Well, the title kinda gives it away, I guess. A Slumbering Fire is a short story about two women who feel as if they’re no longer needed in their respective worlds, and they find one another in a small town that is burning from underground. So it’s basically fantasy and dragons based in Centralia, Pennsylvania.
A Slumbering Fire
The carriage ride would kill her. The thought played through Anke’s mind, accompanied by every tilt of the vehicle, every creak of the wheels and jostling bump that set her teeth grinding, until it all mingled together into a steady rhythm of misery.
“Please stop soon,” she whispered. Not quite a prayer. She’d given up on prayer some time ago. But a simple beseechment to anything, to anyone who would listen. Even if it was only herself.
As if in reply to her request, a cry from the driver, a jolt of the carriage forward before it listed back and settled on its wheels while the horses stamped and knickered audibly from ahead of them.
“What…?” She asked the question to no one. Her maid, Jaala, sat across from her, sound asleep, buried in a cocoon of knitted shawls and blankets. Between them, the door was jerked open and a face appeared in the gap.
Anke reared back in her seat. It was raining outside. Ah, no. Too gentle a choice of words. A deluge was in progress, soaking the soldier’s face and hair, or what there was of it sticking out from beneath her hat.
The soldier dipped her head in deference. “The road is washed out ahead. There’s no going forward.”
“Oh.” Anke licked her lips. There was expectation in the soldier’s eyes. Very dark eyes. Like ink had pooled in her pupils and spilled over into the irises. “Will we have to turn back?”
“I think that is up to Captain Albright, your highness.”
“Well.” Anke narrowed her eyes, the better to see outside without actually putting her head out in it. Beyond the soldier it was all a wash of grey, grey, grey. “I doubt anyone wants to kick their heels around in this torrent. Wasn’t there a town a few miles back?”
A line appeared between the soldier’s eyes. Anke studied it. Really, there was something about the woman’s face that lent itself towards intense study. “Yes,” she said slowly. “But…”
“If there’s a town, there’s surely an inn of some sort?” She tried to sound regal. Commanding. She tried not to bite her lip and sink back into the corner of the carriage, endeavoring not to be seen.
A huff of air came from the soldier’s mouth. The woman was exasperated with her. Not an uncommon development, then. “It’s Verstad, your highness.”
Spoken in a way that meant she was supposed to understand the soldier’s meaning. “And?”
The soldier’s mouth moved as if there was something she wanted to say but knew it wasn’t the wisest of options. “Very well.” She stepped back, sketched a short bow, and slammed the door shut.
And then there was nothing. At least not for several minutes. Anke heard the voices of her assembled escort, the driver, all of them overlapping and possibly arguing, though she couldn’t tell through the incessant pounding of the rain all around them. She was about to open the door herself and inquire as to what was taking everyone so long when another shout from the driver preceded the horses jerking and jangling forward again.
A loud sniff came from Jaala on the opposite seat, one eye splitting open as she wiped at a thread of drool with one of her shawls. “Have we arrived then?”
Anke gripped the edge of her seat, her knuckles white as the driver directed them into a sharp turn, one that would take them back the way they’d come. “No, not yet. There’s a bit of trouble with the road.”
“Ah.” The maid shivered and burrowed deeper into her cocoon. “Of course. Wake me when we’ve stopped again, hmm?.”
“I will,” Anke said, and let her head tip back against the seat as a snore scraped up the back of Jaala’s throat.
A fucking flood. Willa ran her hand beneath the brim of her hat, wondering why she’d even bothered with the hat when the rain was pissing at them sideways, frontways, even spattering up at them from the ground. The carriage trundled on ahead, the wheels seeming intent on striking every rock to come up in their path. Either that or enough topsoil had washed away to leave nothing but a swathe of rocks and roots to lead them back towards Verstad.
If there’s a town, there’s surely an inn of some sort…
Willa laughed. Her horse tossed her head, a restless movement. Ah, but not her horse, though. Poor Silas was still back in Caraken, probably nosing at oats and snuffling for sugar he didn’t deserve. And very likely not under threat of drowning to death in his own stall.
Poor Silas, Willa thought, and sank as far down into her coat as its stiff seams and collar would allow.
It was near dark when they reached the edge of Verstad. A few houses at first, all of them deserted. Doors hanging off hinges, windows cracked or boarded over. Spindly vines stretching over everything, as if even the weeds couldn’t bother to exert enough energy to fully reclaim the land as their own.
And the smell…
Even through the rain, the air was rank. Pockets of mist dragged across the ground in places, some of them carrying such a strong scent of sulfur Willa began to suspect they’d crossed the veil and stumbled into some antechamber of the underworld.
The road widened as they approached the town proper. A few streets attempted to branch off and away from them, leading to buildings that gaped with open maws, dressed with faded signs, smokeless chimneys.
“This is fucking depressing.” One of the other men brought his horse alongside hers, his voice raised over the rain and the creak of the carriage ahead of them.
“There’s a few people left,” Willa said, experiencing a strange urge to defend the place. “Not everyone ran after the fires began.”
The other soldier – what was his name? Tompkins? Tomlinson? – sniffed and then spat over his shoulder. “I thought Elgar ordered the whole town to be evacuated.”
Willa shook her head. “More a suggestion from the king than an order.”
“Shit.” The soldier spit again, as if there wasn’t already enough moisture on the ground.
Willa said nothing more. Her teeth were gritted against the rain, against the chill, every part of her riddled with tension. No matter that they were only here to deliver Lady Anke to the western edge of her brother’s kingdom and then return to Caraken. But, ah, there was the sore spot. Willa wouldn’t be returning with the others. She’d been assigned to stay with the princess.
A demotion, it was. Early retirement dressed as a transfer. Because she was old, was what no one wanted to say aloud. Because there was no place among the king’s men for age and the weakness and incompetence that notoriously went along with it. And in the end, it made her feel like a swayback horse shoved off behind the barn, left to moulder and fade into death with the rest of the useless creatures.
Ahead of them, the carriage lumbered to a halt. They’d found an inn, it seemed. Its sign hung slightly crooked, one corner of it cracked and the paint mostly faded away.
“The Dragon’s Lair.” Willa read, and tipped her head back to survey the rest of the building. Not completely derelict, at least. But not particularly inviting.
“Looks a right shithole,” Tompkins/Tomlinson said. “And smells worse. But at least it’s not been washed away.”
“Yet,” Willa added under her breath.
The Captain dismounted and took another man inside with him. Everyone else waited in the rain, heads bowed, shoulders rounded, as if making themselves smaller could somehow keep them dryer. Willa glared at the carriage, imagining how safe and warm its occupants must be, as if wishing for them to partake in her own discomfort would make it easier for her to bear. She blew out a breath, the vapor of it battered out of the air by another sheet of rainfall.
Fucking Silas, she thought, never before entertaining the notion that she would be envious of the lot of an aged horse.
The captain returned several minutes later. A knock on the door of the carriage and the two women, Lady Anke and her maid, were ushered inside. The soldiers were to be sent round to the stables, though they were warned there was no one there to care for them. And they’d be on their own to find food, though whether he meant for the animals or themselves was left unsaid. But at least it was a promise of shelter and rest until the worst of the storm passed.
Willa looked up. Her name, he’d used. Not her rank. He had always used her rank with her before. The omission struck her with the force of a blow, her hands gripping her reins as she forced herself to remain straight and unaffected in her saddle.
“Inside, if you will. Her highness will be in your care at the end of all this. Better to make those adjustments now.”
She nodded, her jaw tight. She slid down from the horse, her boots spattering mud no matter where she set her feet. As she moved to unfasten her bags, the Captain called out her name again.
“Sergeant Tompkins will take care of that for you. Just get inside before you drown.”
“Yes.” Her hands hovered over the straps of her bag, frozen over the task she wanted to do but had been ordered away from. Was her demotion so thorough that she couldn’t take a few minutes to deal with her own luggage? “Right, Sir.”
Indoors offered little respite from the cold, but at least it was mostly dry. Willa scraped her boots and resisted the urge to shake herself like a sopping wet dog. She moved further in to what must have once been a bustling common room, but now sported only upturned chairs and a meager fire burning in the center of a massive fireplace. The bar was empty, the shelves behind it boasting a few glasses, a few near-empty decanters, and everything shrouded in a layer of dust that looked like frost in the strange half-light of the afternoon.
The captain joined her at the empty bar, a short, florid little man bobbing in his wake. The innkeeper, no doubt. “I’m going to set you upstairs, with her highness. They’ve only one room prepared so far, but we’ll see about having another one made ready.”
Willa’s fingers drummed against the side of her thigh. “I would-” She cleared her throat, cutting herself off.
“I would rather be quartered with the others,” she said quickly. She hated the words the moment she said them. Plaintive words. She wasn’t one to beg. And yet there she stood, hoping this man a decade her junior would grant her request, like a child striving for a treat.
“You’ll be with Lady Anke.” A softening at the corners of his eyes, or perhaps it was only a trick of the light. “That’s an order, Levine.”
Her age. She felt her age then, felt the weight of the life she’d led up to this point spreading across her shoulders with the heaviness of an iron mantle. “Yes, Sir. Of course.”
It was a room, of sorts. There was the requisite bed and wardrobe, along with a bit of luxury provided by a chair pushed into a corner, bearing a cushion that had yet to succumb to the gnawing of mice or other vermin.
Anke stood off to the side while their luggage was brought in, the soldiers standing in for the staff the inn seemed to lack. Jaala directed things by snapping at them for setting the trunks down too heavily, for bumping into the corner of the bed, for not wiping their boots properly before they dared to track all manner of outdoors into the room.
There was a fireplace, but no fire. Jaala drifted towards it regardless, as if the bricks themselves still possessed the warmth of flames snuffed out long before. “No coal, nothing,” she said, hoisting the hem of her gown up an inch and tapping the side of the scuttle with her shoe.
Anke considered untying her scarf, undoing the toggles of her coat, but glanced at the moisture on the window, blackening the frame with mildew, and her fingers paused. “I’ll go and find someone about coal or…” She moved towards the door. She expected Jaala to begin a round of strong protests, but the older woman merely gestured vaguely, her energy already spent on the soldiers.
“I’ll be back shortly.”
The corridor was dark, windowless. She stood in the middle of it, knowing the stairs were still a few paces ahead, giving herself a moment to breathe. Why was it always easier to breathe when people weren’t about? Did they draw too much of the air away for themselves? One hand at her chest, the other trailing along the wall, she crept forward, her weight on the balls of her feet.
She was nearly to the top of the stairs when one of the soldiers came stomping up them. Anke pressed herself back against the wall. Always her first instinct, to step into the shadows, to move without being seen or heard, to disappear as so many people seemed to want her to do.
She didn’t squeak in response. She was no mouse. But she sealed her lips against a gasp and forced herself to raise her eyes, to look into the soldier’s face as if her name and her bloodline gave her every right to do so. “Yes?” That single word, imbued with enough authority to make it seem like the soldier was the one caught creeping in the shadows and not the other way around.
“Are you in need of assistance?”
Anke blinked. It was dark in the hall, but she could make out the details of the soldier’s face, the blots of ink that made up her eyes, the severe lines of her nose and jaw, only softened by a few marks of age around her eyes and mouth. It was the same soldier who had stuck her head in the carriage and told them the road ahead had washed away. For some reason, now that she’d raised her chin, Anke couldn’t bring herself to look down again.
“Fire,” she said, and licked her lips. “There’s nothing to make a fire. No kindling, no coal…”
“Ah, right.” The soldier looked back over her shoulder, down the stairs behind her. “There’s a fire in the common room. It’s not much, but it should take the chill away if you sit near enough to it. Would you prefer to sit there while your room is made ready?”
Anke opened her mouth to reply. The words were there, a declaration that she would rather keep to her room, pacing back and forth… back and forth, while Jaala complained about the damp and the smell and-
“No.” She shook her head, fiercely at first, then tapered it down to a more dignified movement. “I will go downstairs. Is there food?” The question tumbled out. Not until it was spoken did she realize how hungry she was. Over half the day spent in the carriage, rocking as if they had been on a storm-tossed ship. Only now did she dare to test her stomach and eat again.
“I will make sure there is something for you to eat.” And there, a hitch at the corner of the soldier’s mouth. Not quite a smile, nothing so like. But at least a break in the facade. A hint of emotion to render her human.
Anke followed the soldier downstairs. The fire in the common room was indeed small, though it had already been built up since she’d walked through only a short while before. She picked a chair near the hearth, half-dragging it closer before anyone could step forward to help her with it.
It was an amazing thing, how much attention was paid to her now that she was away from the palace. For the moment at least, she could almost believe herself to be an individual of merit, rather than simply another member of the royal family who had failed to prove her worth, brought out on rare occasions as one would show off a collection of mediocre artwork.
It wouldn’t last, of course. This patina of importance would wear away once she was settled at her new home, once the majority of the soldiers returned to Caraken and she was left behind to…
… to what? Sit quietly in quiet rooms, dust drifting down around her until she so quietly passed out of existence.
Her hands gripped the back of the chair. She shook her thoughts away and slipped into the seat, stretching out her legs until her heels caught and held on the rough stones of the fireplace. There was a bustle of noise behind her — requests for food, for blankets, for drink — and all while she sat and watched wisps of steam drift upwards from her shoes and the hem of her gown.
The food appeared at her shoulder, an overladen tray hefted by the soldier. Anke indicated the stone hearth where her feet had been, for lack of a clean table near where she sat.
“Will you join me?” she asked, her gaze flicking to another chair and back again.
The soldier hesitated. Hands flexing, throat convulsing in a rather loud swallow. “Of course, your highness.”
The soldier hooked her foot around a chair leg and dragged it over, dropping into it with an odd mixture of restraint and exhaustion.
“You don’t have to if you’d rather not.” Anke reached forward and picked up a plate of sliced ham and pickles. She offered it to her companion, who eyed it with poorly veiled greed. “But I’d like to have someone to talk to. That is, if you want to talk. You can simply sit there, all quiet and tired if you’d prefer. There’s no need for you to perform for me.”
The soldier picked up a piece of ham with her bare fingers and wrapped it around a pickle. One bite and half of it was gone.
Anke watched the woman as she chewed, not certain why it was such a mesmerizing thing to witness. “What is your name?”
She swallowed. “Levine,” she said, her tongue poking out to catch a drop of juice from her bottom lip. “Your highness,” she added at the last moment.
“And that is what I should call you?”
The soldier blinked. “I’m fairly sure you can call me what you like, your highness.”
Anke smiled. “Levine?” A memory sparked to life in her head. “You’re the one who’ll be posted with me, aren’t you? My babysitter?”
Levine finished her food, her gaze already straying again towards the platter. “I wouldn’t say-”
“Oh, you can say it. I’m sure everyone else already has. Poor Lady Anke, shepherded off to the farthest reaches of the kingdom since no one else knows what to do with her, since she can’t keep herself from disgracing everyone.” She closed her mouth then, biting off a gasp. They were thoughts that had always been in her head, running along like a constant commentary of her adult life. But she hadn’t spoken them aloud before, at least not to anyone more important than her own reflection.
“I’m sorry.” She looked down at the plate of food in her lap. “My brother complains that I say the silliest things. But I guess that’s all that’s left to a silly old woman, to blurt out whatever inanities pop into her head.”
She dared a glance at Levine’s face. The other woman simply looked at her, her expression closed and unreadable. But Anke found she couldn’t look away. There was something about this Levine, a glint in her eyes, the way her jaw shifted and her mouth quirked in a way that could be interpreted as either irritation or amusement. But not the sort of amusement that made Anke feel as if she was being made fun of. Nothing like that. More as if there was a shared joke between them. And the sensation allowed Anke to take a deep breath for the first time in… oh, it felt like ages.
“Here, have some more.” Anke offered the plate again. “I think we both deserve a bit of a rest, hmm?”
Levine helped herself. Despite her size, the roughness of her fingers, she held the food delicately, carefully, treating it like a precious thing.
Anke glanced up at the soldier’s face. She hadn’t realized how closely she’d been watching Levine’s hands, the work of her fingers like she was drawing out the figures of a spell. “Yes, what? What?”
“You can call me Willa, if you like.”
Willa knew the stories. Anke had been married three times, all of them matches driven by politics and diplomacy. All three of her husbands had died, none of them giving her children. An assembly of accounts painted the princess as stupid, infertile, ugly, and that she also had bad breath and a goiter.
Willa took the last bite of ham and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. For a half an hour she had sat there, eating and talking — well, mostly listening — and it didn’t take a quarter of that time for her to realize that most of the stories about Lady Anke were bullshit.
She wasn’t beautiful, no. Not in the way that was favored at court, though the way that was favored at court was typically young and docile and with hips that looked wide enough to bear numerous children without much difficulty. Anke looked to be nearing fifty, if Willa could guess, that facet alone rendering the princess as an invisible creature. Willa knew what that felt like, to be overlooked simply because one had committed the effrontery of living for too long.
“Something to drink?”
Willa didn’t immediately know what to do with the offer. She was supposed to be guarding the princess. Though what she was to be guarding her from in a half-abandoned town tainted with drifts of poison in the air, she wasn’t certain.
But Anke was already speaking with a woman who matched the innkeeper as a pair of salt and pepper servers would suit one another. After the woman shuffled off, Anke stretched out her legs again, feet flexing as she reached forward as if she would toss all etiquette out the window and touch her toes in front of everyone.
“I don’t think I can stand another day in a carriage.” She tipped her head to one side and straightened up again, kneading a portion of her lower back that she could reach in the chair. “How long do you believe we’ll have to stay here?”
Willa studied the curve of Anke’s arm, the arch of her back as she pushed her fingers into her waist. And then she shook her head and reminded herself that the princess had asked her a question. “Tomorrow we’ll look for another road west. If the weather clears overnight, we might be able to set out at daybreak.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
Willa shrugged. Was one supposed to reply to a member of the royal family with a lift of a shoulder? “Then we stay here until the roads are clear and we can make our way forward again.”
Anke leaned towards her, one elbow perched on the arm of her chair, her chin plopping into the curve of her palm. “But is it safe here? The air, it smells…”
“It’s the fires.”
Willa cleared her throat. She could understand how the story of Verstad might not have made it into the gossip circles of the court’s upper echelons. “This town was built because of its access to coal. It was a mining town, at one time.”
Anke nodded, her eyes bright. And curious. It was strangely disarming to witness such blatant curiosity in eyes flanked by lines. Weren’t ones as old as they were supposed to have left such curiosity in the decades behind them?
“The fires started… somehow. An explosion was the official reason. But they never went out. For the last twenty years, in the ground beneath us, the streaks of coal cutting through the rock have slowly burned away.”
“But are we safe?” Anke repeated, more earnest with the repetition.
Behind them, the innkeeper’s wife returned, a tray bearing a dusty, half-empty bottle and two smudged glasses propped against her hip.
“According to King Elgar, we’re in no danger while we’re here.”
The innkeeper’s wife set the tray on the hearth, the glasses clattering against each other. “Begging your pardon,” she said, her hands twisting in her stained apron as she stood. “But I’ll warrant you’ll suffer a terrible headache should you stay here more than a night or two. And you’ll feel sick, too. In your stomach, in your bones.” The words tumbled out in a rushed whisper, her eyes flicking towards the bar where her husband spoke with several of the soldiers. “I’ve medicine to aid with some of it, but if you’re wise-” Here, another glance at her husband. “-you’ll not stay here longer than is needed.”
“Is that why so many people have left? The sickness?” Anke helped herself to the decanter on the tray, filling both glasses halfway.
The innkeeper’s wife opened her mouth as if to speak, but said nothing.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” Anke brought her hands up to cover her mouth. “If it’s too difficult to say, I promise not to bother you-”
Willa was reaching towards her glass when her hand stilled. “What was that?”
“I shouldn’t have-” The innkeeper’s wife backed away. “I’m sorry. I’m tired, that is all. Please, just… enjoy your stay. I’ll… um.” She turned and walked briskly out of the room.
Anke had nearly spun around in her seat to watch the woman leave. “Do you think it’s true?”
Willa wrapped her fingers around her glass. She considered taking a sip, then tossed the drink back in one swallow. It burned, and it tasted vile, but it settled in her stomach like a warm weight. “That what’s true?” Her voice came out as a rasp.
“The dragon!” Anke turned back around and dropped into her seat. “Do you think there could really be a dragon?”
“Dragons haven’t been seen in the kingdom for over five centuries.”
Anke narrowed her eyes. “You didn’t answer my question.”
Willa refilled her glass, twice as much as before. “No,” she said, and raised the glass to her lips. “I did not.”
Willa sat in a chair beside the bed, watching as the light from the window changed from gray to red to gold. By the time it was gold, it spilled across Anke’s face, adorning the soft curves of cheeks and jaw, softening the creases that were visible when she was awake.
It had been a long night, not for any other reason than it had been a dull one. The second room hinted at upon their arrival having never come about, Willa set herself up in the only chair in the room, her legs stretched out before her and resting on her bags.
She looked towards the window, blinking at the daylight illuminating the dirty glass. They would be off soon, no doubt. Most likely a small group sent ahead to check the state of some of the other, lesser roads in the area. And once a route was found, the princess could finish her journey to the edges of her brother’s kingdom. Where the both of them would be put away, the world no longer needing whatever meager abilities they had brought into it.
Her knuckles were rough as she scraped the back of her hand across her eyes. No need to become maudlin all of a sudden. She hadn’t drunk enough last night for that. Allowing herself a brief shiver, she sat up and reached down for her boots.
“Fuck,” she breathed. At the ache in her back, in her shoulders, at the slight pressure in her head. A day on horseback, a night dozing in a chair, her lungs and head filled with foul air… the aches and pains lingered with her now. She hated that they did, that every twinge and cracking joint acted like another scratch of the pen on the story of her own mortality.
She had one boot on when she heard the shot.
It took her too long to realize what she’d heard. A rifle, not far away, less than a quarter of a mile. Dragging on her other boot, she went to the window, using her sleeve to wipe away the moisture in order to look out.
Through the blur of filth and water on the glass, she saw a few of the soldiers running down the street. Otherwise, everything stood quiet and empty.
The window refused to open at first, the latch rusted into place from too many seasons of disuse. She hit it with her elbow, then battered the frame again until one of the two sides swung open.
She shouted at one of the soldiers to snag his attention. “What’s going on?”
The man tipped back his hat, squinting at her in the sunlight. “A wolf, I heard. Attacked someone early this morning. Albright’s got the thing cornered, should be dealt with by now.”
A wolf. Willa pulled her head back into the room, spots in her eyes as her vision readjusted to the dimness indoors. Wolves were not a common thing this far west, nor had they been in some time. Her gaze settled on Anke, tucked into the narrow bed, putting as much space between herself and her snoring maid as she could. Anke, who she had been ordered to protect. There was an insult there, Willa realized, that she’d been sent to protect a woman deemed unimportant enough by her family that they most likely doubted she needed real protection.
The maid snorted and rolled over. It was enough to stir Anke from her sleep, her eyes fluttering before her face contorted with a wide yawn she took no trouble to hide. “Are we leaving?” she asked, one eye still closed.
Willa shook her head. “Someone says they’ve seen a wolf in the area. Albright will want that taken care of before we go, in case it should bother us along the way.”
Anke sat up. Her hair had been braided the night before, but half of it had worked itself free and stood as a halo of snarls around her head. “Is anyone hurt?”
Willa picked up her coat from the back of the chair. She needed a fresh shirt, needed a bath if she was going to be honest, but a few swipes of her hand across the back of the coat was all the grooming she or her clothes would receive. “One of the men said someone was attacked-”
“Oh!” Anke burst out from under the blankets like a shot, pausing only long enough to untwist her nightgown from around her legs before she flipped open one of her trunks and dragged a gown and a few other pieces of clothing from its depths.
“What are you doing, your highness?”
It was clear to anyone with eyes in their head what she was doing. She stripped out of her nightgown, Willa only blinking when she realized the princess wore nothing underneath. On went her underthings, her corset, her stockings. When she shimmied into her gown, she finally turned around and fixed Willa with a steady look. “If someone is hurt, I can help.”
Willa looked down at her hand. She still held her coat, the bottom of it pooled on the floor. She muttered a curse, yanked it up, and shrugged into it. “You’ll stay here. You’ll be safer, out of everyone’s way.”
It was the wrong thing to say. Anke’s hands stilled on the buttons at the front of her bodice. When they moved again, her knuckles were white, and Willa feared she would begin popping the buttons off from the fabric with her ferocity.
“Am I not already out of everyone’s way? Isn’t that the entire point of this journey, to see me placed as far from everyone’s way as I can possibly be?” She finished with her buttons and tugged at the thin edge of lace along her cuffs. “I can help. I am not entirely useless, no matter what you may believe.”
Willa fastened up her own coat, then strapped on her weapons — sword, dagger, pistol, all of them seeming little more than decorative of late. “You’re not…” she began, then shook the words away. “I know how it feels, your highness. To dwell beneath the weight of what others think of you, to fear you may be shaped by their opinions.” She took a step forward. She raised her hand before she could stop herself, as if she would tug at a long lock of hair that had wound itself in a loop around Anke’s ear. Instead, her fingers curled into her palm, and she dropped her hand, surprised at how rebellious her own limbs wanted to be. “I don’t think you’re useless,” she said, her voice gruff.
Anke’s lips were parted. She looked at Willa with bright, wide eyes. “My brother says-”
“Your brother is an ass.” Willa looked at the princess’s shoulder, imagining where she would have draped that errant lock of hair. “I beg your pardon, your highness.”
“I want to help,” Anke said again, her voice a breathless thread of sound. “It’s partly why they’re sending me away, because I always want to help.”
A smile touched Willa’s lips. She felt it, before she took her hand away from the princess, before she straightened her shoulders and stepped back again. “Then let’s find something for you to do.”
It didn’t take long.
By the time they arrived downstairs, the common room was in a state of chaos, chairs and tables being dragged out of the way, the innkeeper bobbing at the edges of it all like flotsam in the wake of a shipwreck.
Anke stood beside Willa, willing herself not to twist her hands in the fabric of her skirt, not to bounce restlessly on the balls of her feet. And then she saw the blood, even before she saw the man it belonged to. Fabric torn away, shreds of skin and flesh and the glint of white bone beneath. She knew not to be ill, the panic swallowed down as she strode forward, as she pushed through the barrier of soldiers and indicated the nearest table.
“Here! Put him here!” Her voice surprised her. Several pairs of eyes turned to look at her, but no matter what a disregarded creature she had been in her brother’s court, she was still a princess, still the one to whom these men had to answer. They brooked no complaint but brought the man up to the table and laid him on it. “You!” She pointed at the innkeeper’s wife. “I want boiling water. Not hot, boiling. And I want all of your sharpest knives and such washed in it. Do you have herbs? Healing herbs?”
The innkeeper’s wife froze under the barrage of questions and orders. She answered them quickly, a word here or there, promising to go out herself with a basket and find whatever her highness wanted if she did not have it stashed somewhere on the premises.
Anke looked at the man before her. Slashes across his chest, half his shoulder mauled away, and the skin — what was left of it — strangely singed and putrid at the same time, the ragged edges curled and turning black.
She felt Willa’s presence at her side without having to look round. “What wolf would do this?” Anke pitched her voice low, the words quavering more than she liked. But she couldn’t dwell on the horror of the man’s injuries, and so she tucked that particular fear away, instead moving up to stand at the man’s side, pushing at her sleeves before she grabbed the shreds of his shirt and tore the rest of the fabric away.
“You know what you’re doing?” Willa asked. There was hardly enough of a lift at the end to make it sound like a question. Perhaps it hadn’t been.
“I used to work in the palace infirmary, and then I sought out more challenging work deeper in Caraken.” She had loved the work, despite the fact it meant that people had to be ill or injured for her to practice it. But it had kept her busy when all that was expected of her was to paint or embroider something or mourn another dead husband.
“And the king allowed it?”
Anke paused long enough to shoot Willa a telling glance. “Of course not. Why do you think I’ve been sent away? He told me to stop, and I wouldn’t.” She glanced down at her hands. “Soap,” she muttered, and looked towards the door to the back room, the last place she’d seen the innkeeper’s wife.
“I can-” Willa began, her entire body leaning into the line of Anke’s gaze as if she would follow it without question.
“No.” She grabbed Willa’s wrist. A slight pull, and the soldier turned to face her. “You don’t want to be here.” She knew the truth of it as soon as the words were out. “You want to be out there. You want to fight.” Anke could feel it running through the other woman, like a hum of some low sound, reverberating through her limbs. “Go. I’ll be all right.”
It felt strange to say such a thing. She didn’t think she would have believed it before, but out here, away from the stultifying atmosphere of her brother’s palace, under the penetrating gaze of this soldier who seemed to see something in her, perhaps even a glimpse of herself, she could say the words and know the truth of them.
“Is that an order, your highness?”
Anke bit at the inside of her cheek. She didn’t want to smile. It wasn’t the time for that. But she felt extraordinarily calm, despite the fevered panic whirling around them. “The first of many, Willa.”
A spark in her dark, dark eyes. That was all the farewell Anke was given. And then Willa ducked her head against the brilliant sunshine and walked out of the inn.
“What are you doing here?”
On horseback, Willa sat several inches taller than Captain Albright. “Her highness’s orders. She has no need for me at the moment.”
The Captain could send her back. She knew this. Willa held her breath, sitting tall, waiting.
“It’s cornered just past those trees.” Albright pointed. There was a touch of resignation in his voice. “There’s a fissure in the ground, looks like where the earth sank with all the rain. Everything collapsed into a pit and let the creature loose.”
The creature… Willa thought of the soldier in the inn, the ruined flesh, the blackened rot of his skin. “What is it?” she ventured, but as soon as the question was out, Albright seemed to shrink in his saddle, even as his eyes widened and his mouth stretched with words he didn’t want to say.
“I’m going to pull our men back,” Albright said instead. “Our job is to escort the princess to her new home. I’ll send word back to Caraken, to the king, and-”
“So you’re going to leave it here?”
Albright blinked, whether at the question or at having been interrupted, Willa wasn’t sure. Neither was she sure she even cared.
“I’ve already lost one man.” Albright shifted, as if he wanted to shrug, as if that reason alone should’ve been enough. “This isn’t what we were sent out to do. We’re not…” He licked his lips. Willa noticed the tremor in the man’s jaw then. “We’re not equipped for something like this. Nothing like this.”
Willa held the horse’s reins loose in her hands. “I’ll go.” She said the words without thinking over them. Instead, she thought of her age, how her back still ached so long into the morning, how the weight of the life she’d lived so far would now always be heavier than anything yet to pile itself on top of her.
And she thought of a princess, in an inn, fighting to save the life of a man who had probably mocked her at some point, who would not have chosen to die for her if given the choice.
“I’ll go,” she said again, if only to better convince herself. She had her sword, she had a pistol. She didn’t know which would be better for the task ahead. A few of the men had rifles, but she doubted those would help her now either.
Albright looked at her, heavy brows drawn even lower over his eyes. “Levine,” he said. And he sighed, his gaze darting away and back again. “There’s no need to do this. We’ll send for-”
“The king’s not going to deal with this.” She sniffed deeply. Her head still hurt, and the smell… like the world was about to twist itself inside out and leave them with fire and brimstone beneath a burnished sky. “Shit, I’m tired.” She dug her heels into the horse’s flanks, walking him forward.
A part of her thought Albright might make a move to stop her, but she continued on unhindered.
Just past those trees…
The ground declined quickly, broken away with chunks of rock and tree roots sticking out of the soft soil. Willa paused at the edge, a few stones and chunks of earth skittering down into a narrow, crescent-shaped basin.
“Fuck,” she said, the rest of her breath sliding out of her too quickly.
It wasn’t a wolf.
It sat crouched at the edge of a deeper crack in the ground, one side of it bathed in the fumes that drifted upwards from under the jagged crust. It was black, mostly, a coiled smudge of tattered wings and dull scales. Its eyes gleamed silver, however. Eyes that watched her, that followed her as she slid off the back of the horse, as she wrapped her hand around the hilt of her sword.
She took a step forward. The ground was soft beneath her boots, absorbing her weight. Down, down she went, one foot after the other, too fast and too slow all at once.
The creature unfurled one wing. Willa saw its feet, claws stained with blood already dried, gilding them like corrosion. It raised its head when she took the next step, muscles tensing at the pull of skin around a deep cut across the back of its neck. And then its nostrils flared, twin trails of smoke curling upwards.
It wasn’t large, she realized. Smaller than her horse. Perhaps even smaller than her, if one took away the wings and the blunt, black horns on its head. But its feet appeared so large to her eyes, not delicate like she had imagined, like the murals and tapestries always showed. And those talons, tapering down to tips that appeared slightly serrated, one of them broken.
She might die, she thought. It wasn’t as ugly a thought as she feared. She closed her eyes for a moment, saw the body of the man stretched out on the inn table, Anke’s hands moving over his wounds. Would she die the same way, bearing the same injuries? Would Anke try to save her? Would anyone else mourn her passing?
Willa hated this sort of thinking. She drew out her sword, the skin across her knuckles tight, her palms sweating.
“Today will be a fine day,” she said, and strode forward, the dragon waiting for her.
The soldier would live. She hoped. It was a small hope, but it had sprouted nonetheless.
Anke wiped her hands on her apron, one she’d borrowed from the innkeeper’s wife. The table would need scrubbed down, the man’s clothes burned. For the moment, he slept in a hastily prepared bed, deep in sleep. Anke produced another hope, that he would remain unconscious for several more hours yet, unaware of the pain he was in.
A thrill ran through her as she cleaned up knives and needles and thread, as she piled up bloody rags into a basin of tepid water and began carrying everything into the kitchen to be cleaned. Her hands hurt, and there was a dull ache between her shoulder blades from bending over her patient for so long, but she felt… whole, somehow. More complete than she had for quite a while. She knew she wasn’t good at any of the things she was supposed to be — a wife, the king’s sister, participating in a world that had no wish to make a place for her when she failed to meet their expectations — but she was good at this. At helping people. Healing them. Remaining calm when so many others gave way to panic and dread.
She returned inside, her hands behind her back, fidgeting with the knot that held her apron in place. It would have to be scrubbed as well, if it was even salvageable. Along with her gown, her skin, the ends of her hair clinging to the sweat and grime on her face and neck.
“I’ve ordered a hot bath for you, your highness,” Jaala said, walking into the common room now that the worst of the crisis was over. “And I overheard Captain Albright say they plan to leave once your patient is well enough to travel.”
“Mmm.” Anke dragged the apron off from around her waist and rolled it into a ball. “That sounds nice,” she said, not immediately realizing she had responded to the mention of the bath and not the fact that they still had to leave at some point. This had only been a brief respite, a hint of a life she could not have. One with purpose.
“Come along,” Jaala said, drawing her towards the stairs with a wave of her hand.
Anke moved to follow. As she set her foot on the first stair, a shadow in the doorway behind her caught her eye. She glanced back, thinking nothing of it at first, only another of the soldiers milling around, wasting time until they were ordered to be off again. And then her foot caught on the stair, her hand searching for the rail and almost missing it.
“I think I need your help.”
Willa staggered forward, clutching her left arm to her side. Anke rushed towards her, taking hold of her good arm and helping her to remove her sword and other weapons, helping her to the nearest chair.
“What did you-?”
Willa waved her off. “Fix it first. I promise to be more talkative afterwards.”
The wound looked worse at first glance than it proved to be once it was cleaned. Anke gave her a drink before she set to stitching, then took a swallow for herself, if only to calm the trembling in her fingers.
“What happened?” Anke snipped the thread after the last stitch.
Willa sat with her head back, eyes shut. Anke would’ve thought she was asleep, but her eyes snapped open at her question.
“We should’ve listened to the innkeeper’s wife all along,” Willa said, her voice rough, though a smile tried to raise one corner of her mouth.
“A dragon, then?” Anke had guessed as much from the wounds, yet hearing it said aloud still evoked a kind of wondering shiver at the thought. A myth proven real.
“It was wounded already… by the time I got there.” She tipped her head back again, but her eyes remained open, her gaze flicking across the ceiling as if she was watching something play across the shadowed beams.
Anke sat back on her heels. “I see.”
“What?” Willa dropped her chin enough to peer down at her. “Did you expect me to return hauling a wounded dragon behind me for you to heal?”
“No, I just-” She sniffed. Perhaps she had, a little.
“But without the dragon now,” Willa went on. “They might have a chance at putting out the fires underground. People could return, eventually. Build their lives up again.”
“Perhaps my brother…” Anke began, but shook her head before she could finish. And then she felt another shiver course through her, not one of cold or foreboding, but the spark of a burgeoning idea, one desperately searching her thoughts for fuel. “I could stay.”
Willa’s eyebrows twitched. Anke didn’t know what sort of a reaction she expected, but it had been something more than a slight facial tic.
“There’s no reason I can’t,” she continued, warming to the subject as the words arranged themselves on her tongue. “I’m already beyond my brother’s reach. Out of sight… he won’t care what I do, as long as it doesn’t affect him directly. And no doubt he thinks I’m beyond the age of causing a notable ruckus.”
A laugh sounded low in Willa’s throat. “Notable ruckus,” she echoed, her eyes drifting closed again.
“And you.” Anke paused. It was a frightening thing, what she wanted to say next. But she’d spent too much of her life allowing frightening things to happen to her, rather than instigating them herself. “You could stay, too. If you wish. I know your orders are to… to guard me-”
“Babysit you,” Willa corrected. And she was looking at her now, those dark eyes holding her in place, her gaze intense enough to make Anke imagine an entirely different future than anyone could have planned for her.
“But will you?” Her heart was beating too fast. She looked down at her hands, pulling at the embroidery around the hem of her skirt, wishing she could yank out every thread if it would assuage her nerves. “Stay here. W-With me?”
Willa moved as if she would lean forward, then winced and dropped back into the chair again. “I am yours to command, your highness.”
Anke lifted her hand. Just the smallest tremble still resided in her fingers, before she placed them on Willa’s knee. A tentative touch, but one that felt as if it should’ve sent ripples out for miles around. “You make it sound much worse than it is,” she said, and looked away, hiding her smile.
“Oh, believe me,” Willa said, her voice now a whisper, a sound that wrapped around Anke and filled her up. “I suspect we’ll manage well enough.” She pushed forward, teeth gritted. Only a few inches, but enough for her to catch another lock of Anke’s hair, to bow her head in either a show of obeisance or gratitude. Or both. “Your highness.”