How many times must I turn you from my door before you leave me alone? How much scorn must my kind heap upon you before you return yourself to a life you are more suited for? Your hands are calloused where you handled weapons. Your body is marked with wounds inflicted by enemies. Your mind is scarred with battles. This is no place for you.

High Priest Azoroth

 

Once she’d dealt with a puffed out boy and his rash – nothing unusual, but alarming to look at – Sarea walked home in a world shrouded in purple and scarlet sunset. The sun seemed to set the world alight, but long shadows fell over the empty fields and birds slowly stopped hopping around trees, trilling a song that would send the sun to sleep. She walked faster.

Stayed too late, she told herself. But you’ve nothing any bounty hunter would want.

Except that she seemed a woman now, to most –

She stretched out her legs, not quite running, because running meant terror, and she wasn’t terrified. Alone and afraid, but not terrified.

Quite suddenly, not five minutes from home, she stopped. It seemed that everything had fallen silent, even the wind, shrouding her in something darker than night and more frightening.

Something is looking at me, she thought, and that made her freeze still as a rabbit. She strained to hear what it was – paws crackling in the leaves on the edge of the fields, breath, praying even for a howl, because then she’d know where it was –

“Well, fancy seeing you here,” Ionas said behind her. She whirled around and slapped him.

“Don’t do that,” she snapped at him. “Don’t do that!” And then she was off, stalking towards her cottage with all the fury in her body fuelling her.

It wasn’t until she’d barred the door that she wondered, Ionas?

:-#-:

Ionas stared after Sarea, wide eyed, cheek stinging.

Definitely got fight, he concluded, and shrugged. Better that than letting her stand there until the enemy turned up and tore her to shreds. The hounds did that sometimes, to people who didn’t have defences. Just being close could overwhelm the survival instincts.

He put his hands in his coat pockets and kept walking.

They were near, but not near enough. He could scatter his scent, but they’d still have something to follow. Without it they’d follow it backwards, and that would just lead to… incidents.

A few sheep and some people’s livelihoods were worth less than a world.

He hummed, weaving magic into the broken melody. Come here, it would say. Hither and wither and away. Anything to keep them from Sarea’s door.

He saluted the nearly-gone sun, three fingers, a jaggedly sharp movement. “And may she rise brighter than you, good sir.”

Whilst the hounds didn’t see him, it stayed a game. He did like games, once. Always the best at hide and seek.

:-#-:

Sarea opened her door the next morning and found Ionas on her doorstep. He stared down at her, hand raised to knock.

“Hello,” he said.

She shut the door, looked at the battered wood, then reopened it. He was still there.

“You left,” she said.

“Ann’s hospitality was a little too welcoming,” he said, giving her a crooked smile. “Sorry.”

She frowned at him. If he’d been free-loading on Mistress Junker…

“So,” he shifted. “About last night -”

“Why do you have bounty hunters after you?” she said.

He repeated, sounding the words out, “Bounty hunters?”

“Only one kind of traveller that has dogs and takes other people’s things and livestock like this,” she said. “And I don’t believe rovers do it. They’re after you. Why?”

“You know a lot about them,” he said mildly.

She pressed her lips together, a tight thin line. He sighed, ruffling his hair.

“Look,” he said. “I told you. Hounds with fire for -”

She shut the door in his face and made breakfast instead of fetching water for tea.

When she finally left he was sat in the Nut-Berry tree, twirling a yellow leaf in his fingers by the stem.

“I haven’t lied to you,” he called out. “Not once.”

“You said you were leaving,” she said, walking under him.

“I said I wouldn’t trouble you.” The crackle-thud of feet hitting the leaf-strewn grass. “Am I?”

Sarea turned around and looked at him. His entire face fell, shoulders sagging.

“Don’t do this,” she said. “Don’t say you’re leaving then stay. It isn’t…” She swallowed, set her shoulder. “It isn’t fair, Ionas. Just tell me what’s going on.”

Ionas kicked the leaves. “I know something that a lot of…” he paused. “Ah, people,” he said, “Want to know. One secret out of all my secrets that they’d kill for.”

She considered this. “What is it?”

“You,” he said. “Or – at least – where you live.”

That wasn’t fair, either, making the world spin dizzily around her like that. She wasn’t a secret. She wasn’t anyone.

“Why?” she said.

“Because the Wall will fall and a shadow can’t fight the darkness,” he said. “Because the sun rises over my lonely war anyway.”

It made no sense but, Sarea thought, I think he believes it. That was a step closer.

“Can I show you something?” he said. “Something beautiful?”

She shifted on her feet. “I’ve things to do -”

“It’s close,” he said. “Please.”

Sarea bit her lip, then nodded slowly. “As long as it doesn’t take long.”

He grinned.

 

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