Pain was a dark airless world where gritting your teeth only made it darker, and clenching your fists didn't help you to breathe. It was an unpleasant weightless sensation of no ups and no downs, where fire and ice met and shattered in shivers and sweats.
I said aloud, my teeth clattering together, "Is this all there is after death? Is this Paradise? Have I died?"
A cosmic smile brushed along my soul. "Not yet," whispered the voice I had heard saying, redfire. "Not yet."
I felt a rainbow wrap around me, made up of the consciousness of each of my eight companions – different, yet necessary for the whole. They were still active, still fighting, and they needed my essence, my spirit.
I woke and I was not at all sure of it. I looked around, surprised to find myself still standing on the ridge before Clugston Gap. Jasen held my elbow – his grip felt like a hot iron vise, but I couldn't pull away – and was speaking to me slowly.
He looked like death, himself, and transferred his gaze past me.
I noticed that the heather around my feet was charred black.
I opened my eyes to see Janim's face, marred by a worried frown and a trickle of blood that curved around his left eye.
He reached out his hand to touch my chin, and his fingertips stung my skin. I flinched, and I knew from his eyes that he saw it. He unfurled his cloak and stepped close to wrap it around my shoulders – where was mine? I wanted to ask.
I only intended to take one step, to bring myself up against the comfort of his solidity, but once my knees bent, my legs let me know how weak I really was. I sagged against Janim – surprise in those blue eyes that I loved, as he caught me – and my knees kept bending.
The sky spun above me. Janim lifted his head and shouted for Tel.
Odd, I thought. He's looking the wrong way. Tel is on the ledge… isn't he?
The earth tilted, dumping me off into darkness.
Even the thought of movement was agony. My clothes are full of sand, I thought, and no one knows to help me…
I tasted blood mixed with the ash in my mouth, and the slight movement of air rasped against my skin. The light on the back of my eyelids made my eyeballs cringe.
Someone was holding me, and every contact between our bodies was fire.
My head throbbed. I coughed, and opened my eyes expecting to see a cloud of smoke drift away. I saw only blue, and mused that it was strange to see color in a world that felt like this.
...*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*…..
"Coral?" I couldn't recognize the voice through the wild reverberations in my skull.
I opened my eyes so that whoever it was wouldn't speak to me silently again. I blinked; the dim light felt cooling on my eyes, and I knew somehow that Janim was there. I forced my eyes to focus, so that he would know I was conscious, that I saw him. I was lying in an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar room, wearing only one of Janim's larger shirts. If I was standing, it might fall somewhere around my knees.
"What happened?" I asked, and the voice I heard in my mind when I spoke didn't sound anything like my own. It was agony to turn my head, but worth it when I saw that Jaran was with Janim, asleep in his arms. I wanted to hold him, but I couldn't make my arms bend to form a resting place for him.
Janim told me that we were in the house of Alyse's brother Dellan, and it had been two weeks that he had waited for me to wake. He said that my trick had not killed the wizard, but had hurt and distracted him long enough that the rest of our companions were able to recover from his attack, and rally behind Tel, who fought the wizard in a way that Janim could not explain to me. It was on a level too high for us, he said. But the wizard had retreated back north.
When he turned his head, I could see the tiny pink-white line of a scar marking the remnant of the cut above his eye.
He told me that the wizard had used something similar to my redfire against me, but black in nature. He told me that it was Alyse's opinion if I had waited a moment longer to retaliate, I might not have lived. When he looked at me again, there were tears glistening in his blue eyes.
I summoned the strength then to raise my hand and brush them clumsily away, and when my arms dropped to the mattress, I made sure that it was far enough away from my body to allow Jaran to fit. I whispered my son's name and indicated with my eyes where I wanted to hold him, and Janim eased him down beside me without waking him. The little body was still extremely hot against my side and the inside of my arm, but not unbearably so. I watched him sleep.
When I looked up, Tel was standing behind Janim. He told me that the Prophetess had reported that Rythe was keeping very close to the Tower he'd built one hundred and twenty leagues to the northwest. He said that we hadn't defeated him completely, but that his army was in tatters, and Lucinda didn't think Rythe would ever try another push south.
"So," I croaked, my throat feeling raw, "we won."
Janim smiled at me and told me to sleep.
During the night I woke, and my arms were empty. I turned my head on the pillow, seeking the source of the light that flickered across the ceiling, and the low delighted chuckle that bubbled in my mind. There was a lamp on the chair by the bed, but that wasn't what caught my attention.
Jaran lay on his back on the floor, laughing and reaching for a dangling chain of glittering gold disks, which Janim held just over his face. I watched my young husband play with his son, making faces and talking to him.
Upon a closer look and a little concentration, I realized that Janim was assuring Jaran that he didn't have to worry; he would never be alone.
I prayed, Thank you for… but I fell asleep before I could finish the thought.
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My companions were fine, for the most part. Asriel had suffered a sword slash across his chest, but it wasn't deep, and he was already proud of the scar Alyse had warned he might have someday. I had seen that Levy had been shot in the shoulder by a stray arrow in the first encounter, and though it hadn't broken any bones, it had effectively removed him from further physical combat. Both his sisters worried over him, but Shonali knew exactly what to do, and made sure that he was comfortable as he recuperated. This suited him, since he didn't want to leave their company for a long time.
Tel had twisted an ankle climbing down from his ledge too quickly, and then neglecting it during the remainder of the battle, but he was quick to point out to Alyse that since it had been his right leg, he hadn't even noticed an increase in his limp.
Shan had wrenched his shoulder, but it was healing; he was enjoying Olympia fussing over him. She couldn't stop talking about his courage; everyone could see how proud she was of him.
Meredyth had slept for three of the five days it had taken us to return to Di'Nah, and then she was fine. She came to sit with me for a few moments, which was awkward until I caught her eye, and we laughed about nothing at all. She told me I was doing just fine with Jaran, and that I should have many more children. She wasn't going to, she said, because three was just fine. I only nodded; I never said anything to any of them about those twisted black words I had seen enter their minds.
Kain also had exhausted himself, and had – he told me – changed the scenery at the Gap considerably. I congratulated him, and teased that they'd have to change the name to Kain's Gap.
Jasen had some minor burns, and slept like the dead for thirty hours straight, but – Alyse told me later, with a spark of jealous in her green eyes – had declined to have her look at his injuries.
"But his left arm is still bandaged," I said.
She replied, Shonali, as if the one word were explanation enough.
I had a surprise visit from Dellan's wife Tatiana, one day when I was already sitting up and playing with Jaran. She told me that she'd noticed things about Dunray, her oldest, things that had confused her until we came. She said she thought that he might have a gift like ours. She said she wasn't ready to let him go, but perhaps when he was ready to make the journey, she would send him to Tel. She asked me to keep an eye on him, then, if I could. I promised to, and she hugged me. I wondered if she'd spoken to Tel about it, but decided it wasn't my place to find out.
When we had all recovered enough to travel, we set out, and met the troops King Sabian had sent against the wizard at a little town south of the Gap called Dell Row. At first they were inclined to believe we were part of Rythe's army, but finally they insisted we accompany them back to the capital. Neither of our two groups knew, really, whether it was an honor guard or an arrest.
We didn't talk much with the soldiers; they were all a little in awe of what we said we'd done, even as they pretended not to believe us. We were a little uncomfortable about it, now that it was over, and we could see how enormously important our battle had been. We were trying to come to grips again with who we were individually, who we were as a group.
After the miraculous union at the Gap, it was a little lonely and cold in our minds, and that disturbed us. We had done something man was not meant to do, except in extreme circumstances… but we'd work through it.
No one was in very much of a hurry to reach Vyke; runners had been sent ahead to inform the king of our victory, but it was fully a month before we reached Vyke. Every town we passed through turned out to cheer us and to prepare feasts. Every night, despite the cold, Janim and I climbed to the rooftops of whatever village we were in, to keep our muscles strong. I'd rearranged the sling to carry Jaran securely on my back, or Janim's, though there was nothing we could do to ensure his silence.
The Listed Ones hadn't discussed what we all were going to do, but no one really thought we might be free to return to our own lives.
"I really don't think we can," I said to Janim one night.
He asked if I thought anyone really wanted to.
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I held Janim's hand more tightly than I intended. Jaran stared wide-eyed at the glittering banks of people surrounding us, gnawing toothlessly on two fingers. It was a fine sight, but there were too many of them, and I was becoming edgy.
Janim understood. "Head high, Lady bin'Jeffan," he murmured into my mind. "It'll be over soon."
"Promise?" I returned.
We were dressed in our ordinary clothes; Tel and Alyse in their fringed jackets, each with one of the twins on their hip, Tel's hand on his swordhilt, and a longbow over her shoulder. Janim in his nondescript brown tunic, and me in my embroidered dress. Meredyth had a tiny brown bird perched on her shoulder, twisting its head to point first one bright eye at the crowd, then the other. Conlan was pressed against her legs, wide-eyed. Asriel would have carried his scimitar unsheathed, had Tel allowed it, but settled for letting it jut ominously over his right shoulder. Shan looked young, grinning beneath his freckles; Olympia finally received the accolades she'd longed for, and looked happy, for a change. Jasen was holding Shonali's hand; Levy was holding his writing case. Kain, I noticed, was nervously gripping something in his pocket – a bit of blue string curled out, betraying the pear-shaped weight and the measuring line.
I smiled. This was us, and the crowd could stare and wonder.
We were all presented with laurel garlands, as was the victor's right of recognition, and a small pouch of money, a token of Sabian's thanks. Not heavy enough for gold, I thought sourly, hefting mine a little. I caught Meredyth doing the same thing, and we shared a conspiratorial smile.
The tableau was exactly as I'd imagined it – an elegant, immaculate Prince Dinlan standing beside and behind the throne, while the pudgy king simpered as though he was the hero of the hour. I couldn't bear to watch him speak, so I missed the speech.
"He's granting us a hundred acres of land, about a day's hard journey west of here," Janim told me. "We're to establish a school for others like ourselves, for training. He seems to want to make absolutely certain we forget about our arrests."
"Did Tel put that idea in his mind?" I asked suspiciously.
He grinned down on me. "Probably."
"Well, we've got our work cut out for us, don't we?" I said.
He didn't answer, but put his free hand on Jaran's head with a loving depth in his blue eyes. Jaran laughed, and reached for his father's big hand, trying to tear it apart at thumb and little finger. Janim had no trouble bringing those fingers and Jaran's pudgy fists together, and did it several times, to Jaran's delight.
And then Sabian was motioning us to face the crowd, which we did. The people began to applaud. I didn't understand it, but I forced myself to smile anyway.
"What now?" I asked Janim.
He chuckled at the impatience in my tone. "He said, It is the beginning of a new era. I give you the Mageman and his talented followers, the guardians of the continent."
I looked at him quickly, but he was serious through his grin. "He really said that?" I asked; Janim nodded.
Jaran lifted one tiny hand to pat at a sunbeam floating on the air. I folded my fingers between Janim's, and he held me, happy and secure.
I fixed my gaze on the air above the crowd, and imagined a grand stone mansion on the top of the green sloping hill dotted with wildflowers. I imagined a baking house, stables, a kennel, clean and friendly, and a flower garden beside the herb and vegetable garden. I imagined an armory and training grounds, back underneath the trees, a troop of young boys saluting a swordsman with curly brown hair and blue eyes. There were classrooms and maps and books. There were long halls lined with comfortable beds, where the girls gossiped silently after lights-out, and the boys held pillow-fights, no hands allowed.
And a laughing little boy with curly red hair and clear blue eyes who sat on the peak of the roof with me called it home.
A/N: Thanks for reading, in spite of the sporadic updates! Hope you enjoyed!