After a long, empty day of searching through the dales between the great hills of that strange land, we finally sought out some place to start a fire and settle in for the night. We found the right spot by a lake surrounded by some of the only trees I’d seen in hours. There was a cave carved out of the mountainside on its watery border, one that was large and vacant and dry. Its roof was angled upward such that the smoke from our fire would easily ventilate outside the cave. I guess it wasn’t such a bad spot.
“How do you feel? Ready to go back there?” I had my doubts since I was feeling tired myself after walking so many miles.
“I’m feeling better than I was earlier, that’s certain. I think I can make it to the spring if I go alone, and from there, I can make it back to the camp. I could just check on her for you to help you sleep tonight. It’s that or we wait ‘till morning and both go. It’s up to you.”
If I had been making the same decision a day before, I would have trusted Ylva to go on her own. But things had changed. I wanted to see Oliana and speak with her for myself, as soon as possible.
“We’ll wait ‘till morning. I want to be there.”
I looked at Ylva from across the fire. The orange flames contrasted her azure eyes in color and complemented them in intensity. She raised an inquisitive brow at my response, but replied with “Fair enough. I’ll go get some more wood for the fire, and then I think I’ll try to get some rest.”
I would have offered to get the wood myself, but I knew she would decline the offer, so it wouldn’t have been any use. She was stubborn like that. I caught her before she left the firelight.
“Sorry we didn’t find your tribe today.”
I saw her head bob in a sort of nod, though her face was turned to the twilight. She stepped out.
I don’t think I slept at all. It’s much easier to sleep on cold, hard surfaces when you’ve got your own layer of thick hair as a buffer. But I didn’t shapeshift on principle; I needed to get used to my two-legged form. And there was that bounty on my head. I probably wouldn’t have slept anyway, to be honest. I just kept the fire stoked and let Ylva sleep. But I could tell that she wasn’t getting much rest, either.
When enough sunlight had entered the cave, Ylva had finally slipped into a fairly deep sleep, but we needed to get going. I decided to wake her as gently as possible. She was peeved the last time I woke her up, after all. I crept over slowly and gently squeezed her arm. No response. I called her name.
“Ylva,” I whispered.
She moved a bit and frowned.
“Ylva,” a little louder.
She jerked, suddenly, before uttering the name of her late betrothed. “Liekos?” she called as she began to squint her eyes open. When her eyes grew wide, they did so with disappointment.
“Uh, sorry. No…. I was just thinking, it’s light out now. We should probably go back for Oliana, don’t you think?” That probably sounded insensitive.
She hesitated a minute before sitting up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, and answering. “Yes. Just be prepared. I’m not sure she can be convinced to join us.”
“You’d better hope she can. I don’t plan on helping anymore if it means I can’t look after her while doing it.”
She looked up at me as if I’d just told her there was no hope of her finding the survivors. I didn’t know why she gave me that look. It wasn’t like I was doing her much good by being there, anyway. What was I but dead weight and a little moral support? Certainly, I liked to consider us friends, but Oliana trumped any connection I had with Ylva far and away, as she had known well before we set off.
“Don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll find them with or without my help,” I said.
She didn’t offer an answer. We collected all that we’d packed and prepared for the return. “You know what to do,” Ylva said as she rested her hand on my shoulder. I shut my eyes only to open them to a dismally vacant forest.
Blood coursed through my veins as I sought out any sign, any clue of which direction the party had left.
I reeled toward Ylva in the midst of my search. “Are you positive this is the right spot?”
Her expression made evident that she was as shocked as I was. “I-- I’m sure. I recognize that big tree we were chained to.”
She motioned forward, and to my chagrin, I also recognized it. I could barely make out scratches on the bark from the chains rubbing.
“Did they say they were going somewhere?”
“I don’t know! I didn’t ask! I didn’t think it was of any concern,” she sunk down at the base of one of the trees as I continued to look.
“Maybe I could track their scent,” I said desperately.
“It’s too windy; it’d never work.”
Again, she was right. I hadn’t noticed it until its mention, but a wicked gale was sweeping through.
“They have to be trackable somehow,” I maintained.
“They’re bandits, Dechar. Do you really think they’re anything but experts at covering their tracks? Even if Oliana tried to give us some sort of sign of which direction she went, they wouldn’t have allowed it.”
My attitude plunged from frantic to despairing. I dropped to my knees and felt the frigid air slalom through the strands of what hair I had left. I closed my lids and tried to take comfort in the darkness.
Minutes passed before I felt Ylva’s touch at my back. “It’s up to Fate now. And Fate says you’ll be reunited when the time is right. Even if it’s your last resort to put your hope in such things, I suggest you grab hold of it now. You told me not to give up hope in finding my family. Oliana is your family, so to speak, and if I’ll find mine, I know you’ll find yours. Until then, let’s face it: we’re the closest thing to family each other has.”
It was then that I understood why my presence meant so much to her.