by Phoebe Harris

It had taken me six years to grow my hair to my waist, where decent women kept it, but only five minutes for Lia to cut it, and now it lay scattered around her brother Mazi’s house like straw on a stable floor.

“Let me get a look at you, Ari.” Lia walked around me nodding. “By Brilliance! You look perfect. What do you think?”

I wiped my eyes, and then wiped my eyes again. In the mirror I saw a gawky, half-grown man, old enough to be out on his own, and young enough to want to be. It was the face of an intimate enemy, one I’d hoped never to see in the mirror again.

“Yes,” I said, closing my eyes. “You’re so smart to have figured this out. I can’t do it.”

“Of course you can. Tenacity, Ari, you’re the strongest, most confident woman I know. This should be easy for you.”

“You would think so,” I whispered. I opened my eyes, and stared into Lia’s face. Her sweet, round baby face had lengthened so much in the last year. This wasn’t the girl who’d followed me around the Fair Sight Inn like the little sister she wished she were. She was thirteen now, almost a grown woman — the same age I’d been when I arrived in Fortisma, ready for a new life on my own terms. “I’ll try. It’s a good idea, and I’m not yet ready to die.”

“Don’t worry, Aracin. It’ll work.” She paused. “But ‘Aracin’ won’t. How does ‘Araco’ sound?”

I shuddered. “I hate that name.”

“I just — Harmony, I call you ‘Ari’ most of the time anyway. And ‘Araco’ works with that.”

“Fine.” I shrugged. “It’s your plan.”

It was all unreal of course, as unreal as the moment Duke Krasnal and his Blood Crows entered the Fair Sight Inn. As unreal as a short-handed Ostigar sending his daughter into the hastily-cleared feast room, when Lia had never served actual soldiers before, much less a pack with reputations as poor as the Duke’s drunken vanguard. As unreal as the laugh and the smile and the flash of cleavage I gave Duke Krasnal to distract him from a cornered and overwhelmed Lia. But not as unreal as what happened after he grabbed me instead.

I have only a series of disconnected images: Duke Krasnal’s face near mine, laughter dripping from his wide smile like venom, my skirts pushed high and my terror rising higher as I realized his hand was between my legs, as what he’d find there could be my death. My left hand fumbling behind me until it found something solid I could fling at his face. A shining line of red drawn from his jaw to just shy of the corner of his eye, and the knife was in my hand, the Duke’s bloody table knife that seemed larger to me than even my father’s sword. There was no panic, only clarity, and I pinned the Duke’s right hand to the table with his traitorous knife, spun gracefully out of his slackened grasp and walked calmly to the kitchen before the drunken Duke could gather either the breath or wit to shout.

And then I ran.

“Meet me at Mazi’s house,” Lia had said, in the moment I took to grab my pack. And first I tried the city gates and first I tried seeing the witch Relnissa, but everywhere I went a Blood Crow had already been. So I met Lia at her brother’s and listened to her earnest explanations of her impossible scheme, while panic strangled me like smoke.

But I did as she said. Because after spending my life dancing thigh to thigh with impossibility, I knew the only moves worth taking are those with enough flash to be worth the failure.

So all evening and night and into the morning Lia watched me and drilled me and corrected me as I walked and talked and stood and posed and tried to do it all right all at the same time all while wearing Mazi’s clothes. The trick to acting like a man is to concentrate on straight lines and pushing down. Push down with the toe when you walk, instead of the heel, push down your voice till it’s flat and lifeless, push your hands down to your sides at all times, push your soul down into your shoes where it belongs and don’t worry about trampling it. And then widen your stance and your base, to support all that downward pressure.

I hated every moment, but could eventually do it all again without thinking, which satisfied my taskmistress.

“You look, you look fabulous,” Lia said at last.

“No,” I said. “I look fine. Men don’t look fabulous. Even when they do.”

She smiled absently as she continued to appraise me. “If only you had a sword. Then you’d be beyond question.”

“I do have a sword,” I admitted. “It’s rolled up in my pack. It’s, it’s my father’s sword. He served Duke Sornal, and…I can use it, too, or at least I could once. I haven’t touched it since I left home.”

“You’re just full of surprises. Why’d he give it to you?”

I shrugged. “I was his only child. He’d rather have had a real son, but I was all there was. We drilled together almost every day, until I was old enough to refuse. I hated it.”

“And yet,” Lia said, “you kept the sword.”

I shrugged again. “I had to keep something.”

Lia held the sword high and admired it, from the long double-edged blade to the upswept bronze wings of the crossguard to the wicked beak at the pommel. Then she belted it around my waist — clapping with glee at the results — and we left the house.

We hadn’t dared a fire, so the morning air tasted of the bitter leaves of childbane I choked down raw. The weight of the sword on my hip reawakened a swagger as we walked. My head was fuzzy with exhaustion, but I had gone on full alert and felt more aware of everything around me than I had in six years. Lia walked beside me so skittishly that I put my hand on her shoulder to settle her. There was a line at the gate, which was strange, but once we had snaked around the corner we could see why — the guards were interviewing everyone leaving the city.

And then the nerves hit. First I flushed and then I sweated and then I started to shake, and I could only hope the guards wouldn’t notice and I could keep my voice steadier than my thoughts. But all I could see were the Blood Crows in their dark red tabards, hung-over and glowering at everyone the guards questioned.

“Name?” asked the guardsman, and we were at the front of the line, and my mind was blank. Lia touched my shoulder, and said “For Patience’ sake, he’s talking to you.”

“Oh,” I stammered. “Araco.”

“What brought you to Fortisma, Araco?” he asked, and I realized that the guard was Kosicar. Kosicar with the easy laugh, and the long, strong fingers, and the unrelenting stamina. With the curly brown hair, and the muscular back, and the dimples that only appeared with his secret smile.

“V-visiting.”

Lia punched my arm. “Is that any way to talk about me? He’s taking me to meet his family.”

“Mmm,” Kosicar answered. “And you are…?”

But Kosicar was a regular at the Fair Sight Inn, he knew Lia. He must have recognized us, and if he had, then there was nothing more to fear. My fate — whatever it was — had already been decided. I said, “That’s my girl Liasnerene. We’re going back home to see if she’s tough enough to meet my mother.”

“From everything you’ve said,” Lia added, “She sounds sweet.”

“And where is home?”

“Toricham. Not too far.”

Kosicar nodded. “And when will you return?”

My cheeks twitched, but I suppressed the smile as unmanly. “I don’t know. I guess it really depends on Mother.”

“Have a safe trip,” Kosicar said. “Araco, you’ll want to stay on the main road. The patrols keep the bandits away.”

“Good to know,” I said, making myself nod. “Thanks for your help.”

Our eyes met for an instant, and then I walked through the gate, Lia on my arm. The hardest part was not turning to see if we were followed.

Once we were out of sight of the gates, I turned off the path and into the woods.

“He said there were bandits,” Lia objected. “We should stay on the road.”

“No, he said Duke Krasnal had sent out patrols, so we need to leave the road to avoid them. Weren’t you listening?”

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I knew the woods around Fortisma from hunting herbs for Relnissa. Relnissa was a witch, and a friend, maybe my best friend. She had shown me how to harvest blossoms of feverbright and sprigs of childbane and leaves of blackfern and seeds of leathertoe so I’d have a way to pay my debts to her. I must have done well, because soon after she’d offered me an apprenticeship, which I hadn’t quite accepted. Someday, I’d said, someday I’ll learn witchery, but not now, not when I can still lower my eyes and toss my hair and have any man I want follow me upstairs. And Relnissa smiled and shook her head and said she could wait.

It was strange to be in the woods without a basket on my arm, and even stranger to have a companion. Lia was excited and had trouble keeping her pace down to a walk, while I kept slowing down to evaluate the shade and soil for clumps of feverbright. And pausing near the fallen trees that harbor childbane. Everything felt incongruous, like the moment when two different dreams run together.

We stopped shortly after noon, when exhaustion hit. We camped at my favorite place to harvest blackfern, a cool and shady patch hidden by a tumult of boulders, almost impossible to find without your belly on the ground.

“Oh Purity!” Lia said crawling behind me. “I hate mud.”

“Then go home. Lia, you saved my life, and I thank you. But this isn’t your journey. Go home.”

“If I go home now,” she answered, “the Crows will be the ones asking questions. Besides, someone has to remind you not to sit like that.” She slapped my thigh and I spread my legs by an obscene amount.

“I was thinking that now we’re out of the city, I wouldn’t need to keep up the disguise.”

“In Prudence’ name! You were the one worried about patrols.”

“I know. I can’t even convince myself.”

“So,” Lia asked, “Olnexia or Rastikam?”

“Olnexia. Rastikam’s just too far. Don’t you think?”

“I suppose. But we’d have to cross the Selanek.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem. It’s not Duke Krasnal’s bridge.” I rubbed my hands together and asked. “How are we on food? On foot, off the road, we’re looking at two weeks’ travel.”

“I took what there was. It might last a week, Prosperity willing. We’ll need to stop at Toricham.”

I nodded, almost surprised my blood didn’t run cold at the suggestion. But I’d already begun preparing myself for it, guessing our supplies wouldn’t last the journey.

“Perhaps I’ll get to meet your mother after all,” Lia grinned.

“She’s dead. And even if my father isn’t, we won’t see him. Or anyone else I know. We’ll get supplies, and then we’ll go.”

“You’re going home. Isn’t there anyone you want to see?”

“Fortisma is my home,” I snapped. “Toricham’s just where I grew up.”

It took some work to get a fire going, but I felt much better once I had. Lia toasted some bread and cheese, tasty even over the pungent smells of smoke and blackfern. We were on an adventure. It wasn’t one I wanted, but the blood stirs regardless. We watched the sun set and the stars brighten, and talked about the woods and the weather and home.

“They probably didn’t even notice until this morning, when I wasn’t there to scrub the common room. They won’t raise a fuss — they’ll guess I’m with you and won’t want the guards asking questions”

“They’ll worry.”

“I’m sure your father worried about you when you left home, but it didn’t stop you from going.”

“Lia, when I left it just saved my father the trouble of throwing me out.” Whenever I thought of him, all I remembered was the look of shock and disgust on his face when he found me, barely conscious, blood still dripping down my thighs. He took me to Yranor, who saved my life, but after that I never saw him again. Or wanted to. “You’ve never disappointed your parents.”

“Or made them proud. They’ll miss you more, you know. Father’ll never find another serving girl like you.”

“Please,” I snorted. “There’s nothing special about me. Ostigar will have his pick of dozens — he might even end up with one he likes this time.”

“Comity, you can’t mean that?” Lia’s laughter was soft as fresh childbane. “He’s liked you from the moment you walked into the Fair Sight Inn and insisted on serving him lunch from his own kitchen. You told him you were the fairest sight in Fortisma, and that he’d be a fool not to hire you. He would have been, too.”

“I remember.” What I remembered was that I’d tried every other inn and tavern in Fortisma, and after his I’d have been out of money and prospects. “I couldn’t tell if he was mad or impressed. I just didn’t want him to ignore me.”

“Believe me, Ari, no one ever does.” Lia smiled. “I’d never seen anyone like you before. You were so tall and skinny, hair barely longer than now. You were just so, so — I’d never seen a woman talk to Father like that.”

I blushed. “I know. I wasn’t very polished back then.” I shivered and stood up, arms folded across my chest. “I’m going down to the stream to wash up,” I said. “I’m filthy.”

“The dirt hides the softness of your skin,” Lia said, touching my arm. “Leave it.”

“There’s no one to see,” I said, but I sat down again, facing the fire, knees hugged against my chest until Lia tapped me and I chose a more suitable pose. And I kept my silence and my seat while she cleaned up and made her bed next to the fire. “Good night, Araco,” she said at last, and that was when I made my pallet on her unprotected side, sword sheathed but at the ready, my back to her so she couldn’t read the shame on my face.

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The journey to Toricham was unremarkable. The weather stayed clear and cool as it does in early spring, and the succession of light woods and meadows soon ran together. Lia and I relaxed into each other’s company and I even learned to smile at the way she scolded me like her half-grown son.

The night before we made Toricham we camped in a field of maidenskiss. I slept restlessly and woke early, my head aching from the sweet scent of the delicate pink blossoms. By the time Lia was up I’d already washed without scrubbing and set my tea to boiling, so she toasted the last of the bread, along with some mushrooms that — as I’d assured her — hadn’t killed us the night before. We ate in that comfortable waking wordlessness, until Lia snapped to attention.

“Men don’t drink that,” she said, looking at my tea.

“No they don’t. It’d be rather silly if they did. They’d end up looking awfully girly.”

“You should stop until we get to Olnexia. It’s a giveaway.”

“I hope you’re not that erratic taking yours,” I smiled. “That’s a good way to end up with a brat you weren’t expecting.”

“Chastity! I don’t need childbane.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’m not interested in that.”

“You will be soon, I suppose; you’re certainly old enough.”

“Old enough to know the last thing I want is some stinky man crawling all over me.” She wrinkled her nose as though garlanded with blackfern.

“Oh I don’t know. The crawling,” I winked, “can be the best part.”

Lia shook her head. “You’re hopeless. But I know this story. I have a brother. It starts with a man and a romp and then I’m serving him for the rest of my life. Fidelity knows I don’t want that.”

“Oh Lia, I’m not trying to marry you off. But things happen fast sometimes. After all, if I hadn’t been there, you might well be carrying Duke Krasnal’s bastard.”

It was the first thing I’d said all week that actually quieted her. Lia returned to packing up camp.

I sighed. “I need to see Yranor, Toricham’s witch, and get more childbane myself. Come with me and talk to her. Then I won’t say another word, whatever the two of you decide.”

“We can’t risk–”

“She’s a friend. You asked if I wanted to visit someone? Well, I should visit her.”

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In the last six years, Toricham’s skin had been ravaged by sun and wind till it was aged and sagging, the faded wood buildings brightened by an occasional splash of fresh paint like rouge. But Toricham’s bones hadn’t changed. The spine still ran down the main road, from the Sheriff’s office at the head to the cluster of taverns at the ass. Houses stretched out on lanes like loosely-jointed limbs which spread into fringes of farms at the fingers and toes.

Yranor’s home was at the left elbow — far enough out she could gather materials, close enough for her patients to visit. All through town, Lia kept up a patter, nervously pointing out superficial details, while I played the protective beau. I could feel the whispers starting on the street ahead and swirling around us leaving questions in our wake. But I’d long ago trained myself to ignore such whispers for my own sanity. I assumed they were impugning my manhood and Lia’s virtue, as mocking travelers was one of Toricham’s few sources of entertainment.

It all came back as I opened Yranor’s door, and it was all the same — the ringing of the bells on the door handle, the smell of strange herbs I now recognized as rosemary and blackfern, Yranor sitting at her worktable with decanter to the left and scale to the right. Her eyes met mine, and I stood motionless on her threshold, trapped in her wordless stare.

“Well, Ari,” she said at last, “you’re certainly the last person I expected to walk through that door.”

“It’s complicated. I know it’s a strange time to come back, and an odd disguise. I’m being hunted, and Lia thought this would make me harder to find.”

“You have to admit,” Lia interjected, “it was a good idea. It’s taken work, but Grace, now she really could pass for a man.”

Lia didn’t know the quick twitch of the lip that meant Yranor was suppressing a smile, but I did. “You’re right,” Yranor replied, standing up. “She really could.”

And there were more lines around her eyes than I remembered, and more grey in her close-cropped hair, but she stood there with her arms crossed, leaning and staring, and it was the same, it was exactly the same. “We’re going to Olnexia, and you were on the way. I ran out of medicine — I wouldn’t bother you, but I ran out of medicine, and it’s another week–”

“So you’re only here because you need childbane?” she asked mildly.

“Yes. No! That’s not what I meant!” The tears were flowing now. “I shouldn’t be here at all, and you’ve done too much for me already. You’ve done — I’m sorry.” Without Yranor I would neither be alive, nor want to be. I turned towards the door. My vision was blurred beyond seeing, but I always know the way out.

Before I could take two steps, Yranor put her hand on my shoulder. “It’s all right, Ari,” she said. “Just tell me what you need.”

For what was left of the morning and into early afternoon, we talked. I told Yranor about Fortisma and the Fair Sight Inn, and Lia told her about Duke Krasnal and our journey — making me sound far too heroic in the process. Lia fished for stories of my childhood, but Yranor ignored her and talked about work — the herbs people no longer wanted, the ones she could no longer find, and the new ones they preferred. She never mentioned anyone in town, and I certainly didn’t ask.

After lunch she took Lia into the back room for an examination and the lecture her mother should have given her. The bag of fresh green leaves Lia returned with was so different from the dried childbane I use that at first I didn’t recognize it, but when I did I grinned at her shy blushing smile. We were there most of the day, and I loved every moment and itched to leave.

“There are two witches in Olnexia,” Yranor said. “Henisen is the one you want to deal with. She’s a good woman, and doesn’t have an apprentice.”

“You never give up,” I said, hugging her quick. “But I enjoy being a serving girl. It’s what I want, it really is.”

“And a fine serving girl you are, I’m sure. Just talk to Henisen.”

“I will,” I promised. “Yranor, please visit me in Olnexia. Once you see my life, you won’t worry. You can see me in my real clothes, and — oh, I wish you could have seen my hair! It was so, so –” and I was crying again, but I took my hands from the side of my face and gave her one last hug. “I love you, Yranor.”

“And I love you, dear girl,” she said, pushing me towards the door. “Now go, or you’ll have to stay the night and I don’t have beds for you both.”

The bells rang as I opened the door, and I took one last look at Yranor at her worktable, pretending we’d already left, and then the bells rang again as the door closed behind us.

Leaving Yranor’s house felt like the first moment emerging from a pool of clear water — the air was chill but the sun was warm, and the world itself felt cleaner. I told Lia, “Let’s go to Dobirel’s for supplies,” and she just nodded, unaware that this morning I’d rather have bought food from Duke Krasnal himself.

But as we left the porch I heard a familiar voice behind me. “Seves told me he’d seen you in town. I guess I owe him an apology.”

“And a new shirt,” said another. “He’ll never get those bloodstains out.”

Two men were sitting on the old logs by the leathertoe bushes in Yranor’s side yard. Both wore the long leather coats of the Sheriff’s men — Toricham’s version of a town guard. “Hey Molanko,” I said. “How’ve you been?”

Molanko wasn’t any taller than I remembered, but he’d filled out with a man’s breadth, strong shoulders and chest, and no doubt a back as solid as the one I used to wrap my legs around.

“I’ve been better, Ari. Much better. It’s starting to look like a very bad day.”

Lia moved closer to me. “Araco, what’s happening?”

“Lia, this is Molanko, and Javino. Some old friends of mine.”

Molanko chuckled coldly. “Friends. Yes. I heard you were in town. I have to admit that I’m…”

“Curious,” Javino finished.

“Yes. Curious about why.”

“No mystery. Just stopping for supplies. I’m on my way to Olnexia. Going to start a new life there.”

“Really?” Molanko stood and stretched. “How many new lives do you need, Ari? Most of us manage with just the one.”

“Araco’s special,” Javino said, in a tone that reminded me what a whiny, jealous brat he was. “Surely you remember.”

“Oh I remember. I remember how the rules never seemed to apply. And I remember every lie Ari ever told me. Do you?” he asked.

“Mo, I never — I could never lie to you.”

“With a straight face, too. Impressive. I wonder, do you lie as easily to Lia?”

“Lia has nothing to do with this, Mo.”

Javino snorted.

“When you told me why you had to leave Toricham, I believed it. I didn’t like it, I didn’t understand it, but I believed it. I believed you. But now you dare,” Molanko said, “you dare come back, with her on your arm, and I see I’ve been taken for a fool. Did you really think I could ignore that, Ari?”

“Don’t hurt her,” I begged.

“Of course I won’t hurt her,” he roared, color rising into his cheeks, above his black beard. “Who do you think I am? But you, Ari. I’m done with you.”

“Mo–”

“You have no idea how he stands up for you, Araco. No one’s dared say a word against you in the last six years. Not even,” Javino said, “your father.”

“Leave my father out of it, Javi-nosy. He’s no concern of yours. Or mine.” I knew better than to use the old taunt, but I’d never had any resistance to his jibes.

Javino bristled, and tensed, but Molanko put a hand on his arm. “Araco,” he said, “I see you still have your sword. It’s been a long time since we crossed blades.”

“Oh Valor!” cried Lia. “This is insane!”

“It’s been almost as long since I’ve held one.” And given the blood and price of that night, I hadn’t had the desire. “If you want to kill me, go ahead and do it without the show.”

“What I want,” Molanko growled, “has never much mattered. Draw your sword, Ari.”

Javino took Molanko’s coat, and stepped back. Molanko twisted a few times to stretch his back, his muscular, bare arms raised high. Everything I knew about myself I had learned in those arms.

“Stay back, Lia,” I said, my eyes never leaving Molanko’s. “It’s all right. Just stay back.”

He stood eight paces away, and when Lia had safely retreated he drew his blade and held it level with the ground, pointing towards my eyes. It was the stance he used when showing off.

“Can we–” The violent shake of his head warned me off. I deepened my stance and tried to think back six years and more. My hand rested on the bronze hilt, the rough carved feathers pressing against my palm, strangely familiar after so many years. On an exhale, I drew my blade cleanly into a standard guard position.

The instant I was set, Molanko aimed a blow for my left side. I parried, and stepped back — “Move first!” I hissed to myself, hearing my father’s voice in my head — and he immediately threw a blow at my right cheek. As I blocked, I realized both blows had been so gentle they wouldn’t have broken skin.

His next blow was at my left calf, and then my right thigh, and suddenly it was a pattern my father had drilled into us — left then right, up then down, over and over again — and my blade lurched into the old rhythm. Rusty and slow, but I hit my marks, retreating and blocking, blocking and retreating, around and around in a wide circle.

I tried not to look at my blade, or his, but to stay focused on Molanko’s face. His eyes told me nothing, and I could no longer read his expression now that a beard covered the contours I’d known so well. His face had always been clean-shaven, though never smooth — I’d run my fingers over those cheeks many times, feeling the stubble which scoured my face when we kissed. “You’ll grow your own soon,” he’d told me once, with a twinkle, never guessing the horror that ran through my blood like acid at his words. Somehow, that hadn’t occurred to me before. It was that sudden horror, more than any other single thing, that pushed my life onto the track it had taken.

Molanko’s blows grew stronger and faster, and I was straining to keep my sword between us. I was mesmerized now, my sword flying entirely on its own bronze wings.

“Sah!” he cried, and broke the pattern with a sudden thrust to my chest. Quicker than thought I leaped aside with the automatic upwards cut that’s part of that defense. Molanko didn’t dodge or even twitch, and my blade bit into his sword arm, the shallow slice quickly filling with blood.

Molanko smiled wickedly then, all the way into his eyes, and leaped forward with a panther’s snarl, throwing a feint to my head that turned into a vicious slash at my forward leg. I interposed my blade with the wrong parry — my wrist twisting with his blow, rather than against, running the risk that momentum would drive my own sword into my right thigh. We were close enough I could smell his sweat, and with our blades still engaged he struck me in the face with his left hand. I staggered back, and my right leg collapsed from where I’d cut into it, just as I feared.

I heard bells as Molanko kicked at my left leg, and I was on my back, hands empty, looking up at him. He held his blade half-sword style — hands at pommel and mid-blade — poised to drive it into my belly. I heard Yranor’s voice, barking orders, but her words were meaningless. All that mattered were Mo’s eyes, and I drowned in them, wishing, wishing, wishing I could truly have been the person I had once tried to be. Molanko lowered his sword. “Don’t come back, Araco,” he said.

Footsteps ran towards me, and Yranor said something about bleeding, and I felt Lia strip off my pants, already sticky with blood. There was a sharp, indrawn breath. “Oh Verity!” she gasped, while the world faded around me. “Sheer unrepentant Verity!”

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And for a long time there were only vague impressions — darkness and distant pressure, lights and incomprehensible noise. These changed subtly to dreams, of the Fair Sight’s bustling common room, or endless trails stinking of blackfern. Part of me realized I was in Yranor’s sick room, like six years before, but most of my mind was elsewhere. There were flashes that were probably real — Lia slumping against the wall, eyes red-rimmed from crying — moments that were most likely memories — Yranor shaking her head, asking “What were you thinking, Ari?” while checking bandages — and things that were doubtless dreams.

My father sits at my bedside as he never has. “I just always thought,” he seems to say, “that there would be someone to carry on the line. Six generations of soldiers. My great-grandfather fought at the Battle of Vreskai, ‘with visage grim and spear held high’ as the song says. My father held the castle through the flame and fury of the Lanifar Uprising. I served in the vanguard of Duke Sornal the Swift through five campaigns — an original Blood Crow. We were the harriers of the battlefield, not the debauched braggarts under Sornal’s son. Sons! You raise them to serve, but they always blaze their own path, heedless of right or wrong, propriety or outcome. They always –” He pauses and I am aware of nothing so much as his missing teeth, his mouth half-full of their absence, aging him more than the papery skin of his forearms. “You were a good son, Ari, you always were. I was very proud. I just always thought that there would be someone to carry on the line. Six generations of soldiers…” And the image continues in my mind, lurching through the same words, left and right, up and down, over and over again. Words I’ve never heard my father speak.

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Eventually the world stopped flashing between disconnected scenes, and I had a growing awareness of solidity surrounding me. Awareness that the presence I felt had a name, and it was Lia, and the fact that she was sitting there meant that I was probably alive, and most likely Ari. She looked so small and contained that I wanted to tease her mood away, but all that came out was a groan, and a hacking cough.

“It’s about time you woke up,” she said. “You’re not very interesting when you’re asleep.”

“I-I-I-I’m not much better when I’m awake, I’m afraid.”

“Oh I don’t know, I’ve found you full of surprises.” Lia winced. “Vitality, I’m sorry. I’ll get Yranor; she wanted to know as soon as you were awake.” And she melted from the room.

Yranor was professional as ever. She examined me so gently I scarcely realized what she was doing. “You’re going to rest a few more days,” she said, “and then I’ll work that leg so hard you’ll wish you could stay in bed. But you should heal well. Maybe a slight limp.”

I nodded. “Thank you, Yranor, I don’t know how — wait, how’s Lia? She seemed…”

“She’s been worried. And angry. And confused. You’re not easy on your friends, you know.”

“I know.” I took a deep breath and allowed myself to float through the maelstrom of guilt churning in my head. “She deserves better from me. I just don’t have better to give.”

“She needs time, is all. Just like all you need is rest.”

I nodded and lay back gratefully. Yranor smoothed the blankets over me, and I was asleep before she left the room.

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Several days later, Yranor did indeed kick me out of bed. “Can’t have you just laying around,” she said, handing me a cane. “I want to see how much punishment that leg can take.” It wasn’t much, at first, so while Yranor did send me hobbling around fetching things, she also watched me like a crow and the moment my energy flagged, she’d sit me down with less strenuous work. I learned to wash herbs, and strip and grind them, and heard for the hundredth time that while the pulp inside tough leathertoe seeds makes a pleasant stimulant, tea from leathertoe leaves gives only unbearable stomach cramps. Yranor was so transparent in her desire that I learn witchery I couldn’t even be annoyed.

Lia helped by running errands and cooking, and the familiar fare of the Fair Sight Inn did wonders for my spirits. She didn’t avoid me, but felt distant in a way that made her presence hurt even more than her absence.

Soon the day came that I could walk from the leathertoe bushes to the maidenskiss patch and back without cane or pain. So that night, I told Lia and Yranor that I’d be leaving in the morning. Yranor looked startled, but nodded. “I suppose it is time.”

“I’ll go into town for supplies,” Lia said, “so we can leave straightaway.”

“I’ll be fine,” I said, “you don’t have to–”

“It’s already done. I sent a message to Mazi. He’ll be in Olnexia in a few weeks, and I’ll ride back with him. And for Charity’s sake, you’ll need my help.”

I could only nod, as I hadn’t dared hope Lia would come with me.

When we left, it was without tears. Yranor held me tight, saying “The next time you decide to bleed to death, please do it somewhere else. Cleaning up after you is exhausting.”

“Thank you,” I whispered, then let go and said, “Henisen. No promises, Yranor, but I’ll see her at least.”

She nodded. “Good. You deserve happiness, Ari. Do what makes you happy. Please remember that you’re a most deserving girl.”

Perhaps I was wrong about the tears.

I turned towards the fields, but Lia insisted otherwise. “We can leave by the main road. Molanko said.”

“You spoke with him?”

“Once or twice. At Dobirel’s. He’s nice.” She paused. “No, Honesty, not nice. Not safe. But open. Admirably open. He said you’d be safe on the main road. Especially,” she grinned, “if it got you out of town faster.”

“Mo would say it like that. Well thank you. That will help. Maybe the road is safe all the way?”

Lia shook her head. “He also said two Blood Crows had been through a few days ago, asking for a woman named Aracin.”

My blood froze. “And?”

Lia shrugged. “No one here had ever heard of her.”

I coughed up laughter like blood. “Of course not.”

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Lia and I tried to settle back into our comfortable routines, but they no longer fit. The weather was warmer, I was slower, and Lia was no longer as young. Several days passed in strained silence, until the third night Lia sat with me at the fire as I soothed my leg with blackfern.

“How many?” she asked. “How many people did you tell, without telling me?”

“In Fortisma? No one. Well, Relnissa knew from the first. But no one else.”

“Amity, Ari! What about Kosicar, or the others?”

“Oh,” I said, blushing. “Men. Well, that’s…I mean, there are things I do better than anyone in the Duchy. And there are things I don’t do at all.” I smiled. “And really, get a man in the dark and make him feel good enough and, well, he won’t notice as much as you’d think.”

“You don’t expect me to believe–”

“I’m serious. And I’m careful. I don’t take just anyone upstairs.” I paused, and then added in a whisper. “I’ve never asked any of my lovers what they think of me. I couldn’t bear to hear the answer. But they kept coming back, so that was enough.”

Lia said nothing for a long time. Then she said, “It’ll be different in Olnexia. It’s a real city, and no one knows you there.”

“It might be,” I admitted. “Of course, it doesn’t even matter with this hair. It looks like it belongs on a convict or in a convent.”

“I think it’s cute. You look ready to take on the world.”

Lia’s eyes shone like feverbright in the firelight, and I suddenly felt very stupid. “Would you,” I asked, “like me to cut yours?”

She nodded slowly, and so I gathered everything I needed — water, brush and comb, and a good sharp knife. “I could do a better job in Olnexia,” I said. “This’ll be pretty rough,” but she didn’t care. So I smoothed and cut, and combed and fretted, and in the end her glorious hair was scattered on the ground like shards in a nest. When I handed her the mirror, Lia whispered “Glory!” and stared at it until tears leaked from the edges of her eyes. Then she wrapped her arms around me in a fierce hug.

“Thank you,” she whispered, breath warm against my skin. A moment later I felt her body soften against me, and relief washed over me like vertigo as I knew I’d been forgiven. Three breaths later, Lia’s fingers gently brushed my cheek. I looked down to see her staring at me, her cheeks the shade of maidenskiss, and I dearly wished I knew which Ari she was gazing at. I took her hand in both of mine and smiled.

“No,” I said, “thank you. For all your help and strength. I’d never have made it without you.” Then I stood and began straightening the camp. Lia watched me intently, her eyes almost clear, until she crawled miserably into her blankets, while I pretended not to notice.

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Three mornings later we reached the Selanek River, which shouted its joy at our arrival. It was our companion for the morning, boisterous and swift, and into the afternoon, and it guided us to the road at the Selanek Bridge.

A guardpost stood beside the bridge, a small wooden cabin with two roans and a bay tied to the rail. Two Blood Crows sat in the shade and watched our approach while another leaned against a barricade at the bridge’s entrance.

“Who are you?” he asked, and “Why Olnexia?” and he accepted our answers with an acquiescence born more of boredom than belief. We thanked him and walked around the barricade, but he stopped me with a hand on my shoulder.

“Where,” he asked, “did you get that sword?”

Because its winged guard and beaked hilt matched his own.

“My father served with His Grace Sornal the Swift. When I came of age,” I replied, “he passed it to me.”

He frowned. “So why aren’t you in Duke Krasnal’s service? You obviously aren’t Blood Crow material, but one who bears that blade should be serving him somehow.”

“Oh, I served the Duke very recently. I’m afraid,” I said, “that I did a poor job of it. I don’t want to fight. As much as it shames my father, all I want to do is take care of, of my woman.” I looked to the ground and turned away from the Blood Crow’s sneer.

“He’s not ashamed,” Lia said. “He told me. Your father doesn’t like it, or understand it, but you’re serving your conscience with honor, and he respects that. Or by Loyalty, he’d have taken his sword back, useless as it is for the old gap-toothed crow.”

I stiffened and stared, but said nothing as the guard waved us on. “Try Count Selanek,” he spat. “That craven’s more your style. Maybe we’ll cross the river one of these days and take our blade back from your corpse.”

Olnexia lay at the other side, the open gates of the city but a few score yards from the bridge’s end. Soon we’d be inside, and I could bathe, and wear proper clothes — and burn these. Lia walked beside me, head held high and straight, eyes darting excitedly, a satisfied smile on her lips. I stopped short as I recognized the expression.

“You’re not going back with Mazi,” I said.

“I don’t think I am. I’ve a week to change my mind, but…I’ve been free. I can’t return to serving everyone but myself.”

I nodded. Then I unbuckled my belt. “Take this. I’ll never draw it again, and you might have need for a sword.”

Lia weighed it in her hand. “I can’t,” she said at last. “I don’t know how. I’m not a man.”

“So be a woman with a sword,” I shrugged. “Be yourself. And Liasnerene, for Integrity’s sake, be careful.”

She slung the belt over her shoulder like a bandolier, and clasped my hand. “All right, Aracin. By Integrity, I will.”

I hurried across the bridge to Olnexia, Lia beside me for one last moment, and then another, and then one more. The musky scent of blackfern rose from the river; I looked down to the bank where it grew, nestled around clumps of a pale blue flower I had never before seen. Someday, perhaps, I would learn its name.

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Copyright 2015 Phoebe Harris

Phoebe Harris has a Stanford Linguistics degree and a CPA. She is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and the father of two. Phoebe currently works as a financial analyst and lives in West Michigan with her wife and other random assorted family members.