Petalwynd sat, knees curled under her chin, watching the sea of grass that spread out from the old, dilapidated building that had, until recently, been a monastery for a small group of monks. The last of the Order of the Sacred Wind, they had opened their home to a trio of travelers, given freely of what little they had to offer, and been friends.
Until they had been brutally murdered, for no reason.
The wind whispered through the grass, a slow wave that passed across the Thertin Hills, pausing to tousle the short, curly white hair that had grown from Petalwynd’s usually shaved head. She paid it no more mind than she did anything else. Like all things, it was transient, and meant nothing.
“Petalwynd,” Henry said from behind her. “Nerise has fixed some lunch. You want some?”
She sat silently for some time before replying. “No, thank you. I’m not hungry.”
“Okay,” Henry answered, the note of disappointment in his voice plain as day. “If you change your mind, come let me know, yeah?”
She nodded once, and waited. It always took him a minute to actually leave. Today was no different. Henry stood there, struggling to find something, anything, to say to make her feel better. As always, he failed, and slowly walked away.
Petalwynd knew she should talk to him. She knew she should stop him, and tell him everything. She just couldn’t. So, today, like every day since she had beaten Waylan to death, a month ago now, she let him leave, and buried her face deeper behind her knees.
She sat, watching the sea of grass, and wondered what she should do.
“She said no, again, huh?” Kira asked as Henry mounted the steps of the small monastery.
He paused, looking over at her, then nodded. “Yeah. She’ll come around, though. She just needs some time.”
“She’s had time, Henry,” the ranger said, not with anger, or resentment, but with concern. “More than enough.”
Henry sighed, resting a hand on the frame of the door, then leaning on it heavily. “She’s not like us. I keep telling you that. What she did, it’s different for her. It’s going to take her a while to figure it all out. That’s all. She’ll be fine.”
Kira shook her head. “I want that to be true, too, you know. I really do. But, Henry…”
“Just give her some more time,” he interrupted as he pushed off from the door and went inside. “A little more is all she needs.”
Inside, he wove through the narrow hallways, and spacious rooms, not going anywhere really, so much as wandering his way towards the kitchen. He hated to admit it, loathed it more than anything, but Kira was right. Petalwynd had had more than enough time. Too much. Sooner or later, Gilford would arrive with his Driskian Raiders, looking for the behemoth Waylan, and them.
They’d given the Driskian a black eye back in Trader’s Hollow, one he hadn’t forgotten. It was why Bishu, Hu, Pater, Will, and Shelly had been killed the way they had. It was to punish them, and Petalwynd most of all. To hurt them, for defying him, and taking his pet beast, Nerise.
Henry paused at the doorway of the kitchen, staring at the large Juten woman as she washed some dishes, lunch laid out on the table, for four. Towering as she was, and cat like in appearance, Nerise carried the deaths of the monks more heavily even than Petalwynd. Her defiance had cost them their lives, or so she kept saying.
It was absurd, of course, and Henry reminded her of it often. Gilford was to blame. Just him. No one else. Regardless, he found he could only watch as two of his friends suffered, and he was powerless to do anything about it.
“Need a hand?” he asked.
Nerise flinched, her tail snapping out, then relaxing. “No. I’ve got it.”
“Nerise,” he started.
“She’s not coming, is she?”
Nerise nodded, hesitated a moment, then resumed washing the dishes. Henry watched her for a little longer, then sat and began to eat the meal she had prepared. Kira joined a few minutes later, with Nerise sitting just as Henry was finishing. They didn’t speak to each other, not a one knowing what to say, as they all watched the empty seat at the table, and prayed for a miracle.
One that would bring Petalwynd back to them.
Since that day, Petalwynd had barely spoken. She only took meals in her room, in the morning, and at night. The rest of the day was spent sitting, watching the horizon, and doing nothing else. All attempts by her companions to reach out to her had been rebuffed gently, leaving them uncertain what to do to help her.
She no longer did her daily exercises, or shaved her head, or anything save sit, unmoving, until she finally fell asleep from sheer exhaustion. Petalwynd was at a standstill, and Henry quickly found that he was as well.
It wasn’t that he didn’t understand what was going on. Petalwynd, always jovial, ever happy go lucky, had lost her temper, and used her training in a way she believed ran counter to her beliefs. She hadn’t just killed Waylan, she had brutalized him. Even as he begged for mercy, she had been savage, and more importantly, methodical, in how she had taken his life.
Petalwynd was no longer certain who she was, and searched for understanding of this side of herself she hadn’t known existed before. Or at least, Henry was pretty sure that was it. The look in her eyes wasn’t so different than one he’d once seen in his own.
Before she had come into his life, and changed everything.
More than anything, Henry wanted to do the same for her now, but found himself lacking. Even knowing what had brought her to a standstill like this didn’t help. Whatever it was she needed to hear in order to stand up, and move forward, Henry couldn’t find it. The words he knew she needed to hear, escaped him.
So, they stood still, all of them. Petalwynd griped in doubt. Henry because she couldn’t move. Nerise because she blamed herself for it all. Kira because…
Henry paused in his reverie, staring at the ceiling from where he lay on his bed. Why was Kira at standstill? The monks had been her friends, of course, and Petalwynd had been nothing but kind to the woman. That she would linger for a while wasn’t the issue.
It was that she, too, was standing still, and Henry suddenly realized he didn’t know why. For he and Nerise, it was because Petalwynd was what moved them both. Kira, however, had no such connection to the Halfling monk. She was simply there, for no reason Henry could find.
Sitting up, he pondered the ranger for a moment, trying to sort her out in his mind. It wasn’t the first time he’d tried since the day she had put a dagger to his neck, but again, answers eluded him. She was mysterious, to be sure, but at this point, Henry felt he should have at least a working grasp of what motivated her.
He didn’t. In fact, he realized, he knew next to nothing about her at all.
He refused to entertain the idea she was a spy for the Driskians. Her grief over the deaths of Hu’s band had been real enough. That said, there was something holding the woman here. Something Henry couldn’t find.
Standing, he wandered outside, almost certain he knew where to find her, even at this late hour. Wile he may not know her, there were some things anyone could figure out, if they just took the time to think about it.
He wasn’t surprised to find her sitting, in the same place the two had once stared at the stars, her gaze turned upward, as melancholy as it had been that night. It was enough to make him hesitate, a soft bit a guilt at being suspicious of her coursing through him.
Pushing it down, he moved to join her. If nothing else, he figured it was time to know just who she was, and what she was after. While he was no warrior, not by a long ways, he knew he would protect his friends, against anyone. For that reason alone, he eased down, and joined the strange woman in staring at the stars.
“You seem edgy,” Kira commented after several minutes.
“Go figure,” Henry replied.
“No, I mean with me.” She looked at him as she spoke. “Guess you finally got the nerve up to ask, huh?”
Henry snorted. “Figures you’ve been waiting for it.”
The smile she gave him was sad, and tired. “I’d do the same, Henry. Don’t feel guilty. You just want to protect your family.”
“I’m not sure I’d call them that,” he told her with a wave of his hand.
“They are,” she cut in. “Just as Bishu and the others were mine. I would have done anything to protect them. I tried to, anyway. I failed.”
“That wasn’t your fault,” Henry snapped. “It wasn’t Nerise’s fault, or Petalwynd’s, either. All of you need to stop beating yourself up for something you didn’t do.”
Kira went wide eyed at his outburst for a moment, then offered him that tired, sad smile again. “Yeah. I know. I do. Doesn’t make it hurt less, though, you know?”
Henry sighed, looking back up at the night sky. “I know. I’m sorry.”
They sat in silence for a time, Henry ahving already gotten the answers he needed, if not the ones he wanted. Kira was still there for the same reason as Petalwynd. She simply didn’t know where else to go, or what to do now. That’s all it was.
Kira rested her head on his shoulder, surprising him a bit, as she said, “Thank you, Henry.”
“I failed, too.”
“We all did. But we failed trying to do what was right. That’s still something, isn’t it?”
Henry wrapped an arm around her and hugged her closer. “It has to be. It’s all we’ve got.”
The ranger and the blacksmith sat, staring at the stars, finding some comfort in one another, if only for a moment.
The next day, Henry sat at the small kitchen table, sipping a cup of coffee. Nerise busied herself cleaning up breakfast, while Kira had excused herself as soon as she had finished eating. Petalwynd was, of course, outside, staring at nothing.
This couldn’t last. Henry knew that. Somehow, he had to find a way to set them all in motion again. Like it or not, time was running out. The Driskians would come, he knew that as surely as he knew the sun would rise. They needed to be as far from here as they could get before then, too.
He sipped some coffee, and sat still.
“In my homeland,” Nerise said suddenly. “There’s this story. It’s meant for children, but I can’t stop thinking of it. I’m not really sure why, but it feels like it’s important. Like there’s something to it I can’t quite grasp.”
Henry stared at her back, saying nothing. It was the first time Nerise had started a conversation since that day, and suddenly, Henry found himself without a word in exchange.
“How stupid is that,” she continued. “All I can think about is this childrens story, and how it feels like it has some kind of lesson I should take from it. One I can’t figure out. Can you think of anything stupider?”
“Tell me the story.”
Nerise glanced over her shoulder for a moment, the guilt in her large eyes painful to see. “It’s about this little boy, who gets lost in the woods one night. He knows that, just at the edge of the forest, is his home, but he can’t figure out which way to go. It’s too dark, and he’s afraid to move, because there are creatures that hunt by night, and they may find and devour him.”
Henry leaned back, listening, already seeing why she couldn’t stop thinking about this story.
“So, he sits there, in the dark, huddled against a tree, hoping to just wait out the night, and find his way home when morning comes. As he is sitting there, he notices a dim light coming from somewhere in the woods. At first, he is afraid, thinking it may be one of the creatures that live in the woods.”
Nerise looked up, staring out the small window over the sink, at where Kira knelt by the graves of the monks. “He is afraid, but he hopes that perhaps, it is his parents, come to find him. He can’t decide if he should call out, or stay hidden. Finally, he finds the courage to get up, and go see if the dim light is friend, or foe.”
Henry sat, his breath caught, waiting as she paused, watching the ranger with painful sadness.
“As he gets closer, the light gets dimmer, though. He keeps following it, trying to see what it is, but it is always just out of sight. He becomes so obsessed with finding the source of this strange, dim light, that he forgets everything else. His hope, that it is his parents, begins to become fear, that they are looking for him, but going in the wrong direction, and his caution is allowing them to get too far away, enough that they will never find him.”
Nerise set aside the towel she had been washing the dishes with, and learned on the sink. “So, he hurries. Following that dim light, which gives just enough light he can see his way around the trees, roots, and underbrush. He follows it faster and faster, his fear now becoming that it will be gone, and he will be lost in the total darkness, yet again. His fear grows so great, he gives in to it, and chases after it with abandon, until…”
Henry stared, wide eyed, waiting, as Nerise cocked her head to the side for a moment, then turned to look at him.
“Until he suddenly finds himself standing at the edge of the woods, looking at his house. A break in the clouds, above him, had let the moonlight filter through. No creature, nor searching parent. Just a coincidence, but one that lead him home. He runs inside, to find his parents preparing to go in search of him, and is thankful to a break in the clouds.”
Henry blinked several times. “That’s it?”
“That’s it,” she nodded. “As I said, it is stupid, yet I cannot seem to stop thinking about it. I wonder why?”
“Well,” Henry replied as he pushed his chair back to stand. “First off, your homeland has shitty childrens stories.”
Nerise laughed at that, but behind it, her sadness still lingered, large and bright in her eyes. “Yes. I suppose we do.”
“Second, if there is a moral to the story, then it’s pretty obvious.”
“Is it now?” she asked, looking back out the window.
When Henry grabbed her by the shoulder, it left her too surprised to react, or resist. Before she knew it, she found herself wrapped in his arms, held tight against his chest, as he ran a hand over her ears. Stunned, she simply stood there, as Henry explained it to her.
“Hope is where you find it.”
She wanted to pull away. Her instincts told her she should. Yet, she found Henry’s arms were strong, and with those words, she collapsed against him, and finally, for the first time since that night, allowed herself to cry.
Henry held her, and for a moment, was her dimly lit path.
Kira was returning to the monastery steps as Henry walked out, his stride purposeful, but not hurried. She started to say something, but held her tongue at the look on his face. Something had changed. Glancing back, she saw Nerise standing in the doorway, watching him go.
“We found hope.”
Kira turned back to watch as Henry made his way to Petalwynd. Yes, she thought. Something has changed. Henry has changed.
“Finally,” she whispered.
He found her easily enough. She was always in the same spot, after all. Never drifting far from the place that let her look out onto the wide expanse of the hills, alone and isolated, just the way she wanted it. It almost made him angry.
“Petalwynd,” he said as he reached her.
“I’m not hungry, Henry,” she replied, voice soft and heavy with grief.
“Get up,” he told her, ignoring her comment completely.
“Henry, please,” she sighed.
He kicked her in the back of her head, sending the Halfling sprawling in the grass. For a moment, she lay there, too surprised to do anything. When she finally pulled herself up and looked at him, Henry was staring down at her, his face a mask of rage, even as he wept.
“Get up, dammit!” he yelled.
“That hurt, Henry,” she said as she pushed herself to her knees.
“Then don’t make me do it again, you idiot!”
“I know what your trying to do, Henry, and…”
Petalwynd went sprawling in the grass again.
“Stop this, Henry,” she yelled back, climbing to her feet quickly. “Just because I did it to you, doesn’t mean you can do it to me.”
“You think that’s what this is? You think that’s what I’m doing?”
“Of course it is!”
Henry went to kick her again, only to find his foot caught in her tiny hand, held back with ease as she glared at him.
“Stop it, Henry, or I will make you stop it.”
“Then make me.”
Petalwynd shoved him away. “This isn’t funny. Stop it, and leave me alone.”
“Not gonna happen,” he snapped back. Either you make me stop, or I stop when you get up off your ass and stop feeling sorry for your damn self. Your choice.”
Petalwynd gasped. “You think this is self pity?”
“Doesn’t matter what I think, does it?” he didn’t ask, but demanded.
Her gaze narrowed. “No, to be honest, it really doesn’t.”
“Than to hell with it,” he yelled, and went to kick her again, only to find her blocking him a second time, and shoving him away.
“Cause I can’t.”
Henry stood, staring down at her. Her face was red with anger. Her fists were balled. She was seconds from pushing back. The wrong word, the wrong move, and he knew, she might actually hit him.
Time to be the moonlight, he thought, as he dropped to his knees, grabbed her, and yanked her in to his arms. “Cause you’d never stop if it was me, you little idiot.”
Petalwynd tensed, pushed against him for a moment, then stopped. She didn’t return the embrace, but she didn’t fight it. She simply stood, very still, as Henry held her as tight as he could.
“I don’t know what to do.”
“I know. I don’t either.”
She was silent for several minutes. “I don’t even know what to say.”
“Me either. All I could think to do was get you mad enough, that you’d at least stand up for a minute.”
“Why did you want me to stand up?”
“You’re really little, and it hurts my back to try and hug you when your sitting down.”
Petalwynd said nothing for a long moment, then snickered. Henry smiled, not easing his tight embrace for even a moment. A second passed, and she snickered again, then gave a small laugh, before her arms wrapped around his neck, and finally, at long last, she held him back.
“That was stupid, Henry.”
“Blame Nerise. She gave me the idea.”
Petalwynd pulled back, looking him in the eye, so much sorrow, loss, pain, and regret it broke his heart to see it. “What should I do?”
“That’s the thing, isn’t it?” he asked her. “We were going to find our destinies together, weren’t we? Can’t do that sitting here. Can’t do anything sitting here. Sooner or later, Petalwynd, we have to get up, and move, if we want to find those kinds of answers.”
Slowly, she smiled, as her eyes grew moist. “You really have become wise, Henry.”
“I have a good teacher.”
She looked away. “I don’t know about that.”
She glanced back at him for a moment, then away again. “I’m sorry. I wanted to talk to you. I just couldn’t.”
“I know, and it’s okay,” he said. “It took me a while to figure out what to say as well.”
“Please, let me finish, Petalwynd,” he said, hushing her as she looked off into the distance. “It was Nerise, really, who did it. Some stupid story from her homeland. Hearing it made me realize it wasn’t something I needed to say.”
“Please, just let me say this, okay?” he implored. “The thing is, as dumb as the story was, it made me realize that what I needed to do was just give you a push. That’s all you need. Just something to make you want to get up and move again. I may not be good for much, but I can do that.”
“Henry, I think…”
“No, listen, I know what you’re going to say,” he cut in. “But, you pushed me to start moving once. I couldn’t just sit and do nothing. I’m sorry I kicked you, but Petalwynd, I didn’t know how else to get you to reach back, you know? Maybe I’m not even explaining this well, but I figured if I literally pushed you, you’d finally do something.”
Her grip on his shoulder tightened suddenly, and for the first time, he noticed the fear in her eyes.
“Thank you, Henry. I understand, but the Driskians are here.”
©-2017 Cain S. Latrani