Part One – Me
I am sitting on my bed, in my room. The room is not mine, technically, as I share it with three others my age, but I still think of it as my room. In particular, the area around my bed—upon which I now sit, as I mentioned—I treat as my personal space. I come here when I need time to myself, as the others are often busy with their duties throughout the day. My chores, however, are limited, and usually completed early. I am something of an anomaly, in that regard.
Actually, I am an anomaly in many ways. I am an anomaly because I was not given to the Abbey by my parents, unlike the other children here. Most of them come from families unable to support a child, but I would imagine that they all have their own interesting stories. I have never asked. I am an anomaly in this way because I was found as a baby, apparently abandoned, and taken back to the Abbey by the two that found me. I am one of few here that is actually a literal orphan, but I am the only one that was brought here by Abbesses, not pawned off on them.
I am also an anomaly because I am not here to learn the ways of the Abbey’s religion. As the sole one brought in by Abbesses, I am treated much more like a child than a student. I am allowed more freedom, and have fewer duties, as I mentioned before. I typically spend this time sitting in on classes anyway, but the fact remains that I am not expected to be there, which sets me apart from the rest.
Finally, and perhaps most dramatically, I am an anomaly because I have just used Blood Magic. I got excited at a gathering, and let my emotions run a little hot. Due to an unfortunate experience I’d had just a few months ago, I refused to let my Frenzy take over, and my emotions were forced to find a different outlet. I understand what it is that I have done, and I understand that it is very wrong, but I am not yet at the point where I understand why. I am still too young for this.
I wipe my sleeve under my nose and sniffle a bit. I am not crying any more, but I have been. I never meant to hurt the girl, but it just sort of happened any way. When Vera and Celeste enter the room in a few minutes, I will struggle to explain the event from my perspective, as I still lack understanding. It will come out as a rushed jumble, which will ultimately frustrate me, and send me back into tears. Celeste, overcome with the motherly instinct for which I have become her outlet, will come over and take me in her arms. I will cry into her robes for a good while, before finally calming down.
But this has yet to pass. For now, I am trying to calm myself, and trying my best to rationalize what just happened. I keep revisiting the fact that I never wanted to hurt her—it just sort of happened. This emotion, and the effect it had on me, will linger with me for many years. I focus so hard that I bite my lip open. My mouth fills with the coppery taste of blood, and, remarkably, much of my regret fades. I do not recognize the phenomenon at the time, and am unable to properly attribute it to the Magic, which is now working fervently on seizing a large part of my conscience.
As foretold, Vera and Celeste come into the room, and sit down next to me. We work our way through the prescribed conversation, and I end up sobbing into Celeste’s Abbess robes, the linen gradually rubbing my eyelids and cheeks raw. Shortly after I fully re-ground myself, Vera explains that the Cartographer’s Guild has shown interest in me, and wants me to come down to Cliffport for an assessment. She mentions that, if they like what they see, I’ll be taken on as an Apprentice Cartographer, and will get the best education in the Empire. I am overcome with joy at the prospect, failing to realize the implication that taking the offer will mean leaving my whole life behind.
When I do finally reach that conclusion, several hours later (after my initial elation has waned), my anticipation fades into anxiety. My nerves at leaving the only life I have ever known stay with me through the week, and into my journey south. It is only after my assessments, as I am being handed my robes, pack, and supplies, that my excitement returns. It never once occurs to me that Vera might have been lying to keep me safe, and that the Guild hadn’t actually shown any interest in me at all. It never dawns on me that joining the Guild was meant to be a punishment for my Magic, designed to keep me at a safe distance from the only world I’d known, to that point. I never realize how crucial it was that Vera did this.
As a consequence of my lack of understanding, I never thank her for that.
Part Two – You
You giggle into your hand, the spoonful of soup previously destined for your mouth now forgotten in your bowl. He’s looking at you quizzically from across the table, making an effort at being oblivious to the two green beans he impaled on his tusks. One of them falls over part-way as he talks—and eventually goes up his nose—at which he recoils, and drops the act. Your giggling grows into full-blown laughter at this, drawing the attention of many nearby, though you never notice it. You eventually calm down, and manage to return to both your meal and the conversation.
Your courtship is long and fraught with significant moments, but you will always remember this one as the point when you started to truly feel something for him. Prior to now, you’ve known how he’s felt about you for quite some time (the boy’s never been good at hiding his feelings), but it wasn’t until this moment that the word “love” ever entered the ‘words-I-might-use-when-referring-to-him’ part of your lexicon. In later years, you’ll find it humorous that your emotional turning point revolved so heavily around improper use of green beans. Humorous, but oddly appropriate.
A few nights later, he tells you who he really is, and you find yourself flustered at the reveal. You understand his rationale for keeping it from you, but you make him work for your forgiveness, which you are slow to offer. You eventually come to understand that your anger does not come from him or the fact that he kept a secret from you. Your anger, you realize, stems from the fact that you fell in love with him, but didn’t tell him before he had the chance to tell you his secret. He stood naked in front of you, trusting you—yet not knowing how you really felt, and you were upset that you could have made it easier, but didn’t. You eventually forgive yourself for this, but not until long after he has done the same.
When you return to your room that night, the temptation is strong to pack your things up and return home. You’d received word from your father a few weeks prior that your uncle—a man you neither loved, nor knew—had passed away, and his position as the House Treasurer had opened up. There were many eligible candidates, but your father wanted to offer it to you first, in what you imagined was his version of an olive branch. Your gut reaction was to throw the offer in the man’s face, disgusted that he cared so little for you or your interests, but in light of what you perceived as your newly-sabotaged relationship, you considered taking him up on it. You fell asleep resolving to give it a few days’ thought.
The next afternoon, you run into the boy after class. You turn to walk away, but he says that he’s not there to apologize again, which catches you off-guard. He tells you to walk with him, and says that he has something to show you. You reluctantly oblige.
You walk in silence next to him, doing your best to keep your anger at a low simmer as he talks. He explains that the night before, after you left, he debated leaving the Guild and trying to find work in another town. The revelation that you both had similar fears about your worth to the other is sufficient to make you decide to stay in Cliffport. If nothing else, you admit internally, the boy is devoted to you, and you do love him.
When you arrive in the arboretum, he turns to you and asks you to point out your least favorite plant. After leading him to a bellis perennis, he plucks a single flower from the bed, and holds it in his hand. He closes his eyes and grimaces a bit as your ears begin to thrum softly. The flower leaves his hand and starts to float in the air between you, wilting and turning to ash as it does. When there is nothing left but dust, he opens his eyes again, and finds your gaze. “This is what happens when I take the easy way out,” he says to you. “But this,” he says, gesturing to your knee, your ribs, your shoulder, and your face—indicating the areas that had been the most injured in your fight, so many years ago, “is what happens when I work for something.”
‘Father can shove it,’ you think to yourself, as you lean forward for your last first kiss.
Part Three – Him
Sleep is difficult, when the world is trying to kill you. The larger world is not actually trying to kill me, but the forest that I’m in the middle of is, which is—as far as I’m concerned right now—basically the same thing. I can’t sleep. I haven’t slept at all in two days, and I haven’t slept well in almost a month. I could go on for hours about how tired I am, but I won’t. There wouldn’t be a point, really.
I get up, and walk to the edge of the camp, which isn’t all that much, as far as camps go. Albin looks up as I plod by, and asks where I’m going. I give him a noncommittal “nowhere,” and continue on my way. I assume he accepts it, because I don’t hear him get up behind me. I guess that he wants to say “be careful,” but decides the best of it. I approve his decision.
After a few minutes, I can no longer hear Goldie’s snoring, and figure I’m by myself. The gentle babble of a stream somewhere ahead of me beckons I continue, and I oblige, until I find it. With great pain, I nestle myself on a rock, and dip my feet in the cold water, which comes as an oddly soothing sensation. For a long time, I sit there, doing, saying, and thinking absolutely nothing at all.
“I saw what you did, back there.” His comes from behind me, and I start, practically falling into the river. I steady myself on the rock, and take a minute to collect myself. This was not going to be pleasant.
“It was a mistake,” I explain, not turning to face Him. “You’re wasting your time.”
“I don’t think so.” A pause. “I think you wanted to save Fritz, and you knew the best way to do it.”
He has me there. Lying to Him is pointless, as it should be, and his conclusions thus far are valid. “Yeah, well,” I begin, then trail off.
He chuckles a bit. “You’re a good physician, Archibald. An excellent one, in fact.” He gestured towards my leg, though I didn’t turn to look. “But it’s high time you realize that they need more from you than just that.”
“That’s not true. We all have our roles.”
“Yes, you do. You have yours, and they have theirs.” He pauses just long enough for the moment to land before continuing. “And, their roles are all multi-purpose. Albin can smith with the best, but he can also take a hit like a champ. Goldie’s got her helpful magic, but she’s also the scariest warrior this side of the Spine. Fritz is a master tactician, but he could also shoot the fleas off a dog. What else can you do?”
I squeeze the crutch tightly, refusing to look away from the river. I don’t want to give Him the satisfaction. “I’m the map guy, I know more history and science than any of them, and I help Albin in the forge, when he’s making stuff for the others.”
“And that amounts to fuck all!” He shouts at me, coming in close to lean over me. “How many times have you cowered in the corner, uselessly? How many times have you ran away, when blows start flying? How many times have you gone fucking limp, Archibald?”
I could feel my heart gently clawing up to my throat, and my nose started to flare as my breathing moved to the shallow end of the pool. “I’ve been reading up on how to negotiate, for when we—”
“For when you what, Archibald?*” He cuts me off, still shouting. “Get to Cliffport? Need I remind you that you’re fucking dying?” He poked me hard in the shoulder, causing me to sway a bit on the rock. “How much longer do you think you’re gonna last?” He turns his back on me quickly, and takes a step away, putting a palm to his mouth in frustration. After a moment, he turns back. “You’re living on borrowed time as it is, Archibald. Banagher didn’t last long, Danagh didn’t last long, no one in fucking New Turath lasted long. Your time is running out fast.”
It takes me a long time to bounce back from that one. For almost a minute, I stare silently into the river, before finally getting up and replacing my crutch. “No,” I say. “I don’t need it. I’m a physician, and a smith, and a Cartographer, and an Orc, and a friend and a son… and I don’t need the Magic for any of that.” I swell my chest a bit, kinda proud of that one.
He hangs his head, and licks his lips as he shuffles his feet. “Maybe you don’t, Archibald. But what about her?”
“Cyleena? How?” I ask, indignant.
“Not Cyleena. Quinlan.” He pauses as I wrap my head around his meaning. “She, and your horse, were taken by Jottun, Archibald. Jottun. You think you’re gonna get the chance to play ‘nice guy’ with them?” He takes a step towards me, and bends his back just enough to stay in my gaze as I try to look away. “You think they’re going to give you even the slightest fucking quarter? Because they’re not.” He takes another step, now uncomfortably close. “You’re going to need every single tool at your disposal, if you want to even have a chance of saving her.” He straightens up, and claps a hand down onto my shoulder. He’s no taller than me, but the crutch forces me to slouch a bit.
“Or, you can hide behind a tree stump, like you always do.” I shut my eyes as he talks again, not wanting to hear what I know he’s about to say. “You’re good at that.”
I open my eyes again, and he’s gone. “I hate you,” I whisper, to the same empty river bank that had always been there.
I hate Him.