“I really don't think this is working,”
“You have to try, Orin. Come on, you just have to go with the flow. Feel the Dark, let it run through your entire body.” Elora had been explaining this for quite some time now. I have to say that I was starting to lose patience at all these vaguely meaningful sayings.
It had been a hard two days since Tessa and Elora's little battle. The band had been moving at a steady clip since we had left behind the vast greenery of the Forest of Estalin. Our rest periods had been infrequent and whenever we did stop no tents or other amenities were unpacked due the rather severe time constraints we found ourselves under. Everyone was getting ready in their own way for the battles to come and Elora and I were no exception. She had been serious about training. Whenever we had a moment of peace we would train, if we were on the move I would compress until it felt like I was going to pass out. This manner of training would have been rather counter-intuitive if we were training our bodies physically. Thankfully, the soul seemed to recover much quicker after intensive exercises.
It wasn't just me who was pushing themselves either. Elora had made several forays into my soul, each resulting in success, if a heart pounding and traumatising one. I could make a spiritual self to watch her from the outer soul but it seemed I couldn't enter the realm of the 'whole of my being' as Elora called it. Apparently that was for her and her alone.
No voices and no problems awaited her within and each success boosted her confidence more. She had yet to sit on the black throne that called out to her, still wanting to wait to make sure it was safe and I was fine with that. She seemed to still be able to control the Forge to use her Gifts even without it's use, so I didn't push her to see what would happen should she sit her physically manifested self upon it. After all, if it wasn't affecting her abilities then it could be relegated to a problem for another day, one where we had experienced Knights and Smiths to ask for advice. That is, if our Bond wasn't broken as soon as we saved the King and Queen.
“Orin? Concentrate!” Elora snapped, drawing me out of my thoughts and into the eyes of my severe looking Smith. She had certainly become a force of nature over the last couple of days, almost as if she wanted to make up for the time lost avoiding me.
“Yes, instructor!” I shouted, causing her to frown even more to stop herself from smiling. That was annoying, she had a nice smile.
“Feel the Dark. Let it pull you towards it, but not too far. You don't want to be lost in the river's current.”
“Okay, what the fuck does that one mean?” I asked, exasperated. “Elora, I get Knighthood is seen as a mystical and secret art, but all these sayings are confusing. Should I let the river take me, or shouldn't I? How do I 'feel the Dark'? What does the Dark feel like anyway?”
Elora grinned sheepishly, a tinge of red adorning her pale cheeks, “Honestly, I don't really know. Vera and mother used to say these things to Cellus, trying to train him to feel his Element before we Bonded. 'Feel the Flame', 'let the Flame flow through you.'”
I sighed, “Well, that sounds about right. Vaguely getting to the point in a roundabout sort of way is pretty bloody mystical. Though I doubt the Dark feels the same as the Flame.”
Elora bit her inner lip in thought. “Maybe you're right. I do know that a Weapon can be used as a catalyst for working with your Element, allowing you to sense and manipulate it with more efficiency. That's not really an option for us but...”
“Yeah,” I grumbled, “Even Knights and Smiths who have known each other for years can't just create a Weapon on the spot. I get it, but not to worry, we're still superhuman, and with the help of the Forge we're that much more in control.”
For some reason, I thought Elora flinched when I said we couldn't create a Weapon. She must be feeling pretty bad about it. Sure, it would help a lot, but we have other ways of being useful. Besides, I might get the hang of summoning my Element before we go into battle. I didn't really have a basis for that belief but still, anything was possible. If I'd learned anything since the wedding it was that fact.
The need to learn how to harness my Element had only been recently added to my list of assigned tasks by my demanding teacher. Since I couldn't really practice my physical skills while Bonded without potentially killing someone, Elora had decided I take a proactive approach to mastering my Element. That is to say, my secondary Element, an offshoot and resulting effect of my primary, which I was still unable to work out the meaning of. What does the colour of silver represent?
I had asked Elora when we had first begun this training and we had banged our heads together to try and get to the bottom of it, but nothing came to mind. What was caused by Darkness? Or what was connected to Darkness in such a way that they were entangled together? I had no idea and the Princess didn't either. The most we got out of those few precious hours was deciding that my Element was esoteric by it's very nature and would require a lot of 'internal seeking' by me to understand fully. More vague sayings, but at least it fit the vagueness of my Element so I wasn't too frustrated. Why did I have to get this complicated shit? Couldn't I just have gotten something simple like Water or Earth?
“You going back in?” I asked.
Elora nodded firmly, “Yes. I want to try and create your Gift of Speed before the battle, but all the Ideas that come to mind are too weak and shallow. I don't want to rush and make a mistake like I did with Healing.”
“You know, I might have an Idea that-”
“Hush,” Elora snapped, her eyebrows pulling together furiously, “I need to come up with the Idea myself, Orin. If it comes from another, it won't be mine and the Gift will be false. It has to come from me.”
“Ah, yeah,” I bobbed my head in understanding, “You mentioned that before. Okay, consider me hushed. Won't hear another word from me.”
Elora's expression softened, “Thank you. I'm sorry, I just really want to give you every advantage I can before we start fighting. There is going to be quite a few Knights there, all of which are going to want to try and cut off your head.”
“Don't remind me,” I grimaced. I was not a coward, but it would be a fool who did not feel a slight tremble of fear at the thought of going up against near immortal killing machines that had been Knights quite a bit longer than you had. Still, that bit of fear was quenched by the tremendous tremor of excitement that ran through my body at the thought being in such a cataclysmic battle. “Not to mention your mother and father. I doubt they will be happy to have their daughter turn up with a Knight who is not her husband,”
Elora closed her eyes and began to take deep breaths. Another thing we had begun to work on was the speed and distance which she could activate Etherin. Right now, if we are touching it works faster than if we are not. The end goal, according to Elora, is to be able to trigger Etherin from a couple of feet away and have it be just as fast as if we were in physical contact. That, however, was a long way off. That was the kind of mastery that Vera and Annabelle were capable of, not something the newly Bonded could hope to achieve in the short time we had. Still, Elora hoped that by repeating the steps over and over again, she would be able to Bond with me much more quickly than we had during the wedding, or since, in the hopes of saving a few valuable seconds. “Yes. That might be a problem. Father will be fine with it, I know he will. My only concern is mother. She was very committed to the idea of me Bonding with Cellus. It was her that took the idea to the Duke and Duchess of Sind in the first place. We just have to hope that she can put her issues aside until after we set her free. Did you speak to Boldrin about that?”
I nodded at the Princess, forgetting for a moment that she had her eyes closed. “Yeah, We've cobbled together some ideas but until we see what we're dealing with it's all just theory. Hopefully one of them will pan out.” I hoped so, at least. While Boldrin and I had spoken several times over the last two days about possible plans, each of them usually ended in severe casualties for us, if not outright extinction. We would need to be subtle. Obviously, charging an enemy army of such a size was not a option. We would need to explore other methods, ones which the band were thankfully practiced in.
“I know you'll figure it out, Orin. I trust you.” Elora opened her eyes and smiled at me, causing my heart to beat a little faster.
I grinned back, “Good to know. At least I'm good for something. Learning to harness an Element is proving to be a little harder than I first imagined,”
Elora shook her head, “Only you could be unhappy with your progress. Over the last two days the strides you've made with compression alone would make any newly Bonded envious.”
I had managed to make some decent progress in that department. I still felt the pain during compression training, but now it was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. The Forge was helping me, letting me jump straight down into my soul without a half hour of infuriating meditation exercises. At that point, it just depended on how much pain you could take before you stopped. As I had proven in the past, I can take a fair amount before I'll give in.
I looked to my black flames now, noticing how calm they were compared to when I had made the opening for Elora during the wedding. Then, they had looked monstrous and unstoppable, an all-consuming inferno that would annihilate anything in their path. Now they were far more sedate, calmer. While still far from the level of Vera, my only guideline in terms of soul compression, I had brought in the flames by another half inch, something that took me almost two weeks of intensive exercises at the palace. I had no doubt that it would become harder the denser they became, but I was optimistic for the future. Soaking your soul with your sub-conscious was a draining process. Usually I was mentally exhausted by the end of my sessions. Last night I'm sure I had passed out because I fell asleep outside the wagon and woke up in a blanket inside. I had asked Elora how that had happened and she told me Tessa had half-dragged me inside and thrown covers over my sweating body. Important to note was that she didn't say a word to the Princess, who tried to start a conversation and was rebuffed by deafening silence.
I hadn't seen Tessa even once over the last two days. At least, not really. I had asked Boldrin how she was doing and he told me to give her time. She was still dealing with what had happened and wanted to be left alone. But now that I was aware of what she had told Elora I started feeling her eyes on me. I don't know how else to describe it. I would turn sharply to look at a spot where I believed her to be and see the flash of steely eyes or auburn hair and then nothing at all. She was watching, this much was certain. I thought about what that could mean? Had she always been like this, always watching me, always a step behind me? It certainly explained my misadventure with love in the Empire. I had been miles away from camp when my blood-thirsty former paramour tried to end my life and yet Tessa had been there at just the right moment to put a stop to it. Strange, and stranger still. Did Tessa have feelings for me? I had asked myself this question since the altercation with my Princess but I just couldn't reason it with what I already knew about her. Tessa paid attention to nothing and no one. I know she had been approached by several men, and women, since we had met, but I had never known her to be in a relationship with anyone, even a fleeting one. All who asked were immediately rejected and gifted with a look that promised death should they touch her. No, that couldn't be it. So what? What was this secret of hers?
I had promised her I wouldn't push and so I wouldn't. She needed time to come to terms with telling me whatever it was she needed to get off her chest. I would be there for her when the time came, of that I was certain. She was a fool if she thought that something she had done would stop me from treating her the same. I mean, how big could it be?
Famous last words.
I chuckled softly, drawing the attention of Elora who was once again running through the initial steps of Etherin.
“Are you okay?” Elora asked, looking concerned, “You haven't slept much over the last few days. Maybe you should take a nap?”
I shrugged, “I'll sleep when we're on the road. Right now I want to try and do something with this Element.”
Elora frowned, “If you are sure, but don't push too hard. You'll need to be well-rested when we reach Dunwellen.”
I nodded, “Understood.”
“Alright, call if you need me,” Elora took another deep breath and reached out towards my hand, her eyes closed and unseeing, trusting that I would be there.
I took her hand and watched her run through Etherin, much faster than she had done when we had fled the palace. It took only around five seconds for her to turn into light and break apart into those breathtaking petals before sinking into my chest. I immediately closed my eyes when she was gone and appeared within the void surrounding my black flames. It had become my custom to watch her sink into my inner soul, just in case she was accidentally caught up in my memories again.
I needn't have worried as her glowing soul of light and water, streaked with reds and golds, entered with not a hitch. I waited a few more seconds to make sure that she wasn't having any problem before I moved my consciousness back up to my physical body. I don't know if saying up was the right way to put it. Did direction even mean anything in a place like that? A place so far removed from the physical world? Who knows, but if I start pondering the mysteries of the soul space now, I'll never get anything done.
I opened my eyes to find myself alone and sitting next to our wagon. As always, my body was strengthened even without the aid of a Gift. I was stronger, faster and with far greater senses than before. It was a rush akin to a drug and I allowed myself to bask in it for a just a moment. Better to do so now than later, when I was unsure if Elora and I would be Bonded. I would treasure the memories we had together if that was the case.
I pushed myself upright with a single finger, smelling the clear air that washed down from the distant White Peaks and the feeling of the wind brushing against my skin. I could clearly see the flat plains that surrounded the wagons of the band, so beautiful despite their simplicity, devoid of tree's and shrubbery, but the blades of tall grass rustling against each other was something of a symphony to my ears. What a rush.
I wished I could enjoy it more but I had some work to do of my own. Elora was trying her hardest to come up with an Idea for her Speed Gift, so I had to match her with my ability to summon my Element.
Since we had begun this training, Elora had been clear to implicitly tell me that summoning an Element was perhaps the hardest part of a Knight's training. To do so meant having to literally bind yourself to it fully. To achieve a state of being that allowed you to tether yourself to the primordial. I think I might have lucked out with the Dark Element in that respect, as every Knight born of House Brand had an affinity for Darkness. The Princess knew more about it than others in the sense of what it could do in combat, but not so much about how to actually manifest the bloody thing.
I closed my eyes and went to my knees, adopting one of the meditation poses that Elora had taught me back at the palace. While I wasn't a great fan of the method, I could understand why many found it soothing. There was something to be said for emptying your mind of troubling thoughts and giving into the eternal and all that good shit.
But right now, I was focusing on filling my mind with one very specific thought. That being, the Element of Dark. I pictured my black flames and immediately appeared before them in my soul space. I watched as they moved, twisting and turning, silver sparks flying off the tips of their tongues. They were quieter than normal due to Elora. Her being within had a soothing effect on them and I'm hoping that would help me glean some kind of insight into how Darkness worked or how it would manifest itself out in the real world.
So what did I know? The Dark was often seen as nefarious. The night held dangers, the promise of a dagger in the back, a silenced voice in an alley, the pain of a death hidden from view. But there was also safety to be found there. The Dark could be a blanket, warm and inviting. A held breath wreathed in shadow to ward off those who wanted to do you harm. I knew about the Dark, I realised. I had used it many times in my life, both as a weapon and as a shield. But for some reason I saw it as more ambivalent. The Dark was not a conscious being, it merely was. As sure as the sun would rise in the morning, darkness would come with it's descent and the moon's rise.
The moon? Was there anything to that? No, the moon was merely a harbinger of the Dark, it had no real tie to it. For a second I thought my silver sparks could be related but immediately dismissed the thought. For one, I don't even know what a Moon Element would manifest itself as and two, the moon was a body of light. It tried to banish the Dark wherever it could. The moon was just a weaker reflection of the sun.
So how do I proceed? I know what lies in the night, I know the power of the Dark, know how to use it best if I had that power. But how do I make contact? How do I penetrate the seemingly impenetrable void that veiled my Element from view with logical thought?
It was then that I had something of an epiphany. I was right: An Element, an ancient force as old as our world and older still, would never be able to communicate with me using reason or words. It was much like my soul in that it was instinct, instinct born of need and nothing more. How do you communicate with something like that? Well, the same way that my soul communicated with me. Emotion and memory.
Elora had perhaps been half right in what she had told me. She had said to 'feel the Dark', to let it flow through you. But to let it flow through me I needed something powerful for it to latch onto. It was like an invitation, one which was seeped in it's essence and it's very concept.
I pictured a scene in my head. Another of my memories, but this a happy, if slightly stressful, one. Pater and I had just robbed a Noble who had wandered on down from the inner city. He had been without guard, night had begun to fall, and us two aspirational little sneak-thieves were out to make a killing that evening.
For twenty minutes we had stalked our pray. The Dark had been with us then, I remembered it so clearly. In fact, the more I thought on it the more I recalled. I remembered the stench of piss on the cobbles, the alluring scent of Mr. Pasto's bakery just down the way, how it had made my stomach rumble and mouth water. The feeling of that cold stone beneath my feet, shoes half rotted with holes in their bottoms, and the areas of soft dirt or wet mud that punched through. I fled the light, kept to the shadows and moved with caution. In my hand was no dagger but a tin lid from the Sister's tea pot. Pater was similarly armed with a heavy piece of wood that he had managed to dig out of the trash on the Old Road.
The Noble was unaware of the danger that dwelt in the Dark and continued onwards, spinning a golden pocket watch that might have been expensive, but Pater and I received a mere handful of copper for.
Eventually the target slipped. He hadn't been watching his surroundings, eyes having not adjusted. I struck fast and silently, the street empty and devoid of people. The blow with my weapon was mighty. I had been young then, only eleven winters had I seen, but I had always been strong. I connected and the man hit the ground, groaning and grasping as he tried to figure out what had happened. Pater came in from the side and, using skills he had honed and mastered through years of use, robbed the man blind. Before he had even realised what had happened Pater and I had faded back into the background. Back into the shadows. Back into the Dark.
I felt something. A tickle at the edge of my awareness, a slither of something that was neither good nor evil, but merely was. It was great and vast. It touched all things and nothing. It was the seen and the unseen. Safety and danger. Hope and despair, all rolled into one presence of immense weight and an ageless, incommunicable wisdom.
It was the Dark, it had accepted my invitation. So great was my elation, so thunderous was my pride, that I slipped. My concentration wavered for a moment and it was gone, returning back down to whence it came, somewhere as unknowable as the Dark itself.
“Fuck,” I muttered as I opened my eyes, wincing slightly as the light struck and nearly blinded me.
Shit, how long have I been sitting here?
“Well, what the fuck was that?” A voice came at me from the side and I turned with bleary eyes to focus on the speaker.
It was Padma, Dumas and Tacitus. I needn't have been surprised, one usually followed another. They hadn't spoken to me in the two days since they had seen me lose my shit against Tessa. I had thought them angry at me still, why were they here?
“What was what?” I asked, stretching myself to my feet with ease. An ease that was too great to have been from my own efforts. Elora must still be working. I yawned in exhaustion. I honestly did not expect to make as much progress as I did but that was still amazing. Feeling something like that, something that powerful, it really put into perspective where I stood in this world of the strong over the weak. That presence was one that could demolish Vera without a second thought and it had answered my call. How much of it's power would I eventually be able to use, once I had joined myself to it? I didn't know the answer and something told me I was still quite a long time away from being able to use even a fragment of what I had just felt. Still, though. The more I learned about Knighthood, the more secrets I gleaned insight into, the deeper I delved. All of it only made me want to go further.
“You know, the black things coming out of your body?” Padma asked, like I was an idiot. “Is that a Knight thing?”
I blinked at her stupidly, “What was coming out of what?”
“It was like black smoke. An obsidian vapour that seemed to drink in the light of the sun, letting none escape. It emerged from your arms, your legs, even your head.” Trust Tacitus to be poetic about it. Still, I had actually managed to manifest something?! That's amazing! What does it mean? I need to ask Elora.
I stopped myself before I could. I didn't want to break her concentration like mine was broken mere moments ago. That was by my own excited foolishness, but still, it would not be pleasant to have to deal with the Princess' wrath when she was busy working on a new Gift.
“That was my Element,” I replied smugly, “Darkness.”
Dumas snorted, “Of course a little pickpocket like you would be able to use Darkness.”
“Who was that Knight in Andapa that one time? You know the one, Tacitus. He could control swords or something?”
“Ah!” Tacitus tapped his head in remembrance, “Of course, Lord Odut. He could control metal I believe.”
“Yeah, that's him!” Padma cried out and turned to me excitedly, “Do that, Orin! Fly your sword about!”
I looked at the girl incredulously, “I can't just fucking fly swords about. My Element isn't Metal, it's Dark.”
“Oh, that's pretty shit,” Padma looked genuinely downcast, “Fine. Do something with your Darkness magic then,”
I would have pulled my hair out if I could, “I can't just use it. I've only been a Knight for three weeks, I need more time to actually figure out what the fuck I'm doing,”
Dumas giggled, “I knew it! Orin can't do shit!”
“I can fucking do this,” I grumbled and shot forwards, drawing my sword on the fly and appearing in front of a suddenly bewildered looking Dumas. I was nowhere near as fast as I was with Strength and Thought, but I was much faster than all three of them expected. Before they could even think to move for their weapons, or jump to the side in Tacitus' case, the tip of blade was directly in front of Dumas' throat.
“Holy shit-eating Spirit! Orin, that was awesome!” Dumas threw his arms in the air, his body shaking aand eyes alight with excitement.
I looked at him with wonder. Seems Dumas was easily impressed. I hadn't even been at full power.
“Oh, Orin, Orin! Do me next!” Padma moved to the side and spread her arms out wide, tilting her head back and giving me open access to her throat.
“I will sit this one out, Orin. That was impressive, though. Yes, very impressive.” As bewildered as Dumas looked, Tacitus looked even worse. The would be bard looked fit to fall over, but settled for leaning against my wagon and taking a few deep breaths.
I chuckled at the antics of the three fools, “That's enough for now, I think. Why are you all here?”
Padma immediately looked disheartened, but perked up slightly when I asked her what they were doing. “We're here to say sorry. We didn't really believe you went crazy and attacked Tessa for no reason.”
“Well, you kind of did, Padma. Remember? You said 'Orin looked like he was crazy and attacked Tessa for no reason'. Remember? Padma?” Tacitus quipped between great breaths.
Padma narrowed her eyes at the bard. “One day, Tacitus. I swear to the Spirit, one day.”
“What we're saying is, we're sorry for thinking that. We didn't know about that Bond thing and we took it out on you. You're family. Should have given you the benefit of the doubt,” Dumas looked like every word of his apology was causing him pain, but I would take it regardless.
“No trouble,” I grinned, “I was going to come and see all of you at one point anyway, to apologise.”
“What about Tessa, Orin?” Padma asked curiously, “Have you spoken to her since the fight? No one has seen her in two days, didn't even go and get her wound seen to.”
Really? What was she up to? I knew for a fact she was watching me, though even expanding my senses met with no results. Tessa had always been better at stealth training than I was.
I shrugged at Padma. “No idea. I'm sure she's alright though. I've seen her a couple of times.”
“How'd she look?” Dumas asked seriously.
“Didn't give me a chance to look. Soon as I see her she takes off. Got no idea why, but you know what she's like. Tess will turn up eventually.”
“Of course, she will!” Tacitus proclaimed, seemingly recovered from his bout of shock upon viewing my Knightly powers. “Fair Tessa is a woman of beauty, poise and remarkable self-awareness. I have no doubt that she will return to us in due course!”
Padma rubbed her temples with her fingers. “One day... one day... one day. Orin, Alec and Boldrin want us on the move. Mildred will be driving your wagon again. I was supposed to tell you and the Princess... where is she anyway?”
I pointed vaguely towards my chest as an answer and received a knowing look in response. “Understood, well, we'd best be off. See ya, Orin!”
Tacitus and Padma waved in farewell while Dumas punched me hard in the shoulder. It would have hurt had I still been a mere man, but it was him who walked away cursing at his bruised knuckles. Ah, the perks of being a Knight.
I debated whether to disturb Elora again but decided against it. I was excited to tell her about my progress with my Element but the work she was doing was a literal manner of life and death. I would speak to her when she was done.
I climbed into the back of the wagon and leaned against it's side. Another unfortunate consequence of being on the move constantly was that the wagon was once again filled with the band's supplies, something which I found disturbed my sleep greatly, though had nearly no effect on the Princess. Something I both cursed and was glad for. She had lost too much sleep to nightmares, she deserved her rest.
I listened as Mildred climbed onto our wagon, shouting instructions at the followers that were gathered around her like chicks, I tuned all of that out and focused outwards to the large swathes of flatlands that surrounded our little company. I didn't know how she was doing it, but I knew she was out there somewhere. Keeping an eye on me.
“You can ride with us in the wagon, you know.” I called out, looking for any sign of movement. “I don't know why you're doing this, Tess, but I know you wouldn't do it without reason. Will you please come and ride with us?”
Silence greeted my calling and I sighed in frustration. She was very good, even with my enhanced senses she was remaining hidden away. I don't think I can take much more of this. She was a friend, she was family, but there had to be a limit to what I'd put up with. Following me around without me knowing was definitely tickling the very defined edges of those limits.
“Alright. We'll speak soon,” I called again, trying to sound positive and feeling like I'd failed miserably.
“Ready to go?” Mildred cried out from the front of the wagon and I wrapped my knuckles against the wooden floor in response, leaning against the canvas covering and realising just how exhausted I was. We started moving as Mildred gently nudged the horses forward.
It had been a short break, but touching something as vast as the very concept of Darkness seemed to have taken a little of the wind out of my sails. I can't believe I had figured it out so fast. But could I call upon the power I had tapped into, however briefly, at will? Not even close. I just didn't know how. Contacting the bloody thing was one thing, learning to harness it's awesome power was something else entirely. Elora just didn't have the experience or training needed to show me how. The one plus in my favour was that I had managed to manifest it, if Padma, Tacitus and Dumas were to be believed. Was that normal? Possibly. Again, it came back to asking the Princess.
Speaking of, Elora had decided to make an appearance. Golden light left my chest and expanded, consolidating into the form of my Smith, who flopped down on the other side of the wagon. Her eyes were closed, her face was red and her breathing irregular. She still managed to look beautiful despite that though, even wearing the simple dress that she had borrowed from one of the band girls.
“Princess? You alright?” I asked, slightly concerned. She was exhausted, more so than usual.
Elora opened her eyes and fixed me with a stare that ran me up and down from head to toe. Her examination went on for a few seconds, before she leaned her head back against the canvas, a satisfied smile on her face.
“That was tough. I was afraid that I would hurt you in there. I took the risk, but it was close.”
I frowned, “What was close?”
The Princess grinned at me, “I fixed Healing. At least, I made it slightly better. I expanded upon the Idea. It was dangerous. I could have crippled the Gift. But all's well that end's well.”
“You fixed Healing? That's amazing!” I exclaimed, leaning over to give her an examination of my own. She seemed to be fine, just exhausted. She would improve after a night of solid rest.
“You don't know the half of it,” Elora laughed, resting her head against one of the piles of tents that filled our wagon. “Couldn't get Speed. I don't know why, it's just not coming to me. Not like Strength or Thought. Spirit, not even like Healing.” Elora winced as she shifted her head, “I just hope it holds together.”
“Don't worry about Speed. We can get by without it,” I placed a hand on Elora's forehead to check her temperature. Shit, she felt like she was burning up. “You're not looking so good, Princess. Rest, close your eyes.”
“No... can't yet. Need to tell you,” Elora yawned before continuing, “Fixed Healing. Now instead of a below average Gift it is a slightly below average Gift. I used more imagery in the Idea. Flowers, the gardens, all could be used to expand on the Idea of growth. Still weak, because it doesn't mean much to me or to you. But still, we'll be able to push our Healing ability a little further now. If it was this strong back during the wedding, I could have healed you back to peak health instead of just doing the bare essentials needed to keep you alive.”
“That will come in handy,” Already I was thinking of the applications. I didn't plan to be hurt often, but it was nice to know that any wounds I obtained in the heat of battle wouldn't stick around for long. “I made some progress of my own. I managed to contact my Element, at least for a moment.”
Elora's half closed eyes opened wide in surprise and excitement. “You what?! Orin, that's unbelievable.”
I chuckled at that, “I know! It was surreal, being touched by something so vast. But the power, Elora. By the Spirit, it left Vera in the dust.”
“Tell me everything!” Elora declared and I was more than happy to do so. I explained how I had used emotion and memories of the moment when the Element had been the most involved in my life to make contact. I tried to describe the feeling of my spirit self meeting that entity, but I don't think I could really do it justice. My Smith listened attentively and nodded along at the opportune times. I enjoyed talking to her about things like this. After all, there was no one else who was interested or could keep up.
“I wasn't joking earlier, Orin. That is unbelievable. Even with a Forge's help, contacting your Element is among one of the hardest thing a young Knight can learn. Father told me that even at the Hall of Tyra, there are those who struggle to reach even that far in their first year, and that's with the advice of Masters!” Elora looked faintly disbelieving of my testimony but she powered on regardless. “That's with your secondary Element too and a manifestation, or something close to it. I don't really know what that means but it can only be a good thing, surely. I don't understand how it was so easy for you to do it with your secondary, it's supposed to be more difficult. At least that's what Annabelle told me about Vera.”
I shrugged, “Maybe Vera was wrong? Maybe Dark is my primary and the silver sparks are the secondary?”
Elora looked doubtful, “Possibly, but I've never known Vera to be wrong about something like this. You're getting stronger, Orin. Even though you are still behind a Knight who has trained since childhood, you're already making compression look easy after only a couple of weeks. Will you ever stop surprising me?”
I laughed and got more comfortable, my arm slightly touching Elora's “If I'm doing my job right then no, I don't think so.”
Elora laughed and leaned her head on my shoulder, the action easy and comfortable after all we've been through. “Perhaps not. I did have a little time to think in your inner soul while I was trying to conjure up an Idea for Healing,”
“Oh, and what did you think about?” I asked, the wagon rumbling beneath us as we moved.
“We're going to be meeting my parents soon, and we'll be surrounded by the most powerful Knights and Smiths in the Kingdom. I feel like we should have some kind of signal when it's getting too much for either of us, then we can delicately extricate ourselves from whatever situation we're in.”
“For some reason, I think this might be tailored towards me?” I asked smugly, “I am the uncultured one out of the two of us.”
Elora smiled, “Hardly uncultured, Orin. I seem to remember telling you that you speak more articulately than most Nobles I know.”
“Ah, I remember,” I replied, staring up fondly, “The young Princess Elora trying to butter me up so I wouldn't want to stick around as her Knight.”
“Well, I had to try,” Elora laughed jokingly, “Did it work?”
“Not even slightly, just made me want to stick around more,” I quipped, turning to face her, not realising how close we were.
“I... I'm glad you did,” Elora whispered softly, her eyes meeting mine. Once again I was startled by the colour of her eyes, that shifted so suddenly from one shade of gold to the next.
“So am I,” I said softly.
We sat there for a moment, locked in that space. My eyes were glued to hers and hers to mine and for a second, just for a second, I thought about doing something incredibly stupid.
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, the wagon went over a bump and we were thrown about a little, breaking the spell we had both been under. Elora ducked her head to lean it against my arm once again, hiding her face from view.
“So... so what do you think? About the signal?” Elora asked, a hitch in her breath.
“Good idea, Princess,” I replied, just as breathless though with no small amount of frustration thrown in for good measure. I wonder where that came from? “How about a word?”
“That could be fine,” The Princess replied musingly, “What should it be? Something that only means something to us, otherwise everyone's going to know about it. It should preferably be able to work in a sentence...”
“Gazebo!” I blurted out.
Elora snorted in a very unladylike fashion, “Gazebo? Really?”
I shrugged, “Why not? It's where we first met properly, not counting the wedding. Easy enough to work into a sentence.”
Elora laughed then and Spirit be damned if it wasn't the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard. “Gazebo? I like it. Then whenever we need the other's help we say gazebo and rush to their aid!”
I chuckled, “Sounds good, Princess.”
We sat together for a long while after that, talking about nothing in particular, until Elora's breathing settled down rhythmically and she fell asleep against my arm, the sun setting soon after.
I watched her sleep and bit my lip. I thought about the wedding. How she had Bound me, a common fool, to serve as her Knight. How after the fact, she hadn't abandoned me as I half expected her to and instead tried to make things right, spending time with me that I'm sure could have been better used elsewhere. I thought of her strength and conviction when she told me that she would be going after her parents with or without my help. I thought of her standing against Tessa. Unable to fight and with no way of winning, yet she still asked if the sharp-eyed mercenary was alright after the unexpected bout. Elora was strange to me, in a way that I myself didn't fully understand. She meant something more now than she did when we first met, more even than when we Bonded. She was important to me in a way that I couldn't put into words. Over the last few days I had thought hard about what she had said after the fight with Tess. That the thought of losing me, losing the Bond was almost too much for her to take. I had been trying to figure out a way to stay in her life since then, trying to find a way to avoid the Bond being removed but I was coming up empty. I know that the creation of a Weapon could prevent such a thing, but even if we could, Elora still had feelings for Cellus and didn't want to betray him like that. I understood, I truly did. That didn't stop me from hating it.
I sighed and leaned back against the packed tents and crates that provided a not so luxurious headrest, tearing my eyes off of my Smith's lovely blonde locks.
“If I could, I would keep you.” I whispered even as my own eyes began to shut, my own forays into the mystical and mysterious secrets of the Knights and Smiths pulling me down and deep into the heady allure of a sound sleep. The moment before my consciousness fled, I thought I heard something, a voice, quiet and demure. It was so faint that I convinced myself I hadn't heard anything at all.
“I would like that.”