"Giselle, Vala, are you girls home?" a tired voice called as the front door swung open, waking me from my nap.
I blinked blearily about the sitting room, wondering where the Drachen had gone for a moment, before the throbbing behind my eyes returned. The headache made it harder to remind myself that the mountain pass and the Drachen weren't real, that I was safe in my sister's home. Apparently taking a nap wasn't going to help much with the reoccurring dreams and the headaches that I'd been having for the last couple of weeks. Not if I was just going to end up having the dream again. I never remembered much of the dream other than the mountain pass and the Drachen, but there was enough for me to know it was probably the start of the manifesting dreams and I would just have to suck it up and deal with the headaches until I started actually showing the sorcery.
"In the sitting room, Mother," Giselle called, glancing at me with concern as she set aside the needlework she had been doing while I napped.
Pulling my head off my arms, I managed to drag myself to a more or less upright position in the chair I'd been napping in. I was still rubbing at my eyes to ease the throbbing as I stretched a little to work out the kinks from falling asleep in a rather awkward position, when Mom walked into the room with Jonas and Derrik trailing in her wake. Both boys wore nearly identical hangdog expressions on their faces, and would not look anywhere other than the toes of their shoes. Without a word, they each walked to a corner of the room and stood facing it. Strangely enough, Edward wasn't in the thick of things with them. As close as the three boys are in age, most of the time they behave as if they were triplets, much to my mother's annoyance since when one gets into trouble they all do.
"Where's Edward?" Giselle asked, as she looked over the boys.
Mom seemed to go a little paler at Giselle's question, a difficult feat considering how pale she's been since Edward and Selina were born a bit over three years ago. Mom had started to get a little color back before the fever that took Selina's life, but after that she's never seemed completely healthy to me though the healers insist she's doing fine. Today it was more pronounced than usual so I dragged myself to my feet despite the pounding in my head and gestured for mom to take my seat. I would have liked to let Mother join Giselle on the couch, but with my sister being nine months pregnant, asking her to move around much would be a bit cruel and she looked reasonably comfortable with her feet propped up on the arm of the couch at the moment. Mom nodded in thanks and took a seat before answering Giselle's question.
"It seems Jonas and Derrik over heard Vala talking to her friends last week about Snipe Hunting with Varrick," Mother said with an exasperated look at the twins. "They thought it would be a good game to play with Edward only he doesn't know how to get back to the enclave and now I fear he's lost in the woods."
I scowled at my brothers for leaving three year old Edward alone in the woods to find his way back to the enclave. Unfortunately, the whole incident was as much my fault as theirs. A four year old couldn't really be expected to understand the dangers that come with finding your way outside the enclaves, but I should have known better than to tell Deirdre and Hannah about Varrick inviting me to go Snipe Hunting where my brothers could over hear. I'd been so happy that Varrick had wanted to include me in what is basically a rite of passage among the hunters and trackers, despite Little Marcus's insistence that I did not need to be risked in that aspect of the training, that I hadn't even considered what trouble my brothers could get into if they overheard the story.
To be honest, I'd been so focused on explaining to Deirdre and Hannah why Varrick leaving me alone in the woods to find my way back to the enclave was actually a good thing that I hadn't even known they were there. And that had probably made things worse, since my brothers would have heard me explaining that I was happy to be included with the rest of my hunting and tracking class, even though I wasn't actually going to be a hunter myself. When I'd joined the class originally, I'd only been planning to stay long enough to get the basics so I could help the younger children that were interested in becoming hunters. I honestly hadn't counted on enjoying the training enough that I chose to continue after I'd learned what I needed. By then, Little Marcus had already told me about the game to keep me from being risked unnecessarily and he was adamant about not changing his decision because even if I continued the class, I still wouldn't be dependant on my skills for survival like the other students would. Despite his short stature, Little Marcus had been so forceful in his enforcement of his decision that I'd fully expected to remain disappointed about not being fully included into the class, which meant that when Varrick had dared our instructor's wrath to invite me anyway, I'd been far more enthusiastic about Snipe Hunting than I would have been normally.
With all my enthusiasm about the Snipe Hunting, my brothers must have though there was nothing wrong or dangerous about pulling the trick on their brother. On top of that Deirdre and Hannah had trouble understanding why I had continued taking the hunting and tracking course that I'd made a point of not telling them about the dangers that came with the class. Meaning my eavesdropping brothers wouldn't have picked up on them either.
"Oh dear," Giselle said, pressing a hand over her mouth and interrupting my thoughts. "How long ago did they leave him?"
"It's been nearly four hours," Mom replied, twisting her hands in her lap and glancing nervously out the window. "None of the hunters are in the village at the moment and it's only another three hours until dusk."
Well that would certainly explain why Mom looked paler than usual. She must have been all over the enclave looking for somebody who could find Edward and bring him back safely. The thought of possibly loosing him a little more than a year after the death of his twin, would be incredibly hard on my mother. Briefly I wondered if any of the boys from my tracking class might be able to find Edward, but then I remembered Cale had said something about a mandatory weapons training class. Meaning every one of them was currently off climbing mountains and whacking on each other with wooden swords. After a moment I realized that not all of my class was out of the enclave at the moment.
"I'll go," I offered, before I could second guess myself.
I'd never been out hunting alone before, but I knew what to do since I had been training with Little Marcus. I wasn't anywhere near as good as the men who supplied the enclaves with meat and the like, but I was good enough to find one lost three year old boy. And even if I couldn't find Edward and bring him back, I could at least get to him and keep him safe until a fully trained tracker could get to us.
"Vala, you're twelve," Mother protested, clearly not wanting another of her children to be in danger. "We'll find one of the hunters to track Edward."
"You said yourself the hunters are all out of the enclave now and that usually means they won't be back until just before dark at the earliest," I pointed out, pushing away from the wall I'd been leaning on, glad that my headache had receded to a mild throbbing. "I've been training with them. I know what to do to keep him safe if we have to stay out overnight."
Mom started to say something else in protest, but Giselle interrupted with a shake of her head, "If Vala thinks she can do this, she's the best hope we have for him. And she knows how to mark trails so the hunters can find her more quickly in the morning."
I didn't wait for Mom to try and find another reason for me not to go after my brother, before heading for my room. I quickly changed out of my skirt and blouse into the heavier leather trousers and sturdy tunic I wore when I was out in the woods. I pulled out my camping kit, checking the pots and tent over quickly before bundling them up with my sleeping roll and a couple of extra blankets. I added a change of clothes, but since I would need to move quickly and wouldn't be far from the enclave, hopefully I wouldn't need more than that. Grabbing my boots, I ducked into the kitchen long enough to grab a couple of days worth of food since I wouldn't be able to hunt with Edward in tow.
Mom and Giselle were standing in the hall when I came out of the kitchen. Mother seemed concerned as she twisted her hands in her apron, but she said nothing to me. Giselle looked me over once and tugged the straps on my pack a little tighter for me.
"Be careful, Vala," she said as she held open the door for me. "They left him about half an hour's walk east of the meadow where we pick wildflowers in the spring."
Nodding quickly, I stepped out onto the porch and pulled my boots on. Standing up, I settled my pack over my shoulders and forced myself not to look back as I trotted out of the enclave. Both Giselle and Mom were too edgy about me doing this alone to give them even a hint that I was nervous about the responsibility.
Once at the meadow, I managed to locate the tracks the boys had left fairly easily, but by the time I found where the twins had left Edward, he had wandered off in the opposite direction from the enclave. Knowing Edward had a good four or five hours head start on me, I moved as quickly as I could, barely pausing to leave trail markers for whoever would be sent out after me. For a while, Edward's footprints said he had simply followed the narrow, winding deer path deeper into the mountains. Then he got crafty for a little kid with no training. He'd splashed through a stream for a while, probably chasing minnows.
I nearly lost him then since he waded out of the stream in a rocky area and enough time had passed that his footprints had dried. Fortunately he seemed to have fallen into the stream enough to pick up some river mud and water weeds in the cuffs of his trousers. I followed the traces of dried river mud over a series of rocky outcroppings. Near the top of the ridge I found a small muddy handprint that confirmed I was still on Edward's trail, though the skid marks where he'd apparently slid down the other side of the ridge worried me a little since I couldn't tell if he'd done it on purpose or if he'd fallen. I felt some of my tension ease when I found his footprints following another animal path near the bottom of the ridge.
A quick look at his tracks showed me I was gaining on him since he seemed to be dragging his feet in the dirt a bit more and he'd been running around all afternoon without a nap. Unfortunately, dusk was gaining on me nearly as quickly. With the more open trail to follow I pushed the pace as much as I dared. As it was, I almost missed the broken twigs and overturned dirt that marked where Edward had stumbled off the trail and toward a smallish cave set back from the path by a good distance. He must have thought the cave was a good place to shelter. I checked for other tracks in the area as I headed for the cave, wanting to know if there were any animals around that might have sought shelter in the cave. I didn't see anything particularly fresh other than my brother's tracks, but the day old spore from what I thought might be a mountain lion was not particularly comforting.
Scrambling up to the cave mouth wasn't particularly difficult, though I could see some patches of dried blood where Edward had scraped a hand or knee climbing up himself. If he'd been bleeding, then we definitely needed to move out of the area before that mountain lion came around again, since we'd smell like dinner to the cat. I crouched in the mouth of the cave for a moment, letting my eyes adjust to the dim lighting inside and trying not to sneeze at the musky smell that permeated the cave.
When my eyes adjusted, I spotted Edward curled up on the flattest part of the floor, shivering slightly. I could see tracks in the dried mud on his cheeks from where he'd been crying. Both his palms and one knee bore a variety of cuts and scratches, some of them deep enough to have bled pretty freely. His clothes were torn at the hems and caked with more dirt and grime than a boy his age usually picks up. He'd even gotten mud in his hair, making the normally adorable blond curls clump together oddly where it was plastered against his sweaty forehead. I had no idea how the little twerp could manage to look halfway angelic while being scared out of his mind and covered in dirt, but he seemed to manage it well enough.
Shaking my head, I shook his shoulder gently, "Come on Eddie, time to wake up."
"Vawa?" he slurred, blinking open tired eyes and looking at me in confusion for a moment.
When he realized I was really in the cave with him, he let out a howl and hurled himself into my arms. His momentum knocked me over so I was sitting on the cave floor as he promptly burrowed into my lap and flung his arms around my neck sobbing for all he was worth. I patted his hair gently and rubbed his back, hoping I could get him calmed down enough to get us out of here before dark. My tracking instructor had trained me well enough that I could function in the dark if I had to, but the advantage was definitely not mine. Edward's sobs eventually quieted down as the exhaustion caught back up with him. He sat quietly in my arms, clinging to my tunic like a life line.
"Come on, Edward," I said shifting him a bit to get some feeling back in my legs. "We need to get out o here and head home."
He nodded against my shirt, but I couldn't get him to let go and walk on his own. Deciding I could handle lugging him around for a while I let him cling to my neck. Edward wrapped his legs around my waist and buried his head in the crook of my neck, still sniffling softly and making me glad I'd decided it wasn't worth the effort of growing my hair back out after Archer made me cut it all off. If my hair had been long again I'd have brother snot all over it for sure.
Climbing back out of the cave proved to be more of a project than I'd thought it would be, but a couple of torn finger nails and one bruised shin later I was back on reasonably level ground. Tucking my brother the leech into a more comfortable position, I prepared to start the trudge back to the enclave. With barely an hour left until dusk and perhaps another after that for full dark, I would need to find a good place to make camp along the way, since I wasn't sure I could cover the distance carrying Edward.
I'd only been walking for a few minutes when I became aware of something just ahead of me and slightly off the path. I paused for a moment, trying to figure out what I had smelled or heard, since I couldn't actually see anything that would have made me wary. Eventually I realized I had caught a whiff of a much weaker version of the same musky scent that had been in the cave where I found my brother. Apparently the mountain lion had come back to that den and followed the scent of Edward's blood, even though I'd cleaned off and wrapped up his cuts as much as possible when we'd gotten out of the cave.
Knowing I couldn't continue along the trail, since it was too open and too easy for the cat to ambush us, I cut away from the path, angling back toward the ridge I'd come over as much as possible while still avoiding the mountain lion. My plan worked for a little while, but then the cat caught up again and started herding me away from the enclave.
"Vala, are we going home?" Edward asked sleepily, clearly sensing some of my tension.
"Soon, squirt, soon," I replied, ruffling his hair briefly before returning my hand to his back and pulling him tighter against me.
"Why'd we leave the trail?" Edward asked, peering around with more interest than I liked.
The last thing I wanted to deal with was a wailing brother while I tried to figure out how to escape a mountain lion that seemed to be dead set on making us its dinner.
"Hush, Eddie," I said, pressing his head back against my shoulder.
"'M tired, sissy," he complained a few moments later.
I wanted to curse him for being utterly incapable of remaining silent, but who could really expect a kid who's only three to understand that being quiet when the big cat is hunting you is probably a wise idea. I started to shush him again, but the mountain lion chose that moment of inattention to pounce. Edward screamed in fear as the cat leapt at us from the tree branches. I managed to take the worst of the blow on my pack, but the cat's claws caught me across the shoulder. The scratch stung like crazy and made my eyes water, but since my arm hadn't gone numb with the blow I was pretty certain it wasn't anything serious.
The cat's weight on the pack dragged at my shoulders making the straps bite into my skin hard enough to leave bruises. After a moment, the straps tore sending the cat to the ground with my pack as I stumbled free with my brother in my arms. I knew running from a predator was not the best choice, but I couldn't stay and fight either since even if I actually had some combat training, I'm pretty certain fighting a mountain lion with a screaming kid steadily choking you had not been on the lesson plan. I pulled at my brother's elbow to loosen his grip a little so I could breathe and ran for all I was worth, my fear for myself and my brother giving my legs extra speed.
Distantly I heard the cat bound back to its feet and start to follow us. With my pack gone, I thought briefly about putting my brother on my back instead of carrying him in my arms, but I would have to slow down too much to manage that shift and I wasn't sure I wanted him between me and the cat anyway. Hoping an erratic path would keep the cat from attacking again, I zigzagged through the trees as much as I could. It seemed to be working for a while since the cat mostly paced us. After the third or fourth time the cat dropped out of the trees nearby without really coming close to striking me, I realized the mountain lion was herding me and it was not in the direction of the enclave.
I knew there was a rather deep ravine in the direction I was running, but I'd lost some sense of distance during the flight, so I wasn't sure how much further I could run before we would be trapped by the terrain. When I heard the cat a bit to the west, I tried to angle away from the ravine in the other direction, but I didn't get very far before the cat forced me back toward my original course. Frowning a bit at the strange behavior from the mountain lion, I clutched Edward a little tighter and forced my burning legs to keep moving.
There was a horrible stitch in my side and I was having trouble drawing breath by the time I rounded the last bend in the animal track and the ravine I'd been dreading opened out in front of me. I could hear the cat fairly close behind me, though it didn't seem to be preparing for an attack. Not having much choice in the matter, I turned west along the edge of the ravine since there were fewer obstacles that way. The loose rock and dirt along the top of the ravine slid under my foot as I turned, nearly causing me to loose my balance. I dropped to one knee and dug a hand into the dirt, using it as a pivot point to finish the turn. I scraped myself rather badly but I managed to make the turn without loosing too much momentum.
As I scrambled along the top of the ravine in the new direction, I discovered exactly why the mountain lion hadn't pounced on me yet. Two small cubs lurched awkwardly at me when I bolted past their hiding spot. Fortunately for me, the cubs were young enough that they weren't terribly good hunters yet. I had enough time to cover Edward's head and back, protecting him from the worst of the scratches as I barreled through the cats. A surge of adrenaline saw me clear of the mess of fangs and claws, though I paid for it with a rather deep scratch across my left forearm and several shallower gashes across my legs. The sound of scrabbling claws on the rocks behind me meant the cubs were giving chase.
I tried desperately not to pay attention to Edward's whimpers of pain and fear as he clung to me, trembling in my arms. I couldn't afford to be distracted if we were to have any hope of surviving this mess. Frantically I scrambled over a slight rise and nearly ran straight into the gnarled root ball of a huge tree that had fallen across the ravine. Something told me that I could find safety on the other side of the ravine and it was a stronger feeling than simply getting as far away from the mountain lion as possible, but not anything I could trace to scent or sight or sound.
Trusting that Edward's death grip on my neck would keep him secure for a moment, I let go and grabbed hold of the nearest root, hauling myself onto the tree. One of the cubs pounced, clipping my boot as I scrambled out onto the fallen tree trunk. From the skittering of claws on rocks, the leap had knocked both clubs off their feet for a moment. Forcing myself to not look back, I hurried across the trunk, weaving among the braches and trying not to let my boots slide on the bark. I nearly lost my balance twice in the process and added a new gash to my palm catching myself in the process but I could see the other side of the ravine getting closer with every step I took.
We were within ten feet or so of the edge of the ravine when Edward, who had been watching over my shoulder, shrieked and jerked to the side, nearly hurling himself out of my arms and knocking me off balance. Before I could recover, one of the cubs glanced off my shoulder in a clumsy move that would have hurt far worse if Edward's sudden movement hadn't jerked me off balance already. If it had just been Edward's sudden movement or the attack from the cub, I might have been able to regain my balance and stay on the tree, but with both together I could already feel my boots sliding against the bark and there were no branches I could reach to catch myself before I fell. Knowing that staying on the tree was a lost cause I leaped for the edge of the ravine, praying I could catch the edge and not drop my brother.
My hand hit rock hard enough to jar me and drew a whimper of protest out of my brother. Desperately I scrabbled to hold on to that precarious grip. For one heart stopping moment, I continued to fall before I caught a toe on an outcropping. The outcropping wobbled alarmingly under my weight, but it held long enough for me to dig my fingers into the rock before crumbling away, leaving me dangling from one arm on the edge of the ravine with my brother clutched in the other and two cubs watching from their perch on the tree bridge.
My heart hammered in my throat and all I could hear was the rush of blood in my ears as I started at the cats, fearing that I wouldn't be able to get away from them again. I could feel terror and helplessness surging up in me, threatening to freeze me in place. Tucking Edward more securely against my chest, I forced myself to try and think past the fear, to find a way to get out of this. Pulling us to the top of the cliff would let us start running again, but the cubs were easily in range to pounce on me as soon as I did. As I watched, the larger of the cubs crouched, his hind quarters swaying back and forth as he eyed me, prepared to pounce the moment he had a chance.
Knowing I didn't have any choice but to get to the top of the ravine and hope I was fast enough to dodge the cats I tried to find a way to climb up. I didn't really want to trust my three year old brother's grip with such a long drop, so I tried to pull myself up by one arm, but I found I didn't have the strength to lift both myself and my brother. Forcing back the panic that choked me as badly as my brother, I cautiously felt around with my boot for a foothold to help with the climb. After a moment that felt far too long, I managed to find purchase for one foot. The extra balance point helped and I was able to pull myself closer to the top, finding another toehold as I moved. With my feet secured I was able to get Edward settled securely enough that I could trust his grip enough to let me use both hands to climb.
My hands were sweating and my mouth dry as I made the slow, terrifying climb. Edward wasn't making things any easier since I couldn't get him to let go of me even when I'd pulled myself far enough up to get my upper body resting on the top of the ravine so I could set him down in relative safely. I wasn't sure I could get my hips and legs over the edge of the ravine with him still clinging to my neck, so I doubled checked my last footholds on the ravine wall and got a good grip with my left hand on the rock beside my brother. Before I could use my right hand to pry Edward loose, the sound of one of the cubs flexing his claws against the bark of the tree made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Apparently the cub had decided that having his target partially balanced near the top of the ravine was good enough for him as the muscles in his legs flexed for the leap toward me.
"NO!" I shouted frantically, knowing that my voice couldn't stop the cub, but I just couldn't let these stupid cubs be the end of me or my brother, not while I still had the will to try and save us, even if I didn't know how to do it.
Time seemed to slow for me as the rushing sound that had filled my ears intensified until I couldn't hear anything else. For one brief moment everything went green. A vivid, emerald green filled my eyes as something fierce rose up with in me, demanding release even as it threatened to swallow everything in my path. I was helpless against the tide of power as it washed through me and into the rock beneath my hand. I could feel it radiating away from me through the rock and into the tree the cats were on. For a moment, nothing seemed to happen and then the power cracked and shattered destroying the tree and leaving a large crack in the rock I was clinging to. With a creaking groan, the suddenly rotted tree collapsed under its own weight and tumbled into the ravine, taking the cubs with it.
I stared after the fallen tree, shocked at what had happened. I'd only been having the headaches and the reoccurring dreams for a little while now, so I while I knew I would eventually manifest it hadn't really sunk in yet and this was far more than I could have even guessed at. Wilted flowers or a broken kitchen table was a lot different than an entire tree, especially one the size that one had been. Before I could even manage to close my jaw from the shock, the rock beneath my foot crumbled suddenly, making me slide back into the ravine again, dragging Edward with me since he still hadn't let go of my neck. I managed to catch myself again before we could fall very far, but I knew I had to get us out of here before I cracked the rock any further than I already had since I could still feel some of my energy flowing out of me, seeking a target.
After an agonizing moment, I managed to find another toe-hold to replace the one I'd lost in the sudden slide. Secure again for the moment, I tightened my grip on my brother and I hauled myself back up to where I had been. I was forced to go slower this time, despite the screaming pain in my muscles, as the rock shifted uncertainly beneath my grip. I could feel the magic radiating a good twenty or thirty feet away from me, through the cracks in the rock, slowly weakening the layers of the rock.
I'd just managed to set Edward back on top of the cliff again when I heard the unmistakable sound of claws on rock and realized I'd forgotten about the mother cat. Cautiously I peeked over my shoulder to see her pacing on the other side of the ravine. She seemed to be trying to decide if it was worth making the leap across. With a sinking feeling in my gut, I realized the ravine was narrow enough that she might be able to make the jump.
Trying to ignore the trembling of my limbs, I forced myself to keep moving. Whether the cat jumped or not, I still had to get my brother away from the steadily weakening rock. Edward didn't seem to be any more inclined to let go of my neck this time than he had before. Feeling the rock shifting alarmingly under me, I realized I couldn't afford to be gentle with him right now. Roughly I jerked his arms away from my neck and pushed him back from the edge of the ravine. A quick glance over my shoulder showed the mother cat crouching near the edge of the ravine, clearly preparing to try the jump.
"Run Edward," I said, knowing I wasn't in the best position to stop the cat, not with my legs still basically dangling in the ravine.
My brother looked at me with wide frightened eyes as I clung stubbornly to the rock. Before I could tell him to run again, I heard the sound of an arrow whistling over my head as it crossed the ravine toward the cat as she crouched for her leap. She yowled in pain as an arrow grazed her side. Apparently the pain was enough to make her decide we weren't worth the effort as she turned and fled. I breathed a sigh of relief as I realized we must have run into a woodsman from the enclave. With the sudden surge of relief, I felt my magic starting to recede, but not before the rock beneath me cracked again. I froze, knowing I didn't dare move incase the sudden shift in weight caused everything to start sliding into the ravine. When nothing moved right away, I nudged my brother a bit in the hopes of getting him moving.
"Edward," I said softly. "You need to move back from the edge, very slowly and without standing up. Do you understand?" He looked at me with wide blue eyes for a moment, still clearly frightened and reluctant to move away from me. I gave him a gentle push to get him moving as I said, "Go. I'll be right behind you."
Hesitantly, Edward nodded and started to shift away from me, crawling toward more solid ground. I flattened myself out on the rock as much as I could to counter balance his movements. Even as slight as his weight was, I could still feel the rock shifting dangerously beneath me as he moved steadily toward safety and he had no idea how to move with me to minimize the shifting in the rock. I knew the moment Edward made it to more solid ground, mostly because the rock I was laying against shifted suddenly as my toehold crumbled sending me sliding back toward the ravine for a moment before I caught myself again.
"Vala!" a familiar voice shouted, followed by the sound of boots sliding on pebbles as Archer scrambled toward me, dropping his pack and bow beside my brother.
His cheeks were flushed and his hair tousled with bits of leaves and twigs littered through it. With the dust on his clothes and the scratch across his cheek, it looked as though he had run a fair distance with some urgency. I could see the concern in his eyes even at this distance, and I knew he would step forward to help me.
"Don't," I called, holding out a hand to stop him from moving any closer. "The rock's too weak. Don't come any closer."
I must have moved too quickly trying to warn Archer, because my perch started to crumble away beneath me. I lost both toe holds almost immediately and my one secure hand hold a moment later. Desperately I stretched for a hand hold that wasn't crumbling away from me, but my fingertips just scraped loose dirt. I bit my lip to keep from screaming as I started to fall. At least I knew my brother would be safe with Archer.
Before I had more than a moment to contemplate the long fall to the bottom of the ravine, something snagged my wrist. My shoulder screamed in protest at the sudden stop and I bit my lower lip hard enough to make it bleed. Reflexively, my hand reached around to catch Archer's wrist and help secure his grip on me. Not wanting to look at, much less contemplate, the long drop beneath my boots, I looked up to meet Archer's concerned green eyes.
"Vala, give me your other hand," Archer ordered, sounding a bit worried as he held out his other hand for me.
Not that I could really blame him since he was laying belly down on bunch of rock that could go sliding into the ravine at any moment, much like I already had. I stretched for his other hand and managed to catch it on the third try. Once he was sure I had a good grip, Archer started to slowly wiggle backwards, hauling me with him until I could get a grip on the rock for myself. Together we started to belly crawl steadily back from the edge toward the firmer ground. It was a little nerve wracking since I could feel the rock beneath us shifting with every move we made.
We were maybe fifteen feet from the ground I knew my sorcery hadn't compromised when I heard a sharp crack. I could feel the rock beneath my body shifting far more than it had before meaning the entire section of weakened rock was beginning to give way. There wasn't time to stand up and run before the rock we were on fell into the ravine. I couldn't help the surge of fear knowing that despite being so close to the safety of solid rock, I was going to end up falling into the ravine after all. Suddenly Archer's arm was across my back, pulling sharply at my waist and rolling me onto my back for a moment. I didn't even have a chance to stop my roll much less realize that his other arm was under me, before he'd pulled me onto his chest.
The sudden flash of sky and ground left me briefly disoriented and confused until my eyes met his as the roll left me lying on his chest facing him for the barest moment. In that one brief moment I suddenly knew what he was planning. What he needed me to do to help save us both. While we may not be able to run, we might be able to get enough speed rolling to get to solid ground before the rock gave way. I barely managed to get my arm around his shoulders dragging him with me as the momentum he'd given me rolled me off his chest. I could feel the tension in Archer's shoulders as he rolled across me, using his strength to practically throw me into the next roll, adding to our momentum. Somewhere between the flashes of sky and rock I managed to get my other arm around him, after that, it was all I could do to make sure I had a good enough grip on him to drag him with me every time we rolled.
I couldn't tell you how long we tumbled like that, rolling over each other barely an arm's length ahead of the crumbling rock before we fetched up on more solid ground. From my position half sprawled across Archer's chest, I had a pretty good view as the last of the rock broke away and fell to the bottom of the ravine with a thunderous roar. I felt the arm Archer had slung across my back tighten as we listened to the echoes of the rocks falling over the sounds of our own pounding heartbeats. As the last bit of sound faded away, I let out the breath I hadn't realized I had been holding and allowed my head to rest against Archer's chest as I tried to slow the pounding of my heart.
"Vala," Edward said plaintively.
"I'm here Edward," I called, extracting myself from Archer's arms before scrambling over to check on my brother, giving the new edge of the ravine as wide a berth as I could manage.
He had a couple shallow scratches on the backs of his legs from when we'd bowled through the cubs that were new, but otherwise seemed no worse for wear, just very badly frightened. I sighed as Edward reattached himself to my tunic and started up the waterworks again. Not having the strength to support his weight, I plopped down against a rock and set him in my lap. Hoping that I'd be able to find him some water before he dehydrated, I decided to just let him cry himself out.
"Vala," Archer said quietly, as he sat down beside me. I hadn't even noticed that while I was comforting my brother, Archer had collected his pack and bow from where he'd dropped them earlier until he set them down near his feet. "What are you and Edward doing this far from the enclave?"
"Jonas and Derrik left Edward in the woods," I answered, hugging my brother a little tighter. "So I came after him."
"That's what we have the hunters for," Archer pointed out.
"I know, but there weren't any in the village when we found out what happened," I said, trying not to wince as all my own cuts and scrapes started to sting a bit, now that I had a bit of breathing room to realize they were there.
"You could have waited for one to come back," he said softly, clearly not liking the idea that I had come out here alone after my brother.
"And Edward would be dead," I hissed, turning to glare at him.
"Vala, you nearly died yourself," Archer returned, his face fairly impassive.
"But I did what I was trained to do," I protested, not particularly enjoying being chastised by Archer for trying to help my brother. "I found him and I was bringing him back."
"You're barely trained and you got lucky," Archer said a bit more coldly than I was used to hearing from him.
"I'm just as trained as you were when you went on your first solo-trip," I said, biting back tears and setting my jaw stubbornly.
I had worked just as hard as the other students in the tracking classes, even if I didn't plan to use the skills in the same way. Archer had no right to imply that my skills weren't just as good simply because I wasn't going to be a hunter for the enclave.
"Prove it then," Archer challenged, staring intently at me. "We can make the enclave three hours after sundown if we push."
My aching body screamed in protest at the thought of the tough pace Archer would set us to get back in that time frame. I would have suggested that we find a place to camp rather than push to get back to the enclave, but with my gear gone and Archer coming back from a long trip, it wouldn't be safe for us to camp. There were too many night predators that would be drawn in by the fact that both Edward and I were bleeding. I know Archer is getting pretty good with a blade, but he's still only one person and neither Edward nor I could fight off any of the predators that might come looking for us if we stayed in one place overnight. The three hours after sundown would be dangerous enough for us, even moving quickly.
The thought of being caught outside the enclave at night was a little daunting for me. I'd done it a couple of times before with the rest of the tracking group, but all the boys knew how to fight if anything attacked in the night and I hadn't been responsible for getting more than myself to safety. Having my brother along and knowing he was depending on me to keep him safe was terrifying, especially when all I wanted to do was scream and cry myself and insist it was too much. I knew I couldn't protest though, since that was clearly what Archer was waiting for with his taunt that I wasn't trained enough to save my brother. I wasn't going to give him any reason to think I wasn't worth my training.
Shoving back my fear, I staggered to my feet and convinced Edward to swing around so he was riding piggy-back instead of clutched in my arms. I'd forgotten to account for the scratch across the back of my shoulder when I'd come up with that plan though and Edward managed to land himself right on it. The sudden flash of pain nearly made my knees buckle before I could get him shifted to a less painful position. When I saw Archer start to open his mouth, probably to offer to carry Edward for me or make some other snide comment about me being too weak to handle this, I gritted my teeth against the pain and glared at him. I wasn't about to let him think I couldn't handle carrying my brother when he had already implied this was too much for me, because I'm not that weak. Without a word, Archer collected his pack and bow and set off toward the enclave at a ground eating lope.
At first I had no trouble keeping up with him, but my anger at his condescending tones flagged quickly and with it my energy. It flared up briefly every time Archer looked back over his shoulder with an expression that seemed to say he expected me to complain or ask for a break at any moment. I forced myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other without jostling the exhausted Edward, who had somehow fallen asleep on me, mostly through sheer stubbornness. I was not about to give in first. My training was good enough, I just had to hang on and prove it to Archer and anybody else who didn't believe in me.
That thought was all I could manage to focus on as we ran. My determination kept me moving until we made it to the enclave marker stones, where we finally slowed to a walk. I barely registered when Archer called out to the night-watch to identify us, something I'm ashamed to admit I probably would have forgotten to do if he hadn't been there. How embarrassing would that have been, shot down by the enclave watch because I forgot to call out that I was coming in?
Once we were cleared by the night-watch, I headed straight for Giselle's house without bothering to notice if Archer followed me or not. Mom would probably still be there with Jonas and Derrik anyway. I was a little surprised to see just how busy the house seemed to be when it came into sight. Surely Mom wouldn't have fussed that much over me going after Edward. My curiosity gave me enough energy to walk up to the house instead of staggering like I wanted to.
Before I could reach for the door, it was flung open hard enough to startle Edward awake again. Melissa, one of the healer's apprentices, stood silhouetted against the light from the house. I'd never had much to do with Melissa since she's a year or so older than my sister and had finished her own schooling and taken an apprenticeship with the healers while I was still learning my letters. All of which left me totally unprepared for the whirlwind of energy she turned out to be.
Melissa grabbed me by the sleeve and dragged me into the house, without bothering to shut the door behind her, babbling nonstop about being glad I could make it in time and asking if this wasn't the most exciting thing in the world. I didn't even register where she was leading me until we were already standing in the kitchen and she was thrusting a cup of tea at me so quickly I nearly dropped my brother trying to catch the cup before it went crashing to the ground. Edward giggled at my predicament and poked me in the shoulder, making me nearly drop the cup again as the little twerp managed to stick his bony little finger right in the scratches across my shoulder.
At least somebody was getting some amusement out of this, because Melissa was off and running again before I could figure out what to do with the tea. In between rambling about some first time that I really wasn't following, Melissa somehow managed to get me drinking the tea and fixed herself a cup of her own. All without ever really looking at Edward or me to notice we were both filthy, covered in dirt and scratches, a couple of which, I at least, was still bleeding sluggishly from.
Halfway through the cup of tea, I realized exactly why she seemed to be going a mile a minute. The tea was one of Kara's special brews meant to improve alertness and reduce exhaustion for those long nights where sleep was not an option. It took me getting to the bottom of the cup to get back enough of my energy to unravel Melissa's babbling enough to figure out what was going on.
Giselle had gone into labor an hour or two after I had left to find Edward. I could feel a little bubble of excitement for her since this was the first baby she'd carried to term after all and we'd both spent the long months of her pregnancy anticipating the baby's arrival, but most of me was just standing there in stunned shock over the news. As the edge on the shock wore off, I realized that as much as I wanted to be excited about the baby, with my sorcery manifesting I couldn't afford to let myself bounce off the walls like Melissa was. I would have to let the friends and family that had stopped by be excited for me, and that thought stung a little after the months of anticipation.
Pushing aside my flare of disappointment, I watched Melissa practically ricocheting around the kitchen again. Between being happy for Giselle, and on her first delivery as a healer's apprentice, Melissa seemed to have more than enough energy to spare, especially since Kara's tea was not helping her calm down in the slightest. I was actually kind of surprised she could focus on anything at all with the way she was moving, though clearly she'd need more training if she couldn't notice people in need of healing standing right in front of her. Deciding it wasn't worth the energy to try and slow her down enough to get her to look at Edward I left her to the kitchen and headed to the sitting room with Edward still draped across my back. I could still hear Melissa babbling away in the kitchen as she made more tea, clearly oblivious to my absence when Mom spotted me.
"Oh thank Theus you're safe," Mom said, scooping Edward off my back and planting a kiss on his forehead as she ruffled his hair. "I was so worried. None of the hunters returned to the enclave before dark and then Giselle went into labor. We never had a chance to send out a tracker to find you two."
Mom was clearly either worn out from all the stress as she had yet to notice that there was some dried blood caked on both me and Edward amongst the mud and dirt. In fact, now that I could see Edward, he had a pretty good patch of it on his chest, right about where the scratches on my shoulder would have been. It didn't look like enough blood to be really dangerous, but it was still slightly disturbing seeing my blood staining my brother's tunic.
"We were fine Mom," I said, giving her a smile. Hoping to distract mom before she realized I was bleeding and went into a fussy mothering mode that I didn't think I could deal with at the moment, I added, "You might want to get one of the healers to look at Edward while they're here. He got a bit banged up on his little adventure."
Edward, realizing a golden opportunity for attention, proceeded to make a huge scene as Mom started inspecting his cuts, which of course woke Jonas and Derrik from where they had been napping on the couch. As the noise level in the room went up a few notches, I could suddenly feel a headache developing behind my eyes. I just wanted to go crawl in bed and sleep for a while, but I knew I wouldn't be able to between the tea and the noise levels in the sitting room. Instead, I stood quietly at the edge of the room, trying to let my exhaustion and irritation fade away before I accidentally manifested again. I wasn't leaking sorcery right now, but with the day I'd had, and now Giselle giving birth, I didn't want to take a chance on getting too emotional if I could avoid it.
It seemed to be working for a little while, but then the midwife stomped down the stairs with Alrich in tow, insisting that the birthing room was no place for a man, and that expectant fathers should leave the midwifery to those who knew what they were doing. Alrich managed to look both chagrined and nervous about being away from Giselle, which promptly earned him some teasing from the experienced fathers in the room. The sudden surge of cheerful teasing coupled with my mother and the boys, who were still fussing over Edward's injuries, made my headache double in strength and I could feel the green energy starting to rise up in me in response to my distress and the false energy from the tea.
As much damage as I'd done to the rocks by the ravine, I knew I didn't dare stay in the house, so I bolted for the nearest door. Melissa was the only one who seemed to notice my hasty exit and I ignored whatever she was going to say in favor of telling her I would be out by the lake if anybody needed me. Without waiting for a response, I ducked out the door, barely managing not to slam it behind me, and headed toward the lake. With Kara's tea still giving me false energy, I made it up to the lake without trouble, for which I was mildly grateful, though the larger part of me was frustrated that the same tea would likely keep me awake for ages as well.
I sat down beside the lake, drawing my knees up to my chest and resting my chin on them as I watched the water lapping at the shore. The sound was soothing after the chaos I had come home to. Much as I wanted to be one of the first people to see Giselle's new baby, I think I needed the quiet more right now, if only to find some kind of equilibrium so I could deal with being fussed over long enough to warn my family that I was accidentally manifesting now. The sound of a pair of boots coming to stand beside me interrupted my solitude.
"You should be at home getting cleaned up, Vala," Archer said quietly.
I glanced up at him, noting that his face was impassive enough to indicate something was bothering him that he didn't really want to admit to.
"I'll do it when the mad house calms down a bit," I replied turning back to the lake.
"You were injured too," Archer pointed out, resting his fingers lightly on my shoulder, just above the tear in my tunic from when the mother cat had tried to jump on me.
"It's barely a scratch," I said dismissively, trying to ignore the pain from his careful touch. "Mom can patch it up for me later. Besides, it doesn't even really hurt any more."
"That's hardly a scratch, Vala," Archer said, letting his hand drop away from my shoulder and leaning over to inspect the wound more closely in the dim lighting.
All my earlier frustration with his condescending tones bubbled back to the surface. I stood up abruptly, pushing him away from me as I did so.
"She only scratched me," I said in annoyance, "Hence, a scratch."
Normally I didn't mind Archer's mother hen routine whenever I got worse than a paper cut from correcting my students' attempts to learn their letters. Today it just sounded like more of the condescending words he'd had for me earlier. I was plenty old enough to know when I was seriously injured, and even if the swipe from the mountain lion's claws had been aggravated the whole way home, it really wasn't that bad. Not even when it was compounded by the other cuts on my arms and legs from charging through the cubs or the smaller scratches from branches tearing at my skin as I ran.
"Vala, stop fussing and let me see," Archer said reaching for my arm.
I jerked my arm out of his reach as I demanded, "Don't you trust me to know how badly I'm injured?"
"Just let me look," Archer said quietly. "It might be deeper than you realize and you don't want it to get infected."
"I know that," I snapped, pushing his hands away and struggling to keep my tears in check. "I've been trained the same as you. I know what can happen to injuries like this and you still don't trust me to have the brains to look out for myself."
"I didn't say that," Archer said, backing off a little under my glare.
"Yes, you did," I reminded him coldly. "You said I was barely trained and that I got lucky."
"Vala," Archer started to protest.
"No," I said sharply backing away from him. "If you won't believe in me, if you can't trust me to be able to follow my training, I'm not even sure I want to stay friends with you."
Archer paled and stepped toward me, holding out one hand as he said softly, "Vala, please don't say that."
"Then maybe you should show that you believe in my abilities," I said darkly, letting my anger and frustration leak into my voice more than I would have normally. "That you trust me."
"I do believe in you, Vala," Archer said, his eyes shining intensely, even in the darkness, "You were stronger than even I could have hoped for today."
"But you said I wasn't worth my training," I protested, feeling some of my anger bleeding into confusion over the contradiction.
"And you proved me wrong about that, Vala," Archer said, closing the distance between us and touching my cheek lightly, "More than wrong since I doubt there was anybody that started training with you that could have done what you did. You ran with me for nearly three hours without complaint or a break after tracking and finding your brother on your own and being pursued by that mountain lion. That shows some incredible strength and courage, Vala, and I will always respect you for that."
I stared into his eyes for a moment, trying to gage how serious he was. As much as I might want to keep holding a grudge against him for his words earlier, somehow I knew that the ones he spoke now were the truth. I could tell he knew just how scared I'd been with the mountain lion chasing me, nearly falling into the ravine and having to run home after dark, but despite all that he really did believe that I had the strength and courage I wanted him to see in me.
As I realized that, I felt the last of my anger evaporate. I leaned forward just enough to rest my head against Archer's chest in a silent apology for yelling at him. After a moment, he wrapped his arms loosely around me and rested his chin against the top of my head.
"Thank you, Archer," I whispered, as I pulled away after a moment.
His hands trailed along my shoulders as I stepped away from him, accidentally making my scratches flare in agony. I cringed a bit at that, realizing that maybe the scratch really was a bit worse than I'd thought. Archer must have seen my grimace because he looked at me with concern for a moment before tugging me toward where he'd left his pack.
"Now will you let me look at those scratches of yours?" He asked giving me a soft smile
"Really, they're not that bad," I insisted, not really wanting to be poked and prodded at.
"Since you won't go home to your sister to get this looked at you're going to have to put up with me," Archer said, his tone playful but clearly indicating he wasn't going to let me put him off either.
"It's nothing that can't wait until morning when my mother has time to look at it," I replied as he made me sit down beside his pack.
"Says you," Archer said with a grin as he handed me a lantern to hold while he found flint and steel to light it with. "Personally, I don't feel like seeing if you can bleed to death over night while nobody's looking."
I snorted at his words. His sense of humor could be so strange sometimes. Deciding it wasn't worth arguing with Archer over it any more, I held out my hands for him to inspect. He frowned at the dirt and torn fingernails, even more so at the rock fragments embedded in the palm of my left hand. I hadn't even noticed at the time, but apparently when the rock cracked from my sorcery I'd been peppered with quite a few fragments on top of the lacerations from grabbing branches as I ran across the fallen tree.
"Do you have an extra cloth you could dampen for me?" I asked when he finally seemed satisfied that he'd gotten all the gravel and bark out of my hands.
"Sure," he said, and handed me one as he took another for himself and started inspecting the cuts on my left forearm.
Taking the cloth from Archer, I waited until he was focused on my arm and then reached out to clean off the scratch on his cheek. He startled a bit and pulled away from me before realizing what I was trying to do.
"Really, Vala," he said with a roguish grin, "I'm fine. You don't need to do that."
"If I have to put up with having my cuts tended to, you have to put up with it," I declared before gesturing for him to come back to his original seat in front of me.
"I'm not the one that got into a wrestling match with a mountain lion," Archer replied.
"So?" I said. When it looked like he was going to continue being stubborn I added, "I know you and you're worse than me for saying it's just a scratch when you're practically bleeding to death." Archer blushed at that, since neither one of us was very good about admitting when we were injured. I waited for a moment before offering, "Besides, if you let me fuss over your cuts, I won't tell Healer Denise about them as long as they don't need stitches."
"Fine," Archer agreed, and sat back down where I could reach him again, giving me a wink to let me know he wasn't mad at me for threatening him with Healer Denise.
By the time I'd washed the dried blood and dirt off Archer's cheek and checked the rest of his exposed skin for other injuries, it was pretty clear he didn't have any injuries on him that wouldn't heal on their own in a day or two. Archer's inspection of my cuts took a significantly longer as I seemed to have gotten a lot of rocks and dirt packed into a few of them. He seemed particularly worried about the deeper cuts across my left arm and the back of my shoulder, both of which had started bleeding sluggishly when he cleaned them.
"You'll need to get Healer Denise to stitch these for you," Archer said gently as he settled for wrapping bandages around my arm and across my shoulder to stop the blood. "And even then I'm not sure they won't scar on you."
The concern in Archer's voice over the mention of scarring woke me from the light doze I hadn't meant to fall into. For some reason the soft brush of his fingers against my skin had been strangely soothing, even with the occasional pinch as he removed the rocks. Although my drowsiness was probably due more to my general exhaustion and the fact that Kara's tea was finally starting to wear off. I found myself staring at Archer for a moment as I tried to process what he'd said.
"Can it wait till morning?" I asked not really feeling up to dealing with Healer Denise's rather draconian methods of dealing with injuries, not when it felt so nice to sit here by the lake with Archer, listening to the water, "I'm not quite ready to go back and face everybody."
"But your sister's having the baby tonight isn't she?" Archer asked, pushing his pack aside and moving so he could lean against the tree beside me.
If he was willing to sit with me without doing more than trying to talk me into going to see Healer Denise, the injuries could definitely wait until morning.
"I know and I want to be there for that," I replied tiredly, trying not to yawn as I started feeling drowsy again, "But I'm scared of what might happen if I got too emotional."
"You have every right to get a little emotional and share in your sister's happiness, don't you think?" Archer suggested.
At his words I realized he didn't know I'd manifested. He didn't know that the weakened rock that nearly killed us both was my fault. I drew my knees up tighter to my chest, feeling my drowsiness ebb away again as wondered how I could possibly tell him what happened without him hating me for it.
"Aren't you happy for your sister?" Archer asked, not understanding my sudden mood change. "You've talked of nothing, but the birth of your niece or nephew for the past few months after all."
"It's not that. I'm happy for the birth. ," I said softly. I paused for a moment before letting my voice go even quieter as I said, "I'm just scared to be near them after I nearly killed myself with an accidental manifestation."
"You're manifesting?" Archer asked in surprised, glancing down at me. When I nodded, he continued, "How long?"
"Just today," I answered. Knowing I might as well tell him the whole story I added, "I was so scared when the cubs were going to pounce on me and Edward that I just lashed out. Completely destroyed the tree bridge I used to cross the ravine and cracked the rock I was holding onto in the process."
I found myself shivering slightly, feeling suddenly cold, as the memories of hanging helpless over the ravine and feeling my sorcery weakening the rock beneath my hand flashed through my mind again.
"You really don't do anything by halves do you?" Archer said with a fond smile as he slipped his arm around my shoulder.
"It's not funny," I groused at him, but didn't pull away since the heat from his body seemed to take the edge off my shivers.
"Ah, but the lengths you go to in order to be a damsel in distress for me to rescue," Archer returned with a laugh giving my shoulders a gentle squeeze.
I stuck my tongue out at him, for which he tweaked my nose before he pulled me a little closer to him. I couldn't help yawning as Kara's tea wore off completely and my brief surge of energy from reliving the day drained away. Without really thinking about it, I let my head drop down to rest against Archer's shoulder, too tired to hold it up myself. Maybe in a few minutes, I'd be able to work up the energy to go back and see Giselle's baby, but for right now I just wanted to enjoy the quiet comfort of listening to the water lapping against the shore. My exhaustion must have caught up with me before I was ready to head back though, since the next thing I knew, Archer was sliding one arm under my knees as he gently picked me up.
"Just sleep, Vala," he whispered to me as pulled me into his chest. "I'll get you home safely."
Not really wanting to wake up completely, I wrapped my arms around Archer's neck and snuggled a little closer to his chest. His arms tightened around me for a second and I thought I heard somebody chuckling nearby that sounded suspiciously like my father. As Archer walked slowly back toward Giselle's, I half listened to the soft conversation. I stopped even trying to pay attention when I realized that Archer was just explaining my misadventures to my father and let the vibrations of Archer's voice lull me back into a half sleep.
The sudden noise when we reached the house drew me briefly back toward consciousness. The words I could make out sounded sad and subdued over the stomp of people putting on boots to leave, but I couldn't manage to wake up enough to figure out why.
A large hand brushed my head as I heard my father say, "Let her sleep. This will be hard enough for her after a good night's rest."
I didn't quite catch Archer's reply as I tried to figure out what my father meant. Archer was halfway up the stairs as I realized the only reason for so much sadness was that Giselle's baby had died or been culled. That thought was like ice water down my back and I jerked fully awake, forgetting for a moment that Archer was carrying me. The sudden motion overbalanced Archer badly enough that we almost tumbled down the stairs, but I barely noticed.
"They baby," I said managing to kick my legs loose from Archer's grasp, twisting around so I could see back down the stairs, my eyes seeking my father. My feet slipped against the stairs, leaving Archer's suddenly tight grip on my waist the only thing keeping me upright as I asked about the baby again.
"Vala, calm down," my father said as he moved toward the bottom of the steps.
"What happened to the baby," I demanded, still struggling against Archer's grip and nearly knocking us down the stairs again. I ignored my father's pleas for me to calm down again, starting to feel increasingly more frantic to find out what had happened with my sister's baby. From the way they were talking I just knew that something horrible had happened.
"Tell me what happened," I insisted, feeling anger and frustration rising up in me when it looked like my father wouldn't answer.
If I hadn't been so tired I might have cared that I was seeing a touch of green at the edge of my vision and that my anger seemed to have an odd edge to it that I'd never felt before. As it was, I barely noticed when Archer started swearing under his breath as the stairs suddenly sagged underneath us, nearly throwing him off balance again.
"She's manifesting," somebody said in surprise. It sounded vaguely like my mother, but I couldn't bring myself to really care at the moment. My eyes were focused on my father alone as I waited for him to tell me what had happened.
"The baby was born with twisted limbs and a weak heart," my father finally said reluctantly. "The elders ordered it culled."
"No," I said, refusing to believe what he had said. "That can't be right. It just can't."
I thought there might have been tears on my cheeks for Giselle's loss, but I couldn't really tell with the throbbing energy that seemed to be leaking from my skin. It hurt so much to think of the baby my sister had loved so much being lost before it had even really lived. I barely registered the creaking groan around me that seemed to echo my pain.
"She's hysterical," my mother said, worry in her voice. I was pretty sure that couldn't be right though. I didn't feel hysterical, so I ignored the words.
"Get the boys outside and send for Freidrich," my father ordered.
Archer said something to me that I lost in the sound of footsteps stumbling out of the house. I think it might have been a request to calm down. Suddenly I realized what I needed to do. I had to go to Giselle and comfort her. As hard as loosing my niece or nephew was for me, it would be much harder for her to lose a son or daughter. I twisted in Archer's arms and pushed against his chest, trying to go up the stairs to find my sister. For a moment I couldn't figure out why I wasn't moving until I realized Archer had picked me up at some point and my feet weren't touching the stairs. Before I could figure out how to get my feet back on the ground, Archer staggered badly, overbalanced by my movements and the weakening stairs beneath his feet and we started to fall down the stairs.
My father managed to brace Archer enough that we landed mostly unharmed at the bottom of the stairs though I could feel a burning in my shoulder that said my scratch had torn open again. I twisted in Archer's arms again, trying to climb back up the stairs, but he wouldn't let me go. Keeping me trapped against his chest. He said something to me that I didn't even bother to try and understand, despite the fervor in his voice that seemed to demand my attention.
"I have to go to her," I insisted, trying again to climb the stairs, ignoring the way the first step seemed to squish like jelly under my hand. "I need to be there for her."
"Here, get her to drink this," said a gruff older voice I didn't recognize.
I felt Archer's arms shift briefly around my shoulders as he dragged me back into his lap before something cold was pressed against my lips. I tried to push it away, but didn't have the strength before the nastiest tea I had ever tasted was poured into my mouth. I spluttered at the taste and tried to spit it out but somebody pinched my nose shut and covered my mouth, leaving me no choice but to swallow. The tea burned all the way down my throat despite being cold and I could feel the effects almost immediately. I could feel the edge of desperation bleeding away as things started feeling a little less intense. As my desperation faded, my exhaustion returned, stronger for the brief absence. I slumped against Archer's chest, feeling my eyes already drooping as the green faded from my vision.
"Put her to bed," said the voice I didn't recognize but though might have been Freidrich. I knew him by name but had never met him before. "She'll be alright in the morning."
Whatever that tea was, it left me feeling a little numb emotionally and I was half asleep again by the time Archer made it back to his feet with me still in his arms. I thought I heard Freidrich muttering something about hidden strength, but that couldn't be right. I'm not heavy enough that carrying me up the stairs would make Freidrich think Archer had some hidden strength, even if Archer did go up the stairs rather slower than usual and seemed to be testing every step before trusting it with his weight. Maybe it wasn't Archer going slow up the stairs. Maybe it was just a side-effect of that strange tea they'd given me. I think Varrick had said his mom had one that stopped time or something weird like that.
I was so lost in the disjointed jumble of my thoughts about time stopping teas that I barely even noticed when Archer set me down in my bed and pulled off my boots before tucking me in. I heard a whispered goodnight and automatically tried to respond but couldn't get more than a sleepy mumble out of my suddenly unresponsive body. It felt too much like wading through molasses to try again. Hopefully Archer would understand what I meant even if it wasn't terribly intelligible. He must have understood because I felt a hand smooth the blankets around my shoulders, carefully avoiding the bandages.
"Sleep well, my Vala," Archer said, the words following me into sleep.
In some distant part of my mind that wasn't practically asleep, I realized that he'd called me his Vala. I would have to remember to say something about that to him in the morning. After all, I'm not an object to be possessed. For right now, it didn't seem to matter so much with the sleep of the truly exhausted calling my name. Sadly, I didn't remember my resolution in the morning and by the time I did, I'd been letting Archer get away with calling me his Vala for far too long to have any chance of getting him to stop.