An Unexpected Departure

   Sorrel's focus snapped back to the present. The gate is open and something has come out. The words echoed through her mind as the cries had only seconds before. She could feel her heart racing and was aware that her breath was coming faster; Aryndor had gripped her by the shoulders and was staring almost madly into her eyes, desperately seeking her acknowledgement.

   “I hear you. Let me go,” Sorrel shrugged out from under Aryndor's hands and stepped back a pace. She folded her arms in front of her, although she was no longer cold.

   “The gate is open - ” Aryndor began again.

   “Be quiet and let me think,”  Sorrel interrupted irritably. She turned her back to Aryndor and shuffled back to the chair she had vacated moments before, her fingers brushing the top of the old scarred wooden table as she sat. The tea cup was in her hands again without her consciously thinking about picking it up; she took a sip of the tea, bitter from steeping too long. Her mind raced through all the possible scenarios, trying desperately to find some mistaken logical step – some violation of cause and effect that might have resulted in the opened gate.

   “You are certain that it is open?” Sorrel asked curtly. No use denying the gate's persistence – if  Aryndor had seen it, then they had not finished what they had intended all those years ago. Sorrel's stomach twisted into a knot again at the thought; she took another sip of tea, it seemed to help despite the bitterness.

   “Of course I'm certain,” Aryndor had calmed somewhat, but his gravely voice was tightly constrained from further outbursts. Sorrel could see the anxiousness in the set of his shoulders as he began pacing back and forth across the floor of her small cabin. There was pain; pain in seeing him so anguished. Once again she longed for the familiar numbness, but had yet to take hold.

   “There was a trail, pretty hard to miss,” Aryndor continued. “I followed it for as long as I could – for as long as I could stomach it,” Aryndor paused in his pacing, grimacing in memory. Sorrel could taste the bile at the back of her own throat, she swallowed another mouthful of the tea in an effort to suppress the horrible memories. The echoing cry welled up deep within her, but she willed herself to focus on Aryndor and to ignore its insistent demands.

   “There was only one?” Sorrel asked.

   “What?” Aryndor replied, shaking his head to clear his thoughts.

   “There was only one 'something' that escaped?” Sorrel repeated.

   “I don't know,” Aryndor looked at her quizzically. “What does it matter? One, two, fifty – it's all the same, and it's all bad news.”

   Sorrel nodded. Her knees felt weak at the thoughts of more than one. There was a chance though, however slim, that if there was more than one they may turn on one another. Although the most likely outcome of such a battle would still be at least one loose; and like Aryndor said, one is as bad as fifty. She found herself staring at the heavy chest at the foot of her narrow bed - Aryndor had nearly kicked it twice now in his rapid pacing. A large, rusted iron lock secured the heavy bolt threading the three rings riveted to the bands encircling the dried and cracked oak. Years had passed since the chest had last been opened, years since she last even considered it. It hadn't been so long ago, however, that she had thought of dragging it down to the mountain-fed lake at the bottom of the valley and pushing it into the deeps, beyond recovery.

   “What is it?” Aryndor asked. “What are you thinking?”

   Sorrel's gaze slowly rose from the chest to Aryndor's face. The light from the fireplace made the crags and valleys of his weathered features deeper and more pronounced than she remembered. Or perhaps that's the accumulation of seven more years of wear and age – of regret and misery. There was some comfort in that face, and Sorrel recognized suddenly that she may have been more lonely in her self-imposed exile than she had been prepared to admit to herself.

   With that thought, and with her eyes locked still on Aryndor's face, Sorrel realized that she had made a decision; she could no longer hide herself away in this peaceful and sheltered vale. If the gate remained open, it was her fault – her mistake and her mess to clean up. Sorrel wasn't yet so cynical that she could ignore her own responsibility and leave innocents to face the terror from beyond the gate.

   “We need to go back,” Sorrel replied. Aryndor's jaw clenched and he took a deep breath through his nose. Although he must have known what her response would be, Aryndor's reaction spoke of uncertainty and apprehension. Sorrel felt a wave of weakness wash over her and she was glad to be sitting, else her knees may have given way. The momentary lapse in concentration permitted a resurgence of the echoing cry, Sorrel closed her eyes and had to grip the table tightly as it nearly overwhelmed her. The tea cup rattled on the table and sloshed the reddish-brown liquid onto the table and Sorrel's hand; the heat brought her back to reality again.

   Aryndor was looking at her strangely, “Are you alright?” he asked.

   “I'm fine,” Sorrel responded angrily. The anger was for her own fragility – for her own presumed fallibility – but Aryndor was again on the sharp end of it. Sorrel saw the hurt in his eyes and looked away quickly so that she would not have to acknowledge it. He was like a closed book to most people Sorrel knew, but against her he had no defences; his every reaction written as clearly for her as though he had spoken aloud. Memories of a past long abandoned pushed to the forefront of her mind and she quelled them by beginning her preparations for departure.

   “Do you have horses?” Sorrel asked while rummaging through the accumulated litter on her single bookshelf, looking for the key to the iron-bound chest.

   “I have two,” Sorrel looked around quickly, surprised after his reaction that he would have made the assumption that she would join him. He caught her look and held up a hand, “Two for riding fast. I was pushing hard to find you and I didn't want to run the risk of burning one mount out too soon,” he lowered his hand and Sorrel turned back to searching through stacks of papers. “They're tethered a few hundred paces from the cabin.” Sorrel nodded absently.

   The key wasn't where Sorrel thought she had left it. She moved to a different part of the bookshelf and as she did her fingers touched the familiar pale wood of The White Book. She paused and let her fingers run down the smoothness of the spine to rest on the edge of the bookshelf. Suddenly she was aware of the night and everything around her in a way that she had not been before; she could feel the warm breeze coursing languidly up the skin of her arm, hear the rustling of leaves outside the cabin. Sorrel could smell the charcoal of the fire, and the heat of it stung her nose. The moonlight, streaming crisp and cold through the window, seemed somehow brighter. Sorrel heard a slight movement close behind her and turned her head just enough to make out Aryndor in her peripheral vision, standing directly behind her.

   “Is that - ?” Aryndor swallowed, hesitated. Sorrel waited. “Is that what I think it is?” he finally finished.

   Sorrel turned back to the bookcase and moved a few papers aside. The key was there, next to The White Book. “If you think it's anything other than a spook story,” she said standing, “then you'd be wrong.” Sorrel brushed past Aryndor and knelt in front of the chest at the foot of the bed.

   “Have you opened it?”

   Sorrel hesitated. Aryndor scoffed, “You haven't opened it. Then you believe – so why try to make me think otherwise?”

   Sorrel hesitated once more, lightly holding the iron lock in her left hand, the key in her right. “I don't know,” she finally admitted. “Perhaps I thought if I could convince you, I might be able to leave it behind,” she glanced up at Aryndor. “I've tried to get rid of it, but I just can't seem to do it. I didn't really want it – I'm still not sure if I want it,” she looked back down at the lock. Sorrel hated the pleading sound in her voice. “I suppose that it's a likely way out – I didn't have the strength to do it the traditional way,” she brandished the key without looking back up in his direction.

  “What are you saying?” Aryndor demanded as Sorrel twisted the key in the lock. The rust ground against the black iron key and Sorrel worried for a moment she might break it and have to take her woodchopping axe to the chest, but the lock snapped open with a click. She quickly slid the bolt out of the iron rings, it made a rasping sound that sent a small shiver up her spine. She could sense Aryndor moving closer, impatient and ready to repeat his question. Sorrel ignored him and dropped the bolt to the floor, the dull clang of it echoed through the cabin as she reached into the chest.

   From underneath the woodchips that Sorrel had spread over the top of the chest's contents, she pulled out a sinuous looking, long-bladed knife. It was almost long enough to be a short sword, and even the handle was nearly long enough to grip comfortably with two hands. It was all of one piece, as though molded, and was so black in colour that it seemed to eat the dancing orange light from the fireplace.

   “Bone,” Sorrel stated, “and sharper than anything you've ever touched. It will cut through flesh like butter and make an end quicker – and perhaps even more mercifully than clumsy iron.” She met Aryndor's eye's now. He looked stricken as he finally realized what she had been suggesting: “Yet for all that, I still couldn't make an end of it. The White Book offered to ease me into the afterlife without the certainty of spilled blood – a way to assuage the guilt of my weakness,” the twist in Sorrel's gut was mirrored by the twist on her face.

   “Sorrel - ” she could hear the anguish in Aryndor's voice, but she refused to look up. She turned back to the chest and began removing her remaining gear. There was a second knife to match the first – not its exact twin, but clearly of the same make. Both knives fit snugly into the leather sheathes affixed to a set of crossed leather belts. A set of hard leather arm-guards, leg-guards and a vest, all molded to fit her precisely, and her worn leather clothing filled the rest of the chest. Sorrel had forgotten the weight of the leather and realized that she had more than likely lost some of her old strength, hiding away in her forgotten vale.

   “Forget about it,” Sorrel growled to Aryndor when she noticed he still stood stunned. “It's in the past.” She changed into the leathers quickly, hoping that at least a brief sight of her body might shock Aryndor out of his stupor. When she slid the heavy vest over her head, Aryndor was suddenly behind her to tighten the cinches in the back. Familiar as he was with those cinches his quick, sure movements soon had her comfortably enclosed in the stiff armour. For a moment, Sorrel let herself be transported to a time well over seven years gone, a time when life was less complicated. When Sorrel turned to face Aryndor, with his heart laid bare behind his eyes, she almost smiled.

The End

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