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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7. Thorn

Somewhere in Briar’s convoluted mind, it made perfect sense for him to head north toward some of the most rugged country Kelleran hosted simply because the population was sparse. A sparse population meant he had a lower risk of running into anyone who might identify him as a mage, which ultimately meant the rest of the Kelleran masses were safe for when the Red Order kept coming after him. And Briar was sure they would, as they’d tracked him from Pennfold to Venegry, and they would most likely continue to do so until he either ran himself to ground or they killed him.

                While Briar had every intention of joining Endy in the Cyrenian Fields, he knew if he didn’t attempt to make something of his life – or at least make the effort to live it fairly successfully – his demise by the Red Order would look more like a suicide than dying honorably. Dying with honor sent him to Cyren, committing suicide sent him straight to Lev to look back on all his mistakes for all of eternity. Without Endy’s company.

                Briar walked in the grass along the sides of the roads when he could, since it was easier on his feet and he had a limited number of socks to cycle through unless he found a goodly moving stream. Secrecy was paramount; he didn’t want to risk a campfire, so small game like rabbit and squirrel were off the proverbial menu. If he came across clusters of houses he was careful to skirt them widely. He’d learned to be a pretty good negotiator, readily handing over a few hours of work when he could in return for one night in someone’s barn or perhaps a good, hot meal. Only one night, though, as more would have been tempting Cyren to drop the Red Order down onto his head.

                He followed the paths through what little woods and underbrush there was when he could. It put him closer to the Earth, closer in touch with his magic. He couldn’t ignore it completely, despite his best efforts, and it was easier to give in little ways than shut himself off completely. It was also easier for him to skim the different plants around him. The ones that would kill him or make him seriously ill were harsh and burnt when he felt them with his magic, so he steered clear of them. He didn’t have the supplies necessary to become incapacitated in such a way.

                Instructor Marsden had always been appalled by Briar’s utter lack of geography skills. The Fae could successfully navigate himself around Pennfold with no problem, but when it came to estimating distances on the map between, say, Pennfold and Venegry,  Briar was lost unless he had a ruler, a scale, and some paper to muddle his way through the ensuing calculation. Now, out on his own in the wilderness with not even a map to his name, he had instinctively followed the road north from Venegry, but he didn’t have a clue what settlement on the map was coming next.

                Truthfully, trying to dredge up the memory of the last time he’d looked at a map of Kelleran was giving him a headache.

                He snorted softly, stepping over a downed branch. The section of forest he was braving through was more tangled than before, requiring him to duck, climb, and dodge branches and leaves. It seemed to contain more sharp vines and brambles, too.

                Briar drew his sleeves down over his knuckles, using his forearms to bend back head-level branches. He stuck his head in through the opening first, wincing as long tendrils  snaked over his shoulders and through his hair.

                Something tightened around his neck.

                He froze. The thing – long and thin, a vine, perhaps – continued to tighten around his throat, rolling upward to settle under his jaw. Briar clawed at the other vines still around him, stepping forward quickly, and managed to detach himself from the others. The one still clinging to him tightened; Briar sucked in a deep breath and sunk to his knees. He tried slipping his fingertips under it, but it was too flush with his skin, and he knew, in the back of his nearly panicked-mind, he was only going to succeed in digging his own flesh.

                The vine tightened. Briar wheezed uncomfortably, pitching forward to rest on his forearms, knapsack sliding forward onto the back of his neck. His heart hammered in his chest, lungs burning, and he reached first for the vine itself and then his magic. He fumbled with his connection, as his mind didn’t want to cooperate fully, and he nearly blacked out before he could find it, the thread connecting him to the Earth. He pulled hard, trying to connect the Earth to the vine and get it to back off.

                It didn’t take the first time, and with black spots crawling across his vision and his own, high-pitched keens for breaths, he clutched at the ground with one hand, the other still valiantly tugging on the vine working on crushing his windpipe. Out of sheer desperation, Briar did something he’d never thought about before – he blew his link with the Earth wide open.

                There was a whump of displaced air as the resulting manifestation of magic without a specific purpose blew him – and the vine – backwards through the underbrush Briar had traipsed through seconds before. The suddenness was enough to stun the damn thing, and the Fae heaved in ragged gulps of air, nearly passing out from the abrupt influx of oxygen back into his lungs. He lay awkwardly on his knapsack, legs and arms akimbo as the sky and treetops swirled together above him.

                He’d never take breathing for granted again, he decided, coughing harshly. It took several long moments for his heart rate to settle, and he wormed his fingers between the vine and his neck in the mean time, searching for some way to get it off. There didn’t seem to be a weak spot on it, and from what he could tell, he’d have to roll it up his head and off, though it didn’t seem big enough for that.

                Frustrated and exhausted, he let his arms fall back to the grass. The vine moved sluggishly, rolling up toward his chin and then back toward his shoulders and collarbone, like it wasn’t sure what to do with itself. Briar didn’t care what it did as long as it didn’t start strangling him again.

                Briar sat up slowly, the vine rolling down to settle heavily near the juncture of neck and shoulder. Without much conscious thought, he reached out and touched his magic, sending it slowly out along to the vine. It recoiled away from him, tightening briefly, and Briar could tell it – he, really, there was a definite he feel – was a little scared, now that he wasn’t dealing with a human.

                On some level, Briar knew there was more than a passing sentience to the Earth itself and all her plants. She lived, therefore she had to have some sort of life component. The vine was either an anomaly of the system, or someone had been experimenting with Earth-tinted magic and it had gone very, very wrong.

                “Hi,” Briar croaked, reaching up and stroking the plant that now sought refuge under his collar.

                It rolled slightly. It could hear him, if not understand him.

                “I’m Briar.” His voice was rusty, a cough building in his throat, and he swallowed it mercilessly. “Do you have a name?”

                Tighten. Relax. Tighten again. Relax. It rolled up toward his chin, enough to drive what seemed like razor-sharp points into his vulnerable skin without making him bleed. Briar reached up fearfully, catching the edge of a thorn with the meaty part of his thumb before the vine relaxed, rolling down and become smooth once more.

                Briar took a step out on a limb. “Your name is Thorn?”

                Tighten. Relax. Tighten. Relax. Yes again.

                He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He could do this. What, in fact, he was actually doing he hadn’t a clue, but he could handle this.

                “Well, Thorn,” he said, pausing to clear his throat. “How do you feel about traveling with me for a little while?”

                Tighten. Relax. Tighten. Relax.

                Briar shoved himself up to stand on unsteady legs, absently adjusting his knapsack to sit squarely on his back once more while Thorn made himself comfortable at the base of Briar’s neck, half-hidden by the linen shirt he wore. It took a moment for him to get his bearings, and when he finally figured out the road still lay to his left, he headed for it. Despite the risk of unwanted company, maybe it was better for his health to stay on the road. Thorn tightened briefly as he moved, if only to reassure itself it wasn’t going to fall off –

                Tighten. Relax.

                The Fae stopped. “What?”

                With nothing more forthcoming, Briar delved into the part of him still connected with the Earth and sought Thorn’s presence. It almost burned him with intensity – male intensity – and Briar flinched.

                “Sorry.”

                Thorn tightened as he rolled halfway up to Briar’s chin, and then settled once more. Briar continued, part of him wondering if he’d been dreaming and the other part of him thanking Cyren he wasn’t traveling by himself anymore.

Even if his only companion was a sentient vine that had tried to strangle him to death.

 

                He really needed to invest in a map. As it turned out, he and Thorn plodded into Terik Hollow a few days after their first meeting. Larger than both Venegry and Pennfold, Briar later found out – from a drunken, rambling man in the first tavern he happened to find – it was the last town before the wilds of North Forest. Anything beyond that was taking one’s life in hand trying to traverse the terrain. Of course, the other three cardinal directions were still available, though going straight east was a bit of problem, considering the Bremmick-Saleca Mountains ran in an L-shape, the longest leg of it stretching out along the border between the North Country and the Territories.

                Briar had wound up with a lapful of passed-out drunk after that little nugget of information, Thorn rolling nearly to the Fae’s ear to get away from any errantly swiping hands.

                “He’s harmless,” the barmaid assured him, stepping from behind the counter to heave the muscle mass pinning Briar to his chair upright again. “Large, but harmless.”

                “Thank you.” Briar paid her for the drink he hadn’t touched, tipped her extra, and secreted the dwindling monies away into the bottom of his knapsack again. It was the same bag Coryn had gifted him when he’d left Pennfold, and it held what she had given him. Anything he’d made in terms of wages he’d left with Lily and Miles.

                He stepped outside the tavern, staring up at the clear summer sky with a sudden shiver. This was the time of year even the drifters were looking for a safe haven to brave the upcoming winter in, and he was still wandering aimlessly throughout the countryside. Chased by the Red Order, too.

                Maybe it’s all in your head. They don’t want you. You have no magic. That’s what they’re after, and they don’t want you.

                Thorn rolled up toward Briar’s chin and then back down, settling once more under his collar.

                “You are no help, you know that?” Briar whispered.

                Tighten. Relax. Tighten. Relax. Seemed both of them knew.

                The shortest distance was between two points, and communities larger than a cluster of houses more than a hundred yards apart made him twitchy. Heedless of the time of day, he headed down the cobbled street. If Terik Hollow was arranged like Pennfold, then he would be able to follow the central road all the way through town center and out the other side.

                Briar always did like direct routes.

                Row houses loomed on either side for a long while until the streets opened into a large square. A statue of Lev and Cyren has robed figures in masks graced the middle of the cobblestone area. His mind took him back to a different place. The fountain in Pennfold was gone, along with its godly tribute, and Briar hadn’t gotten the chance to see the manifestation of his love and grief for his best friend before he’d been run out.

                He gave the statue a wide berth and continued on. The streets were empty, lights illuminating the homes from within to cast patches of darkness on the sidewalks.

                “Lookin’ for some company, sugar?”

                Briar started badly, slamming back into a wrought-iron fence as the woman appeared from seemingly nowhere. Thorn tightened; the Fae wheezed, scrabbling at the base of his neck until the vine relaxed.

                The scantily-clad woman rested her hands on her hips and gave him a once-over. Briar returned the favor, chest heaving, and took a voluntary step back only to find the fence again.

                “Damn, you’re a skittish one,” she muttered. She took a step closer; he could see the grease paint applied to her face to minimize her sunken features. He had a feeling he knew what she did for a living, and he didn’t want any of it. “Come on, sugar, let me help you relax.”

                He sidestepped her outstretched hand and started briskly on toward his goal. There were more girls in the shadows – some men, too – and he did his best to run without it looking like he was running. It worked well enough until he barreled into a slightly figure and sent them both to the ground. Thorn tightened against Briar’s skin out of reflex, and the Fae found himself with his chin resting on a very ample bosom. He scrambled to get up without planting his hands or elbows somewhere inappropriate, reaching back to her when he finally made it to his feet again.

                The need to get out of this damn town was overwhelming.

                “I am so sorry,” he said, making several abortive movements to help her straighten her dress and get herself to rights. “I’m sorry.”

                She caught his flailing hand and squeezed hard. “Stop.”

                Briar stilled, swallowing thickly.

                “It’s fine,” she said, voice pitched low. “I’m not made of glass, and therefore not easily broken.”

                “He’s a little runty, even for you, Gilly.”

                He jerked his hand back reflexively, and hers came with it, slender fingers curled around his own. Briar let their joined hands drop between them, certain he was blushing, and vowed never to be caught in a town this large this late again.

                Gilly ignored the taunt from the shadows, tugging Briar’s arm closer and tucking his hand in the crook of her elbow. It should have been the other way around, but Briar only had enough of his faculties to walk when she started to, and stay close.

                “You, my dear, are definitely not from around these parts,” Gilly said. They strolled arm in arm, much like couples did while walking through a park. Laughter with an edge of hysteria threatened to bubble up from Briar’s throat. “And it’s obvious you aren’t looking for company. So we’ll just set you on your way and let you go.”

                Dumbfounded, Briar nearly bit his lip bloody as she prattled on about everything and nothing. Before he could comprehend where he was and what he was supposed to be doing, she’d let go of him with a kiss to the cheek and a none-too-gentle shove to keep going. He didn’t look back.

                No, Briar was never setting foot in another town if he could help it. He wasn’t cut out for it.

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