Authors: Deb E Howell
Alvaro and Cassidy spoke animatedly with Anya, who looked like a royal princess with her two pages as she sat perched on a fallen log, while the young men knelt below.
“Alvaro and Cassidy live near Rakun.” Jonas’ voice cut into Llew’s thoughts. He reclined against his saddle a couple of yards from her, hands clasped behind his head, ankles crossed, and his eyes apparently closed. She had thought him asleep. “We’re taking Anya to Rakun to meet her husband.”
“She hasn’t met him before?”
Llew watched the girl across the fire. Here she was, leaving her parents behind and travelling to another country, another land, to marry a man she had never met, when all Llew wanted was to have her parents back and to curl up in her mother’s arms. She supposed that if they were still around, she might have wanted to get away from them by now, too. But it was hard to imagine.
The boys were clearly revelling in Anya’s giggles and delight. Alvaro waved Llew over but she shook her head, content to observe and listen. She didn’t feel as though she had much to add to their light-hearted comparisons of happy childhoods. Hers had been good while it lasted, but she didn’t feel like steering the conversation down the path of the lost mother and missing father.
After a while, Jonas stood up, and Llew watched him dig something from his saddlebag and disappear into the trees.
Aris watched him go, and then resumed conversing with Emylia in muted tones, though his eyes kept returning to where Jonas had disappeared.
Llew sat for a few moments more, then got up and began gathering the dishes from the evening’s meal. She needed this group for this leg of her journey, and knew that if she didn’t get things squared away with Jonas, she would forever be on her guard.
Aris joined her by the fire as she collected the pot. “Get Jonas to help you. He needs the distraction.” Llew nodded, glad of the opportunity to make herself useful again.
She made her way through the trees, stepping over low ferns and looking for signs of his passing. She found him sitting with his back against a tree, facing the creek at its widest point where it appeared black and almost stagnant under a layer of tiny silver and grey leaves. By daylight those same leaves had been fire red and gold. Here the soil was dark, damp and scattered with autumn detritus and the air was heavy with humidity.
Jonas was sharpening his big bone-handled knife, flicking a stone along the edge of the blade in quick, deft sweeps. He held the knife up to inspect it and moonlight flashed on the silvery metal. A log lay on the ground before him, so Llew put the dishes down nearby and took a seat.
He must have heard her approach through the leaves but didn’t acknowledge her arrival, instead remaining focused on his task, only pausing briefly to put the stone down, pick up a small bottle and take a swig. He balanced the bottle on the ground and reclaimed the stone.
Llew watched him a while. There was a sadness about his eyes as he slid the stone along the blade, then inspected the edge once more. Anger, too. But then, that emotion never seemed far from the surface in his case.
Deciding he had ignored her long enough, she enquired, “Want to talk about it?”
“No.” He swept the stone along the blade with greater force.
Llew nodded. After a while she leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. The sound of her moving brought Jonas out of his reverie and he looked at her blankly. She couldn’t be sure, but his eyes seemed to glisten. “Why are you still here?”
“Well, I thought our friendship had a bit of a rocky start and–”
“We’re not friends.”
Llew stopped cold. She knew he didn’t like her, but she thought they’d made headway after the highwaymen. And even the sword fight hadn’t gone so badly. Maybe he was just plain unfriendly. No wonder Alvaro didn’t like him.
“Okay.” Llew stood and bent to gather the dishes again. “Well, I hope you won’t let that stop us working together because I plan to continue travelling with you as long as Aris will have me and–”
Llew froze, still bent over, metal plates in the crook of an elbow and the handle of the pot in the other hand.
“Sit,” he said. Llew let go of the pot handle, returned the plates to the ground and reclaimed her seat on the log. Maybe not entirely unfriendly, then. Either that, or he just liked giving commands and seeing them obeyed.
“Here.” He picked up the bottle and held it out to her.
She took it and threw back a mouthful.
Her mouth felt like it was on fire. She coughed, sending a spray of liquid over the ground, a measure up her nose, and the rest down her throat. She wheezed and tried to catch her breath, only to cough and splutter more. All the while Jonas laughed.
Her breathing under control at last, and a more manageable tickle in the back of her throat, she passed the bottle back to him.
“I guess I should’ve told you to sip it slow,” he said. “But that was worth it.”
Llew coughed, looking at him over her hand as she pounded her chest with the other fist.
“I guess I should’ve known it wasn’t water.”
They sat, suppressed laughter between them; Llew wasn’t prepared to think it meant anything. He was still testing her. After taking another sip himself, Jonas held the bottle out to her again. She accepted it and took a second mouthful with more care than the first. It warmed her mouth, but she managed to let it slip down her throat. Its warmth spread all the way down radiating about her chest and settling in her stomach. She didn’t think she’d ever felt so aware of her internal organs.
She passed the bottle back to Jonas and he took another swig, his eyes not leaving her. Then he replaced the cork and sat the bottle next to him.
“What’s your real name, Llew?”
Llew’s initial shock subsided to suspicion. What did he think he knew?
“What do you mean?”
“You forget I threatened you with a crossbow between your breasts. And you throw a letter opener like a girl.”
Llew gaped. That had been a good throw.
“Make a habit of punching girls, do you?”
“I figured you didn’t want Alvaro catchin’ on.” He gave a slight, lopsided smile. “So, what is it? I mean, Lou’s a fine boy’s name, and it ain’t bad for a girl, but I’m doubtin’ it’s your full, or even your real, name.”
Llew found herself smiling back. “It’s Llewella.”
“Llewella,” Jonas repeated. “It’s a pretty name.”
“Yeah,” She nodded at the ground, reaching down to pick up a stick and draw shapes in the soil. Hearing someone say that name gave her chills. She hadn’t heard it since . . . She thought she could remember her mother calling her Llewella. Oh, and Japod. The way
said it sent a different kind of shiver through her. It annoyed her that Jonas could affect her so. In her experience, boys were nothing but trouble, even as friends – especially if Kynas was anything to judge by. She lifted her head. “Okay, your turn.”
Any surprise at her commanding tone was only shown by briefly raised eyebrows over the bottle as he took another swig.
“I want to know about that.” She nodded to the knife in his hand.
He looked at her, his expression at first stern then softening as he nodded, acknowledging her right to an exchange of information. “This knife . . . ” He paused, then took a deep breath, running his fingers along the side of the blade before holding it up, handle to tip, pressed between his index fingers. For the first time Llew could really see the weapon and appreciate its beauty. The handle was finely carved with a pattern, a beast – a gryphon, Llew thought. The flawless blade was broader and longer than a dagger and it too had fine details engraved in the metal.
“This knife is a family heirloom. Passed down through generations to protect my family from our enemies.” An ironic smile flickered across his features. “Instead, it’s taken the lives of everyone I hold dear.”
“You’re an orphan, too!” Llew blurted before she had even thought if it was appropriate to sound quite so excited.
“Then why do you carry it with you? Why not bury, or destroy it?”
Jonas shook his head. “It can’t be destroyed. It was forged with one purpose: to kill the unkillable. It ain’t like other knives. It can’t be melted down. And so long as it remains in my possession, no one can use it against those I care about again.”
Llew nodded, studying the forest floor intensely. Now she understood the insult she had done him when she stole the weapon back in Cheer. But something still made her reckless.
“Unless someone takes it from you.” She risked a smile and a sideways glance at him.
“No one will take it. Never again.”
Her smile left. There was nothing funny in the way he spoke.
“So who are these ‘unkillables’?” She was imagining some sort of thick-skinned creature, with a hide so tough normal steel would sooner bend than pierce it. Or maybe . . .
“Aenuks.” The word meant nothing to her and she frowned. He glanced over at her. “The healers.”
Llew stared into the darkness of the forest and forced herself to start breathing again.
“Wh– who?” She looked back at him, her face a mask of innocent curiosity.
“Aenuks,” he repeated. “They’re a race of folk from Turhmos. I’m a Quaven soldier, and Turhmos and Quaver have been at war for centuries. Turhmos boosts their army using Aenuks. They can heal themselves from flesh wounds and as medics, well, a bunch of Aenuks can heal almost anythin’.”
“Except this.” He twisted the knife, sending a flash of moonlight along its blade. “Wounds inflicted on an Aenuk with this blade heal at the same rate they would on any person. A fatal wound from this is a fatal wound for anyone.”
“Oh.” Until a couple of days ago, she had always assumed she could die like anyone else, despite her ability to heal. A day or two of thinking otherwise shouldn’t have made it so hard to accept once more. But it did. She wanted to get up and run away from the knife that could kill her and her body involuntarily withdrew from it. She wrapped her arms about her middle.
Glancing at her, Jonas held the small bottle out again. She sipped it and sat a moment, wondering if he’d told her about the knife because he knew what she was. He’d already told her he knew she was a girl. Was this his way of telling her he knew what she could do, too? But if he knew she was able to heal, was one of these Aenuks, then surely he would have killed her by now, since that seemed to be what he did to them.
“You wanted to know about the knife. What did you expect I did with it? Use it to make daisy chains? It’s a knife. Its purpose is to kill. And the Aenuks I kill are bad folk.”
Yes, she was a bad person. She’d killed a man less than a week days ago, and left a pile of dead animals on the gallows where she’d hung. Everywhere she went she had the potential to leave a trail of destruction. She was a bad person.
Or was this all part of some elaborate test that he’d begun when he challenged her to a duel? Was he gauging her reaction to see if she was one of these Aenuks and, if so, had she reacted appropriately?
“Did I pass?”
He looked at her a moment before bursting out laughing, a hearty guffaw that had him clutching his belly. Llew flushed.
“You were testing me, weren’t you, before, with the swords?”
Jonas took a moment to compose himself and Llew took another sip from his bottle as he constructed an answer. “I like to know who I’m fightin’ with, is all.”
She handed the bottle back.
“So, how did I do?”
He threw back another mouthful of the potent liquid. “You did alright,” he said. He slid the knife back into its holster, retrieved the cork from the ground beside him and pressed it back into the bottle. Then he pushed himself to his feet and offered a hand to Llew. “We should get these dishes rinsed before we’re missed.”
Llew accepted his help to stand, then gathered up the small pile of plates, utensils and the pot. They crouched by the edge of the creek, rubbing away the thin layer of stew and breadcrumbs with fine silt before rinsing it away in the slow-moving water. They remained crouching, staring into the water for a few moments after their task was complete. Llew breathed in the damp air. It mingled with the musky smell of her companion and an unfamiliar sensation radiated through her.
She looked at him out the corner of her eye, only to have her eyes settle on the knives filling his vest, then trailing down to the knife in its sheath by his thigh.
Feeling the muscles in her legs tiring, Llew stood up and her head swirled. She took a step to balance herself, slapping a foot into the shallow water’s edge. She would have fallen in if Jonas hadn’t grabbed her arm and pulled her back. She collapsed into him, laughing. He swayed a little, too, and his arms wrapped about her in a casual embrace.
“What was that stuff?”
Jonas didn’t reply. He inhaled deeply, sampling the scent of her hair. His closeness sent shivers down her spine. He let his head rest on her shoulder, then his arms clasped her tightly – one hand at the back of her neck. He shook once, twice, and she thought she heard a muffled sob.