“Did you know that man?” I asked Keon when we had distanced ourselves from the inn.
“I might’ve seen him around before, but we’ve never spoken. I knew nothing of him, really. He was a strange sort, and I don’t just mean the drinking.”
“Agreed,” I said, squirming uncomfortably at the thought of his breath in my ear.
"How's your arm? Did he grab the one you injured?"
"He did. I'm sure it's alright, though." I actually wasn't certain, but I didn't want Keon to make a fuss over it. Blood certainly hadn't leaked through my coat, at the very least.
As I sought a diversion from the topic of my infirmity, my mind returned to Fia. “I’m afraid I don’t quite remember the way to the stables.” I looked down one of the cobblestone intersections, the ice of which had melted since this morning’s frost.
Keon hesitated before speaking. “I need to apologize, Oliana.”
I looked over. “For what?” The fact that he had addressed me by my full name alarmed me.
He stopped in his tracks, so I followed suit, crossing my arms carefully to hold in the warmth of my woolen coat. “I’ve been making a mistake, asking you to do something I wouldn't do. I’ve been telling myself that I’m being strong by appearing numb, by holding my reaction to the deaths of my fellow bandits inside.” His face darkened into melancholy. “But sometimes, I think, the thing that demonstrates the most strength in a situation like this is allowing one’s vulnerability to show. I think I learned that little contradiction from you,” his eyes met mine as he smiled weakly.
“I’ve known some of those elves my whole life. Some of them were my closest friends, not that a coarse sort like me has many of those to begin with.” He released a trembling laugh and looked skyward, the tension of his mind manifested in the muscles of his neck. His face had gone ruddy along with his eyes, and I realized he was actually tearing up. “And, had I lost the old elf…. I cannot bear to think of it.” His mouth contorted strangely with something between frustration and hurt. My own face bore a mixture of compassion and confusion.
“I’m not saying this to try to make you feel guilty, dear. I know that giant was after you, but it’s not your fault that any of that happened. I’m just telling you because…. You bear a certain look upon your face when you’re reflecting on loss. It’s beautiful and saddening all at once… and I saw it on you when you mentioned your village.” I tried to swallow the emotion welling up in my throat, but I could not keep it subdued. My lips began to tremble. Keon spoke very deliberately now. “I want to help you heal, but I can’t do that unless I understand where the wound is, and we all need help to heal at times, dear. The sooner we recognize that need when it’s there, the sooner we can recover… or at the very least scar over.”
One day, I told myself, I’ll be strong enough to master my own emotions. But true maturity, it seems, takes time, and I’ve been through far more hardship than most my age. For now, I admitted to myself, I needed support.
I buried my face in Keon’s shoulder as my arms encircled him. I sobbed quietly for a few minutes, and he patiently stroked my hair. When I finally pulled away, he kissed my forehead, a gesture I found undeniably soothing.
“King Gillireth sent the letter and left it with the frost giant in case it failed to kill me,” my voice still quivered weakly, but I felt a strange euphoria from the release. “He… he said he’d slain my entire village,” I gasped and took a moment before continuing. “He said he no longer cared about killing innocents, so long as it meant my suffering. He seeks Dechar’s life, of course, but he wants me to know the pain he felt when he lost everything he loved. He means to torture me with the deaths of many!” My throat was as raw as my heart. “He found someone to put a curse on the healing spring. Dechar is in grave danger--everyone I know is in danger--and there’s nothing I can do.” I still hadn’t stopped sobbing, and I felt like a blubbering fool, but a burden had begun to lift.
Keon lifted my chin with a gentle hand and met my eyes with the blue of his own. “Thank you for telling me, dear. I’d like to point out a few things that may be of some comfort to you. Firstly, didn’t that fortune teller say you have a wonderful fate? There’s hope yet.
"And now I’d like to pose this idea to you: what if he was lying? It would be practical of him, in a horrible, evil sort of way. By telling you that he’s harmed your clan, he’s breaking down your resolve, which is what he really wants. He wouldn’t need to go through all the trouble of actually killing them. Or perhaps he expects you to abandon your current situation and fly back to your clan to verify that what he says is true. In this way, he could lure you into a trap. In either case, dear, he need not waste his time killing your innocent clan members.”
Hope began to spark inside of me, but it was faint. “But he said… he said the giant’s reward for killing me would have been the valley where I once lived.”
“And that might’ve been so, but then, wouldn’t it be most practical in that case to let the giant do the killing himself? I can see how he would have been quite capable of it, and I don’t see the king caring much either way who would win.” He paused to sigh. “You may be right, dear. Gillireth might’ve been telling the dark truth. But surely you must see that your little village might just as easily be in tact. And, might I add, either way, it would not be your fault.”
I allowed the tightness which had inhabited my chest ever since reading the letter to subside. What Keon had said was true. Gillireth knew how to wage war, and he had many tricks at his disposal. This might have been one of them. I couldn’t trust an abomination like him about anything.
“Thank you, Keon,” I said, squeezing him once more. “I can’t describe how much better I feel. It seems the most powerful weapons Gillireth wields are fear and discouragement, and if I let those get to me, I’m only abetting him.”
“Exactly, dear.” Keon smiled charmingly, his visage having recovered from his previous emotions. “I think we can agree that communication is essential for any successful relationship, wouldn’t you say?” he held out his arm in an offer to escort me. I appeased him despite his reference to a dubious ‘relationship’ and slipped my right arm into his, but my thoughts of weapons and war had unfortunately reminded me of something else important which I hadn’t told Keon.
“It’s my turn to apologize,” I started as we continued to walk toward the stables.
“That’s quite alright, dear, I know you wish you’d told me sooner.”
“Yes, Keon, but… there’s something else I ought to have told you sooner, and it’s becoming more and more clear to me now.”
“When I had my fortune told, I learned many things. I learned more about my role in all of this.”
“All of what, exactly, dear?” Keon raised a brow.
“Keon, there’s….” I leaned in closer toward him and lowered my voice in case any passerby might have heard. “There's more to this than Gillireth seeking revenge on Dechar and me. I... I think there’s going to be a war. Dechar's fate is to make peace between humans and the Dechi; I'm almost certain desperate measures must be taken to achieve that. I was told that Dechar and I must work together to take the kingdom, to liberate Eirethstead.” Misgiving fell upon Keon's face like a shadow. “I don’t know when or even how all of this will happen, and it’s obvious how completely unprepared I am as of yet, but… you’re in more danger for just knowing me than you might've realized. And… and I understand if you want me to leave, but--”
“Oliana, my whole life has been dangerous, and I’d not have had it any other way,” he looked at me adoringly such that it caused me to blush. “I’ll follow you to war if that’s what this comes to. For the liberation of Eirethstead and for the liberation of the Alfar, and for--” he reddened and glanced down at the road before looking at me again. “I’ll follow you.”