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an multifaceted treenail

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Lem slid into Fero’s cave, dripping water everywhere and gesturing wildly. He opened his mouth and closed it again, running his hand through his hair.


“Hi,” Fero started to say, “I thought you couldn’t hang out until-”


“I thought- and then, so obviously, I-” Lem grabbed Fero by the shoulders. “You have to help me!”


“Okay! Okay!” said Fero, trying to loosen Lem’s grip. “With what?”


“I-” began Lem, his voice picking up speed and urgency. “With- you just have to, we have to go, we have to get out of here-”


“Hey, hey, calm down!” said Fero, “What’s up? You want to- like a camping trip?”


No , I need- You have to help me-” Lem opened his bag, pulling something out. “With this.”


It was a violin, looking a little worse for wear from being shoved in Lem’s bag, but still in pretty good condition.


“Okay,” said Fero again, “So do you need me to teach you to play? Because I kind of only know how to play the flute, but I guess I could try-”


“No, not with-” Lem huffed a breath. “I can play it, I just- I may have… borrowed it. Without, uhm strictly speaking, asking.”


“Ohhh,” said Fero, “You stole it.”


“I didn’t- It doesn’t belong to anyone!” said Lem.


“Well that’s barely stealing,” said Fero.


“Exactly!” said Lem. He let go of Fero, pacing the small space. “But, um. There are, perhaps, some people at the Archives who don’t necessarily feel the same way, so I think I might need to… get out of here.”


“Now?” said Fero.


“As fast as possible,” said Lem.


“To go…?”


“Um,” said Lem. “Away?”


Fero huffed a breath. “Well, yeah, but like how far? To where?”


Lem slowed his pace. “I… I’m not sure. Not- not Rosemerrow, that’s too close.”


“Yeah, Rosemerrow sucks,” said Fero. He thought for a moment. “How about Velas? It’s pretty far though.”


“Far is good,” said Lem. “The further the better, really.”


“Then Velas it is!” said Fero. “Let me grab my stuff.”


Lem stopped, staring at him. “Oh, you- I thought you might have a map or something, I didn’t think you’d…”


“The map’s all up here,” said Fero, tapping his head. “Don’t you worry about that. I’ll get you to Velas safe and sound and not arrested.”


Lem let out a breath. “That’s- That would be great actually. Thank you Fero.” He paused. “Do you. Uh. I know you don’t eat, but you wouldn’t happen to have any food you could bring with you, do you?”


Fero wrinkled his nose, thinking for a moment. “No.”


Lem’s shoulders slumped. “Right.”


“Hey, don’t worry,” said Fero, already turning his attention to pulling whatever he could think of into a bag - bedroll, he’d probably need that, waterskin, yeah, a cup, maybe, chuck that in too, couple nice pebbles he’d found, well you never knew when you might need them, big scarf, obviously that was coming with him. “I can ask a squirrel or something on the way.”


“You can ask-” Lem huffed a breath. “Right, of course.”


“They always know where the good stuff is,” said Fero. He let out a breath, thinking for a moment and trying to project the kind of certainty that would calm Lem down enough to not panic. With the rain, their path down the mountain would be slippery and he’d rather not carry Lem all the way to Velas if he could help it. “We’ll start down at the river, that way we can get rid of your scent.”


“I don’t have a scent ,” said Lem.


“Sure you do,” said Fero. He patted Lem’s hand. “But we’ll get rid of it, and then you won’t be so easy to track.”


“Oh, you mean scent like- right,” said Lem.


“How else would I mean it?” said Fero. “Now, come on, I thought you said you were in a hurry? And here-” He held out a large waterproof cloth, pushing it into Lem’s hands. “For the rain.”


“Oh.” Lem blinked down at him. “I- thank you Fero. I wouldn’t have- I didn’t have time to bring mine. Obviously.”


“You’re welcome,” said Fero, draping his own smaller version over his shoulders. “So. Let’s get you to Velas.”


“Right,” said Lem, straightening his shoulders. He let out an unsteady breath, but his hands didn’t shake as he pulled the waterproof cloth around his shoulders. “Velas, here we come.”


The carriage rocked under them, speeding them away from the burning Nacre docks. It had been hours since they were in sight of the city, but the smell of smoke still lingered in the air, ash turning the inside of the carriage grey. Despite the noise, Lem had fallen asleep shortly after leaving, taking up one of the seats and forcing Fero to sit next to Hella, although that wasn’t so bad. He wasn’t mad at Hella right now. Even his anger at Lem could wait until he woke up.


It did leave him filled with a kind of jittery energy, which wasn’t helped by the confined space of the carriage. He stood up, the carriage floor rolling under his feet as he stepped towards the window. Hella put a hand on his shoulder, pulling him back towards the seat.


“Hey!” said Fero.


Hella let go on him, her hand fluttering up and away. “I- Sorry, just- stay away from the windows.”


“Why?” said Fero. “They’re too busy to still be after us.”


“You don’t know that,” said Hella. “We- I killed their queen.”


“Yeah, but she would have killed us if you hadn’t,” said Fero. “And Lem too, maybe.”


“Maybe,” said Hella. She looked away. “Or maybe we- maybe I just- I mean, with Ordenna attacking… I feel like I doomed the entire city by killing her.”


Fero made a face. “I don’t know if she would have made that much of a difference, I mean she’s not… It’s not like if you were her.”


Hella blinked, looking back towards him. “What?”


“I mean she wouldn’t have been out on the battlefield or whatever,” said Fero.


“I didn’t- you think I should have stayed and fought?”


“No,” said Fero, “I mean- I don’t know. I just think you would have been a better queen. You wouldn’t make anyone go through through a dumb court case for one thing.”


Hella huffed a laugh. “Probably not.” She paused. “I don’t think I’d be a very good queen.”


Fero shrugged. “I think you would. No offence to Adelaide, but I like you much better.”


“No offence to Adelaide,” echoed Hella. She pressed her lips together, her face twitching for a moment before she burst into laughter.


Fero folded his arms over his chest. “What?”


Hella waved a hand, still laughing. “Just- no offence? Seriously ?”


“Yeah, no offence!” said Fero.


Lem jolted awake. He blinked up at them, frowning sleepily. “What?”


“Nothing,” said Hella, still laughing. “Nothing, go back to sleep.”


She leant back in the seat, letting out a long breath. Fero stepped around her, leaning against the window frame of the carriage and closing his eyes against the wind. Hella put a hand on his shoulder, warming him against the cold air but not pulling him back. When he looked back, her eyes were closed, her breaths deep and even.


Fero settled back next to her, looking out the window as they continued to speed away from Nacre. He didn’t need to sleep, after all. He could keep watch in Hella’s place for a while.


Despite the impending end of the world, hanging out at the Mark of the Erasure was pretty cool. It was warm there, with lots of new plants and bugs to hold his attention, always a new shrine of some kind to stumble across in the ruins, and no one to yell at him that he was doing the wrong thing. The only other person there was Samol, and Samol was- well, nice wasn’t the right word. He was too much like Fero to be nice . Still, it felt easy to like Samol, as easy as it felt to turn into an animal or hear a plant’s thoughts, as easy and natural as breathing.


Samol seemed to like him too, which was good.


He walked with Fero around the towers, pointing out this ancient rune or that crumbling doorway, answering Fero’s questions when he had them and falling into companionable silence when he didn’t. He had a seemingly endless store of tall tales that might well have been true, given that he was a god, although unlike the other gods Fero had met he seemed to enjoy hearing Fero’s equally tall tales just as much as Fero enjoyed hearing his.


Plus, Fero could make him laugh, just by turning into something he pulled out of his imagination, the sound of it brighter than the dandelions that grew around the base of the towers, brighter even than the archways of starlight. He’d decided early on that he liked the sound of it, seeking every way he could to surprise the sound out of Samol. Like transforming, like breathing, that felt easy too, but also like he was witnessing something magical and secret every time he managed it.


It felt like Samol could use it. Sometimes, when he didn’t think Fero was watching him, his shoulders would slump slightly, as though exhausted by an unseen weight. Probably, it was something to do with how he was Hieron made manifest. Fero was tired enough just from existing on it, so being it was probably even more tiring.


That was why he didn’t really push back too much when Samol wanted to walk a little more slowly, or when he would curl up in his dragon form at night. Fero could alter his steps a little to keep pace, so that he could still listen to Samol talk and find ways to prod him into laughter, and being by himself at the Erasure was boring without Samol to talk to. Just because he didn’t need to sleep, that didn’t mean he couldn’t . Even if he’d been incapable, he probably still would have chosen to curl up next to Samol anyway, fitted under Samol’s leathery wing.


It reminded him a little of his cave home, with its glittering walls and old stone, the deep well of magic surrounding him to keep him safe.


Fero’s body shuddered, becoming a new creature, his dragon body a miniature copy of Samol but with a fox’s head and tail. Samol cracked one large eye open, giving an amused huff.


“Go to sleep, Fero,” said Samol. “You have a long walk back.”


“I don’t need to sleep,” said Fero, but he closed his eyes anyway.


He waited until he was sure Samol had closed his eyes before he curled a little closer to Samol. He felt the rumble of Samol’s hum against his side, Samol’s wing shielding him a little more from the cold night air, and he pressed closer. He couldn’t take Samol with him when he left, but he could take the memory, tucked away in his chest, as safe as a rabbit in a burrow, as safe as his cave home. 


The kitchen at the Last University was in even more disarray than usual when Fero arrived with a basket of berries he’d been sent to forage. Pots and pans were stacked in the middle of the room, the large table that was usually used for preparation pushed to one side of the room, tipped at an angle with one of its legs snapped off.


“Whoa,” said Fero.


“Fero, finally,” said Emmaunel. “You have the- wonderful.”


Emmanuel took the basket from Fero’s hands, bringing them to the sink to rinse. Fero looked around the room again, taking in the clutter of the usually tidy kitchen, the wooden splinters on the floor, the signs of a hurriedly mopped spill.


“What happened ?”


“The table collapsed,” said Emmanuel, “taking almost a quarter of our lunch with it, and a great deal of our crockery. I’m afraid people will have to get used to eating their dinner out of flagons and mugs.”


“I could make some bowls,” said Fero.


“I don’t know that we can spare the fire for a kiln,” said Emmanuel.


“No, I mean- I can make them out of wood,” said Fero. “You don’t need much for it so it probably won’t affect the fuel supply that much.” He tilted his head, his eyes going to the broken table leg. “I could fix that, too, if you wanted. Unless you want to get rid of the table? I guess I could turn it into bowls.”


Emmanuel paused, turning back to Fero. “Are you serious?”


Fero frowned. “Uh, yeah? I mean, I made a lot of stuff when I was at home. I already made a whole table, so doing just the leg should be easy.”


“I-” Emmanuel blinked. “Fine, fine, if you can fix it, go ahead. I would certainly appreciate having the preparation space again.”


“Cool,” said Fero, “Let me go find some stuff.”


It was easy enough to find the tools - he and Rosana had just been talking about wood carving, and she had the basics assembled already. The varnish was a little harder to find, the tin he managed to uncover from the rubble of a collapsed storeroom only half-usable. Fero wrinkled his nose, thinking for a moment, and then headed back out to the forest. He’d passed a beehive on his way back from picking the berries. He was pretty sure he could convince them to give up a table-leg’s worth of wax. It turned out to be lucky he went out - on his way back he found a fallen branch, the perfect size for the table.


The kitchen was empty by the time he got back, dinner already prepared and served. Fero lit a lantern and set to work, carving and sanding the branch down before he polished it. He left it to dry, wiping his hands on a cloth as his eyes fell on the old, broken table leg.


Fero hummed to himself. It was wide enough to make a couple bowls, maybe. Not enough to replace what had been smashed, but a good start. He had a few hours to kill before the table leg was ready to attach anyway. May as well use them.


The sun was just beginning to rise when Emmanuel entered, his tired expression flicking into surprise as he spotted Fero.


“Hi!” said Fero, his voice a little scratchy from disuse. “I finished your table!”


“I… you did?”


Fero huffed a breath, folding his arms over his chest. “Of course I did! I said I would!”


“I didn’t think you wouldn’t do it,” said Emmanuel, stepping closer to look at the table. “I just thought you’d take longer than a single day.”


“Well it only needed a single leg, so.”


Emmanuel laughed softly. “I suppose it- oh! Did you make these too?”


He touched a finger to one of the bowls. Fero had only been able to get four out of the table leg in the end, and two small cups. He nodded, scuffing his feet on the floor, suddenly not able to look at Emmanuel. He couldn’t be sure of his expression.


“Fero…” said Emmanuel, his voice quiet.


Fero shrugged. “It was whatever. I’m not- I’m not really good at the ‘running the University’ part of stuff, so I- It felt good to do something .”


“Well I certainly appreciate it.” Emmanuel paused. “If you- You are welcome to help prepare the food, if you would like?”


“Yeah, okay,” said Fero, shrugging again. “I guess I could help out.”

Map Reading

Fero hadn’t used maps much in Hieron, the layout of the forest imprinted in his mind. The Rhizome was a little trickier, full of endless layers and growing all the time, new paths forming over one another.


He was getting better though. It helped that he knew a good map-maker.


“Here’s the new one,” said Adaire, handing him a large scroll. “This was completed last week so hopefully we have at least a few months before it goes out of date.”


Fero unrolled it, his eyes scanning the paper. “Oh, cool, the branch between here and Hadrian’s finally finished growing. It was getting pretty annoying to keep going the long way around every time you guys have mail.”


“Speaking of mail-”


Fero groaned. “Can’t you get a messenger service or something?”


“Why would I?” said Adaire. “You’re going that way anyway.”


“How do you know?” said Fero,.“Maybe I’m just going home.”


“Without stopping by to see Hadrian and Rosana?” said Adaire, putting her hand on her chest, faux-shocked. “Next thing you’ll be telling me that you didn’t stop to see Ephrim on the way to here from Lem and Emmanuel’s house.”


“That’s on my way!” said Fero. He poked at the map. “It’s still the best branch route.”


“Uh huh,” said Adaire. “Look, are you going to take these letters or not?”


Fero sighed. “ Fine . But only so I can test whether your new map is right.”


“Of course it’s right,” said Adaire. “Rowe is an excellent cartographer.”


“Sure, whatever,” said Fero. “Give me your dumb letters.”


“They’re Hella’s dumb letters,” said Adaire. “And some dried herbs, for Rosana.” 


The letters were tied together with twine, the herbs wrapped neatly in brown paper. Fero put them in his bag, shifting it to sit securely next to supplies, and the other letters he was already bringing to Hadrian and Rosana.


“Everyone treats me like a messenger service,” grumbled Fero.


“Yes, so terrible to be trusted as the means of communication by your dear friends,” said Adaire. “Now, are you staying for dinner? Hella wants to use the peaches you brought from Emmanuel’s garden.”


“I’ll be late if I stay to eat,” said Fero. “I’ll probably have to stay here tonight and leave tomorrow instead.”


“So stay tonight,” said Adaire, waving a hand. “Hella likes when you’re here a little longer.”


Fero swallowed, his hand stilling where it was inside his pack. “I- okay, sure. If it’ll make Hella happy, I guess I can stay for a bit.”


“Good,” said Adaire. “Now, put your bag away and get washed up. You can help Hella with the pastry dough, Emmanuel said he taught you how.”


“Work, work, work,” said Fero, grinning as Adaire huffed a laugh.


Hella was already mixing the filling when they walked into the kitchen. She looked up, smiling at them both.


“Hey! I thought you had to head off?” said Hella.


Fero shrugged, attempting a casual air. “Adaire said you were making a peach pie and you need my help with the pastry.”


Hella laughed. “Well Emmanuel did say you were an expert now.”


“Ha!” said Fero, the laugh bursting out of him. “Well, I guess I kind of am. One of my many talents.”


“Sure,” said Hella.


“I’m a talented guy!”


“I know you are,” said Hella.