her hand and feeling the sharp sting again there. “See?” she said, smiling to Ella. “Fire.”
“Does it normally hurt when you do that?” Ella asked pulling out some sandwiches that would not keep past the day. She handed one to Jennie.
Jennie shook her head, inching closer to the fire as the night drew in around them. The woods looked different somehow, even though they weren't far from the village. They felt different too and Jennie cast a nervous look behind her as she ate part of the sandwich. “What's it like in the capital?” Everyone knew Ella had once been there but Jennie had never heard her talk about it.
For a long moment it seemed like Ella would ignore the question. “It is crowded. Full of politics and self-importance,” she finally replied.
“My mother said once she knew you there, but she wouldn't say anything else about it.” Jennie used her finger to wipe away the lines she'd drawn.
“I worked for the City guards but I didn't like what our purpose was. I grew resentful of what I felt was meddling by the Magi. I was a silly girl who fell in love and had her heart broken. I resigned and came home and fell in love with a slower pace of life.”
“I miss the village, I miss sleeping in the tower, I even miss climbing up the ladder to get to it.” Jennie watched the fire eat away at the wood leaving red embers behind. “Meriweather didn't like going to the College of Magi either, he only went once a year after the Equinox and he never stayed long.”
“I wish more mages were like Meriweather and yourself. I will warn you, you are not the norm.” She finished the sandwich and brushed her hands off. “You should get some rest.”
Staying close to the fire, Jennie settled herself on top of her blanket, staring up at the few stars she could see through the gaps in the trees. “Ella?” she asked softly. “Something really bad must have happened for both the Tower and the Tree in Murdock to come down.”
“Yes,” Ella agreed. “But it's beyond my knowledge to guess what. I also noticed Meriweather's markings were gone, as is one of yours, but why not all of yours? All we have is questions.”
Jennie smiled, closing her eyes. She'd forgotten how observant the older woman was, she never could put anything past her. “I'm glad you're coming with me Ella.”
Meriweather had often told her, usually after his yearly trip to the College of Magi , that the Swiftwater bridge was one of the magical wonders of the kingdom. It served as the major connection between the southern province and the rest of the Kingdom, and it was the only bridge over which large wagons could cross.
Jennie had seen drawings of it, it was after all a popular subject for the town's artists, but seeing it in person was something different.
“It's....” Jennie trailed off, staring in amazement at the sight below them.
They'd set out from the campsite early that morning, before the sun had even risen. Swiftwater was the largest river in the Kingdom, a thundering cascade of water rushing through a sheer gorge on it's way to the sea. There were only two other crossings besides the Bridge and none were anything approaching the grandeur in front of Jennie.
The bridge was a wide arch of pure white marble that floated over a constant mist of water rising from the waterfalls below it and rising up out of the gorge. Two massive floating piers supported the bridge and it was those that Jennie stared at the longest. She'd heard stories of how they'd been made from flawless white marble, the magic sygils carved into their surface by no less than a dozen full Magi working together.
Then, to seal them, pure molten gold had been poured into the carved sygils, locking the magic together.
“It's...” Jennie tried again, and again she couldn't come up with any word to describe the bridge in front of her. “Wow,” she settled on finally.
Ella chuckled. “It is that,” she said heading towards the bridge with the other travelers and merchants. “It was the last time man and Mage worked together at the height of their skills.”
“The last?” Jennie shook herself out of her surprise and had to hurry to catch up to Ella. “That's sad, look at it, it's beautiful. If they could make this, imagine what else could be accomplished?”
“Distrust, plus, as you'll find out, some mages think normal people are beneath them.”
There was a group of men and women at the head of the bridge, checking those who were crossing it. The armor looked familiar to Jennie, but she couldn't place it as they waited in the short line. “We have to pay to cross?” Jennie asked quietly, watching the tinkerer ahead of them hand over a couple of copper pieces to the lead guard.
“No,” Ella said shaking her head. “Mages don't pay.”
“Ho!” The man with the brilliant plumage on his helmet smiled as they moved to the head of the line. “Ella, what are you doing so far from that little village of yours?”
“Escorting. Meet Meriweather's assistant. I am taking her to the College.”
The man's smile disappeared behind a blank expression as he stepped back, bowing. “Apologies, didn't see your tattoos, Magi. You are of course free to cross.” The men behind him bowed as well, but not before Jennie caught sight of their expression.
Ella nodded and moved to follow Jennie.
“Ella?” Jennie whispered as they started out onto the bridge itself. It looked even bigger now that they were on it. Three of the largest carts from the village could have easily walked abreast down it with room to spare. The white marble gleamed in the spring sunlight, almost blindingly bright. “They were scared.”
“Some people do not have good experiences with mages,” Ella replied. “Meriweather and yourself are not typical.”
“You said that before, but I don't know what that means. Meriweather didn't like the college, but he never said anything bad about...” Pain, searing hot pain cut off her question and she grabbed her right arm, teeth clenching as they reached the middle of the bridge span.
“Ella...” Jennie gasped, feeling the tattoo's twist and dance along the back of her right hand.
“What is it?” she asked, looking around
“The magic...” Jennie cried out as the ink ruptured through her skin. Underneath them the bridge itself shifted suddenly. Cracks spread along the surface under their feet, delicate and whisker thin but spreading rapidly. Cries went up from the line of merchants and the group of guards back at the foot of the bridge and a man with a cart galloped past them, recklessly fast.
Ella stated shouting. “Off the bridge. Off it now!” She grabbed Jennie's hand and started running.
The marble under them groaned, a low rumbling sound and behind them the bridge began to shatter as the first floating pier gave way. It tumbled down into the Swiftwater below them, disappearing into the mist and taking half the bridge with it.
“It's failing!” Jennie yelled, staggering as she ran with Ella.
The cracks raced along at their feet and the rest of the bridge shifted ominously as the last floating pier started to give. Ahead of them the bridge also shifted, the whisker thin cracks suddenly widening. The man with the cart almost managed to clear it, but the right wheel of the cart dropped into the widening crack and the entire thing started to drag backwards.
Jennie could see the man's frantic face as he hauled on the horses' harness, trying to stop the inevitable as horse and cart started sliding backwards.
Jennie didn't stop to think as she ran with Ella, fingers dancing in the air in front of her, drawing symbols that she only half remembered from watching Meriweather work. Pain, bright and shiny coursed along her entire right arm and the cart lifted itself up out of the crack, floating until it hit the solid surface of the road beyond the bridge with a confused horse and man still attached to it.
The pain disappeared as suddenly as it had started and Jennie wavered, exhausted and drained as they reached the ever-widening crack.
“Jump!” Ella shouted as she leaped across, and Jennie followed a half step behind.
Once across Jennie stared upward in horror as the second of the twin pillars started to crumble and collapse, thankfully into the river and not on top of them. What was going on? Were the Magi under attack?
Staggering after the landing, Jennie turned in time to watch, eyes wide as the rest of the bridge folded in on itself and disappeared into the mists of the Swiftwater. Distantly she could hear the crashing of stone as the rubble hit the bottom.
“The gold,” Jennie said, still staring where the bridge had been. “The gold sygils were gone.”
Ella was undoing her sword belt. “What? Watch my things and stay out of trouble. There's a guard tower up ahead you can go rest there, we'll bring the hurt to you,” she said absentmindedly before starting over the edge of the cliff to help those she could.
“But…” Jennie said, holding the belt as she watched Ella start to climb down. “Don't you need rope?”
Other guards were rushing to the scene from their outpost. “Excuse us, Miss,” some muttered as they pushed past her. Some stopped and stared in horror, others started to help as Ella had.
“Miss if we could get you to move, you're in the way... Oh, sorry I didn't see your markings.”
There were fewer of them now, Jennie didn't have to look to know that her right arm was bare all the way to her shoulder, she could feel the skin tingling. “Ella's down there, my friend, Ella, she climbed down.” It was important they understood that. “You have to get ropes over to her, she's gone to search for wounded.”
In the end, Jennie didn't go to the guard tower. She stayed right there at the edge of the road that had once led over the bridge. Stayed there as the first survivor, battered and bleeding was pulled up and then the second and third.
There wasn't a fourth and Jennie swallowed after she'd finished doing what she could for the injured, waiting for Ella.
The driver of the cart came over to her. “Thank you,” he said quietly, shyly. “You saved my life.”
Which she shouldn't have been able to do at all, but Jennie managed a tired smile and nodded. “Hopefully the rest of your journey will be less eventful.”
He nodded and then stumbled back to his cart.
There was a commotion and another person came climbing up the ropes.
Ella was dirty and bloody. “You'll need to follow the currents down, that was the best we can do here.”
Worried, Jennie was at her side quickly, holding the sword and belt Ella had left behind. “You're hurt,” Jennie said, as the guards took off, following Ella's orders without question.
“It's not mine. I'm just wet and cold,” she said lips chattering. “Let's get to the tower.”
In the tower they were given a place by the hearth of the big fireplace in the common room. Everyone watched Jennie with worried eyes, and she tried not to notice the fear on some of the faces watching her. There weren't many guards left, most had gone downriver, trying to get to another spot where they could climb down and search the Swiftwater.
“Was it bad?” Jennie asked, hands cupping a mug of hot cider. “In the river?”
“Yes. I've never... it was bodies and stone, murky, hard to see and I feel horrible for those I couldn't grab.”
A woman came out of the kitchen carrying food. She wore an apron stained with food and drink. Her hair was brown, long, pulled back into a tail, gray eyes regarding everything dully. On her forehead was a Mage mark and around her wrists two silver manacles. She handed drinks to the guards that were there and then set down stew and bread in front of Ella and Jennie.
Jennie stared after her, frowning as she caught sight of some of the marks on the silver that had bound the woman's wrists. “Ella, who was that?”
“A prisoner, probably some outlaw or bandit. The mages mark them making them forget who they were and then they pay off their debt,” Ella said with an unhappy look.
“Mages mark?” Jennie craned her head, she hadn't recognized most of the sygils on the woman's manacles but those that she had weren't of the pleasant sort. It didn't sound nice at all and Jennie ducked her head, thankful for the food. “Ella, I shouldn't have been able to save that man, I marked sygils in the air.”
“Well, I'm thankful you did. Perhaps you're stronger than you thought. Tense moments make us realize what we really are capable of,” she said clapping Jennie on her shoulder. “I'm going to grab a cot and rest. When I get up we'll start moving again.”
Jennie nodded, eyes troubled as she watched Ella find an empty cot against the side of the room. Ella was wrong though, that wasn't how magic worked, she'd never done air sygils before, had only seen Meriweather do them a handful of times and it had taken a lot of concentration for him to do them at all. She wasn't anywhere close to as powerful as her master had been, and the magic should have simply failed or blown back on her from the hastily drawn sygils.
Instead it had done exactly what she'd wanted.
Jennie rubbed her bare right arm, watching the fire and worrying.
The slave appeared by their table again. “Finished, Miss?” Dull eyes didn't really see her. “I have a boar roasting for dinner if you're around.” There was no tone or life in her voice.
“Thank you.” Jennie couldn't help staring, alternating between looking at the manacles and the woman's eyes. “What did you do?” she blurted finally.
“I'm the cook, Miss. I take care of the kitchen and feeding the guards.” She picked up the empty plates. “Can I get you anything else?”
“No, I meant…” Jennie trailed off, realizing it was pointless. “May I see your manacles?”
“Of course.” She set the plates back down and then held out her hands.
A quick look showed that no one was paying them any attention, the few guards left had settled into cots like Ella. Jennie leaned over the woman's hands. The tiny marks inscribed on the silver manacles were old, she thought, judging by how worn the silver itself looked. Each mark was precisely laid out and she thought she could figure out what maybe half of them did. Carefully she touched the silver, surprised to find the metal cold even though it was against the woman's skin.
“What's your name?” Jennie asked, turning the manacles over to see the other side. She could feel power, and it was old power, coursing through the sygils, wrapping the woman in layers of spells.
“Cook, I'm the cook here.” The woman replied not moving her hands.
“Cook,” Jennie said, sadly. She couldn't even start to imagine what it would be like to know nothing of yourself, to be a slave in every sense to those around you in penance for a crime you didn't remember committing. “Do these hurt?” she asked Cook, touching the manacles again and looking up at her.
“No, Miss.” There was a flicker in those grey eyes and then it was gone. “Do you require a re-fill or anything?”
“No, thank you Cook.” Jennie let go of the manacles and then gasped, grabbing Cook's arm before the woman could turn away. “Wait,” she said, standing up so she could see the woman's face better.
What she'd thought were shadows from the firelight were actually moving across the Mage mark on Cook's forehead. “What…” Jennie winced, feeling a now familiar sharpness against her own skin, along her right shoulder blade. It wasn't as painful as when the bridge had fallen but it still pinched hard and her grip tightened on Cook's arm as the Mage mark on the woman's head twisted like a snake thrashing in its death throws.
The guards were up and moving towards them at the gasp.
“Cook back away from the mage,” one demanded.
Cook took a step back.
“Cook,” another said threateningly.
“Yes,” Cook replied. “She will not let go of me so I cannot back away.”
The guards relaxed a little but still weren't happy.
“Miss, is there a problem? Has Cook done something?” One said moving forward hesitantly.
“No.” Jennie hoped they didn't notice the tightness in her voice as she kept Cook standing with her back to the guards. “Nothing. Please, it was just a Mage thing.” It was a weak answer but she couldn't think of any other as she watched the Mage mark disappear from Cook's forehead.
This seemed to satisfy them however and they went back to what they were doing.
“Miss, I need to get back to work.” But Cook didn't pull her hands out of Jennie's grip.
Belatedly Jennie realized she was still holding onto Cook's wrist and she let go. “Sorry,” she said, still staring at the woman's now empty forehead.
Cook went back to work cleaning up tables and picking up dishes. As she passed by a group of off duty guards one of them reached out and slapped the woman's ass. There was that flash again in her eyes and she dropped all the dishes lunging forward stabbing him with a fork. She stepped back seemingly stunned by what she had done and looked around.
The man grasped at the fork sticking out of his chest, while everyone else looked at them in shock.
Then with a growl the woman took off out the front door.
There were shouts of surprise and calls for the words of power that would bind her.
“After her!” The Guard in charge shouted, before looking at Jennie.
“What did you do?” he shouted at her.
Ella was there with her sword drawn. “You forget yourself, Landen.”
“I didn't do anything,” Jennie said, quickly, staring at the open door. “It has to be related to Meriweather's tower, and the bridge falling down. Ella, the magic is failing.”
For a second Landen looked scared and then his jaw tightened.
Ella sheathed her sword. “We're leaving.” She grabbed Jennie and pulled her out the door.
Once back on the road she finally asked, “Did you see anything before it happened?”
“The Mage mark on her head disappeared, I watched it twist and disappear right in front of me Ella. That's not supposed to be possible, not without breaking the spell first and I didn't feel anyone do that. It just…” She made a motion with her hands. “Disappeared.”
“Why didn't you say anything when it happened?” Ella questioned.
“Because…” Jennie struggled with an explanation, not having one for herself. “Ella, she didn't know what she'd done to deserve that, she didn't even know her name.”
“She could be a murderer for all you know,” Ella hissed. “Jennie you need to think. Your actions effect more than just yourself, didn't your time training with Meriweather teach you that?”
“I don't know what I did,” said a quiet voice, and a figure stepped out from the trees.
Ella skidded to a halt and pulled her sword. “Jennie, behind me.”
“I do know that I'm deadly with a fork, but that guard will live. It didn't even puncture his leather armor really,” Cook said.
Jennie hesitated and then moved around Ella's sword, towards Cook. “It's the manacles, they're still binding your memories.” Her eyes were still gray, which was odd, Jennie had never seen eyes that color before.
“Jennie, get back here,” Ella hissed.
“It's odd how you talk to the mage. I may not remember who I am, but I know most people are afraid and would sell their first born rather than draw the anger of a mage,” Cook replied.
“I'm not a very good one. Mage that is. I've been an apprentice for a long time, most people would have been journeyman by now, or even Magi.” She looked behind her at Ella. “She's not going to hurt us.”
“Jennie, you don't know that. She stabbed that guard,” Ella said, stepping forward.
“I've wanted to stab him for a long time. Funny how I know that and not my name. He always grabs me and pinches me because I can't fight back. Imagine his surprise today,” the woman replied.
“Ella, I do know that because I know how to activate the manacles around her wrists.” Jennie said, but her eyes never left Cook. “Do you remember anything else?”
“You were nice to me. That's why I sought you out. I know I don't like mages but I'm willing to overlook that for now.”
Ella snorted. “How good of you,” she mumbled. More loudly she said, “That woman is not coming with us.”
Turning towards Ella with her best pleading eyes, the one's that had gotten the chief constable to overlook her occasional disasters in the middle of the town market, Jennie waved a hand around them. “Where would she go? She can't go back to the tower, they'll just try to get a Magi to put the mark back on her and I don't even know if that's possible.”
“She is a criminal, Jennie, not a stray dog. She said herself she doesn't like mages,” Ella argued.
“She also said she's willing to overlook it, and we can't just abandon her out here.”
Ella looked at Jennie as if she were crazy. “Why not? Besides we're going to the College. They're not going to let her in, so let's all save some headaches and just go our separate ways.”
“She can come with us to the capital,” Jennie said, quickly continuing, “She'll die if we just leave her out here Ella, and you don't know she's a murderer. She could have just stolen something to eat or something like that.”
Ella wondered how naive Jennie could be. Ella just looked at her. Then she looked at Cook, not liking the shifty look on her face. “You know the words of power for those things on her wrist?” she asked, checking, wanting to get them moving.
“Yes, Ella. I know the words to make her convulse in pain, the words to wipe what's left of her mind.” Jennie gave Cook a meaningful look.
“It is a horrible idea,” Ella said, but still she sheathed her sword.
“It's the only idea,” Jennie reminded her, turning. “How long do we have to go?” She only had the vaguest idea of where they were going and how far it was.
Cook looked at them uneasily.
Ella started walking again. “We will be to the town outside the tower by night fall.”
“Which tower?” There were so many, one for almost every Magi. Jennie started after her, looking every once in a while at Cook, curious if the woman would simply disappear into the shadows of the trees.
“The Tower. The one where they summon all House Masters for discussion.”
Cook fell in step next to Jennie as she passed. “I'm not your slave. Just want to be clear on that.”
“The College of Magi .” Jennie breathed, she'd never thought she'd actually see it. “Never thought you were, Cook. You need a better name though, can't just keep calling you Cook.”
“Cook will do for now. It's all I seem to know right now. I can make several dishes and drinks, its odd all these recipes in my head and no room for anything else.”
“The manacles.” Jennie waved a hand at the silver on Cook's wrists. “They bind you, the Mage mark controlled your thoughts but they are old magic.”
“Interesting. Does that make me old, have I been there for years not aging.
Ella rolled her eyes and ground her teeth. “More walking and less stupid questions,” she grumbled.
“I don't know.” Jennie looked to Ella's strong back. “Meriweather never talked about manacles or slaves.” She wondered what else her Master had never talked about. “Ella, are there many?”
Ella stiffened and her stride was put off for a second with the question. “Yes, Jennie, there are. That's why I left. I don't agree with what the College does and how the Mages act. The Mages in the smaller towns are different they care about the people and places, but the Mages in the city who pretend to protect us from the Black Wood, they don't care. They only care about themselves and power.” It was a truth she'd hoped to keep from Jennie, but that was silly they were going to the very place where it was the worse.
Cook was silent, digesting everything being said. Her grey eyes flicked to the things on her wrists.
“Meriweather was always a good master, he was kind,” Jennie said, uncertainly. “He wouldn't have served people like that?”
“There were reasons he was where he was. He hated the politics of the College, but yes, he was a very good man.”
Jennie looked at Cook and nodded, picking up the pace.
Cook shrugged silently and trailed after Jennie.
By the time they stopped to make camp, Jennie was struggling to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Cook and Ella didn't seem to be that affected, which if she hadn't been so exhausted Jennie would have been annoyed about. She dully ate whatever it was that Ella pressed into her hands and then fell asleep in front of the fire. She'd been so tired and drained that she hadn't even tried to light the fire herself.
Trusting Ella to do what needed to be done to keep them safe, Jennie was asleep before her head even touched the blanket.
Which made it odd when Jennie opened her eyes with a gasp and sat up, clutching at the skin of her arms and chest that burned. Smoke rose from her skin, black as the ink that had been used for the tattoos and she cried out, leaping from the blanket.
Smoke rose up from her body, wraith-like in the firelight although the burning pain eased away. Only then did she realize that her body was still laying on the blanket, chest steadily rising and falling in sleep. Cook lay on the other side, a bundle of dimly seen blankets in the firelight. Between them, always the protector, Ella sat, sword braced across her knees as she kept watch.
“I'm dreaming,” she thought, but still she heard the words as if she'd spoken them.
“No.” The voice vibrated through her and Jennie turned with dreamlike slowness. “You do not dream.”
Things moved in the shadows along the edge of the firelight, darker then the night around them and Jennie's breath was smoke in the air. “Who are you?”
“The protector, the rogue and the mage; stinks of prophecy. I wonder for who you will be heroes,” the voice said.
“Who are you?!” Jennie moved from the fire, leaving her body where it lay sleeping.
“We are the things of your legends, the ones you stole the magic from. Your forefathers tricked us into the woods, into the trees, and into slumber, but we awaken now because the totems that siphon our magic away are failing,” it whispered to her.
“No,” Jennie said, even though she knew it was speaking the truth. “No, that's impossible. The totem's anchor the kingdom. Without them...” Without them the unthinkable would happen. “No, the Equinox is two days from now, the pact will be renewed and you'll slumber.”
“There is no pact. We did not go into the trees of our own will. Your ancestors tricked us long ago to steal our power.”
Jennie hesitated, the Black Wood was theirs, but everyone knew about the pact. “We didn't...” Another step forward and Jennie paused. “What do you want?”
“We want to be free, child.”
“Ella?” Jennie asked as they started moving before the sun had fully risen, feeling tired and drawn even after she'd slept. “What do you know about the Darkmen?”
Ella quirked an eyebrow. “Well, not a lot. Mostly stories, legends. We do the ritual at the equinox to appease them and keep them happy for another year. Without the ritual to sooth them they would enslave us as we were once their pets.” She scratched her ear thinking.
“Are they evil?” Jennie asked, shifting her blanket so that it didn't rub against her neck.
“They are said to be creatures that are both human, animal and plant, all at the same time. Not sure how that can be. Their skin is dark, hence the name.” Ella never really spent too much time with what she felt were tall tales. “Well, all the stories say how they kept us as pets make us slave away for them. They would sacrifice our sons to their wild Gods, and rape our daughters to sooth their lusts. Seems evil.”
It did and Jennie tried to remind herself that the dream she'd had was just a dream. “Will we get to the College today?” she asked instead, glancing at Cook who was silent. It had been a surprise to see her still with them in the morning.
“Yes. We would have gotten there last night without the delays. I'd say an hour or two.”
“You probably shouldn't go with us into the College of Magi , Cook. They'll all know you're supposed to have a Mage Mark on your forehead.”
Cook looked at Jennie. “True. If you have ink we could fake one.” She frowned wondering why that was the first thing she thought of. “I'll hang low and wait for you two to return.”
Neither answer was what Jennie had expected. She gave the woman a little smile. “I'm sorry you can't remember anything. I thought it might just take time but the manacles are more powerful then I thought. Maybe I can find out more about them at the College?” Jennie was positive as she said it that Ella would hate the idea.
“Jennie, you start asking questions about that and people will start wondering why you want to know,” Ella snapped at her.
Lowering her voice to a whisper, Jennie leaned towards Cook. “I'll see what I can find out.”
Cook gave her a crooked smile and nodded.
The College of Magi was a universe unto itself. Meriweather had said that, often, whenever Jennie had asked him about the College and what it was like to visit. It took up an entire hilltop outside the Capital City . Legend told that one of the old King's had demanded the College not be built on anything taller than the palace. To accomplish that the Magi had been forced to chop the top off the hill they built on by twelve feet using Magic in order to shorten it.
“There it is Jennie. There is the King's city and the Magi College ,” Ella said.
Cook froze and looked at the city and felt anger. There was no wonder at its sites.
“The wall's are crystal!” Jennie said, eyes wide as she watched the sun spread rainbows across the crystal walls of the college.
The city itself lay beyond the shimmering walls of the College, on a set of hills opposite that rose up from the banks of the river Ardain. On the tallest of those hills sat the King's Castle, and even from where they stood Jennie could see the bright blue pennants of the King flapping above its walls. Unlike the Swiftwater, the Ardain was a gentle giant of a river, calm and placid and four times as wide as the Swiftwater was where they'd crossed it on the Bridge.
Despite all the grandeur of the city, the buildings that were two and even three stories tall that Jennie could make out from the road, it was the glittering wall of the College of Magi that had her attention. Waves of color rippled along the length of the seamless wall and with every new shade of color she could see new hints of magic buried within it. Sygils she had no basis to even begin understanding flashed along with those ever-changing colors, and she stared in awe of the amount of sheer magical force it represented.
“Beautiful,” she whispered. She would have stayed there staring at it if Ella hadn't started moving again.
Cook fidgeted. “Be safe. I'll look for your return,” she said softly.
Ella pretended not to hear her.
A shake of her head and Jennie turned, blinking as if she'd just woken from a dream. “Be careful. I'll find what I can after I deliver my message.”
Cook nodded and disappeared back into the trees.
Ella hoped Cook was long gone when they returned. “You are too soft hearted.”
“She's nice Ella, I don't know why you're mean to her.” Jennie had to hurry to catch up.
“Because she's a criminal.” Ella tutted.
There was no getting through to Ella when she made that face, Jennie knew that from long tries in the village and she decided to try later again. “How do we get in?” she asked instead, studying the smooth featureless crystal wall. There hadn't been any sign of a door so far and she rather hoped she didn't have to figure out how to float them over it.
“We go to that small building there and ask for an audience,” Ella said, pointing to a less flashy building at the bottom of the hill.
The building was well away from the College walls and had seen much better days. Jennie was just opening her mouth to ask why the Magi would use something so ugly, then blinked, seeing the tell tale shimmer of an illusion. “It's... bigger than it looks,” she said faintly, eyes crossing as she saw both the ugly squat building and the tower that was it's real form.
“Really? I've wondered but I can't see it,” Ella remarked, walking into the building. “All I see is the ugly building.”
“There's a tower Ella, it's bigger than Meriweather's and... There's things on the top of it.” She couldn't see them well but they shifted, folding and refolding their wings like bats. “Guards.” Jennie shuddered.
“What are they?”
A bored looking man sat behind a desk with his feet up on it. “Yes?” he asked, not looking up from a scroll he was reading.
“We request an audience with the College of Magi ,” Jennie said, as formally as she could after Ella gave her a look. She couldn't help glancing upwards, at the Tower that was both there and yet not there.
“And you are?” he asked still not looking up.
“Jennie and Ella of Millford,” Jennie said, as respectfully as she could to a man who didn't seem to want to acknowledge their presence at all.
“And?” he said setting the scroll down. “What makes you important enough to talk to the College?”
“Meriweather, my master, he's dead and we have no Magi for the Equinox. We need to get the College to send us one immediately so that we're ready. It's only two days from now so you see it's very important that we get one sent immediately,” Jennie said, with a hopeful smile directed to the top of his head.
Ella made a face, her hand going for her sword.
The man sighed and got up. “I see.” But his look said they were beneath him.
“He wasn't very helpful Ella,” Jennie whispered, watching him disappear into the ugly building-come-tower.
“It's because he's a nobody who fancies himself a somebody.”
“He wasn't a Magi, he didn't have any tattoo's.” Jennie looked upwards again, trying to see the things that moved at the top of the tower. Leathery wings shifted and she thought she saw a red eye glare down at them.
“Don't look at them. You shouldn't be able to seem them. They are the secret terrors that guard the towers,” Ella whispered.
Jerking her eyes down, Jennie shivered just as the door to the tower opened again. “There are a lot of them up there, Ella.”
“Yes. There are a lot of poor souls who end up owing Magi favors,” she said darkly.
Their wait was a long one, but finally there came a stamping of feet. “What is this nonsense about Meriweather?” a woman screeched.
“He's dead.” Jennie blinked as the woman rushed at them out of the open door of the tower in long red robes. The Tower flickered in and out of existence around her and Jennie blushed, realizing the woman was wearing nothing but an illusion.
Ella coughed, hiding a laugh.
“Mistress. Your... um...” a man in a worn red robe said.
“You are the false apprentice Landen from Swiftwater warned us of,” she screeched even louder, pointing a finger. “Darius give me your robe.”
“Miss...” He did as asked.
“False... what?” Jennie stared in confusion. “I'm Meriweather's apprentice.”
“Hold on,” Ella said calmly holding up her hands. “Let's just hold on, everyone.”
“Merriweather has no apprentice on record. You were at the destruction of bridge and the escape of Frost.”
The creatures stirred up top of the tower.
“That's...” Jennie looked from the screeching woman to Ella and back. “I'm his apprentice. Look at my tattoo's, he did them with his own hand. I didn't cause the bridge to collapse! I'm just a healer.”
“Look.” Ella shouted trying to be heard. “This is a misunderstanding. I am the head of the town guard for Milford and I can vouch for Jennie.”
“Yes, but no one here can vouch for you can they!” The woman's voice was like nails on glass.
Jennie opened her mouth to point out that they had no reason to lie when the things on top of the tower flared their wings. They weren't bats, at least not any bats that Jennie had ever seen. “Ella!” she cried out, eyes wide as the things swooped down towards them, claws outstretched.
Afterwards, when she was alone in the darkness, Jennie remembered flinging her hands up as if she could simply wipe the creature from the sky. There was no times for sygils, even those hastily drawn in the air to channel the magic, but even without them there was a wind that gusted around them suddenly. Strong and brutal it flung the first of the creatures into the tower wall, wings crumpled and it tumbled the rest of the way to the ground.
The sense of surprise from that was so much that Jennie blinked, looking at her outstretched hands and wondering what had just happened.
But there were three more creatures behind the first and she didn't see the one that was diving at her until it was on her and Ella was yelling, sword flashing in the sunlight.
There was a swarm of them dancing around Ella's blade until they simply knocked it from her hands and then knocked her down. Claws tugged at their clothes until they were being hoisted up into the air.
Later, once Ella regained consciousness, she looked at Jennie. “Well you wanted to see the tower,” she said dryly. There was blood caked on her face from a broken nose.
“It's bigger inside too.” Jennie tasted blood and her right eyelid felt swollen, like the time Levi had accidentally put his elbow into her face as they'd wrestled as children. The chains strung up to the wall that were holding Ella seemed normal-looking, the one's around Jennie's wrists weren't. She could feel the magic crawling along her skin like ants biting and pricking as they went. “Why'd they attack us Ella? They should be helping us!”
“I don't pretend to understand Magi, but I would guess they are scared, and scared people do stupid things,” Ella replied testing the strength of the chains.
“Ella, I don't want to become like Cook.” The fear of that twisted in Jennie's guts and she craned her head up to look at the chains, swallowing as she spotted the sygils inscribed on hers.
“If we're lucky that will be the worst of it. Those things that attacked us, they used to be people. It's why I left. Their little pet guards. Turned my stomach when I found out.” She really wasn't certain how they were going to get out of this. “Magi are slow to act, they have to have meeting after meeting. How long were we unconscious do you think?”
Jennie wriggled in the chains, only managing to get them to clank against one another as she moved. “Hours.” She said, giving up on trying to slip out of them. “Unless time is different in here too.” Which was a possibility.
Ella opened her mouth to say she didn't know, when someone answered for her.
“It is.” Came Cook's whispered voice from the door. “You've been gone for two days. The Equinox didn't happen people are scared.” She fiddled with the door and then there was the sound of a lock clicking and the door opened.
“Cook!” Jennie's voice was strangled as she shouted name halfway through the first letter, thrilled to see the woman. “How'd you get in? Didn't they notice, oh…” She trailed off, seeing the line of dark ink that Cook had painted on her forehead. It was close enough to a Mage mark to fool anyone not paying attention.
“I seem to have this affinity for locks. I see a locked one and I want to open it.” She grinned looking very roguish for a second.
Jennie did not have to look sideways to know that Ella was glaring.
“Can you open these locks?” Ella asked hopefully, jangling her chains. “And what do you mean the Equinox didn't happen? It can't not happen, it's the Equinox.”
Cook went over to Ella and with a piece of wire and undid the chains. She turned and went to Jennie. Frowning, as she looked at them. “I don't know, these are magic.”
“The Tower is magic. How did you get in here?” Ella snapped.
“She probably walked through the door.” Jennie twisted again, looking up at the chains and frowning at the sygils. “I can't see what they say.” She paused,She was about to ask Cook to shift them so she could see them when there was a noise from outside the small cell. “You have to go,” Jennie said quickly. She looked over at Ella. “Go quickly.”
“We are not leaving you,” Ella grumbled, going to the door.
Cook continued to mess with the locks. “I can't see how it opens,” she mumbled.
“Ella, you don't have a sword and they're Magi.” Jennie twisted again, trying to look above her. “There's no lock?”
Cook snorted. “Of course there is. How would they get you in and out, they're resistant to magic so they can't touch them.” She hummed tracing the wire over symbols, then she pressed the wire into the metal changing the sygil and they released Jennie.
The sudden absence of the feeling of ants crawling and stinging her hands was a nice, Jennie gave Cook a huge smile. “How did you get in?” she asked quietly, hearing the noises get louder. “It's just kind of a big deal right at the moment.”
“I made a door. Crystal shatters at certain frequency. Sure it looks impressive but it's pretty stupid.” She pulled out a tuning instrument, the kind that musicians would use and tapped it against the wall. She then pressed the single end against the wall as it vibrated.
Ella just looked at her in horror. “Jennie she is a thief and... and.. a very dangerous woman!” she sputtered.
“And smart,” Jennie said, moving to the lock on their cell door and taking one of Cook's pieces of wire from her. “Hurry, I can slow them down but they'll overcome my magic pretty easily,” she said, using the metal to scratch symbols on the inside lock, sealing the door.
Cracks started to appear and Cook became impatient and kicked the wall. Chunks fell away and then there was only air. “Come on. You're on the second floor it's a bit of a drop.” Cook grinned and then jumped down. She rolled as she hit the ground coming up to her feet unhurt.
Ella grabbed Jennie and lowered her down.
The sound of a key sliding into the lock was followed by muffled yells and a banging on the cell door.
“Hurry!” Jennie yelled, dropping the last couple of feet to the ground and looking up at Ella.
Ella looked over her shoulder and then jumped. As she hit the ground she was reminded that she was not as young as she use to be and got up with a limp.
“Hurry,” Cook whispered, and took off towards the trees.
The small hole that Cook had made in the crystal wall surrounding the College was not far away and Jennie shook her head in amazement. “You shouldn't have been able to do that. There's magic there to keep the wall together, I can see it there!” She had to hurry to catch up with Cook, the woman could certainly move.
“I did it anyways so be thankful,” Cook replied.
“No, but you shouldn't have been able to at all! You shouldn't have been even able to touch the wall…” Jennie trailed off, looking behind them as she heard a familiar screeching voice yelling from the hole Cook had made in the wall of the tower.
The red robed Magi was gesturing at them and Jennie's eyes went wide as she realized what those gestures were marking in the air.
With a lunge she tackled Cook, sending them both tumbling before the woman could reach the hole in the outer crystal wall. A lightning bolt shimmered through the air where they had just been, slamming into the earth at the base of the wall and blowing clods of grass apart. The thunderclap was deafening.
“Not that way!” Jennie yelled, tugging Cook and gesturing to Ella.
Ella nodded and took them to the left, out of site, but not out of the hearing range of the mage.
“That woman is unpleasant,” Ella grumbled. “Do your magic thief number and open another hole before the guards get to us.”
Cook sighed and ran to the wall and repeated the process.
“She attacked us!” Jennie didn't know why that was so surprising but it went against everything Meriweather had ever told her about Magi.
“She threw you in a cell as well,” Cook pointed out. “She must not like you.”
Ella went over to the wall and gave it a strong kick, feeling some satisfaction as it crumbled.
Even as Ella grabbed Jennie's arm and pulled her through the new hole in the wall, Jennie stared at it in confusion. “You shouldn't have been able to do that…” But there was a lot of things going on that weren't supposed to be and she found herself tumbling out the other side, shaken. “Where can we go? She'll get those things to come after us.”
“We have to go into the Black Wood,” Ella said finally. “Only the Caretakers go in there. They will know why the Equinox didn't happen.”
Cook regarded her for a second but said nothing.
“But we're not Caretakers.” Jennie swallowed, doing her best to keep up with the other two as they ran parallel to the river. “No one goes into the Black Wood and comes out.”
“I wish to point out we can't stay here,” Cook said rubbing the mark off her forehead.
Risking a look behind her Jennie swallowed hard, willing herself to run faster. “The things are taking off from the towers.” There were a lot of them too, more than she would have thought possible and a surge of panic gave her a boost of speed. “We need to get cover!”
There was nothing ahead but the road and a long open plain that hugged the bank of the Ardain. The Black Wood wasn't even in sight from where they were.
“Run faster,” was Ella could say.
There was nowhere to hide, no cover.
Cook frowned, thinking ,but nothing came to mind. “They don't like sunlight,” she said and Ella almost stumbled.
“How do you know?”
Cook shrugged. “I don't know.”
“I can do sunlight!” Jennie shifted direction, turning towards the sandy shore of the Ardain and away from where Ella and Cook were heading. She'd done little spells calling light before, it had been a very useful trick in the sometimes dark and dank Tower that Meriweather called his home.
She slid to her knees, sand and small shells flying up around her as she came to a stop and frantically began sketching. Sand was not the best medium for laying out Sygils, but it was infinitely better than air. It would bind the magic, hold it and direct it into the spell she wanted to cast. Wood would have been better, stone even better still and metal was best of all but there was no time for any of those.
To call sunlight was only a minor adjustment to the glyph's she'd used before, although she was intending for a blinding glare that would give them time to escape. That required much larger sygil drawing then she'd even done before on her own. Before, all her large sygils had been drawn either assisting Meriweather, or with her old Master standing over her shoulder and supervising her work.
Jennie did not have to look over her shoulder to know that Cook and Ella were running towards her, and that the creatures were not far behind them. “I'm almost done!” she yelled, concentrating on the fine thin lines that connected the inner symbols of the sun to the outer symbols of light that she'd scrawled.
“There!” Jennie shouted, as she drew the last sygil and stood up, turning to face Ella, Cook and the things in the air that were just starting to dive towards them. Raising her hands, Jennie felt the magic surge around her as she lifted her hands and pointed towards the diving creatures, summoning the magic.
And absolutely nothing happened.
Worriedly, Jennie tried again and then again, confused as the magic pulsed around her but didn't do what she wanted.
“I don't…” she started, turning towards Ella and her voice trailing off as she saw the Ardain drain down to its base, leaving seaweed, small pools of water and flopping fish behind.
“Oh my…” she muttered, turning to look behind her, towards the source of the River. Her mouth opened as the wall of water crested up over them, blotting out the sun as it crashed down on them all.
The act of emptying most of the river Ardain from her lungs woke Jennie, and she rolled onto her side on top of something warm and pliable as she coughed and sputtered. Groaning, she flopped back down, too sore and beat up to care that the thing she was laying on made a low groaning noise of her own.
Holding her side Jennie opened her eyes, blinking slowly as her mind tried to process what she was seeing. Swaying above them were tree tops, and past them a red sky as the sun either started to set or rise, she wasn't sure which. High above the tree tops, silhouetted against the sky, she saw a bird soaring on invisible thermals, turning lazy circles as it scanned the ground for prey.
Ella sputtered as her head popped to the top of the river. She swam for shore and then emerged, scanning the river.
From the shore, Jennie lifted her head, blinking and brushing wet hair from her eyes as she spotted her friend swimming. “Ella!”
Cook didn't have the energy to open her eyes but what ever was on top of her didn't seem to have much interest in killing her. She groaned a little as a hand pressed on a sore bit of muscle. “We alive?”
“Yes, or death is a really wet and chilly place.” Jennie waved again, just in case Ella hadn't seen them.
Ella waved back and started towards them.
“Jennie, could you get off me?” Cook asked slowly opening her eyes.
“Sorry.” Jennie tried to get up, which involved an elbow finding a sensitive spot. Jennie she winced. “Sorry!” she yelped, sliding and then managing to get to her feet after two more attempts. “I'm sorry, I thought I could do the sun thing but it kind of failed. I don't understand what I did wrong, I thought I'd gotten all the lines perfect, maybe my north star reference was off?”
Ella hugged her. “Was scared for a second I'd lost you. Your mother would come back from the grave to kick my ass for that.”
Cook got up slowly. “We could have died, so all things considered, it went well.”
“I kind of wish she would.” Jennie hugged Ella back, hard. “I'd get to see her again then.” Her smile was bittersweet as she leaned against Ella's side. It was odd to see her without a sword strapped to her waist.
Shoulders drooping, Jennie shook her head, wet locks flying as she considered where they'd ended up. The Ardain looked larger here, almost as wide across as a lake and the pebble lined shores were a far cry from the sand on the beach she'd drawn her sygils in. Towering trees crowded into the river banks, leaning up and over it as if trying to push back the river itself.
“I can't even call sunlight right.”
“The magic is failing so I don't think anyone can do anything right,” Cook broke in, looking around. “We're close to the Black Wood.”
“We are? I thought there were supposed to be evil spirits everywhere in the Black Wood?” Although now that she'd said it, Jennie eyed the growing darkness under the trees worriedly.
Cook shrugged. “Maybe, it's not like I can remember.”
Ella shot her a suspicious look. “You seem to remember enough just fine.”
Cook shrugged and started walking into the woods. “We need a fire to warm up.”
Jennie frowned at Ella, giving her a poke. “She came and saved us.”
Ella gave Jennie a look but started following Cook. “Fire and shelter.” She looked at Jennie. “Are you hurt?”
“Bruised and wet.” She offered Ella a small smile. “I really did want to see the King's city. Too bad we never made it inside. I'm sorry you lost your sword.”
“Me too but in the end its just a sword and can be replaced,” Ella said quietly. She frowned. “Where did that damn woman go to?” she said.
“I shouldn't have been able to call the entire river like that, Ella.” Jennie said, slowing down because Ella had, and trying to think through what she'd done, searching for a clue to where she'd messed up. “The light spell is simple and it doesn't take much energy but that…” she trailed off, blinking, and looked around the empty and dark forest. “Where'd Cook go?”
“Over here. You two are very loud.” Her head poked around a tree. “Come on. I have a fire going and I saw some potatoes so I think I can bake some with some greens.” She smiled. “Best part is we're in a clearing but hidden overhead by the trees.”
Jennie shared a look with Ella. Neither of them had been making much noise as far as Jennie could tell. Jennie shrugged and moved around the trees to see where Cook had disappeared too. An old tree had toppled during a storm and Cook was building a small fire in the hollow left by the roots, perfectly shielded by the wall of roots and trees above them.
If she hadn't known where to look, Jennie would have walked right past it.
“Cook, how'd you know this was here?” She asked, curious as she shivered and crouched down next to the small fire.
“When I was marching off in a huff I tripped over that root up there and fell down here.” She lifted her hair to show a gash on her forehead.
Ignoring Ella's incredulous look, Jennie quickly moved over to Cook's side. “Ouch.” She winced, pushing back Cook's brown hair so she could see the bleeding gash. “I can try to heal it if you want?”
“Why would you do that?” Cook asked ducking her head away shyly.
“Because you're hurt and I'm a healer.” Jennie looked at her confused. “I understand if you don't want me to, we could bandage it with cloth from our shirts or pants.”
“If you want. Most don't spare time on a convict.”
That earned Cook a sharp poke in the shoulder from Jennie. “Stop that. You're a human, that doesn't mean you deserve to live in pain. We don't even know what you've done, and even if you did something horrible it wouldn't stop me from wanting to heal you. This is why I became an apprentice, not to make tidal waves from rivers or cast lightning bolts.”
Ella rolled her eyes. “If you're going to waste the energy to heal her, then heal her.”
Cook gave Ella an annoyed look before taking a stick to push and shove a large flat stone out of the fire. She then placed some vegetables on it to cook.
Shaking her head, Jennie grabbed the Cook's arm to pull her back to a seated position. “You have to stay still for this to work.”
“Okay.” Cook tried to stay still. She wasn't going to like this. She knew she didn't like magic and magic users. She wasn't certain how she knew, but she just did. Jennie was different and that's what she tried to focus on.
“You have to breath, Cook,” Jennie said with amusement as she leaned closer to see the wound better in the light from the fire.
The wound wasn't deep or particularly large, but it was bleeding well and the side of Cook's face was dark with blood. Jennie wondered how old Cook was as she settled onto her knees next to her. It was hard to tell, her face had a few lines to it, but she could have been Jennie's age or almost Ella's.
“This might sting,” Jennie said quietly, dipping her finger into the sticky blood on the side of Cook's face with one hand whilst she steadied the woman's head with her other. Carefully she used the blood to draw the basic sygils required for such a minor healing along the top of Cook's forehead.
Meriweather had once described using magic as building a house of cards on a moving ship, where the more complicated the magic, the higher the house of cards had to go. Line by line, Jennie drew her house of cards in blood, channeling the magic from the Kingdom's totems like every Magi did.
Then, when she had it gathered and her mind focused, she let loose the small energy she'd pulled to herself.
Several things happened at the same time. The wound on Cook's head sealed, leaving behind a thin white scar; the tattoos on Jennie's back wreathed and whirled under her skin and she cried out in pain, arching as they slithered along her spine; and some of the sygils carved into the manacles that Cook wore twisted and folded into themselves, leaving bare silver where they'd been. It was only part of the magic, but even through tears of pain Jennie could see some of the layers of spells that surrounded Cook disappear.
Cook reached out holding Jennie steady. “Are you okay?”
“Ow.” Jennie grimaced, stretching as the pain eased leaving behind a dull ache. “Yes, but that shouldn't have happened,” she said, touching the woman's manacles and tracing where the silver was now smooth. “Things keep happening that shouldn't.”
“It's the theme for this week. Things that shouldn't happen,” Cook replied. She lifted up her hands looking at the silver. “I still don't remember.”
“Your vegetables are burning,” Ella said, not liking how close the two women were to each other.
Surprised, Jennie dropped the manacled wrist she'd been holding. For a second she'd forgotten Ella was even with them. She sat back, giving Cook a small smile. “The wound's healed though.”
“That it is. Thank you.” Cook turned back to the food. “Should be ready soon, try and get dried off.”
Nodding, Jennie did what she could without stripping, sighing as she pulled up her shirt and turned her bare back towards Ella. “Are any of my tattoos left?”
“Not many, but yes,” Ella replied. “Does that happen every time you cast a spell?”
“No, but it's been happening every time the magic twists.” Jennie sighed and let her shirt slide back down. “Pretty soon I won't have any if this keeps up.”
“What do the markings do exactly? I've never really known,” Ella asked, sitting down between Jennie and Cook close to the fire.
“They're sygils.” Jennie looked down at her left arm, remembering the pain she'd endured for every single line of tattoo. “They help me control the magic, focus it to do what I want. Like the sygils I draw to cast a spell, but they're permanent. Meriweather had them everywhere, the larger the tattoo the more power it helps channel.”
“But... well.” Ella hesitated. “It seems like you're able to do more powerful magic as they disappear.” An observation she'd made.
“No that's…” Jennie closed her lips on the word impossible, she'd been using that word entirely too often the last couple of days. “It doesn't work like that, Ella. We draw power from the Totems to use as magic and focus into the spells. Without the tattoos I have nothing to draw power with, I'll be useless.”
“What are totems? I've not heard of that,” Ella asked.
Jennie hesitated, glancing at Cook and aware that she was listening much closer than she looked like she was. “Totems are the repositories of all the magical energy in the Kingdom. They're what Magi draw their magic from, without them the College of Magi wouldn't exist. I don't know how many of them there are, but Meriweather's tower held one of them; the keystone.” Jennie's voice was sad as she remembered. “The totem stone was split in half, right down the center.”
“Oh, I thought… Well, I thought you just used the magic. That it was all around us.” Ella said, a little disenchanted.
“It is!” Jennie leaned forward, eagerness overcoming her earlier worry about something that even Meriweather had whispered about. “It's everywhere, in the trees and the rocks, it's in the river and inside all of us.” She smiled, always loving that idea. “It's just we can't control it usually, not without the totems and someone who…” Jennie trailed off, gesturing at the tattoos on her arm.
“So the markings are like the totems? They harness your magic?” Ella asked.
“They do. And they connect us to the totems. We'd never have enough magic inside ourselves to do large spells, a Magi would burn out trying. We channel the magic through ourselves, focused on the sygils we draw and cast.”
Ella nodded not really understanding, but then again she wasn't a magic user.
“Food,” Cook said transferring everything to a cooler, flat rock, and setting it down in front of them.
“The totems sound like translators. You know when you want to talk to a trader from up north? You have to hirer a translator. Sounds like what the totems do, they translate the magic into something usable for the Magi.” Cook picked up a green root vegetable and blew on it.
“Yes, sort of,” Jennie said around a mouthful of hot food, her stomach growling as it protested the time it had been since they'd last eaten. “Gods, this is good!” Jennie said, taking another bite even though it was still searing hot. “But they're also like a dam, holding a big reservoir of magic for the Magi to use at will.”
“At least you understand it, which is important because you're the one that uses it,” Ella said, finally pulling something off the rock to eat it.
“Good isn't it?” Jennie grinned at Ella.
“It's food and I'm hungry.” That was all Ella was going to agree to.
Cook said nothing and ate a few more pieces before laying down next to the fire. “Dawn's not far away.”
“We'll rest until first light then get moving again,” Ella said.
Jennie nodded, her grin disappearing as she finished off the last of the little food pile. “We lost two whole days, Ella, the village must be frantic.”
“What happens when there's no Equinox?” Cook asked. “People were talking about it and were scared, but I don't understand.”
“How can you know how to break through a crystal wall but not know about the Equinox?” Jennie shook her head, not expecting an answer. “The spring equinox is when we renew the pact with the Darkmen, providing protection for the coming year and guaranteeing peace.” Except, a dark thought niggled in her mind, perhaps that wasn't how the Darkmen saw it.
“So what happens if it doesn't take place?” Cook asked, rolling over and looking at Jennie.
Ella had a scowl on her face there was no space for her between the mysterious Cook and Jennie. She sat down on Jennie's other side.
Jennie shook her head and looked over at Ella, eyes questioning. She had no idea what would happen if the Equinox didn't happen.
“ The Darkmen will see us as weak and enslave us again,” Ella said softly. “The stories say that we escaped their control and learned the magics. We fought them and then one day both sides were at a standstill so the pact came about.”
“But they haven't come,” Jennie pointed out quietly, eyeing the dark woods around them with a small shiver. “So maybe the pact's not broken yet?”
“Or it could be those old stories were bullshit,” Ella said with a yawn.
“They weren't all stories.” Jennie remembered Meriweather coming back from the equinox, and the usually jovial old man looked drawn and worn.
“Rest. We need to get a move on soon, the whole College is looking for us,” Ella said laying down.
“I really wish you still had your sword, Ella,” Jennie said, settling into the pine boughs they'd laid down to sleep on.
“Me too, but I should be able to make a club from a branch or something. It will work at a pinch,” Ella said sleepily. “You be careful with Cook, didn't that screeching Magi call her Frost?”
“I don't remember.” Jennie yawned, feeling even more drained then before. “I was too busy dodging lightning.”
Cook was silent, her gray eyes watching the fire.
The Black Wood, from what Jennie understood, pressed against every boarder of the Kingdom. Even the northerners, with their wild ways and foreign gods had to deal with the Black Wood. It was an ancient forest and the Kingdom had carved a place out for itself within its boarders. Or maybe it was that the wood had grown up around the Kingdom. No one seemed to know for sure about, and it had never seemed like an important distinction to Jennie. Until now.
“I think Meriweather kept a lot of things from me,” Jennie muttered, mostly to herself as they stood staring at the boarder between the Kingdom and the Black Wood.
The trees they had been traveling through were nothing compared to what lay ahead. Some of the trees were as large as Meriweather's Tower, some were even larger. Jennie had never seen trees that tall before. The trunks were so wide that an entire house from the village could have easily fit inside.
The division between the regular if somewhat creepy woods they were in now, and the Black Wood was abrupt. One moment there were trees and shrubs and the next there were towering giants with a perpetual gloom below their branches. “Maybe we could just go along the boarder?” Jennie asked hopefully, her skin crawling for no specific reason she could discern.
Cook looked from Jennie to Ella, keeping her opinion to herself.
Ella shook her head. “I wish, but they'll be looking for us there. They won't look for us inside the wood. Because no one is that foolish, only the Caretakers.”
Cook examined the woods, she wasn't frightened, but there was something different about the trees. She felt like they were watching them, judging.
Jennie turned and looked behind them and then up, studying the sky. She had done that often since they'd left their small campsite, and every so often she had seen things that were not birds flying above the forest, searching. For a moment she thought they'd gone, but then her heart sank as she spotted something too large to be a bird passing just north of where they stood.
“The flying creatures are still out,” Jennie said heavily, turning back towards the Black Wood.
“They don't like daylight so they're probably resting, or lurking in shadows,” Cook replied.
“So we keep moving and stay in the trees, they can't fly in here without getting their wings tangled in the branches,” Ella said.
Shaking her head, Jennie started towards the Black Wood, her shoulders set and her feet determined. “You don't understand, there's things flying in the air searching for us, even though it's daylight. They aren't the same as the bat-like creatures from the Tower. I've seen them all morning.”
Ella couldn't see what Jennie was talking about, just like she couldn't see the Guardians until they had attacked. “Are they as big as the other type? Because if they are, our best bet is to make it into the woods. They can't fly in there, we'll be faster than they are on foot.”
“I can't tell, they stay up high.” Jennie took a deep breath and then stepped past the invisible boarder and into the Black Wood. When nothing happened she released a breath she hadn't known she'd been holding, and looked over her shoulder. “Smells different in here.”
Ella didn't notice anything different.
“It smells earthy. There are no humans here, with human fires and towns. Smells earthy,” Cook replied, feeling unable to describe it.
Nodding, Jennie looked back at where they had entered the woods. It felt like they were in an entirely different world, even though they'd only taken a few steps. There was nowhere else to go to though, so she turned her back on the Kingdom of men for now. “Which way should we go?” There were no obvious paths.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Ella replied. “We need to find a Caretaker, they will know about the Equinox, and they won't have left the woods so they won't know about us being in trouble with the College.”
Cook wondered what they were going to do after that. They, or at least she, could not go back. Perhaps she would make her way up to these Northmen, the Caretakers.
Considering their options, Jennie finally shrugged and started moving straight ahead. “Maybe they'll find us?”
Cook followed and Ella took the rear carrying a tree limb that she had spent most of the day fashioning into a club.
“Who are the Caretakers?” Cook asked quietly.
“They… Well, they keep the Darkmen from coming into the kingdom.” Jennie frowned as she walked, not really sure how they did that. “They report to the King, don't they Ella?” She'd only ever heard stories about them, and even then they were dimly remembered tales from her mother. “They protect the Kingdom.”
“They oversee the sacred trees used in the Ritual,” Ella said. “They report to the King but most are bought by the college and serve them as well. They do not have magic per se, but are instead immune to magical influence and attack. This is what makes them so perfect to protect us from the Darkmen, the Darkmen cannot influence them.” She frowned. “At least that is the story.”
“But you've met them right Ella?” Jennie looked up, marveling at how high above them the tree branches spread.
The floor of the forest was a thick matt of needles and the occasional unfamiliar looking pinecone. Here and there a single smaller tree or bush grew wherever there was a small break in the foliage above their heads, but for the most part the floor was a place in perpetual twilight. Moss covered the scattered skeletons of those trees that had fallen, and ferns that rose well over ten feet tall formed clumps around the bases of some of the trees and along the small stream they passed.
“Yes.” Ella's response was clipped. “Once.”
There was something in her friends voice that did not invite further inquiry. With a quick look at the grim expression on Ella's face, Jennie kept moving in what she hoped was more or less a straight line. It was hard to see the sun through the trees and after a while, the trunks all started to look the same.
Cook came up behind her and placed a hand on the small of her back, steering her to the left. “We'll go in a circle if you go that way,” she said quietly.
“We will? How can you tell?”
Cook shrugged. “I can just... tell.”
Jennie studied Cook as they walked and lowered her voice, aware of Ella's eyes on her and the touch of Cook's hand. “Can you remember anything else? Did removing the symbols bring anything back?”
“No. Wait... Ella said the name Frost. It seems familiar but... It scares me,” Cook said, continuing to talk softly. Realizing she was still touching Jennie she let her hand drop, not wanting to make the other woman angry.
Jennie looked back at Cook, missing the warmth. “It could be your name, but it could be almost anything else too.”
Cook nodded. “True. It concerns me I knew how to break into the tower. It was easy, like I'd done it before. I'm scared that maybe there was a good reason for me to wear these manacles.”
Taking one of Cooks hands, Jennie squeezed it in support. “You don't know that,” she said, earnestly. “And you have to stop worrying about what you don't know or you'll just go insane before we figure it out. Look at us, we were put into prison by the Magi and we didn't even do anything!”
“True. Why were you put in prison?” Cook asked.
Ella did not like the touching or the handholding one bit. Jennie's mom would be upset with her. She was going to have to have a talk with Jennie.
“I don't know.” Jennie frowned in thought. “They didn't believe I was Meriweather's apprentice, he must have never told them. He kept saying he'd bring me to the College next year and the year after that, I thought I just wasn't doing well enough that he'd be embarrassed to bring me there. They thought I'd brought down the bridge too, which is ridiculous! Why would I bring down a bridge on myself?”
“Well they're scared, and blaming you creates a solution so everyone feels better,” Cook responded. “Why didn't your Master tell them about you?”
Jennie stopped, shaking her head and turned to Ella. “Why didn't Meriweather' tell them about me Ella? I was his apprentice for four years. Was I really that bad an apprentice?”
Ella was silent for a moment. “Jennie, he loved your mother. He followed her to the village from the College. He thought of you as his daughter. You weren't a bad apprentice, although I think he had hopes that you would be stronger. But your way was healing and he grew to respect that. He wasn't your father, I know that much, but he didn't care even though your mother would only let him in so far. He was proud of you.” Ella mulled over what to say. “He probably didn't tell the college about you because he was concerned how spending time there might change you. It corrupts the finest of people; at least that's what he, your mother, and myself thought.”
Her stomach twisted, like the tattoos had done on the back of her hand. Jennie stood still as everything she had thought she'd known about the world changed around her. “He loved my mother?” she said finally. She'd never known, never even caught a hint. “Ella, when mother died and you had me stay with you, why did you do that?” It had never been a question before, she'd been so very thankful for Ella taking her in she'd never even thought to ask.
“Because it was the right thing to do.” Ella replied. “All those old pervert farmers wanting to look after a young girl. Not right.”
Jennie let out a breath, relieved that her friend hadn't done it for any other secret reason. Which left it safe to go back to the original question. “Meriweather and my mother? You're sure he wasn't my father?”
“I'm sure because he really wanted to be your father. So he did the best your mother would allow,” Ella replied.
There was no sign of a lie on Ella's face. Jennie nodded once before turning to start moving again. She paused as she saw Cook's expression. “What is it?” she asked, suddenly realizing Cook hadn't said anything since she'd stopped moving.
“My family is dead,” she said softly. “I don't know how I know, but I do.”
“I'm sorry,” Jennie said just as softly, touching Cook's arms and then hugging her because she looked like she needed one.
Cook froze and then hugged her back.
Rolling her eyes at the look Ella was giving her, Jennie started moving again, unsurprised when her friend matched her step for step, leaving Cook to bring up the rear. “She lost her family, I know how that feels, or at least I know how it feels to loose your mother. I never had the pleasure with my father. She needed a hug and I gave her a hug. It's that simple Ella,” she said quickly, before Ella could start.
“She is a criminal spinning a story. You don't know anything. She's taking advantage of you,” Ella said. “But I realize you won't listen to me because that's what you do, heal people. Just remember that Kingfisher cat you found and healed. It gave you that scar on your leg, it did it because it was in its nature. Remember that when you deal with her.”
“Ella, the Cat didn't know what I was doing.” But she touched the top of her leg, remembering the long thin scar that was there.
Ella snorted. “No the cat did what was in its nature. Its nature is not to trust humans. You don't know what Cook's nature is. Just be careful.”
“Ella, she's not going…” Jennie blinked as they rounded a tree trunk that was larger than the others they'd passed and her voice trialed off. “To… do… bad…” She ended in a hushed whisper, “Wow,” staring upwards at the tall statue that filled the clearing ahead of them. It was as tall as the trees around it and carved from stone, although it was hard to tell with all the moss and lichen growing on its surface.
The figure itself was hard to make out, the rock weathered and chipped although the shield it held in its left arm and the sword raised upwards were clear enough. The top of the sword would have pierced the canopy of leaves above it, except the top two thirds were missing, shattered from just above the carved hilt.
Turning, Jennie thought she could see another statue standing guard, just barely visible to their right, although that one was missing the top half of its torso. Only the legs remained and a small tree had taken root in the rubble, taking advantage of the space and sunlight.
“What are they?” Jennie asked, already moving towards the first statue, eager to see it closer.
“I don't know... Jennie get back here,” Ella said. “You should let me check it for danger first.” She sighed.
If Jennie had heard Ella, Jennie didn't act like it. “Ella! Cook! There's writing on the base,” she yelled back, half running, half sliding down the small pile of stones to the base of the first statue. The characters carved into the dark rock were nearly as tall as she was and she ran her finger tips over the deep gouges, brushing away moss and pushing aside ferns so she could see them.
“The guardians shall ever be vigilant against the…” Jennie frowned, trying to figure out if the next set of characters meant people or monsters. “The characters are similar to the sygils I use, look at this one, it's almost identical to what I use for making a circle of protection.”
Ella stomped off to check the clearing but Cook moved over to Jennie.
“I think that it only makes sense to you,” Cook said slowly, as her grey eyes studied the writing. She reached out touching the stone. “It's black, is it supposed to be the Darkmen?” she wondered out loud.
“Maybe,” Jennie said distractedly as she pulled more ferns aside to see better. “That would explain why they're facing the Kingdom like that. But I think it calls humans monsters. That doesn't make sense does it?”
“Some humans are monsters. Maybe the Darkmen were scared of us?” Cook said thoughtfully. There was pain in her head and she blinked seeing a couple run through the trees. It was night and they were carrying a baby and the father had a small girl by the hand. They were afraid. The young girl tripped and rolled down a hill the father stopped then something with wings grabbed him out of the night.
Cook blinked again and then she was back in the clearing. “What?”
Jennie was already by her side, holding her arm, eyes worried. “You're crying.”
“I am?” Cook reached up touching her face. “It was a memory. A man got snatched out of the night by one of those winged things. I think he was my father.”
“Did you recognize him? Were you with him?” Jennie rubbed Cook's shoulders soothingly.
“I think I was the young girl. I fell down and rolled down a hill. That's why the monsters didn't get me,” she said softly. “It's like it's a dream, I just don't know if it's my dream.”
Jennie's hands slid down the length of Cook's arms to touch the silver manacles. “I'm sorry I didn't find out more about these.”
“It's okay. Everything that happened, I think it can be forgiven.” Cook took Jennie's hand and squeezed it. “So these strange statues. What do you think they are?”
Feeling her stomach clench, Jennie's smile turned shy and she let go of Cook's hands. “I think they're wards. I think they're the biggest sygils I've ever seen in my life! Each one of these could have formed a line and the writing says they're to protect against, well, it could be either people or monsters, I'm not sure.”
“Oh. I was hoping something dramatic, like they come to life and destroy everything,” Cook said with a laugh.
Ella barked out, “If you're done we should get moving. I'd rather spend the night at a Caretaker cottage than in the woods.”
“I think we should be worried Ella might decide to destroy everything,” Jennie whispered, eyes wide in faked fear.
Cook did her best not to laugh not wanting Ella any more mad at her.
They continued on until even Cook wanted to collapse. They had found a stream that Ella decided to follow.
Coming over a rise though, Ella stopped.
“What?” Cook said grumpily. Even her good mood had vanished. She climbed up. “Wow.”
The trees reluctantly opened up onto a crystal clear lake that the stream fed into.
“I wish I something to fish with,” Ella said wistfully, seeing the large orangish-brownish fish dart up and down to eat bugs. The water surface rippled across the lake.
“I'm taking a bath and washing my clothes out,” Cook said, marching down the animal trail and pulling her shirt off.
Ella let her go, content to have her be bait for anything nasty.
“See?” Jennie whispered as she watched Cook head for the lake. “She's nice.”
“This is the Black Wood, I have no idea what's in this water. Could be monsters,” Ella said, a grin tugging at her lips.
“Monsters.” Jennie nodded, blinking as the shirt was thrown and Cook walked towards the clear water. “Lots of... umm... monsters,” Jennie rambled, not paying any attention to what she was saying.
Ella frowned and studied Jennie.
When the silence stretched, Jennie jerked her gaze away to look at Ella. “What?” she asked, going a little red in the face. “A bath sounds good, we stink.”
“Uh huh.” May the Gods help her, Ella thought. “Jennie, why did you keep putting off Levi?” She really didn't want to have this conversation. “In our small town, despite his annoying behavior, he is the best catch.”
The faint blush went bright red. “I'm going for a swim. With the monsters.” Because monsters would be preferable to what Ella was about to talk about.
“Okay,” Ella said. “I'm going to see if I can make a spear to catch some fish. Your Cook can probably cook them.”
She didn't need to be told twice and Jennie took off, quickly shedding her grungy clothes and getting into the water before Ella could ask anything else. “Hi,” she said to Cook brightly before diving into the water and coming up shaking water from her face and smoothing black hair out of her eyes.
“Hi.” Cook brushed the wet strands of her brown hair out of her face. “Don't know about you, but I feel tons better.”
“Yup.” Jennie was smiling like an idiot and suddenly monsters seemed like a good alternative. She really hadn't thought this one out. “Better, lots better. Uh, good water?” Now she thought, with a wince, she sounded like Levi.
“Where's Ella? I was certain she wouldn't leave you unguarded with a known criminal.”
“She... umm.” Jennie blinked suddenly realizing she was in the lake with Cook, and they were both naked. Flustered, she looked back towards the shore. “Spear. To get fish. She's getting a spear to catch some fish for us to eat.” A real full sentence, that was definitely progress. “Do you swim?”
“Apparently. I didn't sink,” Cook said with a smile.
Jennie smiled back, realizing she had no idea what to talk about.
“I'm sorry your mother died,” Cook said. “I wanted to tell you earlier, but what came out of my mouth was about my family. A family I don't really remember. Sorry for that.”
Jennie's smile dimmed and she looked down, only to quickly jerk her gaze up in alarm as she noticed that the crystal clear water didn't hide much at all. “I miss her. I think you would have liked her. She had the best laugh. It always sparkled like sunlight.”
Cook just smiled. “How did she die? If you don't mind me bringing it up?”
“Fever.” Jennie shrugged. “It happened fast, she was happy and gardening one day and then...” She made a small motion, splashing water.
“Sorry. That why you want to be a healer?”
Nodding, Jennie smiled sadly. “By the time the witch from Murdock came she was gone. We didn't have any healers in the village and I thought ‘I could do that'. I could help and then we would. Meriweather thought I was a little crazy.”
“A witch? What's the difference between a witch and a Mage?” Cook asked confused.
“No formal training, they're part of the College of Magi but not full members. Witches get their magic from herbs and potions, charms and such. Mages use sygils. I probably should have become a witch.”
It was surprisingly easy to say that to Cook.
“I heard that you picked up a wagon and moved it off the bridge when it was collapsing, onto the bank. I don't think a witch could do that.”
Jennie laughed. “You're right, probably not. But I shouldn't have been able to do that either, not drawing air sygils. Pure dumb luck I didn't blow the bridge over, like I did with the river.”
Cook laughed. “The river was a surprise, but one that saved our lives.”
Using her hand, Jennie splashed water at Cook, relieved and just happy to be there. “Like that?”
Cook wiped the water off her face and splashed her back. “More like that.”
It went downhill from there, with a massive water fight erupting, laughter echoing off the trees around the lake. “I give! Give!” Jennie yelled, covering her face as Cook drenched her with water.
Cook laughed and started swimming back to shore. She got out, being careful not to slip on the rocky shore, and grabbed her clothes to start cleaning them the best she could. They were little more than rags, but they were her rags.
“We're going to need new clothes,” Jennie called out from the water. “Or at least clothes that aren't so ripped and torn.” Jennie she chose to stay in the water, enjoying the feel of it against her skin and the ability to talk to Cook while she was naked.
“You going to magic us some?” Cook said smiling. She scrubbed the worn cloth as best as she could and then rung them out. “I can't just weave us some.” Cook thought about it for a second. “And also, I don't know how to weave.”
“I could make it look like we're wearing clothes, but they'd just be an illusion,” Jennie grinned. “Then you'd be like the screeching Magi back at the tower and be naked if the illusion failed. Magic's not good at creating substance, it's great at manipulating it, or using energy, but you have to have something to start with. And those…” she pointed at the rags in Cook's hands. “Aren't going to do it.”
“Her illusion failed? That must have been funny,” Cook said.
Jennie started towards the shore, eyes sparkling as she laughed. “Yes, although when she sent her winged beasts at us after that, it wasn't so funny.”
“No that wouldn't be,” Cook replied laying out her clothes to dry. She wished more sunlight made it through the trees, if they didn't dry she'd have to start a fire.
Licking her lips, and trying not to blush, Jennie quickly pulled on her old clothes, trying not to sneak any more peeks at Cook. “You said you saw winged things, in your memory or your dream?”
“The winged things from the College I would guess., because sunlight saved me from them. I think.” She looked at Jennie. “You not going to wash your clothes?”
“Uh…” The idea of being naked with Cook on the side of the lake was enough to make Jennie's face heat again. “No.” She said quickly. “I don't want to be cold. I hate the cold really, it was always cold in the Tower, part of the problem of living in a floating tower with windows a century old.” She was babbling as she pulled on her shirt and she knew it. “I should see where Ella went to, she's been gone a long time.”
“Oh, okay. Be safe,” Cook said, confused.
“Yes. Safe.” Jennie waved, tripping on the rocks and then rescuing herself with a nervous laugh. “Be right back.” She wanted to turn invisible in the worst way.
Ella was sharpening a long branch and trying not to laugh. “Oh lord, a criminal.” Mira would be turning over in her grave. “I'm doing my best with her, like I promised.” A promise given on a death bed to look after Mira's daughter.
“Who did you promise what?” Jennie asked, pushing through the long ferns to find Ella. “Why are you all the way over here, I thought you were coming back to the lake?”
“ I am, just needed to find the right spear.” Ella stood up with a grin.
Jennie gave her a confused look. “Are we stopping here for the night?”
“Nope. Just lunch.” Ella walked off towards the lake.
Nodding, Jennie turned and followed. “Ella, I know you never like to talk about it, and neither did Mom, but why did she leave the Capital? I know you didn't like what the Mages were doing, but why did she go?”
Ella paused and looked at her. “She left because she was pregnant with you. She wouldn't say who the father was, and she wouldn't drink a potion to get rid of you. So she left.”
“But does that mean I have family in the capital?” It was something she had often wondered, and now it seemed as if Ella might actually tell her.
“I don't know. I don't I think she was from the Village as I was.” Ella looked at her. “Come on let's fish.”
“You'd tell me though, right Ella? If you knew where my mom was from?”
“Jennie, your mom isn't from the Village. Her mother left her when she was a child and I don't think she knew where she went off to. Your Grandfather raised her. He made herbal potions. That's all I know. Your mother wasn't forthcoming, or talkative.”
“No, she wasn't.” Jennie agreed sadly, wishing her mother had talked more about a past that she'd clearly disliked mentioning. Shaking her head at memories of her mother singing in the garden of their small cabin as she picked herbs, Jennie grinned as they rounded the last tree to find Cook drying her things over a small fire. “Who's catching the fish?”
“I am,” Ella said, pausing to take off her boots and roll up her pant legs before moving into the water with her spear.
“If you catch them I'll cook them,” Cook replied, skeptical the woman could spear fish.
Grinning at the look on Ella's face, Jennie settled down next to the fire, glad that Cook was at least wearing something so she wouldn't embarrass herself. “Better get ready to cook, you just challenged her and she's not going to stop until she has a fish.”
“Good, I'm starving and I don't want roots again,” Cook replied, leaning over just enough to bump her shoulder.
Jennie smiled back. “I'm glad you came with us, Cook.”
“Not sure what else I would have done. I'm glad too. I... Well... you're nice. Ella is Ella. She wants you to be safe,” Cook said awkwardly.
Watching the subject of their conversation wade out into the water, freshly cut spear held high, Jennie nodded. “Ella's family. My only family left. She took me in when my Mom died even though she probably wished she hadn't a few times.”
Cook wanted to hug Jennie, but awkwardly patted her arm instead. “At least you had that. So you weren't alone.”
“You were alone?” Jennie shifted, looking at Cook. “You remember more?”
Cook shook her head. “No, I don't remember anything else. But it's good not to be alone.”
“You're not alone.” Jennie returned Cook's arm pat and then grinned when she heard Ella yell in triumph. “Guess you're cooking. Then we're going to find the Caretakers and then we're... going to fix this. All of it.” Which sounded impossible even as she said it.
“Sounds like a lot of work. Let's focus on lunch. I'm roasting more of those potatoes.” She pointed at a warmed flat rock near the fire. “Guess I'm gutting a fish somehow, too.” She got up with a smile.
“Would be easier if Ella still had her sword.” But Jennie was smiling as she added more wood to the fire. “I'll tend the fire.”
“No magic, I promise.”
Cleaning and gutting the fish was a pain, but Cook got them on sticks and they were roasting over the fire. “Ella, I'm not cleaning and cooking more than three, get out of the water.”
“You're just showing off now, Ella!” Jennie yelled, huffing as she carried another armload of wood to the fire. She wasn't going to be able to leave without cleaning her clothes at the rate she was going. Crouching next to the fire she fed more twigs and slightly larger branches into it, liking the warmth and light. Fire had always seemed like such a cheerful thing, when contained and in small doses.
Jennie's smile turned to a shriek of surprise. She jerked back from the fire, eyes wide as she noticed a small figure inside the flames shift and look at her. “Ella! Cook!” She pointed at the fire, moving back when nothing exploded her in her face. “There's something alive in the fire!”
Ella squinted and looked at the fire. “It's called smoke and flame,” she replied.
“No it's... it's gone now.” Jennie stared intently into the flames, trying to see what she'd seen before. There had been a figure in the heart of the flames, a delicate creature of flame with wings of smoke. She knew that she'd seen it. “We should keep moving,” she said suddenly, biting her lip in thought. What excellent scouts those things would make if they could appear inside camp fires.
Ella looked at her. “Once we eat we'll bury the fire and go. I promise.”
Jennie's stomach rumbled in agreement with Ella and she grinned sheepishly. “But quickly, please?” She felt uneasy and she looked hopefully at Cook.
“Almost ready,” Cook responded. She pulled the spitted fish off the fire and carefully laid it out with the potatoes on a large rock she'd cleaned off. “It's done, but hot. Be careful.”
Cook sat back not really hungry.
Taking bites of the steaming hot white meat, Jennie hummed in pleasure although she kept giving the fire odd looks. “It's delicious, you are good at cooking. Maybe you were actually a cook?” Jennie doubted it even as she said it, and from the expression on Ella's face she knew she doubted it too.
“I don't mind it, but I'm pretty certain I wasn't. I don't think a cook would have known how to break you out.” Cook took a small bite of fish. “It seems like I can only remember things when I need to used them. Right now I can look around and see which plants are poisonous and which ones are good for eating.”
“It's the manacles,” Jennie said, between bites. “I don't think a slave who knew nothing would be of any use, you have to be able to do what people want done. The magic must let you access things as you need them so you'd be useful.” It sounded horrible and Jennie winced. “I'm sorry.”
Cook shrugged. “Its okay, I'm glad I'm free at least. Being a slave isn't fun.”
The fish suddenly lost its taste and Jennie chewed slowly, looking towards Ella. “Do you think that's what they were going to do to us in the Tower?”
“I don't know,” Ella said. “I would hope that they would have sent for one of the town elders to clear up the mess. But the worst case is the manacles or the winged guardians.”
Neither were pleasant thoughts, and Jennie set aside the last of her food. “Can we go now?”
Ella looked at the food in front of them and sighed. “We don't have any way of carrying this.”
Cook held up a small mat she had been weaving from the plants near the water. “We can put some on this and try to carry it. I didn't have time to do anything with it really.”
No matter what they did, Jennie just hoped they did it soon, her skin crawled and she was happy to help put out the fire.
“We're getting further into the Black Wood now Ella, shouldn't the Caretaker's have found us now?” Jennie asked as they started along the side of the lake, heading away from the Kingdom. She thought she saw a creature with the top of a woman and the tail of a fish surface in the lake to watch them. Before she could open her mouth to say anything the creature had slipped beneath the water again, as silently as it had come.
There was something in Ella's tone that spoke of pain and Jennie looked at her, but once again the set of Ella's jaw did not invite questions. So instead Jennie walked quietly, starting every time she caught movement out of the corner of her eye, things she felt sure should exist.
“I think a unicorn is following us,” Jennie announced when they stopped for a drink, looking behind them again. “Or it's a big white horse with horns.”
“Unicorn sort of implies a single horn,” Cook said.
Ella looked behind them. “Jennie, I cannot see it.”
Cook looked once, and then again searching harder. “Well...” She squinted. “I see fog, or shadows that sort of look like a horse. I feel that we are the ghosts here while the real world of these woods goes on around us,” Cook said, frustrated.
“It's real. It's right over there, watching us.” Watching her , Jennie thought with sudden insight as she realized which of them a unicorn might find interesting according to the old wives tales. “Oh,” she mumbled, feeling her cheeks heat, “Never mind, let's go.”
Ella caught on quickly and felt relieved.
“Oh?” Cook said confused.
“Unicorns... they uh... supposedly find virgins... follow them.” Jennie was going red, she could feel it. She took care not look at Cook.
Ella coughed, “Lets get moving.”
“Oh!” Cook flushed a little. “What do they do with the virgins?”
“Moving on now,” Ella replied.
Curiosity got the better of her and Jennie blinked. “What do they do with virgins?”
“Moving.” Ella said. “Come on now.”
It took them most of the day to get around the edge of the lake. Every time Jennie thought the lake was ending, they'd round another growth of weeds and the lake would continue deeper into the forest. After a while Jennie started to think they were simply passing the same bits of lake again and again, looping on themselves. She'd gotten so worried about it that she even started putting out small marks as they walked, but she never passed them again.
The entire way the Unicorn followed along behind them, it went from being slightly embarrassing to just annoying. That and she'd seen a half-dozen mermaids, two different trident carrying mermen and a full-dozen things that she thought might have been selkies.
She'd never seen so many magical creatures before in one place. Meriweather had occasionally had small pixies visit him, but that had been the limit of her exposure.
“I'm starting to think Meriweather kept a lot of things from me.” Things she really would have liked to know about. Like anything of real use that hadn't involved shopping for Meriweather's breakfast. Like why her skin was crawling between her shoulder blades, but every time she turned around there was nothing behind them but the stupid unicorn. A unicorn who kept looking oh so very hopeful every time she looked back and then presumably crushed when she turned away.
It was like kicking a puppy; A big mythical puppy that sparkled in the light.
“Why won't it leave me alone?” Jennie muttered, jerking as she caught another shadow move out of the corner of her eye. “And the shadows are moving.” It was becoming more of a problem than the Unicorn as the shadows lengthened with the coming night. “We should build a fire,” she told Ella. “A really big fire.”
Ella was frustrated she couldn't see what Jennie saw. “When I say run. Everybody run,” Ella whispered. She looked around and spotted a path. “Run!”
She grabbed Jennie to make sure she followed. Cook was slow to follow but took off after them.
“Where are we running to?” Jennie yelled, sprinting as fast as she could to keep up with Ella's long legs. “Cook, hurry, they're getting bigger!” With every moment that the sun descended in the sky the shadows lengthened, twisting and shifting in patterns that did not mimic the shapes that cast them.
Eyes glowed, bright and sharp in the shadows. Jennie saw bright blue and red, orange and purple, every color she could think of glowing in them as they sprinted faster and faster.
Desperate, Jennie drew sygils in the air, the magic leaping to her touch as if she were standing right on top of one of the great Totems themselves. She'd been aiming for a light to shine a way to safety, there were specific spells just for that. But what she got was a bright burning light that was blinding in the sky above them.
The shadows screamed,.Jennie actually heard their voices around them as it they twisted and fled away from the light.
“There!” Jennie yelled as the bright burst slowly faded, leaving afterimages. “There's buildings.”
Ella angled them towards the buildings.
The shadows whispered at Cook as she ran past them. They called her ‘Frost' and they were not happy with her. They called her thief. She was relieved they did not call her a murderer.
From the plants near the buildings a cloaked figure looked up. She pulled her hood back. The woman blinked at them and then shouted “Unicorn.”
Another hooded figure ran out of a building drawing symbols in the air.
The symbols glowed to Jennie's sight and she winced as a band of warding sprung around the small group of buildings. Behind them the Unicorn slid to a stop, snorting and pawing the ground as the three women crossed the sudden barrier.
There were more people coming from the simple stone buildings and Jennie had never been so happy to see human faces before.
“She attacked them!” A sharp voice cut through the gathering crowd and a man started towards Jennie, eyes hard and hand going to the blade at his side.
“Oh for...” Ella snarled, while moving quickly disarming him. “I am tired and dirty. We went for help from the college and found anger. Someone tell me what's going on without threatening us.”
“You attacked the Darkmen, which means you've broken the treaty,” the woman who'd drawn the sygil said, walking past the man who no longer had his sword, pulling down the hood that had covered her face. She was an older woman, a streak of white through otherwise brown hair and sharp eyes with a proud face.
“Paige, the girl...” someone started to say but the woman, whose name was presumably Paige, made a cutting motion with her hand and everyone fell silent. She was staring at Ella and the look on the stranger's face was a strange mixture of anger and what might have been sadness, Jennie thought.
“You will surrender all your weapons, now,” Paige said, voice cold and hard. “Especially you, Ella.”
Ella looked like she would fight for a second and then let the sword drop. “Don't blame us, the treaty was broken when the equinox failed to happen.”
“No attacks happened, no one was hurt, until now,” Paige said. Then she looked at Jennie who suddenly drew back against Cook's side at the anger she found in Paige's gaze.
“The shadows were moving...” Jennie started, but Paige chopped her explanation off.
“Young ignorant fool, you've undone in one night what took generations to establish. No, do not try to explain, we must go see to what damage you've caused and chase off the Unicorn.” Paige gestured to the others. “Take them to my hut and do not let them leave.”
Paige paused, meeting Ella's eyes and then she was gone, hurrying into the darkness as just as the sun fully set.
“ It's a nice hut,” Cook said, wincing as Ella glared at her.
It was a small hut, but the thick fieldstone walls kept the heat in and there was a small fire burning in the hearth; enough to take the chill out of the evening air.
“She knew your name, Ella,” Jennie said, moving towards the sygils that had been carved into the hearthstone. They weren't of any sort the College of Magi used, but she recognized a couple from the statues they'd found standing watch at the edge of the Black Wood.
“Paige and I were close once,” Ella said, tired. “I knew she was out here.” She gave a bitter laugh. “Of course she'd find us.”
“We found her,” Jennie touched Ella's shoulder, worried at the expression on her friend's face.
“Paige and I were close at the college. But then one night I overheard her talking to her Magi friends. She'd been chosen to be a Caretaker. When asked about me, she said she'd had her fun but I had no magic. Then she laughed.”
“Oh.” Jennie whispered, there really wasn't anything she could say to that. “I'm sorry, Ella, maybe coming here wasn't a good idea. We could escape. I could try an illusion, that should be safe enough to do.”
“Their job is to deal with the Darkmen, I'm sure they are well versed in illusions. But then again, we should not just lay down and die.”
“Why don't we just walk out and leave?” Cook asked. She couldn't see anything keeping them here.
It was a good idea, Jennie loved the thought of following it. Instead she sighed and moved away from Ella, back to the hearthstone and its carvings. “We need answers though. Real answers, and this might be the only place we can get them, unless we want to wander back into the Black Woods and hope we find another group of Caretakers.”
“Jennie's right,” Ella said with a sigh. “We need to stay.”
Eventually they settled down. There weren't that many places to sit in the room so Jennie ended up sitting on the small wooden framed bed, watching Ella pace. “Are you all right?” she asked Cook quietly as she stared into the distance. “You're quiet.”
“I'm ok. How about you?”
“A little scared, honestly.” Jennie kept her voice low, knowing Ella was already stressed and not wanting to add to it. “This place feels strange, my skin's all prickly and there's…” She shrugged, not even sure how to put it to words. “Things watching us.”
Cook reached over and gave her a one armed hug. “We're safe and together.”
Leaning into that hug, Jennie soaked up the contact greedily. “See?” she whispered, trying to avoid thinking of the shadows. “I knew you were nice.”
“Maybe. Maybe I'm just nice to you. You did save me after all.” Cook yawned. “The shadows, when we ran through the trees, they called me Frost and they called me a thief.”
“So maybe your name really is Frost.” Jennie stayed where she was, leaning against the Cook's side. “It's a nice name.”
“Seems silly. What kind of criminal name is that? Look out here comes Frost.” She frowned.
“So, you're not a criminal,” Jennie said earnestly. “I never thought you were.”
“Perhaps I steal vegetables. Aren't they the only ones scared of frost?” She grinned.
Jennie giggled, which earned her a look from Ella and she winced. “Sorry,” she said, loud enough for Ella to hear. Then she whispered, “You could be the bane of all vegetables.”
Cook did her best to stifle a laugh, but Ella still glared at them.
“What is so funny?” Ella barked at them.
Cook just shrugged and looked down.
Feeling like she was a reckless kid again who'd just set fire to the back shed because she didn't understand what magic was, Jennie ducked her gaze also. “Nothing,” she said, quickly.
Thankfully she was spared from trying to explain when the door to the hut opened and Paige stuck her head in, glaring at the three of them. “You,” she said, pointing at Ella, “and I need to talk. Now.”
That sounded ominous and Jennie tensed, wondering if the illusion spell wasn't the better plan at the moment.
Ella's jaw clenched, but she nodded. Heading towards the door she said, “Don't do anything foolish,” to Jennie and Cook.
The door shut on whatever answer Jennie was going to make and she looked over at Cook. “I don't think Ella's friend likes us very much.”
Paige crossed her arms, face dark as she looked at Ella. “You shouldn't have come here.”
“Well if you're here, no, I shouldn't be,” she snapped back.
Paige hesitated, a small crack in the impassive mask of her face and then it was gone. “Then you should go. Take your friends at first light, and leave, before you cause more trouble. Things are bad enough as it is without you adding to it.”
Ella suppressed her pride. “You need to listen to Jennie. Something has gone wrong with the magic.”
“The College's magic?” Paige snorted, crossing her arms again. “What do I care about that? They'll have to sort out their own mess this time.”
“The Colleges magic, the outlying towns, everyone's magic seems to be failing,” Ella shot back.
“So?” Paige looked away, tapping her boot. “Magic never seemed like anything you'd ever care about. Who is this girl that you went to all this trouble to bring her into the Black Wood? I thought you'd gone on to become the constable for some little town way south of here.”
“I did. Jennie is Mira's little girl. When Mira died she asked me to look out for her,” Ella replied.
“I heard about it, Mira's death.” Paige's expression softened a little at that. “I knew her, back at the College. Did the curse take her quickly?”
Ella nodded. “We need answers. The College thinks Jennie is responsible and that's nonsense.”
Snorting, Paige let her arms drop, some of the stiffness of her shoulders easing. “Idiots,” she said quietly. She nodded to another person as they walked by, face hidden in the shadows of their cloak. “She barely knows how to control her own magic, how could she know how to unravel the Totems?” Paige grinned at Ella's narrowed eyes. “We're not quite as secluded out here as you might think, Ella. We've gotten no less than three messages telling us to immediately seize you if you show up in the Black Wood. The last one specifically called for your death along with the girl's.”
“Fuck.” Ella groaned.
“Don't know what you did to piss them off, but they want you two dead.” Paige crossed her arms again. “Who's the third one, the one with the slave manacles?”
“Cook. When the magic failed her forehead mark went away. She's saved us and she's a good cook. She's... I don't trust her,” Ella said.
“She different? That why you don't trust her, Ella?” Paige's eyes went cold again and she put her hand on the door to the hut. “Jennie, the girl, she needs to rectify what she's done. Atonement must be made and she must be the one to make it.”
“What does she have to do?” Ella said protectively.
“Get the Darkmen to forgive her for attacking them.”
“And how does she do that?”
“Maybe she apologizes, maybe she gets down on her knees and begs, maybe she leaves them a pound of flesh. I don't care how, as long as she does, or a lot of people are going to pay for her mistake.”
“Fine,” Ella said grumpily.
“Ella, she's not a girl. She knows magic and she used that knowledge and power to attack people who meant her no harm. They were curious that's all, and she attracted them. She has to learn that her actions have consequences.” Paige sighed and softened again. “She can have an escort into the forest, but she has to do the rest alone.”
“I will escort her,” Ella said. “I may be a lowly normal but I swore to her mother that I would protect her.”
“Lowly...” Paige ground her teeth. “Right, well, good luck seeing anything that threatens her out there! At least the criminal has a chance of seeing something.”
“Course she does. She reacted when I cast the barrier, flinched like she was going to run into it. That means she saw something.” Paige took a deep breath, settling her emotions.
That surprised Ella. “I thought she was like me. How do those manacles work? She still doesn't remember anything important.”
“You would have to ask a Magi,” Paige said dryly, hand still on the door to the hut. “We don't have slaves out here, only people running away from being one.”
“You going to turn me in? Let them turn me into one of those winged monsters? I'd finally be magical, just your type.” Ella walked back towards the hut.
“Just my type.” Paige's smile was so tight it was more of a grimace as she wrenched open the door.
The sudden opening of the door made Jennie jerk in surprise, head coming up off Cook's shoulder. “Ella, Cook thinks she knows her name.”
“Really what is it?” Ella snapped.
“It's... Ella, what's wrong?” Jennie got up off the bed, seeing the strained look on Ella's face.
Paige held the door open, ignoring the young girl and speaking to Ella instead. “She should go tonight, tomorrow might be too late. I'll wait for you outside,” she said, stepping back out into the darkness.
“It's Paige she... it's our past history. So who is Cook?”
Jennie shook her head, stepping away from the bed towards her friend. “Ella, what did she mean ‘she has to do it tonight'? Which she? Me she or you she?”
“You have to make amends. I will escort you into the woods. I can not be with you, but I will watch over you the best I can.”
“Amends?” Jennie said the word slowly, looking back and forth from Ella to Cook. “Amends for the light or the Unicorn?” She wanted to be clear about what she was supposed to be making amends for. “Because I'd rather apologize to the unicorn I think.”
“To the shadows,” Ella replied. “You are going no where near the unicorn.”
Cook had just been listening. “Stories say the Darkmen are our enemy, they enslaved us. Is this not true?” she asked.
“There's a truce, I think.” Jennie said slowly when it looked like Ella wasn't going to answer. “I'll apologize,” she said, lifting her head. “If that will keep everyone safe a little longer.”
“I'll go with you as well,” Cook said.
Ella wanted to argue, but ended up nodding.
Paige didn't say a word as the three of them left the Hut, although she did raise an eyebrow in question to Ella. It was unnerving having the woman here and Paige simply turned on her heels at the look Ella gave her, walking determinedly through the small group of huts towards the Black Wood.
People stopped what they were doing to watch and stare at them as they went, and Jennie couldn't help the feeling that they were staring at her, specifically. It was unnerving and she found herself walking between Ella and Cook, trying not to look as scared as she felt at the prospect of going back into the woods.
“We've chased off the Unicorn for now, don't need that sort of trouble, certainly not right now,” Paige said darkly. She stopped when they'd gone far enough into the trees so Jennie couldn't see the village anymore. “I'll be back at sunrise,” she said to Ella, pointedly. “You two can stay here, but she…” Paige flicked a finger towards Jennie, “has to do this alone.”
“What if they don't like my apology?” Jennie asked, glad her voice didn't tremble.
“Then I won't find you here at sunrise,” Paige said, patently, glancing once again at Ella before turning to leave.
“I'll find you. No matter what,” Ella promised.
“She really doesn't seem to like you Ella,” Jennie pointed out, just to have something to say after Paige had left and before she had to go into the woods herself. Her skin itched again and she thought she saw eyes watching them out of the corner of her vision.
“Old history.” Ella tried to wave it off. “You be safe.”
Cook nodded. “Well be here.”
Old history sounded like a story that Jennie wanted to know about. It would have been a lot more tempting to ask Ella about that, instead she took a breath, straightened her spine and marched into the woods alone.
Under the trees everything seemed darker. What little starlight and moonlight penetrated through the tree tops was swallowed by the shadows that clustered around the tree trunks. At first, as she walked, Jennie had thought they were just shadows and her eyes were playing tricks on her.
Then she saw the eyes again.
They watched her, following her progress as she walked away from the two friends who stood watch, waiting for her return. Because, she thought, as she focused on breathing and walking, Cook was a friend now. You couldn't go through what they'd gone through in just those few days and not be friends. At least, Jennie thought so.
Her tattoo's burned, pulsing with pain in time with her heart beat, and twice she had to stop, simply to focus on breathing instead of the pain. Throughout it all the shadows watched her, not saying or doing anything, simply watching. The eyes were the only things that moved, turning as she passed them to follow her progress.
She could feel their silent judgment against her, a weight that pressed down in the darkness against her shoulders.
Still, Jennie didn't stop to apologize or grovel. Something drew her deeper into the Black Wood, and so she kept moving, pausing when the pain grew and moving again when she could. Time lost all meaning, there was only the slow progress through the never ending trees, with the pulsing pain of her tattoos to mark the passage of time.
An hour, a month, a year later she finally found what she hadn't known she'd been looking for.
What made her realize she'd reached the end of her silent journey of pain, was the shadows. They drew back away from her, and suddenly the tree trunks around her were simply tree trunks, no longer deep pools of black. Around a boulder the size of Paige's hut that jutted out of the ground at an angle, was the tallest tree Jennie had ever seen. It soared above even the huge Black Wood trees as if they were nothing but mere saplings.
Its trunk was such a dark brown it was almost black in the meager light and scars marked its surface. Some were burn marks others looked like huge blades had cut at the tree. They were ancient looking though, most healed with gnarled bark and wood. Some still wept sap, glittering trails of tears in the light.
“Hello?” Jennie called, as she stopped and held her left arm, feeling the pain flare again, white-hot markings against her skin where the Tattoos lay. “Hello?”
A shadow formed and then took solid shape. “You are very rude to run through here causing the curious pain. For what?” He wasn't angry, just interested in what her response would be.
Tendrils of shadow flowed up and off him. At least Jennie thought it was a ‘him', since his voice was so deep. It was hard to know if there was anything at all solid to him, only the eyes were constant, a glowing deep blue. Everything else was all shifting shadow and smoke.
For one terrible instant, Jennie thought she would turn and flee from the thing in front of her. Something her mother had told her, the day she'd died, stopped her though. She'd half forgotten the words in the years since her mother's death, but now, with a Darkman standing right in front of her she could hear her mother's voice clearly.
“You must become a lion hearted girl, my Jennie,” her mother had said, body wracked with the fever that nothing could touch. Her hand was so hot in Jennie's and she'd been crying when her mother had said that, knowing her mother was dying. “Promise me, Jennie my love, promise me you'll be brave?”
Jennie had promised, and the light left her mother's eyes right in front of her. Ella had to pick her up and carry her crying from the room.
“You…” Jennie swallowed, as she realized she'd been staring at the Darkman in front of her without ever answering his question. “I'm sorry. I thought you were attacking us, I was scared.”
“Well now they are scared of you, and may attack humans who come into the woods. See what you have started?” He moved forward, as silent as the shadows he was made of. “You have curious eyes.” He studied her.
“I do?” Jennie blinked. She didn't know what she'd expected but this was not it. She'd expected to be talking with a monster, not something that pronounced its words so carefully, or with the feeling that it had put a lot of thought into each one. “Yours are pretty curious too.” It was that glowing, it made shivers race up and down Jennie's spine.
“They are eyes. It is the glowing that bothers you? They see the magic in the world, something you humans cannot do unless you channel the magics. So, you apologize to me, but I was not wronged. Can you apologize to those you hurt? Can you stand here and not be scared while they surround you?”
Lion hearted , Jennie thought, hearing her mother's whispered voice. She nodded. “I can. I will,” she said, happy her voice didn't shake. “Did I hurt them?”
“Only their pride. We are very prideful. The sunlight would have stung but it was not a serious wound.” He stepped back and the shadows swarmed around him coming towards her.
The rolling mass of shadows surged towards her and a panicked voice in her mind hysterically started screaming at her to run. She didn't though, curling her fingers into fists and clenching them so hard her nails pierced her skin. “I'm sorry,” she said, forcing herself to breath as her tattoos burned and twisted along her left arm and face. “I'm sorry I attacked you, but I didn't mean to hurt anyone.”
The shadows touched her face and arms with feathery touches. “Why?” they whispered. “Her eyes. Her hair.” They touched her hair. “Daughter of Shadows,” another whispered.
“Enough,” the man said, and they retreated. “You have had your time.”
“I was scared,” Jennie said to them as they drew away, her fingers uncurling and her eyes blinking as she watched them. Her skin was warm where they'd touched her and she shook her head, confused. Why wasn't she scared anymore?
“Why did they call me that?” she asked the lone shadow remaining.
“Call you what?” he asked innocently.
“Daughter of shadows. What does that mean?” Were those blue eyes sparkling more then they had been before, she wasn't sure, but she thought they might be.
“It means somewhere in your family tree is the blood of a Darkman. That is what it means, now go back to your friends.”
“Wait!” There were so many questions suddenly crowding her thoughts that she didn't know which one to ask first. “Why is the magic failing?” It seemed like the most urgent of them.
“It's not failing; someone is destroying your totems and taking the magic for themselves. Like your Magi did to us,” he replied.
That was insanity, to destroy all of the totems would plunge the Kingdom into darkness, none of the Magi would be able to use magic then. “Who? Do you know who would do such a thing?”
“I could guess, and guesses are dangerous things, but take this for what you will: I would guess someone like you who can channel both magics: shadow and totem. Now you must go before the King pulls himself from his tree and wants a pound of flesh.”
“Wait…” But this time he didn't and she was talking to empty air. “What do you mean, someone like me?” It didn't make any sense at all. Something large was moving around the tallest of the trees and the fear that had left her moments ago was suddenly back. Whatever that was, and she was almost certain it was the King he'd spoken about, she didn't want to meet it.
Turning on her heels she fled back in the direction she'd come.
“It's almost sunrise,” Paige said by way of greeting as she walked towards the two women. “Any sign of the girl yet?”
“She'll be here,”. it was Cook who spoke.
Ella nodded in agreement. “Or I'll go get her.”
Quirking an eyebrow, Paige leaned up against the tree trunk, studying Ella as they waited. “She doesn't come back by sunrise, she won't be coming back at all, Ella.”
“I promised that girl's mother on her deathbed that I would watch out for her. I will find her,” Ella said.
“So that's one of the promises you've decided to keep?” Paige asked lightly.
“What do you mean by that?” Ella snapped.
Cook suddenly wanted to be elsewhere.
Paige studied her fingers, flexing them one by one and contemplating the small set of tattoos she had across the backs of both hands. “Just that you've broken promises before, Ella.”
Ella let her jaw snap shut. She had broken promises, both to the training school of fighters for Magi protection and to Paige. She looked back into the trees hurt. “So did you Paige,” she said quietly.
Paige chuckled, a low and dark sound. “I don't make promises anymore.” She straightened off the tree, nodding her head in the direction behind Ella. “But looks like you won't have to break yours anytime soon, there's your girl.”
A flash of movement in the trees and Jennie stepped towards them, blinking owlishly as she kept walking, looking lost and confused as she came forward.
Cook moved quickly through the trees to her side, navigating the forest with an ease that Ella found disturbing.
“You okay,” she whispered.
Shaking her head, her hands cold as they gripped Cook's tightly, Jennie whispered. “I'm human, right Cook?”
“Very. Only a non-human wouldn't have been scared,” Cook replied. She wrapped an arm around Jennie's waist to help.
Jennie twisted in her grip, eyes wide and brown in the darkness. “You're certain? Absolutely certain?” she asked, fingers tight on Cook's shoulders.
Cook lifted her hand and rested her fingers on Jennie's lips silencing her.
Jennie let out breath she hadn't known she'd been holding and then threw her arms around Cook, hugging her tight, needing the comfort of another's touch after her strange disjointed run through the forest.
Paige risked another look at Ella's face, noting that Ella's eyes darkened as she watched the pair. “Then there won't be a war,” Paige said. “At least not today. If they let her go that means they've accepted her apology. Although, it looks like you've got another problem on your hands.” She gestured at the hugging going on.
Ella frowned. “An awkward conversation I don't want to have.” She looked at Paige. “So, are we free to go? Or are we prisoners?”
“Tell me Ella, where are you going to go? Deeper into the Black Wood, where even the Caretakers don't tread? There are worse things than the Darkmen in there that would be happy to feast upon someone with as much power as Jennie. Or maybe you'll return to the Kingdom and go meekly to the College of Magi ?”
Ella's shoulders slumped. “I don't know.”
“Good. Then you're staying, for a while at least.” Paige scowled, realizing how that had sounded. “Because you have no other choice.” Which didn't sound any better and she scowled more.
“Hurmph. Guess so.” Ella replied.
After the hug, where Jennie had greedily lingered as long as she could before pulling away, she squeezed Cook's fingers again. “I think your name is Frost,” she said, quietly since it seemed like Ella was still talking to Paige. “I think I heard the shadows whispering it, when I apologized.”
“Have you ever heard of a criminal named Frost?” Cook tried on the name but shrugged. “I could ask Ella, or her friend.” Cook let her fingers curl around Jennie's wanting to give the scared woman comfort. “What happened?”
“I've never heard of anyone called Frost before.” Jennie said truthfully, taking advantage of the moment to lean against Cook's side. “I met the Darkmen,” she said simply, staring down at their joined hands, looking at the tattoos that still remained in wonder. “I apologized, but… The one I talked to he said someone was breaking the Totems. That they're taking the magic for themselves, like we did from the Darkmen.” Jennie didn't say anything about what else he had told her, about a Darkman in her family tree.
“Then you must tell the Keepers and the Caretakers. They are grumpy people but they seem to listen,” Cook said, trying to ignore the way she felt with Jennie's body pressed against hers.
Nodding, Jennie moved towards Paige and caught Ella staring at them with such intensity that she flushed and sidled away from Cook, dropping their contact begrudgingly. “I can do that.” Now, as the sun started to light the sky, she could do anything after standing there and letting the shadows swarm around her.
“Jennie. You okay?” Ella asked. “We're out of options so we will be staying here at the goodwill of the Keepers.”
“I'm a little stunned I think, Ella. It wasn't what I was expecting, but they accepted my apology.” Jennie thought back, frowning. “I think.”
“You're here, talking and alive, so yes they accepted your apology.” Paige turned, heading back towards the huts. “You'll have to share a hut, we don't have a lot of free space.”
Jennie lowered her voice, watching Paige walk away, her shoulders straight and rigid, “She still doesn't like us does she?”
“She likes you all fine. It's me she doesn't like. Come on.” Ella hugged Jennie and started to follow Paige.
The hut they were given to stay in had seen better days. Part of the outside stone wall was crumbling, and a piece of the roof had been hurriedly repaired with a leather tarp stretched over the opening.
“The fireplace works,” Paige had said, in way of apology Jennie thought, as she showed them the room they could use. Jennie didn't care as long as it had something that vaguely resembled a horizontal space she could sleep on. Adrenaline could only carry her so far and she felt exhaustion weighing down her limbs as she moved.
“I'll find you something to eat for breakfast. We all do our own thing for food around lunch, but the dinner is communal.” Paige kept talking, although Jennie wasn't really listening anymore, she was tugging off her boots and trying to figure out if it would be bad of her to collapse on the single bed.
“Go ahead and take the bed,” Ella said. “I'll help with breakfast.”
Cook yawned and nodded sitting on the floor.
She should have argued, but Jennie was just too tired to care, so she flopped down on the straw mattress, yawning as she watched Cook yawn. Rolling up against the stone wall the bed was pushed against she felt herself almost immediately start to drift into sleep.
“There's room up here,” she mumbled to Cook, eyes already closed.
Cook hesitated but got up onto the mattress. She spooned up against Jennie, as there was very little space.
Half asleep, Jennie smiled and relaxed against Cook's side.
“That,” Paige said quietly as she closed the door, “is going to be a problem.”
“Well, the unicorn was following her so she's still a virgin, but yes. I'm going to have to talk to both of them.” Probably a scary talk with Cook.
Paige snorted, moving through the huts as the early dawn lit the sky. “Equinox still didn't happen, you might want to let them have fun while they can.”
“Paige she's a criminal,” Ella said.
“And she doesn't know who she is, so does it matter?” Paige said, nodding silent thanks to the old man who was stirring the morning porridge over the fire.
“It will when she remembers,” Ella replied taking a bowl. Looking around she sat down starving. Not sure what to say to the woman who had broken her heart and made her feel so unimportant.
Paige ate with a single-minded focus, not talking until she'd scrapped the wooden bowl and spoon clean. “First loves don't last,” she said finally, not looking at Ella. “Best she just gets it out of her system.”
“I don't think she loves Cook. She's just… curious. Why can't first loves last?” She certainly hadn't moved on. “Remember how we met?”
Paige's shoulders tensed and she did look at Ella. “Sure,” she said quietly, fingers resting on the edge of the weathered bowl, eyes wary.
“My bunk mates took me out and got me drunk for the first time. I knocked you over.”
Paige looked down at the bowl, spinning it slowly with her finger tips. “I thought you were an oaf with a sword.”
“I was, maybe I still am.” Ella ate slowly.
“No.” She was still spinning the bowl in her hands, but Paige looked up at Ella. “You're not. And I'm not the girl who thought she was going to change things at the College of Magi either.” She got up quickly from the table, leaving the bowl spinning where she'd been. “I have to go, things are riled up in the Black Wood and it's going to be a long day.”
Ella sighed and nodded. “Safe journey.”
Paige paused and then nodded, hesitating again until she muttered. “Sleep well.” Then she was gone, hurrying through the huts towards the forest.
Ella nodded and continued to slowly eat, not certain why she was being nice.
When Jennie woke up she was still pressed up against Cook's, no, Frost's side. She had to remember the woman's name was Frost now, not Cook. It was going to take some time to get used to, she'd gotten used to calling her Cook, if that was really what Frost liked to be called.
Even though she was awake, Jennie kept her eyes closed and pressed against the warmth next to her, greedily soaking up every second she could.
It was a crush, she admitted to herself, a painfully new and awkward crush that she'd have to deal with before Cook noticed. She'd never been able to touch her previous crushes as often as she'd touched Cook and it was making things worse instead of better. Like how she was pretending to sleep just to be able to spend a few more moments with Frost on what had to be one of the most uncomfortable beds in history.
Once she'd noticed how lumpy and uncomfortable the bed was, she couldn't avoid squirming and then finally she just gave up and got up.
Cook was beautiful, she had a roguish charm to her even while sleeping, which was impressive. She had hair lighter then Jennie's own and it had small curls in it. She watched the sleeping woman sleep for a moment, another indulgence.
Doing her best to let Cook sleep Jennie moved quietly and pushed open the worn wooden door.
“Ella!” she said, surprised as she saw her friend sitting right outside, back against the stone wall of the hut. “I… Good afternoon?” She closed the door carefully, after one more glance at the sleeping Frost.
Ella looked at Jennie. “It's okay to have a crush on another women. I know people don't talk about it.”
“I don't… what?” Jennie licked her suddenly dry lips and settled down onto the ground next to Ella, leaning against the wall of the hut next to her. “Did you have a crush on Paige?”
Ella laughed. “It was more than a crush.”
“Really?” Jennie's eyes widened and she looked at Ella, hopefully. “I don't want to marry Levi. I really don't want to marry him.”
“Considering we are wanted criminals, I'm sure Levi's family has called it off. But I understand. This pains me, but exploring your crush is healthy.”
“In case we die really soon, you mean?” Jennie tried for joking but it came out wrong and she leaned her head against Ella's shoulder, closing her eyes. “If someone's purposefully destroying the Totems, they must be insane, Ella. No one can try to use all that magic, it would just burn them up from the inside.”
“Well, we find a solution before the Darkmen and the Magi go to war. But let's not be the cause of that war,” Ella said hugging Jennie. “I've never been a mother but I've tried to be your friend. I hope it was enough. I'll stay out of this crush with Cook, but if she hurts you, in any way...” Ella just let it trail off.
Jennie laughed, happy in that instant. “Thank you. But she doesn't even know, and she'd probably be disgusted if she did anyway.” The laughter faded and she looked up at Ella. “The villagers would be if they knew, wouldn't they?”
“Yes, the village wouldn't approve. But I don't think Cook would mind.”
That was a scary thought, what would she do if Cook didn't mind her crush? “Frost.” She said absently. “I think her name is Frost. The shadows think that's her name, they were pretty sure of it, actually.”
“Frost? Not familiar with that name.” But it bothered her that the Darkmen knew the woman.
“She doesn't remember it. I've been thinking, maybe I can get the manacles off her. Then at least she'd remember who she was.”
“Be careful, that's powerful magic,” Ella replied, before pausing and looking at the door. “I think Cook is up.” She patted Jennie's shoulder. “Life's short, shorter than you think. Don't get to the end of it and wonder what might have been.” Ella got up to go inside to sleep.
“Ella?” Jennie grabbed onto her hand as she rose from the ground, smiling up at her. “Thank you. You're family you know? My only family now.” She would not get teary eyed, she told herself sternly.
Ella pulled her into another hug. “Glad you feel that way. Now I need to sleep.”
Nodding, Jennie let go of her. “Sleep well. I promise not to get into trouble before you get up,” she said, almost half teasing.
Cook blinked as the door she was about open, opened. “Uh, morning... Afternoon...” she stuttered as Ella pushed her out.
“Ella!” Jennie said, horrified as Frost got shoved outside and the door firmly closed behind her. “Uh…” She smiled at the look on Frost's face. “She really wanted the bed.”
“I guess so.” Cook's stomach growled. “You had food?”
“Yes. I mean, no.” Jennie hoped her face wasn't going too red. “I think we missed breakfast and lunch, but Paige said something about dinner being communal. Want to go see what we can find?”
Cook nodded as her stomach growled again.
“Did you sleep okay?” Jennie asked. “I didn't hog the bed did I?” A horrible thought hit her and Jennie glanced quickly at Cook. “Or snore?”
It wasn't hard to find the communal eating area, since there weren't that many huts to begin with. Dinner turned out to be a huge pot of something being cooked over a fire. A few people were already eating, preparing themselves for the night to come, or taking a quick bite to eat before going to sleep when they could. It seemed like a full time job to Jennie and she wondered if they'd been called to it or selected as some sort of punishment.
Cook grinned at Jennie. “You didn't snore and the bed was fine. I hope I didn't hog it. I think I remember being a bed hog.” She sniffed the food and frowned. “These people need help with cooking.” She reached over and grabbed a bowl and dished out the food handing it to Jennie before getting her own.
“You could give them pointers,” Jennie smiled at her, feeling a warm happy feeling in her stomach as they took their bowls to a nearby table. The rough wooden tables were well aged but solid enough to serve their function. “It doesn't look so great,” Jennie admitted, staring at the stuff in the bowl. “Maybe that's why they don't look happy? No good food?”
The man who'd drawn a sword on them when they'd first arrived at the camp got up from his seat, eyeing the two of them, and Jennie tried to ignore him. Instead of just going away though, he walked towards them and grabbed onto Cook 's arm with his gnarled fingers. “I've got me eye on you,” he growled. Jennie caught a glimpse of a missing front tooth in his weathered face. His grip tightened and he bared his teeth at Frost. “I know…”
“Let go of her!” Jennie said, standing back up. Instead of letting go, he twisted his hand around Cook 's and Jennie reached out without thinking to touch him.
The air shimmered for a second and shadows drifted off her right hand, like mist rising from the forest. Jennie felt the magic surge around her, but that was impossible she hadn't drawn any sygils of any sort or even called upon it. Then there was a sound like a thunder boom. The man flew backwards, hitting the pot and sending it, and its contents crashing into the fire.
Other than the hissing of the suddenly extinguished fire, and the rising steam from it, there was silence, no one moved. But Jennie could feel their gaze burning on her. “I…” She blinked, right hand still outstretched, staring at the un-tattooed skin. “I…” She looked at Cook and choked, turning and fleeing towards the wood.
Cook looked around in confusion before taking off after Jennie. It was odd she thought as she paused in the woods, that she knew which trail Jennie had taken.
Moving silently she rested a hand against the rough bark of a tree. Tracking and hunting were easy, things she enjoyed. It didn't take long to find her. The shadows were thick all around. “Jennie, you okay?”
“I just hurt a man without meaning to.” Jennie's voice was quiet and dark as she sat, crouched at the base of a tree, arms wrapped around herself. She had run until she couldn't see the village anymore and then collapsed against the nearest tree, shaking.
Cook sat down next to her. “Thank you for sticking up for me.”
“He was being a jerk and I just wanted him to go away.” Jennie looked up from where she'd buried her face in her arms. “You're not angry?”
“No,” Cook answered, straight away. “I think you might be the first person to defend me. You're always defending me. Thank you.” She sat down next to Jennie leaning against her.
“I'm scared Cook, I mean, Frost.” Jennie leaned her head against Cook 's shoulder. “That shouldn't have happened, none of this should have happened.”
“Just stick with Cook for now. It's ok to be scared. We've been thrown into this great big unknown. The unknown is pretty scary.” Cook didn't move, she just watched her with those gray eyes.
“I like your eyes,” Jennie said, before she even fully formed the thought. “I mean, they're gray, no one has gray eyes.” No one had black hair in the village either, but Jennie didn't think she should point out any other reasons why she was different.
“The guards at the bridge said they were cursed,” Cook replied, content to stay where she was for the moment. It probably wasn't safe in the woods like this. She looked the around them but sensed nothing.
Laying her head back on Cook's shoulder, Jennie snorted. “I've never heard of cursed eyes before.” It was nice like this and she closed her eyes, breathing in the scent that she'd come to associate with Cook, a slightly earthy smell that reminded her of fresh rain in the fields of flowers under Meriweather's tower. With a little contented sound she opened her eyes and touched one of Cook's manacles, tracing the sygils carved into the silver.
“Do you think Ella's going to be upset?”
“No, not with you,” Cook said.
Jennie made a noise, annoyed. “The old man grabbed your arm and he was being rude and I just wanted him to stop and go away.” Which he had, all the way over to the pot hanging over the fire. She opened her mouth and then closed it. And then opened it again, the advice that Ella had given her earlier still running through her mind. “Do you…” Pausing and biting her lip, Jennie wished she knew how to ask what she wanted to ask. “Do you mind being here?”
Sensing that Jennie was relaxing Cook let her legs stretch out. “No, I don't mind. It's an adventure that's for sure.” She laughed.
Jennie didn't laugh but she did turn her face into the crook of Cook's neck. She knew Ella and Cook didn't understand what was going on, she didn't understand it herself so how could they? But she knew, without a doubt, that if the Totems were destroyed, and the magic failed, then the Kingdom would fail too.
Jennie didn't say any of this though as she looked up into Cook's dark gray eyes, and licked her lips, considering Ella's words and the way her stomach was twisting itself into knots.
“I want to do something, but I'm scared you're going to go run away if I do.”
Cook considered Jennie's words and their tone. “I promise not to run away or get upset.”
“You promise?” When Cook nodded, Jennie shifted, swallowing as she moved closer.
Lion hearted her mother had said, and she'd never really understood what that meant living in a Tower floating over a field of flowers outside a town where nothing changed. Here though, in the middle of the Black Wood, after seeing Darkmen and feeling the magic around them, she thought she might be starting to.
Which still made it terrifying as she pressed her lips, a little clumsily but as carefully as she could manage, against Cook's lips.
Cook didn't move, she examined the sensation and how she felt about what Jennie had done. It wasn't a foreign feeling, which was surprising. “Are you sure?” she asked when Jennie pulled away.
That hadn't been a rejection, or a slap, nor had there been any screaming, and Jennie smiled, giddy with relief. “Am I sure I wanted to kiss you?”
Cook nodded, watching her lips.
Jennie's nodded slowly, watching Cook's lips in return. “Very sure.”
“I'm okay with that.” Cook leaned forward kissing Jennie this time.
Doing her very best not to pass out from what was only her second ever kiss with a girl, Jennie relaxed into the it and the one's that followed. Kissing was so much better like this she thought, when she couldn't think about anything other than the warmth of Cook's lips or the way they were pressed together.
She was so absorbed by it all that she didn't notice how cold it was feeling until her breath left her lips in a white cloud and she shivered. A sudden wind gusted around them and leaves whipped up into the air, dancing and spinning.
The hair along the back of her neck stood up and she turned, watching the leaves as her grip tightened on Cook.
“Cook…” she said slowly, watching the leaves spin and spin faster. “There's something…”
The leaves danced so fast they blurred together and between one heart beat and the next they'd formed into a woman's shape. She was beautiful, heart wrenchingly beautiful, that was the first thought Jennie had. Dressed in glowing white and gold robes that hinted at the curved body beneath and showed just enough cleavage to be scandalous.
“Frost,” the woman said. Her lips were a perfect cherry red and hair that was as dark as Jennie's. “You little minx. I search for you for ages and then I find you seducing one of the local farm girls. How very like you.”
Cook looked at her. “Ma'am?” she said, confused. There was something familiar about her, something scary and thrilling.
“Cook…” Jennie whispered urgently, hand tight on Cook's as she got up, holding her.
“Shh,” the woman said to Jennie with a wicked smile and Jennie suddenly couldn't speak. “There,” the woman said, wiping her hands as if she'd just touched something unpleasant and smiled again at Cook. “Frost, I've missed you so much. I thought they'd killed you, or I wouldn't have stopped looking for you.”
Cook's eyes narrowed. “Undo your magic,” she demanded. “I don't know who this Frost is but I'm not her.”
The woman tsked, stopping when she was a few feet in front of Cook. “I missed that fire in your eyes. You're Frost of course, although those idiot Magi seem to have suppressed your memories for now. No matter, I can have those… things…” she gestured at the manacles on Cook's wrists with disgust “off soon. Then you'll remember everything.” She leaned in, smiling as she traced a long elegant finger along Cook's cheek. “Then we'll get to play again. I've so very much missed playing with you, dearest Frost.”
Beside Cook Jennie glared at the woman, hands flexing as she tested the edges of the spell she'd just been wrapped in.
A dark thrill raced up Cook's spine. Part of her reacted strongly to that touch wanting to fall into it. Another part warred with that warning of more imprisonment, just without manacles. With Jennie she was as free as she'd ever been.
“You're not real. A projection in the leaves and wind.” Cook kicked a rock sending it right at the stranger. Grabbing Jennie's hand she ran.
Laughter followed them, riding on the wind that chased after them. “I'm coming for you Frost! You're mine, always mine!”
Cook ran blindly until she tripped over a root and sent them rolling down a small hill.
“You okay?” she asked Jennie, spitting out leaves.
The wind swirled one last time and finally Jennie gasped, her hand reaching to her throat. coughing. “She cast a spell. She cast a spell through an astral sending and she didn't use sygils to do it!”
“That's bad?” It sounded bad.
“It's impossible!” Jennie yelled, flinging out her hands. “It's all impossible, everything!” She swallowed, crossing her arms as if hugging herself. “She knew you, she said your name was Frost too and she looked at you…” Like she had wanted to strip Cook naked right there in front of Jennie.
“She seemed familiar but I can't know for sure. All I really know for sure is that you treat me like a friend. And I want to do the same to you.” She blushed. “Maybe more.”
“More?” Jennie knew she looked hopeful, she could feel her hopeful look. “Umm, who was she? The Magi?”
“Well I don't know. She seemed familiar, and she scared me all at the same time.” She flushed. “Yes, more. The thing that's beyond just friendship.” Somehow she knew that this wasn't a new thing for her.
“She seemed, umm... to know you. Really well.” But Jennie was staring at Cook's lips again as she leaned into the woman.
“Perhaps, but seeing that I don't know myself well, I don't know her.” Cook reached over brushing a leaf out of her hair and kissed Jennie's cheek.
Jennie grinned, wide and brightly at her.
“WHAT JUST HAPPENED?” Paige yelled and Jennie jerked, eyes wide as she descended on them, eyes furious and hand on her sword hilt. “What did you two just do? Why is the entire settlement up in arms over you two?”
“Nothing. We didn't do anything,” Cook sputtered out. “One of your men grabbed me.”
Ella wasn't far behind Paige.
“Grabbed you? So Jennie attacked him?” Paige flung up her hands. “You attacked a man who didn't do anything!”
Jennie scowled, brushing leaves from herself as she got up. “He attacked Cook!”
“And what did “Cook” do?”
“Nothing?” Paige scoffed.
“He grabbed her arm and I...”
Paige lifted an eyebrow, waiting.
“I...” Jennie trailed off, miserably.
“Paige, stop,” Ella shouted.
Cook pulled Jennie behind her.
“She's a danger! They're both a danger!” Paige turned to face Ella. “You haven't been out here, I have. For twelve years I've been out here keeping the treaty and the day they show up everything goes crazy.”
Ella looked at Paige and said. “Jennie, you and Cook go back to our hut and stay there.” Her expression allowed no argument. “Your man was a bully and out of line, but this feels personal. So why don't you yell at me and not at them?”
Recognizing that look, Jennie grabbed Cook's hand and pulled her back towards the village. “Later,” she whispered in response to Cook's questioning look.
Eyes narrowed, Paige waited for the two younger women to leave. “You ruin everything,” she growled as soon as they were out of sight. “Everything was fine until you showed up and now everything is chaos!”
“It would have been chaos without us. You're making it personal, and I don't know why. You made it very clear you were happy to get this posting, one where a non-magically talented girlfriend couldn't go with you and drag you down.”
“Of all the...” Paige gritted her teeth and pointed at Ella. “You're the one who was disgusted by all things Magi! You're the one who made it clear she couldn't be around someone who wanted to become a Magi.”
“I over heard you with your friend, Mindy, I think, when you got this posting. That was really the final straw with the college. Everything I hated, I couldn't pretend not to see. So I left. So I wouldn't drag you down with my no-talent.” Ella was proud she could be calm but the old hurt was still there. “I loved you. I did.”
Paige visibly flinched. “I was young and stupid.” Her jaw worked and she didn't look at Ella. “But you hated it, you hated everything there, and it wasn't going to be long until you hated me.”
Ella glared back. “You're right. I hate you for making up my mind for me. That was my decision.”
“Call it a pre-emptive strike, you understand that don't you?” Paige said, her expression closed. “You and your friends should leave.”
Ella rubbed her face.To leave was a death sentence. “Of course.” She nodded. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
“Fine.” Paige said, arms crossed. “Tomorrow, you go.”
Ella nodded. “Fine.” They were leaving as soon as they could sneak away. Not in the morning, her trust was in short supply.
Ella turned and headed up the hill. Once back in the thick of the trees she paused hearing the cracking of bark. “Paige?”
Sensing something behind her she turned, grunting as something pierced her side. Hands scrambled over bark. A tree had stabbed her. Pain burned up her side. Then darkness as a limb struck her head.
“Wait...” Jennie said, pulling on Cook's hand before they got to the hut. “There's something I want to go see while it's daylight.”
Cook looked at her and then nodded. “Okay.” She didn't let go of Jennie's hand.
“It's this way.” Another tug and she turned them away from the small group of huts and back towards the Black Wood. “There's a tree, a huge tree, that I found last night. I want to see it when the King of the Darkmen isn't going to be awake.”
She remembered the wounds on that huge trunk weeping tree sap. It hadn't struck her at the time, there had been to many other things going on, but she'd dreamed about it when she'd slept next to Cook. Dreamed about the wounds weeping blood and the trees screaming.
“King of the Darkmen? Jennie that doesn't sound safe,” Cook said but allowed herself be dragged along.
“It's daytime.” Jennie squeezed Cook's hand. “It should be safe.” From Darkmen anyway, she wasn't sure about other things in the woods. Jennie paused, frowning as she looked from tree to tree. “Uh... that way maybe?”
Cook looked around trying to remember where Jennie had come from last night. “This way.”
“How do you know?” Jennie asked, letting Cook take the lead. “It all looks the same.”
Cook shrugged. “This is where we went last night. That is the direction you walked off in and ran back from.” She grinned, the grin was a little on the devilish side. “I'm good with directions it seems.”
“That's better than just good, Cook, that's amazing.” Jennie grinned, seeing a scuff of leaves where she'd fallen the night before. “They aren't evil,” she said suddenly, feeling the warmth of Cook's hand in hers. “The Darkmen, I scared them but they aren't evil.”
“Then why do stories say they are? They say we were their slaves and they hid the art of magic from us to keep us as such until we fought for our freedom. Now most of them sleep in trees in special groves. But, that can't be true if that is what attacked us the other day. They hardly seemed contained in trees.” Cook lifted Jennie's hand kissing the knuckles. “This is all very confusing.”
“Lots of it.” Jennie smiled as she said it. “Stories are just stories though Cook, and stories change every time they're told. Who knows what's changed in generations?” Jennie shook her head. “Maybe we both did bad things, the Darkmen and humans.” She moved faster, pulling Cook with her as she spotted the towering tree ahead of them.
“There, see it?” she said, breathless with the size of it.
Cook felt uneasy seeing it. “Yes. I see it. It's hard to miss.”
“It sees us too.” Jennie whispered, in awe as she slowed, staring up at the trunk. “Look at the wounds Cook. It's hurt.” In the dim daylight she could see the gashes across its trunk. They were even deeper then she'd thought, deeper then she could reach with an outstretched arm.
“What could harm this?” Cook asked, not certain she wanted to meet the answer.
Shaking her head, Jennie moved slowly as they walked around the circumference of the tree. It was even larger then she'd thought it was. “It's watching us,” she whispered, it felt like she had to whisper. “I thought the Darkmen were the Black Wood, Cook. But maybe they're not, maybe the Black Wood is it's own entity?”
“Its possible,” Cook agreed. “So then are the Black Wood and the Darkmen two different creatures?” She wasn't sure that they were. “That Lady has soldiers. She seduces them into the trees. Hidden soldiers made of wood.” Cook blinked. “I don't know how I know that.”
“She made them?” Jennie said, turning to Cook.
“No. She didn't make it. She manipulates it.”
The watching trees didn't seem so friendly suddenly and Jennie turned. “We should go.”
Cook nodded. “I do not think these trees are evil or good.”
One last look over her shoulder at the King's tree and Jennie nodded. “We should go.” Jennie repeated.
Cook nodded again.
Jennie hadn't let go of Cook's hand yet and she hesitated, suddenly realizing she had no idea which way was back. “I hope you know how to get back.”
Cook laughed and shook her head. “Yes, this way.” Holding on to Jennie's hand she pulled her along.
“Do you remember her name? The lady with the white robes?” She trusted Cook to get them back to the huts.
“No. She's thrilling and scary. I know her, part of me knows her. “ Cook rambled out as she made a path through the forest. “And I know if I go to her I'll just be trapped in a different prison. She's not a good person.”
“She's powerful,” Jennie said, mulling over another question. There were threads that tied Cook to what was going on that she didn't see yet. “I think...” She stopped, seeing a small glowing ball zip through the trees towards them. “A message spell,” she said, squeezing Cook's hand as she felt the woman tense. “It's from Paige.”
“A what?” Cook stared at the thing. “How does it know where to find you and how do you know it's from the angry lady?”
“It has her signature.” Jennie eyed it as the ball hovered in front of them and Paige's voice spoke from inside it. “Ella's been hurt, come back quickly.”
“How can it find you? That's creepy, wouldn't the college just send out messages to track people down?”
Cook wanted to pick up a stick and hit it away.
The ball darted away, back the way it came and Jennie dropped Cook's hand in favor of running. “The farther away we are the harder it is to send, that's why they use those creatures instead. If they get close enough they could try but the messenger spells are easy to banish. Even an apprentice can do it.” It was a fragile little spell with only one purpose. “Hurry Cook!”
Cook ran after Jennie.
The glowing sphere popped out of existence the instant it reached the edge of the village. Paige was there, face drawn and tight with worry.
“What happened?” Jennie panted and Paige simply shook her head, turning.
“She's in my hut. You have some healing ability?”
Jennie nodded, heart clenching at the look on Paige's face. There was no one else around, even the common space around the fire in the center of the huts was abandoned.
Cook slowed, looking around, the small hairs on the back of her neck standing up in warning. “Where is everyone?” she asked staying near the edge of the village and the trees.
“Hunting,” Paige said, the word clipped and angry as she pushed open her door to let Jennie through.
“Ella!” Jennie cried, seeing her friend stretched out on the small wood frame bed. A bandage had been wrapped around her waist, red with blood seeping from the wound beneath it.
“Hunting what?” Cook asked moving forward towards the hut.
“The thing that did this,” Paige said, hand on her sword hilt, eyes scanning the forest as she stood at the door of the hut. “It's still out there.”
“Holy shit,” Cook yelped, seeing the wound. Her eyes narrowed. “How do we know you didn't do this? Last we saw you were ordering us out and arguing with Ella?”
Eyes narrowed, Paige took a step towards Cook. “I don't stab anyone, even my enemies, in the back. I know that might be a foreign concept to you,” she said, through gritted teeth.
“What does that mean?” Cook demanded.
Her attention on the bandages she was unwrapping, Jennie gasped as she got to the wound itself. “Ella...” she said, horrified, carefully peeling clothes away to get a better view. Thin black lines laced under Ella's skin, radiating away from the open wound. “Cook, I need help,” Jennie said, cutting off Paige's answer. “Whatever did this, it poisoned her.” She could hear Ella's breathing get even more shallow and quick.
Cook's head snapped to look at Jennie. “What do you need me to do?”
“I need something to draw it out, salt or pure water, something like that,” Jennie said urgently. Paige gave Cook a look and moved aside.
“Salt.” Cook nodded and exited out running to the cooking area.
Paige knelt down by the side of the bed. “What can I do? I have no skill in healing.” Jennie grabbed her hand, pressing it with bandages against the leaking wound.
“Hold this, here, try to slow the blood loss.”
Paige nodded, swallowing as she looked at Ella's pale form. “Don't you die,” she whispered to Ella as Jennie prepared for the spell she was going to cast. “You're too stubborn to die!”
Cook ran back into the hut carrying a small wooden bowl filled with salt. “Here.”
“Here, stand here.” Jennie used her hands to sweep the floor around the bed as clean as she could. “Paige, you'll have to anchor her, you know how to do that?”
“I am formally trained, Jennie,” Paige said dryly, but Jennie was too busy to be embarrassed.
Paige's tattoos were too few to mark her as a full Magi but it was obvious she'd attended the College. “Good, then do it,” she said, not acting like an apprentice. “Here, help me draw the a circle. It has to be as perfect as possible Cook.”
Cook nodded and took the salt. “I can do that Jennie, focus on Ella.”
Inside the circle, Jennie knelt down, using every grain that was left in the bowl to finish her sygils. There was no room for error, if she did it wrong she could draw Ella's blood out of her instead of the poison. Meriweather had once told her a rushed healing spell had ripped the skeleton out of the patient of an arrogant healer.
While she worked, Paige used Ella's own blood to draw a symbol on the woman's forehead. “You always hated magic.” She muttered as she drew the simple sygil. “Will you hate me for this?” she whispered, lowering her lips to Ella's ear. “Stay,” she whispered. “Stay here, I was wrong, you can't leave, not like this.”
Ella's eyes flew open and she screamed and thrashed, her back arching off the bed.
It wanted her. The woods, the trees called to her wanted her to join them, be part of them and seek vengeance. It promised her purpose and honor.
“Hold her!” Jennie yelled, finishing the last small detail of her drawing. Grimly, Paige held her down, pinning her as best she could to the bed.
“It's spreading.” Jennie swallowed, seeing the black veins course under Ella's skin. “Cook, when I start this I can't stop, you can't let anything interrupt us.”
Cook nodded. “I will keep all others out.”
Ella's eyes darted around, settling on Paige. “Don't let it have me,” she whispered. Sweat, rolled off of her and she could taste something bitter on her tongue.
“I promise.” Paige said, shifting so that her face was above Ella's, blocking her view of what Jennie was doing. “You won't go to them, either way, I won't let you.” Even if that meant using her sword, she owed Ella that much.
Jennie looked up, terrified, meeting Cooks' eyes. A deep breath and she looked back at the sygils, closing her eyes and trying to clear her mind like Meriweather had taught her, before she gathered the magic, pulling it to herself and building the spell on the sygils she'd drawn.
“I did... I do love you.” Ella whispered. If there was a chance she was dying Paige deserved that truth. “Never been anyone else.”
“Shh.” Paige squeezed her eyes closed as her vision swam with tears. “Don't talk like that.” She licked her lips, her free hand finding Ella's and gripping it tightly.
The pain came again like a fist grabbing her heart and Ella screamed.
There was no more time for talking and Paige ignored the tears, focusing on holding Ella with them. Something was pulling on the woman, trying to rip her away before Jennie could finish her spell and Paige channeled everything she had into the sygil on Ella's forehead, resting her head against Ella's as she battled to buy Jennie time.
Something moved in the empty village outside the hut and a cloaked figure walked towards the hut, footsteps sure and measured. A grin flashed under the shadow of the cloak pulled over his head as he spotted Cook at the door. “I need to see Paige.”
“No.” Cook said shifting her stance to block the door. “Come back later.”
He reached to his side and the grin widened, a flash of white teeth under the shadows. “No Frost, I don't think I will.” The short, wickedly curved sword whispered as it came out of its sheath. “I gave you the chance to stand aside.”
Cook jumped up grabbing the door frame and swung forward kicking him solidly with both feet. “And I told you to come back later.” She dropped down looking for a weapon.
He grunted, rolling with the hit and coming up with a short barked laugh. The hood fell back and the attractive young man grinned, twirling the blade. “She didn't want you hurt, you always were her little pet. I'm going to enjoy this.” He said, lunging at her with the sword.
Cook grabbed a stool and swung it, batting the sword aside. “Who are you?”
“Your friend,” he mocked, slashing again and scowling as she blocked his attack again with the stool. Chunks of wood went flying.
She laughed. “Some friend. We were close, I can tell.” She grinned feeling a thrill as they fought.
“Best friends.” He snickered, hacking a leg right off the stool. “You're running out of wood, Frost.”
She batted the sword away and spun in tight to his body where a sword was useless. She elbowed him and grabbed his sword arm and with a shift of her foot and stance flipped him over her shoulder. Still gripping his sword arm she snapped his wrist breaking it and followed it with a foot to his face, breaking his nose. “You suck.”
He screamed, a gurgling sound as blood spurted from the suddenly shattered nose. “Bitch...” He yelled, grabbing a slim black dagger with his one working arm and slashing at her inner thigh, aiming for the artery.
She twisted avoiding the life ending cut but still the dagger sliced into her calf. She let go of him and limped back away. “Tell the Gray Lady I'm not hers. Not anymore. I don't remember everything and I don't want to. I like being Cook.”
He staggered to his feet, eyes fever bright as his right arm hung uselessly from his side. “You're hers, we're all hers. You gave yourself to her, you can't turn your back on that Frost.” He turned, limping. “I'll be seeing you soon.”
Cook watched him go, not trusting his retreat. She'd fought well, better than well. She could beat Ella, through shear dirty tricks. She hadn't been a nice person, and if she stayed with Jennie, she'd only bring bad things.
Inside the hut, Jennie was in agony. The magic was bucking against her, fighting her with every step she tried to make. Healing had always been her easiest skill, the one thing she'd excelled at whenever she'd trained with magic. Even Meriweather had been impressed with her abilities in the healing department.
Except now, even that was beyond her it seemed.
“Jennie, you have to hurry, she's slipping away.” The words were urgent and Paige risked a look behind her. Eyes widening a little at what she saw.
The words were a dim, meaningless sound as sweat poured down Jennie's back, her body rigid and muscles trembling. Smoke rose up off her, burning the tattoos out of her skin. Again she tried to direct the magic she'd called to do what she wanted, and again it rebelled against her, wrenching against her control.
“Jennie...” Paige growled, hand white around Ella's. “She's fading! Damnit, Ella do not die, you can't die, do you hear me? Do. Not. Die!”
Like a wild horse, the magic bucked and thrashed against Jennie's will.
“I can't... I can't....” Jennie panted, hands clawing at the stone floor and biting back a scream as the magic bucked again.
It had never fought her like that before, it had always gone where she'd wanted it to go and usually done what she wanted. Now it was like a living thing and she didn't understand.
It wasn't possible, wasn't... the thought died as Jennie lifted her head and let out a low breath. It was possible, she suddenly thought. Carefully she reached out and used her hand to wipe the sygils away, erasing them.
“What are you doing!” Paige yelled.
She didn't have time to answer, simply lowered her head and breathed. “Please,” she whispered, asking instead of commanding, pleading instead of trying to control. The magic flowed around her and dark liquid bled out of Ella's wound.
Cook limped back standing in the doorway watching for any more guests. Her calf throbbed with each heartbeat.
The salt went black as it absorbed the dark liquid and Jennie let out a breath she'd been holding. “Thank you,” she whispered, and gathered it in her hands. The last of the magic drew torn flesh together, leaving behind an angry red scar on Ella's side.
Exhausted, she looked up, smiling wearily at Cook. “Did it.”
“Ella?” Paige touched the woman's cheek with a still bloody hand. “Ella, come on, open those eyes and be angry at me.”
Ella couldn't breathe for a second and blackness oozed from her mouth. There was silence in her head, and the feeling of terror passed. “Thank you.”
Cook smiled at Jennie.
“You're hurt.” Jennie got up off her knees and swayed dangerously for a second. “Why are you hurt?” she asked Cook.
“Someone came to stop you. We fought,” Cook replied. She moved over to Jennie holding her up. “Nothing a bandage can't fix.”
Ella held Paige's hand weakly.
Jennie gave Cook an exhausted but brilliant smile, glowing. “I think I don't have any tattoos left.” She tripped, almost going down if Cook hadn't been holding her, punch drunk.
“Thank you... Cook.” Paige said slowly, eyeing Jennie. “Can you take care of Jennie?” She never let go of Ella's cheek.
“Shhh, you can get more.” Cook said holding Jennie. She looked at Paige. “Yes, ma'am.” She guided Jennie out of the hut.
Once Paige let out the sigh that she'd been holding forever. “I thought you were dead, when I realized you hadn't come back. There was so much blood around you and that thing standing over you.” Paige's voice trembled and she gritted her teeth, trying to get herself under control. “Why did you have to come back? I thought I'd gotten over you, Ella.”
It was dark when Paige came for her, but despite how soundly she'd fallen asleep, Jennie was awake and waiting.
“Someone wants to see you,” Paige said simply as she opened the door. Jennie nodded, slipping from the bed she was sharing with Cook. She'd known this was coming she realized as she pulled on her boots and followed Paige. The village was still almost empty, only a few figures moved about, but Paige said nothing as she led Jennie to the edge of the woods.
Wordlessly she pointed towards the nearest of the trees.
“Will you wait?” Jennie asked, feeling eyes that were not human watching from the woods.
“I'll wait.” Paige said gravely. “I promised Ella I would.”
A small shiver and Jennie squared her shoulders, moving on beyond the edge of the huts.
Shadows moved around her almost immediately and Jennie kept walking, letting them shepherd her towards their destination.
“Hello, again.” Jennie smiled, the fear she'd felt earlier bleeding away as she saw a familiar shadow waiting for her.
“The bindings are gone from your skin,” the shadow with the blue glowing eyes said by way of greeting.
That was when Jennie realized she didn't feel the burning like she did the first time she'd gone to meet the Darkmen. The last of the tension fled from her shoulders and she smiled. “Yes, all burned away. But I'm not a Magi anymore.”
“You were bound by them, chained to a magic that is not yours, not fully.”
Jennie swallowed. “Who's my father?”
The Darkmen didn't answer that, but she thought she knew the answer anyway.
“Why am I here?”
“Do you know where the magic the Magi use comes from?”
He made a growling sound and the other shadows shivered around her. “No. Where does it come from?”
“The Totems store it, they pull it from the world around us and channel it.” Jennie answered slowly, not certain what he wanted.
“No. They steal it, from us, from the Black Wood.”
She thought of the king's tree, with it's scars and weeping wounds. “The treaty...”
“Was imposed on us by the Magi after they learned the trick of stealing our magic. We are powerless against them.”
“But the Totems are failing.”
“Being destroyed,” he corrected her, and his tone was like the one Meriweather had used when she'd been slow in her lessons. “But not by us, by Her, the one Frost works for.”
Jennie winced, she'd suspected but having it said out loud was different. “Frost isn't Frost and she doesn't work for anyone right now.”
He made a sound between a growl and a sigh. “You must return to us what was taken.”
“The magic?” Jennie said slowly. “But without the totems the kingdom will fail.”
“Then it fails,” the shadow said sharply. “It is not our concern.”
“No, but it's mine!” She glared right back. “I won't let them all die.”
“Then you are condemning us to death instead.” The shadows around her whined and she felt their pain beat against her.
The King's tree flashed in her mind again and she understood. “We're killing you, every time the Magi use magic, they're pulling it from you and the wood and it's killing you.”
“The Kingdom is a wound, a festering wound in the heart of us,” he answered. “It cannot continue, every year there are less of us to tend the Black Wood. Every year more trees go wild without us to tend them.”
There were questions upon questions but Jennie knew he wouldn't explain any further then he had. “What should I do?”
“You must choose, us or them,” he said sadly. “There is no other way, the two cannot occupy the same world. One must die.”
Then she was alone, the new knowledge pressing against her shoulders like the weight of the world.
Cook was awake when Jennie arrived back. She studied Jennie's face silently and patted the bed next to her.
“Everything okay?” she asked softly, finally speaking.
“No,” Jennie whispered, climbing onto the bed and laying on her side facing Cook.
“No?” Cook laid back down watching her. “Want to talk about it?”
“You've been here before.” Jennie said, keeping her voice soft in the darkness. “You stole something from the Darkmen.”
Cook could feel her hands tremble at the words. “It's possible,” she said softly.
Reaching over, Jennie took one of Cook's trembling hands and held it in hers. “You'll have to know, sooner or later, who you were Cook.” She whispered, stroking the back of Cook's hand with her thumb. “But that doesn't have to be who you are.”
“Jennie, please don't. I don't want to be Frost, she wasn't a good person, I beat up that man who wanted to stop you from healing Ella and I did it without a weapon. I want to go crawling back to the Gray Lady on my belly and beg her not to be mad at me. I want to run and run and run; until all of this is just a memory, but then I'd forget you. When I try to think about myself or my past all I feel is trapped and helpless. With you, and all this craziness, I don't feel trapped. I feel helpful and important. Good things that I don't think I ever felt a lot.”
Jennie couldn't say no to Cook's pleading gaze and she let go of the manacle to hold Cook's hand again. “Okay,” she said softly, knowing it wasn't a permanent solution. “I think a Darkman was my father.” She said the words quickly, in a rush of breath before she could let fear stop her. “Which is funny because my mother loved light, she was always out in the sunlight, there were always candles and lanterns in our house. It was always bright inside, even on the darkest night.”
“Light brings shadows, perhaps she was trying a make a balance for both of them and you.” Cook let her fingers curl around Jennie's. “I thought about leaving. Leaving you and Ella, and walking into the woods. You'd be safer, I think if I did.”
“No,” Jennie said, loud for the first time since coming back to the hut. “You can't leave, you shouldn't leave. Please don't leave?”
“I should, but I won't.” They might regret that later. “How is Ella?” Cook said to change the topic.
“Paige seemed more relaxed. Not sure how relaxed she ever gets. I'll check in on Ella in the morning.” Jennie held out her left hand, studying it in the dim lighting. It was odd seeing her skin without any marks at all on it and she let her hand drop sadly.
Cook didn't miss it. “What's wrong?” She moved, sliding over onto her back and pulled Jennie into her body, holding her. “Something is bothering you.”
“I'm not a Magi.” Jennie closed her eyes, willing herself not to tear up over something that was done and gone. “I'm not even an apprentice Magi, if I ever was. I worked so hard for those tattoos, Cook. Every one of them took hours and hours of pain to get and now...” She waved a hand, with a brittle little smile. “Poof. Now everything's different and I don't know if I'll ever be able to use magic again.”
“You don't use magic. You conduct it. You ask things of it and guide it. You're a Caretaker for it,” Cook said softly. “The Magi demand the magic do their bidding and bend it to their will until it almost breaks.”
Jennie's eyes widened and she stared at Cook in amazement. “How do you know that? I just figured that out when I was trying to heal Ella. The magic was fighting me every step of the way, until I asked it to heal her instead of trying to force it.”
“I just knew,” Cook said with a shrug.
Jennie studied her, trying to understand the mystery that was Cook. “Like you knew how to find our way back through the Black Wood?”
Cook nodded in the half-dark. “Yes. I just... know some things.”
“What else do you know?”
“It doesn't work like that. I seem to remember things as I need them,” Cook replied.
Jennie shook her head, amused. “The manacles, they let you know things as you need them. I keep forgetting that.” She closed her eyes again. “Can I sleep here?” She asked, a little shyly.
Cook grinned. “You were already sleeping here, before Paige came and woke you up. So you can sleep here some more. I don't mind.”
“You won't leave?”
“No. How could I leave all this excitement?” Still grinning Cook pulled Jennie closer into her body. “You need to sleep. The world is more bearable the more sleep you have.”
“That another thing you know?” Jennie relaxed against Cook's side, greedily soaking in the comfort being offered.
“Apparently.” Cook leaned over a little bit and kissed the top of Jennie's head.
That wasn't where Jennie wanted a kiss so she tilted her head upwards, kissing Cook's lips before she could pull away.
Cook grinned against Jennie's lips. “Sneaky.” She said softly before kissing the woman on the lips. She was doing her best to ignore the flood of information of all the delightfully evil things she could do to the younger woman.
“I'm good at getting what I want.” Jennie sighed, blissfully as she pulled away and rested her head against Cook's shoulder. The kiss had been a perfect way to end a not so great day.
“So I've noticed.” Cook said letting her eyes closed.
Paige shook Ella's shoulder, loathed to wake her, but she had to. “Ella, wake up. Ella. Sorry beautiful, but you have to wake up.”
Ella groaned and blinked open her eyes. “Paige? What's going on?” Her eyelids felt weighted down.
“We caught it.” Paige was fully dressed in dark greens and brown, a bow over one shoulder and a short sword at her side. “The thing that attacked you, we found it and there's a decision to be made. You were the one attacked, it's you're call.” Her finger touched Ella's hand and then drew away.
Ella nodded and tried to sit up. Grunting as her ribs burned a little with the effort. She remembered her hands scrambling against bark.
Moving around her, Paige gingerly helped her upright. “I wish this could wait, but it cannot.” Dawn was just a gray streak on the horizon.
“I understand,” Ella said softly, trying to get her feet under her.
Wordlessly, Paige wrapped an arm around Ella's waist, supporting her weight and helping her towards the door.
“Paige...” someone yelled outside. Paige sighed. “We're coming,” she called back, guiding Ella out the door and towards the center of the huts. A man with a long sword watched them pass, eyes hooded.
The creature in the center was chained and staked to the ground, but it still took most of the Keepers to hold it. “Monster,” Paige murmured, as it again tried to rear, the chain's straining around it. It was almost the size of one of the smaller huts, covered in bark and black twisted leaves. Glowing eyes glared out at them as it tried and failed to free limb like arms.
Ella regarded it, this thing, too tired to be angry. “So you would make me like you?” she whispered out. She remembered its call, the blackness infecting her body until she would have been twisted and broken like the thing before her.
She staggered away from Paige towards the thing.
Behind her, Paige held up a hand, stopping the man with the long sword from following. “Paige, we agreed...” He stopped at her glare and fell silent, obviously uneasy.
“You're ours.” The thing's voice was dry like autumn leaves rustling in the wind.
Ella let her legs collapse, she rested next to the thing. “No, I'm not. You're a puppet, you realize that. I felt it when I was changing, the thing that controls your will with its own. What were you before this?”
She let a hand rest on its leg, the bark was warm, surprisingly.
It made a low moaning sound, flexing against the chains that bound it and they groaned. “Ella,” Paige said softly in warning.
“The Black Wood.” Its voice was the sound of breaking tree trunks.
“But I'm not. I'm not Black Wood, I'm Ella, from Milford . My parents were millers before a fire killed them. I'm not Black Wood.” Her other hand dug into the dirt trying to anchor herself.
“You'd become like us.” It rattled against the chains and Paige drew the small sharp sword.
“Do you have family?” Ella asked, watching the thing struggle. “Do they miss you?” She struggled for a second. “Why me? Or was I just there and easy to attack in the dark?”
“The mistress wants her alone, weak and alone, like a tree alone in the storm,” it wailed and Paige moved closer, blade held out. “The wood was my family, the Darkmen my kin.”
Ella didn't have to wonder who. “I've seen the Darkmen, they're still there. They miss you I'm sure.”
Its sides heaved, leaves and twigs raining down from the chains. “Unclean, wild and unclean. There is no return.”
“You don't know that... “ Ella hesitated looking around. “What would you do if we let you go?”
Horrified looks stared back at Ella from the other Keepers manning the chains. “I'm bound to do her will.” The thing's voice was as quiet as rustling leaves.
“Do you want to keep doing her will?”
Its leaves rustled and eyes glared at Ella.
“I see.” Ella staggered to her feet. “We will free you then.” She looked at the keepers. “Make it quick. It's only a puppet, the things it's done aren't it's fault.”
Paige watched her silently and then nodded, once, stepping past her with her sword raised.
“WAIT!” A stumbling, half dressed, barefooted Jennie came flying out of the hut and barreling down the path towards them. “Wait!” she cried again as Paige lifted the sword for a killing blow.
“This isn't for you, girl,” the old man she'd attacked earlier said, drawing his sword and stepping in front of Jennie to block her path.
“Jennie?” Ella said turning. “This isn't for you to see.” Ella was pale and sweating. “This isn't nice or pleasant but it needs to be done.”
“No, it doesn't!” Jennie cried, trying to push by the man who shoved her back, sending her sprawling. “No, please…”
Paige hesitated, the blade raised, end pointed towards the creatures eye for a swift stroke that would end it all.
Cook was there behind Jennie, eyes angrily eyeing the man that had pushed Jennie down. In a quick grappling move she had him on the ground and disarmed. “Go Jennie, but be careful,” Cook whispered.
Giving Cook a grateful look, Jennie was back up on her feet, sprinting past the other man who'd kept watch behind Ella and to Paige's side. “Please,” she said, touching Paige's arm and pulling her away. “Let me try first. It isn't it's fault that it attacked Ella. Let me at least try to help it.”
Frowning, Paige looked past her to Ella, an eyebrow raised in silent question.
“Let her try. We know it's a puppet. We also know it would rather die than continue to live like this,” Ella said, moving back towards Paige.
“Fine.” Paige stepped away, but kept her sword at the ready, ready to end it all if it looked like Jennie was failing.
All eyes on her, Jennie hesitated. Who was she to think she could break such a spell? She didn't even know how to use magic now, not without her tattoos.
Cook released the man with a savage yank to his arm. “How's that feel? Don't like it do you?” She grinned at him and walked towards Jennie. Frost was closer now, especially in moments of violence, memories swam under the surface, so close.
“I don't know what to do,” Jennie whispered to her as soon as Cook reached her side, staring at the beast that flexed against the chains.
“I don't know what you can do. It gave up to her and let itself be molded into this tree.” Cook's gray eyes glowed softly. “You have to see the magic and how it's woven together.”
Jennie took a calming breath and then another. She touched Cook's arm in thanks and tried to focus. She'd reacted on pure instinct when she'd felt the creature inside their hut, now she had to actually do something.
Sinking down to her knees, she evened out her breathing and emptied her mind like Meriweather had taught her. Ignoring the sudden pang of sorrow for her old Master, Jennie bent herself to the task at hand. Cook was right, she had to study the magic, see how it was woven around the creature in front of her. It was nothing like what she was used to seeing. There were no sygils binding the thing to its form. There were no glyphs carved upon its bark or tattooed to its skin.
This was an entirely new form of magic.
“What's she doing?” Paige whispered out of the side of her mouth to Ella.
“With Jennie, who knows?” Ella replied, shivering. She tried not to lean against Paige but in the end couldn't help it.
“You're freezing!” Paige hissed, shrugging off her dark cloak and draping it over Ella's shoulders.
On her knees, Jennie tilted her head, studying the thing in front of her. “Knots,” she said quietly to herself and Cook. “It's all knots.” The normal magic of the forest was tied up in endless bunches and knots, doubled and tripled upon itself.
“I can't see it but I wouldn't be surprised,” Cook said. She turned her head looking out into the woods. Somewhere in those woods the Gray Lady waited for her to return. She shivered. No, she waited for Frost to return.
Knots tangled in knots and everything wrapped around something that was still pure in the center. Jennie scowled, rising to her feet. “A knife, I need a knife.”
Cook put a hand on her arm. “Then make one.” A physical knife would do no good here.
Wanting to laugh at her own foolishness, Jennie grinned at Cook. “Of course.” She raised her hand and closed her eyes, asking and not commanding the magic around them. It leapt to her call, willingly and with a sense of joy that made her smile. How different it felt than when she'd used sygils in the past. In comparison to that, this magic was alive, bright and beautiful.
“By the ancients,” Paige whispered, hand going tight around Ella's waist as a long glowing sword formed in Jennie's hand. It was startling enough to make the other Keeper's let go of the chains as they backed away. The creature heaved and the stakes that had been in the ground flung free as it rose up, towering over Jennie and Cook.
“No!” Paige started to move, although what she could do she had no idea.
Jennie didn't seem to even hear her, smiling still, eyes closed, as she brought her sword down through the creature in front of her.
There was an explosion of darkness, it roiled up and off the thing, swallowing everything, and for a terrible instant Paige thought she'd gone blind.
Then it was gone and in front of them, rising a few dozen feet in the air, was a thin sapling of a tree. Chains still dangled from its branches, but it's leaves were bright, green and healthy.
The sword was gone when Jennie turned to Cook, a blissful look on her face. “That was nice,” she murmured, then pitched forward into the Cook's arms, boneless.
Stunned, Cook barely caught her before she hit the ground.
“That was…” Paige trailed off, looking up at the tree in the middle of their camp. “Unexpected.”
“Very. Are we safe now?” Ella's eyes were nearly closed but she wasn't as cold. “Paige, can I go lay down now?”
“Paige…” The young man with the sword started and Paige shook her head. “Not now Cedric, it will have to wait.”
“Not now!” she said testily, half-carrying Ella back towards her hut.
“Be careful Paige, I might start to think you like me,” Ella joked and then yawned. “Almost turning into a murderous tree takes a lot out of a person.”
“Wouldn't want that would we?” Paige shook her head fondly as she helped Ella back to the bed. “Sleep, I'll be here when you wake.”
“I'm not kicking you out of your own bed.” Ella said softly.
“Shut up,” Paige said fondly as she pulled the wool blanket up over Ella. “Why are you always arguing with me?”
“Lay down, I promise to behave.”
It was very tempting. Paige couldn't resist brushing a lock of hair from Ella's face and tucking it behind her ear. “I can't. I have to deal with Cedric and the others. They're still demanding you be tossed out after Jennie's attack.”
“We'll leave as soon as I'm able,” Ella said eyes closing.
Paige watched her, sighing as she turned to go. “I have no doubt you will.”
The sun was up the next time Ella opened her eyes. She sat up and winced as the muscles in her stomach protested. Panting, she struggled out of the bed. She hated feeling weak, she hated how uncertain Paige made her feel. She was embarrassed about her dying declaration, having not died it was now hanging between them. It was true but it didn't help that she now felt foolish. She had lived a good life, a life she was proud of. Despite the words between them, which had thawed the icy anger they'd dished at each other, it didn't change the fact she was empty of magic. It didn't change the fact she would never be good enough for Paige.
It didn't change the fact that Paige hadn't said she loved her back.
She looked around the hut, it was simple and functional. She wondered if Paige had lovers, or someone important. If so, Ella must be causing quite a strain. She grinned a little at the thought of that, then shook her head at her own foolishness. There was a small piece of glass hanging on a board and she lifted up her shirt, grimacing at the angry purple scar that covered her side.
“It's a good thing you're too stubborn to die,” Paige said quietly, leaning forward from where she was sitting on the edge of the hearth add another small log to the fire before sitting back into the shadows.
Ella almost jumped. “I didn't see you there,” she said, letting the shirt she was wearing fall back down. She slowly turned to look at Paige.
“I told you I'd be here when you woke up.” Paige sounded amused. “Someone has to make sure you don't hurt yourself doing something silly, like getting out of bed immediately.”
Ella smiled. “Of course. I'm probably in your way here. Taking over your bed, your home.”
Paige's face gave nothing away.
“Would you please sit down before you fall down?” Paige shook her head.
Ella blinked at the tone and sat back down on the bed. “Sorry.”
“I'm sorry I yelled at you, before you were attacked. I was wrong.” Paige said the words quietly, studying her hands. “It's strange seeing you here, after so many years.”
“I can imagine. It's odd for me.” Ella chuckled. “This whole damn crazy adventure since Meriweather died after his tower fell has been strange and scary. When the Guardians seized us at the College, I thought we were going to die. Only I get stabbed by some monster tree in the Black Wood and almost die instead. This is not where I thought I'd be ten years ago.”
At that Paige did smile, a small quirk of her lips. “I was certain you would be head of the King's guard by now, running the show and keeping the Capital city safe.”
“I'm in charge of a small village and I keep that safe,” Ella replied. “Not as exciting, but I'm happy.”
“I'm glad.” Paige spoke so quietly it was hard to hear over the fire. She twirled a small stick in her hand, studying it. “I had such big plans when I came out here. I thought I knew exactly what I wanted, knew exactly what it would take to get it done, and then…” A flick of the wrist and the small piece of wood went into the fire.
“Then?” Ella asked.
“I stayed.” Paige looked up from her hands. “I didn't go back, didn't finish my training, and never became a full Magi. I just, stayed.”
That surprised Ella. “You didn't finish? But that was all you talked about.”
“I know.” Paige snorted and got up to her feet. “You should rest. The others are still out, the Unicorn was trying to get back into the village this morning.”
It was Ella's turn to snort. “Well there's one good thing. Means Jennie's still a virgin.” She reached out taking Paige's arm, surprised for a second she'd dared. “You should rest.”
Paige didn't have the strength to argue and she merely gave her a raised eyebrow. “My bed is currently taken.”
Ella winced. There used to be a time when being in Paige's bed wouldn't have bothered her. “I can move. Go somewhere else,” she stuttered. “But you need to rest.”
With an amused look, Paige gave her a small push. “Move over, and behave. I remember how much your hands wandered.”
“It's been a long time since my hands wandered,” Ella said, moving over.
Despite herself, Paige smiled. She undid her vest and set it aside along with her boots. Hopefully there would be time for a bath later. “Even with Jennie's mother?”
“Mira and I were friends. Nothing else,” Ella stated with clarity. “She was concerned the College of Magi would come and take Jennie away. Paranoid about it. I don't know why. Jennie was an awkward, sweet child who grew up to be an awkward, sweet woman with a small amount of talent. She asked me to watch out for Jennie, be a mentor. On her deathbed she made me pledge to protect her. Lately, I wonder if Mira knew the future.”
Ella looked at Paige, fighting the urge to let her hands wander. There had always been something about Paige.
“A small amount of talent?” Paige laughed. It was the first time she'd laughed in what felt like years. Laughing until her eyes teared and she couldn't breath for laughing. “Small? Ella, did you see what she did back there? She didn't use anything that I recognize as magic, certainly nothing that she could have learned at the College.”
“Well, that's new,” Ella admitted. “She didn't used to have this much power. Her power has actually increased as she's lost those markings.”
“Her tattoos, yes, I noticed they'd disappeared.” Hard not to considering half Jennie's face had been covered. “That's another thing,” Paige said, turning on her side to face Ella. “She had too many tattoos to be an apprentice. Who was her master?”
“Meriweather. The jolly oaf who had a crush on Mira.” Ella smiled fondly remembering the man. He'd been an annoying young man who'd grown into a sweet man. “He died in the first wave of failed magics.”
“Meriweather,” Paige said slowly. “Thomas Meriweather?”
Paige had a strange look on her face as she stared at Ella.
“Was that his first name? I never knew what it was. He was Jennie's teacher. Odd thing was he never reported Jennie as his apprentice.” That still annoyed her. “But he was the Mage for Milford Village .”
“Really?” Paige blinked and then lay back down, a little stunned. “Thomas Meriweather was head of the College when I first arrived to train. He abdicated his position two, no, I think it was four months into my first year.”
“Meriweather? Really? It can't be the same guy. We talked frequently. He agreed with my opinions about how some things about the College were wrong, like using criminals to make the winged Guardians, and the enslavement manacles.”
Ella had a hard time believing it was the same man, but she'd arrived long after Paige and Mira to train with the guards. She rolled on to her side tracing Paige's profile with her eyes and wondering if sharing a bed was a good idea.
They'd never just slept in the same bed before.
Paige swallowed, resolutely staring up at the ceiling above them and noting that she had to re-thatch it soon enough. “Stop that,” she said, voice thicker. “You're injured, I'm tired, and we haven't known each other for more than a decade now.”
“Do you have someone? Someone special in your life?” Ella asked.
“Ella...” Paige flung an arm over her eyes. “No, not for a long time now.”
Ella swallowed and laid down looking at the ceiling as well. “That's surprising... uh... because... you're, you know... pretty great, and deserve someone special.” Ella closed her eyes and was embarrassed about how stupid she sounded.
Paige chuckled, shifting to peek under her arm at Ella. “No I'm not. I'm as stubborn as you are, and set in my ways. Not many people want to put up with that.” She was quiet for a moment and smiled. “We had good times didn't we?”
“We did. Remember the time I surprised you with that picnic on the roof of the dormitory you lived in.” Ella frowned. “And the birds stole most of the food.” It hadn't been that great.
“I almost fell off the side of the roof I was laughing so much.” Paige lowered her arm, smiling. “But I made it up to you didn't I?”
Ella blushed. “That you did.” She'd been a clueless kid. “I did make you laugh.”
Paige's smile gentled and she nodded. “You did.” She'd been the only one who'd ben able to do that. “Maybe we were too young.”
“Probably.” Ella said. “My parents died and I was so angry. The head of the village guard started to train me to work off all that anger then he sent me to the King's City to train. The Mage we had before Meriweather was too drunk to do a healing for my parents,” she said finally.
Paige's fingers found Ella's hand and she squeezed. “You never told me that. We didn't do much talking did we?”
Ella snorted. “No, we didn't. You were too interested in seeing what was in my pants.” Ella gently squeezed Paige's hand back.
“Not my fault!” Paige grinned at her unrepentantly. “You're beautiful, strong and honorable. Getting you naked was...” Paige licked her lips and smiled again. “Made magic seem common place.”
Ella laughed although she was flattered by the words. “I was a gangly farm kid, all legs.”
“You weren't a stuck up princess who's father had bought her admittance to the College.” Paige smiled fondly and closed her eyes, picturing Ella back then. “And your legs went on forever.”
“Which would have made sense if I had been a fast runner, but I wasn't. You were always so in control. Cool, calm, and everyone looked to you for direction. You were a leader. But I could make you laugh and lose your composure. See your eyes light up.” Ella had copied Paige's calm, coolness and taken it back with her to be head of the village guard.
“And here we are,” Paige whispered, lacing their fingers together. “Tomorrow, Cedric and his friends will make a petition to have you and Jennie thrown out for Jennie's attack on Alfred before you were hurt.”
Ella nodded. “So, what your saying is that this may be our last chance to say goodbye?”
Paige shook her head. “I'm saying I'm coming with you. Something's happening and your little group is right in the middle of it.”
“Oh.” That was unexpected. “I can't stop you, but the going hasn't been pleasant so far.”
Ella knew she should get up and go somewhere else, being so close to Paige and reliving old memories could easily cloud her judgment. She swallowed and struggled to sit up. “I should let you rest and go check on the other two.”
Shaking her head in amusement, Paige wound a hand around the back of Ella's neck and pulled her down. “You never knew how to take advantage of your progress,” she murmured.
“What?” Ella said in confusion, before she melted into an unexpected kiss.
It was a nice kiss and Paige remembered another thing she'd loved about Ella. “I'm coming with you. Maybe there will be more, maybe not.” She kissed Ella again, gently this time. “But we need to rest while we can sleep on a bed. I'm not going to enjoy sleeping on the ground again.”
“Sex would be better in a bed,” Ella mumbled, but lay down, too surprised to do anything.
Paige laughed, rolling over so she could wrap an arm around Ella's side, careful of her wound. “No sex tonight. We did that wrong last time, remember?”
“I remember we did it very, very right, whenever we could.” But Ella didn't push. She thought this would be odd, but having Paige so near was comforting. “Paige, did you really mean what you said to Mindy, about having had your fun with me?” she asked quietly.
“What?” Paige blinked, turning her head to look at Ella's profile.
“Mindy.” Ella said quietly. “Your friend from the Magi.”
“I know who Mindy is. What does she have to do with anything?”
Ella closed her eyes. “I heard you talking to her, about how you were just having fun with the non-magical oaf.”
“You…” Paige's lips shaped words that she suddenly couldn't say, eyes widening in sudden understanding of what Ella had heard. “That's why you hated her, that's why you left?”
Ella nodded, not looking at her and Paige's heart clenched painfully. For a long time she was silent, considering her answer. “I behaved like a horrid, spoiled princess, just like the girls I despised. Stupid, and so stupid of me to think I was better then them. You deserved so much more.”
Ella nodded. "I'm glad we met again. Glad we got to meet as adults." She liked this Paige better. She had a depth and caring the younger Paige had not. "I don't think I'd wish to be Jennie's age for all the gold in the world. There's something to be said for being older and wiser, but one always wishes for more time with the people they.. care for. Why can't we be smarter as teenagers?" Why couldn't she have had magic and been perfect for Paige? Old bitterness clenched at her heart.
“I'm sorry I hurt you.” Paige shifted alongside Ella, her brow furrowed as she thought, looking upwards at the roof of the hut. “I thought magic was everything, that there wasn't anything I wouldn't do to become a mage.”
Ella's eyes closed for a second. Part of her had longed to hear that for a long time. Longer than she thought. "That's the problem with the school. That's what it teaches, magic above everything. That can't be a way to live. What about family and friends?" Her eyes opened. "What about love? That's why I left. That and when I overheard you and Mindi it hurt, like a cut to the bone. I couldn't be part of that. I couldn't uphold my oath to protect that. I worked for the King briefly trying to scrape money to get home. When you just leave training funny thing is they don't pay you back your entrance fee."
“Funny thing.” Paige agreed wryly. “You could have told me. You were just gone one day.” She glanced sideways at Ella.
Ella grimaced and turned. "I was a teenager who was in love for the first time, who'd just heard the person she loved tell her best friend that I was a non-magical oaf. To say my heart had been crushed would be understatement. I didn't know how to talk about my feelings, let alone have them. I'm surprised they didn't chain me up for punching Mindi. There is a law that punishes someone of non-magical talent for striking a magi."
“I told Mindi everyone would make fun of her if everyone found out she'd been punched by someone without magic and gotten hurt.” Paige shifted, looking at Ella. “You know how she loved her status, the thought of people making fun of her…” She shook her head, amused.
Ella laughed at that. "Brilliant." She winced and held her side. Turning she looked at Paige. "I've forgiven myself for not confronting you and running away. I've forgiven you for being a stupid teenager. Because I had to forgive the stupid teenagers we used to be in order to move on and live my life.”
“I'm forgiven?” Paige asked quietly, eyes intently watching Ella's.
"The teenage you is forgiven. You sure didn't seem to miss me the moment we staggered into your camp." Ella said meeting her gaze. "I can't help you forgive yourself. I didn't forgive you to make you feel better about yourself. I forgave you so I could move on."
“I'm not a magi.” Paige shrugged a shoulder, meeting Ella's gaze in the dimness of the hut. “By the time it was my final year I was angry at myself, I was angry at all of them, and I was angry at you for just leaving.”
"You still angry?" Ella asked.
“No, you can't stay in the Dark Wood and be angry, not and stay sane. When I think back about it these days I'm not angry, just sad at how I ruined things without even realizing what I was doing.” Paige grimaced.
"Could have fooled me. You seemed pretty angry at me. Queen of angry. How easily we fall back into old habits. If I wasn't making you laugh I was making you yell." Ella teased taking Paige's hand in hers.
“Okay.” Paige squeezed Ella's hand. “Maybe I was a little angry.” She felt the calluses on Ella's hand and fingers, roughened by the hilt of a sword she guessed. “I'm sorry.”
"My fair Princess of Peeved, you are forgiven then." Ella joked to lighten the mood and brought Paige's knuckles to her lips kissing them. The tightness in her chest letting her know she'd never really gotten over Paige.
“That's spoiled Princess of Peeved to you.” Paige laughed, gesturing at her small hut. “See my palace?”
“I think my house is bigger, but I still like yours. It has you in it,” Ella said, letting her eyes close.
“Sweet talker,” Paige whispered, pressing a kiss to her cheek and closing her own eyes.
Jennie dreamed of trees that whispered to her in the wind.
She woke with a start, confused and disoriented at where she was. “Cook?” she asked, not sure how she'd gotten back to the hut and how it was suddenly full daylight outside.
Cook stirred next to her slowly opening her eyes. “Yes?”
“What happened?” Jennie relaxed seeing her there next to her on the bed.
Cook grinned. “Something magical. You freed that thing from the tree and now it's just a sapling.” She rolled over on to her back stretching.
“Oh.” Jennie watched her stretch, feeling a little bubble of happiness as she remembered what they'd done. “Did I sleep long?”
“A couple of hours. Considering how much magic you've done I'm not surprised,” she said when she finished stretching.
“You stretch like a cat.” Jennie grinned. In fact, Cook stretched like a cat in a sunbeam, long and slow showing off a toned stomach that made Jennie's fingers twitch.
“To make it a good stretch one should stretch like a cat.” Cook said.
“Another thing you just know?” Jennie tried to copy her stretch.
“Yep.” Cook said with a grin making no attempt to hide watching Jennie. Her gray eyes traced over Jennie's face, taking in the curve of her cheeks, her blue eyes and the way her dark hair framed her face.
“You're staring,” Jennie said, lazily rolling her head and smiling at Cook.
“How can I not? You're beautiful.” Cook said and even as she said it, it felt like a rehearsed line used to seduce women. “Jennie, you're... you and it makes you wonderful.”
“Me?” Jennie laughed, shifting closer. “My hair's a mess and...” she hesitated. “Compared to the lady in robes I'm not that beautiful.”
“That Lady, from the woods, isn't real. She's an act, a calculated act to get what she wants from people. You're not an act. You're real, genuine,” Cook said, rolling on to her side and letting her fingertips trail over Jennie's arm.
“Another thing you know?” Jennie whispered, her voice throaty as she watched Cook's fingers raise a trail of goose bumps along her skin.
“I notice things,” Cook said, with a very wicked grin.
Jennie shifted a little closer still. “You're good at that. Noticing things that need noticing. Like the knife I needed wasn't a real knife.” Cook's grin did pleasant things to Jennie's chest.
“Yes, like the hitch in your breathing.” She let her fingertips trail up her arm before leaning in to kiss her.
Kissing was good, kissing was very good and Jennie made little noises of encouragement as she traced her own fingers along the skin of Cook's arm.
Cook traced along Jennie's side and down to her hip before pulling away. Breathing heavily she regarded Jennie. “We should slow down.”
“Huh?” Jennie licked kiss-swollen lips. Why were they stopping?
Cook pulled back. “You sure?” she asked Jennie.
That got some of Jennie's brain to work again and she laughed, again. “I'm not sure about anything anymore. But this feels good. There could be more kissing right?”
“Mmm, yes,” Cook said, grinning. She moved over Jennie whispering in her ear. “Where would you like to be kissed?” She kissed her neck. “Your neck?” She kissed her lips. “Your lips?” She pulled the collar of her shirt down and kissed her collarbone. “Here?”
“That's...” Jennie gasped, squirming at the kiss on suddenly sensitive skin. “Nice.” She threaded her fingers through Cook's hair, shivering.
Cook smiled down at her. “So where would you like to be kissed? As you can see kissing isn't just reserved for lips.” The skin around her eyes crinkled slightly to match her smile.
A noise outside the hut reminded Jennie that they weren't alone. She also remembered she needed to make sure Ella was all right. Shaking her head, Jennie kissed Cook again. She was learning quickly how to do it without banging their noses together or clashing teeth. “Later,” she whispered. “I want to learn where to kiss you too.”
“Sounds like fun.” Cook rolled off Jennie standing up next to the bed. “Later it is.” She held out a hand to help Jennie up.
“As easy as that?” Jennie asked, taking her hand. She was used to Levi pushing and pushing for more.
“Um, yes, as easy as that. I'm not a walking hard-on. I can wait for later to spend time with you,” Cook said.
That was a very pleasant idea and Jennie wrapped her arms around Cook's shoulders, pulling her back for an eager kiss.
Paige chuckled to herself at finding the pair in a clinch. She knocked on the door again for them to hear. The sound made Jennie let go of Cook, but she didn't apologize, and her cheeks only showed a hint of pink.
Paige nodded having garnered their attention. “There's food, and we should talk. Ella's awake but I managed to get her to stay in bed for now.”
Cook nodded. “She's alright then?”
Paige nodded and slipped back out, but not before muttering something about wandering hands.
Jennie did not want to think about what that might mean. “I never thought about who Ella was before she came to the village,” Jennie said instead.
Cook quirked an eyebrow. “She's a person, not just the village protector.”
“I know that.” Jennie gave Cook's shoulder a shove. “But I didn't really think about it.”
“Ah. Does it bother you?” Cook said as they followed Paige.
“Does what bother me?” Jennie glanced over her shoulder. “The people watching us every time we're not in the hut?”
“Now that you've thought of Ella as a person, with wants and desires. And they're not staring out you, they're glaring at me.”
“They are?” A man sharpening an ax looked up from his work, thumbing the edge. “Oh, they are. It's strange, I never thought she... was like me. I thought it wasn't accepted anywhere. Which was why I thought I'd have to marry Levi.”
Cook thought about it. “It's not preferred by our culture, but it's not a death sentence. See, now you don't have to marry this Levi.”
“It's different in the village. The elders choose who you're supposed to marry.” Not that it mattered anymore she thought, not unless she wanted to go home.
Paige stopped outside the door, eyeing them both. “She might be cranky and she still should rest, but we don't have much time left.”
Cook thought that sounded ominous.
Paige didn't wait for any questions, she stepped inside. Jennie gave Cook a strange look. “Why don't we have much time left?”
Ella was sitting up in the bed. She was still tired but it was no good to dwell on that. “Jennie, you feeling okay?” she asked.
“Better. Sorry I passed out.” Jennie stepped inside. “Why don't we have much time?” She asked again, watching as Paige gathered things from around the hut and dumped them on the end of the bed.
“We're being kicked out,” Ella said. “The rest of the Caretakers and Keepers are afraid of you and Frost. Whoever you were as Frost is a mystery to me, but hurt Jennie and you'll wear your guts as a belt.”
Cook's eyes narrowed for a second and then she shook off the urge to hurt Ella in response to the threat. “Understood,” she said making herself relax.
Jennie bit the inside of her lip, she didn't dare even look like she was smiling when Ella's face looked like that. “Couldn't we argue it?” she asked instead.
Ella looked at Paige.
“No.” Paige said, pulling gloves on over her small tattoos. “It's gone too far. Cedric has too much support from the others. Majority rules here.” She eyed Cook for a moment and then offered her the only long sword she had. “You know how to use this?”
Cook regarded it for a second. “Yes, but I prefer daggers.”
“I only have one of those,” Paige said, handing her a well-worn scabbard and the old sword. Wordlessly she held up the single bow, arching an eyebrow in question to Ella.
Ella nodded. “That will be fine.”
Jennie watched as Paige handed out the few weapons she kept in the hut. “You're coming with us?” Jennie said. It wasn't really a question.
Paige didn't say anything, since she rather thought it was obvious. She pulled down the one drawing she kept on the wall, rolling the thick vellum and sticking it into her pack. “We'll have to get supplies from somewhere, and we don't know where we're going yet do we?” she asked Ella.
“I know where the nearest Totem is,” Jennie said, quickly. “I can find it anyway.”
Ella barked out a laugh. “We don't even have a plan.”
Cook looked at Jennie. “You should tell them.”
“Tell them what?” Paige asked, her attention now on the two younger women.
“The woman, the woman that came for me,” Cook said.
It wasn't something that Jennie was keen to talk about but under the looks she was getting from Ella and Paige she winced and started talking. “There was a woman, it was before Ella got hurt. She appeared in the woods, as a sending.” Paige nodded, understanding that part. “But she was able to cast spells through a sending without using sygils. She, uh, well, she knew Frost.”
Cook winced at the name. “Frost... I, wasn't a good person. Not a murderer but... it's hard. It's just feelings. She knew me. The man who came to stop you from saving Ella, he knew me too, we both worked for this Lady.”
“You stole things for her,” Paige said bluntly, turning back to her packing.
Cook nodded. “You know who I am then. Why didn't you say anything?”
Ella was wondering the same thing.
Jennie looked from one to the other and back, gaping.
“You didn't know who you were.” Paige considered a bowl and then set it aside, deciding to leave it behind. She looked up and then went back to her packing. “I was going to say something but you were helpful,” she said. “We've not met, but the Darkmen talk of you.”
“What do they say?” Jennie asked cutting the silence.
“That she could steal their shadows right out from under them.” Paige actually grinned as she stood up and hoisted her pack onto her shoulders. “Here,” she said, pointing at the two smaller loads. “You two carry these. No, Ella, you're not carrying anything but the bow for now. You should be in bed resting as it is.”
All Ella could think about was that she'd been letting Jennie... no, she'd encouraged Jennie to be with this thug. Ella blinked and looked at Paige. “I'm not helpless.”
“No, you're not. But you will be if you start bleeding again halfway down the trail. This is the Black Wood Ella, things hunt things that bleed out here.” Paige nodded to the sword in Cook's hands. “Be kind to it, she's been through a lot.”
“We still need food,” Ella said.
“The Black Wood has plenty of supplies,” Cook replied. “We did fine earlier.”
“There'll be something near the Totem, they're all near villages or castles,” Jennie said, hopefully.
Paige just looked to Ella, an eyebrow raised again.
“Fine,” Ella said with a sigh. She eased herself out of the bed. “Do you have something other than these rags for Jennie and Cook to wear?”
“Shirt's are the best I can do for now.” Paige nodded towards the door, hearing people moving outside. “But our time's up it seems.”
“Paige!” A man's voice called from outside. “We've got to have a word, you and I.”
Ella nodded. She drew and arrow notching it.
She muttered something too low under her breath for Jennie to hear and settled the pack on her shoulders. “Cook, stay close to Jennie. This could get ugly.”
Cook nodded silently moving closer to Jennie.
“I could use a spell?” Jennie said, not sounding all that sure about it.
“You don't have control yet.” Paige shook her head and stepped outside to face the small crowd waiting. She sniffed, seeing Cedric at the head of it, sword in hand. “No pitchforks and burning torches Cedric?”
“We had an agreement, Paige. It was a clear agreement,” he said, raising the sword to point at Jennie and Cook. “A simple agreement.”
“What's he mean by that?” Jennie whispered to Cook, shifting uneasily.
Cook and Ella were busy sizing everyone up, gauging their weaknesses.
“I know what the agreement was!” Paige hissed through clenched teeth.
“We agreed to do what she wanted and we'd be safe. She wants her.” His sword pointed at Cook. “And wants that one dead.” The point shifted to Jennie.
Ella stiffened. “Who is this her? You're all traitors now, to serve anyone but the King is punishable by death.” She drew the bow string back.
The crowd shifted, people holding their own weapons or notching arrows to bows. “I will not server Her in this,” Paige said quietly, hand on the hilt of the short sword at her side. “Stand aside Cedric and let us leave.”
Jennie's fingers gripped Cook's shoulder as they stood behind Paige, staring with growing horror. “This isn't going to end well,” she whispered.
“No it isn't,” Cook agreed. “Be ready to run.”
“We made a pact!” Cedric yelled, more for the crowd behind him than for Paige. Paige glanced at Ella her face unreadable. “We would serve Her and she would let us do what we were called to do. There would be no more interference from the College or their pet King.”
The crowd rumbled its agreement and he turned towards them raising his sword to continue his speech.
In that moment Paige leapt forward, sword drawing smoothly from its scabbard as she grabbed him from behind, pressing the point of the sharp blade to his neck. “We're leaving,” she hissed, dragging him with her, a pinprick of blood welling from around the sword's tip.
Ella followed her.
“She will not let you do what you want,” Cook said. “You will only do what she wants,” she warned, drawing her own sword to follow.
“More lies…” Cedric yelled, face red as Paige forced him to walk backwards, bent at an awkward angle.
“Shut up,” Paige muttered, forcing him to follow her to the edge of the camp, aware of all the eyes on them. She knew her fellow Keepers and Caretakers would spring at them the moment the blade was gone. “Jennie, you have to hide our exit,” she said, urgently.
Jennie nodded, hoping she knew how to do that.
“Ready?” Paige asked, looking to Ella.
Ella nodded and smiled. “Always ready for an adventure with you.”
“I'll track you to the ends of the land!” Cedric hissed.
Planting a boot to his back, Paige kicked, sending him sprawling. “You never were a good tracker. Now Jennie!”
The magic bubbled happily to her call and Jennie closed her eyes, picturing the woods around her and the illusion she wanted. Judging by the startled yells and calls of the people in the camp, she rather thought she succeeded.
“Run!” Paige hissed, taking off through the trees.
Ella did her best to follow. Cook sheathed her sword and dragged Jennie along behind.
They flew past the trees as they ran through the Black Wood in what looked like a completely random course to Jennie. Every few minutes, Paige would change her course, heading either right or left from the way they had been going. It didn't take long for Jennie's legs to burn from the running but still Paige kept pressing, never slowing.
Ella was sweating and struggling to keep up. “Paige, I can't keep up this pace,” she finally had to admit. The muscles of her stomach burned.
Glancing behind them, Paige nodded, wiping sweat from her head. “We'll walk,” she said, slowing until she was at Ella's side. “But we can't stop. They'll use tracking spells once they get past the illusion.”
Ella nodded her understanding.
Cook leaned over and asked Jennie, “You doing okay?”
“My legs burn,” Jennie admitted, gasping for air and thanking the gods they were walking. She lowered her voice, throwing a suspicious look at Paige's back. “She worked for the Lady, or maybe she still works for the Lady.”
“How do you know? They caught that tree soldier, a creation of the Gray Lady, and they were going to kill it. She did that because Ella had been hurt. If they did work for the Gray Lady she wouldn't have let you heal Ella.”
Paige glanced over her shoulder, looking at them and Jennie bit back on her answer. “Hurry up you two,” Paige said. “We have to make a good distance or they'll find us.”
“Then who was the ‘She' that they were talking about that wants me dead and you back?” Jennie whispered under her breath, walking faster.
“I think she came to them and offered a deal. I don't think they've been working for her this whole time. She's probably been working on Cedric for awhile, she's very good at getting what she wants,” Cook answered. “Unless you really think Paige is working for her?”
It was only a matter of time until Cedric and his followers were monsters covered in bark, in Cook's mind.
“I don't know,” Jennie whispered back. She was worried that she didn't know who this woman was, didn't know what she wanted or how she was destroying the totems. “We don't know anything.”
“I don't work for Her,” Paige said loudly, slipping an arm around Ella's shoulders to help her along as they started back towards the lake. “And my hearing's fine too.”
“Does She have a name?” Jennie asked, wincing.
“No, not that I've heard.” Paige said, casting a glance behind her to check if anyone was following.
“But you know about her?” Cook asked. “I called her the Gray Lady.” It had been a private joke because the woman used a mixture of both kinds of magic. An intimate joke, between lovers. She swallowed not surprised by it, but uncertain how that would effect what was going on between her and Jennie.
Part of Cook knew to move forward the manacles would have to come off so she could be whole and real not a shadow of herself. She wasn't certain Jennie would want that person.
“Gray Lady works,” Paige muttered, not surprised that Cook had a name for her. “Names have power, she doesn't want hers known to anyone I'm guessing.”
“Not to sound worried, but you do know where we're going?” Jennie asked, casting another look to her right. “Because I think the Unicorn's back.”
“For the love of…” Paige started moving faster. “Why couldn't you have taken care of that back at the camp?” she asked Cook, as Jennie flushed.
“I, uh, um...” Cook blushed.
“You're young, aren't you supposed to jump each other?” Paige asked, her head was turned so that only Ella could see her smirk. “Come on, as long as we keep moving the Unicorn shouldn't be a problem.”
“We certainly didn't have a problem jumping each other. Kids today,” Ella said, trying to hide a smile.
Paige grinned back at her. “Slow,” she agreed with a shake of her head.
Behind them, Jennie groaned and wished she could stuff her fingers in her ears without looking like she was a five year old. “Can we just talk about something else? Or not talk? Not talking is fine too.”
Taking pity on her, Paige pointed ahead of them. “We're heading to the lake, they'll have gotten past the illusion by now and Cedric has some good tracking spells. We'll loose them at the lake.”
“The one with the mermaids in it?”
Paige nodded. “The one with the mermaids in it.”
Ella sighed, jealous. “I wish I could see these things.” She felt useless against such magical creatures. Where they saw unicorns and mermaids she saw shadows and light playing tricks with her.
With a squeeze of her shoulders, Paige quickened their pace. “Some days I wish I couldn't see things either.”
The water looked different when they finally emerged from the trees and it took Jennie a moment to realize why. There were waves, caused by no wind that she could feel.
“The Mer people are upset,” Paige said simply, hurrying them towards the shore. “We stay near the water, it helps confuse the tracking spells.”
Ella nodded and tried to move faster not wanting to slow them down.
Cook looked around feeling uneasy.
“Something doesn't feel right does it?” Jennie whispered, taking Cook's hand in hers as they hurried. The smooth pebbles under their feet slid and clattered with every step and was it her imagination or were there white caps on the waves in the center of the lake now?
Cook nodded. “Something feels very wrong,” she agreed, hand tightening on the sword pommel.
“It's…” Jennie slowed to a stop, turning to look out at the water, frowning.
“Jennie, we have to keep moving, the spells track best when the trail is still fresh, you know that,” Paige said. She was keeping Ella moving, an arm around her waist. “We have to…”
The water shifted, violently to one side, water sloshing up onto the beach until it was at their knees. With it came the Mer folk and Paige yelled, drawing her sword as a trident went sailing past Ella's head.
Ella notched an arrow but hesitated for a second as her vision swam. Perhaps it was the supernatural creature that had just attacked her, but the waves seemed to look like fish people.
Cook pushed Jennie behind her and unsheathed her sword. That was when the Unicorn made his move, cantering into the chaos and stealing Jennie away.
One moment Jennie was grabbing the back of Cook's shirt, the next moment there was a bright white flash of hair and the unicorn was galloping towards her. She didn't even have time to try and use magic as it dipped its head low and scooped her up, not even slowing. Suddenly she found herself holding onto its mane for dear life as the Unicorn galloped through the Black Wood.
“Get Jennie!” Paige yelled, drawing symbols in the air with her left hand as she used her right to slash at something that slithered through the water at their feet. “We'll be fine!” she yelled, casting the spell on both her and Ella just as tentacles wrapped around their legs and yanked them both under water.
Cook hesitated, not really sure that they would be fine, but then took off after the Unicorn and Jennie. She ran through the woods, sword clutched in her hands and her gray eyes faintly glowing. She ducked and twisted away from trip hazards and low branches.
The unicorn came to a stop in a clearing of trees. The Darkman Jennie had talked to several times stood there looking annoyed. ”Put her down.”
He looked different in the light, Jennie thought as the Unicorn bucked under her and she had to grab on even tighter. He looked almost as if she could see through him, half there and half not.
Eyes rolling the Unicorn pranced along the edge of the clearing, pawing the earth and tossing its mane.
“Careful!” Jennie yelled as the Unicorn pointed the tip of that long sharp horn at the Darkman and charged.
He brought his ghostly hands together catching the horn before it could spear him. Tree roots burst out of the ground tangling around the unicorn's legs. He dug his feet in but the unicorn still pushed him back. “You can't have her. Your mate will just have to find some other virgin's blood.”
It tried to rear but the Darkman's hands were tight around its horn. It snorted, trying to buck, but even that was hard to do.
“I can't let go,” Jennie said, the tangled mane of hair holding her fingers in place.
“Let her go, or I'll rip the horn from your head,” the Darkman growled out. The tree branches grew thicker, traveling up the unicorn's body. “I'll let trees eat you and then what will your mate do?”
The unicorn snorted, white foam beading around its mouth and suddenly Jennie was free, tumbling down off its side to scramble away.
The Darkman nodded, let go of the Unicorn's horn and backed up. Slowly the roots retracted. He looked at Jennie, “I recommend that when you do lose your virginity any blood spilled on sheets or what have you, you offer in sacrifice to the unicorns. They're mates cannot conceive without.”
“They leave that out of the stories about Unicorns,” Jennie said, breathless as she watched the Unicorn rear once and take off into the trees again. “Thank you. I didn't know Darkmen could come out during the day.”
“It's not preferred but we can if its important enough. The whole wood is in uproar, I was curious to see,” he said offering a hand to help her up. “Unicorns have a difficult time conceiving. Oddly, they believe, although I think its coincidence, that virgin blood helps this.”
“Is that why they're sparkly, to lure young women? I mean they're very beautiful.” She took his hand and smiled as he helped her up. “There are a lot of fairy tales about them but none of them mention using a virgin's blood.”
“Being sparkly probably does help lure some clueless young women into their clutches. The stupid creatures are randy as goats, and just as annoying.” He examined her. “You seem okay.”
“Mer people were attacking us,” Jennie said. With a jolt as her mind suddenly caught up. “I have to go back to…” She looked at the trees around her which all looked the same. “The lake.”
He regarded her fondly. “What a grand adventure you'll have. Just remember; if you can exist, then so too can two different cultures who see the world in two different ways. Be safe.” He leaned over kissing her cheek.
“Wait, what?” But she was alone in the clearing again and she threw up her hands. “I don't know which way is back!”
Something was crashing through the trees. “Jennie!” Cook called out. She raced into the clearing with her sword drawn, skidding to a halt. She looked around and frowned. “Jennie? Is this a trap?” she said, confused.
“Cook! No, it's not a trap, not for you. It was for the unicorn. A Darkman stopped it and made it let me go. Did you know Unicorn's want virgin blood to help them mate?”
Cook nodded slowly, still looking confused. “What did the Darkman want from you?” She sheathed her sword despite not being convinced it was safe.
“I think he was saying goodbye, and to be careful.” Jennie frowned, looking around for any sign of him but the shadows under the trees were just shadows. “And, um, he said to leave out any virgin blood that might be shed when I… you know. For the Unicorns.”
“Um, awkward. I don't think I've heard of one of the Darkmen being active during the day,” Cook said, changing the subject. “We should go help the others.”
Jennie was thankful for the change in topic. “Which way?”
“This way,” Cook said, leading her out of the clearing.
Ella broke the surface and tried to swim to shore, only to mutter a curse as she saw Cedric and the others standing there. “I now officially hate fishing.” Treading water she thought about their options, there weren't many.
Behind her, Paige surfaced, gasping for air. “They're really pissed off about...” Her voice trailed off as she saw the people on the shore and she sighed. “You a good swimmer?”
“I'm not going to drown,” Ella replied as she turned to swim away from the shore of angry people.
An arrow sailed past them, plopping into the water between them. “Paige! Come back and we'll let you go. We just want the girl!” Paige gritted her teeth and kept swimming. “We make it across, we can be hours ahead of him and the others,” Paige said, kicking off her boots.
Ella said nothing, just focusing on moving through the water. Her side burned. The Mer folk rose up through the water and threw their spears at Cedric, enraged.
Yells echoed across the water from the shore and Paige smiled grimly. “Like I was saying, they're really riled up. Something has them pissed and I don't think it's us or Cedric.” Which explained why neither of them had been drowned.
When Ella thought she couldn't go any f u rther she sunk down. Her feet hit the bottom and she slogged out of the lake. Panting she made her way to the rocky shore. Her face was pale and she grimaced in pain. “What happened to Cook and Jennie?” she gasped.
“Hopefully halfway across the Black Wood by now.” Paige flopped out next to Ella, gasping for breath, wet and cold. “The Unicorn probably won't kill Jennie, just wants blood.” Paige rolled over, groaning when she realized she'd lost her pack somewhere in the lake.
“Oh, is that all? I thought they, well, stories said...” Ella could feel her face turn red, “Blood. Well hopefully she's okay.”
“Stories said what?” Paige groaned, pushing herself upright. “We're going to have to find a place to rest, Cedric will have to go around, he won't risk swimming the lake.” But that had only bought them three or four hours.
Ella nodded. “Stories said they raped the girls.” She headed up the bank towards the trees.
“Stories also said you tripped Mindy down a flight of stairs the night before you left.” Paige offered Ella a hand, helping her along. “We have to draw Cedric away from them.”
Ella still had the bow, but only few arrows. “I didn't trip her, I punched her,” Ella said, trying to focus on putting one foot in front of the other.
Paige laughed. “Oh, my mistake. Punched her.” She looked around, orienting herself and sighed, pulling Ella along. “You still trust me?”
“Good, we're going to go visit a witch,” Paige said.
Cook slowly made her way through the trees. She stopped to listen every once in awhile. By the time they made it to the lake the battle was over and dead humans and Mer folk littered the shores.
Cook stopped Jennie from getting closer as the still living Mer folk were wrapping their fallen in water grasses and pulling them under. “I do not think Ella and Paige are there, those are Cedric's men. What would Ella do? What direction would she go?”
“She'd lead them away from us.” Jennie bit her lip, relaxing only after she studied the shore and couldn't find any trace of Ella or Paige. “I could try a spell, but it might lead others to them also.”
“Then we go to the totem, eventually we will all end up there,” Cook replied pulling them back into the trees.
As long as Paige knew where the Totem was, Jennie thought but didn't say. Instead she held onto Cook's hand, worried and scared about what might have happened to Ella. “It's not far from the edge of the Black Wood, Meriweather had a map in his study that he'd use sometimes. It had markings on it for all of the Totems in the kingdom. There was one outside of a village called Briarville. I don't know what kind of Totem it was but I'm pretty sure I'll recognize it when we get there.”
Cook nodded. “Well move as far as we can and then make camp. I don't know if we'll make it there tonight.”
That was a depressing thought. “Camp with what? We have the clothes on our back and the sword Paige gave you.”
“We can make a fire and rest. There are plenty of things to eat as well,” Cook said. “It will be okay.”
Jennie nodded, letting go of Cook's hand as they started moving.
The Black Wood was never-changing, at least it seemed that way to Jennie. She wasn't sure if Cook led them back out on the same path that they'd taken to get into the wood, but it seemed like it. The silent statues guarding the edge of the wood were still there, huge towering carvings of rock facing towards the human kingdoms.
“The Darkman said the humans were stealing their magic, that everything we used was taken from them and it was killing the Black Wood,” Jennie said quietly as they passed under statues outstretched arm with it's sword held high.
“In my experience when you have two sides, truth and fact lay some where in the middle. Both sides have their own opinions and desires.”
“And the Gray Lady?” Jennie asked, shivering as they passed the statues.
“Thinks she can rule better than the King of the Darkmen and the humans.”
“Maybe she's right,” Jennie said quietly, glad when the trees around them changed. Seeing actual sunlight making its way through the tree tops was marvelous and she smiled, stretching her arms out to feel it.
Cook felt her mouth go dry. In that moment she wanted Jennie with a fierce hunger. Jennie was so natural, innocent and wonderful. Cook could have gone on. Jennie existed with the world and the Gray Lady molded the world to her desire. That was the big difference.
Cook looked away, studying the path they would take.
“What?” Jennie smiled at her, lowering her arms. “You gave me a funny look. It's the first real sunlight I've seen since we went into the Black Wood.”
“Nothing. It's...” Cook shrugged. “You looked really happy, felt like I was intruding.”
“Silly Cook.” Jennie grinned and offered her a hand. “Let's find a Totem.”
Cook smiled. “I don't think anyone's called me silly before.” She let her fingers intertwine with Jennie's.
“How would you know?” Jennie teased, shoulders straight and a smile on her face as they started walking. “I want to send a messenger spell to Paige and Ella, I want to make sure they're all right.”
“Okay. I'm concerned Cedric might be able to use it to find them, but I think the gain outweighs the risk,” Cook said.
They made her way through the trees blinking at the sunlight.
“I'll wait until we stop for camp since I really don't know how I'm going to do it without using sygils.” Jennie looked up, marveling at the clear blue sky above them. Compared to the Black Wood, the trees they were walking through now seemed like bushes.
When they came across a dirt road that snaked its way between the trees and then out into proper farm land the difference was jarring. “Different worlds,” Jennie murmured to Cook, reluctantly letting go of her hand as she realized they were back inside of the Kingdom.
Cook laughed. “You can still hold my hand. Hopefully it is not something we can only do in the Black Wood.”
“Is it something we can do in the capital?” Jennie asked, taking the offered hand again. She rather thought that they'd end up there again, everything seemed to lead back to the College of Magi .
“Probably not, since I'm pretty certain I'm a wanted criminal. I think I'd be arrested on sight.” Cook grinned and wiggled her eyebrows.
“You and your roguish ways.” Jennie shook her head in mock despair. “Put those skills to good use and find us a good camp site?” she asked, seeing the road lead onwards without sight of the town she hoped was at the end of it. The sun was dipping towards the horizon.
Cook looked around. “I think we're better off staying in the trees and setting up camp than being caught in the open.”
It didn't take long to clear the debris, make a firepit and get a fire going. “I'm going to go look for food I'll be back soon,” Cook told Jennie.
Jennie knew her skills did not include hunting and she nodded as she fed wood to the fire. “Be careful?” she asked, already trying to figure out how she'd send a messenger spell.
Cook leaned over kissing her quickly before disappearing into the trees.
With a small blissful smile, Jennie settled down to think.
It seemed like a long time ago, although it was only a few years now, since Meriweather had taught her the basics of magic. A sending spell was one of the most basic of all, a small glowing orb that had one purpose to find its designated recipient and relay the message given to it. It was one of the simplest of spells, and as she'd told Cook earlier, one of the easiest to avoid. Since it was so simple all sorts of things could disrupt it, weather, natural fault lines in the land, angry Magi and any combination of a list of things longer than Jennie cared to remember.
But the old magic, or maybe it was the new magic, was failing with every Totem that was destroyed. She'd used magic since loosing her Tattoos, but she still didn't understand the rules of it.
If there even were any rules governing it.
She was so intent on turning the problem over in her mind that she didn't realize the fire was no longer just a fire until the thing inside of it fluttered its wings.
“You have to be more quiet,” it said, voice high pitched and crackling like the fire it was made of. “You're calling out very loudly.”
“I am?” Jennie blinked and leaned closer. “I am, I'm sorry. Did I call you?”
The little pixie made of fire fluttered her wings and nodded. “Loudly.”
“Sorry.” Jennie said again. “But I'm trying to figure out how to send a message to friends of ours and I don't think I can use a spell anymore.”
The pixie folded her arms and gave Jennie a long look.
“Oh!” Jennie grinned. “Would you take a message to them for me?”
“Maybe.” The pixie studied an outstretched hand in a fashion so similar to some of the popular girls in the village that Jennie had to struggle not to laugh. “What do I get?”
That seemed like a loaded question. Jennie considered both it and the little nymph in the fire. “What do you want?”
“Hmmmm…” Jennie popped a single ivory button off the shirt that Paige had given her and offered it to the nymph. “How about this?”
Jennie took the squeal of joy to be acceptance. “Here's what I need you to tell them,” she said, keeping the words short in case the message got jumbled.
“You know it's only a matter of time before you come back to me, Frost.” The words were a whisper on the breeze that caressed Cook's cheek.
Cook felt the words and they made her brain itch as memories tried to crowd to the surface. She staggered for a second and then got her feet. She had skinned an old rabbit that had been too slow to get out of her way. She had wrapped it in leaves and was carrying it back to Jennie with some roots that were edible.
“Soon Frost, soon we'll be together again. Remember how good that felt? Remember how good I could make you feel?” Ghostly fingers ran through Cooks hair, down her neck and along one breast.
Cook whimpered and went down to one knee. Her limbs trembled and it took a second to clear her mind. “It's Cook not Frost, and for now I'm not yours.” She struggled to her feet breaking away from those ghostly touches. “A woman likes being called by her name.”
“But you will be mine. I was very upset when you left, but I'll forgive you for that.” Ghostly hands brushed along Cook's thighs. “I'll make you scream my name in pleasure,” the voice promised.
“The Gray Lady, is sort of wordy to scream out at the height of pleasure,” Cook shot back, trying to slap away those invisible hands.
That voice laughed, low and sensual as lips pressed a kiss to Cook's neck. “You'll remember,” it promised, before pulling away with one last teasing brush against her.
Cook made her way back to Jennie on shaky legs. “I have food,” she said, her voice husky. She was momentarily drawn to an area of Jennie's skin, exposed by her slightly unbuttoned shirt. Cook refocused on getting the rabbit on a spit and over the fire.
“Good.” Jennie bounced to her feet, stretching again. “I sent a message with a fire nymph. Fire sprite? Fire pixie?” She shook her head, not certain what they were called. “I'll ask next time. But she wanted a button in exchange.” Jennie pointed at the missing button on her shirt. “Seemed like a fair price… Cook? You all right?”
“Fine, I'm fine.” She was actually so horny she was surprised her pants weren't on fire. “The Gray Lady paid me a ghostly visit, it's nothing.”
“She what?” Jennie asked, smile gone as she worriedly touched Cook's arms, running her hands along them as if to make sure she was all right. “Did she hurt you? What happened?”
“Jennie, I need to make us food. I'm fine. She just...” She couldn't meet Jennie's eyes. “She just touched me. Tried to get me to remember all the good times we had.” Jennie paused, but didn't remove her hands from Cook's body, and Cook flushed.
“She touched you?” Jennie frowned, not liking the idea. “Where?” she asked, her voice sounding strange even to her own ears. Where was the sudden possessiveness coming from?
“Everywhere,” Cook replied, looking away.
Jennie swallowed. “Did you like it?”
“It wasn't unpleasant,” Cook admitted.
Lips parted silently, Jennie breathed in deep through her nose as she concentrated on the contact between them. She could feel Cook's warmth through the thin fabric of the shirt Paige had given her. “You've been with her. Before.”
“I believe so. She implied it. I don't remember it.” That wasn't true. Of all the things she'd let herself remember she'd fought those memories, hadn't let herself remember.
“Do you want to go back to her?” Jennie breathed, her fingers just barely touching as she trailed them up along the back of Cook's neck and shoulders.
Cook shook her head. “If I wanted to go back to her I wouldn't be here. I would have just let her have me.”
Jennie turned Cook's head towards her so she could see her eyes. “So you want to stay here?” she asked, eyes on Cook's lips as she licked her own.
Cook nodded. “My gut tells me when the manacles come off it won't end well. Frost is weak, addicted to her. It's hard being two people and I don't know what will happen when we merge, but it's inevitable.”
“But not tonight,” Jennie said, certain of that.
Cook smiled. “No, not tonight.”
“Then I'm going to kiss you,” Jennie said, also certain of that.
“You are?” Cook was surprised.
Jennie nodded slowly. “Yes.” She wasn't sure what was going to happen after that, but there was going to be kissing. Silently she tugged on Cook's hand, pulling her towards the pine bows they had laid out to sleep on.
“We have to kiss here?” Cook pretended that her voice didn't squeak.
Jennie grinned at her over her shoulder. “Would you rather kiss somewhere else?” The heat of the fire felt good against the cool night air.
“Ahhh, no?” Cook wasn't really certain about anything at the moment.
Tossing dark hair over her shoulder, Jennie turned, pulling Cook to her and then pushing her down onto the pine bows. Then she straddled Cook's lap, putting her hands on Cook's shoulders. “You look terrified,” Jennie murmured, brushing her fingers along Cook's jaw. “I thought I was supposed to be scared?”
“Well... I don't know, but you don't look scared. Since I know I've done this but I don't remember doing it, its new for me too. Kind of...” Which sounded messed up when spoken out loud.
Jennie smiled, her eyes sparkling in the firelight and she leaned in stopping Cook from babbling by occupying her lips otherwise. She didn't hesitate deepening the kiss almost immediately, sighing in pleasure as she did.
The food was going to burn and Cook didn't care. She let her hands slide up along Jennie's flesh, under her shirt.
That elicited a gasp and Jennie broke away from the kiss to reach between them to fumble at the buttons on Cook's shirt.
Cook leaned back fighting her urge to just pull it off over her head, and let Jennie do what she wanted.
“This...” A tug and Jennie got the last button free. “Has to come off.” She breathed, parting the shirt and holding her breath as she touched bare skin. “Gods your beautiful.” Everything was lit by the flickering firelight and she couldn't stand how beautiful Cook looked like that.
Cook looked down puzzled. “I am?”
Nodding, Jennie trailed her fingers higher, along her ribs and brushing just below Cook's breasts. She thought she was going to pass out from just the idea of touching her.
Cook sucked in a breath. “That feels very good,” she said softly.
“Did she touch you here?” Jennie whispered, daring to cup one breast. The feel of it in her hand made her close her eyes and make a little whimpering sound.
Cook's hips lifted involuntarily at the touch and her head fell back. “Yesss,” she said softly again.
It felt so much better then the fumbling touches she'd had before and Jennie didn't want to stop. So she moved up, kissing Cook's lips, urgently kissing and sucking as she traced her fingers along Cook's breast. “I want...” She made a frustrated noise, pushing Cook's shirt down off her shoulders. She wanted to see her, to see what she was touching and put her lips there.
Cook opened her eyes and looked at her. “You want?” she asked between kisses. “We can do as much or as little you want.”
Leaning over her, dark hair cascading down over them both Jennie smiled. “I want this off.” She tugged on Cook's shirt.
Cook sat up and let the shirt fall down off her arms. “That it?”
“Mine too.” Jennie licked her lips, shifting on Cook's lap.
Cook nodded and slowly reached up to undo the buttons of Jennie's shirt. She focused hard on not letting her hands shake. She slid her hands up Jennie's skin after it was undone, parting the shirt and sliding it down her shoulders. She bent her head tasting the flesh her hands had caressed. Not all innocence. Jennie tasted of wildness waiting to be unleashed, it was restrained underneath the trappings of civility but Cook could taste it on her tongue.
Her hands wandered the warm skin of Jennie's back.
“Oh fuck.” Jennie gasped, arching her back and pressing against Cook's mouth. “I want...” she muttered, moving again and gasping as she pressed herself against Cook. Their naked skin touched and her eyes fluttered closed at the sensations. When their breasts rubbed she jerked, mouth opening in a silent ‘oh' of surprise.
“The pants,” Jennie said urgently as she yanked against them. “Pants need to come off now!”
Cook panted and nodded. She pushed Jennie back, letting her hands go to the ties. She undid them and started to slip them down her long legs. She kissed her hip and knee and then an ankle.
Everything felt like it was on fire and if the actual camp fire suddenly surged brighter, Jennie didn't notice the small figures inside the flames. “Yours,” Jennie urged, pulling on Cook's pants, wanting, needing, them off.
Cook laughed and stood up, undoing them she let them drop and stepped out of them. “Better?”
“Oh gods,” Jennie whispered, staring up at Cook who was gloriously naked in front of the fire. Her mouth was dry with want and she reached out, hand shaking with desire. “Please,” she whispered, pulling Cook down.
Cook submitted willingly. “Once done this can't be undone,” Cook whispered. “Be sure.”
“Come here!” Jennie pleaded, demanded, beyond certain. If the feel of their naked breasts touching had been bliss, the sensation of the entire length of their naked bodies fitting together was beyond description.
Cook went to Jennie kissing her hard, trying to devour her mouth.
There was a learning curve, but Jennie gave as good as she got, matching Cook for every kiss. Beside them the fire flared higher and higher, matching their passion. “You have to show me.” Jennie squirmed, tangling their legs together and gasping, humming with frustration.
Cook nodded. “First times can be... disappointing, I'll do my best not to cause any pain,” she said trailing kisses down to Jennie's breasts and giving them some attention.
“Disappointing?” Jennie lifted her head and then let it fall back down, arching up against that talented mouth. She writhed under Cook, wrapping her legs around one of Cook's, whimpering. “Doesn't feel disappointing... oh gods.”
Cook smiled around a nipple. “Good,” she said before giving her a nip and moving farther down.
“What...” Jennie groaned, everything was hyper-sensitive, every touch and stroke made her gasp and beg. “Where?” She tried again, words were beyond her but she couldn't figure out why Cook was moving down her body.
“Where you truly want me.” Cook gently bit the skin above Jennie's belly button.
Jennie didn't care where Cook was going, as long as she got there soon. “Please!” she whimpered, legs squeezing around Cook's thigh.
Cook pushed Jennie's legs open and moved down until her shoulders filled the space. She kissed the inside of a thigh.
Cook was right, Jennie thought with the small part of her mind that still was working, she was going right to where Jennie wanted her to. She was saying things, she thought, random words strung together with begging and cursing.
Cook spread Jennie open and kissed her more intimately, humming at her taste, teasing that point where her desire was focused.
When Jennie came it wasn't anything like she'd expected. Colors blended with sensations and she cried out, back arching, fingers tangling in Cook's hair tightly. “Fuck,” she gasped, collapsing against the spread out clothes.
“That's one word for it,” Cook said, stretching out next to her, with a grin.
“Happy with yourself, huh?” Jennie didn't care, she was smiling lazily as she cuddled against Cook's side.
“Mmm, yes. I gave a beautiful woman great pleasure.”
“We're not done.” Jennie pressed a kiss to Cook's throat. “My turn,” she murmured, kissing Cook again.
Cook smiled into the kiss. “Your turn huh? What would you like to do?”
That was a very good question and Jennie slid a hand down along Cook's stomach, watching in fascination as her muscles twitched. “Everything,” she pleaded.
“Everything, well, I don't think I've done everything, but we can start and maybe someday we'll get to everything and have to start over again,” Cook said softly, her gray eyes intent on Jennie.
“Someday?” Jennie whispered, eyes locked on Cook's, shivering at the look she saw in them. “That means more than tonight?”
“If you like. Frost doesn't really do more than one night stands, but I'm not Frost, and I want more than one night with you.” Part of her suspected Frost wasn't any more real than Cook and she hoped that perhaps somewhere in the middle was who she truly was.
“You don't know that.” Jennie traced her finger along Cook's jaw, watching her tenderly. “You don't know what Frost is like. She could be just like you, this could be the real Frost.”
There was that possibility. Cook caught Jennie's finger gently with her teeth and nibbled it for a second before sucking on it. “So, Jennie Magi between two worlds, what would you like to do?”
“Make you whimper and yell my name?” Jennie's eyes were dark shadows as she licked her lips. “Taste you, make love to you.” She was too aroused to even blush at those words as she said them.
“Wonderful things all,” Cook agreed with a wicked grin she laid back down. “I suppose I'll let you have your way with me.”
It was a daunting idea as Jennie let her eyes trail down over the body being offered to her. “You'll have to help,” She murmured, fingers drawing small circles along a firm breast.
Cook sucked in a breath and shivered at the touch. She reached out and pulled Jennie to her in order to kiss her lips again. “You don't need my help. Explore. Have fun. Sex is more than producing offspring, it's fun. Sweaty, mind-blowing fun. “
“Fun.” Jennie's smile turned mischievous. “I can do fun.” She slid across Cook, settling on top of her and kissing her again. Fun , she thought with a little jerk of her own hips against Cook. She could definitely do fun.
“Oh!” Paige's mouth opened in surprise as she leaned closer to the small fire. “What?” Her head jerked and she looked over at Ella before looking back at the fire. She produced a startled laugh and then she sat back. “Thank you,” she tried to say gravely to the fire and then squeezed her eyes shut trying not to laugh.
Ella looked at the fire and then at Paige, and then back to the fire. She could swear she saw little figures in the fire. She squinted and then jerked back. It was almost like something popped in her head and her vision suddenly cleared. “What is that?”
“A pixie,” Paige laughed, wiping at her eyes and then she froze. “Wait, you can see it?”
Ella nodded. “And the shadows have gotten clearer since we took off this morning. I think it's a side effect of the thing that attacked me.”
“The Merman? He certainly seemed to like you, until you kicked him in the head.” Paige snorted in amusement. “Do you have something shiny? The Pixie wants a shiny thing.”
“No, not the Merman, that tree thing. Just now, it was like something popped inside my head and everything came into focus. I'm not sure that it was a good thing,” Ella said, pulling a silver coin out of her pocket. How it had survived everything she didn't know.
“The tree...” Paige's laughter died and she eyed Ella worriedly before taking the offered coin. A flick of her fingers sent it into the fire where it vanished instantly. “It appears Jennie won't be bothered by Unicorn's anymore.”
Ella closed her eyes and shook her head. “Please tell me I did not waste a silver coin for information I really didn't want to know. That woman is just going to break Jennie's heart.”
“Probably,” Paige agreed, removing the squirrel they'd caught for dinner from over the fire. “But you gave silver because the Pixie brought us word that Jennie and Fro... Cook are fine. They're heading towards the nearest Totem.”
Ella nodded. “Good. They're safe, for now. How much farther to this witch?”
“We'll reach her by moonrise.” Paige offered Ella the almost burnt squirrel. “Is there a message you want to send Jennie?
“That we're alive and fine, we'll meet up with them at the totem.”
Repeating that to the fire, Paige nodded and made quick work of the small portion of squirrel. That done, she kicked dirt over the fire, snuffing it out and burying it. “We better keep moving.”
Ella nodded. Her side burned and she lifted her shirt up, checking the scaring. It was purple and angry, hot to the touch but other than that fine.
She'd just overdone it.
Paige watched her, worriedly, but didn't say anything. Instead she stood up, offering her hand to Ella.
Ella grabbed the bow and arrows and slung them over her shoulder and took Paige's hand.
“The witch's name is Elizabeth ,” Paige said softly as they started moving again through the towering trees. “She lives in the Black Wood, but she's not a Caretaker or Keeper. Neither is she what you would call a people-person.”
“Right, because these woods are full of so many friendly helpful people who like other people,” Ella snorted
“I'm friendly.” Paige even managed to say it with a straight face.
“Sociable even.” Paige's lips twitched.
“Uh huh. Even back at College you were respected, well-liked, but not social.” Ella on the other hand had been very social. That had changed with time and responsibility however. Being head guard of Milford had been isolating.
Paige chuckled, a low quiet sound as they walked. “Do you remember Magi Therford? The old man with the crazy beard?”
“Yes, he didn't like me.” Paige gave her a look. “Okay most Magi didn't like me, and they didn't really like me after I was caught sneaking out of your room. I was beneath you.” Ella grinned a little, she'd never really minded being beneath Paige. She shook her head slightly to get her head focused.
“He told me that I had some skill as a Magi, but I had no ability to work with others. He doubted I could be completely self-reliant. I told him of course I could be, I was going to be a Magi, I didn't need anyone.” Paige fell silent for a few steps, watching the trees for any sign that they weren't alone. “He said I should prove it, prove that I could be alone and self-sufficient. I told him I would, and then I'd come back and become a full Magi.” She gave Ella a small, tired smile.
“That's why you took this position? Why you kicked me out of your life? To prove a point?”
Paige sighed, knowing how it sounded. “Have I mentioned that I was pig-headed?”
“You are very pig-headed,” Ella replied.
“Thank you,” Paige said dryly.
“Anyway,” Paige said with a small glare. “I thought I would show him. I'd show him and the entire council of Magi that I could do exactly what I said I would do.” Paige looked up, feeling the heavy gazes of things in the trees around them. “I liked it out here, more then I thought I would.”
“Then I guess it worked out.” Ella was silent for a while digesting what had been said. “What do you like about it here?” she asked finally.
“No one tells me how to do my work. I do what has to be done and I can talk to whomever I need to, or not. It's not like in the city.”
“Nope, not like the city at all.”
“And the Darkmen aren't like the stories say. They can be violent, like us, but they aren't naturally violent like some of us.” Paige shrugged, not able to explain it more than that. “The Black Wood will kill you if it can, but it's beautiful too, Ella.”
Ella gave Paige a sideways glance, wondering for a second if Paige hadn't thrown in with Cedric and the rest. “What did Cedric mean by how you could finally do your jobs?”
Paige paused before answering to see the side of one of the great trees. She turned right after seeing what she was looking for. “Not long now,” ehe muttered, not looking happy about it. “Remember I said we weren't so out of touch out here?”
Ella felt the skin on the back of her neck prickle and she wondered if she was being led to a trap. “Yes, I remember that.”
“Magi send their messengers and they demand things from us; hunt this, trap that, send us this.” Paige made a disgusted sound. “We complained, to the king himself, and we were told we didn't know what we were talking about. Told we had to help the Magi, for the good of the realm. Which realm, Ella? Not the realm I thought I was going to serve.”
“Paige, be careful, your words are close to treason. So you're agreeing with Cedric and the others, that this Gray Lady is right?”
“No, I'm agreeing that others are wrong.” Paige shot her a dark look. “ Milford 's a long way from everything, Ella. End of the Kingdom. How often have you gone back to the Capital?”
“I don't if I can avoid it. You know how I feel about politics and the College.”
“Then I'll say what I want until you do.” Paige paused, studying another tree. “Left?” She turned and then winced. “No, right,” she muttered, turning the other way. “The Gray Lady's gone to every Keeper and Caretaker in the Black Wood, or sent messages to them. She's offered us autonomy and there are a lot who agree with her. With every demand that comes from the College, more and more agree.”
The small twisting trail went through the middle of a huge boulder split in two, it's surface covered by moss and ferns. “We have to walk backwards from here,” Paige said.
“Backwards.” Paige smirked. “Backwards from here. We walk forward and the path just twists in an endless loop. Backwards and we get where we want to go.”
Ella sighed but turned around, having her back to a potential enemy fucked with her on so many levels.
“I'll hold your hand if you want?” Pagie said slyly.
Ella made a face at her and started walking.
A couple of minutes into the annoying walk backwards Ella voiced a fear that had been eating at her. “I'm seeing the magic in the world now, what if Jennie didn't cure me, what if I still turn into that thing?”
Paige hesitated, not sure she wanted to think about that. “We'll ask the witch,” she said finally. The walk backwards through the split rock took much longer than it should have, the rock going on and on as if they were going through a tunnel.
“I feel like I've been cheated my whole life. I could die at the hand those magical things but because I had no magic I might never see the danger. I couldn't protect Jennie at the college because I couldn't really see the winged Guardians, just bat like shadows. Now... the world is scary and wondrous.”
“More wondrous than scary,” Paige said softly, reaching sideways to touch Ella's shoulder. “Although, sometimes they are the same thing.”
“Right now it's about equal. I'll let you know once I get use to it, if I'm not a monster myself.”
There wasn't much Paige could say to that and she let her hand fall. Only when the stone ended and the light around them changed did Paige turn around. The witch's home was exactly as she remembered it. “Hasn't changed at all,” she said quietly.
Walls of tall ferns and bamboo rose up around them, fencing it off from the rest of the world. Slabs of rock piled on top of one another formed a primitive looking set of lean-toos. From them, strung on long lines of rope that disappeared into the ferns and bamboo walls, dangled dozens upon dozens of masks. Most were carved of wood, some were of metal or ceramic, the smallest were the size of Paige's fist and went all the way up to half the size of her body.
On top of the tallest peak of stone a huge raven sat, head cocked as it regarded them. It cawed once.
Ella turned around slowly. She hadn't been certain what to expect but this certainly wasn't it. “What are the masks for?”
“Nothing,” Paige said tightly, eyeing the crow as it peered down at them.
Ella didn't believe that.
“To talk to the spirits!” An old voice said, crackling around the edges as the ferns not far from them swayed and wavered. A woman wearing stitched deerskin emerged from amongst them, old and weathered with smile wrinkles around her mouth and eyes. “Visitors aren't welcome.”
Ella stayed silently.
“Hello Elizabeth ,” Paige said mildly, arms crossed.
The witch ignored her, walking towards Ella, carrying a small cane, it's wooden surface covered with carved masks of every sort. “You're Ella,” she said, piercing eyes studying Ella. “Why are you here?”
“At first we had nowhere else to go, so even the woods were safer than becoming a guardian for the college. Now I'm here because I'm sworn to protect Jennie and there's this Gray Lady wants her dead.”
The witch snorted turning and heading towards the stone slabs. “End of the world's coming!”
“End of the world's always coming,” Paige muttered.
“I heard that! Get in here Paige, soup needs stirring.” Paige gritted her teeth and shot Ella a look of mixed resignation and anguish.
“Maybe we should go,” Paige whispered.
Ella looked at her, confused. “You brought me here, I assumed she could help.”
“Maybe. Maybe she can help.” Paige's shoulders slumped and she reluctantly started walking.
“What's up with the soup? If it's such a big deal I'll stir it.”
Running a hand over her face, Paige shook her head. “It's not the soup. Leave your boots out here and your weapons.” She made a face as she undid her short sword and left it at the entryway before pulling off her boots.
Ella winced as she set the bow down, and taking a deep breath she bent over to untie her boots.
They had to duck down under the overhanging stone to get inside. Once inside the area was much larger than it looked from the outside. The slabs had been stacked in such a way as to cordon off several rooms, with gaps letting in light and air. A large pot had pride of place over the fire against one wall. Wordlessly, Paige went to it and picked up the long wooden spoon to stir it.
“Come sit with me, Paige can see to dinner,” Elizabeth said, already settled down on a pile of furs. “Stir faster Paige, you'll let it burn.”
Paige muttered something under her breath.
A flutter of dark feathers and the Crow landed on the gap in the stones above Elizabeth , settling into the perch to watch Ella.
Ella did as she was asked. She slowly sat down. “I'm Ella.”
“I know.” Elizabeth laughed. “I'm Elizabeth , but you already know that.”
“I'm Paige,” said Paige, her tone strangely petulant.
“You'll be in trouble if you let the soup burn,” Elizabeth said and Paige sighed, bending her back to the task.
Ella looked between the two, not sure what was going on.
“Now dear.” Elizabeth smiled, showing off still good teeth. “Why is it that a group of men are trying to get through my path to my front door?”
“I think they want to kill me, maybe Paige too.” There was no point in lying.
“Well, they certainly aren't welcome for dinner.” Elizabeth leaned in, smiling. “You're the Ella that Paige talked about from the College?”
“Mother!” Paige said sharply and Elizabeth waved a hand at her. “Hush and keep stirring, I'm still mad at you.” Paige looked like she wanted to beat someone with the spoon in her hand, probably her mother.
“Mother?” Ella turned her head so quickly she nearly hurt something.
Paige groaned, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands.
“Oh.” Elizabeth sat back, frowning, an expression eerily similar to Paige's. “She didn't tell you? She's ashamed of me you see, I'm just a bush witch and she went off to become a Magi. One of the mighty. Well you don't seem to have become mighty yet, Paige.”
“Mother...” Paige growled, hands white around the wooden spoon. “We're here because we need a spot to hide until Cedric moves on, that's all.”
Ella blinked at them. She reached out a hand finally. “It's very nice to meet you, Elizabeth.”
“Thank you, Ella.” Elizabeth smiled, taking the offered hand and shaking it. “Paige never brought her friends, of any sort, to visit.” There was a sound that might have been a curse that came from the woman stirring the pot. “Embarrassed by her common witch of a mother.”
“Mother...” Paige ground out, pleading.
“Oh hush, I won't tell her how you used to run naked through the forest pretending you could fly like a pixie.” Elizabeth 's eyes sparkled with mirth.
“Okay, maybe she does hate you, if you tell embarrassing stories like that.” Ella looked at Paige. “You should be happy to have your mother alive, mine's dead.”
That quieted down the grumbling, although Paige was watching her mother warily.
“Ella from the College,” Elizabeth repeated, watching Ella with sudden interest. “That's why your name was so familiar when the spirits told me you were coming.”
“The spirits…” Paige started only to subside into grumbling again when Elizabeth pointed a finger at her.
“Yes, the spirits,” Elizabeth said regally, even clothed in the deerskins as she was. “They warned me you were coming, warned me the world was ending.”
“Ending? Well that's just great,” Ella muttered. She let her gaze drift between Paige and her mother finally noticing how they had the same nose and eyes. “Well, I didn't attend the College, I have no magic. I was at the King's city training to be part of the Magi guard.”
“I know dear, that's why I like you already.” Elizabeth patted her hand. “I've been making a special soup for you, enough for you to take with you when you leave tomorrow to go back to the Capital city.”
“We're not going to the Capital mother, we have to go to the nearest Totem.”
“You're going to the Capital,” Elizabeth repeated calmly.
“We are?” Ella looked between Paige and her mother. “What's in the Capital other than the obvious?”
“The secret to all of this,” Elizabeth said, getting up to fetch a set of rough-hewn wooden bowls. Paige dutifully spooned soup into them when they were thrust at her. “You must get there quickly though, things are about to start moving and your other young friends will be in trouble.”
“Which,” Paige said, trying to keep her tone reasonable, “we could prevent if we went to the nearest Totem and met with them instead of traipsing off to the Capital.”
“The spirits are quite clear on this dear, you must go to the Capital as quickly as possible.”
“The secret to all of what? The totems being destroyed?” Ella asked.
“No,” Elizabeth handed her the bowl, smiling as she patted Ella's cheek. “The secret to the end of the world.”
“Alright, that's it,” Paige said, dropping the spoon into the pot of soup. “You're going crazy again. This is why I don't come visit you, this right here. You keep talking about things that don't happen, things that are insane.”
Elizabeth shook her head, sitting down next to Ella and drinking the soup straight from the bowl. “Because you don't understand it doesn't mean it's not true, dear.”
Ella decided, wisely, to remain silent.
“I was right that you would never become a Magi.” Elizabeth smiled at Ella and lowered her voice. “My daughter should have become a witch, I told her so, repeatedly before she set out to prove she could become the head of the College.”
Paige's hands were curled into fists, the tattoos on them bright against the white of her skin. “I'll be outside,” she said to Ella through gritted, ducking out before she started yelling.
“So you were the one my daughter dated at the College?” Elizabeth asked, draining her bowl of soup as if nothing had happened.
“Uh, we, um spent time together,” Ella replied wanting to go after Paige. “Yes we dated.”
“I told her she should bring you back here, when she visited that first time after you'd started sleeping together.” Tearing a hunk of rough bread off she offered it to Ella. “It's good with the soup, don't worry I made two loaves for you to take with you.”
This was an embarrassing conversation, more so because Ella was an adult. “Well things didn't work out so maybe it was for the best.”
“She still cares about you though,” Elizabeth said, pointedly.
“And I still care about her,” Ella snapped back. She sighed and sat back cooling her temper. “Caring isn't enough for us. We were never honest with each other. I didn't know about you, or this, and I guess I never really knew her.” She got up with a polite nod and went outside to look for Paige.
“Ella, my daughter was always close mouthed,” Elizabeth called after her. “Sharing things was never something she did easily, even as a child.”
Outside, standing not far from the split rock that led back out to the Black Wood, Paige stood looking up at the masks dangling above her. A small breeze caused them to rattle against one another, dancing in the air. “I thought these were pure magic when I was a child,” she said when Ella drew closer.
“Paige, I have a question for you.” She was amused by the cautious look she received. “What's the difference between a Mage and a Witch?”
“Witch's don't really do magic, well, not magic like Magi know it.” Paige raised her hands, showing the tattoos that swirled along her fingers. “They don't use sygils, they don't command magic. They use herbs and potions instead, natural things.”
“Makes sense.” There was a comfort in that, something Ella could understand finally. Her parents ground grains to make breads, Paige's mom made potions. “I thought you were an orphan like me. You certainly let me draw that conclusion. Another decision you made for me.”
Letting her hands drop, Paige looked down, eyebrows drawn together in a small frown. “I wished I was. I couldn't…” She laughed suddenly, gesturing towards the space around them. “I couldn't tell anyone about this. All of my friends were from Magi families, or rich families.”
“Paige, my biggest wish I've had my whole life is to spend just one more day, hour, minute with my parents. And let me also point out that I was your friend, and I didn't come from wealth or magic.” Ella was upset. “So maybe it wasn't my anger and disgust at the Magi and the College that made you push me away after all. Maybe I wasn't wealthy and magically talented like Mindy.” Ella's jaw clenched and she tried to shed the anger. It wasn't fair. Paige had been there for her time and time again, risking her own life. “I'm sorry, I'm out of line.”
Ella turned and went back inside the house. “I'm sorry, but I'm not hungry,” she said politely to Elizabeth . “Where may I sleep.”
Elizabeth only smiled gently and pointed towards one of the smaller set off rooms. “It shares a wall with the fire, you'll be warm tonight. Tomorrow, when it's safer, and those seeking you have moved on, you'll be on your way again.”
“Thank you.” Ella nodded and moved into the room. With a wince she sat down. The bed was simple rushes on the floor with a blanket. She lay on her back and stared at the ceiling before pulling up her shirt and staring at the scars again. She'd almost died. She rubbed it gently, not certain if it would help the ache.
There was a rustling out in the main room of the shelter and Elizabeth said, loudly. “I'll check on a few things outside, you should rest while you can Paige.”
Paige said something low and quiet and a moment later stood in the doorway of the room that Ella was stretched out in. She stayed there, watching Ella and not saying anything for a few long moments.
“Do you think so badly of me then?” She whispered finally, eyes hooded. “I know I was mean to you at the end, but I had hoped time would ease that between us.”
Ella looked up. “Paige, I apologized for my harsh words. Please don't make me do it again. You have saved my life and Jennie's, so no I don't hate you.”
Not looking like she believed her, Paige nodded slowly. “I'll be by the fire if you need anything.” She said, not knowing what else to say.
“Paige...” She winced and with a grunt sat up. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get in here and get some sleep.”
“Mother's going to see what she can find to help you heal.” Paige hesitated before finally ducking into the room. “I'm sorry I never told you about her, or all of this, but I didn't tell anyone about it.”
“I'm sorry I judged you, it wasn't my place.” She rolled her eyes, “See you got me to apologize again, do you know how painful it is for a warrior?”
“Hurts you every time you say it does it?” Paige said dryly, settling down next to her. “Well, if it helps any, mother gave you my old room to sleep in.” She turned her head to look up, not surprised to find the stars she'd painted on the stone ceiling were still there. Faded and no longer the vivid colors she'd used when she was a child, but she could still recognize the constellations.
Ella smiled at that. “My childhood room is ash, I think trees and grass have finally grown over it.” She reached over taking her hand. “Is your father still around?”
“No, mother says he died in the wood, I don't remember much about him.” It took a little settling but Paige got herself stretched out next to Ella and comfortable. “How did it happen?” She asked.
“The fire? Know one was sure. I had snuck out of my room and was swimming with some of the other kids. Sometimes I feel guilty, if I'd been home maybe I could have done something.”
“Or maybe you'd just be dead.” Paige squeezed her hand. “Rest, it'll be a long day, no matter where she choose to go.”
She nodded letting her eyes close. “Paige make up with your mother, before its too late and all you have is questions.” She said softly.
Making a little noise of protest, Jennie pressed herself tighter against Cook's side, trying to ignore the sun that was starting to rise.
Cook snored softly next to her, body slack and relaxed in sleep. She was nude other than the silver manacles on each wrist which glinted when they were caught the early morning light trickling in through the trees.
Finally, when she couldn't ignore it anymore, Jennie opened one eye and then the other. The view was worth it, she thought as she yawned and settled her head against Cook's shoulder. They should have already been up and moving, but she couldn't find it in herself to care.
“Cook,” she whispered, pressing a kiss to the woman's cheek and then lips. Interesting parts of herself were sore, but she couldn't stop smiling.
The snoring stopped and blood shot gray eyes slowly opened.
“Mmm... That is a good way to be woken up.” Although Cook felt like she'd just fallen asleep. “How are you this morning?” she asked still trying to focus.
“Sore. Very pleasantly sore.” Jennie kissed her lightly, just because she could. “It's morning already.”
“I guess we should get moving then,” Cook said humming into the kiss. She pulled Jennie on top of her enjoying the feeling of their skin touching, heating each other.
“That…” Jennie squirmed on top of her, breathing a little faster. “Isn't the kind of moving we should do.”
Cook let her hands trail down her sides and wiggled her hips a little. “You sure? You liked that kind of moving a lot last night. Morning can be just as fun.”
It was so very tempting. Jennie kissed Cook again, a kiss that deepened far beyond her intention. Gasping she pulled away, shaking as she got up to her feet, naked and still smiling. “We have to go, the Totem's not far and it's daylight almost.”
Cook frowned but she slowly got up looking for her clothes. Something told her she wasn't used to being turned down. “What's the plan once we get to the totem?”
That was a good question and Jennie hesitated, watching Cook dress. Gods Cook was beautiful, Jennie thought, and her fingers itched to touch her again. “Help the totem fall or try to stop it,” she said slowly, considering them and then shaking her head. “I don't know, but we have to be there.”
“Okay.” Cook buttoned up her shirt and grinned at Jennie. “We'd make better time if you got dressed.”
“Oh! Dressed, right.” Jennie laughed, pulling on her own clothes quickly before desire could get the better of her. “Is it normal that all I want to do is just strip you naked again?”
“If I did everything right, then yes it is,” Cook said with her own laugh. “So how do you know we need to be at that totem?”
“Cocky.” Jennie snorted at her, picking up what little they had to bring with them. “We just have to. It's in the pit of my stomach.”
“Mmm, okay.” Cook picked up the sword and sheath and strapped it to her hips. “Ready when you are?” She moved over into Jennie's personal space and smoothed her shirt out over her breasts and then kissed her. “And tonight? What do we try tonight in your quest to do everything?”
Jennie licked her lips, following Cook when she pulled away to kiss her again and suck on her lower lip like she'd done the night before. “Still haven't had you inside me,” she whispered, eyes pure evil as she danced away. “Hurry, we're wasting time!”
“With such incentive how can I delay?” Cook replied, watching her with bright gray eyes.
Any worry Jennie might have had about not recognizing the Totem when she saw it, died when they finally topped the last hill before the village of Briarville . The village wasn't any bigger then her own village of Millford , but the houses here where built of wood and not stone.
Winding up the side of the hill behind the village, carved into it, was a long sinuous tower of glittering crystal. The sun that reflected off it cast rainbows and Jennie blinked in surprise, staring. “Not subtle is it?” she asked finally.
“No not really,” Cook replied. “ Crystal is so, cold and uncomfortable.”
Jennie's hand found Cook's and she squeezed it. “I can see it now,” she whispered, as if the tower were listening. “There are lines of magic coming to it from the Black Wood.” It was absorbing the lifeblood of the wood, draining the wood of what made it live.
Cook shrugged. “Don't rush to defend the Darkmen, they have their own dark deeds to atone for.”
“I know.” Jennie looked over at Cook. “But it's not just them the Totem is drawing magic from is it?” Her shoulder's sagged a little. “If the magic fails the Kingdom fails too.”
“I would guess so, the totems keep the woods from encroaching.”
There was no answer then. Jennie didn't let go of Cook's hand until they were at the edge of the village. “Would you recognize her, if you saw the Gray Lady again?”
Cook nodded. “You could be sisters.”
That was unsettling. “Because of the dark hair?” Jennie hadn't seen anyone else with it yet. But she hadn't seen anyone else with Cook's gray eyes either.
Cook nodded. “And her blue eyes. But the similarity is only physical, she's cold where you're warm.”
“You have a way with words, Cook.” Jennie smiled at her, the heaviness in her chest easing. Everything seemed easier around Cook.
“Thank you.” She looked around. “Now what?”
Jennie watched people moving about in the village ahead of them. They were attracting a few curious looks, but no one seemed too interested yet. “We should find the Mage in charge of the Totem, warn them about the Gray Lady?”
“Okay.” Cook held out her arm. “Let's find us a Mage.”
Finding the Magi wasn't a difficult thing. Everyone they asked in the streets of the town gave them a strange look that was half fearful and half pitying and then wordlessly pointed up at the crystal tower. It seemed that the Magi in residence wasn't beloved by the villagers.
It all looked terribly normal though, no one was running around in a panic, no tower collapsing, no fighting of any sort. The magic felt normal too and Jennie wondered if maybe they'd made a mistake coming to this place. Maybe the Gray Lady was going somewhere else, to another Totem, but this was the nearest one and Jennie's stomach clenched.
After a few minutes of nodding to pleasant people that were going about their days work, Jennie realized what was different. “They don't know I'm an apprentice Magi,” she whispered to Cook.
“How would they? You don't have any tattoos anymore. Is it strange to have them talk to you like this?”
“They think I'm normal.” Jennie smiled at the realization and a startled shopkeeper smiled back, waving his hands at the wares in front of him as he tried to entice them.
“Yes they do, but you're not,” Cook replied, leading them through the town to the Magi.
“Haven't you ever wanted to be normal?” Jennie asked without thinking as she followed, slightly distracted by the people around them.
“I don't think I've thought about it,” Cook said. “But if I have magical talent it's tiny, so I'm pretty normal anyway. Other than being a thief called Frost for some magician called the Gray Lady, and that's not normal at all.”
“Who also doesn't remember being a thief called Frost,” Jennie pointed out, hooking her arm with Cook's. “Not normal at all I think, either of us.”
“I guess you're right. Now let's find this Mage and do what we need to do, so I can get you naked again.” Cook grinned.
Jennie gave her a little shove as they walked faster up the long winding path towards the crystal tower. “Rogue,” she muttered under her breath, but loud enough for Cook to hear. “At least the tower isn't floating, so we don't have to climb a rope ladder up to it. Meriweather's was and it was an annoyingly long climb every time I had to go to the village.”
The crystal looked different than the wall of the college of magi. That tower had changed color every moment. This one had a decidedly blue hue to it, even though the glare from the sun was making it hard to look at it for any length of time.
The path itself led up to the base of the tower, except there was no door. It was a seamless wall of crystal and Jennie sighed in annoyance. Why couldn't Magi use doors? Doors were nice things.
“We either have to break in, try to get the Magi's attention, or wait for someone who knows how to open it,” Jennie told Cook, pressing her hands against the sun warmed crystal.
Cook started circling the tower looking for a door. “Which one do you want to do?
“The one that gets us inside without bringing the tower down on our heads,” Jennie said, trailing along behind Cook, head craned upwards as she tried to see the top of the tower.
Cook paused and ran her hands over the crystal, the color was slightly different and it was cooler. “Door.”
Blinking to clear her eyes of the sun glare, Jennie looked back down. “Where?” The crystal looked the same to her.
“Right here.” Cook reached over and knocked.
The piece of crystal slid back smoothly and Jennie jumped in surprise. “Not magic.” She shook her head at herself as she realized it had just been cleverly hidden in the crystal. “Not locked either?”
“Who would enter a Mage tower uninvited? Of course its not locked,” Cook said entering.
Jennie smiled at Cook's back. “Of course not, who would dare? Wait!” Jennie cried, grabbing Cook's arm and steering her to the side, away from what looked like random scratches on the crystal floor. “Warding glyph.”
“Good eye. Perhaps not so unprotected.” Cook bent down. “The thing with glyphs is that they're easy to change, especially when they're carved into things.” She used the tip of her sword to carve extra lines into the glyphs.
“You can't just…” Jennie trailed off when it turned out that Cook could in fact just do that. “But…” She stared down at what had been a very masterfully carved glyph of warding that would have done nasty things to anyone who walked over it. Now it was a very nice set of scratches in the floor, perfectly meaningless. “Okay,” she finally said before pointed ahead of them. “We have to go up.”
Cook nodded, moving toward the winding stairs. “That bothered you.”
“Yes. It should have gone off when you touched it, even with a sword.” It made no sense, but not much did anymore, so Jennie just went along with it, following close behind Cook as they headed up the crystal stairs.
Everything was crystal and it was giving Jennie vertigo. The room seemed to spin if she looked up or away from Cook's back.
“You know the Mage here isn't going to be happy with us for just barging in,” Cook whispered softly.
“We'll just explain why we're here,” Jennie whispered back. She placed one hand on Cook's back, she wasn't leaving much space between them.
It took an annoying amount of time to get to the top. It opened up into a spacious library, with a fireplace complete with glowing fire. “Hello?”
“Hello beautiful,” a voice Jennie wasn't expecting said, as a long pair of legs stretched from the chair in front of the fire. “I was really starting to wonder how long it would take you to get here.”
The Gray Lady was dressed regally in an elegant gray and red dress that hugged her body. That was nothing compared to the magic that pulsed around her, coiled around her body like snakes, bright enough that it made Jennie flinch.
The Gray Lady stood up, smiling. Jennie instinctively called for her magic, even if she wasn't sure what she was going to do with it.
The Gray Lady clearly had no issue with it as she used the magic coiled around her without gesturing or drawing any type of sygil. The coiled magic lanced out, slammed into Jennie and sent her backwards, back out into the hall where the crystal doors slammed shut in her face.
“Goodie, all alone now,” The Gray Lady purred, sashaying towards Cook. “In the flesh as it were. I'm upset with you Frost, you had sex without me. You always did have a thing for the innocent looking ones. Did you break her in well?”
Cook brought her sword up. It was well balanced but still slow. “Where is the Mage for this tower? And how do you know about last night?”
The Gray Lady simply smiled, her ruby red lips curling into an pleasant smile. “I watched you of course. You've been incredibly careless, and that one, she barely knows anything at all. I've had to shield you from the College of Magi , or they would have found you a dozen times over by now.” The Gray Lady approached Cook, not stopping until she was standing right in front of the point of the sword. “You should be happy Frost, we're doing exactly what you wanted to do.”
“What I wanted?” She gave a barking laugh. “I don't even know who I am, let alone what I wanted.”
“That can be solved.” The Gray Lady held out her hand. “Easily in fact. This was all part of what you wanted. Revenge on the Magi.”
A dull pounding sounded on the door and the Gray Lady rolled her blue eyes. “She's persistent, you're little thing, isn't she?” She flicked a finger and the pounding stopped.
Cook turned to the door and the silence. “What did you do to her?”
“Absolutely nothing,” The Gray Lady answered, moving closer while Cook's attention was elsewhere. “A friend of yours is entertaining her, nothing more.”
“A friend? That man, the one who's arm I broke?” Cook's blood ran cold and she moved to the door trying to open it. “Jennie?” she shouted.
“She can't hear you, Frost. Don't worry, he won't kill her.” The Gray Lady moved behind her, fingers trailing along Cook's upper arms. “You're useless to her like this, useless to me too. Let me take the manacles off.”
Cook froze. It was a trap, a seductive trap, but the Gray Lady offered her manacles of a different type. “You let her go, unharmed and you can take them off.”
“Without a single hair on her pretty little head touched,” The Gray lady whispered the promise.
Cook turned looking at her. “Unharmed and alive, promise me that, and you can have Frost back.”
With a little smile, The Gray Lady pushed aside the sword that Cook was still holding with one hand. “Unharmed and alive. You have my promise.”
Cook didn't know if Jennie would forgive her. Didn't know if she would remember any of this. “Agreed.” Butterflies fluttered in her stomach and she was scared.
Gently, The Gray Lady took the sword from Cook's grip and tossed it aside with distaste. “A sword is most unlike you dear,” she said, wiping her hands clean from touching it. “Hold out your hands.”
Cook swallowed and then held out both hands.
Using her finger tips The Gray Lady drew a line down the inside of the manacles, starting from above Cook's wrist and ending near her fingers. For a moment nothing happened and the manacles stayed where they were, around Cook's wrist. Then, the sygils that remained on them twisted and burned, glowing bright as they vanished one by one.
Finally the seam that The Gray Lady had just drawn upon them opened and the two heavy pieces of metal fell to the floor at Cook's feet.
“There.” The Gray Lady smiled, looking for just a moment like Jennie. “Much better.” She said, watching as the spells woven around Cook collapsed in on themselves.
At first all Cook could do was stare at the pieces of silver on the floor and then the pain started, as memory after memory shot through her head. She crumpled to the floor with a cry of pain.
“Cook!” Jennie yelled, banging on the door. “COOK!” She flung her magic at the crystal door but it wasn't a focused attack and the door's merely shivered under the assault instead of opening.
Taking a deep breath she stepped back, calling for magic. It wasn't as joyful or alive as it felt in the Black Wood, here it felt sluggish and slow coming to her. Worn and frayed at the edges even as it gathered to her call. She bound it together in a blinding twisting ball like she'd seen The Gray Lady do, something she hadn't realized was possible until that moment.
“None of that,” a voice said, and Jennie jerked in surprise as blond haired man with a wicked grin wearing a gray cloak swung out of the shadows above her.
The man's feet hit Jennie's side and she went flying, tumbling down the stairs at least two floors before she skidded to a stop on the hard crystal.
“Frost's little friend.” He laughed, skipping down the stairs towards her, a flick of his wrist and daggers appeared in both of his hands.
“I hear she was your first last night. How nice for you that you won't die a virgin.”
Jennie scrambled to get up, hands sliding against the slick surface of blue crystal. “You're the one that was at the camp, when I was healing Ella.”
He gave her a mocking bow. “I didn't finish my job then, but look at this, I have another chance!” His laughter sent shivers down Jennie's spine and she backed up quickly as he came at her, eyes cold and hard. The daggers in his hands were long and sharp, with a serrated edge.
“Maybe I'll sample the wares myself, only fair if Frost had a taste already.” He leered at her and she backed up until her heel was at the top of the next step of stairs, blue eyes wide and scared.
“Never,” Jennie hissed, and brought up her magic, flinging it at him.
He laughed again, blades slicing the air in front of him and the tendrils of magic she'd gathered were cut in pieces. “Gifts from The Gray Lady,” he explained, twirling the daggers as if showing them off for her. “They'll cut anything.”
Jennie turned and ran. She ran as fast as she could, half sprinting, half falling down the stairs, his laughter chasing her as he followed.
She almost made it to the floor before he caught her, hands grabbing her waist. She screamed as they went down the last handful of steps to the main entryway of the tower. She struggled, kicking and thrashing in his grip as he rolled her over, before pinning her to the cold crystal floor.
“I'm going to enjoy this.” He laughed again, using a dagger to slice off Jennie's shirt.
For a split second Jennie was terrified, fear froze her in place as his weight pressed down on her and she could smell the stink of his breath. It was only a split second though. A dark part of her, a part she hadn't even known existed until right then, pushed aside that fear. Replacing it with fury and outrage.
How dare this man touch her!
Anger wiped away Jennie's fear and suddenly she could move again. More importantly, she could think again. While his attention was on the fabric he was cutting, Jennie once again called the magic to her.
It was only when he realized that her expression had changed that he looked at her properly, and something of what he saw in her face caused his eyes to widen in alarm. Jennie didn't give him opportunity to react, she grabbed the magic that had come to her call and slammed it up against him without any sort of direction or finesse.
It burnt him alive from inside out.
“Frost.” A cool hand brush against Frost's cheek. “Frost, you have to get up off the floor now. It's time to leave.”
Gray eyes blinked, opening and taking everything in. Slowly Frost sat up, face impassive. She regarded the woman in front of her. So much hate and anger inside of her that this woman had focused into a weapon. “What did you do with the mage? And have you destroyed the totem yet?” She stretched with a fluid cat-like grace as she got to her feet.
“The Mage is dead, I burned the life right out of him.” The Gray Lady smiled slowly, watching Frost with appreciation. Frost really was like a work of art, beautiful and deadly. “The Totem is going to start coming down around our ears shortly.”
Frost nodded trying to ignore the feelings of regret. “Good. How long have I been gone, Varnia?” Frost frowned at the sword and picked it up, it was better than nothing.
“Ages.” Varnia reached into her robes and pulled a long slim blade free, offering it to Frost. “I've kept your toys ready for you.”
Frost smiled. She sheathed the sword and took the slim blade. With a quick twist it became two blades. “Shall we go my lady?”
“Yes.” Varnia's eyes glowed for a second. “Yes we shall. Do not ever leave me again Frost. I admit I went a little mad right after you had.”
Frost snorted. “You don't need to blame me for that, you were always a little mad my Lady.” Frost opened the door for her.
“It was a productive madness though, without you I destroyed so many pretty things.” Behind them the floor of the crystal tower started to crack, spreading out from where Varnia had been standing. “You should say goodbye to your little play thing. I think she killed Thomas.”
Frost's eyes became icy. “I was going to kill Thomas. That's annoying. Why did you keep him? He's a rapist and a Thug, Donald had better men to step up and fill my role.”
“He amused me.” Varnia laughed as they started down the steps. Behind them walls shattered and the top of the crystal tower started to tilt sideways.
At the base of the stairs, Jennie got to her feet, disgusted by the ash and bone that she'd just been covered with. “Cook?” she called, seeing her coming down the stairs. Then she stiffened as she saw The Gray Lady beside her.
Frost's were devoid of emotion and her face was blank. “I regret to inform you that Cook is no more. Go back to your little village and hide there until this is all over.”
“What?” Jennie took a step towards her, eyes darting to the place where manacles had once been on Frost's arms. “Please, Cook, don't do this. I know you're still you, somewhere.”
Beside her, Varnia laughed again, pulling Frost towards the door. Above them they could hear crystal shattering as entire walls started to give way. “A lovely sound, it's the perfect accompaniment to the sound of her heart breaking.”
Frost shook off the hold. “One moment.” She walked to Jennie. “Cook is no more. Get over those romantic notions.” She unbuckled the sword from her hips and pressed it into Jennie's hands, studying her face. “You're tempting to keep, all sweet and innocent, but a promise is a promise. Give Paige back her sword.” Frost turned away.
“You can't mean this.” Jennie's hands were numb as she took the offered sword. “Please Cook, please don't do this!”
“Time to go, Frost.” Varnia's tone was dry as a piece of ceiling crashed down behind Jennie.
“You should get moving Jennie, before the whole thing crumbles around you.” Frost's face softened for a second taking in Jennie's features before hardening as she turned around to face Varnia. “You promised she wouldn't die,” she reminded as she took her space next to her Lady.
“I promised I wouldn't hurt her, and I haven't hurt one single little hair on her head.” Varnia rolled her eyes at the look Frost shot her. “Fine.” She swept her hand at Jennie, as if brushing away cobwebs and magic swirled around her at her command.
Jennie opened her mouth, dark hair raising up to wave around her as if she were under water and then she disappeared with a pop of displaced air.
“There,” Varnia said. “Safe and sound.”
“I hope so. You know how much I hate broken promises.”
“I would never,” Varnia said smoothly, offering Frost her arm. “Shall we?” she asked, as the top of the tower crumbled free and crashed to the ground outside.
Frost nodded taking her arm.
Magic swirled around them and then they too were gone. The Totem crumbled into itself, crystal shattering as the entire tower imploded, crashing down to the ground with enough force to shake the ground.
“Ella,” Paige's mother whispered. “Ella, wake up.”
Ella's eyes snapped open and her hands reached for a sword that wasn't there.
“Shhh,” Elizabeth whispered, nodding towards the dim shape of a still sleeping Paige. “Come with me.”
Ella nodded and got up, it never occurred to her to question Elizabeth .
Quietly with the ease of movement of one who knew where everything was, Elizabeth led her through her dark shelter and outside. It was the time between night and dawn, the stars above were just starting to disappear but the sun had yet to do more than promise the coming day. “You care about my daughter.” It wasn't really phrased as a question as the witch pulled down a mask from the rope it hung from.
“I do, even though she won't let me,” Ella replied.
“Stubborn, like her mother,” Elizabeth muttered, holding the mask to her chest, hugging it. It wasn't the largest of the masks, although it was certainly one of the finest carved. The dark wood and pale ivory made it look fierce. “She's going to stay with you throughout what's coming.”
“Okay.” Ella thought that only time would tell, they didn't have the best record with each other.
“She will, as long as there is danger she won't leave you.” Afterwhich, Elizabeth could guarantee nothing. “She doesn't believe in any of this, doesn't want to,” Elizabeth said, holding out the mask. “This is for you.”
Ella took the mask. “How can she not believe?”
“She chooses not to.” Elizabeth nodded to the mask. “You keep that with you and I'll ask the spirits to watch over you both.”
Ella nodded and looked at the mask. “I promise, I will.”
“You use it, when you need to. You've got a bit of magic in you now, you'll be seeing things.”
“I have. I was concerned that... that I hadn't been healed completely.”
“Paige told me.” Elizabeth moved closer, touching Ella's side, pressing her palm to the jagged wound under her clothes. “I can only tell you what the spirits have told me. That you're changing, but that it isn't into something evil.”
Ella took a step back and then firmed her stance. “You sure? You're positive?”
“As positive as anything is Ella,” Elizabeth said kindly. “The world is ending, what was old will be reborn, nothing will ever be the same. That is the only thing I am certain of.”
Ella sighed. “Fair enough.”
“Mother, what are you doing?” Paige grumbled from behind them, voice rough from sleep.
Ella turned looking at Paige. “We were just talking,” she said, the corners of her mouth turning up into a smile.
Yawning, Paige nodded, clearly not awake yet as she rubbed at her eyes. “I'll start the porridge. We should go soon.”
“To the Capital,” Elizabeth said pointedly.
Ella nodded. “Yes the Capital.”
“And you'll be careful.” Elizabeth 's grip on Ella's hands was stronger than it looked.
“Yes, I'll be as careful as possible,” Ella agreed, looking down at Elizabeth 's hands and the mask she now held. “I should go see to your daughter.”
Elizabeth squeezed her hands once and then let go. “Tell her I'd like to talk to her.” Her smile was strained. “Sad I must ask through someone else to talk to my own daughter.”
“I'm sorry,” Ella said softly. She headed back inside. “Paige your mother would like to you.”
Paige grunted something, rolling her head to try and get a stiff ache out of the muscles as she stood over the pot. “It's like I never left.”
She went over and started rubbing her neck and shoulders. “Paige, she's worried, talk to her.”
“Why? So she can tell me I've wasted my life again?” Paige leaned back into the backrub, and Ella's hands. Ella always did know how to find the knots of tension.
“That's not fair. You're her daughter, give her a chance. What we're doing is dangerous and you know we could die. Don't let her or you live with that sort of regret.”
“Damn you and your logic,” Paige said dryly. She turned to face Ella and touching Ella's hips. “Does that chance hold true for all my regrets?”
Ella took a deep breath in response to Paige's the touch. “That's up to you. We've pushed each other enough, I'm not pushing anymore.”
“I was an ass.” Paige looked at her hopefully. “Will you forgive me?”
“Forgiving you is easy. Forgiving myself is more difficult,” Ella said softly.
Raising her hand, Paige cupped Ella's cheek. “There's nothing you need to forgive yourself for,” she whispered, thumb stroking Ella's skin.
Ella smiled and kissed Paige's thumb. “Really? So I never acted like an ass and hurt your feelings? I find that hard to believe.”
“How about we agree we both made mistakes. What's done is done and we can't change it.” Paige moved closer, dipping her head towards Ella's lips. “But maybe we can do better?”
Ella wanted this kiss, wanted it desperately, but she put her hands up stopping Paige. “Go talk to your mother. I'll still be here and you can kiss me later.”
Groaning, Paige let her hand drop. “You used to be willing to kiss me anywhere.”
“I've gone without intimacy for a long time, so I've gained some self-control. It will taste even sweeter if we wait a little and you're not using it as an excuse to put off talking to your mother.” Ella smiled to soften the blow.
Paige sighed. “And you've gotten wise to my tricks it seems. Fine, I'll talk to her, but don't let the porridge burn or we're not eating breakfast. Also, do you have to bring that thing with us?” she asked, pointed to the mask.
Ella regarded the mask. “Yes, who am I to argue with a witch?”
“It's easy,” Paige called over her shoulder, heading to the door. “You just tell her no.”
Ella laughed and then turned to stir the porridge. She sent a prayer of good fortune to Jennie, hoping the young woman was okay.
Frost tried hard not to think about Jennie. The trick to surviving and working for the Gray Lady was locking away parts of yourself until you were just cold and unfeeling.
She stared out of the window of her room, mindlessly sharpening her blades. It had been so easy to hate everyone and everything when the Lady had found her. Her father had the magical talent of undoing magical locks and barriers, something she had inherited. The college had grown fearful of his talent and ordered them all captured. For all she knew her mother, father and brother were nothing more than winged Guardians. But after years of hate, she had woken up empty and cold inside, and the desire to serve revenge had left her.
One did not just stop working for the Gray Lady.
She held up her blade, checking it, and thought about Jennie again. For a moment as Cook, she'd been warm and she missed that. She hoped Jennie was alright. Then she focused on pushing away all thoughts of her.
There was a knock on the door and it swung open. Donald smiled at her. “The prodigal daughter returns, huh?” he said, making no move to enter the room without an invitation. It was a lesson she'd taught him well.
“Donald,” Frost said in greeting. “How goes training the warriors?” She wasn't certain how much she'd missed, and her memories from her two different lives still hadn't merged completely.
“You wouldn't believe how many of them there are now,” he said easily, taking off his cap to rub at his balding head. There was more gray than there had been before Frost left. “Heard you lost your mind, came to see if it was true.”
“Yes, I did. I was a Mage slave with the manacles and everything. Spent these past years cooking for the guards at the bridge.” She laughed. Having grown up cleaning cooking pots, she hated cooking
“I'm surprised they didn't just kill you and be done with it,” he said, tone light but his eyes were sharp as he watched her.
“Me too. I never talked so I think they kept me alive to question later. If I died they'd never learn the answers they wanted.” She shrugged. “It's still hazy.”
“Hmmm,” he said, stroking an end of his stylish moustache with one hand, the other resting on his sword hilt. “Still can't understand how they captured you. Too bad about Thomas, eh?”
Frost snorted. “He got what he deserved. I'll shed no tears.”
Laughing, Donald relaxed a little. “There's the Frost I know! Good to have you back. The Lady has a mission for you, someone who needs your special skills.”
“I'll report to her,” she said, standing up and sheathing her daggers.
“Good day, Frost.” He put his cap back on making certain the rim was just like he wanted it. “Come see me later, we'll play cards like old times and I'll show you the army.”
Frost gave a tight smile. “Can't wait.” She watched him leave and then made her own way to The Gray Lady's rooms.
The palatial rooms were bright and airy with large windows facing the mountainside that the entire complex was carved into. It had taken a considerable amount of magic and the help of a lot of the northern tribes to build the complex, decades ago now. The Gray Lady hadn't aged a day since that time.
Varnia smiled as she saw Frost, motioning her towards the chairs clustered around a table.
“Frost, I believe you've met Cedric before?”
Cedric, a Keeper, looked ill at ease in the chair he was sitting on, as well as looking out of place in his rugged clothing and being unwashed.
Frost sniffed. “Yes, the traitor. I believe you even threatened me on a couple of occasions.” She snarled at him. “I could make him dance on the ends of my blades.”
He gulped and Varnia's smile widened.
“You could, my dearest,” she said, leaning back to lounge against the couch. “He has failed to capture Ella and Paige. I was hoping you could suggest a suitable punishment?”
Sweat beaded along Cedric's brow.
Frost circled around him, slowly, part of her very much enjoying his fear. ”You know my favorite for these arrogant users of magic? Remove his tattoos. How these Magi love their tattoos. Love the feeling of power just having them gives them over their fellow man. How important and powerful would you feel without them? How would you like to be just like everyone else?”
Frosts's eyes darted to Varnia's her pulse quickened just looking at her. A learned response from years of being together and learning how to best make her mistress happy. They were nothing more than dogs. She returned her gaze to Cedric. “Or we could give him to Donald. If there might still be use in him. Donald really is very good at getting the best out of people.”
“Donald does have a certain skill.” Varnia laughed and stood up, jerking Cedric's attention away from Frost.
“I did… I tried! I tried to get them, but they crossed the lake and then I lost them at the witch's place…” he babbled as she moved towards him.
“Shhh.” Varnia soothed, brushing her hands along his shoulders, smiling at him serenely. “Shhh. Everything's fine now.”
Cedric didn't even realize what she was doing until the magic was ripped out of him. Varnia pulled it into herself, much like she had with the Totem's. Cedric's screaming went on and on until she let him drop back into the chair, almost dead.
“Take what's left to Donald, he can use it for training if nothing else,” Varnia said, already moving towards Frost, eyes full of desire. The chair shifted upwards, turning and trundling out of the room with its moaning cargo.
Cedric would probably not appreciate the way she had saved his life.
“Is there something else my Lady desires?” Frost smiled trying to force all thoughts of Jennie away. “Surely you haven't been alone this whole time. I've been gone for a long time.”
“A long time,” Varnia agreed, licking her lips as her eyes slowly studied Frost. “I've had others, but you were always special.” She held out her hand for Frost to take.
Frost took the hand as expected. “No my Lady, I'm not special.” She turned the palm over and kissed the skin there. She felt no connection, not like she had with Jennie. There had been wonder and joy in that union. She felt not of that here and it made her heart ache for the things it had once felt. “Tell me, did you have Tessa from the stable up here. She loves you, you know, I can see it in her eyes when she watches you. It's almost painful. Or maybe Raphael from the kitchen?” Frost moved closer kissing up her arm.
“Both.” Varnia purred, her free arm tugging on Frost's belt, undoing it. “But neither were you.” Her eyes were wild, drunk with the fresh power she'd taken from Cedric and her hand shot out, grabbing Frosts's hair, her grip hard. “Don't ever leave me again Frost.” The wildness was in her eyes. “I'll burn the world if you leave me again.”
Frost regarded her coldly. “Don't do this. We have an arrangement. We enjoy each other's company, but don't make it more than it is. You don't age, you won't die. I will. There may be a Darkman distant in my family tree, but it's distant,” she spat, her skin burning from Varnia's grip. “So are you going to continue freaking out about things that might be, or are we going to stop wasting time?”
The wildness left Varnia's eyes and she smiled again. “Let's stop wasting time.” She pulled on Frost, leading her towards the bedchambers. “Now that you're back with me, we're going to go kill a king soon. Imagine how nice that will be Frost? The revenge you'll wreak with your hands.”
Frost hardened her heart as she entered the bedroom, she sent a mental thought of apology to Jennie and hoped she was safe.
Reversing her grip Frost pulled Varnia down to the bed. “What do I care about a King, it's the College I want destroyed,” she murmured against Varnia's cold lips.
Varnia's fingers undid clothes, eager to find the flesh beneath. “We will burn them. I promised that you would watch them die. It is a good promise, a promise that I will hold. I'll splay them out for you dearest.”
Revenge was hollow, the words ash on her lips, and there was only coldness. When had it stopped being enough? When had stealing the magical secrets of the Magi and the darkmen stopped being enough for Frost?
Frost looked into Varnia's blue eyes. “Why do you do this?” She had never before asked, only followed. She shrugged out of her shirt, letting it fall.
“Why?” Varnia looked startled at the question as she took in the beauty that was Frost. “Why do you think?” she asked, brushing her hands across Frost's beautiful skin.
“You know the secret pain of Donald and I, but I don't know yours. Or is it just the lust for power?” Frost sucked in a breath as Varnia touched her, and then let her fingers trail over Varnia's collarbone to the buttons of her dress.
Varnia's breath also caught and she shrugged the delicate silk off her body. “It's more than lust.” She purred, leaning into the touches. “We look so good together like this, better still, naked.” She undid the last of Frost's buttons and pulled down her pants. “I'm going to remake the world Frost. Make it better.”
It didn't answer the question, but she let it go. “How do you want it?” She knew better than to assume, leaning over she kissed the soft flesh of Varnia's neck aching at the difference.
“On your knees.” Varnia growled.
Frost nodded and got to her knees, teasingly tracing a hand over the flesh on an ankle and calf. If the Lady was happy, they were happy, that was the rule. “Does anyone ever tell you no?” Frost asked.
“Never.” Varnia laughed, moving behind her, a hand sliding up the inside of her thigh. “I've missed this.” She purred, pressing against Frost's naked back. “Missed fucking you.” She slid into her, not gently at all.
Frost just grunted as her hands griped the sheets. She couldn't help it she thought of Jennie, all her careful pre-planning to remove the woman from her mind a failure.
Later, Varnia stroked Frost's hair, smiling to herself, very satisfied. “We leave tomorrow. You and I are going to end this. Donald will follow and make a lot of noise as distraction.”
Frost nodded. “As you will it. Is that why you summoned me? Well, other than the obvious?”
“Yes.” Varnia curled Frosts's hair around her fingers. “I'm going to give you want you wanted. Almost all the totems are gone now, they're like scared rats running from a sinking ship. The Magi think they can hide inside their college. It's nice of them to huddle together for us.”
“The college? I thought you were going after the King first?”
Varnia laughed and it sounded a lot like Jennie's laughter, but jaded and dark. “You're going to kill the king for me.”
“I'm a thief not an assassin,” Frost said sitting up. It was partly an appeal. No one was better guarded with magic and might than the King, and to get to him was to prove she had no equal.
“Sacrifices must be made.” Varnia let her go.
“No one else could get to him, not without destroying the entire palace,” Varnia said. “I could do it, but think of all the ruined art.” Varnia watched Frost carefully. “It's your decision.”
“Just the King?” One life and the kingdom would be ripe for the taking. Hopefully they would surrender without much bloodshed.
“The king only. The head of the snake must die, my dearest. Either you kill him or I burn his palace down around his ears. Imagine all of the people that would die with him.” She stroked Frost's naked shoulder.
Gray eyes flicked back to her at the touch. “It will be done.”
“Good!” Varnia surged up out of the bed, naked and glorious as she walked away.
That was Frost's cue to leave. She regarded the lone window in the room and the coming dusk. She remember that she'd promised Jennie they'd be together tonight. She hated broken promises.
Frost dressed, wincing at the deep scratches Varnia had left on her back, and then checked her daggers.
A servant was waiting for her, discreetly, at the door. He gave her a little bow when the door opened and offered her the tightly wound scroll in his hand. “Plans of the palace. The Lady wished you to have them.”
“Thank you. How am I traveling?” Horse would take to long.
“The Lady will send you there at first light.” He bowed again and retreated. The way he said The Lady was reverent, as if she were a living God amongst them.
She nodded and returned to her room without going to see Donald. She did not feel like playing cards.
Jennie only got a brief glimpse of the magic that the Gray Lady used as the world disappeared around her. It was beautifully intricate, strands of magic coiled upon one another wrapping around her and simply folding her out of one place in the world and in to another. It took a lot of magic, more than Jennie had ever contemplated using before.
Then she was in the world again, the magic gone and blinking against the sunlight.
“What in the name of the… You!” screamed someone with a high pitched voice that sounded like nails dragging across glass. Jennie shielded her eyes trying to see where exactly the Gray Lady had sent her.
It turned out she in middle of the College of Magi .
There were a lot of stunned faces staring at her, and one particularly enraged old bitch of a Magi, wearing actual robes this time Jennie was happy to see, was pointing at her.
“That's the one!” she was screeching, so loudly that Jennie thought people could probably hear her yelling in the Capital itself.
Jennie smiled and waved her hand. “Umm. Hi?”
Frost sat in the King's bed chamber. It had been disturbingly easy to get in there, the wards and protections had been a joke. She examined her blades whilst watching the King sleep.
He was a widower. He slept alone, his hair white and thin, looking delicate as he slept.
Probably sensing something the King's brown eyes opened and widened in surprise. Frost was impressed he was so alert so quickly.
“So you've come finally.”
That wasn't what she had expected.
“You are a child of the Frost line?”
He struggled to sit up. “When Meriweather told me long ago that you would come to kill me and I would welcome it, I laughed. Now I find he was right.”
“Cagey old man, although I wonder if he foresaw his own demise.” The King shivered and pulled the blanket up around him. “You have your Father's eyes, the eyes of the Frost family. Your family were the assassins for the College. Their gifts made them useful in bringing down rogue Magi who sought too much power or whose desire drifted into the darker arts.”
Frost's eyes narrowed, she hadn't know this.
“You would have been too young to know the truth. Let me tell you a story. Once there was a young witch who came to the college to become a Magi. She soon learned those powers were not to be hers, but before she left at first meal she swooned and was taken over by the voice of Prophecy. A prophecy which spoke about the end of the College and of the King, all at the hands of a Frost. Immediately, in a panic, the Frost family was ordered to meet with the council, but they were gone. Jacob Frost was no fool and he was damn good at what he did. He snuck his family out and the College gave chase and sealed their doom. Look at you a finely honed weapon of hate. What, I wonder, would have happened if they had stayed that day and not given into fear? We'll never know.”
“Are you done?” Frost asked softly voice devoid of emotion. She moved forward pressing the dagger against his side.
“How cold you are. Meriweather told me that when you came here to tell you that...” He struggled to recall the words spoken so long ago. “You must go to the college, the woman you follow broke her promise.”
Frost's eyes narrowed.
“Go on, end my suffering. I have been sick for months and its only getting worse, there is no cure, this is not how I wanted to end my days.”
She regarded him for a long moment and then pushed the blade in. “You die so others may live,” she whispered. She pulled the blade out and turned to leave. What had Meriweather been playing at? Meriweather himself had put the chains around her wrists.
Ella was sweating as they made it to the top of the small hill. “The College and the capital city. Have you missed it Paige?”
Paige tried not to bend over, gasping for air. She hadn't done a forced march through the countryside since… Actually now that she thought about it, she hadn't ever done a forced march through the countryside.
“No.” Paige gasped, giving up on trying to look buff and bending over to suck in air. “Did we have to run the entire way?”
“Yes. Your mother was pretty clear. Whatever was happening was going to happen soon.” Ella hesitated. “You mother said to go to the Capital, but the College is up in arms over something.”
“Uh?” Paige hauled herself upright, squinting against the light. “Fireworks?” she muttered, and then blinked again clearing her eyes. “Oh. Fireballs.”
Ella gripped the mask harder and looked at Paige. “You okay. I'm the one still recovering from a life threatening wound.”
Sparing Ella a look, Paige shook her head. “Which just makes me feel old.” Paige grumbled, eyeing the blasts of fire and occasional slashes of lightning. “Whatever they're doing it seems like a lot of attacks against something.”
“So where do we go? The College or the City?” Ella asked.
“I have no desire to go to the College, do you?”
“No. But we need to go where we are needed. Even though I have no idea what we are supposed to do,” Ella replied.
Paige hesitated, looking from the bright flashes of magic to the capital city and back. “Mother said we wouldn't be able to stop the end of the world, but we'd have a chance to change it. Whatever that means.”
“That's great, but I still don't know what we're supposed to do.” Ella looked between the City and the College. “Fuck it,” she said, heading to the college.
“Ella…” Paige called and then groaned, moving to catch up. “We can't just walk in there. Look, the fighting, or whatever was going on, is done.” The fireballs had ended suddenly and she wondered why.
“We're going to sneak in. A friend once showed me a trick.”
“A friend? You have friends who sneak into places?” Paige tried to look horrified at the thought.
Ella turned and looked at her with a smile. “Friend might be too strong a word.”
“Oh no.” Paige didn't have to over-act her horror as she followed Ella. “You're talking about Frost. ”
Ella nodded. “Well she was Cook at the time, but yes.”
“And we're trusting her advice?” Paige whispered as they left the road, heading towards the crystal wall that surrounded the College.
“It helped us escape when we were held prisoner, I assume it will work in reverse,” Ella said with a shrug. “Although she used a musician's tuning fork, I don't suppose we have one.” Ella didn't know if a piece of metal would work in the same way.
“You know how much musical ability I have.” Paige crouched down with Ella next to the base of the wall. It looked different than she remembered it, the colors were less vibrant, the rainbow not nearly as scintillating as it had been. “It's weakened,” she said slowly, studying it.
“If you say so,” Ella said, digging through her pack and pulling out a tuning fork. “Your mother is seriously creepy.” She copied what Cook had done and held it up against the wall.
Paige snorted softly. “You think that's bad? Wait until you hear the story about how she told me you and I were going to have sex when I left home to study. She told me that when I was thirteen, not something I needed to know back then.”
“Jeez, that must have been awkward. I'm surprised you still dated me, you seem to make a habit of going against your mother.” The wall cracked and Ella gave it a kick.
Brushing crystal dust off her, Paige moved through first, right hand on her sword left hand ready to sketch sygils if need be. “I didn't realize who she'd been talking about at first. Then it was too late, we'd already gotten into each others pants.” And under each other's skin, Paige thought.
“Seems quiet,” Paige whispered, staying near the hole they'd just made, listening for the sound of fighting.
Ella grinned. “Just admit I was irresistible, regardless of what your mother warned you about.”
“I think you mean I was irresistible. You snuck into my room that first night, remember?” Paige didn't give Ella chance to answer. She sprinted the short distance to the first building and crouched by its base. Cautiously she peeked around it, waving Ella forward when she saw it was clear.
Ella moved forward giving her a look. “You let me in,” she whispered, looking around. “I don't see any Guardians. Whatever is happening is happening on the roof.” There was a flare of heat and pain her side and Ella gritted her teeth ignoring it. “We need to get up there.”
“That's the high Magisters tower,” Paige said, craning her head to peer up at the tallest of the buildings. It was built like a soaring cathedral, a monument to the magic that the Magi had tamed and used for their own purposes. “Only magic users are allowed inside.” She gave Ella a crooked smile. “Let's go.”
Ella couldn't help but smile back and remember how she'd fallen in love with Paige in the first place. “Lead on.”
“There should be guards here, students, someone,” Paige said softly as they rounded the building they'd been crouched behind and headed for the center of the College. They passed dormitories, laboratories and administrative offices, everything seemed deserted. The soaring architecture that Paige had so admired the first time she'd been here, designed to impress of course, now seemed creepy.
“The Gray Lady?” Ella asked. “Is she here?”
“I can't tell.” Paige crouched at the base of the stairs to the central building. Cloaked figures flanked the stairs, hands raised up holding what should have been a bright eternal flame of magic.
Instead there was a small flickering flame there, better suited for a candle.
“Magic is failing, even here.” Paige glanced around again, uneasily as she drew her sword.
Ella frowned realizing she didn't have a weapon. “Why don't I have a weapon? All I have is this mask.” She headed towards the stairs.
Shaking her head, Paige followed, sword out and wary as they reached the doors. A flash of magic above them made her flinch and she yanked open the front door to the building. The tall double wooden doors were carved with sygils meant to repulse anyone who was not a Magi from entering.
Ella and Page entered without a whisper of magic pushing against them.
There was a dull boom, high above them, and Paige cried out a warning as the beautiful stained glass windows exploded. Glass shards rained down on them and she flung up her cloak for whatever protection it would provide.
Ella hesitated. “Paige where are the cells? If this place is under attack I guarantee they just left the people in there to rot and die.” She would bet most of them weren't guilty of much more than irritating a magi.
“There are holding cells a level up, above the main antechamber and near the master Totem.” Paige cast her an uneasy glance. “They're only for rogue Magi though, their connection to the Totems are severed there if they are found guilty of heinous crimes.”
Knowing Ella's feelings about the Magi, and even some of the reasoning behind those feelings, Paige stiffened as she added, “And where they make their Guardians.”
Ella tried to hide her disgust. “Fine, let's save who we can save and then see what all the ruckus is about.
“I'm still technically a Magi you know?” Paige said, moving faster now through the large assembly hall. On a normal day it would have been full of students learning to draw sygils perfectly under the watchful eye of their teachers. Now it was deserted, nothing moved.
“I know, and I'm sorry, but I don't believe in flesh crafting and making people into mindless slaves. I think it belongs under the category of dark crafting.”
“Even for murderers? Rapists?” Paige asked, pausing at the beginning of the stairs to check for movement. There wasn't any so she started up them, sword pointed low and out, ready to attack if needed.
Ella hesitated. “Frost was a mindless slave who got her memories back, slowly, but they were coming back. Who says the same wouldn't be true for a murderer or a rapist? Then they're free to do it again. I don't have exact answer to the problem, but knowing I was about to become one of them it bothers me even more.”
“I think we…” Paige froze, hearing an echo of voices drift down the stairs towards them. She cast a sharp look at Ella and then moved quickly up the long staircase to the second level of the building.
The double doors there were made of ivory and gold, inlayed with silver in a thousand different sygils. None of which seemed to be working as Paige pushed one of the four doors open quietly, just enough for them to slip inside.
She'd only been in the room beyond those doors twice in her life. Once when she had first come to the College of Magi , and the second when she had left it. Only the high Magi were allowed inside. The room filled the top of the building's dome, the floor carved with sygils that dated back to the founding of the Kingdom. Along the walls were the holding cells, silver bars gleaming in the light from the center of the room.
It was what she saw in the center of the room that made Paige freeze next to Ella, mouth open in confusion as she tried to understand what she was seeing.
There were dead bodies scattered across the floor leading up to the master Totem. The totem itself was unique, a pillar of stone carved from a rock that had fallen from the sky, or so the stories said. In front of that pillar a small handful of Magi stood, drawing sygil upon sygil for reasons that Paige couldn't understand. Chained to the Totem though was a figure that she recognized.
“Jennie,” she whispered, horrified.
With every completed sygil, the girl was give a muffled scream of pain, her body jerking in a convulsion.
“Oh gods.” Paige swallowed against bile. “They're using her magic.” Above them, on the roof, she could still hear fighting but her entire attention was on the scene in front of them.
Ella again went for a sword that wasn't there. “Fuck,” she hissed, and raised up the mask. “Why do I have you and not a fucking sword when I need one?” She needed to save Jennie.
Paige gritted her teeth and headed for the nearest magi, murder in her eyes. This was not the College of Magi she remembered from her training. “Get to Jennie,” she said to Ella as she moved.
Ella nodded and circled around behind her waiting for her chance to move.
Only when she raised her sword to strike down the first of the Magi did the one she was heading towards turn. Paige's sword paused, hesitating. “Mindi?” she asked, confused to see a familiar face in this horror.
“Paige,” Mindi said, once luxurious blond hair sickly plastered against her skin. “Glad you showed up,” she said and gestured. Magic curled around them and Paige screamed, going down onto her knees, sword clattering across the floor. “We need your magic Paige.”
“Paige!” Ella scrambled to the fallen woman using the mask to back hand the Mage sending her stumbling back as she bent down to get Paige back up. Ella's eyes darted around, she needed a plan.
Frost raced up the stairs. She should have known better, known that Varnia would not harm Jennie but put her in a situation to be harmed. She had done something noble and it had blown up in her face. She reached the top and slammed through the doors not caring who heard her. She took in the site of Paige, Ella and then Jennie and her tormentors. She pushed herself into action moving so fast she was almost a blur. Her muscles strained to do what she asked of them.
A smooth thrust into the back of a Magi followed with an easy slice to the throat and one threat was eliminated.
Unending pain, that was all Jennie knew as she arched again, distantly hearing someone scream that sounded a lot like her. It pulled at her, wrenching at a part of her, syphoning her life away.
“Stop her!” A Magi woman screeched and the next Magi in the line turned, sketching sygils in the air as he did. Lightning lanced through the air from his hand towards Frost.
Lightning wasn't a trap it was an outright attack, something Frost couldn't dispel. She closed her eyes focusing, and right before it hit her she moved, pushing her muscles past their limit and burying the dagger into his chest. The third person she'd ever killed. She kept moving, dancing around the Mage who didn't even know he was dead yet.
Whipping her body around in a tight circle, she released her last dagger and it tumbled end over end into the eye socket of a third mage.
The fourth person whose life she'd taken. Sweat poured off Frost's body and she moved to Jennie, her hands undoing the spell that bound her to the totem.
“You can't!” The screeching Magi woman was there, grabbing at Frost's arms, eyes wild and frantic. “She's the only one holding it! You can't remove her!”
Frost looked at her with gray eyes that were almost winter white in anger. “I am Frost and I will see this place turned to ruble for what you and your fellow Magi have done to me and mine. Do you understand that?”
She shrugged the woman off and returned to freeing Jennie.
“Frost...” The woman looked lost and then lunged again, grabbing at Frost. “NO!” she screamed. “You'll destroy everything!”
Gritting her teeth, Paige got back up off the floor. “Help Frost,” she said to Ella.
Ella nodded. She sprinted, closing the distance between her and the Magi then tackling her and taking her down to the floor. “Hurry,” she shouted.
Frost hesitated and then went back to breaking the spells.
“Ella!” Paige called. The old woman was a lot more vicious then expected.
Ella was a good fighter, but when a magic wind picks you up and slams you against a stone wall there's not much you can do. She let out a grunt and tried to suck air into her lungs.
“Fuck.” She nearly screamed as she was slammed back into the wall again.
“A little help! Owe! Would you stop scratching me!” Paige tried to throw the woman off as her clothes animated themselves and tried to strangle her. “My shirt...” she gurgled, rolling over as she lost her grip on the old woman.
Frost slapped Jennie's face. “Jennie, stay with me.” Her other hand unlocked the last binding sygil.
“No!” The Magi woman yelled as the bindings came loose.
“Cook?” Jennie whispered, eyes glazed as she came free of the master Totem.
“You fool!” The Magi screamed.
Paige gasped for air when the clothing stopped trying to kill her. “Ella?” She crawled to the wall where her friend was.
Ella cracked open an eye looking at Paige. “You okay?”
“Think my clothes just started trying to kill me,” she said hoarsely, grabbing Ella's arm and helping her up.
Frost eased Jennie down next to Ella and turned looking at the Magi. “You can run away and live or you can attack me and I'll kill you. Those are your choices.”
The woman let her hands drop, now useless tattoos covering her skin as she stared at Frost. “You've destroyed us. You've destroyed everything.”
“Everything ends. Just like you ended the life of my family.” She said voice devoid of emotion. She cocked her head to the side and then ignoring the Mage went to the ones she had killed removing her daggers and cleaned them.
“Cook? Frost?” Jennie asked, confused.
“It's Frost,” Paige said quietly watching Frost move about the room with cold precision. “We have to go, her lady won't be far behind now.”
“No...” Jennie got up, holding onto the wall. “Frost, what did you do?”
Hurt flickered through Frost's grey eyes and she looked away not able to meet Jennie's gaze. “I tried to save you, but I made everything worse,” she said softly.
“Jennie...” Paige started, holding Ella's arm over her shoulder as she got them both upright.
Jennie waved her off, moving towards Frost instead. “What did you do?” she whispered, scared as she reached for Frost's arm.
“You should go,” Frost said. “She's up on the roof finishing up the last of Magi. Her army marches against the city.” She didn't move away. “I did horrible things, Jennie.”
“Oh Frost.” Jennie whispered, reaching up to cup her cheek, blinking at the tears in her eyes. “You killed the king. I felt it, when I was...” She trailed off, not looking towards the Totem that was slowly starting to crack and crumble.
“That was a mercy, he was sick and dying already. I gave him the peace he asked for. But these people, I killed because they were hurting you, killing you.”
“I killed someone too.” Jennie brought her other hand up, cupping both of Frost's cheeks. “Thomas, he's dead, I burned him to death on top of me.” She took a shuddering breath. “You left me. Why did you leave me?”
“Jennie...” Paige said urgently, looking upwards worriedly. It was silent now, there was no more fighting going on, which was a bad sign.
“Go.” Jennie said, not looking over at them.
“She promised to spare you. Leave you unharmed and unhurt if I returned to her. I left her Jennie, I let myself be captured. Revenge was cold and empty and I was tired of everything. Meriweather offered me the peace of not knowing. Then you woke me up.”
There were tears in her eyes, Frost who never cried. “I was good as Cook, noble, helpful, maybe a hero.”
“Jennie!” Paige said, more urgently. “We can't stay here, do you understand? Ella's hurt.”
“Then take her!” Jennie didn't look away from Frosts' eyes. “Go, now. Frost and I have to stay here. Right here is where we're meant to be.”
“Paige, she's right. We need to go stop an invading army. That's where we're supposed to be. We were never meant to be here, your mother was right.” Ella wheezed out as pain wracked her ribs.
Paige looked from one to the other, incredulously. “The two of us against an army?”
“Two of us and this mask.”
Now Jennie did look at them, letting go of Frost's cheeks. “You have to go now.” She smiled at Ella as she reached out to touch them both. “I love you Ella, goodbye.”
“No good-byes. I'll see you later,” Ella said firmly.
Jennie smiled and reached out, touching them both. Magic swirled around them and Paige opened her mouth to ask what exactly she was doing but they disappeared with a pop of displaced air. Jennie let her hand drop sadly.
Frost ran a hand over Jennie's cheek. “Melinda, my name is Melinda Frost.”
“I missed you,” Jennie answered. “Melinda.” Jennie leaned into Frost's touch. “We don't have long, she's coming. I thought you'd left me.”
“I did. I'm not proud of it, but I thought I was keeping you safe from her. But she lied. She sent you into harms way. I... tried to be Frost again but I can't, how can I when all I could think about was you and how happy I was being Cook.”
Jennie gave a half-sob half-laugh, leaning her head against Frost's shoulder. “Please don't make me go back into the Totem. Please?”
Frost turned her head and kissed her head. “Never.”
“Never what?” The voice caressed her ears and Jennie clenched her eyes shut. She could feel the magic approaching, it was blazing bright even with her eyes shut. “Frost, you promise never what?” Varnia purred as the doors slammed open for entrance.
“To make her go back into the totem,” Frost replied. “You made a promise and then broke it. You sent her here to be hurt and harmed.”
Varinia laughed and Jennie trembled in Frost's arms. “I sent her back to where she wanted to be. She was an apprentice Magi wasn't she? It isn't my fault they decided to use her like that.” Varnia daintily stepped over a dead body. “You've certainly embraced your new calling Frost.”
“It is the family business after all. What did the witch prophesize?”
“That you would end it all.” Varnia smiled at her. “My army's at the city gates, the king is dead, the Black Wood is in revolt.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “You've certainly fulfilled your part in this Frost.”
“She used you,” Jennie said quietly, molded against Frost's side.
“Of course I did!” Varnia laughed. “She used me too.”
“Yes. We've used each other, until I decided I'd had enough and let Meriweather capture me.”
“Scheming old bastard.” Varnia snapped at them. “He came so close to ruining it. Ruining everything!” She took a deep breath and smoothed her hands against her dress. “Which isn't happening, because everything's happening as it should.”
“She's going to kill us,” Jennie whispered, eyes flicking to the master Totem. Flakes of stone were peeling off it and dropping to the ground, almost feather light.
“Yes, everything is happening as it should. Only you won't be around to witness what is born from this ash,” Frost said charging at Varnia, daggers drawn. If she could make an opening, just one, perhaps Jennie could finish it and live.
“Please.” Varnia sniffed, holding out her hand, palm out and Frost ran straight into a wall of force.
Frost gave a grunt and slashed at it with her dagger trying to dissolve the spell.
The tip penetrated through the spell and Varnia frowned. “I made those daggers too well it seems.” She lashed out at Frost with pure force, trying to crush the woman under a simple onslaught of magic.
Only to find it diverted as Jennie sent her own magic rushing to defend Frost, forming a wedge in front of the woman to divert the force around her.
Snarling in frustration, Varnia backed off, eyeing them. “You could rule beside me Frost, become my Queen. Imagine what changes you could make if you had eternity.”
Frost gave a faint half smile. “You lie, Lady. You would never share power.”
Varnia's face hardened. “Then you'll both die.”
“That is certainly something I hope to avoid,” Frost said.
Varnia yelled in rage and raised her hands. The walls around them trembled as she commanded magic to do as she wished. Magic, bolstered by even more magic flooded to her command and Jennie yelled a warning. It was blinding bright to her eyes and she called magic to herself, hastily pulling a shield around herself and Frost.
“I am death!” Varnia screamed and magic lashed out at them, bright and raw.
The dome above them exploded outwards under the sheer force of it and Jennie screamed, falling to her knees as she pulled the shield around them under that assault.
It took a moment for Ella to realize what she was seeing. The army was a mixture of humans, walking trees, and dark human like shadows. She swallowed nervously having no idea how they were going to stop them.
Beside her Paige blinked, trying to orient herself. “How'd she do that?” she murmured, though it didn't really matter. They were at the capital, regardless. “That's quite an army,” she said, glad her sword was still in her hand.
The Gate to the Capital opened and warriors on horseback emerged. Paige recognized the symbol of the royal twins, prince and princess, although now one of them would be Ruler. “Oh, thank goodness.”
Paige felt exposed. They were on the wide avenue that led from the bridge over the river Ardain to the gates of the Capital. “What are they waiting for you think?” she asked, nodding towards the army that was on the edge of the river, watching them.
“I don't know...” The top of the College exploded and from the army a horn sounded. “That. The destruction of the College.”
“Fuck,” Paige whispered, eyes wide as she watched the entire top of the main dome explode outwards. It was far in the distance, across the river and on the top of the hill opposite the capital. Even across all that distance she could feel the sheer magical force press against her as the explosion rolled across them.
The first of the twin's, Paige couldn't tell if it was a boy or a girl in that thick armor, pulled up their horse next to Ella. “Who are you?” they demanded, long sword aimed at Ella cautiously.
“Ella, Guard Captian of Milford .”
“Ella?” The second twin pulled up their charger, it pranced nervously for a moment and the twin had to pull on its reigns again. “My father spoke of an Ella that saved him from a plot, years ago. Is that you?”
Paige watched the army of trees out of the corner of her eye. Darkmen, keepers and caretakers started across the river. “Ella...” she whispered urgently. “We don't have long.”
“I couldn't say, that would be private between me and the King.”
“You are that Ella!” The first twin said, laughter in their voice.
“Ella....” Paige said more urgently.
“Know that we are here to help. The College has fallen to someone known as the Gray Lady.”
The twins shared a look. “We've heard of her, our father told us about her before...” The second twin trailed off and the first one continued, “Before he was killed. The army is in chaos, half of it has already defected saying we should surrender immediately and hope for mercy.”
“I will be no traitor,” Ella said clearly. “Even in surrender we will be nothing more than slaves.”
It was a fine time to declare allegiance, Paige thought sourly, watching the first of the twisted trees cross the river. It made its way up to the bank it, delivering the figures that had ridden across the river on its back and limbs.
“We can't stay here,” Paige said, loudly.
“And where will we go? We make our stand here.”
“Excellent!” the first twin said, raising a horn to his or her lips and blowing long and hard. The sound echoed and Paige twisted to see behind her. At first nothing stirred in the open gate of the city and her heart sank. Then, in fits and starts, riding and running with spears, bows, swords and shields, the men and women of the army came to the call.
“Not many of them,” Paige said grimly to Ella, dropping down to sketch sygils into the earth at their feet. Nothing happened in response though, there was simply no magic for her to call too and she swallowed. “I can't cast anything Ella.”
“Stop trying to cast as a Mage and cast as a Witch,” Ella replied.
“I don't know how!” Paige said anguished.
“All those years living with your mother and you learned nothing, come on Paige!”
Paige made a disgusted sound. “She uses those masks to call the spirits!”
“You're without a sword?” One of the Twin's asked Ella, drawing a spare from their back and offering it to her.
Ella took it and then pulled out the mask looking at it. “Okay, please summon spirits to help us,” she asked the mask feeling foolish. She gazed at it frowning.
Ella turned it over in her hands and put it up to her face to look through the eye holes.
“I don't think the mask will scare them into submission,” Ella said. Then she gave a muffled curse realizing she couldn't pull it away from her face. The sword dropped from her hands as she tried to use both to remove it.
“Wait!” Paige grabbed her hands. “Keep it on. You'll become a channel for them.”
“What?” Ella wasn't certain she wanted that.
“They're accepting you, as part of our family. Wear the mask Ella,” Paige said with certainty as she picked up her sword again and pressed it into Ella's hand.
Ella took the sword.
The two armies would meet not far from where they stood now. The twins took off with fierce war yells, spurring their mounts into a gallop towards the advancing foes.
“Trust in it,” Paige yelled, starting of at a run after them.
The scar on Ella's side pulsed as she ran after Paige.
The first spirit looked like both a woman and a tree, and Ella almost screamed as she ran through it. The spirit entered her flesh and she felt stronger. The next one was a wolf and the next and impish looking man wearing a mushroom as a hat.
With each spirit she felt stronger, faster, each one she knew belonged to the Black Wood.
The last one though, was the King, Ella recognized him even though she had not seen him in decades. He gave her tactics and wisdom she'd never even considered before.
Ella passed Paige only a few steps into their run and the former Magi smiled grimly, knowing why her friend had suddenly gotten faster. “Don't let them control you!” she called out in warning.
It was the only warning she had time to give as the lines of troops slammed together. There was no order, no formation, only pure chaos as the fight instantly degenerated into small rolling battles.
Ella somehow knew spells to release the Darkmen from the trees that imprisoned them. She twisted and turned through them, the living Guardian of the Woods.
“Follow Ella!” Paige screamed, ducking away from a sword slash and disemboweling a Keeper who she'd worked with for years. “Follow her!” she yelled again and one of the twins heard her. The horn sounded again and those closest to them answered, following after the path of destruction Ella was leaving in her wake.
The shadowed men were sad husks of Darkmen, and keepers, drained of almost all of their magic. Those Ella merely cut down.
Where she passed the trees that were twisted by Varnia's magic they stopped moving, straightening out until they were simply trees again.
“Protect her!” Paige screamed over the fighting, chopping down a creature with far too many arms and legs as it tried to get at Ella's back.
The power was amazing. Ella had never felt so strong, so powerful. In a world of magic, something she couldn't use or see she'd felt weak, but not now. Her sword found every weak point, and those that sought to stop her were instead cut down.
They cut a path to the river, leaving a trail of trees and dead behind them. “Ella...” Paige had to grab her arm to keep her from going into the water. They had a moments calm in the eye of the storm. “Ella,” she repeated, louder.
The mask snarled and rippled. Ella heard her name distantly.
It was like having her head underwater and trying to get to the surface. “Paige?”
“Ella.” Paige grabbed her by both shoulders, worried she'd have to shake her to get an answer. One of the Twin's had lost their mount, the other one was limping, leg stained red as they watched. “You have to remember who you are Ella.”
“I'm Ella, Ella of Milford,” she said quietly. “Paige it's... so powerful.”
“I know.” Paige could guess at least. “But if you loose yourself you'll be nothing but a channel for the spirits.”
“They're forming up to attack again,” the nearest twin said, gesturing with a sword to the forces mustering against them.
Part of Ella was scared, scared that in the end she'd be a ghost in her own body. “I'm ready,” she said, clenching her sword.
“Remember who you are,” Paige said again, squeezing her shoulder hard before drawing her sword again.
“They come!” Someone screamed and the first wave slammed into them again.
Ella was moving before she could even think to move.
An unending wave of magic crashed down around them swallowing Jennie's scream as she held onto Frost's back, the only thing keeping her standing. It went on and on, more than she'd ever dreamed possible, all of the force that Varnia had at her disposal from all of the Totems she'd destroyed. In the face of that Jennie's shield withered, retracting around them until it was a bare eggshell of a thing, fragile and but a hairsbreadth thick.
Then, just when she was certain it would fail and they'd simply be swept away, the onslaught suddenly ended.
“I'm offering you a choice Frost. One last time, for old time's sake,” Varnia said, watching them both through hooded eyes. “Kill the wench and come stand by my side or die.”
Frost stood, nearly silent, panting for breath. Each hand held a dagger. She seemed to be considering the words. “No,” she said. There was no point in it. With Jennie she was finally free. She'd never known how enslaved she had been with Varnia, and her rage and desire for revenge. With Jennie she finally knew peace, finally knew freedom.
“I told you I'd burn the world if you left me again!” Varnia yelled and Jennie cried out a warning as the magic swept against them again. She recovered a little, the shield was slightly larger and thicker again.
“Maybe you should…” Jennie cried, hands gripping the back of Frost's shirt as she couldn't force herself to complete the sentence.
“Kill you? Why would I do that? I spent all this time finding you. Let me tell you it was an odd journey to search for something I didn't even know I wanted,” Frost said as she turned around looking at Jennie. “No matter what happens know that you gave me peace.” She leaned forward kissing Jennie's red lips.
Jennie smiled tremulously through the tears as she kissed her back, lingering, trying to memorize the feel of those lips against hers. “She's stronger than I am Frost.” Even as they talked she could feel the defenses strip away around them.
“No she's not. She's more skilled, but your power comes from the same place. Plus you work with the magic and she still tries to bend it to her will, just like the magi. She never really learned. Ask the magic to aid you.” Frost gave Ella a sad smile. “I'm going to distract her.” She dove out of the shield, weaving as much as she could of her own magic around her making her seem to disappear and reappear as she moved.
Frost feinted at Varnia, leaping with what looked like every intention of driving her daggers into the woman. As predicted Varnia strengthened her shields, but Varnia had never been her target. With a scream she hit the wooden floor making it groan and rip open sending both of them tumbling below. She hoped she'd given Jennie enough time to center herself.
Frost hit the stairs and screamed as her arm popped out its socket and she continued to tumble down the stairs. Finally she came to a stop a broken and bleeding heap.
“NO!” Jennie screamed above them as stone and wood tumbled down into the hole that had just swallowed Frost and Varnia. The magic that had been attacking her suddenly stopped and her shield flickered out of existence as she opened herself to the magic around her. There was no fear anymore as Jennie flung open her arms and called, pleading and begging for the magic to come to her.
For all of it to come to her.
It leapt to her call, wild and joyous now that the Totems were gone. It rushed into her, filling her until she'd thought she'd burst, and still it came. Jennie's feet came up off the floor, clothes turning to ash as the magic burned them away.
“Bitch,” Varnia spat, slowly rising back up out of the hole, leaving Frost where she'd fallen to die there. Her eyes widened at seeing the glowing column of fire that was Jennie, but it was beyond her to feel any sort of hesitation. “Frost's dying,” Varnia called, marshaling her next attack. “She should have been by my side but now she's dying and it's because of you!”
The tidal wave of magic Varnia had gathered from all the Totems in the kingdom reared up above her and with a sweep of her hands she sent it crashing down on Jennie. There were no shields in front of Jennie, she was naked and undefended. Varnia laughed in triumph as her attack swept over the other woman.
Chunks of the hall blew apart, entire walls vaporized and what was left of the floor disappeared.
Varnia's laughter died as the magic she'd just flung at Jennie simply disappeared, absorbed by Jennie. Every single bit of it, without causing so much as a grimace of pain on Jennie's face.
“Impossible.” Varnia breathed.
“I've come to learn that nothing's impossible.” Jennie's voice echoed around them, muted and yet amplified by the magic.
“No.” Varnia yelled, calling for more magic but there wasn't anything and she screamed in rage. “I'm immortal!”
“Nothing lasts forever.” Jennie's smile was bitter sweet. “Nothing.” And the magic lashed out, burning away the screaming woman in front of her from the inside out.
Ella screamed in rage as the shadow creature in front of her flashed out of existence before she could land the killing blow. All around her discomfort and confusion could be seen in the invading troops. Tree monsters fell apart, shadowy men evaporated and all that was left were weeping men and women.
Breathing heavily Ella fell to her knees, dropping her sword. Her blood boiled with the need to keep fighting to drive them all away. She grabbed her head with both hands and screamed, rocking back and forth trying to get the mask off.
“Ella!” Paige dropped to her knees in front of her, grabbing Ella's arms before she did herself any damage. “Stop. Stop and look at me!”
Ella snarled and almost pushed Paige away only to catch herself. “Help me.”
Giving her a bloody smile, Paige squeezed her arms. “That's what I'm doing. Calm yourself, focus on me.”
They were crouched next to a towering tree that had not been there a few hours earlier. Paige could hear the cries of the wounded and the shouts of those begging for mercy. None of which was her concern as she knelt in front of Ella.
Ella took one breath after another, her eyes focused on Paige. “It wants to keep fighting, it doesn't care what,” she said softly. Her body couldn't keep going not at the pace it had been keeping. In the end she was just human and her body was already taxed beyond limits. She was bone weary tired.
“Shh,” Paige hushed, running her fingers through sweat and blood soaked hair. “Relax, close your eyes and think about something that made you happy.”
Ella did as instructed, focusing on a summer day when her and Paige had snuck off to the swimming hole and found themselves alone for the whole day. It had been magical, and the moment she realized that she loved Paige.
Feeling the muscles under her hands start to relax, Paige nodded. “Good. Think about the good times, think about something that made you happy and loved.” She reached up slowly, fingers resting along the edge of the mask.
Ella smiled softly remembering the kiss on that sun warmed dock, it had been the most perfect kiss of her life.
A gentle tug of her hands and Paige smiled as she set aside the mask, exhausted and happy to see Ella's face again. “Hi again.”
Ella lunged forward hugging Paige tightly, crying. “Hi,” she said into Paige's shoulder.
“You just scared the shit out of me, you know that?” Paige held her tight, shaking as she realized how close she'd just come to losing Ella.
“I scared the shit out of myself,” Ella mumbled. The tears had stopped and she could feel herself close to exhaustion. “Paige, I need to lie down and sleep for a week. My body wasn't meant for whatever that was.”
“It pushed you past what was meant for humans to endure,” Paige whispered, pressing kisses to Ella's cheeks and lips, anywhere she could touch.
“Now you kiss me, when I'm too tired to return the favor or escalate it into something more.” She wasn't upset though.
Laughing, Paige hugged her tight. “Later then.” She looked up, scanning for a horse she could use to get Ella somewhere safer. “Look at all the trees Ella, there have never been trees between the river Ardain and the capital before.”
“The souls inside, that made them something other than trees, were set free and somehow they just replanted themselves here.” With Paige's help Ella stood, looking around. “Looks like the twins have more than easily handled the remaining human forces. We should go check on Jennie, I'm guessing she won.” But worry still ate at her belly.
Paige just nodded, she didn't want to tell Ella about the second explosions that had risen into the sky just before the fighting had suddenly ended. “Let's find a horse for you before you fall over though.”
Ella nodded and winced, her whole body ached something fierce. “Sounds good although I may have to ride behind you and hang on.” She left the sword on the ground afraid to pick it up. “The spirits were so angry.”
“It's not a happy mask.” Paige answered simply, and she ended up mostly carrying Ella to the nearest place she could commandeer a horse. There were a few of them riderless after the battle and no one seemed to care when she led it away from its fallen rider.
“Hold on,” Paige said after finally getting Ella up and behind her.
Ella nodded and did her best.
Frost groaned and coughed up blood. Her breathing was a harsh wheezing and she couldn't seem to get enough air. Not a good sign. She couldn't feel her legs and her back was nothing put fiery pain. “Jennie?” She tried to shout but it was a whisper. It was silent, whatever battle had happened it was over.
Rubble shifted, debris cascading down to the hole where Frost lay. A naked Jennie floated down after it, landing lightly next to Frost and then crouching there on the broken stone and dirt. Her clothes had burned away under the explosions of magic.
“Frost,” she said quietly, voice echoing with sadness as she touched Frost's arm.
Frost smiled. “Jennie. You won.” The touch felt good. “I'm really hurt I'm afraid. Can we go back to the woods? I don't want to die, but I definitely don't want to die here in this place of horrors.”
Jennie said nothing as she cupped Frost's cheek. She didn't have to call the magic, it was still there and it was a mere thought to shift them from the ruins of the College of Magi to the Black Wood.
The tree of the King loomed over them, but it didn't seem menacing anymore. The scars and wounds along its trunk no longer wept sap, instead they were healed over and the tree seemed healthier than ever. Darkmen stood in the shadows, watching them but keeping their distance.
Gently, Jennie picked up Frost and held her in her lap. “We won.”
“You won, I merely switched sides.” Frost coughed again and her breath rattled for a second in her lungs. “Falling for you was maybe the first thing I ever did right, my first decision not made with anger and hurt. What a wasted life I had, but thank you for making it meaningful at the end.” Tired, she let her eyes close.
A Darkman approached Jennie and Frost and he sat down next to them, letting his back rest against his tree. “You are everything your mother said you were. She would sometimes send me messages about her and you through a fire pixie. So much I missed out on with you, I knew I would miss out on, but your mother was so sweet and lovely. She wouldn't let me get away with anything. She made me be genuine to win her love, and once I had it and her, the College made her leave or they were going to destroy the child inside of her. I begged her to return to the woods but to keep us both safe she never did. Your mother was strongest woman I have ever known.”
Jennie bowed her head, blinking against tears. “I'm sorry I never knew.” Fire burned along the fingers of her left hand and she had to clench it to smother the flames. Jennie looked up, tears burned away and smiled at the Darkman. “It would have been nice to learn more about the Black Wood.” Ever so carefully she kissed Frost's forehead, careful not to burn the other woman's skin. “We're going away Frost,” she whispered.
“I would like to think your mother would have told you, but she got sick before she could.” He regarded Jennie and Frost. “Your lover is like us, far back in her heritage, but it's there. We can still save her but she'll be tied to the woods, doomed to become a shade during daylight hours. We can give her a tree and bind her soul to it. She'll heal, it might take days or years, but she'll heal. You can do the same as well. It's your choice. Of course you might be able to heal her, but if you could I suppose you would have done it all ready. We found our magic was better when we anchored ourselves to the earth. It kept us grounded, but it made us shades during daylight hours and eventually we became more nocturnal. The choice is yours but make it quickly.”
“There's nothing left of me.” Jennie brushed her fingers through Frost's hair, trying to memorize the feel of it only to pull her fingers away when the hair singed. “It's too much magic, it's burning me from the inside.”
He laughed. “So much you don't know, yet you risked the unknown. That is why the trees are ours. The overflow of magic flows out of the roots back into the ground returning, renewing.” He stood up. “Come now before time runs out. You will probably sleep for a long time. She will have to be patient and wait for you.” He held out his hand smiling. “Come now, do not let me find my only daughter only to lose her.”
A flicker of hope and Jennie took his hand. “You'll heal her?”
“We'll try. There are never any guarantees.”
Ella couldn't believe it had been five years since the horrible battle that had destroyed the Magi.
Leaning against the porch railing and watched the sun set.
It lit up the trees of the Black Wood in a beautiful way that was nearly heartbreaking. It had been years since the cataclysm that had changed the landscape of their world. There had been fallout but the human race went on, the College was now ruins that children told ghost stories about.
Ella's personal fallout had been the fact that wearing the mask had made her younger. All the energy the spirits had filled her with had cause the gray to leave her hair as well as the aches from her bones. The dark scar on her side was still there however, and she could feel the Black Wood call to her sometimes. Someday maybe she would answer.
She hadn't been able to return to Milford , the people hadn't trusted her or this new world, and it was the same in many others. Her greatest regret was she hadn't been able to save Jennie. The girl had apparently given her life to save them all.
Ella had a modest home near the Capital city and the woods, she played advisor on occasion to the royal family, something that still amazed and surprised her.
Smiling, Ella leaned back into the arms that encircled her. “Decided to come out and enjoy the sunset with me?”
“I couldn't resist the view.” Paige had wrapped her arms around Ella's waist, hugging her from behind. “Looked like you were thinking deep thoughts.”
“Nah, you know me, I'm not really that deep.” She turned and kissed Paige, running her hands through hair that like hers bore no gray, a gift, a curse. She didn't know, but Paige was happy. To live Ella had needed to pour off some of the energy or magic the spirits had given her and she'd all but attacked Paige the moment she'd woken up from a two day nap. “Still no ill will for binding your lifeline with mine?”
Paige smiled, the same smile she'd given every time Ella had asked that question. “No ill will, ever. I know very well you think deeper thoughts then most anyone I know.” Paige kissed her lightly. “The royal Twins asking hair raising questions again?”
“No, we talked nonsense and drank some vile fruit drink. Samuel's wife is pregnant so the Kingdom will have an heir and mainly we spoke to relieve his worries about being a father. Sarah is lonely, because being Captain of the Royal Guard is a lonely job.” She laughed. “How funny that I was giving parenting advice? The child I raised was a teenager and hardly needing my guidance.”
“She needed every ounce of guidance you could give her.” Paige hugged her again, knowing who it was Ella was talking about. “We can go see the tree if you want.”
“Tomorrow, and we should see your mother. I have a basket of apples.”
Paige was proud she managed not to groan. “You know she's just going to want to try to teach us how to use them in a potion.”
“Indulge her. Her hair is almost all white now and she needs a cane. So what if it's potion making, the joy is in the time spent with each other,” Ella said kissing her again.
Paige's lips curled into a smile as she kissed her back, pulling Ella with her as she walked backwards towards their house. “We could have our own joy first,” she said hopefully.
“You read my mind,” Ella said, laughingly letting Paige pull her along.
Their house was surrounded by trees, built near the bank of the Ardain not far from where the battle for the Kingdom had ended. There had been a lot of arguing about what to do with the trees that had suddenly rooted themselves in the fertile plane between the Capital city and the river. Paige and Ella had argued for keeping them there, as a symbol of what had come before.
In the end the trees had stayed, as had the ruins of the College of Magi . Its deserted buildings and crumbling walls were slowly being reclaimed by nature.
They'd built the house themselves, stone by stone, and plank by plank. There were times when Paige would stand with her hands on her hips, staring at the world around her and thinking how little it resembled what had come before. Sometimes, in the darkness of the night she'd wake up and wonder if they'd done the right things. What would have happened if they'd chosen differently?
Then Ella would shift next to her and she'd wrap her arm around Paige's waist and those thoughts would disappear.
There was still a streak of white in Paige's hair as she pulled Ella into their house, but the gray strands were gone for now. She'd noticed small crows feet starting at the corners of her eyes again, but that was fine. They'd recaptured all those years they'd lost before and Paige reveled in every precious second.
“I was worried you'd never wake up,” she whispered, pulling Ella's shirt free of her pants, warm hands sliding under the gap to stroke Ella's back. Feeling the muscles there shift and flex. “After you fell asleep from wearing the mask.” It had been years since it had happened, but she still sometimes had nightmares about it.
“I don't know why you would be worried when I had a sexy woman waiting for me day and night by my bedside, completely ignoring the healer.” Considering the healer no longer had his magic it had probably been wise.
“Leaches.” Paige shuddered. “He wanted to use leaches!”
Ella shuddered herself because of something Paige was doing with her hands. “You make it hard to think when you do that,” she said voice low and husky. “I should be stripping you naked, yet you still wear your clothes.
Pulling her tight, Paige gave her a cocky grin. “I rather like this though. You at my mercy, it doesn't happen often.” She slid her hands downwards to cup Ella's ass and pull her even tighter.
Ella moaned. “I'm always at your mercy. Please...” She moaned. “You have me so wet already.”
They weren't going to make it to the bedroom, Paige thought as she pushed Ella up against the wall. Her mouth claimed Ella's lips as she slid a hand between them and found Ella just as wet as she'd claimed. “Oh fuck.” She growled, sliding into that wet heat as Ella wrapped a leg around her. Had they always been so eager to make love?
She thought so, but their time together at the college of Magi was a dim memory now. This second youth had taken some getting used to.
“Ugh, yes,” Ella whispered. Her hands snuck under Paige's shirt gripping the flesh of her back hard. She loved Paige, had always loved Paige, loved her more now because the simple touch of their flesh meeting kept her grounded, reminded her why staying here was important and why the woods couldn't have her yet. Could never have her.
In the moment of waking from that sleep so many years ago, she'd attacked Paige with a desire to consume her and bound their lifelines together. She would only live as long as Paige, Paige was her anchor in this world. She was still mostly human, mostly. She was lucky Paige hadn't seemed to mind, she'd come back to herself almost positive the Paige she'd known would have knocked her silly.
Thoughts of past and present flew apart as her hips arched to meet Paige's thrusts. “More. I want more of you,” she said her hands trying to rip Paige's shirt off.
The shirt came off, a few buttons paying the ultimate price for their frantic desire and the pants followed. With a low groan Paige pulled Ella down to the floor, glad for the fur rug, her fingers never stopping their thrusting. “More?” She whispered, pressing down against Ella, sliding against her as she added a second and then a third finger.
Ella nearly sobbed, she was so close. “Yes.” All thought was wiped from her head, all she wanted was to complete this journey into pleasure.
Nails dug into the skin of Paige's back as Ella arched and then gave a scream as she came.
Paige whispered nonsense as she held Ella, marveling at how heartbreakingly beautiful she looked like this. Gently she slid her fingers clear and kissed Ella again and again, whispering how much she loved her. Finally, when they both had more or less caught their breath she could talk again.
“Did the anniversary bring that on?” Paige asked, pressing kisses to still sweaty skin. Tomorrow it would be five years, to the day of the End of Times as people had taken to calling it.
Ella looked at her. “Honey, I don't need the anniversary of when the world changed to prompt me to have sex with my wife. Just looking at you makes me want to get on my knees and bring you to climax with my mouth, most days.” She grinned standing up and then bent over scooping Paige up carrying her to the bedroom. The scar was a dark star-like thing on her side.
“Did you know they call her Saint Jennie? Children light candles on this night for her. The pray to her. But Jennie is no Goddess, she was a young woman from a small village who died saving our world. I miss her and I feel like I failed my promise to keep her safe.” Ella laid Paige down on the bed and then followed covering Paige's body with her own, shivering as their heat mingled. “And now I no longer wish to reflect on my failure but instead my success in pleasuring you.” She smiled and started to kiss down Paige's body.
Paige hummed her approval of plan, fingers tangling in Ella's hair as she twined their legs together. “Just wondering,” she murmured, all thoughts about the anniversary disappearing as Ella's lips seared her skin.
Frost sat under a tree, carefully carving a piece of wood. It looked vaguely like a figure on a horse. The tree she sat beneath was big, one of the biggest in the woods and it was black, blacker than night. She'd learned things since being in the woods. Not all trees were black, just the ones that housed the first race. Long ago they'd given up children and mortality to be servants of the magic, the race had split into humans and the beings known as the Darkmen.
She paused and rubbed a hand over the bark. “I'm here, I'm waiting. No rush love, just whenever you're ready.” She went back to carving the toy, and when she had enough she'd travel to the closest town and trade what she could for supplies. She'd healed in her tree but never really taken to it like the others. Now she was a true Caretaker, she inspected the sleeping trees and tended to the woods in general. Mostly she slept in the roots of this tree but once a month she retreated into her own tree.
“How long will you wait for her?” the Darkman asked as he emerged from the nearest shadows and watched Frost carve.
She looked at him, her face conveying how silly she found that question. “As long as I need to.”
“It might be a long time,” he said, crouching by her to study the carving she was doing.
“Then it's a long time. It's not like I'm going to age and die, she sees to that.” Frost pointed at a smaller tree not far away, it was very clear that the roots of the two trees were joined. “I can't feel her but I'm not worried.”
“Human love is such a strange thing. She was willing to throw away everything and risk the world on being able to contain the magic she called to her.” The Darkman didn't sound upset, merely curious as he said it. “You will see her again, if you are patient.”
“Don't give me that wise and mysterious crap, you, who fell in live with a human woman and sired a daughter with her. I will wait, as long as it takes. After a life of excesses, to wait and nurture something like this is new and exciting.”
There was an expression that might have been a smile on the Darkman. “She was very beautiful, Jennie's mother. Would you believe me if I told you she seduced me?”
“Yes, actually. Jennie did the same to me.” She paused in her carving, looking at him. “Did you want some time alone with her? I should be getting to my inspections and checks of the woods. You're the only one who's always awake, the rest of you take turns, never all awake at the same time. Some of you sleep for decades, and you're pitifully incapable of protecting yourselves.”
“It is why we lost the war.” But the Darkman did the odd smiling again. “Of course, I could say we won the second one. I will keep her company until you return.”
“When the landscape of the world changes, no one wins, you only survive,” Frost said setting the carving down at the base of the tree. “I'll return in an hour or so.” She faded easily into the shadows of the forest.
He chuckled, sitting down at the base of the dark tree and looked up at her branches. “Perhaps, but we've done better than just survive.”
Frost might have had patience, but she was lonely, her heart ached for Jennie. She stopped at the witch's house. “ Elizabeth ?”
“Frost!” The old woman hobbled out of her shelter, ducking under the ever-growing number of masks to hug her. “You always know how to find me! It is good to see you, but you may not want to stay. Ella and Paige are going to make a surprise visit, I think Ella is bringing apples she picked.”
Frost returned the hug. “I'll leave. I know that it hurts Ella to see me.”
“I would prefer you stay.” The old woman regarded her fondly. “You haven't changed a bit in ten years. Even my daughter is starting to age again, although it was nice of the spirits to give her and Ella more time together.”
“It was nice of them. I don't age because she won't let me age, it's her gift to me for waiting. Even in sleep she looks out for me.” Her face was impassive but her gray eyes held warmth. “Ella wasn't happy the last time she saw me, I should probably go.”
“Stay.” Elizabeth said, holding onto her arm with fingers that now had age spots on them. “Besides,” she grinned up at Frost. “They're almost here anyway.”
“You're sneaky old woman, delaying me.” But she smiled, “I doubt Jennie will be waking up today or tomorrow, so I can spend some time.”
“Time's coming though, you wont have to wait forever.” Elizabeth 's eyes sparkled as she let go just as Paige stepped through the dark shadows between rocks.
“Mother we brought…” Paige's voice trailed off as she took in the woman standing next to Elizabeth . “Frost?”
Frost kept her face impassive. “Hello Paige, and Ella.”
Ella was scowling, mainly because she hated walking backwards. “Frost.” She said surprised, her eyes automatically looking for Jennie and then remembered she was gone. Her eyes darted away not wanting anyone to see the hurt there. “I brought apples.”
“Excellent!” Elizabeth declared into the strained silence as she darted forward to take the hemp bag full of apples. “We'll have food first, then you and I will practice some new potions,” she declared, already hobbling her way towards the shelter.
Paige sighed as she watched her mother go. “I worry about her all alone out here,” she said, mostly to herself.
“She's not alone. I visit her from time to time, to check on her and her masks,” Frost replied trailing after Elizabeth though she had no desire to make potions.
“You do?” Paige cast a look at a silent Ella. “I didn't know, she hasn't mentioned it before.” She shifted, not certain if she should follow or stay with Ella. “How are you doing, Frost?”
“I make do. I take care of the woods now. Chase off poachers and woodsman that sort of thing. How are you and Ella doing? Its funny but I think we're almost the same age now.”
“I think I'm older than you are, mentally perhaps.” Paige said dryly, pulling on Ella's arm to get her moving. “Any change at the tree yet?”
“No, and I don't expect any for a long time still to come. I know that's not what anyone wants to hear,” Frost replied.
By which Frost did not mean Paige and she looked over at Ella, raising an eyebrow and then not so subtly giving her a nudge.
“I know, it's okay,” Ella said curtly. “Even the King of the Darkmen doesn't know how long or even if she will wake up.”
Frost was suddenly wishing she hadn't stayed, her presences didn't help Ella's guilt.
“She will wake up.” Paige squeezed Ella's shoulder. “Maybe not in our lifetime, but she will wake up. Until then though,” Paige looked to Ella. “It's not either of yours fault.”
Ella's face softened. “Your right. She'll wake up and Frost will tell her how much I loved her and missed her.”
“Of course,” Frost replied.
“How much we both miss her.” Paige added. It had been a surprise to realize she missed the young Magi despite how briefly she'd known her. “Will you join us for some food Frost?” She glanced at Ella. “Perhaps you could come visit our house someday too.”
“Of course, I would love too.” Frost followed them into Elizabeth 's home.
The last of the tension drained from Paige's shoulders and she smiled at Ella, pulling her wife aside as soon as they'd stepped into the rocky shelter. “See?” she whispered, letting Frost go on to talk to Elizabeth by the fire. “It was no one's fault. Jennie's alive, we just can't see her yet.”
Ella smiled for her wife, but she wasn't certain she'd ever believe that. “I love you,” was all she said, appreciating that Paige tried. She kissed her lightly on the mouth.
It would take time, Paige thought as she wrapped her arms around Ella and kissed her more thoroughly. But they had more time now and Frost was a part of their little family, no matter what had happened.
“Hey, do that later when you practice making grandchildren for me!” Elizabeth shouted. “Get over here and stir this and don't you dare let it burn!”
Frost ran through the woods now blanketed in snow. Her hot breath steaming the air, hands clutched to the wound at her side. A new brand of poacher had started coming into the woods, one that tried to steal the magic from the black trees. A resurgence of Magi ideals once thought lost, she was amused how history repeated itself. Or would be amused if she weren't bleeding. She burst into the clearing and gave a nearly inhuman scream as she saw those that would defile Jennie's tree. Daggers came out into her blood slicked hands and without care for herself she dove into them, daggers flashing.
It didn't take long, they were stupid and young, but that would change in time. With a grunt she fell to her knees daggers falling from cold hands. Her face pressed against the bark of the tree. Tears streamed down her face, streaking the blood there. The wounds were not life threatening if she got them treated soon, but she wasn't certain she cared. “Please come back to me.” How many decades had she waited? “Please. I miss you so much. ”
Her blood trickled down the side of the tree, coating its black bark red as it went. The first few drops hit the soil, staining it with Frost's blood and the tree that she was leaning against seemed to shudder in reaction.
The branches above Frost's head swayed to a wind that was not there, the leaves fluttering and more than a few of them rained down around Frost. The ground beneath her feet shuddered as the tree shifted, twisting against Frost's shoulder.
Frost leaned back with a laugh. “Jennie?” She looked up the tree into the branches and warmth bleed back into her gray eyes that had grown cold over the decades.
“Cook?” a voice, gravely with disuse called back. The bark near Frost's hand shifted and bulged from inside, cracking as it split open.
Frost gave a sobbing laugh. “Jennie?” She scooted back in the snow, not wanting to hinder Jennie's awakening.
An arm appeared first, grabbing at the bark of the tree and then the second one followed, as Jennie pulled herself free. Still wearing the clothes she'd been wearing when she'd gone to sleep, she tumbled to the ground in front of Frost. Behind her the tree trunk sealed itself, leaving only a long scar up the center of the tree.
Frost scrambled over to her. She moved dark hair out of Jennie's face, with a gentle brushing of her hand. “I've missed you.” She touched her face, her arms and waist hardly believing this was real. Finally she shook herself and scooped the woman up ignoring her wounds. “I'll take you to the Witch's house.” She needed to get Jennie out of the snow.
“Cook? Frost?” Jennie said, confused as she got picked up and she clung to Frost's comforting warmth. “Was I sleeping?” she asked, eyes mere slits as she tried to figure out what was happening. “It snowed?”
“Yes, it snowed. You've been asleep a long time, love. Decades.” She shivered feeling the cold sink deeper into her bones. Getting to the edge of the witch's house she turned around and walked backwards. “Paige!” she shouted. Poor Ella was visiting their children who were training with the guards in the Capital City , the woman always did have the worst timing.
Elizabeth had died years ago and Paige and Ella had moved back into the woods with their family. Letting Paige take up the mantel of the Black Wood's witch.
“What?” Paige shot back, grumbling as she ducked out of the house she shared with Ella. Her eyes were no longer so clear, and her hair had gone completely gray but she could still see well enough to recognize who was in Frost's arms. “Quickly, inside, both of you,” she said, annoyance wiped away in an instant.
Frost staggered and almost went down but got her footing. She got them both inside. She laid Jennie down and then sank to her knees next to her, hands gripping the wounds on her side. “She's awake.”
“Frost?” Jennie tried to turn over to see her and almost fell right off the table that Frost had put her on.
“Stay there,” Paige said, sharper then she'd intended as she knelt by Frost's side. “You're bleeding, what happened? Poachers again?” She asked, pulling aside clothes to see the wound and grunting at the bleeding gash. “Hold this,” she said, pushing cloth against it to slow the bleeding.
“I'm here,” Frost said with a wince as the cloth was pressed into her side. She reached out, grasping Jennie's hand. “Ella still not back?”
“Tomorrow maybe.” Paige grabbed a few things from near the fire and hurried back, pulling aside the cloth to douse the wound with a finely ground green powder that stopped the bleeding. “There, what were you thinking?”
Jennie managed to get herself turned over to look down at Frost, hand gripping Frost's tightly. “You're hurt,” she whispered, her brain felt slow and bogged down by sleep.
“Just a scratch,” she said to Jennie.
Paige made a disbelieving noise as she worked to get the wound bandaged.
“Why are you hurt?” Jennie asked, trying to move closer but her limbs didn't seem to answer like she wanted them to.
“There were poachers in the woods, it's my job to protect the black trees that the Darkmen sleep in,” Frost replied wincing.
Jennie watched her, eyes slowly clearing as flashes of memory returned. “I was one of the trees, am one of the trees,” she said, shaking her head to try to make sense of it. “You were with me?”
“Hold still Frost or you'll start bleeding again.” Paige grumbled and Jennie blinked as she saw how much older Paige looked.
Frost sighed but held still. “Just don't make me stir that damn porridge.” She brought Jennie's hands up to her lips and brushed a kiss over her knuckles. “I'd forgotten how blue your eyes are.”
“I missed you, but I was with you.” Jennie managed a small smile. “Did the world change around us?”
Paige sighed, finishing her bandaging. “I'm going to see about sending a message to Ella, she'll want to know you're awake. Do not strain yourself Frost.”
Frost barely heard her. She laid down next to Jennie. “The world has changed a great deal. Your magic kept me alive and nearly immortal, I haven't aged since the day you and I went into the trees. I, however, don't like being in my tree so we haven't bonded well. I go in it maybe once a month.”
Not noticing that Paige had left them, Jennie held onto Frost's hands with both of hers. “What about the battle? Did Varnia's people stop after she died? You were so close to death, I thought we were both going to die together.”
“Surprise, we didn't did we?” Frost said with a laugh.
“A great surprise.” Jennie laughed, even if it sounded rough. “Can I kiss you again? I think I dreamed about kissing you.”
“Please,” Frost said moving closer.
It was a mostly chaste kiss, a simply pressing of her lips to Frost's with a promise for more later, but right then it was all she could manage. Jennie smiled, wide and happy as she kissed Frost again and then again.
“Hey, no straining. I'm serious, neither of you are up for what you're thinking about. Especially not on my only table!” Paige called from the other side of the room, near the fire.
Jennie flushed but laughed as she shifted closer to Frost, closing her eyes in bliss as she pressed against the other woman. “I love you.”The End.
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