Chapter Twelve: Talya’s Fate
Their journey continued onward and into the north, and for several days they passed through Hösland: gently rolling hills sparsely dotted with copses of wood here and there and very few folk between them. They paused for breath when they reached Kyte-on-Farrowmill, stopping a day or two for the horses to rest and the guards to recuperate in one of the many inns (though Elven doubted recuperation was on their minds). Meanwhile, he and Gwendolyn wandered the town, she curious to see so small a town and he with an eye always on the folk around them. The guards seemed oddly unwilling to follow them, and after a couple of half-hearted requests, Elven came to accept that they were not there of their own volition. He supposed he could hardly fault them; guarding a princess on a journey to seek out disease and death was far from the most inviting quest he could imagine.
Together they discovered a pub that seemed somewhat quieter and friendlier than most, and the bartender willing to speak with them between pouring ale and settling minor arguments (never with violence). They asked him if he knew much of business to the north, and he told them that for some months there had been odd groups of folk arriving from beyond the Hösland. “Don’t talk much, them folk; what I hear is mostly from others, but they say they’re scared. Of what, I’m not right certain, but I can’t say I like it. It’s one thing to be from the Outlands and miserable—I know I’d venture south if I could—but to be scared is another matter. What’re they scared of? Creatures and death, I hear.” He shook his head. “No, sir—not good fortune, them folk.”
Gwendolyn seemed frightened herself by the barkeep’s words, but Elven’s curiosity was piqued: were these northern villagers the first clue to what was ravaging the north? “I beg your pardon—sir?” he asked.
The barkeep smiled. “Erynth, at your service.”
“Erynth, sir,” Elven continued, “where might one find these folk from the north?”
“Oh, you don’t want to go finding them,” Erynth said. “They’ve got nought to say but bad things.”
“Perhaps I want to hear of these bad things,” Elven pursued.
Erynth eyed him suspiciously. “Then you’d be the first I’ve heard of,” he said. “Most of us avoid them altogether—bad news is ill news, they say. But—if you’re insistent, they’ve a camp east of town. We mostly don’t let them in—dirty folk—but you seem on market day; they steal as much as buy, but I suppose folk got to live, ’cross Erâth. Still—I wouldn’t let them in here.”
Elven nodded for a moment, his gaze focused in the distance. He thought of the last time he had met folk from the Outlands, as he traveled with the Greatlord Farathé past the great wall of Kiriün and onward to Courerà. He had been discouraged from giving charity to them then, as well, by Atleas, and he wondered at the distaste the folk of the Hösland held for the people whose fate was to suffer in the Outlands. “Are they kind, these folk?” he asked finally.
“Kind is as kind does,” Erynth replied. “I’ve given a token or two, here or there. But I can’t say I hold with them setting up outside of town; I’d rather they stayed where they belong.”
“I think we might seek them out,” Elven said, as much to himself as anyone.
“Suit yourself,” Erynth said anyway, “but I doubt you’ll learn much.”
Early the next morning, Elven sought out the guards and asked for one to accompany them to the Outlander’s camp.
“Thought we were to go north,” said one, “and then back.”
“Perhaps if we speak to these folk, we may need go no further,” Elven pointed out.
The guard scowled, but said, “I’ll come—but I’ll do no talking.”
Elven nodded. “You’ll not be asked to.”
As Elven, Gwendolyn and the guard made their way through Kyte, Gwendolyn sidled up to Elven, leaving the guard trailing behind.
“I don’t like him,” she said quietly.
“I don’t much like him either,” he said, “but he has a sword and we don’t: I hope he’ll protect himself, if not us, should it come to blows.”
“That doesn’t make me feel better,” she said.
“I think things will not be so dire as the barkeep would have us believe,” he told her. “I’ve been through the Outlands, and the folk there are poor and desperate, but not mean-spirited. If we are kind to them, I’m certain they’ll be kind back.”
“Do you really think we’ll be able to learn something from them?” she asked.
“More than you might think. After all, these are the folk that live with the threat of Darkness every day—the folk who have suffered the most. They may help us decide where next to go. If we are lucky, they may tell us of this rumored illness.”
“What if they don’t wish to speak with us?”
Elven shrugged. “Then we leave them in peace. We have no quarrel with these poor folk.”
So they continued on through Kyte-on-Farrowmill, and before long the houses were growing fewer and further between. In the distance, Elven could see the fields begin, and beyond, plumes of smoke from numerous small fires. “There,” he pointed, “see the smoke?”
“That is our goal.”
“Do you mind if I stay here?” said the guard, who had thus far been silent. “It looks a long way, and I’ve no desire to see dirty, nasty folk.”
“It’s hardly ten minutes!” Gwendolyn exclaimed.
“You’ll stay with us,” Elven said, “or I’ll tell the queen you and your companions deserted your duty to protect her daughter.”
At this the guard grumbled, but trudged onward behind them without a further word.
As they slowly approached the Outlander’s camp, Elven was struck by the quietness of their surroundings; he had expected to hear voices, calls, animals and the general commotion of a village at work, but even when they began to see the folk themselves wandering between tents and caravans, there was almost no sound at all. By the time they could hear the crackle of the campfires, the people of the camp had stopped their business and were standing, silent, staring upon them. Elven had the greatest impression that no one from Kyte-on-Farrowmill had ever been out here before.
Finally they stopped by a fire that seemed larger than most, and for a moment all was still. Elven looked about, and dirty, haggard and forlorn faces stared back. Most seemed starved or malnourished, and he saw tiny, emaciated children peeking out from between canvas flaps. A deep pity rose in him, followed swiftly by anger: how could the folk of Kyte let these people starve so?
“Hello!” he called out to no one in particular. “My name is Elven, and I have come from Courerà in the Lichae to learn of your afflictions. I understand you are from the north?”
His words echoed and died, and for an age no one spoke further. Elven looked around, trying to take in what he saw: figure after figure, old and young, all desperate and starving. They were looking at him, he saw, with novelty: he supposed it was beyond their understanding why he was there. He raised his voice again: “I’m here to help! If one of you could speak to me of your strife, perhaps I can—”
But then, unexpectedly, one of the Outlanders stepped forward. It was a woman, he saw—as thin and terrible as all the rest—and she carried a small child in her arms. Her hair was filthy and matted, her skin coated in grime and sores, and the child was no better: far too thin, her head seemed barely supported on her shoulders, long, thin, dirty hair cascading around the face and hiding her features. The woman and child moved toward him, and stopped mere paces away. She looked upon him, and he gazed back.
“Will you speak—” Elven began again, but she interrupted him.
“What did you say your name was?” Her voice was thin and hoarse, speaking to Elven of years of illness.
“My name is Elven,” he repeated. “What is yours?”
For an eternal moment she said nothing, and he was about to speak again when he noticed a tear trailing from one eye, cutting a clear path through the dirt and grime. “Do you—do you not know?” she whispered.
And so he looked deeper, and in an instant he saw through the dirt, through the wild hair and past the illness, and his heart stopped. “Tal—Talya?”
He saw pain then—pain and grief and lost hope and joy, and as her lip quivered he stepped to her side and brushed the hair from her face. The child in her arms hardly moved, but all he could see were the clear blue eyes that he had once known so well—the eyes he had come to love as dearly as any he had ever known.
“How is it you?” Talya stuttered, tears now flowing freely.
But Elven had no more words, and as he felt his knees weaken he knelt to the ground, and she knelt beside him. He reached out his hands, refusing to believe what he saw before him, but as he touched her, felt the rough fabric of her tunic and the frailty of her arms, he knew she was real. “I—I never …” he began, and faltered.
Talya’s face was contorted in pain, and he could not tell grief from joy, and realized his own countenance was a mirror for hers. “Elven …” she said. “How?”
Elven could only shake his head, and he grasped her in as firm an embrace as he dared. For an eternity he held her, afraid that if he were to release her she would disappear again, vanished into the nothingness that he had believed her to belong to. And when finally he did step back, he saw the child again, as though for the first time. “Who—who is this?” he whispered.
And then Talya spoke words that he could not have fathomed in a lifetime, words that shocked him to the core of his being. Though her tears she smiled. “Elven—this is Meredith: this is your daughter.”
By the time Elven felt is senses returning to him, they were sitting under the canvas of a nearby tent, smoke drifting in from outside and permeating the air. He sat on the dirt, crosslegged, with Talya and Meredith before him, and Gwendolyn off to the side. The guard had remained outside, and Elven was glad, for this was a deeply personal moment. Wordlessly, he reached into his pack and withdrew a small crust of bread that he had brought with him, and handed it to Talya. Also without speaking, she handed it directly to the girl, who looked up at her mother momentarily before starting to nibble on it.
For a long while Elven could think of nothing to say, and when he finally spoke the words felt stale and hollow from his mouth. “What … what has happened to you?” He felt reluctant to address her miserable condition, yet knew it could not be ignored.
“We’ve been desperately struggling to live,” she said finally, and looked down at her daughter—their daughter, he reminded himself. “I was certain … I knew ye’d forgotten me.”
“I never—” Elven began.
She reached out a hand to touch his arm. “I don’t blame ye,” she said softly. “It’s been a long time, and ye’ve had more important things to do.”
“You don’t understand,” Elven protested. “I’ve never stopped thinking of you. Every day since we parted, I’ve thought of nothing but finding you! I thought … I thought the worst.”
She smiled sadly. “I’m still here, Elven. We both are. I love her, Elven—isn’t she wonderful?”
Elven reached out to touch Meredith’s hair, but she shied away. “She is,” he agreed. “How is it you’ve survived? Both of you?”
Talya closed her eyes then, and her face grew grim. “It’s not been easy. There’ve been times I was certain we’d die, and times I thought we’d never see light again. Darkness is filling the north.”
“You must tell me,” Elven said. “I want to know everything—and I will tell you what has happened to me. But first I must take you from this place; you both are deathly ill!”
For a moment he thought Talya held Meredith a little tighter. “What do ye mean?”
“When’s the last time you ate a full meal?” he asked.
For a moment Talya was quiet. “I have to make certain of Meredith, first.”
“Then come with me: I can heal you both, help you regain your strength.”
“What of the others?” Talya looked to the tent’s entrance. “What’ll happen to them?”
It was Gwendolyn who spoke then, with a sly smile. “I can help.”
Talya looked at Gwendolyn then as though seeing her for the first time. “Who are ye?” she asked, not unkindly.
“I am the king’s daughter,” she replied, “and I am disgusted by the villagers’ treatment of you.” She moved toward them, leaning forward and looking into Meredith’s face. To Elven’s surprise, the child looked up, though she did not smile. “I know I must not seem much older to you,” she said, “but I’m old enough to know that no child should suffer so. You must know Elven is a great healer, and I can persuade the village to help the others: please, come with us.”
Reluctantly, Talya looked to Elven. “Is she right?”
Elven nodded. “More than you know. Trust me: these people will not suffer any longer.”
Slowly, Talya nodded back. “I trust ye. I always have.”
“Then let us leave this place—I will feed you, and you will both be strong.”
So they left the tent, and as they emerged Elven was surprised to see what appeared to be the entire encampment surrounding them, looking on dolefully. Uncertain what to do, he cleared his throat, thinking perhaps he ought to speak, but to his astonishment Gwendolyn spoke first.
“Outlanders!” she called. “Fellow folk of Kiriün! It hurts me to see you suffer! As the king’s daughter, I promise you it ends today! My friends and I are returning to Kyte-on-Farrowmill, and there will be food for you by dusk. You have my word!”
A murmur rippled through the crowd—one of surprise, disbelief and suspicion. But they parted as Elven, Talya, Meredith, Gwendolyn and the sullen guard moved forward, and spoke not a word against them as they started back toward the village. “How will you convince the village to help them?” he asked Gwendolyn when they were out of earshot.
“I am the king’s daughter, and I bear the royal crest,” she replied confidently. “They must listen to me.”
It seemed to Elven that this was somewhat overconfident on her part, but he did not push the point; after all, he had spent little time outside the city of Courerà since arriving in Kiriün, but there certainly the royal influence was felt deeply. Instead, he turned to Talya and said, “You must be tired; may I carry her for a while?”
“If she’ll allow it,” Talya replied, and gently lifted Meredith from her waist and offered the child to him. To his surprise she didn’t resist, and as he felt the weight of the girl in his arms his heart skipped a beat: she weighed far, far too little. As delicately as he could, he lifted her to his shoulder, and allowed her to rest her head against his.
“Can you speak?” he asked her gently.
For a moment he thought no reply would come, but suddenly the girl murmured something. “What did she say?” he asked Talya.
Talya smiled. “She said, ‘I don’t know ye’.”
Elven smiled then too, even as a fresh tear rolled down his cheek. “You will, dear—I promise,” he whispered. “I’m your father, and I swear I’ll never leave your sight again.”
Elven carried Meredith the rest of the way, holding her tight, and she was fast asleep in his arms by the time they arrived at the inn. Elven lay her down gently in his bed, pulling the blankets up over her shoulders, and as he looked upon her he thought he had never seen anything so frail, or so beautiful, in his life. Talya stood beside him and reached out to hold his hand for a moment. “She’s a strong girl,” she murmured.
“Like her mother,” Elven returned softly.
“Or her father,” Talya replied with a smile.
But Elven shook his head. “I’ve no strength to match what you must have been through. Will you tell me?”
Talya looked up at Elven then, and in returning her gaze he saw with renewed ferocity her weakness of body, and the desperate strength of mind that was keeping her on her feet. He remembered that she had not had a crumb of the bread he had offered them earlier, and realized that, for all he knew, it had been days since she’d last eaten. “I’ll tell ye all,” she said, “though I’d love some water first.”
Elven recognized the modesty of her request, and instead bade her sit in a chair by the fire as he called for soup and bread. The room was small, and so Elven sat on the floor in silence before her as she ate, casting his gaze between her and the young child in his bed, who had not stirred since he had lain her there. Evening drew on, and as the shadows deepened Elven stoked the fire, lit the candles and settled back to listen to Talya’s tale.
She started softly, leaning back in her chair and eyes closed. Elven thought perhaps she had not eaten such a meal (small as it had in fact been) in years. “Oh, Elven,” she began. “It’s a strange and dark world out there, ye know. I’ll tell ye what I can remember, but it’s been so long … so many days in shadow and darkness, so many seasons of starvation. I thought we had it poor growing up in Hansel’s Foil, ye know, so far from the great towns of the north, but … the folk in the Rein, those who live in the far north—they’ve nothing, Elven, and they’re beset by Darkness. They haven’t a chance.”
“I’d heard the Rein is all but fallen,” Elven acknowledged. “Yet you were there—how did you escape?”
“D’ye remember our parting?” she asked.
A bitter pain pierced Elven’s heart. “I do—I said I’d be an hour.”
Talya smiled gently. “I knew ye’d not be back. Brandyé was your friend since ye were children—how could I expect ye to leave him for me?”
“Talya, I meant to return—you must believe me. The army of Darkness was upon us—”
“Oh, I believe ye meant to, I do; but I knew ye better than that, dear. Brandyé needed your help, far more than I did.”
“You were carrying our child!”
“I didn’t know that,” she said. “And had I—would I’ve told ye? There are more important things in this world.”
Elven shook his head. “Brandyé believed so too—and now he’s gone.”
At this, Talya’s eyes widened. “He’s—dead?”
“That, I don’t know,” Elven admitted. “But gone he is, for better or for worse.”
But Elven was still desperate to hear from Talya, and said, “I’ll tell you all later; now is your time.”
Talya sighed. “If ye insist. How did I escape, ye asked. Believe me when I say, I very nearly did not.”
“The night ye left the mountain fortress, the elder folk demanded the entrance be sealed; ye were a fool, they said, and better off dead with your crazy friend. I let them know what I thought of them, but it made no difference, and I knew the safety of the villagers had to come first. So they brought down the entrance, collapsed the mountain, and all was still and dark.
“It was days, Elven—weeks, for all I know—that we stayed silent in those awful halls. A few folk had candles, but most of us ate and slept in utter black, and there was no difference between night and day. Everyone was afraid, and we had no true leader: the village elders thought they knew best, but when they said we ought to emerge and see if the enemy had retreated, no one had the courage to heed them.”
“But surely you had to leave the caverns eventually,” Elven said. “Did they think they could stay there forever?”
“I don’t know what they thought,” she replied. “But ye’re right—we couldn’t stay forever. There were a few of us—fifteen, perhaps—that knew death was coming, and we weren’t going to sit idle. It wasn’t long before our supplies began to dwindle, and so we began to explore the hidden depths of the caves. We thought that if we couldn’t pass the fallen entrance, there might yet be a way out into the mountains.
“We told the villagers we would return; we told them we would send for aid. But every day we ventured deeper, we found no escape. And then—on the day our last candles were lit—there was a sound from the entrance. Scraping, digging, stone on stone—and we knew it was over. The enemy had found our barricade, and were bent on penetrating the fortress and destroying us all. The folk panicked, and drove us deep into the mountain, but it was no use. The final rock fell, daylight came, and with it the Dark men of the north. They were worse than I’d ever remembered, Elven—filthy, and haggard, and vicious.” She closed her eyes tight for a moment. “I saw against the light the first to fall: a boy, no more than fifteen, who had thrown his sister down to protect her.” She suddenly fixed Elven with a fierce gaze: “They’re evil, Elven. There’s no humanity in them. They stormed the caverns and slaughtered all who stood in their way.”
“How were you not killed with them?” Elven asked, horrified.
“One of our group—those of us who’d not kept idle—pulled me with him. He was fond of me, I think—his name was Harmòn.” Elven felt a twinge of jealousy, but kept silent. “He said there was a passage into the mountains after all—one we had missed. As the other folk trampled deep into the caves, he led me to his mother through a narrow opening. And we pushed on—groping in the dark, for we hadn’t a candle. I could hear the sounds of slaughter behind us, and I cried.
“I don’t know how long the three of us crawled through that passage, but our knees bled from the stone, and I could scarcely breathe from the closeness of the air. And all the while I was certain they would find us: if the Dark men didn’t, their creatures would. Have ye ever been in the dark, Elven—such a dark as ye think there’ll never be light again?”
In his mind, Elven recalled long ago when Brandyé and Sonora had snuck their way into the barricaded town of Daevàr’s Hut through the sewers, and knew that his friend would have known what she meant. All he could do for himself was shake his head.
“I’ve come to know despair well, Elven, over these past years—but that was the first time. I knew we’d die, one way or another. So much that when we did first see daylight, I refused to believe it. Even when we were finally sitting free on the other side of the mountain, surrounded by nothing, I thought surely I’d died already, and this was what came after. Sometimes I still wonder.”
Elven reached out a hand to touch her—almost as if to reassure himself that she was not, in fact, dead. “You’re here,” he said softly. “Trust me.”
She smiled at him. “I do, now. And if not—then here with ye is a better place to be. But back then—can ye imagine myself, a man I hardly knew and his elderly mother, climbing down this mountain and thinking the while that only the worst awaited us? I didn’t know what I thought’d be worse: capture and death at the hands of the enemy, or living the rest of my life alone in the wilderness, lost and hopeless. And for all of it we kept moving—north, south, east or west I hadn’t a clue—just to give as much distance between ourselves and the enemy as we could.
“After days of wandering through forest and hill we came upon a desolate plain, and it was only then that we began to believe we’d escaped: the mountains were tall behind us, but there was no sign of life before us. No friend—but no enemy. We stopped there, then; Harmòn’s mother, Wendèl, could walk no further, and I was starting to feel oddly ill myself. Nothing dreadful,” she added at Elven’s concern, “but unpleasant nonetheless; cramps, mostly. I kept to myself, though—I didn’t want to worry Wendèl, and Harmòn was busy hunting our food each day.
“A few weeks passed—perhaps a month—and then one day, Harmòn didn’t come back. He was often away most of the day, and I didn’t think of it until night was almost full on, and Wendèl came to my side. ‘My son is gone,’ she said to me. I asked her what she meant, but she said nothing more all that night. And I began to worry, because he had with him our only bow and sword.
“Come the morning, I set out to follow him. Would ye believe, Elven, I armed myself with a stone and a knife? There was nothing else in our possession, and I was terrified: Harmòn was no weak man. For days I searched, and each night I returned thinking our camp would’ve been raided and Wendèl killed. But every evening I came back to find nothing disturbed, Wendèl tending the fire. I never saw her shed a tear during that time, though I believe I cried for us both.”
“Did you ever find Harmòn?” Elven asked. “What happened to him?”
“I found him,” she said, “finally. Elven—” she shook her head “—there was nothing I could do. He’d been dead for days. I thought he’d fallen, for his body lay at the foot of a cliff. But I looked closer … his throat’d been torn open.” She paused, and Elven allowed her the silence. “I wanted to bring him back, Elven,” she continued finally. “His mother deserved to bury him. But I couldn’t. I didn’t have the strength, and my illness was growing. And I was frightened—more than ever. Something had murdered him terribly, and I wasn’t going to share his fate.
“I took up his sword and bow, and went back to Wendèl. She didn’t ask me, and she didn’t need to. She could see in my eyes what I’d found. That night we wept, and I knew our fate was in my hands. I didn’t sleep, and come the morning I took what provisions I could on my back and we set out into the plain. I could think of nothing but distance between Harmòn’s fate and ourselves, and fooled myself into believing that if we kept moving, we’d eventually find other folk.”
“What did you find in that plain?” Elven asked. Though he knew how her tale must end, he found himself frightened at every twist, both desperate and terrified to learn more.
For a moment Talya seemed lost in thought. “I found my courage,” she said finally, “and my strength. After all, despite the loss of Harmòn, we were still three in those fields.”
So lost in her tale was he that for a moment Elven was uncertain what she meant. Then it dawned on him, and he asked, “How did you discover it?”
“It was Wendèl,” she said. “She was a strong woman.”
Talya bit her lip and closed her eyes. “There is much sadness yet to come. But at that time, we were wandering through what seemed like endless empty fields, and though she seldom spoke, nor did she weep, or show sign of grief. One night I asked her of it—I asked why she did not mourn her son.
“‘I’ve lost my only child,’ she said to me, ‘and that is a thing no parent should ever suffer. The world can grow no darker for me. But there is hope in our lives yet—hope in yours.’ ‘What do ye mean?’ I asked her. ‘Have ye not felt it, my girl?’ she asked. Though it may be obvious now, at that moment I still hadn’t a clue. ‘Ye’re with child, dear,’ she told me, ‘and so if out of tragedy a blessing may come, then how can I truly grieve?’
“I wept then, Elven—I wept truly, for I knew that she spoke the truth. And I wept knowing that our child would have only the worst of the world to live in, and would never know her father.”
“The days of the worst are over,” Elven said. “If it’s within my power, Meredith will know only happiness for the rest of her life.” He knew it was folly to say such a thing, but it was all he could think of to remedy the heartbreak that was threatening to overwhelm him.
“Don’t be silly, dear,” Talya replied. “That isn’t for ye to say.”
Elven had no desire to argue with her, and so asked instead, “What happened then? Where did you go?”
Talya shrugged. “Despite it all, there was nothing else to do but carry on. With sword and bow I was able to keep us alive, and we were perhaps more than a month in those plains before we came across any change. Had I known what that change would be, I would’ve turned around at once, but such is life.”
“What?” Elven said. “What came next?”
“There appeared smoke on the horizon one day,” she continued, “and I said to Wendèl, ‘Look—we are saved!’ I don’t think either one of us considered that it would be anything other than folk who would show mercy on two desperate travelers. And so we made for the smoke, and as we approached I began to hear voices, and only then did I hear the growls of their beasts, and the savagery of their words. Elven—after nearly three months, I had led us straight to the enemy!” Elven’s breath caught in his throat, and he put a hand to his mouth. “It was a raiding party, and they were traveling from village to village in that part of the land, bringing what destruction they could with them. They were Dark men, mostly, but they had with them two fierundé also. And when they saw us, I knew it was over for myself and for our child, for I had no reason to believe the enemy would show us mercy now.
“But as the wolves came upon us, one of their number called out, and the beasts halted! He was their leader, and he commanded them. ‘What use are you to me?’ he asked. I wanted to defy him—I wanted to strike him down, even if it meant my own end—but I could think only of the child I carried, and so I told him I would do whatever he desired, if he would but spare our lives.
“And he did. Elven, I don’t know why, but he did—both of us. He kept us in bondage and beat us mercilessly, but he also kept us alive. I still carry his scars.”
Elven was uncertain how much more of this tale he could hear. “My dear …” he uttered. “I’m so terribly sorry …”
“Don’t be,” she assured him, “for these events eventually led to this moment here, and I’d not change that for the world.”
“I will kill this enemy,” Elven said bitterly, “should I ever see him.”
“For many weeks he kept us enslaved, and all the while I felt the life inside me grow. I knew that what little mercy the enemy had shown us would not extend to a child, and so I knew I had to escape. I think this may have been in part his evil motivation: there was no hiding, and I believe he wanted nothing more than to murder my child before my eyes. His face glowed when he saw me; I’ll never forget that vile grin so long as I live.”
Elven realized his teeth were grinding, and forced himself to breathe. “You escaped, clearly,” he said. “How?”
“I knew there was no hope so long as the fierundé were with us,” she went on, “for run as we might those beasts would be upon us in a heartbeat.” Elven nodded, for he knew the truth of this matter. “But one day we came upon an abandoned village, only to find yet another party of the enemy. I was frightened then, for I thought that perhaps these new men would look unfavorably on Wendèl and myself, and insist we be put to death. As it happened, I was able to listen to their conversation through the walls of our tent. I could not make out all of it, but I did gather that there was a call through the wilds for men and beasts of Darkness to return—though to where, I know not. And our captor said he would part with the fierundé, if they would let them stay to burn the village.
“It seemed an odd arrangement, though I’m certain I misunderstood most of it. All I could think was that, in a day, the demon wolves would be gone. Our chance was coming.
“But that night, I began to feel a deep pain. I thought I knew what it was, but I refused to believe it, for our child could not come now—she could not. If our captor saw the infant, we would all be killed, and everything I had striven for in the past months would’ve been for nothing.
“Wendell, though, was no fool. She knew I was quickening, and so she began to whisper to me of a plan she had in the making. Each evening we would be unchained to eat a morsel of stale bread under the watch of lesser guards. That night they came, and although they released me to my food, Wendèl could not be roused. And as the guards bent to tend to her, I slipped out of the tent.
“It was only moments before they knew I was gone, but in the dark they were moments enough; I saw the guards leave the tent shouting, but they could not see me. And so I ran, as quick as my labor would allow me, and was soon amongst the houses of the deserted village. I entered one, shutting the door behind me, and in the dark and the dust I felt the first true pangs: she was coming, and would not wait.
“The next hours were the most painful I have ever known, Elven. And I couldn’t even scream, for the slightest sound would’ve alerted the enemy. And my terror grew all the more when, as it ended, our child made no sound! I held her, so tiny and still, and I feared the utter worst—but there was a heartbeat! There was! Oh, Elven—she was perfect, and she saved us both: a single cry and we’d’ve died, and she was silent as could be! I held her to my breast, and waited for the dawn.
“As the first light of morning crept through the dirty windows, I heard a scraping outside. I thought for certain the fierundé had found me now, tracked me down by my scent, but then I heard my own name being whispered, and it was Wendèl! As loud as I dared I called out to her, and in a moment she was beside me in the abandoned home, and the tears in her eyes were a mirror for my own. ‘Isn’t she beautiful?’ I asked. ‘The most,’ Wendèl replied, and removed her own tunic to cover us both. ‘You must hide,’ she whispered. ‘They are searching for us both. I will tell them you both perished in childbirth, but they must not find you!’
“I was delirious, Elven, and I didn’t quite grasp her meaning. All I could think of was our daughter, and so I wordlessly did as she told: we descended into the cellar, and when Wendèl was certain we were safe, she left us. I’d lost blood, and perhaps I fainted—I’m not certain—but the next thing I knew was a great heat from above, and the roar of flames. I drifted in and out, and for perhaps two days I held tight to our daughter and hoped that when we died, it would be painless.
“But we didn’t. And when it was over, the house above us was all but gone, lost to fire. For another day still I remained motionless, until I came to feel that if I did not eat myself, I’d be unable to feed the child. And so I emerged from the ruined house to see all the village around me burned to the ground, and the enemy gone. Wendèl, it seemed, had indeed saved us—at the cost of her own life.”
A tear rolled down Elven’s cheek. “I owe this woman everything I hold dear in the world,” he said.
“And so do I,” Talya replied. “For almost a year, then, we lived in that ruined village. I found a home whose roof was still in one piece, and there we lived, scrounging what living we could from the earth. I spoke to her every day, Elven: I told her of her father: what a brave man he was, and how I hoped one day she would meet him.”
At this Elven could not help but blush. “Hardly true,” he said. “How did you think to name her?”
Talya smiled. “Wendèl Meredith Kathyl. That was her name.”
“In memory,” Elven murmured.
Talya nodded. “For so long in that ruined place I feared for our survival, and for hers; I could not give her what she needed to grow strong, and so it was a long time before I felt that we could leave.”
“Where did you go from there?”
“There was a road that led south from the village,” Talya said. “For so long I looked upon it, knowing it led away from the horrors of the enemy. And finally I realized that if Meredith was to have any chance at survival, I would have to follow it. And so I packed what little I had gathered over that last year, gathered her in my arms, and began to walk. I walked, and walked, Elven. I don’t know how far I went, but when my shoes were worn I went barefoot, and when my feet began to bleed I wrapped them in grass and kept walking. All the while I spoke to Meredith, and she kept me sane. When she spoke her first word back, I sat and wept for an hour.”
“What was it?”
“You’ll never guess, dear,” and she smiled. “Every night before we slept I would curl up with her and sing, and I would always tell her, ‘I love you, darling, and so does your father.’ And that day, she looked at me and reached out to touch my face. She often did that, and I was about to kiss her back when she said, clear and simple: ‘Love.’”
“Our daughter’s first word was ‘love’?” Elven uttered.
Talya nodded, fresh tears falling. “Isn’t she wonderful?” Elven could only nod. “Finally, after weeks, we came across another deserted village, only this one hadn’t been burned. So there we stayed again for some months, and there were clothes to wear and water to drink. But I couldn’t bear the thought of raising our daughter in isolation, and so we finally moved on. And when we next saw smoke, I made certain to approach carefully—and this time it was not the enemy at all, but refugees. And so I fell in with the folk that have set up camp outside of this town. We have wandered for nearly a year since—though I’ve lost count of the days, I think Meredith must be nearly three now.”
“And now you are here,” Elven finished, “and you will never leave my sight again.” He looked to the bed, where Meredith had rolled to her side and was sucking her thumb. “Both of you.”
“Elven,” Talya said.
“Did you ever give up?”
He shook his head vehemently. “Of course not! I even sent Sonora to find you, but she could not. Now that I know what happened, though, I believe I understand; she could not approach you while you remained with the enemy. And to think all this while I thought the worst—only for the best to come back to me. My dearest Talya, I could never say this enough, but: I love you.”
She smiled again. “I love you too, darling.”
As they settled down for sleep that night, Talya on one side of the bed and he on the other, Meredith between them, he thought again of Brandyé. He wondered at his friend’s fate, and whether he might not have found some form of peace. Love, he knew, was something Brandyé had taught him, who had in turn learned it from Reuel. And so love was passed down, it seemed, from generation to generation and family to family. And if such a thing could truly prevail—if lovers could be reunited across the vastness of the Dark world—then perhaps not all was lost.