Today may see my absence and recall

The child who ran too far, who dared to find,

But will not come and ask me, will not know why:

I went ahead, so that others might fly.

Unknown

 

“About two miles off from civilisation,” Ionas had said cheerfully, but once she’d mustered up food, packed, and set foot on the road, the wind was blowing cold under a grey, cloudy sky. The river wasn’t running too high. It’d been a dry summer. The path along it, or what path there was, wound away from the river between trees and patches of stinging nettles. They’d make good medicine, if Sarea had the gloves to harvest and prepare them. She shook her head and kept walking.

Somewhere ahead of her, Ionas swore.

Sarea hurried up, hopping between dry patches. She came around a wide old oak tree and stopped.

Ionas sat in the path, back covered in mud, shaking his hands. She cleared her throat. He said, “Please tell me you have something to deal with stings.”

She smiled at his back. “You fell over.”

“I fell over.”

“What were you doing?”

He gestured up at a red apple on an overhanging branch. “Thought I’d jump for it.”

“You have magic,” she sighed, rubbing her bright yellow coat. “You’re an idiot.”

“Yes. Yes, I am.” He glanced back at her. “Please. This is agony.”

Big old ancient warrior and he’s throwing a fuss over nettle stings. She smoothed the smile off her face before she wandered over to him. “I don’t have anything on me,” she said, crouching down next to the nettle patch. “But I think – here.” She reached in.

Ionas winced. “You really shouldn’t do that.”

She snapped off half a flowering nettle and pulled her hands back. “These don’t sting,” she said, pulling the leaves off. Dropping the stem on the ground, she crushed the leaves and dropped them in his hands. “Crush them. Rub them over your hands. The stinging fades.”

He looked down at the leaves and back up at her. “You’re sure?”

“By the time I prepared it as a full paste, it wouldn’t be needed.” She put his hands together. “And you might want to get the mud off you, too.”

Just to add insult to injury she stood up, catching the end of the branch and pulling it down. She tugged the apple off it and let go, dropping the apple in his lap. “You really don’t stop eating, do you,” she said.

And what was an apple tree doing in the woods? She followed the path out into tall grass and stopped.

Spread out before her was a whole orchard of apple trees. They’d found someone’s house, at least.

“Leave a fellow behind, why don’t you,” Ionas said, coming up behind her. A weight dropped into her pocket. “It wasn’t for me. Oh, hello. That town you were looking for. This is magic, Sarea. I’ve always hated those plants.”

“Demon infested nettles?” she said distractedly.

“Fell into a patch by the road as a child. Hot day. I wasn’t wearing a lot of clothes.” He stepped up beside her, rubbing the leaves around his wrists. She winced. “Yes,” he said. “Damned things. Well, let’s see who’s home!”

And he strode off through the orchard.

Sarea sighed, trailing behind him. There’d been a pear tree growing on the edge of the pit right next to her father’s home in Durabilis. It was a stunted, twisted thing, and what fruit was sour. All the children fought over them, though. Father wouldn’t let his girls touch them. He muttered something about taint and pulled them away.

Voices rang out through the trees. Ionas had found himself a friend. She quickened her pace, but got to the other edge of the orchard just in time to see someone run at Ionas with a pitchfork.

He yelped, running in the other direction.

Not a friend, then, she thought.

“So you’re the other one, hey?” A fair haired woman waved at her from the faded brown fence. Sarea slowed down, shame creeping over her. No wonder Ionas was being chased. They’d snuck onto someone else’s property. In South, everyone knew each other…

“I’m sorry,” she said. “We don’t mean to intrude.” She pulled the apple out of her pocket. “We found this in the woods. It must be from one of your trees.”

The woman peered at it. “Too big,” she said, waving it off. “Not sweet enough. Keep it.”

Sarea nodded, dropping it in her pocket again. “So why?” She gestured at Ionas ducking behind a barrel.

“Uncle don’t take too kindly to gentryfolk dropping in,” the woman said, shrugging. “Your man comes in, saying things like the gentry, and he goes at him with the fork. Uncle will be over it soon.”

Which meant Ionas had gone in being as polite as he had to Mistress Junker, stiff-necked and formal. Sarea nodded. That passed for gentry manners in some places.

“We’re Appleton, by your pleasure,” the woman said. “I’m Penny and that’s Uncle Potenk.”

Sarea hesitated. “I’ve never heard of Appleton,” she said.

“Be surprised if you had. Just the house, the mill, and this place. Da’s boat too, of course.” Penny looked her up and down. Sarea’s cheeks heated up. She was muck and dirt compared to this round-faced, clean-skinned girl in her bright blue dress. “Your man said you were heading to the city?”

Sarea nodded.

Penny folded her arms. “Da’s taking a delivery down there tomorrow. He could carry you, if you help us with some chores. How are you moving boxes?”

Ionas vaulted the fence beside them and stopped. “He’s crazy,” he panted. “Your old man is insane.”

“Ah, a knight stole my aunt away,” Penny said. “Age got him in the head, but he tends the trees like nothing else.”

“We’ll take that deal,” Sarea said. “If you throw in a place to sleep.”

“Ah, plenty of room.” Penny held her hand out. Sarea took it. Clean and pretty as she was, Penny’s hands were callused.

Ionas looked between them. “What did you agree to?”

“Come along, beanpole man,” Penny said, letting Sarea go. “There’s work for you two.”

Sarea followed. At least she could earn her keep.

“Wait,” Ionas said, behind her. “You agreed for both of us. What was it? Sarea?”

“You’ve got some hard work ahead of you,” Penny called out. She threw a wink over her shoulder at Sarea, who smiled back.

:-#-:

The next day was warm enough for Sarea to sit on the desk of the Appleton barge, coat folded up on top of her pack beside her. She frowned at the book of runes. One that looked like an elongated X was good fortune if it stood tall, but protection from frost if it was flat. How was that meant to make sense?

“So,” Ionas said, sliding down beside her. “You’re not making decisions again.”

“A little honest work goes a long way.” She turned the page. And this muddle of a rune cursed the owner of the house with the droops.

“He prodded me with a pitch fork.”

“You were in the way.”

He huffed, slinging an arm over her shoulder. “Where are you up to?”

She stiffened. He said, “Oh, I’m sorry,” before she could say a word, pulling his arm back. “I thought – I’m sorry.”

“Why is this so specific?” she said instead, jabbing a finger at the page.

Ionas groaned. “That one. It’s complexity.”

She gave him a hard look.

“If a rune is complicated, it’s either very specific or very powerful.” Ionas shrugged. “You can write two runes on top of each other for the same effect, but they can conflict with each other explosively. Hagz and Jun are good for that. They take time to react to each other.”

“I haven’t met those two yet.” She’d read a few pages of runes and two dozen of theory. “Isn’t there a practical for this?”

He grinned. “Not yet.”

“Can’t I watch you draw the circle or something?” She sighed. “This is…”

“Boring. Everyone has to suffer. We’ll talk it over tonight, see about getting you -”

He stopped. His head turned. “What is that?”

“What is what?” she said, but he’d already bounced to his feet, walking to the railing. She closed the book, pushing herself up. Her legs had stiffened something awful.

“That,” he said, pointing. She followed his arm. In the near distance, beyond a brightly painted house, the road, and an expanse of wild grassy land, stood an bank of bare earth and rock.

“The west side,” she said.

He dropped his hand. “That’s where you grew up.”

“For nine years. Yes.” She pressed her lips together.

Ionas rocked back on his heels. “The hounds won’t come anywhere near us,” he said. “They don’t want to get eaten by that.”

“Eaten by what?” She stepped towards him. “What do you see?”

He heaved a sigh. “A squat black mass, hanging over the area like a cloud. I should have come back sooner. This wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been fooling around and nearly getting myself killed. I should have been here.”

Amisine had said something like that. In the corner of their room, both of them under the blanket, she’d talked about a cloud –

Not thinking about it, Sarea reminded herself.

“I’ve a feeling it isn’t the city that killed your sister,” Ionas said.

She curled her hands around the book. “Then we’ll deal with it, won’t we.”

He twisted around. “We?”

“We.” She nodded once. “It’d be our job, wouldn’t it.”

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, it would.”

 

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