Snap.

Venandi's breath catches, and the cold morning air pours into her lungs, easing the aching pain that lies somewhere within the confines of her rib cage. Her gaze remains unfocused. She is too numb to seek what has caused the disruption. She knows that it is Tore, the snapping twig his way of letting her know that he is near. Would he wish it, she would not be able to sense his presence, the forest shrouding him as one of his own. Her ears pick up on the great bear's low grunts, but she cannot bring herself to turn her neck and move her head. Her hands are tucked deep within the thick, hand-woven cloak, her shoulders hunched over, her arms seemingly holding all of her together. Tendrils of hair catch and fight against the breeze, but she does not move. Her eyes forward, her mind blank, her ankles and wrists still shackled.

Tore finds her once again, sitting at the edge of the misty cliff, the Firth shining silver under the rising Sun. He stops right next to her, and her nose picks up a faint scent of burning wood and earth, and she knows that cupped in his hands is a steamy cup of fragrant brew. What herbs or witchery he decocted in his small cauldron, she does not know, but she can feel the pain in her ankle subsiding. The scars she gathered during the shipwreck were also healing at an unnatural speed, the minor ones already disappearing, leaving behind feather-like reminders. Her shoulder was still bandaged, but she could now rotate it without breaking into a cold sweat.

Tore places the brew down next to her, and she waits for him to slip away into the day, do whatever it was that Tore did, and leave her to ponder and fester, her spirit both tangled and unraveled. After the great bear had carried her away from the suffocating miasma that churned within the Mangahlars, she had awakened in the deep wildwood, lying under a pile of heavy blankets and surrounded by thick air, smelling of marjoram and sage. She had drifted in and out of sleep for what she believed were three days, staying conscious long enough to drink from a frothy cup which at times tasted gamey, other times sweet, and sometimes like nothing at all. She would wake up suddenly after feverish nightmares that left her mind feeling weary and spent, only to fall back asleep soundly a minute later.

When she finally woke up, her eyes blinked open, and her consciousness was with her and, more importantly, stayed with her. A faint, white light coming from the only window in the room created soft silhouettes of the scattered furniture littered the room. From the ceiling hung row after row of herbs and dried carcasses of small reptiles and all manner of things she could not quite identify. She turned her neck slowly, and her brain sloshed against the sides of her skull, sending a wave of dizziness through her.

But she managed to sit upright, shifting her weight to her uninjured shoulder. All the events from the last few days shattered against her, and she sensed the panic rise in her, the immediate need to leave suffocating her. She was just about to unfurl the first layer of blankets and continue her path through the Archus Way when Tore wandered into the room. As more light flooded the space, she realized then that what she had assumed was a room was actually the extent of his hut.

Tore's gaze stopped her cold, and she felt guilty, like a child who had been caught doing something naughty. He slowly let go of a bundle of what seemed like an assortment of bright rocks and dried leaves and stretched his hand towards her, his thumb and little finger sticking out.

Stay.

It took her a second to find her voice, and when she did, it sounded more like a croak than actual words. "I must go."

Tore repeated the motion, this time closing the door behind him with an air of finality.

"They're pro-" she broke into a coughing fit, and Tore quickly handed her a small cup full of lukewarm water. He then picked a couple of leaves from the many hanging bushels and sat next to her with a mortar and pestle. The low, grinding noise was soothing to her ears, and she found herself slowly reclining, sinking into the warmth of the many blankets.

"If I don't leave soon," she yawned. "They will find me. And they will find you."

Tore shook his head.

"You will be in danger."

Tore placed his mortar down long enough to sign. He jutted his thumb out from under his chin and spread his fingers against his chest. He then moved his open palms against one another, as if he were to clap, but his hands never touched, and then his hand traveled from his head to his chest. He repeated the almost clapping motion and then swung his fist from side to side.

I do not fear little men with little swords.

Her eyebrows rose slightly in amusement, her eyelids feeling heavy all of a sudden. Before Tore returned to his herbs, he signed once more.

And neither should you.

She flinched. His gestures held the sort of confidence which she had dreaded coming back to. This never-ending trail of hope in the form of stale crumbs, believing that the next time, the next fight will be the one to liberate the Sine Woods. It was a weightless thing that crushed her spirit and filled her with dread. It lifted you high up above and dropped you miles into an abyss.

And in her case, her abyss had been years locked in the furthermost dungeon of the Alba Custodia.

Tore seemed to notice the stark shift in her emotions, and he quickly added steaming water to his mortar, emptying its contents onto the same small cup he had used before. He made a drinking motion with his left hand and with his right, signed the word rest. She swallowed the warm tea and soon found herself drifting back to sleep, all need to depart slowly drifting away.

They would have the same conversation over and over again, her itching to leave and Tore assuring her that they were safe, that she was not yet healed, all the time making her drink tea and sip brew.

When she was strong enough to eat, she realized she was also strong enough to walk around. At first, she would slowly pace the room, making sure not to add too much weight onto her ankle. Soon, the hut grew too small, too dark, and she could feel that same darkness gradually seep into her heart, so she began to wander outdoors, around the grounds, through Tore's wild garden. He, or his great bear, would accompany her at first, making sure she did not attempt a dash towards a certain group of treacherous, rocky peaks, but soon enough, he realized there was no threat of her fleeing. With every day spent in the light, every day spent without her chain, every day roaming freely, her spirits sank until they were replaced with a sort of lingering numbness.

After a while, she no longer asked to leave.

It was during one of her long, torpid walks that she found the cliff overlooking the Firth. In a moment of panic, she feared they would be able to see her from up there. She knew full well that she appeared as a speck of dust from the Firth as one of the many trees that lined the cliff. She had also realized that, while Tore's hut was certainly well-hidden under the cover of ancient trees with trunks as thick as houses, that some obscuration charm had been placed around them and that, try as hard as they might, her pursuers would struggle to find her- even with the help of the Almayta.

The wind rushing towards her, the expanse that loomed over her, and the openness beneath her frightened her, but for some reason, she kept returning to the same cliff. The first few days, she would stand close, only for a few minutes before returning to the hut. Now, she would sit there for hours, as if paralyzed, her feet dangling from the edge, her blanket wrapped tight, watching the clouds hover, and the birds soar. Alone, except for Tore's occasional visit.

So when Tore sat next to her, his old body creaking as he folded his legs beneath his long beard, her stupor lifted long enough for her mind to register this change in their routine. She conjured enough willpower to meet his eyes. There was an all-knowing quality about them, which called out to her as if they understood why she spent her days staring at nothing, why she had stopped trying to set out towards the Silvani Tribe.

Finally, in what was perhaps their first conversation in days, Tore moved his hands, her eyes entranced by his movements' dance-like quality. He hovers his hand over his closed fist and slides it forward twice.

Enough.

She returns her gaze to the shimmering coast, and a soft, imperceptible sigh escapes her lips. A stubbornness had also begun to feed off her numbness, and the thought of voluntarily returning to a world she had been deprived of for so many years seemed ludicrous.

"I never-," her voice was rough at the edges, and she felt the warmth of her rage poke at her numbness only to be replaced by dejected exhaustion. When she spoke the next words, her eyes turned to him once more. "I never asked for any of this."

There is a short pause and then Tore nods, his many charms rattling as he did so.

No one ever does.

"The Silvani will not be as understanding."

The Silvani will do as Gródur Un commands.

"I will be put on trial."

You have been put on trial before.

"The Mordesti and the Devitala won't be as forgiving."

You have faced them before.

"They will not follow a failure," she says finally, shaking her wrists hard, making the severed links rattle against each other. "There is no room for weakness among them."

You will never know, signs Tore. Unless you go.

This brought little comfort to her, and as the crushing weight of her impending doom fell on her shoulders, she released another long sigh.

"I could stay here," she begs. She does not like the sound of her begging for anything. "You said I couldn't leave till I was fully healed."

Tore looks at her fully, and when he lifts his hands and begins to speak to her, she can sense that he is choosing his words carefully.

I have healed your body.

"Ah," is her simple response, a sudden lump forming in her throat. She tries to swallow it down but cannot. She feels ashamed for some reason. The idea of Tore knowing that she had been broken in more ways than one made her feel inadequate and exposed. The voices that had tormented her during her darkest nights at the Obscuras had since subsided to a low murmur somewhere in the back of her head. A product, she assumed, of Tore's presence and the calm and safety of his forest.

She did not meet his gaze, but she can see in her peripheral vision as his hands move once again.

He was signing her name.

Venandi looks at him then and feels her heart constrict, not having heard that name in decades. There is such kindness in his eyes she cannot bear to look, and she quickly redirects her attention to the great bear, which had since rested her head on his lap and had closed her eyes, her twitching ears the only sign of her alertness. Tore made a sweeping motion with his two fingers under his chin, followed by crossing his two hands over his heart.

The voices. The darkness. The chains.

He waits for her to fully acknowledge what he is saying.

I sense contra medeis.

Her ears perk at the mention of dark magic, knowing that to acknowledge evil's existence within the magical realm was no small matter. It was even more alarming if spoken of by an Elder such as Tore. And if Tore knew, then Gródur Un would know as well. It might even be the reason why she asked her to make the long trek north.

"There was a gens with them," she says, talk of wickedness reminding her of the golden-eyed grave-robber. The word sits heavily on her tongue as if to utter it would summon him, the Almayta appearing before her in a cloud of black smoke. "An Almayta."

Tore signs quickly, a slight frown pushing his bushy eyebrows together.

Almayta rarely travel this far north.

"This one did," she replies. "An aid to the King."

For Almayta to mingle with non-gens is also rare. Are you certain?

"Do you think it's his magic?"

The Almayta may deal in the grotesque, but it is still sueto medeis, Tore hesitates. You must tell Gródur Un, if she does not know already.

"He will come looking for me as soon as I leave," she says to the wind. "And he is not little men, Tore."

This time Tore smiles. A slow, rare thing that never failed to surprise her.

You are Venandi, he signs, using her medeis name. You have faced bigger men.

This also catches her by surprise, and her smirk mirrors his sly smile but only for a fraction of a second. She stares at the Firth again and then at the sky, slow-moving clouds whirling and curling atop the Archus Mountains, and then down below at the vapor rising from the Manghalars. She was in better condition now to cross the Way, and if armed properly, she knew she could face off most non-gens. It was the gens that worried her, having no power of hers to counteract theirs. But she knew she had to meet the Silvani and face whatever fate awaited her with the tribe. It seemed almost absurd to risk death here to face death there.

Her mood slightly lifted, she looks back at Tore. "I really must go then."

Tore's smile melts, but his eyes still shine with agreement, his dimples hidden behind his craggy, old beard. He nods slowly.

And I will take you.