Since The Day You Left XX: Save Whom You Can
Aloysius, Cahir, and Iolo stood under the shade of the grape arbors in the garden, having not much more use. Boniface and Ignatius took the north side of the keep, and so far, the captain was just waiting for the mission to be over. He had something pressing left in Baric-Tref, one of those things that you couldn't take your eye off for very long. It was that important.
“The sun’s going to sleep,” yawned Cahir. “Captain? May we request retirement?”
Aloysius scoffed. “Never been on night duty, aye, Cahir?”
The boy indignantly shrugged. “Jist, tired, y’know.”
Iolo tousled the boy’s curly blonde hair. “Eh, not yet.”
The two soldiers watched, with amusement, as Cahir fell asleep on the cold stone stairs. The sun set to their right, and the stars began to show to their left. The velvet purple of twilight was warm and pricked with twinkling diamonds. Iolo, as good as an older brother could be, doffed his thick cloak and put it over Cahir. Aloysius took in a deep breath of the fresh air.
“The night’s a Warrior Twilight,” remarked Iolo, looking up at the stars. The Anaheran grew up studying stars, and the names that surpassed Aloysius’ extent of knowledge for all of them synchronized with yet a different myth of Anaheran creation.
“Yeah?” Aloysius said, following his friend’s gaze. “For what reason?”
“The position of the moon corresponds with the shape of a scythe in a poised warrior’s hand, you see?” He traced out a crude image of a man holding the moon as a weapon. “Warrior Twilights are rare.”
Aloysius nodded, inspecting the sky. “Kinda looks like Wynne.”
Iolo had traced explosively curly hair speckled with stars, shining and flying behind the jumping figure. It seemed that if anyone he knew would be immortalized as such a warrior as the constellation, it would be his friend, the firebrand of a milkmaid.
The younger Solitary laughed. “Aye, aye, Wynne is a warrior’s daughter.”
A silence hung between them as they studied the expansive sky, then Iolo smacked himself on the forehead.
“Daughter! I knew I was forgetting something!” He turned to Aloysius. “Your daughter has been asking for you. She was wondering when you’d return so that you could take her to Bryngaer.”
Aloysius softly laughed. “It’s only been a few days. I took her to Bryngaer only a few weeks ago.”
Iolo shrugged with a smile. “A few days is a year in the mind of a six year old.”
The captain nodded. “I’ll write to her whenever I can, but we’ll be home soon.”
The soldier shrugged and patted his friend’s shoulder. “We should find the others. Let’s hope the negotiations are over with. I’m exhausted.”
Aloysius woke Cahir and practically had to carry him. The three soldiers made for the north wall together.
“Sius!” screamed Wynne, with a shadow behind her.
Aloysius frowned and approached her, worry in his heart. The shadow fabricated a lanky Údaen lad, and he stopped as the milkmaid retreated into the captain.
“They killed her, they just killed her!” she sobbed. “She and I were just here, and they killed her! She just died!”
“Who?” inquired Aloysius, trying to stay her. “Wynne, find your breath. This is imperative.”
Wynne took in a deep breath and met his eyes with her large, violet ones. “Supreme General Asdis. They killed her.”
Iolo frowned. “Who killed her?”
The boy stepped forward. “The Yīnyǐng.”
Caislín and Finn were able to duck out of the prison, and the queen was glad they did. Pasts were amended and she felt whole again. To walk with Finnian O’Glesey, after it seemed as if he was gone to the world, was like a miracle to her. She was in paradise to hold his hand and tell of life since their departures.
Finn sighed and ran a hand through his hair, seeming annoyed at how long it was. “I’m in need of a haircut soon,” he mumbled.
Caislín smiled. “It hides too much of your handsome face.”
He grinned at that and kissed her forehead. “I can’t believe I forgot you,” he whispered, all smiles melting into indignant frowning. “I just- How is that possible?”
The queen shook her head. “Those are details, Finn,” she said softly. “You’re back. You remember.”
“How did I forget leaving you?” he inquired, a storm of confusion and aimlessness boiling in his tone. “Why did I never see your face in my head?” He stepped back, lost in thought. He couldn’t help but stare at his queen, memorizing her face.
Caislín frowned. “Finn, it’s nothing. You lost your memory; I don’t mind so long as you remember now.”
He hesitated, then nodded humbly. “You’re right,” he mumbled, “you’re very right.”
Now on a high hill overlooking the city of Vårthjem, they looked back at where they had come from. Golden lanterns speckled the castle, and they reflected on the accents of green marbled in the obsidian of the walls. Streets and backways were alight with torches and the silence was banished by minstrels and acrobats. The light of the palace mirrored the stars shining above in the velvet black sky, and the silvery crescent moon that stood watch past twilight.
“It’s beautiful,” whispered Caislín.
With no warning, however, the scene turned to a nightmare.
At first, it felt like a tearing earthquake, that roared all around them, knocking them off of their feet. Caislín yelped and fell, and Finn caught her, but the force tripped him and he went backward.
“What’s going on?” she exclaimed as the quake only worsened.
Finn struggled to his feet and looked back at where Vårthjem used to be. His eyes widened and he helped up Caislín.
“Explosion,” he breathed, glancing at it again.
The high towers of the palace crumbled as fire and stone propelled from a red-hot cloud in the keep’s midsection. Screams and cries erupted from the town and it took seconds before the civilians came flooding out of the gates. Smoke rose from the explosion and Vårthjem started to fall.
“Who could have done that?” breathed Caislín.
Toula saw the explosion just as it happened, and she yelped as she was pushed off of her feet by the force. She looked up at the fire with wide, deep brown eyes, and she ran in.
Yīnyǐng policies were clear; civilians live to tell the tale. This was such a wide explosion that, surely, it wasn’t just meant for the Al-Izz boy. No one but that target, as she was taught, should be killed.
What are you thinking, Father?
Toula adeptly sprinted through the falling kingdom, looking for anyone stuck in the carnage. Balls of fire rained down and blocks of obsidian fell like rocks in the sea. Most people she saw were running, but alive and unhurt. She pulled a few children out from under broken homes, but after that, they ran from her to the safety of the gates.
Once she was shocked out of her daze, Toula knew what to do and how to do it. She had to be stronger than her confusion, and it helped her to concentrate.
Save whom you can.
Over the cacophony of screaming and roaring fire, she heard screams from inside the keep. Throwing aside her initial fear, the girl ran against the current of terrified civilians and leaped into the main door. Fire consumed the beauty of the palace, and Toula dodged the falling chandeliers and general desecration.
The screams disappeared as she entered the throne room, where two bodies protected one. They were both young men, cloaked in blue capes, and scruffy beards on their chins. She was horrified to see that they were dead.
The one lady underneath them, the one they died protecting, gasped out breaths. Toula reverently pulled the soldiers off of her and she heaved in a large breath. The woman was dying, with not much hope. Half buried in the rubble, Toula couldn’t see the worst of her wounds. Maybe it was for the better.
The woman, a royal with black hair and blue eyes, raised a shaky hand and pointed weakly at something underneath the rubble, a few feet from her place. Toula followed her finger and found a crown underneath the ruins. Confused, she inspected it. The body of it was crafted from a metal to mock obsidian, and dipping into the forehead was a sculpture of a bird. Inside the bird’s eyes was an embedded emerald.
“Here,” Toula whispered, gingerly placing it on the woman’s head.
She shook her head and, not attempting to speak, pulled out the emerald and gestured for Toula’s hand. Frowning, the girl opened her hand, and the queen carefully placed the gem in her palm.
“Wh- I can’t take this,” Toula stammered, shaking her head.
“Find… Caislín…” The woman closed her eyes and drew out a peaceful breath.
She was dead.
Toula sighed and closed her eyes, but she relented and placed the woman’s gift in her pocket. “I’ll find Caislín,” she promised. She stood and left the throne room.
Aloysius grabbed Wynne and covered her just as the explosion rang out. Iolo did the same around Cahir, but the whole squad was blown off their feet. Boniface was about to shout out a warning when his words were consumed by the deafening sound of the palace crumbling.
The captain hit his head against the pavement and lost his sense of direction as he blacked out from the impact.
“Aloysius, come on!” shouted Wynne, shaking him. As he had taken the brunt of the force, she was untouched. “Aloysius, wake up!”
The captain groaned and struggled to his feet just as the desecration began raining down upon them. Iolo was clutching Cahir to him, just barely seconds away from wailing. The boy was lifeless in his arms, and Aloysius feared they were too late to do anything for him.
“The- the-” In a daze, the captain struggled to find words. “The other boy.”
“Nóe?” Wynne’s eyes widened for a second. “Nóe! Nóe, where are you?”
The expression on her face showed how sickening it felt when her stomach dropped to her boots and her heart leaped into her mouth.
There was no time to look for him. Boniface was nowhere to be seen, but Ignatius’ head popped out from under a broken arbor and he stumbled out, clutching his arm. The town itself was catching fire from the palace’s fiery missiles of stone, and there wouldn’t be much time to go after any missing persons and live to escape.
“Oh, no,” Aloysius mumbled. “Ignatius, carry Cahir. Iolo, go with them. Make for the stables. Save what Solitary horses you can.”
He took Wynne by the arm and she struggled to protest. “They’re going to die!” she shrieked. “We have to save whom we can!”
With her adamant protesting, Aloysius feared, in her panic, she would jump into the fire and kill herself in the process of being heroic. To keep her from tearing from his grip, the captain scooped her into his arms and ran towards the safety of the hills.
Wynne screamed, kicked, and sobbed as he fled Vårthjem with her secure in his arms. He crossed the Bifröst and didn’t put her onto her own two feet until they were back where they had set up camp.
“How could you leave them?” Wynne screamed at him. Once he let go she attempted to run from him, only to be caught again. Her feet were swept from under her and Aloysius dumped her onto his own stallion, which he kept tethered at camp. “You’re a horrid monster, Aloysius! I’m going to save them even if you're too scared!”
“Recognize what’s possible and what’s only fantasy!” he yelled at her. “If you go in to rescue helpless souls, you die! You can’t be a hero if you only waste your own beating heart!” The captain tied her hands to the stallion’s saddle to keep her from running away into the fire and began packing. “If anyone got stuck in that carnage,” he said, sadly looking back at Vårthjem, which became a beacon of wild, hungry, orange light, “they’re dead now.”
Wynne struggled against the rawhide he had bound her wrists with and collapsed on the horse in an uncontrollable sob. "You're... afraid..." she made out through wet cries, "I hate you."
Aloysius knew how and when to keep his emotions in check, but even he sunk to his knees and cried at the sight. He let out a deep sob, unable to stop. His shoulders bounced with his heaving breaths and his tears spilled on the grass.
Not even he could save anyone.
Toula heard the moans before she saw him.
With the mysterious emerald tucked in the small girl’s pocket, she dodged the fires and pulled her cowl over her nose. The acrid smoke began to poison the air. If the force and the fire didn’t kill anyone, then the residue surely would. Her father had been clever at making bombs, and this one was made with a concoction of arsenic and hemlock. To inhale was to die.
“Help,” came the weak voice underneath the shattered rafters of a home.
Toula took in a gasp and ran to the outline of the house, hearing moans and labored coughing from underneath. She crouched and took the charred rafter in both hands and struggled to lift it. While she had the body of a fourteen year old, her strength was that belonging to a lioness. However, the beam resisted against her lithe and petite form, but the youth under it shot a brown hand out and almost made her drop it. She grunted and pushed her back against it, not letting the wood defy her. With a short roar, she lurched the rafter upwards, and it fell to the side.
The hand dropped, and Toula knew she had little time. She pushed the remaining rubble off of the broken body. The youth, a boy of fifteen or so, just a year older than her, gasped in a relieved breath. He was thrown on his stomach, and she couldn’t see his face.
“Don’t worry,” she assured him as she secured both arms under his. With difficulty, Toula hoisted him up and dragged him towards the gates, covering his nose and mouth with her sleeve. “Don’t worry. You’re alive.”
He wheezed, probably trying to say something. Once they were safe in the hills, she sat beside him.
Toula leaned in. “What?” she asked.
He coughed and gasped, then whispered through chapped lips, “I… can’t see.”
The girl leaned back against a tree and watched him closely. He turned away from her and covered his face with a hand.
“You’re shutting your eyes, that’s why.”
The boy, positioned on his side, seemed exhausted. He took in short gasp after short gasp. He was just barely conscious, and his eyes were closed.
“I can’t… see,” he struggled. “My… eyes…”
Toula rolled her eyes. “You’re not opening them, O, Wise One.”
“I can’t!” he growled. He pulled his hand away from his face, and she could see why. Across his eyelids were significant burns and blisters marched over his forehead. Serious flash burns. What was worse was that, as she gingerly inspected his face, she noticed that, underneath his eyelids, his blue eyes began to cloud quickly.
“Oh, no,” she whispered, leaning back on her haunches again. “I see what your problem is.”
“Stay away from me,” he said, pushing her away. He struggled to his feet but fell again.
Toula shot back to her feet and caught him. “Save your energy, all right?” She looked up at the dark black sky. Only half an hour ago it was welcoming, but now, it was cold and indifferent about the glowing red fire that used to be a city. The panic and the force had since waned, but there was the grief of a lost home in the air. “It’s night. I advise you to rest.”
The boy sighed and shakily laid back down on the grass. “I’m blind forever, aren’t I?”
Toula leaned against her tree and sadly nodded. “The clouding over the eyes is a telltale sign. I fear you’ll never see with your eyes again.”
He swallowed and turned away from her again.
She hesitated, then asked, “What’s your name?”
He didn’t say anything at first, then he shrugged. “Nóe.”
Toula nodded slowly, then it registered. Her father had told her that their target was a boy named Nóe. She reached for her scabbard on her back, where she remembered that her father had ordered her to leave her weapons at the camp. It was supposed to be a quick mission with one target; what was the reason of overpacking? She growled at herself and nestled again. What a waste of energy, she thought.
“Well,” she said with a quick breath. “That’ll be it. I’ll have to go back to my camp.”
As she stood and began to walk away from Nóe, she hesitated. She didn’t know that feeling inside, as she had never felt pity before. She had only heard the word before with no context, and the feeling left her confused. She believed there was no capacity in her for pity, and yet, something else made her glance back at the youth, exhausted, haggard, and scared, attempting to rest, and her heart bled for him. The scar across his face would leave him a freak wandering the abandoned areas of the world, and for some reason, she felt he didn’t deserve that.
It took minutes of standing completely still, staring at the boy who laid on the grass, softly catching his breath, before she came back to him and she moved him onto his back.
“I’ll find some herbs to alleviate the pain and to cleanse your lungs,” she explained, “I’ll be right back.”
Nóe felt the girl’s thick, silky hair brush across his cheek as she returned. He heard her put the herbs in her mouth as she chewed them down, then she applied the paste to his forehead. Instantly, the burns were soothed.
“Chew this.” She made him open his mouth and she stuffed another set of herbs into his mouth.
It was silent as she ordered and he complied. He felt her position his head on a bundle. The night was waxing, that much was certain. The youth grew tired, and after the girl had finished with his interaction and gently pressed a cool, wet cloth to his eyes, he let out a sigh and fell asleep.
Sioned knew that Breixo would be proud of her as she brought him such wonderful news.
She crossed the main hall to the throne room of Caer Crofton, and she was welcomed by the chill of such a haunted room. Her small shoulders bounced with shivers.
Crofton was thoroughly bored with waiting to hear how the operation in Alpene went, as he was lounging in his throne with that look on his face, while Breixo, who stood before the throne, arms crossed over his chest, seemed itching to hear that his brother was now dead. His Manhunter, Seph, snored in a corner, as Crofton’s Rangers tried halfheartedly to keep Arlo occupied to keep him from running through the halls with all his bottled up energy.
“Well, Milkmaid Girl?” Crofton growled.
Sioned had been working for him for weeks now and she was called nothing but that demeaning nickname. Many times she pleaded Breixo to interfere, as they were both too used to being kicked around already, but he never got past saying ‘I’ll get to it’. She sent him another annoyed look, but he said nothing. He raised a brow at her, in a way of saying, ‘It’s your cue.’
Sioned stood before the king and nodded. “The Yīnyǐng were successful in bombing Vårthjem,” she reported, “and the Empress Skadi was killed. They have retrieved her crown and are attempting to extract the Eye as we speak.”
As she said it, her eyes floated to the familiar tiara with the sapphire, displayed beside Crofton’s throne. The plan was, after all of the Eyes were collected, they would find a Keeper to arrange them with the Book of Alqudama, which, as the Book had prophesied, would show the highest power. Crofton was sure that the highest power would be whoever wielded the Book and all four Eyes, though those who had actually read and understood the Book slightly doubted it.
The old lord smiled. “Very well done!”
Breixo stepped forward. “And Nóe?” he said in a dangerous voice. “Where is he?”
Sioned sighed. “If he wasn’t consumed by the flames and force or crushed by a rafter or a stone, then he was choked by the arsenic fumes.”
He nodded. “Now,” he said, “I can also say that they proved to be successful.”