Chapter no 2

A Dawn of Onyx

For a moment, nobody moved. Then, we all moved at once.

I shot to my feet, heart in my throat, pulse pounding in my ears. Ryder’s pain was clear across his face, and my mother lunged for him, tears welling in her eyes. Leigh scrambled to shut the door behind us as I helped them both to the table.

Relief, profound and overwhelming, coursed through me. I could barely stand at the onslaught of emotion.

He was alive.

I swallowed a deep inhale and considered my brother. His cropped, sandy hair, bright blue eyes like stars, his wiry, lanky frame. He looked so foreign in our small home now—too dirty and thin.

Leigh pushed our bowls from the table to the side, and climbed directly on top of it, sitting right in front of him. Ryder’s eyes were laced with joy but flickered with something else. Something darker.

I waited for the dust of shock to settle, but my heart continued to beat so fast that it felt like my rib cage was rattling.

“Look how big you are!” Ryder said to Leigh, one hand still pressed to his other arm.

Bandages. He needed bandages.

I flung through our drawers until I found some, then grabbed a blanket and water for him too.

“Here,” I said, wrapping the blanket around Ryder roughly and kissing the top of his head, careful to avoid his shoulder.

“What’s wrong with you? Why are you back early?” Leigh asked, frantic. “Arwen, what’s wrong with him? What’s happening? Mother?”

Our mother said nothing as silent tears fell down her face. Ryder took her hand in his.

But Leigh was right. As wonderful as it was to have him back— something was wrong. For him to be home so soon, and with no battalion, no procession…

Not to mention the dripping wound. He must have deserted.

“Calm down,” Ryder rasped. “And keep your voice down.”

“Leigh has a point,” I forced out. “How are you back? What happened to you?”

I ripped the bloodstained fabric from his tunic and used it as a tourniquet above the wound in his arm. It was a deep, jagged gash—crimson oozing down in rivulets. As soon as my hands touched his skin, a familiar tingle spread through my palms and started to seal the ripped flesh.

Closing the wound helped us both. It slowed my heartbeat and calmed me down. After I wrapped his arm tightly in bandages, I got to work trying to fit his shoulder back into the socket it was dislodged from.

Ryder closed his eyes, wincing. “I’m fine. I’m with my family again.

That’s all that matters.”

He leaned in to kiss Leigh and our mother on their foreheads. Leigh, at least, still had the wherewithal to feign disgust and wipe the kiss away.

Mother held his good hand in hers, but her knuckles had gone white with force.

“Ry,” I asked, losing patience. “That is not all that matters. Where are the other soldiers? And why are you bleeding?”

Ryder swallowed thickly, his eyes connecting with mine.

“A few weeks back,” he said, voice low. “Our convoy happened upon an Onyx battalion in Amber land. We heard they had lost men and assumed it would be an easy conquest. We approached their camp slowly but still…” he trailed off, his voice rough. “It was a trap. They knew we were coming. All my friends were killed, and I barely escaped with my life.”

Something horrific dawned on me, and I felt sick that it had taken me so long to put the thought together.

“Halden?” I asked, barely audible. My stomach had turned to lead.

“No! No, Arwen.” His eyes were pained. “He wasn’t in our convoy. I—to be honest, I haven’t seen or heard from him in months.” Ryder looked down, his brow furrowed. “I didn’t think I’d make it out—” With one final pop I pushed his shoulder back in.

Gah! Shit!” He yelped, grabbing at his shoulder.

“Language,” Mother said out of habit, though she was still too shocked to be truly angry.

Ryder moved his arm in tentative circles, feeling it out. Enjoying the sensation of a working shoulder again, he stood up, gangly and tall in our small home, and paced in front of us. I slouched into a chair, weakened, and shot a worried glance at my mother.

“I hid behind an oak tree. I thought they were the last few moments of my life, that at any moment they’d stumble onto me and tear my limbs off. I’d lost my men, I was wounded. It was all over… and then I realized, while I was singing my swan song, the entire Onyx crew had left. They hadn’t even seen me.”

I watched him carefully. There was too much glee in his eyes. Not just joy at making it home again, but something else. A sinking feeling found its way into my stomach.

“So I started to back away slowly, and I quite literally tumbled over a sack of coin bigger than my head. Onyx coin.” He paused to look at us, but I didn’t think anyone was even breathing. My daring, reckless, brother.

I prayed he hadn’t done what I feared.

“They must have lost it after the fight. So, I took the thing and ran all the way here. I’ve been running for the last day and a half.”

Bleeding Stones.

“Ryder, you didn’t,” I breathed. The flames of the hearth merely embers now, shrouded the room in dancing shadows.

“The king will have you killed,” my mother whispered. “For abandoning your battalion.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter.”

“Why not?” I could hardly get the words out.

He sighed. “I had made it mere hours from Abbington when I caught the eye of another band of Onyx men. They must have seen the Onyx colors, or found me suspicious or something, but they followed me. And—”

“You led them right back to us?” Leigh said, voice ratcheting up an octave.

“Shh,” he whispered. “Keep your voices down, remember? They won’t find us if you do what I’m asking, and quickly.”

I spun around to peer out the window. I wasn’t even sure who—or what

—I was looking for. “Why not?” I asked. “Where will we be?” Ryder’s eyes lit up. “In the Garnet Kingdom.”

I sank deeper into the chair. I was going to be sick.

Ryder must have beheld the horror on all our faces, because he sat back down and tried again, more earnestly. “I’ve seen what’s out there. It’s worse than we thought. Our kingdom is falling apart in this battle. We won’t win.” His jaw ticked as he inhaled. “The rumors are true. We are terribly outnumbered. The women will be drafted next, and soon. Arwen… you and Leigh… you won’t be able to escape.” He turned to our mother and took her hand once more. “And Mam, you’ll be left here. I don’t want to think about what Abbington will look like then. Between rioters and your health…” his voice drifted off as he looked at me. I knew what he was implying.

I bit down on the roiling in my stomach.

“Garnet is far away enough to be out of the fray, and close enough for us to make it by boat. We can start a new life there.” He looked at our mother pointedly, then Leigh, then me. “Together, somewhere safe from a war that will only get worse.”

“But we don’t have a boat,” Mother’s tentative voice surprised me. I would have gone with you’re out of your damn mind.

“There’s enough Onyx coin to buy the four of us safe passage on one this evening. We need to leave right now and head for the harbor. We’ll make it to Garnet in just a few days. But Mam, we have to move swiftly.”

“Why?” whispered Leigh.

“Because the Onyx men won’t be far behind me. We aren’t safe here


With that, the room fell into silence, save for the wind rustling in the tree branches outside the open window behind me. I couldn’t look at my mother or Leigh as my thoughts churned along with my stomach.

The options were pretty clear: stay put and watch Ryder be beaten and killed in our own home by incensed soldiers, who would then likely kill the rest of us, or pack everything we owned and travel by sea to an unknown land and start anew. There was no guarantee of safety or survival either way.

But hope was a tricky thing.

Even just the spark of an idea that our lives could be more than they were here in Abbington—that Leigh and I could avoid the draft, continue to take care of Mother, maybe even get her more help, better medicine—it was enough to force me to my feet.

I didn’t want to leave Abbington. The world beyond this town was so unknown—so vast.

But I wouldn’t let them know how terrified I truly was.

It was all I had been striving for—to take care of them. To be strong enough to protect them. This was my chance.

“We have to go.”

Leigh, Ryder, and Mother all looked at me with the same surprised expression, as if choreographed.

Ryder spoke first. “Thank you, Arwen.” Then, he turned to Leigh and Mother. “She’s right and we need to move right now.”

“Are you sure?” Mother asked Ryder, her voice barely more than a whisper.

“Yes,” I said for him, though I wasn’t. At all.

It was enough to get Mother and Leigh haphazardly throwing tunics and books into cases two sizes too small. Ryder followed after them, his sore arm hardly holding him back from grabbing everything he could get his hands on.

It was a luxury, I told myself. A blessing. If anyone left in Abbington could have afforded the journey, or had somewhere to go, they would have

left years ago.

I ran outside to gather some food from our small garden for the journey and say goodbye to our animals. Leigh was already out there, weeping against our cow, Bells, and our horse, Hooves, both named by a young Leigh. She was incredibly close to our animals, feeding them every morning and night. Bells, especially, had a bond with the girl we couldn’t imagine breaking, not even out of desperate hunger.

Leigh’s stifled sobs rang through the pen, and my heart began to truly ache. I even felt a surprising weight in my own chest when I approached the animals. Their loving faces had been a stalwart presence in my life, too, that suddenly I couldn’t imagine waking up without. I nuzzled them both, putting my cheek to theirs, and felt their warm breath on my face in contrast to the cool night air.

I rubbed Leigh’s back. “We have to go. Go grab the pouch with mother’s medicine, I’ll tie up the animals. Nora will take care of them, I promise.”

Leigh nodded and wiped her nose with a pale cotton sleeve.

I thought of Nora. Would she need me at the infirmary? She was a harsh woman, but I would miss her. In some ways, she was my only friend.

Tears prickled in my eyes, for my animals, my work, the humble life that I had lived here in Abbington. For all my offhanded thoughts of new experiences, now that I had a chance at something more, I was genuinely scared.

I realized with another thorough pang of sadness that I probably wouldn’t ever see Halden again, either. If he were to return safely, which I still hoped he would, how would he ever find us in the Garnet Kingdom?

I couldn’t even leave Halden a note, as the Onyx soldiers might find it.

I’d never know what could have happened between us, and if I might have grown to love him. That thought made my heart break all over again. I was so grateful Ryder was home and alive, but had no idea I’d be saying so many goodbyes tonight because of it.

I didn’t want to leave. I couldn’t help it—it was too much change.

As we filed outside, I peered into my home one last time. It looked exceedingly bare. How wild to think that just two hours ago we were

having stew for dinner just like every other night. Now we were fleeing for a foreign kingdom.

I shut the door behind me as Leigh helped Mother down the dirt path. The docks were one town over, and it would be a long walk for her. I followed beside a still-limping Ryder. Who, of course, wouldn’t let me help him.

“I can’t believe you,” I whispered.

“I know.” Then he looked behind us. I peered back, too, my heart spinning in my chest, but nobody was there.

We walked in silence.

The sun was setting beautifully over the mountains, a pink and purple sky dotted with clouds.

“I mean,” I continued. “You went to war, left us for a year. I honestly thought you were dead. Then you come home, falling apart like a broken doll, with enough stolen riches to start a new life in a new kingdom. Who are you? A hero from a folk tale?”

“Arwen,” he stopped and turned to face me. “I know you’re scared.” I attempted a weak protest, but he continued. “I am, too. But I saw an opportunity, and I took it. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life fighting for the Kingdom of Amber any more than you want to spend the rest of your life living in it. This could change our lives. And for Mam, a chance at a cure. Or for Leigh, a chance for a better childhood. It’s the right thing to do,” he took my hand in his and squeezed. “I’m here to take care of us now. You don’t have to worry.”

I nodded, despite realizing how little my own brother knew about me. I would happily spend the rest of my life here. Maybe happily was the wrong word, but at least I’d be alive.

We continued walking, the sunset light fading behind mountains and leaving us awash in dusty blues. Shadows stretched across the dirt road, and I flinched and spun at every sound, every skitter behind me, despite nobody ever being there.

I was peering deep into some bushes, looking for the source of what I swore were footsteps when Leigh went rigid and turned to us with alarm.

“What is it?” I breathed, shielding her with my body.

“No, the pouch,” she whispered, hands fishing through her little canvas sack in horror.

“What?” I asked, though my heart had stopped beating altogether.

She looked to our mother. “The vials in it are empty.” Tears spilled onto her cheeks as she started back for our home. “Her medicine—we have to go back.”

A vicious chill ran over me.

I hadn’t poured the medicine into the vials in the pouch. I had let it steep, cooked dinner, Ryder came home—

In the commotion I had told Leigh to grab the pouch, but I never filled it.

Suddenly my heart was beating so fast I could hear it. “It’s my fault,” I breathed. “I need to run back for them. I’ll be fast.”

“No.” My mother’s voice was harsher than I’d ever heard it. “Don’t be ridiculous. We are risking enough as it is. Who knows how long they were following your brother? I’ll be fine.”

“No, Mam, you need it. Arwen is fast.” Ryder turned to me. “Run quickly, or you could miss the boat.” But I knew what he was implying— that I could run into the soldiers that were on his tail. Leigh was crying in earnest now but trying gamely to cover up her sobs.

“I’ll be right back, and I’ll meet you at the docks. I promise.” I sprinted off without waiting to hear their protests.

I couldn’t believe how stupid I had been.

After all the pressure I had put on myself to provide for my family, to follow in Ryder’s footsteps. To not be so afraid.

I raced up the dirt road, passing houses filled with families saying goodnight and putting out their hearths. The moon was now rising in the sky, the pale evening light replaced by midnight blue.

The sprint back to our house had given me a much-needed moment of reprieve. A sense of calm washed over my anxious mind. My heartbeat became rhythmic. My footfalls, the same. Thud, thud, thud. By the time I got back to our home, I already felt better.

I hid for a moment behind a single apple tree, but there were no soldiers, no horses, no carts anywhere near our house. No noise or lights coming

from inside.

Bells and Hooves were calm, both lazily grazing on hay.

I loosed an exhale, and sweat from the run cooled on my face.

Maybe Ryder had been wrong, and they had never followed him in the first place. Or, even more likely, they had given up hunting down one lone thief.

I could see now that everything would be all right.

As long as we were together, we could brave this journey. I could.

I opened our door with a soft creak, and came face to face with eleven Onyx soldiers, bathed in shadow, sitting around my kitchen table.

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