No dreams of Bhar persecuted me during that sleep. My eyes opened feeling not leaden but refreshed. I smelled of harsh soap instead of sweat and travel. My once-filthy clothes were now soft and clean against my skin. My muscles, though stiff, were not aching as painfully as they had been.
I sat up.
I was tackled in a hug. I only knew one Outcast that hugged so fiercely... and only one who had named me after an article of clothing.
“You were exhausted! Passed out at the sound of my bow,” Lishenu chattered. “Little Alahn and Priest Tuck tried to help you up, but it wasn’t much help.” He beamed at me.
“Little Alahn? Priest Tuck?” I pushed Lishenu away more gingerly than I used to. “Those are strange names even for you to give.”
“Alahn was so massive for a boy he had to be named Little,” Lishenu explained eagerly. “As for Priest Tuck, he was tucking in the infant’s swaddling clothes when I first met him. But when he went on and on about Tynged, I knew he was too pious a man to not have the title of Priest.”
“Why can you not just call us by our given names, Lish?”
“We don’t know your given name,” Lishenu protested. “And besides. Given names are given by parents. What would I want to do with my parents? They sired and birthed me then threw me out. Nay, a name based on who you are today is far better.”
“I’m sure the name Priest Tuck encompasses all of Enoah’s character,” I said, almost snappily. There was silence for a moment.
“It’s good to see you, Crest.” Lishenu said quietly. “We heard of Bhar’s death and saw the smoke from the Eastern Stronghold.”
“Bhar is no great loss,” I said bitterly. Lish was taken aback.
“Why do you suddenly admit this? You were his greatest defender before.”
“I did not realize…” I trailed off, thinking of how Enoah cared for Yasri. Bhar had once done that for me. Then the same man struck the same girl. If I ever saw Enoah do such a thing he would have an arrow in his neck before she had time to cry out.
Getting attached again, I thought grimly.
“Yasri,” I said quickly. “Is she well?”
“The infant? She’s… more well than when she arrived.” But Lishenu’s voice was dubious. I swung my legs over the side of the bed, only to have them hanging in mid-air. The platform was built onto a tree-limb, strapped and nailed securely down. The sudden rush of having nothing beneath my feet left me breathless. I’m no longer on the ground, I thought. I feel so free.
“May I see her?” I asked, judging the distance to the ground. I twisted, grabbing the edge of the platform before dropping to the ground.
“You may see them all.” He dropped beside me, grinning down at me. “Come on, Hood!”
I pulled up my cowl and followed Lishenu into the woods.
All of the surrounding trees had platforms built into the limbs. Some were walled, and others were merely for sleeping, like my own. Two men were arguing on one, and a few women were sharpening weapons on another. They glared affectionately at me as I walked past. Lishenu waved, hollered an insult at one of the men who yelled back, a small grin on his face.
We were safe.
Ahead, I saw Enoah and Alahn. Enoah was sitting on the ground, looking at Alahn who sat on the edge of the platform. The slash on his cheek had scabbed over, and both were looking a little more filled in, less tense.
Alahn spotted me first. His face lit up in recognition. Enoah twisted, seeing me. He smiled serenely and nodded to Lishenu.
“We were afraid you would never awaken,” Alahn said with a smirk.
“And so we still fear for Yasri,” Enoah said steadily. “The Healers were doubtful when taking her in.”
Lishenu rolled his eyes. “I think that’s half of a healer’s job. Be pessimistic so they don’t jinx Tynged’s destiny or some such nonsense. You could tell me more, Priest Tuck.”
Now that I had confirmed that Enoah and Alahn were well, and that Yasri was as well as she could be, I felt the urge to run off. They were where I promised to take them. The Rogues would teach them to care for themselves before sending them off with the warning to not return unless called.
But part of me didn’t want to leave them.
I stood here, feet planted firmly in the ground but my mind wandering between unstable choices.
“Do you have my bow and quiver?” I turned to Lishenu. He seemed a little disappointed, but nodded. Alahn turned and reached at the edge of the platform and tossed down the oil-cloth of arrows first, then the handed the bow me more carefully.
“I’ll be back.”
“There’s no need to hunt, Hood,” Lishenu said. I turned and started walking off. “We have food.”
“I need to hunt.”
“Crest?” Enoah called.
I didn’t answer.
* * * * *
I melted into the forest, green and brown clothes blending with the wood and leaves. I quickly scaled a tree and then jumped from that tree limb to another.
In that one leap, everything I worried about flew away. I ran from tree to tree, feet barely touching the limbs. I finally slowed, then stopped, crouching low. My heart pounded against my ribs and I panted slightly. Eyes scanning. Fingers curling around an arrow.
I turned, bow aimed at Lishenu.
“Why did you follow me?” My voice sounded strangely feral.
“Because you are not yourself,” He answered. “And I fear what not-Hood might do.”
I loosed my arrow. It flew past him, landing in the dirt a few yards away. It felt good to finally release an arrow after traveling through the Heolig, where no such thing was possible.
Lishenu moved effortlessly from his tree to mine. “What are you planning to do?”
“Hunt,” I insisted.
“You have no need to hunt.”
“Yes,” I said softly. “I do.” How could I explain? How could I explain that I was growing too fond of those three, that I had to send the tension of the Heolig flying with an arrow.
“I know it was hard. I have traveled the Heolig.”
“With an old man, a naïve boy and an infant? Of whom you grow too close?” I demanded.
Lishenu frowned, then nodded grimly. “So that is it. Bhar.”
“Always Bhar,” I replied bitterly.
“Enoah said you spoke with Jattar before the Eastern Stronghold was…”
“Attacked?” Crest’s head snapped up, eyes locking on Lishenu’s.
“We hoped you could say.”
“I heard the fire,” I said. Lishenu would understand. He was the one who had told me to listen to it. “I awoke the others and we ran. No one else ran with us, and they would not run into the deeper woods.”
“Why not? The Rogues are not superstitious like the other Outcasts.”
“Not for fear of Tylwyth Teg. For fear of boars and bears. There are more in the East.”
Lishenu studied me for a moment.
“Crest, do you feel-“
“If you want me to feel better, don’t force me to think about my feelings,” I said.
“Facts, then. How did you find them?”
I straightened, the bough creaking beneath my weight. Lishenu leaned against the trunk, crossing his legs.
“When Bhar’s house was attacked, they gave me Padlock, far too much. I went into a frenzy. When I went back later, they were a wall of corpses up against the table. I had run a good ways South-West and fallen at Alahn and Enoah’s feet, raving mad.”
“This bit they told me,” Lishenu said. “What I didn’t understand is why you stayed with them.”
I grew silent. I felt as though the pure terror of the Heolig had worn the memories before, as if they did not matter compared to the crispness of anxiety.
“I cannot remember,” I said. “Maybe it was how they were… innocent. I knew they would die without me. And I remember Bhar bringing me in.”
“Bhar changed. He is not the same man as when he found you.”
“I know that, Lish,” I said. “I didn’t, until I saw how Enoah and Alahn cared for Yasri. Then I realized Bhar had once been that way. That his hurting me was not his caring, nor his caring as when he hurt me.” I struggled to force the idea into words. I had said it badly. But Lishenu seemed to understand. He nodded slowly.
“I remember,” He said quietly. “When we first met you. I had traveled to the Eastern stronghold. You were so dependent on Bhar.” He gave as mall grin. “Not at all like the independent minx you fancy yourself to be now.” His voice grew serious again. “But even more stunning was watching Bhar, brawny, scowling Bhar, tend to you. His hands were gentle as a doe’s, his voice as summer’s wind on the leaves. You both smiled much more then.”
Crest looked at the ground. “Then Cael died.”
“Many of us grieved,” Lishenu said. “But Bhar grew hardened. He was… anguished. Before you had come he cared for no one. And then he grew to care for many.”
Bhar’s words came back in jarring fragments, my body tingling where I had once bled and bruised.
“He blamed me,” My voice came out, no more than a whisper. “He blamed me for the heartache.”
“He was wrong,” Lishenu said firmly. “But he loved you. Do not forget.”
“He was all I had.” I looked back up at Lishenu, my hood falling back with the sudden motion. “He was my father, my mother, my brother. My friend. And then he turned on me.” My hands shook with anger. Anger I had never felt.
“Hood,” Lishenu said. “He regrets it.”
“He regretted nothing.”
There was utter silence in the woods as my world shattered and flew back together, the pieces rearranged in a way that was alien and excruciating.
“He died,” I said numbly.
“Was his corpse there?” Lishenu pressed.
“They killed him. And then they gave me the drug.”
“You saw him knocked unconscious and bleeding for maybe a minute. One devastating moment, and then it was all a nightmare of the Padlock’s creating.”
“Then he left me.”
“You killed everyone in sight and ran off. He wandered near to the Wall and the guards captured him. When they reached the Heolig, he broke free and came South. He is here.”
I pulled the hood back over my face, a strand of hair falling out. “And who is Bhar now?”
“He is… more as he was.”
“Did he think me dead?”
“Until you came here with the others, yes.”
“Do they know who he is?”
Lishenu shook his head, dark hair bouncing much as Alahn’s fair strands did.
“Keep it such until I return.”
Lishenu straightened, a hand clamping on my forearm. “Where are you going, Hood?”
“Benadur,” I answered.
“Why are you seeing Ben?” Lishenu’s gaze hardened for a moment. “Never mind, you won’t answer that will you.”
“Then I wish you luck,” Lishenu let go of my arm, a frown creasing his brow as though there were more he wanted to say. I did not leave, knowing he would say it soon if I stayed.
Lishenu stepped forward, bridging the gap between my limb and his. He pressed his body close to mine, one arm holding me in place and the other bracing himself on the tree-trunk. His face leaned down, close to mine.
In a panic, I pushed against his chest. My foot slipped backwards, and I slid out of his arm. Instantly, my hand shot up and snatched the branch above me. My bow clattered on the tree roots. Before Lishenu could try to apologize or come after me, I dropped to the ground, grabbed my bow and took off running through the brush.
I thought I could hear Tynged laughing behind me.