“Robyn,” Benadur said. His face was creased, but ruddy and strong. His hair was cropped as closely to his scalp as scissors would allow. One muscled arm was leaned over the back of his chair as he twisted to face me, platform creaking beneath us.
“Benadur,” I replied.
“I thought I would not see you in the Western Stronghold for many years.” He rose from his chair, putting a large hand on my shoulder. A strand of hair fell out as he jostled my cowl. “You seem well.”
“Physically I am in good strength,” I answered.
“Stony as ever,” The creases near his eyes deepened with a grim smile.
Benadur released my shoulder. I rotated it, a small wince flitting across my face.
“He thought you dead,” Benadur said carefully.
“I am not planning to kill him, Benadur,” I said. “I want to know where he is.”
“You? Kill Bhar?” Benadur faced me. “That is a strange thing assumption to make of my thoughts. Have you considered it then?”
“Bhar cared for me when I needed it. He strengthened me when I needed it. Perhaps he went too far, blinded by fear of affection, but that is in the past. Only Tynged lies ahead.”
“Your Priest Tuck is wearing off on you.” Benadur turned back to his desk. “Hanskir would know.”
I felt a wry smile twist my lips. “Hanskir.”
Benadur looked at me again, the same droll look on his face. “Aye. Hanskir.”
“Bhar woul- is fond of that, I’m sure.”
“He seems to have… softened since your presumed death.”
I turned and dropped off the platform before I had to acknowledge his statement.
“Hello, Hood.” A woman said kindly, raising the spear she was sharpening in hello.
“Crest.” Enoah nodded his head.
“Robyn. I didn’t know you were in the West.” A man with a dirty face said gruffly, an unstringed bow and knife in his hands.
All of my names rang from different voices. Various faces, assorted memories with each.
“Like a walking stone, she is.” A man snorted
“Aye,” A woman nodded. “Bhar’s fault I daresay.” The two changed subject as I drew near, continuing when they presumed me too far away to hear.
“Doesn’t matter if she ever smiled anyways… always hiding her face in that cowl.”
“But if a guard saw her coming he’s as likely to run as try and shoot.”
A smile almost flickered at the thought.
Hanskir was possibly the only person as merry as Lishenu in the camp. Her blonde hair was impossibly curly, her smile blinding. She ran at me, ready to squash me in a hug.
I stepped to the side. “Spear.”
She stumbled past, straightened, then tossed the spear to the side. “Right!” She said cheerfully. Hanskir then gave me a bear-hug from the side. She stepped back, ringlets bouncing. “You’re alive! I didn’t know! Bhar said you were dead, but then Lishenu said that you were just unconscious and you had some friends with you!”
Friends seemed a woefully enadequate word for people I had nearly died with, early died for.
“Where is Bhar?”
“Always down to business,” She laughed sunnily. “I think he’s with the hunters.”
“Do you know when he’ll be back?”
Hanskir positively beamed. “He said he’d be back before nightfall.”
“Then Benadur wasn’t lying.” Even I couldn’t help but smile slightly in the face of Hanskir’s pure joviality.
“About?” She tilted her head, another silky coil of hair sliding out of its constraint.
“You and Bhar are lovers.” I looked into her dark brown eyes. Hanskir raised her hand to cover her mouth, but her eyes crinkled up.
“Yes!” She said in a half-squeal. “Oh, he was nearly dead when he arrived and Benadur let me tend to him. When he awoke he went on and on about how it was his fault that you died, and how he didn’t want to make any more mistakes.” She hugged me again. “If only you could have seen his face when he found out that you were alive!”
My stomach tumbled with an unfamiliar feeling. The awkwardness, so little encountered in the Sycamores, seemed to broil inside. “I’m sure it would have been entertaining.”
Hanskir laughed. “Oh, you’re so impassive Robyn.”
“Hanskir,” I asked, hoping she would be serious for once. “What happened here? It’s… still.”
“No fights, you mean,” She said. “No yelling, no rallying.”
“It’s like all the zeal is lost.”
“I… I think you should wait for Benadur to say.” Hanskir lowered her eyes. “There will be another Trafodaeth tonight.”
“I am not allowed in the Trafodaeths.” I said. Hanskir gasped.
“Robyn! You’re always welcome in our assemblies. Bhar would fight Benadur on your behalf if needed.”
One man looked at another, his face seemingly made of steel.
“Oh, Robyn will be joining us,” one said.
“Robyn is a child! No more than two and ten years, surely.”
“Aye,” The first man said. “And she has an older spirit than you ever will.”
“Because you beat her like a dog,” A woman called from the far end of the room.
The girl pulled a knife from the folds of her tunic. The man’s hand gripped hers.
“No,” he said. “Human blood is to be spilt more sparingly than our harts.”
The girl’s lip curled. “She insulted your honor.”
The man lowered her wrist. She grimaced as he twisted it slightly. “We are Outcasts. We have no honor.”
“You’re a Rogue,” She answered. “Not just an Outcast.”
“We are Rogues,” He said firmly. “We shall both spill blood in revenge.”
The second man stepped to the side. “Release the girl. You may both enter.”
The first man nodded, eyes never leaving the girl’s face.
“Robyn?” Hanskir asked.
“Nothing,” Crest said vaguely. Then the real scene before her came into focus and her eyes snapped on Hanskir’s. “I wish to see Yasri.”
“You cannot,” She said instantly. “None of the Healers will let anyone near her. She’s fragile.”
“Then where is Alahn?”
“Little Alahn? I think…” Her face went red. “I think he is with the infant.”
I stared at Hanskir for a moment. She sighed.
“Okay,” She said. “Follow me.”
* * * * *
The Healers were pressed deeper into the woods, further from the Heolig. It wasn’t far enough to truly help should the guards find the Stronghold, but I think it give the infirm a sense of peace to be that much further away.
“She wants to see the infant,” Hanskir said sheepishly. The Healer, an older, surly man, snarled. A rope ladder was pushed off the high platform. Hanskir grasped the rungs and began to climb. I scaled quickly after her, keeping just low enough that she wouldn’t kick my head. “Alahn?” She asked as we neared the top.
I pulled myself over the edge of the platform. Alahn was facing us, his unkempt hair framing a tired face.
“Hanskir, Crest.” He nodded to each of us, then turned back to Yasri.
Her skin looked less red than when we had stumbled into Lishenu’s sights. But she was very still, even to be asleep. Hanskir had the tact to bow out and climb back down the ladder.
I crouched behind Alahn, putting a hand on his shoulder.
“I feel… as though I shouldn’t be this attached,” he said, voice a little hazy with emotion. “I only knew her for a few days when we found you. And you don’t seem to be affected much at all.”
I dropped my hand, eyes darted from Yasri’s quiet form to Alahn’s profile. It was barely visible in the dim structure.
“I feel as though I am more attached than… than I have any right to be,” I replied, my own voice growing thick. “I have never cared for someone, and yet I am… devoted, after only weeks. I do not show my affections, but they are strong.” I closed my eyes, finally forcing myself to confess it aloud.
“You fear it,” Alahn said perceptively.
“Once,” I said. Something in my abdomen loosened, a tenseness I did not know was there. “But only because I had been told… had been shown what it could do to a broken person.”
“I think it would take much to break you.”
“Perhaps not so much,” I said grimly, looking at Yasri.
Alahn turned to face me.
“The girl you loved.”
“A Prevalent. She broke me twice. First when I thought we could never be. Again when I was Outcast. She is still safe in the city walls, but part of me wishes she were Outcast too. A part of me wishes that I had told them who the girl was I had fallen for. But I valued her over my wishes.” His eyes grew unfocused. “The City is beautiful, you know. I hear the… the Rogues here, how they loathe it. But it twists out of the ground, white marble carved into living places. Like stone trees, built upon and ever growing.” His voice became sad. “I will never see it again.”
“Some return,” I said. The words seemed to burn my tongue, as though they knew they were not to be spoken. Not to a simple Outcast.
“Rogues. Not to live. They sneak in. Only the very best. Perhaps they spy. Perhaps they kill. I was never told. I never wished to know. The Sycamores… they are my home. Not marble.”
Alahn’s features grew fierce. “It is possible to return to the city?”
“If,” I said. “You join the Rogues.”
“Who are they, Crest?” Alahn asked. “Who are the Rogues? What is a Stronghold? Why all the secrecy?”
“Surely you can guess,” I said. “I have not sought to keep the mystery as secret as I should.”
“They… are rebelling,” He ventured. “But how? It is anarchy in the Sycamores.”
“Nay,” I whispered. “They say it is lawlessness here, but there are many rules. Do not venture near the Heolig. Do not re-enter the city. Leave your life, live in the woods because we do not want you.” The words spilled out, the lessons that Rogues had once taught me. “Stay where we dare not go, dare not to go where we stay. This is what the Elites decree.”
“We aren’t all bad,” Alahn said quietly.
“You are no longer one of them, Alahn,” I reminded him. “You are an Outcast, and will be unless someone changes the rules.”
“Changes the rules?” His eyes narrowed.
“Perhaps they are not set in stone. Perhaps the rules were… wrong. It was not Tynged or any deity who gave them, but a man. Why can a man not change them?”
Alahn looked as I must have only an hour or so before. A world shattered and rearranged, alien and excruciating. An Elite’s entire life was built upon rules. Rules changing was absurdity.
Then the possibilities came to mind.
“Outcasts no more,” he murmured. “Elites could marry Prevalents. Prevalents could become Elite, Elites could do… anything.”
“Why even call them that?” I said, earnestly. “This is why the Rogues gathered.”
“And we are coming back,” Benadur’s voice said from behind us. “We will emerge from the safety of your sacred trees. The Sycamores threatened to uproot your houses and crumble your wall, and we will return to finish what they began. This is the Rogue’s creed.”
I looked at Alahn a moment longer, then straightened and faced Benadur. “He deserved to know.”
“It does not matter,” Benadur said. For the first time I noticed that his face was not just older, but weary.
“Why?” I pressed.
“It will be explained the Trafodaeth. Bhar and the hunters will return soon.”
I nodded, a ball of tension back in my stomach. “Let us go.”