The pages roll out for their winter camp at the dawn bell.
Not a creature nor person stirs as they saddle their horses and mount up at Padraig’s quiet command, following him single-file into the forest that lays, still, under a blanket of white. The train of horses churns the snow into dirty slush underfoot and they move at a sedate pace, more due to fear of a horse slipping and breaking a leg than consideration for the hour.
The Royal Forest looms black ahead.
“The sun thinks it’s too good to get up at dawn like the rest of us?” Octavia mutters, making their friends grin tiredly.
Lexa has to agree with them. The sun has barely shifted the night, the sky sitting over them in a low, deep blue ceiling. It certainly hasn’t risen enough to highlight the deep, handsome greens of the canopy and make their entry into it less daunting.
Lexa shivers as they enter. She draws her cloak more tightly around her body. Bleary-eyed and pretending to yawn, she nudges Alraed to follow D’lpedar, Hasim’s mare, and is thankful again for Alraed’s training as her mare picks out a careful track to follow, leaving Lexa to deal with the growing sense of unease. Her eyes flick up the column to where Gus rides, abreast with Lord Padraig. He doesn’t notice the weight of her stare—and even if he did, his place is with Padraig today, not with her—and Lexa focuses on her newly revealed right arm, clamps her hand tight around the little ball-weight in the first of her exercises to regain what strength she’s lost. She imagines the other-Lexa holding firm against the dragging, pulling sensations of the forest, and squeezes the ball again, focusing on that instead of her own unrest.
Deep breaths, she tells herself, as Gus had when he coaxed her out into the Forest last night, and four separate nights before that in the last two weeks. The first time had been… Lexa stops that thought in its tracks, not enjoying the way it makes her control slip. She shivers again and fights to swallow.
“Lexa!” He makes to open the door further, stops when she shakes her head.
“I was hoping you might be free for a walk. For…that thing I mentioned?”
He looks down at her quietly for a moment. “Not gone, then?”
“No.” Her lips twist with displeasure. “Not gone.”
“Figured it wouldn’t’ve. One mo’, I’ll get my cloak.” He disappears into his room and returns with a cloak, a deep russet fabric he slings around his shoulders. “Lead th’ way, lass.”
They talk quietly as they walk—he asks about her arm, she asks about the training he does with the off-duty soldiers. He thanks her for her birthday gift, a new knife which brings his knife count up to an impressive nine. That she knows of.
Lexa wiggles a foot from under her new cloak, shows off the boots Gus had got for her. “Thank you for these,” she says for the fortieth time, and he grins, pulls her close against his hip with a bit of a tussle. She wraps her arm as far around his waist as she can and sighs happily when his warmth seeps into her.
“You expecting trouble?” he asks her when they get closer to the forest.
“Something I can fight?”
“I don’t think so.” She tries to explain, more thoroughly than she had when she was trembling with the pain of a broken wrist, about what it’s like to experience an emotion that doesn’t belong to her. And about the feeling that had hooked into her and drawn her close, closer to the forest, when she had been running by the lake.
He’s quiet for a long time and Lexa allows it, relaxes into the silence. Finally, he speaks.
“Have ye been in?”
“Do ye want to?”
Beads of sweat slick her hands. She wipes them off on her pants and curls a hand around the hilt of her sword, brushing her thumb over the whistler mark. “No,” she says, a bit shakily. “But I’ll have to next week. And I need to understand it before then.” Gus nods. “I was hoping—I am hoping that you’ll go in with me. Tonight. To keep me safe.”
Lexa smiles up at him, weakly at first, and then her love for him roars through her and she beams. “Thank you, Gustus.”
“It’s a brave thing you’re doin’. I want to help.” Lexa waves that away. It’s not brave. It’s just necessary. He squeezes her shoulder, presses her the tiniest bit closer. Lexa huffs when the gesture throws her balance off and she stumbles, but Gus is still holding her tight so she doesn’t fall.
Alraed nickers, bringing Lexa out of her thoughts. She presses a hand to Alraed’s neck and the touch soothes her, as intended. Hasim glances back at them. Lexa shakes her head, shrugs. She looks to see what might have upset Alraed but she sees nothing and chalks it up to boredom or a shadow.
A single pace into the Forest has her trembling and leaning up against one of trees. She flinches when she touches it, afraid that the contact will make it all worse. It doesn’t, though, so Lexa leans into it and squeezes her eyes shut in an attempt to find something inside of her that will stop this shaking in her hands.
“Can you, ah, feel it?”
Gustus would be twisting his hands worriedly if he were anyone else. As it is, he shows his deep concern by standing in a ready pose, hand half an inch from releasing a blade into it, and watching her very carefully.
Lexa drags her eyes open. “I could feel it from the Palace,” she tells him, lips a little numb. Not from cold, but from something alike to disuse. Like she’s forgetting how to speak. She wraps her arms around her waist.
“Yes.” She glares up at him, feeling the force of his gaze and the force of that boundless care he holds for her. “Stop it. Stop feeling all of that.”
Gus stands quietly for a moment.
Lexa shakes her head. “I apologise, I’m on edge. I shouldn’t take it out on you.”
“S’alright, lass.” She looks up to catch him looking oh so casually away, pretending he hasn’t been examining her closely. He glances down the path. “We can stop here.”
“No.” Lexa drags in another shaking breath. She pushes away from the tree. “No, we can’t. I need to learn how to be rid of this by the winter camp.”
Gus presses his lips together but doesn’t comment. She ignores it easily, since she knows very well its cause. He had been surprisingly hesitant to help once she had laid out her intention to conquer the sensations—had tried more than once to sway her thinking to controlling it or embracing the ‘gift’.
“It doesn’t do well to disobey the gods, lass,” is what he keeps his comment to now, for which she is thankful.
“If T—if she wanted an obedient servant, she should’ve picked someone else. And I remind you that we don’t know this is from her.” She also has had considerable practice ignoring the look he gives her for that statement. It’s the same disbelief that typically followed ‘I have no idea what happened to that pie and I definitely didn’t eat it’. “Thirdly, I’m not sure that she was a god. And fourth, and most important,” she stops again after another pace, hating the way it takes so much out of her. Lexa sucks in a deep breath. Scowls at the distance between her and her goal, a rotting stump twenty paces away. “This is my mind,” she hisses, at it, to Gus, she’s not sure. “And it won’t do anything I don’t want it to do. I won’t let it.”
She had made it ten paces that first night before breaking into a cold sweat. When she went limp, mind sprawling out into every direction at once, Gus had scooped her up from the ground and carried her out. He took her into the stables where it was warm and dry and they had sat with Alraed, Lexa tucked into Gus’s side, until she had returned to herself. He refused to go in again when Lexa suggested it. Not twice in one night, at least. And since Lexa refused his suggestion—to find the Wild Mage and ask her for help—they were at an impasse until he agreed, two nights later, to take her into the Forest again.
It’s impossible to describe what it feels like to walk into the Forest. It’s not emotions, or thoughts, or impulses from creatures around her, though she thinks that she knows they are there. Maybe. The more she reads the – admittedly slim – volume on wild magic that her father had found and sent, the more certain Lexa is that what she has—whatever it is—isn’t wild magic. And the more certain she grows in that, the more she fears what it might be. Madness.
She stops the trembling in her fingers with a great feat of will.
It’s most likely, and Lexa doesn’t shy away from difficult thoughts. If it is, then it is. And since it’s not the Gift, and it’s not wild magic, then…then it’s almost certainly a madness. The brain she’s so proud of, melting like a handful of snow and draining out of her, into the ground, into the great big bloody stupid trees.
“That might be enough for tonight, lass,” Gus cautions.
Lexa stands shakily in the forest. Twelve paces this night. She can make it eight more, at least. “I want to keep going.”
“Don’t push too hard. Lexa, please. It doesn’t do to mess with these things.”
“You’re the one who told me not to waste a gods gift,” she reminds him. He grunts and Lexa turns back, knowing that she’s twisted his words. Knowing too that he’s right. It’s late and she’s scared and more importantly she has training again in the morning. Running, still. She knocks her cast against her hip. “Very well, Gustus. Let’s go.”
She steps toward him and away from the forest, smiling at his relief one moment and then gasping when something snaps into her. Awareness rushes outwards from her centre, heedless of command or question. Lexa—everything that is Lexa—is dragged along with it.
She can see Gus if she concentrates, but part of her mind that has no eyes or ears or nose rushes through root and branch and tree and dying and growing leaves and the spots of air in rich soil and everything holds inside it variants of the same power. Far, far beyond it all—and within it, in some twice-cursed way—something thrums in a rush of sound she recognises. A constant crash, a symphony, followed by a flutter like waves on a shore in and then out, crashing in, sucking out to the sea. Like the pulse in her ears, Lexa thinks, and her head starts to spin.
It is eager.
Not the creatures—they don’t think twice about her. She can’t understand their thoughts or words or actions, not in any definite way. She’s just another part of the forest to them. But the land itself seems to want her to know it—the enormous pine she couldn’t wrap around, not with ten Lexa’s—the mud pits—the rivers trembling as they wait for her to notice how delicate they curl, how pretty the sounds they make bubbling over rock steps—
“Gus,” she says—or thinks she says, or tries to say? Her mouth doesn’t feel real anymore/feels as real as everything else, bark and bramble and bone and blood, and through it all the crash and pull and crash again, a song Lexa feels in the core of her. She gives a short wail, hands clamped to her ears, when it all clashes together too loud and too much and then she is back in her own body, with her own bony knees pressed to the cold ground, which she can smell rich in her nose and feel under her forehead where she presses it down and she can feel Gus’s hand rubbing big, soothing circles over her back.
“Shh, shush, it’s alright lass, it’s alright. You’re here. I’ve got you. I’ve got you,” he continues, holding her and speaking to her, long into the night.
The thought of something as common as a few trees having drawn her out of her own mind infuriates Lexa and so she had returned as soon as Gus had allowed, and then again two nights later, and again only the night before the winter camp, and Lexa found that each time it became ever so slightly easier to keep her mind where it was, and to keep the Forest outside of it.
It has much to do with determination, of which she has plenty. When she grips the saddlehorn between her hands, she imagines—more than imagining, she insists—that she is holding her mind in them and that nothing can get through, or out. So focused on it is she that she doesn’t notice Hasim drawing back to ride next to her until he speaks.
“I’ll be glad when we make camp,” he tells her quietly. “I haven’t rode for so many hours in months.” The face he makes easily conveys exactly what he’s feeling and Lexa laughs.
“I want a spot right next to the fire,” she tells him.
A snort is the warning Lexa and Hasim get before Beauty—and Octavia smugly atop him—shoves his way in between them.
“A fire, a nice soft place to sit?” They scoff. “I want to go hunting.”
“What a surprise,” Lexa drawls. “Go on, surprise us again.”
Octavia rolls their eyes at the tease but obliges. “I’m starving.”
“Dismayed, even,” Hasim suggests.
Lexa nods. “Bewildered.”
Octavia laughs when Hasim hesitates and has to move onto basri words, where Lexa can’t follow along half as well. They laugh again when Lexa smugly drops a few kemrit words.
“Yes, yes, you’re both very clever and funny.” Octavia laughs when they both preen at the compliment, chins tilting up and small, nearly identical smiles curling their lips. The resemblance is truly uncanny and Lexa wonders if their blood oath did something to them, or if they were always quite similar. “Truly, though,” Octavia continues, “I’m starving. How are you not hungry?”
“Some of us,” Lexa says smugly, tossing her hair back in a way that means she’s talking about herself, “thought ahead and packed rations.”
“If you share your hunt with me, you can be my best friend,” Hasim offers earnestly to Octavia. “Lexa doesn’t share her rations.”
Lexa makes an annoyed sound. “I did offer! You turned me down!”
“You’re eating bird food.”
“Nuts and dried fruit is a very good source of energy!”
Octavia groans, places their hand to their stomach. “Enough talk of food! I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” Beauty stops, looks over his shoulder at his rider with one dark, baleful eye. They gulp. “Not you, Beauty.” Appeased, Beauty trudges on. Octavia stares, dramatically wide-eyed, across at Lexa.
Padraig calls a halt in a clearing and allows them to dismount and stretch.
“Third- and fourth-years, you know the way to winter camp. Ride ahead,” Padraig tells them in his crisp way, eyes scanning each of them for imperfections. Those remaining—the first- and second-years, Padraig, and Gus—stay in the clearing until the others are gone. Anya nods to Lexa as she rides past, before nudging Surestep to catch up with the Prince. “The rest of you will be showing me what skill you have at tracking—if any,” he says, disdain dripping off the last words in a bizarre kind of humour. “Unfortunately, the snow can make it very simple.”
“Heavens forbid something is simple, milord,” Lincoln calls quietly, voice bleached of any kind of tone.
Octavia lifts a gloved hand to their mouth to hide a smile.
“Quite right, Runnerspring. We stop here for breakfast—if you didn’t think to bring something, you go hungry until tonight. Then we follow the others. I will ask you individually the signs that we are on the trail of a pack of careless pages. Pray,” he says, inflection never changing, “that you identify every sign.”
“And if we don’t, milord?” Terry asks.
“I keep you where we are until you do.”
“And the very hungry pages will string you up,” Chip Tooth mutters.
“It’s not Seabeth’s fault you didn’t pack breakfast,” Lexa mutters to him. He’s sitting only a few paces over and he tosses a particularly ugly look her way.
Padraig ignores their mutters, talking over them.
“Once we make it to camp, as late as that might be,” he says, and Lexa is sure that his eyes settle on Chip Tooth—Gerry—for a moment there, “you will be in charge of clearing your own sleeping space and setting a tent. Whether or not you choose to sleep under shelter, you will prove to myself or the captain that you are capable of it. If it is too late to reasonably go hunting…I suspect you will have to resort to foraging.”
“Hope it won’t be too late to tell blackberries from baneberries,” Gus says cheerfully.
The camp, they find late in the afternoon, sits on a rise that ends sharply in an east-facing cliff. At the base of the rise winds a small river about fifteen yards across. This deep into winter, it’s mostly frozen over but the pages can see that the water beneath the thick top layer of ice runs swift and, no doubt, freezing cold. They turn their horses from the river and start up the steady incline.
The trees grow more sparsely—and twisted by the brisk winds—the further they climb and so the long wooden building that marks the camp comes as a relief. Built only a few yards from the treeline so as not to make too obvious of a target on the bare hillside, the “Shack”, as the second-years call it, is a solid log cabin and looks sturdy enough to keep out the worst of the chill. There is a hastily raised stable on what Lexa suspects is the least wind-prone side of the cabin and she can see Whiskers and Surestep separated by a small, grey mare. She also notes with some relief that the older pages haven’t set up bedrolls outside—until a thought occurs to her and her stomach drops. Ilian voices her thought a moment later.
“We aren’t the ones that have to sleep outside, right?”
Hasim blanches, twists in his saddle to stare at them like they’re the ones suggesting it. “Surely not!”
“What do you think soldiers do in the winter, Nazri!” Padraig barks. “Not everywhere you go will have food and shelter enough for you and your horse—are you going to throw someone out of their home so that you have a bed?”
“No! So make up that tent, Page Nazri!”
Misleading questions aside, once each of the pages have proven that they can put up a tent, Padraig instructs them to care for their horses and then set up their bedrolls inside. The building is empty of any furnishings, including a floor, and the ground is frozen hard and cold. Lexa, Octavia, and Anya are given the spot nearest to the doorway and they set their packs as a hopeful windbreak, and set their rolls close together.
“Seabeth, you’ll be digging the mens latrine for missing as many marks as you did.” Terry bows to Padraig and takes the shovel Padraig hands off, trotting out to do just that. He takes it with good grace, even though Lexa knows he’s more accustomed to the variances of sailing than hunting. “Your Highness?”
“Milord.” Prince Jasson stands immediately. Gareth pauses, then takes over sorting the prince’s pack along with his own.
“Show Seabeth where to go, would you?”
“Tirragen, organise for one of you,” - the girls goes unspoken – “to dig your own latrine. Catch His Highness before he goes too far—you’ll want to dig far enough away.”
“Yes, milord,” she agrees, and her eyes flick to Lexa.
Lexa jumps up, not wanting Padraig to be able to find fault in her behaviour. He hands her the second shovel and Lexa trots out.
Prince Jasson stops, smiles a friendly smile. “Haryse. We’re digging just past that copse,” he tells her, pointing to a bunch of dark trees some thirty yards from the building. Lexa fixes the position in her mind and nods.
“I’ll dig…” She scans the area and smiles gratefully when the prince points to a good spot, far from the river and far from the boys latrine. “Thank you, Highness.”
“Think nothing of it. Seabeth?”
“Coming, Highness!” Terry waves cheerfully at Lexa and she grins back. She’s not looking forward to digging out frozen earth, but his smile is infectious and he always looks so pleased when she returns it.
Padraig comes by as she works to examines the placement of her latrine and gives her a nod before leaving her to it. By the time it’s dug, Lexa’s sweat has frozen into a slimy film and she’s certain her blood has frozen solid too. She totters back to the camp and finds, to her great relief, that someone has built a bonfire and is roasting meat. It smells amazing and Lexa shivers her way over, steps over a log and drops onto it next to Octavia.
“Mithros, you’re frozen!” They toss their own blanket over her lap and wave Ilian over. He presses the entirety of his left side against Lexa, squishing her between the two of them.
“Don’t mention it,” he grins. “Tea?”
Ilian wraps her hands around a metal cup and pours the drink into it. She nods her appreciation and sighs, blissful, as feeling returns to her fingertips.
The fire burns orange and yellow and Hasim turns his talent for illusion on it, entertaining them with the shadows that play against the wall of the long building as they eat. Padraig and Gus are apparently content to let it go on, with no more instructions or information forthcoming. Finally, Lexa lets herself relax too and she enjoys Hasim’s reconstruction of the famous Bazhir fable of the beetle and the scorpion, cheering just as loudly as the boys when the scorpion is crushed.
When their yawns get longer and their eyelids lower, Padraig sets the guard duty—Prince Jasson and a second year page Lexa doesn’t know yet for the first watch, Nond and a second year for the second watch, Anya and Lexa for third watch—and sends them to bed.
Before they fall asleep, Gus kneels next to Lexa.
“Alright?” he asks quietly.
Lexa frowns. “What do you mean?”
“The—gift,” he reminds her clumsily, and Lexa’s eyes open wide when she realises that she hadn’t thought of, or felt, the Forest for most of the day.
“It’s—I can’t feel it,” she tells him. “I don’t know why.”
Gus nods thoughtfully. “Mayhap ye just needed to get used t’ it?”
“Well.” He claps her on the shoulder, squeezes. “Good. I’m glad, lass.” With a final whispered Sleep well, he leaves her and Lexa settles, drawing her blanket up to her chin.
Why had she stopped feeling it? It had been so overwhelming that morning, pulling at her mind and her attention as always. And then it had simply stopped? She can’t think that her friends could have countered it in any fashion, not knowingly. But something had happened. All she needs now is to figure out what it was, and how to make it work for her again.
A gentle hand rouses Lexa in the early hours of the morning and Lexa grips the handle of her knife under her cloak she’s bundled into a pillow until she realises that the face over her is Anya.
“Your hair is loose,” she says sleepily.
Anya rolls her eyes, jerks her chin to the door.
Lexa pulls on her cloak out and buckles her belt, and sword, around her waist. They sneak out of the building—though Lexa is sure that she can feel Gus’s eyes on her—and once they’re outside, Anya stretches and breathes in deeply. Lexa grins over at her. It’s early, and frightfully cold, but the sharp air reminds her of Haryse in the winter and something about Anya’s softened edges makes her think she’s not thinking about guard duty either.
Until, that is, she is thinking about guard duty and she ties her hair back in her typical severe fashion and jerks her head again for Lexa to follow. They make several rounds of the camp, Anya checking the wards, before Anya boosts Lexa into a tree to observe and she continues on alone for a bit.
“Well?” Anya asks later.
Lexa climbs carefully down from her roost, all too aware of her numb legs. “Cold.”
“There was a small herd of deer,” she points to the east edge of camp, beyond which the river runs. “They came almost up to the wards before moving on upriver. Two people came out to the latrine, Virgil and Gus.”
“I’m absolutely positive he was checking on me,” Lexa confesses, like she’s annoyed, but really it’s kind of nice. Anya’s tiny smile tells her that she knows what Lexa is thinking, which is not nice but annoying. The smile twists into a smirk. Anya gestures for her to join her on this round of the camp. “There’s a treeline to the south that could easily block pretty much any movement and if anyone were mad enough to scale the cliffs, they could block us against the river since our horses would never go through that.” Anya nods. “What kind of ward is it? Around the camp?”
“It’s a constructed ward,” Mat tells her, stepping into line next to them. “Morning Haryse, Morning Tirragen.”
“Fenrigh.” Anya looks past Mat to his ever-present shadow. “Queenscove.”
“Tirragen,” he returns formally, unable to quash his broad grin. Emry bows to Lexa. “Cousin.”
“Small talk over,” Emry claps his hands. “Mat, constructed wards?” His smile softens when Mat purses his lips in a thoughtful frown. When Emry realises that Lexa is watching him, he blinks and wipes the soft expression away, replacing it with an entirely different grin. She can’t quite place the difference in them and shrugs, shifting her focus to Mat.
The scholarly boy walks in even paces as he speaks.
“Constructed wards are, put simply, wards that are embedded into some type of construct. Commonly a set of figurines, wood pieces, stones,” he lists off the possibilities, putting out a finger for each. Lexa nods that she understands. “Less commonly into precious stones and crystals. These are set into a shape around whatever it is that you wish to defend. The strength of the ward depends almost as much on the placement of the constructs as it does on the construct itself.” He pauses. “With me so far?”
Over their heads, Emry and Anya share bewildered looks.
“Circles are of course the most common structure.”
“Because of their efficiency,” Lexa nods.
“Precisely. Trading out special efficiency for magical efficiency, a star is also rather common. Not for the defence of a campsite,” he allows, “but for safekeeping of an item, perhaps.”
“Can they be set twice?”
Mat waves a hand to dismiss that question. “Probably. I wouldn’t see the point in it myself—as a trap, maybe, but the better method would be to pour that extra power into the original ward, don’t you think?”
Lexa considers that quietly as they walk the outskirts of the camp once more, in the opposite direction. “Maybe…it would depend on the work that the ward was doing?”
Mat gestures for her to continue.
“If one of the wards was for defence and one was for illusion, for example.” She nods as she talks, her argument taking shape. “A star isn’t an easily defensible shape, but if it were placed largely as an illusionary factor, with something that alerted the caster when it was crossed or broken, then that would have its use just as much as a circular boundary would. And if the star is more magically stable, then surely it would hold up a largely magical construct like an illusion better than a circle, which is ideal for the defence of a large item like a camp or a castle.” She pauses for comment, but Mat just nods.
“Quite right. Emry?”
“Er, yes, quite right,” Lexa’s cousin agrees.
“It occurs to me as well,” Lexa continues, and Anya slaps a hand over her mouth.
“Not before breakfast, kid,” she orders, and Lexa squirms for a moment but meets Mat’s eyes and nods when he lifts his eyebrows. At breakfast, or the second after, they would continue their discussion.
Anya abandons her quickly at breakfast, followed by Emry, when Lexa and Mat get into discussing the wards. He has to fill in gaps in her knowledge—she’s read Crystals and the Crystalline Structure by Glory Emeryn cover to cover twice, and the chapters on warding in the non-Gifted books Master Thom had suggested, but not much else—but once he does, they spend most of their breakfast arguing about the merits of constructed wards versus propelled wards, which have no anchor save for the caster.
“Anchor?” Terry asks.
“C’mon lad,” Emry draws the boy gently away. “Not those types of anchors. Leave them to…debate.”
All in all, much of the winter camp isn’t so different from their days in the palace. After breakfast, which the first-years are in charge of for the first morning, Padraig has them training until the sun has well and truly risen. Hunting parties are organised next—one page from each of the years—and sent out to find dinner. Those left at camp prove to Padraig that they can build a fire quickly, can sharpen branches into passable spikes to set in a defensive line around a camp, have their entire souls drawn slowly out of their bodies by way of a horrifically thorough and disgusted speech from Padraig on the state of their weaponry (in the case of Gerry), and all other necessary skills. There are a few surprises Lexa hadn’t prepared for.
The first surprise is Virgil.
Padraig has the first-years learning to make maps—something Octavia is very good at, Lexa becomes very good at once Octavia suggests she view it as a gridmap, her favourite of all map types, Ilian and Terry and Hasim are passable at, and Virgil can’t do to save his life. So frustrated and nervous is he that Virgil doesn’t snap once at Lexa when she kneels next to him and shows him how to assemble the basic map Padraig wants. They practice until he can assemble one quickly, and understand hers at a glance, and when Padraig assesses him that afternoon he gives Virgil an approving nod. His gaze seeks out Lexa and, when he finds her, it rests for a moment.
“Not much of a thank you, was it?” Octavia comments from behind her.
“I didn’t do it for thanks.”
“Sure, but it would’ve been nice.”
“Sooner to get a thanks from me than from Padraig,” Virgil says a little sourly, slinking over to join them. Lexa lifts her eyebrows at the very faint trace of humour in his voice. After a moment of standing awkwardly across from her, Virgil bows. “I’ve behaved…”
“Poorly,” Octavia suggests.
His thin lips twist but he doesn’t disagree. “Page Haryse, please accept a, uh, my formal apology.” The words are stiff and not exactly laden with regret but Lexa doesn’t need a showy display to read discomfort and sincerity in the way he holds himself. Virgil forces himself to meet her eyes. His throat bobs as he swallows. “Thank you. For your help. From here on, I…offer a less…confronted association.”
“Friends?” Octavia translates. Their nose crinkles.
“Octavia, would you give me a moment?” Lexa’s hard stare makes it into a not-quite request and, after a moment, Octavia nods and leaves. “Page Whitehorn.” She wonders what her da would do in a situation like this, if he had ever suffered someone to treat him poorly enough to warrant a formal apology. He’s certainly never discussed it with her. She decides to go with the most logical answer. “I accept your formal apology but deny your thanks. I acted as a fellow page when I assisted you today, and not the Heir to Haryse.”
His relief is clear in the way his sallow cheeks gain a little colour. His shoulders set with a little more confidence too, and his words come easier. “Then I doubly extend my thanks, as I haven’t acted as a page should.” He scuffs a foot over a gnarled root. “I… Halleburn is my sponsor,” he reminds her quietly. “I didn’t want…”
Lexa’s stomach drops as she considers all the ways Perrin might have made Virgil’s life unpleasant if he had been too nice to her.
“I’m sorry. I never considered that.” She frowns. “Are you not still worried?”
Virgil’s lips are flat and stern. “I figure I don’t have to listen to someone who won’t become a knight. And he won’t, the way he’s going,” he tells her firmly. “You are.”
Lexa looks away.
“If you need time to consider,” Virgil offers, the least sour he’s ever sounded, and he takes a step away from her.
Lexa shakes her head no. “A fresh slate, Whitehorn.”
“Virgil.” He holds out a hand and Lexa clasps it with her own.
Octavia sighs, disappointed but not truly upset, when Virgil walks at Lexa’s side when they return to camp. Terry is absolutely delighted and, when Hasim returns from hunting, the six first-years sit together for the first time since their first day of classes.
The second surprise winter camp has for them is on the fifth day when Lexa is added to the hunting party.
Benny is in her group and he slings an arm around her shoulder to lead her out of the camp, though he lets her go when one of her knives pricks at the space between two ribs.
“Anya has been a bad influence on you,” he complains.
Lexa considers that, head tilted. “I don’t know. I’ve had this knife since I was seven.”
“My mistake,” Benny adjusts instantly. “Anya is your perfect match and you make a terrifying pair.”
Lexa grins at that. So too do the other pages with them, who she has never met in an official capacity but knows of vaguely. The fourth year is a boy called Doren, of Rosemark, and he is tan and stocky and talks with a faint burr that slurs his words slightly, but not unpleasantly. His hair is brown and he wears it long, tied at the nape of his neck. The second year is a Timon of Pearlmouth, wiry and lean and brown. He has an uncommonly expressive face—making him excellent friends with Benny—and is quick with a joke. He’s nice enough to her and she thinks she remembers being told that one of his sisters is engaged to one of Terry’s brothers, or something along that vein. Maybe that is part of the Seabeth shipping empire plan, Lexa thinks. The older pages are friendly enough, and free with their advice. They give her good pointers on walking in snow that keeps her from slipping, and Doren lets her feel how his dirk is weighted differently from her knife, and they’re both impressed by her accuracy when she claims a white winter-coated rabbit as their first prize of the morning.
They’re twenty minutes from camp, following a faint tread of hoofprints of another herd of deer, and Lexa stops still. A buzz, the only way she can identify it even though intellectually she knows she’s not hearing it, shivers at the edge of her awareness and Lexa turns, draws an arrow smoothly. The feathers of her arrow are brushing her cheek when she realises the arrowhead is pointed right at the heart of a creature—the most repulsive creature she’s ever seen, half human and half bird. As if that weren’t bad enough, the bird part of the Immortal is formed unnaturally from glinting steel. And if all that weren’t bad enough, its entire body is covered in all types of filth—blood and gore, and the acrid smell of urine wafts downwind toward their small hunting party, along with the harsher, eye-watering smell of human waste.
The Stormwings laugh is harsh in his throat. His human parts—the torso and head—might even be handsome if they were clean. He’s tan and muscular and his features are striking, strong. Dark hair tangles in braids dripping with a liquid Lexa doesn’t dare think about, and trophies of bone and feather have been tied into the ends of some of the braids.
“Fast reflexes, girlie,” the Stormwing croaks. “What brings four little knights into these woods, I wonder?”
“We mean to start no fight, Stormwing,” Rosemark calls. He too has notched an arrow, though he hasn’t raised it. Lexa considers lowering her bow but decides against it. She doesn’t like the way the Stormwing watches them. “You’ll find no playthings by following us.”
The Stormwing affects upset, shuffling on the thick branch he’s sitting upon. The metal feathers of his wings and tail drag against the wood, scoring it deeply. “The dead aren’t playthings. We take our job very seriously.”
Lexa feels the buzz again and, not shifting her aim an inch, glances to where a second Stormwing has dropped suddenly onto a branch to the side.
“We?” Rosemark asks.
The second Stormwing warbles her amusement. “We,” she agrees. She’s K’miri dark, with auburn hair in similar braids to the male. “Come to bury your dead, little knights?” She cackles, and the first Stormwing watches her with something close to contempt. “There’s not much left of them.”
“Back to camp,” Rosemark says to them.
Benny pushes Lexa behind him. They back out away from the Stormwings, avoiding the trees they’ve made their perches.
“When you find them,” the female Stormwing says, “know that Banni Longclaw got to them first.” She pushes from her branch, leaping into the air. The bright glint of steel feathers hits them first, and then her overpowering odour.
Once they’re some distance from the Stormwings, the pages return to the camp at a run. Lexa, panting the least, relays the entire conversation to Padraig.
He listens, face impassive. When she’s finished, he nods sharply and whistles. “Drop what you’re doing,” he orders the pages. “Get your weapons. Best archers, split evenly between the fore and the rear. First years to the centre. Not you Haryse, you’re leading with Rosemark.”
It’s not even half an hour later that Padraig, Gus, and the pages walk out past the trees—Lexa points out the scored marks where the Immortals had been sitting—and past that point to the edge of a vale that leads down to a tree-lined road. The path between the trees is narrow and it’s hard to navigate. They spread out, knowing how easily it would be to pick them off one by one if they descended in line.
“Go slow. Step in one anothers tracks—don’t mess any tracks that are already here,” Padraig tells them. The pages nod, faces uncommonly solemn.
Lexa, still in the lead, clutches her bow tight in her hands. She’s midstep when the first swell of unease knocks powerfully into her—off balance, she stumbles, braces herself against the nearest tree. Nothing from the Forest since that first morning and now this? she thinks, blanching. The thought of it overtaking her now, when Padraig is relying on her, when her year mates and the other pages are relying on her… It makes her hands shake and the feeling of unease only grows stronger the more upset she gets. Only…is there something different about it, she wonders.
It is not unlike the first morning, but it is different from it too. She can feel it. A new…she hesitates to say taste but doesn’t know another way to frame the sensation. Something bloated and coppery and bursting with wrong-ness, all mixed in amongst the fresh pine and the quiet purposed pull of the Forest.
She swallows, eyes closed. Trying to find herself amidst the wave of otherness.
“Haryse, look at me,” Padraig says to her quietly.
She forces her eyes open and looks up to her training master.
“What is it?” There is no room for disobedience in his tone—it demands an answer. Behind him, several trees away, Rosemark watches them curiously. He’s drawn his sword.
Lexa puts as much trust into the feeling as the fourth year apparently has put into her—a cautious trust built from the fact that most anything is a tool in the right hands.
She points down the embankment, into the deep forest.
“I think I saw something there,” she says.
“I couldn’t say, milord. Might be nothing more than a feeling.”
“No,” Rosemark says, pitching his voice so it carries no further than their lot. “I think she’s right. I see something too—it’s a bit dark…Permission to check, milord?”
“No. I’ll go.” He slinks through the trees and, sharing a glance, Lexa and Rosemark follow him. They make it to the thicket when Padraig returns, face white and strained. “Back, stand back,” he orders, voice sharp. “Captain!”
“Milord?” Gus appears in that silent way of his. It makes Rosemark jump, still, but Padraig waves him through the thicket. He allows no one else to follow. Gus returns after a minute, dark eyes flat. “Sommat’ll need to be done. Better we start digging now then get caught out here after dark still going.”
“Digging?” Rosemark’s voice lifts a half octave, catching the attention of the others.
“Digging?” they repeat.
Lexa stares into the thicket like she can see past it. The feeling, with the Stormwing warning, is beginning to make an awful kind of sense—she glances to Gus, hoping that he’ll reassure her. If he feels her gaze, he doesn’t turn and he doesn’t look her way at all.
“Milord.” Prince Jasson has reached their small group and he looks past Padraig into the dark. “May I?” Padraig looks loath to allow it but finally he bows his head very slightly and he and the prince step carefully into the trees and disappear from view.
Gareth joins Lexa and Rosemark and Gus. He doesn’t ask to follow Jasson, though Lexa can tell that he dearly wants to. His eyes never shift from the point that his friend had entered and his body trembles slightly, not with fear but from readiness to move.
“What is it, do you think?” Rosemark asks. He has come to stand at Lexa’s right shoulder.
“I don’t know.”
In the silence that follows, Lexa glances up at the two fourth years. They don’t look convinced. Or, Rosemark doesn’t look convinced. Gary hasn’t looked away from where the prince had been, but his lips curl downwards with dissatisfaction.
Lexa shifts, uncomfortable. “I don’t know. But,”
“Someone has died.” Gary shifts forward. Lexa snags him before he can move much more than a half-step. He stills. “Some people, actually. That's what the Stormwings said.”
"Stormwings?" one of the pages who hadn't known exactly why they'd left camp demands.
“What do you mean people have died?” Virgil asks, loud enough to garner the attention of any page that had not already figured out that something bad had happened. In his defence, it wasn’t many. He looks very young to Lexa all of a sudden with his dark eyes huge in a pale face, and her stomach flips. They’re only eleven, her and her year mates. A shameful relief makes her throat tighten—she doesn’t want to see them, the dead bodies. She’s glad that they’re only going to be digging.
“Gary,” Prince Jasson says, and everyone stares at him as he regains his composure. His face is bone-white except for around his mouth where it’s green. Gary’s name had cracked in two broken pieces in his mouth and now his face is impassive and unruffled. Lexa thinks she might be the only one who can see the way he clutches white-knuckled at Gary’s hand. “You three,” the prince points to Emry and Mat and another fourth-year. Falduin, Lexa thinks his name is. Falduin of Disart. “Lord Padraig has a job for you. And you,” Prince Jasson includes Gareth and Doren and the last fourth-year, Haraik of Aili, in that, “I’ll show you what we’re doing.”
The fourth-year pages follow their prince back through the wood, silent. To fill their absence, the second- and third-years press up closer to the thicket. Lexa doesn’t realise at first but, with Gary and Doren gone, she’s standing alone at the head of the pack. Padraig’s eyes rest on her.
“Nond,” Padraig calls. “Hosseim, Halleburn, you’re with me. Tirragen, Elden, take a couple pages with you and run back to the camp. Bring back the shovels and any other tools you find.”
Anya reaches for Lexa.
“Not Haryse,” Padraig says.
Anya hesitates before pointing to Ilian and Lincoln. The four of them
“Sir,” Gus starts. He clamps his mouth shut when Padraig shakes his head.
“Captain, you’re taking the others to find a place to dig.”
Padraig waits until the three third-years and Lexa are all who remain. He sends the boys through the thicket to join the Prince. Then it’s just him and Lexa.
“I don’t know how you knew,”
“I don’t.” Lexa pales when she realises she’s interrupted him. “Sorry, my lord.”
“I can believe that you don’t know exactly what it is,” Padraig agrees, voice low. His eyes—always piercing, now more so—bore into the top of her head, since she’s bowed it slightly to stare at the ground. “But I won’t believe that you didn’t know something. You don’t have the Gift, Haryse.”
“No, my lord.”
“And you didn’t really see anything.” Lexa says nothing. It’s answer enough. She hears him sigh and hard ground shifts under his boots when he steps forward. Startlingly, he lays his hand on her shoulder. “There’s all manner of strange things in this world, Haryse, and for now I don’t intend to dig.”
She glances up.
“Unfortunately, in return I am going to ask you to come with me. What has happened… I can’t risk missing something,” he says, voice grave. “If you’ve some talent, I intend to use it.”
Lexa stares up at him. Unbidden, she says, “Do you train us to be weapons, or knights?”
He doesn’t reply. His guarded expression allows her to glean nothing—not whether he doesn’t know, not whether he knows but thinks she won’t like the answer, not what he thinks of her for asking.
“I’ll help,” she says, to make it feel a little more like she’s offering, and he nods.
“For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t ask it of you if I didn’t feel it was necessary.” His fingers tighten on her shoulder before falling away completely. “Seeing something like this… It is a day that comes to every page. I didn’t think it would come so soon. If you require a moment,”
“I think I would rather see now, Lord Padraig.” Lexa sets her shoulders, lifts her chin. “There’s no telling how I’ll feel until I feel it.”
Padraig nods and turns crisply, leads the way through the thicket to the clearing.
The trees are oaks, live oaks, Lexa notes, and dotted here and there between them are the distinctive silver-striped trunks of young poplars. Great piles of snow had been cleared recently to the edges of the clearing though more has fallen since. The new snow—untouched by the pages that circumvent the clearing, eyes searching the undergrowth for anything out of place—is splashed with colour.
Red, Lexa thinks from a great distance, is the most prominent. She glimpses a pale pink lump she thinks is coloured snow until the details occur to her and she realises that for some long minutes she’s been staring at a pile of entrails.
“Excuse me, milord,” Lexa says very politely, and then turns and vomits into a bush.
He holds out a waterskin for her when she regains her feet and Lexa rinses her mouth and spits before drinking. The cold water clears her head and though her stomach still churns—and a wordless, shrieking part of her whines shrilly where she’s locked it in the back of her mind—there is nothing left to puke up so she nods to him.
“I’d be surprised if you were,” Padraig tells her, voice crisp. His eyes skim the area, narrowed as though the thinner he makes them, the less horror he takes into himself.
Lexa stands at his side and forces herself to take in the scene clearly.
Oaks, poplar trees. Spattered with frozen blood. She points that out and he nods. No footprints mar the new snow. The most recent snowfall had been three nights past and it doesn’t look deep enough to have been more than one nights worth.
Breathing through her mouth, Lexa forces herself to look at the bodies. She finds her eyes are slipping to harmless places—an open hand, a folded blanket, the campfire covered in snow with plates and cups about it like they were about to sit down for a meal. The caravan door, knocking open and closed in the wind. There aren’t many harmless places to look. Her eyes pull away from one bright slash in a woman’s chest and when next they land, she sees that she’s looking at a young man cut nearly in two across the waist.
“What—” Lexa clears her throat, tries to banish the croak. It doesn’t work; she presses on anyway. “What could have done something like this?”
Padraig has no answer for her, of course he doesn’t. Everything she’s noted, he will have noted. He brought her in the hope that she could do something more.
Lexa steps away from him and makes a slow circuit of the clearing. As she walks, she imagines her hands cupped around her head and then, slowly, lifts them away. Everything she hadn’t allowed herself to feel rushes forward to claim her. She turns her toes out and braces herself like Sir Fared always has them stand; grounded, Lexa takes what is being given to her in slices, pieces, turns them over in her mind to decipher them one by one.
Then, she thinks, then she can try to understand what the whole of it means.
The edges of her feel strong and firm, until they dissolve into so much mist and she goes pouring out, or it comes pouring in.
—the edges of her, the edges of who? she doesn’t know or care she is tree-many-trees her leaves shiver in the cold wind it tears it pulls she-youngtrees will grow far down the river where the she-breeze takes it—the ends of she-trees are snapfrozen she Bursts when she freezes the pain exists then does not exist there is a tree fallen in the forest between she-tree there and she-tree here and she-falltree sinks eons slow into dirt mud snow into earth and is, is life poured into earth—
Lexa-her steps over a root. She stops for a moment, stares at the too-dark-earth before moving on.
—cold cold cold cold—she-furred creature snoutandwhisker run into hollow—she-creature feels Cold—she-cold whisks through she-trees and touches she-creature-and-river-and-tree-and-All—
—she-tree up up she grows despite cold and down down down out the twisty twisting twining ends of her—she won’t tear in two, it is a fear that does not occur to she-tree and lexa-tree doesn’t know why it occurs to her until her mind screams, too small for everything being fed into her and she blinks open her eyes to find Gus kneeling in front of her, frown carven into his face like a statue and she grips onto his hand and is pulled back into the Forest—and the wind tries to blow her sideways—she is wind too—she is firm and tall she-many-and-every-tree stand firm and there are hands pressed against her sides, those men and their moving tree squeeze through her trees and spill out into the clearing—
She passes Gareth, who is drawing the macabre scene in a notebook. They speak. She isn’t sure what she says, only knows that he doesn’t find anything strange about it.
—smokeandlaugh and fireandmeat and tooloudnoises—
There’s a very small body, the only untouched figure in the clearing. Save for—Lexa swallows, forces herself not to think about it.
—lexa-prey scurries from the clearing—lexa-with-gold-eyes-and-wicked-talons clutches her roost—lexa-with-claw-and-tail slinks with packmate further from the place-that-smells-of-men—lexa-train-of-one-thought marches, she does not know these great creatures she knows smell-and-touch of the marching-one-and-many, she returns to the Hill, this mind is not made for thought beyond Her, this mind thinks in the one-way-run of the river to the sea—
—lexa-the-earth-and-root-and-water-and-Forest holds the men in the clearing—
—lexa-the-Forest tastes the soot-smoke, lexa-the-Forest is pleased by a laugh, high and sweet, same feeling as a new shoot sprouting, lexa-the-Forest reels at hot splash like-water-but-not-water, lexa-the-Forest tastes the metal water, the metal water seeps into the ground, into the snow, into the roots, into the noses of prey and predator, lexa-the-Forest lays beneath bloated bodies, lexa-the-Forest feels the hotsun and the distantstars and hotsun again, lexa-the-Forest curls onwards, lexa-the-Forest hunts and dies and lives and grows, lexa-the-Forest feels the clearing like a bruise, wrong with spilled blood—
—lexa-the-Forest feels Scrape-and-Claw of sharpsharp bird-that-is-not-a-bird, the unbelonging—lexa-the-Forest is—lexa-the-Forest feels-finds-is the OneWhoIs, lexa-the-Forest pours into that child—
Lexa stops her circuit, grounds herself in a fighting stance. She wraps one arm around her middle and gives herself a full-body shake like a dog out of water, slotting herself back into her skin. It feels too tight and small for a split second before she’s herself again, just Lexa.
It’s too much to think about right now—maybe ever, she qualifies grimly—and so carries on back to Padraig.
“Anything?” he asks.
She’s relieved that he apparently saw nothing beyond the usual where she is concerned. Relieved, and confused. Her mouth works as it always has, which feels like a surprise until it doesn’t. As though she had gone out for the day and returned to her room to find everything exactly as she left it.
“Plenty. But nothing…else.”
He nods, closes his eyes. Pressing his fingers into the corners of his eyes, Padraig rubs the tiredness from them.
“I’m sorry, milord.”
“Don’t be. I didn’t expect anything.” Lexa wonders if she should be offended, but decides against it. “You don’t have to be here, Haryse. The Captain is leading the other first-years down that path.” Padraig points. Lexa considers staying, helping the older pages move the bodies now that they’ve recorded everything of importance, but she has nothing to prove and she doesn’t want to be here anymore so she bows and hurries down the path to Gus.
He clasps her tight, not caring who sees it. Pushing her hair back off her face, his eyes scan her for unease or pain. “Alright?”
Lexa forces a smile. “No.”
“Aye. Stupid question.” He pulls her in again and rubs her back. “Ye can sit out if ye want.”
“I’d rather work, I think,” she admits, and he points her in the direction of the shovels.
For a long hour Lexa loses herself in digging until she has blisters. The slam of the shovel into the dirt isn’t soothing and it isn’t easy and it jars every bone in her body and each of her individual teeth, but it has to be done and while she’s concentrating on it, she doesn’t think about a little body hand curled up to its mothers chest and—
“Lexa. Lexa, you can stop now.”
She listens to Hasim and passes up the shovel, fingers needing a little effort to uncurl from the handle. When he lowers a hand, she clasps it and Hasim and Ilian haul her up out of the grave—the hole, her mind supplies, and she clings onto it even though the shame of her reaction burns in her gut. Once she’s out, she can see that together the pages have dug out several large holes, each of them roughly ten by six feet.
A dirty hand lowers down in front of her and she clasps it. Two pages haul her out of the deep grave and when she’s out of it she can see that together they’ve made a several large pits, each of them roughly ten by six feet.
And then the procession begins. The pages who dug the graves stand just off the path and watch, solemn and quiet and grim, as the older pages carry their oddly shaped sack-wrapped burdens. They do their best to shield the younger pages from the reality of it but they only have so many sack and when they remove them, taking care not to dump people into the pits, everyone can see the truth of the matter. The sacks are oddly shaped, Lexa realises, because the slashes really had severed the limbs. What the pages are bringing to the grace are not intact bodies, but limbs, or limbs and torsos, or a pair of legs. One page brings two hands from two different bodies.
“What did this?” Octavia asks her.
Seeing many eyes on her, Lexa blinks a few times and shakes her head. “I don’t know.”
“Stormwings? You saw Stormwings this morning, didn’t you?”
“The Stormwings…found the bodies.” The ‘And made a mess of them’ goes unsaid.
“But didn’t kill them?”
“Who were they?” Terry asks. Against everything she had thought of him, he is not teary or shaking. His eyes are flint-cold and a deep scowl curls his mouth.
“No, Lexa,” he stops her. “Who were they?” Terry waves his hand toward the procession and Lexa lets out a small ‘oh’.
“I don’t know. Travellers. Merchants, maybe.”
“I haven’t heard anything about merchants going missing, have you?”—“No, but we don’t do a lot of business in these parts,”—“It’s not exactly an abandoned section of the woods,”—“Not far from camp,”—“Reckon it could have been us?”—
“Haryse, what did you see?”
Before she can say anything more—which would have been ask Padraig, since she doesn’t know what he wants everyone to know—Lincoln cuts across them, his voice a soothing rumble. “Leave her be. And stop your chatter—show some respect.”
Octavia ignores him. They switch places with Hasim and move closer to her. “Hey. How come Padraig let you see?”
“Be glad you didn’t.”
They blink, rocking back on their heels. The misguided jealousy—at Padraig’s attention, or that Lexa saw ‘battle’ before them, perhaps—fades and Octavia’s gaze dips for a moment to where Lexa is twisting her hands behind her back.
“Sorry, Lex,” they say quietly and stand at her side, shoulder pressed to hers.
After a moment, Lexa presses back.
Eventually, the commonality Lexa had been trying to ignore becomes horrifically clear to the others. When Octavia realises, their hand twists to grip at Lexa’s shirt. “No,” they whisper.
“Where are their heads?”
The third- and fourth-year pages pause lowering their burdens into the graves, but then carry on. The Prince ignores the question entirely as though he doesn’t hear it. He works like a man possessed—eyes blank, movements jerky—and directs them to the right graves, doing his best to keep the parts to the correct bodies. It’s a sick puzzle, the Stormwings having strewn the parts about.
Padraig is the one to answer Ilian.
“We don’t know.”
When the last of the bodies is set in the grave, and the Prince can’t find any changes to make, every page works to fill in the graves. Anya changes several branches into circles and plants them half-in, half-out of the loose soil of each of the graves. Lexa ignores the strange thrum of her Gift, shifting something within the Forest, something that strains for the briefest moment to be changed back before it settles and is quiet.
“Do we know their names? Know anything about them?” Terry asks. “We should add that to the markers.”
“There was a symbol on the caravan,” Gary says, the first he’s spoken. He shows the drawing to Anya, who obediently has the circles shift again until the symbol is carved into the wood.
Padraig nods his approval.
Once they’ve borne witness at the graves, they start the long walk back to the camp. It is a harsh way to learn of what people are capable of, to come across such a scene, and the pages walk with a new air—intangible, but visibly harsher in the lines of their faces and shoulders, and the way their hands never stray too far from their weapons.
Despite her exhaustion, when Lexa feels that almost-familiar buzz she calls, “Stormwing!” and takes aim. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees the other pages follow suit. “Stop if you value your throat,” she warns the Stormwing that drops from the sky, sees that it is the male from earlier. Seconds later, another dives and lands on a tree on the other side of the path. She is not Banni Longclaw but a new Stormwing Lexa hasn’t met.
“The little one has bite,” this new Stormwing says. Her voice is cool and curious. Lexa thinks she might hate that more than the cackling words of Banni Longclaw. At least if the Stormwings are impetuous, if they’re cracked or inherently wrong, she could understand what they’ve done here. But if they’re capable of thought and reason then…
Lexa forces her mind still, feeling the creeping of the Forest at her edges. Firm edges, solid edges. She fills herself with the burning fury that has been smouldering and burning for some hours now, and sights carefully the true-line arc from her bow to where the arrow will hit if she lets it fly.
“Stand down.” Padraig’s command encompasses them all.
Lexa waits for a moment, then lowers her bow. “My lord. This is the Stormwing from before. And a new one.”
“A new one,” the female Stormwing repeats, and smiles a terrible smile—pearly white teeth sharp and gleaming and strings of red caught between some of them. Her green eyes lock onto Lexa’s and the smile widens. “Haryse. I’ll remember that.”
Lexa doesn’t so much as blink. “See that you do.”
The Stormwing cackles. “Oho, I like birdies with a bit of bite.” She flicks her tail twice in what Lexa suspects is a rude gesture, from the way her eyes go sly. “You take care, chicken, that you don’t bite more than you can chew.”
“I’ll thank you not to threaten my pages,” Padraig says. “You will not like the consequences.”
“Yes, yes, your king is the mage-king,” she rolls her eyes.
“That,” he nods, “and also our pages are a lot tougher than they look.”
“They look plenty tough to me,” the male mutters. “All muscle, not fat.”
“Maybe that’s the way they train them,” his companion muses. She laughs again. “Is that it, old silver head? Surely you know we don’t discriminate on the field. You all end up as meat. And we love you all,” she adds, red lips pursed in a grotesque kiss.
Padraig doesn’t react. He stands coolly, every inch the fearless knight from the silver hair like a helmet to the stern gash of his mouth to the sword at his hip that Lexa now sees is bared several inches.
To his side, Lexa brushes her fingers over the fletching of the arrow she’s kept notched. Aiming for the eye makes a statement, but the chest or throat is more likely to hit, she thinks, eyeing the Stormwing thoughtfully.
The male eyes her back, shuffles on his perch.
She hopes she’s making him nervous.
“I would know your names,” Padraig calls up to them.
“Seems fair, since we know one of yours,” the male Stormwing says, still staring right at Lexa. Lexa suspects that his voice naturally falls into a mocking register. She could forgive it that morning; she finds she is less inclined to do so now. “I am Zeddik Claspclaw.” He bows his dark head as graciously as his sensibilities allow, which turns out to be not very much at all.
Padraig nods. Lexa can’t be sure but she thinks that he hasn’t looked away from the female Stormwing. Something about her is more dangerous than Zeddick—Lexa feels it in the way her teeth are set on edge, still buzzing.
“You have the pleasure of addressing Gorma Bloodbrow,” she says, mockingly grand, adding, “Queen of the Steelslice flock,” when it is clear none of them know her by her name. “Zeddick is my consort.”
“Your Majesty, Consort,” Padraig greets them formally. The absolute chill of his fury makes the nod of his head ever so slightly stiff. “Can you tell us what happened in the clearing?”
“I do hope you’re not looking to accuse us,” Queen Gorma says. She scratches her claws against her chest in a place where flesh meets steel. Blood trickles from the wounds her sharp claws score but she doesn’t seem to realise, enjoying instead the way the pages wince at the sound of steel shrieking against steel. “I would find it most uncouth.”
“I make no accusation. We only wish to know what occurred.”
Queen Gorma looks over the pages with a green, curious eye. “My kin and I found the caravan two mornings past. They were dead already.” She smiles. “We did as we are made to do.”
Behind them, pages murmur unpleasant words. It doesn’t seem to bother the Stormwings; if anything, they seem pleased by the distaste.
“Do you want more detail?” the Queen offers, green eyes bright with a wicked humour.
“A little, perhaps. I find it difficult to believe you happened across them. This is a densely forested area.”
The Queen stirs on her perch, cocks her human head in distinctly avian curiosity. “We are drawn to violence, Knight of the Kings Roost. We do not have to be told where it is.”
Padraig considers this before nodding, very slightly.
He turns on his heel—not bowing to her, a slight that does not go unnoticed by the Queen—and walks away. When he passes Lexa, she draws her bow a fraction. Though she knows he sees the gesture, he doesn’t reprimand her for it.
“Haryse,” the Queen croaks.
Lexa jerks her chin upwards, clenching it against the Stormwings stench. “What?”
“I’ll be seeing you again.” The expression on Queen Gorma’s face can only be a leer. “I look forward to eating your young heart.”
No one reprimands Lexa for bringing her bow up at that obvious threat. The Stormwings lift out of the trees and Lexa doesn’t aim to kill. Her arrow dings harmlessly off the Queen’s tail feathers and her laughter rings through the air for a long minute after she’s gone.
They return to the camp.
Padraig has Anya establish a connection with a mage at the palace and explains, with Anya as his mouthpiece, what they found. She relays their orders back to him.
His Majesty the King requests their presence in the forest until such a time as they can be replace. His Majesty the King requests that his servant, Lord Padraig, do his utmost to track the perpetrators. His Majesty the King requests that his servants, knights-in-training all, uphold the Bravery and Honour for which they are renowned about the realm.
All in all, it sounded very much like he was telling them to stay put and do their best, which didn’t sound very kingly—or helpful—to Lexa.
Padraig must have taken the words in a different light because he sets out immediately, taking the fourth-years with him.
In his absence, the camp turns to Gus who stands like a giant in the centre of it and he directs the pages to their work. Sets up a day-and-night watch in three hour intervals, the others to make the defences and to train. The camp devolves into busy work, like an over-turned anthill, until they collapse into their bedrolls.
Padraig and the fourth-years contact Gus before nightfall, and do not expect to return that night.
“Right.” Gus crosses his arms over his chest, looks over the drawn, anxious faces of the children before him. “Today’s bin a shock, I know. I also know yer the toughest lot this side o’ the World’s Roof.”
“Just this side?” Benny drawls, a knife spinning between his fingers. It’s a wholly obvious ploy but it pulls smiles, as it’s meant to.
Gus shrugs. “As tough as y’are, no one leaves this camp without my ‘spress say-so. No one goes unarmed. If I find ye unarmed, I’ll drag ye back to Corus by ye ear and have ye scrubbin’ dishes ‘til ye think ye was born a rag. Keep those swords on ye side sleepin’, shittin’, and every time in between, hear?” They nod. Padraig would never use the same language, but they know he would say much the same. “Good. King’s Own is headed to us wi’ a squad. They’ll be here by morning. T’ bed with the lot’o’ye."
Early morning watch brings the Own—Lexa, wrapped in a cloak high in her tree watches the riders pick their way up the mountain carefully, trying to avoid the pitholes the pages had dug the day before. At the lead is a large man, a knight from the covered shield hanging from his saddle. The four men following are dressed in the deep blue of the Own, in silver or white cloaks. The man riding at the knights side is wearing a white burnoose. Their horses look fresh and excitable, but the riders tame them with a practiced touch and Lexa finds herself nodding as she watches them.
“’Lo the watch,” a pitched voice calls when they approach.
Lexa whistles sharply. An answering whistle comes from the other side of camp—Varkus, the note for I see them—and from the cabin—Gus, expected company.
She swings down and keeps her sights on the group. The biggest rider—possibly the biggest man she’s ever seen, including Gus—removes his helm when they leave the tree line. He holds it to his side in the crook of his arm and brings his beautiful horse to a stop with a murmured word.
“Gods, you must be the smallest page I’ve ever seen!” he announces. Lexa bristles, but it’s then closely followed by, “Well, maybe not. Alan was small. Maybe I’ve just gotten bigger,” so she decides he meant no offence and bows. “Raoul of Goldenlake, Third Company. Damn clever of you to keep your arrow notched—never hurts to be prepared.”
Lexa nods once she straightens from her bow. “I know who you are, Sir Raoul. Welcome to winter camp.” She gives the same nod to the other riders, who bow to her from their saddles.
Sir Raoul dismounts with the easy grace of a man half his age—not, she allows, that he’s old. Just…older. Pushing half-forty, she thinks, since he’s the same age as the King. “Been a while since my last winter camp. As a page, I mean.” He grins, showing off a charming smile. “As a Commander I can’t seem to avoid the blasted things.”
“Not as cushy as you thought, milord?”
“We can find a cushion for you, I think,” another teases. “Just for your chair, or d’you need one for your saddle too?”
Lexa hides a smile. After months with her friends, the teasing feels terribly familiar and it endears her instantly to the group, and to the knight who allows it. Encourages it, if she guesses from the dramatic upset he’s feigning. She steps forward to take Sir Raoul’s reins.
“Captain Bruin is in the cabin, Sir Raoul. He took the first two watches but he’ll be awake still.”
“I’ve no doubt,” Sir Raoul agrees. A flicker of dark concern crosses his face, so quickly Lexa thinks she might have imagined it if it hadn’t pulled an answering anxiety from her. “You lot,” he turns to his riders, “don’t give the page any strife.”
“Strife, milord?” The sturdy blond rider that had taken Raoul’s left shoulder cocks his eyebrows. The confident ease with which he sits in his saddle is a sign of long hours spent there; his insouciance, however, is so complete that it can only be a naturally gained gift. “I think I’m offended. Are we offended, Faroush?”
The Bazhir, who at first glance Lexa would put as too reserved to joke, blinks hooded dark eyes at his knightlord. “I believe we are offended, Master Nolan,” he agrees quietly. When Sir Raoul flings his hands up in defeat and strides off for the cabin, Faroush flicks his eyes Lexa’s way and winks. For an instance, Lexa feels as though she’s been given an early view of what Hasim will look like as a man—the shape of their faces are similar, and the colour of their eyes, though Faroush wears his hair cut closer to his head than Hasim does. She wonders if Hasim will become contained like this—if his fidgets will turn into this patience, if his passions will lurk behind hooded lids and only be revealed amidst close company. She doesn’t think she will mind; there is little doubt in her mind that she will not belong to those trusted few.
“May I help you with your horses?” she asks them, particularly eyeing Faroush’s mare.
“I think you’ll have your hands full with Stomper there,” the square-jawed Nolan says, blue eyes bright with a smile.
“If she wants to groom Nisam, she is more than welcome to,” Faroush says. “I will take my lord’s horse, if you wish.”
“You don’t wish to look after your own Nisam?” Lexa checks, though she already has her hands outstretched for the golden mare to sniff and laughs when she steps forward, butts her head to Lexa’s chest.
“Today, this is a gift to you,” he tells her, and smiles gently down at her. “She deserves to be fawned over, by many.” Lexa nods her fervent agreement.
“Alraed is going to be jealous,” Lexa tells Nisam, smoothing her hand down her soft nose.
“Alraed? I would like to meet one so named. Come, let me see her.” Faroush swings down, takes up Stompers reins. They lead the horses to the makeshift stable and Lexa happily grooms Nisam as Faroush admires Alraed, examines her from nose to tail. They discuss their horse traders, and grooming methods, and training, and how demanding their beautiful horses are—“Rightfully so, no?” he says with a fond twist to his lips, and in the next moment accepts a shoulder of spit from Nisam—and he never once seems to mind that he’s talking to a girl. Or an eleven year old. She enjoys the discussion, and the distraction.
By the time they finish grooming them, Stomper too, the Own are well on their way through preparing breakfasts for themselves and the pages.
Sir Raoul is crouched by the fire, pouring something into the pot there. He stands when he sees them. “Faroush, good—would you contact the reserve squad? Hello again, Page Haryse.”
Faroush nods deeply to her and Lexa bows back. He joins Raoul and they return to the cabin. Lexa wonders whether she’s meant to follow when Nolan waves her over.
He’s seated on one of the logs at the fire and he gestures for her to join him. There’s plenty of space—many of the pages are asleep yet—and one of the Own’s number has disappeared. The other is digging in the packs on the other side of the fire.
Lexa eases herself down and nods politely. She looks up the hill to the cabin, Faroush’s white burnoose just whisking in through the door.
“Forget about them,” Nolan teases. “They’re going to talk to some very boring people—the reserve squad.” He shakes his head. “Sad sacks, they are. No sense of fun. Trust me—we’re the best squad.”
Lexa nods obligingly.
“It’s true, I swear on my honour.”
She thinks she hears the other rider cough something like ‘what honour’ into his fist. Nolan ignores that, magnanimous, and calls to the man striding back toward them.
“Worrem! Worrem, tell her it’s true—we’re the best squad, aren’t we?”
“It’s true,” the man called Worrem obliges, tone so flat Lexa knows he’s humouring his squadmate. He’s a stern looking man, the silver collar and embroidery of his uniform showing off beautifully against his black skin. When he passes her, Lexa can see that freckles are spattered over his cheeks and head, which he’s shaved bald. A neatly trimmed beard follows his jaw line and over the curve of his chin.
“You have to put some passion into it man. Shimas, tell this good page that we’re the best squad.”
The final rider—Shimas—is young, probably not much older than twenty. He looks up from where he’s digging in his pack and shrugs, tilting his hand in a so-so gesture. “I would, but we seem to have forgotten the beef and so I’m really piss—” He stops, glances at Lexa. “Er. Upset with us.”
“You checked the pockets?”
“Why would I put it in the pocket?”
“You wouldn’t, but I would. For easy snacking.”
“If you’ve snacked through our entire beef ration…” Shimas grumbles, but never finishes his threat since he comes across the packet and pulls it out with a whoop of triumph, hurrying back to the pot. “So, you must be the Haryse page,” Shimas says, stirring a yellow powder into the pot.
“You must,” Nolan agrees. “You look not at all like old Danshame.”
“And we’ve met the Tirragen page,” Worrem adds, with a sly look to Shimas that Lexa doesn’t understand. “Therefore, you must be the Haryse girl-page.”
Lexa shrugs. “I am.”
“It’s nice to meet you. Breakfast?” Nolan passes a plate to Shimas, who dumps a spoonful of rice onto it, and over to Worrem who lays meet on the edge, and when it gets back to Nolan he stuffs some vegetables on top since there’s no more space, and he spins an egg on the top of his finger. “Egg?”
“I wouldn’t know where to put it.”
“In your belly,” Nolan advises.
“I don’t think there’d be any space.”
“Your loss. Shimas?”
The boy barely looks up to catch the egg and cracks it against the rim of his own plate. He’s peering down at a map he’s laid over his knee and eating absent-mindedly. Though, she notes, he never does stop eating at any point.
Raoul and Faroush re-join them—Nolan hands them each a plate when they do—and when Lexa offers to fetch water for the knight, it sets his men off into excessive offers of their own. He rolls his eyes at Lexa as thought to say ‘see what I have to put up with?’ and she almost smiles but, at the last moment, can’t manage to make the smile stick.
Raoul’s grin fades. He frowns down at his meal and his men trade quiet comments and jokes between them as Lexa eats with the efficiency she’s learned in the pages dining hall. The knight waits until she’s finished—passed her half-empty plate off to Shimas to demolish, at any rate—before speaking.
She wishes that he hadn’t. Her meal sits heavy in her stomach like a great, unfriendly rock.
“I’m told that you found…them.”
“The bodies,” Lexa says flatly. He nods. “No. I was with the group that met the Stormwings. We took Padraig to them and he found the…the bodies a little further on.”
Raoul twists a bit of string about his finger as she speaks and when she’s done, he nods. “I’m glad to have got that wrong. From what I gather, you didn’t need to have seen that.” She makes a small sound and Raoul pauses. “You did see it?”
His eyes are tender. Lexa has to look away. She swallows hard. “Yessir.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he tells her slowly, with heavy sincerity.
“Thank you, sir.”
Sir Raoul scrubs at his chin with thick fingers. Then, “Did you really piss off old Bloodbrow?”
“Language, milord!” Nolan scolds from across the fire, putting the lie to the image that they’re not listening.
“Er, yes. Ah,”
“Aggravate,” Shimas supplies helpfully.
“Are you soldiers or poets?” Raoul grumbles. “Haryse?”
“That…may also be true.”
To her surprise, Raoul laughs. He slaps his hand against his knee and Faroush, who had been lounging at the fire, pops an eye open to glare at his knight commander.
“Sir,” he reprimands. “Some of us are trying to catch up on our sleep.”
“Beauty sleep, Faroush? You’re already a beauty.”
“Too kind, milord. Do shut up.” Faroush pulls his hood over his face. Lexa notices that his sword doesn’t leave his hand and immediately feels much better that these well-trained men are acting calm and relaxed for her benefit. Or the pages in general. Though most are, still, asleep.
Raoul mimes buttoning his lips and, grinning, stands. “I’m taking a walk.” He rests a hand on Lexa’s shoulder. “You should get some sleep,” he advises.
She returns to the cabin to do just that but after tossing in her bedroll for half of an hour—and getting a sharp elbow in the kidney from Octavia—she throws herself out into the world again and trots to the practice posts instead. With all the business going on, she hasn’t had time to practice her forms with her right hand much at all.
It isn’t long before she grows frustrated by her lack of progress.
“Don't be too harsh on yourself, kid. You were in a cast until last week,” Anya reminds her, turning up out of nowhere when Lexa scowls down at her sword arm for the second time in as many minutes.
Lexa spins to face her.
“But I’ve been practising. And I'm not a kid."
“Mhm. Three hours of practice does not a swordmaster make.”
Lexa knows she’s right. But still. “Why not?”
Anya’s eyebrow quirks upwards. “First position,” she calls, and guides Lexa into it. She doesn’t leave until Lexa is well into the exercises and motivating herself.
Lexa turns away from her practice post, confused by Shimas’s cool tone. He had been very friendly to her that morning.
“Shimas. Nice to see you again.”
“Likewise.” He doesn’t sound like he means it. Anya doesn’t look like she does either. “Rematch?”
“If you wish to cry before your squad, I certainly will oblige you.”
Lexa blinks at the taunt—Anya has never been one for taunting an enemy—and watches a transformation take over her friend. Where she has always walked with determination, she is now possessed of something fluid, wild. Like a cat, she slinks forward. Her sword appears to leap into her hand, eager and moving so quickly it appears more quicksilver than steel. Clearly, Lexa thinks, trying hard not to feel upset, she’d been holding back in their training.
“Dulled edges?” he suggests. She shrugs. “Where’s the fun in that. Bare steel.”
“If you wish.”
“Will you set the boundaries?”
Anya lazily flicks her hands. “Logs. Treeline.”
They bow. Shimas strikes.
Lexa drinks in the vision of Anya—she moves almost as though she’s dancing, though she wears a faint expression of boredom Lexa is certain is meant as another kind of taunt. There is exurberance in her footwork and Lexa has heard her discuss duels before, and sword-masters, and know that there is no part of her that is bored by this. Still, for the first few minutes, Anya barely bothers to strike back and contents herself with merely deflecting Shimas’s attacks. After a time, Lexa realises that she’s allowing herself to be herded toward the fire and the boundary logs. Her foot moves back, touches the log, and Anya darts backwards and up onto the log. She spins, bringing her sword down in a flashing arc toward Shimas in a move more demonstrative than strictly necessary. It dazzles Shimas, though, who seems surprised that she’s finally returning the attack. He brings his blade up in time to block and their swords crash together in a spray of sparks. He leaps backwards.
“I thought the log was the boundary,” he chides, circling her.
“Is that what you thought? I meant that the logs were included.” Anya spins her sword in a seemingly lazy pattern. Lexa knows that the butterfly pattern is more than the ostentatious gesture it seems to be. “You don’t want to win this match on a technicality, do you?” The lazy drawl draws colour into Shimas’s cheeks.
He refuses to answer. Instead, he snarls. Before he can work his anger into an attack, Anya advances and for the short remainder of the match Shimas does little else but blocking.
Anya never relents. She attacks in pattern Lexa picks out quickly enough and then, once Shimas settles into defending, her sword flicks out of the pattern and slips around his.
Lexa blinks. She leans forward, stunned to see that Shimas is standing empty handed almost exactly where they had begun the match. Mind racing, Lexa does her best to memorise the attacks, and blocks, and she wonders if Anya had been driving the mtch the entire time—if her blocks had lead to his strikes, if she had always intended for them to meet back at that space. When she feels herself getting too excited, Lexa forces herself to sit back and unclench white fists and breathe out slowly.
“What did you think?” Anya asks her, panting.
Lexa re-evaluates how much effort Anya had put into the fight. Natural grace and talent notwithstanding, she had just disarmed a man several years older than her.
“That was brilliant,” she breathes. “What was that one called—the one that looked like the butterfly?”
“The fishtail. I’ll show you it,” she promises. Lexa sees her own fierce joy reflected in the grin Anya sends her way when she beams up at her. “Want to give Shimas a go?”
“Whoa—no way. No offence,” he says to Lexa. Though she knows he was disappointed by his loss to Anya, he’s already grinning again. “I have some pride and if this one,” he jerks his thumb at Anya, “is training you, then I don’t wanna get beat by a ten year old.”
“Oh well, in that case,” he laughs. She thinks he’s joking but he draws his sword and beckons her over. “A friendly,” he promises them both. “I hope you don’t mind me saying but your arm…”
“I fell. Several weeks ago.”
“I think it was the result of good timing, actually.”
“Ouch. Well.” He swings his sword, stretches out his shoulders. “Blunted edges good for you?”
Lexa nods and holds out her sword to Anya, whose purple Gift twirls down the length of the blade. She tests the edge on her own thumb before handing it back to Lexa and doing the same for Shimas.
Fighting against someone who isn’t holding back is…interesting. Lexa despises the sensation of the sword leaving her hand when she’s disarmed. She hates even more having the point of his sword at her throat, or spine, or neck, or belly. Those points that, if it were a real fight, would mean she would not stand up again.
They begin yet again after the third time he disarmed her with the same move. Intent on not letting it happen for a fourth, Lexa narrows her eyes and bows to her opponent.
He uses the same opening attack, she realises, and sidesteps it in the way she hadn’t in all the other bouts. He stops the attack when he sees her move, but now that she’s stepped away she can see that the attack has left his right side open and vulnerable. Lexa drives her attack there. He blocks. Returns a strike. Lexa blocks and sends one back. They settle into trading blows and Lexa grows frustrated—and exhausted—by the exchange. He’s older and stronger than her and will easily outlast her in stamina. Not to mention that each of his blows jars down her right arm, which starts to ache as though complaining at her poor treatment of it.
She tosses her head, tries to ignore the way her braids stick to her sweat-slick neck. The sweat is positively dripping off her despite the cold air—Lexa squints over at Shimas, tries not to be blinded when sweat stings her eyes.
He takes advantage of her distraction and advances, catching her blade with his and twisting in that familiar way—Lexa’s body remembers the move and her hand clenches tight on her hilt and with all the strength she has she bears down on the connection.
Shimas leaps back, breaking the connection.
“Almost had you,” he taunts.
Lexa ignores it. She hasn’t enough breath in her to talk.
“Only a matter of time,” he sing-songs.
Lexa tries the old trick of watching his chest to see if it will betray his next attack. She sees when his muscles tense but finds she doesn’t know enough yet to know what that tensing means.
When he disarms her with a move she hadn’t seen before, Lexa is largely unsurprised—though still disappointed. For what is now the fifteenth time, Shimas presses the edge of his sword lightly to her skin. This time, conclusively, he touches it to her neck.
For a moment they stand still and then Shimas withdraws. Lexa lifts an arm to wipe her face. Her hands are trembling with exhaustion. And it’s not even lunch, she thinks, sourly amused.
“Not bad,” he announces.
“Not bad? You beat me every time.”
“Fifteen out of fifteen,” he agrees cheerily.
Anya speaks up from the fire. There’s a book open on her lap but Lexa recognises the map it’s open to and thinks she must not have been reading. “Congratulations, you beat an eleven year old. You must be so proud.”
Lexa winces. “Anya. You saw all of that. How nice. I thought you’d left.”
Anya’s dark eyes slip over to her and announce quite clearly without her having to say a word exactly how foolish of a thought that had been. “How do you feel?”
“Sore,” Lexa admits.
Anya jerks her head and Lexa obeys, trotting over to sit next to her. Without invitation, Shimas joins them at the fire. He accepts the other soldiers cheerful jibes—“Thought you were going to lose that last one for a minute there, Shimas,”—and Lexa ignores it when their attention swings around to her, though she accepts their advice and congratulations on her perseverance with a nod
None of the congratulations mean anywhere near as much as Anya’s murmured, “Not bad.”
She works Lexa through the cool down exercises to relax the muscles and keep them from cramping too terribly and Lexa copies her.
“I hurt everywhere,” she mutters. Distantly, Lexa is aware that she’s complaining. It hurts too much not to, though. She continues. “I didn’t even know I had muscles here.” She jabs her thumb into the middle of her forearm, drags her thumb down the length of it.
Anya clicks her tongue and takes her arm in both of her hands. “After this, we’re gonna put cold wraps around your arms. Unless you can’t manage a bit of cold?” There’s a hint of mockery to her voice and though Lexa understands what manipulation is, she still lets herself be swept up in it.
“I can manage,” she sneers. “I’m not a child.”
Shimas coughs. Lexa narrows her eyes at him.
“Good. We’ll take them off at lunch and then put them on again tonight.” As she talks, she works her thumbs slowly, painfully, gloriously, down Lexa’s arm. There’s no sign of the Gift around her hands but surely she has to be using it—it’s magic how she’s drawing the hurt out.
“I would give you all of Haryse right now,” she sighs, eyes lidded. Anya laughs.
“What’s this? Page Haryse brought low by a massage?”
“Yes. I’m not too—oh, right there,” she sighs happily. “I’m not too proud to admit it.”
Anya laughs again, quiet but a true laugh. Lexa opens her eyes in time to catch the soft expression before it fades. “Better?”
Lexa wants to lie and say no so that Anya will continue but reluctantly she nods. Anya has her clench and unclench her hands a few times and then very gently presses her through another exercise that loosens the wire-tight tendons in her forearms.
“My turn next?” Octavia asks, throwing themself tiredly down on Anya’s other side. “Captain Gus had me climbing trees all morning.” They don’t say any more than that and Anya turns to massage their arms. Lexa slips off to get the healing balm from her pack. “Gods, Anya, marry me,” she hears Octavia groan on her return. Lexa snorts. They flap a lazy hand in her direction. “Oh shut it. You offered your land, remember?”
“I lasted longer than that.”
“Not much longer.”
“Anya! You’re my sponsor—you’re supposed to be on my side.”
“I did bet against you in the count, if you recall.”
“Oh yes.” Lexa sneers at her, enjoys the way the expression takes shape without any intent behind it. Anya’s eyes glint back at her, amused.
The arrival of the King’s Own—and the second squad that rides up at midday—is a sign to the pages. Padraig returns late that afternoon on their sixth day of winter camp and gathers them all at the fire.
He waits until the pages settle and then a moment longer. Lexa wonders if he doesn’t know exactly what to say. That, almost more than anything else that has happened during this camp, unsettles her deeply.
“I am not unaware of what a shock this week has been,” he says finally. “The winter camp is always a test, of a kind.” The pages nod. Everyone knows there have been some pages who can’t handle the cold, or sleeping rough, and that some years those pages dropped out of the class once they returned to the palace. Padraig drums his fingers against the thick belt at his waist. “You have all comported yourself in a manner to be proud of,” he tells them finally. “We return to the palace tonight. Ensure that the camp is clear and clean and be ready to ride out in an hour.”
It’s an underwhelming ending to the camp but no one argues. If they feel anything like Lexa does, they’re ready to be far from the camp, and the caravan, and back within the familiar grounds of the palace.
“Questions?” Padraig nods when no one speaks. “One hour. We should be in the palace by nightfall.”
They set a quick pace for the Forest Road, Padraig taking them on the road rather than take the dense forest paths all the way back into the Royal Forest proper.
“Anyone else feel like we stumbled into something big?” Hasim says quietly.
Octavia nods. Ilian shifts uneasily in his saddle.
“Why didn’t we go back to the palace right away?” Terrance asks them quietly.
“Padraig wanted to be sure he didn’t miss anything,” Lexa tells him, remembering the way his eyes had scoured the clearing for any sign of what had committed that act. “That’s why he took the fourth-years. To track it down.”
“It? Not them?”
She shrugs, pulls her cloak tight around her shoulders. “I don’t know. I’ve not—I’ve never seen anything like it.” Her voice cracks a little and her friends nod, backing off a fraction. “Anyway. We were the only people there. If we’d gone…there was no knowing if anyone could find that exact place again. Or maybe whatever did it would return, or hide it’s tracks, or,”
“Do you think he found anything? Padraig, I mean.”
She glances to his stiff back, far at the head of the line. “I don’t know,” she says. She feels like she’s been saying it a lot. “I don’t think he’d tell us if he did.”
“No,” the others agree. “Probably not.”
“He might. We saw what happened. He would tell us if we caught it.”
Padraig’s estimation is close—night has only just stirred across the sky when the pages trot into the palace courtyard, metal against stone ringing out.
The first bit of good news for days comes once their horses are groomed and stabled.
“A free day tomorrow,” Padraig tells them, face impassive as ever. “You may do what you wish, including visit the city. First-years must be accompanied by an escort.” He glances their way. “Or go in a pack,” he drawls, and the older years laugh obligingly, sending knowing looks back at the six.
“A bribe, do you think?” Octavia suggests, throwing themself onto Lexa’s bed. The others pour into her small room too. Lexa nudges Octavia across, folds herself into the corner of her bed. Ilian sits at the desk—Hasim sits on the desk. Terrance lounges on the floor and Virgil, stiff-backed, sour-faced Virgil, claims the last seat for himself.
“A bribe for what?” he asks. Octavia glances sharply at him, but there’s no trace of derision.
“I don’t know. Not to mention what happened?”
He waves that away. “We’re pages. We aren’t supposed to mention it anyway.”
“A reward,” Ilian says. “For keeping our heads.”
They file out to go to their own rooms. Hasim lingers, fingers curled around the doorframe to tether him. He drums his fingers as he stares over at Lexa. "Why do these things always happen to you?" he asks, very softly. No answer springing to mind, Lexa just shakes her head. He sighs. "Sleep well, sister. The morning light will shine brighter."
Much later, laying awake in her bed, Lexa stares out her shuttered window into the courtyard at the oak tree growing there. Not everyone kept their heads, she thinks, the grisly image of the headless caravaners playing out in her mind again and again. She pulls her blanket up to her chin and turns onto her side. She wonders if Hasim's last words had been a familiar phrase, or if he thinks it's bare truth. The stars high above are pinprick bright, burning light from another realm.