I stood a moment with my eyes still closed after the touch of Dechar’s hand had left mine. A sickness crept over me from what I had done. I tried to imagine his reaction. Was he sad? Angry at me? At Ylva, perhaps? But I could do nothing to comfort him now, and I would have to learn to live without his companionship for a season. I heard Keon’s voice behind me and realized I had been crying.
“Well, good riddance,” he’d said at first. Then, seeing my tear-drenched face, he changed his tone. “I’m sorry, dear, but you said yourself that this is for the best. He’ll be alright with the she-wolf looking after him.” I felt Keon’s hand on my shoulder and shrugged it off as I wiped my face dry.
“I’m going for a ride,” I said, lifting the handkerchief over my cheeks.
“Alright,” he said gingerly. “We’ll be leaving in an hour or two, though, so don’t get left behind.”
“It won’t take long, I just--” my voice faded as I retreated into my thoughts. “--need to clear my head.”
Clear it indeed. The moment Dechar had left, I had been reminded far too well of all the people I’d lost. All my connections to the life I’d once lived in the Veringrove Clan had been severed, or at least for now. But I carried that loss with me. I carried my mother, my father, my brother. My memories. And as weighty as my regrets and losses were, they carried me. They had made me what I was that day. They had given me a purpose, a mission.
If I wanted to end Gillireth’s reign, I had to come to terms with the fact that I would have to make sacrifices; I had already realized this. But along with my resolve, I would have to fortify my mind. I would have to turn my weaknesses into my strengths. I was emotional, yes, and sometimes that got in my way. But if I could learn to redirect those emotions as the adult I’d newly become, I could turn a negative into a positive, just as I’d done with my memories. If I could defy my caprice and hone my feelings for good, my enemies couldn’t shake me. And I had the feeling that it was only a matter of time before I would face those enemies.
As I hoisted myself over Fia’s withers, all of these thoughts blew like a swift, harsh breeze through my mind. At moments like this, back in the valley, I would go for a ride on Dechar. Fia could never replace him, but I thought perhaps that a ride might still provide some sanctuary from my troubles.
Once again, I experienced the sensation of weightlessness as the mare’s wings brought us airborne, but this was a far different experience than that which I’d had on my initial flight. In the light of the morning, I could easily see just how high we were above the trees. Initial panic turned into thrill as I watched the tiny world pass by far beneath my feet. All my troubles were left down there, but here in the sky, where Fia’s hooves kissed the pearly clouds, was escape.
A wellspring of emotion flowed up from my heart into laughter. Once I felt confident enough in my balance, I lifted my arms out to my sides to embrace the chilling gusts of winter.
But it didn’t last long. Guilt was a truly potent adversary, and clearing its poison from my blood altogether would be one of my greatest challenges. I missed Dechar. I missed my most loyal friend. My friend I’d deceived. I’d exploited his pure intentions and lied to him, and there was no taking that back. It wasn’t as simple as leaving the past on the ground, behind, beneath me. This went far deeper than the physical. Guilt could even reach such heights as this. My last resort to cope was to let a pervading numbness flow over and harden around my heart. But I knew my emotions would break through again, as they always did. Nothing could hold them in forever. Not even nothingness.
Trying to turn my focus to less upsetting matters, I took a moment to use the altitude to my advantage in order to get my bearings of this unfamiliar countryside. There behind me were the walls of Stromton peeking out from the clouds, and below me lay woods of pine. Before me, darker clouds obstructed my view. There was something foreboding about them, as if they were a warning of what dangers lay ahead. But I would face them when the time came. I would face them for all I’d lost and all I had yet to love.
My body and heart had had enough of the cold winds, but I wasn’t ready to return to the bandits. I flew back until I could see them through a clearing, then landed my steed a ways off. From the tilt of Keon’s sandy head when it had come into view, I suspected he’d seen me.
Fia landed softly among pine needles. There was a little brook not far from our landing site, and as I led her with a gentle hand beneath her jawline, we walked over for a drink. A grey light sifted down from the treetops and dappled her iridescent wings, bringing out the green and purple hues that were often masked in black. She seemed quite unaware of her awe-inspiring appearance as she quietly sipped.
I had only spent a few moments basking in the quietude before the familiar interruption of Keon’s voice came through the trees. “Enjoy your ride, dear? I must say, I envy you. A horse like that would be quite useful in scouting ahead. That’s normally my job, but seeing as that creature won’t allow me to ride it, you’ll have that responsibility." I turned to meet his eyes, and he seemed affected by my expression. He paused before he spoke again, searching my eyes in somber curiosity before remembering himself. "We’re about to head out. Orlo wants you to ride ahead of us, just above the trees, and let us know if you see any travelers. That way, we have time to decide whether it’s best to set an ambush or hide or simply state our demands.”
“State your demands?” I asked.
“Yes. You know, the whole, ‘Give us your money,’ speech. You might even be able to help with that part, as well. With any luck, today’s the day you’ll get a taste of the basics of banditry.”
This didn’t sound like what I’d had in mind when I’d asked to be taught a thing or two about stealth, weapons, and defense, but I decided to hold my tongue about it for the time being. Instead, I asked, “Where exactly is our next destination, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Keon’s face lit up in a hearty grin. “It’s a few days off, but we’re headed to a very special place, I assure you.” He didn’t express any desire to expound upon his statement, which elicited an eye roll from me.
“If I’ve told you everything from the king being my uncle to my experience with a fae, do you not think you should tell me about this place?”
“Fair enough,” he replied. “We’re going to a little town you’ve never heard of called Sekerheim. It’s a hidden home for the banished and unwanted, and thieves like us keep the place’s heart beating. I think you’ll rather like it.”