There is an apple tree outside the window of her bedroom in their new house. Father says that they are going to live there forever, and they won't have to move anymore. She clutches her doll, Stella, and hopes that this time it's true. The twins play in the yard.
That night is quiet and still. Too quiet. Laica has trouble sleeping. She's used to the constant noise of Gwaren, where they lived near the docks. She holds Stella very tight. In Gwaren they only had two beds, and she had to share with Bethany and Carver. It's lonely without them.
The next night is blustery, cold autumn winds gusting, a sporadic spatter of rain against her window. The apple tree bends and twists, cutting jagged shadows through the moonlight and scratching at the glass like the claws of some monstrous beast.
Stella offers small comfort against the icy terror clutching Laica's heart. She burrows further under the quilt, trembling and reciting as much of the Chant as she can remember.
It isn't until the wind raises in pitch to an eerie howl that she feels the quilt move, and a small, familiar body slipping under the covers, curling up with her, trembling as well.
"The wind is scary," Bethany whispers. "Like an ogre or something."
Laica sets Stella aside, taking care to keep her safely under the quilt, and wraps her arms around her sister. "Ogres aren't real, Beths." She whispers back with all of the worldly authority of an older sister. "You don't have to be afraid of them."
Bethany's trembling eases, and so does Laica's. She feels strong and wise and knows that even if ogres did come through the window, she would keep her little sister safe from them.
Until the thunder and lightening starts.
A flash of light and a crack of thunder so loud it sounds like it happened right in the room with them causes them both to jerk awake and whimper, curling even tighter together.
"What was that?" Bethany asks tremulously. "It sounded like a…"
A heavy weight thuds on the bed, bouncing both of the girls. "Ogres!" Bethany shrieks, clinging to Laica.
"Oh, shove it," Carver grumps as he burrows under the quilt.
"Are you scared, too?" Laica asks, pulling him close so that all three tangle together.
Carver scoffs. "Course I'm not. I just reckoned you two were. And you'd need me to look out for you."
"Carver, I'm bigger than you." Laica informed him with all the jaded weariness of an older sister. "I don't need you to—"
Another crack of thunder and the words die in her throat, all three flinching and holding on to each other until the trembling eases again.
And the fears of thunder and ogres, and arguments over who needs protection and who doesn't, and the question of just who's bed is this, anyway, all drift away in the sweet warm slumber, arms and legs entangled, breath mingling, hearts beating a slow counterpoint to the rain.
Laica stabs her hoe into the loam, gouging far deeper than she needs to for cabbages. "Of all the mindless… thoughtless… selfish…" she sputters, fire sparking on her knuckles.
"Yes, I am thoughtlessly volunteering for the king's sodding army," Carver scoffs. "There is a selfish one here, and it isn't me."
"You're a sodding child!" Laica flares, waving her hoe at him.
"Why, because I'm not sticking around to spend the rest of my life being bossed around by my older sister?" he snarls. "Why don't you just be honest for once and admit you're angry because you won't have me at your beck and call!"
"Honest? You want honest?" She drops the hoe and steps over the row, tiptoeing to stand nose-to-nose, voice dropped low and vibrating with anger. "I think you're running away because you don't want to deal with trying to be around us with Father dead. And that's why I say you're a selfish child. Because you aren't volunteering for any glorious duty. You're buggering off and leaving me to deal with the aftermath!"
What she doesn't say is that the house is already painfully vacant. The loss seeps from the walls, is tasted in the food, breathed in the air. Mother has fallen into a grief that seems bottomless. Laica is barely holding it together as it is. With Carver gone as well, the little home will feel like a tomb.
Carver's eyes flash with anger as he stares her down, not cowed in the least. "I am going to make a sodding life for myself." His voice carries the same low anger. "I don't know why I expected you to understand."
She's so angry she's dizzy, and feels the heat from her fire on her hands.
"Carver," Bethany's calm voice breaks through. "You're needed at the house."
Carver stays a moment, staring Laica down for another few heartbeats.
"Carver, please," Bethany says, her tone plaintive and weary.
He turns and leaves. And when Bethany tries to touch his arm, he shrugs her off.
Bethany turns to Laica, her eyes troubled. "He told you, didn't he?" she asks, though it isn't really a question.
"That he did." Laica says, voice clipped in frustration as she picks up her hoe and resumes her labor. "I imagine you've known for some time."
"Since before Father died," she says, stepping beside Laica to begin transplanting the sprouts. "He's been thinking of it for some time."
Laica's rhythm falters but she keeps her angry face on. "Well, things changed, didn't they? Sodding child." She mutters. "Didn't know they let children in the king's army."
"Things did change," Bethany sighs. "Which is why he put it off for this long."
Laica struggles for a retort, but none are forthcoming. So she takes it out on the topsoil instead.
And when Carver leaves, she stays inside. Mother and Bethany stand at the gate and wave until he disappears around the bend. But Laica sits at the table, shelling peas and scowling, too proud to say goodbye.
That night she tries to muffle her tears in her pillow. But Bethany joins her anyway. They hold each other in the dark, huddling together in a house that feels far too empty.
It's utterly senseless. That's what saves Laica. Bethany darts toward the ogre. It doesn't make sense, why does she do it?
The ogre doesn't think to ask why. It just grabs her. And snaps her neck against the ground before flinging her lifeless body back toward them.
Laica has a bizarre moment of gratitude. At least we won't have to go look for the body, she thinks to herself.
After the battle, her mother weeps brokenly. "We can't take her," somebody says, using Laica's voice and Laica's mouth to talk. "She'll have to stay here." She takes wooden, nerveless steps to her sister's corpse, and touches fire to her fingers.
Better to burn than let the spawn get her.
And they run before she is burned. They leave her bones to moulder on the bare earth and her ashes to drift where the winds take them.
The ship is a nightmare. Close quarters, terrible food, worse smells. Laica is half-delirious with fever for most of the journey, along with the rest of the passengers. She keeps seeing Bethany out of the corner of her eye. Curled up, off to the side. Or holding a child. Or petting the dog. Always there, always on the edges. Always disappearing when she tries to look at her straight-on.
"Where does Bethany keep going?" she asks Mother.
Mother looks at her, horrified. "Laica Elena Hawke," she says. "What a vile, wretched joke. Even for you!"
Laica frowns at her knees. She sees Bethany out of the corner of her eye, covering her mouth with her hand, stifling a laugh.
"You'll get yours," she mutters under her breath.
It isn't until three days after they arrive in Kirkwall that it all sinks in. Her fever has finally burned off. Gamlen's tiny apartment is crammed to the gills with Carver, Mother, Boney, Laica herself and their meager belongings.
She heads out every morning to Meeran's safe house and does whatever demeaning chores he has picked out for her that day. (The first week isn't so bad.) And evenings she comes home and eats whatever meal Mother has managed to concoct out of cabbages, potatoes, water and whatever meat she can manage to scrounge from the scant few coins Laica and Carver bring home.
She waits for Carver to eat his fill. Sometimes she scrapes half of her meal onto his plate.
She often goes to bed hungry.
And at night she curls up on the bottom bunk and Carver climbs up to the top and there is a gap between them. A yawning, aching distance where Bethany used to fit.
The distance never quite closes, not even when Carver climbs down out of his bunk and curls up next to her. There is some comfort in his presence, but still and always there is a missing heartbeat in the dark.