Chapter no 11 – Jase

Dance of Thieves

It took several tries to catch the slimy bastards. They were clever and easily darted past our makeshift net, but together we eventually perfected our technique, sneaking forward in unison, allowing the fabric to billow so we could scoop them up. I hooted when we snagged our first catch of two, and with several more sweeps we had a few dozen of the skinny, four-inch fish piled on the bank. They weren’t much, but right now my stomach thought they looked like a juicy roasted pig.

“Cooked or raw?” she asked as she lifted one to her mouth.

I pushed her hand down before she could eat it. “Cooked,” I said firmly, not trying to hide my disgust. The last thing I’d had in my stomach was a barrel of ale, and squirming fish were not going to swim in it.

“Don’t look at me like I’m a savage,” she snapped.

“We simply have different eating tastes, and mine include dead game.” I worked on the fire while she began skewering the fish onto two sticks for roasting.

As the minnows sizzled over the fire, she looked at my chest again, this time leisurely, not looking away when I noticed. “Is that an eagle?” she asked.

“Part of one.”

“Tell me about the crest. What does it stand for?” she asked. “I didn’t know you even had one.”

Of course she didn’t. She knew nothing about us. “It’s hard to tell you about the crest without telling the whole Ballenger history, and I doubt you want to hear that considering your low opinion of us.”

“Try me. I like history.”

I shot her a skeptical glance. But she sat there attentive and waiting. “It began with the first Ballenger, the leader of all the Ancients.” “All?” Her brows rose, already disputing the claim.

“That’s right. Years after the Last Days— “You mean the devastation.”

I knew there were a lot of different versions and words used to describe the gods’ revenge against the world. “All right, the devastation, but you can’t interrupt me after every word.”

She nodded and listened quietly while I told her that the leader of the Ancients, Aaron Ballenger, had gathered a surviving Remnant spared by the gods, most of them children, and was leading them to a place where they would be safe. But before they could reach Tor’s Watch, they were attacked by scavengers and he died. As he lay dying, he charged his grandson, Greyson, with leading the group the rest of the way. “Greyson found this symbol,” I explained, sliding my hand over my chest, “when they reached Tor’s Watch—at least a version of it—at the entrance to a secure shelter, and he adopted it as the Ballenger crest.”

“So he was your first leader?”

“Yes. He was only fourteen and had to look after twenty-two people he didn’t know, but they became family. The crest has changed over the generations, but some parts are constant, like the eagle and the banner.”

“And the words?” she asked, gesturing at my arm.

I shrugged. “We don’t know what they mean exactly. It’s a lost language, but to us they mean protect and defend at all costs.”

“Even death?”

“All costs means all.”

I glanced up at the sky. It was already a dusky purple, and a few stars were beginning to shine. “Too late to leave now. We’ll have to make camp here for the night.”

She nodded and almost looked relieved.

* * *

The sun had been gone for hours, and we stared at the small fire crackling at our feet. Light flickered on the yellow-ringed trunks surrounding us.

“I’ve never seen trees like this, so many and so thin,” she said.

“Legend says the forest grew from bone dust and that every tree holds the trapped soul of someone who died in the devastation. That’s why they bleed red when you cut them.”

She shivered. “That’s a gruesome thought.”

I told her a few other legends that were less gruesome, ones about the forests and mountains surrounding Tor’s Watch, and even a story about the towering tembris, which became the footstools of the gods and held the magic of the stars.

“Where’d you learn all these stories?”

“I grew up with them. I spent a lot of my childhood outdoors exploring every corner of Tor’s Watch, usually with my father. He told me most of the stories. What about you? What was your childhood like?”

Her gaze darted to her lap, a furrow deepening over her brow. She finally lifted her chin with a proud air. “Much like yours,” she answered. “I spent a lot of time outdoors.” She ended the conversation, saying it was probably time that we got some sleep.

But she didn’t. I stretched out and closed my eyes, but time after time when I opened them she still sat there, hunched, her arms hugging her knees. Had my story about spirits trapped in trees spooked her? It was strange to see her looking so vulnerable now, and yet earlier she’d been aggressively reckless when she told the hunter a riddle, challenging him, knowing he would strike her. There hadn’t been a drop of fear in her then, when all odds were against her. I wondered if this was some sort of trick. Was she up to something?

“It’s hard to sleep if you don’t lie down,” I finally said.

She reluctantly lay down, but her eyes remained open, her chest rising in deep, controlled breaths as if she were counting them. Her arms trembled, but the night was warm. This was no trick.

“Are you cold?” I asked. “I can add more branches to the fire if you need it.”

She blinked several times, like she was embarrassed that I had noticed. “No, I’m fine,” she said.

But she wasn’t fine at all.

I studied her for a minute, then said, “Tell me a riddle. To help me sleep.”

She balked, but only a little, and it seemed she was happy to have something else to occupy her mind besides what had been lurking there. She rolled onto her side to face me, settling in, comfortable. “Listen carefully,” she said. “I won’t repeat it a dozen times like I did for the hunter.”

“You won’t need to. I’m a good listener.”

She said the words slowly, deliberately, like she was imagining the world behind the picture she painted. I watched her lips as she formed each word, her voice relaxed and soft, once again confident, her golden eyes watching mine, making sure I paid attention and missed nothing.

“My face is full, but also slight, I pale in the bright of light,

I whisper sweet to the forest owl, I kiss the air with wolf ’s sad howl, Eyes follow me from sea to sea,

Yet alone in this world … I will ever be.”

I stared at her, swallowed, my thoughts suddenly jumbled.

“Well?” she asked. I knew the answer but I drew it out, offering several wrong answers, making her laugh once. It was the first time I had seen her laugh, genuine, without any pretense, and it filled me with a strange burst of heat.

“The moon,” I finally answered.

Our gazes held, and she seemed to know what I was doing. “Tell me another one,” I said.

And she did. A dozen more, until her lids grew heavy and she finally fell asleep.

Prepare your hearts,

For we must not only be ready for the enemy without,

but also the enemy within.

—Song of Jezelia

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