“You really are a monster. That bear-man was right about you,” she snarled. And then the realization hit her—Androkles had been right about Seff. Had he? No, Seff was too sweet. Her Seffy was too good to become like this. He wasn’t…
Dyana couldn’t help the tears that came to her eyes then. She had to cover her mouth with her hand to keep any sound from escaping. What if the bear-man was right, and Seff should be killed? The thought was enough to unravel her. Already she could feel the loneliness creeping back in, loneliness that had only been held away by having that darling little thing to take care of. A vision of Seff being strangled lit up her imagination, then one of him being crushed by a rock, or beheaded. Each time, she pictured his lifeless corpse, skinny little arms and legs, lifeless eyes gazing at nothing. And it would be just. He was a baby monster.
She didn’t see the kick coming and when it hit, it was enough to knock the air from her lungs and toss her to the ground five paces back. A second unseen kick set her skull to ringing, and white, blinding pain made her gasp and squirm.
“Get it together, girl!” shouted Agurne. The woman’s voice pierced through the haze in her mind, almost startling her back into awareness. Agurne did not sound desperate or scared in any way; rather she sounded confident.
Dyana wiped the water from her eyes as she rolled away to rise to her feet. At that moment, Wolfscar emerged from the house. His light illuminated everything and distracted the demon, who seemed totally entranced.
The tiny bird boy flew over to Agurne and shouted, “Mama, I looked at Garbi! She’s okay!”
“Of course she is, you little pest! We need you to make light. Look at Dyana! That’s what happens when you go run off like that,” said Agurne, crossly wagging her finger at the little fairy, who looked properly horrified when he saw Dyana’s wounds.
“We need Papa!” said the fairy after a moment of considering the scene.
“Stay here and make light, you rotten little bat! You think Mama doesn’t have any tricks? Hmm?” asked Agurne.
“Eat it,” said the demon, his eyes fixed on Wolfscar. He walked around Agurne, ignoring her completely, and jumped into the air to grab at the bird-boy. Wolfscar screamed, which sounded a bit like a hawk, and barely managed to fly upward in time. The demon jumped several more times, then screamed in unhindered rage. He foamed at the mouth and slashed wildly around himself with his claws and tail, aiming at nothing.
Dyana shook the last of the haze away and ignored the pain in her body, then raced over to the demon to take him out while he wasn’t paying attention. But before she reached him, Agurne gracefully stepped forward, somehow evading the slashing claws and tail entirely, and tapped the demon on the shoulder. The woman said a word that Dyana couldn’t make out, and a wave of subtle power washed over her.
The demon instantly stopped moving and stood up straight, looking around with perfect confusion on his face. He slowly turned, looking in every direction. His mouth hung open to bare his teeth, but his lips held no snarl. The demon was completely stupefied.
Agurne let out a massive sigh, then hunched over, hands on her knees, panting. Then she stood again, nodded at Dyana, pointed at the demon, and made a motion like tearing the head off a chicken.
Dyana didn’t move immediately; for a moment she deliberated whether she was ready to take another’s life. It didn’t take much thought, though; this was not human. There was nothing of love or goodness in him—only insanity and malice, like the most feral of beasts. The feeling of his presence was enough to confirm that.
Agurne nodded more insistently toward the dark figure, who gazed around blankly as though he had no idea where he was. He didn’t even look like he was really even seeing anything. It made him a lot less terrifying. Dyana took a few deep breaths, gathering and balancing her vitality. Then she focused all her power on her fist, in what her father had called the rock-crushing strike, and threw the punch.
It didn’t connect. The demon instinctively moved back, and her punch swung through empty air. Their eye met, and she watched the awareness flicker back into them. She had waited too long.
“Do it again!” she shouted desperately, throwing another series of punches; most hit, but none were solid enough to do any harm. The demon was back to his senses and deflecting her strikes with a disgusted look on his face.
“It’s not that easy!” yelled Agurne, sounding more grumpy than desperate.
“Do it anyway!” replied Dyana. The demon turned to attack Agurne, but Dyana used the opening to kick him squarely in the ribs, collapsing his balance and nearly knocking him over. He yelled at her, a wordless shout something like an infant might make.
His whole demeanor changed to something more focused as he came at her slowly, crouched slightly with arms ready, mouth wide open to bare his sharp teeth. She feinted with a low kick, then tried to punch the demon’s jaw, hoping for a knockout, but he had been expecting her.
With one arm he grabbed her punch, then stepped close and brought her into a hug before she could slip away. She jerked backward, but he held on, and seeing his opening, he bit her neck and twisted, trying to rip it apart.
Only her training saved her. She instinctively toughened her neck, from the skin to the sinews, with every bit of vitality she could muster. Those years of being jabbed at with a spear had been good for something after all.
The demon refused to let go, biting and twisting to rip her neck out. Dyana twisted and pried at his hands and wrists, but she couldn’t escape him.
Agurne crept up from behind, and like before, she tapped the demon with a look of pure focus on her face.
He went rigid and Dyana pushed him away. He fell straight backward, and the back of his head slammed into the frozen dirt with a thud Dyana felt in her stomach.
Seeing her chance, she leaped and came down heel-first on his forehead, right between the horns, and crushed it against the ground. His head split open like a gourd.
She stepped back and dragged her foot in the snow to get the blood off. He was dead, and she had lived. She had won… but she had also killed for the first time. The vitality still coursing within her couldn’t stave off the sudden fatigue and dizziness; her legs lost their ability to hold her up, and she sat down heavily on her rump.
Agurne stood above the demon and stared down at his broken form. Her brow furrowed, but whether from disgust or pity, Dyana couldn’t tell. Agurne said, “No wonder Androkles hates them. Can you imagine, girl? Imagine being a poor little soldier and having to face one of these things.”
Seff… Oh, my poor Seffy… Dyana fought back hard against the despair that crept into her chest. Was Seff going to be a monster? Was Androkles right about him? It was unthinkable, but still…
For the first time since finding him, she wondered if maybe she should get rid of him. It might be better to be rid of Seff, now that she knew. He wasn’t even really her son—just a child she had chosen to rescue. Maybe she should give him back and forget all about him. So many problems would just go away. Thinking about it made her sick with guilt, but she couldn’t stop thinking it. She loved him—she really did, and she was more certain of it now than ever—but the thought and the guilt it brought refused to leave.
Dyana rose to her feet quickly and schooled her face to keep Agurne from noticing anything wrong, since she didn’t want to have that conversation just yet.
Agurne nodded, turned, and started walking, expecting Dyana to simply follow. She did.
They came to stand in front of the mud house where Garbi and the slave-takers were hiding. Agurne looked at it for a moment, then rapped on the wooden door with her knuckles. “Hello?” she shouted. There was movement inside, but no one replied.
Dyana clapped her hands and loudly said, “Here are people, here are people.”
When Agurne gave her a puzzled look, Dyana explained quietly, “You can’t knock on a tent.”
“My tribe lived in tents. You can’t knock on a tent. We clap.”
Agurne nodded sagely, then said, “Well, here we knock.” Then, with sudden fury, she shouted at the top of her lungs, “And if these sons of sheep whores and shitworms don’t open this door and give me back my daughter right pissing now, I’m going to knock this house down and kill every one of them by inches! 10! 9! 8! 7!”
The door opened just widely enough to shove little Garbi out. Then it was slammed shut and Dyana heard the men inside bracing themselves against it. She felt herself grin at how well it had worked, and the dark clouds in her heart began to break open. Just slightly, but she did feel better.
Garbi’s wrists were still tied. She looked groggy, her dress all disheveled and her golden hair badly in need of being tied in a bun, but Agurne gave her an enormous hug anyway. She lifted Garbi’s feet off the ground and squeezed so tightly that the girl protested and tried to squirm loose.
“Mama, stop! Untie my hands first! That hurts! I can’t breathe.”
Agurne clucked and put her down, then began trying to work the ropes loose.
Standing on her tiptoes to peer in every direction, Garbi asked, “Where’s Papa?”
“He’s getting the boys. Dyana came to save us instead.”
“Why did he go get the boys and not us? Where’s Seff?” She sounded disappointed, or perhaps unappreciated.
Dyana said, “Oh, it’s not like that. He didn’t send me to rescue you. He was sure Agurne could handle it all on her own. He sent me to give her a message.”
Agurne paused trying to untie the ropes, which were apparently tighter than they needed to be. “He sent a message? What was it?”
“He said to tell you not to get any ideas.”
Dyana had been expecting some sort of reaction, but both Agurne and Garbi just sort of gave a half-hearted and short-lived little smile and looked away.
“What did he mean by that?” she asked. “What kind of ideas?”
Garbi smirked a bit more mischievously and her eyes twinkled as she said, “Papa thinks he has funny jokes, but he doesn’t.”
Agurne wore a mirthful smirk as well. She said, “Don’t get any ideas! What a horrible man. Not, ‘I pray you are safe, my loves’ or ‘I swear I will have you back in my arms by dawn’. No, he says, ‘don’t get any ideas!’ That asshole. He’s gonna learn just how many ideas I have.”
“I have an idea, too, Mama,” said Garbi, grinning even more. “I’m gonna sneak and pee in his wine.”
Dyana had no idea how to react hearing such a comment from such a refined little princess as Garbi, but Agurne barked a laugh and said, “Don’t you dare, you little rat! I drink it, too.”
In Dyana’s experience, it was the men who jovially made rude jokes and the women who scowled and complained, but she suspected Agurne didn’t give much thought to manners and that was part of her charm. Where Garbi had learned her grace and poise, who could say? It was a mystery.
Since she had a spare moment to wait, Dyana walked over to the wall of the house the men were hiding in, then swung a heavy, vitality-infused punch right through it. It knocked away a chunk the size of her torso. She peeked in, and although it was dark inside, she looked toward the men bracing the door and declared, “I’m done with peace. Come after me and my Seffy again, and I’ll kill you like I did your monster, except messier and slower.” Then she spat into the house, snorted, and turned away.
Her Seffy. She’d said it almost without thinking. She could do this. She could keep him, until the end. She could ignore those thoughts…
Once Agurne was satisfied that Garbi was more or less unharmed and ready for travel, she gathered up her satchels from the horse’s corpse and tied some over her shoulder and others around her waist, six in all; then she removed the saddle, which turned out to be a bit of leather over a blanket. She plopped the folded blanket into Garbi’s arms and said, “Can you carry that?”
“It’s not too heavy.”
Dyana asked, “Did you find your charms, Agurne?”
“They were in this one,” said Agurne, who patted one of her satchels. “It was under this other one here and they look the same. Oh, don’t give me that look! I’m not simple. I was just terrified.”
Dyana nodded at the unexpected admission, then looked away to show it was no matter.
Soon Agurne was satisfied that she had collected everything she wanted to take and said, “Time to go.”
Dyana asked, “Do you want me to go take a horse to ride one? They have more of them somewhere.”
“It’s not a bad thought, but what would I feed it? Let’s go.”
Dyana nodded and walked with them as they made their way out of the fortress.
What were those big wooden walls for, anyway? They were made of logs standing up and tied tightly to each other, which seemed like a lot of work, especially in frozen lands like these where the wood was better used for fire to keep from freezing to death. Come to think of it, how were there any trees in the first place? Did they grow without leaves?
On their way back out the gate, Agurne had Dyana grab one of the burning lanterns, and it made their path much easier to find. Even though it was dark and tracks were everywhere from people going in and out, only one person had left a trail of bare footprints: Dyana. They could follow those all the way back to the campfire.
As they walked back up the inclined road into the woods, Garbi and Wolfscar stayed a few steps ahead. The bird-boy sat on her shoulder, nestled against her neck inside Garbi’s thick brown scarf, and they chatted incessantly.
Would Seffy ever make a little friend? He needed one. It wasn’t good to be alone. Maybe it would help him not… He needed little people around to play with. He had tried to play games of pretend with her once or twice, but her heart wasn't in it. He’d been terribly disappointed, and she’d stayed up half the night feeling like she let him down.