The days were even colder now than they had been. When they awoke and moved upstairs every window that was not in the kitchen was covered in a thin sheet of ice. The frost had won on the outside, and most of the chores now revolved around preservation, animal care, and winter survival. Orenda was not prepared for cold, and it bit into her, made her appendages ache. At the end of the day she sometimes couldn’t feel her fingers, though she wore the mittens she had been gifted.
Thankfully some of the chores could be done indoors, like the canning they were doing to keep food for the winter. But most of it required labor in the chill, because the Briggadons were actually running a business, and did need to make the goods they were supposed to sell. The sign proclaimed that they dealt in textiles, and sheep were sheared in the spring, but they required upkeep in the winter, and in the late autumn the work to be done was in converting all the wool they had harvested into usable fabric. There was so much of it, and Orenda suspected that they worked at it from the spring onward. They had barrels upon barrels of yarn to sell, but now that the contact was gone, they had no one to sell it to.
They also had certain things that they either needed or wanted but were unable to make themselves, despite how self sufficient they were. Many of them loved coffee, like Orenda did, but it was nearly impossible to grow outside the fire continent and had to be bought. Orenda was confused when she saw that they were buying large quantities of coconut oil- it was expensive and they all had such soft skin and hair that seemed to produce enough moisture all its own. Solomaur told her that it produced a wonderful soap, once you distilled the lye from the ashes, and, of course, it was good to cook with.
Now that Sarya had a valid reason for staying at the Burrow, she was able to drive to Basilglen with Barbra Allen and Mary Sue in tow, and Orenda believed this would be the end of her fighting lessons until they returned.
She was wrong.
“Come on,” Sonny slapped her on the shoulder after lunch and led her out to their usual spot behind the garden.
“Are you going to teach me?” Orenda asked. He didn’t really seem the type. Sonny was normally much more carefree than his sister, took life much less seriously.
“Yeah, I mean,” he shrugged, “I was bred to be a cage fighter, you know. Did you know that? I was already in training when dad found me.”
“I… did not,” Orenda said.
“Yeah, they were gonna send the girls to the breeding center, and, me too, you know, but like… guys who can do other things don’t stay there. You just go to stud. You don’t really take clients if they can put you in the cage. Plus I think it was pretty obvious even then that I would have been an awful pleasure slave. I was a biter.” He laughed as if this information was funny, but Orenda stared at him in horror.
“How old were you when your father found you?” She asked.
“I don’t know,” he shrugged, “Five or six? At least I was ok doing training. Junior hated it from the start. He can’t take a punch. Gets real defensive and jittery. I think there might actually be something wrong with him. I mean, we weren’t at the same facility, but… I heard stories. He’s pretty much always been how he is, you know. Some people… just aren’t made for fighting. I would say that the whole litter was sickly but like… look at Mary Sue.”
“Why would you say the whole litter was sickly?” Orenda asked.
“Well one of them died pretty early on,” Sonny said, “And Junior’s… Junior. He just won’t do anything, never gets any sun, so he’s all skinny and just… I don’t know, we kinda worry about him. Look, let’s do your poses, ok? Then we’ll spar for a little bit.”
As he adjusted her and Orenda began to work through the exercises she said, “We’ve been here nearly a month.”
“Yeah,” Sonny agreed as if he didn’t understand why she was telling him that.
“The moons will be full again, soon,” Orenda said.
“Yeah, and Sharon’s still not come back with Lappy,” he agreed. After a beat he said, “I don’t think they’re ever coming back. Don’t tell anyone I said that but I think… they’re probably never coming back. One or both of them is probably dead. If they were alive they would have come back to get more star fruit. It’s… hard to go without.”
“I hope that isn’t the case,” Orenda said, and realized she was not out of breath anymore. At this point, early on, she would have already been nearly too tired to move. “But I was more thinking about… you’re all shifters, and I know you can control it, but Bella can’t.”
“Oh, yeah,” Sonny said, “A wolf in bunny’s clothing. We’ll have to tie her down or something, I guess. I’d say we’d lock her in with the kids but she might eat them. That might be a thing. I don’t know if that’s a thing that happens or not. I mean, I only know of it ever happening once, and I think that was on purpose.”
“What?” Orenda asked, “You know of someone eating someone else?”
“I know of a shifter eating other shifters like a wild animal,” Sonny confirmed, “Come on, go through it faster, Rendy, you’re not pushing yourself. Tighten your core and really feel the stretch.”
“When did that happen?” Orenda asked.
“Oh,” Sonny said, contorting himself much better than Orenda, even though she had improved and was trying to follow his lead, “Yeah, you wouldn’t know about that. My… I don’t want to call him my gramps… my dad’s dad, like birth dad- he ate people.”
“What?” Orenda asked and nearly fell out of her stance.
“Oh, yeah,” Sonny said as he repositioned her, “Yeah he straight up ate people. That’s a thing that happened, according to dad. See when he was little, he was apparently like… the runt of the litter. Tiny and weak and didn’t really fit in with the whole ‘shifters are a master race’ thing, so his mom abandoned him. That’s how he wound up at the plantation. I guess she just kinda left him somewhere. Turns out that his dad went crazy, and during the full moons he just fucking… ate people. Mauled my granny to death and then ate my aunts and uncles right from the crib. That’s a thing that happened, I guess. Uncle Lappy says he saw the whole thing. He’s dead now. Daddy killed him. Shabeel, not Lapus. I don’t think… Haven’t seen him in a while.”
Sonny said all of this as if it wasn’t heartbreaking and terrifying, as if this sort of thing was self-explanatory and common.
“That’s horrible!” Orenda said, because she didn’t know what else to say.
“Yeah, I mean,” Sonny shrugged, “Horrible stuff happens. Your form is getting better. Come on, let’s go for a run and then we’ll spar. We really gotta push you until you’re about to pass out. You’re getting stronger but it’s taking way too long. Let’s race, from here, around the orchard, and back to the fence. First one to touch it wins.”
He took off at a sprint, and Orenda took a second to process what he had said before she ran after him.
“Here’s what I want to happen,” Bella said to Orenda, Falsie, Draco and Anilla, where they were sitting in the living room. “Make absolutely sure you’ve got everything out of the room that you need, because once I go in there and lock the door, I don’t want it opened for any reason.”
“Everything’s going to be fine, darling,” Gareth assured her.
“I’m just,” Bella twitched and threw her arms around herself, “I’m just saying that this is what is going to happen. Listen to me. No matter what you see or hear, do not open that door.”
“Like you’re the first shifter we’ve ever had to lock up,” Sonny huffed as he entered through the secret hallway, “The kids are already in bed. Just go to your room. Fuck’s sake. We’ll have a big breakfast in the morning. It’s not a big deal. Save the fur. Wait, no, I guess you don’t have to do that. Maybe? I mean we can try it. We might can spin dog hair into gold. I’m not sure. Save it either way.”
“It is a big deal!” Bella hissed at him, “I’m a shifter! I transform into-”
“Me too,” Sonny said, “Like… it’s me, Sonny. Brigaddon. That you are talking to. I am also a shifter. I’m not scared of you, puppers. What, are you gonna tear the bed up? Gonna scratch at the floor? If a wererabbit can’t chew through those doors then believe me, you ain’t gettin out. Go on in there. The moons are gonna rise any minute now.”
“You don’t understand,” Bella told him, “You can control it.”
“I couldn’t always,” He said, “And… I don’t think anyone wants to do what you have to do to learn that. Trust me, you’re fine. You worry too much. The worst case scenario is that you howl all night and keep everyone up. Just go to bed. Try to sleep through it. That’s the best thing to do. Try to get some rest. Not that you’ll remember I told you that.”
“Come on, darling,” Gareth put a hand on her shoulder, “Let’s go to bed. They’re all fine out here.”
“We are, absolutely,” Orenda told her, “We’re fine. We’ll make do. It’s a big house.”
She had the quilt the children had made for her spread out on the couch, and was as comfortable as she looked.
“Fine,” Bella said, rubbing her upper arms, “Goodnight, everyone.”
“Goodnight,” they all called in unison, with varying degrees of energy. Orenda, for her part, was as worn out as she usually was, and was more than ready to sleep.
“It’s been a few days,” Sonny said, “Since they left for the supply run, I mean. They’ve had time to be back by now.”
“It’s so cold,” Orenda said, “Maybe they’re being delayed by the weather. I imagine it’s difficult to travel in cold weather. Maybe they’re stopping more frequently, to sleep. The cold makes me sleepy.”
“It still really doesn’t feel that cold to me,” Anilla said more to herself than to Orenda.
“I can go scout for them, in the morning, if you’d like,” Draco said, “But I feel like you’re worrying for nothing. It’s only been a day or so longer than it should have. Maybe something was out of stock and they had to wait. Maybe they had a wagon wheel break. Maybe the horses were being particularly ornery.”
“That’s true,” Sonny said slowly, “It’s just that Mary Sue is normally so efficient… and without dad and Sharon here it’s… weird not to have her. I can’t wait for her to get back. I guess… I mean it probably is nothing. I think I’m gonna head to bed, too. I’ll see you guys in the morning, ok?”
“Goodnight, Sonny,” Orenda said as he walked off down the hall.
Falsie hit the contraption that controlled the lights, and they were plunged into darkness.
Do not trust the halfling, master The staff said, as it often did, and Orenda ignored it, as she often did, but it continued. Why have we stalled so long in this place? We are so close to the artifact. We must reunite. You do not need training. If I guide you to the artifact, you will gain powers beyond your wildest dreams.
“Goodnight,” Orenda said aloud, and she was met with a chorus of whispers and murmurs. She pulled the quilt up to her chin, and let the exhaustion carry her away.
Orenda awoke a few hours later to the sound of Anilla’s voice. She sounded as if she was speaking to someone and had moved off the couch and into the hallway to do so. Orenda also heard sounds of skittering, of a dog whimpering, and Gareth’s soothing voice making shushing sounds, but other than that, the house was asleep, so Orenda did not move, only listened to the side of the conversation she could hear.
“And then she got it! It’s called the ‘sacred staff’, but it turns out it doesn’t really do anything,” Anilla said to whoever she was talking to. “They say she’s ‘The Chosen One’.”
There was a pause as if she was listening for a reply and then she said, “Can there be more than one Chosen One though? I feel like that isn’t how it works or they would call it ‘The Chosen Pair’ or something.”
Another long pause as if someone else was speaking, and then Anilla asked, “But is the temple alright?” After a pause she asked, “And the great wind spirit?” After a beat she said, “So how long ago did they leave, then?” When whoever she was speaking to had finished she said, “All the people of the world say that once the Urillians come, they never leave. That’s so strange. But that has to be who it was… all the other grand temples were destroyed.” A pause, and when she spoke again it sounded as if she was answering a question. “An earthquake, a volcanic eruption, and a flood.”
Orenda wondered who she was speaking to, and what she was telling them. Then she thought of how little she knew of Anilla, and how little her story made sense. Elves didn’t venture to the Frozen North, so Orenda had no idea how their society functioned, but it seemed unlikely that it was the paradise Anilla spoke of. It seemed just as unlikely that one would soul-bond with a pet. Orenda wondered how much of what Anilla had been telling her was true- and wondered how easy it would be to scry using air magic. She imagined it would be incredibly easy, given how plentiful the medium was. Which is why it was so strange that Anilla had never done it before, and never in plain sight if she was merely calling home to have a conversation with family or friends. It was strange that she would do it only in the middle of the night, when the only other air mage was unable to tell that air magic was being cast.
It was strange that she was conveying information not about dragons, but about the secret weapon of the Knights of Order- the Chosen Child of Thesis that had pulled the sacred staff from the sacred flame- to the very place where the Emerald Knight was rumored to have traveled.
Do not trust the halfling, master. The staff had said, consistently, since Orenda had gotten it. She will betray you.