Chapter 6 - Fiyr

I can hear a child crying over the sound of water.

I'm standing in the village of the Sun Rocks, but something's wrong; it's deserted. I'm in the middle of the town square, next to the fountain. Is that where the sound of water is coming from?

I turn to see two children, a boy and a girl, in rags, clinging to the white skirts of a woman, but when I look up at her, her face is completely smooth. She has no eyes, no nose, no mouth, though her hands stretch down to rest on the heads of the children. The woman is standing before the fountain, then as I watch, she lifts her hands from her children and steps back.

She turns and, gathering her skirts, walks into the fountain. The children begin to cry again. I try to speak, but no sound comes out. The woman turns to face me, her skirts flowing around her slowly as they become waterlogged.

"Fiyr. Their safety will be in your hands one day." Her voice is distorted, like it's coming from far away, or it's underwater. The smooth surface of skin where her face should be doesn't move. "Take care of my children."

I open my mouth again, but still can't force my throat to make a sound. The outline of the woman in white begins to blur. Her silver-gray hair comes unbound and begins to float around her in smoky tendrils like she's underwater, then she fades into mist.

My voice finally is released and I shout "Wait! Who are you?" But the city is empty, save for the two little children crying at my feet. What kingdom are you from, little ones? I wonder, but they're clothed in nothing but dirty white rags, not the green of Thundria, the brown of Wynnd, the silver of Rivier, or the black of Shodawa. The same as the woman; unidentifiable.

I hear the water again, but this time it's not the ripples and droplets of the fountain; it sounds like a hurricane. The distant roaring gets louder and I look up, straight down the road to the gates of the village of the Sun Stones.

A wall of water thunders toward me.

The children scream and I reach for them, desperate to protect them, but there's no shelter as the gargantuan wave barrels down the streets, smashing house and stalls, ripping posts free of their foundations and wrapping it all up in the water.

"We have to run," I try to tell them, but it's too late, the wave's upon us—

I snap awake.

It's still dark out when I wake up, my heart racing. Only moonlight filters in my window and I press my hand to my chest, able to feel my own heartbeat through my cotton sleep-clothes. What kind of crazy nightmare was that?

But I don't usually remember my nightmares. The last scary dream I had… Was years ago. When Graie and I were sent to bring Wynnd back. Although that dream wasn't exactly like this one. This time, I didn't have dead Thundrian captains of the guard showing up to stop time and tell me what was happening. Who was that woman? Her lack of identifiably coloured clothing almost makes me think she's a god-toy or an outlander. Princesca? But even though I couldn't see the woman's face, she looked nothing like Princesca based on what I could see; shorter and more broad-shouldered with silvery hair.

Then who was it?

Maybe she was from the kingdoms. If I remember right, white clothes are for the recently dead. Has she died? And who were the children?

Something occurs to me like a chill of ice-water flooding over me.

Meistya and Stowen? Was that their mother? But that doesn't help me; I don't think I've ever seen the woman in my life. It's hard to remember much of the dream; she was faintly familiar, but at least a couple years older than I am. Perhaps their mother in the past? If this dream wasn't just some random vision and it really did have something to do with real life, then is her warning going to come true? What possible situation am I going to be in where the lives of two older, more experienced knights from another kingdom are going to be in my hands?

I sigh and swing my legs over the side of my bed. My bare feet hit the stone and I shiver, feeling the cold seep away the warmth of sleep. No point in obsessing over it now. As far as I know, Rivier's doing fine and I shouldn't go interfere with them. While I'm sitting there, staring at my dresser's mirror where I can barely see my own reflection in the dark, I hear a door opening from down my hall.

For a moment, my mind jumps to the worst case scenario, that somehow Rivier or Shodawa is back for revenge after we drove them out of Wynnd's territory, but I quickly calm myself, knowing it's pretty unlikely. Shodawa's style may be skulking around and ambushing, but I doubt that even they would stroll into another kingdom's castle in the early hours of the morning. Not to mention the unlikelihood of being able to pull that kind of trick on Thundria.

So what was the door sound?

Oh. Of course. It's Graie. I hear his footsteps, now that I'm paying attention. The old throb of irritation pulses through me when I think about how I'll have to divert Sir Cawle's attention tomorrow and find something for Brakken because even though Graie keeps saying he'll sort things out before he leaves, he never does, but I try my best to stifle it. I said I wouldn't judge.

Still, am I not allowed to be frustrated that he isn't putting in the work to cover for himself? If I put aside my qualms about it being against the knight's code, he's still creating a lot of work and anxiety for me. He should actually be sticking to his promises to figure out a training regimen for Brakken that can include days where he can leave to see Silaverre Strime. I've been trying to think of it the same way as I think of my own visits to see my sister—it's not a wrong thing to do, it's just that the court might not agree that it's okay so it needs to stay under wraps.

I'm not sure I quite believe it.

Even with all my pent-up frustration with Graie, though, I can't bring myself to take it up with him; things have been so good between us lately. It was like we'd put our friendship on hold for the years where we were at each other's throats—Sometimes literally, I think, wincing at the memory of our scuffle—and now that we've made peace, everything's okay again. I don't know if it's real though, or if we're just ignoring the giant spike of corruption in the relationship.

I've fought with him enough about Silaverre to know that he won't budge, though. I told him to stop meeting her and so he told me he would and then kept doing it anyway. I told him to choose between us. He chose her. And even though I want to be angry at him for it, when my better half turns it around to put myself in his place with Samn and him, I shy away. What if Graie told me to choose?

It might make me so angry that he'd dare to ask it that I'd choose Samn out of spite. Is that why he chose her?

There's no point in obsessing over this, either, though. Graie's going to keep meeting the Rivien knight, and complications around Brakken will still arise. It's oddly comforting, when I put it in those terms. If it's out of my hands, I won't feel guilty that I'm not doing more.

I stand up, stretching in my dark room and feel my bones shift and crack as my body wakes up. The sun's beginning to rise and I think I can hear some of the court's early risers moving around. Sighing, I flick my finger and light the candle on my dresser and pick up the basin next to it to go to the water pump and fill it with water for a morning wash before I inevitably have to figure out what to do with Brakken and how to convince Sir Cawle that Graie's disappearance is totally not related to code-breaking behaviour.

At least Graie's not murdering anyone to further his sick ambitions. Another thing to worry about. Ever since the queen brushed me off, our mission to stop Sir Cawle has ground to a halt. Thankfully, he hasn't made any moves on the queen's life, but it doesn't rest easy with how we've been ignoring it.

One day at a time, though.

Luckily, Sir Cawle doesn't ask too many questions and assigns me to take Brakken training with Samn and her squire. Definitely a best case scenario.

I take my empty plate to the kitchen to be washed by Sewif and Thorrin, neither of whom are pleased to be assigned kitchen duty, and then head back out into the throne room to find Brakken and Samn.

Brakken's already there waiting and when his eyes land on me, his face falls. I push away the sting of it. He's just upset that Graie's not here. I can't blame him at all.

"What's he doing today?" Brakken asks, though his tone makes me wonder if he actually cares about the answer.

"Talking to some villagers about a supposed merc take-over of Atmos," I answer quickly and though his reaction falls short of outright snorting, Brakken's look is enough to assure me that he doesn't believe a word I've said.

"Right. What are we doing, then? Sir Cawle just told me to wait here."

"Lady Schorme and her squire are going to go learn to shoot on the further targets." It's been about a year since Briatte and her brother were squired, and Samn can barely help herself from telling me every little inch of progress Briatte makes. After I got over the ache of familiarity when I think of Cindra, I've been just as interested in the training of the daughter of Sir Hartef. She seems to take after the sunny captain of the guard more than her often-sullen brother and has quickly become a favourite of the court. "We're going to tag along and maybe you can give Briatte some tips, you know, squire-to-squire."

"Target practice?" Brakken's eyebrows raise and again, even though he doesn't make a sound, I can tell he's disappointed.

"Well—" I stop myself, taking stock of the squire in front of me. He's not a boy anymore. Sure, he's not quite a man either, but he must be sixteen or seventeen already. Not a child. "You know what, Brakken? I want to talk to you about a few things."

He balks at my tone and I quickly reassure him.

"No, no, nothing—er, you're not in trouble. But you've grown up in a very… turbulent time, right? Your sister, your mentor, your father… a lot's happened to you, and I just… want to check in." I don't know if I have the right words, but someone's got to try or Brakken's going to start realizing that there aren't many people looking out for him.

He pauses, absorbing what I've said, then nods. "I see."

I spot Briatte leaving the squire's wing and turn back to Brakken, hoping to quickly get a word in before Samn shows up too and we have to leave. "And listen. I know you're too experienced to be shooting on targets for kids. I think we should have an all-day hunting trip too. We can plan it on a day that Sir Sterrip can come too. But today, why don't you try thinking of Briatte like your… your proto-squire?"

"My what?"

I grasp for the right words to explain what I'm thinking of. I've got to do something or he's going to feel like we think he's still a twelve year old. "Like… pretend you're her mentor. Help her like you would your own squire. Because you're going to be a knight in the next few years, you know, and I think you're exactly the right kind of person that a squire would be lucky to be mentored by."

Brakken brightens at that and I breathe a sigh of relief. "You think?"

"Yeah! You're kind, and patient—much more than I am—and you're very… well-rounded."

The effect that a single compliment has on him almost makes me sad; aren't there enough people in his life telling him that he's doing a good job? I guess Lady Fuor has to worry more about her younger children, Sir Hahrte is dead, Cindra's… pretty occupied, and Graie… is also occupied. Even though I know it's bad, I want to blame Graie again. This kid needs another parent. He needs a role model, someone to show him the way, and for him to be mentored by a knight who's absent more often than not… It gets under my skin.

"Ready to go?"

Samn's voice snaps me out of my thoughts and I turn to her. "Yeah, we—" Her hair is in a braid and the look in her eyes dares me to comment. "Um. We're about ready to go. Yes."

"Great."

"Great," I echo, then spin and pull open the castle doors. As Samn and I head to the knight's stables, I keep my eyes straight ahead. "Er, just so you know, I suggested to Brakken that he give Briatte some squire-to-squire tips on shooting."

"Alright." Despite her acknowledgement, I hear something in her voice that makes me a little nervous.

"And…" Shit, I definitely should've checked with her before suggesting this to him. It was a spur of the moment thing. Impulsive. "Well, I thought…"

"What?"

"Maybe we could—I told Brakken to act like he was Briatte's mentor." I wince as the words leave my mouth. What a terrible way to put it. "I mean—not that, more like... he could see what it would be like to mentor a squire."

Samn stops and my heart dives into my boots to hide. "What?"

I stop as well and turn. Her eyes are narrowed but other than that her expression is unreadable. "Sorry, should I not have?"

"You should have talked to me before telling some kid to take over my squire's training, yes," Samn agrees, eyes flashing.

Well, hold on a second. "Some kid—Samn, he's almost a knight."

"He's a squire, actually. And Briatte is my squire." Her tone is verging more and more on openly irritable and I get the sense I need to start on damage control before this turns into a real argument. "I know Graie's been neglecting Brakken, and I think it's good of you to take on his training in his place, but that doesn't mean you're suddenly the squire master that decides what everyone's doing with their time."

I'm taken aback. I didn't think she'd be so annoyed. "I… I can tell him that we're not doing that anymore. Sorry, I really didn't think—"

"I know you didn't think. And you should probably tell him, yes," she snaps, then takes a breath. "Sorry. Well, if you've already given him the impression that… you shouldn't confuse him, but… damn it. Talk to me first about this kind of thing!"

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I will," I promise. "Do you want me to tell him that we're doing something else or not?"

Samn presses her fingers onto her forehead. "I don't know, don't put this on me. You figure it out. The squires are coming back."

And before I can say another word, she turns away and walks to Dune's stall. I stand there, confused and frustrated with myself. I again have the urge to blame it on Graie. Well, I wouldn't have to be making up things for Brakken to do if Graie would just do his damn job! Brrakken and Briatte have come over to me and Brakken looks at me, perceiving the stress that has arisen from my conversation with Samn.

"Brakken… er, we're actually going to do something else today. Change of plans," I decide quickly. I'm not going to put it on Samn to figure it out, like she said. And I think we both need time to cool off. There's something else going on with Samn, I think; some feeling she has about her own squire, although I'm not sure where it came from. I'll talk to her later. When we're less antsy and charged up.

"Oh! Okay, what are we doing?" He, at least, seems to be in a better mood. I'm glad he's open to changing easily; it'll make everyone's lives easier.

What are we doing? I think quickly. "Well, you're too experienced for target practice, so why don't we go on a proper hunting patrol?" And maybe we can continue with this 'prepping for knighthood' thing. No matter what Samn says, I know that Brakken's too close to being a real knight to be treated like a squire on his first day out of the castle. "And how about you lead it?"

"Wow, Brakken, you're going to be the first squire ever to lead a hunting patrol!" Briatte teases, elbowing her brother. He rolls his eyes at her but he's smiling.

"Okay! Uh, how do I lead a hunting patrol?"

"I'll teach you," I promise. "Let me go get Blitz and then we'll head out."

I pass Samn, who's leading Dune back to the squires, on my way and try to shoot her an apologetic look. She nods. I pull free the iron latch on the door to the stall and lead Blitz out onto the pavilion. Samn and Briatte are already on their horses and heading for the break in the leaves.

"Follow them," I tell Brakken, and he sets off toward the enchanted patch of open air.

Once we've made it to the forest floor and Samn and Briatte leave, taking the beaten path toward the training area, Brakken turns to me, looking a little anxious but determined.

"So you've been on loads of hunting patrols before," I begin, "but you don't really know what it's like to lead one. Let's say I'm the captain of the guard and I want you to lead a hunting patrol. I might tell you where to go if we had a report of bountiful hunts in certain parts of the forest, but more often than not, I'll just say you can pick where to go."

Brakken nods. "Are you my entire patrol?"

I laugh. "I guess so; maybe sometime we can try with more knights, although I'm sure Sir Teyl and Sir Styrp wouldn't like to be ordered around by you."

"I'd like to order them around, though," Brakken replies with a glint in his eyes.

I'm happy to hear him say it. I don't usually see this side of Brakken; his biggest weakness is probably the way he balks at leadership, but now that most of his guiding forces are dead or occupied, I think he's going to have to learn it.

"Be that as it may, for now it's just me. So the captain of the guard has told you that you can hunt anywhere on the territory and he wants you back by noon." I tell him. When he waits for further instruction, I sigh internally. There it is. "So… where are you going to hunt?"

"Oh! I… I don't know."

Resisting the urge to face-palm, I prompt him a little. "Well, what kind of hunting do you like? Deep undergrowth? Fields? Far from villages or closer to them?"
Brakken falters. "Er… maybe somewhere with ferns? You know, so I can play to my strengths?"

"Yes! Yes, that's a great start!" I think my enthusiastic response throws him off a little, but he nods, thinking.

"How about by the outer border? The deciduous forests always have more bracken growing around the base of trees." As he speaks, I can see him gaining confidence in his words. "Yeah, we'll go there. Uh—if it's okay with you."

So close. I stifle a sigh. "Not up to me, Brakken, remember. You're leading the patrol!"

"Um… okay, that's where we'll go." He bobs his head like he's stamping the order with Thundria's seal. "Let's go."

That's progress! We head off together toward the border with the gods' mansions and the Creeping Corruption. There's plenty of forest to hunt in between the castle and the gods, though, and I doubt Brakken's going to take us that far; there's hardly anything to catch in the forests that close to the Creeping Corruption.

Thinking of the Creeping Corruption puts my mind on Clowd again, and since it seems like Brakken's absorbed with charting our path and checking the Trace, I meditate a little on my nephew and his connection to the spikes of god-magic that have poisoned the edge of our territory. Could he really remove the corruption?

He's almost of age to be a squire and I'm wondering if the queen is going to give him to me to train. Which I'm… more than a little worried about; everything about him tells me he's going to be a real handful to mentor. But that way I can keep an eye on him and make sure the rest of the court doesn't find out about him. Or at least that I can keep a handle on how the story gets out.

If he really could slow the spread of corruption, his position at court would be secure. I saw what he did to Cindra's knee, and then again with that deer he killed using it. He can create and destroy it.

But the forearm-sized spikes that he sucked out of the doe were one thing; the enormous, jutting pillars that form a thick cluster of glassy god-magic are another thing entirely. And I don't know what kind of effect dealing with corruption has on Clowd; is it hurting him? He's half-human—humans and their life-force are at complete odds with gods and god-magic, or so Sir Cawle taught me. I don't doubt that his lessons were influenced by how much he wanted to stamp out the nonexistent loyalty to the gods that I still harboured, but nothing that anyone else has ever said has contradicted it.

Would asking Clowd to try to absorb the Creeping Corruption hurt him? Or kill him? Or somehow activate more of his god-half? That's the problem with corruption and the gods; the kingdoms are so sure that the gods are these indomitable forces of nature and that their magic is inherently evil that no one's ever tried to study them or understand why they do what they do.

Is the lost territory really worth so much that I'd be willing to gamble with Clowd's life like that? I can't help thinking of what the corruption did to Cindra. Sure, Clowd will certainly have a different effect on it since he's half-god, but I can't help being scared for him. If the court knows that he can remove corruption, I can certainly think of a few of them who wouldn't care about the damage it does to Clowd so long as they get a few acres of land back from the gods.

"Fiyr? Did you hear what I said?"

I snap out of my thoughts and blink, realizing Blitz and Brownie have brought us near the Great Sycamore. "No, sorry Brakken, what was that?"

"I said, why don't we split up to hunt?" he repeats. "Most of what's around here is smaller stuff, right?"

I nod. "That's right. Good plan; we can meet back here in—I mean, you're leading the patrol, so how long should we hunt for?"

"Oh right, I guess I am. Um… let's say, about two hours," he offers and when I raise my eyebrows at his uncertain tone, he repeats. "Two hours. That should be enough."

"Sounds good! Watch out for the phoenix," I joke, and we split to begin our hunts.

I unsling my bow, checking the Trace as Blitz ambles through the forest. I don't catch much for a few minutes, then finally the faint trace of a rabbit drifts my way.

Rabbit stew… My stomach rumbles.

As I track it through the forest, I realize I've doubled back and I'm now following Brakken's trace too. Oops. Well, I can see if he's had any more luck than me.

The trace strengthens and I crest a small hill, only to see Brakken at the base of it with the rabbit in hand. He spots me and laughs.

"Sorry about that," Brakken says. "Didn't mean to steal your catch."

"Oh, don't worry about it, it'll end up in my belly one way or another," I promise him. "Let's… uh, do you sense that?"

I focus on the Trace, my stomach sinking.

"Is that…" Brakken's nervous voice is cut off by an earth-shaking roar.

Fuck me. The trees seem to shiver as the blast of sound crashes over us, then fades.

"A dragon. Okay, Brakken, we need to…"

I didn't think our situation could get worse. I was wrong. One thing about Clowd's unique heritage is that it's given him an unmistakable trace.

And I sense that trace overlapping with that of an enormous, furious dragon.

"Shit!" I hiss. Brakken's eyes widen. "Clowd—Clowd's over there. Okay, we're going to need to get him to safety. You know how to fight, keep your head on straight and listen when I tell you to run if it gets to that point. I need you to grab Clowd; I'll deal with the dragon."

He nods, terror lurking behind his determined expression.

I dig my heels into Blitz's sides and with a whinny, she leaps forward, straight into the undergrowth where the dragon's trace of coal and white-hot anger is coming from.

We burst into a big clearing, lined with birch trees that have been lit on fire by the enormous monster across the grass from me.

A red wyvern with two jagged claws dug into the low branches of the tree where it's perched opens its cavernous jaws to hiss at me, a snake-like pink tongue darting out from between rows of needle-like teeth. Its head darts from side to side, weaving to let its coal-black eyes get a better look at me.

I'm not so much focused on the dragon, though, as I am the barely visible head of a boy in the bushes to my left.

"Brakken, there!" I shout, but he's already on it, spurring Brownie toward where Clowd's hair is just visible despite the horse's protest at riding into a burning bush. Blitz is similarly beginning to rebel against my orders to stay put.

The fire is spooking them. I concentrate, ignoring the wyvern for a precious few moments, and shift to the Trace to reach out and take a hold of the fire. There's something different, something wrong… it's dragon-fire. Stupid! But Blitz and Brownie are going to leave Clowd to die if I don't do something.

So even as the dragon-fire sears my mind I reach into its depths and try to snuff it out like I would any other fire. Rather than feeling the trace of fire disappear to leave behind the charred sense of burnt plants, I hear a voice.

Little soft-skin wants to extinguish? It's a low growl; inhuman, and I'm chilled. Is that the dragon?

Nevertheless, I push harder against the dragon-fire. Yeah, I do. I want to turn you into ash.

Little soft-skin, stretching beyond his capabilities.

When I drop out of the Trace, I can see that the fire's died down a little, but not much. The dragon, though, is looking at me with something approximating curiosity. I check its trace; the fury that characterizes the traces of all dragons has also lessened a little. I look to Brakken; he's got Clowd on Brownie and he's just mounting her again too.

Just distract it for another minute.

I dismount Blitz and take a step into the clearing, hand on the pommel of Fireheart. The dragon is still, staring at me as if it's waiting for me to make a move. This goes against everything I know about fighting dragons and I don't know what I'm doing, but I have to buy Brakken time to get Clowd to safety.

Little soft-skin wants to come closer.

I freeze. Well, if it wants me to come closer, then it's probably a bad idea. I draw Fireheart.

No, no, little soft-skin has no need for a biting stick.

I tighten my grip on Fireheart.

Just leave us alone, you big lizard, and I'll put it away.

Little soft-skin drives a hard bargain.

I take another step forward and bring fire out of the air to hover in my off hand. Let's find out if dragons can burn.

The wyvern finally begins to move, slowly, and straightens up, slowly beginning to spread its leathery wings. I hold my breath. Is it going to leave?

Little soft-skin can keep his heir. Mreksrkhae will take his payment.

The last pronouncement by the voice makes my heart seize with fear, but I don't have time to react before the wyvern crouches and leaps off the tree, wings spreading to block out the sun and catch the air. Its spade-shaped tail shoots out as it takes off and—

"Brakken, look ou—" I scream but it's too late. Brakken, leading Brownie out of the burning bushes, turns just in time to see the tail whip toward him.

It catches him across the shoulder and he's ripped off his feet, thrown like a piece of driftwood in a storm, and he flies back through the undergrowth, out of sight. I only hear a thud as he hits something. He doesn't scream.

I feel like I've been dunked in ice-water. No!

At the edge of my senses, I can hear the beating of massive wings as the wyvern takes off and flies away over the trees, but I'm completely focused on where Brakken vanished from sight. Brownie, freed from Brakken's control, dashes out of the bushes to safety and joins Blitz over the hill, away from the fire.

I sheathe Fireheart and run on foot into the burning trees, feeling the heat lick at my uniform. Can't burn me. The dragon's gone. I have to find Brakken.

He didn't get thrown too far, thank the Starlaxi. I find him slumped underneath a birch tree, curled over his stomach on his right side.

"Brakken? Brakken, blessed Starlaxi, are you okay?!" I gasp, crouching next to him and reaching out to touch him carefully.

He's unresponsive but I'm relieved to see his eyes are closed, not staring ahead like he would if he'd really died. I gently place my forefingers on his neck, and feel a steady pulse. I breathe out a sigh of relief.

He's still unconscious, though, so I wedge my arm under his torso and lift him off the ground. Brakken groans and I freeze. Is he awake? But his eyes stay closed and I lift him off ground, slinging him over my shoulder and hanging onto his legs with my arms. Brakken's a skinny kid, but he's still too heavy for me to just cart around like a sack of potatoes, so I have to steady myself against the trees so I can stagger in the direction of Blitz and Brownie.

When I reach the horses, I can't help a nervous glance back toward the smoldering undergrowth. I need to deal with that before a full-blown forest fire starts. I lift Brakken over Brownie's side, grunting with the exertion. Clowd watches me silently with big eyes and I shoot him a look that says I'll deal with you in a minute. After ensuring Brakken's secure on the saddle, I turn back and walk into the still-ablaze clearing.

Now that the dragon's gone, the fire's lost some of its fury in the Trace, but it's still not exactly normal fire. I switch to the Trace and spread my arms, trying to suck the heat into myself. The familiar warmth in my chest swells as my life-force spreads through my body to save me from being burned, but… it keeps getting hotter. I frown, reaching for the fire.

Ow!

Pain lances through my fingertips as the licking flames make contact with my hand. I've never felt the pain before—the only thing I can think to compare it to is when the lye water that Graie made with his ashes and water hurt our hands.

Did I just get burned? I stare at my reddening hand, backpedalling away from the fire. Panic sets in. I've never been burned before. Dragon-fire really is different.

Thankfully, when I look up at the burning trees again, it seems as though it's dying down rather than spreading further. Blessed Starlaxi, it'd be useful to be a water elementalist right now. Or sand.

It occurs to me suddenly that Clowd might've been killed if I hadn't made the decision to take Brakken on a hunting mission. Or if Brakken hadn't wanted to hunt is this part of the forest. A cold chill runs down my spine and I leave the clearing, my heart beating fast.

What the fuck was he doing out here anyway?! Now that the adrenaline of the confrontation with the dragon and the fear over the potential forest fire have both subsided, irritation and worry over Clowd begin to take over.

I reach the horses and mount Blitz, then tie the lead of Brownie to one of the stirrups on my saddle. I look back at Clowd. "Clowd, I need you to hold on tight, okay? We're going to go slowly, but if you start slipping off or Brakken starts falling, tell me right away and I'll make sure you don't—what's wrong?"

He's staring at me with a quivering lower lip and I suddenly realize that my nephew's been hiding from a dragon, saw a boy get thrown through trees like a doll, been stuck in burning trees, and is now sitting right next to that same unconscious boy, not knowing if he's alive or not. And I haven't asked if he's okay.

"Brakken's okay," I tell him quickly, wheeling Blitz around to come close to Clowd. "The dragon's gone, the fire's gone, and we're going to take Brakken back to the castle for healing. He's going to be fine, you hear me?"

"Are you angry I left?" he whispers. "I just wanted to—"

"Let's talk about that later," I interrupt. The last thing he needs right now is to be chewed out for breaking rules. He probably blames himself for Brakken getting hurt. "Just remember what I said, okay? We're gonna head back to the castle. Tell me if you or Brakken is slipping."

He nods tearfully.

I shoot one last concerned look his way, praying to the Starlaxi that nothing bad happens on our way back to the castle. Maybe Samn's sympathy for me after what happened today will let me avoid an argument. What a stupid thing to be worried about right now. Graie's going to flip. Well, next time he can save his squire from an angry wyvern.

~Akila