Terrathela

He was damn sure he didn't have a thing left to live for. And he was more than fine with it.

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3. Castaway

He came out from the fog slowly, aware he was lying down. Touch came next, the feeling of someone running their fingers through his hair. Sound leaked into his peaceful world, a lullaby he hadn’t heard since he and Lily were small children, and he struggled to blink his eyes open on the off-chance his mother was sitting next to him.

                It was his sister, instead. Pale, her forehead creased with worry.

                She cupped his face, rubbing her thumb over his cheekbone. “I’m sorry, little brother.”

                Briar rolled from his back to his side, reaching up for Lily’s hand and clutching it to his chest as he began to shake. He blinked furiously, breath stuttering in his chest as his body fought the all-encompassing pain of Endy’s death. It hadn’t seemed real while he was in the white-fog of his mind, but there in reality, with Lily by his side and curled up who-knew-where, it was too real.

                Like he’d lost a good chunk of his soul.

                Tears wouldn’t come. Crying over pain had been beaten out of him by numerous visits to the shed with his father throughout his childhood and adolescence, and as much as Briar wanted to sob hysterically, screaming for all of Kelleran to hear how he’d lost the best thing he’d ever known, he couldn’t. He couldn’t bring himself to do it.

                Lily draped her free hand over the side of her brother’s head, rubbing her thumb back and forth across the point of his ear. “He’s with Cyren now. Nobody can hurt him there.”

                Briar shook hard enough to make the bed frame rattle. “I loved him,” he drawled, forcing it from behind a stiff jaw. “Damn it.”

                “I know.” She kept up the rhythmic stroking. “I know he loved you, too. He wanted you to go to Avernoth with him.”

                His head jerked up, eyes wide. “How do you know?”

                She rolled her eyes. “Who do you think has been running interference between the two of you and our parents since that first kiss under the oak?” She adjusted her position in the hard-backed chair, wincing. Her stomach was unsettled, a combination of her brother in the worst pain of his life – which paled in comparison to the beatings their father had doled out on occasion – and the little one growing in her belly. “I marked the pages in the older copy of the Book of Cyren for you to read to get it through your thick head it wouldn’t be a sin.” Lily’s tone softened. “Love isn’t a sin.”

                “Thank you,” he whispered.

                Lily smiled thinly. What she had to say next wasn’t going to go over well. She wondered, idly, whether her brother had a tipping point. “We didn’t know you so powerful, Briar.”

                He stiffened, withdrawing from her and fighting to sit up. Blackness encroached on the edges of his vision, and the only thing anchoring him to waking world was Lily’s hand still clutched in his own. He dropped his chin to his chest, breathing through the rushing in his ears, fumbling to make sure the thin sheet was pooled adequately around his lower regions. Shoving his shoulders against the headboard and ignoring the pillows awkwardly gathered at his lower back, he tipped his head back against the wall. He double-checked the sheet placement while he got his breathing under control and waited for the world to come into focus.

                The idea he was heading for some serious pain and torment in the coming moments had him scooting over on the bed, tugging at Lily’s hand. He brought the sheet with him, tucking the free edge under his thigh and more snugly around his hips. Lily snagged the heavier wool blanket from the foot of the bed, and climbed carefully onto the mattress beside him, spreading it over their outstretched legs. She leaned against her little brother – who topped her by a good three inches – and continued to hold his hand.

                It had been a long, twisted path from the moment Red and Marna had first told her she was going to be a big sister. She’d been furious at first when Briar was welcomed into the world, quiet and sedate, staring up with wide eyes, instead of Iris. Lily thought she’d been getting a sister, and she hadn’t wanted a brother. She remembered, vividly, and with more than a hint of embarrassment, asking if her mother could put him back and get a little girl, instead.

                Briar’s path had taken sharper twists and turns than her own. She was the darling child, the apple of her mother’s eye. Ungifted with magic while Briar could sit and listen to the very grass grow for hours, occasionally helping it along simply because it made him smile. It had grown increasingly more difficult to turn a blind eye – and a deaf ear – when their father had less and less patience dealing with his son.

                The last time she and Briar had gone swimming had been when he was eight, and her twelve, and she realized with a stab of something she couldn’t identify that it was the last time she’d seen her brother’s bare back.

                “Endy will always be remembered because of what you did,” she said softly. “And the whole town will know it, too.”

                 Confused, he rolled his head to look at her.

                Lily smiled somewhat sardonically. “There’s an oak tree growing out of the statue of Lev and Cyren. Well, not so much one tree but more like two. Woven together. Like they were supposed to grow that way naturally and nobody told all the other trees in Kelleran to get on the same page.”

                Briar’s head thunked against the wall. “Damn it.” He’d not only outed himself as a mage to an entire community that had spent the past seventeen years believing he was an ungifted Fae, but he’d also outed the relationship – that had veered strongly past friendship and had been heading closer and closer to intimacy of a different nature – he’d had with Endy. Luckily, up until he’d blacked out and let his magic run rampant in one of the most startlingly emotional outbursts of his life, Coryn had loved him like he was her own child.

                He wasn’t sure how he was going to deal with that, exactly.

                “I’m sorry.”

                “What do you have to be sorry for, Lily?”

                She could pick a moment in their adolescence, she was sure of it. She could pray to Cyren for forgiveness from then to eternity and it wouldn’t be enough. “That I never helped you.” Lily looked down, watching her brother’s ribcage expand with his deep, even breathing. The wrap-around scars from his back stretched white as the skin pulled. A little way above that was from when he’d broken a rib so badly it had pushed its way out of his body. He and Endy should have both died that night, Briar from the wound and Endy from his – now successful – attempt to heal him.

                “Considering you knew what Endy and I were doing in the woods, didn’t tell Red, and I’m still upright and breathing, I’d say you helped.” He tilted his head, resting his cheek against her soft hair. “And to think, I was going to use you being pregnant as leverage.”

                Lily jerked away from him, staring at her brother’s placid expression with shock. “You know?” she hissed, blushing.

                “I might not have a clue about mathematics and philosophy, but I do have enough sense to know what it means when a female retches for most of the morning and the rest of the house isn’t ill.” Briar squeezed her hand reassuringly. “I’m not going to tell.”

                “I know that,” she said defensively. “We…” She swallowed thickly, resuming her position of her head on his shoulder. “We haven’t told anyone because we’re not married yet. And there’s what’s to be done with you.”

                He took a deep breath. He didn’t have the energy to be anxious about what lay in his immediate future, and none of his transgressions were punishable by death, anyway, despite what Red might push for.

                Lily focused on their joined hands against the plaid wool blanket. “Father is disowning you.”

                If Briar had to be honest with himself, this day had probably been coming since he’d been born. He was a thela, gifted with magic with a father that didn’t tolerate it, and had finally crossed the line enough for Red to officially be done with him. It was legal, too, considering he was seventeen and deemed an adult in the eyes of the law.

                While his father couldn’t outright kill him like he probably should have done in his infancy, Red could finally be rid of him.

                Briar chuckled darkly.

                “I fail to see what’s humorous about this, Briar.”

                “Lily,” he said softly, “the male is going to do what he’s been trying for years to do. He’s finally got an excuse to make me leave. It was easier for him to wait for me to disgrace myself than disgrace him and Mother by running away.” He shifted his legs slightly, working the kinks out of his lower back. “Red’s never been a patient male.”

                “Why do you do that?”

                “What?”

                Lily picked at the blanket fringe with her free hand. “Call our father by his given name.”

                It was difficult for Briar to discern a certain moment when he’d started, but he had a general feeling when he’d shifted his worldview of the male he was genetically tied to from the emphatic Papa he’d been in Briar’s youth, to Red, or Redwood.

                “Around one of our first shed talks,” Briar said after a few quiet moments. “I was…nine, maybe. I don’t really remember.” He looked at the foot of the bed, wiggling his toes. “He’s been Red to me for a long time.”

                She sat quietly, listening to him breathe. “He’ll want the full ceremony.”

                He knew this. If Red was going to exile his only male offspring, he was going to do it in a way that ensured Briar would never have the opportunity to reach out to anyone bearing the Haverford name without bringing some unlucky relative shame and embarrassment. It made sense to go whole-hog.

                “I know.” Briar unconsciously shifted his head, hiding his left ear from casual view.

                With much prodding and pulling, and with more than token resistance along the way from her brother, Lily had her arms around his shoulders and his head on her chest, ear pressed over her heart. It was similar to the way their mother had held them when they were small, huddled upright in the middle of the night from bad dreams, and Lily wished in that moment Briar had stayed tiny. She knew he wouldn’t permit her to run her hand up and down his spine like she wanted, so she settled for stroking his hair and face, instead.

                “Whatever happens, Briar,” she whispered, “you’ll always be my brother. My promise to you, Cyren, and Endy.”

                He snuggled closer, wanting nothing more than to feel tears leaking off the end of his nose, and hating himself when it wouldn’t happen. It was another thing Red had taken from him in some form, and he’d be damned if the male was going to get anything else before he had to leave this forsaken village.

 

                Two days after Briar had come back to his senses after Endy’s death at the hands of the Red Order, he found himself waiting outside the High Proprieter’s chamber in the government building. It stood behind the little stand of trees where the statue of Lev and Cyren had stood. The same statute which now sported a double-stranded twisting oak tree like it had been there since the village was first formed.

                Briar couldn’t make himself be sorry for it. Surprisingly, no one was asking him to be, either.

                He rubbed absently at the shell of his left ear. He had a vague idea of what this was going to entail, and he hoped Lily’s unsteady stomach would be up for the task. She and their mother had to witness it.

                It was, after all, a family affair.

                The door to his right opened and Briar smoothed down the front of his borrowed shirt before reaching around and discreetly yanking on the waistband of the breeches. Tyra wouldn’t mention where the clothes had come from, and Briar wasn’t one to look sideways at a gift when he was about to be faced with inflicted poverty, even if they were a little big on him.

                Shoulders back and chin high, he walked into the High Proprieter’s chamber like he had nothing to lose. He fought a smile; he didn’t have anything to lose. There wasn’t much he could lay claim on to begin with, and his only ally was still going to be by his side at the end. He didn’t know how his mother was going to take losing two children in such a short span of time, and while Briar had a slight ache in his chest for her, he could care less how it affected Red.

                The High Proprieter’s chamber was spacious. A heavy wooden desk took up most of the wall directly across from the door, and to Briar’s right there was a large fireplace. A table was in front of it, the Haverford family off to the side while the High Proprieter himself, a human by the name of Creedy, stood in his state robes waiting for the younger male to make his way over. Briar’s borrowed shoes clacked softly against the stone floor, and he came to a stop in front of the table, the heat from the fire warming his right side.

                “Briar Redwood Haverford,” Creedy said, his baritone echoing off the high ceiling, “do you know why you have been summoned here today?”

                He swallowed reflexively, hoping his voice didn’t break. “Yes, sir.”

                “You understand that with this, you shall be disowned and cast from the Haverford family even after you pass from this world into the next, to walk upon the Cyrenian Fields?”

                From his peripheral vision, he saw Lily clutch at her skirts, her oval face pale. Swallowing again, Briar met Creedy’s dark eyes unabashedly. “Yes, sir.”

                Creedy pulled a knife from where it rested on a stand, blade over the flames in the hearth. “You understand what Fae custom dictates?”

                He did. Once he and Endy had determined years ago what they were doing wasn’t a sin against Cyren, Briar had looked up what the repercussions of his actions could mean in Fae traditions. Humans didn’t care a whit, but the Fae were different. Both fascinated and horrified, Briar had read all the gory details of the casting out ceremony. The idea of losing part of his ear hadn’t worried him except that Endy had liked to rub his fingers over the pointed tip, and Briar had loved the sensation it sent down his spine.

                Briar forced himself to return to the present. “Yes, sir.”

                Creedy gestured to the open space on the table. Briar bent jerkily at the waist, resting his forearms on the smooth wood and grasping his wrists with the opposite hand. Tilting his head, he clenched his back teeth and looked at Lily, meeting her blue eyes.

                The three of them – Marna, Red, and Lily – had blue eyes. Briar had been damned with green. Yet another way he’d been ousted from birth.

                Lily twisted her skirt harder in her fists, locking eyes with her brother. She unconsciously widened her stance when he did, sucking in a deeper breath when his nostrils flared. She hoped Creedy did it quickly.

                He dug his fingernails into his own skin, jaw set so hard he thought he might crack his molars. Creedy started, a firm steady pace that left a burning sensation in its wake as the blade simultaneously cauterized the flesh it cut. Briar refused to make a sound. He absolutely refused to give Red the satisfaction. Instead, he focused on Lily, eyes wide and his lips a thin line as he fought to stay against the table.

                With what seemed like the entire left side of his head on fire, he nearly missed Creedy dropping something on the table by his face. He tore his eyes away from Lily, looking instead at the little flesh-colored triangle near his nose. The next part of the ceremony was his to complete.

                Pushing himself up on shaky arms, he waited a few seconds for his thighs to take his weight. Unclenching his jaw to draw a deep breath, he slid the tip of his ear off the table, and walked on stiff legs toward the fire. Without thinking too much about it – and the larger significance – he pitched part of what had defined him as a Fae into the High Proprieter’s fireplace and turned away from it, swallowing harshly at the stench of burning flesh. He looked over at the Haverfords, specifically Lily, who looked ready to drop to the floor in a dead faint.

                “In the eyes of the law you are permitted to keep your given name, Briar, but your second and surnames have been stripped from you,” Creedy said as Briar moved back around to the other side of the table. “Do you have one for yourself?”

                Forehead feeling like it was trapped in a vice, Briar fought to clear his thoughts long enough to make sense of the question Creedy was posing. It came to him, bearing the memory of the moment he and Endy had spent together the morning of his death, and Briar ground out, “Yes, sir, I do,” in a voice he scarcely recognized as his own.

                Creedy slid the piece of parchment across the table to him, watching as Briar took up the quill from the inkwell and wrote what would be his new name on the correct line. He took the parchment back when the younger male was done with it. “This concludes our business.” Creedy looked over at Red. “Master Haverford.” Looking back at Briar, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “Master Foxwood.”

                Briar gave him a wry smile as he turned on his heel and left the High Proprieter’s chamber, never once looking back at his former family, though it hurt deeply to not reassure Lily everything was, in time, going to be alright.

                In some way, at least.

 

                 Briar sat on the top rail of Mr. Barnham’s fence on the outskirts of Pennfold, waiting. He knew what he was waiting for, he wasn’t sure if it was actually going to come. The cloth knapsack sat on the ground by the post, containing everything Briar had to his new name. It wasn’t much. A change of clothes, two pairs of heavy socks, and his nearly threadbare coat for when the weather turned in a few months. At the bottom, carefully hidden, was the small sack of coin Coryn had gifted him.

                He rubbed his stubbled jaw thoughtfully. When she had first tracked him down on his way to his current waiting position, he had tried every excuse he knew – and the few he could pull up on the spot – to refuse her generosity. He’d held out until she mentioned Endy.

                “Briar,” Coryn says in a no nonsense way. “I know how much you meant to my son, and how much he meant to you. This is the least we can do for the male our baby boy loved.”

                Appropriately speechless, he takes the money from her. She hugs him, stroking the hair at the back of his head and pressing his maimed left ear against her soft hair. It’s a clear sign she doesn’t care what the law does to him, and he wishes he could shed a tear for this woman who was more a mother to him than his own.

                That had been more than a few hours prior, and Briar was content to sit on the top rail and stare up at the waning moon. She provided more than enough light to see clearly by, and he tapped his heels against the bottom rail with growing impatience.

                He heard them before he saw them, the steady fall of shod hooves echoing through the darkness. Hopping from the fence, he gathered up his knapsack, rubbing at his jaw and blatantly ignoring the urge to check the newest scar to his person. Briar hadn’t seen Lily since he’d left the High Proprieter’s chamber minus a small portion of his anatomy and a new surname. Since Mage Tyra was the only one willing to house him, temporarily, he’d gone back there and a message had been waiting for him, detailing a time and place for him to meet Lily and the father of the unborn child in her belly.

                The clopping grew louder. Briar stepped out into the road and watched as the odd silhouette drew closer, one large shadow sinking into two distinct bits. The moonlight revealed Lily high in the saddle, with her beau leading the horse.

                Mystery Male’s act of chivalry earned him some measure of good favor immediately with Briar. While he might not have been entitled to calling Lily his sister any more, by law, he couldn’t deny the sibling love he felt for her. He’d most likely carry those sentiments to his grave.

                “Briar,” Lily said, sliding from the saddle. She jogged the remaining distance between them and threw her arms around his neck, holding him close. He returned the hug, breathing in her scent. She’d always smelled like fresh summer grass. He’d always remember her for it, no matter where he found himself in the wilds of Kelleran.

                She swiped surreptitiously under her eyes, taking him by the hand and pulling him toward the horse. “Miles Halloway, Briar Foxwood.” Lily looked pointedly at Briar. “Briar is my brother.”

                Briar shook Miles’s hand with his free one, wincing slightly at the pressure in the other male’s grip. Nearly a full head taller and built like a barrel, there was no doubt Miles Halloway was the blacksmith’s apprentice. The set of his shoulders alone was imposing, but if Briar looked hard enough, he saw a gentle soul hiding behind a hardened exterior.

                “Nice to meet you, Miles,” the smaller Fae said. “Wish it were better circumstances.”

                Miles’s eyebrows wandered toward his high forehead and thatch of blonde hair. “You saved the entire child-mage population of Pennfold by hiding them beneath a tree. I don’t know what the hell your father’s problem is, but you’re a male of worth.”

                He nodded, biting back the notion that yes, he’d saved the children, but he’d failed to save the one most important person in his life.

                “We’re going to make a fresh start in Venegry,” Lily said, still holding Briar’s hand. He adjusted his knapsack onto both shoulders and the three of them set out along the dirt road. “Miles is looking to find a forge to work in to save up some to start his own, and you could take all the knowledge you have from Thomas and perhaps work in a bakery.”

                “Or a greenhouse?” Miles said, careful to keep his voice neutral.

                Briar’s first impression of the towering male waivered. It was magic that had gotten him into this whole mess. He’d been gifted with it when he’d come into the world, had been denied its existence by those who were supposed to love him and cherish him for all that he was, and when he’d finally found the one person to do so, he’d lost him due to some assassination strike on Pennfold by an organization called the Red Order. No, the last thing Briar wanted to do in this new beginning he was forging at the ripe old age of seventeen was have anything to do with his damned magic.

                He didn’t want a damn thing to do with it for the rest of his natural life, truthfully.

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