Julia, along with some of the other citizens of Raven’s Roost, spends her nights having secret meetings in half-darkened back rooms, talking about deposing Governor Kalen. It’s at one of these meetings that the subject of recruiting Magnus Burnsides is brought up, at which point everyone turns to look at Julia. She’s not sure what to say. Magnus is sweet and a good sparring partner and endearingly enthusiastic about woodworking. But “enthusiasm for woodworking” isn’t exactly what they’re looking for in rebellion members, and she’s not entirely sure he’s trustworthy.
“After all,” she says to her compatriots, “He showed up in Raven’s Roost right when we got started with all this—" she accompanies the word with a gesture at the various maps and plans they have scattered about the room— “and when he showed up… I don’t know. When I first met him, it took him a minute to remember his own name. Like he was using a fake one, or something.”
“That’s such a minor thing to base a decision on, though,” says Victor, who ran the Raven’s Roost library before Kalen had it shut down. “Maybe he was tired—”
“—Hang on,” cuts in Rachel, one of Julia’s oldest friends and, currently, a woman who seems determined to make Julia’s life difficult, “You think Magnus is a spy for Kalen? Magnus?”
“Well, not exactly, I just think we should be careful—”
“If he’s a spy, then the man’s extremely dedicated to his cover. I’ve never seen somebody pick more fights with Kalen’s men.”
That statement stops Julia’s train of thought dead in its tracks. “You’ve never seen who now?” she asks, turning to look at Rachel.
“When he catches Kalen’s soldiers harassing people, he does not hesitate to pick a fight with them. It’s inspiring,” Rachel says. She smiles smugly at Julia. “Why do you think I keep asking you to come out for drinks with us on Friday nights?”
“The man’s going to get himself killed,” Julia mutters. And while half the room seems inclined to agree with her, the other half of the room is glancing at each other and saying things like “Yeah, sounds like he could be a real help to us.”
The argument about whether they should get Magnus on board turns into an argument about who they should get on board, generally speaking, and lasts long into the night. Eventually, they agree to let Magnus in on the rebellion’s secrets, along with a few other people from the craftsman district. And Julia quickly lets go of her distrust of Magnus; given his reaction to being let into the rebellion, it’s clear that he hates Kalen as much as anyone else in Raven’s Roost. What she can’t let go of, especially when she takes Rachel up on her offer and sees Magnus punch one of Kalen’s men square in the jaw because he was threatening a bartender, is the thought that Magnus Burnsides is absolutely going to get himself killed, probably at some point this year.
Magnus Burnsides, however, lives out the year. During the day, he works with Julia in her father’s shop, and at night, they crowd together with the other rebellion members over plans to break people out of Kalen’s jails and redistribute money from his treasury. They spar, he asks for her help making a chair, she gets him to help her build a shed for Rachel’s brother’s best friend’s wedding gift- It’s nice. It’s really nice. And if she finds herself wondering if she should ask him to be her date to the wedding, and blushing when Rachel teases her about his muscles, well that’s her business, isn’t it?
And then, midway through the winter of Magnus’ second year in Raven’s Roost, he starts acting strange. He’s not quite avoiding her, but normally they’ll show each other what they’re working on, and sometimes ask for help or advice, and he’s been working on something for weeks without talking to her about it at all. The whole mess culminates in day where he comes up to her as she leaves the workshop, says “Imadethisforyou,” shoves something into her hands, and flees. “This” is a hand-carved wooden duck. It is a very nice duck. Julia has no idea why Magnus would give it to her.
Before she gets a chance to ask him, she comes down with that winter’s strain of the flu and ends up devoting her mental energy to feeling sick and miserable rather than wondering why Magnus would give her a duck. Magnus hovers for the first few days she’s ill, bringing her tea (that her father made, luckily) and keeping her company, and then gets sick himself.
And while she’d started to feel better after a few days, Magnus… doesn’t. When almost a week has passed and he’s still feverish and only semi-conscious, her father sends for a cleric. There, she tells herself, because she’d been getting steadily more and more worried about him all week, It’s going to be fine.
The cleric turns out to be less help than they’d hoped. After almost an hour of performing various spells, the woman turns to her and says, “I don’t know what’s wrong with him.”
“What,” Julia replies, her voice slightly icier than she’d intended.
Rather than getting defensive, the cleric’s face goes soft and sympathetic. “I can give you some potions, of course,” she says, “but I don’t know why he’s reacting this badly. He shouldn’t be.” Some amount of worry bleeds into the woman’s tone on the last phrase, and when she speaks again, her voice is carefully modulated. “Where is he from?”
“I don’t… know,” Julia says slowly. “He moved here about a year ago. He doesn’t talk about his past much.”
“It’s almost like he’s never been exposed to this particular strand of illness before,” the cleric says thoughtfully, “but that’s silly,” she adds, in a more decisive tone. “I don’t know anywhere on the continent where you wouldn’t get exposed to the flu.”
The cleric leaves, giving Julia and her father some potions and promising to return the next day. For almost a week afterwards Magnus shows no sign of improvement. Both the cleric and her father start tiptoeing around him, as though he were at risk of dying from loud noises. Julia is more terrified than she’s ever been in her entire life. Especially one night, when she’s sitting next to his bed, making sure he keeps breathing. Magnus is murmuring something in his sleep, something about a bear- and then, instead of words coming out of his mouth, there’s just a noise. Like static. She screams for her father, who calls for the cleric.
The cleric spends the entire night casting healing spells, but by morning Magus is looking marginally better. When Julia tells her about the staticky noise, she offers her a sympathetic smile and says, “Hon, you’d been awake and stressed for how many hours straight? Are you sure what you heard wasn’t just a coughing fit?” Julia bristles at the insinuation that she’d been hearing things, the static noise was real and it was terrifying, but before she can parse out a polite way to say that the cleric adds, “it’s a good thing you called me when you did. If I’d got here any later- Whatever tipped you off that something was wrong, it’s a good thing it did.”
It’s not a great explanation, and Julia’s still worried after the cleric leaves. But it’s an explanation that seems much more reasonable after she’s had a decent night’s sleep (only after her father tells her that dying of sleep deprivation will not help Magnus in any way). Besides, Magnus’ health starts to improve after that night, and while it’s almost a month before he’s back on his feet, he’s a real nightmare of a patient for about half that time. Magnus does not take well to “stay in bed and rest, you almost died.” Between that, and the fact that Julia’s working overtime on the orders that had piled up in the shop, she’s not left with much time to worry about that night, which had begun to feel like a half-remembered nightmare. Besides, Magnus is recovering. What more is there to worry about?
So Magnus recovers, and works up the courage to ask Julia out on a date a few weeks later. He gives her a hand-carved wooden bear on said date. Three days later, Julia figures out why Magnus gave her a wooden duck and ends up shouting “Magnus!” very loudly during a very serious meeting of rebel leaders. They go on more dates. She ends up with a small collection of wooden animals. Magnus eventually graduates from demonstrating affection with hand-carved animals to demonstrating affection with hand-carved furniture. He gives Julia a chair for her birthday and she spends almost an hour cooing over the sanding and the varnish. She makes him a cabinet for Candlenights, and spends the rest of that particular Candlenights party overhearing him exclaim about how nice the dovetail joints are to anyone who will listen.
Rachel corners her midway through the party and says, “You know, you’re lucky you found the only other person in the universe who’s as enthusiastic as you are about dovetail joints.”
“I am,” Julia says, although she’s not really listening to Rachel. She’s watching Magnus, who is sitting in the corner of the room with a few other rebellion members, befriending a dog.
She realizes, when Rachel’s silent for a minute, that she must have the most goofily lovestruck look on her face. When she turns to look at Rachel, expecting to be teased mercilessly, Rachel just says “I’m really happy for you.”
“If you need help writing sappy love poetry for him, just let me know.”
“Thanks,” Julia says again, a mite less sincerely.
“Oh, Magnus Burnsides, light of my life, treasure of my heart—”
“I get it!”
It is at this point in the party that Magnus Burnsides, light of Julia’s life, treasure of her heart, yells “We should totally do that!” and runs outside, followed by Marianna, a woman who, bless her heart, has even less impulse control than Magnus.
“What are they totally doing?” Julia calls to Victor, who seems to also have been privy to that conversation.
“Trying to sled down the steps of this pillar, I think,” Victor says bemusedly.
“He’s going to die,” Julia says, although she’s more fondly exasperated than anything else.
“Should we go stop them?” Rachel asks. “I think Mari knows feather fall, they’ll probably be fine.” She thinks for a moment. “Wait, should we stop them?”
“Probably,” Julia says, although she’s a little disappointed. Sledding down the steps of the pillar is absolutely a terrible idea and likely to get someone killed. But she’s also wanted to try it since she was six.
“On the other hand,” Rachel says, a devious smile on her face, “We could go along and… supervise. Make sure they throw themselves off the side of the pillar safely.”
“We could do that,” Julia says, knowing her expression is equally devious.
A second later they’re tearing out into the night after Magnus and Marianna, shouting, “Hey! Wait up!”
(Julia’s six-year old self is right, sledding down the side of the pillar is fun. It’s also monumentally terrifying. On the bright side, they only end up needing to use feather fall once.)
That Candlenights party is about the last fun, restful moment the rebellion has for a long time. Just a few days afterwards, the situation between Kalen and the rebellion escalates, and suddenly, without warning, they’re engaged in an all-out war. There’s not much time for Candlenights parties then. There’s also not much time for dates, but they carve out little bits of time to spend together. And if there’s any bright spot in the whole situation, it’s that there’s no one Julia would trust to have her back in a battle more than Magnus.
Eight months after Candlenights, they’re fighting for control of another district of Raven’s Roost. She catches Magnus’ eye across the battlefield, and for a split second, they share a tiny, relieved smile. And then Magnus runs off to usher some civilians out of the crossfire and Julia joins some other rebels in pushing Kalen’s guards back to the bridge, and she doesn’t have time to think of anything except the mace in her hand and the people trying to kill her-
And then, suddenly, it’s over. Kalen calls for a retreat. The rebels immediately turn their attention to barricading the bridges and setting up patrols. Julia is sent to look for any surviving members of Kalen’s guard. The streets are eerily quiet after noise of battle. The few civilians who’ve dared to leave their houses are helping the rebel soldiers clean up the carnage. The buildings are mostly undamaged, which is a relief, especially after the fighting for the industrial corridor took out half the infrastructure. She covers almost half of the district without finding any of Kalen’s soldiers, none that are living, at any rate.
She notices the axe first. A discarded weapon isn’t in and of itself unusual; this one only catches her eye because it happens to reflect the sunlight directly into her face. But when she does notice it, her breath catches in her throat. There are vines carved into the handle of the axe, which has been snapped clean in two. She recognizes the design immediately. She’d been the one to carve it, when the rebels had been holed up in a warehouse, hiding from Kalen’s men and bored out of their minds.
There are two bodies lying a few paces away from the axe. The first is one of Kalen’s guards, with a knife embedded in his throat, staring blankly up at the sky as though Death had told him something very shocking. The second one is Magnus.
She drops to her knees next to him, choking on a sob. There’s a huge gash running diagonally across his chest, and he’s absolutely covered in blood. She tears a strip off her shirt and tries to staunch the bleeding, even though she’s not sure what good it’ll do at this point.
Magnus hisses in pain and opens his eyes, and a wave of relief pours through her. If he’s in pain, at least that means he’s alive. “Why’re you crying?” he asks hazily.
“I thought you were dead,” she says. Her voice is wobbly, but she’s concentrating on putting some sort of makeshift bandage on his wound, not on how terrified she was just a few seconds ago.
“It’s okay, Jules,” he says, still sounding like he’s talking through a sponge while half-asleep, “some of the blood’s not mine.”
She laughs, a little hysterically. “That’s so reassuring.”
“Really,” he says, now slightly clearer, “My axe took most of the damage. Sorry about that.”
“And then you decided to lie down here and take a nap?” she asks, keeping her voice teasing even though she’s still worried sick.
“Not exactly. Mostly the world starts spinning when I try to stand, so I figured I should stay on the ground.”
“And how many tries did it take you to decide that?”
“So walking’s out of the question,” she says, mostly to herself, as she finishes her makeshift bandage job.
“I can probably walk,” he whispers, his voice trailing off.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she says lightly. “Let me know if this hurts too bad, okay?” She adds. Then, as gently as she possibly can, she slides one arm under his shoulders and helps him to his feet. He tries to support his own weight, but starts wobbling almost immediately, so she says, “Hold still,” and then picks him up, bridal-style. Magnus barely reacts, and for a second her blood goes icy again. “Magnus. Magnus!” His eyes open a crack. “Stay with me, okay?”
“Good. Stay awake. Keep talking to me. Argue with me about varnish.”
“I don’t want to argue with you!” he sounds genuinely upset by the idea, which she puts down to the blood loss, since they’d been bickering about varnish earlier in the day. The contrast amuses her, until she thinks that earlier today, they were bickering about varnish, and now, Magnus might be bleeding out.
“Argue with me about whether we should get into an argument,” she replies, her teasing tone belying her actual fear. She starts for the rebellion’s temporary base as quickly as she can move without jostling Magnus too badly, keeping up a steady stream of inane conversation and making sure he responds.
Behind the cheerful front she’s keeping up, though, her mind is racing. She’s afraid for Magnus. There’s a tiny voice at the back of her head saying You got him involved in this. This is your fault, even though she knows Magnus would have gotten himself involved if she hadn’t. She’s afraid for her town- so many people could’ve been hurt today. She’s terrified for Magnus-
They’re greeted outside the rebel base by Marianna, who’s sitting on a crate next to the door, sharpening her dagger and looking happier than Julia has seen anyone in months. From inside the base, Julia can hear excited voices, and, oddly, what sounds like Victor singing. “Julia!” Marianna shouts, as Julia nears the door, “You’ll never guess- is that Magnus?” she finishes, worried and dangerously close to tears. She jumps off the crate. Magnus tries to do- something, Julia’s not sure if it’s “get to his feet” or just “get a better look at what’s going on.” He succeeds only in throwing her off-balance and probably injuring himself further, at which point Julia decides it will be easier for everyone involved if she just sits down.
“Oh good. You’re alive,” Marianna says, turning to rummage in the crate she’d been sitting on. Julia tries to arrange Magnus on her lap as comfortably as possible.
“You should see the other guy,” Magnus mumbles.
“Mari,” Julia asks, softly, “are there any clerics around?”
“Nope!” Marianna says cheerfully, “Rachel told them all to go get some rest.” Before Julia can ask what in the Planes is going on, she pulls three bottles out of the crate and holds them up triumphantly. “Look what we got!”
“Are those healing potions?”
“Yup!” Marianna says, passing one to Julia. She gives the second one to Magnus, immediately demonstrating why she didn’t become a cleric by splashing half of it on his face. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” says Magnus, between coughs. Marianna passes him the second potion, which he manages to drink without choking himself. “Where’d we get these?” he asks, in a much clearer voice, swinging the empty bottle back and forth. Julia doesn’t drink her own potion until she’s examined his wound and made sure it’s entirely healed. Her relief upon seeing it has is so powerful she could collapse right there, but she doesn’t, because Magnus hasn’t bothered to get out of her lap.
“Well,” Marianna says, suddenly just as excited as she was when Julia and Magnus showed up, “Turns out, Kalen was using this district for storage. We’ve found crates full of potions, armor, more swords than anyone really knows what to do with- none of them are as good as your dad’s though, Julia, we think we’re going to ask him to melt them down and make new ones- and this isn’t even half of it!”
It’s the first time in months Julia’s had any hope they could win this.
And they do. She and Magnus are married in a gazebo he built, which is the nicest of her wedding gifts, sorry Rachel. The three months after their wedding are probably the happiest of Julia’s life. Business is booming, Magnus is going to the Continental Craftsman’s Showcase, and she’s so, so proud of him.
Two days after Magnus leaves for Neverwinter, Julia wakes to the sound of something scratching at her window. She fumbles for the mace under her bed, still half asleep. It’s just an animal, don’t be paranoid, she tells herself, even as she flings her window open and finds a man in all black clinging to the ledge, a pair of lockpicks in one hand. Julia’s sudden appearance in the window startles him, and he makes a valiant attempt to stay balanced on the ledge before falling to the ground. His landing, however, is graceful, and in the time it takes Julia to throw herself out the window after him, he’s already run out to the street.
She chases after him. He glances over his shoulder at her, and she recognizes him as one of Kalen’s men. He looks startled to see her charging at him with a mace but recovers in time to prevent her from shattering his arm with the thing.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” she growls at him. She’s swinging her mace wildly as she speaks, her rage that Kalen is still affecting her life even now making her reckless.
“Kalen sent us to kill the leaders of the rebellion,” the man says, smugly weaving his way out of her reach. “We put your boy Magnus in the ground this morning.”
She’s not sure how he expects her to react to that statement. Scream, maybe, or break down in tears. He’s certainly not expecting her to smash his head in with a mace, which is what she does. She doesn’t bother to do anything about the body, just leaves it in the street and starts on a desperate run towards Rachel’s house.
Halfway there, she meets Rachel herself, running just as desperately through the streets. She’s wearing a breastplate over a floral nightgown, an image that would be hilarious if the situation weren’t so dire. “Julia! You’re okay!” she shouts.
At the same time, Julia asks, “what in the hells is going on?”
“Kalen’s back- we’re meeting at the old hideout- come with me-” Rachel says, and runs off. Julia follows her.
They spill into the hideout, where several of the rebellion’s old leaders are clustered, most of them in similar attire to Rachel, all looking as angry and afraid as Julia feels. From the confused conversation, she gathers that they’d all been woken up by assassins of varying competency levels. A good half of them are missing, and no one is sure if the missing people are alive or not. Julia refuses to give words to the fear that’s been gnawing at her since she killed the assassin. He was lying. He was lying to get a rise out of you, she tells herself whenever her mind strays too close to that thought, because it’s the only way she’ll get through the night without collapsing in tears.
“What the hell is Kalen doing back here? What in the world does he think he’ll gain?” someone asks, and nobody has an answer.
Thirty minutes pass. Nothing happens to clarify the situation. The people that had been sent out to patrol the district trickle back in, each reporting that everything seems quiet. Victor starts planning out more regular patrols, and a quiet argument breaks out over whether retaliation is a good idea, but overall everyone in the room breathes a sigh of relief. If the worst Kalen can dish out is a haphazard assassination attempt, they should be fine.
After Marianna’s been assigned to a round of patrols, Julia pulls her aside. “Hey, Mari,” she says, her voice breaking as a wave of emotion she’d be suppressing catches up to her, “Can you-”
Before she can say “cast Sending for me,” the door bursts open and Ella, one of the rebellion’s youngest members, throws herself through the door, panting.
“Kalen’s men- are at the foot of the pillar,” she gasps out, “just standing there- don’t know what they were doing but-”
She doesn’t have to finish the statement. Everyone in Raven’s Roost knows that, unless you’ve specifically been trained for the job, it’s dangerous and potentially deadly to mess around with the bases of the pillars. The room falls mausoleum-silent.
Through her rage, and grief, and fear, a single thought sticks in Julia’s mind: So many people are in danger. She takes a deep breath and promises herself she’ll grieve later. When everyone is safe.
Then she speaks, her voice calm and commanding. “We need to evacuate the district.” Everyone turns to her. “Mages, have you got any spells that will act as an alarm?” A person near the back of the room timidly raises their hand. “Good. Use it. Anybody here besides Grant have levels in rogue?” A few more hands go up. “Okay. I want you three, Iris, and Robin to head down the pillar and see if you can stop whatever they’re doing. Be sneaky unless you’ve got no other option.” The group nod and head out into the night. “Everybody else? Start evacuating people.” At that, the other rebels leave the building, their faces set and determined. Julia stops Ella on her way out. “I need you to get out of this district.”
“I can help!” Ella says, still sounding slightly out of breath, but Julia cuts her off.
“Yes. You can. And the best way you can help right now is by alerting the other districts, okay?” she says. Ella nods, and they both set out into the night.
Julia’s in the middle of leading a group of confused merchant families to the nearest bridge when the ground begins to tremble under her feet.
Death is, apparently, a handsome man with a cockney accent. He leads her to a terrifying stockade overlooking a lake and she’s too numb to wonder what’s going on or why he’s taking her there. She doesn’t know how long she spends wandering after him in a daze through dark halls. It could be minutes, it could be days. Eventually, he leads her into a small room with an ornate desk up against one wall and a huge window on the other. “Is Magnus…” she manages to force out, her voice barely above a whisper.
“Your husband is still alive,” Death says. Julia’s legs go out from under her in relief. For one brief moment, it doesn’t matter that Kalen’s won or that Raven’s Roost was destroyed or that she’s dead. All that matters is that Magnus is safe. Even as the reality of her situation comes creeping back, it can't take away from that simple, perfect fact. “I…” Death says. He's seems uncomfortable, which is a surprise for Julia, “For people who died before their time… or have family left on the mortal plane… heroes, mostly, I don’t do this for just anybody…” he pauses and restarts. “If you want, you can enter the Lake of Souls now. But if you’d like to wait for your husband to join you, I can set you up with a house on one of those islands,” he says, gesturing out the window.
Her mind is still hazy with grief and shock, and she hangs on to the words “wait for your husband” like a lifeline. “It’s a deal,” she says, “but I can build the house myself.”