The tears would not come. Mairwen could feel them there, in the pit of her empty but unhungry stomach. She could feel them in her throat when she couldn’t sleep, when she stared up at the stars and thought of all those families dead and unburied. And she could feel them as exhaustion overtook her, riding her palfrey, led by the woman who she thought of as her mother—the only other person to escape the village of Sternhill alive.
She bounced and jerked on her horse, comfortable in the saddle but so tired and so unfocused that she thought she might still fall. How many days since they had fled in the night, their way lit by burning homes and barns? All the life she could remember had been in Sternhill. All her friends, all the families whom she knew, everyone was gone. Dead. Murdered.
Her foster mother, Veris, had dragged her out of her bed even before the first shouts cut through the night. She always had packs ready—something Mairwen had never questioned because it had been a constant. As the first flames rose and Mairwen heard the screaming, Veris set her to readying her palfrey. Just outside the shed, Mairwen had heard steel on steel, and the sound of hard blows against a body. When she rode out of the shed she saw five figures, all broken, all soldiers or at least wearing armour and bearing arms.
By that time, flames consumed much of Sternhill. She wanted to urge Veris to help, she wanted to stay and save her neighbours. Something else inside her, something that made her nauseous with shame, had wanted to flee, to leave them to their fates if it saved her. She wanted to say that she had ignored that voice, but how hard had she argued with Veris? How hard had she fought to stay and share the fate of those she had purported to love?
She fell forward against the neck of Willow, her horse. She began to slide off when strong hands took her and lowered her to the ground. Veris Fitzgurth, her foster mother, stood over her, dark, intent eyes holding hers. Veris’ friar’s hood left much of her head obscured or in shadow, and Mairwen knew that under the robes she wore mail armour made from a dark metal that did not seem to reflect light. In the night, Veris disappeared into the blackness.
“You haven’t slept, have you.” She didn’t question. She made a statement. Her resonant voice, so quiet and gentle, rumbled through her. Mairwen took comfort in it.
“I couldn’t.” She lay back, and Veris lowered her to the ground. “I close my eyes and I remember them. I hear them. I can smell them, even.”
Veris sat beside her, her hand on Mairwen’s forehead. Willow waited patiently, watching.
“We left them to die.” There, very close, Mairwen felt the tears coming. A few more words, a confession and maybe they would arrive. She wanted to wash this all out of her. She wanted it to all just flow away. She had no more words. The tears remained elusive.
“I couldn’t let them kill you, Mairwen.” This time, Veris’ voice broke as she spoke her foster daughter’s name. She cleared her throat, as though something other than emotion had caught her up. “We would have died. If I could have saved them all, I would have. Someone was there. Something. Something strong.”
“Hunting me?” Veris had not spoken of the attack even when Mairwen had asked and prodded. Maybe the nights had worn away at her as well.
“Yes. Hunting you. And even if I could have stopped those who attacked the village, worse would have come.” She covered her face with her hand. “Better to die by the sword. Better that than what could have come.”
Fatigue had saved Mairwen from fear, but now it came. “What do you mean?”
“I’m sorry.” She rose. “I shouldn’t have said that.” She went to Willow, cradling the horse’s neck in her arms. She stroked her mane. “I am tired also. I’m sorry I pushed you so hard, but we must be clear before they realize you are not among the dead. I need to find you safety.”
Mairwen raised herself up on her elbows and looked around. The path they followed cut through a forest of tall trees with massive trunks. Sunlight made its way through the labyrinth of leaves to come like rain, touching here then there, a pool of illumination. Ferns, bushes, fallen branches, and dried leaves covered the ground beneath that majestic canopy. Within that profusion, anything could hide, watching them as they rested, perhaps fearing them as much as they feared what lay behind them.
She inhaled deeply, letting the thick but fresh scent of all that life around her purge her of the stench of death. She knew death lay around her in the forest as well, the end of both animals and plants, but that was clean. That was natural. There had been nothing natural about the attack on Sternhill.
“We can sleep,” Veris said. “We have pushed hard for a few days, and we need a rest. We shall find a stream or pool and camp there. I believe I can hear a creek.”
Mairwen could not, but Veris had always proved preternaturally perceptive about the world. She could taste an evening rain shower in the morning air, and a touch of fruit would tell her if it were ready or could wait. Even if Mairwen wanted, she did not believe she could question Veris. She wanted there to be a stream. She wanted to just collapse. She thought maybe in this forest, by a fire, with Veris beside her, she might be able to sleep.
But when they had found the stream, and Veris set a small campfire, the smell of it made her heart pound. She started to sweat. She grasped Veris’ arm. “Please, put it out.”
They ate cold food and slept huddled together under a rough shelter Veris had hastily constructed. Wrapped in her arms, face buried in her chest, Mairwen slept. She had nightmares, but she pushed through them and past them. She recognized them for what they were and let them flow through her.
She awoke in the very early morning, dew around her, hints of sun touching it. Veris brushed Willow, and turned at her stirring.
“Can we have a fire?” she asked.
Veris smiled. She patted Willow. She came to sit with Mairwen. “If you wish, but it is not necessary.”
“I was tired.” Mairwen steadied herself with a deep breath. “I still am, but I’m better.”
They had a hot breakfast and Mairwen felt revived. For the first time since they had left Sternhill, she felt unburdened. Nothing weighed on her shoulders, though something sat in her belly. Anxiety remained, clawing at her every thought, but it did not fill them.
“Where are we going?” she asked as she packed.
Veris paused in saddling Willow. “There is a village two or three days further west. We will find haven there for a pace while we decide what to do next. An old and trusted friend has an inn there. Somewhere to rest and recuperate.”
“And then we’ll move on.” The weight returned, less than before but still oppressive. “We’ll never have a home again.”
“Yes, we will.” Veris spoke with conviction. She spoke with passion. “We will overcome this, you and I. I will not fail you, Mairwen.”
She stopped her packing and rose. “This isn’t about failing. Sometimes, there’s just nothing you can do. Nothing anybody can do. This isn’t your task, Veris. This is our life.”
“I need to protect you.” Veris reached out and touched Mairwen’s hair. “I cannot fail at protecting you. If I fail that, I have no life.”
“I know you feel responsible for me. I know that. But I’m responsible for me, okay? I don’t want to be the reason you get hurt or get killed. I don’t want you to let anyone else die for me.”
“I cannot help it.” Veris’ hand fell to her side and her gaze fell to the earth. “It is all that motivates me. It is the reason I live.” Then their eyes met again. As before, that dark gaze revealed no weakness, only iron. “You can deny my responsibility for you, but I cannot. You did not place it on me. You cannot repeal it.” Veris smiled. “But here we stand, talking of responsibilities and lives and ignoring the road before us. We can talk as we travel.”
Mairwen did not know what more to say. Veris had been with her all her life, teaching her, taking care of her. She loved her like a mother. She was her mother. When Veris spoke of Mairwen’s true family, it had no reality for her. They could be a myth for all it mattered. As much as their death had affected Veris, it meant nothing to Mairwen.
They did not talk as they travelled. Mairwen rode and Veris led Willow, all in silence. Mairwen listened to the forest around her, the life there. She breathed in its purity. Death in nature had a purpose. Animals fed. Animals killed for hunger. Did they take joy in it? She couldn’t say, but she could say that wolves did not slaughter without purpose.
When Veris finally did speak, she told her of Halrada, once a great warrior who settled in a town on the edge of the world to create a place of sanctuary within reach of Sternhill. As Veris spoke, Mairwen realized she had no plans beyond reaching the inn in the village of Nayrsford. Or perhaps she had, and did not wish to speak of them.
“After we find your friend, Halrada, then what?” Mairwen asked. “Do we flee and then flee some more?”
Veris rubbed her shaven head. “There are lands to the west and to the north into which we might disappear, but they have dangers of their own. They are closed to most travellers and fearful of new faces.”
“Then we don’t seem to have any good choices.” Mairwen exhaled slowly, quietly, trying to avoid a sigh.
“Some choices are better than others, and I may have friends who can help in those places as well.” Veris glanced back at Mairwen with what Mairwen considered a forced smile. “I may surprise you yet.”
What could possibly surprise her more than the story she had related of Mairwen’s father—an Archmage. She, the daughter of Myrrdin the Glorious, the Archmage who died some eighteen years ago, when she was just a baby. Veris had spoken of it only to her. Were she honest, she would admit she had never believed the story. It was too much like a fairy tale. But someone had come for her. Someone had destroyed an entire village, murdered all its people to find her.
Murdered all its people.
Still, no tears. Instead she felt anger rising. Why? Why would anyone seek her out after eighteen years? Why would someone be so cruel as to kill hundreds searching for one young girl, a girl who had never accomplished anything in her life, who threatened no one? “Why do they want me dead, Veris?”
Veris turned toward Mairwen as she walked, but did not face her. “Who?”
“Veris, please. You say the men who attacked Sternhill sought me. They want me dead. So tell me why.”
“They are afraid. Arnau, the man who killed your father, the man who became Archmage, he has learned of you. He has been seeking you almost a decade.”
A fist held her heart tight. A great weight pushed the breath from her body. “A decade? And you never told me?”
“We were safe.” Veris continued to walk, looking down, leading Willow. “I thought we were safe. You had a good life. You were so strong and smart. What could I say to you when you were so young? As the years passed, it became harder. I had said nothing for so long. I believed he would abandon the search.”
“But why is the Archmage afraid of me? What have I done?”
At this, Veris stopped. Willow did also, nuzzling Veris. “Not what you have done. What you could do. Your father was mighty. Not just because of his magic. Your father saw the world could be better. The Guild Magi guards it secrets, extracts heavy payments, makes demands of nations and kings. Your father wanted to share magic. He wanted to educate all. Any man or woman who had talent, he wanted it nurtured. He saw the wealth of the Guild and wanted to use it to feed the hungry, cloth the poor. He refused licence for wizards and sorcerers to assist in wars.”
Veris looked up, her face flush, her eyes watery. “Your father thought he could save the world. The Guild wanted only more wealth and power. It won it by burying him. And here you are, an adult, the heir of an Archmage whom commons and lords alike still revere. If you prove as powerful at wizardry as he, how could any force stand against you?”
Veris stroked Willow’s face. “When your father died, there were riots and rebellions. The Guild Magi itself came under attack, and the charterhouse in the imperial city of Solon was burned to the ground. The people remember that for a very brief time, someone tried to make the world better. The Archmage fears that should you step forward, there were many who would rally to you—rulers and commons alike, even some within the Guild itself. That is what he fears.”
“I don’t want to be an Archmage,” Mairwen said. “I don’t even have magic.”
“But you do.” Veris gripped her leg. “I’ve seen you conjure fire and make a needle dance. They are small tricks, yes, but that is how it begins. It is in you. If you choose to follow it, it can save you.”
“By causing a war? No. I don’t want that.”
Veris nodded, stepping back. “I understand. I understand better than you might imagine.” She started leading Willow again. “Let us reach Nayrsford and then consider our way forward from there.”
Mairwen did not sleep well that night. She dreamed of the burning of Sternhill, but instead of hundreds of homes, she saw thousands, hundreds of thousands. She saw armies marching and blood flowing. It shocked her awake.
The fire had died to its embers. It barely illuminated their small camp, but it provided enough light to see the figure. Wearing shadows like a cloak, that figure stood across from her.
“And here we find the daughter of Myddin.”