The dragon’s devastation wasn’t lessened by its death. Another thing the node had begun; their old enemy rarely met subtlety. He’d left a trail of catastrophes through the continent, and this was just the latest.

Caron stood on a ridge of rocks, surveying the sinuous mass of scales and torn wings. Hanson climbed over its body, boots slipping, looking for loose scales.

Rob sat near her, staff hanging from his hands loosely. “He’s getting used to the power,” the Finder said. “Mastering it. We’ll definitely have to kill him.” His friend sounded more tired than ever. She wondered how many more of his dreams had died so he could say that.

“I know,” she said.  knew it when he fractured us, she thought. It’s amazing how people break. You’re afraid. Terrified. If we ever needed you to Find him, I’d have to force you to, wouldn’t I?

Hanson, prying off a scale bigger than his head, didn’t seem to know fear. When his scar was new he hated with a hot, burning passion. As he healed, the heat cooled. He accepted what happened. He found balance.

“Caro,” Rob said. “What is -”

She cast him a sharp glance. “Name your fear,” she said. “Name it and face it, always.”

Rob swallowed. “What is Farren doing?” he said. “Right now.”

She could tell him. She could burden him with another nightmare.

“Help Hanson,” she said instead.

He obeyed, shoulders sagging.

I don’t hate Farren, she thought. Even when he killed her father and tore their lives and friendship apart, even if he took other women and brewed trouble and murdered countless people. How could she hate someone she loved so much?

She would stop him. She would win.

“Our own story,” she said to Rob’s back. “Just like you wanted.”

:-#-:

The day before the Canteville fair, the town bustled with people. Caron always liked it. Even it was dirty, noisy, and stung. So much happened here. She leaned over the edge of the cart. They had shops for everything. Hats and dresses, proper carpenters, places to buy meat and bread and vegetables, not trade, and a stall full of little pies…

“Look,” Hanson said. “A fortune teller! Can we go there?”

“Maybe,” old Handsworth said, guiding the ponies into the Fourth Bell’s courtyard. “Tell the ‘keeper we’re here.”

“I’ll go,” Rob said. He stood, dropped his book in the cart, and vaulted over the side.

Hanson rolled his eyes. “What a show off. Hey, Caro?”

“Like you aren’t,” she returned.

“Only person I’d show off for is you,” he said. “And you don’t impress that easily.”

She raised her eyebrows, folding her arms.

“I am going to see the fortune teller,” he declared, and jumped off the end of the path. “Coming?” he said, twisting around. He flashed a grin at her and was off at a run.

Caron inched towards the edge of the cart, eyeing old Handsworth. The old man sighed. “Bring him straight back.”

“Yes sir,” Caron said, ducking his head even if he didn’t turn to see it. She followed Hanson before she lost him in the crowd.

The fortune teller had a tent outside a battered old house near the gate. There wasn’t a queue, and the flap was open. Hanson stepped straight in. Caron caught his belt and smacked him on the back of the head. “I’m sorry,” she said to the woman inside. “He brings shame to his family.”

The woman smiled. “It’s quite all right, dear,” she said. “Call me madame. Please, sit.”

“See, Caro?” Hanson pulled away from her. She scowled at him. He sat on the best stool in front of the fortune teller’s table, grinning just as widely as he could. Caron stopped to close the flap and surveyed the little space. There wasn’t an awful lot to see. Not much money in this trade, she thought.

By the time she sat down, Hanson had paid and the fortune teller scattered her runes for him.

“I see knighthood,” she said, in hushed tones. “Swords and scars…”

Caron didn’t listen. What boy didn’t want to be the brave knight? That was just about all most people wanted from a fortune teller – brand new daydreams, like the ones that set Hanson bouncing back to the Fourth Bell to boast to Rob. She sighed, standing to follow, but Madame said, “Miss Anhy.”

“I suppose he gave you my name,” she said, but her stomach turned. Everyone knew, somehow…

Madame shook her head. “You look like your grandmother, miss Anhy,” she said. She leaned forward, holding out hands filled with runes. “Would you throw? You don’t need my skills to tell you the future.”

Caron shook her head stepping back. “I don’t See. I don’t…” She gestured at the tent flap. “I need to make sure he gets back.”

“In the end, there will be no going home, for any of you.” Madame closed her hands, stones rattling. “There’s a long, hard path ahead. Trust that they’ll find a place to rest without their guiding star to show the way.”

“Please,” Caron said, terrified butterflies churning in her chest. “I don’t want -”

“An Anhy doesn’t need it,” Madame said solemnly, “But I wish you luck, all the same.”

Caron bolted out of the tent and all the way back to the inn and her unscathed, dreamer friends.

:-#-:

Caron stood at the cave entrance. A chill wind seemed to blow out of the massive hole, the cold beating heart of the mountain itself. The village behind her stood deathly silent.

She turned to Hanson.

Rob was gone, leading some soldiers towards a camp of malformed monsters. The moment he could he’d disappear, get away from this mess now it was over. So it was Hanson, her unafraid knight, that was here when wolf-men poured out of the still houses.

She hesitated. He’d survive, she knew it, but they were bound together by invisible links. Her hand in his, she waited.

“Go,” he said, his voice low. That way he sounded almost like he had when they were young.

“Goodbye,” she said, and kissed him. His hand tightened around hers, chaste as this was, then let go.

“Go,” he said. “You were never mine to keep.”

The words gave her speed. Caron ran into the darkness, armed with nothing but sight. No rock tripped her, no trap caught her. Blades clipped her hair, fire singed her heels, stone crushed nothing but air. But at the end there was nothing more than a thin, smooth-walled tunnel to a plain wooden door. The door was open. Farren leaned against a table, smirking at her.

He hadn’t changed.

“Caron, darling,” he said. “I hope you aren’t expecting mercy.”

She walked towards him.

“I expected your pet swordsman,” he said. “Isn’t that what a Seer is? The master of the strings.”

She crossed the threshold. He said, “Stop.” She did.

“You have no idea what I’m capable of,” she said.

He curled his lip. “You’re a little girl walking to her death.”

“A girl that bore your child,” she reminded him.

“And where is my son, Caro?” He took a rock off the table. No, not a rock, a clear crystal half the size of her fist. He prowled towards her. “I shall have that secret from you before I am done, my dear.”

She held her ground, head high, back straight. “I know a great deal more than that.” I knew this would happen, the steps to make it so, the mistakes. I Saw it, a blind little girl. She was at peace with it all.

He laughed, stopping a foot from her. “I take no trades and make no bargains with the foolish dead.” He touched her cheek with his free hand, nails scraping her skin. “You knew who would win in the beginning, and you chose the losing side.”

“I knew I would love you, before I met you. I knew what it would cost. I denied it through childish fear.” She held his gaze. His eyes were black, now. Pools of light-eating darkness. One they’d been beautiful.

He held the stone in front of her. “You know what this is.”

“The node.” Faint light lit it from inside, pulsing to his heartbeat. He had mastered it.

“Do you know what I can do with this?” he said, pressing it to her chest. “Anything. I can use it to peel your skin off your body inch by inch, keeping you alive and awake the entire time. I can burn you from the inside out. I will have you on your knees, my proud Caro.” He leaned forward. “But if you tell me where my son is, I might just let you choose your own death. What do you say to that?”

She closed her eyes. In a crumbling temple above a hungry sea, she’d met a dying man, and he’d given her a secret. The node was pure magic, bound together with words of power. She said three words, the last words a dying man said, three words that would tell the node to destroy itself.

The world flashed white.

:-#-:

The fair was all she’d expected it to be, once they all got away from Rob’s uncle. Alone, Caron sat on a wall, eating little pies from a bag. Two mouthfuls and they were gone, but what mouthfuls they were!

People moved everywhere, talking and laughing. There were beautiful things to see, silks and jewellery, and games to try, minstrels everywhere. Caron wanted to buy everything.

“Rob,” she called out, spotting him in the crowd. He waved, veering towards her through the masses.

“There’s a play in three chimes,” he said, stopping in front of her. “Hanson’s over there.” He gestured. She looked, and he dipped his hand in her bag.

She yanked it away from him too late – he danced away with one. “Get your own,” she snapped.

“Rob, you have to stop running off.” A boy emerged from the crowd and stopped, dusting himself off. She stared. He smiled. He had the greenest eyes and the best smile she’d ever seen.

“Farren, Caro. Caro, Farren.” Rob stuffed the pie in his mouth whole, chewing noisily.

“Farren Peters,” the boy said, holding his hand out.

Her cheeks burned. Gods, he was a better sight than any of the village boys. She took his hand. “Caron Anhy.”

“Charmed.” And he sounded like he meant it. “May I…?”

“Yes!” She shoved the bag at him. “Have one.”

“Thank you,” Farren said. He just had to be graceful about it, too…

Rob swallowed. “What’s the matter with you, Caro?” he said.

She scowled at him. “Never you mind,” she said. “Get off! Bring Hanson back. We’re meant to stay together.”

“Go on.” Farren sat on the wall next to her. “I’ll keep an eye on your lady friend.”

“She’s not my lady friend,” Rob protested. “Just Caro.”

“And I’m not a lady,” she muttered.

“Really?” Farren glanced at her with those beautiful eyes. “You fooled me.”

That’s terrible. She looked away anyway, cheeks heating up.

“Girls,” Rob said, throwing his hands up. He spun around and vanished back into the crowd.

 

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