The structure was the largest in the Stronghold, which wasn’t saying much. Maps were pinned to the warped planks of wood that made up the walls and our weapons were stashed near the door. Candles sputtered in the frigid draft. It had been many months since I had attended a Trafodaeth.
Benadur stood at the front, making notations on the largest map with a quill and some lumpy ink. I was leaned against the wall, one foot propped up behind me, arms crossed.
Hanskir was from the Healers . She tapped her fingers nervously against her thigh, glancing from Benadur to the door. She had always hated serious meetings.
Lishenu, the currier, paced energetically. It grated on my nerves in the cramped space, when I already wasn’t fond of being near people.
From the weapon makers was Einion. He was by far the surliest, most pessimistic of us all.
“It seems the hunters will be late,” Benadur said after we had waited several minutes.
“Pleasantries aside?” Einion asked. Everyone nodded.
“Cheerful bunch today,” Lishenu grunted.
“We have no reason to be cheerful, Lishenu,” Benadur said grimly. “The Eastern Stronghold has fallen. The Heolig is swarming with guards. The animals are scarce and-“
“And there have been NO successful raids bringing us supplies for weapons,” Einion grumbled. Benadur merely nodded.
“There’s been more ill,” Hanskir added softly. “There seems to be no real reason.”
“Low morale. Lack of nutrition. Worse weather. There could be many plausible reasons, Hanskir. But it all boils down to one real reason.”
Here it would come. Benadur would launch into another rousing anti-Elite speech, how they had to be brought down and brought down entirely. But he said something quite different indeed.
“The reason being, we fight a hopeless war.” He sighed heavily, setting the quill and inkpot down on a rickety stool.
“What?” My foot slipped off the wall.
An arrow thudded into the wall, buried to the fletchings in the wood. It had hit where the Eastern Stronghold had been.
“Because every Stronghold has fallen and we will be next.”
In the doorway, holding a longbow with a quiver strapped to his thigh, was Bhar.
We looked at one another for a long moment, silently regarding one another. His face was more creased than before, but his expression too stony to make any emotions out of it. I thought I saw regret and relief, but perhaps that was wishful thinking.
“Bhar,” I said. I was thankful my voice didn’t crack.
Einion interrupted. “Does this mean that you’re giving up, Benadur?” He demanded. Benadur looked at Bhar, and they both nodded. Hanskir bit her lip. Lishenu looked at the floor.
“Yes, Einion,” Benadur finally said. “The Rogues are gone. Revenge is a pointless thing to chase.”
“We have lives here,” Bhar said. “We have food, livelihoods. It may not be as comfortable as life in the city, but why would we want to go back after they sent us away?”
“The Elites are too strong,” Benadur continued. “The guards have nearly doubled on the Heolig. The Walls are being fortified. They no longer have to train with longbows due to crossbows.”
It was strange, to see them like this. Benadur and Bhar were old friends, but Benadur had always been the charismatic optimist and Bhar the gruff pessimist. Now Bhar seemed to be savoring life here, whereas Benadur was speaking cynically.
“Blood will water the Sycamores,” I said softly. “We will finish what they began. Do those words mean nothing to you anymore?”
“They mean nothing that matters,” Bhar said. “What is the use of dying for revenge of being sent out to die?”
“I wish we could continue, Robyn,” Benadur said. “For centuries… but it does not matter. How can we continue when it costs the lives of innocent Outcasts and our best Rogues?”
“There will be Rogues no more,” Hanskir said. “Only Outcasts. We’ll move back into the forests, set up small camps near the gates where we can help anyone that is newly Outcast.”
Lishenu nodded. “As Bhar said, we have lives here. They could be good ones if we were not so driven to seek retribution for the ones lost.”
A cold breath of wind blew out one of the candles, the smoke drifting in front of my face.
“You give up hope so easily.”
“So easily?” Benadur hissed. “Was it so easy to see some of my oldest friends die for nothing? Perhaps it is easy for you, Robyn, to hide within your hood and send friends to their deaths, but if we must die I want it to be to make things better. Not throw a tantrum because it was ever bad.”
“We were going to change our world. The world to come,” I reminded them, words coming hotly to my lips. “To overthrow the Elites, to make sure it’s never bad again!”
“Think logically,” Bhar said. How many times had he said that to me?
“I’m thinking as you taught me!” It felt almost relieving. I had admitted that what Bhar had done to me was wrong. But to tell him… it sent a thrill through me.
Hanskir clenched her eyes shut. “Please, Roby-“
“Crest,” I said suddenly. “I’m called Crest now.”
“Three people call you Crest,” Bhar said. “And I am not one of them. You may be skilled for a young girl, but you are still just that.”
“That never mattered to you before,” I snarled. “You pushed me as though I were a full grown man. You-“
“What I did was wrong,” Bhar said evenly. “I apologize, Robyn.”
I pushed my hood back, looking up into his face.
“Your apology will not change what I am.”
“Who you are, please,” Lishenu said. “You’re still human, Robyn.”
I turned back to face the others. “Don’t be so sure.”
“This is beside the point,” Benadur said, holding up a hand, face impassive.
“Perhaps this needs to be out with, Ben,” Bhar said. He set one foot on a stool and leaned on his knee, face near mine. Suddenly, I realized I was the center of attention. “Robyn seems to have a lot to say.”
I clenched my jaw. “Nothing that, should you actually listen, you would do.”
“So quick to judge, Robyn?”
“I am so quick to say what it is I’ve judged,” I replied. “Would you care to do the same?”
Bhar grew silent, eyes scanning mine. His mouth turned downward, giving him a mournful look beneath his neatly trimmed beard. “Nay,” He finally said. “I cannot judge. It is my own doing, as you said.” Bhar straightened. “But it seems you prefer I would remain as cold?”
“I would prefer that you do not expect me to change so quickly as you.”
“No,” Bhar said. “You never have been so volatile. You were slow to become hard-hearted, and you will be slow to soften again.”
Lishenu shuffled his feet awkwardly.
“Perhaps not slow to soften,” Einion said. “Just slow to forgive.”
I felt the itching. The need to get away. It was hot and restricted in this room. Too many people. Suddenly, my head dropped and I gripped the back of a stool with both hands. A strand of hair fell out of my hood, my breaths coming rapidly.
A hand on my back. Another around my waist. Then a wave of freezing air blasting my face. I gripped the doorframe, standing for a moment, toes hanging over the edge of the platform. I felt the urge to jump, to just… leave. But I had left too much. They were asking me to leave another thing behind. I would not leave again. I turned to face them.
“Give me one reason why the Elites do not deserve to be punished for what they have done to us. One reason to outweigh the hundreds that you once gave for the alternative.”
“Not all Elites approve of Outcasting,” Bhar said. He looked… almost ashamed.
“That’s not what I was told.”
“You were told to kill humans. You were told that if you cared for someone, you were weak. You were told that if you were weak you might as well be dead.” Bhar looked pained. “You were told wrong, Robyn. I hope… someday you’ll see that.”
He then turned to Benadur.
“We need supplies. Winter is coming, and quickly. Hanskir-“ He winced, just barely, as he said her name. “-do you have the supplies you need?”
“Not really,” A smile came to her face for the first time since the meeting had begun. “No! Wait!” She blinked, as though his question had just registered. “Bandages. And, um, I think that’s all.” She looked quickly at Lishenu. “You need anything?”
Lishenu was grinning, but quickly coughed and said innocently, “Hmm? No, Hanskir… I’m the currier.”
She flushed. “Right.”
“Do you need anything Einior?” Bhar asked.
“I always need something,” Einior said gruffly. “But right now I just need metal and anything sharp you can find.”